Monday, July 12, 2010

Agrarian Road Trip with the Presbyterian Hunger Program

Guest post by Toxic Free NC Intern Laura Valencia.

After interning with Toxic Free NC in the summer of 2009, working specifically on farm worker advocacy, I was left with the nagging sensation that the global food system was seriously ill. I learned first-hand about the symptoms of the sickness through sharing stories with farm workers who provide much of the labor that keep the food system chugging along. Pesticide exposure, poor housing, and unsafe working conditions were just a few aspects of the status quo that I not only heard about, but saw with my own two eyes. It wasn’t hard to come out of the summer with the idea that the food system is an unbridled beast, a problem that neither law nor economy would be able to fix.

Then, in the spring of 2010 I heard about the Presbyterian Hunger Program’s Agrarian Road Trip to the US Social Forum. Although the name is a total mouthful, the idea is quite simple: get together 15 people from across the country to road trip through eight states and visit just and sustainable agricultural projects. Or, in other words, my dream vacation. This trip gave me the opportunity to see the local agriculture movement as up close and personal as I saw the problems with conventional agriculture, and learn about much needed local solutions to national and global problems!

We toured from Louisville, KY to Detroit, MI by way of Berea KY, Maryville TN, Asheville NC, Wytheville VA, Mullens WV, and Youngstown & Cleveland OH (map). I’d like to report on the NC projects that our group visited and commend your state on a fantastic variety of agrarian projects!

The Veteran’s Restoration Quarters and Transitional Housing in Asheville, NC is a converted Motel 8 with over 150 rooms. According to Director Michael Reich, the facility is in the top 5 of 600 similar facilities in the United States, evidence that they run a tight ship! One project, the Victory Garden, was started by two current residents who asked for a garden when they moved in. They now work a large piece of land sunrise to sunset every day of the week. This victory garden not only provides food to the men’s quarters, but also to the women’s quarters in the city. The two men also run a weekly tailgate market to support their project! Produce also goes to the culinary classes where other veterans work to develop skills. The Victory Garden serves the community: it is not divided into plots for different people, it is a garden that is completely communal. While giving us a tour, the men mentioned their composting initiatives and also their use of IPM. In the photo to the left, Ed, a resident of the Veteran’s Restoration Quarters talks with Talitha, a Road Tripper from California. If you look closely, you can see a patriotic scarecrow in the background!

The Free Store at Warren Wilson College was started in 1999 as a part of Warren Wilson College’s super progressive recycling program. As a college student, I was blown away by WWC’s initiatives across campus: local food advocacy in the cafeteria, sustainable ag practices taught in the classroom, and an eco-dorm for leisure activities! As a college student, I am also sensitive to big-budget college spending vs. small-budget college student saving. The project that I saw that really appeared to not only be cutting-edge environmentally but also progressive socially was the Warren Wilson Free Store. The Free Store is an initiative to divert waste from the landfill – the message on their website is clear: “If you have some stuff you want to get rid of, no matter what it is, and you think that someone else might still be able to use / salvage it, bring it down.” Shelves upon shelves are filled with half-used shampoos, old cell phone chargers, dirty shoes, and suitcases. Just about everything a college student would throw away is found there, and more! I even picked up a “Warren Wilson Admissions” polo shirt. This project is part of WWC’s awesome recycling program, which you can check out here.

Our group spent the night at Warren Wilson College and had the pleasure of making Marc Williams’, local ethnobotanist, acquaintance. Marc led us through a meal that used over 30 ingredients, the vast majority local and harvested just that day. The menu included: herbal tea of monarda, spearmeint, sassafras leaves; pesto of lamb’s quarter and basil; garden salad with more lamb’s quarter and lettus, garnished with day lilies and monarda (left); and for dessert, juneberry-blackberry cobbler. Marc Williams, our favorite genius, is an ethnobotanist, teacher, chef, and farmer who went to Warren Wilson College and Appalachian State University. He is leading an online course that is donation based and based on the book Botany in a Day. Check it out!

One last story I’d like to tell is about a lunch our group shared in Brevard, NC at Fred and Elizabeth Bahnson’s homestead. Because our trip was sponsored by the Presbyterian Hunger Program, we often spent time with theologians and learned specifically about faith-based organizing around the local foods movement. The Bahnson couple, who are building an eco-house just up the hill from their gravity-fed edible forest and permaculture garden (idyllic, no?) are both theologians who met at Duke Divinity. My fellow roadtripper Bethel (her blog here) describes the Bahnson’s projects with detail:

Where the Bahnsons live is actually a microclimate in the midst of the mountains – a tropical rainforest, receiving nearly 80 inches of rain each year – as much as Seattle. As they build their new house, the Bahnsons have planned to harvest the rainwater, situating their catchment system on top of a hill – to gravity-feed to their biointesive growing beds. In addition to rainwater catchment, Fred has designed swales on the contour of the land to irrigate native fruit trees and prevent erosion on the steep slope on which their farm is southerly-facing. Other highlights of their farm-to-be are living mulches that fix nitrogen (lupine) and accumulate other deep nutrients (comfrey), as well as growing their own grains (Hopi blue corn for grinding). Elizabeth is currently dreaming of a goat dairy.

If you are interested in the connection between food and faith, check out an article Fred Bahnson co-wrote for the organization he founded, the Anathoth Community Garden. He points out, as many agrarian theologians do, that human and humus are not so far apart, a fact often supported by the Bible’s stories. The Bahnson’s are a living example of a desire to serve the soil rather than dominate it.

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