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Stories and green tips related to nature, adventure, placemaking, and food systems, written by a beginning farmer/gardener and seasoned sustainability educator who loves to grow, cook, ferment, and eat local and ecologically happy food.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

What I Learned at EcoFarm 2017

"Every issue that's out there is your opportunity to step up," shared Amigo Bob Cantisano, one of the founders of the EcoFarm Conference, in his welcome address at EcoFarm 2017 on Wednesday evening. I was in the audience as a first-time attendee of EcoFarm, an annual conference celebrating its 37th year this past week at the Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, across the road from the glorious Pacific Ocean. The Ecological Farming Association that hosts this conference has a mission "to nurture healthy, just, and ecologically sustainable farms, food systems, and communities by bringing people together for education, alliance building, advocacy, and celebration." I am so grateful I had the opportunity to participate in the conference this year!


I was able to do so with the help of my good friend David Shaw, who recently started a permaculture business called Santa Cruz Permaculture. He invited me to table with him for his business in the exhibitor tent, and this invitation included a conference pass for the entire week. I love tabling, and I'm in the Permaculture Design Certificate course (PDC) through Santa Cruz Permaculture right now, so it was a perfect combination. I'm particularly glad I attended EcoFarm in this role because by being at the table during breaks, meals, and the beer and cheese tasting fair, I was able to meet and have discussions about permaculture with some pretty inspiring people, from Central Coast farmers, urban farmers, and folks farming land all along the west coast, to farm educators, food policy advocates, and students and young people just getting into farming (like me!). As someone new to farming, it made it a lot easier for me to have discussions with folks because I was tabling and had something to share with them. It also helped that David knew practically every other person who walked by since he's been attending EcoFarm for years and involved with sustainable farming since the early 2000s.

In addition to talking with people about permaculture, the upcoming PDC that's starting in April, and the sweet and delicious Hoshigaki dried persimmons that David makes and sells (contact him if you're interested), I also attended a number of workshops and plenaries where I realized how vast the world of ecological farming really is. There is so much I didn't even know I didn't know about, and as one person I was speaking with this week reminded me, that is what makes farming and gardening so fun. There's always more to learn.


Here are some insightful quotes and highlights from my experience at EcoFarm 2017:

I was fortunate to hear Rowen White, an Indigenous Mohawk seed saver, speak twice during the conference. She shared about the beautiful journey she's taken to rediscover the seeds of her ancestors and bring that knowledge into not only her community but communities around "Turtle Island," as North America is known to her people. Her approach to storytelling is poetic, full of quotes that are like seeds of inspiration themselves. She reminded us that "each and every one of you descends from a long line of seed keepers." The history of human civilization and culture is inextricably rooted with agriculture and the cultivation of food plants for survival. Without seeds, particularly seeds that are resilient to environmental threats and biologically diverse, human survival on this planet would become much less secure. Think about how much of your diet is dependent upon seeds, either directly or indirectly through the animals you eat and what they ate. How many of us gather wild fruits and survive on wild plants that propagate themselves? Very few, and this is why seed saving and seed diversity are crucial to our existence as a species. Rowen also shared an example from her own people of how seeds and ancestral foods show up prominently in cultural songs, stories, and value systems, and there are many other examples of this throughout the world.

In addition to her work with Sierra Seeds, Rowen also participated in a panel with Tony Brown, Monty Bengochia, and Jen Schlaich focused on the Bishop Paiute Tribe Food Sovereignty Program in Bishop, California. This group is "working to increase access to and awareness of healthy, traditional, environmentally-responsible, community-grown food that sustains an independent and resilient program which acknowledges, preserves, and strengthens existing community food systems and tribal sovereignty." They have gardens, a farmers market, an aquaponics greenhouse, internships, free workshops, and student education and engagement programs. They are working to feed their community with healthy, local food, as well as work to "decolonize their taste buds" and re-learn the food ways of the Paiute people. As Rowen put it, "if a tribal nation wants to be truly sovereign, they must be able to feed and nourish themselves." This includes learning not only how to grow native foods but also how to cook them, bringing back together the act of cultivation and art of culinary knowledge. She reminded us that the segregation of cooking and growing food into separate disciplines with separate specialists is a result of colonization. By bringing these two back together as skills that everyone should have, it is an act of decolonization and food sovereignty.

I also heard inspiring stories, challenges, and creative solutions for urban farming from Kiel Schmidt of Tower Urban Family Farm & Food Commons in Fresno, and Chanowk Yisrael of Yisrael Family Farm in Sacramento. In the same session, I learned about the California Food Policy Council and their work to advocate for "healthy, equitable and resilient food system for the people, businesses and planet it nourishes." This session was full of information about how urban farms can work with local government to make changes that allow farming to not only exist but thrive in urban settings. Chanowk Yisrael also shared the story of why he started growing vegetables in his backyard in Oak Park near Sacramento, which is in the middle of a food desert. (According to the USDA, "Food deserts are defined as parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers." Despite the prominence of agriculture in Sacramento and the Central Valley, many of the communities there are food deserts because agricultural products are exported to other parts of the state and country.) The Yisrael family homestead has become a place for community engagement, education, and food security.

In the session on Letters to a Young Farmer, I heard from farmer and writer Mas Masumoto, Wendy Millet of TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation, Will Harris of White Oak Pastures in Georgia, and Jill Isenbarger of Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in New York (which produced the Letters to a Young Farmer book). The book is an "anthology of letters and essays addressed to beginning farmers, but with lessons for all who seek a new American food system." Jill posed the question to the audience and the panelists, "Is farming a political act?" Though each panelist and those in the audience had various reasons, the answer seemed overwhelmingly to be Yes. Mas Masumoto shared that his parents were placed in Japanese internment camps during World War II, and that after their release, his father "returned and bought land to farm, staking a political claim that said 'I am an American.'" Will Harris pointed out that "farming is always political" because it's so closely intertwined with civilizations throughout human history. There was discussion of farming as "restitution for the history of what's occurred on the land," bringing to mind the environmental degradation that has been occurring on farmland worldwide since the advent of pesticides, as well as the treatment of people on agricultural lands in our nation's history and present day, including slaves, sharecroppers, and migrant farmworkers. Agriculture has always been and will always be political for these and other reasons.

The final nugget of inspiration that I'll share from the conference speakers I heard from is the story of Paul Stamets' discovery that mushrooms may be able to save the honeybees. Rather than type out the long and beautiful journey that he shared in the closing plenary yesterday morning, I'll share a few links:
For more on this year's EcoFarm conference, search hashtag #EcoFarm2017 on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. You can also visit my Instagram page (@greenbeangal) and Facebook page (fb.com/greenbeangal) for updates I shared during the week. The EcoFarm website will also be updated within the next week with recordings of many workshops and plenaries.

Yesterday after the conference, Green Guy drove down to meet me in Pacific Grove, and we spent a few hours at Point Lobos State Reserve. We sat on a bench overlooking the sparking blue water crash in foamy white waves upon rocks. Whales breached close enough for us to see. Otters floated in the salty waves, elegantly balancing their heads and tails above water and tricking our eyes into thinking every bobbing log might be another otter. Seals sunbathed on rocks, making us envious of their marine lives in which they are blissfully unaware of the politics of human society. It was peaceful and inspiring--so inspiring, in fact, that we decided that for each month of 2017, we'll commit to going to at least one national, state, or regional park that we haven't been to before. If you have suggestions for wild or semi-wild places for hiking, biking, camping, or swimming within driving distance of San Jose or Santa Cruz, please leave a comment or send me a message.


Similar to what Amigo Bob shared at the beginning of the conference, I want to close with a reminder that in the face of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, disregard for the environment, rejection of science and fact, and the many other issues coming from the federal government in just the last week, we each have a role to play. Analysis paralysis is normal as we learn about the many different causes we could take up, but we must each move beyond the overwhelming options and choose one or two causes that speak most to us. In my previous blog post, I went into this in more depth, so if you're still feeling like you aren't sure what to do when you hear the news each morning, please (re)read this post and really reflect for yourself where you want to focus your beautiful, capable energies in these times.
"Every seed we plant is a tiny loving prayer in action." - Rowen White, Indigenous seed steward of the Mohawk and Haudenosaunee people.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Planting seeds of change on Inauguration Day

Last Friday, at my final UCSC Sustainability Inter-Organizational Retreat as a planning co-coordinator, I facilitated a world cafe-style dialogue with a room full of students, staff, faculty, and alumni affiliated with sustainability and social justice organizations. We had just heard from UCSC alum mark! Lopez of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice about what it means to decolonize sustainability and focus a critical lens on the environmental movement in support of equity for those who have been most impacted by not only environmental issues, but also the conservation movement itself. It was a powerful talk that left some in tears, others stunned by what they had just learned, and many grateful for an honest presentation that was critical and real without any attempt to sugarcoat.

The world cafe consisted of two questions, which had been crafted by our planning team of students and staff. People at tables throughout the Colleges 9&10 Multipurpose Room had 20 minutes for each question. The first asked folks to reflect on what mark! had shared and consider how they would bring what they learned or re-affirmed into their work this year.

 mark! Lopez speaking to a group of UCSC students, staff, faculty, and alumni on Friday, January 13, 2017.

The second question, posed after most people had moved to another table to find new dialogue partners, was this: As 2017 brings change for our country, as well as for each of us personally as we begin another year of our lives, what challenges do you foresee or fear related to the work that you do in the world (as a student, as an activist, as a changemaker, as an environmentalist, as a citizen, etc.)? What are you most hopeful for in our world in 2017?

Understandably, the responses to this question varied widely based on the background and identity of each person in the room. After 20 minutes of dialogue, I asked the whole group to "harvest" from their two conversations what the deeper discoveries, themes, or questions were that presented themselves. The majority of the responses focused on optimism in the times ahead, which I do believe is important to carry as a tool when we really need it. However, I know for certain that many people in the room can't simply hope for the best or "stay positive" because they are carrying the burden and fear of the many threats and attacks on their identity that have arisen in our country--via Twitter, campaign speeches, and the actions of citizens emboldened by what they've seen our new president do and say. For so many reasons, people are understandably afraid.

I attempted to open the floor for people to share their fears, but my facilitation skills or the vibe in the room or countless other reasons left the many fears unspoken during that full group share-back space. In debriefing this activity with colleagues and friends, I learned that fears were most definitely shared in the small groups of the tables, which made me feel better in some ways to know that people had a space to share but also sorry and concerned that they hadn't felt safe enough to share those fears to the wider audience. As someone somewhat new to facilitating world cafe harvests, a lesson for me was that I need more practice in creating authentically safe spaces for large groups, especially if I'm going to introduce questions like the ones we explored.

I share this story for a few reasons. The first is that I hope it provides a glimpse into some of the conversations happening at college campuses today, as well as and perhaps more importantly, demonstrate that the voices you hear most vocally are never the only opinions out there. The voices you hear are most often reflective of those who feel most comfortable in the spaces you find yourself in, whether it's online or at an event or at a party. If people don't feel safe or spend time in the spaces where you feel safe, you will most likely not hear their voices. It doesn't mean they don't exist or that they're somehow invalidated for not sharing within your hearing distance. I think we forget this when we hear our own opinions validated by everyone around us. It can be easy to think that we must be right since we don't hear the opposing view shared by anyone in our own circles. None of us are immune to this feedback effect, particularly in today's world of social media, which makes it more important than ever to seek out sources of news and opinions that differ from our own.

Another reason I share this is in hopes that you might ask yourself the question I posed to the group: As 2017 brings change for our country, as well as for each of us personally as we begin another year of our lives, what challenges do you foresee or fear related to the work that you do in the world (as a student, as an activist, as a changemaker, as an environmentalist, as a citizen, etc.)? What are you most hopeful for in our world in 2017?

The question asks you to start with fear and then find hope, but hope doesn't always erase fear. We can hold both fear and hope simultaneously. In fact, I think we must if we are going to protect our people, climate, and natural world from the many threats that have risen to power in this country.

Like the seeds I plant in my garden, we can each tap into our potential for change and grow in ways that may seem impossible to us today.

When I woke up this morning, I wrote the following reflection, in hopes that maybe it will help inspire you (yes, you!) to identify your role as a citizen, as a human, as a force of spirit with such a short time on earth to do the work that you were brought here to do.

I believe we all carry a deeper capacity to create change in the world than we realize. Coming from a place of love and compassion for all life on earth, what do you wish were different today, on January 20, 2017? Share the answer to yourself in thought or written word, but convert your answer to the present tense, as though that world you wish were here today actually were here today.

Within that vision, what are the elements you most fiercely desire? In other words, which cause will you take up or continue to work toward in your life today so that when the time comes for you to leave this earth, you can rest knowing that you did all that you could to "be the change you wish to see in the world"?

The causes we can choose to take up are seemingly infinite, and so many have been elevated and intensified by the offensive, regressive, and often terrifying words and actions of the person taking highest office in our country today. Each of us need not tackle all of these causes if each of us can tackle the one or two that we feel most called to address.

For instance, think of the many people, those you know and those many others you share humanity's journey with, whose identities and freedoms have been threatened, ridiculed, and targeted in recent months on the national stage. Consider who has been appointed to oversee public education, energy, environmental protection, and many other positions that exist to supposedly protect people and planet. There's no lack of options to turn your creative capacity toward, and there's no better time to start than today.

Where to start?

Educate yourself on the issue that you've chosen to pursue. Reflect on it and talk about it with others you trust until you can talk about it with others whose reactions you cannot predict. Write about it. Find out what specific calls you can make or letters you can send. Attend an event and find out what existing organizations have been doing. Join them.

Remember to take care of your needs so that you don't become too depleted to do the work that needs doing by people like you (yes, you!) who care.

Keep going, and find others who care. Find those who don't care and talk to them. Keep learning. Resist injustices and also create and inspire new opportunities for justice. Use whatever training and skills you have developed in your life to determine how you can be most effective. Ask questions. Seek out the opinions of others and attempt to understand. Keep going. Don't give up.

Sunrise over the Village and Farm at UCSC. Every morning the sun rises and brings us light and warmth so that life on earth can keep thriving. What simple things can you do everyday to support life on earth?

In closing, something that has been a reassuring reminder and call to action for me is that our country is by and for the people. Words are powerful, and although our country has seen more than its share of injustices, these words are written on the preamble to our nation's constitution: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." In our actions and lives as citizens of the United States of America, we have the power to uphold these words so that they aren't just ink on paper but reality. As citizens, we still carry power, especially when united. People power is what brings forth justice. And you, dear reader, carry power and capacity that you may not even realize you possess. What will you do with it, starting today?

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P.S. You may have heard I'm moving to the UCSC Farm in April for the Apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture. As a result, my Office Manager & Events Coordinator position in the UCSC Sustainability Office has been posted at jobs.ucsc.edu and applications will be accepted until February 5, 2017. Learn more here, apply, and tell a friend!

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