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March 27-29, 2000 GROW BIOINTENSIVE conference on the U.C. Davis campus
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Agricultural Policy Alternatives
Michael Ableman | Martin Borque

Michael Ableman is the founder and director of the Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens, a nonprofit community and education center near Santa Barbara, California. Through tours, classes and outreach programs, his farm has become an important national model for urban agriculture. He has authored From the Good Earth, a photographic essay about organic farms around the world, and On the Good Land about the evolution of his 11-acre farm in Goleta, California. He and his farm are also the subject of an upcoming PBS-TV Special, "Beyond Organics".

Ableman said he had a hard time believing that solutions could come from government. As an organic farmer he has had to do everything on his own, with no government help.

The message of the 1960's was "Get big or get out," and this statement is still echoing. He feels that there is a big-business bias on many levels but that despite this, there are an increasing number of small producers.

Ableman said that he had hoped that the food system as a whole would be redefined, but he sees that organic farming is now big, in the supermarkets, with the same "factory" consciousness. He believes that the USDA rules do not support small producers, although the USDA asked for input from them.

He thinks there should be a double system with a double set of rules, one for large producers and one for smaller ones.

Ableman feels that consumers are hungry not just for the food small-scale producers can provide, but for the connections with them. They want relationships. He thinks the food system is more than just the responsibility of farmers.

There is a revolution taking place in neighborhoods and backyards, and this revolution has the potential to address a multitude of issues. He wants a sense of honor and craft to be restored to agriculture.

Fairview Gardens, a nonprofit community and education center located near Santa Barbara, CA. Photo: Michael Ableman


Martin Borque works for Food First.

Martin spoke of the 50 years of intensive chemical agriculture in developed countries which have made important increases in production but have concentrated agriculture in the hands of fewer people and exacted heavy ecological costs.

He mentioned that in the Central Valley of California, hundreds of wells have been closed due to contamination. There has also been poisoning of people working in the fields because of pesticide drift, in particular methyl bromide. He believes that most of the solutions to these problems will have to come from communities, and that this is already a major movement.

Borque wondered what agriculture could be like if all our national resources were geared up towards changing it. He has been working with Cuba for 5 years on agricultural exchanges, and he spoke of what has been happening there as a example of the possibilities.

In 1989, Cuban governmental policy was that the country should export sugar and import everything else. Cuba had one of the highest rates of chemical use in agricultural production. With the breakup of the former Soviet Union and the resultant shutdown of imports to Cuba, Cuba had to completely rethink its agricultural policies.

Leaders from the highest levels of government met to look at what resources were actually available. Oxen were substituted for machinery. Research and development centers were created to work on a biological pest control program.

These centers began to use agricultural waste to grow biological controls. They also developed microbial fertilizers, working with the relationships between micro-organisms and specific crops. There was a massive retraining of professionals.

Borque pointed out that although there was a critical food shortage in Cuba, government policy was that everyone should eat, and resources were spread equally.

Cuba also inaugurated an urban agriculture program in 1993 or '94, and the growing of food in backyards was encouraged. Large farms were broken up into one-acre pieces or smaller, and title was given to anyone who wanted to produce food. There are now extension agents who have been trained in the new methods who work with these farmers. There is a farm market program whereby food is sold directly to consumers and organic farm supplies are available in stores.


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