The flood leaves a watermark stain on the tree’s leaves as U.S. Geological Survey surveyor Scott Hedgecock works to survey the water levels along the Tangipahoa River along Highway 190 just west of Robert, Louisiana. (Photo by Ted Jackson NOLA.com )
Climate change is not entirely accepted, even by those for whom it should be obvious possibly because it is not entirely understood. People don’t feel its effects as they move in comfort from their air-conditioned personal vehicle to living amid a span of concrete around their glass-enclosed home away from coasts or forests, getting most of their information through a thumbnail headline or from friends who work and live in the very same setting. In other words, industrialized countries.
Another culprit may be the environmental work done in the 1970s and 1980s, which often used unfamiliar phrases that lacked relevancy such as global warming (or even the term used at the beginning of this post, climate change) and focused mostly on national policy changes or in shaming users of resources without compelling evidence of the effect of that reduction. Environmentalists were seen as “do-gooders” who meant well but lacked realistic goals (this was actual feedback from focus groups at an organization I worked at in the 1980s.)
The strong pushback showed the fallacy of engaging ordinary citizens using lofty or scientific terms and led to many turning to food as an organizing tool. After all, what could be better as an impetus to understanding and sharing the repair of the natural world but food?
Yet in the roll call of environmentalists circa 2016, food system organizers are usually in the middle of the pack. Most can certainly outline the issues involved with food production that both imperil and reboot Mother Nature, but are rarely working directly on those issues in concert with environmental organizations. Farmers markets have done an admirable job on promoting entrepreneurial activity and improving access, but efforts to highlight the stewardship of the natural world by market farmers has fallen a little behind.
I hear our great writer Wendell Berry exhorting us to remember the farmers:
“Good farmers, who take seriously their duties as stewards of Creation and of their land’s inheritors, contribute to the welfare of society in more ways than society usually acknowledges, or even knows. These farmers produce valuable goods, of course; but they also conserve soil, they conserve water, they conserve wildlife, they conserve open space, they conserve scenery.”
The “eyes to acres” ratio suggested by Berry and Wes Jackson needs to be included in regional planning theory and in the metrics that assess our work. Within the framework of disaster, the acknowledgment of the need for that ratio could mean”deputizing” farmers to supply immediate indicators of the level of destruction.
Disasters point out the fragility of a place and at the same time remind us of the strength of human ties and the resolve of communities. Following that line of thinking, deeper knowledge of local and regional systems would help knit everyone more closely together, allow for rescue and recovery to happen faster even as it is offering a narrative with more relevancy to those in far-off but similarly sized food systems. If the watershed or the regional system for food production were one such way to describe the need among those participating in food initiatives, assistance could be met one farm, one family or even one small town at a time.
Using regional systems is also crucial in the rebuilding chapter, as we learned in New Orleans in 2006-2010. Without entities to help channel funds to local entrepreneurs and without regional maps of activity, the money is given to the largest and the most politically connected, which means it almost never makes it to those who need it most. As those who read this blog know, I am most concerned with those instances where energetic local food systems do not grow into robust regional food systems, and that is most certainly the case here which will limit those organizers in being invited to the table when the resources are handed out. Here is an excerpt from an email I received last week from one farmer who has been a vital link in the growth of markets and a leader in sustainability who had already been sinking under the losses from previous weather events:
we are exhausted, frustrated and are having thoughts of giving up. We have been struggling since last summer with crop losses prior to this grand finale. We have been living off of credit cards to the point of max. Almost every piece of farm equipment is broken with no funds or time to repair them. We are working 16 hour days in mud and humidity in attempts to manually start all over with the hopes of 1 last chance…. It may seem trivial to most, however it seems like Mount Everest to us.
The news of his ongoing struggle was news to me even though I talk to organizers across the state as often as anyone. Not only that, but I suspect that part of this farmer’s issue was one that I hear in the South from many innovative farmers: they are too small to survive shocks, but cannot grow larger without investment, support* and policy changes that are unlikely to come without advocates shining a light on them. A spotlight on their willingness to keep land from being developed, able to absorb some of the effects of human folly is one such need. I saw first hand how many of the farms outside of New Orleans were bought up and developed in 2006-2008, driving the farmers even further from the market cities. Many more were pressured to sell, but luckily some resisted. Knowledgeable legal help would have been very welcome and stopped or slowed some of that pressure.
The cold hard truth is as we slowly dry out from the 2016 Louisiana floods, there are few if any organizers with the connections to know all of the farms or fishers which have been in harm’s way, as there is no independent sustainable agriculture or marketing association in Louisiana. Which means there are none set up to direct funds or resources to farmers, fishers and cottage businesses across the state. None to tell the entire story about the loss of croplands, of animals, wild places or of beneficial insects. None. There are a few world-class but single-city based entities (BREADA and Market Umbrella deserve to be mentioned always), but they rightly spend much of their time on their own farmers market community and its vendors, which extends around 100 miles in different directions, except for a few outlying vendors a little further away. To be entirely fair, BREADA is actually serving the entire state in the August floods, traveling to farms hundreds of miles from their market community. A fantastic effort from our leading market folks, but this small organization cannot hope to serve all LA farmers (including non-market farmers) in the future in its current iteration. All respect to those and a few other organizations, but I know from experience how ill-prepared they are to help the entire state of farmers or to educate those new to regional food about the scope of disaster in the natural world.
As our food system work matures, more neighboring systems step up to comfort and support their waterlogged/scorched/windblown/rubbled brethren immediately, raising funds and awareness long after the national media moves on to the next scandal. Even more importantly, since the physical toll on the trees or the soil or the animal world is never calculated and rarely shared in any form by mass media, regional food organizers can begin to supply that data as well. As an example, a short and simple conversation I had this week with the new Crescent City Farmers Market honey guy is one that tells a deeper story: Noticing his label said Amite, LA and knowing the effect of the river flooding there, I asked how he fared. He replied that his house was fine, but he doesn’t know yet how his hives are, as the water is still too high at the back to see. He figures he lost a few at least and his sorrow at their loss was palpable and clearly encompassed more than the loss of the income received from them. We have heard warnings of the loss of bees due to pesticide use, but how many of us calculated the effect of river flooding on these necessary insects?
Another example of the information shared was included in a discussion I had a few weeks later with Stacy of Bonnecaze Farms who had almost 2 dozen homes flooded in August. She reminded me that this situation was different in another way from 2005 or from 2011: The water came from rivers and not from the brackish Lake Pontchartrain (which is actually not a lake but an estuary connected to the Gulf of Mexico) and so this intrusion did not result in a more substantial and longer-lasting die-off of the natural world. She said the birds and crickets could be heard immediately after with new shoots of life coming up very quickly.
Moving past natural disasters: issues like fracking, pipelines and dead zones in the oceans directly affect our food production and in turn, our food production can affect each of them. If regional food were mapped by farmers and local organizers to show the acreage, water use and pesticide use (among other data points), that GPS information could allow those activists fighting the above to show real effects on the region. Of course, it may also show some uncomfortable truths of farming, which means we would have to answer to those as well. Is that what’s stopping some of us?
It’s a monumental set of challenges but building a response and a narrative with inclusive and visionary language during these moments is a start to reuniting food and environment.
Check out one organization that is doing educational and advocacy work on food and environment: FoodTank
Louisiana organizer Susannah Bridges Burley took some time out of her recovery work to muse on what must be done includes reforestation, watershed awareness, restrictions on development and more green infrastructure.
*The GoFundMe account set up by a supporter for the farm I highlighted.
This is a post that I wrote about the effects of climate change to another coastal community.