"There are many of us who are creating the models, who are preserving the sacred knowledge. Our farms are the repositories of this very important knowledge that has really been disappearing, so that when the time comes, and awakening happens, there will be places in every single community around the world where folks can go to, to be guided in terms of how to shift this thing."
Our food and farming systems may top the list of the most destructive abuses of land in history. What needs to change? What models are there to guide us? Visionary organic farmer, food system entrepreneur and award-winning writer/photographer Michael Ableman reflects on what it will take to restore healthy thriving lands and a functional and equitable food system with access for all. How will we feed the world’s growing population and provide access to healthy food? As locavores know, the answers hit close to home.
Bioneers Series XII - Program 08-12
Passing Through: Farming Fields of Dreams
00:00 Opening underwriting narration (00:26)
The following program is made possible in part by Organic Valley Family of Farms. Organic and family-owned since 1988. Learn more at organicvalley.coop
By Park Foundation, dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues.
And by support from listeners like you, helping air Bioneers radio programs world-wide free of charge.
00:26 Welcome (00:04)
Welcome to the Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature,
00:30 Teaser - Ableman (00:26)
There are many of us who are creating the models, who are preserving the sacred knowledge. Our farms are the repositories of this very important knowledge that has really been disappearing, so that when the time comes, and awakening happens, there will be places in every single community around the world where folks can go to, to be guided in terms of how to shift this thing.
00:56 Macy (00:09)
It's all alive, it's all connected, it's all intelligent, it's all relatives…
01:05 Bioneers Teaser (00:28)
We stand at the threshold of a historic opportunity in the human experiment: to re-imagine how to live on Earth in ways that honor the web of life, each other and future generations.
It's a revolution from the heart of nature - and the human heart.
In this series - The Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature - we celebrate social and scientific innovators with breakthrough solutions for restoring people and planet - creating a future environment of hope.
01:33 Theme music fade out (00:07)
01:40 NARRATION 1 (1:23)
As the great land conservationist, ecologist and environmental ethicist Aldo Leopold observed: “We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
Our food and farming systems surely count among the most destructive abuses of land in history – and one of the most self-destructive. At the same time world population is soaring and pressures on the land intensify even more, “They’re not making any more land,” as the saying goes.
What needs to change? Are there models to guide us? How can we learn to belong to “community” that is the land while feeding ourselves?
These are the kinds of practical and philosophical questions that the visionary organic farmer, food system entrepreneur and award-winning photographer and author Michael Ableman has pondered over nearly four decades.
In this half hour, he reflects on what it will take for all of society to restore healthy thriving lands and an equitable food system with access for all.
This is Passing Through: Farming Fields of Dreams, with the master organic farmer and visionary change-maker Michael Ableman.
I’m Neil Harvey. I'll be your host. Welcome to the Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature.
03:05 Music fade (00:12)
03:16 NARR 2 (00:31)
Perhaps Michael Ableman’s literary success arises from one disarmingly simple talent: his artful storytelling. In his books, photographs and heartfelt talks, he brings to life the life of the land and the passionate community of people living closely with the land. You might call it wisdom at the end of a hoe.
His current book, Fields of Plenty, is about his farm on Salt Spring Island in verdant British Columbia. Michael Ableman spoke with us at a recent Bioneers conference.
03:48 Abelman int 1 (02:05)
I’m telling the story of a piece of land that I’m on which has a long history, and I’m telling the story of the land of everyone who has passed through that land in their own voices, from the native people who fished in the lake that we border and creeks and camped around there too, the original homesteaders, all the way through ourselves. It’s a story of passing through and what we leave behind. And that has been our amazing discovery is all these layers of everyone’s dreams that have come before us.
And, of course, now we are imposing our own. And for the first time in my life -- and I think this is partially because of my age and partially because of the nature of this place and how much layering has taken place there -- I am recognizing our human impacts on land, but also the enhancements, the amazing things that have resulted when that short tenure is done well.
And the place that I’m on has only had three owners. And when those homesteaders arrived there, they did not decide to stake a claim and take ownership of that land because it had a good view or any of the frivolous reasons that we make decisions about land “ownership.” They chose that piece of land because they felt they could survive there. And, as such, we are, in a sense, not only the beneficiaries of the clearing of that land, we have to some degree relied on their wisdom about that region. I figure if they could survive, so (laughs) could we.
I’m having a lot of fun rediscovering the shoulders on which we stand, and reminding myself of what an incredible, not only a privilege to be able to park ourselves on a piece of land for the short time we’re there, but also the responsibility associated with it.
05:54 NARR 3 (00:07)
A responsibility to the community of the land that includes a radical rethinking of ownership and stewardship.
06:02 Ableman int 1a (01:07)
I have realized that land ownership does not ever imply land stewardship. Most of what we know now in relationship to ownership is not taken on by people who have the skills and the knowledge in terms of how to properly steward. Part of my new manifesto that I’ve been giving in talks is that I think that every land transition, every purchaser should be required to take a stewardship course based on the particularities of that land, that ecosystem; that ownership should not be allowed to transition without a set of responsibilities and trainings. And so, you know, that when we leave it, we leave it more fertile and alive. While we’re there, we use it to feed and to nourish and hopefully to educate, But I think we don’t talk much about this idea of ownership. And I think just because you have the financial resources to purchase land, that should not be the only qualification.
07:10 NARR 4 (00:13)
Michael Ableman echoes Aldo Leopold in identifying a primary systems error in our societies as the absence of a land ethic, which was not the case with the original indigenous inhabitants.
07:23 Ableman int 2 (00:40)
We do tend to romanticize the relationship to land that pre-white cultures, for example had. I mean, Native people in this country managed the landscape very effectively. They burned and they in some cases planted. And there was a lot of management going on. It was not this, stand back and watch it all happen, you know. Mind you it was -- the populations relative to the land base were very different than they are now. In the process of that management, there was a very intimate knowledge with the systems that were being managed.
08:03 NARR 5 (00:36)
As an organic farmer who farms with nature, Michael Ableman must be a close and sophisticated observer of the land. But he knows we’re not going to change the world one farm at a time – much less one small farm at a time. He certainly knows how up close and personal the economic challenges are for any farmer, big or small – and the challenges of providing healthy and organic food for all.
So how do you reconcile the pragmatic with the visionary? How will we feed the world’s growing population and provide access to healthy food? Or are those even the right questions?
08:39 Ableman int 3 (01:29)
The fact that we have a system of haves and have-nots is a problem with the society as a whole that has to be addressed by the society as a whole, not just by the one and half percent of the population we call farmers.
And that doesn’t mean that we do not have some creative ideas that we’re trying to work on. You know, I work in the inner city in Vancouver on the East side on a project that hires, you know, drug addicts and prostitutes in a meaningful job program. It’s, we happen to be farming, but the farming is secondary to the fact that we’re providing meaningful work, you know. (laughs) The irony, of course, of that is that we’re selling the food to restaurants and farmers’ markets for the highest return so that we can actually afford to run the project and pay the people who are employed there, (laughs) you know? So that food isn’t even staying in that neighborhood.
But our priority, our goal, was jobs. And I think it’s a wonderful thing that all this amazing new thinking around food and agriculture does have a major social justice component, and for many of us it’s kind of at the heart of it. But I don’t believe that farmers should carry the lion’s share load of that. I think they should be paid on parity with other professionals. And I frankly think that the only strategy to get young people involved with the profession that for a long time got a bad rap is to demonstrate that you can make a decent living doing it – it’s very practical stuff.
10:11 NARR 6 (00:17)
Without question, engaging a large number of young people to enter farming is a critical issue, given that the average age of today’s farmer in the US is 60 years old. And Michael Ableman says that’s just one of many daunting challenges to achieving the large-scale transformation of the food system.
10:28 Ableman int 4 (01:58)
The reality is that farmers are – if that is their profession – they’re pretty practical people, and their concerns are whether they’re going to be in business next year and whether they can pay their bills. And I think that the unfortunate thing is that commodity producers are cogs in a wheel of a system that they unfortunately do not have a lot of control over, they’ve lost control.
And the fundamental problem is that there are so few of us providing the fundamental nourishment for so many, and as such we have evolved a system that is completely wacky. For example, those of us who are now focused on fruits and vegetables as our primary occupation are focused on that because it provides a very good return. It’s because we can direct market it. It’s because people will pay for it. But the reality is that we as farmers, because there are so few of us, in the future should not be growing fruits and vegetables. We should be growing what the society really needs to survive – it’s the protein sources – it’s the cereals, the meats, the grains, the beans – and individuals and homeowners should be growing their own fruits and vegetables.
And if, in fact, even if we were to multiply the numbers of farmers a hundred fold, it still would not be enough to take care of the most fundamental dietary needs that our society has. And as such we’ve got to stop contorting ourselves to get these very perishable products to market like some organ transplant, you know, and do the kind of growing that is really necessary. Problem is somebody’s going to have to pay for it -- the return on those other products is not the same (laughs) as the return on fruits and vegetables.
12:26 NARR 7 LEAD TO MID BREAK (00:26)
For more than 30 years, visionary farmer, author and photographer Michael Ableman has raised the real and important questions about our food future.
When we return, we continue the exploration with a look at the locavore movement and the transformation of the entire food system.
This is “Passing Through: Farming Fields of Dreams.” I'm Neil Harvey. You are listening to The Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature.
12:53 MID BREAK (00:34)
13:27 Underwriter #3 mention #1 (00:17)
Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature is made possible in part by John Masters Organics. Feel good about looking good. Learn more at johnmasters.com
Free distribution of this program is made possible in part by support from listeners like you.
13:46 NARR 8 (00:23)
To explore more Bioneers radio shows and conference videos, for free, visit bioneers.org
What kind of food should we grow and eat? Who will grow it? Where will we grow it and how will it move from farm to table? Michael Ableman invites us to embrace these hard questions and be ready to make some real changes.
14:09 Ableman int 4a (01:13)
We are going to have to come to terms with some kind of sensible view of diet which is relational to population, land base, farmers, a whole range of resources. Like, the current system in terms of what is available, there is no relationship to reality there. And the epidemic around food-related illness is just the surface of the whole problem, really.
What is an appropriate diet for those folks who may live in California, and is it the same if you’re in San Diego or San Francisco, if you’re in Arizona or New Mexico? I mean, these are questions that cannot be answered in some sort of wholesale fashion, these are questions that have to be answered by every community. And they have to be answered by looking at a whole range of relationships and connections.
Who is there to produce the food? You know, what are the soils they’re using? What’s the climate? What resources, soil fertility resources, are available locally? How about water? All these issues, there are so many issues that have to play into what diet will mean in the future.
15:22 NARR 9 (00:28)
Ableman’s vision of a radically regionalized food system is indeed beginning to spread around the U.S. The locavore movement has been one of the most successful grassroots trends of the past several decades. Ableman himself was among the earliest pathfinders blazing the trail to demonstrate the crucial role of urban agriculture in the mix, founding the Center for Urban Agriculture in 1987. But, he says, there is no magic bullet.
15:49 Ableman int 5 (03:12)
That movement has evolved considerably, and I think it’s an extremely important movement, but not as the ultimate solution to feed our cities. It is not physically possible on the limited land base if you were to use every rooftop and every available lot in most of our cities, and I’ve looked at them, you still could not even come close to scratching the surface of the full nutritional needs of the incredibly intense populations that exist in those cities.
So, we have to talk about urban agriculture in relation to peri-urban and rural agriculture in those regions. If we don’t consider all those connections, we are living in some sort of fantasy world. Now, I’m involved with urban agriculture, but I’m very careful to point out that what I consider to be the importance is that it provides an incredibly necessary modeling for urban people to see it being done, to realize that they can do some of their own production on very small spaces, that you can create jobs on incredibly tiny, intensive production units, and that these cities have this enormous advantage of a vast amount of waste material that can be funneled into inner city or city farming systems. It’s just, it’s a natural, you know.
The nutrient loop between rural farms and the cities they feed has been entirely cut off, it’s been broken. To have a truly sustainable food system, nutrients need to be returning. It’s a circle, you know. So, if they’re not going to return to the farms in the country, they need to do something. They should be supplying city farms or backyards or rooftops.
If we’re going to think about systems, we have to think about that entire system, regionally, not locally. The local food movement as well is operating under, in my view, it’s a construct. If you were going to truly live locally or live the “100-mile diet,” you would need several things. Number one, you’d need lots of time. Okay? Number two, you’d need lots of money. And so it’s not terribly inclusive because a lot of people are just trying to get by, and they cannot afford to do the local food thing. Furthermore, you know, until the 1980s, food traveled very efficiently via rail. In fact, transportation is not the fundamental issue in terms of energy use in the food system, it’s a tiny percentage of the energy is in the actual transportation of food, and that’s pretty well documented.
You know, before rail as a primary distribution network, which was very efficient, native people have traded very diverse food stuffs over incredibly long distances for thousands of years. Okay? So you know, it’s a good idea. I’m a believer in focusing regionally and trying to make that happen, but I think that this conversation doesn’t often get thought through in completion.
19:01 NARR 10 (00:16)
Michael Ableman points out that some parts of the country appear to be better suited to a local food system. For instance, the San Francisco Bay Area could feed itself in a rich and diverse way within a 100-mile radius. But it’s the exception. Or is it?
19:17 Ableman int 6 (03:32)
The truth is we now have some amazing examples and models of people all over North America in climates that are far less moderate than even where I am in British Columbia, coastal British Columbia, who are producing very diverse foodstuffs for their local community.
And it’s more than that; it’s more than just what’s produced. It’s the ability to can and to freeze and to dry so that you have this intense seasonal production spread over a whole year. It’s the ability to recognize that a potato is not just a russet, that it’s a hundred different varieties, each with their own textures and flavors that each are a different experience, that we now know how to do very creative season extension without the use of electricity.
Almost every climate in North America, for example, can be growing all their salad greens year round, no problem. And we’re not talking about heated greenhouses. My friend, Elliot Coleman, who farms in Maine in a very inhospitable location, his main season starts in October/November and goes through the winter and there’s photographs of his diverse production on a table with three feet of snow around it that came out of a tunnel house, an unheated tunnel house. We’re talking about a single layer of plastic through some very creative, very basic thinking and methods. Every region of the country can be eating a really exciting diverse diet.
Odessa Piper in Madison, Wisconsin ran that wonderful restaurant, L’ Etoile, which is still going, and her menu in, it didn’t matter if it was January or February or August, was only Wisconsin grown ingredients, and I’ve eaten there in the middle of the winter, and it’s unbelievably good.
I mean, I feel like - I’ve spent time in Cuba because Cuba is, to me, a very important place to be looking at in terms of food, food systems, and the future of where we’re going. Contrary to what some people might think, the Cubans did not green their agriculture because it was the right thing to do. They did it because they were going to starve to death, you know. Virtually overnight during the special period in ’89, when they lost access to Soviet supplies of seeds and chemicals and machinery and foodstuffs, they were faced with mass starvation. And they took some of their best minds and they applied them towards rethinking their food system and creating a food system on a tiny island that was self-sustaining. No external inputs. Remarkable what came out of that, you know? But it was out of necessity. It was out of survival. Right?
And I think that while we are living in a time now where a certain segment of the population has recognized the wondrous nature of a diverse food and local food system, and are benefiting from it, the majority still has not. But they haven’t because we are terribly comfortable with the system that we have. Comfort is what’s happening. And I don’t really believe that the kinds of structural and fundamental changes that are going to be required to shift this thing the way it really needs to are going to happen until they absolutely have to, until the impacts become a little bit more personal.
22:49 NARRATION 11 (00:27)
As happened in Cuba, it may take full-blown breakdowns to transform our food system. Or we can proactively begin to make the changes we know we need to make. In many cases, Ableman says, we know how to make them. And we’re very fortunate that for decades brilliant innovative farmers, food system entrepreneurs and change-makers have been rehearsing in the Green Room preparing for this moment – and they’re ready for prime time.
23:16 Ableman int 7 (02:29)
The hopeful piece is that I think that humans have this unbelievably amazing capacity for ingenuity and creativity and for coming together that especially comes out under duress, in crisis, you know. And there’s a lot of historical examples of that, you know. And the great thing is this: The great thing is that there are many of us now who are creating the models, who are preserving the sacred knowledge. Our farms are the repositories of this very important knowledge that has really been disappearing, so that when the time comes, and an awakening happens, if you will, excuse the expression, that there will be places in every single community around this country and around the world where folks can go to to be guided in terms of how to shift this thing.
What is the creative alternative, you know, what is the model? And I happen to be really lucky because the field that I’m in as a farmer is a fabulous experimental ground in expressing physically, and then articulating for the public, an amazingly rich alternative. And that is exactly what is happening all around the world. I think it is the most profound movement in that regard in that it has the ability to demonstrate a living alternative to this incredibly dysfunctional, broken system.
You know, I always believed when I was younger that activism meant taking to the streets and to take apart this incredible industrial illusion that we’ve built, but now I believe, actually, that’s a piece of it, but I think that a profound form of activism is simply planting a seed, whether that’s on a farm or in a window box, makes no difference, you know. It is really powerful.
If we look beyond food and farming, that I think we could say that every aspect of our lives when we are talking about the basics of our lives, how we live, whether it’s transportation or food or housing or clothing or education or health care, there are similar models being built and developed on a very grassroots level that are addressing the positive alternative rather than just focusing on attacking the broken system.
25:45 NARRATION 12 (00:24)
Michael Ableman, building a living alternative to a broken food system – honoring the land as a community to which we belong – linking layers of dreams to the future with love and respect.
Passing Through: Farming Fields of Dreams.
26:09 Music fade (00:13)
26:22 Bioneers BXII - Program Close/Credits (1:40)
You can listen to a variety of Bioneers radio shows and view conference videos online — at www.bioneers.org — where you can also learn about attending the Bioneers conference or a local satellite Bioneers conference near you.
The Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature is a production of Collective Heritage Institute.
Executive Producer: Kenny Ausubel
Written by Catherine Stifter and Kenny Ausubel
Senior Producer: Neil Harvey
Managing Producer: Stephanie Welch
Production Management: Aaron Leventman and Nicole Spangenburg
Station Relations: Creative PR
Distribution: WFMT Radio Network
Interview recording engineer: Jeff Wessman
Our theme music is taken from the album "Journey Between" by Baka Beyond and used by permission of Hannibal Records, a Rykodisc label. Additional music was made available by the Bee Eaters -- at Beeeaters.com. For more music information please visit bioneers.org.
The opinions expressed in The Bioneers Revolution from the Heart of Nature radio series are those of the presenters and are not necessarily those of Collective Heritage Institute, the underwriters, or this radio station.
My name is Neil Harvey. Thank you for listening. I invite you to join the Bioneers in inspiring a shift to live on Earth in ways that honor the web of life, each other and future generations.
This is program number 08-12
28:04 Closing underwriting narration (00:26)
This series is made possible by Organic Valley Family of Farms. Organic and family-owned since 1988. Learn more at organicvalley.coop
…And by Park Foundation, dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues –
For more information, visit www.bioneers.org — or call 1-877-BIONEER.