The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good*

 
 Illustration by  Simone Rein

Illustration by Simone Rein

 

 

*attributed to Voltaire

FireFall

Fall at last.
Heat came too early
and stayed too long.
All summer I dreamed
of fog-shrouded beaches,
walks on thick-leafed paths
under trees bearded with wisdom.

The wind is not spice.
It is heavy with the scent of
charred sycamore and
Home Depot specials.
I spend hours sorting
my belongings in my head.
What would I take?
What leave behind?

And through the days
when fire wraps and cooks
me into a hard brown nut,
I am prepared to start over,
forget the dreams I’ve lived.
Like the earth, I drink
the hard liquor of reality.

Fire, earthquake, flood,
things lose their meaning.
Soggy or turned to ash,
form no longer holds.
Yes, I can see myself wizened
and leak proof, afloat,
memories chittering around me
like so many children.

There are burdens I would not go without.

 

Published on December 20, 2017  in Environment/Wildfires in Poets Reading the News by Beverly Lafontaine

This post has haunted me for months since my most recent visit to Ojai in June. I originally envisioned it as a return to the impact of the Thomas Fire, a “story” that has receded for most of us since its devastation last December. Our attention has more recently been claimed by another fire-news cycle—this time the Carr Fire in Northern California, burning for more than a month and destroying nearly 230,000 acres before containment in August.

Something that I heard in Ojai, from Peter Strauss, actor and citrus farmer, released a cascade of long-held assumptions and redirected this post toward exploring the yin and yang of environmental sustainability and and our need for a reliable food source. 

The wind changed direction from east to west, from the orchards toward the town. Fire fighters believe that the massive fields that had been irrigated saved the town.

Peter Strauss, actor and citrus farmer/gardener

 View through the window at Ojai's Peppertree Retreat.

View through the window at Ojai's Peppertree Retreat.

Beautiful Ojai, a balm that opens my heart whenever I approach from Highway 150, is a community that also poses serious questions about the future of our state's identity as the country’s most valuable farming resource. Any discussion of agriculture begins and ends with water. Scale, heritage, and the wobbly definitions of “organic” add to an already loaded subject. In a wide-ranging conversation, Peter gently—and sometimes forcefully—confronted me with the unexplored implications of what I had considered thoughtful, sustainable consumption. 

Meaning

How we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.

Wendell Berry

Citrus farm in Ojai, June of 2018

Describing himself as an advocate for growing “healthy, tasty, nutritious food,” Peter turned quickly to the potentially devastating impact of growing produce without some form of defense against an increasing range of threats. As a farmer, he said, “I am aware of the fungus, insect, and weed world. Every year, there are new insects in our world. There is a new ‘Bug 273,’ and we rely on UC Davis to tell us how to rid ourselves of this bug. At the moment, our defenses are chemical. In Florida, farmers are faced with the insect borne Greening disease, now decimating the citrus crop. And think of the amazing number of gophers that are no longer kept in check by hawks or coyotes.”

Our conversation suggests that the term “organic” has become an exercise in opportunistic semantics. According to Peter, there are 17 derivations of the word. Other words, natural, farm-fresh, local add to a sense of healthfulness—that has little to do with actual quality. Organic certification, a costly and for many farmers, impossible standard, is monitored by a relatively small number of inspectors as few as 80, Peter told me, for the entire country. 

I felt obliged to reexamine my own notions of “pure” food, of one apple exceeding another in flavor, delight, and health because of the ubiquitous sticker that identifies it as “organic.” 

How do we reconcile the vast abundance of farming communities such as Ojai, the cost differential inherent in organic produce with urban communities whose access to nutrition is described as food deserts?

Desire

Our land use is based on how we eat and how we eat is based on unreasonable behavior.

Peter Strauss

Evolving consumer tastes toward ease of use have changed the way we farm. The Pixie tangerine, a relative newcomer to Ojai, is popular not only for its taste, but because it is easy to peel and a convenient size. Valencia oranges, representing a majority of Ojai’s historic crops, are made for juicing—and surely nothing tastes better than a freshly squeezed glass of orange juice! Yet purchasing a generous bag of oranges, no matter how inexpensive, has been largely supplanted by more efficient forms of consumption. The underwhelming taste of bottled orange juice, requiring pasteurization to extend shelf life, can deflect the uninitiated fresh juice drinker. And on Ojai’s Gifferson Road, which runs parallel to Highway 126 between Santa Clarita and Santa Paula, the citrus trees are covered with white gauze to prevent bee pollination, which produces the flowers that in turn create seeds. The desire for seedless fruit as a convenience means fewer bees, the world’s most important pollinator of food crops. 

Small and Nearly Perfect

In Ojai, as in many other agricultural communities, alternative farming methods are developing. Permaculture designed to channel and reuse irrigation water is an example. Such measures are almost always quite small in scale,  and therefore do not affect a large market of consumers. The small size of these farms means flexibility, with a focus on developing sustainable practices and educating consumers over production quotas. 

Eclectic farm stands along Thatcher Road in Ojai. Payment is on the honor system.

How does the innovation of the small and the individual support whole system change?

“Some efficiencies should be conducted within whole systems; for example, lined channels to conduct water. There are a lot of unlined channels in California’s farmland functioning like streams, but the ground all around them is saturated. These irrigation “streams” do not provide habitat; rather habitat is stripped. Nor do they direct water to crops or help to replenish our ground water. A single farmer concerned with sustainable practice can make adjustments. But for meaningful impact, these practices need to be scaled up and in a collaborative way on all fronts.” Kitty Connolly, executive director of the Theodore Payne Foundation.

 Kitty Connolly at the Theodore Payne Foundation office.

Kitty Connolly at the Theodore Payne Foundation office.

The Golden Mean

Ventura County’s water comes from one source, Lake Casitas, dependent entirely on rainfall to “re-charge.” After years of severe drought, Lake Casitas hovers between 32 and 34% of its capacity. As its future is uncertain, Ventura County is looking at alternative water sources including accessing the California Aqueduct, a long-term project requiring significant political will and financing. Its timeline may exceed the lifespan of its Lake.

What do you say in terms about a state that has this connection to agriculture, a community that is built upon the legacy of family farms?” Question posed to Kitty Connelly.

First of all, I have to say is that I eat food; I do it every day. So, I can’t vilify food production entirely, because I eat food that is grown in California. I even grow my own food. I think there is no way to be pure on this issue. There is no way to be pure on basically any issue.

Kitty Connolly

 

There is a tremendous joy in growing fruit. No farmer I know is making money. They are breaking even at best.

Peter Strauss

 

 A single almond requires a gallon of water to produce; this reliance is evident in the acres and acres of fallow fields and dying trees in California’s drought-stricken Central Valley. Persimmons, pomegranates, and cactus are now emerging as sustainable crops, supplanting the unrealistic water requirements of more traditional farm produce. Fortunately, consumer tastes appear to be bending to availability. Peter farms eight acres of navel and twenty-two of Valencia oranges. He has switched out eight acres of citrus for cactus and is now experimenting with juices and tequila.  He waters at night to prevent evaporation; uses drip irrigation to encourage longer, deeper, more drought-tolerant root structures; and even uses a bucket in the shower. “That’s one rose’s need per shower!”

 

 An example of challenge creating abundance and innovation. Some of Bolivia’s 4,000 native potato varieties cultivated for their ability to withstand extreme elevation (over 12,000 feet) and cold. They are a revelation in taste and are nutritious too.

An example of challenge creating abundance and innovation. Some of Bolivia’s 4,000 native potato varieties cultivated for their ability to withstand extreme elevation (over 12,000 feet) and cold. They are a revelation in taste and are nutritious too.

 A dish from  Restaurant Gustu  in La Paz, Bolivia—builds its tasting menus on Bolivian native food products including potatoes.

A dish from Restaurant Gustu in La Paz, Bolivia—builds its tasting menus on Bolivian native food products including potatoes.

Between 1975 and 2005, Los Angeles County’s water usage has not increased despite a growth in population of more than a million people. An investment in water conservation began in the mid 90's with a suit brought against the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power District to restore and protect Mono Lake by a coalition of local, state, and national organizations. The Aqueduct's design diverted all water from the Mono Lake Basin.  The strategy has moved from confrontation to monitoring, education, and access, including the distribution of more than 40,000 low-flow toilets. The Rush and Lee Vining Creeks are now flowing again into the Lake, reviving and restoring its ecology. 

The original goal of the Theodore Payne Foundation was to encourage Los Angeles County residents to return to native plants as a way of supporting natural habitats and reducing pests. Drought has shifted its conversation to both incremental and larger scale changes that can affect water conservation practice and policy. 

I am left searching for balance, avoiding what Confucius and Aristotle described as extremism. In its place, is “the golden mean,” or the middle way. There are no simple answers to the question of need, desire, and reality. Practices that have seemed reasonable turn out to have unintended consequences. There is a case to be made for the small and the incremental; its impact is built by individuals working in common for long-term change. There is likewise a case to be made for beginning with confrontation when there is no time for evolution. There is sadness in the prospect of losing California’s traditional farm heritage and excitement in the possibility of evolving both acreage and consumer taste toward water-wise crops. There is a case to be made for sustainable farm practices that avoid the overuse of pesticides but do not rule out their judicious use. Quality and sufficient food for all, no matter what a person’s income, should be a right. 

To conclude this overly long post, I suggest a number of activities along with a recipe for Nopal Salad courtesy of Mario Rodriguez, friend and consummate cook.

Visit Theodore Payne Foundation. Wander among the plants, close your eyes, sniff the beautiful fragrance, and notice the butterflies, bees, and the absence of pests.

Follow our water situation by clicking on Kitty’s favorite link, The United States Drought Monitor

Buy a bag of Valencia oranges and squeeze a few to make yourself a glass of juice. Close your eyes and taste.

 Breakfast from foraging Ojai’s farm stands. A boiled egg and fresh orange juice.

Breakfast from foraging Ojai’s farm stands. A boiled egg and fresh orange juice.

Till next time.