FORUM – Eating Locally: What Does It Really Mean? Part Two

23 Aug 2001

The text of the speech the author of This Organic Life made to the Slow Food USA 2001 Congress in Bolinas, California on Saturday, July 21

So, in the early 1980s, I finally worked up the nerve to go out in public and say to my colleagues in nutrition that we needed to change the content (not just the methods) of nutrition education and move people toward more local, seasonal diets. This radical idea, that we should move away from this marvel of modernity, this bounteous global supermarket was inevitably greeted by my colleagues with astonishment and near derision. I was once asked by a UC Davis faculty member, with withering sarcasm, what on earth I thought Iowans were going to do for vitamin C in the winter. (I hope I reminded him that my Iowa forebears did survive before the California citrus industry was established!)

My response to such criticism was not to shut up – I could not unlearn what I had learned – but to try to walk my talk. When I began talking about local eating, I didn’t have a clue what that would mean in the northeast where I lived; moreover, the availability of local produce was very limited at the time, so eating locally meant mostly growing your own. So I set out to see what I could grow – and live on. WHAT I SAID THEN WAS THAT my husband and I intended to ‘grow our own food,’ a formulation that seems remarkably naive in retrospect, since Alan and I really only grew fruits and vegetables. But since the things people worry about most when you talk about eating locally are fruits and vegetables–‘what would I do for salad in January?’ – my effort seemed worthwhile, at least to me.

My goal in all this was not to prove that everyone could grow their own if they wanted to – that would have been silly. My goal was to create a model of what local farmers could make available if we set out to create a market for what they could produce. I was trying to model – and I still am – the sorts of eating choices I thought we all needed to work toward, if we were to have a sustainable food system – and a sustainable society. I’m trying to demonstrate that responsible eating can be done without real pain. So I’ve been trying for the last 25 years to live with increasing consistency by my convictions.

As I said, I began trying to grow as much as possible of what I eat as a way of proving that eating locally year round did not imply a season of spoiled cabbage and old potatoes – even if you lived in New England. With this proof, I hoped to convince my colleagues in the nutrition field that local eating was feasible and tasty. I hoped they would begin designing and teaching local diets, the ultimate goal being to keep local farmers in business by increasing their customer base.

I demonstrate the tastiness of local eating–every time I serve a splendid meal in the dead of winter. So having made my point, I would obviously help farmers more by buying their food than by growing my own – assuming I could find a local year-round source. But by now I’m addicted to growing the vegetables I eat and eating only the vegetables I grow. And in order to assure myself that this obsession is rational, I use my own farming crises to teach me lessons about what farmers go through to feed us all. I want to end by sharing just two lessons I have learned in those years, by telling a couple of stories from my book. The first of those lessons is that if we eat locally, weather will matter a lot more.

Two summers ago, we had a drought in my region, and it got so dry that rats chomped into every one of my tomatoes as they ripened. I live on the Hudson, a tidal river with a wedge of salt flowing upriver under the surface to north of where I am. When there’s no rain going into the river to dilute it, it gets increasingly salty. Well into my rat crisis, I learned from the mayor, a former fisherman, that the rats couldn’t handle the salt. They were eating my tomatoes for liquid. So I called Roger the exterminator, who is paid to keep the river-front free of rats for the village, scouts my next door community garden out of generosity, and, since I’m right there, fits me in too. In the midst of my despair, I shared his diagnosis and my own frustration by e-mail with the community gardeners:

‘Fellow Gardeners,
Just thought you’d like to know that I haven’t harvested a ripe tomato yet. The rats have gotten them all. Roger came, announced that there were no rat burrows on either my property or in the community garden, so he couldn’t put poison down the den. He said he would put out bait stations but then he said, ‘Joan, vegetables and fruits are rats’ favorite food. They’re going to stand here,’ he looked back and forth between the bait station and the tomatoes, ‘and they’re going to say ‘chicken or sirloin? chicken or sirloin?’ and they’re going to choose sirloin.’

So if you find chomped tomatoes, don’t, DON’T throw them on the ground but remove them to the compost pails, pick up and compost all dropped tomatoes, surround your plants with netting if you can, stake them high, get a little rat doll and stick pins in it, and hope that Roger’s bait is more attractive than he thinks!

And if you ever wonder why rats will outlast us on the planet, just remember they don’t contribute to global warming by driving to the store in a Humvee, and they love fruits and vegetables. Cheers, Joan

Some of this was probably hysterically bad advice, since if the tomatoes were left lying around, the rats might have finished off the ones they started the night before instead of chomping into fresh ones every night.

But the rat crisis ended–with a flood. Six and a half inches of rain in a few hours put my entire yard underwater. This killed off the tomato plants, and a number of other weather-sensitive crops. Although the sweet potatoes–a mainstay of my winter diet–looked fine at the time; when I dug them later in the year I learned that the water had cracked them open and 1/3 of the crop had rotted, leaving the others looking like true Frankenfoods.

This was not the first time I had lost a crop to the weather. Two years earlier we had the wettest year in history and I lost 2/3 of the onion crop (I had grown 100 pounds the year before) and at least a third of the potatoes. That time I found myself deeply depressed and in a kind of unexplained panic, about the loss of the crops, and I had to ask myself what was bothering me? I could obviously buy potatoes and onions when I needed them. Then it dawned on me that I was suffering symbolic angst. It really didn’t matter if my crops failed. I have a market within walking distance and can afford even their high prices.
But the same could not be said for my fellow farmers–the ones who feed you, and provide for me when my own crops fail. They have no divine dispensation that protects their crops from the sort of devastation mine experienced. If I was having trouble salvaging drowned onions that year, the upstate onion growers would surely be sharing my problem–and they were. That year’s crop was a disaster. As for the potato farmers, a close cousin of the potato blight organism that set off the Irish famine had turned up in the northeast a year or two earlier; the wet weather that damaged my potatoes encouraged the blight to spread.

Of course, no sensible farmer would have chosen my flood-prone land, and they’re certainly better at what we both do! But they’re also vulnerable to the weather. When I bought peaches at our local farmers’ market in September, after the great flood that sent the rats back to the river, I mentioned to the grower that all my tomatoes had simply collapsed. He said ‘mine too.’ And in the narcissism of relief, I said ‘I’m so glad.’ Then I caught myself, apologized and said, ‘I thought it was me.’ And he smiled for the first time since we began dealing with each other weeks earlier and said, ‘no, when full grown plants are suddenly hit with stress, they just collapse.’ And I realized with relief that it was not my soil, or my skills, or wilt from the manure I brought in. It was the weather.

So by restricting myself to eating the vegetables I grow, I am constantly reminded that food is the generous outcome of a collaboration between our species and the rest of nature, not simply another product of industrial civilization. And the lesson I took away from the realization that my crops–and my farmers’ crops– will sometimes fail was not that regions can’t be relatively self-reliant. They can be. It’s just that if we ate locally, we would sometimes have to adjust our choices and our appetites to what Nature in a given year decided to provide.

Joan Dye Gussow Ed.D. is Mary Swartz Rose Professor Emerita at Teachers College, Columbia University, and author of the recent bestseller This Organic Life.

Photo: Joan Dye Gussow

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