“Odd as I am sure it will appear to some, I can think of no better form of personal involvement in the cure of the environment than that of gardening. A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it organically, is improving a piece of the world. He is producing something to eat, which makes him somewhat independent of the grocery business, but he is also enlarging, for himself, the meaning of food and the pleasure of eating.
Environmental activist, cultural critic and farmer
I had never heard of Wendell Berry until he came up in conversation with John Shields during my hour-long interview with him in October of last year. Berry, a farmer and environmentalist, has championed a return to sustainable and small-scale farming as a means to restore the health of our land and the quality of our food. According to Shields, we also have a responsibility as consumers to the land through our diets and the food we select to eat. In the New Chesapeake Kitchen, Shields selected many plant-forward recipes where vegetables, beans and whole grains are the main ingredients and animal protein is used sparingly. Not only is this a healthier way of eating but it leaves a smaller carbon footprint.
Shields: Ah, now, we’re talking about food policy.
Buen Provecho Amigos: Yes.
Shields: When I was in California, we were farm raising so many oysters out there. That’s how most of the oysters were, they were all farmed. So, in my head, cause I’m from here, I thought well may be there’s something wrong with our water and we just can’t farm raise here. I didn’t know anything about the technology. So, I thought oh, I guess they just can’t be raised in the Chesapeake. Well that was not the case at all. They can be raised quite easily in the Chesapeake but there was a huge obstacle they put everything in place to make it totally illegal to farm oysters here. And so that is why Virginia was way ahead of Maryland on this. They got on board way earlier. We could have been at the forefront of the oyster aquaculture industry along with crabbing and clamming. I’ve been down to Tangier Island and Smith Island many times over the years and I know people and I talk to them. I’ll ask, “Did you ever think about the oyster farming?”
“No, no. No, we don’t want to do that. God will always provide. He’ll continue to provide.”
“Well, you might want to help along a little bit. Maybe God just gave you the plans of how to do an oyster farm or whatever, you know. Let’s think out of the box here guys.”
And so, there was a lot of resistance. So, a lot of young people who never really worked the water were the first ones getting into the oyster farming I think and subsequently in the last—I guess—five, ten years. I’m seeing a lot of watermen—young watermen—who are doing some wonderful work. So again, this is all about the good news. In the 1950s and the 40s, 50s, 60s, our local food economy, the whole structure, was demolished. That was done semi-deliberately by agriculture policy in this country. It didn’t happen just in the Chesapeake. It happened in rural communities all over America. What was the guy’s name? Butz, he was the secretary of agriculture. His mission with the farmers was “get big or get out.” It was the advent of industrial farming and industrial production.
Buen Provecho Amigos: Industrial farming for the purposes of being able to export.
Shields: Yeah, and next thing that broke everything apart was the interstate highway system. That was intended after World War II to be a route for military in case of war or invasion. But what it also did was open up channels to quickly transport food that is grown in small areas and monocrops. So, all the wheat now can be grown in one area and shift everywhere else.
Buen Provecho Amigos: Yeah, centralizing the food production.
Shields: Whereas a hundred years ago, we were growing all of our own wheat for flour. We grew everything. Look at the name of our towns in Maryland—Ann Arundel Mills, Old Mills and Wye Mills. These are the places that we milled our grains. We grew our grain.
Anyhow, in every way, shape and form—whether it was dairy, whether it was poultry, whether it was corn—it all became industrialized across the country and it wiped out most of the small farms. It also was extraordinarily detrimental to the soil quality—took away all the topsoil because they didn’t need it. They could put chemical fertilizers in pretty much barren soil. They use the soil as a sponge and grew the product in chemicals. We have a lot of sick people today. I’m not saying that’s all part of that but it’s part of a whole system that happened.
Buen Provecho Amigos: Yes. It seems more people have allergies to nuts, gluten, shellfish . . .
Shields: Yeah. We didn’t have that many allergies growing up, so I didn’t know much about it. I don’t have the answers, but I do know that destroying topsoil, monocropping and using lots of chemicals and chemical fertilizers has destroyed a lot of the Chesapeake growing region and the Bay, because they’re connected. They’re not separate things. They’re all one thing. Now there is an awareness of it. People are out there and doing things. So, it takes policy. It takes advocacy. It takes young people taking the chance to start a farm; start a cheese-making industry; start an oyster farming industry; or start to grow heritage grains in an organic manner. It takes a lot of chutzpah to do that but they’re doing it.
Little by little we are rebuilding our local food economy. And that’s where I see our future going. That’s what food security is all about. So where at some points of my life and with the Chesapeake, I’ve been very much in despair. I look at this book as my culinary last will and testament to the Chesapeake. It’s my chance to give my opinion of what happened and to talk about my hope for the young people and to highlight so many of these young farmers and food makers who are really doing it. And to look at food combinations that maybe make a little bit more sense. Did you hear me talking about stretching the protein when I was at the meetup? Most Americans have been used to eating a 12-ounce steak or 16-ounce steak every night—because that’s what we want to have dang it!
We have problems in our local food economy because we have to raise so much cattle. We grow so many commodity crops to feed the cattle and have so much cattle poop going into the Bay that we do a lot of damage. So, I’m not saying don’t eat beef, don’t grow cattle or raise cattle. What I’m saying is let’s look at dishes like in the old days when we would make an oxtail soup. This guy down in Tangier Island grew up on bean soup and pots of beans. He says, “my mother, she’d always get a little tiny ham hock. She put it in the bean soup and cook it for hours and we pulled off all the ham meat from the bone. It’d feed the whole family of 12.”
So, meat should be eaten in little bits. Something now that is starting to be a little trendy is “plant forward”. Not that you’d necessarily become vegetarian, you make plants and grains the center of the meal. So, creating a dish that has a bunch of grains and vegetables, and then maybe we take medallions of beef or we make a pot roast. It’s full of vegetables like our grandparents used to do. Or we could make stir fry recipes except that we’re using mostly vegetables and a little bit of chicken or little bit of seafood. Thomas Jefferson said that seafood and meat should be the condiments. They should only be used as condiments when planning a meal. Isn’t that interesting?
Buen Provecho Amigos: That was very forward thinking of Jefferson for his time. And he was a farmer.
Shields: He was a farmer and he was thinking of health. He was also very interested in health— how the body worked. So anyway, when I started planning the book, I invited most of the farmers or the people that contributed to the book to give me a recipe or a dish that is going to have like about 25 percent animal protein or 30 percent—everything else comes from plants, vegetables, whatever. About 90 percent of the people did that. And that’s not new thinking. Think about what your grandmother and great-grandmother would make. Look at cultures all over the world and see how they cooked and how they saw that protein—whether it’s fish, meat or fowl—as a precious resource. We need to still look at it as a precious resource and envision our kitchens and our menu planning around that. I truly believe that is our heritage, but it’s our future. Yeah, and this has only been a little blip. This crazy, industrial farming. It’s just in the course of human history, it’s just a blip.
Buen Provecho Amigos: But look at how much destruction it created.
Shields: In a very short period of time too. Very short period. And I’m not saying it’s over either because we’re exporting. We’re exporting it to countries all over the world still. We are, and they are. I mean, it’s a mentality. I don’t look at it as an intrinsic moral evil. I look at it as people who consolidate land and consolidate essentially power as a way to make more money. It’s a natural tendency. People tend to want to do that. But I’m not saying it’s the best thing to do for humanity. So, we need to balance it and yes, we can learn from technology and science how to do things better. But in a non-harmful way, it doesn’t have to be done. I mean we can learn to grow in a better organic manner than maybe they did a thousand years ago because we’re coming up with some pretty nifty ideas. So, let’s use ‘em. But we have to keep in mind the quality of the soil and the quality of our water sources around because otherwise we’re in deep trouble.
Buen Provecho Amigos: So, what’s interesting about open land these days is not so much the scarcity of land but the shift in industry from farming to warehousing here in the U.S. I recently heard a story on Latino USA on how farm land is being sold to the Amazons of the world and being converted to warehouse and distribution centers. Apparently, the biggest growth industry right now is the construction and management of warehouses because much of our retail centers are now online. Brick and mortar stores are being replaced by warehouses and distribution centers. A Latino community in Northern California that at had been very ag-focused but is now reliant on e-commerce merchandise management was profiled. The workforce were the children of migrant workers. So instead of learning to tend to the land, now they’re learning about warehouse management. Do you think the dwindling number in acres devoted to agriculture has more of an impact on farming than the industrialization of farms?
Shields: I think you got a double edge thing going on. Again, we go back to policy here. A lot of small farmers can’t compete price wise because when the land is being sold for a commercial purpose like warehouses, housing or anything like that, that land value goes way up. And it starts to get out of the price range of a farmer, start-up farmer or a small-scale farmer. So, a lot of states, Maryland included, tried from a policy standpoint to put x amount of agricultural land aside and keep it at a price point that a smaller farmer could probably work with. It’s not much. There’s not a lot of land available for that. But some forward-thinking states are trying to do that. I would imagine a lot of industrial farms, since they can do things compartmentalized, they may actually look at this warehouse thing as a good revenue generator because they don’t necessarily always have to sell off the land. They could lease it and make money, more money at that than they are growing crops on that particular piece of land. You see what I mean? So, it can work to their benefit either way because they get subsidies from the government to grow the commodity crops. That’s not real. That’s not real-time, fair-pricing. That’s cropped up to big lobby. It’s problematic. But you know, let’s say that small farms in one community are being wiped out and then you come in and you put these three Amazon warehouses in there. Some of those people that weren’t able to get work are now getting work at those warehouses. They are able to bring money in to support their families. I’m ambivalent about in the long-term if that’s the best thing. Do you ever read any of Wendell Berry? He’s like the social conscience of America. Oh my God, the man. . .it’s amazing, it’s amazing. He’s a farmer from Kentucky. But he’s also an intellectual and taught at the University of Kentucky. He’s an essayist for the most part. So, if you ever get a chance to read some Wendell Berry, do so. I mean he is the social conscience of America and about farming. He’ll make you cry. He’ll touch you so deeply. He’s amazing.
Check back on Monday, May 13, when the last post in the five-part interview series is published, including another recipe from The New Chesapeake Kitchen.