Food Security Conference

December 8th, 2010 by Arboretum Education Supervisor, Patrick Mulligan

I had the privilege of attending some of the Regional Food Security Conference this past weekend at CUH, and wanted to share what I learned…

The plenary session Sunday morning was a joint effort by 3 presenters who each provided unique perspectives into successful small scale regional farming projects happening around the world. The one that stood out for me was presented by Travis English, a UW MA candidate, who spoke of the Tumaini Women’s Group in Kenya whose members are comprised of 20+ elderly widows. The youngest of these women farmers is Florence at 72 years old. The HIV/AIDS epidemic so prevalent in much of Africa not only claimed these women’s husbands, but many of their children as well leaving them to care for 70+ orphaned grandchildren. Yet despite these hardships, with the help of a progressive organization named Grow BioIntensive Agricultural Centre of Kenya, or GBIACK, these women have been able to lift themselves up out of poverty and become completely self-reliant. It was an inspiring story that makes the obstacles of creating our own sustainable regional food system seem trivial and easily overcome.

The conference proceeded to split up into smaller groups to focus on a variety of food security related topics. I set up shop in Douglas Classroom where our very own Katie Murphy kicked things off to a standing-room only crowd. I was familiar with Katie’s research from a public speaking class we had together almost 2 years ago. Katie, in addition to running the Herbarium, has spent these past two years taking a simple idea and shaping it into a full blown cutting edge research project that takes a hard look at an often over-looked gardening spot, the parking strip. We drive past them and walk over them every day, but could these mundane omnipresent features of our urban environment be better used to grow food? A lot of Seattleites think so and are already growing vegetable gardens in these places, but should they be? Who knows where these soils have been or what heavy metals they may have been hanging out with for the last 100 years? These are the questions that Katie’s research aims to answer through careful and thorough scientific investigation. You’ll have to wait for Katie’s finished paper to get the whole story, but at least from her preliminary results, there is about 190 acres of prime real estate in northwest Seattle ripe for an urban agricultural revival.

The next speaker to present was Steve Jones a plant breeder and the director of The Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center of WSU. Steve is a wheat guy who has been researching and growing wheat for 30+ years. While the first 2/3 of his career was spent testing and growing wheat varieties for use in conventional farming, he’s spent the last 10 years advocating the value and viability of decentralized wheat growing systems. His shift in values seemed based on what to him is a stupefying reality – that the price of wheat is determined not by farmers, bakers or buyers but by traders, lenders and bureaucrats, people who wear ties & suits not coveralls & boots. Most of the wheat that we grow in this country is consumed in China, and most of it is grown from the exact same kind of proprietised genetically modified seed. States like Maine and Vermont and Iowa that once boasted thriving wheat harvests now grow nary a chafe.

But Steve was hopeful because of a recent resurgence of the small wheat farmer and a budding cottage industry based on artisan breads and beers made from local wheat varieties with unique characteristics. One thing that Steve said that stuck with me was his description of the people who make up this movement and the audiences of wheat growing workshops. These people are young, they are interested and they are interesting. It was refreshing to see this same demographic description reflected in the attendees of this food security conference, and indeed in the presenters themselves…

Andrew Corbin also of WSU, was the final presenter in Douglas before lunch, and to look at him and hear him speak he would seem just as natural strumming a six-string around a campfire on the beach as standing in front of a classroom lecturing, maybe more so. Andrew and his colleagues have recently been examining the age old farming question, “to till or not to till”. Since the invention of the iron plow some 2500 years ago, the answer has been “till”. But conventional farming’s methods and industrial efficiency has taken it’s toll on our planets breadbaskets and resulted in increasingly stratified soil profiles that make life hard for root systems. Over time, the soil layer immediately below the reach of the plow becomes an impenetrable hardpan. Steve’s research has shown the advantages of planting cover crops and then crimping them rather than turning them under. This rather low-tech method not only produces higher yields while fixing nitrogen but works as a weed barrier, earthworm haven and lid to keep CO2 from entering the atmosphere. Steve’s trials use a tractor powered crimper, but I have a small-scale farmer friend in CA who does it with simple hand tools…an approach easily adapted for the baker growing his/her specialty wheat in their parking strip.

For more on the conference:

And for an incredible Ted Talk from an 11 yr old on our food system:

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