If it’s a Saturday morning, you’re more than likely to find me doing one of two things: visiting some wild place for nature-related recreation or biking to the Berkeley Farmers’ Market. The melee of colors and the medley of shapes of the fruits and vegetables, the diversity and energy of the shoppers, the opportunity to interact with the farmers and see what is growing locally in that season–these are all elements that draw me to the market.
But despite my long-standing practice of shopping at the farmers’ market, it has taken me a while to understand the parallels between these two Saturday morning pursuits.
I’ve been thinking about this as we’ve been working on this issue’s special section on Bay Area food landscapes. Taking on this topic–with its focus on cultivated instead of “wild” open space–has been something of a departure for me and for Bay Nature. Or perhaps “evolution” would be a better word. At some basic level I’ve understood that perusing produce grown at local farms was another way of exploring local “nature.” But at the same time, I viewed crop- and rangeland as terrain subtracted from the total of open space available for recreation and wildlife. The first step away from this overly polarized perspective was an understanding that as private open space, ranches and farms were at least preserving the possibility of future public open space. And, as in the case of the ranches of West Marin and eastern Contra Costa, offering pleasing pastoral vistas in the meantime.
But lately I’ve come around to a more expansive appreciation for the critical role these working farms play in a larger vision for a sustainable metropolitan region. We need working farmland and ranches as much for our health and survival as for aesthetically pleasing viewsheds. Can we continue to rely primarily on food imported from far away, requiring enormous inputs of fossil fuels? Can we thrive on a diet of mostly processed foods, which Michael Pollan has so aptly described as “food-like substances”?
Fortunately, we in the Bay Area are blessed with a climate and a geography–the same factors that nurture the region’s prized natural biodiversity–that allow for the production of a wide variety of nutritious foods throughout the year. A suitable land base; a large, educated, and affluent population willing to pay the often-higher prices for “real” food; and a culture of innovation–these are ideal conditions for the development of an alternative food system based on local production at a variety of scales, from small urban gardens to large rural ranches, as we see in the farms profiled in this issue.
So it’s a pleasure for us at Bay Nature Institute to play a small part in chronicling the convergence of the local food and conservation communities and to help chart a course toward the appreciation and protection of both food and conservation landscapes. And just to make it a little more personal, try spicing up your next hike with a picnic lunch of West Marin-made cheese on Berkeley-baked bread, with San Mateo-grown strawberries for dessert, finished off with a bottle of Livermore Valley wine. Bon appetit!
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Veteran environmental activist, writer, editor, publisher, educator, and coastal wetlands scientist Phyllis Faber has made countless contributions to the Bay Area environmental movement.