At Farmscape, we are big fans of NPR’s new food blog The Salt and the quality reporting it has produced over the past few months. Yesterday, Dan Charles reports on the troubling environmental impact of food safety efforts in Northern California.
We'd probably like to think that clean, safe food goes hand in hand with pristine nature, with lots of wildlife and clean water. But in the part of California that grows a lot of the country's lettuce and spinach, these two goals have come into conflict.
Environmental advocates say a single-minded focus on food safety has forced growers of salad greens to strip vegetation from around their fields, harming wildlife and polluting streams and rivers.
On Tuesday, NPR’s All Things Considered aired a story by Dan Charles on community gardens. Most people, including myself, have strongly positive associations with community gardens and Charles’s take on them was surprisingly downbeat.
In particular, he focused on the decision that community gardens make between communally managing plots or allocating plots to individuals for their personal use. In indicting the communal management model, a George Mason professor cited the failure of a similar model to produce banner yields for the Soviet Union, while a veteran community gardener cited personal experience: “Our experience is, it’s an unequal participation, and an unequal sharing.”
The Oscars are coming up fast, which means a second chance to see quality films that I missed the first time around. And, while I'm excited to see "Moneyball" and the animated shorts, the movie that I am most excited about right now is a new food documentary entitled "In Organic We Trust." The director, Kip Pastor, summarizes the critique that he levels against organic foods that share nearly as ugly a backstory as their conventionally grown counterparts:
More often than not, the organic spinach, cucumbers and strawberries at your neighborhood Safeway were grown on a monoculture mega-farm, in a field right next to the farm's pesticide-laden, non-organic crops, picked prematurely by the same exploited farm workers, and transported over huge distances by gas-guzzling, carbon-emitting, long-haul trucks to your supermarket produce aisle. The organic meat in the next aisle likely came from pigs, cows and chickens that were raised in overcrowded, waste-infested feedlots nearly identical to those of their "non-organic" relatives.
His argument echoes one that I made just over a year ago in arguing that "organic is not enough.” But like I did in that post, he stops short of dismissing organic certification as meaningless, pointing out that:
The USDA certification still carries significance and should not be abandoned. The "certified organic" label at the very least signifies to the consumer that the food was grown without the use of highly toxic chemicals.
Nevertheless, I still prefer the produce from my raised beds. It’s fresh, flavorful and grown by a happy farmer using methods that I can verify first-hand.
But the design can go further. Should the emblem of our city, the nexus of municipal power, boast a landscape of only grass and flowers? Is that what we stand for? I think Los Angeles should ask more of its landscapes, public and private. I think we can do better. At City Hall we should also grow food crops in a demonstration garden, out front for everyone to see.
After attending a few of the redesign meetings downtown, we drew up plans for a City Hall landscape restoration, Farmscape-style. You can view a small version of our plan above, or click here for a high resolution version of our design.
You’re wondering: Why do you want to build a garden at City Hall?
What we do with the land outside our buildings is a very public exhibition of our values. And at a landmark like City Hall, our decisions echo across the city. Landmarks are models for landscaping options to all residents and land owners in charge of LA real estate, and that’s how movements are built.
Still you ask: Is it feasible? Is it reasonable? Isn’t gardening a throw-away hobby?
Gardening is not an idle hobby. Farmscape manages nearly one hundred intensive edible gardens across the city and has grown at least 30,000 pounds of produce by organic methods in these gardens. We estimate a well-managed garden in LA can grow at least 3-5 pounds per square foot per year, meaning a garden instead of several hundred feet of lawn could on average yield more than twenty pounds of heirloom fruits and vegetables per week. Fruit orchards perform even better on a pound-per-square-foot basis. For a small fraction of the anticipated maintenance budget for the City’s preferred landscape design -- $135k annually -- we could easily provide weekly maintenance of a demonstration garden larger than 1000 square feet.
Convinced at last, you want to know: How can I help?
The city solicited feedback on their plans for City Hall, and you can offer your opinion on their website. Tell them you want our city to grow vegetables and fruits at City Hall. Tell them you’d prefer the Farmscape plan, or something similar.
You’ve just moved into a house. It’s in the neighborhood you want to live in, you did your research, you’ve just been through everything with realtors, insurance agents, your bank, your accountant, now you’re working with contractors to fix, tweak, and polish all the little things that aren’t right about the building.
But besides all that, you also find yourself staring at the land around the house. The green strip that decorates the property, provides a buffer, a sense of space for the architecture to stand within. There’s probably grass, maybe a patio, a tree here and there, roses perhaps, and a handful of plants, some with flowers and some without, that you recognize from all over the city but you could never in your life attach to a name.
This is your land. These are your nameless plants. These are your resources--your water, your soil, your nitrogen--and what you do with them is your choice alone. You are not only a homeowner, but also a land owner. You own and administer California real estate, some of the priciest square footage in the world. What should you do with it? Your strip that used to be ranchero, and then it was an orchard or farm, before it was claimed by the city, parceled into a home.