Thursday, July 31, 2014

Redefining work

Mountaintop dinner table conversation gets to core of modern day food dilemma. 

At 6,400-feet elevation at the Mt. LeConte dining hall in the Great Smokies, I found myself in a discussion about sustainable agriculture with fellow campers this summer. Under candlelight, we passed around the dinner table dishes of food that had been packed up by llamas and prepared on propane stoves in the dining hall kitchen. Considering the trip was completely out-of-the-blue and free to me, a gift from a friend whose injury prevented him from taking the 5-hour hike and using his cabin reservation, I was especially grateful for the meal and dinner companions.

A couple in their early thirties, also very appreciative of the hot meal after a week-long backpacking trip, loaded up their plates. In between bites, Elle and James entertained us all with stories about their restaurant experiences and shopping endeavors near their home in Charlotte, where they try to accommodate their vegetarian son and celiac daughter, both under 10. Their efforts are further complicated because Elle and James also are committed to making consumer choices aligned with their ethics and values.

Holiday meal made with M R Gardens produce and other local food
I was impressed with their level of knowledge about the complexities of the food system—we covered many topics and a good deal of depth in a short amount of time. I'm encouraged that the many documentaries, books and articles about industrial agriculture have the general public's attention—not just the ears of people like me who have made sustainable agriculture their profession and lived and breathed it for nearly 15 years.

Elle and James try picking their own berries with their children at patches near their house but are disheartened by just how long it takes to fill one container. They try to find eggs from chickens grown in humane conditions, but reading labels doesn't give them the information that they truly need to know about the farm to make a good decision. They try going to the area farmer's market, but have discovered that on weekdays it is just another grocery store "without the store," selling vegetables trucked in from thousands of miles away. They have to make special trips to the market on the weekends to make sure they are actually buying locally grown food.

Berry meditation

I was interested to hear more about Elle and James's frustrations with picking berries. I remember well what it was like to enter the world of physical labor after years of sitting at desks, whether I was in front of a computer screen or a university lecturer. I had to train my mind to give into the work and really enjoy the moment, instead of listening to internal complaints, usually about how long the task was taking or how the sun was too hot or how my back was hurting.

These days, "frustration" and "berry picking" are not two things that turn up together in my life. I have learned to incorporate harvesting in my daily routine so that the activity enhances my life rather than burdens it.

While my oatmeal is cooking on the stove, I step outside in my bare feet to the blueberry bushes just outside my door. The birds tweet away as they jump between flower stocks, and a floral scent emits with their movements. With the morning sun against my neck, I pay attention to the feel of the berry against my fingers before I release it and hear a "tink" at the bottom of my bowl. If I have some predicament I need to sort through, then I let my mind wander until I gain clarity. But for the most part I just try to focus on the task. 

Blueberries at M R Gardens, June 24, 2014
Now that I've had a few years of practice, I can pick two pounds by the time my oatmeal is finished cooking. I didn't steal any time from my day because I substituted my daily qigong routine with the berry picking meditation. I find that the two activities have a similar effect—my mind becomes focused and I'm able to efficiently move through the rest of my to-do list that morning.

Later in the day, when I lean over and harvest cucumbers, the muscles that would have been stretched in my qigong practice now have a chance to loosen. Activities considered laborious, back-breaking, and monotonous when done hour after hour in the farm field become life-enhancing in the garden. If we all do a little, less pressure is on a few to do a lot.

That is not to say my enthusiasm has no bounds. I certainly have days where I'm slow to move or cranky about completing a garden task. But usually the mood passes as I look inside myself and ask why exactly am I unmotivated. As long as I've given my body proper time to rest, then usually it's not the work itself that's holding me back, but some other reason.

A weightier topic

So, in the Mt. LeConte dining hall, I asked James, what is it about berry picking that is frustrating to you? He mentioned the pricks on his skin from raspberry thorns (which we agreed could be alleviated with gloves and long sleeves), the lack of knowledge about how and when to pick according to color (which could be improved with a garden coach!), and the amount of time it took. He's accustomed to walking into a grocery and picking up a carton of berries—the task immediately complete.

I asked if a change in mindset would help—if we learn how to enjoy the activity, then the berries almost become the side benefit. He liked that idea, but then delved into a weightier topic.

"I think I have a deep psychological hatred of physical labor," he said. James explained how this aversion had been cultivated at a young age as our society steered college bound students away from hands-on tasks to mental ones. Subconsciously he learned to associate physical labor with the lower class, even if this assumption went against what, in his heart, he knew was true or ethical.

Photo taken at M R Gardens, by Vickie Burick
I couldn't have agreed with him more. While this common attitude is partly based on a stereotype related to class that simply needs to go away in our enlightened modern day, I have found that in some instances the mindset has been legitimately born out of hard experiences. I notice it most prevalent among my loved ones whose parents were subjected to grueling physical labor, often paired with unhealthy work conditions, over-demanding bosses and low pay. For good reason, their parents encouraged them to earn a university degree so they could avoid menial labor.

As important as a university education is, physical labor in itself shouldn't be given a bad name, when in fact if we train our mind properly and spread the work among the entire community, it can be quite enjoyable. We become more whole when we use the parts of our brain required of us when we perform physical labor. I believe we are denying ourselves a piece of human existence if we don't learn how to properly work.

Berry picking has given Elle and James a great appreciation for all the labor and resources that go into producing food and a realization of how inexpensive food actually is. The price of a fast food hamburger does not adequately account for the grains grown to feed the animal, the fuel spent in harvesting and transporting, and the costs, economic and ecological, of raising the animal in a large feedlot. Elle couldn't imagine that any impoverished family would ever choose to buy a couple heads of organic broccoli when they could get an entire fast food meal for the same price—and no time or knowledge required to cook the food.

"It's easy for us to sit here on top of Mt. LeConte and talk about this," James said. (And be served generous portions of food packed up by llamas, I might add). "But what about the people who can't afford to buy healthy food?"

Their comments lead to a discussion about the U.S. Farm Bill and how the production of row crops like corn and soy—two crops that subsidize the processed food and large-scale meat industries—receive the bulk of the federal government's assistance, while vegetable growing, particularly on small and medium-sized organic farms, receives relatively little. A Washington Post column estimates that $134 billion will go to commodities during the next 10 years while specialty crop production such as vegetables will only receive $4 billion. If the bill was reworked to give equal weight to both, perhaps food economics would be more fair and just, encouraging a healthy diet among all income levels.

But sometimes it's a lot easier to change our own backyards than national policy.

Labor: the untapped resource

Elle talked about a commercial that captured her attention at a young age that raised the question: how are we going to feed the world with a growing population and decreasing resources?

Fortunately, we sidestepped the sometimes emotional debate about the technologies that the advertiser was suggesting we use to solve this issue. Instead I told Elle about how I too have been mulling over this question for a decade. And after learning about all the logistics required in making a farm profitable, all the complexities involved in keeping a large grocery chain competitive, and the ecological necessity of biodiverse farms rather than monocrops, I continually come back to the same answer.

Labor. The untapped resource is the hands of the millions of people on this planet who no longer take part in the growing of their food.

Thankfully, part of the solution to the modern food dilemma can be quite fun with the proper mindset, and involves picking berries in the sunshine with our families. While this small step may sound too simple for a very complex issue, it is indeed an important one as more and more people take it. If time is a limiting factor—especially for those working two jobs to make ends meet—then perhaps all that can be contributed is an hour a week in the community garden. And that's fine for now.

Mid-July harvest of green beans at M R Gardens
A bigger and better step is learning how to grow as much of your own food as possible, which is exactly why I do what I do—so lack of knowledge no longer holds people back from taking part in the solution.

By the end of the dinner conversation, Ellie and James were thinking about talking to their neighbors about turning a 5-acre lot in their housing development into a community garden. Music to my ears.

Follow this blog and the M R Gardens Facebook page for information on low maintenance no-till gardening and edible landscaping. You can also hire Megan Riley to help you design a garden system that fits your lifestyle and needs, set up a management plan, and work with you in the garden. Set up an appointment with Megan by calling 828.333.4151 or emailing