Earthly Delights: Cultivating a New
Agricultural Revolution, An Interview with Michael
by Arnie Cooper, The Sun Magazine
Cutting into a vine-ripened ambrosia melon on a
cloudless summer day, Michael Ableman beams. He is
about to finish yet another tour of his twelve-and-a-half-acre
farm, Fairview Gardens, as he often does: with a
taste. The group of Malaysian government officials
who are taking the tour thought they were going to
learn about modern agricultural techniques. Instead
they are leaving with a vision of how to feed people
using small farms and traditional methods that have
been around for thousands of years. Ending with the
melon is part of Ableman's unique activist strategy.
Far more powerful than the harangue, he says, is
the taste -- a delicious sensory experience that
As executive director of the Center for Urban Agriculture
at Fairview Gardens in Goleta, California, Ableman
is an expert at extolling the benefits of small-scale
community farms and gardens. Small farms, Ableman
says, are fifteen to twenty times more productive
than their large-scale counterparts. They can yield
a greater variety of produce and are closer to the
consumer, eliminating the costs of interstate transportation.
Even more important, he says, "grower and eater
can meet face to face. I can explain why the melons
are late, how we keep our asparagus white, and the
best way to prepare green garlic. They can tell me
how they liked last week's potatoes, what's growing
in their gardens at home, and their favorite recipe
for butternut squash. Knowing something of each other's
lives makes for a real exchange and brings humanity
and responsibility back into the food system."
Ableman didn't originally set out to become a farmer;
he wanted to be a photographer. But in 1972, before
he came to Fairview, he joined an agrarian commune
in a high-desert valley east of Ojai, California.
Though only eighteen years old, he was made responsible
for the management of a hundred acres of pear and
apple orchards and a crew of thirty people. "It
was repetitive work," he says, "but at
the end of each day, instead of feeling as if I had
been chained to some mind-numbing drudgery, I felt
as if I had attended an all-day party."
Next came a stint developing and managing a nursery
that raised avocado and citrus trees on the coast
north of Santa Barbara. "ois was a point in
my life when I was wondering what one could possibly
do to support oneself without sucking the life out
of the world. Farming just seemed to keep coming
back to me. It met my need for a livelihood, a platform,
and a way to serve my community and the earth." Ableman
then took a job grafting orange trees at Fairview
Gardens in 1981. When the former manager left, Ableman
was asked to "farm-sit." He ended up staying
for more than twenty years.
Although Fairview Gardens is considered one of the
oldest organic farms in southern California, Ableman
believes the meaning of the word organic has been
lost. He prefers to call his methods "beyond
organic," a phrase that served as the title
for the PBS documentary about the fight to save Fairview
Gardens. Ableman tells that story himself in his
book On Good Land (Chronicle Books, 1998).
Founded in 1895, Fairview Gardens once stretched
from the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains all
the way to the ocean. By the time Ableman began working
there, it was a postage stamp of green surrounded
by endless suburban tract homes. Real-estate development
would have done away with the farm completely, but
in 1994, Ableman launched a campaign to save it.
He formed a nonprofit organization, and within a
year he and the local community had raised a million
dollars to buy the farm from its owners.
Ableman never gave up on his lifelong interest in
photography, and in 1983, while
he was traveling through China on his way to the Himalayas, his two life
paths converged. Cresting a hill, Ableman came upon a vast network of small
fields of vegetables surrounded by waterways and paths. Each field was worked
by a family, with several generations hoeing and planting side by side. "I
found myself photographing like crazy," Ableman says. He was even more
amazed when he learned that these fertile, productive farms had been there
for more than four thousand years.
That experience set the stage for ten years of winter
trips to explore, photograph, and meet with the residents
of traditional farming communities, not only in China,
but also in Africa, Europe, South America, and in
Arizona, with the Hopi Indians. Ableman's travels
served as the inspiration for his first book, From
the Good Earth (Abrams, 1993). They also helped to
inform what he refers to as the "art and craft" of
farming as it is now practiced at Fairview Gardens.
Today Fairview Gardens employs about two dozen people
and helps feed more than five hundred families through
its community-supported agriculture (CSA) program,
an on-site retail store, and local farmers' markets.
Anyone can take a workshop, a tour, or a cooking
or gardening class. The center also offers outreach
programs and consultation to schools and communities
These days, Ableman is busy farming a small piece
of land on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia,
Canada, and working on a new book, The Hands That
Feed Us, about small-farming successes around the
country. We spoke in his old living room at Fairview's
farmhouse, where he still spends a good bit of his
time, spreading the word about the growing agricultural
revolution he helped to start.
Cooper: You say we've become disconnected from the procuring and consuming
of food. How did we let this happen?
Ableman: You really don't have to look back very
far in this country — just a couple of generations — to
see that we were once a society based on agrarian
principles. Thomas Jefferson put forth the idea that
the health of a democracy was inextricably connected
to the health of its agriculture. The society that
he envisioned was one in which every family had its
own agricultural holding. That has all but disappeared,
and the reasons for it are both simple and complex.
We came out of World Wars I and II with some new
technologies that became the basis for the industrial
agricultural machine. The "green revolution," which
proposed to solve the problem of world hunger through
the use of hybrid seeds and chemical fertilizers
and pesticides, was probably based on good intentions,
but the means its founders chose to achieve their
goal had serious flaws. After the Second World War,
nitrate factories that had been set up to build bombs
were converted to fertilizer production; hybrid seeds
were introduced, tripling yields; and new tractor
technology was brought forth. At first, all of the
changes appeared miraculous, but the ultimate result
of this industrialization was that people were no
longer necessary to do the work of food production.
They were freed from what was viewed as a form of
Cooper: So what's wrong with the industrialization
of agriculture? Most people still do see farm work
Ableman: Industrialization resulted in reduced quality
and safety of food, degradation and depletion of
soil and water, and a whole range of cultural and
social ills tied to our disconnection from the land
and from nature. I'm not suggesting that somehow,
before the industrialization of our food system,
everything was wonderful. But it wasn't all drudgery,
either. What many of us are now doing on small organic
farms is incorporating innovative techniques and
ideas and creating a sense that farming is not a
lowly job but an honorable profession, an art, a
craft. This new generation of farmers are artisans.
We're not only changing the way people eat; we're
shifting the value they place on the land and on
the people who grow their food.
Cooper: Why didn't people question the industrialization
of agriculture at the time?
Ableman: I don't think the drawbacks were readily
apparent, and government and corporations pushed
hard for industrialization. The new technology merged
with the "get big or get out" message of
U.S. secretary of agriculture Earl Butz in the sixties
and early seventies. Government policies sped the
disintegration of family farms and the consolidation
of the food-production system. In a relatively short
amount of time — say, seventy-five years — we've
seen a complete shift away from a mainly rural, family-farm
economy. Now farmers have become simply cogs in the
machine. In some cases, they don't even own the land,
the crops, or the animals. Multinational corporations
control every aspect of food production, from ownership
of the land to distribution and sale of the food.
And the government has played an integral role in
this whole process.
What interests me is not so much why this happened,
but rather the backlash and the response that some
of us have had. What we're doing here at Fairview
Gardens is trying to bring back a local food mentality.
None of what we're doing is new, but the way we're
going about it is certainly different. Today, for
example, I spoke with forty or fifty government officials
and corporate representatives from Malaysia who came
here to learn how to modernize their agricultural
systems and introduce their products to the American
market. I said to them, "I went to your part
of the world to rediscover traditional systems of
agriculture. I wanted to find out what had made it
possible to farm the same piece of land for four
or five thousand years, because that could show us
a way out of the problems of our modern industrial
Cooper: How ironic.
Ableman: Yes, but I also told them that I have no
interest in romanticizing traditional agriculture
or adopting it wholesale. I do have an interest in
incorporating the wisdom of those systems with some
Cooper: What technologies are appropriate?
Ableman: We need to find ways to grow food that
do not require incredible amounts of energy, fuel,
and water. For example, we can reconfigure diesel
tractors to operate on biodiesel or, even better,
spent French-fry oil. One of our tractors here operates
on spent fryer oil from local Japanese restaurants.
Replacing the four-wheel tractor with what we call
a "walking tractor" can also be an appropriate
choice, especially where field sizes are very small.
The wheel hoe is a wonderfully designed implement.
I could spend an hour setting up cultivation implements
on a tractor just to cultivate six or seven hundred
feet of lettuce, but by that time I could have finished
the whole job with a wheel hoe. Much of the smaller-scale
equipment is coming to us from Europe, where field
sizes tend to be smaller. The U.S. market for farm
technology is geared exclusively toward large-scale
It is estimated that agriculture currently uses
80 percent of the world's freshwater resources. Only
about 20 percent of that actually reaches the intended
plants or animals, due to inefficient transport and
application methods. As populations increase and
aquifers decrease, farmers are going to have to incorporate
new technologies and techniques for reducing water
use. Drip tapes and hoses, precise planting depths
and timely cultivation, ancient dry-farming techniques
and increased crop variety will all allow us to grow
food with much less water. In some cases, crops even
The amount of energy spent cooling, storing, and
transporting crops to market is enormous. Incorporating
solar and wind as sources of electricity, using superinsulated
cooling units, and, most important, growing and selling
for a regional market are all ways to address this
Cooper: Did the Malaysian group show much interest
in these ideas?
Ableman: Well, at first there was uncertainty, like "Who
is this guy?" But when they started to walk
around and see what was happening, their interest
grew. They wanted to know how we could possibly provide
food for five hundred families on just twelve and
a half acres. They came away with some sense that
this small-scale system, using an intensive approach
based on sound soil-building principles, is considerably
more productive than the large-scale alternative.
Cooper: What are a few of those "sound principles"?
Ableman: They are nothing new. Not very long ago,
the Chinese were feeding large populations using
ancient intensive systems of agriculture, raising
eight or ten crops on the same field in a single
year. It's about paying attention to soil fertility,
making efficient use of time and space, and planting
crops simultaneously that support each other. When
a crop is finishing up in a field, the new crop that
will replace it is already growing in flats or in
the understory of that crop.
At Fairview Gardens we see a farm not as a factory
but as a living organism, and we work with it that
way. We see our fields and orchards not as battlegrounds
where farmers are pitted against a host of alien
forces, but as part of a system that can be symbiotic
and cooperative. If we can meld into the diverse
natural life and traffic of the farm, we can satisfy
the needs of the land as well as those of the marketplace.
Cooper: Speaking of the marketplace, why do so
many people in our country seem satisfied with such
poor-quality, tasteless produce?
Ableman: Oh, I don't think they're satisfied with
it. They just haven't had the opportunity to experience
anything else. About eight years ago, I had a group
of fatherless boys here from an organization called
Rites of Passage. The first thing we did was give
them a "grazing tour." We let them loose
among the cherry-tomato vines. We split watermelons
in the field and let them eat the hearts of them.
I watched as they tasted fresh food for the first
time in their lives, their brain cells exploding
with new information. I didn't need to tell them
about the principles behind what we're doing. I didn't
need to say anything.
When a person comes to our produce stand or to our
booth at the farmers' market and we hand them a tree-ripened
peach or a carrot that was dug only hours before,
it's a profound experience. After they try that peach
or carrot, they want to learn more. "How is
this grown?" they ask. Older people say, "This
reminds me of my grandparents' farm." I'll always
remember the woman who started weeping after she'd
tasted a mulberry I had given her. When I asked if
she was OK, she told me that tasting that fruit had
taken her back to a mulberry tree in a Czechoslovakian
village that she had not been to in twenty-two years.
Cooper: You make it sound like a religious experience.
Ableman: Well, in a way it is. I've planted a lot
of seeds over the years. But each time I plant a
seed and watch it emerge, I cannot help but feel
renewed. I'm experiencing one of the great mysteries
of life. And that's why I farm. My back gets sore,
and it's hot or it's cold or it's wet, and my brain
starts to add up how many boxes I've filled and lifted
and put away year after year. But some impulse far
more powerful than my rational mind keeps me going
cycle after cycle. I'm exhausted by the time winter
arrives, but thoroughly excited to begin again each
To approach agriculture without a sense of mystery
is to reduce it to an industrial, mechanical process.
To farm well, you have to merge with the biological
world, which has inherent spiritual value. I'm not
at all a religious person, but I would say that my
spirituality is most prevalent when I'm in touch
with the land. I see the same thing happen in the
people we feed. They recognize the spiritual component
and respond to it.
People will tell you that the organic-farming revolution
that's taking place is about food safety or ecological
concerns, but I think that if you dig down deep,
you'll find that the revolution is really about what
people are missing in their lives: good food and
a connection to the land, both of which put us in
touch with basic spiritual values.
Most of us no longer know what it's like to pull
a carrot from the ground or to munch on beans so
fresh they explode in your mouth. But there's another
kind of nourishment, less tangible than the carrots
or the beans, that being connected with the land
provides. This deeper, soulful nourishment is what
our society is desperately longing for. You can't
get it from food that travels an average thirteen
hundred miles from field to plate.
Cooper: OK, so we need to get back in touch with
the source of our food. But what about technology?
Can't we benefit from it, too?
Ableman: Well, I'm definitely not a Luddite. You
see machinery here, but it's old machinery. I'm under
constant pressure from my staff to modernize. We
do a lot of work by hand, but not everything.
At this stage in our process, if I were going to
be completely antitechnology, I would have to supply
a much smaller percentage of the population. And
I'm not against that. It's being done. John Jeavons's
biointensive system is highly productive and does
not include machinery. There is no question that
part of the problem in the food system is the use
of fossil fuel and the damage that machines are doing
to the land. The energy that's required to produce
a given number of calories is way out of balance.
Over the long haul, it's a mistake.
But I am interested in feeding a lot of people,
and I want to present a model that's not so radical
that other farmers won't adopt it. If I were too
far out in left field, I think farmers would ignore
me. They wouldn't even look at what I'm doing. Eventually
we need to get to left field, but I'd like to bring
people to it in a way that somewhat resembles the
farming system that most of us already know. Even
those who are farming thoughtfully are still using
very linear, mechanistic structures. Nature does
not produce straight rows of plants, for example.
So we're taking a very unnatural system — farming — and
applying natural methods to it. We've been somewhat
successful in changing people's thinking around soil
fertility, crop diversity, pests, and diseases. Now
we need to move to the next level. We can convert
our tractors to run on French-fry oil, but we're
still using the tractor. We need to address the system
as a whole, perhaps growing things in a way that
doesn't require a tractor.
Ultimately, I think that Jeavons is right that we
should move to small, biointensive systems that single
families or neighborhoods can operate. I believe
that every individual should be required to have
a garden to provide food. No agricultural system
can possibly resolve this incredible imbalance between
those who are growing food (1.5 percent) and those
who are eating it. We've got to find ways to put
farmers out of business by teaching families and
individuals to grow for themselves. This is the ultimate
step toward a revolution in the food system.
Finally, if we don't address the issue of scale,
we can't address the reduction of fossil-fuel use
and industrial methods. The scale of farms needs
to be reduced, as does the distance between field
and plate. We should have more farms located closer
to where people live. When scale is reduced, so too
is the need for machinery.
Cooper: What about genetically engineered food — for
example, "golden rice," which scientists
predict will save millions of lives, or the potato
that will contain antiviral agents?
Ableman: I think it's terribly arrogant to think
we can manipulate plant genes without causing problems.
To me it's a repeat of the first green revolution,
but with far greater repercussions. I think genetic
modification of our foods should be considered guilty
until proven innocent. There's been far too little
sound study done to determine what its ultimate effects
will be on human physiology and on the environment.
The DuPont company is pursuing some of the worst
examples of bioengineering technology. This past
winter, by some bizarre set of circumstances, I was
invited to speak to a group of DuPont corporate executives.
Part of the reason I got the invitation is that I'm
from the State of Delaware, home to the DuPont corporation.
I said to myself, If I'm going to address members
of the DuPont company in the Hotel DuPont in a DuPont
company town, I should find something that shows
some relationship between their work and mine. So
I did some research and discovered that in the mid
1800s, before he came to this country, Monsieur du
Pont de Nemours helped found the "physiocratic" movement
in France. The movement's premise was that an economy
should be based on agriculture, and that agriculture
must be based on natural principles. Thomas Jefferson
and Adam Smith studied the physiocratic philosophy.
So I presented this story to the DuPont executives,
and I said, "This doesn't sound like what DuPont
is doing now."
Cooper: But haven't farmers been manipulating plant
genetics for thousands of years through crossbreeding?
Isn't today's bioengineering just a natural progression?
Ableman: This is where people get confused. Traditional
plant breeding is done within species. The "breeding" being
done by these biotech gene jockeys is between completely
unrelated species. In nature, you could never mate
a pig with a spinach plant.
One of the scariest biotech developments to me is
terminator technology: genetic manipulation that
essentially renders the seed from manipulated plants
sterile. For thousands of years, traditional farmers
all over the world have been saving their seeds from
prior harvests. Terminator technology threatens to
end that. This is a terribly insidious, dangerous
thing, not only because of the political, social,
economic, and cultural ramifications of corporate
control over seed stock, but also because we don't
know how the pollen from those castrated plants will
affect neighboring plants in an uncontrolled environment.
Will it make them sterile as well? Under enormous
public pressure, biotechnology giant Monsanto gave
up pursuing terminator technology, but DuPont has
continued to develop it.
Crossbreeding of the traditional sort produces hybrids,
which aren't sterile, although if you were to plant
the seeds from a hybrid plant, you would get many
different variations; they would not produce true
to their parents. We grow a lot of hybrid varieties
at Fairview. We can't function in the marketplace
without them, because people have become so accustomed
to the size, color, and sugar levels achieved through
hybridization. I actually don't have a problem with
hybridization, but like many aspects of human cleverness,
it has been abused.
Mass marketing of hybrid seeds has resulted in the
disappearance of many old "heirloom" varieties,
pure breeds of plants that have been passed down
for generations. When people move from their home
countries, they often bring seeds as a way of preserving
a part of their culture. And when those seeds disappear,
part of their culture disappears with them. Thousands
of years of genetic diversity have been wiped out
in a single generation as smaller seed companies
have been bought up and many old varieties replaced
with a narrow range of hybrid seeds. Lack of genetic
diversity is not an entirely recent development.
It's one of the main reasons almost a million people
starved in Ireland during the potato famine: when
the blight hit one variety, it took everything.
Cooper: What about the argument that genetically
engineered food could reduce the need for chemical
pesticides that we know cause cancer and other health
problems? Should we choose the known risk of pesticides
over the unknown risk of genetic engineering?
Ableman: We already have the ability to grow every
type of food and fiber without the use of pesticides,
on every scale. We don't need pesticides in the first
place. It's a falsehood that they are required to
feed the world's population.
Cooper: Speaking of population, as the world hits
8 billion people in the next twenty years, how can
we feed them all using traditional methods?
Ableman: We had a young woman from California Polytechnic
State University working here at the produce stand.
On the third or fourth day of work, she showed up
with a copy of her textbook, very upset. The book's
introduction stated that, if organic methods were
widely adopted today, millions of people would starve.
But there is not a single agricultural system — organic,
biodynamic, or whatever — that can solve the
issue of overpopulation. The population problem has
to be viewed as a population problem, not as an agricultural
problem. People make a mistake in assuming that we
can deal with it by growing more food, engineered
Cooper: Daniel Quinn, author of the novel Ishmael,
has suggested that our attempts to feed everyone
are actually putting undue strain on the planet.
He says that not being able to feed everyone is a
natural method of population control.
Ableman: That's an interesting argument. Agriculture
holds some solutions and at the same time is the
source of the problem. Clearly no act in human history
has had a more dramatic effect on population, on
geology, on sociology, on almost every aspect of
life than the practice of agriculture. I don't know
if I would completely agree with Quinn's premise,
though. I'm just not inclined to promote anything
that suggests that it's necessary for some people
Cooper: It seems we have a widening rift developing
between natural food production and the "brave
new world" of biotechnology. Which one is going
to win out? Is there any chance of the two merging?
Ableman: Not much. These two ideas are based on
completely different worldviews. One looks at the
world and respects nature's wisdom; the other supports
the arrogance of human invention and human cleverness.
At the moment, nature is losing on all fronts.
I don't mean to suggest that I've given up hope.
I make a clear distinction between hope and optimism:
I'm very hopeful; I'm not particularly optimistic.
And my hope lies in the amazing models and examples
that are out there. They're not often talked about
in the mainstream media. One of my jobs has been
not only to create the models, but also to get the
hopeful models out there and place them firmly into
Cooper: What are some of these models?
Ableman: They are the topic of my new book, which
profiles individuals who are forging a new agricultural
system by growing high-quality artisan foods and
using their farms and gardens as platforms for social
and ecological change. I'm especially interested
in the urban-farming movement, in which people have
reclaimed abandoned lots that were once full of trash
and rubble and are rebuilding the soil and growing
food for their neighborhoods and communities. They're
providing jobs, too.
A number of small farms throughout the nation are
showing an amazing amount of ingenuity and creativity,
producing high-quality, consciously grown crops without
this enormous turning over of the soil every few
months and the enormous use of water.
Cooper: You've researched such farming methods around
Ableman: Yes, in the 1980s I made two trips to China,
which has the world's oldest agricultural tradition.
I traveled to Africa and to the Andes of South America,
where I observed ancient cultivation on land so steep
that farmers have been known to fall out of their
fields. I saw thirty or forty varieties of potatoes
growing in a field the size of a suburban front lawn.
I also made a number of trips to visit the Hopi in
Arizona, to try to understand how these people could
possibly survive in the most inhospitable place in
the country. And yet they're producing corn and melons
without any irrigation.
These trips became the basis for my first book,
From the Good Earth. Close to the end of writing
and taking photographs for that book, I realized
that I also had to portray what's happening in the
current industrial agriculture system. So I spent
a while in the vast, empty, silent fields of places
like the Central Valley in California.
Cooper: What was that like?
Ableman: It was quite a contrast to the lively villages
I had spent time in, where culture was still so much
a part of agriculture. I remember navigating a network
of roads that intersect the Central Valley at precise
right angles and have names like J3 or J5. They go
through endless vineyards and groves of almonds,
walnuts, and citrus. There are huge fields of green
beans, corn, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers. These
are farms, but they aren't what you see when you
close your eyes and think, Farm. There is no welcoming
farmhouse on this lonely landscape. You wonder: Where
are the people who work the land? Where are the families?
Cooper: In the book, you describe the process of
industrial agriculture, from the creation of fields
to getting the food to the table. It's amazing how
far the food travels.
Ableman: Last Saturday my son Aaron and I were selling
our food at our local farmers' market. A well-dressed
woman walked up to our stand and asked the price
of our strawberries. She didn't ask how they tasted.
She didn't want to know what variety they were. She
wasn't interested in where they were grown or how
far they had traveled from the field to our stand.
She didn't care who had planted or harvested them.
She was only interested in one thing: how much they
cost. When we gave her the price, she responded with
a look of mock horror and told us that she could
get a basket of strawberries for a dollar less from
her local supermarket.
If I'd had time, I would have told her what I call "a
tale of two strawberries." A strawberry is supposed
to be sweet and provide pleasure and joy, but in
reality, this innocent fruit has created much trouble,
hardship, and suffering in the world. If you travel
to Oxnard or Santa Maria, California, you'll find
white sheets of plastic covering the ground as far
as you can see. The soil under them is sterile from
the fumigant methyl bromide, which leaves the earth
an absolutely dead medium that merely holds the plants
up, like a patient on an IV drip. Not only that,
the methyl bromide used on California strawberries
and Florida tomatoes may cause up to 15 percent of
ozone depletion. It was scheduled to be phased out,
but it keeps getting extended.
Anyway, all that plastic is pulled off and thrown
away. Then beds are made, granular fertilizer is
added, and a new layer of plastic is put down to
hold the soil in place. After the strawberries are
planted, they are subjected to some sixty-four different
pesticides. We have some idea about how each chemical
affects our physiology, but we know nothing about
what occurs when they're all mixed together.
Now, if that process resulted in fruit that tasted
good, then maybe I could understand it, but the reality
is that the fruit is absolutely terrible. It's red
The way that we grow strawberries is almost exactly
the opposite. Instead of sterilizing the soil, we
try to pack as much life as possible into it, because
those plants are going to be in the ground for a
year producing fruit. The result is rather remarkable,
and the fruit itself is fantastic. Perhaps, had this
woman known this, she would have found our berries
to be a better value. In the U.S. and Canada, we
pay less for our food than people in any other country
in the world, but we pay for it many times over after
we've left the checkout counter.
Cooper: You have a broader definition of the word
organic than most people, to whom it means simply "without
chemicals." How do you define it? Why is the "no
chemicals" definition misleading?
Ableman: I prefer the term "beyond organic." I
respect any farm that gets off the chemical treadmill,
and I think that eliminating the use of poisons in
the food system is vitally important, but organic
agriculture, in the narrow (and now legal) sense
of the word, merely addresses the materials we are
or are not using. We need to go beyond organic and
address a much broader range of issues, such as labor,
water, biodiversity, and energy use. With the new
government standards and a measure of financial success
for organic growers has come a dangerous level of
self-congratulation. We think that if we're growing
organically, we have arrived; we have gotten where
we need to be.
Cooper: You've said that we shouldn't be afraid
to let the word organic go.
Ableman: The thing about movements and organizations
is that they come and go in cycles. A movement starts
off with great intentions and powerful visions, but
most of them lose their way at some point. The organic
movement has been a fantastic, positive thing, but
its original intention was not just to eliminate
chemicals. It was about rebuilding soils, rebuilding
communities. As time went on, the movement became
co-opted and industrialized. We have essentially
become the very thing that we tried to get away from.
People in the organic business now refer to it as
an "industry." I think that is pretty telling.
Movement implies forward thinking, social change.
Industry implies economics. You now see prepackaged
organic food on the supermarket shelves next to the
Cheetos. Organic-food companies are traded on Wall
Street. Organic foods are traveling the same distances
from field to plate as their conventional counterparts.
Industrial organic farming uses the same level of
energy, the same unrecyclable boxes, the same linear
production system, the same factory model of input
in, product out. It uses the same petroleum-based
distribution system, shipping foods thousands of
miles, hydro-cooling, trucking, and on and on. And
it has the same labor problems.
Organic farming is a wonderful thing, but it's only
one of a much larger set of goals. So to preserve
our original intention, I think we have to start
using different language to describe what we're doing.
We have to reinvent the movement, in a sense.
Cooper: What is the Organic Food Act, and how did
it come about?
Ableman: It came about primarily because large-scale
producers, who are dependent on interstate and international
trade for their products, wanted a national standard.
Consequently the legislation ended up being "one
size fits all." Whether you had five acres or
five thousand acres, you were burdened with the same
level of paperwork, inspections, and fees. I think
some people meant well but were quite naive about
what happens when the U.S. government gets involved;
others knew exactly what they were doing. It was
about the continuation and support of big business — this
time, big organic business.
After the legislation was passed in the late eighties,
the U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA] was given
the responsibility of coming up with rules on how
to enforce it. Three hundred thousand people protested
the results. They were not protesting the legislation
itself, but the rules that the USDA made up, which
allowed factory farming, sewage sludge, and so on.
The Organic Food Act is a fatally flawed document
because it has nothing to do with the regional food
system that a lot of us are trying to develop. It
was an extreme watering down of what organic growers
and consumers were hoping for. Had we been really
paying attention, we wouldn't have spent all of our
energy protesting the USDA's proposed rules.
At the same time, a USDA commission on small farms
released a profound document called "A Time
to Act." It focused on the issues of small farms
and regional agriculture and addressed important
issues in a holistic manner. That document would
have had a far more profound effect on organic agriculture
than the USDA rules, because it researched and formulated
why the family farm was disappearing and why it was
not getting the support it needed. It also outlined
what we had to do to reinvigorate small farms.
Unfortunately, "A Time to Act" didn't
get a lot of attention. And that's a shame, because
I think it was a much more important and exciting
document than the Organic Food Act. When we focus
on regional production and regional distribution,
the issues around the use of chemicals and other
materi-als resolve themselves. It's as simple as
standing across the table at the farmers' market
from the person who's growing your food. Ultimately
the basic health of the food system is not about
laws; it's about relationships: interpersonal, ecological,
and biological. The people who eat my food don't
need a legislative act to know that what I'm providing
is safe to eat. They know me, and they know my farm.
That, to me, is the best form of certification. It's
based on outdated ideas like honor and trust. I could
never get away with doing something that might hurt
somebody or the land, because the system that polices
me is far more sophisticated and powerful than any
the government could offer. I could sneak around
government laws anytime, no problem. But my local
community won't let me get away with anything.
Cooper: What would a regional agricultural system
Ableman: It would be small-scale and community based.
Food would be produced and used locally. The fertility
needs of a farm would come from that local community
in a closed-loop nutrient system. The people doing
the work would live there, and the land would be
protected or possibly even owned by locals.
Cooper: How do we get there from here?
Ableman: An enormous amount of public education
is required. People need to understand the importance
of supporting local farmers and the work they do.
If people respected farmers and were willing to pay
them as much as they do their doctor or their lawyer
or their therapist, they may have less need for the
doctor or the lawyer or the therapist.
We have to start in the schools; young people have
to be exposed to growing their own nourishment and
eating fresh food, so that they can recognize the
difference. Older people, too, can be educated through
taste and introduced to a better quality of food
than what they're eating. This isn't something we
need to shove down people's throats. It can be very
There are farmers' markets all over North America.
Just the simple act of buying directly from a grower
at one of these markets automatically gives you better
quality, taste, and nutrition, because it was picked
fresh and grown close by. Buying directly from a
grower, having a relationship with a local farm,
setting up a community or school garden — these
things alone can begin to unravel complex problems.
The food is available; the markets are there. The
more people who support them, the more the movement
will continue to expand.
Cooper: Here in southern California, with our nearly
year-round growing season, it's easy to buy locally.
What can people who live in a cold climate like New
Ableman: The level of creativity and entrepreneurship
that has been applied to extending seasons and to
storing and preserving food — canning, freezing,
and drying — is amazing. And the diets of folks
in colder climates have been expanding.
For example, when people think of a potato, most
think of a russet or maybe a Yukon gold, but there
are hundreds of different varieties, each with its
own particular quality, flavor, and texture. Some
are like a completely different food, and many will
grow in very cold conditions. There are restaurants
in cold parts of the country that are now focusing
on regional foods year-round. There are farmers in
northern climates who grow a full range of greens
and root crops throughout the year, often with minimal
energy input. The storage of foods, the season-extension
techniques, and the greater variety now available
have all come together to allow people to eat a rich
local diet almost anywhere.
Cooper: Any suggestions for people who don't have
access to a farmers' market?
Ableman: The sad truth is that a lot of organic food is available only to
those who can afford it. Farmers' markets are not found in most low-income
communities. Many such communities do not even have supermarkets. They
get their food at the liquor store or the local fast-food franchise. There's
something wrong with that. We need to bring fresh foods into these communities.
I took part in a wonderful project in the Watts
section of Los Angeles. The goal was to provide a
locally based, affordable food system, in which people
could actually take part in the production process.
It was a combination of community garden plots and
larger market gardens. It was an amazing project;
people loved the food. But it was not community based,
and so it failed.
I had been around the world and seen profound mistakes
made by nonprofits and development agencies that
didn't listen to the needs of communities, but in
Watts I found myself a part of the same thing. The
problem was that the organizations overseeing the
project did not include any community members in
the development or management strategies. Too often,
do-gooders come in with their own agendas and ignore
the community. I think there was a lot of good in
the project; I don't want to put the whole thing
down. But to sustain itself in the long run, it needed
to be developed, built, and owned by the local people.
Cooper: Your work keeps you incredibly busy, but
last year you took a sabbatical.
Ableman: For me that meant farming a plot of land
on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia, on my
own. The island has its own currency and an enormous
sense of local pride. It's preserving its watershed,
its forest, and its agriculture. My wife, Jeanne-Marie,
and I went up there, we had a new baby, and we worked
the land. In the process, I discovered some interesting
things about activism. We have this preconception
that activism is about street protests and public
campaigns. I discovered that growing food for my
neighborhood and regenerating the soil were as deep
a form of activism as all of my years of frantic
Growing crops and feeding people are merely a conduit
for what I'm really trying to accomplish. There's
a danger in talking about this, because I don't want
to sound too idealistic. But I feel that I've found
a way to disseminate solutions to a whole range of
problems. You know, if you tell somebody to stop
driving a car because they're polluting the air,
there's a lot of sacrifice involved. But if you say, "Here,
taste this plum," an old variety picked dead-ripe — well,
it's an invitation to a new whole world.
Six thousand people come through Fairview Gardens
every year. We have opened a lot of minds. People
think they're just eating food, but what starts as
a garden becomes a rallying point that can affect
people's entire lives.
Cooper: You wanted to create an urban farm on Ground
Zero in New York City.
Ableman: I proposed that during a talk in San Francisco
in October 2001. A living memorial would show the
world that Americans are not just about revenge and
control and military power, but that we know how
to bring forth life and nourishment from the rubble
of hate and destruction.
For me, this idea was more of a metaphor, but the
next thing I knew people were pushing me to actually
implement it. We had meetings in New York with urban-
and community-gardening associations, members of
the restaurant community, nutritionists, and so on.
But it would have to be something on which New Yorkers
took the initiative. If nothing comes of it, at least
the idea had the power to raise people's awareness.
Waving flags may provide some sense of belonging,
but it seems to me that if we really love our country,
it would be more useful to protect and restore its
wilderness or support local agriculture or plant
a garden. After all, what good are a country and
a flag if there is no more fertile soil, no ancient
forests, no clean water, no pure food? Those who
work for these things are the real patriots.
Cooper: You've said you like preaching to the unconverted.
Ableman: It's wonderful to be acknowledged by those
who think the way you do and support the ideas that
you have, but there's something even more satisfying
about speaking to a group of chemical-company executives
and having them hear you and respect you and in some
cases even embrace what you're talking about.
We don't have time to pat ourselves on the back.
We are at a very critical stage. We have got to find
ways to reach those who don't necessarily think the
way we do, and food is a wonderful ambassador. Everybody,
no matter what his or her political or religious
persuasion, likes to eat. Everyone can get inspired
by something that really tastes good.
This article originally appeared in the June, 2003
edition of The Sun Magazine, and is reprinted with