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Radical is Feasible

Sharon Astyk and Scott Kellogg offer Capital Region residents resources and proof that taking back the food system is possible

by Amy Halloran on April 20, 2011

Ten years ago, writing about food on Earth Day might have been seen as a stretch. However, the connection between personal and planetary fuels is becoming evident to more and more people as spikes in food costs correspond with higher prices at the gas pump.

The layers of petroleum that lace together our food supply, from field to packaging to transit, make many of us question standard ways of feeding ourselves. And so people join CSAs, shop at farmers markets and food co-ops. People grow gardens, in their yards or at one of 48 community gardens run locally by Capital District Community Gardens. They fight to change laws that inhibit earth-friendly practices that immigrants kept alive in cities for decades, like keeping chickens.

For those invested in changing how they eat and shifting food production homeward, the Capital Region is home to two dynamic human resources: Scott Kellogg and Sharon Astyk.

Kellogg is developing the Radix Ecological Sustainability Center on Grand Street in Albany’s South End. The center will demonstrate tools and technologies that give urban residents more control over food production, and water and waste systems.

Compost at the Radix Center

Kellogg worked on similar urban redesign and educational initiatives in Austin, Texas, with a group called the Rhizome Collective prior to moving to the area with his family. He and his wife, Stacy Pettigrew, coauthored a DIY text on the topic of retooling cities for sustainability, Toolbox for Sustainable City Living: A Do-It-Ourselves Guide. Kellogg teaches R.U.S.T., Radical Urban Sustainability Training workshops; the next R.U.S.T. training will take place in Albany in the fall. Our food system is a core component of both the book and the workshops.

“I believe that in the upcoming decades we’re going to be forced to make some adaptations and changes in society, and transition into being a more sustainable culture. A big part of this is going to be relocalizing our economic processes, the least of which not being food,” says Kellogg.

Bringing food production back into population centers, he notes, is critical. Currently more than 50 percent of the world is living in cities, and that number is projected to go up to about 70 percent in the upcoming decades. Cities are already developing sustainable food systems within their limits. Hong Kong, for instance produces 20 percent of its food within its boundaries.

The Radix Center sits on six-tenths of an acre, where a 20-by-60-foot greenhouse is under construction. Two cages full of compost and carbon-based bulking agents are currently transforming produce scraps from 20 Albany households into fertilizer. Begun in December, the center’s home compost collection program is a weekly affair; the service costs $15 a month for weekly Wednesday pickup. Participants receive a 2.5-gallon compost bucket, which they line with a cornstarch-based “plastic” bag, and each week the bag is collected and brought to the site.

The compost project was born of the fact that the site needs to build a biological skin, since soil at the site is either degraded or nonexistent. While creating rich organic material, the project also serves other purposes: enabling people to compost who may not otherwise have the space to do so, while demonstrating the feasibility of a sustainable practice that could potentially be a money-making enterprise. And, of course, the immediate removal of material from the waste stream. Since half the food produced in our country goes to waste, and a large part of that waste happens in people’s homes, composting makes a significant impact in trash reduction. If you want to see how much of a dent you can can make in your own garbage, the organization is accepting new clients within the city limits of Albany.

Beyond the city limits, in the town of Knox, Sharon Astyk farms her 27-acre homestead, Gleanings Farm, with her husband Eric and their four sons. A former academic in the field of early modern literature, Astyk has written three books about the challenges facing our food and energy systems, Depletion and Abundance, A Nation of Farmers, and Independence Days, and is currently working on a fourth, Making Home. Due out in Fall 2012, the book covers the territory of adapting in place, a concept that has been engaging her for some time.

“What can we do where we are with the people that we’ve got?” Astyk says. “Most of us faced with the idea of climate change and peak oil, would prefer to build the perfect straw bale house, to have everything be environmentally friendly. Ideally, most of us would prefer to get some new relatives to help do it, maybe a husband who could build that straw bale house. But this stuff still has to happen, whether or not all that other stuff happens.”

Adapting in Place is the title given to online workshops she offers with Aaron Newton, her co-author on A Nation of Farmers.

Astyk has reduced her family’s use of energy and resources to less than an eighth of that of the average American household. She uses her refrigerator as an icebox for seven months of the year. During winter, she uses an unheated room as a walk in cooler.

The family grows vegetables, pastures poultry, and raises dairy goats. The Nigerian dwarf goats are the size of a collie.

“You can fit two of them in a suburban backyard pretty comfortably,” says Astyk. “Since so many people are concerned about how to find safe, healthy, reliable sources of really good milk, one possible answer is that people could do that themselves.”

Astyk moved here from Lowell, Mass., a decade ago with her husband and his grandparents. The idea was to find a place where the elders were comfortable and Eric could find a job. The land they found was not optimal in agricultural terms, but, says Astyk, “We’ve come to love it for its agricultural gifts.”

They’ve used those gifts to a variety of purposes, running a CSA for six years, selling plants, poultry and rabbits, and sharing sheep with neighbors. Concurrent to all these enterprises, she’s been wrapping her head and life around the past, present and future of energy and agriculture.

Recently, Astyk spoke at the Sanctuary for Independent Media, capping off the Reskilling Festival, a day of sustainability workshops and presentations.

Her talk on bioregionalism was a global and local tour of agriculture old and new. Eighty-five percent of the world’s farms are small farms, she said, and small farms grow half the world’s food. She pointed to the region’s waterways as transportation assets, assets that drew people to settle here and which will serve us as peak oil and climate change continue to revise the way we eat and move.

“Take the oil out of agriculture,” she advised that night, “and put the people back in agriculture.”

“I think that this area has, as I said in the talk, some really remarkable strengths,” says Astyk. “We didn’t pick this area because it was the ideal place to adapt in place, but we’ve come to feel that this is really a remarkable place. There’s an infrastructure for local food that I think is really admirable and that builds on a long history. This is a kind of place that has a future, and that’s a really important thing.”

Toolbox for Sustainable City Living: A do-it-Ourselves Guide

Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage & Preservation

Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front

A Nation of Farmers: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil