There is a universal law of reciprocity and exchange that those of us who farm see play out in intimate detail on a daily basis. We know that we cannot treat soil like an unlimited reserve; we know that every living thing we engage with requires some form of nourishment that in turn nourishes us. Each time we harvest a box of food and send that food off from the farm we are shipping essential and valuable soil nutrients in the form of a tomato, pepper, radish, or carrot.

Every day an armada of ships and planes and trains and trucks enters our cities carrying foods that contain the embodied soil energy of some distant piece of land. The waste from those foods, in the form of organic matter or fecal waste, is either hauled away where it clogs our landfills or is flushed down toilets where it eventually pollutes our rivers and oceans.

Rarely is there an appropriate nutrient exchange between those who are eating our food and the land from which it came.

When I was in China in the early 1980s, enterprising individuals would build public waterless “toilets” along busy thoroughfares and with signage encouraging passerbys to stop and make a deposit. That waste was then sold as a resource to contractors who would compost it and pass it on to farmers. Every rural village at that time had a large community open pit toilet where everyone squatted together to contribute to the common good of the land. Coming from the west, it took some getting used to for me to join in that public effort.

Most of the “developed” world lives with a broad case of fecal phobia. We shit in precious fresh water, then use more fresh water to flush away those valuable nutrients. We spend billions of dollars to “clean” it up so that it then can be disposed of.

An essential and critical life-giving circle has been broken. Most farms that feed people are located far from where those people live, and the industrial system that grows and distributes those foods is based on synthesized and chemical nutrients and a one-way delivery system where the only thing returning to the land is money to buy more fertilizer. Organic farms are an improvement, but unless they are dealing directly with those they are feeding their nutrient cycle can be one directional as well.

We need to envision our farms as self-sustaining living organisms that produce the majority of soils nutrients from within, but until we can realize that lofty goal we need to find a way to create a more appropriate nutrient exchange.

coverlarge-4Excerpted from Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier” by Michael Ableman

Street Farm is the inspirational account of residents in the notorious Low Track in Vancouver, British Columbia―one of the worst urban slums in North America―who joined together to create an urban farm as a means of addressing the chronic problems in their neighborhood. It is a story of recovery, of land and food, of people, and of the power of farming and nourishing others as a way to heal our world and ourselves.

Michael Ableman is a farmer, author, photographer and urban and local food systems advocate. Michael has been farming organically since the 1970′s and is considered one of the pioneers of the organic farming and urban agriculture movements. Ableman is a frequent lecturer to audiences all over the world, and the winner of numerous awards for his work.