Feeding the Soul

Eating close to home feeds your body and soul

One of the articles in A Good Harvest (IC#42)
Originally published in Fall 1995 on page 50
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

Gerard Bentryn owns the Bainbridge Island Vineyards and Winery located less than a mile from IN CONTEXT’s offices. Gerard promotes farming on the island through public advocacy, and through sharing his land, machinery, and know-how with other local farmers.

While collecting data for a graduate program in Strathcona Provincial Park in 1970, I met an elderly native Canadian who helped set me on what has become one of my life’s themes. He told me how sorry he was that I could only be a visitor living on Vancouver Island rather than being of Vancouver Island as he was. He explained how his father and his father’s father are part of the earth around him. Everything he eats or drinks comes from that earth and the rivers that ran through it. Every meal is an act of communion.

The food I ate came from distant fields, as did his children’s food and his grandchildren’s. Our bodies were made of California or Mexico or Illinois or Chile. His body was of Vancouver Island; we would be forever alien invaders of the land unless we chose to share in its bounty.

His words brought me back to a conversation I had with a brew master in southeastern Germany in the early ’60s. During my first, army-subsidized time in Europe, I hung around farms to learn about European agriculture.

As we sat eating at an outdoor table or a hilltop gasthaus, the brew master told me of his journey to America and how he could not comprehend the contrast of the unspoiled beauty of the natural landscape against the ugly sprawl that Americans lived in.

He held up the plate he was eating from. "The potatoes come from that field to the west," he said pointing, "the cabbage to the east. The barley and the hops of this beer grew closer to the horizon, and when the wind is right, you can smell the pigs that made the wursts. America will become even more ugly because you can’t see where your food is grown. The secret of the beauty of Europe is the ring of small farms that circle every village and city."

From these two men I learned of the spiritual and the aesthetic meaning of food and of its ability to enrich our lives.

Becoming Part of the Landscape

According to researchers at Cornell University it takes about 1.3 acres to feed the average American each year. That comes to about 120 square feet per day, the size of a small room. Your own daily 120 square feet can lie just outside your town, or it can be hundreds or even thousands of miles away. If you can see it, you feed on its beauty as well as its calories. If you eat it you become literally part of the beauty of the landscape as its atoms and molecules slowly replace the anonymous supermarket ones of which you are now made. We have heard of "empty" calories, of food bereft of vitamins. Imported supermarket food is truly empty: empty of any meaning.

Food grown where you see it provides the natural land use buffering and beauty that has been a mainstay of civilization since the birth of cities (made possible by agriculture). Food with no origin is anonymous. Food from your neighboring farm is synonymous with both intrinsic meaning and a sense of place. Eating locally, from fields you can see each day, feeds you calorically, aesthetically, and spiritually.

Growing grapes for wine does the same for me. I helped build the first communications satellite at Bell Labs, helped double the size of the New Jersey Pinelands Protected Areas, and developed what I believe is an elegantly simple climate classification system. Yet I am most excited by the continuing act of survival as a wine grower. Growing any foodstuff for a living, without outside income, is to live by your wits, at the whim of God and nature. A weather forecast has meaning beyond mere discomfort; it speaks of survival or failure. Operating a small farm is the antithesis of boredom and the embodiment of intensity. It provides an in-your-face realization of your frailties and strengths.

A primary goal of mine is to promote greater appreciation of locally produced foods so that wine growing and farming outlive me on Bainbridge Island. If islanders could come to truly cherish island food and wine, our winery and at least two others could endure. One bottle of island wine per month per household would keep three wineries our size alive with no sales to off-islanders.

We have helped another winery get started on nearby Whidbey Island, with both knowledge and loaned equipment. We do not see them as competitors, but rather as fellow pioneers in the effort to show that food and wine grown in our area is economically feasible, even as it provides beauty and meaning to both their lives and ours. We also share our 25-acre farm with Akio Suyematsu and Karen Selvar who grow strawberries and raspberries. Although they both pay us just $1 per year for the use of the land, they make relatively little money from the direct sale of the berries. We share our land for the selfish desire to preserve the beauty of the land as well as those who farm it.

Supermarket food and wine is industrially grown and made because small family producers who do their own field work cannot sell to supermarkets and survive. The vast majority of what supermarkets sell is both highly processed, and extremely packaged. This processing and packaging can only take place in a system in which vast quantities of cheap product can be delivered to highly specialized industrial plants. The 50 percent of the retail price that distributors and supermarkets take can only be made up through outside subsidies or by exploiting farm workers.

Planting Seeds

The system that feeds us now is self-limiting because of looming water shortages and because we are running out of money to subsidize the suburban services, agro-industrial irrigation projects, and the long-distance transportation inherent to the system. The system will eventually implode through its own irrationality.

In anticipation, we can work to maintain what local food production remains by buying directly from local farmers (within an hour’s drive of our homes). We can individually institute a program of "one percent for the landscape," buying only locally grown for at least one major meal per month. We can celebrate that meal with family and friends, emphasizing the connectedness it brings to our lives. If we who care can show others the spiritual and aesthetic meaning of food, we are literally planting the seeds for a new food future.

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