Art going up at Riverside Studios

Happy to announce that Riverside Studios in downtown Truckee will be displaying my art. Honored to be working with such great artists in such a beautiful space.

http://riversideartstudios.com/

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The Pain of Organic Farming

An article I wrote titled, “The Pain of Organic Farming” is running on Elephant Journal right now. Here’s a link to go check it out: The Pain of Organic Farmingjason-on-tractor

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Been working on art lately.

All are acrylic on wood….

 

 

 

J. Jason Graff

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Farming Tip #137 or The Curious Humor Of A Complex Universe

Image

Say a starry eyed city slicker shows up to the farm talking about wanting to work outdoors, with nature, and flowers, and staying in shape and wanting to get back to some romanticized version of some theoretical idea of what farming is, and suppose they want to quit their office job, buy some land, and sit on the front porch chewin’ on a piece of straw listenin’ to the “kayoats”, and say they want to work on your farm for a while so they can “learn the ropes.” You know who I’m talking about (ahem, what? Not me!). Well tell that person, “Why sure, why don’t you come back tomorrow and we’ll get you started.” Now you know it’s going to rain tomorrow and you know you’ll be harvesting carrots so why have them start today? Right?

They show up, of course, bright eyed and nearly winded from the excitement of it all, and it’s raining (as predicted!) and you hand them a digging fork and you send them out to the far field, that one waaayyyy over there about an 1/8 of a mile away and you tell them we need 120 lbs of carrots, cleaned, bunched 6 a piece, all pretty looking. They’ll have to walk the carrots back to the packing shed because it’s too wet to bring any equipment into the fields. Now you watch them as they bound off with glee because they’re farming now (!) and to hell with that stupid office job and they’re gonna farm and be happy and …..now keep an eye on them throughout the morning. Look at their face (if you can see it under all that mud) and you watch as their clothes begin to sag from the rain (no rain gear), their backs begin to hunch over a little, and you check in with them with some verbal contact to make sure they’re still able to form complete sentences and know what day it is and who the President is and all that.

Encourage them of course, give them some positive feedback (even though you know you’re gonna have to send in some reinforcements to pick up the slack), put a smile on your face and go about your business. About noontime call him in to the packing shed and tell him that’s all for today. Nice work. Hope to see ya tomorrow morning.

Now you know where I’m going with this. Either he/she shows up tomorrow or not. But the important thing is done. You’ve done the most compassionate thing you could ever do for that person by trying to disabuse them of any idyllic notions they may have of what farming is early on so they can get back to their comfortable (and well paid) lives. Nice job, now pat yourself on the back.

Here’s the complicated part which you have no control over and you’ll never know if this is what did it. “It” being what caused this person to come back the next day (sorer than they’ve ever been despite that monthly gym membership). This person could have been out there cursing himself, cursing the carrots, hurling demeaning epithets at the mud, wondering why in the hell carrots were so damn cheap and shouldn’t they be priced like ten times what they are I can’t believe people do this….and then it happens. Out of the corner of his eye something catches his attention and he notices a jackrabbit go bounding off into the bushes and he thinks to himself, “Wow, look at the size of those ears!” And truly, they are magnificent ears. And nearly everyone who sees a jackrabbit for their first time has this same reaction. But just then, as if on cue, here comes the tailess bobcat leaping not far behind in impressive bursts, trained on the jackrabbit with laser-like intensity, following each turn with incredible precision until he too disappears into the bushes, (the white rump being the last thing you see on a bobcat) and then, as if nature wrote the script just for our hapless newbie–because, it seems, she has a curious sense of humor–a redtail hawk shrieks above as it whirls in the gray sky casting an unshakable punctuation mark to it all. Right there, just right there is where the hook is set. Our newbie farmer is coming back tomorrow no matter what. There’s no changing it.

Despite your best intentions the universe has its ways and when that newbie shows up tomorrow you’ll never know why and depending on your disposition at the time you’ll either shake your head in disbelief, or nod at them when they arrive in a sort of “I think I know” sense (or maybe inside joke sense?). Pat them on the shoulder and send them off to do something easy, like…like…well, just find them something to do that involves flowers or lavender or, my personal favorite, basil. They earned it. And besides, it might be a while before they see another bobcat.

 

J. Jason Graff

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A Brief Moment In Deep Time

Mojave twilight.

While walking slowly through the Mojave desert I found what looked like part of an old desert tortoise’s shell, sun bleached and chalky, broken into pieces that fit together like a puzzle in large geometric shapes to form what might have been the bottom plate of his shell. Who knows how old he was when he died. He didn’t keep track, I’m sure. But we do, and he could have been 100 years old when he took his last step. A noble desert traveler returning to dust, being carried off on the wind, the whispering desert wind.

At twilight the red and purple sky of the sinking desert sun played backdrop to the yipping of coyotes off on an opposing ridge, the wind would sometimes stir and the sound it made through the Joshua Trees was like a whisper of the cool air. If I listened closely enough, and with a mind settled like snow on a frozen lake, would I hear what it had to say? Could the wind talk? I like to think it can, but only if we listen, which we’re not likely to do anymore.

I had lost my way. I used to have a mindfulness practice but it went by the wayside some time ago and there’s nothing that feeds the drama wheel of modern American society than mindlessness and a blindspot to self awareness. I was caught up, “in the web” or like a fly in vaseline, mind like a “monkey mind” the Buddhists say, darting this way and that with no control, carried on the waves of emotion like a feather in a whirlpool, slowly dropping, but quickening as the swirl sank further.

I wonder if some of my lack of awareness, my decreasing attention span and scattered mind, might be because the internet is rewiring our brains. Making us less able to concentrate. Less able to pay attention, to listen, to be present. Throw in cell phones, texting, earbuds…and now here you have one culture hellbent on doing something other than whatever it is they’re presently doing (like just sitting, waiting, eating).

For a long time I had a mindfulness practice and have done residential meditation retreats in silence, practicing for 7 days starting at about 6 am and lasting until about 10 pm each night. I have studied eastern philosophy (Taoism, Buddhism, Yoga, etc) for over 18 years. But I had let my practice go by the wayside. And it showed.

I was caught in the stream like a fish getting hooked on every single thought my mind wanted to entertain me with, and so I was on autopilot as a result. Drifting along. My mind like a drunk on an open dance floor barely standing but trying to follow each white dot that spun on the floor from the magical disco ball above. So to the desert I went.

To re-wire my brain. To take it back from the busyness of the modern world. Meditation can change our brains, reclaim what is I think our ancestral heritage (and right) to silence, peace, calm. To a collected, concentrated and equanimous mind.

When my mind has been as active as it was it takes some time to settle down and become quiet. I knew this from years of practice so I was patient. Eventually my mind gave up trying to get my attention, the dramas in my head slowly fading away, the constant chatter, the simulacra it must rehearse for some supposed future event that always never happens as my mind plans it, yet it never learns from this and continues to try and prepare for a future it will never understand.

And that first instant when it finally shuts up and all I have is the warm sun, the endless blue sky and the monzogranite boulders beaming light from the quartzite gems embedded in them, that first instant of silence is like a great massage of the soul, like a giant exhalation casting off the fetters of a tense and stressful grip, releasing me into a timeless moment that most cultures before us probably knew, like the Hopi, or the Lakota, or the Mojave.

Along with the listening I watched. I took slow walks, sat often out in the open desert, scanning the silence, the desert floor for a rock that moves slowly. I’ve never seen a desert tortoise but I know that from a distance it looks like a rock. And then it moves, surprising the unsuspecting witness, taking its time. Slow time. Deep time.

The desert tortoise has patiently plied the Mojave Desert for centuries, eons really, with little care about getting anywhere at all. Its sense of time must be very different than ours. We seem to view it as some sort of contest, or race, to get in as much as we can in as little time as we can and we’re sure keep track of it all. We have watches, clocks, countdown clocks, timers, alarms, hours, minutes, seconds, nano-seconds….but we’ve lost the sun as a result. And the moon. We’ve lost the rhythm of it all. We’ve lost a sense of time that is grand, that is slow, that is quiet.

Most of what drives our lives now, most of what we acquire, the “stuff”, all of the activity that fills the gaps between the activities we’ve already taken on, the new car, the new house, a different job, facebook, texting, tweeting…..all of it is racing towards us, or us to it, in order, in my view, to avoid one thing: Boredom.

So I sat in the desert and experienced boredom to its fullest. I watched as my mind wanted to hike, or bike, or run, or surf the internet, or climb, or DO SOMETHING damnit other than just sit there, and I became comfortable with boredom again. I think I briefly sank into slow time, deep time, and I imagined that when all of my “stuff” is stripped away, all of my busy body activities are removed, that the peace I felt was something that was a genetic right I inherited, that all humans inherited, and that somehow we’ve managed to push it away. I think it is a tragedy that we’ve lost a sense of a right to just do nothing. No agendas. No deadlines. No schedules. No time.

I think that if we were to ask the desert tortoise how he deals with boredom he would look at us with confusion (sadness really) and wonder what in the world it was we were talking about. It’s like when the Dalai Lama was asked about self hate and he didn’t understand the question. When it was explained what self hate was and that many Americans experience it, he became very sad and shook his head. He couldn’t understand such a thing. Self hate was not a concept in the Tibetan culture so to him this foreign phenomenon seemed alien, and tragic.

I imagine the desert tortoise reacting the same way to a question about boredom. I see him shaking his head, slowly lifting himself with his stout legs, and walking off at a measured, deliberate pace, picking his way through sage and cactus with no specific destination in mind nor schedule to meet. I would watch him until he disappeared, which would take a long time, to grant him the respect an old sage deserves, a desert wanderer with nothing to accomplish. No one to impress.

I think that we fear the quiet actually, we fear slowness, we fear “nothing to do.” In our culture if you’re not doing something you’re lazy. We boast of working 70 hours a week, one upping each other in some strange competition to see who can accumulate the most stress per pay period. It’s odd really when you think about it (if we ever think about it at all). We created the wheel, then we jump on it and run and run and run trying to catch up to some abstract “dream” that is uniquely American (of course) and if we just run faster we’ll catch that dream and live it. Like those blissful people you see in anti-depressant commercials. They found the dream. Why haven’t you?

Early in the morning I would search for bobcat. They would be hunting the deer mouse, or the jackrabbit in those early hours, but mostly I saw raven. Two black forms up in the deep blue desert sky one cawing, gurgling an almost heinous sound, and then back to cawing. Maybe he was telling the desert tortoise to rise. The sun is fast approaching old friend, come out and take your rightful place among us. The desert tortoise would be too smart to listen to raven knowing he was trying to trick him, for raven is a predator and not much of a friend to the desert tortoise. So he would stay in his burrow until February or March, waiting for the cold nights to pass and lengthening days that bring higher temperatures under the hot sun.

I imagine that in spring, from raven’s perspective up there, he can see rocks down below that slowly start to move. The desert coming alive, slow rocks shifting in no particular order, no sensed pattern, no goal in mind. Patient desert wayfarers that thank the morning sun and move on slowly toward no place but this place. Right here. Right now.

I followed the desert tortoise’s pattern of stirring when the sun was warm, retreating when it dropped behind the Little San Bernardino Mountains. We never did see a desert tortoise over those five days in the Mojave because they are dormant now in their burrows. But still I searched. Their numbers are falling and it is not so easy to spot them as it used to be. Another threatened species to add to the list, their habitat shrunk due to human encroachment, they are now confined mostly to the Mojave and Sonoran Desert.

They’ve come so far, through time, deep, geologic time only to arrive to a shrinking world around them. The closing in of their world brought about by a species with a sense of time that thinks in terms of accumulation, consumption, a single generation. A species that has things to do, promotions to achieve, sales targets, retirement homes to erect. And they have very little time to do it, it seems, the way they race around like they do, the tortoise must think. What’s the rush? I imagine him asking. Who is chasing them?

The human species is but a brief moment in deep time, a mere blip in the scale of geologic time so in terms of planetary seniority, we are the greenhorns. You would think we would show a little more respect to those who came before us. To those who’ve scaled deep time slowly, patiently, arriving here in this moment after many, many centuries of existence so that we may bow to them in reverence and maybe even learn something from them, and yet.

And yet.

At night the stars in the desert sky arc over like those quartzite gems in the boulders on the desert floor and twinkle in blue, orange, yellow and red pulses…the only thing piercing the dark silence is the occasional rumbling jet high above racing towards another landing. Then another takeoff. Then another landing. The desert tortoise waits below the earth, deep down, patiently as he does, for the changing tide, the warming soil, the golden rays increasing intensity to beckon him out. Come out old friend, I imagine the sun saying to the tortoise, Come take your rightful place among us. And when this happens months from now in spring, this time the tortoise will listen, trusting the old sun, thanking him for his warm embrace as he slowly emerges from his winter burrow. And then, just as the heat of the desert floor shimmers in the distance, when the raven whirls above in dark angles, the rocks will begin to move. Slowly. Just as they have for centuries. Just as they have for eons of deep time past.

Fiery Mojave Desert sunset.

Fiery Mojave Sunset

Epilogue

Five days of desert solitaire and I think I’ve recharged somewhat. I came out of the desert with a wish to approach this next year a little differently than the last. I want to react less and respond more with a sense of compassion, empathy, connectedness. I want to listen more, speak less. I want to appreciate downtime and not try to fill it with “stuff.” I want to stop trying to “save time” and spend time instead. I want to experience more peace, right now, in this moment without having to look for some activity to fill the time between the activity. I want to be present and be okay with “now” and let “what will be” come to me as it surely will, dressed very differently than what my mind would like to predict and daydream and rehearse about.I want to honor the disappearing desert tortoise and just slow down. Make space. Rest. This is my hope for the entire world actually, but especially for us here in America. I wonder how many of the problems we face as a culture, as a species, would be solved if we all just slowed down a little. Took our time. Spent our time. Here’s to a slower New Year. I hope.

*note–Below are some more photos I took while in the Mojave. Jump over the orange tumbleweed to take a gander if you like. Peace and blessings to you and may your 2013 greet you like the warm desert sun: Slowly and with a warm embrace.

Monzogranite boulder.

Monzogranite boulder. Frowning gorilla? Or Serious Meditation Man?

Desert Oasis

Desert Oasis

Whale?

Whale?

Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree

Lama?

Lama? Camel?

Viper

Viper

Mojave sky

Another spectacular Mojave sky.
J. Jason Graff
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Terra Firma Or Why We Better Start Getting Dirty

When I was a kid I roamed where I liked playing with friends, riding bikes, and building forts in the dirt. Times were different then I guess. We didn’t have soccer practice or band or cell phones nor the near lock up children experience today when it comes to playing outside. Or maybe it was because my family was poor and that’s why I didn’t have soccer practice or band. But I remember I wasn’t the only kid playing outside all over creation until the sun went down. Seems like most of us did back then.

I can understand why parents won’t let their kids play freely today. I get it that they don’t want their kids too far out of sight (or maybe they do and just don’t tell anyone about it). But I’m afraid all of this keeping kids busy doing other things or making sure they don’t stay outside too long and get themselves dirty is having a negative effect on our children’s health. It’s not just me that feels this way. So does science. Jump over the orange dirt pile to follow me along this dusty path.

Kids who grow up on traditional farms are 30% to 50% less likely than other children to develop asthma, a new study shows. But it’s not the fresh country air.It’s the germs.

This is a finding from a New England Journal of Medicine study. Now we know that germs are bad for you right? Isn’t that what we’ve been told by Unilever, Johnson & Johnson and everyone else hucking “anti-bacterial” soaps, wipes, and even children’s toys? Turns out that anti-bacterial soaps are no more effective than regular soap and water and may actually be harming you in many ways. Not to mention the fact the increase in antibiotic resistance is believed at least in part due to the overuse of these products. Even the FDA concluded that anti-bacterial soaps are no more effective than soap and water and some thought they would take action to curb advertiser claims. But they didn’t.

The Dirty Truth About Dirt And Health

The advertiser’s push of anti-bacterial products onto the American populace is having a deleterious effect on our health and our relationship to “germs” and “dirt.” The latter issue (our relationship to germs and dirt) is much greater than you might know, which I will cover later, but for now, let’s briefly cover the health side of this negative reaction to germs and dirt.

The alarming increase in rates of asthma and allergies among children in the U.S. has perplexed researchers for some time. The finding that kids raised on farms had lower rates of asthma and allergies strengthens the Hygiene Hypothesis, which put simply, suggests that the more sterile your environment growing up the weaker your immune system is. Population studies, observational studies, and lab studies all seem to strengthen the idea that by keeping our kids indoors and telling them to stay out of the dirt may be harming them in the long run.

One thing is for sure, I’m happier when I get dirty. And I’m not alone and there is a reason I’m not alone. Bring in the doctor please:

When Mary O’Brien, an oncologist at Royal Marsden Hospital in London, was inoculating cancer patients with a strain of M. vaccae (pronounced “emm vah-kay”), she noticed that in addition to fewer cancer symptoms, patients also showed improved emotional health, vitality, and even cognitive function.

Dr. O’Brien is not the only one to notice this positive effect on mood following exposure to Mycobacterium vaccae (M. vaccae), which is a microbe in soil (or dirt). And now researchers think they may have discovered a likely pathway between M. vaccae, our brain, and the triggering of happiness from dirt: serotonin.

Some studies have found that treatment with M. vaccae, the inoffensive soil bacterium, eases skin allergies, and other reports—such as the cancer study—show that it can improve mood. Christopher Lowry, a neuroscientist at the University of Bristol in England, had a hunch about how this process might work. “What we think happens is that the bacteria activate immune cells, which release chemicals called cytokines that then act on receptors on the sensory nerves to increase their activity,” he says.

Not only does M. vaccae appear to interact with our brain to elevate our mood, but it is even showing promise in reducing treatment time for tuberculosis and seems to help with skin allergies as well. But don’t you underestimate this dirty little bugger and the potential it shows. It’s not done with us yet and I think it has a mission:

Previous research studies on M. vaccae showed that heat-killed bacteria injected into mice stimulated growth of some neurons in the brain that resulted in increased levels of serotonin and decreased anxiety. “Since serotonin plays a role in learning we wondered if live M. vaccae could improve learning in mice,” says Matthews.

And well, it did. The mice exposed to M. vaccae navigated mazes twice as fast as “clean” mice and showed less anxiety behaviors. And here’s the kicker. Even when they stopped the exposure to M. vaccae in the experimental group, the “dirty” mice still solved the mazes faster than the “clean” mice showing that M. vaccae has lasting effects after exposure. Three weeks out the dirty mice were still smarter than the clean mice, but this difference was not statistically significant so the effects are temporary. Which just means it’s time to get dirty again.

Who would have thought? A tiny microbe in the soil affecting us so positively. Starts to make sense once you consider the fact that it’s estimated 90 trillion microbes (aka germs) live in our bodies. And if I start to talk about the amount of microbes in soil…well then the numbers start to get a little crazy. Just know this, soil is ALIVE. Teaming with life. So much life it’s almost impossible to comprehend the magnitude of it. One teaspoon of fertile soil can contain as much as 100 million to over 1 BILLION bacteria in it. One teaspoon. And that’s not all that’s in soil. Fungi, nematodes, spiders, pill bugs, earthtworms, mammals….It’s truly alive and very diverse.

That is, if it is fertile soil. And fertile soil is required to feed ourselves. Without it, we perish. Only about 11% of the earth’s surface remains arable land. A mere 6 inches deep on average worldwide. A truly thin skin of the earth that supports the life on it. But, it is shrinking:

There is little new land that can be brought into production, and existing land is being lost and degraded. Annually, says the UN’s food and agricultural organisation, 75bn tonnes of soil, the equivalent of nearly 10m hectares [almost 2.5 million acres] of arable land, is lost to erosion, waterlogging and salination; another 20m hectares [almost 5 million acres] is abandoned because its soil quality has been degraded.

The implications are terrifying. “The world is facing a serious threat of a major food shortage within the next 30 years. We are trying to grow more food on less land while facing increased costs for fertiliser, fuel and a short supply of water,” says Professor Keith Goulding, head of sustainable soils at Rothamsted research station and president of the British society of soil science.

Part of the problem is destructive farming practices. One need look no further than the dustbowl right here in our nation’s history to see what I’m talking about. The same practices that created the dustbowl continue today. Just drive down I-5 in the Central Valley of California in the dry season and you’ll see it firsthand. Plumes of dust cast off into the wind as huge farm machinery race across thousands of acres of class I soil. But now think of this on a global scale. The desertification of arable land around the globe poses an existential crisis for the human species and yet, you wouldn’t know it. For the most part our world leaders aren’t talking about it. Not a peep during the presidential election, but then, neither was climate change or water issues.

So why start off this diary by highlighting the benefits of one little soil microbe to our health and well being?

Because we should know by now that our bodies are teaming with microbes, our air, water, and our soil are all teaming with tiny microbes, both good and bad. But as advertisers have convinced us that “germs” are bad we’ve developed an unhealthy (literally) relationship with dirt (i.e. soil). And it is time we put an end to this madness and thought of and treated soil as the precious, life giving natural resource that it is. I don’t think I’ve heard a single politician talk about how soil is a precious natural resource worth protection. We protect water. We protect air. But what about fertile soil? Is it not as equally valuable to our existence as these other natural resources?

Think about it like this: What if someone were deliberately, conspicuously, with government approval, dumping 13 MILLION tons of ammonium nitrate into our drinking water each year? Do you think that would grab someone’s attention? Well that’s what’s happening to our soil. And this isn’t even taking into account the millions of tons of chemical herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides dumped each year into our soil (5.1 BILLION pounds of pesticides alone according to the EPA).

Isn’t fertile soil as precious as clean drinking water to our existence? Shouldn’t we be thinking about soil in a different way than we currently do?

Soil microbes like M. vaccae have something to tell us. And we better listen. One way we can begin to do something about it is to call for less chemical dousing of our fertile farmland. The agricultural research is VERY clear on this one point: Organic farms maintain and build soil fertility over time while chemical farms (i.e. “conventional” farms) reduce soil fertility over time. Most chemical farms’ soil is virtually dead. This is one reason they require fertilizer inputs in the form of industrialized synthetic elements (ammonium nitrate as nitrogen for example). Ammonium nitrate became popular as a nitrogen input on farms following World War II because leftover munitions from the war piled up and well, chemical companies needed something to do with themselves now that the war was over. In 2008 over 13 MILLION tons of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer were spread over America’s farmland alone. Dead soil requires a lot of help and the chemical companies are more than happy to oblige.

But we don’t have to help them.

Some promising methods in farming are on the rise which is encouraging. The increase in no-till/low till methods, thanks in part to the USDA’s efforts, even on chemical farms, is one example. The World Bank and the UN Food Program have changed their minds and are now recommending that developing countries go back to their traditional methods of farming instead of taking up industrialized chemical farming. Reforestation efforts in Africa and China are also encouraging. But lobbying our policy makers, politicians, and agricultural agencies to do more to preserve our fertile soil right here in America is desperately needed. We need to think of soil in a new light and we better do it fast.

Not only should we urge policy makers to protect fertile soil, but we can on an individual level make our voices heard through supporting sustainable farming practices. We can do this by buying organic, going to farmers markets, joining CSAs, becoming active in Land Trusts, getting involved in the local food movement, the urban farm movement, and farm land preservation societies.

Mostly though I would like you to just go get dirty. Go play in the soil. Dig a garden, weed, plant flowers, just get dirty. We need to return to a sense that it’s okay if we and our kids get dirty, to an attitude that says, hey kid, go ahead and play in the dirt. They want to do it naturally. When kids are very young it is hard to keep them clean because even they know that getting dirty is just too much fun. And by letting them act on their instincts they are helping their mental well being and their physical well being. They’re boosting their immune system and connecting to the earth in a very fundamental way that honors their birthright as a human being to just play in the dirt and be happy.

We need to re-establish our connection to the soil, which we’ve lost in our modern world. We are connected to it in profound ways and I think it’s time we recognize this relationship. So go out there and play in the dirt. It’s okay. You’ll be fine and in fact you’ll probably end up healthier and happier for it.

And while you’re out there playing in the dirt, say hello to M. vaccae and thank it for bringing a smile to your face (Do this when no one is looking). Make a commitment to it that you will do your part to protect its world so that it can help protect yours. Honoring our fertile soil in this way, making this connection to the thin skin of the earth that supports life, may just be the beginning to finally protecting this precious, powerful, and living resource.

*note: My soils professor admonished us dirty students to refer to dirt as “soil.” On no uncertain terms were we to utter the word “dirt” when referring to soil. She told us, “Dirt is what you get on your pants, all the rest is soil.” This I believe was to instill in us a sense that dirt is not alive, soil is. Soil is complex. Soil is diverse. It requires respect. So I apologize to you my instructor and to you honorable soil for soiling your reputation in such a dirty way. I promise I’ll try to not do it again.

 

J. Jason Graff

 

 

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Richard Nixon and the 2000 Mile Tomato

Dear friends, meet Earl Butz:

He’s the one on the right. You may have never heard of him but he has had a profound and lasting impact on your life. Nixon and Butz might be having a chat about Watergate in that photo and later Butz will show Nixon his wood carving of two elephants fornicating, which in all seriousness Butz was fond of doing (see below). But given the imprint Butz left behind on America’s deteriorating health and woeful agricultural system you should know a little something about this man.

In 1971 Nixon appointed Earl Butz to be Secretary of Agriculture, narrowly passing Senate confirmation by a vote of 51-44, which is worth noting because it wasn’t common for cabinet nominations to be this close in the Senate at the time. Senate democrats had reservations regarding Butz’s close ties to corporate agribusiness and as it turns out, their reservations were healthy. There is probably no single figure nor decision made that has had greater impact on our highly inefficient food system or to the physical health of our citizens than the appointment of Earl L. Butz to head the Department of Agriculture.

If you ever wonder how or why we got here:

“Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years.”

Then you can point at least one finger towards Earl L. Butz (you pick the finger).

Earl Butz was Secretary of Agriculture under Nixon and then Ford after Nixon resigned in shame and was considered the republican party’s path to wooing the farm vote (“Farmers Vote For Nixon, Save your Butz!”). He was an irascible figure, sharp tongued, and an uncompromising, forceful Secretary that had lasting impact on our agricultural system but was eventually forced to resign 1 month before the 1976 Ford/Carter election due to a racial comment Butz made. Butz wasn’t afraid to offend anyone and offend he did including Pope Paul VI, housewives that have, “such a low level of economic intelligence,” and yes, he was known to pull from his desk that wooden carving of two elephants fornicating I mentioned above to show visitors that he was in fact the GOP’s savior to the farm vote (the joke being that he was “producing” more republicans).

Classy guy.

But Butz’s lasting, and some would argue his most revile, offense was to the small family farm that was the backbone of our nation’s agricultural system for nearly 300 years. When Butz took over as Secretary of Agriculture he pushed the “get big or get out” paradigm that has had dramatic effects on the American farming landscape and on how we, as a culture and society, produce and consume our food. He took the New Deal policies created during the Great Depression to protect farmers from dramatic price drops and increasing farm foreclosures and stuck a pitchfork in it. “Plant fence row to fence row” he admonished farmers, don’t worry about the excess production, we’ll sell it to Asia. And they did (Russia to be exact), and so was born the globalization of our food system and, well, as the title of this diary suggests, the 2000 mile tomato. One immediate effect of Butz’s plant “fence row to fence row” push was environmental. Marginal land was put into production leading to loss of shelterbelts and wetlands, and erosion increased, leading to runoff and pollution of streams and waterways.

But something else would happen as a result of this mad push towards gutting the small family farm and boosting corporate mega-farms:

Urged on by Butz and buoyed by high grain prices, millions of Midwestern farmers spent the 1970s taking on debt to buy more land, bigger and more complicated machines, new seed varieties, more fertilizers and pesticides, and generally producing as much as they possibly could.Then, in the 1980s, the bubble burst. By that time, farms were cranking out much more than the market could bear, and prices fell accordingly. Meanwhile, interest rates had spiked, making all of those loans farmers had taken out in the ’70s into a paralyzing burden. Farm incomes plunged and tens of thousands of farms went under. Butz’s great policy change had given rise to the deepest rural crisis since the Depression.

Where have we heard this tune before? Seems to escape me.

As small farms went under, bigger farms gobbled them up, getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger. In the 1930’s there were about 6.5 million farms in America. In 2010 there were about 2.2 million. WWII had a slight effect on the number of farms in America but just know that in 1950 we still had roughly 5.5 million farms to count on for our food. And to give you an idea how these new farms differed from the old they gobbled up, I give you this comparison:

In 1900, almost all farms – 98 percent – had chickens, 82 percent grew corn for grain, 80 percent had at least one milk cow, and a like percentage had pigs. Given those numbers, it’s obvious that most of the farms were diversified, growing all of those items.By 1992, only 4 percent of farms reported having chickens, 8 percent had milk cows, 10 percent had pigs and only 25 percent were growing corn. Most of the farmers who were producing these commodities produced only one or two crops or livestock items. Of the 17 major farm commodities, the average farm in 1900 produced five of them; in 1992, the average farm produced less than two.

Lack of diversity, in any system, be it animal species, plant species, market competition, etc., is an unhealthy situation. These bigger farms began to produce one, maybe two crops on larger and larger acreage. And I’m sure you can guess what those two crops mostly were/are: Corn and Soy. Fence row to fence row. Corn and soy. Bigger and bigger machines were developed to plant, cultivate, and harvest these crops and as the mechanization creeped in, humans got pushed out. Fewer and fewer people began to raise fewer and fewer crops on larger and larger acreage. This is mono-cropping on U.S. steroids and it’s the reason the family part of the family farm dissolved as the need for human help was replaced by machines and the younger generations left and never came back.

Now all this corn and soy has to go somewhere and the industrialized food manufacturers were all too happy to swallow it up and churn it out into something (high fructose corn syrup for one). That something is what you find on the shelves of most grocery stores in America. Go down any aisle in your grocery store and pick any random packaged “food” item off the shelf and read the ingredients.

You can thank Archer Daniels Midland Corporation (and a select few others cough-Cargill-cough cough) for that. We can probably “thank” them for a lot of our current health problems plaguing our culture right now. Butz’s dream of cheap food produced on a grand scale has been realized. But one man’s dream is another’s nightmare.

What about that tomato you mentioned?

Ah yes. The 2000 mile tomato. It is estimated that food in the U.S. now travels between 1,500 and 2,500 miles from farm to table. No doubt one of the great “successes” that Butz and corporate agribusiness would point to if someone were to ask them how they’ve helped improve farming in America. But, not being an economist mind you, I see this as an incredibly inefficient way of doing things.

Here, lettuce understand this more clearly:

“We are spending far more energy to get food to the table than the energy we get from eating the food. A head of lettuce grown in the Salinas Valley of California and shipped nearly 3,000 miles to Washington, D.C., requires about 36 times as much fossil fuel energy in transport as it provides in food energy when it arrives,” Halweil said.

Sound efficient to you? If you’ve eaten a tomato this week, or a canned/jarred tomato more precisely, chances are it came from the Central Valley of California. The Central Valley is the largest producer of canned tomatoes in the world. In fact, some call the Central Valley the breadbasket of the U.S. as it supplies 1/3 of all the produce grown in the country. Whether you’re in Maine, Topeka, or San Francisco, odds are you’ve eaten some food from the Central Valley this week.

This should seem amazing right? A tomato traveling 2000 (or 3000) miles to a snowy little town so that Americans can eat out of season? A testament to progress(!) I’m sure Butz would argue. And it only cost $1.29! CHEAP!

Well it’s cheap only when a whole bunch of costs are swept under the rug or ignored entirely in this grand bargain. No one factors in the carbon footprint of this little tomato shivering in the snowy northeast. No one seems to price in the fact that to ship our food such long distances and keep it so cheap we use migrant labor who 43% of our nation thinks we should send back to Mexico not realizing that Jesus really did provide their food.

And what about the oil subsidies that keep fuel unrealistically cheap, or the crop subsidies that encourage over production of commodities (corn, coy, cotton and wheat), or all of the small family farms pushed out in this mad rush towards “economies of scale for everything!” mentality that only values something if it is large, cheap, and makes a very few people very, very wealthy while the vast majority of folks keep struggling.

Or what about the fact that tomatoes for this kind of food system are now bred to work better for the machines that harvest them rather than for the humans that eat them or to be square in shape so that they stack better for transport and at the supermarket. Let’s not factor in the lack of taste and increase in water content (priced by the pound of course). And don’t worry that our own USDA’s studies have shown that our food has become less nutritious over time since the 1950’s. And don’t mention, when we’re talking about how “cheap” our food is, that tomatoes manufactured for this kind of so-called efficient food system are picked green so they ripen during transport or are sprayed with ethylene to encourage them to ripen just before display, and are most often waxed to retain moisture and prevent bruising, again, because of the long transport they endure.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like tomatoes as much as the next fella. Come to the Central Valley in summer and come see the thousands upon thousands of acres of tomatoes and you’ll know how important they are to the large farms here. And some will claim that the machines that have been developed to harvest tomatoes by the thousands (with a technological sophistication that almost rivals the Mars Rover) have actually created jobs instead of eliminate them. And indeed they have. But those jobs have moved from the farm and into the manufacturing plant where the tomatoes are processed. Think assembly line here. Shift after shift of thousands of tomatoes on conveyor belts making their way into pasta sauce, ketchup, and Chef Boyardee.

No culture in the history of our species has produced or consumed food in such a magnificent and damaging way. It is both impressive and depressing and ultimately may not be sustainable in terms of destruction of soil and water and in terms of remaining so cheap over the long-term. This kind of food system is certainly not one you should rely on in times of trouble:

“The farther we ship food, the more vulnerable our food system becomes,” said Worldwatch research associate Brian Halweil, author of “Home Grown: The Case for Local Food in a Global Market.””Many major cities in the U.S. have a limited supply of food on hand,” Halweil added. “That makes those cities highly vulnerable to anything that suddenly restricts transportation, such as oil shortages or acts of terrorism.”

Richard Nixon’s legacy is deeper and more complex than some might think (hell, he signed the legislation that led to the creation of the EPA). And while some might argue that Watergate is his worst contribution to American society I would argue otherwise. For me the appointment of Earl L. Butz to Secretary of Agriculture had a more profound and devastating effect on America that lasts to this day.

But we can change it.

Buy local. No, really. Buy local. I know this is the latest rage and let’s hope it sticks but buying local is probably the single biggest thing you can do right now to reduce your carbon footprint. I know it’s hard for a lot of Americans to do this at their local grocery store but farmers markets are on the rise and CSA’s continue to grow nationwide.

Eat in season. Try it. I’ll bet you ten thousand dollars you’ll end up liking it. In my last diary I wrote about how it seems we are genetically predisposed to enjoy gathering and harvesting our own food. Well it seems the same could be said for eating in season. Long before the interstate highway system, cheap gas and Earl Butz we Americans ate in season. Of course canning and food storage techniques allowed us to extend our food well beyond its harvest but no one could argue that our lives, in many respects not just food, were more cyclical and danced with the rhythm of nature in a way we seem to have lost in our detached modern world.

Once you start eating in season you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s December and I’m enjoying squash, potatoes, turnips, beets, chard, kale, broccoli…all coming out of the earth right now and all as fresh and nourishing as can be. I’m about tomato’d out, which is good since we mowed the tomatoes a couple of weeks ago so we don’t have any right now. But I can tell you come spring I’ll be looking forward to those dry-farmed tomatoes we can get here that are packed full with flavor! Eating in season allows you to appreciate what nature has provided at the time it is provided and gives you something to look forward to just when you’ve gone long enough without something to miss it. And eating in season gives you the freshest most nutritious food you can eat. Bar none. Again, it seems nature works with us to provide us with healthy food as long as we’re willing to pay attention and listen.

Another way to eat in season and locally is to grow a garden. Don’t have the space? See if a neighbor does or maybe there is a community garden near you, or you can search here to see if there is anyone in your community with some extra yard space looking for a gardener.

Lastly, we absolutely have to do something about the inequity of farm subsidies as doled out in the farm bill. Most subsidies go to a very few, very large corporations.

“Most subsidy dollars go to the country’s largest operations in less than 50 congressional districts.”

There have been attempts to shift some of those subsidies from corn, soy, cotton and wheat over to encourage and help organic, sustainable and local agriculture but the dominance and power of corporate agribusiness ensures these efforts are stalled at every turn. Take one look at the make-up of the House Agriculture Committee and then see how much each of those members receive in contributions from Big Ag and well, enough said.

But let’s not kid ourselves. This system of “cheap” food pushed by Butz and his corporate agribusiness associates is not really cheap at all. We Americans pay the real costs of food one way or another:

As of the passage of the 2008 Farm Bill, taxpayers fund 60 percent of farmers’ insurance premiums through a subsidy to private companies. They also cover a sizable portion of the insurance industry’s costs to run these programs. (In this drought- and heat-ravaged year of 2012, crop insurance payments alone are expected reach $20 billion to $25 billion, up from approximately $1 billion in 2000.)

Those numbers don’t include the commodity subsidies to Big Ag, totaling $6 BILLION in 2010 alone with the top 10% receiving 62% of the subsidies. And remember, commodities are things like corn, soy, cotton and wheat. Specialty crops, things like broccoli, tomatoes, carrots, etc., you know, real food, get virtually no help at all from the federal government. The commodity subsidy system is so flawed that cotton farmers in Texas who won the lottery and became millionaires still collect cotton subsidies.

Add to that the increased health costs our society has incurred as a result of high calorie, low nutrient food and you start to see that we are all paying dearly for Earl Butz’s so-called “cheap food.” We can either pay our farmers to grow fresh, nutritious, local food for our communities, or we can pay our doctor (and Big Ag). The question is, Which will it be?

Peace,

J. Jason Graff

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