Bonus points if you caught that my blog title was a reference to the classic MF DOOM album of the same name.
I was already planning on writing about food this morning when a friend sent me this article. Essentially, with Bayer purchasing Monsanto one of the world’s largest food and agriculture companies is being purchased by one of the world’s largest drug and chemical companies. This should terrify us! While I’m sure that there will be some who are ready to measure me for my new tin foil hat, I hope that you will pause and think through the ramifications of having corporations controlling both the food from which many of our illnesses come and the drugs by which those illnesses are “cured”. This is dystopian stuff, but it is very real. 2016 seems to have been written by a conglomerate of young adult novelists.
If you’ve been following me on Facebook or Twitter (@derricklweston) or Instagram (@dlweston), you’ve no doubt seen a lot of pictures of my garden. Many of my friends, including the one who sent me this article, have noticed how much more I post about farming, gardening, and food justice issues. A growing passion has been emerging for me, one that I think is shaping my thinking about my true vocation.
The first summer after I got married, I started container gardening. I didn’t have much space and probably produced just a handful of peas and green beans. I stopped for a long while after we moved to California. My seminary had a community garden. I wasn’t very involved in that, admittedly I was scared off more by the “community” aspect than the gardening part. That probably should have been a warning sign, but I digress. When I moved back to Pittsburgh, I briefly supervised our community outreach team who was primarily putting their efforts into developing a large community garden. Again, I was interested, but mostly stayed on the periphery of what was happening. At the time, I remember being fascinated by how many cool organizations were involved in community gardening and sustainability projects. I was especially enamored by the work my friend John Creasy was doing (and continues to do) at the Garfield community farm. In some ways, John is my patron saint.
When I took my call in Ohio, I went back to container gardening. We were renting and I couldn’t put much into the ground, but I littered my back yard with tomato plants, herbs, peas, and numerous attempts at broccoli, all foiled by little, evil, green bastards known as cabbage beetles. I didn’t produce much successfully back then other than tomatoes and basil, but at that point, gardening developed for me more as a spiritual discipline. I was in a very difficult call and having my hands in the dirt literally and figuratively grounded me. In the spring of 2011 a tomato plant emerged from the bottom of my compost bin to my great surprise. It was “planted” there by the tomato plant that I composted in the fall of 2010. I think it is still the healthiest tomato plant I’ve ever had and I continue to take great comfort from the image of that amazing life emerging from the compost. My backyard garden kept me as sane as I was then.
Through the hard year that was 2014, I wasn’t able to do much gardening, which made the hard year even worse. I had a succulent in my friend’s guest room where I lived. I’ll admit, I probably became unhealthily attached to that plant, but it embodied how I felt, a survivor holding on without very much supporting it. It grew in weird directions and was marked and scarred by it’s environment, but it kept growing. Same here.
When I moved outside of Baltimore, I was excited by the opportunity to have a garden again. In fact, I had more space than I ever had before in which to play. Shannon built me a raised bed in ’15 which she expanded for me this year. As I’ve been unemployed through the growing season, I have put a lot of myself into the garden. I’ve grown more different kinds of things than ever before and in greater quantities. I’ve experimented with companion gardening, bought a grow light to start seeds in my garage, tried “hacks” like trellising cucumbers on sunflower plants and starting seeds in eggshells… both worked, and I planted flowers to help pollinate the vegetables thus forcing myself for the first time to actually learn the names of some flowers I had seen my whole life.
While doing all of this, I was reading. I was reading a lot! I was reading, of course, about gardening best practices, but I was also reading about some of the very cool things that people are doing around food. People have been reclaiming urban spaces in some incredible ways in order to address the needs of food deserts and lack of access. The creativity and ingenuity on display has been astounding. The book that has most deeply impacted my thinking these days is “The Color of Food” by Natasha Bowens. Bowens, who also formerly blogged as Brown Girl Farming (that blog has moved to thecolorofood.com) has created a remarkable photo journal of people of color making a living through small family farms and reclaimed community spaces. The underlying message that I take away from the book and the stories that it contains is a simple one: people of color made this country wealthy through agriculture and now it is time to use that knowledge for our own communities. It is a revolutionary message.
Coming back to where I started, the ramifications of corporations like Monsanto and Bayer being in bed together terrify me. Most of the food that comes through the major groceries stores come from either Monsanto or ConAgra even when they appear to be competing brands. The implications on people’s health and healthcare by having a major drug manufacturer involved in food production should give us all pause. This is why I am interested in food justice and food production. I believe that food access is quickly becoming the central justice issue of our time and we’re mostly blind to the effects that it has. But there is a solution. It’s a simple solution, but not an easy one. It’s a slow solution, not a quick fix. The answer, simply put, is to grow our own food. We have to take control of our food systems at a local level.
I believe the single most revolutionary thing that we can do right now is to plant gardens. In fact, this is the thesis for a book that I have begun. (Side note: for my Patron supporters I will be posting the introductory summary and the first draft of one of my strongest chapters so far on my page as a “thank you!”) growing food, particularly in urban settings reclaims the beauty of rundown spaces, repairs social bonds by developing interdependence, creates independent markets with the potential for jobs and entrepreneurship, and empowers people to take control of their health and well being. It also gets people back in touch with the rhythms of nature and connects us to our Source in through the soil.
I also think that there are major theological implications. The Bible was written in an agrarian culture and the farther we move away from the land, I believe the farther we move away from a deeper understanding of the Divine. In gardening I have developed a richer understanding of life and death. I have come to understand that natural world does not produce waste in the way that we understand it. In the garden, death can be redeemed, new life struggles to be born, and the miraculous is all around us. This is our birthright as spiritual beings, to be able to see the hand of the Creator in the midst of the creation and so often we deny ourselves of that birthright. That is truly tragic.
In the midst of my reading and exploration, I came across Farminary. Farminary is a program of Princeton Theological Seminary that connects (or reconnects) theological education with agrarian practice. I formed an instant friendship with the director Nate Stuckey. It’s not everyday that you meet someone who shares your love of compost! Next weekend I will be leading a workshop at the Just Food conference hosted by Farminary. I’m humbled that I was invited. I feel like I have so much less to offer than the other presenters. What I do hope to offer is a vision for the future of ministry that includes repurposing the assets that many of our churches have, namely land and large buildings, for sake of growing food and serving our communities. I also hope to paint a picture of spiritual health being restored by remembering that we are “Adam” created from “adamah”. (And with that, I have exhausted by Hebrew). I’m excited to share ideas with people and to learn more myself.
Last night’s dinner included tomato sauce made mostly with ingredients that I grew and green beans from my garden. As much as I love supporting restaurants that are “farm to table”, there is an extra piece of satisfaction having something come from my garden and having it go to my table. Despite the energy and money that I’ve put into my garden this year, I didn’t grow nearly enough to live off of. That would be a massive undertaking. And yet the more I think about it, the more that I want to move into that direction. I would love to get to a place where I am producing my own produce or if I don’t produce it, I know who did. I would love to know the animals that I am going to eat. I know that sounds weird, but I think the moral imperative for those of us who continue to eat meat is to have gratitude and reverence for the life sacrificed for our own. I want to have more homemade things. I want to brew my own beer from hops that I’ve grown. And I want to be able to share all of these things with my family, friends, and neighbors. That’s what community looks like to me. And that’s how we fight back against the forces of empire that continue to consolidate all of our resources.
On the night that he was arrested, Jesus gathered around the table and broke bread grown from the grain of the earth and poured wine made from the soil’s grapes. There is something sacred about these things that come from the ground to sustain our lives. I pray that we will not lose our reverence for these things by simply letting them be commodified. Food is too sacred to be taken lightly…
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