Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Dream Planning - A Radical Approach to Food Systems Thinking

I was first introduced to the work of Peter Warshall and the Dreaming New Mexico project at the EcoFarm 2011 conference, where he spoke before a packed audience about the unique process that informed the DNM Plan. The idea behind the project was to explore possibilities for energy and food self-reliance at the state level. There was a high chance that the end product would be a highly-lauded, yet rarely-read report, the fate of so many planning documents. But through an imaginative and engaging process, one that started with the question "what do you dream for your future?",  the product is a beautiful series of maps which reveal a new perspective on the land and its uses.

[Diagram of edible plant lifecycles, via Dreaming New Mexico]

In their own words, Dreaming New Mexico:

"... arises from the love of our place. The program began as a place of refuge from the trials and tribulations of everyday attempts to make the world a better place. We asked: What do we really desire? We sought insight and data from diverse state residents—government workers, farmers, energy consultants, non-government activists, educators, philanthropists, entrepreneurs—to dream how their work fits into the Big Picture of the longer-term understanding of what they want for themselves, the next generation and the Earth."
Key investigations include identifying "agro eco-regions" within the state - distinct production zones defined by soil and climate; naming all food crops that are, or can be, grown in New Mexico, with the goal of eventually producing 25% of the state's food locally; creating a value chain concept; and recognizing "legacy foods" that have a specific cultural meaning to groups within the state, such as the San Juan Pueblo Chile and Hopi Blue Corn.

[Agro-ecoregions of New Mexico, via Dreaming New Mexico]

[Food system diagram, via Dreaming New Mexico]

The plan is organized around a series of "dreams", and subsequent integration of those dreams with facts, goals and potential methods of achieving those goals. For example, the dream for land security is followed with strategies that include state programs to purchase lands for incubator farms, and a suggestion that mapping high quality farm land can contribute to its preservation.

Reading the full document, I imagined approaching all planning projects this way, with the open-ended and simple question of dreams, and wondered how the results would differ if we began without the usual agendas and expertise.  As we face unprecedented challenges of population growth, resource depletion and environmental change, we need to find new ways of approaching our problems, and hopefully new answers will follow.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

On the Menu (and in the ground)

[Orchard at Farmstead, St. Helena, CA]
Combining a demonstration farm, edible landscaping and adaptive re-use of a historic barn, Farmstead Restaurant in St. Helena, CA is a well-planned farm-to-table restaurant, taking full advantage of its location in the heart of rural wine country. The demonstration farm was what first caught my eye, as it is located along the highway, and announces the restaurant's presence. A curving path leads a visitor past rows of vegetables, flowers and herbs, each labeled with common and scientific names, and a brief narrative. The farm in all is probably about a quarter-acre, and according to the waitress, serves more as a demonstration farm than a source for the kitchen. Open to the public, and adjacent to a small orchard/picnic area, the demonstration farm feels bigger than it is. Wandering the rows of produce, glimpsing the food nestled amongst the leaves brought to mind the Zen gardens designed to slow a visitor down, to put them in the right frame of mind to enjoy the tea ceremony ritual - only in this case it might be the right frame of mind to appreciate the heirloom tomatoes, new potatoes and dandelion greens soon to be served on your plate.

[View of farm gardens to road]

[Detail - labels in the kitchen garden]
The restaurant is located in an old barn, in the shade of a huge oak tree. Espaliered apple trees create an enclosed outdoor dining area next to the barn, and also serve to make 'rooms' within the room. Blocks of rosemary, thyme and lavender edge the rooms, and in the soft blowing breeze, perfumed the air. The herbs and apple trees at the dining room are simple, almost obvious, but reinforce the restaurants theme effectively, creating a bucolic sense of dining at a well-tended gentleman farmer's estate, or within an idealized rural idyll. Overall it is charming, and surprising and completely delightful. The edible landscaping is also brought to a grid of lemon trees marking the entrance at the parking area, and a citrus 'hedge' created with densely planted orange trees. Such experimentation with edible plant material is refreshing, and it will be interesting to see, for example, how the citrus hedge matures. 

[Outdoor dining room, screened with espaliered apple trees]

[Outdoor dining room with 'walls' of espaliered fruit and 'carpets' of herbs]
[Herb borders at outdoor dining area]
The edible landscape at Farmstead operates at varying scales, and it is in the whole that a story of food is told, one that is capable of communicating the wonderful alchemy by which soil, sun and water become our sustenance. This is the importance of studying such built landscapes, to understand how we can better tell a story of one way that we relate to the plants and animals that surround us.

I wasn't able to find out from any of the staff I spoke to who designed the grounds - if you know, please post in the comments. Know of other restaurants with great edible landscaping? I'd love to hear about them too.