The Organic-versus-Conventional Debate

Community gardening and organic practices can go hand-in-hand. In several of the garden spaces available in my city, restrictions have been placed on growing practices to avoid the use of pesticides, herbicides, and genetically-modified seeds. But how important is it that my community garden support organic gardening?

Being an organic gardener myself, I wanted to see what arguments have been made opposing organic growing. Interested in the angle of conventional and GM-supporting farmers, I looked to the corporation that epitomizes anti-organic: Monsanto.

The Miracle-Maker

In a short article on the Monsanto website titled, “Building a World Without Hunger,” the author, Monsanto Executive Communications Manager Rachel Thimangu, reports on a panel discussion during the Milken Institute Global Conference which considered the role of organic farming in the larger scheme of addressing world hunger. Thimangu quotes Dan Glickman, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, weighing in on the debate of organic versus conventional:

” ‘[You’ve] got to have technologies that allow additional production…That means you’ve got to not be afraid of technology.

‘We’re going to have community gardens. We’re going to have a lot of food grown locally. But, overwhelmingly, that’s not going to solve the problem of hunger in this world. We’ve got to produce more food.’ “

Thimangu’s article suggests we should consider the limitations of organic gardening because they cannot solve our issues of world hunger, and so we need to emphasize more biotechnology.

The more subtle message: Organic gardening is over-rated.

Well, wait a second now – let’s consider the way in which Thimangu presents the issue of organic versus conventional. Heiss argues in her article on an advertising campaign for high-fructose corn syrup that the corporation can use its communication and advertising strategies to allow only a small group of stakeholders to partake in the discussion about our food.

In this case, the stakeholders are the experts on global food security. All of us small-scale, organic community gardeners are out of the loop. What do we know about global hunger? Thimangu’s article promoting conventional growing insinuates the other issues we care about (like pesticide impact on ecosystems) are not anywhere near as important.

In my hometown, not all community gardens are strictly organic. Whether or not you agree with Monsanto’s angle that conventional growing can solve food security, perhaps we can all agree on this: The debate is incomplete when we avoid discussing the other environmental and health issues related to gardening methods.

WP 3/1

Gardening Programs: Fueled by Volunteers

How does a nonprofit like Friends of Burlington Gardens become a success? Of course, there are grants and other benefactors to help the organization monetarily, but I believe the real glue of an organization like this is the volunteers.

I got a phone call from one of the coordinators from the FBG in the short days before a children’s workshop event, with a last-minute request to assist her with one of the activities. I agreed to come, and helped with a workshop where kids made incredible fruit and vegetable sculptures (and snacks).

From what I could gather, most of the adults in attendance were volunteers with little experience or familiarity with the children’s mini-conference. Each group of children that circulated through our workshop came with one or two volunteers. Most of the time, these volunteers looked exhausted – especially in contrast to the excited kids – and half of the volunteers left during the workshop, perhaps using the time to recuperate. These volunteers were generally younger women who, perhaps like me, were looking for a chance to do volunteer work while getting exposure to children’s activities and anything remotely connected to nutrition or local foods. I got the feeling that these volunteers had never helped out for this event before since many seemed unsure about the time allotted to each workshop, and because many of these volunteers seemed somewhat uncomfortable improvising activities for the antsy children who finished their food sculptures early.

This is an example of how FBG (and the associated organization who created the children’s mini-conference) rely heavily on volunteers to make their events a success. FBG certainly has a core of volunteers who regularly offer help at events such as these, but other volunteers may be recruited through networks with related local organizations. For instance, the local food cooperative allows its members to receive discounts by volunteering with FBG.

The organization is always in need of more volunteers. I helped out at the office today and felt guilty leaving because there were more tasks to complete, and, sure enough, before I left, I was coaxed into helping at another event this weekend.

The volunteer is essential to this organization’s survival. But is it only because they are a body completing a task? Absolutely not! If you can think of a similar nonprofit in your hometown, try to imagine for a moment how that organization would differ if run only by a full-time staff of the same five or six or more people. How would that organization differ from how it was run when maintained by only one or two staff members plus a steady flow of volunteers? What are the benefits of each of these scenarios? To what extent is the community’s connection to the organization lost without the volunteer? I would argue that the steady flow of volunteers who help FBG are the foundation to its mission to serve and interact with the community.

FN 2/20

How to Stay Hip in the Local Food Movement

“This is Sandra*… SHE grew up on a FARM!”

This is how I was introduced to Sandra, the author of a new memoir of life growing up on a dairy farm. Sandra is a retired schoolteacher who now spends her time with her hobbies: writing and taking photos of gorgeous farmland in Vermont. I met Sandra at the Seed Starter Workshop a couple of weeks ago during my volunteer hours with Friends of Burlington Gardens. She grew up on a conventional dairy farm as a kid, but, without my making any remark about conventional versus organic, she was quick to denounce conventional practices, citing the use of DDT during her youth as the cause of her cancer.

Enough about Sandra. This post is not actually about her. It’s about how she was introduced by one of the coordinators of the workshop. I cannot get the words out of my head.

“This is Sandra … SHE grew up on a FARM!”

The tone of Sandra’s introduction implied that the woman was a celebrity. It was as if the purpose of attending the Seed Starter Workshop was not to honor the gardener within each of us, but instead to admire those who had already ‘been there.’ Yes, there is wisdom to be gained from the older generation of farmers and I respect this, but that was not how this appealed to me. This was trendiness: Sandra’s presentation implied “cool”-ness. This was meant to validate her among a room of young, rugged gardeners and avid foodies, and it implied we were all proponents of the same local food trend – er, I mean, movement.

Community gardens, farmers’ markets, and small-scale food production have always had a home in ag-friendly Vermont, but now these practices are becoming more mainstream. For some, purchasing local food from farmers’ markets is trendy which hopefully won’t fall out of fashion any time soon. For others, it’s an expression of personal values. Many of us fall somewhere between these extremes. Is it worth being bothered over why we all end up supporting the same food movement?

*name changed

FN 2/13

Digging into the Gardening Scene

And here the adventures begin…

In continuing my exploration and appreciation of Vermont’s local food system, I plan to learn about the role of a nonprofit organization here in Burlington that promotes gardening  for all ages and incomes. In the coming weeks, I will be volunteering with a local organization, Friends of Burlington Gardens, and sharing my thoughts here.

My hunt through the blogosphere suggests the conversation I will be joining is rather quiet and disconnected. It is much easier to find blogs on how to teach children to garden, and on the status of schools’ teaching gardens, than it is to find blogs on the individual’s experience participating in these activities, as I will do with this blog. Getting children in the garden is a hot topic, and so I do appreciate those who can provide suggestions for implementing programs or creating activities. But how does a garden program appear to operate when viewed from a more intimate lens? By working with the organizations that help catalyze school gardens and community gardens, I want to understand what makes these programs magical successes – or failures – and reflect upon the role I, as a community member and nutrition student, contributes.

Most of the blogs I found on gardening with children during my search are written as more objective reports or simple tips… One of the blogs I viewed, Urban Sprouts, is a diary of the activities performed by a San Francisco-based organization – developing school gardens around the city in underserved areas, in an effort to provide education to the community’s youth and their families. Another blog, Gardening4Kids, written by a parent and teacher, was a short-lived blog providing tips for kid-friendly plants and lemonade-making. These blogs contribute to the conversation about exposing children to gardens, but they are each only slightly similar to KidsDigGardens in how they report on the gardening scene…

A third blog, GreenSchoolyard, was best aligned with my blogging intentions. This author described her interest in coordinating gardening curricula during her role as a substitute teacher. The author refers to herself as the “wanna-be school gardener” who is learning about how to provide gardening education to children. I can relate best to this blog because of the introspective style used by the blogger to report on lessons learned and skills gains through repeated exposure to school gardening and facilitating children’s activities.

In the blogs that I have described here, the authors emphasize gardening as a form of physical activity more so than as a means to produce and consume food. Teaching gardens are touted for all of these benefits, but I intend to highlight the latter: good eating. After all, this blog is meant to serve a more intimate, personal lens of the garden world, and the foodie nutritionist in me cannot help but hope children will eat more fruits and vegetables.

WP 2/23