Tag Archives: local food

“Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer” by Novella Carpenter

Penguin Press, 2009, 269 pages.

This book presents a striking contrast to “The Good Food Revolution – Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities” by Will Allen, which I reviewed on January 29, 2015.

For starters, Allen farms in chilly Milwaukee, whereas Carpenter lives in sunny southern California. Allen is incredibly systematic and diligent, and good at using “the system” to get grants and organize groups. Carpenter is eccentric, rebellious and individualistic. Both manage to raise food in a city setting. Each has a progressive to liberal/radical political agenda. Other than that, they have little in common.

Carpenter did not own the urban land she farmed, describing herself as a squatter. She lived, by choice, in a neighborhood most of us would never consider – violent and poverty stricken, a marginal community full of marginalized, struggling people. To her, sharing was an integral part of being an urban farmer. She gated but did not lock her garden, and rarely interfered with people who helped themselves to her produce. She scavenged extensively, often in the dumpsters behind restaurants.

But these two farmers share a vision of a highly altered urban landscape, and I consider most of the changes they advocate to be highly desirable from an environmental point of view.

One of Carpenter’s especial goals was to raise meat on her urban farm, and the book plots her passage from poultry to rabbits to pigs. She raised two hogs (not pigs, but full sized hogs). Her monetary investment was minor, but the labor of feeding the fast growing hogs on dumpster sourced food sounded overwhelming. I wonder if she did it again.

One reason I can’t imagine living Carpenter’s life style if that it seems overwhelmingly dirty. She kept poultry in her apartment, rabbits on her deck, pigs beside her building.

Both Carpenter and Allen are well worth reading. I would love to see both cities and suburbs producing food (and flowers!) and supporting birds and other wildlife.

“Good Morning, Beautiful Business” by Judy Wicks

Good Morning, Beautiful Business by Judy Wicks. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013, 274 pages. Subtitle The unexpected journey of an activist entrepreneur and local economy pioneer.

Another long-ish pause in my blogging, as I read another long and thoughtful book…

This blog post counts as two items – a report on a lecture and also a book review! I bought the book when Judy Wicks spoke at my workplace on March 19, 2015. (It didn’t really take me three weeks to read her book. I had others in progress.)

Judy Wicks was brought to campus by the School of Business, with enthusiastic faculty support. Apparently three or four classes were required to attend, so the room was jammed with students signing in and extra chairs had to be set up.

Good Morning, Beautiful Business is a memoir. Wicks is just two years older than me, so we experienced many of the same events but followed very different pathways through life.

Odd features of this book:

  • Judy Wicks is not to be found in Wikipedia, except as the first wife of Richard Hayne, one of the founders of the extremely successful Urban Outfitters, a business than has generated a fortune. I thought everyone who EVER wrote a book would show up in Wikipedia. (Wicks is easily found on Amazon.com. If she wasn’t, that would be spooky.) I thought the White Dog Café might show up in Wikipedia, but it is also missing. It shows up on at least a dozen “restaurant finder” web sites.
  • This memoir contains NO information about Judy Wicks’ college experience, not even the name of the school she attended. Why?! Was she disowned? Most colleges love to claim their famous alumnae. Her website says only that she earned a BA in English. Wicks’ descriptions of childhood and high school are vivid, as is her chapter on her post college experience with Americorps, which sent her to a very remote village in Alaska. A friend of mine collects written accounts of college experiences. I thought surely there would be something in this book for him!

Judy Wicks was a child in the 1950s, college student and young adult in the 1960s. One of “us”, a baby boomer. The 50s were distinguished by sexism and conformity, the 60s by the Vietnam War and its associated backlash. Wicks came out of these trials a feminist and a skeptic, but still an idealist. She stumbled into the restaurant business (starting out as a waitress) and later founded the highly successful White Dog Café, known nationally and even internationally for its commitment to using food that is

  • organic
  • local and
  • humanely produced.

It is also a hub for progressive social action and community building. Much of what she does and cares about can be subsumed in the category of “sustainability”, a term that has been so used, abused and co-opted as to be almost useless without detailed qualification.

Judy Wicks has enough energy for four or five average people! The account of her activities left me breathless.

So all of this was going on while I lived 60 miles down the road, in Southern New Jersey. How did I miss it? I don’t know. My only time of residence in Philadelphia was a three month sojourn in the Ronald MacDonald House, when my son had a serious medical crisis. I did, in fact, dine at the White Dog once or twice during that time, but I wasn’t processing much detail.

Of the three commitments listed above, the one that speaks to me most strongly is “local”. Wicks has the courage to envision an economy radically different from that in which we now live. She highlights ideas like self-reliance and cooperation that have been greatly diminished in our current competitive and globalized world order. (She scarcely needs to mention that it has brought us into terrible risk.)

Just today, I drove around looking for local eggs. I can, if I make the effort, buy eggs directly from farmers. The farm market “scene” around here fills my summers with delight.

I have almost no experience with the entrepreneurial spirit Wicks so embodies and values, and I can’t imagine owning a business. Maybe at some point I will invest in a local business! I like that idea.

As I read the last few chapters of Wicks book, I wondered how she maintains her optimism. I found the following formulation – Wicks believe that social action requires two generations. Efforts of the baby boom generation to resolve the ills that led to the Vietnam War failed because the “generation gap” between the WWII generation and the subsequent anti-war baby boomers was so traumatically, excruciatingly wide. She thinks that our generation and our children (down to the millenials) are working together much more constructively. Well, it’s a theory. I hope Wicks is right!

ALL business students should read Good Morning, Beautiful Business. So should most of the rest of us, since consumers determine which businesses flourish.

“The Good Food Revolution – Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities” by Will Allen with Charles Wilson

Will Allen is 65 years old, just like me. He was born into very different circumstances. When I read this book, I had to keep reminding myself that his childhood and youth did not take place “far away and long ago”. We were separated by maybe 500 miles in distance, and no time at all. But I didn’t “meet” him until I read this book.

Will Allen was born in Maryland, into a poor African American family from South Carolina. His parents were hard working and incredibly self-reliant. Allen credits his highly athletic physique to a childhood of hard work and healthy food. He discovered basketball early in his teens and used it as his path away from poverty. I’m familiar with the “Great Migration” of African Americans from the South to northern cities, and even with some of the reverse migration that followed. (There’s a demographer in the family. Hi, JBC!) But it never occurred to me to analyze it from the viewpoint of food and nutrition! Will Allen writes about this with great clarity.

Allen’s depiction of pre-Migration families eating healthy homegrown food is somewhat at odds with tales told by my father-in-law, a North Carolina university physician whose father practiced rural medicine before him. His descriptions of country life among the poor included appallingly bad health and severe malnutrition. Maybe life in the coastal plain of North Carolina was harder than in South Carolina or Virginia.

But there’s no arguing with Allen’s assertion that, once at their urban destinations, African Americans and other poor people faced (and continue to face) many barriers to healthy eating. For three decades, I’ve watched Atlantic City struggle to retain a single supermarket. If you don’t have a car, buying a week’s worth of food at a time isn’t going to happen, and if you are working two jobs, how much can you cook? Cheap, starchy food isn’t very satisfying, so obesity sometimes catches up with you.

Will Allen is one very creative farmer! I’ve farmed a little, with an oddball list of shaky successes – blackberries to die for, okra, basil, yard-long Chinese beans. But I’ve also been frequently defeated (by deer, weather, etc.), and have decided to leave agriculture to my more talented and hardworking neighbors. Allen preaches patience and plainly has learned, over time, how to make barren, desolate areas productive. Allen branched out beyond vegetables to raising chickens and even fish.

Along the way, he has involved schools and neighborhood centers and cooperatives. He has figured out how to go vertical, crowding multiple crops into small areas. Presently, he works both on crops/projects that are economically viable and ones that require subsidies. He identifies ENERGY as a major barrier to urban agriculture in his city of Milwaukee.

I love Allen’s vision of bringing food closer to people and people closer to food. I know people who are working along the same lines in Atlantic City and even Camden, the saddest city I know. I wish them all the greatest possible success.

“No Impact Man” by Colin Beavan

Last August, when I wrote about Cities Are Good for You by Leo Hollis, I noted Hollis’ reference to No Impact Man by Colin Beavan. I was dismissive because the thought of living very “simply” in New York City struck me as silly. But I just read the book, and was more impressed than I expected to be. (I agree with Hollis in thinking solutions to our environmental problems are likely to arise from the cities.)

First consider the subtitle, The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes… Sounds like he managed to undertake this without taking himself 100% seriously. Whew! The last thing the environmental movement needs is more dead serious gloom and doom. Reading Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature in 2007 shut me down emotionally for months.

Colin Beavan was much more engaging. It takes nerve to begin an experiment in radical simplicity when there is a toddler in the house. Beavan’s wife Michelle alternated between a high level of cooperation and occasional rebellion, as in “It’s YOUR project”.

Beavan started with a plan. He worked in stages, rather than trying to change his whole life at once. For starters, he wanted to produce NO trash. Challenging for a family that was living on take-out food! They were buried in packaging. Next came travel, from taking the stairs instead of the elevator (6 floors) to re-evaluating holiday travel plans. It got much more complicated that the usual problems associated with figuring out which relatives to visit.      

With respect to food, Beavan wanted not only to avoid excessive packaging, but also to limit himself to food grown within a 250 mile radius and to stick to a vegetarian diet. He found out considerable effort was involved. I don’t think I would be happy eating that way. Beavan was surprised that he would have to learn to cook.

I won’t review the family’s steps with respect to overconsumption. 

A few months into the project, Beavan turned off the electricity in his apartment. This was what attracted my attention when I first heard of this project – fear of fire. I still think using candles in an apartment is too risky. Changing your schedule to take advantage of daylight is great, but hard in winter.

Along the way, Beavan wanders off into occasional reflections about life, families, nature and the future. I enjoyed this.

Such a book inevitably causes the reader to start making comparisons. How am I doing compared to this dude? My lifestyle doesn’t look impressive, but I give myself a pat on the back for certain things. Thirty years of composting! Two sons who don’t own cars. A small house only a few miles from work. Food wise, I’m in a gray area. I’m an omnivore. But I cook, and cooking (have you noticed?) is now a subversive activity.

I wonder if NO IMPACT MAN ever met PLANET WALKER, aka John Francis, whose book Planet Walker is subtitled 22 Years of Walking, 17 Years of Silence? I met Francis at a neighbor’s home. A generation older than Beavan, he’s now a semiretired environmental icon. He seems content.

Beavan’s last effort during his one-year project was to find ways to improve the environment. He started by picking up trash, then moved on to organizations and politics. His comments on organizations and their members make interesting reading.

And then? After the no-impact year was over, Beavan looked back over his year of living “according to rules” and reconstituted a more moderate life style. I look forward to seeing what he does next.

“Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – A Year of Food Life” by Barbara Kingsolver

This book scared me. It’s like “An Inconvenient Truth” by Al Gore which I never read, because of my friend Dick’s reaction, which was simply “I’m scared”. If Dick, a PhD and a clear thinker in the areas of science and public policy, is scared, so am I. And I know a great deal about global warming, so why read the book?

I knew less about the vulnerability of our food supply.

Kingsolver and her family decided to try for one year to eat from within their own county in Virginia. They didn’t go for 100%. Each chose a favorite food to “keep”, and they bought some things like rice, flour and oatmeal that just weren’t locally available.

They took a vacation in Italy. Without these human touches, the book would have been insufferable! Kingsolver certainly has a serious agenda.

Another saving grace is that she emphasized the local Farmers Market as the place where change can start. And I live among a plethora of roadside stands and farmer’s markets! I can buy fresh produce and flowers daily in summer. We argue over whose corn is better, the family around the corner or the farmer I pass on the way to work. I grow my own herbs and sometimes eat my neighbors eggs. What a blessing! Within this county, I can get fish, shellfish, venison and locally made wine. And possibly the best of all onions, something called a “candy onion”.

Will I made some changes in how I eat? Maybe… I hate to give up the distant fruits, like bananas and avocados. 

I originally read this book in July of 2009. Farm stands come and go – the feast continues!

“The Town that Food Saved – How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food” by Ben Hewitt.

I’m posting this in honor of the First Annual Tour de Farm New Jersey. Someone forwarded me an e-mail about this event, and I realized that the cyclists would pass through my township, stopping at Sahl Farm which is two miles east of my home. What is the Tour de Farm? It’s a bicycle tour intended to support NJ agriculture and learn about New Jersey farming. The tour was supposed to get to Sahl Farm at 4 pm. I got there – not much was happening. I chatted with the farmer and then with the driver of the “sag wagon”, the vehicle that saves the day if bikes break down or muscles fail to cooperate.

Our conversation wandered to Vermont, and I mentioned the book which is the subject of this post. I read it in August of 2010. My thoughts at that time…

Very scary book. I never watched Al Gore’s A Simple Truth, but I would say this is on a par with it.

We could have a food crisis.

We have seen the price of gas run wild, the housing market implode and unemployment soar. Yes, our ‘food system’ could get messed up.

Should I stockpile food?

There’s lots more to this book. The town of Hardwick, Vermont, has struggled with loss of industry and the difficulty of farming Vermont’s rocky hills. One Amazon reviewer says the book “…made me think — really think — about reasonable scale and the importance of pulling local food down from its elite and expensive status”.

Lately I’m hearing lots of buzz about organic farming and local food. I may give this book a second read.