Looking Back at My Experiences Volunteering at Foundation Farm in the Fall of 2014

In this post I’ll explore food and why not just organic, but sustainable food production is a key capstone to a sustainable life.

As we explore alternatives to conventional agricultural systems which are part of agribusiness, we need to consider that current economic social and technological frameworks of organizing resources in modern societies discourage real shifts towards sustainable healthy living.

However, neither organic or sustainable farming systems are realistically configured to replace the current grossly unsustainable agribusiness food production complex. So thus we need to consider this reality as we advocate more sustainable systems of food production.

I want to talk about my main experience with produce farming (other than working in the Arcosanti greenhouse from 2009-12). It involved spending several months volunteering at Patrice Gros’ Foundation Farm, in the winter of 2014/15.

Patrice has decided to take a break from farming and he is now working at a culinary school in Bentonville Arkansas. He’s working in procurement and in an effort to source supplies from local farms when possible. His long-term wish is to get back into farming at some point, focusing on highly compact and intensive farming practices.

Despite its small size, Eureka Springs, is a mecca for people seeking an alternative lifestyle nestled in the Ozark Highland Plateau. There are some unusual amenities for a town its size (pop 2100). This includes things like a health food store and not one but two farmer’s markets, several “Farm to Table” restaurants and several weekly newspapers.

Patrice told me as we got to know each other that he started out on the non-farm path working in corporate finance in San Francisco Bay Area. He gradually realized that his calling was farming, getting his hands dirty working the earth and making it fertile.

In 2007, he established Foundation Farm, his third farm, on 6 acres of land about 10 miles north of Eureka Springs. The Farm is located on a county road just off AR State Highway 23 right on the border with Missouri.

The farm included several open ended hoop greenhouses. These were used for much of the year, but especially needed in the cooler times of the year.

Patrice is a follower of several well known sustainable farmers including Eliot Coleman who pioneered cold weather farming techniques at his Four Season Farm in the Northern US. Joel Salatin is also an influence, popularizing the idea of introducing aquaculture principles into commercial agriculture.

Patrice practiced No Till Farming at Foundation Farm – which I knew very little about until I came across his farm. The benefits are that you do not disturb the soil. This of course this reduces the amount of energy needed to run the farm and need for large equipment to plow and till the soil. To address the weed problem he uses a lot of wheat straw for mulch. This has multiple benefits of not only fertilizing the soil but also reducing the weed problems.

Since we have been trained to see certain things like cultivation, the use of mechanized equipment as the necessary progress of modernization, its sometimes hard for us to consider no-till alternative farming techniques as practical or viable. No doubt its still hard for us to imagine producing a significant amount of food for the bulk of humanity in this way, but much of that is because so few people farm today not because the land is not available used for other things like parks, golf courses, lawns and cemeteries.

What this is really about is not just organic food but the building of healthy, sustainable, locally owned and oriented food systems:

  • Small human scale farming systems for communities to grow more of their own food rather than rely on supply chains and corporate systems that do not reflect their collective values
  • Putting power back in the communities that historically made up the backbone of societies
  • Feeling good about what you do
  • Eating healthy locally produced foods

This may not be for everyone but if we want to consider deeply what sustainability means we have to reexamine many of the assumption of modern agriculture and consider whether they are consistent with how a sustainable society might look like or operate.

Its a common sentiment in mainstream society that organics is a waste of money. One point is that the level of pesticide residues is so low in the produce that it has negligible impact on human health. I don’t reject this assertion with complete confidence but if I can avoid any chance or trace of toxins in my food supply, I will.

Supporting organics is not just about the health of the food supply though, it’s about the larger impact of the practices of conventional farming on the soil, the land, and the groundwater. The health of the workers and families involved in the farms also needs to be considered because many of the pesticides used are toxic to humans as well as pests.

The idea is that organics isn’t just a waste of money, its irrational consumerism. Its bad enough to waste money but to exhibit irrational consumerism – well lets be done with it then. Lets go back to default of allowing the same substances they put in yoga mats into our food supply – to make our bread look better and more fluffy. Because we’re not just talking about organics, we’re trying to encourage people to ask questions about where their food comes and whether these practices are ecologically, socially and even economically sustainable over the long term.

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Is Arcosanti really the “City of the Future?”

Motherboard (a youth oriented hipster styled magazine that is a subset of Vice) recent on October 30s published an article about Arcosanti titled The City of the Future is Hiding in the Arizona Desert. The article featured an interview with Cosanti Foundation President Jeffrey Stein providing the familiar narrative…

The assertion put forward in liberal media like the Atlantic is that “The City of the Future is Already Here” and the mainstream society just hasn’t been looking very well to find it. Arcosanti suffers from a victim complex that its been neglected. Soleri felt he’d been neglected by the mainstream society, depriving him of the funding and support needed to actually build Arcosanti as the Prototype Arcology that he intended in its original founding to be the city of the future. He saw himself as a failure because he didn’t live to see his magnum opus life work fully materialize into a functional Arcology model.

In central Arizona there exists an experimental town called Arcosanti. It’s built on the principles of Arology, which combines architecture and ecology to envision a city that works in tandem with the Earth’s resources. In this short documentary, The Atlantic goes inside this distinctive urban space to understand how Arcosanti plans to reconstruct how humans envision cities. Author: Sam Price-Waldman

There are several ways to address this idea of Arcosanti being the “city of the future.” One is to say its not even a city but a small settlement of 50-70 people, so why are we considering it in much more grandiose terms? It is compact and interesting, and has some aspects of what compact urban living should or even might look in the future, yes but there is no critical mass level of development. This idea of what it will actually take to create a Critical Mass level of development (which was pegged arbitrarily at 500 but I suggest 150 is a good number to consider Arcosanti as a urban model if other goals could be met as well in terms of culture, social, economic development and sustainability) has been talked about (to death actually) but for reasons described more deeply in this essay, its never been achieved. Soleri acknowledged this, making a clear distinction between what it is now and what he aspired it to be as the “world’s first prototype Arcology.” I suspect he wouldn’t agree with the idea of linking Arcosanti to the idea of city or even urban life as it is quite isolated and small in a rural area of the semi-desert of Arizona.

In my view any serious futuristic city model would necessarily would have real ecocity bonafides. It would have many cutting edge sustainable technologies to make it a center of innovation in the green economy and ecological design fields, a “walk the talk” model of sustainable development and living. My tendency is to get a visceral reaction to this kind of portrayal about Arcosanti, because I felt having lived there for over 4 years that real efforts to develop appropriate technologies have never really been encouraged or considered at Arcosanti. Soleri never encouraged these sort of technologies the ones you would expect a sustainable future city to have because its takes away from status as the creator of the Arcology. We got into countless debates about this at School of Thought when he was alive. His argument at the turn of the 21st century, at least, (when solar panels were much more expensive that they are now) was that they had not developed enough to make them practical. He called them “trinkets” as a way to devalue them and their significance.

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FCE Takes Key Step in developing its Environmental Learning & Training Center in Beverly MA

IMG_4204The nonprofit Full Circle Earth, which I am involved with as a board member and volunteer, has “raised the roof” of its new training and research facility in Beverly MA. This involved installing a plastic greenhouse membrane to complete the greenhouse construction which began in June 2014.

My colleague, friend and fellow Arcosanti Arizona alum, FCE executive director James “Jimi” Carnazza has been leading this effort. Thanks also to the volunteers whose work was pivotal in making this effort a success.

The goal of this facility is to enable research and development in Aquaponics, Worm Composting and Compost Tea for promoting local and sustainable food production. These are the initial focus points towards promoting a more comprehensive/holistic approach to sustainable farming and living in the North Shore region of Metro Boston.

Our work will include the sharing of relevant appropriate technologies developed at the facility, through workshops, community outreach opportunities as well as k-12 programs, working with local schools as well as programs that cater to special needs students.

We also just got certified as Tax Exempt nonprofit by the IRS. So you can now make a tax deductable donation to support our work via PayPal: http://www.fullcircleearth.org/fce-news/donate-to-fce/
For more about the project and our work please go to FCE’s website: http://www.fullcircleearth.org.

Stay tuned for more news and updates as we further develop this project.

Exploring the Long Term Implications of the Obama Presidency

Paul Krugman’s in-depth summary of the Obama Admin confronts the prevailing view that its a failed presidency by saying he is one of the best presidents.

Maybe I would not go that far, but its clear that anyone trying to promote a more conscious and thoughtful approach to governance would face a lot of challenges.

We have to accept for example what while we might advocate for him doing much more than he has, the political reality today is that the political forces that defend the status quo and the vested interests behind the scenes that benefit economically are very powerful.

The fact that Obama was able to get any health care reform at all was a accomplishment as imperfect as it was.

Having said that its obvious that more could have been done by Obama to exercise the type of leadership needed to effectively move forward important legislation on financial reform, Global Climate Change and the demobilization of our military intelligence complex and the War on Terror. Of course now it must be noted any reduction in the military spending seems unrealistic due to rising geopolitical concerns.

I think a case can be made that on many levels in America today things are not that bad, but the question on many people’s minds is, are the fundamentals strong for sustaining America society? When people are asked, is the country going in the right direction, they seem to feel not very confident that it is.

For me such a question relates to whether he’s been effective in putting this country on a eco-sustainable trajectory and of course this is still not driving the mainstream consciousness. Yet its not totally outside of them either. Its not just about putting forward the kind of policies that would confront issues like the income divide, Climate Change, but a mapping out of a scenario for the future that is a fundamental shift away from the current status quo.

This involves a strong presidency that is able to begin to realign current policies with that more long term view. What I am talking is something along the lines of what FDR was able to achieve. This includes of course moving the political and economic dynamics towards a trajectory needed to build a more ecologically and socially sustainable society. So far I have not seen much sign of that from President Obama.

The Benefits to Overcoming the “Climate Change Status Quo

I have been thinking of the recent news in relation to Global Climate Change. Even among those who agree that there is problem and that its human induced issue is pulling us apart. Something’s missing from the discussion both in the mainstream and the counterculture so a finger pointing dynamic is driving the debate in a divisive way.

In order to effectively develop consensus needed both nationally in the USA and globally we need to figure out how to overcome this bickering. The discussion needs to be reformulated so that we’re clear that band aid solutions that with the symptoms are not going to work. And in the current discussion that’s not at all clear that we have this understanding. Many are afraid to confront the core economic and social issues that appear to “Deep Ecologists” to be causing the problems that we face such as this continuing believe in exponential economic growth as a solution to the problems humanity faces.

While it seems Liberals and “Deep Ecologists” can agree on is that not nearly enough is currently being done both at the global level and national level in the USA, there is little being done to offer a compelling model for action that can bring us together both nationally and globally.

This is my attempt to put together some of my thoughts in an attempt to hopefully insert something meaningful that might lead us to a breakthrough and put together an more thoughtful explanation of these extreme complex and contentious issues.

I began rethinking the topic after Chris Watkins one of the people involved in the Appropedia.org wiki and I got into a debate on Facebook about the merits of an article by NYT columnist and liberal economist Paul Krugman Could Fighting Global Warming be Cheap and Free?

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Hack Urban Food Event Promises to Empower People Design/Create Solutions to Problems in the Food System

Jimi Carnazza, fellow alumni of Arcosanti Arizona and founder and executive director of Full Circle Earth (join our Facebook page for updates on FCE) has shared with me an update on a upcoming event in the Boston Area.

I thought it might be relevant to those in my network interested in sustainable/local food production and particularly those in the Boston/New England area.

The Nov 14/15th Boston Hack Urban Food Event came to us thanks to an email from Lauren Abda who is the Managing Director of  The Food Loft and Founder of Branchfood.

The event seems to be part of a growing international movement that I have been linked to and been a part of since my time with oneVillage Foundation which was focused on the role of information technologies in the process of developing a global grassroots approach to sustainable development.

A common theme is the fusing together and evolving of approaches of the hacker and open source software movements to create global Peer-2-Peer Networks to empower people to redesign their local economies around this idea of “right livelihood” and conscious living.

Here the focus (and I see similar events going on around the world) is on building a local food economy in Boston around the healthy living and sustainability movements, while incorporating those hacker ideas of how to innovate and rapid prototype within hacker social networks.

Read more about the event below:

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Suburbia Loving Americans Slow in Seeing the Forest for the Trees with Regards to Sustainability

Idling_Infographic_01There is just something alluring to me about this graphic which exposes the truth about idling a vehicle in a very detailed graphic form. It shows all the fuel and energy we could save, if we just exercised a little common sense about how we use or vehicles.

Related to this was my recollection of surprise, while in Boston last year and observing and learning how many law enforcement and emergency care and response vehicles are constantly left with their engines running. The thinking is that they need to be left idling so that the emergency personnel will have the quickest possible response times. Knowing this now, it would not surprise me that law enforcement makes up a disproportionate amount of motor vehicle emissions associated with idling a vehicle. Whether this makes any real sense or not, obviously people continue to resist efforts like the organization Sustainable America that made the graphic below as part of its The Truth About Idling A Vehicle Campaign.

Yet maybe its also the sustainability advocates that needs to change and rethink some of their approaches? I give the example of the recent efforts by Boulder county administrators to implement a “sustainability tax“. While to us sustainability advocates, a tax devoted to discouraging waste and encouraging more sustainable development and practices seems like a no brainer, for most in the mainstream it seems like another unnecessary burden funding more government bureaucracy, as essential services are faltering. Even in a “sustainable eco-green capital” like Boulder, it seems we can’t really get our act together and offer a real model of what a medium sized sustainable city might begin to look like. This is a key point that sustainability advocates have a lot of trouble understanding that there is no rational reason for understanding much of how our economy and society operates – it just works. Most folks don’t really spend much time thinking about the larger implications of what they do, much less the larger economy. The resistance to serious sustainability efforts has little to do with the idea that turning our vehicles off when we are not using them, is really not a very difficult thing. The challenge comes from rethinking our habitual existence and this exposes the real challenge of serious sustainability efforts. To get people to fundamentally rethink how they live their lives and their sense of value in terms of how they use their time and get things done, means more work and effort and so many folks in this society are so stressed out and overworked just doing what they do to survive and compete.

We saw this even at Arcosanti, where many visitors expressed their confusion and dismay to me over the years about the fact that the project had not been able to organize itself as a more compelling model of sustainable urban living. Arcosanti is just reflecting a larger social pattern of the sustainability community in terms of its inability to respond to the larger scale patterns of unsustainability by creating holistic, working, living and breathing models of eco-conscious, community oriented living. A larger counterpoint though to well intended efforts such as the one on the right is that they are “incrementalist” and also piece-meal in that they don’t address the issue of waste in the economy in a comprehensive and fundamental way. Soleri went so far as to say that they really constituted little more than a “better kind of wrongness.” This was his way of saying that they were not really substantive or meaningful in creating the kind of “Reformulation” he said was vital to our civilization’s survival.

From a Solerian perspective, the issue of “Muda” (which was popularized in Anglo-American culture in the green business reform book Natural Capitalism) is not about wasting less but rather fundamentally redesigning the whole production or consumption system from the ground up to synergistically minimize waste and to efficiently and frugally use natural and human resources/capital. Thus a campaign about idling a vehicle can risk diluting the more powerful and compelling need for what Soleri termed a “Reformulation” of our economy and society towards something more ecologically and socially sustainable over the long term. Because it can be overwhelming, considering all the initiatives and campaigns to reduce waste and bad habits, many of which have been operating with limited success in terms of produce systemic change in overall metrics of consumption, Add to this, the notion that possibly what has been lagging in this process is a more holistic manifestation of social change (consider that this might be one mandatory requirement for building a sustainable society).

Some have termed the missing link in the sustainability movement as being the development of Collective Intelligence to optimize the effectiveness of social networks to achieve the goals needed to create a sustainable society. We are still working in our linear segmented silo based realities. This is where I want to separate the dogmatism of Soleri in terms of his mega dense urban city planning vision called Arcology with the larger Arcology idea of a fundamental change in the way the society operates and consumes resources. Through still being debated a growing body of research does seem to support the idea that large densely packed cities like Manhattan (and secondary to that the subsets of NYC that radiate out from that uber-dense core and even go into the suburban fringes of the megalopolis) are on many levels more sustainable than say suburban or rural regions which in the USA are particularly dependent on the logistics of Car Culture. However this does not take into account the social and political issues that come up with dense urban development. In many the regulatory framework is restrictive and cumbersome for innovators, especially when it comes to groundbreaking sustainable projects. Also the spatial issues and shifts are dramatic in that there space is much more of a constraining factor than in rural and suburban regions.

Finally there is an issue of logistics in terms of the energy to bring resources into the city from the rural areas and the reality that they city is dependent on these rural regions for its life. What if these lines of supply were at some point depleted or broken? I suggest this quote from an article titled “The Green Case for Cities” by Witold Rybczynski in The Atlantic Magazine does address some of the issues mentioned above in relation to offering a more comprehensive approach to sustainability that includes social, economic and environmental considerations (the Triple Bottom Line of Sustainability) and a more “moderate” level of density than what Soleri proposes in his Arcologies:

A Thoreau-like existence in the great outdoors isn’t green. Density is green. Does this mean that we all have to live in Manhattan? Not necessarily. Cities such as Stockholm and Copenhagen are dense without being vertical. And closer to home is Montreal, where the predominant housing form is a three- or four-story walk-up. Walk-ups, which don’t require elevators, can create a sufficient density—about 50 people per acre—to support public transit, walkability, and other urban amenities. Increasing an area’s density requires changing zoning to allow smaller lots and compact buildings such as walk-ups and townhouses.

Soleri, regardless of how realistic his super dense Arcology model is or was, was correct in seeing that the costs of low density development has an inherent inefficiency to them and that the future of humanity is tied to our ability to reverse prevailing low density development patterns that lead to this built environment blight that we call “Suburban Sprawl.” The cost of building roads for example to service low density car culture is actually higher than in supplying and sustaining high density urban based societies. So while we focus on issue like not idling our cars, buying organic food, bolting solar panels onto our roofs and saving water by not brushing our teeth, its likely that if the underlying dynamics of how the built environment of modern American society don’t change, that little real progress will be made with regards to sustainability.