Judy Feldman, Executive Director of the Organic Farm School

I am a grower of farmers. For the sake of small scale farmers everywhere, I ask you to eat regular heaping platefuls of colorful lettuce leaves. Frilly pale green friseé, purple and lime green butter heads, bitter dark green chicory, countless shades of green and purple loose leaf lettuce, and more.

For beginning farmers especially, they provide a significant amount of income. No one goes into farming to get rich, but all farmers need to generate a profit or they don’t remain farmers for long. Lettuce crops grow quickly, they tend to sell quickly too. At the community level, they are in steady demand. In fact, there are farmers who not only paint their fields in the startling diversity of lettuce heads, but specialize in custom salad mixes. They combine spicy leaves with sweet, green with purple and spotted, add in a few herb sprigs or spinach or kale. They change up these offerings throughout the season, along the way developing the sophistication of their eaters’ taste buds and in the best examples talking with them about the process.

This lettuce stuff is also good for you. With very few calories, it subtly goes about adding micronutrients to your blood and bones. But you should probably know that I kind of don’t like it - but I’m working on it.

It’s amazing to watch grow in the field, beginning as tiny, almost weightless seeds, valiantly pushing two bright leaves up through the soil and then in time-lapse fashion adding round and round of thin yet textured photosynthetic wings around a center. They are perhaps the most elegant example of sunlight made edible, and especially in the spring, after a long winter of starchy cooked vegetables, a soul satisfying change of pace to your menu. Especially the varieties with a bit of crunch. 

But I’ve yet to find one that has much flavor. They are more a blank canvas upon which salad dressings serve as the taste equivalent of color. If you’re lucky, they have enough flesh to make your fork useful. Otherwise, you end up trying to slip your utensil under them and awkwardly balance the leaves up to your mouth, or proclaim foodie privilege and pick them up with your fingers.

Shy of a salad, they become the green layer on a sandwich to keep the cheese from sticking to the roof of your mouth. Or the wrapper to hold the meat when a diet says you can’t have bread.

However I encounter them, lettuce leaves are just not my favorite food. That said, I do not find them dangerous. The USDA, the FDA, and insurance companies across the country now do. They are especially worried about your consumption of romaine.

For those of you who were anticipating the theatrical production of a caesar salad during last year’s Thanksgiving and Christmas, you might have felt pinched. You were hoping to see the eggs beaten, the olive oil dripped, the salt added, the anchovy paste blended in, the lemon squeezed, and the concoction poured over the torn leaves of this majestic upright green — tossed and decorated by savory croutons and shredded parmesan cheese. You looked forward to the bite, the zing, the texture and chew. And it was taken away from many of you.

Hear me when I say it was made available…but in that offering there was hidden the unintended consequence associated with how we have come to grow food and THAT is what we should all be talking about right now.

We have asked farmers to do what we didn’t want to do. We asked them to invest in crops that weather, markets, palates, and/or economies might not ultimately support. We asked them to work in the cold, the wet, the windy, the hot, the dry, the bright and the dark.

We also asked them to grow a lot, but then only bring us the perfect. We asked them to grow it quickly, and in every season and every region so we’d always have the freshest of whatever we decided we wanted on the morning we got up.

But in asking them to do all of this for us, we didn’t want to actually pay very much, so we asked them to find cheap water, cheap seed, cheap fertilizer, cheap labor, cheap land. 

We didn’t want to have to go to them, so we asked them to bring goods to us. They were too busy doing all that we asked, so a second layer of commerce was introduced. Distributors. 

The distributors gathered the food we asked to have grown, mingled it all together, hired advertisers to think up logos and commercials. They packaged up bags, boxes, crates and cargo containers. They scheduled routes and drivers, boats, and trains. Weeks, sometimes months later, food arrived at our grocers from farms barely remembered. After sitting in warehouses, parking lots, freeways and on loading docks, our food was unpacked, handled again, and set out for more hands to touch, examine, and select.

When lettuce made someone sick, the warning alarm was quickly sounded. This is logical. We should know when something we are about to make a part of our bodies is tainted in any way. We should be able to work from good information about how to keep ourselves and our loved ones healthy and strong. The thing is…it’s a bit late to assume we can really have such knowledge and information.

Robbed of our romaine, maybe it’s time we begin asking for different things.

Did you know that lettuce is a cool weather plant? Once the sun’s stroll across the sky slows, building up heat over the course of long days and raising temperatures above 75 degrees fahrenheit, lettuce changes. Like many of us who don’t like to be hot, it grows bitter and tough. However it is that plants know their time is coming to an end, so the lettuce knows and it begins the race to procreate. It bolts. It changes from a tender set of concentric leaves to stems that reach up toward that hot sun as if on a dare. The stems pop with small yellow flowers, adding yet more color to the field, and more dining options for non-human eaters. Ultimately, these flies, bees, and other pollinating insects barter with the plant, exchanging DNA delivery services for meals so that seeds can be born as the lettuce plants die.

But most farmers don’t see this miracle of life because their livelihood comes from the sweetness of lettuce youth rather than the bitterness of lettuce death. Unless they are seed farmers, which by the way is an entirely different kind of farming, their focus is on timing their crops to fit within the confines of the cooler weather days. 

Lettuce is 95% water. Lettuce requires a lot of water in the field. To produce the salad you had for lunch probably took over 20 gallons of water to grow. To grow, not to grow and wash and keep cool in the produce aisle — 20 gallons of water to grow not the full head but the 1-2 cups of lettuce leaves you put on your plate. Fortunately, water is more abundant in the cooler weather days of spring and fall. You could almost believe that nature is a wise and functional farmer. Hmm.

So how is it that 90% of the lettuce eaten from November to March in the US comes from Yuma, Arizona?

Just in case you need a little context, Yuma, Arizona is in the extreme southwestern corner of the state, near the Mexican border. 

Temperatures in Yuma rarely dip below 40 degrees. For 8 months out of the year, their high temp runs from 80-108 and for six of those months, the total of the high and low temp adds up to more than 150 (Romaine tends to suffer beyond that 150 mark). This means they need heat tolerant varieties and still, it matures quickly. (E. coli can live in the tissues of plants for up to 65 days.) Annual precipitation in Yuma is 3 inches per year. In terms of water per acre, this pencils out to about 80,000 gallons.  An acre of lettuce can need more than 900,000 gallons per planting . 

Without getting that from the sky, their irrigation water must come from wells or the reservoirs made available via huge dams on the Colorado River, which is interesting from the perspective of sovereign rights/water rights. To whom does that river belong? The National Reclamation Act of 1902 (reclamation?) set into motion a host of projects that fundamentally made agriculture possible over more than 300,000 acres in Yuma County, Arizona and Imperial County, California.

So again, how is it that so much of our lettuce* in this country is grown in Yuma, Arizona, 100,000 acres of it?

Because we eaters, in very real albeit indirect ways asked that it be grown there. Because land is flat and inexpensive, labor is cheap and anxious for the work, water is subsidized, and the weather is not ideal but it’s consistent and stolen water makes up for the heat. These things keep the price of our beloved romaine down under $2 per head. The farm owner gets about .87 of that. The laborer? We won’t go there just yet.

Arizona is a fine state, and the farmers there are fine farmers doing what we have asked them to do. The E. coli that has grown into the tissues of the lettuce leaves did not do so from anyone’s intention. It did so because of our disconnect with the fullness of life and the diversity of organisms on this planet, our disrespect for the pathways of water and waste, the enormity of the food web in which we are both diner and dinner.

Scientists have yet to identify the specific point of origin for the E. coli that has caused harm to the humans who ingested it**. They assume it started in Yuma because so much of our lettuce starts in Yuma. Experienced researchers, pathologists, physicians, regulators, attorneys and judges will be tasked to find “who’s responsible,” but chances are that in ultimate fact we all are. And the sooner we settle our hearts and minds with that stunning judgment, the sooner we can set about moving back closer to the farmers doing what we ask them to do - not to micro manage and question their practices, but to be in relationship with them.

I don’t know who the earliest farmers were, but I carry a sense that they were the ones in a community who had the deepest affinity for caring both for the plants their fellows needed to sustain their bodies and for the Earth that offered up such gifts. Not quite shamans but perhaps very close, I imagine they were the ones who on some unknowable level felt the exchange of energy between rock and belly and because of this, they were called to the role of farmer steward.

This in contrast with our contemporary culture, where we say food is “produced,” as if by our own ingenuity, and where invisible farmers are assumed to be laborers at our calling not theirs.

Among activists, there is a term heard more frequently with each passing food scare…re-localization. It’s a concept of pulling back our work order with mono-cropping, multi-national, corporate food systems, and instead investing in local or at least regional networks of farmers with faces. Not only is this concept loaded with a tangled mess of challenges across issues of economics, health and safety, hunger, human resources, cultural diets, and more — it won’t solve all of our problems. There are some careless farmers out there. There are some misguided, uninformed, damaging practices in use. There are hazards and really tangled screw ups to be addressed. But relocalization/regionalization might bring daylight to them along a timeline we have a chance to interrupt before traumatic injury becomes national threat. 

What’s more, it might bring the eater in closer proximity to the eaten. It could remind us that our lives depend on the calling of wise and compassionate, hard working farmers. And it has a chance to remind farmers that they are asked to feed us well from the gifts of the Earth, which are not to be taken for granted.

Idealistic? Hell yes. Impossible? As a complete shift, probably. Insane? Not as insane as continuing down a path that seems to be making us afraid to eat.

The day of the latest Romaine Recall, most of my friends still sat down to salad with their dinner. Their romaine leaves dressed with rowdy and robust concoctions of who knows what delectable ingredients from their cupboards. They didn’t have a death wish, they were farmers. Or they knew their farmers. And they weren’t in Yuma, in the middle of 50,000 acres of romaine. They knew the soil from which the lettuce was grown, they knew who shared contact with that soil, where the water for the field came from, and how the heads were handled as they were cut from their roots, washed, and offered. If they didn’t know directly, they had trust in those who did. Funny how trust generates confidence.

Across all of the crazy social media platforms, posts and reposts about the announcement from the USDA and FDA pushed aside previous debates about the history of Thanksgiving, arguments about whether or not there is a war on Christmas, memes referencing the Mueller investigation, and countless pictures of kittens and puppies. Facebook friends noted that while a few people have been made quite ill from this pathogen, which is an awful thing, the health of those few people has generated a broad scale ban of a vegetable - while guns kill tens of thousands of people but to speak of a ban of those things is to beg for rioting by gun owners. No, let’s not go there. But let’s think about why there is such an exaggerated response to one threat and not to another.

Perhaps it’s because even though we have outsourced our responsibility for fueling our bodies, we know in the most visceral of ways that we must be fueled. We will die without food. Yes, some of us will die because of food, but that is why we want to trust those who do the work involved in feeding us. Most of us don’t know what E. coli looks like. We don’t know that it’s full name is Escherichia coli O157:H7, or that it is part of a huge family of bacteria with most being harmless or actually important members of our human intestinal communities. We don’t even know how to pronounce it which is why we shorten it to E. coli. But we know this particular E. coli is bad and we don’t want it in our food, and the fact that it’s there is making us lose trust. 

What we would be wise to remember is that trust only persists between mutually engaged and invested parties. When we chose to price our food rather than value it, we may have generated a paradigm shift we haven’t fully articulated. We shifted “farmer”  from a role to which one is called to a job for which one is hired.

We eaters made that choice somewhere along the line. We can blame a host of others…advertisers, peer pressure, the economy, “the man,” but we each and all put food to mouth on our own. Depending on your view of the course of human history, you might see the path as short or long, but either way it has been one of incremental shifts away from connection with the larger source of our food. It looks like our reconnecting path might need to be shorter and faster. Again, it is our choice.

I am not a farmer, but I have chosen to cultivate farmers because when I look around at the world and how quickly big changes are happening, my stomach still growls. E. coli, Salmonella, Mad Cow Disease, botulism…these are real and formidable neighbors we live among, and my stomach still growls.

I want to trust that there are people called to quiet that rumbling in me, called not as laborers, but as stewards of the source of what keeps our bodies alive. I want to trust that there are strong backs with healthy souls out there who at some point in their lives sat down on the Earth and just knew…. that every thing that has lived or is living or will ever live on this planet is fueled by a very real and yet complex flow of energy from the sun in the middle of our solar system.

That’s a big calling. And one not likely to be heard by many when it comes flanked by the question, not spiritually asked,  “why on earth would anyone ever want to be a farmer?” 

We are a nation that has a twisted relationship with eating. We pay way too much for things that do us harm and not nearly enough for things that make us strong. We think of farmers as dirty and ignorant and yet we put what they grow on our tongues. We incentivize production of “commodity crops” that more often than not go to animal feed, fuel, or geo-political chess games rather than to food for communities. Or when they do go to communities, the calories arrive in highly processed and preserved fashion, in brightly colored boxes, purchased with clipped coupons, and sporting a list of ingredients in 4 point font that few can make any sense of and probably should not be in the boxes or in our bodies.

As we use precious water, land, habitat, and human resources to grow all of this material we put into our mouths, we have astronomical rates of cancer, chronic disease, obesity, hunger and malnutrition all co-existing in a network of solid waste facilities overflowing with rotting food.

Are we really asking young people to become farmers and solve all of these problems?

No. Or we shouldn’t. Instead, we should be helping to inspire them, recommitting ourselves to make better choices with them.

The farmers in your community that are growing lettuce? Buy it from them. I buy it from them and remember, I don’t even like it. But I buy it because I trust them to feed me and they trust me to support their efforts. And I know that I really am healthier if some of it ends up in my bones. If you are fortunate enough to have a farmer near you, get to know them. Ask them questions. Observe what they offer. Tell them they are your heroes, your lifeline. Expand your meals to include things you’ve never tried, like kohlrabi, turnips, parsnips, and heaven help us, six different kinds of kale. Create a relationship. Grow some trust together.

That young child you notice sitting in the sun, playing in the dirt? Sit with them. Ask them what they feel, what they smell, what they see. Encourage them to look at bugs, water the plants, taste the sweetness of a pulled honeysuckle stamen. Give them nasturtium seeds and delight in their laughter when you show them how to eat the flowers and swallow the peppery bite of their bright yellowness. Plant carrots and show them the crazy satisfaction of pulling the dayglo cylinders from the hug of the Earth. Sing The Farmer In the Dell, maybe update it for the 21st century, but sing it all the same. Sing Old MacDonald Had a Farm and talk about how grass is powered by the sun, and how the cows are powered by the grass, and how the cows give us milk and cheese that because of the grass and because of the sun puts calcium into our bones as we grow. 

As they get older, conversations can shift to balance, vegetarianism, veganism, and more, but first, instill in them the magic and mystery of how a star creates bodies. Later, it will draw them into the additional mysteries of how different seeds grow into such different plants, each pulling up from the soil a different conglomeration of vitamins, minerals, sugars and proteins.

Growing all of our vegetables, and all our eggs, and meats, nuts and fruits takes hard physical labor coupled with innate curiosity, knowledge, planning, bookkeeping, patience and stubbornness. For a long time now, we eaters have paid those who do the work for the product we take rather than for the planetary and terrestrial processes they tend.

Let’s change that. Buy some lettuce***.

*not all lettuce grown in Yuma is romaine

**it is now believed the point of origin was Santa Barbara, CA

***from a farmer you trust

Post Script

Ultimately, the E. coli outbreak from romaine was traced to a farm in Santa Barbara, CA. A farm that shifts its production between Yuma, AZ and Santa Barbara, CA as the heat shifts. Same concerns around water and mono-cropping, same concerns around temperature and labor. Same call to eaters to pay more attention to the importance of food, the importance of water and place, and the importance of those who grow what we eat.