Cutting into a vine-ripened ambrosia melon on a cloudless summer day, Michael Ableman beams. He is about to finish yet another tour of his twelve-and-a-half-acre farm, Fairview Gardens, as he often does: with a taste. The group of Malaysian government officials who are taking the tour thought they were going to learn about modern agricultural techniques. Instead they are leaving with a vision of how to feed people using small farms and traditional methods that have been around for thousands of years. Ending with the melon is part of Ableman’s unique activist strategy. Far more powerful than the harangue, he says, is the taste — a delicious sensory experience that speaks volumes.
As executive director of the Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens in Goleta, California, Ableman is an expert at extolling the benefits of small-scale community farms and gardens. Small farms, Ableman says, are fifteen to twenty times more productive than their large-scale counterparts. They can yield a greater variety of produce and are closer to the consumer, eliminating the costs of interstate transportation. Even more important, he says, “grower and eater can meet face to face. I can explain why the melons are late, how we keep our asparagus white, and the best way to prepare green garlic. They can tell me how they liked last week’s potatoes, what’s growing in their gardens at home, and their favorite recipe for butternut squash. Knowing something of each other’s lives makes for a real exchange and brings humanity and responsibility back into the food system.”
Ableman didn’t originally set out to become a farmer; he wanted to be a photographer. But in 1972, before he came to Fairview, he joined an agrarian commune in a high-desert valley east of Ojai, California. Though only eighteen years old, he was made responsible for the management of a hundred acres of pear and apple orchards and a crew of thirty people. “It was repetitive work,” he says, “but at the end of each day, instead of feeling as if I had been chained to some mind-numbing drudgery, I felt as if I had attended an all-day party.”
Next came a stint developing and managing a nursery that raised avocado and citrus trees on the coast north of Santa Barbara. “This was a point in my life when I was wondering what one could possibly do to support oneself without sucking the life out of the world. Farming just seemed to keep coming back to me. It met my need for a livelihood, a platform, and a way to serve my community and the earth.” Ableman then took a job grafting orange trees at Fairview Gardens in 1981. When the former manager left, Ableman was asked to “farm-sit.” He ended up staying for more than twenty years.
Although Fairview Gardens is considered one of the oldest organic farms in southern California, Ableman believes the meaning of the word organic has been lost. He prefers to call his methods “beyond organic,” a phrase that served as the title for the PBS documentary about the fight to save Fairview Gardens. Ableman tells that story himself in his book On Good Land (Chronicle Books, 1998).
Founded in 1895, Fairview Gardens once stretched from the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains all the way to the ocean. By the time Ableman began working there, it was a postage stamp of green surrounded by endless suburban tract homes. Real-estate development would have done away with the farm completely, but in 1994 Ableman launched a campaign to save it. He formed a nonprofit organization, and within a year he and the local community had raised a million dollars to buy the farm from its owners.
Ableman never gave up on his lifelong interest in photography, and in 1983, while he was traveling through China on his way to the Himalayas, his two life paths converged. Cresting a hill, Ableman came upon a vast network of small fields of vegetables surrounded by waterways and paths. Each field was worked by a family, with several generations hoeing and planting side by side. “I found myself photographing like crazy,” Ableman says. He was even more amazed when he learned that these fertile, productive farms had been there for more than four thousand years.
That experience set the stage for ten years of winter trips to explore, photograph, and meet with the residents of traditional farming communities, not only in China, but also in Africa, Europe, South America, and in Arizona, with the Hopi Indians. Ableman’s travels served as the inspiration for his first book, From the Good Earth (Abrams, 1993). They also helped to inform what he refers to as the “art and craft” of farming as it is now practiced at Fairview Gardens.
Today Fairview Gardens employs about two dozen people and helps feed more than five hundred families through its community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, an on-site retail store, and local farmers’ markets. Anyone can take a workshop, a tour, or a cooking or gardening class. The center also offers outreach programs and consultation to schools and communities nationwide.
These days, Ableman is busy farming a small piece of land on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, Canada, and working on a new book, The Hands That Feed Us, about small-farming successes around the country. We spoke in his old living room at Fairview’s farmhouse, where he still spends a good bit of his time, spreading the word about the growing agricultural revolution he helped to start.
Cooper: You say we’ve become disconnected from the procuring and consuming of food. How did we let this happen?
Ableman: You really don’t have to look back very far in this country — just a couple of generations — to see that we were once a society based on agrarian principles. Thomas Jefferson put forth the idea that the health of a democracy was inextricably connected to the health of its agriculture. The society that he envisioned was one in which every family had its own agricultural holding. That has all but disappeared, and the reasons for it are both simple and complex.
We came out of World Wars I and II with some new technologies that became the basis for the industrial agricultural machine. The “green revolution,” which proposed to solve the problem of world hunger through the use of hybrid seeds and chemical fertilizers and pesticides, was probably based on good intentions, but the means its founders chose to achieve their goal had serious flaws. After the Second World War, nitrate factories that had been set up to build bombs were converted to fertilizer production; hybrid seeds were introduced, tripling yields; and new tractor technology was brought forth. At first, all of the changes appeared miraculous, but the ultimate result of this industrialization was that people were no longer necessary to do the work of food production. They were freed from what was viewed as a form of drudgery.
People will tell you that the organic-farming revolution that’s taking place is about food safety or ecological concerns, but I think that if you dig down deep, you’ll find that the revolution is really about what people are missing in their lives: good food and a connection to the land, both of which put us in touch with basic spiritual values.
Cooper: So what’s wrong with the industrialization of agriculture? Most people still do see farm work as drudgery.
Ableman: Industrialization resulted in reduced quality and safety of food, degradation and depletion of soil and water, and a whole range of cultural and social ills tied to our disconnection from the land and from nature. I’m not suggesting that somehow, before the industrialization of our food system, everything was wonderful. But it wasn’t all drudgery, either. What many of us are now doing on small organic farms is incorporating innovative techniques and ideas and creating a sense that farming is not a lowly job but an honorable profession, an art, a craft. This new generation of farmers are artisans. We’re not only changing the way people eat; we’re shifting the value they place on the land and on the people who grow their food.
Cooper: Why didn’t people question the industrialization of agriculture at the time?
Ableman: I don’t think the drawbacks were readily apparent, and government and corporations pushed hard for industrialization. The new technology merged with the “get big or get out” message of U.S. secretary of agriculture Earl Butz in the sixties and early seventies. Government policies sped the disintegration of family farms and the consolidation of the food-production system. In a relatively short amount of time — say, seventy-five years — we’ve seen a complete shift away from a mainly rural, family-farm economy. Now farmers have become simply cogs in the machine. In some cases, they don’t even own the land, the crops, or the animals. Multinational corporations control every aspect of food production, from ownership of the land to distribution and sale of the food. And the government has played an integral role in this whole process.
What interests me is not so much why this happened, but rather the backlash and the response that some of us have had. What we’re doing here at Fairview Gardens is trying to bring back a local food mentality. None of what we’re doing is new, but the way we’re going about it is certainly different. Today, for example, I spoke with forty or fifty government officials and corporate representatives from Malaysia who came here to learn how to modernize their agricultural systems and introduce their products to the American market. I said to them, “I went to your part of the world to rediscover traditional systems of agriculture. I wanted to find out what had made it possible to farm the same piece of land for four or five thousand years, because that could show us a way out of the problems of our modern industrial food-production system.”
Cooper: How ironic.
Ableman: Yes, but I also told them that I have no interest in romanticizing traditional agriculture or adopting it wholesale. I do have an interest in incorporating the wisdom of those systems with some appropriate technologies.
Cooper: What technologies are appropriate?
Ableman: We need to find ways to grow food that do not require incredible amounts of energy, fuel, and water. For example, we can reconfigure diesel tractors to operate on biodiesel or, even better, spent French-fry oil. One of our tractors here operates on spent fryer oil from local Japanese restaurants. Replacing the four-wheel tractor with what we call a “walking tractor” can also be an appropriate choice, especially where field sizes are very small. The wheel hoe is a wonderfully designed implement. I could spend an hour setting up cultivation implements on a tractor just to cultivate six or seven hundred feet of lettuce, but by that time I could have finished the whole job with a wheel hoe. Much of the smaller-scale equipment is coming to us from Europe, where field sizes tend to be smaller. The U.S. market for farm technology is geared exclusively toward large-scale producers.
It is estimated that agriculture currently uses 80 percent of the world’s freshwater resources. Only about 20 percent of that actually reaches the intended plants or animals, due to inefficient transport and application methods. As populations increase and aquifers decrease, farmers are going to have to incorporate new technologies and techniques for reducing water use. Drip tapes and hoses, precise planting depths and timely cultivation, ancient dry-farming techniques and increased crop variety will all allow us to grow food with much less water. In some cases, crops even taste better.
The amount of energy spent cooling, storing, and transporting crops to market is enormous. Incorporating solar and wind as sources of electricity, using superinsulated cooling units, and, most important, growing and selling for a regional market are all ways to address this issue.
Cooper: Did the Malaysian group show much interest in these ideas?
Ableman: Well, at first there was uncertainty, like “Who is this guy?” But when they started to walk around and see what was happening, their interest grew. They wanted to know how we could possibly provide food for five hundred families on just twelve and a half acres. They came away with some sense that this small-scale system, using an intensive approach based on sound soil-building principles, is considerably more productive than the large-scale alternative.
Cooper: What are a few of those “sound principles”?
Ableman: They are nothing new. Not very long ago, the Chinese were feeding large populations using ancient intensive systems of agriculture, raising eight or ten crops on the same field in a single year. It’s about paying attention to soil fertility, making efficient use of time and space, and planting crops simultaneously that support each other. When a crop is finishing up in a field, the new crop that will replace it is already growing in flats or in the understory of that crop.
At Fairview Gardens we see a farm not as a factory but as a living organism, and we work with it that way. We see our fields and orchards not as battlegrounds where farmers are pitted against a host of alien forces, but as part of a system that can be symbiotic and cooperative. If we can meld into the diverse natural life and traffic of the farm, we can satisfy the needs of the land as well as those of the marketplace.
Cooper: Speaking of the marketplace, why do so many people in our country seem satisfied with such poor-quality, tasteless produce?
Ableman: Oh, I don’t think they’re satisfied with it. They just haven’t had the opportunity to experience anything else. About eight years ago, I had a group of fatherless boys here from an organization called Rites of Passage. The first thing we did was give them a “grazing tour.” We let them loose among the cherry-tomato vines. We split watermelons in the field and let them eat the hearts of them. I watched as they tasted fresh food for the first time in their lives, their brain cells exploding with new information. I didn’t need to tell them about the principles behind what we’re doing. I didn’t need to say anything.
When a person comes to our produce stand or to our booth at the farmers’ market and we hand them a tree-ripened peach or a carrot that was dug only hours before, it’s a profound experience. After they try that peach or carrot, they want to learn more. “How is this grown?” they ask. Older people say, “This reminds me of my grandparents’ farm.” I’ll always remember the woman who started weeping after she’d tasted a mulberry I had given her. When I asked if she was OK, she told me that tasting that fruit had taken her back to a mulberry tree in a Czechoslovakian village that she had not been to in twenty-two years.
Cooper: You make it sound like a religious experience.
Ableman: Well, in a way it is. I’ve planted a lot of seeds over the years. But each time I plant a seed and watch it emerge, I cannot help but feel renewed. I’m experiencing one of the great mysteries of life. And that’s why I farm. My back gets sore, and it’s hot or it’s cold or it’s wet, and my brain starts to add up how many boxes I’ve filled and lifted and put away year after year. But some impulse far more powerful than my rational mind keeps me going cycle after cycle. I’m exhausted by the time winter arrives, but thoroughly excited to begin again each spring.
To approach agriculture without a sense of mystery is to reduce it to an industrial, mechanical process. To farm well, you have to merge with the biological world, which has inherent spiritual value. I’m not at all a religious person, but I would say that my spirituality is most prevalent when I’m in touch with the land. I see the same thing happen in the people we feed. They recognize the spiritual component and respond to it.
People will tell you that the organic-farming revolution that’s taking place is about food safety or ecological concerns, but I think that if you dig down deep, you’ll find that the revolution is really about what people are missing in their lives: good food and a connection to the land, both of which put us in touch with basic spiritual values.
Most of us no longer know what it’s like to pull a carrot from the ground or to munch on beans so fresh they explode in your mouth. But there’s another kind of nourishment, less tangible than the carrots or the beans, that being connected with the land provides. This deeper, soulful nourishment is what our society is desperately longing for. You can’t get it from food that travels an average thirteen hundred miles from field to plate.
Cooper: OK, so we need to get back in touch with the source of our food. But what about technology? Can’t we benefit from it, too?
Ableman: Well, I’m definitely not a Luddite. You see machinery here, but it’s old machinery. I’m under constant pressure from my staff to modernize. We do a lot of work by hand, but not everything.
At this stage in our process, if I were going to be completely antitechnology, I would have to supply a much smaller percentage of the population. And I’m not against that. It’s being done. John Jeavons’s biointensive system is highly productive and does not include machinery. There is no question that part of the problem in the food system is the use of fossil fuel and the damage that machines are doing to the land. The energy that’s required to produce a given number of calories is way out of balance. Over the long haul, it’s a mistake.
But I am interested in feeding a lot of people, and I want to present a model that’s not so radical that other farmers won’t adopt it. If I were too far out in left field, I think farmers would ignore me. They wouldn’t even look at what I’m doing. Eventually we need to get to left field, but I’d like to bring people to it in a way that somewhat resembles the farming system that most of us already know. Even those who are farming thoughtfully are still using very linear, mechanistic structures. Nature does not produce straight rows of plants, for example. So we’re taking a very unnatural system — farming — and applying natural methods to it. We’ve been somewhat successful in changing people’s thinking around soil fertility, crop diversity, pests, and diseases. Now we need to move to the next level. We can convert our tractors to run on French-fry oil, but we’re still using the tractor. We need to address the system as a whole, perhaps growing things in a way that doesn’t require a tractor.
Ultimately, I think that Jeavons is right that we should move to small, biointensive systems that single families or neighborhoods can operate. I believe that every individual should be required to have a garden to provide food. No agricultural system can possibly resolve this incredible imbalance between those who are growing food (1.5 percent) and those who are eating it. We’ve got to find ways to put farmers out of business by teaching families and individuals to grow for themselves. This is the ultimate step toward a revolution in the food system.
Finally, if we don’t address the issue of scale, we can’t address the reduction of fossil-fuel use and industrial methods. The scale of farms needs to be reduced, as does the distance between field and plate. We should have more farms located closer to where people live. When scale is reduced, so too is the need for machinery.
I spent a while in the vast, empty, silent fields of places like the Central Valley in California. . . . These are farms, but they aren’t what you see when you close your eyes and think, Farm. There is no welcoming farmhouse on this lonely landscape. You wonder: Where are the people who work the land? Where are the families?
Cooper: What about genetically engineered food — for example, “golden rice,” which scientists predict will save millions of lives, or the potato that will contain antiviral agents?
Ableman: I think it’s terribly arrogant to think we can manipulate plant genes without causing problems. To me it’s a repeat of the first green revolution, but with far greater repercussions. I think genetic modification of our foods should be considered guilty until proven innocent. There’s been far too little sound study done to determine what its ultimate effects will be on human physiology and on the environment.
The DuPont company is pursuing some of the worst examples of bioengineering technology. This past winter, by some bizarre set of circumstances, I was invited to speak to a group of DuPont corporate executives. Part of the reason I got the invitation is that I’m from the State of Delaware, home to the DuPont corporation. I said to myself, If I’m going to address members of the DuPont company in the Hotel DuPont in a DuPont company town, I should find something that shows some relationship between their work and mine. So I did some research and discovered that in the mid 1800s, before he came to this country, Monsieur du Pont de Nemours helped found the “physiocratic” movement in France. The movement’s premise was that an economy should be based on agriculture, and that agriculture must be based on natural principles. Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith studied the physiocratic philosophy. So I presented this story to the DuPont executives, and I said, “This doesn’t sound like what DuPont is doing now.”
Cooper: But haven’t farmers been manipulating plant genetics for thousands of years through crossbreeding? Isn’t today’s bioengineering just a natural progression?
Ableman: This is where people get confused. Traditional plant breeding is done within species. The “breeding” being done by these biotech gene jockeys is between completely unrelated species. In nature, you could never mate a pig with a spinach plant.
One of the scariest biotech developments to me is terminator technology: genetic manipulation that essentially renders the seed from manipulated plants sterile. For thousands of years, traditional farmers all over the world have been saving their seeds from prior harvests. Terminator technology threatens to end that. This is a terribly insidious, dangerous thing, not only because of the political, social, economic, and cultural ramifications of corporate control over seed stock, but also because we don’t know how the pollen from those castrated plants will affect neighboring plants in an uncontrolled environment. Will it make them sterile as well? Under enormous public pressure, biotechnology giant Monsanto gave up pursuing terminator technology, but DuPont has continued to develop it.
Crossbreeding of the traditional sort produces hybrids, which aren’t sterile, although if you were to plant the seeds from a hybrid plant, you would get many different variations; they would not produce true to their parents. We grow a lot of hybrid varieties at Fairview. We can’t function in the marketplace without them, because people have become so accustomed to the size, color, and sugar levels achieved through hybridization. I actually don’t have a problem with hybridization, but like many aspects of human cleverness, it has been abused.
Mass marketing of hybrid seeds has resulted in the disappearance of many old “heirloom” varieties, pure breeds of plants that have been passed down for generations. When people move from their home countries, they often bring seeds as a way of preserving a part of their culture. And when those seeds disappear, part of their culture disappears with them. Thousands of years of genetic diversity have been wiped out in a single generation as smaller seed companies have been bought up and many old varieties replaced with a narrow range of hybrid seeds. Lack of genetic diversity is not an entirely recent development. It’s one of the main reasons almost a million people starved in Ireland during the potato famine: when the blight hit one variety, it took everything.
Cooper: What about the argument that genetically engineered food could reduce the need for chemical pesticides that we know cause cancer and other health problems? Should we choose the known risk of pesticides over the unknown risk of genetic engineering?
Ableman: We already have the ability to grow every type of food and fiber without the use of pesticides, on every scale. We don’t need pesticides in the first place. It’s a falsehood that they are required to feed the world’s population.
Cooper: Speaking of population, as the world hits 8 billion people in the next twenty years, how can we feed them all using traditional methods?
Ableman: We had a young woman from California Polytechnic State University working here at the produce stand. On the third or fourth day of work, she showed up with a copy of her textbook, very upset. The book’s introduction stated that, if organic methods were widely adopted today, millions of people would starve. But there is not a single agricultural system — organic, biodynamic, or whatever — that can solve the issue of overpopulation. The population problem has to be viewed as a population problem, not as an agricultural problem. People make a mistake in assuming that we can deal with it by growing more food, engineered or otherwise.
Cooper: Daniel Quinn, author of the novel Ishmael, has suggested that our attempts to feed everyone are actually putting undue strain on the planet. He says that not being able to feed everyone is a natural method of population control.
Ableman: That’s an interesting argument. Agriculture holds some solutions and at the same time is the source of the problem. Clearly no act in human history has had a more dramatic effect on population, on geology, on sociology, on almost every aspect of life than the practice of agriculture. I don’t know if I would completely agree with Quinn’s premise, though. I’m just not inclined to promote anything that suggests that it’s necessary for some people to starve.
Cooper: It seems we have a widening rift developing between natural food production and the “brave new world” of biotechnology. Which one is going to win out? Is there any chance of the two merging?
Ableman: Not much. These two ideas are based on completely different worldviews. One looks at the world and respects nature’s wisdom; the other supports the arrogance of human invention and human cleverness. At the moment, nature is losing on all fronts.
I don’t mean to suggest that I’ve given up hope. I make a clear distinction between hope and optimism: I’m very hopeful; I’m not particularly optimistic. And my hope lies in the amazing models and examples that are out there. They’re not often talked about in the mainstream media. One of my jobs has been not only to create the models, but also to get the hopeful models out there and place them firmly into people’s minds.
Cooper: What are some of these models?
Ableman: They are the topic of my new book, which profiles individuals who are forging a new agricultural system by growing high-quality artisan foods and using their farms and gardens as platforms for social and ecological change. I’m especially interested in the urban-farming movement, in which people have reclaimed abandoned lots that were once full of trash and rubble and are rebuilding the soil and growing food for their neighborhoods and communities. They’re providing jobs, too.
A number of small farms throughout the nation are showing an amazing amount of ingenuity and creativity, producing high-quality, consciously grown crops without this enormous turning over of the soil every few months and the enormous use of water.
Cooper: You’ve researched such farming methods around the world.
Ableman: Yes, in the 1980s I made two trips to China, which has the world’s oldest agricultural tradition. I traveled to Africa and to the Andes of South America, where I observed ancient cultivation on land so steep that farmers have been known to fall out of their fields. I saw thirty or forty varieties of potatoes growing in a field the size of a suburban front lawn. I also made a number of trips to visit the Hopi in Arizona, to try to understand how these people could possibly survive in the most inhospitable place in the country. And yet they’re producing corn and melons without any irrigation.
These trips became the basis for my first book, From the Good Earth. Close to the end of writing and taking photographs for that book, I realized that I also had to portray what’s happening in the current industrial agriculture system. So I spent a while in the vast, empty, silent fields of places like the Central Valley in California.
Cooper: What was that like?
Ableman: It was quite a contrast to the lively villages I had spent time in, where culture was still so much a part of agriculture. I remember navigating a network of roads that intersect the Central Valley at precise right angles and have names like J3 or J5. They go through endless vineyards and groves of almonds, walnuts, and citrus. There are huge fields of green beans, corn, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers. These are farms, but they aren’t what you see when you close your eyes and think, Farm. There is no welcoming farmhouse on this lonely landscape. You wonder: Where are the people who work the land? Where are the families?
Cooper: In the book, you describe the process of industrial agriculture, from the creation of fields to getting the food to the table. It’s amazing how far the food travels.
Ableman: Last Saturday my son Aaron and I were selling our food at our local farmers’ market. A well-dressed woman walked up to our stand and asked the price of our strawberries. She didn’t ask how they tasted. She didn’t want to know what variety they were. She wasn’t interested in where they were grown or how far they had traveled from the field to our stand. She didn’t care who had planted or harvested them. She was only interested in one thing: how much they cost. When we gave her the price, she responded with a look of mock horror and told us that she could get a basket of strawberries for a dollar less from her local supermarket.
If I’d had time, I would have told her what I call “a tale of two strawberries.” A strawberry is supposed to be sweet and provide pleasure and joy, but in reality, this innocent fruit has created much trouble, hardship, and suffering in the world. If you travel to Oxnard or Santa Maria, California, you’ll find white sheets of plastic covering the ground as far as you can see. The soil under them is sterile from the fumigant methyl bromide, which leaves the earth an absolutely dead medium that merely holds the plants up, like a patient on an IV drip. Not only that, the methyl bromide used on California strawberries and Florida tomatoes may cause up to 15 percent of ozone depletion. It was scheduled to be phased out, but it keeps getting extended.
Anyway, all that plastic is pulled off and thrown away. Then beds are made, granular fertilizer is added, and a new layer of plastic is put down to hold the soil in place. After the strawberries are planted, they are subjected to some sixty-four different pesticides. We have some idea about how each chemical affects our physiology, but we know nothing about what occurs when they’re all mixed together.
Now, if that process resulted in fruit that tasted good, then maybe I could understand it, but the reality is that the fruit is absolutely terrible. It’s red cardboard.
The way that we grow strawberries is almost exactly the opposite. Instead of sterilizing the soil, we try to pack as much life as possible into it, because those plants are going to be in the ground for a year producing fruit. The result is rather remarkable, and the fruit itself is fantastic. Perhaps, had this woman known this, she would have found our berries to be a better value. In the U.S. and Canada, we pay less for our food than people in any other country in the world, but we pay for it many times over after we’ve left the checkout counter.
Eliminating the use of poisons in the food system is vitally important, but organic agriculture, in the narrow (and now legal) sense of the word, merely addresses the materials we are or are not using. We need to go beyond organic and address a much broader range of issues, such as labor, water, biodiversity, and energy use.
Cooper: You have a broader definition of the word organic than most people, to whom it means simply “without chemicals.” How do you define it? Why is the “no chemicals” definition misleading?
Ableman: I prefer the term “beyond organic.” I respect any farm that gets off the chemical treadmill, and I think that eliminating the use of poisons in the food system is vitally important, but organic agriculture, in the narrow (and now legal) sense of the word, merely addresses the materials we are or are not using. We need to go beyond organic and address a much broader range of issues, such as labor, water, biodiversity, and energy use. With the new government standards and a measure of financial success for organic growers has come a dangerous level of self-congratulation. We think that if we’re growing organically, we have arrived; we have gotten where we need to be.
Cooper: You’ve said that we shouldn’t be afraid to let the word organic go.
Ableman: The thing about movements and organizations is that they come and go in cycles. A movement starts off with great intentions and powerful visions, but most of them lose their way at some point. The organic movement has been a fantastic, positive thing, but its original intention was not just to eliminate chemicals. It was about rebuilding soils, rebuilding communities. As time went on, the movement became co-opted and industrialized. We have essentially become the very thing that we tried to get away from.
People in the organic business now refer to it as an “industry.” I think that is pretty telling. Movement implies forward thinking, social change. Industry implies economics. You now see prepackaged organic food on the supermarket shelves next to the Cheetos. Organic-food companies are traded on Wall Street. Organic foods are traveling the same distances from field to plate as their conventional counterparts. Industrial organic farming uses the same level of energy, the same unrecyclable boxes, the same linear production system, the same factory model of input in, product out. It uses the same petroleum-based distribution system, shipping foods thousands of miles, hydro-cooling, trucking, and on and on. And it has the same labor problems.
Organic farming is a wonderful thing, but it’s only one of a much larger set of goals. So to preserve our original intention, I think we have to start using different language to describe what we’re doing. We have to reinvent the movement, in a sense.
The basic health of the food system is not about laws; it’s about relationships: interpersonal, ecological, and biological. The people who eat my food don’t need a legislative act to know that what I’m providing is safe to eat. They know me, and they know my farm. That, to me, is the best form of certification.
Cooper: What is the Organic Food Act, and how did it come about?
Ableman: It came about primarily because large-scale producers, who are dependent on interstate and international trade for their products, wanted a national standard. Consequently the legislation ended up being “one size fits all.” Whether you had five acres or five thousand acres, you were burdened with the same level of paperwork, inspections, and fees. I think some people meant well but were quite naive about what happens when the U.S. government gets involved; others knew exactly what they were doing. It was about the continuation and support of big business — this time, big organic business.
After the legislation was passed in the late eighties, the U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA] was given the responsibility of coming up with rules on how to enforce it. Three hundred thousand people protested the results. They were not protesting the legislation itself, but the rules that the USDA made up, which allowed factory farming, sewage sludge, and so on.
The Organic Food Act is a fatally flawed document because it has nothing to do with the regional food system that a lot of us are trying to develop. It was an extreme watering down of what organic growers and consumers were hoping for. Had we been really paying attention, we wouldn’t have spent all of our energy protesting the USDA’s proposed rules.
At the same time, a USDA commission on small farms released a profound document called “A Time to Act.” It focused on the issues of small farms and regional agriculture and addressed important issues in a holistic manner. That document would have had a far more profound effect on organic agriculture than the USDA rules, because it researched and formulated why the family farm was disappearing and why it was not getting the support it needed. It also outlined what we had to do to reinvigorate small farms.
Unfortunately, “A Time to Act” didn’t get a lot of attention. And that’s a shame, because I think it was a much more important and exciting document than the Organic Food Act. When we focus on regional production and regional distribution, the issues around the use of chemicals and other materials resolve themselves. It’s as simple as standing across the table at the farmers’ market from the person who’s growing your food. Ultimately the basic health of the food system is not about laws; it’s about relationships: interpersonal, ecological, and biological. The people who eat my food don’t need a legislative act to know that what I’m providing is safe to eat. They know me, and they know my farm. That, to me, is the best form of certification. It’s based on outdated ideas like honor and trust. I could never get away with doing something that might hurt somebody or the land, because the system that polices me is far more sophisticated and powerful than any the government could offer. I could sneak around government laws anytime, no problem. But my local community won’t let me get away with anything.
Cooper: What would a regional agricultural system look like?
Ableman: It would be small-scale and community based. Food would be produced and used locally. The fertility needs of a farm would come from that local community in a closed-loop nutrient system. The people doing the work would live there, and the land would be protected or possibly even owned by locals.
Cooper: How do we get there from here?
Ableman: An enormous amount of public education is required. People need to understand the importance of supporting local farmers and the work they do. If people respected farmers and were willing to pay them as much as they do their doctor or their lawyer or their therapist, they may have less need for the doctor or the lawyer or the therapist.
We have to start in the schools; young people have to be exposed to growing their own nourishment and eating fresh food, so that they can recognize the difference. Older people, too, can be educated through taste and introduced to a better quality of food than what they’re eating. This isn’t something we need to shove down people’s throats. It can be very pleasurable.
There are farmers’ markets all over North America. Just the simple act of buying directly from a grower at one of these markets automatically gives you better quality, taste, and nutrition, because it was picked fresh and grown close by. Buying directly from a grower, having a relationship with a local farm, setting up a community or school garden — these things alone can begin to unravel complex problems. The food is available; the markets are there. The more people who support them, the more the movement will continue to expand.
Cooper: Here in southern California, with our nearly year-round growing season, it’s easy to buy locally. What can people who live in a cold climate like New England do?
Ableman: The level of creativity and entrepreneurship that has been applied to extending seasons and to storing and preserving food — canning, freezing, and drying — is amazing. And the diets of folks in colder climates have been expanding.
For example, when people think of a potato, most think of a russet or maybe a Yukon gold, but there are hundreds of different varieties, each with its own particular quality, flavor, and texture. Some are like a completely different food, and many will grow in very cold conditions. There are restaurants in cold parts of the country that are now focusing on regional foods year-round. There are farmers in northern climates who grow a full range of greens and root crops throughout the year, often with minimal energy input. The storage of foods, the season-extension techniques, and the greater variety now available have all come together to allow people to eat a rich local diet almost anywhere.
Cooper: Any suggestions for people who don’t have access to a farmers’ market?
Ableman: The sad truth is that a lot of organic food is available only to those who can afford it. Farmers’ markets are not found in most low-income communities. Many such communities do not even have supermarkets. They get their food at the liquor store or the local fast-food franchise. There’s something wrong with that. We need to bring fresh foods into these communities.
I took part in a wonderful project in the Watts section of Los Angeles. The goal was to provide a locally based, affordable food system, in which people could actually take part in the production process. It was a combination of community garden plots and larger market gardens. It was an amazing project; people loved the food. But it was not community based, and so it failed.
I had been around the world and seen profound mistakes made by nonprofits and development agencies that didn’t listen to the needs of communities, but in Watts I found myself a part of the same thing. The problem was that the organizations overseeing the project did not include any community members in the development or management strategies. Too often, do-gooders come in with their own agendas and ignore the community. I think there was a lot of good in the project; I don’t want to put the whole thing down. But to sustain itself in the long run, it needed to be developed, built, and owned by the local people.
Cooper: Your work keeps you incredibly busy, but last year you took a sabbatical.
Ableman: For me that meant farming a plot of land on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia, on my own. The island has its own currency and an enormous sense of local pride. It’s preserving its watershed, its forest, and its agriculture. My wife, Jeanne Marie, and I went up there, we had a new baby, and we worked the land. In the process, I discovered some interesting things about activism. We have this preconception that activism is about street protests and public campaigns. I discovered that growing food for my neighborhood and regenerating the soil were as deep a form of activism as all of my years of frantic public activity.
Growing crops and feeding people are merely a conduit for what I’m really trying to accomplish. There’s a danger in talking about this, because I don’t want to sound too idealistic. But I feel that I’ve found a way to disseminate solutions to a whole range of problems. You know, if you tell somebody to stop driving a car because they’re polluting the air, there’s a lot of sacrifice involved. But if you say, “Here, taste this plum,” an old variety picked dead-ripe — well, it’s an invitation to a new whole world.
Six thousand people come through Fairview Gardens every year. We have opened a lot of minds. People think they’re just eating food, but what starts as a garden becomes a rallying point that can affect people’s entire lives.
If you tell somebody to stop driving a car because they’re polluting the air, there’s a lot of sacrifice involved. But if you say, “Here, taste this plum,” an old variety picked dead-ripe — well, it’s an invitation to a new whole world.
Cooper: You wanted to create an urban farm on Ground Zero in New York City.
Ableman: I proposed that during a talk in San Francisco in October 2001. A living memorial would show the world that Americans are not just about revenge and control and military power, but that we know how to bring forth life and nourishment from the rubble of hate and destruction.
For me, this idea was more of a metaphor, but the next thing I knew people were pushing me to actually implement it. We had meetings in New York with urban-and community-gardening associations, members of the restaurant community, nutritionists, and so on. But it would have to be something on which New Yorkers took the initiative. If nothing comes of it, at least the idea had the power to raise people’s awareness.
Waving flags may provide some sense of belonging, but it seems to me that if we really love our country, it would be more useful to protect and restore its wilderness or support local agriculture or plant a garden. After all, what good are a country and a flag if there is no more fertile soil, no ancient forests, no clean water, no pure food? Those who work for these things are the real patriots.
Cooper: You’ve said you like preaching to the unconverted.
Ableman: It’s wonderful to be acknowledged by those who think the way you do and support the ideas that you have, but there’s something even more satisfying about speaking to a group of chemical-company executives and having them hear you and respect you and in some cases even embrace what you’re talking about.
We don’t have time to pat ourselves on the back. We are at a very critical stage. We have got to find ways to reach those who don’t necessarily think the way we do, and food is a wonderful ambassador. Everybody, no matter what his or her political or religious persuasion, likes to eat. Everyone can get inspired by something that really tastes good.