Respect the Hands that Feed

Photo Courtesy of Ventura County Star/ Rob Varela

An ever-growing chasm between the land and table

By Esha Chhabra

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Having traveled widely, whether in the developed world or the developing, I’ve found my favorite sightseeing spot to be a farm. No matter where I go, what city or country I might find myself in, I’m always visiting nearby farms.

This odd fascination began a few years back when I started looking at the dinner plate differently. For me, it became a blend of nature’s art and the rich stories of the artisans and farmers who make our food.

So, as folks around me at the grocery stores filled their carts, I resorted to the small baskets, instead. And even the basket was too big for the few bananas, loaf of bread and wedge of cheese I bought that day.

This wasn’t just a measure of frugality, rather it was a result of the farms I’d seen, many of them small-family operations. With the toil that goes into producing a wheel of cheese, a harvest of grains, a cup of rice, a bushel of apples, it seemed rude to waste any bit of it.

And yet, that’s what I saw around me at the megastores — boxes of rotting mangoes, bananas going dark, peaches softening into mush, loaves of bread turning stale.

I was traveling in India earlier this year, during the time of Baisakhi, a festival designed around the harvest of wheat in northern India. At that time, endless miles of north India’s landscape are painted with golden, sun-kissed fields of wheat.

Come late April, farmers, thin, scraggly and darkened by the sun, make their way through the fields, slashing away at the harvest, building piles of wheat.

But just a bit too much rain can leave their crop soggy and ruined. They don’t have expensive farm equipment to harvest quickly before the rains. They just have their hands, which tell stories of hardship. And as we celebrated the Baisakhi, sharing food, savoring sweets, many of those farmers subsisted on meager portions of their own crop.

But this is the story across much of the developing world. Those who soak their feet in rice paddies to cultivate rice, rarely have enough for their own bowl.

Recent fascination in America with exotic grains such as quinoa and couscous have put strains on the local populations who grow these varieties. While global demand is good, too much of it can mean that little is left at home.

Closer to home, even the small family farm is under pressure. Surviving on what once was our central source of nutrition and income has become nearly impossible.

Food is produced in massive quantities, rinsed, processed, baked and packaged — it has little soul left in it. We even entertain ourselves with food-based reality shows that encourage consuming excessive quantities or where judges just peck at the final plate and the rest is tossed.

One apple takes months to come to fruition. One loaf of bread takes hours of proofing before it’s ready to bake. Even a humble pie takes several ingredients. So, why let a slice go to waste?

Furthermore, why do we have to have so many choices at the store? Why do we have to buy in such quantities? I ask because I wonder if we have endless resources.

The solution to such food-related inequalities is complicated and involves a number of approaches that range from the personal to the global: consume less, waste less, build smaller sustainable food businesses, educate farmers in the developing world on better agricultural practices, create local markets for them, eliminate the middlemen.

But there are interesting enterprises under way to address the deficiencies in the developing world as well as connecting those in our local communities to the labors of farming.

For instance, California-based social enterprise Proximity Designs put together a foot-operated treadle pump for poor farmers that costs $25 or less. In the past six years, it has sold 53,000 such devices to farmers in Myanmar, making a strong social and financial impact by enabling farmers to double their incomes.

Here in Ventura County, Erynn Smith, the granddaughter of an ex-farmer, decided to forgo the madness of Los Angeles to help reconnect people to the land.

Involved in the Join the Farm movement as well as the local organization The Abundant Table, she works to address the “destructive disconnect between land and table in our culture.”

She told me that growing crops on a small farm is tough because you’re limited. But that’s the way nature intended — small, simple and fresh.

The solution to fighting food waste and over consumption?

Learn what it takes to grow it and learn what it means not to have it. That will give the fall harvest a new meaning and great respect.

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