Clean Air, Clean Water, Livable Future

President Trump will sign an executive order to dismantle the Clean Power Act today. This action comes in tow with his undoing of other environmental legislation to minimize air and water pollution.

I haven’t been around as long as Keeling, Carson, Shiva and other environmental activists to feel the defeat and regression from decades of struggle to get climate change seriously discussed and addressed. I can say that it goes against current scientific knowledge and farming, and the future of humanity.

What’s happening today reminds me of a statement I wrote for the National Young Farmers Coalition of why I’m a farmer. Before I became a farmer, I was a climate researcher. I modeled changes over thousands of years and created visuals on the computer. I soon decided to step into the field to witness the earthly impacts no pixel could capture, and what I saw changed everything.

From my NYFC statement:

Freezing arctic winds blurred my vision, obscuring the number on the meter. Up from yesterday. Every day I fought through the cold to log the rate of atmospheric carbon coming from the arctic tundra, which stores 50% of Earth’s carbon. I squinted against the hard wind: 554 ppm — 164 ppm more than the global average, and higher every year. The meter told me the number of particles, but in its predictable climb, year after year, it was also saying that the world in the near future will be a much drier, harsher place. Living at an arctic weather station gives you lots of time to think. I spent mine thinking about how we got to this point. Cities, factories, industrial development, yes, sure. But the main way humans transform our landscape is still through agriculture—the production, the transportation, the storage, and the waste of food, the whole system—that’s still where we impact our world the most. To make the difference I wanted to make, that’s where I needed to be, I realized.

Six years later, I was farming, growing grains. When I lived in cold climes, eating seasonally, I relied on grains to get me through half the year and relished the nuanced differences between wheats — hard red vs. soft spring, etc. As an eater, I appreciated the flavor and color diversity. As a farmer, I value all the benefits grains offer. They provide year-round food and farm income. They can provide a drought tolerant food source, can act as sustenance for animals and seed for future cops, and capture carbon, especially when managed in rotation with animals. Grains are essential, yet they’re hardly found in local foodsheds. We used to grow a great variety of grains, even wheats. Now we buy “All Purpose Flour,” or “Whole Wheat Flour,” the labels eliding the varieties of wheats in the bag, each of which has been chosen for certain qualities like greater starch, longer shelf life. Their effect on health, the agricultural practices that produced them, their impact on the environment—these factors have all been erased. (I won’t get into the political economic history of why we grow the wheat we grow; I’ll just say it’s complicated.)

Knowing all this, I work to grow alternative wheat and grains and to revive old, rare seed stock. These grains are not only ecologically beneficial but also delicious and mesmerizingly beautiful in the field. They also contribute to biodiversity. Growing these rarer grains, and on a small scale, presents many challenges: infrastructure needs (land, equipment, seed), environmental unpredictability (drought, storms, new diseases), and lack of government and community support. The challenges are formidable. But I know I am farming to address the biggest challenge: humans’ relationship to our environment. Producing food and sharing it with others enables me to engage the current food system, ecological management practices, and ultimately the climate, all while working with others to see (and taste!) what’s possible.

As a climate researcher, I read about the environmental changes and impacts of people and ecosystems. As a social justice organizer, I saw how lack of water pollution regulations meant companies could dump toxins in water ways and how young children would cry at their friend’s funeral who passed away because they had played in the water.

As a farmer, I see how the unpredictable weather stresses plants and animals. The drought pushes people to pump from their wells, which increases the salinity of what remains. The springs in the hills dry, so the deer and wildlife go to the lower grounds for water — where the roads are and where the roadkill count increases with the desperation for hydration.

I am trying to farm to capture and not release carbon, prevent water and soil contamination, and grow food in a way that doesn’t compromise our current and future health. I stress about planting with the rains, competing against weeds in a no-till system, and acquiring and raising drought-resistant seeds. I feel like what I’m doing is small, but that my generation is tasked with cleaning up over a century’s worth of industrialization’s waste. These years of foregoing cars only to be hit by one, of living local foodways, and of activism for environmental justice seems like a drop in the bucket compared to what will need to be done. The task just got harder, dirtier, and longer.