Posts Tagged ‘urban farming


Where does breakfast come from?

A great summary of major environmental issues, from Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, 1949:

There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.

I found A Sand County Almanac through Patricia Klindienst’s The Earth Knows My Name: Food, Culture, and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic Americans, which has a lot more in it about land use, land distribution, and farm displacement, and migration than I ever imagined when I first checked it out of the library. Things I’m thinking, and writing, about, lately. The connection to A Sand County Almanac was the epigraph Klindienst chose for her book: “To change ideas about what the land is for is to change ideas about what anything is for.”

As you can imagine, these two books, and the seed catalogs recently delivered in the mail, have got me hankering for a little plot to cultivate. Unfortunately, all of the community gardens around here have waiting lists at least two years long–more often five or ten. Salvation may come in the form of John, Sarah, and Brigitte, who are moving to the Mission from Boston tomorrow, into a wonderful house complete with a back courtyard perfect for a container garden. I am going to propose to be their serf.


urban farming class divide

Thanks to Mei Ling for pointing me to this article about San Francisco’s Alemany Farm, the good work that it does for people living in an urban food desert, and the unemployment, violence, and other problems that still plague the neighborhood despite that.


different ways of working the land

For my grandfather’s family, having a big backyard garden and traveling for seasonal farm work were ways to survive the lean first years of their immigration–and then the Great Depression. My grandfather was very young when they first set out along the central migrant corridor (they went from Houston up to Michigan and back, and elsewhere in central Texas), so his first memories of it are pretty happy: a city kid hanging out on a farm with his younger brother, playing a lot and earning an allowance that just covered a weekly walk to the movies by doing light work with dad in the fields. As he got older, the work got harder and he worried more, until he found himself “with no shoes on, up to the belly button in mud,” picking rice and plotting a way out.

He succeeded, and not surprisingly, my mother was a pure city girl. Or mostly–her parents did have a big front garden and often kept pigs, goats, or chickens at their house in Houston, and this was not unusual for their neighborhood. It took her some adapting when my dad, a mixed-up, rebellious city boy looking to fulfill his image of what a real Texan should be, moved us to the country and (again, not surprisingly) never really made a go of it on ten acres of hard red clay. I spent a lot of my childhood playing in their garden, picking wild berries, and walking through the countryside, trying–in retrospect–to find a way to belong to the situation I found myself in.

I gave it up and moved to the city. I taught dance classes and learned to hate food; after I quit that path, I found community gardening and a way to reconcile myself and food. I also found that I liked the physical work, at least as a respite from desk-bound life. I discovered that my reasons for being there weren’t necessarily everyone else’s reasons. I met activists who taught me about food deserts, Earth Mothers who planted by the moon, and antisocial ex-hippies who would have preferred their gardens without the community.

In East Wind Melts the Ice, Liza Dalby describes two of her friends who live in Tokyo but have rented a buckwheat field outside the city. They visit it once a month, but it is mostly worked by the pensioner who owns it.

‘Have you ever seen a field of buckwheat in bloom?’ asked Adachi.

I hadn’t.

‘At night, under moonlight, the white flowers glisten like stars. It is a strangely beautiful sight.’

… In industrialized countries like Japan and the United States, … {g}rowing your own buckwheat, grinding it, and making it into noodles can be enjoyable precisely because it is no longer a necessity.

Community gardening took me on a tour of gardens in Havana, where people were working the urban landscape to cope with the collapse of their food distribution systems. Though that was their overarching reason–necessity–they also talked about all the other reasons I’d heard people give for wanting to grow something on a little patch of dirt.

Yesterday J-P and I took a class at TechShop in Menlo Park, which meant a long bike ride from the Caltrain station. It took us through a neighborhood that reminded me a little of where my grandparents lived in Houston. Chilco Street took us along the train tracks behind that neighborhood, and from there you could clearly see some lush backyard cornfields. Exactly the kind of mini-milpa that all of the rural Guatemalans who told me about their plans for el norte said they would grow, because who would they, as hombres de maíz, be without homegrown corn?


My Caltrain reading, Steve Wilson’s The Boys from Little Mexico, gave me some more reasons people work the land, even though main subject is high school soccer in Woodburn, Oregon. Octavio clung to the turf nursery where his uncle and father worked as a way to feel comfortable in a new country. It was rural, which felt like home, and it had the rhythms of farm life that he was used to. It kept him from the need to interact with the rest of the town, where his inability to communicate was frustrating and where he feared detection and deportation. Cheo’s father worked the land to earn money for his family; he made Cheo do it so that Cheo would aspire to better work.

Some of these reasons are classic; some are surprising. Some are pure necessity; some pure pleasure. Most are a combination of the two, yet there is a remarkable disconnect in the US between people who care about food and the land for reasons of pleasure and those who grow food and work the land for reasons of necessity. Farm labor is an issue that hardly occurs to most people who claim to be interested in food issues; for me, they are inseparable.


link round-up

I just spent six days on at the bike shop, which is why new posts have been spotty. Rest assured we’ve been eating well Chez Cervantes-Ferguson: my lunch leftovers today included lamb steak, zucchini casserole, and homemade basil pesto.

Summer is in full effect at the Noe Valley Farmers’ Market, and San Francisco even had two genuinely warm days last weekend. So I’m primed for:

Light, summery recipes
Mexconnect’s Sopa Fría de Sandía y Jitomate re-works one of our favorite Mark Bittman salads as a soup. In a related article (with more recipes), Karen Hursch Graber shares Alice B. Toklas’ remark, apropos of gazpachos, that “recipes, through conquests and occupations, have traveled far.” And the Jul/Aug issue of Cook’s Illustrated has a recipe for pureed tomato gazpacho, along with a description of pre-tomato versions: “yesterday’s bread, almonds, garlic, olive oil, and water … mashed … together into a humble potage.”

Meanwhile, Joumana at Taste of Beirut offers an appealing spiced cheese salad, and Mark Bittman a quick pasta preparation with shallots, peas, lettuce, and proscuitto. Bittman has also been experimenting with using tomatoes to deglaze his pans.

Old News
Besides continuing to love Mark Bittman and Taste of Beirut, I am also charmed all over again by Robb Walsh, and his latest analogy: authentic Mexican restaurants are to Tex-Mex as Ballet Folklorico is to Freddy Fender. Or, if Freddy is too old-fashioned for you (say it ain’t so–he was my favorite rodeo performer when I was a kid!), Walsh recommends Chingo Bling.

Environmental News
But summer isn’t all good food and fun commentary. The BP oil slick has forced the 134-year-old, family-owned P&J oyster shuckery to close, lending credence (as though it were needed) to this Facing South article on Louisianans’ fears of cultural loss to environmental damage.

In better news, the EPA has moved to ban the insecticide endosulfan, which is known to cause neurological and reproductive damage in humans (especially farmworkers) and animals. Counties in California’s Central Valley are also mandating pesticide buffer zones around schools.

In a recent podcast, James Howard Kunstler discusses urban food production past, present, and future, and the need to preserve rural lands regardless of what we can produce in our cities.

Jan Chipchase reports on the cultural significances of breath mints.

This one is more for me than anything, since J-P and I will be leaving for London (then Helsinki, then the Isle of Wight) a week from tomorrow: James Ramsden’s highlights from this week’s Taste of London. I love the preponderence of Malaysian restaurants on his list: is it Britain’s new Indian?


link round-up

A Glimmer of Green in Houston
Restaurateurs, urban farmers, and investors are working together to plant gardens to serve local vegetables to Houston diners.

Gulf Fishing News
The South I know and–um, love?–has finally appeared in coverage of the BP oil slick. Only part of Louisiana’s shoreline and Gulf waters are directly affected by the oil, and fishermen west of the line blame media coverage for driving the tourist trade away from their charter boats. Yep, the gol-darned liberal media absolutely caused the BP oil slick.

Meanwhile, though Mexico is unlikely to see oil from BP’s slick wash ashore, the country is considering legal action against BP for damage to wildlife species that spend time there–and attract tourists.

Unrelated to the BP oil slick, members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1529 are ready to strike against Delta Pride Catfish for proposing contract changes that would greatly reduce benefits and job security, eliminate daily overtime pay, and increase the work week–erasing all the benefits the workers won in their three-week strike in 1990.

Restaurant Labor News
Central Park’s Tavern on the Green, which has been closed since January 1, is transferring to new management, who are having trouble agreeing to honor the terms of the employees’ previous contract.

Marc Forgione kicked a New York times blogger out of his restaurant last weekend for asking him not to yell at his staff so that his diners could hear.

Everybody Knows About Arizona, Goddam
What with his state’s new requirement that brown people carry their papers at all times, John McCain feels he has to get tough on immigration. That’s hardly news, but what I really appreciate about this post at the Latin Americanist is Vicente Duque‘s comment listing municipal governments, school districts, and sports teams that are boycotting Arizona by refusing to fund employee, student, or team travel to the state. San Francisco, Oakland, and Boston are among them.

Oh, and by the way–ethnic studies classes are now outlawed in Arizona. “It’s just like the Old South,” says Arizona schools chief Tom Horne. And he’s right–except he means that ethnic studies classes cause Chicanos to resent and oppress white people. No, Mister Horne, it’s not my education that makes me resent you–it’s stunts like this. Which, I’ll note, you have the power to pull. So where’s the oppression again?


East Austin urban farms tour

On April 11, I took a tour of four East Austin urban farms. At Boggy Creek, the grande dame of East Austin farms, I asked Carol Ann whether her eggs vary by season, and she said no–Austin grows yummy things for chickens to eat year-round, and in fact, winter’s cole crops make “fabulous” eggs. Carol Ann also protects her chickens from predators by stringing solar-powered red LEDs on their coop’s fencing. She says the lights make possums, raccoons, and other pests think “somebody else is already in there doing the job.”

At Boggy Creek I also learned about Treaty Oak Platinum Rum, which the tablers said is distilled in Austin from molasses processed in Texas from Texas-grown sugarcane, and available at Spec’s. They claim their rum is unique in its local sourcing and production, but a Google search turned up three other rums that may rival it. Railean Rum is distilled near Houston from “Gulf Coast” (though perhaps not Texan?) molasses and will be on the market July 1. And Texas-based Au Naturel Spirits distills two rums, also not yet on the market, under the Temptryst label: Cherrywood and Mesquite. No word on the source of Temptryst’s molasses–and no word from any of the companies about who works the cane fields, or under what conditions.

At Hausbar Farm, which supplies all of the eggs for East Side Cafe, I saw Jim Hightower roaming the grounds. At Shady Lane, I admired the clever use of spare parts from the Yellow Bicycle Project, especially this bamboo chicken tractor with a bicycle wheel:

But my favorite story of the day belonged to Springdale Farm, which the owners of Texas Trees and Landscape founded about a year and a half ago as their business began to suffer from the recession. The urban farm would give owners and employees alike something to do and, they hoped, a new revenue stream. In fact, the farm had to expand due to its success in selling its produce through a farm stand, CSAs, and contracts with local chefs. Although they at first feared that Boggy Creek would see them as interlopers, Carol Ann was happy to be their mentor, and sales at both farms have been brisk. Said a friend of the owners, “There’s a market here that just really wants this.”

And despite my strong misgivings about the disconnect between urban farmers and most farm workers, the phrase “my soul feels fed” crossed my mind and wouldn’t leave as I walked between Springdale and Hausbar, pausing to block a runaway soccer ball and kick it back to the kids playing with it in the street.

More pictures here.

Also, a belated thanks to Mission Local for yesterday’s link to Stuff White People Like.

Tex-Mix's Photostream