I had the amazing privilege of speaking to members of the USDA’s annual Agricultural Outlook Forum today. They asked me to talk about the state of the field of urban agroforestry. Which was both humbling and difficult because urban agroforestry (efforts like ours to plant and harvest fruit and nut trees, and establish food forests in urban environments) does not really see itself as a movement yet. But it is and it should be seen this way. And this invitation may be an indication that it is happening.
I post here my opening comments, which address my take on the motivation that is animating this movement. Specifics about what the movement is, what it does, and what it needs will follow in a subsequent post. As always, I welcome your feedback.
Cities have always seemed a bit unnatural – alluring and vibrant but artificial and decadent, a bit unhealthy and far from the land. So throughout history there have been cyclical efforts for city folk to return to the land. We are in one of those cycles now. The 20th century witnessed several – motivated largely by political strife, and social, moral and economic insecurities.
These efforts were largely predicated on the belief that working the land, and in particular, producing food, would intensify society’s moral, physical and social well-being. Today’s return-to-the-land movement is motivated a bit by these impulses, but by three new ones as well:
1) The clear and present impact of climate change (especially on the food chain)
2) The degradation of our lands and waters (in part due to modern agricultural techniques)
3) An urge to change the ways we feed the world, and to heal the wrongs we have laid upon it.
So whereas in earlier iterations of these cycles, the idea seemed to be that through returning to (and working the land), the land would redeem the people, today the idea seems to be that through returning to and working the land, people will redeem the land.
Food therefore and its new ways of production and distribution are seen as a leading edge to saving the world. There is a deep passion here, a sense of grand purpose, urgency, redemption, rightness all mixed up with joy and hope. A sense even of salvation, of righting a great wrong for this generation and generations to come. There folks in urban agroforestry are in it body and soul, and what they lack in technical knowledge and experience, they make up for in dedication, eagerness and hard work.