Author Q & A
Many people question the safety of their food and the exposure of the food supply to toxic pesticides and fertilizers. But Will Allen – founder of the Sustainable Cotton Project, organic farmer, and author of the new book, The War on Bugs – takes it one step further. Allen examines the historical connection between advertising and agriculture and how toxic chemicals were marketed and sold to farmers, seeping into the American ethos as safe, effective, and necessary.
Allen, who lives and writes in East Thetford, Vermont, recently shared his personal story with Chelsea Green’s Brianne Goodspeed.
BG: How did the War on Bugs come about? Was it a book you’d been thinking about writing for a long time?
WA: I began writing the War on Bugs after we [The Sustainable Cotton Project] developed a poster display of old chemical ads and editorials that glorified the chemicals as heroic tools in farmers’ struggles against pests and low fertility. We gave tours to more than one thousand cotton industry, academic, and government officials. The most common question asked on these tours was “How did people get comfortable with spraying poison on their farms, in their house, on their kids, in the river and the lakes?” I decided to find out. This book is the result of that search for how the American public reached this comfort level with toxic chemicals.
BG: In your research, do you notice any trends in how chemicals are being marketed to farmers today, as opposed to some of the older ads you review in War on Bugs?
Today’s ads are slicker and there is much more discussion about the safety of the products. But, most of the emphasis is still focused on the effectiveness of the product. There still are no warnings about the real dangers in products, either in the ads or on the labels.
BG: You’re an organic farmer, but you’re also an ex-Marine – and you were arrested and sentenced to a year in jail during the early 70s for civil rights and antiwar activism. That’s not a one-track life. Were there noticeable turning points for you?
WA: A turning point for me came during my time in the Marine Corps when I was dispossessed of the belief that as Marines we were protecting democracy, liberty, and freedom. I learned we were mostly protecting corporations. Some of our military actions while I was a Marine were in Lebanon, Cuba, and Vietnam. In Lebanon, we protected American corporations in the mid-East and mid-East allies, no matter how corrupt. In Cuba, we protected American businesses, a dictator, the ruling class that fled to Miami after the Revolution, and the Mafia drug cartels. In Vietnam we protected business interests, rice interests, illegal drug interests – the opium trade – and religious interests. We installed a Catholic president in a nation where 95% of the population was Buddhist and were shocked when he was assassinated. By 1963, I was protesting the Vietnam War in Chicago rallies and campus teach-ins.
Another pivotal time came when I went to Peru to live with indigenous tribal people. These people were farmers, fishers, and hunters. And they lived in an environment in the tropics in ways that were similar to tribes in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Like the Southeast Asians, they too were under assault from corporations trying to claim (steal) their land and natural resources. I went to the tropical forest four times from 1964 until 1969, so I was there almost every year. Every year, the pressure on their land got worse. Every year, the Vietnam War got worse. The parallels were too striking between the two struggles, and I focused many of my class and public lectures around their similarities. The area where I’d lived and worked became embroiled in the 1970s and 1980s in the Shining Path movement, which was partly the culmination of resistance to land grabs and government protection of the corporations against the indigenous tribes.
The research we were doing in the tropical forest of Peru was designed to find out how old the settlements were in the upper reaches of the Peruvian tributaries of the Amazon, and to analyze the land-use patterns among the current tribe, the Campa (an Arawak tribe). The Campa occupied those rivers in what is called the Ceja de la Montana (The Eyebrows of the Forest), which is a cloud forest region on the eastern slope of the Andes. Most theorists felt that the tropical forest was not occupied until after contact with the Spanish and the subsequent occupation. I found that the cultural depth was much older than previously presumed, with human settlements radio carbon dated before the time of Christ.
The Campa were able to produce prolific yields without chemicals in a very challenging agricultural environment. This got me thinking that maybe we should try not to be so dependent on chemicals and machinery. Maybe we didn’t need as many as we thought. Most of the people I contacted in the deep reaches of the forest had never seen white people, but were fearful because of all the stories. Yet, in spite of their fears, they embraced me, fed me, answered my goofy questions, and showed me the archaeological sites. They impressed me as being the finest people I have ever met.
Later, I was the faculty adviser to the student legislative body, the Student Council, at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The student legislators were mostly from SDS, Black Students Union, MECHA (Mexican American Alliance), and Women’s liberation groups. I attended their meetings, advised them, and signed off on their programs and expenditures. Most of the programs were radical for the time: a day care program (first in Santa Barbara), a medical clinic, a legal center, and local indigenous tribal outreach programs (to the Chumash tribe).
The notoriety and platform from being faculty adviser to the student government enabled me to talk out about the war and civil rights at demonstrations that were occurring often. My advocacy of “radical” student projects and opposition to the war got me fired, and jailed repeatedly.
After jail, I went into farming on my own.
BG: Do you see any similarities in the way that wars are spun and sold to the American public and the ways that toxic chemicals are spun and sold to American farmers?
WA: Advertising agencies made a quantum leap during the First World War. They did contract work for the government to sell the war and recruitment work for the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. The country was isolationist at the time and not interested in getting into another of Europe’s seemingly endless string of wars. Advertisers were able to get enlistments up and the public to buy war bonds. The themes were: a “can do attitude”, (such as, if America enters the war we will win it), a patriotic obligation, and protecting the civil rights of occupied countries.
When the same advertising agencies sold chemicals to farmers and householders, their pitches were similar. We are at war, be patriotic, and “a can do attitude.” That attitude encouraged such boasts as “. . .We can grow more than any other farmers in the world”, which led to the common belief that American farmers are feeding the world.
BG: On the flip side, do you see similarities in your resistance – resistance to war and resistance to toxic chemicals?
WA: I think that when someone becomes as anti-war as I am, then whatever one does – whether it is organic farming or something else – the irrationality and injustice of war is never far from their consciousness. While farm wars and military wars are of a different scale, many of the chemical and mining corporations that make fertilizer and pesticides are also manufacturers of bombs, and other military hardware and software. I think the sooner we can stop the chemical and genetic war on the farms, and the mindset that we are at war with nature, the better we will be as a species. In a sense, it is hard to not think of the war every time I fire up a tractor or pump or generator or heater that runs on gas or diesel from war zones around the world, especially Iraq. For that reason, we are looking at all the alternatives to fossil fuels for moving vehicles and for stationary heaters and generators.
War is not what is going on at Cedar Circle Organic Farm (in East Thetford, Vermont). We have struggles with pests, including woodchucks, voles, birds, worms, fungi, insects and weeds. We develop and copy strategies that are softer, non poisonous, and often very effective, and sometimes those adopted strategies are not effective. It is a process. We don’t have all the answers, but we have a lot more now than when we started in the 1960s.
BG: What else is going on at the farm?
WA: We are concerned about energy, training the next generation of farmers, organic farming outreach, local production for a local market, outreach to schools and the inner city food deserts.
Energy projects at the farm include, a used vegetable oil burner for heating a greenhouse, a photovoltaic (a solar electric) array (24 3KW solar collectors) that provide enough energy to run a 6KW Sunny Boy inverter that feeds our power onto the local grid. We just purchased a corn heater that will burn our waste sweet corn. We just converted a tractor to electric power. We have a team of horses that plants our grains and works our ground as soon as we finish harvest.
Training the next generation of farmers includes workshops and jobs for aspiring farmers. We feel the aspirant must work on a farm (or several farms) for three or four years until they get good at planning and executing a plan for the fields, greenhouses, hoophouses and their markets. Then they will probably be good at planning, planting, and harvesting their own fields and selling their produce.
Our outreach includes the Florabunda flower show in Norwich (Vermont), followed by our opening in May that focuses on flowers, ornamentals, perennials, salad mixes, spinach and arugula..
Our outreach also includes festivals and events for the local community. To that end, we have two seasonal celebrations. One is the strawberry festival, which takes place in June or early July and usually draws in 2000 customers if the weather is good. In October we do another festival, this time focused around the pumpkin. Both are U-Pick operation. With strawberries it is free choice for the berries ripe that day. For pumpkins all the cutting and sorting is done by our staff. We have horse drawn rides at both the dinner and festival events.
We also hold three dinners in the field, which are very popular. In August we will do a tomato tasting day that combines local cheeses with local tomatoes and regional wines and beer that the participants bring.
We are starting the seventh year of a program with inner city kids from Worcester, Mass. This began serendipitously when we had an excess of pumpkins. We offered them to inner city organizers that we knew and they asked if we could craft an on-farm program for their kids at the YMCA, the Youth Center, and the Boys and Girls Club. Now they call themselves the Urban Agricultural Academy and farm one acre on our farm and an acre at the 4H camp in Spencer (20 minutes from Worcester). They promote organic food in the inner city by having a subsidized Community Supported Agriculture program (a weekly box of food, worth at least $20.00) and a program to teach kids to grow food and flowers. More than one thousand inner city kids have participated in these programs.
We have hired a new staff member whose job is conducting outreach to local schools, both to start or enhance lunch programs and start or enhance student gardens. We have also been asked to participate in the effort to get more organic and local food into the Dartmouth student cafeteria system.
Our goal at the farm is to serve mostly the Upper Connecticut River Valley area from New London to Bradford, and Lyme to Sharon. We do not want to wholesale except to restaurants and the local Co-Ops. We want to be a local production for local use farm. We are trying through energy alternatives and creative practices to keep our greenhouses producing more food for fall and early spring months, since there is a paucity of local food at those times. We are putting in a root cellar so that we can sell more of our produce in better condition during the fall and winter months; such as carrots, beets, potatoes, winter squash, cabbage, cauliflower, garlic, onions, parsnips, turnips as well as processed and frozen goods.
BG: What are the some of the changes in how you’ve farmed since you started in 1972?
WA: I started doing large-scale (1/2 acre or more) community gardens in 1968. After I got out of Jail in 1971 I went with some friends to Oregon. We worked for Sun Valley Bulb farm picking flowers, harvesting garlic, and planting flower bulbs. We lived with Michael Zander who had studied with the organic guru Alan Chadwick at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Michel was a font of information and taught us all he knew in the time we had. We rented our own piece of land in North Bend, Oregon and mainly used old manure that was fairly well composted, but not completely. For years, I made that same mistake, using manure that had not been completely composted. That mistake increased my weed problems and imported weeds to my farms that I did not already have.
In the early years I planted crops that did not have a definite market. I sold most of that produce on the street, that is, in direct sales at farmers markets and to wholesalers. That practice was a big gamble, and my pigs and chickens ate too much quality produce that we should have sold. I don’t do that any more. We encourage people who want our products to contact us in the planning not the planting or marketing stage.
For the fifteen years after 1971 I worked as a farm laborer on many farms. At the same time I farmed my small farm plots, both owned and rented. In 1987, I quit working for other farmers and concentrated on my own farm plots. In 1989, I took a job for a year and a half managing Fairview Farm in Santa Barbara County. In retrospect, working on and managing other people’s farms took too much energy that I could have been spending on my own farms. I wouldn’t do it again unless I was part owner. I currently co-manage a farm that is part ours.
Our practices (now that we only use well cured compost) are not dramatically different. We are experimenting with no or low till practices, and we are feeding our plants better quality fish and kelp products a little bit more often. We use more beneficial insects to take care of insect and worm pests and almost no organic pesticide sprays except for Colorado potato beetles and tomato hornworms. We cultivate in a more timely manner than we did in earlier years, and in more creative ways. We just converted a cultivating tractor to electric, so that will be a change. No noise and no gas fumes. If it is successful, we will convert another one next year.
BG: In general, do you think American agriculture is on an upswing because, for example, more people are aware of the dangers that industrial farming poses to the ecosystem (including human health) or is it on a downswing because there’s been so much damage to our soils and so much land lost to development and agri-business?
WA: As I said in the conclusion of the book, I think U.S. agriculture is on a definite trajectory that is hopeful. It is especially hopeful because it coincides with a world-wide movement for clean, safe food and fiber. But, make no mistake, most of U.S. ag. is still chemically dependent and most of the major commodities are genetically manipulated. And, the food giants have the public platform of paid-for advertising in the dominant media outlets, including: print, radio, billboards, and Cable and Network TV.
We definitely have a lot to clean up from 160 years of chemical farming but organic is one way to accomplish that clean-up. Organic farming also sequesters carbon dioxide and methane, both serious greenhouse, and global warming gasses. Customers are the key. In Europe it was the consuming public that rewrote environmental and food laws. We need that effort here. Another aspect is businesses willing to gamble on green business. It has worked in Europe and Japan. It can work here too. Finally, there is policy. We must change agricultural policy and take away subsidies from rich farmers, processors and investors. Those subsidies should be focused on changing agriculture from the factory farming where 80% of our farming is devoted to meat and milk production to sustainable organic farming of whatever is grown or raised. To be sustainable, we need to eat less meat, grow less meat, and stop destroying the land for this badly skewed animal based paradigm. Until we do that, all the other changes will be cosmetic.
BG: Are other countries taking a different attitude toward pesticides than the United States? If so, what are the differences?
WA: Many farmers in India are taking a different attitude toward agriculture than the U.S. That is not to say that all have. In fact, farmers who went for the U.S. brand of chemically based export agriculture have paid the final price. More than 100,000 cotton farmers have committed suicide (because they were in debt for pesticides, fertilizers, or usury farm or mortgage loans). More than 30,000 sold their kidneys into the international organ market to pay their pesticide or mortgage payments.
Still, there are more than 500,000,000 Indian farmers in the farmers union who are opposed to chemicals, synthetic fertilizers, and genetically altered seed. These farmers save their seed, make their own compost fertilizers, make their own compost teas, and their own pesticide spray. They have rediscovered thousands of local varieties of rice and hundreds of varieties of cucumber, millet, and pepper. They are involved in a national movement that loves local foods and eschews corporate varieties of rice and millet.
Cuba is another country that has embraced an organic model in their fruit and vegetable farming. They took this route because they had no access to cheap or subsidized chemical fertilizers and pesticides after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The organic techniques got them through some tough times economically. Whether all of Cuba will embrace an organic model is questionable since their meat and milk industry has not bought into the organic paradigm as yet.
BG: Last question – it’s been said that you can tell a lot about a person by looking in their fridge and on their bookshelf. So, what’s in your fridge and what’s on your bookshelf?
WA: We eat almost exclusively organic. Occasionally someone will bring us something that is not certified and we will eat it. But, since we know how toxic non-organic or non-biodynamic food is we try to avoid it. When we travel, of course we do not have the same luxury. But, wherever we go we look for organic, in the stores, supermarkets, or farmers markets. We eat no meat except fish and shellfish. We don’t eat a lot of that because of the contamination of mercury from power plants. We do not eat farmed fish or fish from distant ports and fisheries.
Our diet is pretty much Mexican, Italian, Indian, a bit of French and some Armenian (because our partner is Armenian and the food is sooo tasty). It is easy to be vegetarian or vegetarian with fish in all of these cuisines.
My bookshelf is not all organic, though a significant portion is. We are interested in labor history, native American history and native issues, Latin America, black history and black culture. We have lots of how to build and gardening-farming books. We have a collection of Indian books, Ghandi, communism in India, Hinduism, Buddahism, etc. We have a large collection of books about the Middle east, the Arab-Israeli conflicts, and books on Islam. We also have a growing collection of books about early Christianity, the Gnostic gospels, etc. And then, of course, we have lots of books about pesticides, fertilizer, and farm history. My wife Kate is a literature bug so there is everything from Henry James to Allende. We also have a nice and growing collection of anarchist books. We also have books on the Armenian genocide. Thanks to our dear friends the late Grace Paley and her husband Bob Nichols, we have both become more interested in poetry and short stories.