I attended the Rooting DC conference this past weekend, a one-day gardening and sustainable food extravaganza. It was organized by the Field to Fork Network, a collection of local organizations based in America the Beautiful.
The conference started out with a fiery speech by Montgomery Victory Gardens director Gordon Clark. Living in Montgomery County, I’ve been interested in his group since he handed out cards at an event at the U.S. Botanical Garden, so I was interested to hear what he was going to say. His message was pretty common – our food system is broken and we must do better – but in the language of revolution, it was all far more dramatic than I usually think about it. “Fight the system” is seen more as a Rage Against the Machine sentiment than one expressed by people with trowels and seeds. He trotted out quite a few statistics, but they were anything but dull with the gusto he had listing them off. For example, the point that industrial agriculture destroys the soil at 10 to 15 times the rate it is naturally restored. Or the fact that 70% of the antibiotics in the U.S. are not given to people, but to animals in Confined Feeding Animal Operations because the conditions are constantly making the animals ill. It’s easy to remember the vague ideas – “CAFOs are really bad” – but hearing the hard facts presented so bluntly was still a little shocking, despite the time I’ve spent thinking about these issues. Considering that being an activist can be frustrating to say the least, leading off with someone who reminds me of how good and essential the fight really is was helpful.
Next up was a session on Four Season gardening. Unfortunately, I arrived late and the room was small, so I could see neither the speakers or their slideshow. Nonetheless, the information was solid and practical. Some of it I had heard before in Ecolocity’s cold frame and seedling workshops, but much of it was new. For example, the idea that you can insulate a cold frame by piling straw around it to protect from the cold makes perfect sense, but wouldn’t have occurred to me. If you want to go really hard-core, you can create a mini-organic furnace below your cold frame by putting decomposing manure in a hole beneath it. The seed starting tips were similarly straight-forward, practical and utterly innovative. Preventing dampening off in seedlings (when they start to get moldy) by spraying them with a chamomile/garlic spray, with natural anti-fungal properties? Brilliant!
I then headed off to the “Sharing the Harvest” session, which focused on how non-profits around the area are hooking up farms and needy people to minimize food waste and feed the hungry. I adore DC Central Kitchen and donate to them regularly, so it was good to get an update on their gleaning and culinary training programs. Their job training classes, which are completely made up of former clients, are particularly unique because they have some very high-end chefs teach their students. In fact, the owner of the culinary school Chris graduated from teaches a DC Central Kitchen class one day a session, even though he no longer teaches at Chris’s school! In fact, DC Central Kitchen’s new catering company, made of up of training program graduates, catered the conference. I had the vegetable wrap, which are often mushy and tasteless. But theirs was quite delicious – I really wanted the recipe afterwards. In the session, the Capital Area Food Bank also talked about programs, with their Grow a Row project being of the most interest to me. They hook up local gardeners with neighborhood soup kitchens/emergency food providers so that the gardeners know where to donate their extra produce . I’ll have to look more into in the spring, so I’m actually giving my inevitable excess zucchini to someone who actually needs it.
As I mentioned, the lunch was excellent. Hanging out at Ecolocity’s table, I got to meet quite a few people interested in our work and gab about how they should come to meetings. Walking around the exhibit room, I bought “Week by Week: A Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook,” picked up some great resources, and signed a petition to allow chicken-raising in D.C., a campaign a college friend is involved in. I’ve seen her twice so far in D.C., completely coincidentally. Funny who you run into at these events!
The speaker for my planned next session couldn’t make it, so I skipped over to “Urban Composting Made Easy.” Nothing super-new for me, but I love the concept of Compost Cab. Basically, this company picks up your organic waste and delivers it to a local farm. Then, the farm composts it and uses it as fertilizer for their crops. As the founder Jeremy Brosowsky said at the session, “We need not just Farm-to-Table but Farm-to-Table-to-Farm.” I also adore that he wants to make his business a franchise. Easy composting for all!
The day ended with a great discussion of the many opportunities we have for strengthening our urban food systems, from production to use. My group focused on the idea of creating projects that have inherent economic benefits and are tied to community jobs. We also came up with the idea for a larger umbrella organization that provides human resource assistance to a number of groups, including a volunteer bank, fundraising, and office management. I hope that as Ecolocity DC and others groups continue this conversation that we’ll be able to make some of these ideas concrete.
Overall, Rooting DC provided inspiration, encouragement, and fertile ground for cross-pollination of ideas. If you’d like the complete notes for each of the sessions described, they’re available on the Ecolocity website. Just as long as we don’t get too wrapped up in our own projects and continue collaborating, Rooting DC provides some great soil for growth.