Thursday, July 11, 2019

Where your local food is connected to your waste stream

Our little farm gets gardening waste from a local gated community, and a surprising amount of plastic waste comes along for the ride. Dog poop, cat litter— all things that can’t be composted safely in a small farm system (and also can’t be composted at the local dump). I wonder how this came to be. As I pull bits of plastic and dog poop out of the pile while I’m building it, I feel tired, sad and worried.

It got me thinking about where our food comes from, and how things are connected in surprising ways. When we try to buy local food, these connections are all the more apparent. I’d argue even when we’re eating non-local food, the connections are there in significant ways.

The primary different between organic and non-organic farming, relates to the soil, and thus to the scale of the farm. If a farm is using inorganic fertilizers, it’s a lot easier to scale up because you can calculate and purchase the exact number of kilograms of N-P-K you need for your farm, and it’s basically infinitely scalable until your soil is destroyed or gets blown away. That is, while fossil fuels are cheap and plentiful: so not forever. The quality of that fertilizer, and the food chain in general, is important-- we have fairly good evidence to say that food that is grown on poor quality soil is not as nutritious.

Attention to soil health and to the circular nature of all our existences is a central driver for farming and a central driver for small scale farming. Soil health is what keeps organic farms small, if labor is valued correctly.

So when it comes to organic operations, it’s not simply that we don’t use pesticides (often the focus of people’s interest.). It's all about the soil: we require fairly vast quantities of compost. For example, our small 1 acre (probably only ½ acre actively cultivated) farm makes 15- 20 tons of various kinds of compost a year.

Getting this compost adds either a very significant cost or a tremendous amount of labor, depending on one’s circumstances, and I wanted to talk a bit about this process, and how it relates to the cost of vegetables and fruit, as I think organic produce is still hugely undervalued and unsustainable at the prices you often see— at least in the sense that it is impossible to adequately value the labor of workers at the current costs. 

Right now people are willing to pay more to avoid pesticides— which has reached the public consciousness as important. That is, I am not sure we have not necessarily made the connection back to soil health, or to hugely increased labor costs, or to relatively smaller farm sizes, and the ways these are valuable and important, but not accounted for in a free market economy.

When I think of leveraging for change at the local level, I feel it may be valuable to keep picturing, imagining, enacting a different economy. This is what we do, to an extent, when we sell our produce for the same price as the supermarket: we say, perhaps we are the ones who have been given much and so are also the ones who can sacrifice a little. Or maybe we are simply going along with market economics where consumers are overwhelmingly the beneficiaries: you get to have your organic cake and eat it too.

Anyway, back to the compost story:

Firstly, in a highly specialized farm there is more likely to be waste. In a family farm with a little of everything, all the parts can stand a reasonable chance of working together. For example, waste from the kitchen can be cycled through the small number of chickens, whose waste is an asset, not a toxic waste. Tree branches and leaves are similarly an asset, not a waste product. In a family scale farm, the family is eating what you are eating- we have every incentive to grow the best possible food we can. In a smaller scale business, the success of the staff are up close and personal, not distanced from our reality.

There are a few ways to get the quantity of compost we need to grow food:
1)    Buying it in: Here, the cost of the compost will be part of the cost of the vegetables. The advantage of this is that the quality of the compost is not your responsibility in the same way. But the more I compost, the more I feel that large scale operations are either using a lot of fossil fuels to produce their compost (e.g. through large chippers or turners), or are having to pay people poor wages to go through and try to remove plastic and poop. There are simpler possibilities for compost out there (particularly in more rural areas): horse or cow manure. While these are great sources of compost, it’s unlikely that most sources can vouch for the horses or cows’ own feed, at least in South Africa, where most farms are informally organic rather than certified as such. The challenge with buying in compost is not only that the quality is often quite poor, it is that it also means you have to grow much more intensively to make sure you recoup your costs.
2)    Make your own compost using farm waste (I.e. cycling back kitchen scraps, humanure, animal manure): I think this works as long as you are not exporting any food off site— ie it only works your soil is starting from a relatively good place, and if you aren’t selling anything to anyone.) The advantage to this is that you can vouch for the quality of the compost based not only on making it, but also based on knowing the quality of the individual components (e.g. you know the chickens and humans were healthy and not fed anything that would impact their manure).
3)    I think most organic farmers try to make their own compost in order to try to price their produce more competitively. I make lots of different kinds of compost, and I think ultimately this will contribute to much better produce than if I just used horse manure, for example. 

This is where it comes back to the gated community I mentioned at the beginning: either the families or their gardeners do not think it is a big deal to put plastic or dog poop into landscape waste, but when they do, a few things might happen: 
1) I might pay someone to set up the compost pile for me, because I can’t afford a higher wage given low prices. I cannot expect that that person will carefully remove plastic and paint chips etc, no matter how much I pay them: it is simply very undignified work.
2) I might make the compost pile myself, carefully removing the plastic, because I’m not quite sure how to navigate talking to a worker about encountering dog poop etc. When selling the produce, I’d either have to vastly undervalue my own time, or increase the cost of the produce still more “artisanal” comes to mind. 

The easier option: For the resident of the gated community to realize that their landscaping waste comes back as their organic, local produce, and they have choices that will help enable the organic farmers’ work. That is: it truly is a circle, whether a small local one, or a huge global one: what you do matters. How you pay your workers matter, but honestly no worker, however well paid, will remove small pieces of plastic chucked into your waste stream. How attentive you are to issues of plastic waste matters, matters for a long time.

I struggle with concepts of artisanal food, because sometimes it seems like shorthand for paying hipsters more than farm workers, for the same product. At the same time, I want to suggest that in a family farm, the level of skill required to farm in an ecological way is extraordinarily high. I think there is value to farmers laboring on their own land, and selling the same food they eat and labour for, even though they could produce food more cheaply if they paid someone else to do the labour for them.  I have read as much about permaculture and about small-scale farming as I read for my PhD, and still farming challenges me in significant ways. So while I don’t expect an academic salary as a farmer, there’s no way minimum wage will work for new urban farmers, even frugal ones. So it’s something I’m pondering— not necessarily with clear answers. Perhaps there is something in there for finding ways to respect all work?

In practical terms, I dream of using our farm, and the Good Food Club Valley, as a place to experiment with a wellness economy. To grapple with our needs and wants as farmers with skin in the game, while thinking practically about what it means to access nourishing food. Perhaps it looks like bartering, perhaps it looks like something else. But definitely, imagining a future in which food is nutritious and sustainable involves some fundamental shifts in how we relate to one another. Maybe it involves getting into uncomfortable situations— I know I am in the midst of this as we grapple with how to pay our staff when we are not yet making any money at our nursery. 

No farm is an island— even the most holistic family farm needs inputs, and a network of supporting structures. We all specialize a little bit: for example it is impractical to simultaneously grow seed, seedlings, trees, full grown vegetables and fruit, eggs, and meat (I don’t even consider grains here, as I think on an urban scale grain is largely impractical) compost, and then market and sell all of these directly. .

The immediate issues of how we pay an individual farmer for a set of goods may seem like a very tiny set of questions in a world of Takealot, Amazon and the free-market. I’m not sure I have the answer for that, but I convinced that if we pay attention to small, daily, actions related to food: where we’re willing to change both our taste buds and our buying patterns, that this can make significant local (though scary) changes.

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