I’ve been cleaning up the perennial flowers on this spring equinox day, trying, as I do every year, to dig the grass out of the beds. Town gardeners always wonder why this is such a chore here on the farm because they’re imagining the type of grass that’s grown in yards, grass with relatively short root systems that trowels up without much effort.
But out here, we’ve got prairie rhizome grass running through the soil with roots to 10 feet deep. Of all the plants that live at Stonebridge, prairie grass is the one that most defines Stonebridge for me. Whenever we cultivate flowers, herbs, vegetables, or fruits, we uncover a vast web of fibrous grass roots as deep as we can dig.
One species in particular, Bromus Inernis, commonly called Smooth Brome Grass, is a tall prairie grass that likes to invade my perennial beds, its slender stalk arching from the weight of seed heads bronzed in the July heat. Smooth Brome was introduced from Eurasia in the 1880s and I can’t help but respect the endurance of this grass in inhabiting our arid region.
Growing perennials is somewhat foolhardy in this situation because there’s no getting the grass out permanently. In fact, “permanent” is a word that describes the grass, not our ability to control it. From rhizome grass I have learned that the true meaning of “grassroots” is found below the surface in the tenacious weaving of many into one, as well as in its indomitable persistence. We may manage to clear out grass on the surface of the garden, but that interwoven root structure will survive, sending up new blades one day when we’ve got our backs turned. Still, each spring our efforts pay off for a short while and we’ve learned to live with the inevitability of the grass’s return.
As I was weeding, I was thinking about a talk John and I joined on local food last night with a group interested in building their local food shed in a small town northeast of us. The night was hosted by some good friends who run a successful energy efficiency business and have turned their own yard into a veritable farmyard with chickens, compost bins, and gardens. Their town has a small farmer’s market and a locally owned grocery store whose owner is interested in doing more with local food, but both could use more support. Our friends are planning gardens outside their business office with dreams of a CSA down the road. I was excited to hear all the great ideas from the participants and I’m hopeful that small towns and neighborhoods like this can bring together their constituents in creating new kinds of food systems.
I said to our friend that local food is a “feel good” issue but I didn’t mean that in a derogatory way, as if food were a superficial issue or that people are drawn to it for their own benefit only. Instead, I think feeling good is where we need to start because what’s coming—peak oil, increased environmental degradation, and even struggles within agriculture itself over chemicals, GMOs, and ownership of production—is going to be weighty. So why not start with something that can be controlled to some extent at the local level and that does make us actually feel good—that is, eating food? We can also feel good when we grow it, prepare it, preserve it, and share it. Maybe this work will strengthen us for the other less feel good battles ahead.
The United Nations just released a report called Agro-Ecology and the Right to Food. The article I read cites Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food and author of the report, in a press release detailing the solutions to our current agriculture problems: “We won’t solve hunger and stop climate change with industrial farming on large plantations. The solution lies in supporting small-scale farmers’ knowledge and experimentation, and in raising incomes of smallholders so as to contribute to rural development.”
I like the term “agro-ecology” because it acknowledges that food is best grown in individual ecosystems, not in homogenous industrialized fields that use chemical inputs like gasoline and pesticides in an attempt to outdo nature. I also think the term acknowledges that the people who eat the food are part of a food system’s ecology. That doesn’t mean farmers in one area can’t share information and even seeds with farmers in another, but rather that the control of our agricultural resources must belong to everyone who eats, not just corporations or the governments carrying out their interests.
Our farm’s slogan is “When the community feeds itself, the land and the people prosper” and a major part of the work we do is advocating for local control of food and preservation of local agricultural land. By returning to the interwoven grassroots that connect us through our human right to safe, healthy, and affordable food, together we can figure out how to feel good about what we’re eating.