A farmer, an educator and an activist, Michael Ableman is also a photographer and a writer. His three books include his latest, Fields of Plenty: A farmer’s journey in search of real food and the people who grow it, for which Ableman traveled North America chronicling the passion and prowess of the new generation of American farmers. He currently farms in British Columbia with his wife and two sons, and will be joining us as a presenter at the Hazon Food Conference in December, 2008. (Click here to find out more and register for Hazon’s Food Conference.)
I talked to Ableman about his hopes for the sustainable agriculture movement, his many hats, and Judaism’s connection to the cycle of the seasons.
Find the full interview below the jump.
JC: On a recent interview for the radio show “Beyond Organic,” you mentioned that you partly wrote the book, Fields of Plenty, to demonstrate that farming was not, “a form of lowly drudgery but a fine art and a craft and a noble profession.” Do you think that’s something that still needs to be proven to American people?
MA: I do. I think that a lot has certainly changed in the last few years in terms of people’s awareness around all things food and agriculture, but I think the changes that have occurred are not the kind of changes we need to really structurally shift the system as a whole.
We currently have more cheerleaders than we have participators, and the fundamental problems with the food system are not going to change until we have more than one and a half percent doing the work of farming. So I’m excited to see a movement that I’ve been involved with for so long finally getting some attention, but I’m concerned at the same time.
So people need to be growing food instead of just getting it from their local coop?
Absolutely. You can’t have a sustainable food system when only one and a half percent of the population is doing the work. It’s not going to work if everyone’s still sitting behind their computer screens.
Do you consider that to be the goal of the work that you do?
Well it’s my current rant [laughs]. You have to look at this from a lot of different angles and understand that people are awakening at very different levels and we have to support them at whatever level they’re at. First and foremost I grow food and I supply my local community with food, but I also hope that the day will come when individuals will put farmers out of business by growing more for themselves.
You’ve worked in photography and writing and journalism, and you’ve done a lot of educational work. How did so many angles of working in agriculture end up as a part of your life?
My only formal post-high school education was in the visual arts – photography. When I came to agriculture, I discovered something pretty amazing, which was that the instincts of artists, specifically around observation, the observation of one’s world, interpreting it, in a way is very similar to the instincts and some of the fundamental skills required for good farming: observing the world of the farm and knowing how to interpret it, what to do with it.
I’ve been kind of working on a project on the art of farming. It’s really in its very, very, very preliminary stages, but it would include the work of a lot of people, probably from different parts of the world, who are farming but who are also interpreting their world through different art forms, whether it be writing or photography or painting, and the goal is to have a book and probably a traveling exhibition.
So how did you get into farming?
It’s the last thing I ever thought I’d be doing. I ended up joining an agrarian commune in my late teens in California and within a couple of months I was managing a hundred acre organic pear and apple orchard in the high desert valley for the commune. I had this five-year, incredibly intensive, amazing immersion experience in agriculture that one could never pay for, and I came out of that with a lot of skills. By the end of that experience I was completely turned on by agriculture.
What have been were some of your most successful educational projects?
Well, I have some favorites of course. We used to run a three day urban agriculture workshop in California. We provided air fare and lodging and tuition for people from all over the country, primarily from lower income urban communities, and we did this wonderful workshop and the success stories out of that have been fantastic.
What were some of the success stories?
There are folks working all over the country doing great work, in Chicago, New York city, amongst native communities in the southwest, using food and farming as the stepping stone for all kinds of social and ecological change.
You know, you start off in your twenties and thirties trying to find out who you are and wanting to make your own mark on the world and then something happens later on and you start to want to see other people succeed. That’s pretty cool to see happening. It isn’t that the ego isn’t still intact and strong, it’s that you’re more willing to share it.
Chipping away at that 98% that doesn’t farm.
Do you have any personal Jewish food traditions that you could tell us about?
I live on an island in British Columbia. I almost would say that the place that I live has a higher population of Jewish people involved with the land than maybe any other place in North America.
I went to a Seder on the island, the first time I’d been to one in years, and it was really fun. We brought products from the farm for the meal and we grow a number of things that are used in the ceremony like parsley and horseradish. There’s a wonderful Hannuka celebration on the island, and the same family has been organizing that every year and they do this vast amount of potato latkes! Apparently they work on it for days.
It’s interesting hearing you talk about it. When I hear you mention potatoes at Hannuka and parsley at Pesach it’s making me think, of course potatoes because they’re in cold storage, and of course parsley in spring. So what’s it like to celebrate the New Year in September/October as a farmer?
That’s an interesting question because you know I was raised as a Jew but I also was raised in a community where I experienced quite a significant amount of prejudice, and so as a young person I actually learned that it was safer for me to assimilate. I spent a lot of years not referring to myself as Jewish, and interestingly enough, in the last few years I’m doing some interviews like this and some programs that are related to the Jewish tradition, and it’s kind of like coming out of the closet.
I think that all of us are products of so many layers of familial and cultural upbringing. I have the agricultural background; I have the roots in Judaism. I am not a practicing or religious Jew – I am a very spiritual person – but it’s interesting for me to just now be discovering all the different threads and how they connect together.
One of the things I love about the Jewish tradition is the timing of the holidays, that their origins are based on the cycles of the land. I don’t know how many Jews actually realize that, but I certainly am aware of that because my life revolves around those same cycles. See, now I’m getting tons of ideas of what to talk about in December.
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