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Deconstructing Dinner

Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY

Nelson, B.C. Canada


March 19, 2009


Title: A Crisis in Awareness and Participation - Michael Ableman


Producer/Host - Jon Steinman

Transcript - Rebecca Blair


Jon Steinman: And welcome to Deconstructing Dinner, a syndicated weekly radio show produced at Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY in Nelson, British Columbia. This show is broadcast on radio stations around the world including CFXU Antigonish Nova Scotia and CFUR Prince George B.C. I'm Jon Steinman.


Over the past few years that this show has been on the air, we've shared a couple of inspiring talks delivered by farmer and author Michael Ableman. Michael has a long history as an advocate for economically viable and responsibly produced food. Today, Michael farms on British Columbia's Salt Spring Island and in February 2009, he spoke to an audience here in Nelson at an event hosted by the Kootenay Local Agricultural Society.


Kootenay Co-op Radio recorded Michael's talk and on today's episode, we'll hear his provocative suggestions as to how he believes all communities (big or small) can work towards feeding the future before the choices are narrowed for us.


increase music and fade out


Today's broadcast will be archived on the Deconstructing Dinner website at and posted under the March 19th, 2009 episode.


Over the past few years, Michael Ableman has been creating a diverse model of how a farm can become a community unto itself.


Foxglove Farm on Salt Spring Island is a working 120-acre historic organic farm. The farm currently produces strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, asparagus, melons, greens, roots, a wide range of annual Mediterranean vegetables, as well as a new orchard of diverse varieties of peach, plum, apple, pear, quince, persimmon, and cherry.


Beyond Foxglove's status as just a farm, the site is also home to The Center for Art, Ecology & Agriculture, which was established to demonstrate and interpret the important connections between farming, land stewardship, food, the arts, and community well being.


As Michael communicated to the audience early on in his talk, his work as a farmer has led him to recognize that pleasure is a much greater motivator for change than guilt.


Michael Ableman: I now live on Salt Spring Island, as Abra mentioned, on a really remarkable 120-acre place with the original log house and outbuildings. A farm that sits in the heart of the island's watershed, with forests and creeks, a pristine lake, fields and pastures, a beautiful blend of farm and ecosystem surrounded by large protected parcels. Historically it has been called the Foxglove Farm, for the wonderful flowers that are so prevalent in that region. And as you may know, foxglove, or digitalis, is used in medicine to restore human heart function. We inherited that farm name, but we intend to keep it, because it is places like that that are restoring the heart function to the world. We're developing a Center for Art, Ecology, and Agriculture, which beginning this summer will bring artists and writers and musicians, foresters, farmers, and watershed experts, to share their knowledge within the context of a working landscape. It's a real working place-based art, forestry, and agriculture education.


We just finished our second season farming on that land, along with developing the infrastructure and restoring some of the old buildings. Converting 30-year-old pastures into food production makes you look like you know what you're doing. All that built-up fertility. But the real skill comes in maintaining that over the long haul. That land has some unique advantages. Our farm fields are surrounded and intersected by swathes of intact forest. My sense is that the fields and forests are wired together, connected in ways I am just beginning to understand. When the fall rains started, the entire place became transformed into this magic world where chanterelle and shaggy parasol and hedgehog and cauliflower and fairy ring and elfin saddle mushrooms popped up everywhere. And I imagine this vast network of mycelium, miles of tiny threads from forest to field, providing the underpinning for soil and plant health.


Our first season produced spinach with leaves the size of dinner plates. Raspberries and asparagus planted in June that looked like three-year-old plants by September. Potatoes and tomatoes and French melons and strawberries showed no humility or self-control, producing an obscene volume and size. I felt like the ringmaster of a fruit and vegetable circus, where all the performers had gone off on their own tangents. At the local farmers' market, I was actually accused of operating a secret genetics lab at our place. It's amazing what people come up with on Salt Spring Island.


But the most wonderful part of our beginnings on that land is the quiet glimpses into the past that appeared in unexpected ways. The sense that we are a part of a long chain of humans on that land, from the Native people who fished its creeks and lake to those who built the original homestead to ourselves, each link has been informed by the past and by the land itself. I believe that land chooses and dreams us, as much as we choose it. Wherever I worked on that land, rebuilding a fence, restoring an old building, preparing a field, I encountered the remnants of those who worked that land before me. Discovered someone else's dream from some time in the past. And now, we impose our own.


I've always talked about the importance of land tenure, as a critical principle for creating a truly sustainable food system. But now I wonder what land tenure really is. After all, we're all just passing through, temporary tenants and caretakers of a larger natural force. All that will ultimately remain will be the land, and the best we can do is to leave it more fertile, more alive, more biologically diverse than we found it; and to use our brief time on the land to feed and to nourish and to inspire.


In my late teens, I joined a commune in southern California that was based on agrarian principles. It's an interesting thing because until about fifty years old, I was not terribly inclined to talk about my commune days. But now it doesn't really matter what you talk about, you get away with it. We had three different parcels of land, totaling some four thousand acres, on which we raised row crops, orchards, operated a complete goat and cow dairy, and produced grain and fibre. We supplied our own natural food stores and bakery and juice factory and restaurant, as well as feeding ourselves. We even made our own clothing, our own backpacks, and our own shoes.


After only four months living in that community, I was given the responsibility of managing the hundred-acre pear and apple orchard located in a high desert valley east of Ojai, California. At the time, that was one of just a handful of commercial orchards in country that was being farmed organically. Here I was, at the age of eighteen, with no orcharding experience, having never managed anything, directing a crew of thirty people, most of whom were older than I. The orchard had been abandoned for fifteen years. The branches between the trees had become so intertwined that you couldn't find the alleys down the middles of the rows. I had a 1930s copy of Modern Fruit Science, the journal from the guy who ran the place the year before and gave up in frustration, and a copy of Goethe's famous quote: "Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it," attached to the door of my 20-foot unheated trailer.


This could have ended up really badly, and under most similar situations I probably would've spent the rest of my life working in some high-rise office building. But there was something that took place down those rows of apple and pear trees. Something very different than what is happening in most fields and orchards in North America. I went to work each day with 30 of my friends, and while we worked we joked and we talked and we discussed our dreams. We tried out our latest theories and philosophies on each other, speculated on the fate of the earth, and ate our lunch together under the shade of the trees.


In the winter we pruned every day for four months straight. In the spring we thinned fruit, and in the fall it was a ten-week harvest marathon. It was repetitive work, but at the end of each day, instead of feeling I had been chained to some mind-numbing drudgery, I felt like I had attended an all-day party. The work got done, the orchard thrived, and those apples and pears gained a reputation around the country. While the cold nights and hot days at that high desert provided ideal growing conditions, I'm sure that that fruit was equally infused with the energy of that group of people and the pleasure they found in each other and in that land.


This was my introduction to agriculture. This community experience has informed all of my agricultural endeavours since. And it demonstrated that good food is more than just the confluence of technique and fertile soil; it is the result of men and women who love their land and who bring great passion to working with it.


This is no longer some romantic idea. This isn't something that should be the purview of a special few. If we are going to be able to move through and survive the massive changes that are taking place in our world, many more of us are going to have to find our way back to the art and the craft of growing our food, of understanding our land, and of understanding the places where we live. To do that, we've got to get more young people involved.


I've always said the best way to preserve farmland, encourage young people into our profession, get true respect from the public, is to demonstrate that you can make a decent living in agriculture. Pretty basic. I still believe that, and a large part of my work is in creating and putting forth some of the successful model. But my sense of how to communicate this is changing. I used to think that if I could just tell folks why it was important to consider another way, if I could be more eloquent in my expression, if I could just convince them, beat them into submission, that things would change. And now I think, if I could just grow the best tomato. I've realized that pleasure is a much greater motivator for change than guilt.


Think about it. How successful has the last thirty years of the environmental movement really been? There's been some really good work done by many of my friends and colleagues, battles won, pristine places preserved, a greater awareness of the awesome threats to our biosphere instilled in the minds of many. But most of the messaging has been all doom and gloom. And while folks have come to understand the problems, they too often feel helpless when it comes to the solutions, paralyzed in the face of the enormity of our modern dilemma. Clearly all the well-planned environmental campaigns, all the creative strategies, all the books and organizations, have only succeeded in preserving and protecting and restoring a few bits and pieces and specks. Isolated victories, all while the world's natural systems unravel at a staggering rate.


So the question is, how do we provide an invitation rather than harangue? How do we provide an invitation rather than harangue? Well, I got it, standing on my farm last spring. I was out there with the deafening sounds of thousands of frogs fornicating in my ponds. Earthworms doing it beneath my feet. Mason and bumble and honey bees fighting to stuff themselves into every flower in sight. I suddenly realized, I'm not farming; I'm presiding over one big, giant orgy!


It's quite a realization. I realized that every form of life on my farm is absolutely immersed in this incredible humming, buzzing, and vibrating vortex of lust. All this time I've had it wrong. I've been trying to entice young people back into agriculture with all the wrong messages. All they really needed to know is that there's all this sex happening on farms.


Jon Steinman: This is Deconstructing Dinner. You're listening to farmer, author and photographer Michael Ableman. Michael farms at Foxglove Farm on Salt Spring Island British Columbia. He spoke to an audience in Nelson, BC in February 2009.


Before purchasing the historic Foxglove Farm about ten years ago, Michael developed the Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens, a non-profit organization based on one of the oldest and most diverse organic farms in southern California.


As Michael continued his talk, he shared some history from his time there, and how on one day in particular, he recognized just how vulnerable we are to continue to rely upon the dominant food system serving North Americans today.


Michael Ableman: In 1994, I was still working on that farm in California. I'm sorry, I usually talk a little bit more about my history - for those of you who are not aware of it, I think you need a little bit of context. I farmed a small postage-stamp farm in southern California that was surrounded by development. It essentially was floating in a sea of tract homes and shopping centers. That story has been told in a lot of different ways. But in '94, while still working on that farm, the Northridge earthquake hit. At the time, I was living in the old farmhouse on that land, which was built in 1895. Single-wall construction, not a stud in the entire building, which at first I was puzzled by and then I realized that it had survived a number of earthquakes. It was a house that if a cat jumped on the roof, you could feel the whole house moving back and forth.


So at four in the morning, when that earthquake hit, which was based in Los Angeles, I was literally thrown out of bed. I raced in the other room and grabbed my now-27-year-old son-I'm bad at the math-and raced out the back door just in time to see all the power in southern California go off in a wave. It was actually quite beautiful, because it was one of those rare moments when you could see the night sky without all the light pollution. The next morning, when the sun came up, it was one of those brilliant, clear, still, sunny days that often happens after an earthquake. I thought I had better go out in the world to see if anything else existed. What better way to do that than to go down to the local supermarket?


In the four blocks between the farm and that supermarket, cars were colliding mid-intersection, the traffic lights were down. At the gas pumps there were long lines. The power was out so the pumps were not working. When I reached the threshold of this supermarket, on this brilliant, clear, sunny day, and crossed inside, it was pitch black inside. People were frantically navigating the aisles using flashlights, filling their carts. The milk was going off on the shelves, the meat was going off. When they reached the checkout counter, there were large handwritten cardboard signs that said, "SORRY, NO CHANGE." The ATM machines were down.


At that moment, probably more than any, I realized how incredibly fragile, incredibly precarious, our food system really is. This was a mere blip, all that had happened in our neighbourhood was the power had gone down, and yet things had already started to unravel. My former neighbours who shop in that supermarket are well-paid, highly-educated individuals. Many work in high-tech defense research companies, like Delco and Applied Magnetics and Santa Barbara Research. Those are the companies that build the so-called, "smart bombs"-if that's not a contradiction in terms, I don't know what is. Yet if that store had stayed closed, they would've been hard-pressed to feed themselves. With all their education, with all their financial resources, with all their knowledge about the most sophisticated technologies, they were powerless when faced with taking care of the most basic of human needs.


For the first time in human history, we have entire generations who do not know how to use their hands for anything other than pushing keys on a keyboard. We have been borrowing, I should say stealing, from the future for some time, in a system that has generated vast paper wealth while producing little that one can actually see or touch or eat or use. So what happens now, as vast numbers of people are losing their jobs? People who have no basic skills as to how to live on this earth? How will they get along in a world where we still need to have shelter, stay warm, wear clothing, and eat food?


In the mid-80s I started an organization called the Center for Urban Agriculture. The demographics of the world were changing dramatically from rural to urban, and I felt that we needed to develop food production systems that were located in and around the world's cities. "Urban" and "agriculture" in the early 80s was for most people a contradiction of terms. But that movement now has gained significant momentum. The best examples have evolved not because it's the right thing to do, but out of raw necessity. Cuba has one of the most sophisticated urban agricultural systems in the world. There's an estimated 200,000 people employed in urban agriculture there, providing close to 40% of the food consumed in Cuba's cities. Havana has an urban agriculture department, supporting a complex network of urban farms, providing meat, eggs, milk, fruits and vegetables to that city.


But that system in Cuba came forth out of a crisis of significant proportions. An entire nation was facing starvation. We, too, are facing a food crisis, one that has been brewing for some time. But the impacts of our crisis have yet to become personal enough to force the kind of structural changes that need to happen. As energy prices continue to climb, as farmland everywhere is converted from food to fuel production, as world economies continue to unravel, as climate change continues to play out, the cost, quality, and secure access of our food will, I believe, become the central and the dominant issue of our time.


Globally, the food system faces a crisis of unprecedented levels, in part because of its wholesale dependency on fossil fuel. Who could have possibly imagined that we would come to a time when millions of motorists, who want to keep their gas tanks full, would be competing for the same resources with millions of poor people who simply want to have a meal every day? It's really remarkable. Food supplies, especially grain, are at their most limited levels in recent history. The price of food continues to climb. Those who are already living at poverty levels and those who do not have access to land, or the skills to grow food, are the most at-risk. The shelves in our stores may appear full, the displays abundant, but any community, urban or rural, that is wholly dependent on the importation of its basic foodstuffs from afar, is in a very precarious and a very vulnerable situation. And the overwhelming focus and concern for the stability of our financial system masks a problem that is far more critical: our ability to feed ourselves into the future.


Every region needs to be addressing this, rethinking how far food travels to them, rethinking the dominant industrial paradigm of inputs in and products out, rethinking where a farm can be located, and refocusing on management-intensive versus resource-intensive systems. Systems that actually require more hands per acre, not less. That always surprises people.


The Cubans created that world-class model that I described because they had to. We need to consider how we will feed the future now, before our choices are narrowed for us.


Jon Steinman: Michael Ableman. Following his question of, "how will we feed the future before the choices are narrowed for us," Michael's response consisted of a provocative list of suggestions that he believes all communities throughout North America should adopt in order to feed the future.


This manifesto of Michael's outlines a number of ideas that are indeed already in place or planned in many cities and towns. And a reminder that if you've missed any of today's show, it will be archived on our website, at, and posted under the March 19th, 2009 episode.


Michael Ableman: To do this, I would propose the following:


That every city in North America have an urban agriculture center similar to the one I started there in California. I'm not talking about some sort of think-tank or demonstration garden. I'm talking about centers based on real urban or peri-urban farms, that model not only the social and cultural and ecological benefits of farming in and near the city, but the economic benefits as well. Again I have to emphasize that we can talk about all the wonderful reasons to be doing this work, but until we can demonstrate the economics, it's going to be a tough sell. These centers should model the range of possibilities, from growing on your balcony or even in a window box, to multi-acre ground-level production, to full-scale multi-acre rooftop production. They should model not just the production of carrots and tomatoes, but the more fundamental and necessary elements of the human diet such as small-scale grains and pulses and meat and egg and dairy production.


I would propose that every city across North America have teams of extension agents in numbers proportionate to the populations devoted to urban food production, and that those agents operate out of their local urban agricultural centers, running training workshops and classes, and going out into the community and providing on-site technical support in production and marketing.


The nutrient cycle that once tied farms with those they supplied has been severely interrupted. We need a full-cycle food system that allows for the return of organic waste via central regional composting facilities that can support the nutrient needs of both urban and urban-fringe farms.


Every new permit for a housing development should be required to have an approved food-production component, on a scale relative to the number of people who'll be living there. Every new office and retail building, and every new warehouse, should be engineered to have a full-scale rooftop food production component, including greenhouses heated by the spent heat from those buildings.


I propose that every municipality initiate a phase-out of lawns, effective immediately. [applause]


But here's the important part: that they provide neighbourhood training programs and technical support for home and building owners to replace those lawns with food production. Every neighbourhood school, every church, every sports facility, should be required to restructure existing facilities to accommodate cooperative canning, freezing, and dehydrating services for their neighbourhoods and communities.


I would propose that every real estate transaction have a 1% farmland preservation tax, from which lands could be purchased specifically for the production of food; and that those lands have protective covenants that require that they be used for agriculture in perpetuity.


I would propose property tax credits be provided for urban landowners who provide long-term leases for food production initiatives on their properties.


When I was in school, my favorite classes were wood shop and metal shop and mechanics. I even took cooking and sewing and home ec, much to the concern of my classmates. Those subjects in those days were well-respected, and I in fact looked forward to those classes far more than I did math or English. It was a time when I could make something real and tangible. The funny thing was, every wood shop teacher had one or two missing digits. As I think about it now, I'm sure that that was a requirement for applying for those jobs. But the thing was I made a very quick association between those missing fingers and the machines. That made an impression on me, to this day. I have a great deal of respect for spinning blades. We need farming and cooking and gardening and building courses in the schools, but what's important is that we need those subjects to be given the same status and attention that is now given to math or English or the sciences. [applause]


I hope I am proven wrong, I really do. But I suspect that unemployment rates may continue to go up, and that they may go way up. Auto workers may have the ability to do something else with their hands, but what about bankers or stockbrokers or computer technicians, just to name a few? If it's true, in the US, that the US will need fifty million more farmers in the next twenty years, I don't know how to do the same calculation here in Canada, we need to establish formal programs based on working farms in every region in the country. To retrain newly-unemployed in the art and craft of growing food, and those other support skills such as carpentry and mechanics and welding. Just as we need to nationalize the banks, I believe government may have to purchase and nationalize some of the nation's large-scale farms. That one's really going to be controversial. Break them up, and use that land to provide production space for retrained workers.


In the US, a lot of criticism has been directed towards the banks and the auto company executives, as it should. It's well-deserved. The amazing thing is that people don't realize they've been paying somewhere in the range of $46 million a day in farm subsidies. Checks that go strictly and solely to the owners of large-scale farms, many of whom live in places like Beverly Hills and Pacific Heights. There was a journalist a while back who did the research based on zip codes, and found that the majority of those farm subsidy checks ended up in the most amazing places, places where people certainly didn't need or deserve it. Yet there has been no outrage about that issue.


We will need to refocus our historic emphasis on regional fruit and vegetable production, to more regional production of grains and beans and seeds. I think there is a fabulous project that I know is going here, there's a grain CSA, and I hope in the discussion period that someone will talk about that. As I said, we can all survive without another carrot or tomato, but we need that engine, that cornerstone of our diet. To do this we will need to establish equipment co-ops with single-operator management. Very important. Any of you who are equipment operators, or who have big equipment, know that multiple operators is probably not a good idea. That equipment would be available to provide harvesting, cleaning, and milling opportunities.


We would need to bring back regional abattoirs, which I know Abra has been doing a lot of work on, and cooling and freezing and storage space. And we need these facilities established to support smaller-scale diverse operations. That's a shift. As we continue to come back to our senses and re-evaluate our priorities, we will come to recognize the sustainable food system available to all requires a knowledge and a respect for water, and the complex web that brings it to us. Agriculture currently uses 80% of the world's fresh water resources, of which only a fraction ever reaches the intended plants or animals.


We have all been acting like nations of junkies fighting wars to control the last drops of oil. But the truth is that access to safe and clean fresh water is not an option. It's not something we can do without. It's a necessity. We could actually do without oil at some point.


Soil is the same, very critical resource, yet we treat it like dirt. There are environmental campaigns to protect oceans, rivers, forests, air, and every creature large and small. But how often do you hear anyone railing on about the critical importance of that thin layer of soil that covers the earth? The earth's placenta, that which all of our survival is inextricably tied to. And yet it is also disappearing at a staggering rate. If we responded to the depletion of that resource with the same call to arms that we have the drop in the stock market, imagine the world that we would be living in.


We need to have serious food production models located in our highest-profile locations. During the Clinton administration, long before Michael Pollan wrote about the idea, a couple of us worked on that idea, the idea of putting a farm on the grounds of the White House. I gave a speech in Toronto in September, and I suggested that we have a farm on the grounds of Parliament. But I made a very major mistake, and I said that we could do with a lot less tulips, we need more food. Well, let me tell you. [laughter] There were a few people in the audience who took me aside afterwards, and talked to me about those tulips, and told me the history of them, and so I think there's probably some other land, let's leave the tulips alone.


Jon Steinman: This is Deconstructing Dinner, a syndicated weekly radio show and podcast produced at Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY, Nelson, British Columbia. I'm Jon Steinman. You're listening to farmer and author Michael Ableman speaking in February 2009 in Nelson at an event hosted by the Kootenay Local Agricultural Society.


Now for those of you unfamiliar with the symbolism of the tulips on Parliament Hill in Ottawa - they are there to commemorate the gift of 100,000 tulip bulbs that Canada received in 1945 from Princess Juliana of the Netherlands. The gift was given in appreciation of the safe haven that members of Holland's exiled royal family received during the Second World War in Ottawa and in recognition of the role which Canadian troops played in the liberation of the Netherlands.


As Michael continued his talk, he shared his belief that the crises that the world faces today, are not so much food crises, environmental crises or even economic crises, but instead, the crisis we face is one of awareness and participation.


Michael Ableman: Every member of Parliament and every Prime Minister should be required to spend one day of each month growing potatoes and salad greens and grains and meats, and participating in the distribution of those products to food banks and shelters and schools. This might be the first step in the reformation of our politicians, and it would certainly make a clear statement that as a nation, we need to reclaim our agrarian roots, reclaim the basic Jeffersonian principle that the health of a democracy is inextricably tied to the health of its agriculture.


And finally, I propose that we redeploy and retrain a percentage of our military and of our newly unemployed not only to the rebuilding of our nation's farms, but also to environmental restoration of degraded wildlands, and to rebuilding and re-emphasizing our nation's railways. Now, here's a real tangent for you.


Most of us have forgotten that until the 1980s, most food was transported by rail. An incredibly efficient means of providing a very diverse diet regionally, not just locally. Before that, going back thousands of years, native people traded diverse foodstuffs over very long distances. A local diet is not always an inclusive diet. This should've been called, "The Contrary Farmer" this talk. This is the contrary part. Local food, too often, is an experience only available to those who have the time and the money. A much more inclusive movement would use the word "regional," supported by foodsheds that use a broader, more diverse bio-food production area. There have been some notable and honorable efforts to rectify the gap between those who can afford good food and those who cannot. But too often they repeat the most common mistakes of every well-intentioned development project. We cannot socially or culinarily engineer good food into the lives of other people. We cannot build bridges between classes and races and cultures solely with quiche and arugula and heirloom tomatoes. What we can do is reach out to our youth, provide programs in schools, and most importantly, provide land and technical support for folks to grow for themselves.


In October of 2001, just after the events in New York, I gave a speech to the Bioneers Conference in San Francisco. I closed that speech by proposing that in memory of the thousands of people who lost their lives, that a portion of the World Trade Center site be converted to an urban farm, replete with greenhouses and kitchens and an education centre. That this farm be established to provide food and jobs year round to those in need, and that it become a model of a local agricultural-based economy, on the grounds of what used to be a monument to the global economy. My idea was put forth more as metaphor than with any serious expectation. But a couple of organizations in New York City picked it up, and the proposal was officially submitted. The New York Times ran a piece on the idea, and there were hundreds of letters of support. But in the end what was approved was 1,492 stories of cold steel, glass, and concrete. And it was business as usual.


Had that proposal been put forth today, it would've received a much more positive reception. Awareness around food and its place in our lives and the incredibly precarious nature of the system, which brings it to us has exploded. Language that many of us have been using for decades is now part of the public lexicon. Everyone seems to be talking the talk. But talk is cheap. And while there is an overwhelming embrace of local food and agriculture, especially amongst foodies, there is an enormous chasm between those who eat well and locally, and can afford to do so, and those who cannot. But there is a far greater gap between the numbers of eaters who are passionate and enthusiastic and inspired by this movement, and the numbers of people whose hands are actually in the soil doing the work.


While I am thrilled that a movement that I've been so much a part of for so long is finally getting its due, I am equally concerned that so few of us are actually doing the work of farming. I do not believe that there is so much a food or environmental or economic crisis, as much as there is a crisis in awareness, and a crisis in participation. As I said earlier, we now have a couple generations who are not only completely denatured, they no longer know how to use their hands for anything other than running a computer, but the revolution is not going to take place online, or from the pages of a book, or from attending a talk or a conference or a slow food event. It will require that many more of us get involved with the real, hands in the soil act of growing food for ourselves, our neighbours, and our broader communities.


I used to like to say that chefs had received almost mythical rock n' roll status, and it was time for farmers to receive that same attention. But the real shift we need cannot take place when only 1% of us is doing the work to grow the food for the rest, while everyone else is cheering us on. Believe me, I love the attention. But farming is not a spectator sport. So I've been on the road telling folks to make friends with a farmer, you're going to need them. For I am certain that as the current global-industrial experiment continues to unravel, agriculture will once again return to its rightful place, to the heart and the center of our society. The leadership that is going to make this happen is not going to come from someone somewhere else, it's going to have to come from folks like you all sitting in this room this evening. I do not believe that the kind of major structural change that will be required to turn things around will happen until it has to, until the impacts become personal.


I know this is not a particularly hopeful thought. But the hopeful piece is that humans have an incredible capacity for compassion, ingenuity, creativity, and resourcefulness. Qualities that come out especially under duress and under crisis. And there are many historical examples of this, when normal day-to-day reality is suspended, and people come together. What will be missing when we can no longer rely on all the technology, all the dependency on someone somewhere else, all the infrastructure that brings us basic transportation and food and shelter, is the knowledge, the wisdom, and the basic skills required to live on this earth. And so our job, those of us who are here tonight and all those around the country and the world who are re-educating ourselves, rediscovering our place in nature, is to continue to refine our skills and to diligently work to create the local and the regional models. For I am sure that the day will come when we are sought after, looked to for leadership and guidance, when our farms will be the living models, the repositories, that kept this sacred and essential knowledge alive.


Jon Steinman: Farmer and Author Michael Ableman. If you've missed any of today's show, it is archived on our website at and posted under the March 19th, 2009 episode. On the page you'll also find a link to the web page for Michael's most recent book - Fields of Plenty. And that website is


His book was the basis for the remainder of his talk that we've been listening in on. As an avid photographer, Michael did have a slide show of images from the book to display to the Nelson British Columbia audience, of course on the radio… it's up to your imagination. No doubt though, his very descriptive accounts of the farms and people found within the images, is sufficient to generate some images of your own.


Here again, Michael Ableman, sharing the many stories of hope that can be found on farms across North America.


Michael Ableman: So, I want to close by introducing you to some of the farmers who are showing the way forward. Just a very small sampling of the thousands of great projects that are going on all over North America, and in fact all over the world. The images and text that I'm going to show you and read from are from my last book, Fields of Plenty, which was based on a remarkable journey that I did with my eldest son, who's now 27, across the US and Canada, visiting some really amazing people. Individuals who had not only mastered the production of certain signature products, but who are also using their farms as platforms for social and ecological change and for education. People who were, in a sense, happily married to a place, incredibly ingenious and resourceful folks.


This is Richard DeWilde, who farms a couple hours outside of Madison, Wisconsin. Richard drives us around in his Chevy pickup to check out some of the 39 fields of vegetables that are scattered around the valley. There's a case of 30-odd 8 Springfield silvertip rifle cartridges sitting next to the 4-wheel-drive shift, a bag of tobacco and some rolling papers, and a single Cippolini onion sitting on the seat. I don't normal get all gaga about kale, but the field we're looking at is as deep a green as I've ever seen. Not the kind of artificially pumped-up green that comes from too much ammonium nitrate or urea. This one is deep and blue and forest-like. The plants are vibrant and well-formed, with huge, turgid leaves, each plant standing up straight as if they've been told to pose for my cameras.


Richard tells me he gets snapshots in the mail, someone's kid eating a piece of their squash or corn or a carrot. There's an enclosed note that says that this is Johnny's first meal. Eighteen years later, and they're providing the food for Johnny's wedding.


At the market his customers will introduce their kids to "our farmer." There's these beaming kids standing there that have been raised on his food. He tells me it makes him feel ten feet tall.


Born in Idaho, raised in potato fields, Jean Theo comes from four generations of root people. Ask any chef or farmers' market regular in Portland, Oregon where they get their potatoes, and they'll tell you matter-of-factly, "from the potato man."


Theo farms at 4600 feet in the mountains of eastern Oregon. Taking advantage of a perfect convergence of ideal potato conditions, it's a blend of high elevation, deep glacial soils, clean and abundant fresh water, and low humidity. "It's rewarding to go to restaurants and markets and find people who really appreciate what you're growing," Jean reflects. "It's fundamental. We need that sustenance, that connection, that completion. When you produce a product and they see its value, it's like searing truth. They taste that truth. It's the ultimate compliment."


Everything at Strafford Dairy in Vermont is run on gravity. The milk moves downhill from the milking barn to the cooling tanks, then on to the bottling and ice cream rooms, without the use of a single pump. When the pastures were cleared, trees were left strategically, so as the shade moved across the pasture, so would the cows. At first I marveled at these simple innovations, and then I realized that it doesn't exactly require a master's degree in industrial design to figure out that using gravity is a good idea, or that trees provide shade and the cows will follow. It's just that so much of agriculture has lost any relationship to common sense. We've got this idea that things need to be complicated to be any good, that simple solutions can't possibly be as good as technological ones.


Earl Ransom runs the 30-cow Guernsey dairy herd, selling milk in glass bottles, just like the milkman used to drop off in front of my house when I was growing up. The farm also produces premium ice cream, made with the eggs from older brother Barry. "Of all the things I'd like to give my boys, I want them to be able to die as old men on this land," Earl's wife Amy tells me. "I also want them to be respectful," she says. "I want to make pickles. And I want to personally eliminate all the flies from this farm with my swatter." [laughter] She's a very practical woman.


Jennifer Green farms alone, producing 30 different grains with a team of horses. She does her own milling and produces pancake mixes and polentas and breakfast cereals, which she provides to 200 families in San Francisco who are members in her grain share program. We often agonize over the quality of our vegetables or fruit, wax eloquently over cheese or wine, but accept flours, edible seeds and cereals that are rarely fresh and come from a limited diversity of plants. Jennifer's 30 acre canvas is filled with one-third and one-half acre plots of amaranth, barley, millet, teff, heirloom wheats, blue and yellow popcorns, garbanzos, lentils, and fava beans, all merging and mingling together.


In the spring before our visit, the pear and apple trees on Bob and Eileen and Selena Lane's place were loaded with fruit. Special attention was paid to the orchard, to pest and disease control, to summer pruning, and to the very time-consuming, expensive job of fruit thinning. By late July, the Lanes were preparing for the largest crop they had ever had, and doing as most of us would, quietly planning what they would do with the much-needed extra income. Tuesday, July 26th was clear and sunny and hot. Work had wrapped up early, and the small crew was hanging out talking near the house. There was a distant rumbling and a mellow thunderstorm began. Then the sky turned black, the temperature plummeted 30 degrees, and lightning came down in sheets. At 3:15 the hail came, large hail, hail up to a half inch in diameter. Exactly thirteen minutes later the hail stopped. The sky cleared. The sun came out. And the Lanes' fruit crop was destroyed. Not everyone's story was so positive.


Eli Zabar is not a farmer. He is a successful baker and retailer, with several stores in Manhattan. He features products from his own kitchens, bakeries, and now, from over half an acre of his own rooftop gardens. These gardens aren't just some passing novelty trial experience. Zabar invested in installing steel beam reinforcements for the rooftops above his bakeries, where pipes carry the spent heat from the ovens into the greenhouses. Winter tomatoes and salad greens are produced by two full-time rooftop farmers.


Ask anyone in northern Wisconsin what to grow, and they'll likely tell you, milk cows or corn. No one would ever suggest sheep, and if they did, it certainly would not be for milk or for cheese. So when Mary and David Falk launched their sheep dairy operation, their neighbours thought they had lost their minds. This ain't no high-tech, heavily capitalized dairy operation. From the Orv's pizza truck turned cooler, to the homemade milking platform, everything has been patched and pieced and thrown together. The cheese is truly adventurous. Wrapped in vodka-soaked nettles, aged on cedar boughs. If you've been raised in white-bread Canada, eating individually-wrapped sliced swiss and orange cheddar singles, you'll probably think twice if you saw the Falk's cheese. Brown and crusty with ruts and holes, blue and white with brown streaks covered in leaves, they look like some bad experiment gone awry. Mary's own mother told her they look like moldy horse turds. [laughter] But their customers seek out their classic, homely, and ugly look, and the cheeses have won numerous national awards.


Farmer John Thurmond chuckles as he tells me, "We're sure not keeping up with the Joneses," nodding towards the three rusty 20-foot trailers that house he and his wife Aida and their seven children. At night, we gather outside to talk. I take out one of my harmonicas to entertain the kids, and begin to blow a slow blues in the key of G. Aida rolls her eyes with pleasure. When I played the final note, she tells me it reminds her of her roots in Mississippi, and the old timers who used to sit around telling stories and playing music. Considering the poverty that exists here, I am amazed to discover how much of John and Aida's time and energy goes into community projects. Teaching local youth how to grow food, providing fresh vegetables to seniors, organizing a black farmers' cooperative. John describes the farm as "nothing special, just a group of hard-working people trying to make something beautiful." Each week John and Aida and their kids trek into Chicago to sell collards and sweet potatoes and beans and melons and pasture-raised chicken to the all-black Austin Farmers' Market, in a neighbourhood that does not have a single grocery store.


Ken Dunn farms in the city of Chicago, in the shadow of Cabrini Green, the 16-story prison-style wire-covered housing project, built in the 50s to warehouse the city's poor and unemployed. Dunn's two one-acre plots boast 30 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, Striped German, Brandywine, Green Zebra, Black Russian. Growing in the compost of remains of rejected apple and cherry pie filling, and the uneaten arugula salads and filet mignons from local high-end restaurants. Five tons of compost made from Chicago's waste has been laid down over this site, just a fraction of the 15,000 tons of urban waste that is disposed of in this city each and every day. The ground feels like a sponge, and if I close my eyes and plug my ears, it would feel as if I was walking on the floor of some virgin forest. The tomatoes don't seem to mind the constant noise or bad air, or the poverty that surrounds their little island. The plants are tall and robust and absolutely loaded. Their world is rich in nutrients, reflected warmth and light from pavement and buildings, and the attentions given to them by local chefs, who are thrilled to tell their clientele that the tomatoes in the menu were harvested down the street.


Illario Alvarez slipped over the border into the US twenty years ago, to work in America's fields. He had nothing. Now he owns his own farm and employs over a hundred people. Alvarez's pepper field is like some out of control block party. 85 varieties, many of his own selections, are thrown together in an 8-acre burlesque of color and shape. There is humor in this field, a former migrant's statement on the ultra-linear, mono-cultural, totally predictable fields of America's industrial agriculture. I tell Illario he is crazy, that I've never seen anything like this before, that he should quit harvesting peppers and open the field up as a seasonal museum. I imagine docents giving tours, stopping along the rows to discuss the history and culture and use of certain varieties, the arrangement of color and shape, what the farmer was going through in his life when he planted this section or that, as if they're standing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art analyzing a Matisse or a Van Gogh.


Finally, George and Anna Zebrov, Russian Doukhobor fruit farmers, not too far from here. As we're preparing to leave, George pulls me aside. "You have eaten our apricots fresh and dried, you drank our apricot nectar, and even tried the kernels. But there's one thing left." There's a slightly mischievous tone in his voice as he guides me to the front of the house. There on the stump of a cherry tree now used as a table is a bucket of fresh, warm goat's milk, a small container of amber honey, a few spoons and glasses, and a tall glass bottle filled with a clear liquid. "This," he tells me, "is apricot elixir."


There is ritual to all this. In Russian, he asks his young grandson to demonstrate. With a spoonful of honey in one hand and a glass of warm milk in the other, the young boy alternates back and forth. Then comes the elixir. George mixes it with goat's milk and we toast. It is a powerful drink, but it goes down easy. He pours another and we drink again. I protest when he offers me a shot without the milk. He insists, and we drink again. It is hot. We have a long drive and I haven't had much to eat. Grapevines and cherry and apricot and apple trees swirl beneath us in a carpet of green. Children roll and giggle in a nearby hammock. Freshly dug potatoes and greens and meats are being prepared for Sunday dinner, and I am back as a child, with my Russian-born grandparents, sitting at their table, drinking and eating and sharing.


Thank you very much. If we could have the house lights up, that'd be great. [applause]


Jon Steinman: And that was Michael Ableman speaking in February 2009 in Nelson, British Columbia. Michael farms at Foxglove Farm on Salt Spring Island located between the mainland of BC and Vancouver Island. Michael is the author of Fields of Plenty, where those last segments were extracted from. More information on Michael and the farm will be linked to from our website at, where today's episode is also archived.


ending Infusion


Jon Steinman: That was this week's edition of Deconstructing Dinner, produced and recorded at Nelson, British Columbia's Kootenay Co-op Radio. I've been your host Jon Steinman. I thank my technical assistant John Ryan.


The theme music for Deconstructing Dinner is courtesy of Nelson-area resident Adham Shaikh.


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