By Evelyn Spence
Seven years ago, world champion skier Alison Gannett decided to take her career as an eco-activist and climate change consultant to the next level. At the time she’d already built a straw bale house in Crested Butte, Colorado, drove an electric SUV, and converted to solar. Then she started fretting about her personal food security. “When I thought about shit hitting the fan with climate change,” she says, “I realized I was hundreds of miles from where my food came from.”
So Gannett bought an 80-acre homestead in the fertile western slope valley of Paonia, Colorado. She and her husband dubbed it Holy Terror Farm, and began a quest for more self-sufficiency. By year one, they had grown more than 300 varieties of vegetables from local seed—a worthy harvest for the new farmers. And then, on a personal level, the shit did hit the fan: In 2013, Gannett’s doctors found a baseball-size brain tumor that she, at least, tied to her diet. The 51-year-old decided to take an even more radical approach to localized food production, ditching grains and fruits, and eating only what she could grow, raise, and forage. To try to save her own life, Gannett took her nutrition back from industrialized farms, agri-business, shipping companies, and retailers. And there’s a lesson there for all of us.
Agriculture as we know it is in crisis. The average American meal travels about 1,500 miles from farm to table. Reduced crop diversity and extreme weather ravage our soil. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, only 15 animal species comprise 90 percent of livestock production, and a mere dozen plants provide 75 percent of our total food supply. Monoculture farming lets us feed a growing global population, but reckoning approaches: As grain grows in massive, interconnected fields, it requires more chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Prolonged droughts expose the weaknesses of such single-crop farming. Farmers tend to lose everything they’ve planted.
But the cure probably doesn’t lie in more large-scale GMO’ing. The fix, or one fix anyway, is reminiscent of what everyday Americans did during the food shortages of World War I. With the government’s backing via the National War Garden Commission, they took idle land—from school grounds to vacant lots to backyards—and turned them into “Victory Gardens.” Pamphlets instructed citizens on what and when to plant, how to prevent insect infestations, and how to preserve harvests. By the end of World War II, everyday Americans tilled 20 million gardens, which corresponded to more than 40 percent of the country’s fruits and vegetables.
Seventy years later, our enemy isn’t fascism, but overpopulation, climate change, and the food system itself. But there’s hope. Even in fertility challenged mountain communities scarce on bottomland, a new breed of victory gardeners readies for a hotter future.
Faced with one of the country’s shortest growing seasons, Jackson, Wyoming’s Penny McBride and Nona Yehia built a multi-level, 13,500-square-foot hydroponic (as in no-soil) greenhouse complete with rotating carousels. The architectural wonder is called Vertical Harvest. Inside its glass walls, Vertical Harvest produces as much food—up to 100,000 pounds of fruit and vegetables—on 1/10 acre as five traditional acres. And it uses 90 percent less water to do so.
Walk inside—even on a minus 30-degree day—and it feels like summer. The hydroponic plants keep producing, even when snowstorms bury the ski town. Vertical Harvest is the first to stack three vertical greenhouses on top of one another, supplying produce to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, a grocery store, and its own retail shop. “We grow 30 percent faster, using zero pesticides, than traditional in-ground farming,” says Yehia, who also cofounded the Jackson architectural firm E/Ye Design. She and McBride are proving that you can sustain large communities on small, innovative food models. That’s a boon in Teton County, where more than 97 percent of the land is permanently protected from development—including farming. This year, Vertical Harvest will distribute to a local hospital—the first step toward impacting the larger community. And locals can drop in at the on-site market, buy a sweet lettuce mix, and support a business that’s proving any town—whatever its weather—can sustain its residents.
Farther west, Lake Tahoe, California, has similar supply challenges to Jackson. The growing season is short and local farmers are scarce. The combination in part prompted Susie Sutphin—former tour director for the Wild & Scenic Film Festival—to develop the Sierra Agroecology Center, complete with a geodesic greenhouse built to handle heavy loads of maritime snow and grow year-round vegetables. Manufactured by Colorado-based Growing Spaces, a single such 100-percent-solar dome, at capacity, can feed a family of eight. Sutphin worked with the company to develop a dome specific to the region’s weather. At $23,000 apiece, the domes are expensive for the home farmer, but Sutphin hopes the design will inspire more people to farm in snowy climates. “Traditional greenhouses aren’t always strong enough,” she says.
Growing food in tough places has proven successful in Iceland, where geo-thermally heated greenhouses are the norm, and Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where Terry Huffington, a Stanford-trained geologist, runs Elkstone Farm. There, she grows foods like figs, citrus, and grapes in a greenhouse equipped with a climate battery, which maintains a constant soil temperature of 50 degrees. The 2,880-square-foot greenhouse sits at an elevation of 6,950 feet. Huffington also grows cold-tolerant crops like carrots in low-tech hoop houses—no radiant heat required. This method has allowed Huffington to extend Steamboat’s typical 59-day growing season to year-round.
Tom Lopez, an aerospace engineer in Boulder, Colorado, is getting innovative in a different way. Lopez, 77, bought his farm, Lone Hawk, to raise cattle, but soon realized beef farming wasn’t his gig. Meanwhile, his wife Kristin started planting trees; 10,000 now populate the land, interspersed with gardens. But here’s Lopez’s best contribution: He designed a solar-powered tractor that can bascically “make a farm, build a house, and power everything you need to live inside it,” he says. Now, Lopez is looking to market his tractors to resource-rich countries that lack infrastructure. “Our tractors can help reduce or eliminate fossil fuel use in small and medium sized farms everywhere,” he says.
Community Supported Supermarkets
By the 1950s, mass market grocery stores had killed many a local farm stand and open-air market. But by the ’70s people were once again hankering for homegrown tomatoes. Farmers’ markets, along with Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) networks, boomed from the mid-’90s to present. With a CSA, someone harvests and assembles a box of fresh food for you. But they’re designed to be hyper-local, meaning mountain communities too far from farms often lose out. Re-enter Tahoe’s Sutphin. In 2013, she opened the Tahoe Food Hub, a marketplace for regional growers to connect with restaurants, small grocers, schools, and hospitals. Sutphin works with farmers within 150 miles of Truckee, coordinating scheduled pickup and distribution. The benefit? Farmers in the valleys flanking the Sierras attain economic viability and mountain folk eat nutrient-dense dinner.
CSAs also have a purely economic play: For many farmers along Vermont’s Mad River Valley, equipment, processing, and storage can be prohibitively expensive. Buying into the community-minded Mad River Food Hub comes with the use of a 4,000-square-foot Waitsfield facility to grind pork into sausage, pulverize vegetables into soup, and process other products. A refrigerated truck delivers the end product to stores and restaurants.
Even co-ops—which boomed in the communitarian, back-to-nature 1970s—are in vogue again, and they’re innovating new ways to connect people to their lunches. The Bozeman Community Food Co-op has 20,000 members (in a population of around 40,000), all who pay $35 for a lifetime membership to buy groceries that promote sustainable agriculture. The co-op shows how larger institutions like schools and hospitals could transition from broad-line mega-suppliers like Sysco. In Montana, where just 10 percent of the food purchased is grown locally, that’s an encouraging step toward 1950, when the state produced 70 percent of its nourishment.
“If you have your own fruits and vegetables, you don’t have to worry about crop failures in other parts of the country…You can supply your family with fresh vegetables for a whole season at very little cost except the work you put in…Homegrown food is tastier.” —from a Victory Garden pamphlet circa 1945
In recent years, 26 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws to expand farmers markets, and the 2014 Farm Bill contains provisions to make local food more accessible. The state of Maine pushed sustainability further, passing a self-sufficiency law last October that prompts Mainers to grow and process enough food to feed their communities. It draws inspiration from the Victory Garden movement, and went so far as to create a marketing campaign—à la posters—to encourage “the public to grow gardens, raise farm animals, [and] preserve garden-grown food.” Even though Maine imports about 90 percent of its food, this wasn’t always the case; pre-Civil War, its small farms and gardens cranked out more than five million bushels of grain and 3.5 million bushels of potatoes yearly.
Some organizations are taking the wartime call-to-action even more literally. The Victory Garden Initiative, out of Milwaukee, started with a group of friends in 2009. They built 35 raised beds in one day. In 2016, they installed 555 gardens in 15 days—the Milwaukee area now gardens 3,000 plots.
Mountains don’t naturally lend themselves to large farms, but that same topography means a huge variation in microclimates—ideal for smaller, Victory Garden-like plots. Higher elevations can lead to sweeter fruit (more intense sunshine). Plus, mountain town locals and visitors will pay a premium for boutique foods. A 2013 UN Environment Program report hailed small farming as the key to helping people escape poverty. No, mountain residents can’t feed the world on blackberries. But once food production is decentralized, once it’s designed to be resilient and balanced, as a nation we’ll tax the land less and create models that can better withstand climate and population stresses.
Alison Gannett never thought of herself as a farmer before buying a farm. When she weighed her options for treating her tumor in 2013, she declined harsh chemo and radiation in favor of fighting her disease with foods she could provide herself. Gannett’s ketogenic diet is an extremely low-carb, low-protein, high-fat, zero-sugar regimen known to help fight of spells of childhood epilepsy and theorized by some to starve cancer cells. Gannett’s daily regimen includes grass-fed fats (butter, tallow, lard), low-glycemic vegetables (chard, lettuces), and her own grass-fed proteins. Farm life also encourages sleeping and rising with the sun, eating with the seasons, making cheese, and managing rotational grazing. Gannett now knows exactly how much food she needs to live on in a year, and her new, hyper-local lifestyle may have saved her. Currently, she’s not cancering or tumoring. Her bloodwork has shown remarkable improvement. Her doctors can’t believe she’s still living. “I just eat what and how my grandparents used to eat,” she says.
From our High Summer 2016 issue.