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What an Urban California Farmer Learned From Third World Peasants

Lessons About Resourcefulness

An Interview With Michael Ableman

Michael Ableman has visited farms situated on some of the worst farmland on earth, from potato fields at 15,000 feet in the Peruvian Andes to the harsh deserts of the American Southwest where Hopi Indian farmers still grow corn and beans as their ancestors did. He has traveled more than 100,000 miles to satisfy his curiosity about food and farming. He wrote about his travels and published his photographs in From the Good Earth.

Photos by Kim Reierson


'We make an effort to do as much by hand as possible without it becoming uneconomical. I mean we’re not stupid. We have to pay the bills.'

Fields of Plenty: A Farmer's Journey in Search of Real Food and the People Who Grow It
By Michael Ableman

From the Good Earth: A Celebration of Growing Food Around the World
By Michael Ableman

Fairview Gardens

Encroaching Suburbia

The soil and climate couldn’t be better on his own farm, Fairview Gardens just north of Santa Barbara, though the setting presents severe challenges of its own. The farm is smack in the middle of the bustling suburban community of Goleta. When he writes that there are 20 fast food restaurants less than two minutes away, he’s not exercising literary license.

Yet Fairview Gardens isn’t a mere showpiece. It is a serious agricultural enterprise. Ableman and the farm’s employees produce and market a wide array of fruits and vegetables by the ton. Everything from the farm is sold directly to consumers, either through the farm stand at the edge of the property, through a community supported agriculture network that serves 75 families, or at farmers markets in Santa Barbara and Santa Monica.

Ableman says he doesn’t view the so-called Third World with "blind romance." He recognizes the alcoholism that afflicts the Hopi, the tribal conflicts that tear Burundi asunder. But it’s clear to him that much of ancient farming wisdom deserves more respect than it has received.

SEASONAL CHEF: In your book you mentioned that a local newspaper once ran a story about your farm under the headline, "Compost pile may land farmer in jail." How are you and your neighbors getting along these days?

ABLEMAN: We had some problems for a little while. But I think the neighbors are actually pretty positive for the most part. We’ve pretty much befriended even those few individuals who were complaining about roosters and compost and other such things. Most of those controversies, the urban-rural conflicts, were instigated by just a handful of people. The majority of our neighbors consider us to be very important, an anchor here in the community, not just from the standpoint of the food that we provide locally but also because of the open space, the wildlife and the opportunity for local kids to learn about where food comes from.

SEASONAL CHEF: Did you pick up any farming techniques or tools in your travels around the world that you have put to use at Fairview Gardens?

ABLEMAN: I think that what I have applied here probably has more to do with a broader philosophy than a particular tool or technique. There certainly are a number of techniques and things that I observed that were remarkable. But ultimately I think that the most important thing I learned was the way people are maintaining their way of life and sense of community, and are able to regenerate the land for many, many generations. I was influenced just by the exposure to cultures that are incredibly resourceful and are dependent on that resourcefulness to survive on a very small piece of land, in some cases in marginal farming areas.

When you look at a place like China, at least when I was there, you see examples of farms that have been maintained for 4,000 years and longer. And you see that that is occurring within the context of families working together, and within the context of a system that’s completely circular. Even the clothes that people were wearing would return at some point to the compost and then to the fields. Human waste is processed in compost. Everything is returned.

The resourcefulness is amazing. There are great examples in places like the Andes where people are farming land that’s so steep that farmers have been known to fall out of their fields. They have adapted to that vertical terrain and can survive in very high altitude conditions on steep land. The fact that by trial and error they have discovered crops and techniques and ways of living that allow them to survive there is just remarkable.

Here, I’ve adopted an approach that is very intensive. With 12 acres, we’ve had to use every square inch and maximize the production and maximize the fertility levels at the same time. The land does provide.

For that way of farming, I have to give credit to many ancient cultures that are in a sense growing food in the same way. The Chinese with one billion people are growing food on a fractional portion of their entire land base, producing ten crops on a single field within a year. They’re masters of that.

SEASONAL CHEF: Is there any role in your view for improved crop varieties and other modern technology in a traditional farming system?

ABLEMAN: Well, yes. We use hybrid seeds as well as some open-pollinated seeds. But you know, that’s an area in which I really don’t walk my talk. I do a lot of traveling and lecturing and writing and I talk a lot about the really urgent problem of losing genetic diversity and of the need to preserve our heritage of seeds. And yet here on the farm I have had difficulty in walking that talk because of what the marketplace is demanding. We’re growing a certain number of hybrids that people are demanding. They don’t come and say, "We demand that you grow this hybrid variety!" But they demand it in terms of their expectations of size and uniformity and color and taste.

It’s a real problem now. We are dealing with a community, especially in Southern California, where there is a very small range of tastes that people expect in their food. And one of them happens to be sweet. Carrots and sweet corn and things like that have got to have high sugar levels or people won’t even recognize them.

Unfortunately one of the characteristics that some of these hybrid varieties have is higher sugar levels. Sweet corn’s a really good example. Some of these super sweet varieties are pretty interesting. The super sweets have good varieties, and we’ve grown them. But the truth is they have very little corn flavor. They’re all sugar and no flavor. We’re hoping we’ll eventually return to some older, open-pollinated varieties.

This year I finally said enough of the super sweets. We’re going to grow some varieties that are still hybridized but not as sweet. My hope is that next year, we’ll move to where we can slowly wean people off the high sugar and start eating corn that actually tastes like corn.

SEASONAL CHEF:: The farming techniques that have worked for 4,000 years in China and elsewhere are very labor-intensive. And yet "once they’ve seen Paris," so to speak, many farmers don’t want to stay down on the farm. That, at least, seems to be the trend around the world. Who will do all the work on low-tech farms?

ABLEMAN: It’s real simple in my mind. We farm 12 acres and we sometimes employ 15 people here. We’re feeding 300 to 500 families off this land with vegetables. Based on any kind of current economic picture, that’s pretty unusual, pretty unheard of. In fact, it’s off the charts.

We’ve played with various technologies that are out there. We have tractors and tractor seeders. We have done all our cultivation with tractors. We’ve gone through various phases of that, although we’ve never been highly mechanized. But we are now trying to find ways to move back down the evolutionary scale. For example, we no longer do seeding with the tractors. We have walk-behind seeders that we find are far more efficient with the diversity of 100 different crops we grow. We have two or three rows of one thing and then a couple of rows of something else. It’s more efficient to seed it with the walk-behind.

All our cultivation is done by hand with a wheel hoe, which is a great tool, and hand hoes. We feel that we actually make an effort to do as much by hand these days as possible without it becoming uneconomical. I mean we’re not stupid. We have to pay the bills. But we do a lot of hand work and we find ways to do that efficiently. We also find that in the process of being out there and doing the work by hand, there’s a lot more intimacy with the subtleties of what’s going on with various crops. We don’t miss things as easily. Things don’t get away from us.

SEASONAL CHEF: Could the earth support its present and projected future population with the style of farming you’re talking about?

ABLEMAN: The world is not going to be able to survive any other way. We clearly have hit the wall with chemical systems, though it’s taken a long time for it to catch up with us. There is no long-term future in chemical agriculture, and I think most people realize that.

A recent really remarkable U.N. study revealed that a very substantial percentage of the food that is keeping people alive is being produced in small plots, in many cases in urban areas. In the former Soviet Union, half of the food people are eating is coming from small plots.

It’s not just a physical question of can we feed our populations. I think that it becomes a cultural, social, in fact spiritual quest. In order to meet all the needs of growing populations and skirt the problems related to the techno-chemical systems, agriculture is going to have to have a more human scale. I think it’s exciting to see that a big shift is happening. The farmer’s market is a very positive example of that

SEASONAL CHEF: Do you have one favorite place in the world?

ABLEMAN: Yeah, actually I do. I’ve traveled to all kinds of places that people would consider exotic. All through rural China, other parts of Asia, Burma, Bangladesh, Thailand and all those places. I’ve traveled through the Andes in South America, parts of Southern Europe and through East and Central Africa, parts of the Hopi areas here in America. And the most exciting and inspiring place that I have seen was about half an hour from where I grew up in Wilmington, Delaware. That place is at 25th and Dickinson in North Philadelphia. It probably has the lowest mean income of any neighborhood in the country and perhaps the highest infant mortality rate. The people there had cleaned lots of trash and rubble and were growing food, not just for themselves but for their neighbors who couldn’t get out and do it.

Of all the places I have visited, that to me was the most inspiring, the most hopeful in terms of demonstrating the possibility of renewal. I figured if it could happen there under the worst of conditions, it could certainly happen anywhere.

Copyright 1997 Seasonal Chef