By Kate Tirion, Deep Dirt Farm Institute
In the cool early morning seated on thick wood-mulched paths we gather for “Fog Rise in the Up” − an insider reference to the Chadwick Garden, the nucleus of the farm program embedded within the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, fondly called the “Up Garden.” Dozens of us former and current apprentices, teachers, administrators, neighbors, a community of all colors, all ages, whose creed has food – and not just any food − at its center, gathered for coffee and poetry, for remembrance, gratitude and networking. Ours is a pilgrimage of sorts, a loosely woven, wide-spread community returning to a place that transformed our lives and continues to transform agriculture.
Fog softens the years of those who, five decades ago, dropped out of classes and took up forks and spades, forged in England, beckoned by curiosity at the lone man (Alan Chadwick) who worked a slope devoid of anything resembling topsoil. Further along the main path, a stone wall under construction, holds back the upper two feet of humus-rich topsoil, belying a further two feet or more below. This is a success story on multiple levels. It speaks to us of possibility, of what is real. The 3–acre garden is packed from one living redwood edge to the other. Its diverse collection of annual and perennial food crops, ornamentals, and 120 apple varieties trained in cordoned allées, edged with native tree species, can leave the visitor speechless with wonder.
It was an inspired place then, and for 50 years the USCS Farm and Garden has continued to grow, transforming industrial growers into organic farmers, and inspires thousands to re-engage with their source of food, becoming environmentally aware food-activists. These former apprentices are the pebbles tossed in a pond whose ripples sent waves out into their respective worlds, growing an organic farmer movement from inner cities and across the planet. This morning rapper/poet, David Robles nailed it: “With a bit of love and labor I grow food to feed my neighbor on the same acre where I nurture nature.”
25 years since my apprenticeship at “The Farm,” the significance of global agriculture systems has come into sharp focus: it must shift to an ecological agriculture if we are to continue to thrive, if there is to be sufficient food for humans and nonhumans alike, and to support ecosystems upon which we all depend. The ecological and health costs of our global industrial food system are too high, and the impacts of a shifting climate demand an ecosystem approach to feeding ourselves. And it tastes better!
Growing food is empowering. The beauty and production of the farm is mind blowing, the work there even more so. I am in a break-out session and we sit on benches under the reaching limbs of native oaks dressed in leaves a leathery green. It is cool and the teens in front of us are really cool! These four, two females, two males, gather themselves, sitting quietly and one begins to speak slowly, hesitantly with a deep authenticity that can only come from lived experience. Hesitance shifts to confidence and we are gripped and deeply moved by what we hear. These are stories of transformation, of discovery, of hope and change. This is FOOD WHAT?!, a youth empowerment and food justice program, headquartered at the farm. Listening to heart-rending stories of how these struggling youth and their families have grown strong and resilient through growing, cooking, eating and distributing sustainably raised food; of the impact on their families and neighbors in addressing food justice issues in their communities. These four once living-on-the-edge youth had become leaders, an inspiration to themselves, their families and communities. Now they inspired us.
Around the corner, the non-profit Life Lab, spilling-with- abundance-garden/classroom, invites the curious to learn about earthworms, chickens, food growing, native plants and pollinators. Garden-based science and nutrition curricula at Life Lab supports teachers and student engagement in a dynamic living lab and in the classrooms. A theme of the farm reflected here is integration: Agriculture is not separate from wild nature. Nor are we.
Building food resilience into local communities is ever more urgent. Dependence on far-flung farmers’ crops leaves us vulnerable, as does the exportation of food from hungry landscapes to well-fed ones. In this age of diminishing fossil fuels, we would be wise to look to our own landscapes as much as possible. The soils and elevational micro-climates that support regional cropping diversity can also support enhanced wildlife habitat, watershed to watershed.
As we work toward un-fogging our food cultivating instincts, it is good to heed a voice of wisdom. Steve Gleisman, Director at the Center during my apprenticeship, has this to say:
“Ecology has always been the foundation of agroecology. We hope to encourage more ecologists to engage in ecological research that can impact food system change. Their expertise in the science of ecology can show how an ecological understanding of the design and management of food systems can help us take major steps toward sustainability.”
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