Black Gold

Occasionally I read a news item that reminds me of the struggles ahead to secure a sustainable future in my urban corner of the world, the Washington, DC metropolitan area.
March 21st’s Washington Post brought the story of a successful organic farmer, who had leased his 20 acres from the school district of  Montgomery County, Maryland since 1979.  Reading about the products on offer from the farm -- grass-fed beef, pastured poultry, eggs from free range chicken, grains, and vegetables --I imagined the bounty of the rich, loamy soil that his decades of composting and careful tending had made possible. That the farmer, Nick Maravell, accomplished this in a densely populated peri-urban area was even more inspiring. Then came the kicker:
“After 30 years of having the farmer work as a steward, the school board this month announced that it was ending Maravell’s lease with 20 days’ notice. The reason rankled as much as the short notice. The land will be used not for a school, but for soccer fields…[the school board] made a judgment call: soccer would serve the community more than seeds.”
And that’s not all: A 2005 land use study noted that interest in soccer continued to surge among Montgomery county students, and that the county needed at least 73 more soccer fields to meet the demand. As a” green” token, the county will not use artificial turf on the planned soccer fields.  (Never mind that part of the appeal of soccer around the world is that it can be played with practically no equipment and on virtually any surface or setting.)
The story highlights not only the problems of land access – usually it’s neither easy nor cheap for growers seeking smaller landholdings –but the larger question of the intrinsic value of land as a precious natural and social asset  --compared, that is, to commercial development…or soccer fields.
My disgruntlement, however, has been partially offset by the increasingly positive examples of small, local initiatives that are dedicated to innovative and imaginative land use – and  which are securing a niche as businesses and/or incubators of community self-sufficiency.
Take two-year-old Arganica, located in Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountain area. Dominique Kostelac, a “longtime foodie and serial entrepreneur” started Arganica as a food club, as opposed to the community supported agriculture model in which customers purchase shares of a harvest from a specific farmer. For a monthly or yearly fee, customers enjoy delicacies delivered to their homes in Virginia and Washington, DC. With 33 acres, Arganica grows produce for customers, including wild foods when available. Additionally, Arganica constitutes its customer orders from local sources, thereby supporting multiple farmers and maximizing the amount of land devoted to productive agricultural uses.
The food club has leveraged social media to inform and involve customers, uses computerized inventory systems for business efficiency and quality control, and benefits from consumer websites for outreach and to generate memberships.
Gourmet, small-batch fare such as Arganica’s answers a market need for people who might fear that they’d be reduced to eating grubs and bark if they step out of the mainstream supermarket experience. This type of high-end, high-quality provider also can be an attractive bridge to other alternative food models.
In Washington, in the last three years, I’ve seen community gardens sprout near subway stops and in schoolyards. A recently approved bill provides financial incentives to schools that get their school-lunch ingredients from local farms. A group of residents in northeast DC has launched a Facebook page to gather support for repurposing the city-owned McMillan Sand Filtration site. Rejecting the commercial developers’ proposals to raze the filtration structures and replace them with  condominiums and offices, the residents advocate repurposing the historic site to generate jobs and provide better food access. The underground caverns, with their cool, constant temperature, suit mushroom cultivation and a range of artisan food and beverage making, such as beer, wine, and cheeses. Aboveground, the 25-acre open space could offer opportunities for market gardens (sheep may safely graze there and nourish the soil), apiaries, and a long-promised neighborhood park.
This diversity of models (by no means a complete list) reassures me that small-scale farming has arrived and is here to stay. And not a moment too soon. (Soil fun facts: It takes 500 years to replace one inch of topsoil. The U.S. is losing its soil 10% faster than nature can replace it, according to the National Geographic.) As small, urban, and community farms proliferate, they provide a needed safety net against the time when centralized corporate farming declines, due to shortages and expense of chemical inputs and excessive transport costs. Additionally, they support wildlife, insects and birdlife that form and strengthen the natural network.
Farmer and writer Sharon Astyk observes in A Nation of Farmers that “A more productive model of farming per unit per land will prove necessary in the future…a four-acre farm is 200 times more productive than four acres of a 1,000-acre farm. That is, growing food with more people on lots of much smaller plots of land is more productive, and that is welcome news as we’re entering an era when we’re going to need more food.”
Lots of people seem to be catching on to this concept. Maybe someday local officials will be persuaded to legislate accordingly. Zoning boards, banks, and much federal policy continue to regard and price land as something to drill in order to exploit substances like oil or coal underground. In cities and suburbs, a real estate standard prevails, valuing land for what can be built on top of it: office parks, parking lots, acreage-devouring big-box strip malls. A growing ethic values land, along with pure water and unpolluted air, as the irreplaceable foundation for human and other natural systems.  Oil as “black gold”? That’s so last century. Land is what’s happening now. Can you dig it!

Update:  The reaction to the destruction of a 30-year-old organic farm in Maryland has led to a "Save Nick's Farm" campaign, with petitions and meetings with public officials. Part of this effort is establishing a Food Policy Council, in which all community members can have a voice in land use decisions and healthy food production locally. Find out about how Food Policy Councils could be useful in your community at /Food_and_Ag_Council_Vision_Statement 

See also and participate in the “Land for All” online interest group, which I started at the Ecolocity/TransitionDC website,