ICE Conversation about
Gardening, Farmer’s Markets and "Making Things"

7/6/01 – 10/8/01

7/6 Phoebe Wray writes (in response to a post by plant biologist Dale Wilson):
I let my flower garden go to seed at the end of the season and save the seeds for replanting, but that's as close as I've ever been to what you do. Interesting to me at the moment because I'm doing research on ancient planting methods as a background for my new novel... and thinking about the act of making things...
things we make with our own hands to be used by us and family or tribe
things made with care and imbued with concentration that seems like love
things made while singing or chanting or listening to stories or gossiping and story-telling...

Then thinking that in the world I live in, in real time, I rarely make things and that dis-connects me from the moments of my life. When I do make things, and not just art things, but, for instance the joy I am taking in redecorating my house -- it makes my spirit/soul feel happy. More than happy -- content.

Do you experience this in working with your corn?

7/7 Dale Wilson writes:
Contrary to what people usually think of as "materialism" these days (loving possessions, coveting items), I think a more basic problem is the devaluing of things that comes with affluence. I remember when we lived in Colombia, people would fix cars over and over, completely rebuild the engine. A car was a luxury, and the government charged so much tax that the purchase price of a car was doubled over what it would be in the States. Here, no one has time to keep a car going for 15 or 20 years. I have heard it is (perhaps was) worse in Japan, where people dump(ed) their cars after a year or two. I don't think this is culturally determined, but determined by affluence.

Another thing is the direct connection to things that occurs when one puts their own effort into them. I left after dinner to go do my corn pollination, and my wife Polly was making cherry jelly. You know, that jelly will taste awful good from all that effort (well, it probably really will be good too). But what I am trying to say is, I value direct knowledge of things (nature) that are not socially mediated. Yes, I believe that is possible, because we were made to do it.

It also reminds me of comparing undergraduate study to graduate work. Undergraduate study means learning knowledge someone else produced. Graduate work means producing knowledge with your own hands.

One needs to get ones hands dirty to appreciate nature, and to appreciate all the good things that come so easily in our affluent society. To be thankful when you turn on the light switch, one should somehow smell the burning coal that makes the steam that spins those turbines. One should have at least a passing familiarity with engineering to understand the creativity of the engineers who designed those turbines. One needs to have a garden to understand the effort that goes into the vegetables on one's table. Seeing how breeding is done, doing it myself, I understand the effort, the sweat, that goes into these crop varieties.

I think people are made to interact with nature in these kinds of ways. My daughter Susan and I were digging potatoes this afternoon and I was thinking about this very thing. The potatoes were not very good, they haven't had enough water. I mean, they were okay, just small and one variety was pretty gnarly. But we grew them ourselves, and at dinner, Susan said with pride "I helped dig those potatoes." And she knows that potatoes are a special gift, and maybe when she buys them at the store, she will remember that potatoes don't just happen in the back of the supermarket.

(Pheobe had asked):
Do you experience this in working with your corn?

Yeah I feel intimate with the corn, I know the plant families, and how they each respond to the environment, I feel like there is a part of me in them.

7/12 Robert Greenway writes:
Being out in the dirt and weather every day reminds me a little of raising children: one's consciousness has plenty of "deep space" to get out of one's own private little diddly concerns. I remember noticing, when my kids were young, just how much I was fully in the present - I could hardly remember the stage they were in the year before. I think there's a genetic basis for this - as a parent, you MUST grow along with them.

I can hardly remember just a few weeks ago when it was finger-numbing cold, and wet, and the weeds were taking over EVERYTHING.
Now, after a week of warm, bright sunny weather (always kind of spring-like in this part of the world), I can't remember the cold. It’s just ‘today’, and another ton of garlic (literally) to pull out of the ground.

Anyway, the sun is breaking through an apricot soft fog, though the ships coming down the Straits towards Seattle are moaning their deepest fog horns. The garlic will begin drying under the trees in the shade, lined up on saw-horse tables.

8/6 John Scull writes:
On Friday we returned from six weeks of living outdoors and afloat and sailing and hiking along the BC coast. It was wonderful. On Saturday I went to the farmers' market in Duncan for fresh food and was very grateful that there are people like Greenway who stay home and work the land on my behalf, even when I'm goofing off.
My 1983 pickup truck started after standing for six weeks, making me wonder about Dale's comments that people don't use cars that are more than 10 years old. We had a rainy day, so I caught up on reading my email - it's good to see that y'all have been busy drawing distinctions and making generalizations while I was away, perhaps I'll join in when the room stops rocking back and forth.

Sailing a small boat involves paying close attention to nature and then tuning our activities accordingly -- very different from the way we exclude or overpower nature in most of our day-to-day lives. My safety and ability to get to my goal depends on my ability to adjust to the wind, waves, and currents; I can't overpower them. I suspect this is true of all human activities, but our technology masks our powerlessness.

Being out for an extended period gives a sense of the way all non-human beings live -- just to be without purpose other than being who/what we are. Can humans live this way on an ongoing basis?

What would happen if we did?

Ann Jarnet writes:
John gave us a wonderful travelogue... ohhh, but I enjoyed reading that!

There are three organic farmers at the downtown farmers' market here in Ottawa, and dozens more who offer locally-grown items but do use pesticides. One special couple has the most wonderful assortment of lettuce I have ever seen, as well as leaves which up until three years ago I had no idea existed. One of these is mizuna, which I like both raw and cooked.

On my way back from Toronto on Saturday, I stopped at a small-town market where, luckily, all was grown organically. I came away with bergamot jelly, nasturtium petal jelly, and home-made bread, and yes, wonderful garlic.

One of the Ottawa women has been experimenting with shiitake mushrooms, and they are starting to look great. She takes the time to explain all of that to her customers, and her eagerness is contagious. It's hard to walk away from her without buying.

I bought the biggest bunch of blue, violet and white delphinium -- a true extravagance which will last only a few days. But they just brought new life to my living room.

Back to my first couple, for a moment. I look at their faces -- he is from Morocco and has a very rich chocolatey complexion, and the kindest eyes on earth. She is French-Canadian, beautiful, with a smile that would melt your heart. I love to look at their hands -hands that show hard work, and a closeness to what they do. They display their veggies in very nice small baskets and, once those have been sold, they take more veggies from their containers and place them with care in the vine-leaf lined baskets which make their whole stand look so attractive.

Restaurants in the local market come early and buy a lot of their small squash and other items and you can see the daily menus saying "local, organically grown by the Belmadanis". Patrons leaving the restaurant often make a bee-line for the vegetable stand to take things home.

Later, of course, it will be time for the winter squashes and pumpkins which will fill the entire market, along with hay and scarecrows and other decorations to make the harvest season a true celebration.

8/28, Robert Greenway writes:
You folks, talking about Farmer's Markets, bring tears to my eyes - so, ecopsychologically speaking, it MUST be an archetypal topic (in the Jungian sense), and I must be carrying quite a bit of emotion around the topic.

(John had asked):
Is it part of a better new world or is it a last gasp of pre-corporate

Before Dale can remind us, let me say that American "farmer's markets" are full of quasi-religious or holier-than-though pretentiousness; and while not necessarily a "last gasp" or a throwback, local marketing (grower-direct-to customer) does, in my opinion, represent very deep-level human programming that places food, markets, and economics within a community, rather than a corporate, envelope. I think the distrust of increasingly pervasive corporate control over food (while corporations appear oblivious to the severe damage they are causing to communities, and the survival of people all over the world) is something that people "feel uneasy about" (or, bless, Betsy) rebel against outright. "Hey folks," people are saying, "something's really wrong here", even as we utilize the benefits of corporate production in so many areas of our lives (petroleum, electricity, manufactured goods, etc.).

So, the farmer's markets are, in my opinion, not just a last gasp, and certainly not a strong move into the future, but an ‘ecopsychological’ symptom - of a longing for community, and an expression of something very good that is an almost last, yeah, "last gasp", I guess.

And then, of course, the majority of faithful buyers are vividly aware that the taste of food locally grown is incomparably better than stuff shipped thousands of miles, stored for weeks, genetically manipulated to be shippable and storable, damn the taste. "It's looks that people want", as the big agriculture-marketing journals maintain.

Farmer's markets are, in my opinion, as wonderful and consciousness-expanding as, say, sacred sex, or an extended psychological stay deep within a pristine wilderness. The "handing over" of lovingly grown food to fellow community members is an incredible experience,

And yet, having said all that, the local communities are barely supporting local growers. Every single local small-scale grower I know, including myself, is living on the edge. Americans are not used to paying the costs of food production - just about everything is subsidized, or grown by semi-slaves in places like Mexico -- or costed out to support shipping in "off season" from, say, New Zealand or Chile. But carrots? for, say $1.50 a bunch, when Safeway sells them at, say, 69 cents a bunch? Garlic, at $6 a pound, when the pesticide-laden tiny bulbs in California go for $2 a pound?

Large corporate farms are "going organic" -- with all the efficiency and marketing skill and "economies of scale" at their disposal --steadily dropping the prices of organic produce, and steadily putting the small, local growers out of business. I maintain that the root of this problem is people's understanding of the food they buy, and their willingness (or un-willingness) to add to the cost of local super-market food the costs to the environment. Of transporting food thousands of miles (not to mention the costs to community; and the costs to the enjoyment of the ‘taste’ of food picked the same day it is sold). "Buying organic" is only half of it; "buying local" is the other half - and it's a last-gasp losing game, except perhaps in a few places here and there, with enlightened people like John, Amy, and Ann.

So, somewhat against our principles, but urgently needing to market our garlic before it gets moldy in this damp climate (and extra damp summer), we cleaned up a few hundred pounds and took it to one of the "hot" farmer's markets in Seattle last weekend. We sold out (over a grueling 7-hour period) at $6/lb over 200 pounds of garlic -- our urgently needed cash crop to pay for all the money we lose growing broccoli and carrots for local consumption.

All these Seattle-ites crowded around our table (my daughter-in-law made these up-scale signs, and insisted I shave and wear clean clothes), and were wowed - "Seven different kinds of garlic? You've got to be kidding!" "Now would this ‘Sicilian Blue’ be good for making pesto"? (even my Salt-Spring-based garlic sold well!). And it was kind of fun, and exciting to be selling out - all that money! We were tempted to go out on the town and pay $25 for a fancy organic meal!) - but it was weird, not knowing anyone. The community connection was gone, even while the economics dramatically improved.

I don't know what the answer is, but I do believe that whatever corporate domination of globalization means, "farmer's markets" all over the world are the opposite.

8/28. Ann Jarnet writes:
Boy, Robert, you are in fine form this morning.

From reading your thoughts on farmers' markets, I went a bit further into my heart as to why buying organic food is so important to me (as well as buying from local producers). Naturally, there's the health aspect, and I think this is really important. However, there is one particular reason why I do it - it's because I can. I know this may sound arrogant, but I don't mean it that way. What I do mean is that I am privileged to have the means to spend $4.99 on a broccoli in wintertime from the organic farmers' market when it's $1.49 at Safeway. I don’t have three children to support on minimum wage and no one is deprived if I spend that extra $3.50 on the vegetable. Which means I feel that I have an obligation to do this: to support farmers so that they can earn a decent wage and maybe get away from living on the edge; to join those who are mobilized to support farmers and increase the demand for such produce; to participate in a mindfulness about how we feed ourselves and become "solidaire avec la nature".

(Greenway had said):
The "handing over" of lovingly grown food to fellow community members is an incredible experience ....

Ann here:
That's exactly how I was feeling when I described how the Belmadani family presents their food in their stall. I feel the love coming through those vine-leaf lined baskets, and how either of them takes each individual zucchini and places it gently in my bag. Even though I am paying for it, it feels like a gift. I've asked them if I can interview them during the winter about this kind of thing and its relationship to environmental education. They've agreed (oooooooooo I am so excited about this).

One of the things I like most about the organic farmers' market (far from where I live so I only visit occasionally) is that there is no competition. They work together, so that not all of them are bringing corn. There's the corn guy and the herb woman and then the root vegetable family and "I-have-20-varieties-of-potato" guy who is right next to the strawberry person - very little overlap. Customers make the rounds and everyone gets a bit of each customer's money.

There's an air about the place. People look contented when they carry their baskets and bags back to their bikes or cars. You can almost detect an energy which says, "I can't wait to get home and make something with this" (which is not, not, not the air I detect when I go to the supermarket!).

(Robert went on to say):
But carrots? for, say $1.50 a bunch, when Safeway sells them at, say, 69 cents a bunch? Garlic, at $6 a pound, when the pesticide-laden tiny bulbs in California go for $2 a pound?

Ann again:
Yes, but these are the same people who would go out of their way to buy "GAP" garments for their kids, instead of at K-Mart.
It's ok to spend $75 on a Ralph Lauren polo shirt for a three-year old (go ahead and gasp those of you who would never consider doing this!) who will grow out of it quickly, or wreck it through playing on a swing-set. People feel the pressure of not being a K-mart parent, but haven't progressed to "Well, we're going to have to sacrifice on the fancy clothes so we can get some organic strawberries into your tummies".