Author Ben Hewitt writes on everything from how local foods can revitalize working-class communities, to the relationship between humans and the bacteria they consume, to the power of questioning what we’re often told is not up for discussion. I recently had an opportunity to connect with Ben (Making Supper Safe, The Town That Food Saved and, upcoming, A Conscious Economy). My interview with him here touches on a number of thought-provoking subjects. I had heard him speak at the PASA Annual Meeting earlier this year and it was at this event the subject of Restorative Agriculture came up. I found this to be a very intriguing framework for thinking about agriculture and was so pleased when Ben agreed to speak to me on this and other topics relevant to creating sustainable communities.
Ben, when I’ve heard you speak about your first book, The Town That Food Saved, you often refer to your intrigue about a local foods movement that was stirring in the small town of Hardwick, Vermont. Prior to that town’s revitalization, you had been of the thinking that the “locavore” movement was for more affluent communities. As this is an assumption many of us have, can you talk more about this?
I like to say that the locavore movement suffers from “Al Gore-ism.” Which is to say, it is perceived by many as something for the Prius-driving, liberal elite. This is mostly because of cost, but also I think because of the language that is often attached to local foods, with words like “artisanal,” “terroir,” and sometimes, even “organic.” I don’t think this sort of language helps the cause at all. For instance, we make home-smoked bacon from our organic, artisanal, free-range, pastured pigs. I smoke it in a hole in the ground covered up with some rusty tin, and I call it “Ben and Penny’s White Trash Bacon.” And our working class neighbors love it and want more, more, more. If I called it “Ben and Penny’s Organic, Artisanal, Free Range Bacon,” would they like it as much? Maybe… but I sort of doubt it.
That didn’t really answer your question, but it gets to one of the roots of the problem, which is the misperception that this food is expensive, because of course the true cost of the so-called food provided by the dominant food industry is far greater than the price tag attached to it. Still, the reality is that most folks are not inclined or simply don’t care to consider these externalized costs such as health care, environmental degradation, and subsidies.
The tragic irony is, of course, that if there’s any posturing or presumption in the realm of food, it’s primarily in the dominant food industry and the cultural lie that we can truly nourish our population on so-called “cheap food,” while using tremendous quantities of heavily-subsidized non-renewable resources to do so. Never mind what we’re doing to the environment.
One concept many people have been interested to hear about is your promotion of the agricultural framework: Restorative Agriculture. How does this differ from Sustainable Agriculture, if it does?
I was introduced to the concept of restorative agriculture by a friend, who talked about it in relation to forestry practices. I liked it immediately, because I think the term sustainable agriculture is flawed in a number of ways. First, the root of sustain is “maintain,” and frankly, I think we can do much, much better. Second, I think it fails to adequately address all the potential benefits that can come of small-scale, regionalized agriculture, which has the unique capacity to restore health, restore the environment, restore community vitality, and restore local economies. Among other things.
It’s a reality we subsidize industrial agriculture, do you have strategies for how can we start to decentralize our food systems?
I really believe it needs to happen at a grassroots level. That’s not to say there’s no role for State and even Federal government and agencies, only that we shouldn’t wait around for them to come to their senses. I also think that we need to insist that we be granted the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, none of which we can have in full if we can’t nourish ourselves with the food of our choosing. If it means breaking the law to codify this right, so be it.
I know you agree, as a nation, we waste a lot of food as well. How can we change this?
Part of the problem is that we simply don’t revere food for what it is: the very nourishment that allows us to live. Think about that for a second; that’s pretty serious. I like to say that unless you’re paying for sex, it’s the most intimate form of commerce you’ll ever engage in. I mean, you’re putting it into your body. So, for starters, simply acknowledging how important it is and what a gift it is would go a long way. Second, we need to produce less food, not more. We produce so much food, and have such a glut of calories in this country, it’s no wonder we don’t value it. Here’s a sad piece of commentary on the current state of affairs in America, not solely relating to food: In 1970, we produced somewhere in the range of 3100 calories per person, per day, and about 2% of the population was on food stamps. Today, we produce nearly 3900 calories per person, per day, and about 15% of the population is on food stamps.
In this culture, we receive many messages about measuring prosperity through GDP growth. Tell me how this form of measurement compares with the prosperity that can come with growing or locally sourcing your own food.
The problem is, if I answer this you’ll have no reason to buy my next book! It’s called A Conscious Economy: Reclaiming true wealth in an era of False Abundance. It’ll be out June 2013. But in short, the idea that we can and should somehow define our well being via money-related statistics is incredibly myopic and ultimately damaging to us individually and collectively.
OK, then. We’ll wait to read about it in your next book. Very exciting. Please keep us posted. In your most recent book, Making Supper Safe, you talk about food rights and food safety. Does a person have to live outside the system to be safe?
Not necessarily. But there’s no question that attempts to make the dominant food system more “safe” generally only lead to greater consolidation and stifling of regional food production. We need to understand that food safety is about more than the 3,000 or so Americans that die every year from acute food borne illness (salmonella, e coli, etc), and should include the more than 1,000,000 Americans that die every year from diet-related disease.
Even people who care deeply about making change, can be paralyzed with confusion about where to start. In getting started, what questions can we ask ourselves in our journey toward eating more healthfully?
I’m loath to delve into specific nutritional advice, since that’s such a can of worms. However, almost no matter what your beliefs are, if you can simply manage to shun anything that comes in a box or a can, you’ll be 3/4 of the way there. Wait… that wasn’t a question. Here you go: Should I really be eating this crap that comes in boxes and cans?
What actions can we take to create change in our own corner of the world? Or, what are a few ways we can vote for change with our dollars?
I tend to think about it in a way that’s at once a bit broader, and more simple: By my course of action – whether it’s choosing to buy one thing or another or nothing at all, or choosing to help someone or not, or choosing to spend my days in pursuit of financial recompense or in pursuit of my passions – what am I saying “yes” to? It’s a really simple litmus test, and in truth, sometimes I make the choice to say “yes” to something I’d rather not, like when I drive my car, or fly. But when I’m on the fence about something, it really helps clear my head and make a sound decision.
How can we best build strong communities around us?
I think I might have mentioned my next book…
In all seriousness, building strong communities is something many of us are reflecting on these days. There is a great deal of discussion about this just about anywhere I go. There are also some really great minds focusing attention on creating new paradigms for understanding the importance of our connections with each other. If you haven’t read Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics, I can’t recommend it enough.
Speaking of community, you live on a 40 acre farm with your wife and sons. Do you have extended family around you? Are they involved in your farm?
My parents live about 15 miles away. They’re not really involved, although they often come over and hang out with the boys while Penny and I “git r dun” as we say here in Vermont. I do work trades with friends and we do a lot of informal exchange/gifting/bartering with farming neighbors that keeps us all involved in each others’ operations.
Can you talk a little more about the role of bartering and trading in your life? What are the benefits of such practices, versus simply paying for services and goods?
Again, you are touching on some key areas I’ll be addressing in my book. This is intimately connected with your question about building strong communities. We need to recognize that monetizing and commodifying so many aspects of our lives is making it increasingly difficult to experience the sort of interdependence that builds strong communities. We need to need each other, and we need to allow ourselves to feel obligated to others and gracious enough to allow them to feel obligated to us.
We do a ton of barter and simple gift exchange; indeed, most of the products that come off our farm are traded for other goods and services. But I must acknowledge that I have the luxury of having other income that allows us to do this. It’s a bit more difficult when the farm is the sole source of income. More difficult, but no less important.
What brings you the most joy when it comes to raising your sons on a farm?
We’ve chosen to raise our boys in a way that’s increasingly uncommon in 21st century America. We homeschool, we don’t have a TV or other digital media, and they have enormous freedom to explore the surrounding fields and forests. The other day, they took off first thing in the morning, walked 1/2 mile through the woods with their fishing poles, and came home two hours later with a bucket full of brook trout and a bunch of morel mushrooms they’d found. I am so, so happy they have these opportunities.
Of course, the ungrateful little buggers don’t even realize how lucky they are. But then, I’m not sure that’s a child’s obligation. I’m just happy to see them so engaged with nature and living in the moment.
If there were one message you hope people take away from all your writings and talks, what would that be?
Question the status quo. Whether it’s food, or wealth, or whatever, don’t assume the way it is is the way that’s best for us.
Thank you so much Ben for taking the time to connect and for enticing us with the subject of your next book. We look forward to hearing more about that as well!
For more information on Ben and his writings, visit www.benhewitt.net.