Times Past

Times Past: Seed for New Year's resolutions found in early farming practices

Nelida, a graduate of Viva Farms, Skagit, Wash., is about to send for her business license.
Nelida, a graduate of Viva Farms, Skagit, Wash., is about to send for her business license. Courtesy photo

The custom of making New Year’s resolutions may have begun with the Akitu festivals of early Mesopotamia, which is in modern day Iraq. “Akitu,” which literally means barley, was celebrated in springtime in hopes of ensuring the arrival of rain, which brought the renewal of nature and community.

The people believed that they could strengthen their god Marduk and his son Nabu in the struggle with Tiamat (evil forces) by resolving to return their neighbor’s farm tools without which new crops could not be planted.For many of us, New Year’s resolutions are still linked to food and diet.

Some of us have very serious motivation for seeking a new way of feeding ourselves. When Ethan Schaffer was growing up in the Pacific Northwest, he was told by his physicians that he had lymphoma. He underwent a five-month-long treatment of intense chemotherapy.

Schaffer wondered why young people suffered from cancers like lymphoma. He began to explore options for more healthy and sustainable living. Schaffer and his girlfriend, Sarita, traveled to New Zealand to work on organic farms. The couple earned a living by working at least four hours each day on the farm and in the process learned organic crop cultivation.

In 2001, Schaffer and Sarita moved to Washington state and founded Grow Food Seattle. This links people to the experience of sustainable agriculture and gives them the opportunity to work on organic farms. More than 20,000 people have been connected to nearly 2,000 farms in all 50 states and 41 nations.

The couple has gone on to found Viva Farms. They joined with Washington State University’s Agricultural Extension program in offering its first Spanish/English Sustainable Small Farming and Ranching course. Thirty-six students from Latino farmworker families completed the first bilingual Agricultural Entrepreneurship and Farm Business Planning course.

The pair is convinced that the only way to meet the demand for good, local food is a new variety of farmers. Some of these will come from the children of the old farmers who want to return to family farms that would otherwise be abandoned. These farmers need new ideas about production, distribution, and methods of farming.

But they know that the greatest population of new farmers will come from immigrant families with broad agricultural skills. They will also come from youth without any farming experience, with whom the writings of authors like Bill McKibben resonate.

The idea of toxic chemical-free farming means a far safer lifestyle both for the consumer and the farmer.

Closer to home, 17-year-old Connie Shahid grew up in the depressed and polluted Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco. She became involved with the Literacy for Environmental Justice project that addressed the health and environmental problems of the area. She revitalized a community garden to grow healthy food and built a 1,200- square-foot shade house to raise native plant seedlings. The seedlings are used to revegetate the barren slopes of what had been a post-industrial wasteland.

You can read more about Shahid, the Schaffers and many other awe-inspiring young people who are transforming the world in Sharon J. Smith’s “The Young Activist’s Guide to Building a Green Movement and Changing the World” (Ten Speed Press).

Smith, a San Luis Obispo resident, will complete her master’s degree in environmental management at Yale University in June.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.