Category Archives: Conference

ECHO Summary

It’s the holidays and things are getting a little crazy, but I want to bring you, my faithful reader, a report from the ECHO Agricultural Conference in Ft. Myers, FL. First, it was my first time to Florida and it proved that stereotypes all come from some kernel of truth. The weather was ridiculously warm and humid for December and there were numerous AARP members in convertibles.

ECHO is primarily a demonstration farm that trains people for agricultural missions. Many of the organizations that work with ECHO and that were at the conference come at agricultural work overseas from a conservative evangelical perspective. While I believe strongly in holistic ministry that includes the physical, spiritual, political and social aspects of life, I tend to come at it from a more social justice perspective. The farm itself is impressive with so many plants, methods and demonstrations packed into such a small space. ECHO is geared towards tropical agriculture because this is where both most of the world’s poverty and most missionaries are located.

Over the week we had lots of conversations between sessions, over meals and in cars. There’s no way to cover all the territory adequately. So, I’ll try to give you my highlights.

Cross Cultural Communication
This class was probably the most at odds with my own theology (to put it diplomatically). The speaker tried to tackle issues related to worldview, culture, religion and agriculture in one hour. I took an entire semester on this topic in seminary and still have a lot to understand. The speaker claimed that the underlying problem in other countries is one of worldview. It became clear that “they” had an incorrect worldview while the correct worldview was a combination of the scientific and biblical worldview. He also lumped all religions other than Christianity into the category of animism, claiming several times that Islam was essentially animistic. The statement was made several times that the problem was with other culture’s view of nature as something we can’t control. The solution was the biblical worldview, which was to subdue the earth, meaning control and manipulate it. This was a very disturbing workshop to me. I hope to explore this more in an upcoming post on why I think there is no such thing as a biblical worldview.

Third Culture Kids
This was probably the most practical and helpful workshop as a parent. I think there is something helpful in our globalized world about kids who are not at home in any particular culture, but have a real sense of the diversity and unity of humanity across cultures.

Sand Dams
The Mennonite Central Committee has a project in which dams are created in African countries. Initially the dams fill with water during the rainy season. Then the eventually fill with sand as the water settles. This sand is then composed of about 40% water. The water captured in the sand does not evaporate and is easily accessible to local communities. An amazing innovative project. It challenged some of my assumptions and ways of thinking, turning over some of my expectations about water access and solutions.

Natural Medicine
Ralph Wiegand gave an excellent talk on the use of natural medicine, defined as the combining of modern and traditional medicine. In particular he has worked on the use of artemesia tea as a complete treatment for malaria. In contrast to the workshop on cross cultural communication Wiegand gave great weight and value to traditional knowledge.

Nutritional Garden
A graduate from ECHO has developed a Nutritional Kitchen Garden at a hospital in Central African Republic where they teach nutrition, farm experimentation and agricultural knowledge and skills. Definitely one of the best presentations at the conference.

Compost and Soil Biology
I went to a workshop on compost and one on soil biology in the same afternoon. I’m no expert, but I do know some about both of these topics. You may recall the controversy about Soil Foodweb, Inc. in our class on compost tea at the farm. The leader for both of these workshops is sold on a lot of the claims made by Dr. Elaine Ingham and Soil Foodweb folks. Unfortunately I felt like composting was made overly complicated and discouraged people from doing it. They were more technical about the percent Nitrogen and ratio of bacteria to fungi. There are important rules of thumb for good composting, but they don’t need to be so technical in my opinion.

The Soil Food web folks also tout the benefits of Effective Microorganisms (EM). Basically these are anaerobic bacteria, what they called facultative anaerobes, that are beneficial to help compost when it becomes anaerobic. The example given was a poultry barn where the bedding has become anaerobic with that pungent ammonia smell. EM could be used to reverse those negative effects supposedly. It seems to me that the answer to bad management practices is not another product to fix it. That’s the way industrial agriculture solves problems (e.g. antibiotics, irradiation, etc.). Isn’t the answer instead to use better management practices to deal with the waste or bedding and manage composting more closely. I asked how EM were created or manufactured and was told that it’s proprietary. That should always be your first clue that something is bunk. If the answers to our agricultural and ecological problems are not open source they aren’t really answers. They’re just new ways to make money off of disasters (What Naomi Klein calls Disaster Capitalism).

It was a thought provoking and educational trip. I definitely enjoyed their farm and all they had going on. It is important to be in dialogue with people we don’t agree with, particularly those working in the same field, literally and figuratively.

Life is But a Stream

4109805174_f34f126bde.jpg

I can’t help trying to find puns for the titles of posts. I apologize.

We are back from Houston where I helped the Texas Hunger Initiative with a workshop at the BGCT’s Stream event. Here’s the back of my head in the photo at the left talking to a fellow Truett grad after the workshop.

What was most fun about the trip was getting to bring my family along and seeing Houston with them. We hung out for an afternoon at the Discovery Green across from the convention center. They have an awesome exhibit of 50 globes with different themes related to global warming. Tuesday we went to Hermann Park for a couple hours and enjoyed the playgrounds and a really nice urban park. We were too exhausted to visit the Japanese garden at the end of our walk.

I was already antsy driving in to the nation’s 4th largest city, but the green spaces made it all better for me. Urban centers are not going away any time soon. So, it seems crucial that we spend a good amount of energy greening them up.

Talk Talk and More Talk

In honor of Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize I will be listening to some people talk a lot about ideas and not necessarily do anything. Don’t get me wrong. Talk is important. Ideas are important. When the other nominees included Chinese dissidents, an Afghan human rights activist and Morgan Tsvangirai, the Zimbabwean opposition leader, who all have much more hands-on experience making peace through struggle and conflict, it seems odd for such a young president with great ideas and oratory skills to be named. Anyway…

I will be attending a lot of lectures over the next week. None of them are directly related to food production or issues, but if they are interesting enough I will certainly find a way to make them relevant to this blog.

Secularization and Revival: The Fate of Religion in Modern Intellectual History is the topic for the Third Annual Baylor Symposium on Faith and Culture. This afternoon I will be hearing Philip Jenkins speak. His lecture is titled “A Little Leaven: From Mass Church to Creative Minority in Contemporary Europe.” I have read his book The Next Christendom.

Saturday a good friend of ours from UMHB, David Holcomb, will be speaking. His lecture is titled “Religion in Public Life: The ‘Pfefferian Inversion’ Reconsidered.”

Finally, I will get to hear one of my new heroes, William Cavanaugh, who inspired my Eucharist as Eat-In post as well as the series on his book Being Consumed. His lecture will be on “Violence and the Religious/Secular Distinction.”

Next week Lamin Sanneh will be at Truett Seminary for the Parchman Lecture Series. The topic for his lectures is “Connecting World Christianity: New World Parameters.” The three lectures will be on “Antislavery and Mission: American Prelude, 1770-1783,” “Evangelical Movement and the New Society,” and “Christianity and the Moral Empire: America’s Role.” Should be very interesting stuff.

It seems I often come at things from the food side and then tie in the faith and theology, even when I’m blogging through the Bible. It will be interesting to hear some very academic theological lectures and reflect on their application to food and justice issues. Stay tuned…

Farm and Food Session 9

The last session of the day was on Community Food Access. I would have left early if I wasn’t so interested in hearing this session. Here are the panelists and their topics:

WIC and Food stamps at Farmer’s Markets by Andrew Smiley from Sustainable Food Center
Farm-to School Programs by Texas Department of Agriculture
Raising Food at Home by Sari Albornoz from Sustainable Food Center

Andrew gave some basics about the WIC, WIC Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program (FMNP), and SNAP (food stamps) programs. When the food stamp program switched from actual stamps to a swipe card it meant that people were no longer able to use their food stamp income to purchase fruits and vegetables from Farmer’s Markets. Sustainable Food Center has found a way for farmer’s markets to accept the swipe cards without it being a burden for each individual vendor. There’s also the WIC FMNP program that gives supplemental income for people to spend during the peak summer season on fresh fruits and vegetables.

I feel like this is an area where a lot of farmer’s don’t make the leap. Many have a conservative understanding of poverty and got into organic and sustainable farming for environmental reasons or better farming practices. For many of them they see their farming primarily as a business and I wonder how many make the connection with food access, poverty, hunger and obesity.

As the speaker from Texas Department of Agriculture shared about the connection between hunger and obesity, someone at my table said, “That’s why they’re hungry!” It seems their is a gap in understanding between the farmers that produce the kinds of food we want people in poverty to have access to and the reality on the ground. The reality is that hunger and obesity can exist in the same household and within the same person. This is because people who are food insecure are forced to get the most possible calories per dollar when they do have money. I mentioned previously at the USDA listening session someone from the Texas Food Banks Network pointed out that an organic apple costs $1.75 while a bag of cheese puffs costs $1.50. If you are food insecure and only have $2 in your pocket which one would you buy?

Sari from SFC shared about issues concerning community gardening, how to start them and legal issues and city ordinances. There were helpful ideas about securing land and working with cities to include community gardening in their long-range plans for the city.

I have mixed feelings about having to navigate bureaucracies to get things done. On the one hand, I say you should just put seeds in the ground and grow your own food as a way to subvert the system and stick it to the man. I also recognize that the man can help make it possible to stick your seeds in the same place all the time and build a community within a city that is supportive of gardening and farming programs in neighborhoods and schools. Hopefully someday guerrilla gardening will be nothing more than a hobby, because the Powers that be will come around to the dark side (that is the side with the darkest soil… Booyah!)

And I’m spent…

Farm and Food Session 8

This session was on How to Lobby Effectively with Bonnie Bruce Legislative Director for State Rep. Burt Solomons. It was helpful for me because I might end up doing policy work in the future. I feel more confident and knowledgeable about the legislative process. I don’t find it interesting enough to write about though. The main point that everyone might find useful is that the majority of representatives don’t know anything about agriculture. Only if they come from an agricultural district will they have specific knowledge about those issues. One of the ways democracy functions better is when we can act as a croud source for our representatives. We can’t expect them to know everything. So let them know.