Eating is an Agricultural Act

Tiny - Posted on 17 May 2011


Eating is an Agricultural Act


Last year Poor Magazine spoke to Matthew Robeson, a young African-descended brother who honors Pachamama with his hands, heart and mind.  Matthew welcomed us into his garden, a “Garden in the ghetto” ( in the Visitation Valley/Sunnydale neighborhood where he resides.  He grows a bounty of vegetables that include pumpkin, garlic, green beans, onions, zucchini and potatoes .  He spoke of the challenges of planting; of community--sharing knowledge of indigenous vegetables, working side by side with Filipinos, Vietnamese, Samoans—all kinds of people who honor our earth mother.  Poor Magazine honors this planting and tending to the earth--a conscious effort to take back the land. It is also a resistance to mainstream media that would have you believe that the only thing that grows in Sunnydale is crime and violence.


When I was growing up, my parents prayed before each meal


                        Gracious lord we thank thee

                        For these bounties of thy

                        Providence and pray thee to

                        Sanctify and to nourish our    

                        Bodies and God Bless the

                        Hands that prepared it


I uttered those words not savoring its meaning--the syllables that connected letters, words, forming a stew that was poetry, song, praise.  It was a quick utterance without thought of the ties between family, me, the land and the creator. 


My life travels in dual realities.  One reality is that of an indigenous human being with indigenous values that have been passed to me through the poetry of my uncles (their street language, the only language that holds meaning to me), the words of my grandparents and the example of hard work sketched in their hands and faces.  The other reality is one whose hands have been disconnected, chopped off at the wrists, propagandized and disassociated from the life-giving soil that is the basic source where natural processes merge to give the miracle of life. 


Looking at my brown skin, I see the history of the land written on it, moving like rivers that refuse to stagnate—whose memory is alive in the pores.  Yet, I know by looking at my hands that I have not planted a seed, picked a melon, fed chickens or bent down--like my ancestors —and met the earth with the sun pressing down, searing poems on my bent back.  I think of the poet/children’s author Jorge Argueta who wrote about coming to the US from El Salvador (


                        Here in the city there are

                        Wonders everywhere


                        Here mangoes

                        Come in cans


                         In El Salvador

                        They grow on trees


                         Here chickens come

                        In plastic bags


                        Over there

                        They slept beside me


I recently came across a book of essays by writer/activist Wendell Berry—essays that address subjects such as the food economy, responsibility of the poet, reasons for not buying a computer ( and the ultimate question: What are people for? (

He writes: “I begin with the proposition that eating is an agricultural act.  Eating ends the annual dream of the food economy that begins with planting and birth”.  An agricultural act—how often does one think of eating in these terms?  One doesn’t have to delve too deeply to know this is a reality—as tangible as rain—but we are inundated and assaulted by messages propagated by the food industry—an industry whose profitability is more or less contingent on people seeing themselves participating in the agricultural act—as, what Berry calls, “passive consumers”, buying what they’ve been convinced they want and need without asking questions such as, “is it fresh?”, “is it healthy?”, “how pure or clean is it and how far was it transported?”  For most of us, Berry’s assertions are not earth shattering—yet thinking oneself as part of an agricultural act takes conscious effort—physical and spiritual—a process that gives back to the earth and the creator.  That process can start with two words:  Thank you.


As in all of American society, the bottom line is, invariably, the bottom line.  The food industry has 2 overriding concerns as Berry points out:  volume and price rather than quality and health.  Berry writes: Increased volume presumably reduces costs.  But as scale increases, diversity declines, so does health. As health declines, the dependence on drugs and chemicals increases.


We have seen the effects of industrialized food on the population.  Berry refers to this as a “walled city surrounded by values that let merchandise in but no consciousness out".  He cites Sir Albert Howard who asserted in “The Soil and Health”: how we eat, determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.


I grew up in a time when corporate logos began encroaching on high school hallways and cafeterias--in addition to our minds.  We thought it was great.  I recall seeing students eating twinkies and potato chips for breakfast—washing it down with coke, pepsi or sprite.  In the documentary “Super Size Me”, ( filmmaker Morgan Spurlock visited a public high school where much processed food was being served to students.  The film included interviews with school administrators, cafeteria workers, teachers and policymakers who agreed that the corporate food giants have infiltrated the schools, reaping enormous profits at the expense of the health of young people—hooking our kids on their products, yet immune to the health consequences of their products.  With the preponderance of fast food and processed foods made with unhealthy amounts of fat and sugar—coupled with the whittling down of physical education programs in schools, is it any wonder why obesity rates are at their current levels, or that diabetes is on the rise.  Said one physical education teacher in “Super Size me”, “In America we have sick care, not healthcare”.


Wendell Berry writes that it is “possible to escape the trap of industrialism, to be liberated from the old food economy voluntarily, by reclaiming responsibility for one’s own part in the food economy.  He suggests the following:


1.  Participate in food production.  Grow something to eat if you have a yard, a porch box or a pot in a window.  Compost kitchen scraps and use it as fertilizer.  In this way you will be fully responsible for any food you grow yourself and you will know all about it.  This will acquaint you with the beautiful energy cycle that revolves from soil to seed to flower to fruit to food to offal (IE: entrails and organs of a butchered animal) to decay and round again.


 2. Prepare your own food


3.  Learn the origins of the food you buy, and buy food that is produced closest to your home


4.  Whenever possible, deal directly with local farmers (Farmers markets such as the Civic Center Market are good places to meet growers face to face).  In doing so, you eliminated an entire fleet of merchants, transporters, processors, packagers and advertisers who thrive at the expense of producers and consumers.


5.  Learn, in self-defense, as much as you can of the economy and technology of industrialized food production.  What is added to food that is not food, and what do you pay for these additions?


6.  Learn what is involved in the best farming and gardening


7.  Learn by direct observation and experience, if possible, the life histories of food species.  Were animals raised in crowded spaces, did they have good water and bountiful pastures?  Were fruits and vegetables grown in good soil and not in huge factory fields rife with chemicals?


My family still prays at the table before eating.  I have yet to plant, to grow my own food but I intend to start.  I begin by planting the seeds of thankfulness in the mind of my 7 year old son, who said the following at the table this evening:


                                    I want to thank

                                    The buffalo

                                    For giving his body

                                    To us so we could

                                    Eat dinner


My son’s words tell me that eating is not only an agricultural act, but a spiritual one.  To the creator we say two words: Thank you





© 2011 RWS


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