The Design Observer Group

Posted 10.10.09

Timothy Beatley

The 100-Mile Thanksgiving

Polyface Farm, Swoope, Virginia. [Image credit: Timothy Beatley]

What will be the energy footprint of your Thanksgiving dinner? How far will your turkey travel to the table?

These are the kinds of question we’re learning to ask at our planning program at the University of Virginia, where for several years we’ve been teaching courses in community food. In the first year, which I co-teach with Tanya Denckla Cobb, students inventory and assess the food systems of greater Charlottesville. In the second year, they identify policy gaps and promising opportunities, e.g., how to create a farm-to-school program, or turn vacant lots into urban farms; how food production could take place at the university; how local farmers can better connect with local consumers. In the third and final year, we look at food through the lens of global/local. We are not the only university program with a focus on food — our efforts reflect a national trend (a positive one) to incorporate food systems and local production into planning curricula. In fact, food systems seem to be emerging as the latest form of infrastructure, and ensuring a sustainable supply of locally produced and processed food is now understood to be an essential municipal activity, just as vital as providing water and power and handling waste. As Wendell Berry writes: “. . . how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.” [1]

Food and food systems are marvelous avenues for learning about sustainable placemaking. They link to diverse aspects of urban design: to land-use practices; energy demand and fossil fuel dependence; public health and the epidemic of obesity and other lifestyle diseases; opulence and consumption. Food allows us to evaluate and advocate for lighter, less resource-intensive lifestyles that aren’t sacrificial but instead richer and healthier. (Sufficiency and localism are irresistible when they come in the form of rhubarb confit or blueberry pie.) Reinvigorated food systems, moreover, represent a potentially powerful form of community building — a way to strengthen local commitments. Rethinking the food supply chain and rediscovering regional heritages can reconnect people to landscapes and to each other.

Just as important, our food curriculum has catalyzed activism beyond the classroom. At the end of one semester, for instance, the students presented their findings at city hall. The turnout was impressive, and afterward, on the spot, the assembled citizens hatched a new advocacy organization, called E.A.T. (Everyone at the Table) Local. The students’ work has been covered by local media, and in 2007 it laid the groundwork for a successful statewide food summit. The classes have also inspired what’s become a department tradition: the 100-mile Thanksgiving dinner.

Polyface Farm, movable turkey coop and grazing fields, Swoope, Virginia. [Image credit: Timothy Beatley]

We got the idea from Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon of Vancouver, British Columbia. In 2005 Smith and MacKinnon began an ambitious lifestyle experiment: for a year they ate only food that they could obtain within a 100-mile radius of their home. [2] Around that time I interviewed Alisa in Vancouver and later that year she emailed me with a proposal: Would the University of Virginia planning class like to join her and J.B. in a campaign to create the “100-mile Thanksgiving”? I discussed this with students and faculty, and at first the 100-mile limit aroused considerable angst. Would we have to forego traditional ingredients, like cinnamon or nutmeg for pumpkin pie, or fruits and vegetables that just aren’t in season in Virginia in November? And what about all the extra planning — no quick trips to the local Giant or Harris Teeter, with their cornucopia of produce from California and South America, their canned goods from everywhere? There was a collective gulp when we realized how much we’d need to do differently, but finally we agreed to take on the challenge.

It was a fulfilling — and filling — semester. Faculty and students alike learned a lot about our regional resources, and we connected with farmers and producers throughout the Shenandoah Valley. Our three (smallish) turkeys came from Polyface Farm. Located on 550 acres in Swoope, Virginia, Polyface is owned and run by Joel Salatin, an advocate, even guru, of ecological farming methods — what he calls “beyond organic. ” Salatin has become a hero in these parts, and is now something of a national celebrity as a result of being profiled in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. [3] Joel has been a visitor to our food class, so it was only natural that our turkeys would be raised in the nurturing landscapes of Polyface.

Wade's Mill, Raphine, Virginia.

Polyface deploys a rotational, grass-based system, an intricate sequence by which poultry and livestock are moved from pasture to pasture — or “salad bars,” as the Salatins call their grass fields. The class saw this first-hand on a visit to the farm. Our Thanksgiving birds were being raised in a spacious coop, which was hooked up to tractor and every few days pulled to a fresh field. Lightweight electric fencing kept the turkeys in the coop, and some assertive geese scared off the hawks with their squawking. The result of this careful process is not only delicious poultry but also a healthier landscape. You can trace a clear line in the landscape between Polyface’s lush pastures and the neighboring farms, their fields eroded by conventional farming. This ecological approach to livestock farming helps to nourish soil and sequester carbon; Salatin even argues that eating his beef, chicken and pork is an environmentally restorative act, contrary to the prevailing pejorative views of conventional farming.

Polyface wasn’t our only local source. We discovered Wade’s Mill, in the town of Raphine. Founded in 1750 and still powered by a water wheel, Wade’s grinds its flour on millstones, and there we purchased flour and cornmeal made from locally grown grains. We also discovered local artisanal cheeses, and local jams, jellies and honey. Thanks to some advance planning, our holiday menu also included local potatoes: worried about our ability to make mashed potatoes, I’d secured a large supply of potatoes from a nearby farm, which survived reasonably well in my garage-turned-root cellar. That first year I also collected local acorns and made acorn bread — a nod to the Native American heritage, in particular the Monacan nation that inhabited Central Virginia when the European settlers arrived. (The best acorns are those from white oaks. Conveniently, we have many on campus.) Sometimes we had to creatively revise tradition. Cranberries were off limits to us, at 38-degrees north latitude; but local raspberries made a tasty substitute. Sometimes we finessed the limits; local milk proved surprisingly difficult to find so — full disclosure — we bought milk from a dairy just beyond our range. But happily — unlike our Canadian role models — we suffered no shortage of good wine, thanks to the burgeoning viticulture of Central Virginia.

As the semester progressed, our students become immersed not just in preparing the meal but also in tracking the issues. They even wrote placards to accompany each dish, indicating the estimated percentage of the ingredients gotten within 100 miles of Charlottesville. This seemed a bit too regulatory to me, but I had to admire their zeal for sourcing our feast, and the event itself was enhanced by the stories and meaning attached to the food. Perhaps most important, the dinner was (and is) great fun. About 100 people attend — students, faculty, family, friends — and the result is a happy mix of food, flavors and aromas, a room buzzing with good conversation and camaraderie and reflections on the year and life.

100-mile Thanksgiving Dinner, University of Virginia. [Image credit: Kathy Cacciola]

One of the most important lessons of the annual event — not just the meal but also the planning and preparing — is the profound satisfaction e to be found in growing, harvesting, cooking and eating food. Too much of what we emphasis in sustainability today is absent the sensory and aesthetic dimensions that make life pleasurable. (My landscape architecture colleague Elizabeth Meyer made this point eloquently when she asked, at a recent public forum espousing bicycles and sustainability mobility: “We’ve got to start to talking about how it makes us feel to ride a bicycle.”)

We are now getting ready to hold the fourth annual 100-mile Thanksgiving. Once again we’ll  gather in the meeting room of a nearby church — an easy walk from the university and a comfortable fit for our many guests. Each year we have layered new meanings onto the local banquet. Last year we placed a map of the region on the table and asked everyone to mark where and from whom they got the ingredients for the food they brought. (The little kids seemed to especially enjoy this.) Also last year one undergraduate had the splendid idea of decorating the tables with leaves from local trees, along with cleverly designed placards that challenged us to identify (and then divulged) the particular species. It was at once an infusion of seasonal color and another way to sharpen local awareness.

To be sure, there are inevitable limits to the 100-mile meal. On a regular basis, such a restricted diet would require us to sacrifice not just exotic treats but also daily staples. (How many of us live near a coffee grower?) Glocalism — to use the ungainly neologism —acknowledges the impossibility of disconnecting from the global economy. Yet the 100-mile holiday dinner always inspires students to explore locally sourced food, and to realize that it has powerful implications for design and planning — for rethinking urban and suburban landscapes as agricultural opportunities.

One important and perhaps surprising insight is that there is often a great deal of local food available in most regions. Another is that local food is a fragile enterprise, and that communities need to nurture and strengthen the ties between consumers and producers. (Small grants to support Community Supported Agriculture, or to help farmers convert from conventional to ecological growing methods, would be helpful. So would rewriting regulations that discourage local processing and selling, and also encouraging municipalities to buy local.) Our university dinner highlights not only what is available but also what is difficult or impossible to find, which underscores that most local food systems are now fractured and incomplete. One of the important planning projects of the next decades will be to reconnect the parts of these systems and to build back the missing components of mid-scale agriculture — “agriculture of the middle” — including the mills, dairies, abattoirs and processors that have closed and been replaced by centralized facilities.

Kipp Nash, Community Roots founder, Boulder, Colorado. [Image credit: Timothy Beatley]

But we live in encouraging times, and all around the country this reconnecting is starting to happen. In Boulder, Colorado, for instance, a group called Community Roots is promoting the emerging practice of yard-farming: the transformation of residential front and back yards into agricultural plots and fruit orchards. Community Roots is the brainchild of farmer Kipp Nash, who since 2005 has cultivated 12 residential yards and one church lawn in his Martin Acres neighborhood in south Boulder. The gardens range from 300 square feet to 2,500 square feet (at the Mennonite Church). Sometimes the homeowners help out, and they get to harvest some of the yard bounty, which might mean fresh lettuce, spinach, arugula, chard, scallions, onions, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, kale, collards, beets, radishes, fava beans, green beans, peas and potatoes. But Nash and his volunteers do most of the planting and tending, and they sell the harvest through the Community Supported Agriculture network or at Boulder’s farmers market. Nash is planning more yard farms, and a Community Roots Institute is in the works.

The potential for fruit and vegetable production in suburbia is illustrated by another farming project. The Urban Farm occupies a one-third-acre lot in central Phoenix, Arizona. Created and run by a local eco-activist and entrepreneur named Greg Peterson, the farm, which started in 2001, features an impressive range of desert-tolerant fruit trees, including peach, guava, fig, Asian pear, apple, pomegranate and citrus. Peterson, who earned a master’s in environmental planning at Arizona State University, is able to fit a lot of trees — about 80 — on a compact lot by planting dwarf varieties and creatively using the property edges: Peterson’s lot lines are defined by tree rows, an arrangement that his neighbors enjoy. (Good orchards make good neighbors.) Like Kipp Nash, Peterson is expanding his ecological ambitions beyond edible landscapes; he’s organized a local permaculture network, and started a TV show, Smart Spaces: Inside and Out, viewable on YouTube.

Urban Farm
Urban Farm, Phoenix, Arizona. [Image credit: Courtesy of Greg Peterson]

Community Roots and the Urban Farm exemplify innovative thinking about the conventional American home. Could these examples spur us to set new priorities for residential design, construction and promotion, at a scale that would transform our city and suburban landscapes? Could food growing become integrated into the practices of the big production homebuilders? This might mean that besides the usual choices — architectural style, interior finishes, paint colors, countertops, etc. — potential buyers would also be asked to choose among various home-agricultural models. Do you want the blueberry patch/apple orchard combo, or would your neo-Tuscan go better with the currants/figs/paw paws mix? Would you prefer to plant your crops in rows in the front yard? Or in the back yard on raised planter beds? Or maybe you’d like pots on the balcony, or even the roof? And — moving indoors — will small greenhouses, root cellars and canning closets become standard features? My prediction is that as the price and availability of food — and transport and energy costs — become increasingly volatile, local agriculture and residential farming will move from the eco-pioneers to mainstream householders.

As we prepare for this year’s 100-Mile Thanksgiving dinner, there seems more excitement than usual. It might be that our new food-conscious curricula have attracted more foodie students to UVA. But it’s also a sign of the times — of a strengthening local food movement, of the desire to regain some control over what we consume in a globalized world, maybe even of renewed appreciation for the solid pleasures of friends and family in a world of fragile job markets and unreliable stock portfolios. Whatever the reason, we anticipate an especially festive evening, and we’ve invited local growers and producers to join us, which will allow us to thank them directly, or, as Michael Pollan puts it, to “shake the hands that feed us.”