Sustainable Farming and Sustainable Communities
About ten miles northwest of downtown Boise sits a 60-acre organic farm that appears to be doing everything right. This is a story about sustainable agriculture – typically more the purview of my NRDC colleague Jonathan Kaplan than of yours truly – but it is also a story about sustainable communities. Founded by Clay and Josie Erskine in 2002 and assisted by a community of about a dozen "farm hands," the richly named Peaceful Belly farm strives “to grow the most wholesome food for our community” of Boise, and it’s easy to believe that they do just that.
Of the various community issues that have risen to the forefront in the last five years or so (and weren’t at the forefront before), food is high on the list. Everyone is talking about healthy, local food, and urban "food deserts" where there is no nearby access to fresh produce; there are city vegetable gardens sprouting up (heh) all over the place, including at the White House; neighbors are organizing CSA (community-supported agriculture) contracts with local growers.
There have always been significant environmental issues around agriculture, particularly over soil erosion and excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers. I worked on those concerns in the 1980s, and early in my NRDC career I even co-authored a book on how tax policy affects agricultural conservation and environmental farming. But the difference is that, now, growing and eating healthy food has become a city issue, too.
Although an excellent recent article refers to Peaceful Belly as an “urban farm,” it’s actually something better: an urban-serving farm, located just outside the Boise region’s development footprint. I clearly support gardens and small-scale “farms” inside cities when they support city density, function and walkability and don’t interfere with them. But 60-acre operations belong outside the city, ideally amidst other farming so that rural land is contiguous, urban land is compact, and collectively the farms reach a scale that supports elements of a farm economy, such as feed and equipment stores.
Peaceful Belly strives to be an exemplar of ethical, sustainable practices. The introduction on the farm’s website serves as a sort of mission statement, stressing the operation’s strong commitment to community:
“At its heart Peaceful Belly is a small family farm. We believe in genetic diversity, both domestic and wild. We grow over 90 types of vegetables, fruits, herbs, flowers, and berries in addition to raising pastured poultry. Our food is grown organically and is certified by the State of Idaho.
“We can’t do what we do without our community. It takes a community to produce veggies the way that Peaceful Belly can. Food should be grown close to the people that consume it. We work very hard to try to connect the people that consume the food to the people that grow the food they enjoy. We strive to help create a better community not only through our produce but through the many outreach and educational programs we have created and partner in. Our goal is to ensure that our food can be enjoyed by all social classes.”
160 families are enrolled in the farm’s CSA program, and Peaceful Belly also supplies its organic products to a farmers’ market, the Boise Co-Op, and local restaurants. Even better, Peaceful Belly donates a thousand pounds of food annually into the local food bank and other outreach programs. Josie Erskine talked to writer Trish Popovitch (for the website Seedstock) about making organically grown food available to lower-income populations:
“I think there is a perception that organic food is elitist. Our CSA is very inexpensive for what you get. It’s around 50 percent less than if you were to buy it at a grocery store, meaning that it is acceptable to any level of income. We also accept food stamps at our farmers market. That myth that only rich people can eat organic is one that I really want to make go away by creating a model that any financial or social level could access food from us if they need it.”
Describing a particularly laudable practice at Peaceful Belly, Popovitch writes that the farm invites locals to “glean” its fields: “Gleaners from the local food bank, and anyone else who wishes to participate, can walk behind the combine harvester and glean the crops of any remaining produce. This food belongs to the gleaner free of charge. The concept helps clean the fields while it feeds the hungry.” What a great idea.
In addition to growing its vegetables free of chemicals, the farm employs cover crops, composting, drip irrigation, companion planting, and chicken pasturing, while abstaining from the use of genetically modified seed. Beginning this year, all produce packaging will be biodegradable.
The farm also offers classes and workshops on how to grow healthy food and how to cook with fresh local food. And it hosts an on-farm dinner series called Farm to Fork. Judging by the photos on the farm’s Facebook page, these gourmet events look pretty wonderful to me. Peaceful Belly says “these dinners are life changing,” and this committed city-dweller is inclined to believe it.
Of course, Peaceful Belly is not alone in its ambition and dedication, and that’s a very good thing. My NRDC colleagues Jonathan, mentioned above, and Mark Izeman, who has developed an advocacy program for sustainably and locally grown food in New York, could point to their own favorites, I’m sure. (Go here to read about NRDC’s work on these issues, including an awards program to honor farmers, business leaders, activists, and youth who are leading the way to make our food supply better.)
But Peaceful Belly certainly appears to be a great ambassador for these practices, and for forging strong links between food and community. Boise is lucky to have them nearby.
Senior counsel for environmental strategies, PlaceMakers LLC; senior adviser, Natural Resources Defense Council; co-founder, LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system; co-founder, Smart Growth America coalition; author, People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities (2014); one of the "top urban thinkers" on Planetizen.com and named one of "the most influential people ...