This winter I had the privilege of participating in a life-changing trip to Oaxaca, Mexico.
I joined a delegation of Midwestern farmers organized by the Land Stewardship Project and hosted by Witness for Peace — both superb groups if you are looking for great organizations to join and support. It feels like a monumental challenge to distill everything I learned on the trip (stop me sometime in the co-op if you have a few hours), but there’s one particular story I’ve thought a lot about over the past few months.
Towards the end of our trip, we traveled out of the city to a village about two hours away. Our bus unloaded into an area of lush forest and small corn fields where farmers grow an indigenous variety of corn, bred through traditional seed saving over many years to withstand the dry season. Someone in our group asked a very farmer question: What type of soil do you grow on? The answer was stunning. In short, no one knows because the ground there is some of the most severely eroded on the planet. We were standing no less than three feet below where the topsoil used to be.
Later, our group arrived in an area where the forest came to a hard stop. On one side was forest, on the other was barren soil and nothing else. We were told the barren area was what the entire forest used to look like before migrant farmers moved there 30 years earlier fleeing civil war in Guatemala. These migrants had the audacity to envision a lush forest where once there was nothing. I can’t begin to imagine how much time and labor must have gone into the transformation. But I have thought about it often since returning from Mexico.
We face many injustices in our food system, from inequitable access to food to unfair labor practices to the mental and emotional health of our farmers. In the face of so many problems, it is tempting to shut down and tell ourselves that the problems are too big and we are too small. That sense of helplessness, to my mind, is the most dangerous of any problem we face. To do nothing is to implicitly accept the status quo.
When I feel overwhelmed by the challenges in our food system, I remind myself of Oaxaca. If these farmers — adapting to a new home in the wake of a civil war — can muster the vision and hard work to build a forest out of nothing, then we can certainly use the same principles to tackle the most pressing issues in our own communities.
Ariel Pressman is the owner of Seed to Seed farm in Balsam Lake, Wisconsin, which supplies heirloom tomatoes and other organic product to Lakewinds Food Co-op.