I’ve so often been told that there is no way to feed the earth’s people through organic, small-scale horticulture. How would we feed 7 billion people (or more) without the bread basket states’ monocultures? The rice paddies in China? The plantations of Central and South America? Farming is so land intensive, and there isn’t enough land for everyone… right? On Sarvodaya Farms, I am beginning to see a vision for the future that bends these commonly assumed parameters, and that vision begins in the nursery.
Using a nursery, the farm can propagate plants under ideal conditions for the first half of their lives so that most plants spend minimal time in the vegetable beds, thereby maximizing the space available for close-to-mature crops. In doing these, they manage to support produce for dozens of families on only a half-acre. Planted seeds are carefully tended in the nursery, which provides diffuse sunlight, protection from excessive heat and cold, regular fertilizing with organic materials (using seaweed and fish), and frequent efficient watering (both by hand and by misters). This womb-like space keeps the plants as protected and nourished as possible, ensuring that more of them start growing and reach an age for transplantation. In this way, the garden beds are maximized for close-to-maturity crops – but there also is minimal loss of seeds, which reduces cost.
Rishi explained that no process is perfect, however. In propagating plants this way, the selective pressures that would usually operate on the plants, causing weaker plants to fail to come to maturity, are removed. Therefore, the mature plants that result may harbor genes that are suboptimal for surviving in harsher conditions. Rishi emphasized that there must be different selective pressures on plants you save for seed than those you eat. There is an elegance to such a system that is striking to me: we can imagine many home and community-based urban farms that use small spaces and individual or collective nurseries to maximize food production, while nearby, a larger community seed farm and seed bank could ensure the maintenance of the strongest, most resilient plants. Working on Sarvodaya Farms is more than providing me with knowledge and skills I didn’t have before. It’s providing me with a vision of the future that I hadn’t thought possible. We need to dream big through dreaming small, knowing that we could be much more self-sufficient in urban areas if we use our space carefully and efficiently, keeping in mind all the goals important to farm (and ecosystem) health.
At the end of my first week at Sarvodaya Farms, I think what is most striking about my shift in myself is my heightened awareness of waste. It’s a shift in perceptual awareness, and it is uncomfortable – but necessary. At Sarvodaya Farms, almost nothing is wasted. Everything has a purpose, a way to give back to the earth and the cycle of food production and consumption. Because people are encouraged to bring reusable water bottles and dishes are provided, there are no trash bins filled with disposable cups, forks, or food containers. People bring their plastic containers that held tomatoes or small cucumbers from the store to house microgreens and berries on the farm. Used egg cartons are reused for new eggs. Unlike the other CSAs I’ve been a part of, produce is stored in reusable plastic bins. To keep the produce fresh, moist beach towels shade them from the summer sun, rather than paper towels. Vegetable waste is composted. Everything feeds back into life.
I am finding a deep sense of peace in this when I am at the farm. It appeals to my minimalism, my earth-centric spirituality. There is a beauty to it: the plywood bins of green waste, the neat stacks of plastic bins and egg cartons, the little lessons about how to use parts of vegetables I hadn’t known were good for anything. It feels good not to waste. It feels respectful toward all the lives that are involved in the process of my living another day. It also appeals to my sense of efficiency.
Now, I think what is striking to me is that I already knew this. I’ve taught sustainability classes, and yet it was extremely difficult for me to shift my everyday lived perceptions and actions. In one week at Sarvodaya Farms, this is rapidly changing for me. I am spending time in an environment in which waste is planned for such that it is no longer waste – but rather an input. If it can’t be an input, it is creatively worked around such that it doesn’t need to exist at all. There is no substitute, at least for me, in the process of being in such a place, seeing it work, helping it work.
It is causing me to rethink waste in my household – not from a theoretical or intellectual space, but directly as the waste occurs, because I notice it, and it makes me uncomfortable. When I would have thrown out the decaying celery, I find that with some processing, half of it can be salvaged. The other half bothers me as I throw it away. I need to figure out a way to compost at my house in a very space-efficient manner. When I look at take-out containers from a restaurant, I realize that this could be circumvented if I simply brought my own glass food storage with me. We already have a large system of reusable spill-proof glass containers. Why don’t I take one or two with me when we dine out for the inevitable leftovers? I realize that the yard waste filling my bin each week – most of it leaves from my large, historic live oak – would be great high-carbon material for compost. And what’s amazing me is that, though it all adds up to a substantial shift toward zero waste, it’s not hard or time-consuming. It just requires an extra minute or two and some creativity.
Waste doesn’t need to be waste. Waste could be thought of as an opportunity: either the item is an input, and we haven’t recognized it, or the item isn’t necessary. All I know is that at my house, one major summer project will be starting compost. I can’t bear to throw out any more inedible vegetable bits. They’re practically screaming at me to have a second life in the soil, in the land. It’s up to me to honor this shift in my ability to hear that call.