The Lost Art
“Can she bake a cherry pie?” chants the American folk song. That didn’t mean opening a can of goo from the supermarket and dumping it into a frozen pie shell. It mean knowing when the cherries were sweet and ripe, harvesting and pitting them, creating the pie shell from scratch (perhaps hand-churning the butter), and knowing what other local and available ingredients to mix in to make it all taste good. The song referred to a real and necessary skill base which our ancestors recognized was essential to survival. A skill base that most of us alive today no longer have.
Most of our ancestors grew food. They preserved food. They knew the seasons of their food, and they knew how to “get by” with limited food supply between harvests or through tough times. Today, food production is a lost art.
Most people alive today have grown up on a food supply produced by industrial-style agribusiness. Massive fields. Massive combines. Factory farms. Global transportation networks. It is a system which is deeply dependent on nonrenewable and now‑depleting fossil fuels. This system is pillaging irreplaceable topsoils, polluting our waterways, draining nonreplenishing ancient aquifers, generating atrocious waste, perpetuating socio-economic and cultural repression, and drawing enormous financial subsidies from our government in order to continue to do so.
The system is doomed and failing. And we have no backup plan. We have no “Plan B” for our food supply. We need to reclaim the lost art of food production.
Into the middle of this, global warming is throwing a swift left hook. Even as we scramble to recover great-grandma’s lost knowledge and create a backup to the broken industrial system, even as we scurry to discover what might work here in Southern California, global warming-driven weather disruptions are bringing wild weather surprises.
In Winter 2004, funnel clouds touched down in the Ladera Heights part of Los Angeles. In 2006-2007 we experienced extreme drought conditions. The next January we had record-breaking freezes. In December 2010 rain clouds dumped record rainfall. Looking to the future, scientists forecast heavier rains in some places, amplified droughts in others.[i] For large-scale industrial farming operations – the food system we have depended upon – these weather shifts present challenges for which they do not have answers. We desperately need to have backups in place.
And backups – particularly when they involve acquiring new skills, creating new habits, and cultivating widespread social change – take time to set up. We have to get it moving. Now.
Organic techniques are a critical element in all this. “Organically farmed soil stores carbon. A lotof carbon. So much, in fact, that if all the cultivated land in the world were farmed organically, it would immediately reduce the climate crisis significantly.”[ii]
As you’ll learn in Chapter 2, “organics” is much, much more than just subbing out the chemicals with a few homemade sprays. Organic techniques demand an entirely different outlook upon farming, land, soil life, air, bugs and butterflies, our seed heritage, ecosystems, and humanity’s place within those vast systems.
Organics works. It’s the way humanity has farmed its food since the dawn of the agricultural revolution some 10,000 years ago. Compare that to what we think of as “regular” agriculture which has only been in existence since the beginning of the 20th century. Some might debate that we have “better living through chemicals” but that’s only because the marketing departments have told us to think so.
And organics is cheaper.[iii] (But the chemical companies don’t want you to know this.) When the natural ecosystem is working on your behalf to feed and nourish your plants, there is no need to buy stuff.
Facing a world which will soon be without cheap petroleum and petrochemicals, a world where the economic situation continues to worsen, we’d better rediscover organics. We’d better get back in the habit. We’d better figure out how it was done in the past – plus how we can make it work for a very different present with more than 82% of Americans living in cities and 7 billion people to feed. We need to rediscover a lost art, and we need to modify it for a dramatic new future.
The plot thickens: Here our particular local spot on earth – in Southern California – agriculture is a relative newcomer. Native Americans in this area didn’t “farm” in the European sense. For 5,000 to 8,000 years since coming over the Bering Straight, they obtained much of their food by being careful stewards of the existing terrain. They harvested native oaks in their season, and gathered local plants like chia, Miner’s lettuce, cattails, and manzanita berries. The Spaniards farmed a little, but they had the luxury of vast tracts of land and relatively few mouths to feed.
Humans do not have an agricultural history with the land here in the way that people do in other places. In communities like Tesuque Pueblo in New Mexico and St. Helena Island in South Carolina, people have cared for the land and cultivated its fertility, nurturing it into ongoing production in some cases for hundreds of years. In Europe, some lands have been producing food since the time of the Romans.
Thus here in Southern California, we are not merely rediscovering the art of long-term, ongoing, sustainable food production and soil fertility. In this place – with its unique year-round growing season – we are the pioneers, exploring it for the first time.
Welcome to the journey. We do not have the answers yet. You are part of the discovery process – you and all around you who are engaged in growing food. Share this precious knowledge as you discover it. Share what worked and what didn’t. We need you.
“There’s too much to learn!”
But look at what you already know. Look at the massive amount of knowledge you have acquired in the past 3 to 5 years to learn to effectively use that electronic communications gadget you carry in your pocket or purse. A decade ago, you didn’t know those skills. You acquired them recently and rapidly.
Look at the vast warehouse of knowledge you have about how to get around in a consumerist society. Need new sports shoes? I’ll bet you know where to go, where to get the best prices, what route to drive to get there (not to mention the skills of driving), and what hours the store is open. Salad for dinner? Another store, another set of memorized characteristics. You think nothing of knowing how to best get across L.A. or O.C. in cross-town traffic, how to use the internet or Facebook, and a bazillion other peak-of-petroleum skills.
Growing food effectively with great yields sounds daunting to us because we are on the front end of the learning curve. We haven’t yet acquired the body of knowledge But unlike cell phones (which are completely optional in my regard), at this point in human history, learning how to grow food is no longer an option. It is essential to survival.
[i]Union of Concerned Scientists, “Climate Choices,” http://www.climatechoices.org/ca/index.html
[ii]Maria Rodale, Organic Manifesto (p10)
[iii]Why then is “organic” more expensive at the supermarket? Government subsidies are awarded to the biggest mega-farms (80% of the subsidies go to x% of the corporations). In most cases government subsidies keep the cost of conventionally-produced food artificially low.
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