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Soil & Community at Farm-to-Table Conference

Christopher Clymer Kurtz

From soil to sacred, last week’s Farm to Table Conference [Dec. 5-6, 2018] served up two days’ worth of sessions and talks about food, farming and community. There’s cause for concern – and hope, as WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.

The title of the 2018 Farm to Table Conference was “Nourishing Farming, Community, and Hope,” and it drew about 240 food producers, farmers and a variety of other people from across the state and beyond to Blue Ridge Community College.

STEFAN HESS: I got vanilla.

Over ice cream at an afternoon social, Stefan Hess, who works for a local culinary herb grower, said the conference themes reminded him of the writings of Wendell Berry.

HESS: All the dynamics of a relationship in food, in working a piece of land … and also the relationships that come from living in a place and relating to neighbors.

The Virginia Cooperative Extension planned the event with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and others. Here is conference co-chair Eric Bendfeldt; he works with the cooperative extension’s Community Viability Program.

ERIC BENDFELDT: Through the years we’ve been trying to go more intensively and look deeper into some issues around soil health, cover cropping, issues of food access, food equity.

At the root of it all is soil, said husband and wife authors and presenters David Montgomery and Anne Biklé.

ANNE BIKLÉ: It's not a warm and fuzzy part of nature – soil – but the more you learn about it and the more that I see how it’s connected to everything, it does take on its sort of own warm fuzziness, if you will.


DAVID MONTGOMERY: In the United States we’ve burned through about half of the soil organic matter in our farmland.

Birklé’s husband David Montgomery teaches geomorphology at the University of Washington. He said that how a civilization treats its soil determines its longevity.

MONTGOMERY: The story of humanity is really a story of farming and how we’ve treated the land. Many societies in the past have degraded their land with consequences that the descendants of those people who still live in that same area have inherited. You could think of like Syria and Libya as places today where the consequences are actually pretty stark. There’s Roman tax records of really high harvests of wheat in areas now that are deeply impoverished.

But he said he’s an optimist, because these trends can be turned around, relatively quickly, through regenerative techniques such as cultivating soil microbial life through no-till farming and planting diverse cover crops.

MONTGOMERY: The solutions are feasible, they’re practical, they’re economic and they scale. You can do them on a small farm, you can do them in a window box outside your apartment, or you can do them on a 20,000 acre ranch in the Dakotas.

But the conference was about more than developing soil. It was also about developing communities.

Catherine Bukowski presented about community food forests in parks and vacant lots.

CATHERINE BUKOWSKI: You’re growing everything together with multiple other people which teaches skills beyond just growing food, and how do you actually have some ownership over a communal space.

Another example of communities doing farm-to-table work is the Black Church Food Security Network. In the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015, the Reverend Dr. Heber Brown, III, said, his church, which was was known for its gardens, helped bring food from farms to the city, which due to uprisings had been shut down in various ways, including public transportation and corner stores.

HEBER BROWN, III: We piled that food up on our church bus and we started taking food around the city of Baltimore. We did for about two and a half weeks, and then realize that we had the beginnings of a system, the beginnings of an alternative food system, that was running because of personal relationships and connections between farmers, churches and consumers.

That networking has continued, in part with farmers selling produce at churches in what they call “soil-to-sanctuary markets.”

BROWN: Our sacred scriptures have agriculture and farming and something of the earth throughout the book, from beginning to end, from Genesis to Revelation. …  Preachers and pastors and theologians are making the connections between what’s printed on the page and the lived experience of farmers, farm workers and consumers as well.

Different faith communities may argue about a lot of different things, he said, but not sweet potatoes.

BROWN: People come together around kale or sweet potatoes and it’s not a call to arms. It really does something different. It invites other sides of ourselves to share stories of our grandmothers who made sweet potato pie, or our grandfathers who worked the land and made other dishes. So it’s a disarming quality about food that I think is particularly helpful in this day and time when it’s just so easy to, you know, hunker down in your camp and create your silo and stay and defend your position. Food doesn’t do that. It’s a great connector.

Christopher Clymer Kurtz was a freelance journalist for WMRA from 2015 - 2019.