Monday, August 10, 2009

There is nothing romantic about growing food

Yesterday I went to a book party for Jill Richardson's Recipe for America. I found out a lot about the good guys and bad guys in Washington (at least on food issues).

But what has stuck with me wasn't the book (which I haven't read yet); it was a conversation I had when we broke for refreshments. Somehow it came up (in local food circles it tends to come up) that my husband is a beekeeper. Instantly I was asked, by an urban farmer, about the plight of a friend of hers who'd been busted for keeping bees (an activity that's illegal in New York City).

Then someone else chimed in: "I love the idea of illegal beekeeping. It's so countercultural."

Which got me thinking about the romanticizing of local food, and how little use I have for it. Yes, it's romantic to think of underground bee-keeping. That is, unless those are your bees that just swarmed to a lamppost a block away, and unless you can see the surrounding crowd pointing out your rooftop to the policeman. We held our breath for the knock on our door.

In fact, we've never (yet) been busted, which is surprising, given how active John's been in the move to increase beekeeping in the city. But we and every beekeeper we know are crossing all our fingers and toes as Just Food nudges its campaign to legalize beekeeping through the various layers of city government.

Beekeeping is not romantic. It is hard work: hot, messy, and sticky. If one of your queens isn't producing good workers, you've got to find her, and kill her, in order to introduce a better queen. An attack of any of the multitude of diseases to which bees are prone could wipe out your hives. And while beekeepers get used to being stung, it's never pleasant and it can be not just painful but life-threatening; every beekeeper with even a slight grain of caution keeps on hand an EpiPen to inject themselves in case they suddenly develop a violent allergy to bee venom. (Trust me, it can happen.)

I'm certain the same can be said of urban farming, another occupation that currently gets a lot of swooning attention. It's amazing to me how ignorant even people involved in the local food movement can be about farms and farmers. A few weeks ago I asked the woman who runs my CSA whether we'd be getting any tomatoes or whether our farmer had been hit by the tomato blight. "Blight?" she said, looking puzzled. Meanwhile, farmers are watching their biggest cash crop disappear in front of their eyes. Amy Hepworth, the farmer who supplies much of the produce sold at the Park Slope Food Coop, told our buyer recently that fighting off the blight costs her $1,000 every time it rains - and it has rained a lot this summer.

I suppose that the romanticism is just another symptom of how divorced we have become from the process of producing our food. And annoying as I find it, I guess it's a necessary first step towards bridging that gap. It's better to romanticize food producers than simply to ignore them.

But I sometimes think that a day's work on the farm should be a requirement for joining any CSA, or for buying produce from any urban garden. I'm not about to argue that we should - or could - go back to an 18th
agrarian century idyll (if it was an idyll, which I doubt), but if we're really going to turn our food system around, the production of the food we eat needs to be an always-present part of the world we experience.

So, yes, support your local farmers, and brewers, and cheese-makers, and beekeepers (please sign Just Food's petition). Buy from them, talk to them, find out what they do.

Just don't go all gooey over them!

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