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February 15th, 2010

SIX STATES, AN AGRICULTURAL ODYSSEY

I have heard it said: “Those who own the seeds control the world.”

High above the charming and popular Spanish Colonial city of Puerta Vallarta, the polished marbled floors of this luxury condominium cover every inch of its three thousand square feet of elegant, contemporary space. The covered porch where I sit is a watchtower, I am perched here, in a cemented niche, like a sea bird in its towering cliff nest.

From here the arc of view is blue; all but a green-foliaged tropical corner and a purple slice of rugged-edged mountains, the Sierra Madre Occidental. Blue-green on the shore side and a deep sapphire leading to the horizon. Small white blocks, a half-inch high, interrupt the restless line of water on the slender slice of land. Hotels so far away that they more resemble lego buildings than the towering structures that they are.

The View from my Perch: Puerta Vallarta, Mexico

The View from my Perch: Puerta Vallarta, Mexico

Blue continues to occupy the visual space. Almost a white-blue at the horizon, deepening to the color of a blue known as sky. Small cotton clouds in the foreground draw a dotted line above the distant range, describing the coastal air flow that I feel as a cooling, moist breeze, on my skin. As a protected marine environment there is little activity within the bay where migrating humpback whales come to birth and breed.

It is sound that dominates the scene: the rhythmic rush of waves on the shore, a machete hacking away at an unhealthy and unwanted tree, tiny voices of tiny pedestrians taking in the sights and for a few minutes, the drums of an Aztec dance ensemble entertaining the strolling mid-afternoon guests of this city. Sharp-pitched bird-words pop up from the green corner to punctuate the russh-russh-russh of water. They are invisible to my eye except, that is, the angular fork-tailed frigate birds and graceful brown pelicans, visible but silent as they stitch the blue and green together in graceful looped arcs like the cursive writings of a child.

As yet unfurnished, the allure of the lifestyle offered here (a safe haven above the fray) is ultimately appealing, no matter how different from the simple one I have chosen for myself. Desirous of warmth to soften aching joints, this is as much my friend’s medical decision as it is a need to shift life-gears, away from the demands of a high-maintenance home much further north, in the land of cool fog. Ultimately the ecological footprint here will be less than the one before.

Breaking my “petroleum fast” of many months, I came here to deliver much-beloved pets, one too old to tolerate air travel. On the journey here, the sight of so much land in agricultural production, in San Joaquin (California), Imperial Valley (Arizona), Sonora, Sinaloa, Nyayarit and Jalisco, is provocative indeed. These six states produce more crops in more months that the mind can easily comprehend.

This is a January journey, three long days’ drive north of, and then south of, the borderlands which I call home.

I became witness to the burgeoning demands of food grown far from home and booming agri-business as Mexico rises to meet its own demand as well as ours–and, I imagine, global exports elsewhere.

It is my backyard, Nogales, Arizona, that is the late-fall-to-winter entry point for the abundance of Mexican-grown produce that feeds the US population. Up to 75% of our winter produce travels the same route that I have taken, a green river flowing north.

http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELDEV3023456

Bordering Mexico’s western Pacific coast, Sinaloa is the second state below Arizona. Like our Western US states, it is large, with a vast fertile valley slung between mountains that lie within the upper tropic zone. A sister state to California with its own vast, now winter-dormant San Joaquin Valley, it is a burgeoning industrial agriculture business. Whilst the industry contributes to a growing middle class, there is an associated squalor around its clean green perimeter: the temporary shelters of migrant workers.

Densely Sown & Flourishing on its Chemical Diet, Mile upon Mile of Corn, Sinaloa, Mexico

Densely Sown & Flourishing on its Chemical Diet, Mile upon Mile of Corn, Sinaloa, Mexico

I drove for hours past tall, emerald stands of corn with pollen-ready silks, machine sown into the dark soil as straight as the stitches of a factory garment sewing machine. At first it seemed a marvel until, hour after hour, it became dull and uninteresting, a regimented, unnatural and overly perfect, chemically fed scene with not an insect or butterfly to splat on my windshield.

I found myself longing for those hand-made milpas, the small family-worked plots of food that have sustained Mexico and generations of its people until the mid 1990’s, when the then Mexican President absconded overseas with Swiss bank accounts bulging with money stolen from his country’s men, women and children. The resulting economic deflation imploded subsistence agriculture, the foundation of thousands of communities. No longer able to sustain families, men and older boys reluctantly left their homes and villages in search of city wages. Communities were rent apart and families—the heart of Mexican life—lost each other along with their ability to feed themselves.

Living in the borderlands, we are deeply familiar with the migration north, the painful stories of people willing to risk all to take care of those they love. Few tales end well for the refugees that we refer to as illegal aliens.

Simple Crucifixes Adorn the Border Fence, Each One Marks a Life Lost. Nogales, Sonora

Simple Crucifixes Adorn the Border Fence, Each One Marks a Life Lost. Nogales, Sonora

There are parallels to be drawn here as societies lose their knowledge and skill of self-sustenance. A post-World-War-II America lost its rural populations to the cities and, with them, the faming communities that gave us resiliency and food security. Thomas Jefferson envisioned us a “Nation of Farmers,” and I imagine he must be rolling in his grave about now.

Eighty-five percent of pre-WWII farmers returned to urban areas where the war continued in the form of subdivisions. Land was scraped clear of all life like a bombed-out war zone, then divided into plots. Stick-and-frame structures, the same technology that was first developed for barracks housing during the war, were then erected as housing for the rural refugees. Former farmer-soldiers moved in and went to work in factories producing goods for a society that was being consciously shaped into a consumer machine.  

http://www.storyofstuff.com

Former war factories produced goods that we had no idea we needed—they still do. And, bit by bit, the skills of once-sustainable and organic farmers became eroded by the chemicals of war that now found their way into their gardens in the form of fertilizers and pesticides: invisible bombs that we dropped willingly and innocently on ourselves and our loved ones. Without the liberal use of chemicals such as these, industrial agriculture of the scale that I witnessed would not be possible.

It may be argued that this form of food production is the only way to feed the world’s growing population. And yet each day, even before the most recent crisis, 25,000 people die of starvation (according to UN data). In the USA, more than a million children go to bed hungry every day.

Now it is China’s turn. Ever more rural agricultural populations surge to the cities, seeking a better life and work in factories producing consumer goods to be sold in our stores. Like our returning war veterans of the 1940’s, they are leaving their food-growing skills behind. It is these families and their rural communities who suffer the loss.

Industrial agriculture is on the rise in China and the incredible horticultural knowledge of thousands of generations is rapidly being eroded along with their ability to help themselves.

Big business is interested in the bottom line. To get to that bottom line, ecosystems are destroyed, water is polluted, soil quality is degraded and people suffer social injustice.

Food has become a commodity to be gambled with and something to be shaped, re-formed and processed into worthless crap that makes billionaires out of CEO’s and obese diabetics out of the rest of us. It is an industry that inflicts the worst cruelty on animals and pollutes the land in ways we cannot imagine. And we are sold on all of its benefits by some of the highest paid “mad men” in the world. We have been suckered.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhopal_disaster

Yet I am optimistic: the green movement is not confined to buying our way back to sanity. Beneath the faux green-consumption trend is a deep dissatisfaction with the urban routine; of a life of stuff, lived in the mind. Its urgency is being underscored by the greed-driven economic disaster we are living through.

A new wave of future farmers is building, along with farmer’s markets and the local food movement. There is a desire to engage the totality of who we are in meaningful work that nourishes more than just ourselves. We seek connection and community and relationship with place that is human in scale.

Organic, Diverse, Highly Productive & Hand Worked, the Alan Chadwick Garden at the University of California, Santa Cruz is a Place for Learning & Inspiration

Organic Vegetable Production in the Hand-Worked Alan Chadwick Garden, University of California at Santa Cruz

Scarecrows at the Life Lab Garden, UCSC's Living Classroom

Scarecrows at the Life Lab Garden, UCSC's Living Classroom

These are the seeds of a new movement toward a lifestyle that will build the resilience, reciprocity and regeneration that the future needs: dynamic mosaics feeding ourselves, our communities, and the earth-nourished spirit that makes us human.

http://casfs.ucsc.edu/

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