A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

On Villaging: It’s the Ingredients, Stupid!

By Helen Zuman

“What kind of food do you like?”

A simple question, right? 

Not for me. It’s not that I object to the tastes of the usual answers—Mexican, Italian, Indian, Thai, Chinese, etc. It’s just that I can’t ignore the sources of the ingredients for any given meal—or the health of the air, water, land, and relationships in the places those ingredients came from.

In 2005, I spent four and a half months working on an organic market farm in California’s Central Valley. In that time, I learned a ton about growing vegetables, for sale on a modest scale—while witnessing, up close, the practice of toxic (aka “conventional”) agriculture in the almond and walnut orchards that bordered the organic farm on three sides. 

On my side of the property line, clover and other plants covered the verges, and the paths between rows; on the far side, the soil lay sterile, doused in poisons lethal to everything but the nut trees. Picture a kiddie pool filled with Drano, and you’ll get a sense of how that view felt. 

This I remember well.

But I remember something else even better: the sight of (brown-skinned) orchard workers driving spray trucks down the rows, heavy-duty respirators blocking their noses and mouths. Did the masks work? I don’t know. I do know that shortly before the workers were scheduled to spray Omite—an especially virulent toxin—their (pale-skinned) boss warned me and my (pale-skinned) comrades to depart for the evening, lest we suffer its side effects (which could include, for unborn children, birth defects).

Thanks to this experience, I can’t pretend that “conventional” is just another form of agriculture, or dismiss “organic” as a fetish only hipsters can afford. It’s true, the term “organic”—partially co-opted by Big Ag, via the USDA and its National Organic Program—doesn’t mean what it used to. And, sometimes, I do choose the local IPM apples over the organic Fujis from New Zealand, when local and organic (or wild) fruits are temporarily unavailable. But “organic” is still a pretty good sorting mechanism—other factors being equal—since it at least means that, in producing (or being used to produce) the ingredients, the source community sustained less harm.

And, of course, food is not the only thing with ingredients—pretty much everything we use comprises materials that come, ultimately, from some village somewhere, whether populated by humans or not. Cotton clothing, for example—unless it’s organic—comes from fields fertilized with chemicals derived from (un)natural gas, then sprayed with a biocide cocktail. The hardier hemp plant, on the other hand, has been known to go unsprayed and unfertilized; sometimes, it’s de facto organic, even when it’s not certified. (Also, I’ve observed that raw organic hemp sheets, freshly laundered, smell like ripe figs, sun-dried.) 

I’ve written before, in this space, about my family’s efforts to renovate our house to exclude fossil fuels, from both its body and its operations. I don’t claim we’ve succeeded (the tank of our Phoenix composting toilet, for example, is a bear-sized chunk of molded plastic)—but we have made strides. In the process, we’ve learned, for example, that drywall contains fly ash from coal plants. Which means that drywall makers both enable the coal industry by coaxing unsuspecting citizens to store its toxic waste in their homes and endanger workers by exposing them to toxic dust during installation. 

It seems to be true that products that compromise air, water, soil, and relationships at their source also compromise the health of the humans who work with them. To what extent do we notice these humans, or these connections?

Early in our renovation adventure, my husband and I looked into insulating and sheathing our house with hempcrete—a waterproof, fireproof, pest-proof material made of water, hemp, and lime. Hempcrete met the gold standard: should the house ever fall down, or be abandoned, it would simply rot back into dirt. 

For us, for now, hempcrete has proven too heavy a lift (we used wood siding, and wood fiber insulation, instead), but it remains a beacon of what’s possible. And it illuminates a standard, based on ingredients, that could govern all the choices I make, as I attempt to reckon with the price living communities, near and far, pay to sustain me—the standard of honor. 

I aspire to occupy honorable structures. Wear honorable clothing. And meet with something other than a puzzled stare when I say, “I like honorable food.”

Helen Zuman—author, chocolatier, reweaver, walker, wife, daughter, sister, and witch—details her first (ill-starred) attempt at villaging in her memoir, Mating in Captivity (She Writes Press 2018). Get in touch via email (madgelma@hotmail.com); read more at helenzuman.com.