Earth Day’s legacy at the age of 50

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Kayaking with Canadian geese

Celebrating Earth Day’s 50th birthday worldwide this year took a detour in the wake of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. We are mostly staying home and wondering what comes next.

Seattle Times environment reporter Lynda Mapes wrote a terrific article last Sunday, “What coronavirus tells us about climate change on Earth Day’s 50th anniversary.”  Earth Day 2020 Northwest has published a calendar listing virtual lectures and activities for raising our awareness on protecting our air, water, land, and quality of life.

Butterfly in yellow flowers

Here on Whidbey Island, one way to care for the Earth is by supporting local farmers. The nonprofit Goosefoot Community Fund has published the latest Whidbey Island Roadside Farmstands, Farm Stores & Farmers Markets brochure. It lists local purveyors of food and encourages us to buy food locally.

The Organic Farm School is selling seasonal produce. By purchasing a flex CSA debit card, locals support the school and its program, which teaches a wide perspective curriculum to would be farmers, from learning to till soil to marketing the produce to mentoring with other farmers. The 10-acre school/farm is nestled in the Maxwelton Valley on 10 acres owned by entrepreneur Ron and Eva Sher.

The school’s executive director Judy Feldman said school staff have plants in the ground and are awaiting arrival of this year’s students. That depends on when state Governor Jay Inslee lifts the ban for staying at home.

“We’re going forward like everyone else is—one foot in front of the other,” Judy said in a recent phone call. “We have the food in the ground. We have started to harvest. The training season hasn’t started yet. We are simply waiting for clarification from state proclamations.

Judy Feldman is executive director of the Organic Farm School. Photo shared by Judy Feldman

“I want to be clear we have not cancelled the year,” Judy added. “We are making sure we are taking appropriate safe steps. We have started seeding and transplanting to garden beds. For the time being we have not gathered students at the farm. Because of the nature of the first proclamation of sheltering in place, we postponed the beginning of our program.

“We’re out there every day. The weather is gorgeous. The field is beautiful. We’re tinkering with our crop plan to think about fall production. Usually we focus on summer produce. Now we’re thinking we might need more squash, potatoes. We see a need for continuation in the breaks of our global food system, a complex interconnected system. Much of what the U.S. gets is from China, South America, Australia, Chile. You look at food processing, how it is trucked and sold. There is a lot of disruption in food systems these days. It is always a good idea to have a local food system that is strong and robust.”

Getting the Organic Farm School ready are Judy Feldman; lead instructor Eli Wheat, who also serves as the farm advisor at Skyroot Farm; Aaron Varadi, program/farm manager and field instructor; Samantha Leingang, production manager and field instructor, who is raising a flock of egg-laying chickens; and Danielle Klein, program development assistant.

Bees in lavender

“Farms are an essential service,” Judy said. “Farm training is an essential service. We want to be doing this conscientiously and safely. We’re in it for the long term.

Intoxicating spring tulips

“We were supposed to start April 13, so we’re just a little over a month behind schedule with teaching at this point. We’ll shift the six-month course further into the year–and in the mean time, our staff are doing a beautiful job of keeping everything going while we figure everything else out.

“We have Eli on board. He is doing a video for us on how to get started with chickens. We are nothing, if not an educational nonprofit. Until our farmer trainees arrive, our community is our student body.

 

“COVID-19 is presenting all sorts of challenges when it comes to our global food system.  We may see that going big with production is not always the answer. With the large scale, corporate producers, people are elbow to elbow throughout the growing season, and processing/distribution adds to the number of times food is handled, packed, transported, and displayed. That could offer some complications right now. Smaller scale, more localized, regionalized systems suddenly seem healthier and more reliable to many. For example, instead of raising thousands of chickens, we go with 100 at a time, and they are processed and sold on site. People know where the birds are grown, how they are handled and harvested, and who is doing the work. The first pick up date for the birds is July 9 and the second is September 24.”

Check out this site for ordering Organic Farm School chickens.

I asked Judy about people’s uncertainty on whether the coronavirus is present on fresh produce. She said, “People should realize farmers are professionals, with food handling standards we must meet. As a small business, we have food protocols in place to include the way food is harvested, packed, and delivered. We’re constantly washing hands, paying attention to social distancing. Fresh produce is not the thing people should be nervous about.”

She sent me the following information in an email:

Am I likely to spread COVID-19 with the food I am selling?

“FDA is not aware of any reports at this time of human illnesses that suggest COVID-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging. However, it is always important to follow good hygiene practices (i.e., wash hands and surfaces often, separate raw meat from other foods, cook to the right temperature, and refrigerate foods promptly) when handling or preparing foods.” Corona Virus Disease and how it spreads.

Coronavirus is a respiratory virus – it is not considered to be a food borne illness by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – but similar actions to prevent food borne illness can be taken to mitigate coronavirus. See: Was it something I ate?

What hygiene and food safety practices will help me prevent COVID-19 infection?

Reference the Coronavirus Factsheet. At markets sampling should be suspended to minimize touch points. Add a hand washing station. Vendors should practice good hand hygiene; use disposable gloves when handling money. When possible, designate separate people for handling money/cards and handling products, and handle and package items for customers. If money is handled, hands should be washed or hand sanitizer should be used afterward. Consider pre-packaging food before going to the market to limit customer contact with the food. Limit market volume by promoting pre-ordering, alternate pickup locations, or delivery.

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In the face of these protocols for protecting our health, Judy says, “The message I want everyone to hear is we have this amazing resource on Whidbey with our farmers. Get on everyone’s list, so you’re feeding yourself well, but supporting these small businesses. The other plug I’d put out there—At our farm we offer a community share. That’s for people who want to make a purchase of either a week, or gift card, but don’t want produce, they may want to make a purchase for Good Cheer, Whidbey Island Nourishes, or a neighbor who can’ get out. For instance, Mutiny Bay Blues Farm volunteered to buy whatever was leftover after a recent sale so we could bring it to Good Cheer. We’re modeling how to take care of each other.”

Why does local food tastes so good?

Foxglove, aka digitalis

“As someone who eats,” Judy said, ‘first it is super fresh. It didn’t sit on a loading dock somewhere. It is picked on one day and taken to the farm stand. We choose varieties for flavor, not how long they sit on a truck. Chosen because they taste great and get to the plate in good form. Another is the intangible. Vicki Robin talks to this point. If you’re eating in relationship with people who grew the food, you feel good this food came from the soil of Whidbey. You’re mutually caring for one another.

“Given that it’s Earth Day, even before all this happened, we made a conscious decision to focus on the process of regenerative agriculture. It’s not that simple. How do farmers actually practice the perpetual interest in improving our relationship with our Earth rather than abusing our relationship with it? There’s ways to do that. Thinking about which hoe you use, where you source fertilizers, how to do weed management. Whether you grow crops that are hard to grow because people want them. Or focus on what wants to grow. It’s a broad series of questions a farmer holds and never answers the same way twice. Growers need eaters to ask questions: is this the best choice—a strawberry from Argentina or Bells farm—which is the better choice? Strawberries do not ripen after they’re picked.”

On that note, if you haven’t had strawberries from Bell’s Farm, this is the year to check them out.

Vicki Robin, second from left.

Meanwhile, Vicki Robin lives on Whidbey Island. I asked her to comment about Earth Day in relation to her excellent book, Blessing the Hands That Feed Us. Published in 2014, the book is an homage to local eating and Vicki’s month-long quest to eat within a 10-mile radius of home.

“The pandemic shows that we can’t put all our eggs, so to speak, in the basket of the global just-in-time food system,” Vicki wrote via Facebook Personal Message this week. “In addition to farmers’ markets, we need connected local food webs, including processing, packing, cold storage, and delivery of vegetables, fruits, grain, beverages, dairy and meats grown in our region. We are fortunate on Whidbey that this web is getting stronger. We the eaters can help by a commitment to buying from local producers. Try the 10-Day Local Food Challenge this year and learn how hard that is, but how rewarding.

“I’m considering doing a fund raiser of sorts for Good Cheer—offering a signed copy of Blessing the Hands That Feed Us to anyone who donates to Good Cheer.”

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On this 50th birthday of Earth Day, Washington native Denis Hayes, who first coordinated the successful movement, has quite a lot to say these days. Let’s do what we can to leave a legacy of beauty for the future. We will be better for it.

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