As most of you know, I’m working at Care of the Earth Community Farm, which is a chemical-free East Tennessee CSA with about 90 members. (A CSA being a farm produce sharing program, in which members pay “seed money” to a farmer at the beginning of a season, and get regular boxes of produce every week for the duration of the season.) Over the past season and a half, I’ve planted seeds in the greenhouse, seedlings in 200-foot beds in fields across the farm, I’ve sowed cover crops, tilled in spent crops, harvested and washed produce, filled members’ boxes, weeded, caught chickens, fetched eggs, helped install bee boxes, and watched songbirds. I do everything half as fast as the owners, Megan and Lalo, but I do it, and love it, and I think they excuse my not-fastness because I clearly love this farm and everything it stands for, which is a lot.

The farm is named for a Wendell Berry phrase, or principle, that as we care for the earth, we necessarily care for all good elements of our living. This farm was founded on a desire to do this, to care for the community by cultivating healthy and self-sustaining soil, and contributing life-giving foods, food systems, and gathering places to its life cycle.

Care of the Earth Community Farm

This season, there’s been a lot of conversation around the farm about the changes we’re feeling in our seasonal weather patterns. I’m nowhere near perceptive / observant enough to have tracked the specific differences our region is feeling (except in retrospect), but Megan, a native East Tennessean, has been watching the weather closely, as all farmers have to do. As scientists are observing in other parts of the country / world, and southeastern farmers are observing here, we’re experiencing the beginnings of a “new climate” of periodic weather extremes and shifting seasonal character. This means, for us, that our average temperatures are rising; our springs, lately, have been shorter and hotter; our severe storms have been more violent; heavy rainfall heavier; and dry periods longer.

These changes mean much more than occasional flooding, hail, and summer sweatiness; the emergence of our “new climate” means that seasonal conditions our farmers have banked on aren’t so good, anymore, for certain kinds of plants, or certain kinds of animals.

For example, Care of the Earth’s commitment to conserving water means that some vegetables either won’t make it all the way through our rather dry summers (carrots) or won’t grow to be as large as their grocery-store counterparts (celery). Many cool-weather greens beloved by Megan and Lalo—and the rest of us—are turning bitter earlier than we’d wish in our hot late springs (kale), or bolting much too early (bok choy), forcing them to find new greens to offer to members that will be tender and good-flavored even in hot, dry conditions. Megan and Lalo test new varieties every single year, looking for plants that may like our “new climate” better than others, and for those of us who are in it for the long haul, it’s a pretty exciting thing to see these greens, fruits, and vegetables move us toward a more (sorry to have to use the buzzword, but) sustainable diet.

Choosing to eat Perpetual Spinach (a hardier and super delicious member of the chard family) and calaloo (a Caribbean green that loves hot weather) instead of demanding more baby greens, kale, and chard in the late spring and summer, is a choice to respect the hard work of our farmers and of the plants themselves. By not spending resources on shade cloth and more and more water to keep cool-weather greens growing in the field, we can allocate those resources to more important things, like testing new heirloom varieties, controlling erosion, or holding workshops or other educational events. It’s what we’re calling “the new climate diet”— a commitment to eat foods that we can grow in our area without wasting time, water, money, or energy.

Yes, we want tomatoes, carrots, baby lettuce, and sweet corn all year-round. I mean, I do. But I’m trying to look realistically at the limits the earth is giving me on the foods I should eat. I’m not militant about this by any means, but I can see the long-term harm that’s happening because we have made a cultural habit of shipping foods thousands of miles in refrigerated trucks, and expecting vast arrays of choices at any given grocery.

So, if you’re still reading, and are interested in what this “new climate diet” looks like for our East Tennessee area, we are, too! Megan at Care of the Earth Community Farm is putting together a meeting for members and non-members alike to come together and talk about what this could look like for both farmers and consumers. What are the limits our climate is putting on our local growers? What does this mean we should be eating? Does this mean we have to eat nothing but crookneck squash all summer ? (No! Emphatically not!) Which varieties of vegetables demand the most water, and which ones are the thriftiest? Which plants can handle increasing bug damage, and which require endless, expensive netting?

Just some of the questions we’ll be asking at this event. Comment on this post or the facebook post if you have questions. Would love to hear from you. The meeting is on September 13th by the way.