Bridging the Urban/Rural Divide: An Interview with Gary Paul Nabhan

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In February 2010, writer Fred Bahnson interviewed Gary Paul Nabhan, a lecturer, food and farming advocate, folklorist, and conservationist who lives and farms in the U.S. Southwest. In Part 2 of this three-part series, Nabhan discusses climate change, the links between scale and sustainability in food production, and the need to bridge the urban/rural divide in agriculture.

B: Talk about how climate change factors into food discussions.

N: I prefer not to use the term “climate change,” but instead to talk about “climate uncertainty.” This may not be unidirectional. All places may not warm or get drier. There are quite a few variations in the effects of the global processes that it appears we’re going to suffer from. Honoring that there’s uncertainty is important.

"I think more than ever before in American history, we need to heal that urban/rural divide and increase dialogue so that consumers and producers are working together toward the same goals," says Nabhan. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

But if we’re trying to protect and revitalize heritage foods, with the place-based heirloom vegetables and heritage breeds of livestock, those heritage breeds will not necessarily be grown in the same places 100 years from now. One scientist, Greg Jones, predicts that 85 percent of the grape varietals in places like Napa Valley will not be able to be grown there under optimum conditions by 2050. Weather shifts will clearly scramble the relationships between place, crop genetics, and cultural traditions over the next 50 years. We need to think about our food traditions and our farming traditions in a much more dynamic way than we previously have.

B: What do you think will happen by 2050 if we continue on the track we’re on in terms of conventional agriculture. Will it even be possible to grow the kind of vast monocultures that we currently grow?

N: Recently, I’ve been swayed by the thinking of Alan Nation, who runs a little journal for pasture-based livestock producers called The Stockman Grass Farmer. Alan says that there are economies of scale for large agriculture and large food-distribution systems, and another economy of scale for artisanal production that goes into local food systems. What’s really at stake is that “agriculture-of-the-middle.” We don’t know which way it’s going to go. We may still produce some grains on a large scale in 2050 and see them distributed extra-regionally; we still may see that the maple syrup production of Vermont is always sold outside of Vermont.

I don’t think the issue has ever been “make agriculture 100 percent local.” The issue is about capturing economies of scale, transparency, and traceability by increasing the quality and accessibility of foods that should be produced at a local scale and trying to improve the sustainability of the larger- and middle-scale agriculture as well. In other words, if “sustainability”—whatever that term means—is only something that small farmers care about, and we don’t set standards for mid-scale and large-scale agriculture, assuming that it’s just going to go away, then we’re making a mistake.

I think much of the effort in innovation has been in smaller-scale agriculture to make it sustainable. Some of that may be the incubators for what is carried over to the bigger farms. At another level, some solutions to sustainability are scale-dependent. Rather than antagonizing mid-scale and large-scale agriculturalists, agricultural activists need to figure out a way to help them with problem-solving that needs to be done. I’m not endorsing large-scale feedlots or large-scale apple farms, but I’m also not so naïve to think that great agriculture is all going to done on 50-acre farms.

B: But isn’t there a point at which farms become too big, when they collapse under their own weight?

N: Yes, and that’s what I mean by “economies of scale.” With cereal grains, for instance, if the farm is too small you lose efficiency, both ecological and energetic. But if it’s too big you also put it at risk, and part of that risk we’ve seen is for pests and diseases to evolve quicker than we can put resistance to those things into our crops. We’re facing large-scale crop failures from Kenya to Ethiopia and into the Saudi Peninsula for wheat due to a rust epidemic because people planted just a few varieties over an enormously large scale.

My point is the same as yours—agriculture that is too big is already moving toward collapse; but it’s also true that there is some optimal scale there for some kind of production, whether its cereals of beans or something else. We shouldn’t become so fundamentalist about local foods that we think they will fulfill all niches of the food system.

What I’d rather see is fair trade between regions for certain things. We think “fair trade” only applies to coffee; but we need to have fair trade apples, too. I’d like to see farmers in the Southeast swap their black-eyed peas and crowder beans with fishermen in the Pacific Northwest for their salmon.

One important point I’d like to make is that it’s very important for food activists at every point of their lives to be food producers as well, on whatever scale. I don’t think I could be a valid voice on these issues unless I “walked the taco,” as we say in the Southwest. I’m spending this next weekend putting in an orchard of 25 fruit-tree varieties, plus crops like asparagus, rhubarb, and prickly pear. In a few more weeks I’ll plant annual crops beneath those.

The point is that agricultural science and agricultural activism have become too distant from the needs of farmers and other food producers. The only way to heal the urban/rural divide that we have in this country is for more interplay, more inner-city people to be growing food on rooftops and patios, going out to work on farms during the weekend, and to have farmers in dialogue with consumers so that farmers understand why people want animal-welfare beef, or grassfed lamb, or free-range turkeys. We’ve broken that dialogue. Very few urban people regularly have access to knowing what farmers and ranchers are struggling with. There’s been an unfortunate polarization that’s happened as a result of movies like Fast Food Nation and Food, Inc. that make it sounds like consumers are the enemy of farmers and ranchers. We need those two groups in dialogue with each other rather than seeing more drift.

I’m working now with ranchers on something called “The Next Frontier.” It’s a coalition of farming and ranching groups in the West. We’re trying to get farmers incentives for innovative stewardship practices, and for maintaining ecological services such as pollination, watershed health, and soil erosion control. With less than 1.5 percent of Americans self-identifying as farmers or ranchers, the food producers of this country will lose every policy battle in land use planning, in food safety, and other policy domains if they don’t embrace dialogue with urban residents who care about the quality and health of their food.

I think more than ever before in American history, we need to heal that urban/rural divide and increase dialogue so that consumers and producers are working together toward the same goals. That means redoing our education system. Nearly every student that comes into state universities—with the exception of colleges like Warren Wilson, Berea, and Green Mountain—is told that if you want to be an educated person, you should not become a farmer. We basically educate people to get off the land instead of teaching them to be good stewards of the land.

B: Do you think we need more farmers?

N: I think we need a lot more farmers. We’ve broken the chain of orally transmitted traditional knowledge that’s been passed down for 8,000 years among farmers. You can’t learn to farm just from textbooks. Some of the mistakes I’ve made raising sheep are due to my not having access to my grandfather’s knowledge of raising sheep. Had I had him teaching me, I probably wouldn’t have made those mistakes.

To read Part 1 of this series see: Maintaining the Diversity of Food Crops.

Fred Bahnson is traveling as a Kellogg Food & Society fellow at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. His writing has appeared in Orion, The Sun, and Best American Spiritual Writing 2007 (Mariner). He lives with his wife and two sons on a farm in Transylvania County, North Carolina.

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