Produce More than You Consume, and Other Positive Lifestyle Pledges from Pennsylvania

It’s been a week since I got back from Happy Valley, Pennsylvania and PASA’s Farming for the Future conference—a 2000-person, we-can-change-the-world-through-food gathering. But I’m still entranced by one bit of simple, revolutionary advice from farmer and mother Shannon Hayes: All of us “consumers” must become “producers.” That is, if we have any hope for the future of our communities and the planet.

“What matters is that we produce more than we consume,” Hayes urged the audience. That could mean making music or telling stories, instead of downloading a film from Netflix. Hanging your clothes out to dry, instead of using an electricity-consuming dryer. Or turning your kitchen leftovers into a casserole instead of tossing them out. (Composting those leftovers would also qualify as producing.)

“When everyone is a producer, our communities begin to be self sufficient,” Hayes said. “When communities are self sufficient, it doesn’t matter whether you’re the Green Party or the Tea Party. Nobody goes cold and nobody goes hunger. Our agricultural genetic diversity increases, our minds and bodies grow healthy because we are using them, and our democratic roots start to grow stronger. Despair starts to melt away, and it starts to feel like hope.”

Hayes’s suggestion offered an interesting twist on Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini’s notion of consumers as “co-producers,” with eating being the final step in the production process. In fact, the distinction between these two ends of the food chain is melting away. Hayes noted that the mix of attendees at winter-time farmer get-togethers like these has morphed from mostly farmers into a more motley crew of farmers, chefs (a major sponsor of the event is Eat N Park, a regional foodservice company that purchases millions of pounds of local produce, eggs and meat), mothers, journalists, food activists and foodies.

This shared burden between farmer and non-farmer was a thread woven throughout the conference (which was packed with quite a few knitters, felters and fleece growers; the the Midatlantic Alpaca Association or MAPCA had a contingent). In my own talk, I mentioned wine clubs, citizen oyster gardening, donated venison, edible schoolyards (the nation’s first Farm-to-School czar was announced during the conference) and the anti-fracking movement in New York (lead not so much by farmers, but by friends of farmers, like land trusts, watershed protection groups, school children and groups like Chefs for the Marcellus) were all examples of eaters sharing the burden with farmers.

Yes, eating is an agricultural act, as Wendell Berry has said, but it goes well beyond that. Because the good work that eaters can do goes well beyond putting something in their mouths.

And problems like fracking are too big for just farmers to worry about. Much more powerful than farmers keeping bees or saving seeds is when literally millions of non farmers begin to keep bees or save seeds.

The annual PASA conference (find out about the 2013 one here) is particularly suited to consumers looking to shift into this role. In contrast to the technical, agrochemistry-tilted classes one finds at most agricultural forums, the PASA work sessions balanced the practical knowledge that a novice might need with training in the broader planning principles that might still inspire new thinking among experienced growers. Attendees buzzed in and out of sessions titled: “Building the Team You Need and Want: Filling Labor Needs on the Farm,” “Cancer, Nutrition and Healing,” “Trash to Treasure: Bioconversion of Organic ‘Wastes’ to Resources,” and “How to Build a Rain-Powered Year-Round Irrigation System.”

I carpooled home from State College with a few colleagues from the Greenmarkets, who had lead a series of heritage grains workshops intended for bakers, farmers and bread eaters. In the backseat, I flipped through seed catalogues, we played “What are your five favorite vegetables?” (kale was a top choice), and we dreamed about all the socks we planned to darn, instead of throwing them away.

I dogeared the seed catalogue page for golden yarrow, a flower I love for its brilliant color, intoxicating fragrance and its ability to grow without a fence against deer and rabbits. I’m thinking of investing $5 in a packet of seed, planting a few long rows in May, and having beaucoup bouquets to sell from my front porch come July.

YOUR HOMEWORK: Tell us here what seed catalogues you’re consulting, what food business ideas you’re brewing and how you’re planning to produce more than you consume this year.