By Darryl Birkenfeld
We just celebrated Labor Day—best known as the final vacation of summer. It is an interesting holiday because it falls squarely in the middle of the food harvest. Corn fields are ripening, cotton bolls begin to crack open and show their snow-white fiber. But I want to refer to that great river of human food that flows out of gardens and fields everywhere—even here on the arid Llano Estacado. In these late summer days, I become more aware of how our land brims over with food. Equally amazing to me is the remarkable connection between labor and food. Gathering in the harvest, canning, freezing, preserving—these rituals join human labor and food together as the first days of September roll around.
Year after year, no matter what the weather brings or how much labor we apply, somehow the land responds with fruitfulness. It is like a river slowly flowing and bubbling up. Just as every place on this earth is part of a watershed, so is every land a type of foodshed. Everywhere when the sun shines and water flows, food grows and is given, in times of scarcity and in years of plenty. Maybe the best way to celebrate Labor Day is to acknowledge our foodshed—the ripples and streams of produce that feed us now and reach back across eons, connecting us to our most distant ancestors.
When I look around my community, which doesn’t have a farmers market, I still see an amazing foodshed, maintained by so many hands and small gardens. This stream of food doesn’t make it to a market–instead it flows through the village and the countryside. Gardeners sell small amounts, but they also trade and give away their produce. What fascinates me most is the number of older adults who grow food. These are people like Joe Lynn and Mary Lou Birkenfeld, who have grown and preserved food for more than half a century. Think of all that labor and all the food that they, and so many others like them, have witnessed—first with their own families, and now with all the people who buy from or trade with them.
This is the true wonder of the foodshed—it exits everywhere, and you don’t have to be a grower or have a farmers market to participate in it. In every city neighborhood, in every town or rural area, someone is growing food that you can buy or trade for. Just look for a hand-painted sign along the road, a small garden in the backyard or alley, some short rows of sweet corn or okra, a half dozen tomato plants braced up in cages.
For nearly a year, we have worked on this Local Llano Blog, writing stories about “coming home to eat” in the Llano Estacado. I would like to raise a ripe tomato salute to all those who grow food in their gardens, out in their farm fields, as well as those who know how to go out on the land and gather food. You and your labor maintains our foodshed and forms a web of relationships that give life.