The Mexican Food Chronicles: An Introduction To Permaculture
I spent the first half of January with a group of fellow NYU students studying the Mexican food system. We visited the cities of Puebla and Oaxaca, as well as rural areas on the outskirts of those cities. We ate amazing food (mole, chilaquiles, lamb barbacoa) drank a lot (pulque and mezcal) and got a strong sense of the complexities of this food system, in which tradition and modernity intertwine and tangle like a double helix to the point that it can be hard to figure out where one ends and the other begins. To know more about the Mexican food system is to realize how little it is we know; to know is to have more questions: about the effects of NAFTA on small farmers, about Walmart’s outsized influence, about what “traditional Mexican food” even means.
This was a trip of juxtapositions. A visit to the Centro de Abastos, where we saw Puebla’s version of Hunts Point in the Bronx, a large wholesale produce market where farmers come from the outskirts of town to sell to restaurants and individuals in Puebla, was paired with a visit to the city’s enormous Walmart, with its substantial produce section. A visit to an industrialized pork ranch was paired with a visit to a hacienda where we watched the slaughtering and butchering of a single lamb to be cooked in the barbacoa. And the idea of lamb barbacoa is itself a juxtaposition of the pre-Hispanic cooking technique with the European-influenced lamb meat. Before the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, the only meat that likely would have been used in the Barbacoa was armadillo or deer meat.
A key juxtaposition was that of monocropping with the more sustainable method of farming called permaculture, which we witnessed literally side by side. When I looked over the fence from Tierra del Sol, a permaculture farm just east of Oaxaca, into the next farm, I saw rows of corn stalks, withered and dried, stretching out practically to the foot of the hills—the remnants of the previous harvest. I saw an enormous monoculture, dependent on one crop, concerned with extracting maximum production from the land without any care for the fertility that must be returned to the land to sustain that production in the long term. I saw yet another tract of land that has been abandoned to corporate food interests, producing food at the expense of the small farmer, the poor consumer, the soil.
The fence separated not just different farms but different farming philosophies, different spiritual orientations toward the land on which we depend so much. On this side of the fence, Tierra del Sol practices the principles of Permaculture, which stands for “permanent agriculture” or, as Peter Bloom of Tierra del Sol told us on our visit, “permanent culture,” in the sense that it places food at the center as the focal point of our entire culture.
[pullquote_right]Tierra del Sol points to a new way to relate to our food, which is actually an old way: food as the center of culture.[/pullquote_right]
From that fundamental building block—food as defining cultural element—permaculture spirals outward as a design methodology, a way to build a garden, a farm, a homestead. It touches on how to build, where to build, how to relate the various elements that are built. It ties sustainability, economic solidarity, health and spiritual wellbeing into a coherent, unified whole. It is both a practical farming methodology to grow food and a manifestation of idealistic notions of how we can live more sustainably and harmoniously off the land and with the land.
At Tierra del Sol, there is no waste: there are enormous compost piles routinely flipped and aerated and turned into fertile soil in which more food can be grown. More fertility is returned to the land than is even taken out in the first place. The energy to run the farm is generated from solar panels and a large windmill. Tierra del Sol grows polycultures: there are diverse rows of vegetables and legumes, and they are rotated cyclically in this order, according to whether they add or remove fertility from the soil:
- Crops that take nutrients out the soil (these have fruit growing outside of the soil, like tomatoes).
- Crops that take a small amount of nutrients out of the soil (crops from which we eat the leaves, such as lettuce and spinach).
- Crops that use no nutrients and let the soil rest but produce food (crops from which we eat the roots, like beets and radishes).
- Crops that restore nutrients to the soil (legumes such as beans and peas take Nitrogen from the air and leave it in the soil).
This rotation is circular and cyclical, in direct contrast to the one-directional monoculture method of extraction across the fence. It leaves the land better off with each cycle and produces enough food to feed the people working the farm.
At Tierra del Sol, farmers do not sell what they grow, as they found that it was not a sustainable proposition to try to profit from it. Why not, as Peter says, stay out of the cash economy where they can only hope to break even, and simply grow the food to feed the people here on the farm? Who decided that agriculture is a commercial pursuit?
One of our fundamental responsibilities as humans is to feed ourselves, and on Tierra del Sol they have accomplished just that, and have done it in a sustainable manner. When we outsource this responsibility to the big agricultural corporations that turn vast fields into rows of a single crop, and turn that into processed quasi-food products, we outsource our sovereignty and let down our side of the bargain that says we need to be in true harmony with the natural processes and cycles of the earth if we want to continue to prosper in this life and on this land. Tierra del Sol, and permaculture in general, point to a new way (which is actually an old way) to relate to our food: as the center of our culture, as our responsibility as individual humans trying to survive together, as something that irrevocably binds person to person and person to land.