Even my long-time friends, the ones who know me well enough not to be surprised by much, ask why we have become novice farmers at this relatively late age. Why do we want to work so hard? I ask myself that regularly, when my back muscles are sore from shoveling dirt or worse, when R was hand-digging irrigation furrows by moonlight until 2 am, when the deer rampaging in the orchard almost broke my heart.
It would have been a lot easier to fence off a little section of the pasture for our house, let the neighbors keep running horses on the rest of the parcel, and go hiking every weekend. Loads of people who move here do just that. Even better, if they want that lifestyle, they buy above the ditch, unirrigable land, install minimalist xeriscaping and have more time to play. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that choice. It’s just not mine.
When I was eight and growing up in Orange County, California, we moved into a new subdivision. That first year, we could smell the orange blossoms at night from the nearby orchards. My mother shopped at a farm stand for strawberries and artichokes in the spring, melons, tomatoes and sweet corn from Fourth of July until fall. Soon more bulldozers scraped the topsoil off the surrounding land and the orange groves succombed to the footprint of yet another sterile “planned community” with its five HOA-approved colors of beige paint.
Even as a child I wondered where our food would come from if we planted houses instead of crops on good farmland. I spent my college years in the Bay Area just at the germination of the locavore food movement. I had no money to dine at Chez Panisse, but I feasted vicariously through newspaper reviews and recipe clippings. My student co-op had a garden. I knew my way around California Chardonnays; picnicked at Ridge Winery; Caymus Vineyards’ founder Charlie Wagner once signed a bottle of wine for me.
Sure, for the vast majority of us, food comes from the grocery store (unless you are poor and without transportation, when all too often it comes from a convenience store; calories are cheap, it’s nutrition that is expensive. 7-11 doesn’t stock fresh veg). Food for most of our local restaurants in Torrey arrives on Fridays on the Sysco and US Food Service trucks. After each driver unloads his order at the competing hamburger joints on the main highway, they swap parking spaces and unload some more, engines running the entire time. Ever wonder why so much restaurant fare tastes the same across America? It all comes out of the same catalogs, delivered in the same shiny metal trucks, on 30 days credit and a single invoice to pay each month. A very few chefs seem able to improvise from the catalog wares, but I digress.
Rock-hard tomatoes, tasteless factory-raised chickens, strawberries that can ship 1500 miles without bruising or ripening, that’s what our grocery stores have on special each week. As soon as I got my own patch of ground 20 years ago, I started gardening. But I don’t need literally acres under cultivation to enjoy a ripe peach, just one tree. And while I admire the fortitude of those pushing the limits of self-sufficiency and permaculture, I also admire Olympic athletes and Peace Corps volunters without wanting to emulate their lifestyles. So why go to all this trouble?
Here at Stray Arrow Ranch (that isn’t really a ranch), it’s a close-to-sacred belief in stewardship and responsibility to use this land wisely that has motivated all of this work. We have subtracted close to a half acre from potential cultivation for our house. It feels important to intensify the productivity of the remaining arable land.
Tangentally: should you trust the global food supply chain?
Recently, I was looking at the grocery store for apple juice and applesauce. Much of the apple juice sold in America comes from concentrates, most likely produced in China (selling last month for $7.00 a gallon in the east coast markets according to the USDA). or South America. The U.S. Apple Association insists imported concentrates are safe; meanwhile the FDA is investigating reports of elevated arsenic levels in apple juice concentrate, most likely from lead arsenate residues from pesticides. I scoured the aisle to find a product grown in the USA and gladly paid extra when I found it. Not that USA-produced is any safer. I’m no diehard locavore–I love my luxuries like imported parmesan cheese, but bothers me to buy staples like fruit juice from halfway around the world.
It’s the Walmart effect, where saving 5¢ on a jar of applesauce trumps all reason. I understand household budgets, but the end result is all wrong. Never mind the environmental impact of shipping food globally, do I really want to eat fruit raised in a third world country with a shocking record of food safety in its domestic supply? Or have we already forgotten about infants dying from melamin-tainted formula? Can I really rely on the U.S. federal government inspection programs (under constant fire from dwindling budgets) to ensure that my imported food is safe?
Food security begins at home
As far as our national food supply, what concerns me more than the safety risks of what is sold, but food security. Things get pretty crazy in Washington D.C. and the 24-hour news media cartel whenever some oil-producing state decides to disrupt the world crude markets. Think about how disruptive it would be to our economy if were were food-dependent and a rogue state interfered with the global food supply chain. That’s not a world I want to contemplate for long.
I am too much of an optimist to lay in a survivalist’s quantity of canned wheat. But I am going to do my part to “be the change I want to see.” Locally grown food, robust and resilient webs of food distribution, regional culinary delights. We have planted at least 70 varieties of heritage apples in the belief that at least some of them will excell in our climate. I would love it if one of my neighbors started using our apples to produce a value-added product like cider jelly, even better if one of them took up making parmesan.
Even our small house took out a significant chunk of arable land so that we could have the privilege of living here. In exchange, I became steward of the what’s left of our acreage, with the responsibility to make it a more productive and fertile for the long haul. When I’m up before the sun to take our irrigation water turn I remind myself that’s why I’m doing this. I’m grateful to have a partner who shares my willingness to work. And seeing the yellow warbler that flits through the branches at dawn? That’s the lagniappe, the 13th donut in the bakers’ dozen, the gift of a magnificient abundance that renews this earth each spring, if we don’t trash the place up. Be the change.