We buy their tomatoes, but who are they? What stories do small-scale sustainable farmers have to tell, and why does it matter? Santa Cruz author, Jenny Kurzweil began writing "Fields That Dream: Journey to the Roots of Our Food" six years ago because she felt the disconnect between herself and her food. She didn't have an agent, publisher or MFA, but she plowed ahead anyway. The book is a thoroughly researched introduction to small-scale sustainable farming, and a fantastic read (Fulcrum Publishing, available at local bookstores).
"Perhaps we are getting sick of our 33 new packaged foods a day and the disinfected, anonymous aisles of a supermarket. Going to a farmers' market is worlds away from ordering your groceries online, and people seem hungry for an authentic experience. A farmers' market is a way to get back to basics without romanticizing the past. Sustainable farmers today are translating elements of pre-World War II America into modern times, recognizing the advances of technology while still creating a healthy environment." (page 33)
What inspired you to write Fields That Dream?
I'm a total foodie and I have been my whole life. So I've always had a very intense passion for cooking and for feeding people, but I never really thought about where my food was coming from. Growing up around here, everything comes from around here, whether it's conventionally or organically grown.
When I started cooking elsewhere and saw that food was traveling great distances, it was a real shocker. It started making me feel very powerless. I didn't understand the mechanism or larger reason behind it. I felt like I had no control.
I don't think I'd been to a farmers' market before Seattle. It was such an incredible feeling, it felt like I was coming home that first time. The produce is so different than at a grocery store, the interactions are so different.
Opening the book, I knew it was a collection of profiles of small-scale farmers. But I was surprised how you were able to use their stories as jumping off points for a discussion of contemporary life in the United States. Their stories seemed to connect to every facet of recent history, even the creation of the mobile home after World War II. Did you expect those connections to be so vivid?
It IS part of it, because (the mobile home) was part of that mindset of efficiency and expediency and convenience. And that is exactly what was happening with the food at that time, too. To answer your question directly, no, I didn't expect things to jump out like that. But when you start unraveling our history, you start to see how everything is connected.
I wrote that part before Fast Food Nation came out, and Eric Schlosser went into it, which was very validating to me. It was very hard to find information about freeways, but it was very relevant because they formed this massive transportation system. Without that, we couldn't deliver food across the country.
Throughout the book I kept seeing what you're saying, that food is instrumental in the development of everything. World War II changed everything, not just our food but so many things. The farming technology transformed our culture. I would have never thought there was a connection, but one of the facts that was just so striking to me was that DDT was used to delouse troops. And then we said, "Oh, let's put it on our food." But it was war technology. The technology they used for tanks was then applied to tractors.
Now that we've become displaced from the land, how do we reconnect?
That's a really complicated question. You have to have some sort of personal connection. Today I was at the midwife's and there were all these magazines stacked up in a line. Every single woman on the cover was blonde and skinny with blue eyes and in this case, she was also pregnant. On the magazine cover, the headline tells us how to lose weight without exercise and then there's a recipe for a double fudge brownie, all on the same cover. That's why I say it's emotionally complex to get people connected with where their food comes from.
People are making inroads in different ways, it just depends on what gets someone's attention. For some people, it's finally realizing they can lose weight by eating fresh, healthy food. For other people, it's being scared of cancer and wanting to stay away from chemicals, so they buy organic food. Other people have a deep environmental belief system. For others, it has to do with animal rights, which leads them to vegetarianism, and when you're eating vegetarian you really notice. So there are all those ways, and this book is meant to hopefully tap into those different ways, like trying to educate people on all those different aspects, hoping one would touch home.
But it's also about trying to dispel the mythology that organic or locally grown food is more expensive.
Now, onto the subject of class and race. It may be myth, but the perception is that organic food can only be afforded by the upper classes. And walking into the Staff of Life or New Leaf, I rarely see people who aren't white.
As our family grows, Andrea and I have definitely been watching how much we spend on food. And we spend a lot on food. But we got rid of other things, so ...there are things that I'm willing to sacrifice because eating organic is so important to me. But this is also coming from a white, educated, mostly middle-class person, I suppose.
A lot of farmers take food stamps or WIC stamps, and there are a lot of farmers' markets open on the weekends and evenings to accommodate working people ... There are also important projects in the inner cities, like the Peoples' Grocery of East Oakland. We're not talking about getting working class and poor people organic food, necessarily. We're talking about getting them fresh food. There are horrible statistics showing that in some poor neighborhoods that are predominantly black, there are no grocery stores. The only food you can get is sold at liquor stores.
The community gardens play a role, as people can grow their own food. Farmers also go into the inner city to sell their produce, and sometimes they charge lower prices. The People's Grocery mobile grocery store sells organic for reasonable prices. It has to be done on a grassroots level. Like anything, we've benefited from organics becoming trendy, but these kinds of trends are always set by the white, middle-class people. So it's a next step.
For me, the food crisis is about providing fresh food first to the working class and poverty striken communities, and then it would be great if it could be organic on top of that.
I agree with you, but here we are, two white women talking about this. What I often see are well-intentioned, white, college-educated people talking about educating poor, non-white people and, really, by the time the message gets to the communities of color, it sounds condescending. Like we pity them.
The projects I mentioned were initiated by people of color. The Peoples' Grocery of Oakland is run by young people of color in the community. Also I've read about farmers' markets started by people of color in those communities. In the Southwest, native scientists and growers are starting to look at diabetes.
So yes, I agree with you. But there's a lot happening in communities from within the community, and while there are also white people working, it's a partnership. I think that's an important point. I don't know a lot of projects that are lasting and successful in the model you mentioned (projects initiated by people from outside the community). The ones I read about were started by the communities themselves and that's a very important distinction. It's a good point.
Albertson's isn't always cheaper than Staff of Life, but walking through Albertson's, I see more Latino families, more families with children, more people who appear working class.
Food is a common denominator among all communities, and I think that depends on how it's perceived within each community. Going back to the model of farmers' markets, I don't think in every community the markets are necessarily for wealthy or white people. It depends on the community you're serving. Santa Cruz is a mixed community, but there isn't a lot of outreach (by the farmers' markets) to the Latino community here.
But if you go to the flea market, there's a lot of produce being sold open air, and that's where many Latinos go. I would not hesitate to say that a lot of Latino families living in Santa Cruz, if they want to buy fresh or locally grown food, would either go to the flea market or to Watsonville, because Santa Cruz is very segregated.
What assumptions did you make about the farmers you interviewed?
I assumed they wouldn't be interested in talking to me, that they wouldn't know how to respond. All these assumptions came out of my own boundaries I had created. That's a really intense thing I had to come to a realization about, confronting my own fears of crossing the borders of culture and race. It was a growing experience for me, and now my work is predominantly writing about, almost exclusively, Native American and Latino people. I don't have those fears anymore. It was something I learned in general, not so much about farming, but about interviewing people. Just as when a writer who goes in with an agenda, it's just gonna get blown out of the water every time. I had an agenda, and that got blown.
One of the farmers, Joanie McIntyre, makes some strong comments about gender roles within her family. She said that although their farming style is considered progressive, at the end of the day she's in a traditional gender role, cooking, cleaning and being the primary caregiver of the family's four children.
Throughout most of the book, you make comments and observations, but in this case it seemed like you quoted her, and then stepped back. Was that intentional?
It was deliberate. In areas where I thought it would be most provoking, I didn't want to insert my opinion. I thought readers could think for themselves and I didn't want to insert any kind of judgment. I also wanted to represent people fairly, and let people make their own judgment, give them room to process their own thoughts. And of course, the fact that I included her quote shows my agenda.
Every single person interviewed read their chapter before it was published. I really thought Joanie and Michael wouldn't like their chapter, but they were fine with it. That was very important for me, for the people to see themselves represented accurately and fairly.
Were you surprised the farms weren't all organic?
No. What I learned about it all, is that it's not about the label. It's about how the food is grown, and knowing how it's grown is a wonderful thing about not buying vegetables anonymously. A couple of my favorite stands at the local farmers' market aren't certified organic. But I know they grow without pesticides or if they use some, they use them responsibly. But there is no way I'd know that if I (bought the produce) from the store.
One of the great things about farmers' markets is they lessen the dichotomy between conventional and organic. That's why I use the term sustainable, a lot of the time, instead of organic. I had a lot of assumptions about organic. I learned there was a lot more to sustainability that the term "organic."