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Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

‘Letters from America’

with 2 comments

Energy Bulletin, the peak oil + transition cultures + alternate economics online resource, has just posted my article, ‘Letters from America‘, in which an agriculture student from a small North Indian village writes home to his sister about the odd way of life he encounters during a stay in America. EB has described this as an updated Gulliver’s Travels. This is the first part:

Farm labour at work near Salinas, California

Farm labour at work near Salinas, California

Dear Pooja, Imagine how surprised I was to see farms here that are so big, they disappear over the horizon! Papaji would not have believed it and nor would our uncles. I first saw them from the plane, and as I couldn’t judge how high we were, I didn’t know how big they were.

This I saw in the state of California, which is quite dry, like in our North India during April, but of course it is much cooler. They grow many vegetables here, and many flowers too. I wondered how they had so much water, because where there are no farms and no houses, there is desert.

They told me the water comes from the mountains, which are quite far away (at times I can see them to the east, and there’s a sparkle to some of their summits that could even be snow). How much they must have spent to move the water here – there is an enormous aqueduct (like our canals, but so much longer) that sends the farmers water.

Vegetables and fruit shop, Chinatown, San Francisco

Vegetables and fruit shop, Chinatown, San Francisco

What bothers me is that they waste quite a lot of it. You may think I am joking, but I have seen water being sprinkled all over big farms from sprinklers, like the ones some of the rich farmers have in our district, only of course here there are many more and they shoot out the water for hours at a time. Imagine what we could do with so much water for our crops – I wonder what they pay for this water, whether the poorer farmers also get any (don’t ask me if there are any, I don’t know yet).

You would also be amazed by how much machinery they use. I could make out a plough and a tiller, but other things I did not understand at all, what they do or how they work. Papaji would have been very angry to see so much machinery for use on the farm. The other elders too.

Remember when Jagdeep-chacha bought his first tractor (yes I know he first rented it with three other farmers) how Papaji and the others argued with him. “Machines distress the earth, our hands and feet must be in contact with Mother Earth if we ask her for nourishment,” I remember them saying.

Range of breakfast cereals in Los Angeles store

Range of breakfast cereals in Los Angeles store

I used to see it as a natural kind of respect, and although – as I admitted to you but not to Ma and Papaji – I enjoyed riding on Jagdeep-chacha’s tractor when we went for fairs, I felt uncomfortable when that big heavy shiny noisy belching machine with huge tyres rumbled heavily across his fields. How could our soil bear such a monstrous weight, I would think, and what of all the thousands and thousands of little creatures that live in the soil and make it what it is, what would happen to them? Ma and Papaji and our brothers and sisters understood, but not everyone did.

But here, machines of all kinds are used on the soil. They dig, turn, roll, lift, crumble, bunch, furrow and level the soil. They treat the soil as it if was a kind of porous carpet that can be diced and shaped in any way they please. I find it very troubling, Pooja, that they do this. There is no respect.

Organic vegetable farm, Camarillo, California

Organic vegetable farm, Camarillo, California

The rows of vegetables look healthy and neat – beans, lima beans, oats, safflower, lettuce, what they call ‘salad’ which means a variety of greens. I don’t know how to react at times, there is so much of it. I was told the farms are in blocks of 100 acres, maybe more! Just imagine Pooja, where are we with our three and a half acres? But it’s not good to compare like that, as Papaji used to say, stick to what you know and can do and work on the land to the extent Mother Earth wants you to, without greed and without superiority. Still, this is so different it will take me some time to understand it. But it will be difficult.

The family I am staying with here in California are kind and explain whatever they can. Two days ago we talked about food and hunger, poor and rich. They told me that people in the state of California don’t know how poor other people are elsewhere in America. I said I did not know there were poor people in America, because the stories in our villages have always been of how easy it is to get rich here. But they explained to me that there are poor people, although what they mean by poor is quite different from what we and Ma and Papaji would understand.

Los Angeles urban built density

Los Angeles urban built density

“If someone has only one TV and one old car, that’s poor,” said my host, and I was so surprised by this he started laughing. When I told him what we mean by poor he became very serious. “This country wastes too much,” he said. And I agree.

Yesterday we went to a shopping centre to buy me some walking shoes – don’t worry I’m looking after my money very carefully, the shoes were cheap.

Outside the shop we bought the shoes from was a rubbish bin. You won’t believe it Pooja, there was a man with his arms in the bin, looking for food. He was taking out small packets and bags that people had thrown inside, and in these he had found something to eat. I looked inside the bin too, but could only see more plastic bags and paper packets and cups – this kind of man must have the experience to judge what contains food.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box, Camarillo, California

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box, Camarillo, California

My host told me that every day, the average American “throws away about one-and-a-half pounds of food” (that means around 700 grams, they still use pounds here so I have to keep converting) and it is not that the food has gone bad. If lettuce has wilted only slightly, if a loaf of bread gets slightly hard because it has been left outside, even if an apple is a little discoloured through bad handling, they will throw it away! Yes I know you will say our city folk are wasteful too, but this amount of waste is different.

And yet I have heard of something they call ‘food stamps’ and ‘soup kitchens’, where the poor and homeless are fed. Ma would have been curious – these ‘food stamps’ and ‘soup kitchens’ are not managed by temple committees like at home but by small volunteer groups. I have been impressed by people willingly going to do such work: there is inequality and waste, that is true, but there is also concern and action.

Written by makanaka

June 26, 2010 at 01:12

2 Responses

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  1. I so appreciate you making this letter available via your blog. I think it’s a stark reminder of our consumption lifestyle and so awakening to see it viewed through someone else’s eyes.

    Tammy McLeod

    June 28, 2010 at 01:01

    • Thanks Tammy for the appreciation. There’s a lot of good that I saw too, in the three weeks I’ve spent here in mainly California (Nevada, Arizona and Utah too). Civic action is visible and palpable. Dialogue is common. Making the space to understand is too. That’s good enough to work with, I think.

      makanaka

      June 28, 2010 at 12:57


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