Sunday, October 24, 2010

City Farmer No More (Prologue to The New City Farmer)

It was a big decision to 'give up' the food garden. It was a well positioned raised bed, and the soil had been improved and tended for years by our home's previous owner (and also one of my gardening mentors). I had spent a good deal of time working in that garden with him, practicing stuff I learned (or 'learnt', as I actually say) in my own childhood and learning new stuff.

My grandmother (that's her wedding photo) had created a somewhat more ambitious food garden in the midst of London's first 'suburb' in the 1950s, on the quarter acre that my grandfather had acquired as a Veteran. They (literally, by hand) built a tract house on one corner, and on the rest gramma planted fruit trees, asparagus, squash, tomatoes, strawberries, currents, raspberries and on and on. My mother remembers her youth there as a worker: picking beans and plums, all to be canned and preserved, 'put up' as they say.

She didn't know it, but gramma's garden was defiantly anachronistic. It stood like a farm in the middle of a newly minted 1950s suburb where the culture of home landscaping was steadily taking root. Gramma brought (and planted) the roots of her rural culture instead, and did nothing to hide that this land was her family's feast. While each neighbor obsessed over his/her lawn and the three carbon-copy evergreen shrubs in front of each house, gramma grew pears and beets and cabbages.

Not surprisingly, my first garden as a little kid was vegetables; I started a compost pit when I was ten; my first guerrilla garden was beans, squash, medicinal herbs and onions. Growing up in the old core of the city, I was surrounded by dozens of food gardens, each a culture-specific expression of the kind of rootedness my grandmother grew: grape arbors, chickens, rapini, broad beans. And the guy that lives here, well he arrived with his own rural family's heavily annotated and mostly memorized book of recipes for putting food up. And so it was with great trepidation that I firmly stepped away from being a city farmer- it is in our roots, after all.

But I had come to the realization that something precious was missing in my world that had been present in my gramma's: social bonds built between producers of food and its consumers. During the second world war, living in her rural hometown with her parents and daughters, my gramma had traded her canned goods for scarce foodstuffs; in return she got bacon and oxtail and milk to feed her family. (She even managed to can meat to send overseas to my grandpa's sisters and brothers.) She and her neighbors were part of an interdependent network of producers and consumers that even small producers could be a part of. Together they knew all the secrets of small and varied production and self-provisioning. They had recipes, knowledge, skill and each other.

I finally really noticed that this was all gone when I went to my gramma's home town one summer to see that not a single farm in the area was producing anything except cash crops- feed corn and soybeans. A few pig farmers (they are now gone because of massive overproduction and crumbling export markets). No stands at the front gate of tomatoes, peppers, squash and pears, maybe eggs. Nothing. Not even maple syrup. At the Fall Fair in this teeny little town, there were barely any canning and pickle competitions. But lots and lots of entries of soybeans, feed corn and pumpkins the size of a car.

It had become impossible for me to see these farms in close and immediate relationship with my food, that relationship instead mediated by a long chain of wholesalers and retailers. The places and people that I thought of as producing my food had been modernized, severing ties between producers and consumers.

It was this realization- and the consequent anxiety it produced- that tipped me over the edge away from city farming, as counter intuitive as that sounds. I realized that what I feared was the loss of those links, those networks, that knowledge. I didn't want a relationship with a handful of beets, I wanted a bond with someone who grew beets, expertly and with care.

Now all of this is actually prologue to another post about the city farmers on my street and in my neighborhood, and about the systems through which we provision ourselves here at Gracie Gardens. And Grace at Windthread's cucumbers. And how in them I see not nostalgia for a time gone by, but something new, even as it is a kind of resurgence. How this new city has room for- maybe even needs- what we do, growing bees and flowers and snake habitat. And buying our food.

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