Sunday, March 4, 2012

Ag development on the home front

For the past few months now my cousin has been working at the Salvation Army in a small city in Wisconsin. As I understand it, she's in charge of lots of general activities, but a big focus is on the meal center where those who are on hard times can come and eat. She's been battling with the status quo of pre-packaged junk food that forms a major part of what the kitchen serves. Recent victories include the cheap bulk purchase and successful preparation of cabbages in the form of cole slaw, which was a big hit among the clients. Anyway, she's just gotten into the idea of growing vegetables in soil-filled burlap sacks, as demonstrated in this video:

Watch How to Grow Food in a Burlap Bag on PBS. See more from The Wisconsin Gardener.

My cousin would like to create a Salvation Army garden to provide fresh produce for the community kitchen, as well as building skills and confidence for clients who can work growing the food that they and their peers are consuming. Since they don't have a lot of garden space, this burlap sack idea is an appealing alternative. They could implement it on a parking lot, vacant junk-strewn lots, wherever. For me the sack idea is one of a plethora of possibilities for getting a lot of food out of a little space. Other possibilities include raised beds created from railroad ties, bucket gardening, hanging soil bags, etc. On top of that, they have access to a far-away lot where they could grow lower-value veggies like lettuce in plowed rows, a strategy that produces a lot per hour of work but uses a lot of space.

My cousin may or may not find the burlap sacks or these other possibilities to be a useful tool in bringing better food and food-growing skills to her clients. But for me it's thrilling that she's embarking on this quest. Right now terms like food security and urban farming are becoming a lot more current in mainstream society, certainly more so than when I was toiling on a small urban garden in Chicago's ghetto and receiving little societal validation for the project. This is a good thing, but often what one reads about are sort of pie-in-the-sky ideas, or projects that mainly cater to progressive, big-city liberals. If my cousin gets this thing off the ground, it will be an application of these exciting concepts in a context that really needs it--the down-and-out in a small Midwestern post-industrial city.

My cousin and her husband are foodies in the most positive sense I can think of. They do not go to high-end experimental fusion restaurants, or follow the latest elite food trends. Despite Wisconsin's abundance of local, trendy microbrews, as far as I know their drink of choice is returnable-bottle Leinenkugel's consumed on lawn chairs in front of their garage. But they love good food, and cook high-quality, mainly vegetarian meals, using the produce from their backyard garden throughout the growing season.

Being a self-centered jerk myself, a big part of the excitement I get from my cousin's new endeavor is the thrill that I may finally be able to find meaningful, useful work in my own country. I left the US some six years ago, largely because of frustration with the society and my job prospects. My training and my passion is agricultural development in favor of the poor. In 1990s and early 2000s US, a land of feigned abundance, debt-driven excess, and the ever-present trappings of complacent, bourgeois prosperity, my line of work was neither needed nor respected. I longed to be able to help people who needed it by applying my particular set of skills, but no one seemed to be interested in using hard-core agronomy to improve well-being in the US. What I was proposing was to teach people how to be successful subsistence or commercial farmers, or at least well-fed scavengers, and this was not appealing to the arrogant, post-peasant world I grew up in. Even the urban gardening and food security initiatives seemed to me to be tinged with a sort of fuzzy, feel-good charitable aspect to them. No one was actually proposing that people make a living, or at least improve their physical well-being, by farming.

But things have changed in the past few years. I believe that in the present economic crisis more people are aware that staying alive, not to mention having a real economy, is dependent on certain cold, hard realities. You can't eat packaged debt derivatives, or shoddily-built exurban houses, or Facebook apps, or any of the other nonsense our economy was based on until recently. For instance, my cousin's superiors at the Salvation Army are receptive to the idea of growing some of the kitchen's own food on-site, as well as things like capturing rainwater in barrels, or composting the kitchen scraps. Who knows if in the year 2000 they would have found such basic, peasant-y practices offensive to the collective aesthetic of sterile, manicured lawns and strip malls?

This all has me very enthusiastic about my prospects when my family and I go to live in the States in about a year and a half. I finally feel like I might find a place for myself, professionally and culturally, in this new country that resembles more the humble, practical, proletarian culture my parents taught me from their upbringing in the pre-prosperity 1940s and 1950s, as opposed to the garish Gomorrah that my generation grew up in. Hell, in objective terms, the people my cousin works with are worse-off than the peasants in the war-torn Tenza Valley that I work with. When you have to go to a soup kitchen, that means you have no food for yourself. First World or Third World, having no food is the ultimate measure of need. So if I'm aiming to promote economic development and help the needy, the US could really use my contribution.

And so suddenly it seems to me like I might be able to make a living for myself, get some respect, and most importantly contribute to the well-being of my fellow citizens in the US, by doing what I've always wanted to do and until now have had to go elsewhere to practice. I can finally be useful!

1 comment:

  1. Right on, Greg. I hope the US you return to in late 2013 is indeed a "new country," but I wouldn't bet on it, although the climate does seem to be changing.

    Did we immerse you in proletarian culture?