Eating is an Agricultural Act

I’m observing the Memorial Day weekend by taking a break from food policy and, instead, by getting my hands dirty planting my garden. My partner and I are lucky to have a small home in Coxsackie, New York, a rural village on the west bank of the Hudson about two hours north of New York City. We’ve been growing vegetables here for the past three years, learning mostly by trial and error, and a lot of sweat, with slowly increasing success.

Preparing the garden is tedious and exhausting, though nothing is more rewarding than the transformation from a weedy patch to a clean bed. Last season’s decision to use landscaping plastic, an admittedly unsustainable product (insofar as it is single-use), saved me from hours of weed pulling last year, and eased the preparation of the planting beds this year. (This season, I’ve switched to a more durable fabric that promises to last several seasons, but I’m not going back to constant weeding.)

At the start of the weekend, I happened to pick up the latest issue of Edible Hudson Valley at Fleischer’s meat market, a Kingston, NY butcher that sources sustainably-raised livestock from local farmers. The editors reprinted a wonderful essay from Wendell Berry, What City People Can Do, which I hadn’t read in years. Berry makes the case that urban eaters must think of themselves as co-producers of food, not merely consumers, who must reclaim responsibility for their part in the food economy. In Berry’s words, “eaters… must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.”

Berry’s brief essay reflects on the role of urban eaters in establishing a healthy and vibrant foodshed in places like New York City and its surrounding communities. Re-reading it also reminded me why planting a garden is so rewarding. Pulling weeds, spreading compost, turning the soil, and setting seedlings helps me to appreciate, at a visceral level, the complex relationships among soil, plants, animals and humans, the importance of sustainable agriculture, and the challenges of creating a healthy and fair food system. With regular tending, good weather, the scent of our dog Max keeping the deer away, and some luck, we’ll soon be able to feast on — and share — an abundant harvest, supplemented by trips to the Union Square Greenmarket.

Back to food policy next week.

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