I’ve spent the better part of this summer with senior citizens, especially those living in small town Portugal. They are the generation just barely hanging on, the same people who 20 years ago I would spend much of my summer with. They were the farmers, the housewives, the seamstresses, and the factory workers. They raised children, they emigrated to countries where there was work and hope, and then they came home to live among their farms and friends for those golden years as they awaited visits from grandchildren and for life to carry on.
As decades flew by, these towns changed dramatically and perhaps the people did too. Young people kept leaving, and old people kept getting older. The focus shifted to nearby cities and suddenly there were hardly any children in town. The local school where my mother and so many other children studied, stands empty and closed as the regional government has decided there aren’t enough students. The ruins of houses I used to visit when I was a kid lay everywhere, with their collapsed roofs, broken windows and walls that have crumbled. In the center of the village there are now only two buses per day to get you to the nearest towns, another sign of a culture that has embraced the car as the ONLY means of transportation, and a community that can hardly walk to the bus stop.
Some of the still mobile seniors still tend to their fields, watering their crops which is mostly just for home consumption. Several middle aged farmers do the lion’s share of the work, growing pears and grapes, the inconsistent cash crops of the community. Their children go to school and vocational training, their interests lead them away from the farm, towards the much talked about better life that is assumed to exist beyond this dying town. As days turn into weeks, another beloved member of the community passes away. Their land passes on to a child who lives far away. Their houses lay empty, some strong enough to resist the decay, others not so lucky. Outside of town there are a few tourism projects that attract visitors with money; wine tourism, people seeking peace and quiet, and those who find the mountains and valleys of agricultural Portugal to be charming. Inside of town, the mayor wonders out loud about what will happen to his shrinking population when the generation that built the town is completely gone, and then next generations have long moved away.
This story of one particular village that I have known all my life, repeats itself over and over in Portugal. Cities get bigger. Villages die out. The elderly disappear while the young follow the promise of a what some say is a better life. Ripe plums and peaches fall from abandoned groves to the point that it smells like wine in the afternoon heat. Down the main road a few minutes there’s a new giant super market chain store that has opened up, they’ve got a sale on peaches and plums.
“Family farmers are the backbone of our nation’s economy,” – the words of the legendary Willie Nelson speaking on behalf of farm-aid not too long ago. I thought about the words of Willie today as I walked through the mud, under the fences, past the sheep, next to the cows, over the stream and yes.. through the woods. Up here in Normandie, I’m not sure there has ever been a farm-aid organization, though we do know that farmers in France get their share of – often referred to as unfair- subsidies and market protection. Maybe it is unfair, but when you’re walking passed the old fashioned farm houses and over the majestic green hills, you can’t help but breath deep and feel… healthy.
Back in New Jersey, in the town where I spent much of my childhood, older people always told me about how my sprawling suburban hamlet used to be a farming town. Yet by the 1990’s there was not a single farm left, and it looked more like a town made up of strip malls, big box stores, and cozy suburban homes. Whatever majestic green there may have once been was long paved over by several highways criss-crossing the town. No one thought about what had been lost – too late now anyway.
Country life isn’t for everyone. It may not even be for me. But when you’re eating cheese or bread, and you can look across the street and wave to the sheep or baker who were responsible for the deliciousness on your plate – there is a satisfaction that anyone could and should get to enjoy (city or country dweller). And my utmost compliments to the people of Northwest France who have managed to preserve their farms and their wonderful environment. Wandering around these sleepy forgotten places, it doesn’t just feel like the backbone of France, it feels like the backbone of a sustainable world.
The goal to live life on their terms took Ryanne and Jay from New York City to San Francisco and eventually to Western Virginia. It is here that this dynamic couple set out to build their own home, grow some of their own food, work on their terms, and generally tinker with life choices that were previously not an option or unaffordable. The result is an inspiring start to healthy, stimulating and more sustainable life at a time where so many feel such goals are unreachable.
In this program I’m joined by Ryanne and Jay via skype as they explain how they came to this decision and all the aspects of the home and life they have built together in a place you might not have expected to find them.
People in the US and around the world are used to getting their fruits and veggies from California. But will Cali be able to deliver if their water system collapses?
My guest Dr. Juliet Christian-Smith, Senior Research Associate with the Pacific Institute’s Water Program, joins me to discuss their report “Sustaining California Agriculture in an Uncertain Future”. The report lays out how the state’s agriculture can survive through water conservation and new irrigation methods.
We get into large and small scale farms as well as the role of the federal, state, and local government. Above all is the question of whether or not producers will do what needs to be done, or are we looking at the end of an era.