The Big Dogs of Sustainable Agriculture... in Cincinnati

Wendell Berry, Gene Logsdon, and Wes Jackson were at Xavier on Sunday night for an "informal conversation" about the state of agriculture in this country, and we were in the house.  When I told my mom, Noreen Warnock, about the event, she said something to the affect of - "those are the big dogs of sustainable ag" - and then promptly made plans to come.

I could go on and on here, but let me just share my top line thoughts (see below for the slideshow of photos):

- There were a lot of people there.  It was in the Cintas Center, and while it was not the whole building by any means, it was impressive and exciting how many people from the community and university that were interested in this dialogue and these topics more broadly.  I'll go back to my mom again (currently with Local Matters in Columbus) - she has been working on local, sustainable, environmental issues for about 2 decades now and has been talking a lot recently about how far we've come as a food justice movement (or whatever the heck you want to call it - a million dollar prize to whoever can figure out the new language to talk about this in a more accessible way for regular folks that don't speak "food") - so... YAY!

- Almost all of the people there were white folks.  I wish it didn't, but race matters.  Especially in this city.  Class, gender, sexual orientation, and other ways we're often divided matter a lot too, but in Cincinnati race is pretty solid indicator of inequality (not in every case, by any means, but in general).  Figuring out how to get local, sustainable food costs to be affordable is arguably the top conundrum facing this movement (something Michael Pollan and others have written and spoken about extensively).  And for all sorts of reasons (organizing to build power, equality of opportunity, etc.), I'm very hopeful that this issue can be something that brings people in Cincinnati together, not pulls us apart.

- The facilitation and format didn't quite hit the mark.  I should start by saying that I appreciate what the folks at Xavier were trying to do - create an intimate, memorable event that doesn't focus on 1 person... for lots and lots of people.  It's tough when you try to have an "informal conversation" where the folks are sitting on a large platform 20 feet from the closest audience member.  The facilitators were on their own shorter platform off to the side.  In the end, there were a number of interesting things said, but the flow just never quite clicked in my opinion.

- This group has a great rapport.  My mom (again!) was on a panel with Wes and Wendell several years back, and had prepped us for their collective demeanor.  They joked and joshed one another consistently, and we got a chance to really see their sense of humor.

And now for one more list - the most interesting/poignant things I felt were made (in no particular order):

-Wes Jackson: "We've gotta have political change and then be relentless to keep it. Small sustainable operations will only be small islands until we change the politics. We can get so tied up in the little virtues, this is what the system wants, for you to get caught up."  Bottom line: we have to pay attention to politics, policy, and power if we want to win big picture, long term - not just moral victories.
- Wendell Berry:  "A farm is modeled on integrity as an organism, so I've always been for local over organic. If you work with a grower who you know and you trust then you're using your money in a good way. Consumers need to find ways to increase their knowledge and therefore their responsibility."  Bottom line: If you have a huge organic farm that is a monoculture, that's not a great model.  Know where you're getting your food, and you're on the right path.  He also said, to follow what Wes said above: "If you've got mountaintop removal, growing a garden is not gonna help you, you need a policy solution."
- Gene Logsdon:  "There is a revolution coming"- showing how we can quit ruining land with annual grains like corn and wheat - "corn is pricing itself out of the food market."  Bottom line: He said he did some math after talking to a neighbor (he farms in Upper Sandusky, OH) and that the typical farmer has 2 million dollars invested in 4000 acres before harvest.  That is crazy!

I'll leave you with a great piece by Wendell Berry - The Pleasures of Eating.

No comments: