Friday, June 24, 2011

Booklist - Three New Reads

Some new books crossed my desk this past month, and a book roundup seemed in order. Two of the books (each with forewards by high profile environmental activists) provide radically different visions of local food systems, while the third focuses on just that sliver of food grown in orchards.

Growing a Garden City, by Jeremy N. Smith, foreward by Bill Mc Kibben, presents a vision of a city transformed by a series of small organic farms. It tells the story of Missoula, Montana and Garden City Harvest, which runs seven neighborhood farms.  In some ways much of the material will be familiar territory to those well-versed in local food, which makes it an excellent primer for anyone new to the concept. Covering the stakeholders, the activists, the markets and how each works, the book is, in its simplest reading, a solid introduction to what it takes to create farms in the urban setting. More radical and interesting than the nuts-and-bolts is the anecdotal stories of how these farms have transformed the lives of those living in Missoula. As Jeremy Smith posits in his introduction, the book
“demonstrate(s) that growing food, the most ancient of occupations, can address very modern social problems, from poverty and addiction to the sense of disconnection that is such a destructive part of contemporary life”.
Of particular interest to those in architectural fields is the case study of Orchard Gardens, a low income housing development on five acres, two acres of which are a dedicated community garden & farm. A community barn serves as the location for a weekly farmers market and a CSA is offered to the residents.  
The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century, by Dr. Dickson Despommier, foreward by Majora Carter, offers a vision of high-tech skyscrapers growing crops for crowded mega-cities. There are many intriguing ideas in the book, and the author rightfully points out the wasteful nature of today’s cities, and advocates for closed loop thinking. The book also examines the negative effects of today’s agriculture industry in detail, from soil erosion to chemical run-offs into lakes, streams and oceans and makes a resounding call for change. However in discussing the solution promulgated by the book, there are a number of disturbing and disingenuous assertions made. For example, the author suggests that if we were to move our farms into buildings and off the land, we could “convert significant amounts of farmland back into whatever ecosystem was there originally, simply by leaving it alone”.  To those familiar with ecological restoration, this is a hopeful but naïve concept. For example, what if we just stopped farming a wheat field in Iowa? How would the “original” ecosystem (the tall grass praried) just reappear? None of the plants that lived there four hundred years ago are to be found for hundreds of miles (if at all), so where would the seeds come from? Without our intervention, that is, without us putting effort into restoring the landscape, what would appear would be the plants now found nearby, whether those are natives or exotics, and there is no guarantee that an intact ecosystem would form. Since  building and maintaining these food skyscrapers will require tremendous energy inputs (its telling that the term ‘energy’ does not appear in the index) the only reason to go vertical, rather than go holistic and organic on the ground, is the claim that we can restore more of the earth to a non-human centric landscape. We cannot kid ourselves that this can be done passively.
In a sense the difference between the visions these books document lies in the difference between a ‘food community’ and a ‘food system’. That is, how we understand the relationship between food production and society affects how we envision changing it. If food production is rightly part of a community of people, done by and for the residents, reinforcing cultural ideas about neighborliness, and interconnections between people and the soil, then networks of small, organic farms within the built environment make the most sense. If food is part of a ‘system’, a top-down, run-by-experts, for-profit-first system, then high-tech, high-cost vertical farms make sense. In the latter vision food production is even further removed from the people it feeds, a product of a more mysterious and obscure process than even today’s processed food items. It is utopian only in the sense of science fiction, an ideal derived from centralizing responsibility for a basic need, rather than dispersing it within the community.

[photo by janet keen,via ]
For the Love of an Orchard, by Jane McMorland Hunter and Chris Kelly, is a history of orchards, a primer on home orchards (aimed towards a British reader) and a wonderful read on common British orchard fruits: apples, pears, quinces, plums, cherries, medlars and mulberries. Combing history, arts, poetry, music, culinary traditions and recipes, the authors weave amazing stories about each fruit, complex portraits of how we have related to these fruits through production, culture and gastronomy. Especially in the case of uncommon (stateside) fruits, like the medlar, the chapters on the fruits themselves are just great food-reading!