Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | March 4, 2010


What is a weed, and what is not? If the notorious dandelion is now a value-holding commodity at the grocery store, can we confidently label anything with the pejorative “weed” anymore? The dividing line between bad and good once seemed so clear, so absolute; now, all is hazy and relativistic. It seems the best definition we can hope for is limited to a private one: something you don’t want growing in your garden.

To Janet, co-owner of Tangleroot Gardens and our boss during our organic farm apprenticeship, there is no philosophical grey area when it comes to weeds. As soon as the spring sogginess leaves the topsoil, we attack the garden beds with shovels, rakes, forks, and hands, casting crabgrass and creeping Charlie from the garden like vengeful gods.

Soon, this small patch of Nova Scotian soil is host to an international gathering: tomatoes and corn originally domesticated in Mesoamerica, onions and peas from the Mid East, cucumbers and eggplants from India, and sunflowers from our own North American backyard. It’s chlorophyll-green proof that globalization is not just a recent phenomenon – it’s only speeded up of late.

From a garden not much bigger than a hockey rink, Janet and David satisfy most of their vegetable needs. What isn’t eaten fresh in the summer is preserved for the winter months: beans and herbs dried, onions and garlic tucked into a dark closet, potatoes secreted into the root cellar, tomatoes sealed into sterile jars, squash – well, squash just left lying around in corners – and everything else that can take it mashed into overflowing freezers. Their diet is filled out by meat, eggs, and milk (made into yogurt and cheese) from the animals — who also contribute generous quantities of manure, ideal for fertilizing next year’s crop. Some foods, of course, are either too much trouble to grow, harvest, and process (such as wheat or cooking oil) or unsuited to northern climes (like bananas or avocados). For these essential ingredients and exotic treats, there’s always the Superstore down in the valley, or an organic food co-op willing to ship bulk orders to their door.

All this food purchased with their sweat — but not their wallets — takes a bite out of their expenses, but they still need jobs to pay the other bills. David is a self-employed tax accountant and Janet is the editor of a farming magazine and a freelance writer. From a purely economic point of view, their decision to produce much of their own food is completely irrational. Both have marketable skills that could be traded for money to buy food in much less time than it takes them to grow it themselves. According to my very rough calculations, when the cost of animal feed is factored in, their farm labour earns them about two dollars worth of produce for every hour of work. Obviously, there’s more to their decision than the bottom line.

David’s path leads back to the sixties, when he hopped aboard the back-to-the-land movement and dove into the ideals of self-sufficiency: he fixed up a 150-year-old farmhouse, cultivated a large garden, cut his own firewood, and even grew the hops for his own beer. Gradually, however, his do-it-yourself pluck lost steam in the face of the sheer amount of work this lifestyle demanded. He earned money, bought things, and let the garden go to seed. (He never gave up his love of good food, though – he still cooks nearly everything from scratch.)

Shortly thereafter, Janet arrived on the scene, near the head of the nineties’ organic movement, and reinvigorated the farm with a new idealism. Like many others into organic farming, either as a consumer or producer, she believes that the way we are practicing our most fundamental livelihood – farming – is dangerously unsustainable. Pesticides are killing the ecosystem and causing an epidemic of cancers and other illnesses; chemical fertilizers are fouling the water and depleting non-renewable fossil fuels; monoculture and mechanization are causing precious topsoil to erode away; agribusiness is ruining the family farm and turning the countryside into a wasteland; and corporations armed with genetic engineering are gambling irresponsibly with the building blocks of life while claiming ownership of our common birthright. This approach, she believes, is unhealthy for the environment, for community, and for the individual.
Organic agriculture is about more than just pesticide-free produce. To obtain organic certification, a farmer also can’t use chemical fertilizers or grow genetically modified organisms, can’t inject their livestock with hormones or antibiotics, and can’t feed them the rendered remains of their kin. Animals can only eat organic feed, and must have access to sun, fresh air, and adequate room. This is not just ethical, but also practical; an animal not doped up on a pharmacological cocktail has to be kept healthy the old-fashioned way – with quality food, exercise, and minimal stress. Similarly, once the soil has kicked its drug habit, farmers have to look to different ways of growing crops. Many of these techniques – such as fostering biological diversity, using native plants, or reintroducing beneficial insects – are inspired by processes in the natural world. Nature is the muse for a yet more profound version of organics – permaculture, a comprehensive philosophy that seeks to design sustainable systems, for both agriculture as well as human culture, that work with nature as much as possible, rather than against it. When Janet intersperses wildflowers amongst the vegetables, for instance, she’s employing a permaculture strategy that attracts bees to pollinate all of her plants. 

But maybe all these principles and high ideals are just an excuse to eat real good food. There’s nothing like the herbs we pick straight from the garden, and the eggs are rapturous – yolks so golden, the uninitiated often suspect food colouring has been added. But they’re our reward for letting the hens have the run of the farm. Healthy hens — and a healthy ecosystem — equals tasty food and healthy people. It’s a simple equation. Much simpler than trying to decide what’s a weed and what’s not.  
©Sean Butler 2004
Published in the Ottawa Citizen, Citizen’s Weekly, September 5, 2004


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