This week, a topic that rarely gets any attention at Yale is suddenly everywhere: agriculture.
Two hundred years ago, livestock grazed on the New Haven Green. The farms of Guilford and Branford were booming, and the New Haven market was a reliable purchaser of crops. Farmers could be found carting their crops down Elm Street to sell to grocers. Agriculture was a part of student life.
Today, all that has changed. Our increasingly globalized food distribution systems and our fast-paced consumerism have created a vast disconnect between the people who produce food and the people who eat it. We buy a tomato at Shaw’s that was picked in Chile or grab an apple in Commons that was plucked in New Zealand, seldom pausing to think about the farms or the farmers.
We need to understand where our food comes from. Our most fundamental act as living creatures — eating — is one we know too little about. Ask yourself: Where were the ingredients for your breakfast grown? When was the last time you had a conversation with a farmer? Do you find it odd to eat fresh strawberries in January?
Consumer blindness contributes to the degradation of the planet’s various communities. On the human side, the weakening of local economic webs damages connections in our home communities. Local pear growers are marginalized when we choose to ship cheaper crops from West coast corporations, and New Haven consumers rarely stray outside the city bounds to meet the people working the land.
We must bear in mind, also, that tilling the earth can have a destructive effect, not only on our land, but also on our ability to sustain ourselves and the planet. The legacy of industrial monoculture farming, polluted waterways and heavily depleted topsoil, clearly demonstrates agriculture’s destructive potential. But when farmers work the land with a sense of respect for their ecosystem and take advantage of nature’s own methods of pest control and fertilization, bio-diversity flourishes. Moreover, the need to spray our crops with harmful chemicals becomes obsolete.
Farming and eating cannot be isolated acts: each makes the other possible, each shapes the other, and each impacts the land and its people. This week of events, “Farming and Eating in New England,” seeks to rebuild the connections between producers and consumers in our region.
On a tangible level, the events help Yale students understand how farming works. Whether watching sheep being herded around Cross Campus on Friday or listening to panels of farmers and food distributors at the Saturday symposium, students unfamiliar with agriculture will have an opportunity to see its most basic workings.
Here on campus, students are increasingly interested in agriculture and their power to shape it. The undergraduate organization Food From the Earth emerged four years ago with a campaign to bring local, organic food into the dining halls. The name itself, Food From the Earth, is a reminder that produce cannot be disconnected from the land that grew it. The administration and dining hall staff have been increasingly receptive to these ideas. Organic foods are available in Durfee, Timothy Dwight College may reopen with a natural foods dining hall, and renowned chef Alice Waters is working with University President Richard Levin to revolutionize Yale’s food sourcing and preparation.
The HARVEST freshman orientation program is another sign of renewed interest in agriculture at Yale. The FOOT-style program, which brings incoming freshmen to work on local farms, initiates a powerful set of connections between Yale students and nearby farmers. One group continued to meet every Saturday in the fall to buy produce from their farmer at the Chapel Street Farmer’s Market.
So does farming in Connecticut really matter?
The answer, we believe, is yes. Farming and eating are our most direct links to the land. Localizing our impacts on the earth promotes an environmentalism that is realistic, responsible and direct. Supporting our local agricultural economy also strengthens our community.
With Connecticut farmland turning into sprawling suburbia at a rate of 9,000 acres a year, we cannot remain passive non-thinking consumers. This week of celebration, reflection and education asks us all to evaluate what we can do to rebuild the connections to land and community lost in the gap between farmers and eaters.
Ian Cheney is a senior in Berkeley College.