Monday, April 8, 2013

Living With Less

Live Below the Line is a campaign that challenges people to live on $1.50 a day for 5 days – from April 29th to May 3rd. That means people who accept the challenge can only spend a total of $7.50 for all their food and drinks for those five days – including factoring in the costs of any food collected from the garden or sea. Why $1.50? Because that is the global figure (calculated by the World Bank) used to define extreme poverty. Sounds pretty tough, but an estimated 1.4 billion people live in extreme poverty throughout the world.

When I read about the challenge, I thought about Margo Morris from Sprout Creek Farm in LaGrange, New York. Sprout Creek Farm is a year round farm where kids from 4 to 18 learn to be self-sufficient. Margo teaches them how to collect branches to make baskets; milk sheep to make cheese; and harvest berries to make preserves. She also teaches them to appreciate life and realize how close they can be to losing all their comforts. With the lessons learn at Sprout Creek Farm, the kids have the tools to survive in a simpler, more humble way.

It began as a pilot program and has since evolved into a year round educational farm. Margo explains how it started and the impact it has created:

“I was observing in the 1970’s how things were changing. I was alarmed at what I saw. I saw the family deteriorating. The extended families were pretty much gone. So, kids were a little more isolated. A little more constantly dependent on their peer groupings, as opposed to a multi-generational approach and all of the richness that goes along with that. Fast food was already well underway. That was part of the destruction of the family time together – when they might eat together and exchange stories of what happened during the day. That was disappearing.

“There was also a technological advancement. It was in the form of a media explosion. They suddenly had much more information about the world. It was coming in faster and it had an impact on the normal natural idealism that is part of an adolescent’s life. They started to look and act out. They were either getting more aggressive or depressive. Kids were becoming programmed to activities.

“We though what kind of environment could we create? What would really make an impact that would go so deep? That would make a difference in their lives more than the week or two they were participating? On the school’s property there had been a farm. We kept looking at that thing, thinking farms require everything of one. You have to think, you have to work, you have to imagine, you have to take what you can get. You have to suffer not having and find a way to be okay with that. You have to make things instead of buy them. It is always requiring something. Farms are always being built and falling apart at the same time.

“Eventually, we piloted the program with high school students from some of our sister schools. They lived very primitively. It was all tents and hoses and charcoal grills. It was a three-week program at that point. We developed the program around doing everything with your hands. The animals had to be fed and milked. If we were making a basket, it wouldn’t be with anything purchased. We would go find a willow tree or grape vines and use those. While they were making these things, they were learning some very basic skills. It gave them an appreciation for some of the indigenous peoples of the world who make the most extraordinary hand made baskets. They were like, how do they do this and why are we only paying $2 for it? They were starting to make those kinds of connections.

“Then we would take them to a soup kitchen at least three times a week. They had to sit down and eat with the people, not just serve them. They had to listen to their stories. And find out, oh my goodness, there but for the grace of god go I, I could be that person or this person. If a couple of wrong circumstances led me in another direction, it really wouldn’t take much and then I wouldn’t be able to get out of it. They began to understand the economics and the politics of poverty. Not only that, but the emotional toll that it takes on people.

“We didn’t say any of this.  We offered them a safe place to discuss what had happened, what they were observing and help them put it in perspective. It gave them an avenue to realize that sometime in their lives they could be a help - more than just serving food. But, to really change that dynamic. All the while, everything was hands on. They were milking the cow. They were making yogurt. They were making soap. They were weaving baskets. They were making jams, jellies, salsas, tomato sauce. They were cooking food. They were part of the environment. 100%.

“Nobody was hanging back. They were excited because they were necessary. It built community, which was another thing that was disappearing, especially with suburbia becoming more of a dead zone. It was frightening to look at this. They didn’t know who their next-door neighbor was. This was all in an effort to say, don’t be afraid to reach out. Do things with each other.

“That is how it all started.  I think there could be thousands of these things. It would be wonderful. That is what I would really like to see somehow, in another lifetime.”

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Venezuelan Revolution: A True Revolution

When Hugo Chávez was elected President in 1999, Venezuela experienced a transformative, 180-degree revolution, commonly referred to as the Bolivarian Revolution. Chávez implemented several strategic reforms, along with the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Food sovereignty is an integral part of that constitution and the framework was created through a democratic process with input from the people and built on four core principles.

Felix Lopez is the Coordinator of Production at the Aracal Cooperative in Urachichi in the state of Yaracuy in Venezuela. He is also part of the Indigenous Farmers’ Movement of Yaracuy, known as Movemiento Jirajara. Feilx has been part of the struggle for decades, including during the time prior to Chávez when the Venezuelan government was not supportive of the campesinos’ (farmers’) movement.  This is his story.

“My story is very easy. My parents were farmers from this area and I was brought up in this culture. My father was a member of the communist party of Venezuela. My parents taught me socialist ideals and we grew up thinking and speaking differently. Not just thinking within the system we had, but beyond that.  For years, I have been part of the struggle.  There has been a lot of opposition and I have struggled for better conditions, better ways of living for the farmers. Because of this struggle, I have been imprisoned twice. The protests and calls for our release by the farmers’ movement outside the prison forced them to let me go. That was in ‘78 and ‘91.

“Aracal is the fruit of the everyday struggles of the campesinos. There, we united a large amount of people to come together to form a cooperative. In order for it to be a true revolution, we had to change the model of production, which had been production by and for a single owner. We have had to maintain the battle because there have been a lot of enemies. We had to, at times, fight against the state and other obstacles in order to have a cooperative.

“We were creating a new kind of cooperative, because in Venezuela there already were some cooperatives, but they were capitalist cooperatives. We wanted to have a socialist cooperative. We have created laws for the organization, as well as internal rules. According to the national law of cooperatives, we have to come up with a statute for our organization about what we want, as well as internal rules that moderates how we act. The cooperative strives to get the greatest sense of harmony with our members. For this reason, the members decide what they want to do, based on their interests.

“The socialism that we have been working to move forward is not a form of socialism that we are just following some recipe of Marx or of Mao. It is a Venezuelan style socialism. We are taking different concepts and adapting them to our conditions in Venezuela. I think this is one of the most effective models for society because, to work for yourself, you are not waiting for someone else to give you something or lend you something or provide you with something. It is hard work, but it is not impossible.”

Monday, February 11, 2013

Whose Pastures of Plenty?

Every year, thousands of people cross the border from Mexico into the United States to find work in fields that stretch from Maine to Michigan to California to Florida. Each individual's story is different, yet they all come with a dream of a better life. Unfortunately, many struggle while basic human rights are withheld.  The first tenet of food sovereignty is that food is a basic human right. "Food: A Basic Human Right. Everyone must have access to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food in sufficient quantity and quality to sustain a healthy life with full human dignity."

In 2011, I visited the Farmworker Association of Florida in Apopka. They run a center that offers health care, legal advice, trainings and advocacy to thousands of farmworkers. They warmly welcomed me and one of the organizers, Ana Luisa Trevino, gave me a tour of the area. We passed blueberry fields and cucumber farms. We saw farm workers picking vegetables by the side of the road, next to signs that read, “NO PHOTOGRPAHY ALLOWED.” I wondered, national security or human rights abuses?

At the Association, I was fortunate to speak with three different women, each with her own story. One of the women was my host, Ana.  Ana came to the United States in 1972 from Matamoros Tamaulipas, Mexico. She crossed the border to Brownsville, Texas and started working as a farmworker two years later. She was 13 years old. She explained why her mother decided to came to the United States. “We were very poor. The poorest of the poor in Mexico. Three of my brothers died because of little food, no medication.”

Maria Luz Santana had a similar story: “I am from a farm in Guanajuato, Mexico. I came here to follow the American dream.” In 1981 she arrived in California with her oldest son, while her younger children remained in Mexico.  They tied grape trellises in California, then picked oranges in Florida. Next were cucumbers in Michigan, then sweet potatoes in North Carolina before heading back to Florida.  Her son was killed on one of the plantation camps when he was 15 years old, but Maria does not know how. She was picking tobacco in North Carolina when it happened.

Ana tells me that one of the biggest differences now is that children do not work in the fields. “The laws are different. They protect children in many ways. If they see somebody not in school, the police are there, asking. Back in the days, it was okay. If you don’t want to or can’t, the school board gave you permission to work.”

The laws don’t necessarily protect the children in other ways. Since 9/11 families have been torn apart because of deportations. Ana explains, “Most of the children are getting lost in the system or are staying behind with families who don’t have extra money to support them. Back in the day, they did not deport a mother or a father. They let you stay with your children. Now, you are in a car with your children, and they don’t care. The children will be crying and they take both of them – both the mother and the father.”

Although school is mandatory, basic human rights are too often ignored and racial profiling is generally accepted. Ana continues, “I think everything is worse. Because of the deportation, families are taken advantage of. They are mistreated. They work overtime. People are afraid of talking. Even people who are legal citizens, legal permanent residence or in the process of getting legalized. They are afraid to report any wrong doing.”

Many farmworkers are abused physically and verbally. When Maria first moved to Florida, she lived in a boarding house and had no idea what her rights were. The rent for one room was $60 per week. They had to buy their own food, even if they only had pennies left after rent was paid. A crew leader named Pascual Martinez kept a tight grip on the farmworkers at the camp. He took them to the stores, the laundry mats and the fields. He also fed them lies about their rights.

Maria recalls, “We were not free to come and go. One time I went to the corner store to get a gallon of milk for the babies and he got upset and said, ‘it is the last time you come by yourself because immigration will come and round up everybody.’ There was verbal abuse and some physical. Always, they took advantage of the women. He [Pascual] had all the women clean his house. He never paid the women. Immigration was just a threat, it was not real.” Maria now knows her rights and lives independently.  Pasqual is still a crew leader.

Through Ana’s work at the Association, she talks with the women and hears their stories of abuse. Many trust her and tell her the whole story, but when it comes time to report to the Department of Labor, they claim that everything is fine, despite the fact than many are dehydrated, denied bathroom breaks and exposed to pesticides.

Yesica Romirez came to Apopka from Maravatio Michoacan, Mexico. It was 1996 and she was 15. She immediately started working on the farms and in the nurseries and was exposed to an unknown cocktail of pesticides.  She told me, “We have to make a chemical gel to apply to the plants. We don’t get any gloves or masks or anything. We inhale all the chemicals. We see the safety warnings that say we should wear gloves and masks. The boss doesn’t care.”

When I met Yesica she was not working because she had to take care of her nine month old baby. “She has a problem. She had brain surgery. She wears a helmet and has to go to the doctor every 15 days. She was pre-mature and her cranium did not fully develop. Some people have said that the pesticides may be why she has the problem, but I don’t know. The doctor doesn’t know.”

Ana has seen this over and over, but there are no scientific studies. “Children are born with head problems, respiratory problems, asthma, rashes. There are so many chemicals and pesticides that you don’t know what they were exposed to. We have cases of women who have children born with no brain or birth defects or heart problems.”

Ana continues to work with farmworkers and fight for their rights. As I write this, I remember Ana’s final words and I hope you do too, “When you see a flower or a vegetable, remember a face. A child, a woman, a man worked hard to harvest that vegetable, that plant.”  

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Food is Political

Karen Washington is an urban farmer from the Bronx in New York. She has been farming for over 20 years and was one of the original members of La Familia Verde, which is a coalition of five community gardens in the Bronx that educates, empowers and provides food. Karen and others in her community started the coalition in 1998 when Mayor Giuliani was trying to auction off gardens. She hasn’t stopped since.
“I grow food.  I feed people, body and mind.  I have a community garden, the Garden of Happiness, which I helped create.  It stared back in 1988 and I’m also a member of La Finca del Sur, which was created three years ago in the Bronx. The area that I live in is one of the poorest districts in the Bronx.  The medium income of a family of four is less than $20,000.  We’re surrounded by an epidemic of fast food and fast chain restaurants and there are no healthy food stores.  Many of the produce in our supermarkets travel from far away, are moldy, not fresh at all. My message is education to help people understand that the problems they’re having, especially health problems, are connected to food. Well, what are we doing to change? Let’s start getting involved in farmers’ markets and community gardens and educate people to understand that there are resources we can use to help deal with the problems we have.

“Let’s face it; food is political. Where it’s distributed, who has zoning rights, who is able to have loans.  Who gets the fresh best vegetables and who gets the leftovers. I’m pretty sure, in my neighborhood, by the time it comes to the South Bronx, we’re getting the leftovers.  What’s so appalling is that we have this huge area called the Hunts Point Terminal where a lot of produce from all over the country and all over the world comes and right next to it is a community of people that are starving.  You see the trucks, you see the food and you don’t have access to it and that’s a shame.  Where else, what other neighborhood would that happen?  Could that happen in an affluent neighborhood?  Heck, no.  But it’s happening to us.  So, food is political. 

“Those that have affluence and those that have money and connections do much better than those that don’t and food and housing and education is all tied into one. I ask questions and really make it uncomfortable for people when they’re dealing with food and social justice and playing the race card because in essence racism is alive and well.

“What we’re trying to get out and voice to the people is that political power is as strong as we, the people, allow it to be, because the people put those political people in office. To understand that dynamic, to shift that dynamics of thinking, is to understand that the politicians are there because of us.  The power that we have is the power of vote and the power to make political people accountable to their actions and to go door knocking and to do rallies and to do marches and to bring it out in the open what they are or are not doing.

“I’m on a journey.  I’m on a ride. I’m just going to go with it.  Making waves. We’ll see what the future holds. As I continue to grow food and really give thanks to elders, the people that came before us, I will continue to work on connecting people to the land and really empowering people to have a say and have a stand for what they feel is right and just.  End of story.”


Saturday, December 29, 2012

Connected to Labor and Land

 Sara Grusky and her husband, Michael Foley, run Green Uprising Farm at Blackberry Bend in Willits, CA. In 2007, they left their high paced life in Washington, DC to start a farm. After years of working on policy issues, Sara is finally connected to the land and the regulatory challenges that small-scale farmers face daily around the United States.

"The best part of farming is that you really get to work for yourself.  It’s the first time in my life that my labor hasn’t been alienated from me, that my labor is really mine and the products of my labor feel very different because it’s my labor. It’s exciting to have a piece of land to try to make something out of. Words escape me, but I feel like it’s the only thing that might save us. In terms of figuring out how to survive in a post oil, climate change chaos where governments are in chaos and the economy is in crisis.  Being able to live in harmony with the land around you and eke a living from it might be the most important thing to learn.

"We have seven adult goats and seven adolescent goats and they support a 27 family dairy share. There are also some people who occasionally get dairy products from the dairy share and there are some people who occasionally barter. Right now, we offer milk, cheese, kefir and yogurt. One of the things that we’ve learned from the dairy share is how ridiculously overregulated and full of obstacles it is to try to do something like a dairy share. It’s because the regulatory environment is really geared towards large dairies and it’s because there’s a long history of fear and misinformation about raw milk. The current dairy share that we have is, I would say, in a quasi-legal gray area and that’s not a very comfortable place to be.

"But just think about this for a minute because small scale, in our case, is eight milking goats.  It’s a very small scale. Those eight goats feed, provide dairy products for 27 families.  Well this makes a lot of sense.  It makes way more sense than any other model that I can think of, but the only way we can do it is to find some loophole and do something that’s actually quasi illegal but it’s the only thing that really makes sense in terms of having a sustainable local economy.

"The Weston Price Foundation has put quite a bit of effort into creating this Farmer to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, which provides legal assistance and other kinds of support services for small farmers.  Recently, in Massachusetts they were trying to outlaw raw milk, so the Weston Price Foundation bought a cow to graze the Boston Commons[1] and milked her and fed people raw milk as a way to sort of protest and expose how ridiculous it is that people milking cows and drinking the milk, which has gone on for millennia, is currently illegal.

[1] The Boston Commons was used as a cow pasture for many families in the 1630’s. Later, on May 19, 1713, citizens rioted on the Commons in reaction to a food shortage in Boston.

Monday, December 10, 2012

In Memory of Russell Libby

Life long farmer advocate, Russell Libby, passed away on December 9th at his home in Mt. Vernon, Maine after a long struggle with cancer. Russell was a champion for small-scale organic farmers and his work influenced the local food movement throughout the country. He ran Three Sisters Farm and was the Executive Director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) for 17 years and a member of their Board for 29 years. I was fortunate to spend some time with Russell in September 2010, right before the annual Common Ground Country Fair. He spoke about the economic system he worked to create and the community that makes it possible. To commemorate Russell's life, below are his words.

“The piece that’s really jumped in the last decade is the resurgence of interest in growing food. In the past three years, there’s been a huge jump in interest in apprenticeships, people who want to have some connection to the land, want to get their hands dirty. People who are committing and saying, ‘This is what I’m going to do for a business.’ People look for something that makes them feel more certain about their own individual future.  So in that sense, growing food is countercyclical.  

 “When the economy is booming and everything is great, maybe people don’t think they want to work on a farm and not make a whole lot of money, but when there are no jobs and you’ve been out of college for two years and you still haven’t found anything, keeping busy on a farm and learning some skills doesn’t seem like such a bad deal. Food becomes an underpinning for a resilient economy, one that doesn’t get caught so badly in those downturns and can find its way out again. Or, the downturns don’t affect us so much because we all have these really deep connections within our community.

“For me, it’s about three things: face, place, taste.  Do you know who grew the food? Where they grew it? Is it something that’s distant and separate from what you would buy in the supermarket?  If you can find those elements, then you’ve got a lot of the important pieces of a good food system.  We’re also fortunate because we’re sitting right on the edge of the ocean, so we can have conversations about seafood. What we’ve been able to do at MOFGA is provide a lot of space for people to, in a sense, self-organize.

“In 1971 when MOFGA started, there was only one farmers market in Maine.  It was the old Portland Farmers market that’s been going since the 1790’s or earlier. Now, I think, there are 95 farmers markets in Maine.  Every town with 10,000 people or more has a farmers market.  Some of it has intensified and expanded and all of a sudden you hit critical mass. A lot of farmers, who never would have gone to a farmers market 25 years ago, because that was just for the three hippies in town, now see that these are really vibrant and viable businesses.  There are people making $5,000 to $10,000 a week at farmers markets and generating a real family income.  There are also a lot of small markets that don’t have critical mass and are still working their way up the ladder to viability. It’s tough if you’re in one of those markets and you don’t have enough customers and you’re trying to figure out how you get the next 50 people a week to come by.

“I was at an event the other day that was catered by Rosemont Market out of Portland.  They’re the old kind of community food market. It’s a little local store where you can drop in and get your produce and your cheese and your fresh bread and a few other items. It’s not trying to have every single item that was ever produced.  You know, the typical supermarket has something like 40,000 items now.  The last time I was in Rosemont Market on Munjoy Hill, I’d say they might have had 500 items but from 500 items you can prepare quite a variety of food.  The other 39,500 [items] are largely taking the preparation out of your hands and turning it into something that you just have to heat and eat.  That’s the cultural question in front of us - how much work do we want to do?  If the answer is not much, then it’s going to be really hard for small farms. It’s going to be really hard for small fishers. It’s going to be challenging because we don’t have the critical mass to compete with the lowest cost food. 

“The food buyer for one supermarket, one day, said [to me], ‘So, what’s local going to do for me? I can pick up the phone right now, call Guatemala, tell them I’d like a plane load of beans delivered tomorrow. They’ll go pick up the beans, they’ll be harvested, they’ll be at the right temperature, they’ll be flown up and they’ll be in my warehouse tomorrow morning and they’ll be in my stores tomorrow afternoon.  So what are you going to do that’s any simpler and easier for me?’

“He was asking a rhetorical question about the challenge for us building a local food system in changing the way the food retailers do their business.  I thought about it a lot and I realized I don’t want to compete with farmers in the mountains of Guatemala who are going to go out and harvest at $2.00 a day.  I’d like to support them in feeding themselves, but I’m not going to try to compete with them in a supermarket situation.  And that’s the challenge in front of all of us is how do we build these dense networks that let us unhook from what we’ve all relied on for the last 50 years, which is the supermarket system.

“It would help if we didn’t have to process everything, that we were able to keep the processing end as low tech of a level as possible. Let’s start with cooking.  Canning is just like a bonus.  If people were willing, and have the skills, to cook even three nights a week unprocessed foods, that would be transformative.  But once you’ve got both parties in the family working out and everybody comes home late, tired and exhausted from working too long at our American style jobs and then you go: ‘um, what’s for supper tonight?’  The repertoire shrinks really rapidly at that point.

“It’s also organizing in a way that lets us support each other because, for example, the new produce safety rules that FDA wants to put out next year could just swamp everybody or at least the 210,000 produce farmers in the country.  I read them. There’s 150 single-spaced pages just on tomatoes, lettuce, leafy greens, and melons. Mind numbing stuff like six to ten pages on gloves. Just gloves and how you clean and sanitize them, if you’re going to use them again.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to wear gloves when I’m out working in my garden and harvesting food.  We have to support one another or else we’re all going to get caught in this cookie cutter standardized world. 

“This weekend is the Common Ground Country Fair and we have a decent weather forecast. We’ll have 50,000 to 60,000 people here and they’re coming because they want to be part of this ongoing conversation where it’s about the people and the community. If there’s one thing that’s not going to be happening here at the Common Ground Fair this weekend is cookie cutter standardized world.”

Monday, October 8, 2012

Urban Farming in Venezuela

In celebration of Hugo Chavez’s reelection in Venezuela, please meet Sara Medina, an urban farmer from Caracas. When she was 47 years old, Chavez’s Revolutionary Venezuelan government made it possible for her to go back to school and study agro-ecology. Through support from a government agency, CIARA (Capacity and Innovation for Support of Agrarian Reform), she now farms and trains others in inner city communities how to feed themselves.

“One of the main objectives is to recover the urban spaces. I work in small community farms and with communities to develop farms. We teach the communities about the agricultural benefits and the nutritional values from the products they grow. Through the community farms we advise what vegetables to grow and how. We teach them how to control the pests to avoid infestation. We learn from farmers who moved from the countryside to Caracas in the ‘60’s, because of the oil business. A lot of people thought they would have more opportunities in the city, but it wasn’t like that. Those people from rural areas have farming knowledge and we must recover that ancestral traditions and knowledge.

“I work with about 30 or 40 communities. There are a lot of projects. There are the school farm projects and raised bed gardens for people who don’t have any space –only the roofs or a deck. The purpose of the school project is to teach the students about farming. The kids are like a sponge and when they learn about the earth, they absorb it. With the urban family farming, the idea is that they get some autonomy.  The first thing is for self-consumption, so the people farm for themselves. At the same, they give extra products to the food pantry. And then if there is excess, they can sell that at the market for a good price and the money earned goes back into the community for transportation, materials, anything that the community needs.

“The biggest goal is for people to make their own food and be self-sufficient. The problem is that it is hard to change people’s mentality about dependency. They depend a lot on the supermarkets. It is hard to change this mentality. Economics and health are the advantages that people need to understand about urban farming and food sovereignty.

“Through agro-ecology I can give the people my knowledge and my support for the rest of my life. I am obligated to give them the information they need. But, the information is not easy to pass on. It is not easy to get that information to the people. Social struggle is not only in Venezuela, but also in the rest of the world. I think the rich countries have very serious problems – more serious than here.”