I spent some time last Saturday at the Alabama Book Festival in Montgomery.
I went mainly to see Rheta Grimsley Johnson. Rheta is a former columnist with the Atlanta Journal Constitution, a long-time syndicated columnist, and the author of several books including her latest about Hank Williams, “Hank Hung the Moon.” I like everything Rheta writes, even though we often have quite different views on politics. She is always gracious enough to spend a few minutes talking to me whenever I’ve been fortunate enough to see her at an event.
Rheta knows me because of this awful photo which horrified me but tickled her. (I sent it to her with an apology. What was I saying? Neither of us remember). She signs the books I buy, “To the man who really told me off,” or something similar.
Rheta doesn’t get the respect she deserves as a Southern writer. Go buy all her books. Now. I mean it.
After listening to Rheta’s talk, I found myself with time to kill and no writer in particular that I wanted to see. My friends Neal and Jennifer were there with their kids, so I decided to hang out with them and tag along to see the writers and exhibits that they were interested in. Neal and Jennifer are both Master Gardeners, so we strolled over to one of the venues to listen to an expert on “urban farming.”
I didn’t know anything about urban farming. I figured it might be something like urban cowboying, which wasn’t especially interesting, but it did have Debra Winger in it and that made it worth sitting through back in the day. I figured I might get lucky again.
Edwin Marty is an urban farmer and the author of “Breaking Concrete,” a book about converting deserted cityscape into sustainable gardens. Marty has traveled all over the world, teaching city-dwellers to practice small-scale sustainable agriculture in places like Mongolia, Mexico, Chile, and Australia. He is the president of the non-profit group “Alabama Sustainable Agriculture” which operates city “farms” in downtown Birmingham and Montgomery.
Marty had 30 minutes to present a subject that could have easily taken two hours, so I had to listen fast. But the more I listened to him, the more interested I became in his message. I’ll paraphrase some of the high points, along with my thoughts:
“Food security is a problem for most of the urban areas in the U.S.”
Yep. Especially in light of increasing transportation costs. If transportation is ever disrupted, we’re going to have a major problem on our hands.
“Most food is transported an average of 1500 miles to U.S. consumers.”
I’ll buy that. It’s a shame that the small family farm has all but disappeared.
“Less than one percent of the agricultural products from Alabama end up on Alabama tables.”
I think that’s a stretch, young fellow. I will agree that a lot of what we produce goes elsewhere. We grow more grain crops here than vegetables–corn, peanuts, soybeans–crops used as animal feedstock.
“The urban gardening techniques I advocate can teach ordinary people to grow their own food and become more self-sufficient.”
Yes. Now you’re talking. Preach on, teacher-man.
“The garden in Montgomery is very popular with local restaurateurs who are enthusiastic about getting fresh, locally-grown vegetables. Our produce sells out as fast as we can pick it.”
At-a-boy. Yes. You mean people could actually grow vegetables and make a living? Outstanding.
“We need a law in Alabama, like the one in North Carolina, that mandates that local restaurants and schools must buy 10% of their vegetables locally.”
For those of you who don’t recognize that, it’s the sound of the needle being dragged across a vinyl record album. If you are too young to know what that is, ask your granny. OMG, BFF. She’ll, like, get all nostalgic and stuff. She may even LOL.
If buyers are enthusiastic about your product and you are already selling out as fast as you produce it, why in the world would you want the government mandating that someone buy it?
Who do you think has done more to hurt small farmers than anyone else? Our government, my young friend. They have regulated, subsidized, pasteurized, homogenized, and otherwized the small farmer right out of business. Regulation always eliminates small business in favor of big business. Always.
The Alabama county I live in (Lee) had almost 70 dairies in the 1960’s. Today it has none. Why? Because the small dairies were regulated to the point that they could no longer compete with the big boys. Big companies can hire folks just to keep up with rules and regulations. Small farmers are too busy milking, feeding, and caring for the cows. They can’t compete.
All of this nonsense has been perpetrated under the guise of “consumer safety and protection.” Now I don’t know about you, but I’d feel much safer buying my milk from someone I know who lives right down the road than from a large corporate farm in another state.
Politics aside (and I could rant much longer), the idea of “small intensive gardening” was inspiring, and it started me thinking.
I wonder if I could have a little garden like that? Hmmmm…