Sustainable farming mania is frustrating me

farm display

Photo: fireonthehill/Flickr.

I’m certainly no farmer. I work at a computer all day. So it’s odd that the books that get me most jazzed up these days are not about the big problems of the day — the economy or politics or climate and energy. They’re about farming.

For me, that’s a real about face. I used to revel in the skulduggery of the Koch Brothers and scorn the subtleties of heirloom tomatoes.

But now I can’t get enough of Wendell Berry and his poetic manifestos against industrial civilization. I’m also drawn to new titles on the local food movement like The Town that Food Saved, along with books on urban farms, nutrition and the politics of food freedom and the battle over raw milk.

I love reading this stuff. But I’m also starting to resent it a bit too.

Tired of things that don’t work

Am I the only office guy in America who spends his leisure time reading into the benefits of no-till agriculture or how cows can improve the land by “mobbing, mowing and moving” over a pasture?

I’m not really sure why I do it. Maybe it’s because sustainable farming offers solutions that, even in today’s seemingly untouchable plutocracy, actually seem possible. To have an impact, you don’t need to convince anyone in Washington to do something big and complicated like pass a carbon tax or close down the Federal Reserve. If you’re a farmer, you can just grow your own revolution on your own forty acres.

But because I’m a city boy who doesn’t even own a pair of overalls, it makes reading about farming frustrating.

This is how it usually goes. First, I let Joel Salatin or Michael Pollan get me all excited about producing clean food while regenerating topsoil, reviving rural communities and empowering people to meet their own needs.

But then — reality check. I remember that I can’t join in any of that good farming stuff because…wait for it…I don’t have a farm.

I live in a little house surrounded by concrete and asphalt. I don’t even raise backyard chickens because our city outlaws them. So what can I do about anything ag?

From my perch in the city, it seems that all that fun and heroic stuff on sustainable farms is reserved for back-to-the-landers, greenhorns and other neo-farm hipsters who are making it cooler to plant a winter cover crop than to work for Google.

Meanwhile, about all I can do to help things along is to move my organic kale dollars from Whole Foods into a local community supported agriculture scheme. Or to a farmers market. Or drive to a farm stand.

In other words, in the food world, I’m just a wallet.

Otherwise, I’m left on the sidelines of the sustainable farming revolution. Since most Americans are also city dwellers or suburbanites who wouldn’t know a cover crop from a cover charge and have never walked a pig, I guess they’re left on the sidelines too.

Urban homesteading sounds easy

tomatoes in a pot

Like time and tide, tomatoes wait for no man. Or woman. Photo: Dark Dwarf/Flickr.

But what about gardening, you ask? Any city person can grow vegetables at home, even if it’s only a few sprouts in a cup under a grow light.

At our place, my wife and I really want to grow food but our garden space at home could fit into a couple of oversized black plastic pots from the garden center. So we’re glad to be part of a community garden only a couple blocks away. There we have plenty of space to grow beans, squash, corn and of course, tomatoes.

If I may say so myself, we’ve gotten OK at raising produce. This time of year, our raised beds yield pounds of vegetables each week. So we’re not totally left out of the local food revolution.

But after decades of buying only what we need for the week at the supermarket, my wife and I aren’t really set up to kick into food preservation mode at harvest time.  So when the crops all start to come in, we’re overwhelmed. Especially with tomatoes.

We’re trying to adapt ourselves to the Demands of the Tomato. We’ve taught ourselves to mill, steam, boil and reduce tomatoes into salsa, paste, pizza sauce. And yet, the damn tomatoes still keep coming. We give ’em away to neighbors. Still more tomatoes. We mill, steam, boil and reduce again. Still, more tomatoes.

Something’s got to give. Maybe we can cut out some of that working at computers? If only we could pay the mortgage in tomatoes.

So, we fall behind on tomato management. That means half of our small-but-still too-bountiful-for-us harvest sits in bowls on the kitchen counters getting soggy and attracting fruit flies for two weeks. Finally, I get fed up enough to dump the smelly, squishy mess into the compost tumbler. And then, right back into the garden.

Ah, the circle of life.

City folk need help too

I don’t want to minimize the impact of urban consumers buying food directly from farmers. If enough of us do it, that will create a market for better food and better farmers. We should also grow more of our own produce at home and, if it’s allowed, even follow Salatin’s advice to keep a few chickens.

It’s just that families like mine who are already into local food need more help. We’ve already planted our gardens. Now we need coaching and easy instructions on what to do with our harvests.

Did I mention “easy”?

I know I’m being unrealistic here. Compared to picking up a couple frozen entrees at Safeway to pop in the microwave, preserving your own produce will never be easy. So, city foodies also need to feel like it’s worth the steep curve to learn all this food processing lore and that it’s worth rearranging our schedules to process a late summer crop.

For my family, that would mean spending our evenings watching fewer revisionist Westerns on Netflix and spending more time canning tomatoes.

Can some of our sustainable farmer friends help out with this? We know that you’re already pretty busy curing heritage pork. And we’re glad that you get to try out cool new stuff like rotating chickens with beef and llamas on your forty acres.

But what about us city folk? We feel left out.

Yes, we’ll buy your food. But we want to do more. We want to change the world for the better too. And we’re tired of banging our heads against the wall of Washington and Wall Street. We want to do something local and something that works and something that’s natural and gentle and satisfying on a human level.

America may need more farmers in the future. But for now, we can’t all move to a farm. Even so, we city foodies do want to be a real part of the part of the sustainable farming revolution. We just need a bit of hand-holding. That doesn’t make us stupid or lazy. It just makes us humans in an age of distractions.

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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  1. says

    Yes well, it is a whole lot easier to walk the walk than talk the talk. Sounds like a minor fail blown out of proportion. You seem to be turning what at your level is a hobby into work. You even suggest your own solution.

  2. Tiago Simões says

    There are plenty good books covering what you need to know.
    Much better than that, I suggest maybe your family could spend a week’s worth of holidays WWOOFing. You learn SO much more by experience.
    Either way, don’t just rely on what works for other people. Observe and interact with your garden. Be smart. Plant less tomato plants next year, and use that space to grow something else you miss, even if someone told you you shouldn’t. Learn from your mistakes, every day.
    Me and my wife live in the middle of the city, with a grand total of four square meters of land (less than 45 square feet), in nearly year-round shade, and no way to even have a decent compost bin – we have a little worm bin. But we will have chickens later this year! Finally! No community gardens exist anywhere near us, though.
    Our personal solution to the problem you describe is very simple. We are working as hard as we can to repay all our debts, and as soon as we do that we’ll move to the country. We’ll choose a “damaged”, underpriced bit of land, with lots of resources that would be called liabilities by most other land buyers, we’ll build our own house out of whatever materials we find there (adobe/cob homes are really beautiful, and almost for free if you get used doors and windows from the dumpster), and after a few years neither of us will need a full time job. The key to get there is to do it gradually, step by step. That’s the plan, anyway :)
    Bottom line: if you’re not satisfied with your life, change it. It’s that simple.
    Good luck,

    • says

      We got a worm bin too. It’s fun. My wife and I also wonder if we should save up and try to get a piece of land for a farm, even if it’s one as you mention that requires lots of regenerating. I suppose you can make things affordable if you’re clever and committed enough. To save even more, we toyed with the idea of living in a yurt (And I wrote an article about it:

      Good luck to you too!

  3. says

    I have spent the past year taking canning workshops and classes and watching YouTube videos. I know how to can everything or how to look it up, including canning meat. We now have a food supply for several months. I watch for bulk buys on organic food and offer canning workshops. I am now learning how to make fermented foods, both dairy (yogurt, kefir, cheese) and vegetables. It is contributing to both my practical knowledge and peace of mind.

    • says

      We enjoy a bit of re-skilling too. Until it becomes too much! We’ve started turning our raw milk delivery into cream, creme fraiche, butter, yogurt and even kefir. But sometimes we get burned out and just drink the milk or urge our daughter to use it with cereal.

  4. says

    I agree with the comment that if you’re overwhelmed by tomatoes, plant fewer plants. Or donate the excess to a local food bank or soup kitchen. I live in a big city as well, but fortunately we often have yards here, so I have converted around 1200 square feet if back yard lawn into a garden for my family. For the past 3 seasons, we have continuously adjusted the ratios of each type of plant, based on the previous years’ experience. Still, I’m a sucker for tomatoes and always tend to over plant them. I haven’t even gotten into canning yet myself, with having a new baby our priorities cans shift a fair bit! So when I have a surplus of tomatoes, I make soup, chili, or pasta sauce, or give away tomatoes to friends and family. I always end up with too much to get rid of as well, so I freeze them whole, giving me more time to decide what to do. I can think of worse problems to have than too much food to eat 😉

    • says

      Funny thing is, the tomatoes we planted this year all died off. Only the volunteers from last year flourished, and how. I didn’t have the heart to pull them out in the spring, so now we get our bumper crop. I guess that’s a lesson in letting nature take the lead and being grateful for what you’re given. Anyway, you’re right that too much food seems like a First World Problem. You’re lucky to have so much land in the city. And good that you’re putting it to use, helping to counter modern society’s addiction to Lawn Culture.

  5. says

    “Scarpaciatta” is an Italian term for devouring whatever is in season. When asparagus is coming in in the spring, you eat asparagus prepared dozens of ways, then, just when you’re getting sick of asparagus, artichokes start coming in, and you eat artichokes until the next thing is coming in. It’s not just being a locavore, it’s being an aggressive locavore, devouring whatever is freshest at the time, challenging yourself to prepare it in new ways.

    If you have a community garden plot, you’re already doing something. The demand you’d place on distant food sources is diminished, so the carbon footprint of your diet shrinks. But I sympathize with the problem of surplus. One thing we do with excess salad tomatoes is freeze them whole. Then you can pull out just what you need for the dish. Another option is to contact local soup kitchens or urban gleaning groups that go around to neighborhoods picking fruit that’s overwhelming backyard gardeners, and distributing it to food pantries and soup kitchens.

  6. says

    Hi Erik,
    As farmers who are trying to operate sustainably, we would love to dialogue with you about this on our podcast. Would you agree to an interview? 20 minutes plus or minus. You have my e-mail on your database. Please let me know. Thanks!

  7. says

    For the tomatoes, try dehydrating them. We used one of the cheap, round dehydrators from walmart and it worked fine, great if you’re just getting started. They aren’t as good as sun dried tomatoes I’m sure, but they are good, and it’s an easy way to preserve them without a whole lot of work. I don’t think we did anything but slice them and put them in the machine. Some people may blanch them and remove the skins first, but it’s not necessary. I enjoyed your article and wish you and yours good luck. Maybe one day you’ll get those overalls and a farm 😉

    • says

      Thanks, Christine, that’s good advice about dehydrating. We’ve got an Excalibur in the basement; maybe it’s worth pulling it out. And thanks for your good wishes for the farm and overalls! I’ll have to hope that by then I become more of a morning person too…

  8. says

    I buy my food on a farm nearby and learned a lot about how many cucumbers can one plant grow – it´s our second year at this place and we have a box in front of our house and give the overflow for free – my digging seems to be a little bit infectious, i´ve seen some beets in the gardens nearby – perhaps we can swop some goods and our experiences next year. It´s always easier to make faults together. :-)

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