Vision from the Past, Revisions for the Future
Photographs by Caroline Alexander
A few thoughts about 1983 stand out: Firstly, there wasn’t Internet, and secondly, there weren’t any commercial organic vegetable farms in the area. Anne Banks, my then-wife, and I moved to Hillsdale, New York, that April. Our intention was to grow food for ourselves and sell the surplus.
Working by hand, we cleared 3½ acres of shrubs and tangled land. In early June, our first sowings went into the newly cultivated ground. By mid-August we had our first harvest of leafy greens, roots and fruits. We had plenty to eat; the main question was where to sell the excess bounty. This necessitated knocking on restaurant and food purveyors’ doors.
I met many chefs and produce buyers as a result of my intensity (my desperation) to sell our produce. Initial responses were a mix of apprehension and curiosity. For instance, I had a big bushy head of hair and a full beard. My usual conversation starter was that everything was organically grown, which usually generated comments like “Is that hydroponic?” or “So you grow in poop?”
Success was not immediate but piecemeal. Chefs and owners gradually—and in some cases, quickly—saw the wisdom in purchasing freshly harvested food. For decades, everything had been bought in from the west and delivered by a semitruck. Our vegetables were fresh, had flavor and looked good. These factors became strong selling points and, eventually, a game changer.
The following growing season saw us doing business with a handful of restaurants and stores. Within a few years, we had built a market for locally gown organic vegetables. By 1989 there was a full-fledged local organic food movement here in southern Berkshire County. In retrospect, what looked large then was just the beginning of what is now a multimillion-dollar local and regional food market.
Which brings me to 2013. Where are we now?
One can go to many Berkshire restaurants and food stores and purchase and consume a large variety of local, regional and organically grown foods. This is a wonderful life for those who can afford it. At this point, there are quite a few small and medium small acreage farms growing a diversity of crops and food products. In fact, the dedicated consumer can pretty much obtain everything she may desire and need from the region! Let’s pause to celebrate.
There are quite a few corporate supermarket chains in the regional area that cater to a large socioeconomic demographic of people. These supermarkets sell massive quantities of produce and packaged food products—and 99% of this is shipped in.
I live in Sheffield, Massachusetts, where thousands of beautiful Housatonic acres are devoted to genetically altered, petro slurry fertilized corn grown year in and year out on the same land to feed herds of bloated dairy cows. The average dairy farm is propped up by various taxpayer funded USDA programs for their survival. Call me crazy, but this seems to me like a misuse of precious real estate. The market in New England for organically grown food is over a billion dollars annually. Many people who buy conventionally grown and raised food would rather buy organic but find the price prohibitive. We have enough land here in Berkshire County to grow and supply our supermarkets with large quantities of high-quality organically grown food at a reasonable and affordable cost.
What we need is a change of vision, a revisioning of land use, and skilled farmers. The dream of a pantry full of Berkshire-grown products is within reach.
Current large-scale American agriculture, in its need to maximize yields to show a profit, has sacrificed sane fertility management. The ongoing use of petro-fertilizers, pesticides and genetically altered crops has bypassed the synergistic relationships that make up a healthy, dynamic, organic soil ecology. Over the last 70 years, this shortsighted chemically intoxicating brew of petroproducts has yielded massive quantities of food for America, but at a price we can’t afford: The petroleum-addicted diet that extends to every aspect of lifestyle in the developed world is choking the planet and killing us. It’s a hard rain.
There is a solution to this monomaniacal cropping system: Polyorganic, or diversified eco-organic, agriculture. Here in Sheffield, we could take a 300-acre parcel from the 6,000 acres of cultivatable land currently in hay and corn for dairy cows. Rotational cropping—alternating grazing, vegetables, grains such as wheat, and hemp—could comfortably supply 20,000 people year-round with meat, milk, eggs, produce, fiber and wool.
On one 100-acre block, chickens, sheep and cows would graze in succession. This grazing would rotate over a three-year period with 100 acres each of grains and vegetables—what was vegetables one year would become pasture the next, and the pasture would become the grain area. The pasture, vegetable and grain areas would work together to enhance fertility, each crop returning nutrients to the soil that the previous crop depleted. This system is truly a biodynamic polycultural event. It enhances, refreshes, renews and thus replenishes itself and the cycles of life—it is truly sustainable.
Meanwhile, agro-ecological values need to be taught in local schools, so that we can retool our local population to go back to work locally. The 300-acre polyculture would employ 30 workers yearround. A local agro-economically tooled workforce would mean locally minded consumers with locally earned dollars.
In fact, this revision is an old vision of agriculture, emphasizing soil, plant and animal diversity to regenerate the whole potential of our landscape, ensuring a local, regional and national agro-economic future.