by jennifer mccharen
Today I planted potatoes. We grow organically at Down to Earth Farm, although we aren’t certified. Food plants need more nutrients than Florida’s soil provides, so we have to use fertilizer. After digging shallow holes, I tossed a handful of Nature Safe into each one. I used my bare hands, and didn’t think twice about inhaling the dust that was wafting up from the bucket. I like Nature Safe. It offers a simple way to ensure the nutrition of our crops. Because it’s made from natural ingredients, and designed to be slow-release, we don’t have to worry about impacting our watershed with excess phosphorus which causes algae.
But it isn’t perfect. The bag has a list of ingredients, mainly: feather, meat, bone and blood meals. It is a dried mash of meat-industry by-products. In short, our vegetables are carnivores. So this fertilizer is a pelleted contradiction. Our brave effort at sustainable agriculture is twined quite closely to the massive and entirely unsustainable sphere of industrial agriculture.
We see ourselves as part of a growing, underground movement to replace that industry with something holistically better. Better for the soil of the farms themselves, better for the eaters who consume what they produce, better for the communities that are supported by this new agriculture, and better for the states who choose this diversified, secure food system.
At this point, industrial and small-scale systems exist side-by-side, as our fertilizer makes clear. But what looks like a conundrum is actually evidence of a way in which the two are synergistic. Industrial meat production wouldn’t be profitable if there weren’t a market for the by-products. The company that makes our fertilizer uses what would otherwise be waste, turning scraps of bone and feather into valuable products.
I’m always tempted to throw this quirky fact at our vegetarian customers: that our veggies eat meat. I’m tempted to do so, not to discourage them, but simply to point out the persistent fact that we are connected to the world around us, even aspects of it that we try to avoid. We environmentalists should never pride ourselves on our separateness or the “righteousness” of being green. Even if your diet is entirely vegan and local, which would be quite an accomplishment around here, you can’t hide behind your deprivations. At least for now, even the most sustainable ways to eat are tied to the least sustainable–and so we can’t give up the fight.
Thankfully, it won’t always be like this. Valentine’s Day was the Northeast Organic Farmers Association winter conference in Vermont, a vibrant center of this movement towards better farms. It was clear, from a glance around the gymnasium where everyone gathered before lunch, that farming was becoming hip. I identify as a “farmpunk”, and let’s just say I was NOT alone. The number of young people at the conference was exciting. It nearly matched the number of older folks, “real” farmers we kids hope to learn from through apprenticeships. The keynote speaker was Andrew Meyer, who is leading a quiet revolution in Hardwick, Vermont, re-organizing the town’s economy around sustainable farms and the food economy they produce. This fellow was no idealistic hippie. He was a savvy businessman with his heart in the right place. The success of his efforts speaks for itself.
Here too, the movement is alive. Each week the Beaches Green Market connects more eaters with farmers. The city has recently granted a status to small vegetable farms which will reduce their taxes. Nonprofit organizations are considering victory gardens. Even here, at the tiny farm I work for, we’re looking to lease land from our neighbors to grow more food in time for the Riverside Arts Market, opening this spring.
Keep on eating the true food, Jacksonville!
meat and potatoes.
by jennifer mccharen