Grab a Shovel, Find Some Dirt, & Join the Good Food Revolution

By Justin Mog, Louisville Friends Meeting

Like my fellow Kentuckian, Wendell Berry, and my fellow Ohio native, Gene Logsdon, I consider myself a bit of a contrary farmer. I reject the notion that agriculture can occur only in the wide-open countryside on farms stretching for hundreds of acres. I question our insistence that our food must always be produced as a for-profit venture, reliant on considerable investments in acreage, heavy machinery, fossil fuels, genetically modified seeds, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, and—quite literally as a result of all this—even suicides among heavily indebted, hopeless farmers. I’m convinced there’s a much better way to produce the delicious, life-giving food we all need, and the solution isn’t dependent on finding more money, better technology, more land, improved genetics, or more energy. The solution is dependent upon us.

We need to change the way we think about food and our relationship to the land. We need to stop waiting for someone else to feed us. We need to take ownership of our food system and control of our common destiny. It is time for all of us to start playing a role in the good food revolution. We need to become food producers, and not just food consumers. We need to relearn the skills that our grandparents held as second nature. We need to start growing, gleaning, foraging, processing, preserving, preparing, and sharing food again.

When was the last time you enjoyed a meal that you not only had a hand in creating, but that you could create again without the unacknowledged luxuries of our destructive modern age? Without ingredients shipped in from hundreds and thousands of miles away? Without mega-stores offering any type of food imaginable any time of the year? Without a seemingly endless supply of fossil fuels, agrochemicals, water, and exploitable labor? The inconvenient truth, of course, is that none of these are limitless and that, ultimately, our success as a species will require us to one day treat all of these things as the luxuries they truly are. To get there, we must all learn the true value and meaning of work. We must get our hands dirty in the act of understanding how to once again sustain ourselves without convenience. We must build the relationships necessary to bind communities together in order to weather the impending storms of climate change, financial collapse, social disruption, and peak everything.

I write these words, not as a purely idealistic academic, but as a man with dirt very much under his nails and hands roughened by working the soil, the orchard, and the apiary. I am proud to say that I am an urban homesteader and a subsistence farmer. I wish to reclaim the dignity inherent in subsistence (or "peasant") farming. I have savored the incomparable pleasures of food that I have grown, foraged, preserved, and prepared by my own hands and in communion with like-minded urban growers. Nothing I have ever done has filled me with more satisfaction, security, empowerment, and conviction. Though my body grows weary, I have never felt more alive.

I have never learned more. This vocation is even more enriching than time in a classroom or a library because it allows me to learn with my entire being and not just my intellect. In the garden, orchard and apiary, I am only successful when I engage my entire body in the work, utilizing all five senses and losing myself in the act. My soul is equally nourished by reconnecting with the land, with the cycles of life, and with the biorhythms that truly sustain us. I’m sure I’ve learned more about sustainability by carefully observing my beehives than I could ever comprehend from the writings, artistic creations, and other works of the human mind. There is much to be learned about living in right relationship with the Earth if we are quiet and humble enough to listen carefully.

The great irony here is that, even in a world that we are actively destroying with our voracious appetite for too much of everything, there is one thing we truly do not have enough of. We do not have enough farmers. Our once proud nation has been hemorrhaging farmers and farms for decades as we pursue a dangerously mythical future separated from toil, nature, and connection. Those left behind on the land are told to "get big or get out" and are sold a bill of goods when it comes to agricultural inputs that promise little more than debt servitude.

But times are changing and a new generation is rising. Young people’s interest in farming is swelling in proportion to disaffection with the shallow trappings of modern life and a hunger for genuine connection and real productivity. New ideas about how and where to grow food are taking root in our under-invested urban cores like right here in "Possibility City," Louisville, Kentucky. Grassroots community organizations like Louisville Grows, 15 Thousand Farmers, and Sustainable Agriculture of Louisville are helping reacquaint citizens with the skills and creativity necessary to grow food. Projects like La Minga and the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program are helping connect disadvantaged growers with land and tools. New Roots and the Food In Neighborhoods Community Coalition are striving to ensure that the benefits of this good food revolution are shared equitably and don’t just further privilege those who happen to live in the wealthier parts of town. Even students at the University of Louisville are taking time out from their academic studies and part-time jobs to manage vegetable gardens, fruit trees, greenhouses, rainwater catchment and composting systems.

The seeds have been sown. It is up to all of us to nurture them and share the bounty. It is time for us to turn off the television, shut down the computer, and put down our mobile distractions. Grab a shovel, find some dirt, and bring your friends. This is going to be the most vibrant, life-affirming, sustainable time in our lives.

Justin Mog, Ph.D. is the Assistant to the Provost for Sustainability Initiatives at the University of Louisville. He is a car-free, TV-free, vegetarian Quaker and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer with a fully solar-powered home in downtown Louisville, KY.

I am done with apologies. If contrariness is my inheritance and destiny, so be it.

Wendell Berry (from Farming: A Hand Book, 2011)

Then I started hearing about other people who were even more independent than I dared to dream: people…turning ghettos into edenic gardens. … Successful contrary farming depends crucially on reducing manual labor to a minimum by skill instead of expensive machines and making the hard work that remains more enjoyable. This is particularly important for those of us who must combine farm work with another job or career to make a living.

Gene Logsdon (from The Contrary Farmer, 1995)