I had the amazing privilege of speaking to members of the USDA's annual Agricultural Outlook Forum today. They asked me to talk about the state of the field of urban agroforestry. Which was both humbling and difficult because urban agroforestry (efforts like ours to plant and harvest fruit and nut trees, and establish food forests in urban environments) does not really see itself as a movement yet. But it is and it should be seen this way. And this invitation may be an indication that it is happening.
I post here my opening comments, which address my take on the motivation that is animating this movement. Specifics about what the movement is, what it does, and what it needs will follow in a subsequent post. As always, I welcome your feedback.
Cities have always seemed a bit unnatural – alluring and vibrant but artificial and decadent, a bit unhealthy and far from the land. So throughout history there have been cyclical efforts for city folk to return to the land. We are in one of those cycles now. The 20th century witnessed several – motivated largely by political strife, and social, moral and economic insecurities.
These efforts were largely predicated on the belief that working the land, and in particular, producing food, would intensify society’s moral, physical and social well-being. Today’s return-to-the-land movement is motivated a bit by these impulses, but by three new ones as well:
1) The clear and present impact of climate change (especially on the food chain)
2) The degradation of our lands and waters (in part due to modern agricultural techniques)
3) An urge to change the ways we feed the world, and to heal the wrongs we have laid upon it.
So whereas in earlier iterations of these cycles, the idea seemed to be that through returning to (and working the land), the land would redeem the people, today the idea seems to be that through returning to and working the land, people will redeem the land.
Food therefore and its new ways of production and distribution are seen as a leading edge to saving the world. There is a deep passion here, a sense of grand purpose, urgency, redemption, rightness all mixed up with joy and hope. A sense even of salvation, of righting a great wrong for this generation and generations to come. There folks in urban agroforestry are in it body and soul, and what they lack in technical knowledge and experience, they make up for in dedication, eagerness and hard work.
Statement by Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) President, Jim Weill, on the passage of the Farm Bill today:
Washington, D.C. — February 4, 2014 — The Farm Bill passed today by the Senate will cut SNAP benefits [the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] to an estimated 850,000 households by an average of $90/month. FRAC has opposed the SNAP cuts because they will harm too many of the most vulnerable members of our society, making monthly food allotments fall even further short of what is needed for seniors, people with disabilities, children, low-income workers, and unemployed people. We appreciate the efforts of the many members of the House and Senate, the many national, state and local groups, and the many editorial writers and social media outlets that have opposed these cuts and spoken to the importance of defending already-inadequate SNAP benefits against these and other cuts.... SNAP benefits and SNAP nutrition education spending now have been cut four times in three and a half years.
All the more reason why the work we do here at the Baltimore Orchard Project, and the 123 trees we will be planting with our partners this spring, are so critical.
And remember to ask your friends, fellow workers, family if they know of any mature fruit trees we can harvest! Then call or text our Harvest Hotline and let us know. 443-562-8483
It is hard to know what to read first of Wendell Berry's.
Essayist, poet, novelist, farmer.
I don't know if there is a progression to his work; or just an astonishingly rich collective body of work.
But I picked up The Gift of Good Land the other day, to see what he had to say in there.
And in two places, he touches on values that are learned from, but transcend working, the earth. (No doubt there are more - but I am just dipping in here and there in the book.)
The first is on p. 49 when he talks about leaving a conference he was at and driving into the desert where his real work, and love, could be found. The feeling was palpable: "I was feeling ... the relief of moving from talk about problems into the presence of the problems themselves. In the presence of the problems intelligence encounters details. It is like stepping from slippery footing onto dry rock."
He speaks here of the immediacy, the challenge and in some ways the comfort of reaching the essence, the stuff of the problem. It is only here that one can try and succeed, or try and fail; but at least one can try - and not just speculate or argue or wonder - and thus learn from one's efforts.
And on p. 51, he quotes Charles Bowden, who wrote of the Papago Indians and what it took to survive in their trying environment:
"The man who hoarded, who saved, who said he and his blood would make it on their own... such a man led his kin to extinction... Power came from toil and could only be stored in other human beings."
It is not just in the desert, but in all walks of life that we need each other.
We eat today what someone else planted yesterday. Of - if we are speaking of nuts and fruits - from trees that others planted years ago. The vibrancy of our knowledge and wisdom and experience (a big part of our collective commons) can only be preserved if it is shared, and given away.
Our safety is in sharing this.
In society, we preserve best what we generously give away.
In "The Demand for the Common Good," Jonathan Rowe, (1/7/04) writes: "The commons is a kind of counterpoise to the market. It provides stability and sustenance rather than restless appetite and craving. It connects to the "we" side of human nature as opposed to the market's unrelenting "me". The concept includes anything not owned but shared in common."
The commons is that which belongs to us all, both natural and cultural: water and air, language and libraries, streets and shade, folktales and humming.
In a world of encroaching privatization, it is good to remember and reclaim the commons. The BOP sees part of its work as creating a culture of the "neighborhood commons" with fruit and nut trees and food for the taking.
No doubt many of the sites we help plant will belong to institutions for their enjoyment and discretion.
But we hope also to plant with groups in parks, abandoned lots and other public-access sites so that people walking by can enjoy the view, the shade, the beauty, the company and, of course, the food.
The question we are asked, when we propose such a vision, is "Who will take care of these orchards and food forests?"
The answer is that much like nature itself, orchards and food forests properly designed and planted should be mostly self-sustaining. With just a bit of annual oversight and management - truly just a tad - these places can be productive, shared edens providing respite, joy, pride and food throughout the year and across the generations.
So we hope also to create a culture of neighborhood pride - with the expectation that every public orchard will have its fair share of neighbors to tend to it. Even folks who will choose to live in those neighborhoods because of the orchard there.
And these places of the commons of fruit trees and food forests will yield more than food. They will yield an anchoring sense of place, and enduring stories about their planting and care and the things that happened there that get passed down from one generation to another.
Dictionary.com has chosen "bosky" as their word of the day.
bosky \BOS-kee\, adjective:
1. covered with bushes, shrubs, and small trees; woody.
What a great word for our work with orchards and food forests. Just what we are working toward, a bosky Baltimore.
And what a great day to teach us this word - for today our Executive Board meets for the first time! Wonderful people - giving so graciously of themselves to help us do this important work.
Oh, and for the etymologically minded among us, the website tells us "bosky comes from the Middle English word bosk which referred to a bush."
Tree limbs are amazingly pliable in their early years. For those of us who have little room to grow trees and cannot let their limbs over-hang walkways or shade sun-loving plants, one of the ways we can "have our tree and it too" is to "espalier" it. That is, train its limbs to lie flat along a wall or plane. Such trees artfully done can offer great varieties of elegant shapes - and still yield fruit to eat!
You can use this technique to accent a wall, hide a wall, or create a wall; or even to create a design, logo or initials of your institution!
Fruits that need warmer temperatures in colder climates can actually benefit from growing snug up against a sun-warmed wall.
Barbara Sarudy shows us creative ways of planting and decorating with fruit trees to provide food and beauty. Just imagine Baltimore splashed with these living, fruitful sculptures in the most unexpected of places.
Friend and historian Barbara Wells Sarudy runs a fabulous blog called Early American Gardens. We have been fans of it (and her!) for a while now. She finds the most enchanting photographs and tidbits of history that show us the ways that gardens enriched and infused the lives of our American ancestors. She allows us both to imagine what it felt like "back then" to be engaged in gardens, whether personal, institutional or commercial, and to imagine what historians generations from now might say about us!
Wouldn't it be great, we thought after a while, if Barbara could create some blog posts focused on America's orchards, fruit gardens and fruited foodways? And we can repost them here!
And so it is: Barbara has graciously agreed to post orchard-related blogs from time to time for us to re post (and retweet).
You can find her first such posting here about an 18th century Apple Tansey recipe. The correspondence with our work, though, goes beyond the ingredients of the recipe. As Barbara explains:
"Londoner Eliza Smith wrote in the beginning of her 1727 book on being a complete housewife that ladies might use the information in her book for their 'private families, or such publick-spirited gentlewomen as would be beneficent to their poor neighbours.'"
These are recipes published for private use and to assist the generous of spirit to create healthy and delicious food that could contribute to the public welfare. Kudos to Eliza Smith!
May the "publick-spirit" continue to inspire and speed our work.
(Barbara, thank you for this wonderful gift!)
And check out Barbara's enchanting book, Gardens and Gardening in the Chesapeake: 1700-1805.
Though America has made gains in her forest growth in the last few decades, still, scientists believe that our forests' carbon dioxide scrubbing capacity will diminish in the decades to come. This is according to a government report submitted last week to the United Nations, and reported at the Inside Climate News blog.
In presenting the report, Secretary of State John Kerry said what needed to be said: "Climate change is real, it's happening now and human beings are the cause." And bolstering our forests are one way to help combat climate change.
Urban trees are a significant part of the gains we are enjoying now, and offer a significant contribution to reaching our national goal of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions 17% from the 2005 level by 2020.
And all of us involved in urban fruit tree and food forest work must continue to explain that fruit trees and food forests are part of the solution. Urban fruit trees are the ultimate multi-taskers, offering all the services of other trees (cleaning the air, slowing and cleaning our rainwater, cooling our cities, creating areas of urban refuge, providing for beneficial wildlife, increasing land values, etc) as well as the goods of food.
Both the US Forestry Service and the USDA Forest Service are beginning to look at the contributions that fruit trees can make to the environment and urban food security. I have the honor of being asked to speak at the USDA Forest Service conference coming up next month about the growth in the urban agroforestry movement. (Urban agroforestry, as it names implies, is the term used for urban efforts such as ours to plant and harvest urban fruit trees. Even here, most agroforestry is seen as rural or peri-urban. But we are making inroads to expand that to include urban environments.)
The BOP is indeed part of a movement that is expanding throughout the country.
Yet we will need recognition, and the public awareness and funding (governmental and private) that such recognition brings, to enable our work to reach the breadth of its capacity.
Thanks to all of you who continue to support and encourage our work.
Continue to invite us to speak to your groups and plant at your locations.
Through our partnerships, we can help feed our neighbors and heal the world.
Government planning documents are not what you would usually find on my reading stand. But this one from the USDA is an exception. For one thing, it is written in clear, pleasant English, so that the people who paid for it - taxpayers like you and me - can actually understand it. For another, it speaks to the enterprise the BOP is all about: promoting the field of agroforestry, which they define as: intentionally combining agriculture and forestry (trees!) to create integrated land-use systems.
It acknowledges that this ancient tradition provides multiple benefits including social, environmental, health and economic benefits. It also acknowledges that though agroforestry has been used for generations around the world, it had lost favor in America over the decades as we turned to mono-cultures. This report says it is time to reclaim it. It calls for three goals: greater education and adoption of agroforestry practices in America; more research to enhance the knowledge and success of agroforestry; and integration, that is, establishing formal policies and practices that promote and enhance the use of agroforestry.
While the study envisions agroforestry in mostly rural or large farm venues, we in the urban agroforestry arena can read ourselves into this expanding picture, and work to ultimately have urban agroforestry be added to the official USDA vision.
They are only half way through this strategic framework. I imagine there will be an updated one at the end of 2016. Between now and then, we can make facts on the ground with the dozens of other newly created urban orchard and food forest programs around the country, so that urban agroforestry becomes an official component of our government's national agricultural and environmental vision.
You can find the complete USDA Agroforestry Strategic Framework 2011-2016 here.
This past harvest season we partnered with Civic Works' Real Food Farm to make some of our fruit available at affordable prices to food desert communities through RFF's mobile food market.
Shelley White, RFF's Community Outreach Coordinator, tells us these following heart-warming stories:
"A woman at one of our Thursday stops was buying apples when she remarked, 'You know, they may not be the prettiest apples, but my, are they ever tasty! I think I'll get some more."
It is true that our fruit is not always the prettiest on the block. It may have a blemish or too; it may not be shiny and round. But it is healthy, fresh and absolutely delicious. And once you taste it, it is hard to go back to the supermarket variety!
"At the National Food Day event which was held at the farm this year on October 24th, children received a box lunch which included a small green apple. We parked the Mobile Farmers' Market truck at the event to provide a visual for what we grew on the farm and to provide samples of our produce. By far, the most popular sample was a slice of BOP apple. The kids kept trying to come back for more, and when supervising adult reminded them they had an apple in their boxes, they replied, "But this one is sweet and tasty!"
In the battle between looks and taste - taste will ultimately win out!!
"At a stop near a school, a mother walked by with her young (6 yr old? 1st grade or so) son who spied the apples and started bouncing up and down in excitement. She bought him an apple and as they were walking away, we heard him getting her attention: "Mom. Mom! Mom!" "What?!" "This is gooooood."
That is what we are all about. Kids enjoying healthy food; healthy expectations; healthy bodies and a healthy future.