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.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Coffee: A Miracle of Nature?

This morning, I took my copy of Raymond Williams' The Country and the City and went to a coffee shop downtown to read. I first came across Williams' writings while working on a master's in environmental history, a field which has made good use of his reminder that "the idea of nature contains, though often unnoticed, an extraordinary amount of human history."

The Country and the City also starts with this recognition and explores the way that the idea of Nature is used to describe the relationship between rural and urban places. Most obviously, he traces the tradition of claiming that the countryside is more natural than the city, a tendency which stretches back for many centuries. Williams' main point is that this comparison, which he sees as largely superficial, obscures important connections between country and city.

As I left the coffee shop where I had been reading, I walked through downtown and passed a Starbuck's. In the window was a sign: Once a bean traveled the world to find you here. This immediately struck me as interesting, and I puzzled over it as I walked to the crosswalk. Why had Starbuck's chosen this odd message? What does it mean? Why did I even notice it, and why was I thinking about it? I guess the Madison Avenue folks were successful at one level.



I decided to read the sign as Raymond Williams would, and I think doing so explains a lot. The choice of the "traveling bean" motif is by no means inconsequential. This framing draws on an extremely long history of portraying "the bounties of Nature" as productive in and of themselves (Williams illustrates this through pastoral literature that speaks of wild game and other foods literally presenting themselves for the feast). In the modern Starbucks version, the bean finds you. Why do Williams and I care about this pastoral myth? Talking about coffee (or anything else) as if it were solely a miracle of Nature obscures the much more important fact that the beans had to be grown, harvested, handled (and on and on) by real people in real places. In the pastoral feast myth, the bounty of Nature obscures the harsh exploitation of servants, field laborers, and environments. In the Starbucks bean myth, the idea of a bountiful Nature obscures every moment in coffee capitalism, which can be just as problematic as feudalism. Its worth repeating: "The idea of nature contains, though often unnoticed, an extraordinary amount of human history."

The point is not, necessarily, that we should never drink coffee, but that we should be much more attentive to the ways in which foods (and goods in general) come to be. Though it may look like it, Nature did not bring itself to your plate.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Collaboration


Our service learning class recently finished a collaborative article that was published in The Flagpole, Athens' independent weekly (the article explains why I posted a photo of a girl watching chickens peck around inside a cage in downtown Athens). Working with 20 people to produce a short piece for the general public was a refreshing change from solo academic writing, which I am entirely absorbed with at the moment. But the most important collaboration is the one which the article points to: the Athens Food Activists Networking Session. This kind of grassroots engagement is what democracy is all about, the public, broadly writ.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My 15 Minutes

So, there happened to be some reporters along on the farm tour I led last week, and a friend of mine called early Sunday morning to tell me that the stories were hot off the press. The tour made the front page of the Oconee Leader (although, it came in third behind stories about Veteran's Day and Halloween celebrations). Fame...so bittersweet.

While the online story reported that I "waxed poetic about the virtues of organic farming" (which might be a bit of an over-statement), the paper edition honed in on the most deserving, and respected, subject: "Loki, Van Sant's dog, ran and romped throughout the tour, and was rewarded for his energy and antics by numerous hugs and lots of petting, especially from the middle school students."

Who could blame 'em...?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

All Flesh is Grass

For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man {sic} as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away. - Peter 1:24.

I am always in Georgia when the desert cottonwoods turn yellow, but luckily the seeds we sowed in mid-August are doing well. My good friend Mike sent me this photo from our summer basecamp in New Mexico recently. The vegetable beds are near the fork in the road, and the cover crops ne withereth pas!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Farm City Tour

Late last week I had the opportunity to lead a tour of the Farm 255 vegetable operation, which was arranged through the Agribusiness Committee of the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce. As it is mostly between growing seasons, it was a good opportunity to talk about crop rotation and cover crops.



Judging by the number of questions, there was lots of interest in the farm-to-table model and organic growing in general. Several people said they would go try out the restaurant, and I sent a couple of wide-eyed youngsters home with some eggplant for the frying pan (or baking sheet, or grill-top, or sauce pan, or...)



Thanks to Thomas Verner for organizing the tour and providing the above photos

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Newtown Florist Club

Today I went with some peers from our service-learning class to the Newtown community of Gainesville, Georgia. There we met with some of the organizers of the Newtown Florist Club, a group of area residents who have been working for decades (actually, over half a century) to improve the living conditions in their neighborhood. They have recently organized a community garden campaign, and we were there to see the project, hear their stories, and help them with some planting.



Built in the 1930s, Newtown was a working-class, African-American neighborhood on the south side of Gainesville. In the 1950s, large industrial manufacturing facilities moved in next door: Purina, Cargill, and a junkyard. Both of the corporations have repeatedly leaked toxic substances into the air and soil of Newtown.

The Florist Club started out as a group of housewives who would collectively care for neighbors in need, bringing food, flowers, helping with chores. They soon noticed that illness was increasing, and in a particularly common guise. Over the next few decades doctors confirmed that clusters of cancer and lupus were present in abnormally high levels in Newtown. The organizer we spoke with today was a founding member of the Florist club in the 1950s at age 18. She lost her sister, brother-in-law, and a niece and nephew (both passed away while in high school) to cancer or lupus.

The Newtown Florist Club has accomplished a lot in their neighborhood, but as they suggest, there is much more work to do. I am proud to have put in some time working with such an earnest group this afternoon, but am sobered by the thought that there are lots of "Newtowns" out there. What did I learn in school today? Responsibility for preventing and improving "Newtowns" does not lie solely with those who are daily affected by the problems.

Shout-out to Nik Heynen for the photo

Monday, September 6, 2010

Charleston, SC

Though I was tempted to go to both the UGA football home-opener and my good friend's dove shoot, I took advantage of the long weekend to go down to Charleston, SC and do some preliminary field research. I am thinking of writing my dissertation on the history of food and agriculture in the Charleston area and wanted to do some brain-storming.

In short, it was a great trip. I stayed with old friends, made some new ones, ate lots of good food, met some folks in the local-food scene, toured some farms, had a few ideas, and am thoroughly excited to continue on with my plans to research there. They have some huge live oaks around those parts...



And the growing season is so long, the fresh tomatoes just keep coming:

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Gone Urban

Turn the protagonists of Alan Jackson's hit, "Gone Country," on their heads and you've got me: A country kid who has adopted urban life for a while. He's gone urban, look at them flip-flops...or something like that

But the great thing is, I can still grow food. As a part of a service-learning class in the Geography department at UGA (my new academic home), we are growing vegetables on the building's green roof. The class, Athens Urban Food Collective, explores issues of hunger and political economy here in Athens through traditional classroom learning and community involvement.



This picture is from a few years ago, but it should give you an idea of the space. It's pretty wild, actually, going from the wide-open, often desolate, desert to a rooftop garden on a sprawling university campus (note the assorted atmospheric science equipment in the background). After setting foot on the roof, I can't help but imagine okra springing up through concrete fissures all over "the classic city". The possibilities are virtually endless...

While I will no doubt continue to yearn for the rural agricultural landscapes, I am looking forward to growing food in the urban realm. Its also pretty nice to leave class or my office and go up on the roof for a quick amble through the vegetable beds.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Closing Time



My summer in New Mexico is over. In a few minutes I will walk out of my new house and swim through the Georgia humidity to my first class as a PhD student. Quite a change from what at the time seemed like it might be an endless summer in the desert. That reference, conveniently, reminds me of my favorite quote of the season: at lunch one day, my good friend Andy told someone who prematurely cleared the table that they were "putting an end to my endless summer".

This year, I cleaned all the plants from the fields earlier in an effort to get cover crops better established than we did last year. The window of opportunity at 7,500 feet slams quickly with the first frosts coming in a few weeks. Below are some photos from our final harvests.





Thursday, July 29, 2010

Ambiguity

The word of the day is ambiguity. The two most memorable events of the past week or so reinforce my belief that its important to be able to accept ambiguity; to recognize that many things are not black or white, true or false, good or bad.

First, we recently finished the fence.



Nearly everyone commented on how nice it looked; how ordered and neat; or how clean and established. My initial impression was the same.



But I also have to admit some lingering unease, too. As the guiding concept of landship suggests, I think the long-standing trend towards privatization has come with serious costs. And fences go hand-in-hand with these changes. Fences, at best, can be aesthetically pleasing and functional, yet they can also be divisive and exclusive.

The tour of the Farmington agricultural extension fields was even more ambiguous. Those who readily criticize extension agents would have been disarmed by the obvious passion the agents showed for agricultural research.



Critics might also be surprised to learn of research directed towards small-scale growers and nutritional health of local populations. But, then again, there were also agents like the herbicide specialist. The most charismatic and vocal scientist at the experiment station, I would also nominate him if there were a poster-child for all that is wrong with the extension service. He introduced his corn research by indicating the weeds and stunted growth in the control plot. Then he simply regurgitated the equally-stunted logic of the chemical companies: if you don't use herbicide, your productivity will suffer a reduction of 75%. This is not a surprising argument to hear from herbicide corporations, but from a government official entrusted with serving farmers and the general public it is essentially dereliction of duty. The problem with his stance is several-fold: there are myriad other ways to decrease weed pressure that don't involve herbicide (under-sowing; mechanical cultivation; etc...); weed pressure doesn't always compromise crop growth - it can even be beneficial; lastly, defining agriculture narrowly as large scale mono-cropping neglects what are arguably the most exciting and thoughtful trends in his own field. Rounding out his reactionary politics, he explained to the crowd his belief that the Gulf oil spill would be cleaned "if it weren't for environmentalists protesting all the best solutions." The problem with black-and-white logic such as this is that it denies any room for ambiguity. It fails because: all "environmentalists" don't think the same; there is no consensus from any camp on ways to remedy the catastrophe; finally, solutions for a crisis as far-reaching and complex as the oil spill will have trade-offs that are just as complex, so there is no clear-cut "best" solution. Very few things are truly black-and-white. To proceed as if they are is like trying to dissect a hummingbird with a golf club. The task calls for a more subtle and precise tool.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Canyon Farming

This afternoon the basecamp cook and I are taking off on a desert food and agriculture tour, complete with a visit to a NMSU extension field day in the appropriately-named Farmington, NM. Before I leave, I wanted to post briefly the highlight from my most recent trip: Canyon de Chelly. The canyon area is a hodgepodge of public and private land, the bottomlands being largely owned and farmed by Navajo families.

The bottom of the canyon was amazing: protected, verdant, and wet. Still harsh, to be sure, but one could easily see why people would choose to inhabit the bottomlands. The most interesting thing to me about the farming methods was that, from above, one could see that the fields were layed out to catch the snowmelt that cascades off the rim in the early spring. The dryland techniques developed in this area involve planting seeds deeply (8-12") immediately prior to spring rains and run-off. The seeds germinate quickly with the flood of water and the ground stays moist at the deep planting depth most of the growing season, even with virtually no rain.
The one major drawback to settling in the enclosed bottomlands is that you would be vulnerable to floods and pillaging neighbors. To solve this, the ancient peoples simply built shelters into the cliff walls. Awe-inspiring is the only word that comes to mind.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

California or Bust...?

Back in New Mexico after an aborted roadtrip to California, I now have the nervous habit of testing locks for their ability to unlock prior to entering a bathroom. That's right. My virgin voyage to California was derailed by false imprisonment in a state park outhouse. The view from the canyon rim was nice, but unfortunately I couldn't set my gaze on it from the outhouse.

If you have ever been in a desert latrine you will understand that I was as concerned about the ailments I might catch from the swarming flies as I was worried about again seeing the light of day. After pounding on the door for 15 minutes, some ATV'ers eventually drove up with a toolbox and were more than happy to help me destroy state property. They took the pins out of the hinges on the outside of the door and I then kicked it down from the inside. In that brief moment as boot struck metal, I not only secured my reentry into the world but also relieved my claustrophobia-induced anxiety.

This brief detour through the outhouse was not to be the final hurdle on my journey, however. Car trouble struck my accomplice and I near Flagstaff, AZ. I decided to call the ill-fated perambulation to an end, boarded a Greyhound bus and headed back to Thoreau and the known variables of my growing operation. Despite the shortened trip, I could still notice change in the vegetables. Farm update soon...

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Thunder Rolls

We finally got a soaking rain yesterday afternoon. Clouds threatened all morning and around four o'clock in the afternoon they finally let loose with their sweet, sweet nectar.

The crops have responded already. I firmly believe that rain is better for plants than irrigation; they do, after all, derive from entirely different sources. Gary Nabhan finds in his studies of traditional agriculture in the Southwest that many "old-school" farmers in this most arid of environments don't consider groundwater to be true water. Water falls from the sky.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

July Happenings

I pulled my sleeping bag over my head this morning as I woke up. In those first fuzzy moments I tiptoed on the border of sleep and wake, but soon jolted up off my bed when I realized that I never have to pull the covers up for extra warmth unless it is close to freezing. I got down to the thermometer near the crops at about 6:30; it read 35 degrees. I feared this meant that a few hours earlier it had been 32.5, if not less...
We spent the rest of the day hauling ponderosa pine timbers out of the hills for a fence around the main plot.

After dinner I walked through the plot and found what I feared: frost damage on the young zucchini sprouts. Frost on July 6th. A light and patchy frost, but a frost nonetheless.


As a farmer, you have to learn to shake your head and chuckle at most of the bad luck and undesirable news. If you can't do that, you won't stay in the field for long.

Whenever I needed to laugh today I just dug up my favorite fourth of July memory: While waiting in line for a funnel cake, I saw a woman with a shirt on that read "Land of the Free, Home of the Awesome". 'Nuff said

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Desert Smells Like Rain



As you can see, the rainy season has started here in the high desert. Over the past week we have had showers dancing across the horizon almost daily. It has resulted in only thirty minutes of rain, though, as most of the clouds skirted our perimeter. I read recently that the Papago Indians - who hail from what is now the US/Mexico borderland - refuse to talk about the likelihood of a rain shower, seemingly because of the kind of unpredictability we have been experiencing recently.
Despite the fact that most of this rain has side-stepped our crops, they are really starting to take off. The few showers have helped. It is warmer at night now, around 45 degrees on average. The occasional clouds are providing a little respite from the scorching sun, too.
Tomorrow is the 4th of July rodeo in Grants, NM, so I must go take care of last minute chores...more soon.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Challenge and Celebration

The nine days since my last post seem more like nine weeks. I have had a lot of help from co-workers getting transplants in the ground, and as I sat down to write this I was tempted to write a post about the miracle of seeds and the blessings of many helping hands.



A post of that celebratory nature would not have been ill-founded, but I also want to make sure that I air the challenges of this venture as well as the rewards. Many of the transplants were battered senseless by the 40+ mph winds that swept through our fields for days on end. Those not entirely swayed by the tsunami of air had a rough time coping with the three nights of frost which followed each day's barrage.

So, I will replant, direct seed more than planned, and coddle the surviving crops as best I can. I have descended from the apex of optimism - or perhaps brash confidence - to the realization that a hoophouse is necessary for the prime summer vegetables here in the high desert. In the meantime I will mulch heavily, deploy row covers with reckless abandon, and pray that June 18th marks the beginning of summer this year in Thoreau.



Photo credit to the peerless David Altman

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Brief Homecoming



After a week of living in relative isolation in the desert, I flew back to Georgia for my sister's wedding. It was an amazing trip: friends, family, smiles, and of course, good food and drink. The homebrew pictured above turned out to be plenty drinkable. Jami and Brad made it through all of the chaos with admirable calm and are now sipping umbrella-shaded drinks in the Caribbean; Congrats!



Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Collard season or tomato time?


When I first showed up at basecamp, I was anxious to see how the beds fared over the winter; but I was even more interested to see the compost pile. It looked dark, felt fluffy, and smelled sweet; a homeopathic xanax for the young farmer's soul. We immediately got it spread and incorporated into the vegetable beds. Even in the desert, it helps us to retain moisture without getting soggy. A solid foundation for the plantings to come.

Even though things look good, I am never completely confident about the upcoming season's success. "Marginal" is the word that I think best describes conditions for life out here in the high desert. Most things grew well last year, though, so I work on faith and a little experience.

I have previously been tempted to define this time of year in the same way that a climatologist would. Temperamental, possibly "wet," and windy; all this suggests spring. But yesterday morning when I checked the thermometer at 6:30 it read 26 degrees. The mercury then rose 10 degrees every hour so that by noon it was a sizzling 80 in the sun. Even though there is no humidity, 80 can really fry because at 7,500 feet there is so little atmosphere to dampen the intensity of the sunshine. The early morning was ideal weather for cool season crops: carrots, lettuce, collards. By noon it was tomato time. To me, it was like cramming a whole year into one day: winter at night; a brief spring in the mid-morning; grinding summer all afternoon; and a glorious fall about dinner time.

Needless to say, this makes planting choices quite difficult. My conclusion is that one must hedge their bets here. Plant lots of varieties, in several different plots, at staggered times. Be prepared to lose some, but make sure to learn from your mistakes. Constantly tinker.

On that note, I should get back to work...

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Notes from the Desert

I had four alarms set to go off yesterday morning. The first at four AM and one every five minutes thereafter. I actually woke up without them at 3:58, jumped into my truck and headed to the Atlanta airport. By 9:30 mountain time I was in Albuquerque, ready to start my summer farm gig – well, after a few more hours of sleep I was ready. Flying is usually an exhausting experience for me, but the perspective one can achieve from a window seat thousands of feet above the earth is unparalleled. Truly astonishing feats of engineering, the center pivot irrigation commonly used for commodity crops in the American West and other arid regions also seem quite alien from this remove.

It was 88 degrees and there were a few afternoon showers as I shopped for supplies in Albuquerque. Several of the locals that I spoke to commented on how humid it had gotten recently. I would have offered a good-natured, albeit slightly prideful, laugh at their low tolerance for humidity but my lips were already cracked and my throat singed close from what was for me the driest weather since I left the desert nine months ago. I'm definitely not in Georgia anymore, which this time of year is settling into a predictable pattern of warm, humid, and oppressively breezeless days followed by only slightly cooler and less humid nights. I was greeted by a sunset sandstorm yesterday in Albuquerque and as I drove out of the Rio Grande Valley up two thousand feet in elevation to the continental divide, I was blasted by a brief hail storm and 40 mph gusts of wind. The low tonight here at basecamp is supposed to approach freezing. I'm looking forward to my second spring of the year; a whole 'nother round of sprouting greens!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Buy, Buy, Blah...

At the risk of turning Landship into a broken record, I feel compelled to revisit the issue of consumption as it relates to local and sustainable agriculture.
I recently picked up the Spring 2010 iteration of "The Dirt," the newsletter of Georgia Organics, which brandishes as if a bullhorn the headline: "Buy Local, Buy Sustainable, Buy Often". The article praised growers for developing innovative ways to tweak the CSA model to meet "consumer demand". "Kroger and Publix better watch out," warned GA Organics director Alice Rolls, apparently without any awareness of the irony that this trend indicates: CSAs and local agriculture in general are being forced by "consumer demand" to follow the models which they initially sought to overturn.
I am obviously a supporter of efforts to develop local and sustainable agriculture, but this headline - "Buy, Buy, Buy" - is indicative of the ways in which we tend to valorize consumption in a movement that is ostensibly aware of the dangers of consumptive lifestyles. Again, I don't mean to say that we should not buy anything, not support local farmers, or grow all of our food ourselves; I just want to suggest that consumption can never be the main platform for a meaningful solution to our food and agriculture woes. It seems too many people are content to support local agriculture largely through minimal and comfortable lifestyle changes, like shopping at a farmer's market instead of Kroger.
I just don't want local food to go the same route as that great green panacea, recycling, which encourages everyone to "buy often" and not think about it afterwards.



This photo was taken at a slow food event and, to me, the Hummer t-shirt suggests the continuity between "mainstream" lifestyles and "alternative" local ones: the engines of both are consumer demand, branding, and identity construction rooted in consumption

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Asparagus

Oh yeah, its asparagus season too...



served with only the freshest spring garlic:

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Seeds and Weeds



If there is anyone out there frustrated with the lack of posts recently (and I'm not sure there is), I can only say, "I have been busy". Kind of lame, I know, but true. We are still in a gradual planting phase, but have had plants in for long enough now that weeds are starting to become an issue. So, as we continue to sow seeds, we must also keep on top of the weeds (and the water, and the pests, and the growth patterns; we do general assessments daily now). We are using new tools now and watering frequently. We should probably start harvesting kale, chard, and collards Friday morn.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Ode to the Panfish







O, panfish
you fill my pan
with butter and lemon
you taste good to this man



O, panfish
you are so neglected
right below the foodies
you swim undetected



But O, panfish
do not fret
our many dinners together
I will not forget

Friday, April 2, 2010

Many Hands...

You know the rest..."make light work". And how true it is; we busted out another row of tightly-planted veggies before noon today.



I ate the first asparagus of the year last night and the first panfish two nights ago. We continue to plant away as the mercury soars past the 80 degree mark on the first few days of April.



Right now, it seems we might skip over spring and skid directly into summer, like some kind of nightmarish ride on a sweat-soaked slip n' slide. I believe some of my friends and neighbors will be rudely awakened with more cold weather, though. I actually bet my friends over at Local Okra a pint of Terrapin that it will get below freezing again sometime in early April. I feel it in my nearly 30 year-old bones! (Actually, I just wanted to use that expression; I still feel quite spritely at 29)

After today's work, I broke ground in the hoophouse, making room for the plantings to come (after we get the plastic on, of course).

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Planting!



The long-awaited day has arrived. After deconstructing, moving, and rebuilding a farm we have put the first vegetables in the ground. We have an amazing duo of skilled planters (thanks Olivia and Laura) who showed the ropes to the hard-working intern/apprentices Jared and Andrew. We planted leeks and beets in a five-row wide, 115 foot long bed (seen below) and broccoli in two rows along another 115 foot bed. That will be a lot of tasty food here pretty soon. This afternoon we will put in the remainder of the transplants - about the same amount of cabbage, chard, and kale.



Saturday, March 20, 2010

Progress




The place we are growing has not been farmed in the past four years, so it has required a lot of infrastructure work - tearing down old structures, building new ones - essentially farm design. This kind of work is really quite enjoyable, whether demolition or construction it is tangible and immediate. In concert with the el nino weather, though, it has delayed the commencement of our ultimate work: growing vegetables. We recently got some starts that will be growing in the ground soon after they harden off. Almost done preparing beds.

Photo credit shout-out to Jared and Olivia