Last week the U.N Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Professor Hilal Elver of UC Santa Barbara, gave her first public speech in Amsterdam since being appointed to the position in March. In it, she argued that “modern industrial agricultural methods can no longer feed the world, due to the impacts of overlapping environmental and ecological crises linked to land, water and resource availability.” Noting that 70% of food consumed globally is produced by small farmers, Prof. Elver called for a change to what she calls “agricultural democracy”.
“Currently, most subsidies go to large agribusiness,” she said. “This must change. Governments must support small farmers… by providing new possibilities and incentives.”
Brian Genung and Ingela Warnerstrand have an ongoing experiment taking place at Ingela’s renovated farmhouse in Ballard, a historic neighborhood in northwestern Seattle. Their home is surrounded on all sided by an intricate agricultural ecosystem involving four goats, half a dozen chickens, honeybees, a cat named Giza, and more flowers, fruit, and vegetable plants than either can count.
Together they wield several decades worth of combined knowledge and experience, a sort of urban farming dream team. Ingela does landscaping and garden design for a living and also teaches courses in fruit, nut, and berry production as part of a sustainable agriculture program at the local community college. She attributes her love of animals and gardening to her Swedish heritage. Brian grew up on a homestead in Nebraska and has been designing and implementing permaculture ecosystems since he was a teenager. They both exude a deep knowledge and enthusiasm for the work they do with the natural world.
We spoke to Ingela in her garden, bees buzzing by, heavy-laden with pollen from nearby flowers. On her lap, her six year-old hen Pretty Pretty alternated between intently surveying bugs on the ground and glancing nervously upwards at birds and planes passing overhead. She told us about the problems facing so-called “megafarms” and industrial livestock production in the U.S., problems like soil erosion, monocultures requiring huge amounts of pesticides, overcrowded livestock requiring huge amounts of antibiotics. She told us that for her, her garden is some parts political activism but that mainly she loves animals and gardening and educating people about how satisfying it can be, that it’s really not as hard as one might think:
Every little thing that everybody does adds up to the whole benefit of the planet and reducing our dependence on large scale agriculture, which is an unsustainable thing. Conventional agriculture depends on a lot of chemical inputs that come from fossil fuels, and I think a lot of people don’t understand that we’re robbing from our children and grandchildren, using the resources now that they’ll need rather than sustainably living within our needs in our own lifetime. So, philosophically, there’s that… On the other hand, I just think its fun. I love animals, and I love gardening. And there’s nothing yummier and funner than going out and picking your own herbs to throw on your salad. Or going to a potluck and bringing things from your own garden. There’s a real creativity and joy in that.
In recent years, their home has become something of a neighborhood attraction year-round. Ingela says although potatoes are “kind of boring” and take up valuable real estate, she grows them because neighborhood kids love turning them up – gardening via hunting for buried treasure. She recalls the moment when she realized she felt called to educate kids about food: a girl from the neighborhood was helping her in the garden and was shocked to discover that potatoes grow underground.
Ingela told us, “she had no idea that potatoes grow in the ground, and she was fourteen! So I think there’s a lot of people realizing ‘Oh my goodness, there’s a whole generation of kids growing up obese and unhealthy and not knowing where their food comes from.’ I think a lot of parents are trying to change that and educate their kids. And why not? It’s super delicious to have a carrot grown from your own garden and it’s not any harder to do than growing a pansy or any other ornamental plant.”
We learned more about farming in the few hours with Brian and Ingela than I had learned in my entire life. Fun facts about chickens and goats and bees abounded. For example, as a general rule you can tell what color egg a hen will lay based on the color of it’s earlobes – white earlobed hens lay light colored eggs, red earlobed hens lay brown or darker colored eggs. Brian told us that goats will eat anything, yes, but that it’s less a voracious appetite than the simple fact that goats explore the world with their mouths. Both chickens and goats, they told us, have surprisingly individual personalities. Some are troublemakers, others peacekeepers. That the “pecking order” is a real description of how hens establish a dominance hierarchy in the coop.
We had the opportunity to watch Ingela do her morning milking, simultaneously checking her email with one hand while milking with the other. “Sometimes I feel really postmodern,” she told us.
We talked to Brian in the kitchen over glasses of fresh goats milk about what it means to him to be able to grow a portion of his own food. “When you learn how to grow your own food, you’ve just opened up a whole other world,” he told us. “It teaches you to interact not only with nature but with your neighbors and society in a more capable and competent way. You’re creating a new way of thinking, and that can change everything.”