You can keep your heroes: on stewardship and food systems

This month over at The Food Connection we’re inaugurating an award in honor of one of my favorite farmers of all time (which is really saying something), Bill Best. This post (posted first at my ‘From the Director’ blog) sums up my thinking on the value of folks like Bill to our community.

You can keep your heroes: on stewardship and food systems

You might miss Bill in a crowd. He has a soft voice with a gentle Appalachian drawl. He asks thoughtful questions and humbly offers advice or knowledge when invited. If you’re not paying attention, you may also miss the invaluable role he’s played in preserving the genetic heritage and agricultural history of Central Appalachia. The stories he tells about seed-saving are as much about the gardeners and families who have entrusted him with their heirlooms as they are about his work preserving them. Back home we would describe him as a “good neighbor.” Some people in the sustainable agriculture community would likely call him a hero.bill_best

All heroes need an origin story. Bill Best refused to accept that he would never again enjoy the tender-skinned greasy beans that he grew up alongside in his grandmother’s garden. And so, he got to work; he turned the soil, tended his fields, and his farmstead became a sanctuary for the agricultural heritage of mountain communities and the plants they have loved. A precious as gold and twice as rare, families have entrusted Bill with their history, held closely inside those smooth and speckled seed casings.

We don’t need silver bullets, we need seeds

That said, I would never call Bill Best a hero. To me, Bill is a steward, which I would argue is a more noble title for those of us who strive to care for our food system. Our Jack saved the beanstalk from the giant not for financial gain or glory, but to ensure the cultural survival and self-reliance of his community.  Unlike the bravado of heroism, stewardship is the slow work of the seasons; found in the practical labors of caring for each other and the land that sustains us.

The mark a steward leaves is not an indelible carving of the earth (or the blasting of one’s visage into the mountainside). Unfortunately, our nation’s farming systems have also gone this way: bulldozed into uniformity by captains of industry. Absent stewardship, our food systems become unmoored, changing with the winds of fashion or price swings at the board of trade.

Even in the so-called ‘good food’ community, we fall prey to the cult of celebrity. We can all name the half dozen “super-star” farmers, chefs or authors with the silver bullet model for solving sustainable agriculture or urban food insecurity. You can pay big bucks to hear them speak, tour their farms and facilities, and buy their latest book to learn all the answers. But can they describe the poetic twining of a runner bean around its trellis? Do they carry the story of that bean close to their heart? I would offer that to heal our food systems we don’t need silver bullets, we need seeds.

The gentle legacy of stewardship

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Hand to Hand. Photo from Friends Drift Inn

The legacy of a steward is found in a gentler path, fit for the mountains Bill calls home; carried in song and verse, passed hand to hand, mended and endlessly re-woven. Grounded in an intimate knowledge of land and place, our food and farm stewards build our self-reliance while simultaneously showing us our deep interconnection. They give generously of their knowledge and skill, safe in the understanding that our true wealth and joy can only multiply as they are shared.

As Bill once told me: “You grow tomatoes for money, and beans for love.” I love this quote because it doesn’t diminish the tomato or the bean, or the farmer that grows them, and embraces the simple truths of a what it takes to build a livelihood. In Bill’s words, I hear echoes of the old protest songs calling for Bread and Roses; our labors should bring us not only prosperity but also dignity and joy.

We don’t come to sustainable food systems for a quick buck, but for the long work of learning how to abide together and live from the earth as well as possible. Many of us owe Bill a debt of gratitude. He shared his seeds and wisdom with me in my early days of bean enthusiasm, and I am not alone in my tender affection and deep admiration for this farmer with his coveralls and leather britches. But how do you honor someone whose humility and generosity defines their legacy? I offer that we treat his gifts to us with the same stewardship he has practiced. We tend to the heirlooms of our past by preparing them for brighter futures. We get to work.

Chief Overthinking Officer Report On Local-Washing

This is the post excerpt.

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Flat emoji for my flat friends

Food systems people know that even though winter is off-season on the farm it’s conference season in the meeting room. I arrived in Savannah for the Southeastern Regional Fruit and Vegetable Growers  (SERFVG… best/worst acronym ever) conference last week hoping for a brief break from my normal focus on local food ‘stuff’ with a vacation into the ever-so-riveting world of on-farm food safety education. Little did I know what awaited me.

Settling into my hotel room I was greeted by this seemingly innocuous room service menu. Seeing as I hadn’t eaten since Kentucky, I indulged with an order of quinoa-arugula-something-or-other salad AND a side of crinkle cut fries because YOLO. Only after closing the menu did I see their claim to ‘local ingredients,’ which sparked a litany of questions on my part. With no indication on the menu as to the provenance of anything, I was skeptical at best. Perhaps the good farmers of Georgia have miraculously started to grow Quinoa for foodie travelers like me… but I seriously doubt it. What’s more, as someone who spends a significant chunk of her professional life and mental bandwidth thinking about local food systems, this sort of ‘local-washing’ is especially vexing.

Like it’s cousin green-washing, local-washing emerged as a buzz-word around 2009 and applies to when a business makes claims about the ‘localness’ of their products when in fact they are part of the same global corporations and/or supply chains that most of our food comes from. Food purveyors (grocers, restaurants, food manufacturers) claim to offer local food with no clear communication about what food on the menu is local, or how local is defined, or what farms or sources that food comes from. The word ‘local’ serves as an empty placeholder for you, the customer, to insert all your positive assumptions about the food on offer’s freshness, healthfulness, or support of family farmers without any proof. Which is how I ended up with out-of-season tomatoes in my quinoa salad while at the same time a local farmer is left out in the rain.

Sharing my low-key local food outrage with some Georgia farmers the following evening one of them joked that I should add the title “Chief Overthinking Officer” to my business card. He wasn’t wrong, but I’m going to take it as a badge of honor. What we think and say about our world matters, and I’m lucky to be able to spend a lot of time thinking about these things. Now seems like a good time to be sharing more of those thoughts.

The ‘good food’ movement has been critiqued for its style over substance approach. It’s easy to be co-opted or local-washed in the absence of clear communication about how and why the meaning of ‘local food’ should matter to the average American; from what they put on their plates to what advocate for at work or in the voting booth.

My hope with this blog is to provide a substance AND style approach to food systems scholarship. As this blog evolves I hope to provide thoughtful reflection on both emerging issues and long-standing debates within the contemporary food movement. While I tend to approach things from a farm-first perspective, I’m also a social scientist through-and-through so culture, power, and all the other fun dimensions of our socio-political world will also play a part.

This is definitely an experiment in public-scholarship. I value your feedback, questions, or complaints. What questions need asking or answering? Whose perspectives aren’t being considered? How do we better understand each other as we work to build food systems that respect and nourish the people, land, and history of a place? As my hero once said… Let’s go exploring.

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