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What does true sovereignty embody in the context of our agricultural systems? Perennial Tree Crop Agriculture and Sovereign Rural Hinterlands: An Exploration of the Possible

Part One — The Urban/Rural Dichotomy

In terms of what might be called our “material reality,” human civilization comprises the rise and growth of both cities and rural agriculture, in mutual conjunction. You can’t have more people in the city without more food being produced in rural areas to feed them. (I fully support urban agriculture, especially when it is inspiring young people and building community, but the amount of staple human calories produced inside of the city is miniscule).

Constantly, every single day, all cities require the perpetual importation of resources from outside of the city. This means food, building materials, energy, and other supplies—all for consumption in the city. In a globalized economy, this means receiving products from all over the world.

Beginning with this basic premise, and in the spirit of a healthy discussion about what sovereignty embodies, I would ask the reader to grapple with the question: Is true sovereignty achievable inside the confines of a city? Is true sovereignty achievable when one is dependent upon the vast intricacies of the global economic system?

Total community sovereignty can only exist if there is direct, profound control and ownership over the land and the local food system that provide all necessary human calories.

Inside of this definition, is there room for a larger “bioregional” food system and trading? Yes, but food sovereignty begins with the autonomous community that presides over a land base and their local food systems first, and then decide what their relationship to neighboring communities and the larger region will be.

PART TWO — Annual Staple Crop Agriculture and Synthetic Nitrogen Fertilizer

Annual staple crop agriculture (in the United States this is primarily corn, soybeans, and wheat) degrades soil health and fertility. Annual means that the crop is planted and harvested all in one growing season. Annual tillage (using a tractor to break up the soil and prepare it) damages soil structure and also leads to massive amounts of topsoil run-off, whereby our precious soil flows into waterways.

The element Nitrogen is critical for robust plant growth. To supplement this loss of fertility in our soils due to annual staple crops, nitrogen fertilizer is added to agricultural fields. In a natural farm system, this can come in the form of decomposed cow poop.

However, in 1909, the scientists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch developed a way to produce “synthetic” nitrogen fertilizer, a process that requires high pressure and high temperature. This discovery changed the course of history by dramatically increasing agricultural production, and led to the 20th century explosion in human population. “Now, roughly a third of all the protein (animal and vegetable) consumed by humankind is derived from synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.”[1]

To feed the global demand for synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, three to five percent of the world’s natural gas production is burned in the manufacturing process.[2]

Let that sink in. Food for thought: How sovereign can the human species really be when such a huge portion of our caloric intake is directly dependent upon the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer? The production of which requires vast amounts of natural gas, a non-renewable, finite resource.

Not to mention, the massive amount of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer doused on agricultural fields spill into waterways, which creates a toxic imbalance, and causes “dead zones” in our rivers.

So we are up a creek, but is there a paddle?

PART THREE — Perennial Staple Tree Crop Agriculture

Humanity needs staple food crops to survive. Vegetables are not what we define as “staple crops,” though they do provide important nutrients to the human diet. Staple crops (corn, rice, wheat, potatoes, cassava, soybeans, sweet potatoes, sorghum, dry beans) provide a significant portion of essential human calories.

Unfortunately, all of the above are annuals, and have the aforementioned problems.

However, in the plant world, there also exist “perennial” plants, which can live for many years, decades, and sometimes centuries. Bushes and trees fall into this category.

To avoid the pitfalls of annual staple crop agriculture, there is an emerging agricultural philosophy that proposes the development of perennial, staple crops to feed humanity critical calories.

Philip Rutter is 67 years old. He completed his coursework for a PhD in evolutionary biology from the University of Minnesota in the 1970s. Instead of writing his thesis, he elected to buy a 160-acre farm in southern Minnesota and began his life’s work of breeding and growing hazelnuts and chestnuts.

He foresaw the unsustainable nature of annual corn and soybean agriculture long ago, and he decided to try to do something about it.

Philip’s vision has always been to make these perennial nut trees into serious staple crop contenders. His breeding process is rigorous and scientific, and he has gone through multiple rounds of selection over the past 35 years. He has selected for disease and insect resistance, productivity, particular growth habits, drought resistance, and more.

Chestnuts are erect trees that grow to 30-40 feet tall. They can be made into a flour, which is comparable to corn meal, but much healthier for humans. Hazelnuts are a perennial bushing plant, with many wooden shoots that branch out from the crown (the crown sits atop the roots right below the soil surface). Hazelnuts are 60-70% oil; soybeans, an annual staple that is comparable hazelnuts, also have high oil content. Though again, the hazels are much healthier for humans. With the proper economy of scale, harvesting machinery, and processing equipment, Philip believes hazelnuts could replace soybeans today.

The tree cropping system that he has developed does not use pesticides (which kill insects) or herbicides (which kill weeds). In addition to the issues with annual staple crops previously discussed, the corn and soybean growing methods in the United States use immense amounts of chemicals to kill insects and weeds, and are essentially “anti-nature.” Philip’s agro-ecological method of growing hazelnuts and chestnuts works with nature, and develops hardy plants in a quasi-wild ecosystem. Farm animals can graze on the grass that grows between the rows of trees and bushes, and the manure they drop feeds natural nitrogen to the trees.

The potential impact of these perennial staple tree crops is huge, but Philip says it will take the dedication of small farmers learning, organizing, and rallying around each other to make it happen.

PART FOUR — Perennial Agriculture and Climate Change

Climate change is also very relevant here. Philip Rutter’s book on growing Hazelnuts has the subtitle: “The New Resilient Crop for a Changing Climate.” Simply put, annual staple crops are much more vulnerable to drought and other freakish weather events. There have been years where Philip’s neighbors’ corn crop has died because of lack of rain, but Philip’s hazelnuts still put off a good harvest. These tree crops are tough, robust, and stand a good chance in our volatile times.

Below is an important quote from an assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:

“A large fraction of anthropogenic climate change resulting from CO2 [carbon] emissions is irreversible on a multi-century to millennial time scale, except in the case of a large net removal of CO2 [carbon] from the atmosphere over a sustained period.”[3]

Basically, this means that the greenhouse gases that humanity has burned over the last couple hundred years, which are causing global warming, must be removed from the atmosphere to halt catastrophe. Where can these gases go? Well, perennial tree crop agriculture actually sequesters carbon (same thing as greenhouse gases) in the soil as well as the wood and roots of the plants. So in addition to these plants being more resilient, we can actually be fighting climate change with greenhouse gas-sucking tree crop farm systems! Bam!

It is also important to note that tilling soil actually releases carbon into the atmosphere.

PART FIVE — Connecting the Dots

Philip Rutter’s grand vision has been about replacing corn and soybeans with chestnuts and hazelnuts: he has sought to accomplish this by proving to existing farmers that they can make money by switching over to these perennials.

Even in the absence of a complete farm paradigm shift, these tree crops can undergird sovereign, alternative communities.

In the rural hinterlands there exists the opportunity for autonomous communities to build sovereign, hyper-local food systems, on a land base that they control and own. A truly sovereign food system cannot rely upon outside inputs, like synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, for soil fertility. With the myriad reasons presented in this piece, hazelnuts and chestnuts have the potential to be perennial, staple crops that are resilient and sustainable for the long haul.

Environmentally, socially, and politically, the times we live in are turbulent. Philip Rutter chose these two tree crops in part because, as he told me personally, “they can survive war.” Hazelnuts and chestnuts coppice very well, which means they can be cut or burned to the ground and they will grow back—they are difficult to kill. In an unstable world, these are stable, durable plants.

Our society is largely predicated on corporate efficiency and the bottom line, and from this many and far-ranging hierarchical and exploitative relationships persist. With the development of new, perennial staple crops, there is an opportunity to build social models based on cooperation and communalism that flow directly from them. This is exciting!

To achieve radical community sovereignty, let’s build communal homesteads with hazelnuts and chestnuts. We can fight climate change, build healthy farm ecosystems, and feed humanity. I’ll see you in the shade.

[1] Mann, Charles C. (2013). State of the Species. Orion Magazine

[2] Smil, Vaclav (2004). Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ISBN 9780262693134

[3] IPCC, 2013: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.[]

When it Rains in Philadelphia

When it rains in Philadelphia, and I whither what to do?
I ponder this place’s history—all the years hitherto.
But before the City of Brotherly Love that I sit in today,
There was the village of Shackamaxon, of the Lenape.

Some glorify Penn’s treaty back in 1683,
When Whitey and the Originals gathered under an elm tree.
It may have held some weight back when but only for a smidgen,
Now the Wharton Mordor Tower’s clouding up my vision.

Gardens have been important here, yes it’s civilization:
From slash-n-burn and the Three Sisters of the Lenape Nation,
On down the years to Bartram’s on the Schuylkill over yon,
I carry on tradition in North Philly on a vacant lawn.

Oh what the gardeners of centuries past used to think,
On rainy days as they relaxed and knew their plants would drink?
Did they ponder our existence and the essence of the plants?
Or strike up a fire to keep warm and go on romantic rants?

Teosinte and Monsanto: A Tale of Civilization

It has been established that the wild grass teosinte, which is native to the Mesoamerican region (Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua), is the genetic ancestor of corn. Like corn, teosinte has ears with kernels, however the ears are much smaller and look a lot different than corn. Sometime around 9,000 years ago, it is estimated, when the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica were beginning to experiment with agriculture, teosinte kernels were chosen selectively for planting.

The theory is that over hundreds and hundreds of years, by means of selective breeding done by humans (also known as artificial selection, as opposed to natural selection), teosinte slowly evolved into corn. Teosinte and corn have most of the same genes in common, and it is possible to breed them together to make hybrid plants, which has been done in the modern era. It is entirely possible that if it were not for human beings corn may not exist.

For millennia now corn has been a central pillar in the building of civilization: from the Maya in Mesoamerica 4,000 years ago all the way to the present day United States, but it is only now, in the age of ruthless, globalized corporate capitalism, that the ecological commons of our world are under perilous threat by private interests (debating the merits, discontents, and sustainability of civilization is definitely fair game, just not in this article).

You may have heard of Monsanto, the transnational seed and chemical corporation. Monsanto has developed a number of genetically engineered (or genetically modified) crops—corn is one of them—which they alone have patent rights to. At a fundamental level, what this means is that Monsanto, through genetic engineering, has gained intellectual property rights over nature. If you somehow obtain Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds, not from them, they can sue you. Genetic engineering is done by inserting new genes into the DNA of an organism, or by removing genes. The goals of such engineering can vary, but one example of why Monsanto has done it is to create crops that are resistant to the particular herbicides and pesticides that they also manufacture. So if you have their seed, you also need their herbicides and pesticides.

Now, there are a whole slew of issues I take with Monsanto. Essentially, they are the epitome of our unsustainable, oil and pesticide dependent, mono-cropping, industrial food system—a system that is not just horrible for the environment and doomed to fail in the long run, but also leads to many of the health problems that we have in this country. Or, to put it differently, Monsanto is the antithesis of local, dignified, healthy, natural food and food systems. But I started this article by highlighting the history of how teosinte became corn, and the integral role that humans have played in this process, and I want to tie it all together.

After teosinte eventually evolved into corn the process of saving seeds and selective breeding did not stop there. For thousands of years, all the way until this very moment, as I sit staring at a beautiful ear of Native American red corn that I grew in my garden this year, human agriculturalists have continued the process of evolving corn.

So, for a moment, I want you to ponder the essence of the creativity, ingenuity, and hard work of the millions of people over thousands of years that have all played a part in the selective breeding and development of corn, from the first agriculturalists of Mesoamerica that decided to replant teosinte seeds and on down the ages. The rise of corn has been a mind-bogglingly incredible human project that has been a crucial part in the development of civilization.

And Monsanto, in the present day United States of America, thinks that by simply altering a few genes in the DNA of corn that they can all of a sudden secure intellectual property rights to it? Nine thousand years of collective human effort and brilliance, and a scheming, vicious, profit-driven corporation—mind you, the same corporation that invented Agent Orange in the Vietnam War era—assumes private ownership of something that is not theirs and never was theirs. That is the mindset of a colonizer. In my humble opinion, the natural world is not something that can be privately owned and patented. Corn, like all other living organisms on this planet, humans included, are members of the ecological commons—nature simply exists, we all exist.

From “The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth” by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, that I am reading right now:

“The causes of the five previous mass extinctions are not fully understood, but the mass extinction taking place today is clearly being driven by Homo sapiens via an economic system that operates at the global level.The constant expansion of the capitalist system has pushed environmentaldegradation to the planetary level, as habitat destruction decimates the living conditions of species and as ecosystems are radically transformed. Human civilization, under capitalism, is engaged in a process of destroying the future, as “we suck our sustenance from the rest of nature in a way never before seen in the world, reducing its bounty as ours grows.”

“Eldredge points out that as humans moved beyond isolated ecosystems, to operate at the planetary level, our alienation from nature increased. We developed the illusion that we were not dependent upon the environment. Eldredge warns that the current global mass extinction is quite different from previous ones, in that the source of the extinction remains on the scene: humans destroying habitat for the sake of profit. Thus recovery of ecosystems is not possible so long as the same forces continue to act and change the world as has been the practice.”

“The rate of speciation is caught in a time conflict, as the current rate of extinction is faster than the rate of evolution. The mass extinction being orchestrated today is a unique historic event, given that it is being driven by anthropogenic forces that continue to operate. Since 1600, the extinction rate has been 50 to 100 times the average estimated rate of extinction during previous epochs, but the rate “is expected to rise to between 1,000 and 10,000 times the natural rate.” Thus a radical change in the operations of human society and its interaction with nature is necessary to stop the ecological crisis that is taking place.”

“Humans must establish a form of social production that does not alienate people from nature and that interacts with nature in a manner that does not undermine the environment’s ability to regenerate.”

One Night at a Venezuelan Soccer Game

Thrashing, raging, pushing, and shoving, or what many would consider a complete breakdown of anything civilized. There was about a 60-feet long by 30-feet wide man-infested box around the ticket booth at los Estudiantes de Merida soccer game in Merida (capital city), Merida (state), Venezuela…last night, Wednesday, November 7th, 2012.

I wish I could say I was surprised, but after living in this country for a total of nine months, in 2007, 2009, and again now in 2012, you’d have to be a fool to at least not have an inkling into the operational ways of the culture…how shit gets done…or doesn’t.

Los Estudiantes de Merida were playing a team from Barinas, a nearby state. This is the Venezuelan professional soccer league. Merida has a beautiful stadium, easily worthy of an intra-South American contest between countries.

One of my good friends here, Pablo, who I met in 2009, is a recent Chemical Engineering graduate of la Universidad de Los Andes in Merida (Merida, the capital city, with a population of 200,000, is nestled in a valley in the Andes Mountains, and home to the second biggest university in Venezuela, hence the name of the soccer team, los Estudiantes, but the team has no relation to the university), and is planning to head out east to the Oriental tomorrow (Merida is western) to begin job-searching in this oil- and mineral-rich, lucrative region. And so it seemed an obvious decision to cop a bottle of rum, Pepsi, limes, and a bag of ice, and head to the big Wednesday night soccer game for our last hurrah until I see him in who knows how long.

Pablo, Alan (another good friend of mine), and I left my apartment where I am staying an hour or so before game time. We walked quickly. Our destination, 15 minutes away, was a stop along the city’s trolley bus line, which connects a large swath of this long, skinny, sloped city (the primary directions people use here are bajando and subiendo, going down or going up), and is a somewhat recent and large investment Merida has made in public transportation.

Mostly, I think the trolley bus line works okay, but because of the game there was a particularly long line, which meant a 25-minute wait just to get on one. Drinks were poured in line.

Again, we are dealing with mountain terrain here, so when we got off at the stadium stop, we had to walk up a rugged path to get to the road that leads to the stadium.

As we entered through the general, open-to-the-public gate that leads to the area where you buy tickets, I began to sense what we were in for.  Many, many people come to these games without having bought their tickets yet; I’m one of them, and a line, or rather a blob, of maybe 90 feet extended out from the jail-like barred ticket windows, of which there were four or five (which for a game of this magnitude is woefully inadequate).

Pablo and I made our way to the through the trenches to get a good look at the war zone, which I began describing in the first paragraph. There had to have been around 75 or so rather brutish Venezuelan men pushing and shoving to their hearts content and inching their way towards the ticket windows, clamoring for the attention of the workers behind the bars: a mosh pit line of sorts. Everyone for themselves. Complete madness. And all I could think about was how did it come to this?

After a short rendezvous with the man-made frenzy, we said the heck with it. A few other friends of ours had caught up with us by now, and so, the five of us regrouped and plotted our next move…jokes the whole time from them to me about how “this is Venezuela, pana!”

It being Venezuela, we decided to just go to the entrance (there was only one) where they were taking tickets in hopes of sneaking in or bribing a ticket-taker.

It so happened that my friend Edilso, who was now with us, knew the main guy in charge of the entrance, and naturally moved for a bribe, which he seemed to be well on his way to accomplishing after we had gathered the cash, but the guy, possibly prompted by one of the various men just standing around in full Venezuelan military attire (many of whom had some powerful looking guns), had to run over to an office-type building that was connected to the ticket sales building.

Alan, slick as he is, had recognized one of the rag-tag ticket-takers on the far end, somebody he knew from a previous apartment he had lived in, and moseyed on through, leaving the rest of us still outside. Covertly, Alan went and asked this guy if the four of us could pass through. We had our in. Edilso, who had the money rolled into his palm, lead the pack, and gave the guy a quick “we’re the people that know Alan” gesture. We thought we were going to have to pay him, but we just walked right through and he never asked for the money!

We had also been concerned about not being allowed to carry in the rum, Pepsi, limes, and ice that we had, concerned enough to transfer them all into other, regular plastic containers before we had left, in hopes of some quality sneakage. Ha, we passed right through no questions asked.

So, there you have it folks: after avoiding the war zone, we had made it in without paying a single Bolivar and were fully loaded with booze. The game was a blast: we snuck down and got front row seats, downed the rum, and los Estudiantes de Merida won one to nothing with a header in the second half that had the place roaring….la vida venezolana….es una locura.

My experience at an underground Crust Punk concert in Philly – Crust Punk 101

Crust Punk 101

 A new friend of mine in Philadelphia, whose name is Wes, recently invited me to go to an underground crust punk (yes, you read that correctly) show in West Philly – a unique sect of sub-culture with fusions of mainstream rejection, radical politics, scavenger if not vagabond lifestyles, and varying degrees of heavy metal music, which I was previously unaware of. I obviously jumped at the opportunity.

Wes got into this style of music – and to a lesser extent this culture – when he was younger, and continued following it into adulthood. There are many in the crust punk community that fit the stereotypical mold better than he does, but I definitely see shades running through him, especially in the realms of trying to get by without working, his interest in and knowledge about bikes, and his radical Anarcho-primitivist (google it) tendencies.

You might say I have an inquisitive mind…if I was going to do this I needed some background info on everything crustie, so Wes came over before the show so we could discuss the topic at hand over a few beers.

Squatting in abandoned homes, adhering to a personal hygiene (or lack thereof) that would repulse suburban moms, getting by with little, exploiting the obscure niches that modern civilization spits out (doing things to survive that most “normal” people never even think about, much less consider doing), underground house concerts (literally, they are usually in the basement), dumpster diving, and a style of dress that entails the color black, sewed patches, and metal studs and spikes; these are some of the things, I learned, that embody crust punk culture.

What I found most intriguing is that, in general, the culture is inspired by a distinct and radical political consciousness, derived mostly from Anarchism. Many crust punks are strict vegetarians or vegans. They are anti-war and anti-military, and they are disgusted with the practice of vivisection (I implore you to google this). Lyrics in crust punk songs are largely devoted to these kind of very serious real life issues, which, as I see it, makes them way better than contemporary mindless hipster culture (but I digress)

We took off on bike to the cross streets near where the concert was located. That’s right, no exact address was given for this particular crust punk event: you have to go there and find it. This is apparently an attempt to keep it on the DL: an extra effort to thwart the police from busting it up. So here we are, biking around within a one-block radius of these cross streets trying to find the concert. We stopped for a sec to listen intently and could hear the faint but unmistakable sound of heavy metal playing!

We knew we were heading the right direction as the sound grew louder. We found ourselves outside of some type of industrial office building; this was definitely it. We tried to scout out our way in with no luck. After pounding on both the locked door and the garage door, we decided to give the street behind the building a try. On the other side of the block we could hear the music again, but we still couldn’t find the entrance. As we looked we happened upon a man cussing out a woman with kids on the front porch and telling her to get out of his house.

We tried the front of the building again. Score! In the meantime someone had put up a sign on the garage door that emphatically cut to the chase: “Call [the number].” Wes dialed it, explained himself, and next thing you know the garage door started going up.

We walked up the inclined indoor driveway and received a friendly greeting from our phone answerer. As we approached the top of the incline we became fully immersed in the all-encompassing loudness. Twenty-five or so crusties were standing in a semi-circle around the band, many shaking their heads to the music at an incredibly fast pace. Remember that type of multiple-choice question that asks you to select which of these things does not fit in with the rest? At this moment the correct answer would be me.

In the back there was a small table turned makeshift bar that had booze and mixers on it. Beer was going for the awesomely affordable rate of a dollar a can. I needed one and gladly tipped the guy a buck, which he seemed a bit surprised at.

I stood near the back. Wes was close by; he had run into an old friend. The music was blaringly loud and the lyrics were completely indecipherable, which firmly distinguished the crust punk genre from the politically and socially conscious hip-hop that I like listening to: as a rule to which there are exceptions, you can actually hear the words in my music! But to each his or her own…

One particularly crustie fellow – who was tatted and wearing an atrocious vest (and I write this with all due respect; I’m sure he would take that as a complement anyways) that exposed a generous portion of his body, and who had parts of his head shaved and other parts growing hair at length – began mosh pitting and bouncing around the semi-circle. Others followed suit. I braced myself for some action (I have been to a Rage Against the Machine concert). It was clear this guy had had one too many.

After a little while he stopped mosh pitting and resumed his rather violent and out of control style of dance that included aggressive foot stomps, his drink periodically splashing into the air, when all of a sudden, without any physical contact with anyone else, he slipped and bit the dust, exposing approximately a third of his big white butt crack.

It was at this moment that I officially completed the course: Crust Punk 101.