She may refer to herself as a “Georgia cracker,” but Janisse Ray is sowing the seeds of a food revolution. A writer, naturalist, environmentalist, professor and farmer, Ray will be in Asheville to deliver the keynote address on Saturday, Sept. 6, during the Organic Growers School’s first annual Harvest Conference at A-B Tech.
Ray has garnered widespread acclaim for many of her books — including Ecology of a Cracker Childhood,which won the American Book Award, the Southern Book Critics Circle Award and the Southern Environmental Law Center Award for Outstanding Writing on the Southern Environment. In her latest work, The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food, Rayaddresses the potential threat to America’s food supply posed by a decline in agrodiversity and a reliance on agribusiness and monoculture.
The Harvest Conference will be held Saturday, Sept. 6 at AB-Tech, with pre-conference workshops held on Friday, Sept. 5 at Warren Wilson.
Mountain Xpress recentlytalked with Ray about her latest book, the issues it brings to the fore and the role that Western North Carolinians can play in the revolution to save food.
Mountain Xpress: What motivated you to write The Seed Underground?
Janisse Ray: Two things. First, the loss of agrodiversity is a huge concern. I’ve been a seed saver for a few decades, and as a storyteller, I’m fascinated with seeds — both literally and metaphorically. Secondly, the Good Food Movement engenders a lot of hope in people, especially young people, and I wanted to enter that conversation.
In The Seed Underground, you describe how a decline in food-crop variety — coupled with a reliance on genetically modified crops, agribusiness and monoculture — has put America’s food supply at risk. What sorts of actions/policies would you advocate — for individuals, for communities and for municipalities?
In the very back of the book, there’s a page of “what you can do.” The list begins very simply, with eating good food — meaning whole, organic, locally grown and nutritious food. It progresses into passing local ordinances that protect the rights of people to eat good food, to save seeds and to sell their farm products. There are seed libraries and seed banks to be set up. There are seed-saving classes to be taught. There are seeds to save in gardens and on farms. And it’s all good work. Fun work.
How can WNC residents support the Good Food Movement?
There’s a lot going on in Western North Carolina, but so much more can be done. WNC has the highest agrodiversity of any region in the country — because up in the hills and the hollers, people have been growing, for example, a particular type of bean that has genetically adapted to that region and that isn’t growing anywhere else. Go one valley over and you might find a completely different kind of bean that has adapted to that environment. You’re doing a great job already with farmer’s markets and community gardens, and you just need to expand on that. People in WNC could jump on that bandwagon and set up seed banks and seed libraries. But [the region] is very far advanced compared to other regions of the country.
What are some of the potential consequences of a continued reliance on industrial monoculture and a corresponding decline in agrodiversity?
We know from biology that the less diverse a system is, the greater the potential for collapse. That correlates to agriculture as well. This happened during the potato famine in Ireland in the 1800s. In America, we think we can never suffer famine — but in a lot of ways we are in a famine already. We have plenty of food, but that food has less and less nutritional value.
There are also huge risks in toxifying our world with pesticides and herbicides. When we think about environmental destruction, all of that applies to agriculture as well.
In addition to delivering the keynote address at the Harvest Conference, are there any other activities in which you will be participating?
On Thursday evening, [Sept. 4], I’ll be speaking in Newton, N.C., at the library there in celebration of a community garden project. Then on Friday, as part of the Harvest Conference, I’m teaching a daylong writing workshop at Warren Wilson College. I’m also doing a short workshop on seeds at the Saturday conference.
What is the key message you would like people to take home from the Harvest Conference?
Don’t rely on agribusiness to feed you. A life lived as far outside corporate control as possible is one that is richer, healthier and more meaningful. Don’t be afraid to live the life you dream.
What’s next for you (any upcoming events, projects, etc. that you would like to share)?
The Seed Underground just came out in French — my first translated book — and that’s fun. I’m writing an essay for a book on dirt. I’m planting our fall gardens at the moment, and I always look forward to figuring out ways to extend our growing seasons and harvest more food for longer. I’ve also found that I’m happiest doing local organizing, and so I’m deeply involved in local projects, including a Growing Local conference for Southern Georgia in November. I’m also the new mom of a little girl. That’s an ongoing “project” that requires an incredible amount of time, but the payoff is high.
For more information about the Harvest Conference, go to organicgrowersschool.org.