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greenhorns expedition : Atlanta and the American Lawn

Posted: March 27 2008

This a travel journal entry from Severine's trip through Iowa, East Tennessee, and Georgia.
From the Georgia Organics Conference, laden with four pounds of peanuts and two gallons of sorghum syrup from the silent auction, I caught a ride to Atlanta with Farmer Dee. The light was brilliant as the hills of Chattanooga flattened down - very invasive privet in the forests here and a sandy soil. We arrived in Atlanta so that Dee could meet up with his homies from Whole Foods.
farmerdwholefoods.jpgI must give him credit for bold strokes in the world. Dee has started something like four organic farms, and his latest project is a partnership with Whole Foods to compost the greenwaste collected in the stores, process it in a large-scale facility, apply the BD preparations, and market it back thru the stores under the Farmer Dee label.
Ambitious and adventurous Dee is a smooth-talking farmer, negociating deals with some big-time players for some huge Green building projects and even luxury developments.
We arrived in Atlanta just as the light turned golden and drove thru the suburbs looking for a green roof project. We didn't find it.
What we did find was a hideous array of mega-mansions all plopped down with total irreverence behind faux medieval retaining walls. I think I saw about three reproductions of Monticello, huge baroque palaces, porticoes, columns and more columns, great huge hunkering gates with security huts, pavilions and bunkered garagedoors. Never ever, except perhaps in Greenwich, Connecticut, have I had such an allergic reaction to the extreme car-culture and conspicuous consumption of corporate wealth.
The American LawnI was vindicated in my repulsion by the turf grass--all the new houses has gone right hard into the "scotts turf grass" modality (see Center for Food Safety's victory against Scotts, see book The American Lawn by Georges Teyssot on google books, see Gimme Green documentary).
The grasses that they had planted out in rolls for their arbitrary imposition on the landscape were selected and bred by companyies like Scotts--they had been bred for maximum density, lushness and monoculture--and were intended to be fertilized and watered frequently. Of course, during the recent drought in this region the grass of the noveau-plantins could not be watered--and their expensive lawns have turned a chalky-dun, they sit there alien and brisltly like the cheap dashboard cover on an old cadillac. Meanwhile the 'first wave' suburban homes with more traditional grass mixtures planted in the lawn were modest but still bright green.

Why is this so infuriatingly thrilling as a case study? Well, its because these turf-grass stories are a perect metaphor for the destiny of siniustrail agriculture and the green revolution. norman_borlaug.jpgnorman_borlaug.jpgnorman_borlaug.jpgWhen Norman Borlaug (Nobel Peace Prize winner) and the Rockefeller deployed the strategies of the "green revolution" they were essentially rolling out chemical hungry turf-grass on an agronomic scale.norman_borlaug.jpg

The varieties were chosen for maximum output, and required tremendous, and often toxic inputs--this of course might yield a big crop, but it is actually not efficient. The trouble is only visible in drought years, where the more modestly productive landraces, traditional varieties, and especially native plants keep on keeping on. They are adapted to the occasional hardship, and their seeds, fruits and flowers continue to nurture the food-web. Extensive reasearch has been done comparing low-input sustainable agriculture with intensive industrial agriculture.
The verdict is clear--in optimum conditions, with optimum soil, regular irrigation, abundant fertilization/chemical maintenance, and mechanized cultivation--the 'improved' varieties outperform more traditional crops. However, in times of drought, in times of torrential rain, in times of pest pressures--the traditional varieties continue to produce. They are reliable.
Understanding this dynamic traditional agriculturalists in the andes plant a mixuture of crops in their fields--corn, quinoa, lupines, yucca, and various tubers ( many africans grow millet and sorghum alongside cassava) in a wet year they will yield more calories from the corn, but in dry years (of which there are many when the climate is in flux) the quinoa will continue to produce.