Joining the Conversation: Nourishing Change in Ag and Culture
Last week we sat in on a conversation at Middlebury College among five panelists, all of them engaged participants in the process of nurturing a new agricultural paradigm—one that values and nurtures the health, complexity, and resilience of all living beings.
Though our work at Vermont Family Forests focuses on the forest community, we are interested in the very same questions posed in this agricultural conversation: How do we bring about real change that expresses gratitude, embraces compassion and cultivates healthy human and natural communities? And how do we do it together, in place and in joy, in diverse groupings that are inspired to adapt and to change?
Though the panelists brought markedly different approaches, experiences, and tools to the conversation, their differing approaches to the current deep disfunction of our agricultural systems shared common threads. All spoke of the paramount importance of understanding, exploring, conserving, and nurturing complex, wholistic, mutually beneficial relationships as a means of bringing about real change. As panelist Fred Iutzi of The Land Institute put it, simply depositing new ecological solutions on the doorstep of humanity will not work if the fundamentally flawed systems and relationships remain in place. Instead, he said, we’re in need of “rhizomic change”—change that emulates what he described as the graceful and relentless spread of roots—up, down, and sideways—through the soil.
The five panelists represented five different rootstocks for that rhizomic change. Panelist Peter Buffet’s NoVo Foundation gives money to organizations working to foster this kind of transformative, rhizomic change. Fred Iutzi’s Land Institute is aiming for no less a goal than displacing the current industrial agricultural model by developing an agricultural system that features perennials with the ecological stability of the prairie and a grain and seed yield comparable to that from annual crops.
Panelist Jen Cirillo’s home organization, Shelburne Farms, is well-known and loved in the Center-West Ecoregion and far beyond, as a working farm and forest that teaches about and models mutually beneficial relationship with the land. Panelist Amani Olugbala represented Soul Fire Farm, a working farm in upstate New York committed to ending racism and social injustice in our food system. A self-described rap-tivist, Amani weaves music, film, speech, and poem into art that sheds light on social injustice.
The final panelist, Chief Don Stevens, represented the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk-Abenaki Nation. Explaining that his nation looks to the past to see where its future lies, he described how his people are practicing the age-old tradition of forest gardening in Barton, Vermont—growing crops that work in concert with Vermont’s natural communities, which were nearly entirely forested before Euro-American settlement began.
As we at VFF contemplate ways to live in mutually beneficial relationship with our home place here in the Center-West Ecoregion, we were excited and inspired by the ideas and experiences of Chief Stevens and the other panelists (a field trip to the Barton forest garden is surely in order, since we’d love to try out some of their practices at VFF’s Abraham’s Knees land in Lincoln). We were inspired, too, by the ideas of those attending the conversation. During the break, we talked with Susannah McCandless and Don Mitchell about ways of enacting change in our relationship with forests, including the idea of a Commoners’ Conservation Corps—a hands-on task-force of young adults and community elders putting hearts, bodies, and minds to the task of slowing, spreading, and sinking the flow of water over land, to reduce soil erosion and improve the health of Vermont’s streams, rivers, and lakes—our water commons. Susannah dubbed that corps the “Flow Slowers.”
That’s what it’s all about—sharing ideas, planting seeds, growing mutually beneficial practices. In 2019, we will be holding a Conservation Congress to explore more deeply how we, as community members of the Center-West Ecoregion, can show up effectively to the responsibility and privilege of caring for those parts of our ecoregion we all hold in common—namely water, wildlife, and air.
As with the Ag and Culture discussion, we hope to bring many different approaches, skillsets, and experiences to the conversation of effective commoning in this time of rapid climate change. This diversity will add essential depth and stability to the effort, just as species diversity adds stability to the forest community. We will hold the Conservation Congress in September 2019. Contact us if you’d like to be part of the planning discussions.