Dishing Dirt | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation

Dishing Dirt

Organic lunch and conversation with TC Professor Emerita Joan Dye Gussow (Ed.D. -'75, M.Ed. '74, Nutrition Education) and heirloom seed expert Amy Goldman (MA '78, Developmental Psychology; and Ph. D., '84, Clinical Psychology, Oklahoma State University). Take a walk in Joan's garden, too.
Organic lunch and conversation with TC Professor Emerita Joan Dye Gussow (Ed.D. -'75, M.Ed. '74, Nutrition Education) and heirloom seed expert Amy Goldman (MA '78, Developmental Psychology; and Ph. D., '84, Clinical Psychology, Oklahoma State University). Take a walk in Joan's garden, too.

In early June, TC Today sat down with Gussow, hailed by The New York Times as "matriarch of the eat-locally-think-globally food movement,” and Goldman, renowned author of The Heirloom Tomato: Garden to Table, who has been described as "perhaps the world's premier vegetable gardener" by the  President of the New York Botanical Garden.  (Goldman was also the focus of a recent Times “Vows” feature for her wedding, held atop the Arsenal in Central Park, to Cary Fowler, Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust.) Topics of conversation ranged from benevolent soil fungi to biodiversity and the future of the planet. The setting was Gussow’s garden on the banks of the Hudson River, an hour north of New York City.  

Q: Why is seed conservation so important?

Amy: I’ve been growing vegetables since I was a teenager.  In 1990, after reading, Shattering: Food, Politics and the Loss of Genetic Diversity, by Cary Fowler and Pat Mooney, I became a card-carrying seed saver, collector, and advocate for agricultural biodiversity.

Joan: I still use the table on seed loss from that book. 

Amy:  Shattering illustrates the steep losses across the board in vegetable crops over the past 100 years. Many varieties that were once available commercially circa 1903 have gone missing, become extinct.  We’ve incurred losses of up to 90 percent or even more. It’s really frightening. Yet much remains and we need to preserve it.  Our very survival is contingent upon conserving genetic resources for continued and directed crop evolution. For example, pests and disease are always evolving so breeders must keep pace.  And it’s a race against time to try to adapt agriculture to global climate change.

Joan: But meanwhile the Farm Bill [the 2012 Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act, passed by the Senate in June] creates subsidies for just a narrow band of crops, and for a narrow band of genetics, too. There are five varieties of potatoes in the U.S., fundamentally. There are at least 3,000 in the Andes, and more probably once existed.

Many potato varieties are now held “ex situ” in gene banks, like the International Potato Center. The Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway, safeguards hundreds of thousands of crop varieties in seed form for the world’s gene banks, and functions like a safety-deposit box.

Joan: Someone has to grow these crops, because the seeds won’t last forever.  The world changes and seeds adapt out. I went to Nicaragua years ago, and the Nicaraguans had farmers growing out all their gene bank seeds.
Amy: A global conservation strategy should include both “in situ” or on-farm conservation as well as “ex situ” conservation in gene banks.   Seed Savers Exchange embodies both approaches.

Q: What do each of you see as the biggest threat to biodiversity?

Joan: The motor car, because of what it allows us to do. There are 71 million miles of paved roads and lots. And when you put a road into an area, you’re talking about the effect it has on the acreage around it. So a car allows us to go everywhere and take over.

Amy: I haven’t thought about the motor car in that way, but Joan has a good point.  We are certainly losing a lot of crop wild relatives in places with development pressures.  The tomato originated in the coastal highlands of South America, and there are still wild tomatoes growing there. As you can imagine, they’re extremely hardy. So breeders are using that genetic material to breed hardiness into modern varieties. 
Joan: You cannot believe the short-sightedness. Look at genetically engineered crops. The whole country is planted with Roundup ready plants [corn, soy engineered to resist the herbicide Roundup],and as a result we’re now getting weeds resistant to it.

Q: At TC’s Academic Festival in April, Jeffrey Sachs said that we can’t back down from the technological paths we’ve taken. Is that true? If not, how could we back down? What would that look like?

Joan: I don’t like the “backing down” idea. We’ve got to go forward—use sophistication rather than brute force technology. People used to say that about organic agriculture – “Oh, we can’t go back to that.” People thought I was crazy, and now people think it’s sophisticated.

The reason we can’t do it? The goddamn companies are running the world.

There are lots of reliable reports about highly productive small-scale biodynamic, regenerative agriculture approaches using composts and manures. It’s not a mystery. We’re in the hands of corporations who make money from what’s happening now. They’ll have to be forced. Many years ago, I said to Fred Kirschenmann [President of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture], “What’s going to stop them?” And he said, “Nature will, Joan. Just hope she’ll be kind.” And she’s beginning to stop us.

Q: Is this well understood? Is the public genuinely concerned?

Amy: I am encouraged to see heirloom vegetables becoming widespread; the number of people who are going back to the vegetable garden, and the many newbies just starting out. It gives one cause for hope. The feeling of having one’s hands in the soil, of growing healthy nutritious food for our families, is inherently satisfying and rewarding.  There’s a new generation to educate. That’s where Joan comes in.  She’s the consummate teacher.

Joan: I agree with young people who are tired of mediated knowledge, who want to touch something. You sit in the average classroom where there’s nothing that came from nature.

And meanwhile, we go on using up the pieces of the planet we want, assuming the rest of it will continue to work. I’ve been saying it for 40 years, and it scares me. We’re getting these heat waves.  And sometimes when we haven’t had rain for months, the newscasters will be saying, “And it’s another wonderful weekend.” I just want to scream.

Of course, this winter I had artichokes which are killed by freezing. That’s the positive side.

Amy: It’s been a really lousy season at my place and throughout the northeast for maple sugaring this year.  A good maple run requires hard frosts and cold weather followed by sunny weather. The trees are so confused because it’s been so mild. I’ve never seen such a short sugaring season. And the quality of the syrup is poor. 

Q: How do we teach these issues? And can people really be taught to be concerned? It almost seems as though they need to have been raised in families that cared about nature.

Amy: Well, I’m not an academic so I don’t teach in a classroom. I teach through my books, of course.  As immediate past board chair and now special advisor to the Seed Savers Exchange,  I fully endorse SSE’s mission to develop a network of people committed to collecting, conserving, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants; while educating about the value of genetic and cultural diversity. SSE publishes fine educational materials on gardening and seed saving, including quarterly magazines with stories about heirlooms and the people who save them.

It’s really important to reach young people, and the earlier the better. Extinction happens when seeds aren’t passed down to the next generation, so it’s crucial to develop a new generation of seed savers.

Everyone is hungry for food that’s nutritious and good, for a connection to the earth.   I grew up on Long Island, on the site of an old apple orchard.  My parents were originally in the food business so the enjoyment of delicious food is engrained in me. When I started planting my own tomatoes, I met with an appreciative audience, and it went from there to melons, squashes, peppers and more.

Joan: I grew up in California before World War II. The Japanese grew great produce. After we took their farms away from them, the produce was less good. But we never thought of growing our own food. But my mother loved to garden, and I inherited that. We had a lemon tree and an avocado tree in our back yard, though alas, I didn’t like avocadoes until I came to New York City, where they cost a dollar apiece. That was a lot of money then.

I think having your parents be involved is important, but neither of my boys seriously gardens, so it’s not necessarily catching. I think it takes the culture doing it, and the culture is changing. There’s so much more interest in school gardens, thanks partly to Michelle Obama.

San Francisco is filled with gardens. There’s a sense there that a city ought to be growing its own food. In Detroit, Cleveland – people are taking over the land and turning it back into farms. It’s all terrific – if only we had decent farm policies. The loss of democracy in the U.S. is so severe that I despair of government doing anything that’s useful. We’ve got to count on people in their own communities. And I’m hopeful about that. In an unconscious process of getting increasingly modern, we’ve lost touch without realizing what we were losing, but people are rediscovering food-growing now. The farm-on-the-rooftop sort of thing wasn’t being done twenty or thirty years ago. You were an eccentric if you did.  So while I do worry about how fads come and go, I don’t think the growing interest in food and gardening will go away. It speaks to something fundamental. I think people who have encountered nature and gotten in touch with it miss it when they don’t have it.

Amy: It’s a basic human need.

Joan: But if we don’t get decent agriculture policies, then you get a young couple starting a farm or a CSA [community-supported agriculture organization], and they have no life or health insurance, and no heat in their trailer. How long can they do that?  The crop insurance all goes to the big people. There’s no protection for the people producing our food. 

We’re not paying people to grow food, not adequately. Any country where the people who are growing food have to live on food stamps, that’s insane.

Switzerland pays to keep farmers on the parts of the land where they can’t make a living—to keep that land in agriculture.

Q: Joan, you’ve written so much about eating seasonally and locally. Would your goal really be for people to live entirely off what they can grow?

Joan: Well, I’d be crazy to think everyone could grow all their food. We’re too close to New York City, for example. I only did it because I wanted to see what worked at different times of the year.

I had come to the theoretical conclusion that what we were doing, importing from around the world, and exporting our high-input farming systems, was terribly destructive. And I thought the only way to make people aware of the impact of our food demands was to know a farmer. And the only way to know a farmer was to live near one. And then you have to eat what that farmer can grow in season to keep her in business.

Then someone said to me, “But what are you going to eat in January?” Well, I was from Southern California, so I said, “I don’t know.” So I had to see what would grow here, and once I started doing it, I got addicted.

The region should certainly strive to supply as much of its own produce as possible. Herman Daly, a well-known economist once said we important Danish butter cookies and we export Danish butter cookies, so wouldn’t it be better to trade recipes?

So, for example, broccoli is something we shouldn’t have to import. It’s something we can grow here early and late. We can eat seasonally. I’m living now on sugar snap peas.

That’s what I want people to tap into – seasonal eating.

Amy: Some foods have adapted well to different regions of the country. And then there are some varieties of squash that are native to the Eastern seaboard such as acorn squashes.  The ubiquitous  pumpkins of Mexico and North America are an essential part of our fall holiday cheer. 

In my Zone 5 garden, I can grow many things especially if I start seeds inside early and use frost protection outside.  There are ways to stretch the season. [The United States Department of Agriculture divides North America into 11 separate zones, based on temperature; each zone is 10°F warmer (or colder) in an average winter than the adjacent zone]

Many heirloom varieties are very hardy.  Bison tomatoes are adapted to the northern Great Plains. They thrive in adversity, in desiccating winds – and also in my garden.

Not all of our heirloom crops are fantastically delicious. But they often have other excellent attributes, such as producing prolifically in some environments. And in my book, getting some harvest is better than none.  A little salt or sugar does wonders for any tomato!

If you don’t grow heirloom fruits and vegetables yourself, you can buy them locally from farmers in August.  Then you can freeze or can what you don’t consume fresh.  I try to eat one meal from the garden every single day during the year, and that often involves soup.

We should remember that our farming and gardening ancestors domesticated all of our major food crops and passed the seeds to the next generation. Farmers and gardeners are the traditional plant breeders. These days professional breeders use varieties in gene banks for crop improvement. Thank goodness we have the seed collections that we do.  And it’s very important to link conservation to utilization.

Q: We’ve talked a lot about seeds and crops. What about soil?

Joan: I’ve gotten very excited about soil organisms in recent years. Through my experience with sweet potatoes, I’ve learned about AMF -- arboreal mychorrizal fungi, which live in the soil and funnel nutrients into roots. Some of these organisms collect on the roots of plants to get the sugar that plants put out. They funnel phosphorous into roots of plants and put out a glue-like substance called glomalin that holds bits of soil together.

I had planted sweet potatoes into a bed that was rock-hard. The dirt had no life in it. I didn’t want it sitting empty all summer, and I thought, sweet potatoes grow anywhere, at least I’ll get nice foliage. In the fall, sure enough, I got nice foliage, but I also got really good sweet potatoes and the soil looked like real soil. You could dig into it and put a hand down into it. I asked around, and no one knew anything about it except this German farmer who was a soil biologist.  He told me about glomalin which was not discovered until 1996.  So here we are pouring all this stuff on something that is holding our farms together.

And then last year there was a bed I wanted to plant with tomatoes, but it still had Brussels sprouts in it. I knew pulling the Brussels sprouts roots out would disrupt the soil, so I decided just to cut them down and plant tomatoes amid the roots. The tomato bed with Brussels sprouts was half a foot higher than the one without.

So there are all kinds of important relationships we’re not paying attention to. The weed killers we’re pouring on our soils are interfering with these organisms, and some people claim that even more serious damage is occurring.

Amy: People are afraid of growing sweet potatoes. They think they can’t be grown north of the Mason-Dixon line – and the same holds true for watermelons.

Joan: Yes, but they grow fine here, and they’re a soil builder. Any crop that puts out sugars is – big turnips, for example. 

But nobody seems to pay attention to that. I looked it up on the web. It says, sweet potatoes love sandy loam. Well, don’t we all.

Q: How optimistic are each of you about the future?

Amy: I’m hopeful.  I have to be, right? After all these years as a gardener, I’ve learned how to deal with all kinds of challenges.

I’ve learned that there’s strength in diversity.

Joan: I grew up before the bomb. I’m basically an optimist.  And anyway, one is obligated to be hopeful.  It won’t do to not be hopeful. I have children and a grandchild. But I’m still glad I’m not going to be around in 20 years, because we’re in for a very hard time.

Our president’s failure to try harder on global warming is the thing I hold against him the most. I can’t figure it. Something like 78 percent of people think we need to do more on environmental issues, regardless of Congress. So he has to be on a bully pulpit and force action.

China is ahead of us! They’re using the most wind power in the world.

I’ve been teaching about these issues for decades, and I know my students are affected.  One time I was in Washington at a meeting and a former student came up to me and said she’d been a very responsible consumer, recycling and all, and now her husband wanted to know when is the world going to end? I laughed and said, I really don’t know.  I still don’t.

The topics touched on by Joan and Amy extend beyond gardening and nutrition into American history and politics and other areas. To cite just two recent examples: In June, The New York Times published a story on the River Road African American Museum and its Freedom Garden, a repository for cowpeas, okra, rice, and other indigenous African seeds that enslaved Africans grew on American plantations for their own food, and that subsequently became staples in many black kitchens.   And also in June, The Atlantic published an open letter to Congress, signed by a group of leading environmental and nutrition experts, arguing that farm legislation approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee in April “would continue to give away subsidies worth tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to the largest commodity crop growers, insurance companies, and agribusinesses even as it drastically underfunds programs to promote the health and food security of all Americans, invest in beginning and disadvantaged farmers, revitalize local food economies and protect natural resources.” The signers included Michael Pollan (author of Food Rules and In Defense of Food), Bill McKibben (author of The End of Nature and eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet), Alice Waters (proprietor of the legendary restaurant Chez Panisse and founder of The Edible Schoolyard), Andrew Weil (father of the field of integrative medicine), TV personality and restaurateur Mario Batali, and TC’s own Joan Gussow.

Published Monday, Jul. 30, 2012