by Tam Mengine
It’s garden time. My little ones, aged 9 and 5 years, have grown up watching their dad build raised boxes of dirt in our small back yard, and seen me, season after season, turn that dirt into lettuce and tomatoes and peppers and carrots and strawberries and beets and so on. Every year the garden yields itself to new adventures, driven by the endless temptations in the Seed Savers catalog. This year the girls wanted to try a mixed blend of heirloom sunflowers, and my husband got the idea of interspersing corn with the Canna lilies that decorate our fence line. Every March the girls join me on the porch to fill the starter trays with dirt and seeds, and will usually bury a few carrot seeds outside before succumbing to the task of building elaborate homes for the helpful worms we encounter. After several seasons of watching the little ones plant, you’d think I’d be used to it, but I am caught off guard year after year by the joy of watching them discover the magic of growing food. I am deeply touched by the older one’s increasing interest in what gets planted when and where and why; and by the earnest look on the little one’s face as she struggles with tiny chubby fingers to press her seeds into the dirt just so.
Last week, shortly after all the seeds had been tucked into their soil, and with gardening still heavy on my brain, I was fortunate enough to attend Transition Town Media’s “Honor the Farmers” event. I’ve attended many of TTM’s monthly events, but none have affected me as this one did. The evening was organized as a kick-off for Timebank Media’s CropMob initiative, and was attended by both local farmers and community members interested in providing support for local food growers. The goal was for us would-be-farmer’s-helpers to learn more about the farmer’s needs, and how we can help them succeed. From this loosely structured evening emerged an invaluable conversation, as the farmers in turn each gave a brief, impromptu monologue on what farming meant to them – how they came to do it, how it had changed their life, the challenges they saw looming in the future, the hopes they had for their profession. The farmers in attendance ranged from a group of 20-somethings, pitching in together on a leased piece of land, to octogenarians farming an orchard that had been passed down from their parents, and half-a-dozen demographics in between. Over and over again, as they stood to share their insights, humor, worries, and memories, I found myself near tears. How easy it is to overlook the struggles of producing food on a small, reasonable scale, while tackling the challenges of weather and insects and economics and– increasingly – agricultural giants like Monsanto. It is no easy task to grow food. It takes both art and science, and our grocery stores – filled with brightly waxed, internationally-imported, weakly-flavored vegetables – make it so easy to forget the hard work that goes into getting food on our tables.
Jim Hammerman of In My Back Yard farm in Westtown, summed up the mood of the evening with the following story: several years back he had attended a conference in which small organic farmers lamented that they had no way to compete with Monsanto’s monopoly of proprietary designer seeds, carefully engineered to grow in sync with Monsanto’s herbicides. The outlook for the small farmer seemed bleak, yet Hammerman suggested that their best defense was to simply keep on doing what they were doing – growing food that tasted good. As I walked home that night along the quiet, brick-paved sidewalks of the Borough, the evening’s stories began to crystalize in my mind, filling me with optimism. Jim Hammerman was right. Our small gathering of farmers and farmers’ helpers held the antidote to the looming specter of industrial agriculture. There is a way to take on Monsanto – we simply do it one plateful of locally grown salad; one grocery trip to the farmer’s market; one heirloom seed pressed carefully into the ground with tiny chubby fingers – at a time.