Seeds of Plenty

Organic gardeners take on corporate crops.

Wendy Johnson

© Getty/PhotodiscAlmost fifteen years ago, at our annual gathering of ecological farmers, I received a bulging handful of Rainbow Inca flint corn from my gardening sister, Dru Rivers of Full Belly Farm. “Plant this corn,” she urged me, “and save some seed to share with new farmers next year.”

The beauty of this heritage corn captured me from the first with its dense rows of russet gold, steel blue, and burnt orange kernels wrapped under dark burgundy and pale dun husks. When we ground the corn at harvest time, it yielded a soft mound of lavender-hued meal that we added to our Thanksgiving bread. Best of all, Rainbow Inca corn was generous; even after the first growing season we returned to the Eco-Farm gathering with plenty of seed to share.

But over this last decade, while we have been culturing heritage crops like Rainbow Inca corn and Rose Fir Apple fingerling potatoes in our Zen fields, multinational conglomerates have been genetically engineering patented crops that are spreading out of their corporate laboratories like poison fire over dry summer grass. In response, a group of organic gardeners from Green Gulch Farm traveled to the state capital in Sacramento, California, to protest a USDA- and taxpayer-sponsored international agriculture and technology conference. The conference was organized for the purpose of introducing farming ministers from the developing world to the lucrative business of global farming.

In Sacramento we walked peacefully with a throng of about 1,500 other demonstrators, including organic growers, sustainable-cuisine chefs bearing trays of savory food, environmental activists and students, and other opponents of globalized agriculture. We were met by many hundreds of armed police officers, who intimidated our ranks with helicopters and armored vehicles; on foot and on horseback, they herded us away from the conference.

While we were demonstrating in the streets, a surprise feast was being laid for the world ministers of agriculture gathered in their vast expo hall. Surrounded by trade exhibits promoting food irradiation and patented bio-tech seeds, a circle of lifelong friends and growers from the Ecological Farming Association and California Certified Organic Farmers who had raised the $6,500 fee for booth space, covered two large tables with a vast cornucopia of donated, organically grown food and drink, free for the tasting.

Ministers from Jamaica wolfed down slabs of organic mango and chattered enthusiastically about their own mango orchards, while new friends from Vietnam and Africa (and some USDA representatives) joined them in feasting on organic rice cakes with almond butter, and tasted non-GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) corn chips and fresh salsa heavy with local avocados. Platter after platter of early summer peaches, pale golden table grapes, and field-ripe strawberries were circulated among the gathered ministers, while Frog’s Leap Winery poured free wine and varietal grape juice for the thirsty. For three solid days, this 100 percent organic feast continued, the only free food served at the trade expo.

Word of the giveaway feast spread to the streets, and we celebrated. I remembered a thirteen-year-old boy who had visited Green Gulch years ago with his ordained mother. While she met with students and practiced zazen, Hans helped out in the kitchen. Late one morning, hot corn bread was coming out of the oven and Hans was offered the first taste. “This is real bread,” he announced after he finished eating, “not a ghost.”

A few days after our journey to Sacramento, I was not surprised to hear that on the final day of the ministerial expo, a clutch of Sri Lankan farmers abandoned a USDA-sponsored speech by the Monsanto Corporation in order to travel with local organic farmers to nearby Full Belly Farm. I like to imagine them there, talking and laughing in the long farm rows, sharing culture and perhaps a handful or two of ripe Rainbow Inca corn—real food, not a ghost.

Wendy Johnson has been gardening and practicing meditation at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in northern California since 1975.

Image: © Getty/Photodisc

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