We walked out of a plenary session earlier today and sneaked out to a farmers’ market that was happening close to the conference. There were bouncy castles and many kids, and hip tattooed farmers selling Italian and French bread. There were chairs hand-painted in flower patterns for sale, and a treasure trove of earrings, and cheese samplings, and grapes, and California berries, and ice-cream. Michael Pollan’s dream of local food networks, of the people, by the people, for the people, was happening right here. What a beautiful and flavorful way to take a shortcut around the corporations and share some nourishing food with your neighbors. It adds some value to the food that could never be translated into a barcode or a calorie count (“Beyond the Barcode” is the name of a talk Pollan once gave).
We got kale and tomatoes and potatoes for a stew tonight. We tried some fabulous cheese with herbs. We also couldn’t resist some pita stuffed with spinach paste and lentils, and a yogurt dip spiced with garlic and spearmint. I never knew garlic and mint went together so well. We ate our hearts out. Also, we felt connected. We were part of a gentle revolution happening on the land and in people’s kitchens.
The movie that we saw yesterday night, Earth Days, featured some 60s footage of naked hippie people tilling a strip of land, picking squash, and dancing. The voiceover commentary explained that the “back to the land” part of the environmental movement had not been too successful; nobody from those upper-middle class, college-educated people actually knew how to sustain him- or herself on the land. Anyone who tried had to give up in a couple of years.
Today, however, the “back to the land” movement is alive and well. In fact, it might be a few of the things we are doing better than back in the 60s and 70s. There are progressive hippie farmers out there, but they know what they are doing and many of them start successful businesses. Organic Valley, one of Bioneers’ sponsors, is the largest farmer-owned union of organic farms, and they are doing a great job. (Nobody is paying me to mention this. For the first time in my life, I actually feel like praising a business and supporting a brand, because I feel like they are worth it.)
When I came to Vassar a year ago, I was surprised by the fact that many people wanted to become farmers when they get out of college. I met a girl who just stayed on the Vassar Farm after she graduated. I recently met a guy named Andrew who wants to move to Latin America and establish an organic farm there. I know two other guys who participated in the Volunteers on Organic Farms program. Also, a family friend back in Bulgaria, my home country, recently dropped out of university to start an earthworm farm that would produce compost. What is going on? Having grown up in a city, I never even knew that was an option. It seemed retrograde to me to leave academia and go milk cows. Now I realize how wrong I was.
Getting involved with sustainable agriculture is a very progressive thing to do. It involves lots of critical thinking, initiative, and willpower. Also, it is moral and modern. Pollan said it: we need millions more farmers so that we can establish a new localized, diverse, intelligent food system. Local farms and farmers’ markets are today the bright vision of the future that skyscrapers were in the beginning of the 20th century. A folksy scene of bouncy castles and locally made pastries is the way I envision utopia.