Lessons from Home

Changing values, climate shape rural America

By Nic Andelin with Andrew Mount

The motivations of money and nice cars unfortunately flow in direct opposition to global peace, restorative practice and regenerative social ecology.

Transcending materialistic values requires a whole-systems redesign of the everyday economy to address the greater needs of humanity as they mesh with the intrinsic value of natural, living systems. That’s about as easy as forgetting everything you thought you knew and replacing it with all new operating software.

The question quickly becomes: Where to start? On a brief sojourn to my home town, I found myself pondering what motivates people to initiate the kind of change needed in the world.

If experience is any indicator, perhaps you’d better start from the beginning. And here I am: back in my home town, Tucson, Ariz., starting from my own beginning.

I remember Tucson always seemed boring while growing up. Sometimes it would get so hot in the summertime, we’d mostly stay indoors until nightfall. Teenagers would wander the late-night streets, roast food on small pit fires, camouflage in overgrown areas of the wild Sonoran Desert vegetation — vigilant enough to avoid unnecessary encounters with law enforcement, incited by the police plane that seemed to circle tirelessly in the night sky. During those days, I often dreamed of moving to Southern Oregon, the green, forest-dream paradise where weed was virtually legal, even back then …

Oregon thus eventually became my transplanted home where, for the past decade, I have learned about farming, food production, wild-crafting and community organizing. Little did I know, people with similar values were cultivating and implementing these same novel approaches to food and natural-remedy production right here in my home town. With this realization, it dawned on me: The invaluable opportunity to make this trip is about so much more than just helping myself and my family. It’s about the bigger picture of all-natural, whole foods and how local, organic-food systems operate.

Developing a better understanding of these small-scale food-production systems in Tucson — where the climate is unforgiving, where fertile soil and groundwater are scarce — would help to inform methods in Oregon (and elsewhere) relative to future farming potential in the face of climate change. Consistent record highs throughout the summer and persistent drought conditions across the West are worrisome to agriculturists like me. After all, if cabbage and broccoli grow well in Tucson, they can be grown anywhere!

So how do they do it, actually? Tucson has more sunny days than Oregon; the growing season is just that much longer. Farms utilize shade-cloth structures to protect more delicate vegetables from the intense desert sun. However, climate change may indeed produce similar conditions back in usually temperate Oregon. We must be prepared, given the Pacific Northwest’s historically mild winter.

I decided to visit the old Food Conspiracy Co-op on Fourth Avenue. Although some things had changed, a walk around downtown brought back memories of my younger, rebellious years when I couldn’t care less where my food came from. Now, almost 20 years later, I’m very fascinated trying to imagine how all these different, moving parts fit together in the larger scope of food access.

I gained some insight from Todd Statdlander, produce manager for Food Conspiracy Co-op. He explained that high volume is key in the co-op’s long-term relationships with local, organic farmers. Farmers markets, he said, are the alternative for farmers who produce lower volumes.

Local produce at Food Conspiracy Co-op comes from a handful of family-owned farms just south of Tucson. These types of farms often are subsistence farms growing a variety of vegetables to support their own household nutrition needs. Selling extra produce to the co-op and other retail outlets provides necessary income to pay the bills. To do this, farmers must become certified naturally grown (CNG) by an independent agency based in New York. Despite being so far away, CNG offers peer-review certification to farmers and beekeepers producing food for their local communities and working in harmony with nature without relying on synthetic chemicals or genetically modified organisms, as stated on their website.

Perhaps it is relevant to talk about the name “Food Conspiracy,” which I like because it is so subversive. I understand this co-op has been in Tucson a long time. The store seems to have undergone some updates, but the name remains the same.

So what is the food conspiracy of our times? Is it a conspiracy on behalf of the industry executives? On behalf of the common people? Or both? Is it about where our food comes from in terms of food miles and soil fertility?

Ultimately, is the conspiracy about where the money goes and who the stakeholders are and their bottom-line motivations about food? After all, businesses need to make money, but people and the environment have the greater stake in accessing healthy, sustainable foods. So I wonder if the overall food conspiracy is about trying to realign these conflicting interests between profits and people.

Searching for more insight about these general concepts, I discovered Tucson Village Farm, a working, urban farm built by and for Tucson youth. A program of Pima County Cooperative Extension and University of Arizona, TVF is a seed-to-table program designed to reconnect young people to a healthy food system, teach them to grow and prepare fresh foods and empower them to make healthy life choices. This farm gives anyone a chance to pick their own vegetables for a fraction of the price vegetables normally cost in stores. I have spent some time volunteering there, and I was elated to see the number of young people actively redefining their relationship with food.

The farm’s volunteer coordinator, Kayla Purigraski, shared some insight about what motivates people to change. “There is a magic created by the ownership of picking your own food,” she said. This gets people involved in the production aspect of food in a sustainable way. Also, eating food this fresh from the garden changes perceptions of flavor. It raises awareness about picking food when ripe.

I had great fun volunteering at Tucson Village Farm, helping to dig up the biggest yams I had ever seen in my life and transplant kohlrabi into garden beds. This is when I learned about Tank’s Green Stuff, the organic compost made from local yard debris and resold to local farms in this region. It was a great lesson amid the process of building organic garden beds at the new house of old schoolyard chum Stuart Smith. He has a family now and wants to grow his own vegetables at home.

I made some calls and found out I could get free manure from Tanque Verde Guest Ranch, layer it with kitchen scraps and biochar and top it all off with Tanks Green Stuff and a little native soil. I even procured some seeds from Tucson Village Farm. Now Stuart is basically ready to start planting his home garden.

Like Kayla said, ownership is what really motivates people to change. Perhaps this even means ownership of our own destiny.