Interview with author of Rebuilding the Foodshed, Philip Ackerman-Leist

Philip Ackerman-Leist is among the presenters recruited from around the country to conduct workshops at the Mother Earth News Fair coming to Western North Carolina Agricultural Center on April 11 and 12, 2015.  Ackerman-Leist is the Program Director for Green Mountain College’s Master of Science in Sustainable Food Systems and author of Up Tunket Road: The Education of a Modern Homesteader and Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable, and Secure Food Systems.

Mountain Xpress:  What are your connections to North Carolina and this area?

Ackerman-Leist:  Born, bred (well, the reverse, actually), and raised in North Carolina. I was born in Rocky Mount and then moved to Gastonia, Smithfield, Laurinburg, and finally Old Fort. My favorite part of the state has always been western North Carolina, perhaps because of my Dad’s West Virginia heritage. Mostly, though, it’s the mountains and the people. I left college in 1985 without any real practical skills and came to work at Camp Grier in Old Fort, first as a camp counselor but then for the best year of education in my entire life: I was an assistant to the head of maintenance, Dennis Bivins, a mountain of a man who was the true jack-of-all-trades. He was patient enough to take on an eager but ignorant right-hand man, and he taught me all of the DIY basics I needed to set out on a life of homesteading and farming. I’ve never had a better teacher or a job that inspired me more.

What does Mother Earth News Fair represent to you in terms of what it offers  the community and what it offers individuals attending?  What do you  hope that people take away from the event?

First of all, for many folks like myself, Mother Earth News was our first window into a world of homesteading possibilities–a legitimization of the fact that our back-to-the-land ideas were not only viable but also supported by a network of like-minded individuals. Decades ago, we linked mostly by articles and subscriptions, I guess, but the Mother Earth News Fair as I’ve experienced it is a celebration of how our individual quests for meaningful and less mainstream lives aren’t acts of isolation but rather a renewed search for the common good. The most important gift of attending a fair is, I think, a sense of renewed confidence that what we are doing as homesteaders, small-holders, urban gardeners, lawn pirates, artisans–these are not only a pragmatic individual or family-oriented choices but also a pursuit of “collective ingenuity” that needs to be captured, curated, recrafted, and shared.

Can you give a flavor from what you’ll be offering during your workshops?  What will people walk away with?

Well, my “Homesteader’s 20/20 Hindsight” workshop is a pretty fast-paced, somewhat amusing (at my own expense, I should add) retrospective on almost two decades of homesteading in Vermont: 20 things I would do all over again and recommend to others, and 20 things I wish I’d never even considered. It involves everything from building to livestock to education (that thing in which we think we’re teaching our children or our students and really we’re the ones learning the most).  And my presentation on Rebuilding the Foodshed is perhaps a veiled plea for modern homesteaders–curators of so many critical food traditions and farming practices–not to forget that “food preservation” in the biggest sense of the word has to happen by us getting out and doing the kind of hard work we might prefer not to have to tackle: board meetings, working with school officials, engaging people working in parts of the food system we’ve been trying to distance ourselves from. We have to think hard about the civic nature of our engagement with the bigger picture food systems questions. Disengagement is a big part of the homesteading tradition, and I embrace that as well, to a degree. But in the case of helping to improve our society’s overall food realities, we have to engagement, although there are a number of ways to do that–and that’s what I plan to focus on.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you became interested in food systems?

It’s funny–if you’d asked me a decade ago what “food systems” meant, I probably would have just given you a dumb look…but with a smile! And if you’d told me that I would be developing a graduate program in food systems, much less the first such online program in the country, I would have laughed out loud. I blame it all on my compatriot Chef Dave Ondria, the manager and white table cloth chef of our dining services at Green Mountain College. And he blames it all on me. My world ended at the farm gate and his began at the dinner plate. Neither of us knew much about the gulf between our worlds. But our students wanted to know more, simply because we all wanted to increase local and sustainable purchasing in the college dining hall, but we kept hit stumbling block after stumbling block, and we couldn’t figure out way. So it became a systems issue: until we understood both the conventional food chain and its alternatives, we couldn’t be effective, even on our relatively small college with a sustainability-driven mission. It’s been a wild ride, but I couldn’t have a better co-pilot than Chef Dave! We even have him teaching full-credit courses for our students, and we’re blending sustainability, nutrition, culinary skills, and liberal arts. How’s that for “fusion”?! That is a chef word, right?

One of your talks focuses on the idea of “Rebuilding the Foodshed”, can you  give us a preview of what that concept entails and how it might involve individuals within their local community?

Essentially, we allowed the status quo in the food industry to snowball–with no real checks and balances–until we found ourselves with fewer farms and farmers, more mega-scale food businesses, little room for the small to mid-scale entrepreneur, less choice as consumers (in some ways), and very few locally-owned processing, storage, and distribution businesses. Essentially, we lost it all by default, and now we’re trying to reclaim and rebuild it through design. That redesigning is tremendously exciting and rewarding, although it’s incredibly complex and rife with complications. Nonetheless, it’s critical work, and I want to offer up the possibility that rebuilding our foodsheds is, in some ways, a new approach to democracy and a recognition not just of the right to food but also the right to choose which foods… The only way to get there is through collective thinking and action–and that “collective ingenuity” I mentioned before.

Are there any speakers/workshops/exhibits that you are most looking forward to seeing? 

Now you’re bringing up the bad side of this whole thing–you can’t be everywhere at once at the Mother Earth News Fair! Yes–definitely some folks I want to learn from while I’m there. I’ve been fascinated by Richard Miscovitch’s book and work with wood-fired breads, something I love dearly from my four years living in the Alps. And since we have a herd of American Milking Devons and lots of heritage poultry, I am always eager to learn more about rare breed conservation from the Livestock Conservancy staff. Maybe if I pre-record my presentations, I can slip out and go see more myself? Think they’ll let me do that?!

Is there any advice or words of wisdom that you might be able to share with those attending the fair?

Rest before you get there because once you’re there, you just can’t stop and the adrenaline will kick in. There’s so much to see and do, and it’s a chance to get beyond the pages of a great magazine and away from the computer and really do what we all need to do more–actually talk to people, sharing the wisdom that we don’t want to go by the wayside. And, chances are, you’ll walk away not only with new ideas but also a few new friends.

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About Josh O'Conner
Josh O’Conner is an urban/land use planner with a passion for urban agriculture. He can be reached at @kalepiracy or @joshoconner on Twitter or e-mailed at josh.oconner@gmail.com.

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