“Food from the Radical Center: Healing our Land and Communities” - Gary Paul Nabhan
Gary Paul Nabhan introduces each chapter of “Food from the Radical Center: Healing our Land and Communities” by asking readers if they have shared a particular experience of connecting…to the land or its history, or to their fellow human beings. I will follow his lead and ask: Have you ever felt like the universe was really trying to get a message to you? I have, and most recently it had to do with Nabhan’s book, which contains a chapter about heritage breeds of poultry….especially turkeys. On the morning after I finished reading the book, I was blocked from leaving my neighborhood by a flock of wild turkeys in the road, toms in full display. This in itself was not remarkable, as wild turkeys have become quite common where I live on Cape Cod. However, among this group was a white individual! This oddity was worth recounting to a friend, which led us to look up the meaning of the turkey as a spirit animal. The list of attributes for the turkey included: connection with the land, forms of nourishment in our lives, harvesting the fruits of your work, importance of community, sharing, and abundance -- the very themes of Nabhan’s book.
In Food from Radical Center, Nabhan offers a number of examples of unlikely partners coming together with those attributes as their shared goals. These are stories of farmers, ranchers, fishers, conservationists, scientists, land managers and historians, each with a stake in the land or water where they live. They are stories of how, despite their differences, stakeholders with diverse points of view can come together, learn to listen to and learn from each other, share expertise and experience, and work together to heal the land (or water) and renew its productivity.
Each chapter relates a story of restoration, of farm or rangeland, of waterways, of lineages of food plants and animals at risk of being lost to large-scale production crops, and of community. Successes come from combining traditional methods with current science, and a desire to contribute to local food production as well as protect the environment; the local “foodshed”. Along the way, social, cultural, and even political divides are bridged. I will try to give you a taste of these stories, although they are much more layered and interwoven with people and history than I can summarize here.
In “Will Work for Dirt” (Chapter 3), Nabhan focuses on soils, the foundation of food production. He describes using compost to bring even small plots of urban soils back to life, including reviving the microbial community that is vital for healthy soils. But a central story in this chapter involves grass-roots efforts to halt the loss of tons of soil to erosion. One branch of this movement had its beginnings in a meeting in 1934 when the head of the new U.S. Soil Erosion Service, Hugh Bennett, and forester and ecologist Aldo Leopold met with, and most importantly, listened to, farmers in the severely eroded watershed of Coon Valley, WI. Together they designed a project to fill gullies, revegetate hillsides, change grazing and crop rotation practices, and plant windbreaks, in what they called “cooperative conservation”. Through the work of over 400 farming families and 200 student workers from the University of WI, over 40,000 acres were restored. One measure of the ultimate success of this effort is that 50 years later, descendants of the farmers formed a vegetable and dairy cooperative that has expanded into over 30 states and 4 Canadian provinces, selling food under the brand name Organic Valley.
Another cooperative erosion control effort can be found in Sonora, AZ, where it has been practiced for over 300 years. This is the planting of living fencerows of cottonwood and willows along streambanks next to fields and pastures. These permeable fences buffer seasonal floodwaters and trap detritus – rich with organic matter and beneficial microbes – on the fields as waters recede. Maintaining these fences is a collaborative effort, shared by farmers, ranchers, and orchard keepers, as well as municipal well managers, road maintenance workers, and the local mezcal distillers. The add-on value to the fence rows is that they provide habitat for a number of bird species and other wildlife that are attracted to the shade and protection they provide.
On the other side of the country (“Teach a Community to Fish”, Chapter 6), community-based actions have been improving the condition of the Delaware River, and reviving the fisheries it once sustained. A target of these efforts has been an ancient and iconic fish, the Atlantic sturgeon. Adult individuals ranging up to 15 feet long were once the mainstay of many tribes along the Atlantic coast, and later supported the base of local economies in the Delaware watershed, where fishers, butchers, oil extractors, fertilizer sellers, and fishmongers depended on them for their
livelihoods. Overfishing, followed by contamination of the Delaware, reduced the sturgeon populations to endangered levels, with damaging repercussions on human communities as well. Recently, with support from the William Penn Foundation’s Delaware River Watershed Initiative, 65 local, regional and national organizations have partnered on community-based conservation programs to restore the watershed and improve water quality in the river. By all “rowing in the same direction”, these groups have reduced nutrient and contaminant loads to the Delaware, restored wildlife habitat on land, including along streams and in wetlands, improved water-holding capacity of soils, and affected surface and groundwater flow from headwater forests and agricultural land, all of which contribute to higher water quality in the Delaware. Higher water quality is facilitating a comeback of the sturgeon, as well as other species, and is providing a safe water supply for the human inhabitants of the watershed.
Turkeys make their appearance in “Strange Birds Flock Together”, Chapter 8, in which two men,
Frank Reese and Patrick Martins, with wildly different backgrounds (Frank, a farmer, turkey breeder, and also an anesthesiologist, from a prairie town in Kansas, and Patrick, a graduate of New York University’s School of the Arts, from Brooklyn) join forces to conserve heritage turkeys by getting them on restaurant and family tables.
When Frank and Patrick started, 95% of turkey production was controlled by four commercial breeders who offered just one lineage, the Broad-Breasted White, the Thanksgiving centerpiece most of us know. In contrast, Frank had listened and learned from elders to hold onto key traits in his heritage breeding stock because “if the genetics of your flock is bad to begin with”, you can’t make up for it. Meanwhile, Patrick had become acquainted with the Slow Food movement, and working with the American Livestock Conservancy (ALC), realized that Frank’s Good Shepherd Farm would be key to restoring heritage turkeys.
Through a promotional campaign involving support and cooperation of a number of chefs in high profile restaurants across the country, their efforts got an important jump start, and their success built quickly. In less than 20 years, the number of breeding hens of heritage turkeys went from only about 1,300 to 30,000, representing a dozen breeds. Other breeders of rare varieties of chickens, ducks, and geese were inspired, with the ALC recording 1,500 private poultry breeders, 48 hatcheries, and 7 universities engaged in the preserving these birds. Such a rapid recovery would likely not have been possible without the urban chefs, who guaranteed a market and a set price for the birds. Patrick refers to this connection as “restaurant-supported agriculture”, or as Nabhan sees it: “(a) bridge between rural and urban peoples, who (re)discover the values they hold in common while working together to defend rare breeds and to make our shared landscapes more beautiful.”
Since reading Food from the Radical Center, the universe has continued to find ways to make me more aware of the growing movement around sustainable food production, largely through my connections to ecologists working in a range of environments across the U.S. Scientists are joining with farmers, ranchers, aquaculturists (see Idea Exchange) and managers in cooperative, community-based efforts to produce food while still acting as good stewards of the planet. In ecology, we often talk about “top down” versus “bottom up” control of natural systems: Are natural communities of plants and animals structured and regulated by consumers at the top of the food web, or are communities shaped by the mix of nutrients and other resources at the base? Gary Paul Nabhan has asked a similar question as it applies to healing our land and restoring its productivity. Is this best accomplished by policies and practices imposed by regulators and academics (top-down), or is a better approach to bring the mix of stakeholders together to cultivate a path towards a sustainable landscape (bottom up)? Through recounting examples from across the country, and from soils to seeds to fish to plants to birds to bees to sheep, I think Nabhan has given us a clear answer to this question, and it’s not such a radical one after all.
Ms. Tucker works at the Marine Biological Laboratory’s Ecosystem Center in Woods Hole, MA, the home institution of the PIE-LTER. She studies nutrient cycling in marine and estuarine sediments at PIE and other coastal systems. Her primary role is to analyze samples and process and synthesize data to determine rates and pathways of nitrogen cycling. Research conducted at the PIE-LTER is funded by the National Science Foundation.
Jane was always interested and curious about the natural world. She claims to have been a “nerdy kid” who asked for a microscope for Christmas but also loved to be outdoors. She had an aquarium as well as a variety of rescued pets, loved to identify seashells and tree leaves, and of course watched Jacques Cousteau and the Wild Kingdom. She grew up on the coast of NC, and loved the oceans and marshes and always wanted to know what and why. So for her, a career in science was the obvious path to take.