Industrial agriculture is, slowly but surely, on its way out. The whistleblowing book Omnivore's Dilemma and film Food Inc. blasted the barn doors open on factory farming and the harm it can cause animals, the environment, and human laborers in the industry. In the years that followed, chia seeds went from “pet” fuzz to superfood, and a boom of alternative farm-to-table pathways launched. Now terminology is shifting to reflect the sheer variety of agricultural solutions being actively explored today. You may already know “organic” or “GMO,” but the current buzzwords are far less familiar: Aquaculture? Agroforestry? Verdantopia? OK, we made that last one up, but when it comes to your food, it helps to be in the know. So study up on the new lingo for agro!
Agricultural Terms: The Need-to-Know
Plant life isn’t cliquish. In nature, blackberry bushes hang with big-leaf maple and they all get along with devil’s club shrubs. (Photosynthesis party!) There’s a reason for this: Plants support each other. Maple trees provide blackberries with shade, and devil’s club thorns naturally deter snacky animals. It’s this interlinking support system that farmers are adopting when they practice agroforestry, which involves bringing trees together with agricultural crops. There are several added benefits to agroforestry: Tree roots boost nutrients in the soil and reduce erosion, while the canopy provides coverage from wind and harsh weather. Plus, it has the added bonus of providing double-decker crops, e.g. walnuts up top, ramps down low. (Twinkies too slow.)
It’s that thing where Farmer Brown trades in his overalls for a life jacket. Simply put, aquaculture is the farming of fish or shellfish in a closed environment, and it’s grown increasingly popular as seafood has developed a reputation as a health food (helloooo, omega 3s!). Unlike commercial fishing, in which the daily catch is wild and free, aquaculture involves raising marine (and freshwater) life in pens or ponds. But there’s nothing modern about this practice. It goes back to a time before fishsticks, to Chinese fish ponds 4,000 years ago. While the contemporary version is only in its nascent years, global aquaculture farming has now surpassed beef production. Aquaculture has gotten a bad rap—antibiotic use, water polution, and GMO breeding were common complaints—but the field has been working to improve its green rep.
Here’s what comes in a toy farm set: a little plastic horse in a corral, little plastic sheep in a pen, a small chicken in its coop, a few stocks of corn, and one little white boy in overalls. (Minus 10 points for diversity!) Like it or not, that’s the generic snapshot of a farm. But biodynamic farmers don’t think of these elements as separate playsets. They look at agriculture as a holistic system: The animals fertilize the soil that in turn creates the crops. In other words, every aspect of the farm affects the health of the rest of the farm. Biodynamic farmers also pay attention to seasonal rhythms and lunar cycles for planting and harvesting. If that sounds a little like pet-psychic territory, consider that vineyards have been consulting lunar calendars for centuries and the agricultural authority the Farmer’s Almanac uses sun/moon rising times and tide tables. Biodynamic practices began in the 1920s and ‘30s as a means to address the tanking health of animals, plants, and soil on farms. Like The Great Gatsby, it’s a flapper-era reboot that keeps coming back around.
As the saying goes, sharing is caring. And sharing fresh beefsteak tomatoes is mad caring. Community gardens are a tag-team effort where people band together to get elbow-deep in potting soil on a plot typically owned by the city or a nonprofit organization. Often individuals are assigned their own plot within a patchwork of others, but that doesn't stop neighbors from helping each other out. If earthworms and weeding don’t sound like bonding material, consider the goodness it brings: These gardens provide nutritious food, a connection to nature, social hubs, and beautiful green spaces for urban communities, often revamping junkyards or discarded lots in the process. That’s quite a makeover! Like disco and Saturday Night Live, community gardens got their start in the 70s (as an offshoot of urban activism). But the idea of reclaiming abandoned lots to grow food goes back to the Depression. No, waaaay back to the other Depression—of 1893.
Membership has its privileges. In a food co-op (a cooperatively owned grocery store), shoppers band together to become co-owners of the store. The members pool their resources and form direct relationships with food suppliers, which often means primo foods are available for less moolah (no small thing for those addicted to schmancy kale chips or organic almond butter!). The membership rules vary from co-op to co-op: Some require membership dues, work shifts, or attendance at meetings. But all co-ops are amped to build community within their organization and with food suppliers. If it sounds a little hippie-crunchy, there’s a reason. Although the concept of co-ops has been kicking around for a long time, many of today’s organizations got their start during the 60s and 70s, proving peace, love, and well-priced tofu never go out of style.
Picture your typical Wolf of Wall Street type, buying shares of company stock. Now picture the “company” as farmland and the “stock” as, say, blueberries (mmm, sweet, sweet blueberries) and you’ve got the idea. With a CSA, a group of people are buying into a farm, sharing both the delicious gains and the potential risks. The usual setup is getting a box of mixed produce from the farm, but sometimes dairy, eggs, meat—even flowers if you wanna get fancy—can be included. The pros: Members get farm-fresh food on the cheap and skip the grocery list. The cons: If pests wipe out the farm’s blueberries, then no blueberries for you (sad face). Also, choice is limited to what’s in season—but hey, there are a lot of benefits to eating seasonally. The idea for CSAs came from Asia and Europe and was brought to the US and Canada in the 80s and 90s. In that short time, it’s caught on like gangbusters. In 2012 it was estimated there were around 6,000 CSAs in the US.
Out with lawns, in with food! That’s the philosophy behind foodscaping, a trend where people swap out manicured grass for edible gardens. The idea is an ecological two-for-one: First, people are ditching lawns that often require fertilizer, pesticides, and excessive watering while providing little to no habitat for birds, bees, and other helpful fauna. Then they’re upgrading to edible gardens that maintain eco-diversity, give homes to helpful critters, and supply affordable, healthy produce. Some credit the 2008 economic downturn for the rise in foodscaping, but in reality, foodscaping is a straight-up throwback. During both World Wars, due to food shortages, people were encouraged to create “Victory Gardens” and tap into their own food production potential in their yards. When FLOTUS maximus Michelle Obama arrived in D.C., not only did she revive preppy chic, she also resurrected the Victory Garden at the White House in 2009.
“Are you gonna eat that?” It’s the type of thing a friend might say while helping themselves to stray French fries, but it could also be the unofficial slogan for the freegan movement. Here’s some real talk: About 30 to 50 percent of food produced in the US is wasted. That’s a lot of cold fries. Of the food wasted, plenty of it is perfectly edible, but gets discarded purely for cosmetic reasons both on the farm and in the grocery store. Freegans take advantage of this discarded bounty, often by rummaging through the trash of grocery stores and other food sellers (aka dumpster diving). The term freegan is a hybrid of “free” and “vegan,” but not all freegans avoid animal products. Instead, at its heart, freeganism is about redirecting food waste and opting out of consumer culture. The term was coined in the ‘90s, but rescuing a slightly brused tomato and declaring it nom-able is something humankind has been doing since before the dawn of ketchup.
Pickling and knitting sweaters can be gateway crafts to homesteading, which is all about getting off the grid. The goal is to be a self-sufficient household that creates its own food and, often, other household items (e.g. textiles, cleaning supplies, and home remedies). Historically homesteading has happened in isolated, rural places where folks are livin’ la vida Laura Ingalls Wilder. But recently urbanites have been setting up rooftop gardens and backyard chicken coops, picking up the pioneer swagga and proving a zip code ain’t nothin’ but a number. The next generation of homesteaders is also turning to alternative forms of energy like solar and wind power, making the eco gains even greater.
Here’s the basic hydroponics formula: plants plus water, minus soil. If that sounds like the most basic gardening fail, consider that many gardeners already practice a simplified version of this. Just putting plant clippings in a glass of H20 so they’ll sprout roots is hydroponics in action. If you want to get more complex, there are a few different systems for growing plants in water, including the continuous drip, wick, or ebb and flow. But what’s the incentive to ditch soil in the first place? When land comes at a premium, this method of gardening means you can grow plants anywhere: rooftops, garages, even straight up the side of a wall, Spiderman-style. Translation: Pop-up green spaces are appearing where you’d never expect, even on skyscrapers. Imagine how that could affect food production! Some people consider hydroponics the 4/20 of gardening (i.e. forever associated with weed), but that’s a short-sighted view. The method goes way back, possibly to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. (That’s 600 BC, for those of you playing at home.)
Portlandia sketches might have you thinking all locavores are just plain loco. But committing to a local diet isn’t about hounding waiters; it’s about purchasing food close to your home for the benefit of local communities and the environment. Supermarket produce travels around 2,000 miles to get on the shelves, and you can multiply that number by two or three if it comes from Latin America. (If only bananas got frequent-flyer miles!) The aim of a locavore diet is to stock your kitchen from nearby farms, cutting back on that jumbo carbon footprint and supporting local commerce. The philosophy got its start in the ‘70s, but the term wasn’t coined till 1993 and hit the big time in 2007 as Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year. Ready to not go the distance? The starting point for many is adopting a “100-mile diet”: Eating nothing that wasn’t raised or grown within a 100-mile radius. If that sounds tough, keep in mind that some people make allowances for chocolate and coffee. And just frequenting your local farmer’s market counts as an act of locavore activism.
Imagine walking an unwilling dog, tugging Señor Snorfleas’s leash as he resists with all his might. Now picture a squirrel zips by in the same direction. Squirrel! Snorfleas snaps to attention and zooms down the street. Dog walking just went turbo. That’s the basic principle behind permaculture: If you work with nature, instead of against it, you’ll get the results you want without as much strain. But how does Fido relate to farming? Natural systems like rainwater collection or agroforestry (see above) let farmers work in sync with nature versus against it, avoiding the expenses and headaches of unnatural systems like chemical fertilizers. Another great example of permaculture: rotational grazing, in which, for example, cows move through a paddock nomming up grass and laying down manure, then move to another field. Chickens follow the cows, scratching through the manure, eating up grubs, and prepping the grass to regrow. It’s one big closed loop of cow to chicken to grass and back to cow, each one supporting the other. Bye-bye, antibiotic-laced grain feed!
Pity the poor honeybee. Their numbers are down, their hives are collapsing, and scientists have struggled to understand why. (Cell phones? Climate change? Diet Coke plus Mentos?) Ultimately it looks like the baddie to blame is a commonly used insecticide. But here’s what’s clear: bees are the tiny striped workhorses in food production. Without pollination, our food supply collapses. That’s some red alert territory. So even though most people picture beehives on a Babe-type farm, urbanites have heard the apiary call to action. The mission: Bring bees to the big city. And lawmakers are supporting it. In 2008 Denver joined other cities like San Francisco and Seattle in making it legal to be a beekeeper. Then in 2010 it was legalized in New York City, and a sizeable jump in registered hives followed. Los Angeles just joined in 2014, making the buzz bicoastal.