The Scoop

Landship Foods is inspired by the conviction that growing and eating healthy food is one of the most important things we can do for both ourselves and the broader communities of which we are a part. The name comes from the language of pre-industrial Europe. Before the enclosure movement and the associated rise in notions of private property swept England, the suffix “-ship” (as in "relationship," or "friendship") referred to an object or an abstraction with collective duties and mutual rights. Thus, the term “landship” suggests that land was an entity through which humans were joined to each other by a set of rights and responsibilities. I advocate for a revival of this awareness.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Full Circle

It was a real gut-buster closing down things in New Mexico for the season - largely because the tiller broke and we had to prepare all the beds by hand - but things are in good shape. I left the peppers and tomatoes in because they were still producing. They will be tended and eaten by friends and neighbors of the Gulch. Pulling up and composting the vegetables lent an air of finality to the season, but this feeling was shortly replaced by one of excitement for the plantings to come, as the compost from this year's crop residue will be a crucial boost for the soil in the spring. Last night as I read Wendell Berry's essay, "A Native Hill," the following passage reinforced my contentment at this point in the season:

The most exemplary nature is that of the topsoil...It increases by experience, by the passage of seasons over it, growth rising out of it and returning to it, not by ambition or aggressiveness. It is enriched by all things that die and enter into it. It keeps the past, not as history or memory, but as richness, new possibility. Its fertility is always building up out of death into promise.

As I look back on the season, cataloged here in the blog, I notice they mirror each other in an important way. Fittingly, both the work and writing begin and end with well-tended compost as the central subject, as "richness, new possibility".

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Paradox of Small-Scale Agriculture

I am obviously a supporter of efforts to improve modern agriculture, under whatever label: organic, local, traditional,... I think it important to qualify these distinctions at times, but sometimes I get tired of those conversations and just boil it down to scale: I think agriculture must before all else be responsible, and this is easiest when done at a reasonable scale. All this said, I think most responsible agriculture also faces its own paradox of scale.

Small scale agriculture, although loudly opposed to the globalization of food, is in many ways itself a global system. Even in extremely "local" situations, where food is grown right outside of town and you pick it up yourself, there is often a significant "industrial" and "global" component. How can this be so? Most "small-scale" vegetable production in America today is a 21st century variant of mixed husbandry. Mixed husbandry as it was practiced in, say, 18th century New England, was the practice of setting aside different parcels of land for fodder production, vegetable production, grazing, and wood harvesting. As Brian Donahue shows in his masterful book The Great Meadow, when implemented wisely, this could be a very sustainable practice. Essentially, the animal manure provides the fertility for vegetable production. Of course, small-scale and "local" vegetable growers of today must also amend their soils to maintain its fertility, and most of them use organic methods. Just as in 18th century New England, animals are often the best sources of organic fertilizers. Most farmers (and backyard organic gardeners) today, however, order bags of bone meal and blood meal or bottles of fish emulsion. These amendments are exactly what they sound like: the by-products of industrial animal processing. Thus, most local, small-scale vegetable farming is indeed a global system of mixed husbandry.

I know this because the farms I have worked on and visited in Georgia do so, and the same goes for New Mexico. When I started planting here this summer, I thought I was faced with the choice of using synthetic fertilizers, blood meal and fish emulsion, or just not planting. I have never been a purist, so I chose the organic fertilizers. They were affordable, but using them made me uneasy. When one realizes that these by-products are inexpensive for the same reason that the products are (mainly industrial "efficiencies"), they might seem less attractive. No doubt they are a better choice than synthetic fertilizers, but how much better? I am still unsure.

I insist that I am not being impractical or overly-rigid, however. I just think it important to ponder this matter. Really, this question reminds me of the history of recycling in America. As Susan Strasser shows in her book on the subject, Waste and Want, recycling did not begin as a reaction to the waste of modern consumption, but actually provided the raw materials central to the birth of many industries. In the same way, it is not entirely accurate to see local and small-scale agriculture as a form of production outside of, or entirely counter to, the larger industrial and global system. It is just as embedded in the global, industrial era as it is a reaction to these trends. Local agriculture cannot escape its historical moment, and we must come to terms with this.

Does all of this thinking get us anywhere? I think so. I think it highlights the importance of using all of our near-by resources, even if it is "organic" and affordable to do otherwise. It is ridiculously easy to buy a gallon of fish emulsion and spray it on your plants, just as easy as getting a bag of 10-10-10. But just as the price on the bag of 10-10-10 does not represent the true costs of the fertilizer, the affordability of the fish emulsion does not represent its true cost either. For an agricultural system dependent on cheap industrial animal wastes is only slightly more stable than one dependent on cheap fossil fuels. Perhaps the best answer is to work hard to source local manure, and then work even harder to compost it well. If your plants still aren't growing fast enough or big enough for the "local" market demand, raise the price instead of lowering the standards.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Business of Farming

As I mentioned in the last post, I have been selling the excess produce recently in an effort to recoup some of our initial start-up costs. Engaging in the "business" of farming has been a great, but unanticipated, buzz. Initially, I enjoyed farm work because I was working with living things out in the sunshine; I was doubtful that I would tolerate, much less enjoy, the economics of a small farm. I have never been into balancing check books, filing receipts, or haggling for the best deal; the minutia bores me stiff. I came close to enjoying this new kind of economics. So close, in fact, that I gave myself a scare, similar to the feeling I get when close to the edge of a cliff. Granted, it has been fairly easy. The markets virtually found me. But more than that, I think I enjoy it because it is so direct and tangible; it genuinely feels like a mutually agreed upon arrangement that represents the value of the work done (which, if I remember my freshmen economics, is the supposed situation for all exchanges in a free market). I am not part of the "national food system." I am dealing with someone face-to-face, and that someone then sells it to, or exchanges it with a member of the local community. At most, there is one person (who I meet weekly and know on a first-name basis) between the grower and consumer. How could any arrangement made up of more distant or convoluted relationships possibly approximate a reasonable value for the complexities of human knowledge, care, and labor?

So I am learning that perhaps I am not inherently averse to economics and marketing, but am only turned off by it when it seems distant and abstract, when it aims to quantify and evaluate in a way that is seemingly bereft of human values. Here, we would do well to remember Aldo Leopold's admonition that, "We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, or otherwise have faith in." (Leopold, A Sand County Almanac). I believe Leopold would agree that this sentiment applies just as much to human communities as it does to natural ones.

Reflecting on the business of farming brings me to an important point about the culture of American agriculture. One barrier to change in the American food system is the common association between today's efforts and those of the 1960s counterculture. Many Americans who were, or still are, turned off by the counterculture - whether for its antagonistic politics, youthful idealism, or some other cultural divide - remain hesitant to rethink the way we grow and eat food. Many Americans who stand to gain from it promote the idea that today's alternative agriculture is the same as that which started in the '60s. This claim could not be more deceptive. For one, the 1960s and '70s efforts to change the food industry were not uniformly naive and idealistic. Some who took up farming became excellent stewards and growers. There were, however, plenty of abandoned projects and outright failures, and the overwhelming tone was one of antagonistic reaction instead of inclusive progress (for more, see Belasco, Appetite for Change).

The local, organic movement of today hews much more closely to this latter ideal. And, as I have been trying to show, there is nothing inherently countercultural or anti-capitalist about it. At its most successful, it is not reactionary. Its goal is not to be radical, but - in direct contrast - to be commonplace. And, even though it envisions "alternative" economic arrangements (like CSAs, commonly-held land, co-ops, and buying clubs), it is not rooted in an anti-capitalist impulse. Small-scale agriculture is about decentralized entrepreneurship, which is a cornerstone of capitalism's appeal. In many ways, American agribusiness (sometimes called "conventional" agriculture, even though it is relatively new on the scene) is much less of a free enterprise than today's "alternative" agriculture. The barriers to entry are so high that only a handful of Americans can give it a shot. And government subsidies are so influential that our food markets are clearly not free markets.

American agriculture is changing. Its direction is not entirely clear, but it is obvious that there are plenty of new farmers on the scene. They are young, well-educated, and energetic. Often, the most successful ones are creative when it comes to acquiring rights to farmland, and to developing markets. Beyond general know-how, these may be two of the most important skills for the small-scale farmer of tomorrow. The new agriculturalists must be entrepreneurs. The good news is that you don't have to be an expert in the beginning, because land and market opportunities abound. You just have to keep your eyes and mind open.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Warning: Blatant Self-Promotion

Things have changed a lot around here as the season draws to a close. Most all of the staff have left; The corn is ripening; I am selling excess vegetables; I have torn out many of the crops and am starting to sow cover crops. Like most times of change, it is both exciting and slightly unnerving. Although I am moving back to a great place and community in Athens, I am leaving behind a group of peers and a landscape to which I have become enjoyably accustomed. In addition to closing things out here, I have been preparing for the return to Athens. Paying bills and arranging a start date for my "day job" spurred me to think about what else I can do to fill the days (and the bank account). I decided that I really want to get a side project going installing kitchen garden plots. It will be a great way to continue the work I have enjoyed so much out here, and fall is a great time to get a garden started. So, if you or anyone you know might be interested in having a plot designed and installed, just comment here or send me an e-mail ( There will be a non-promotional post soon; stay tuned.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Ronald McDonald is Whistlin' Dixie!

Even out in New Mexico, McDonald’s has been ravenously promoting their line of “Southern-style” foods. If you are like me, your initial reaction to this was one of guttural disgust: “Who the hell do they think they are, claiming their fare is ‘Southern’?” A valid question, indeed.
It seems that the world’s largest peddler of corn and soy-derived “food” isn’t concerned about justifying their claim to Southern culinary traditions. The promotional website for their “southern-style” chicken sandwich doesn’t broach the subject. Instead, it hails their latest offering as “a fantastic relay team of perfectly seasoned, lightly breaded all white meat chicken, topped off with two pickles and served on a steamed bun.” So there is nothing particularly “Southern” about their sandwich. No surprise there. Why do they even bother calling it a southern-style chicken sandwich then? It seems to me that they are appropriating the image of “down-home Southern cooking” – food that is good for the soul – in an effort to assuage any apprehension that passing motorists might harbor about eating fast food. They are trying to give their placeless and faceless, mass-produced product a pedigree. McDonald's wants to, and needs to, “place” their food, and they have chosen the American South. A brilliant (and profitable) strategy, no doubt, but one that offends my sensibilities.
The irony of a placeless commodity being called “Southern” is not very useful, though. As my graduate school advisor always reminded us, irony has limited potential for productive thought. So, the more I thought about this recent addition to our fast food nation’s menu, the more I came to realize that McDonald’s was not so off-base in calling it Southern. The chicken in most of their sandwiches was likely grown in the American South; north Georgia and Arkansas produce the vast majority of industrially-grown chickens. (See Steve Striffler, Chicken and William Boyd, "Making Meat") And Southerners make up a large portion of McDonald’s customer base; the South as a region consumes more fast food per capita than any other. ( Although these are not the reasons Ronald chose to claim his new sandwich as “Southern,” they do suggest that McDonald's is largely representative of modern Southern cuisine. Perhaps, then, we should not resent McDonald’s appropriation of “southern-style” food, but instead work harder to make the Southern landscape one where industrial chicken farms and harried drive-by meals are not the norm.

A brief update (8/24): A cohort of mine from this summer has returned home to New Jersey and sent me this photo from an area White Castle. It seems they have chosen the American South as their newest place theme, too. Sin and salvation smothered with a corn-syrup sweetened barbecue sauce...yum.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Realism and Romanticism in Local Agriculture

The day we have all been waiting for: a guest posting! Venus Bivar, a good friend who I met at an environmental history conference, is working long hours at a community farm near Chicago this summer. She is a proud Canadian, hence the ridiculous spelling; Americans know that there is no “our” in labor. Here it is:

When I tell people that I'm volunteering at a farm this summer in order to supplement my PhD research, they understand completely. Many even compliment what they see as my dedication to the field of study - stretching my research into the realm of practical knowledge. When I tell them, however, that I'd like to give up life in Chicago in order to devote more time to farming, they assume that I am hopelessly naive about what farm labour entails and about what life in the country is "really like." They call me a romantic. Let's forget for a minute that I actually grew up in the middle of nowhere and that after a summer of volunteering as grunt labour, I do have a sense of what is demanded of both the mind and the body. Let’s forget all of that and start at zero.

I took a five year-old to the farm last week and she loved it. She ate peppers and green beans straight off the plant and when told that she could eat anything we were prepping for pick-up, her jaw dropped to the table, and she immediately shoved her face full of kohlrabi. For a kid who ordinarily veers away from the unknown when it comes to the vegetable kingdom, seeing her devour a whole host of items she had never even seen before made me realise that being involved in the labour process necessarily changes our attitude towards food and the work required to produce it. She was totally innocent of the romantic musings of adulthood. She simply ran through the fields, rode a tractor, learned how to identify a ripe cucumber, and took it all in with unadulterated joy. She made me realise that some people simply like to farm. They like the work - in the same way that some love to litigate or perform surgery. Why the former are charged with romanticism and the latter are not says more about how detached we have become from our food supply than it does about those doing the supplying.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Maize: Commodity, Vegetable, and More

Corn has been at the center of much of the recent debates in global food politics. Some argue that corn alone will feed our growing populations, while others argue that its largest impact will be in the "credit" column of corporate bank ledgers. Obviously, corn does neither of these two on its own, but only in conjunction with the actions of humans and, at another level, a host of environmental factors, like bacteria, wind, sun, and worms. Corn does, however, contribute some remarkable qualities: vigor, adaptability, genetic malleability, and culinary flexibility. To this list of ethically-neutral characteristics, I submit an undeniably positive one: at this point in the season it allows for a shady, late-morning siesta. Viva la maize!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Desert Festivals

I read somewhere recently that we are mistaken to think of rain strictly in a utilitarian or functional sense; it is also a festival. This applies to life in general, really: we should try to balance our more goal-oriented thinking with a general appreciation for experiences. Even though the delirium-inducing heat of the Southwest summer has set in for good, it has been easy to recognize the festivals recently. The crops are generally responding with vigor to the sun; we have finished off most of the early, leafy greens. Last week we roasted a whole hog from a local pig farmer (one of the best food festivals I can imagine). In preparation for the pickin', I wore out a chain on the Stihl and went to the only place in Thoreau that sells chainsaw equipment, Johnnie's Inn. You may think this sounds like a strange name for a Stihl dealership, and it would be if Johnnie wasn't a multi-tasker, but he also sells liquor. An interesting combination of merchandise, for sure. I have been busy pruning and trellising the flowering tomatoes; and today we butchered a "small" elk that was injured in its confrontation with a speeding vehicle. It is strange to call a 500 lb. animal anything other than "monstrous," but it was a young bull that would have more than doubled in size. We will have a jerky festival soon...

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Happy Birthday, Nation...! Stephen Colbert would say. It is interesting commemorating the birth of one nation (the US), while in the midst of another (the Navajo nation). On the 4th of July, we went to the rodeo in Grants, NM and then lounged underneath the fireworks launched by the Bluewater volunteer fire department. There seemed to be little open concern with the complex and tragic history that the creation of these nations shares. Perhaps holidays serve to bring out a general mood of celebration. But it is also likely that many of the Navajo, like many other Native Americans that I have known, prefer to live in the present. Like people everywhere, they dislike many of the labels outsiders assign them. A Jemez Indian that I know once told me (without my prodding) that he hated the term "indigenous". He identified as Jemez, New Mexican, American, or, most often, just Mike. Perhaps this reflects the fact that Native Americans have too long been treated as subjects to be isolated, studied, or mythologized. Even at our most well-intentioned, many non-Indians do this. Using over-simplified ideas of Native American ethics and practices as a way to critique the problems of our modern society is perhaps the most common (for more on this see Shep Krech, The Ecological Indian: Myth and History). These narrow and generic understandings of "authentic" and "traditional" Indian societies, even if meant to glorify, deny Indians the right, not only to speak for themselves, but also to just be themselves.
Instead of lamenting the loss of some mythical, "traditional" past, perhaps this Independence Day will challenge us to employ the lessons of history to strive for a better future. Who knows, maybe the rodeo cowboys will read this and be inspired to recycle their celebratory Busch Light and compost their steed's excrement.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Two Springs

Yes, I have had the experience of two springs this year. I left Athens, GA as "fans-with-open-windows-at-night" season began. When I showed up in Thoreau on June 2nd, it was like turning back the climate clock to February in Georgia time; so I repeated spring in another place. Sure, there were differences, but there were also the common defining elements: lots of temperamental rain, spurts of vigorous growth, and chilly nights. Also in both places, fried squash blossoms and minutes-old bean sprouts - the delicacies of a thrifty seasonal cuisine. And on one fine afternoon in New Mexico's Cibola National Forest, the peach toss - a Gulch staff tradition (See Nate, at right).
Spring. Not a bad season to repeat.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


In addition to the main plot, we have put in three other small ones that are down the slope and closer to the trickle of water that is Sawyer Creek. I am using them as "experimental" plots for the future, basically. We are using some of the traditional subsistence techniques of the region (ollas, swales, waffle gardens, and heirloom varieties) in these smaller plots. One plot is not irrigated and we planted it with a dryland corn variety which a Navajo co-worker of mine says (from experience) will be fine without rain (Note to self: remind corn farmers in other places about this). The photos show a different plot where we put in a swale to capture runoff. The swale has a Zuni bowl - a small pool - built into it to slow the water before it hits the plants.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Swine Flu Blues

Admittedly, spending hours crouched over in the sun can be an uncomfortable task. But, for me, that is generally outweighed by the immediate and delayed rewards of germinating radishes and savory carrots. Fieldwork also provides time for reflection. Witness my buddy Josh, at right. When I took this photo, he was marinating on the merits of soil carbon cycling as an indicator of ecosystem health. The other day, I was reminded of a story I heard on NPR shortly before moving out here. The reporter was explaining the effect that a swine flu-inspired border closing would have on the labor supply (and, hence, economic bottom-line) for many large American farms. He suggested that crops could rot in the fields due to restrictions on migrants traveling north from Mexico. The story concluded on this note of unsettling concern. While the report recognized the tenuous nature of a global agricultural system, it failed to notice the irony of lamenting a shortage of immigrant labor in the midst of a national unemployment crisis. Although unemployment levels had dominated news reports, congressional concerns, and the national psyche for months, the reporter apparently didn't connect the two stories. It seems that, for many Americans, agricultural labor is not even an option, not viable work. This is not all that surprising, considering most Americans have (a) never planted a seed, and (b) never worked under conditions like those of the large farms to which this reporter was alluding. I hope the demand for local and sustainable food will continue to rise, and will thus support farms that serve as models of how agricultural labor can be rewarding and viable, instead of de-humanizing. In the meantime, I hope some people who need work heard that NPR story and knocked on the nearest farmer's door to ask if they were hiring.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Vince the Plumber

One of the great things about being so remote is that it encourages thrift and resourcefulness. Since the late 19th century, the Gulch has been the site of a logging camp, potato farm, and, for the past 70-odd years, an expedition basecamp. So there are plenty of piles to scavenge through; old coffee cans, barbed-wire, toilet seats, and canvas tents abound. But recently we had to call on Vince, a friend of our auto mechanic, to solder a leaking faucet that we couldn't fix any other way. Since it was his day off, we figured that Vince would be wetting his fishing line just a few miles down the road at Bluewater Lake. We were right. Vince said he "wouldn't leave the lake early for anything," but promised to come by at dark on his way home. This gave me plenty of time to go pick up a 30-pack of Keystone Light - the understood exchange for Vince's labor. Actually, an 18-pack would have sufficed, but we still owed him from a previous job. True to his word, Vince showed up at dark and fixed the faucet. In between turns of the wrench and blasts of the acetylene torch, he offered his thoughts on our education system, which teaches English - "something you already know" - instead of something useful, like plumbing or electrical work. Vince made quick work of the faucet and headed out, happy with his Keystone Light. Thoreau has probably always had a tight cash economy, but like many places which share this trait, beer is a widely-accepted (and sometimes preferred) currency...check out the vegetable progress.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Microclimates and Diversity

So, it has frosted the past two nights now, and the squashes, cucumbers, and tomatoes are showing the effects. You may ask, “Why were you not prepared for this?” Good question. I could have at least tried covering the rows. Well, I had checked the weather forecast and it predicted a low of 39 degrees, so I didn't bother. Was the forecast that far off? No; I'm sure it was in the high 30s somewhere nearby, but our vegetable garden got down to at least 32. Another decisive and instructive lesson for the neophyte: weather conditions here can vary drastically in places only a few hundred feet apart. It's the kind of lesson that can only be learned from spending significant time in a place. Working the land in that place makes this kind of education much easier, because the stakes are higher and the lessons more emphatic. The microclimatic variation might surprise many visitors to the desert – as it obviously did me – but it mirrors other diversity that I had noticed. The Southwest has Hispanic, Native and Euro-American histories, which weave a colorful cultural tapestry. The region has sage flatlands and aspen-ringed mountains, often within a few miles of each other. Most people cruising by on their way from California to Texas can't wait to get past Thoreau because it looks stark, desolate, and monotonous. But if you slow down, get off of I-40, and walk the slopes, breathing the desert air, you will see that there is much more to this place than just empty space. The New Mexico desert is diverse.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Dry Winds

I wanted to post often, and I have already neglected to do so. The winds have so far been the surprise challenge. 20-30 mph gusts during the day, coupled with the occasional light frost at night make life hard for young vegetables (and migrants from the South, too). Lew Wallace, a New Mexico territorial governor in the late 19th century and author of Ben-Hur, once wrote that, “Endeavors based on experience elsewhere are doomed to failure in New Mexico.” His words speak to me today with as much insight as they did for his audience of 19th century westward migrants, despite the fact that I know much of my historical predecessors' experiences. I can consciously avoid most of their follies, but steep challenges remain. Apparently the mule deer at right faced some steep challenges as well. There has been tenuous progress, though.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

In the beginning,...

...God (and billions of invisible microbes) made compost. I guess today marks the official beginning of the farm-to-table project. After a long day of travel yesterday, I arrived in Thoreau and was greeted by both our alfalfa-farming neighbor, Jeff Carver - who rode up on his John Deere 6400 - and Chris, a semi-driver. Jeff disked the field and Chris dropped off 30 cubic yards of premium compost. A great start, and lots more to be done tomorrow...