Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Roy Skeen's Charm City Farm (and other thoughts)

On the class visits to Roy Skeen's Charm City Farm on 6/5 and 6/12...

Sandwiched between our two days at the Charm City Farm was the day at Hamilton Crop Circle, where Adam Kandel's farming experience in Hawaii sounded similar to Roy Skeen's WWOOF (not to be confused with the gutteral howl Roy occasionally emits), his first lesson in growing food (and, apparently, in the attendant fist-sized arachnids). It's interesting that Skeen and Kandel both mentioned Rastafarian culture as their primary farming influence--at least in the case of the Crop Circlers, there is clearly something of a lifestyle to the practice of sustainable agricultural model. For them the choice to grow food is part of the equation of nutrition and holistic health. (Until last week I'd never stretched before gardening.)

Now that we've been introduced to a few growers around the city in similar fashion: work, talk, eat (often simultaneously), I find myself comparing the lunch choices our hosts make. I'm thinking particularly of the difference between the snack offering at Duncan Street Community Garden: potato chips and soda, and at the Hamilton Crop Circle: 'green drink' (a blender full of anything green and edible in the backyard) and salad with homemade dressing. It's not that the former gesture was insincere--nor, it seems, is anything Mr. Sharp does or says--but that the packaged, processed foods from afar marked a clear disconnect against the backdrop of fresh fruits and vegetables growing in the lush, twenty-year-old network of garden plots on Duncan Street. (By the way, can we make sure there is no hidden Mr. Horowitz down there? I'm still trying to deal with the agony of The Garden.)

I'm not sure how helpful are these first-impressions, but at least from the limited evidence it's clear that Kandel is concerned with fore-fronting the connection between growing and eating fresh food through the material lesson of the meal (I will additionally admit to an addiction to his farmers' market falafel wrap). But while the Hamilton guys focused a lot of their discussion on the technical aspects of growing and preparing healthy food, out at Charm City, Roy's analysis clearly recognized the larger political implications of our everyday food choices. The message was clear: 'a world without petroleum is more magical."

After his time in the Caribbean, Mr. Skeen made his way back to Baltimore (he grew up on Roland Avenue), finding work for the better part of a year with the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. He recalled the shock of the transition--the violence, speed, and often environmentally-unfriendly experience of city life was a harsh reintroduction to the reality he had left behind. (I'm struggling to block out the montage of an Apocalypse Now Brando-esque Skeen baking (baked) in a tropical paradise, split-screened with his re-entering Baltimore counterpart, drenched in rain, maybe, I dunno, getting mugged or something.) Of course, what we know from the story is that Roy eventually found a bit of paradise not far from where he grew up, just outside the city.

As the class absorbed the pleasant heat of Graham's phone book-fueled fire in the mansion that will one day be a women's recovery home (fed in a few years, it's hoped, in part from the newly-farmed land), I couldn't help but puzzle myself over Roy's dilemma--one that, despite his contagious optimism, significant progress, and obvious commitment to the project, became a faint burden in his otherwise stoic eyes as he introduced us to his plot. "We're getting killed by weeds." 

For anyone terribly allergic to poison ivy, the hyperbole may not be so far from the truth. Before we--along with the first ever Hamilton Crop Circle WWOOFER (whose booming sexual analogs to the process of removing mulberry root systems severely polarized gender divisions in the groups of nearby weeders in the true, axe-swinging spirit of Man vs. Nature)--cleared a few new rows for planting on the return trip to Roy's plot, the two-acre spread of land looked more like what I would have expected to see in the Caribbean: lots of tall, green, tangled things.

It's a serious question though: why grow food here? Why do it organically? Why farm in Baltimore while other parts of the world beckon us with cleaner air, water, and soil; longer growing seasons; more land? Hell, why stay in the city at all? I'm reminded of the carefully optimistic reason Ingrid gave for taking this class: "I need to know how to live in Baltimore."

The answers to the larger questions inevitably vary, but there seems to be something of a common thesis in the projects of the urban farmers we've met thus far. The ethos, if you could call it that, seems to recognize the twofold importance of localizing food production: not onlyto provide an alternative to the petroleum-based industrial food system (and its attendant host of environmental, nutritional, and logistical pitfalls), but, perhaps as significantly, to make visible to city-dwellers the whole business of food production in the first place. At a place like Great Kids Farm the model is certainly pedagogical--the produce is not yet provided in city schools, but the educational experience of seeing it grown has become a first step toward that goal. Until then, CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and restaurant buyers provide the financial model for the farm.

In the case of Participation Park--who chose for the first time this year to sell at a local farmers' market--the agenda doesn't stop with the business of selling food: "Have we mentioned the... legality of the situation?" Nick asked as he approached the class for the first time. In the spirit of Ian Marvey's Red Hook Community Farm in Brooklyn New York, Participation Park sees the project of urban food production at least in part as a vehicle by which to contend with larger issues like class, race, and land-use in the city.

To return to Charm City--because a percentage of the produce from Roy's plot will one day be reserved for the women's home, Charm City Farm too will be--beyond just a place to grow food--an investigation on collective living. The goal, he says, is eventually to make the project self-sustaining, allowing residents of the future commune (and it's farmer) to eat year-round. Unlike Participation Park, though, Roy's plot is unique in its legal immunity--because the land is protected by an environmental trust, it can support a vision ten or fifteen years into the future, a security few urban farms can rely on.

There has been a point, I'm fairly certain, in each farm visit, that our host, busy explaining some garden phenomenon, had to stop talking, had to just hold up whatever it was that he or she was referring to, turn it around a few times to just look really hard at it (while the class looked on in kind of the same, confused, waiting way). I've had just a little bit of gardening experience now myself, but it's undeniable--the subtle, layered quality of knowing that results from the full sensory experience of the garden is simply incommunicable in language. I'll just end with Wendell Berry, who--in true Taoist form--keeps saying so eloquently that we just can't say it all.

"My third point is that the means of human communication are limited, and that we dare not forget this. There is some knowledge that cannot be communicated by communication technology, the accumulation of tape-recorded 'oral histories' not withstanding. For what may be the most essential knowledge, how to work well in one's place, language simply is not an adequate vehicle. To return again to land use as an example, farming itself, like life itself, is different from information or knowledge or anything else that can be verbally communicated. It is not just the local application of science; it is also the local practice of a local art and the living of a local life. 

(From the 2005 essay "Local Knowledge in the Age of Information")

1 comment:

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