I am a thirty-nine-year-old organic farmer at a Zen Buddhist practice community. I live and work in an atmosphere largely sheltered from social and environmental chaos. Am I denying the deep trouble the world is in? Learning to grow food in such a paradisiacal setting, with days bookended by zazen, meals sensitively prepared, hot water, shelter . . . has been nothing short of a miracle. I’m keenly aware of my good fortune, which leads me to ask questions that don’t have easy answers. Am I doing enough to truly feed the people who need food the most is one question that particularly haunts me. I feel as a practitioner that I must keep the trouble close.
Our farm makes a sojourn to San Francisco each Saturday for the summer months of the growing season to install our pop-up veggie shop in front of the Ferry Building along the Embarcadero. This is a venerable tradition that goes back a few decades to when this farmers’ market was truly one of a kind in the city and took place in a rumpled parking lot underneath the freeway that came down after the 1989 earthquake.
The smell of wet cardboard and hydrocooled vegetables packed from floor to ceiling mingles with the divine scent of lemon verbena and roses in our small box truck. Breathing in these smells evokes an affinity with all those who work through the night making society happen. I celebrate my humble role in this invisible dignity by rising in the dark and offering vital abundance from rural soil to appreciative city dwellers.
What I noticed most at the beginning of this year’s market ritual was the striking and painful contrast between overflowing stands of fruit, flowers, vegetables and assorted foodie delights displayed in a market fantasia and the homeless folks sleeping in the concrete Justin Herman Plaza park beneath the steel and glass facade of downtown office buildings. This hard-luck people’s park was the nexus of the Occupy movement during the 2011 citizens’ uprising in the wake of the financial meltdown. How do I reconcile what I do (grow and sell organic vegetables to people who can afford to buy them) with the visceral evidence of our failure to care for our own people right across the street?
At the same time there is a myth that organic food at farmers’ markets is more expensive than petrochemically or genetically modified food. According to this myth, eating food that cares for the health of the earth and for all beings is somehow an elitist endeavor. This could not be further from the truth. Regionally grown organic produce available at farmers’ markets is equal to or less expensive dollar-wise than the same foods found at grocery stores and doesn’t come with the heavy, toxic, externalized costs of industrial farming. In the convivial space of farmers’ markets you also get to know the people whose hard work cultivates such nourishment, exchange recipes and reconnect with the deep medicine of feeling attuned to the source of your life.
The real limiter on availability of widespread, abundant organic produce is land access, training and startup capital for young farmers, and the juggernaut of industrial food giants who manipulate the distribution system and proclaim the myth of scarcity.
Farming actually feeds people, that’s the amazing thing. Growing food in an ecological manner is based on the insight that the substances that comprise and sustain our bodies are freely given and come from heaven and earth. As an organic farmer and Zen student, I know that hunger arises from structural inequality, the result of an engineered distribution problem, and is never caused by a lack of generosity provided by seed, sun, soil, water and honest, comradely good work.
For a number of seasons I have had the privilege to serve on the board of the Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy program for homeless people in one of the richest counties on earth, where over a third of the children do not know where their next meal will come from. These good people are our neighbors and they are hungry. They are intimate with genuine lack and the heartbreak of humiliation. The greatest pain they report is the pain of being unseen.
I believe there is no terror greater than the lie that there is not enough abundance to feed a hungry world. There is no call more powerful than the summons to create a society where all beings are fed. One down-to-earth way I have found to respond to this call is through the agrarian practice of gleaning. This ancient tradition of interdependence welcomes anyone to enter farm fields after the primary harvest is complete and to gather and redistribute all remaining food.
When volunteer gleaners of all ages come to the farm to redistribute this food to the needy through the local food bank (where it goes to homebound seniors, school cafeterias and poor folks), I encourage everyone to begin by settling into silence. Human silence reveals the magnitude of harmony aroused and circulated by the natural world. I ask them to imagine that they are gathering food for their own families and to only harvest the quality of food they themselves would eat. When the gleaning is complete, we gather in a circle to share something that has moved us, that has magnetized and enlarged our appreciation of being alive. For most people, it appears to me, this simple ritual of harvesting and gifting food to unknown others provides powerful sustenance and re-roots them in the deep loam of their innate generosity.
In our communal work with the awesome endless potential of biodiversity, we unravel the lie that there is not enough to go around. Mindful farming inspires me to notice that real life is never defined by scarcity but is a dance of honorable relationships mapped in a living web of abundance.
For now, I am truly blessed to farm good land among wise friends. Still, I keep the trouble and truth of hunger close. When I look in the eyes of members of the homeless chaplaincy community as they gather every month to share a meal with us in our communal Zen dining room, I see family who have hit upon hard times. I also see myself a few random steps away from waking up an isolated outcast in a rich city.
We all need to keep the trouble close, to practice seeing. I intend to keep my heart soft and senses awake to the fecundity of life, especially as we descend into the lean times ahead.
Qayyum Johnson is a resident at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Muir Beach, California, where he manages the seven-acre organic vegetable farm with the help of many friends and teachers. He was raised in a Sufi household committed to the ideals of love, harmony and beauty, and encountered the Buddhadharma through bodhicitta teachings offered by Garchen Rinpoche.
From the Fall 2014 issue of Inquiring Mind (Vol. 31, No. 1)
© 2014 Qayyum Johnson