March 26, 2009
Amidst the dense clouds of dismal news this early spring, a brilliant ray of sunlight just broke through: Michelle Obama and a crew of kids from a D.C. public school began digging up 1,100 square feet of the White House South Lawn for a vegetable garden.
As I wrote in last week's column, I wasn't sure something like that would ever happen, but there it was, all over the evening news, a picture worth a billion words of eat-local proponents over decades.
In a campaign and administration noted for its leaklessness to the press, the announcement of the garden was true to form, a complete surprise. But the plan had obviously been in the works for months, a carefully-designed space to demonstrate the versatility, productivity, and economy of organic micro-farming. This is a shovel-ready project if there ever was one, a soil-and- sun-based stimulus package with a materials start-up cost of $200 for seeds and mulch, and a prolific future yield of fresh-picked produce for the First Family's table, state dinners, and local soup kitchens.
The spring planting plan (the layout is available on whitehouse.gov) mirrors that of well-run community gardens and small farms everywhere in America: cool-weather crops of lettuces, spinach, broccoli, carrots, peas, and more, with colorful borders of nasturtiums (whose leaves double as a peppery salad-green) and insect-inhibiting marigolds. Year-round growth will include an herb garden and patches for berries and rhubarb. For pollination, two beehives will be installed (and wouldn't you covet a jar of White House honey?).
The summer crops have not yet been disclosed, but you can expect a rotation to all the favorites — tomatoes, peppers, sweet corn, squashes, cucumbers, eggplants.
While most of the labor in the garden will be performed by the White House groundskeepers and cooking staff, Mrs. Obama pledges that her whole family, the president of the United States included, will get out there regularly to weed and harvest.
The power of the presidency lies not only in policy but in symbol, and nothing could be more symbolic than this little plot of ground. It represents and endorses a change in national attitude toward what we eat and how we produce what we eat. It raises the consciousness of the country not only to issues of health and nutrition but to the simple pleasures of working the soil and cooking creatively. That patch of berries may be a symbol-within-the-symbol, too: The Blackberry in your pocket just can't match the blackberry in your mouth.
But then again, there is that policy component, and how the Obama vegetable garden foreshadows shifts in federal agricultural priorities remains to be seen. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the former Iowa governor once derided by environmentalists as a "shill for Monsanto" for supporting agribusiness, ethanol, and biotechnology, came out of the inaugural starting-gate a changed man, advocating school nutrition programs, regional farming, soil conservation techniques, and farmers' markets. The challenge will be to convince Congress, long lavishly lobbied by Big Agriculture.
But popular sentiment may force change in spite of agridollars, not just by petition but by practice, as more and more Americans abandon factory-farm "product" and processed foods and embrace the locally grown, the fresh and the natural.
The photo of Michelle Obama turning that spade-ful of dirt was a shot seen 'round the world. At the GreenThumb GrowTogether, the annual convention of New York City community gardeners held last Saturday at Hostos College here in the South Bronx, the thousand-plus participants were ecstatic and energized as never before. Across the nation, I am sure, people have started thinking of joining a community garden or digging up a part of their own lawns for vegetables. And countries long dependent on shipments of American grain are experimenting with plans leading towards food self-sufficiency.
Some very good news for spring.