I thought I had a brown thumb. I’d put a plant in the ground, watch it wither, and wonder why my neighbor’s basil was two feet tall. Then, while making a salad with lettuce I’d recently grown myself, it dawned on me: growing food isn’t a solitary act. That lettuce was on my plate because volunteers at Tilth Alliance’s plant sale shared their gardening tips and a farmer taught me about cover crops. It took ten of us to grow four heads of lettuce in my yard, and it was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done.
Cooperation like this is happening on a gargantuan scale all around us. Each meal represents a community of farmers, farm workers, distributors, grocers, seed producers, cooks and many more who have collaborated and labored for months or years over a single bite. I saw this for myself on a farm tour of the Skagit Valley last month, which I won at the 2016 Food Lust auction.
At WSU Extension’s Mount Vernon Bread Lab, I learned that farmers, millers, scientists and bakers are diversifying and localizing wheat production. It’s win-win-win: happy eaters in the region enjoy delicious toothy loaves; farmers have a ready market for lucrative specialty grains that thrive in Western Washington; and bakers discover unique regional grains that were once a staple in America.
The “Magic Skagit” also has ideal conditions for seed production. Amazingly, half the world’s beet and spinach seeds come from there, where—to prevent cross-pollination—farmers cooperate to isolate seed crops by two to five miles. Some voluntarily withhold from producing an entire crop family for 1-2 years so others can produce viable seeds that will feed billions of people.
Wendell Berry says it well:
“…community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other.”
My new friends in the Skagit Valley live this spirit of community every day. And often without seeing it, so do I and other cube farm city-dwellers for whom the process of growing food can seem unknowable and our role in the agrarian world can feel abstract. That’s where the Tilth community shines. We actively learn about the daily lives of those who grow our food, and seek to create connections around how food is grown, acquired, cooked and eaten. Because thousands of us have joined forces, farmers are trained at Tilth conferences, free garden education events for families are hosted with partners like PCC, and immigrant elders cook traditional meals using hard-to-source produce from local farms. Tilth Alliance leads the way in creating a strong food web because of us.
I am thankful that our combined efforts and philanthropic support nurture the health and vitality of Washington’s food culture. Be prideful friends! We are defining the possibilities of each other’s lives!
How do you participate? I’d love to hear: firstname.lastname@example.org.