Why the Organics and Sustainable Food Industry Needs Storytelling

We face a loss of identity and history, as the pioneers of the organics and sustainable food movement grow older.

I taught for 10 years in Social Justice and English Literature at the college and high school level. Throughout this time, I worked with an organization called Facing History and Ourselves, whose premise for education is captured in a letter from a Holocaust Survivor.  In this letter, the survivor explains how she is suspicious of education, as she witnessed highly educated people performing highly inhumane atrocities.  Her letter is to educators charging them: “Teachers, help your students become more human.”  This has long stuck with me and become a mantra in my career as an educator—The big question is, how does one teach students to be more human, and in turn how do I become more human if I am their teacher?  I found the answer in oral history.  

Author's rendering of a Wax Cylinder recording device used for oral history collection. 

Author's rendering of a Wax Cylinder recording device used for oral history collection. 

For those of you who are unfamiliar with oral history, or maybe you have heard of it and think of oral tradition (stories passed down from one generation to the next) oral history is the collection of stories through interviews. With interviews, oral historians preserve personal histories and amplify often unheard voices.  The interviews, or oral histories, are considered primary and secondary sources, they are documentations of history seen through the eyes of witnesses.  Often times the stories produced from oral histories offer stark contrast to the dominant narratives with which the populous is most familiar.  

Teaching my students how to conduct and produce oral histories, or reading or hearing oral histories, humanizes the statistics they study, the content of focus, and the news articles that flood the media.  Human statistics bear human stories—and this is the human connection that can build, dare I say it, compassion about overwhelming issues.  Not all oral histories have to capture human crises.  Oral histories illuminate what it means to be human.

After witnessing the transformational power of oral history in my students, I have become involved in several avenues which more concretely integrate oral history into the classroom because it is such a strong tool of learning that builds communication skills, literacy, critical thinking, and compassion.  A good immersion into oral history, either through creation of oral history projects or witnessing the stories as audience helps students to become more human.  

This immersion of storytelling and listening transfers similarly to adults.  One way to look at the importance of capturing oral history is to consider the concept of the “shifting baseline”, coined by Daniel Pauly.  A baseline is an original reference point, and when we don’t know our history this reference point, or baseline, shifts.  One good example that I have found in my personal work with oral history about fishing and fisheries, for example, is that many of today’s fisher people will reference 20-30 years ago, when the fishing was prominent.  This modern prospect compares the baseline of the 1980s and 90s, when you could more practically make a living off of fishing for King Salmon out of the Monterey and San Francisco Bays.  Fisher people of today’s era vividly recall the pains of the moratorium on salmon fishing that happened a few years ago.  But, were the 1980’s all that abundant at the same time when commercial agribusiness boomed with water rights, and dams stood tall over the fish trying to swim upstream?

If we shift the baseline and look at what the fisher people’s generational grandfathers harvested, we would consider the 1980’s a devastating time.  What did the the ocean look like in the 1800’s?  One fisheries historian, Tim Thomas, has been able to recover stories about the Monterey Bay being so full of salmon that it looked like it was paved in sliver.  Thomas describes some accounts of how salmon would literally wash up in waves onto the shore, where hundreds of nearby orcas would feed off the coast of Carmel near Point Lobos.  That memory, that personal story of what the fish was like several generations ago aught to augment our understanding of the baseline that we remember. If we could find fishery histories of centuries earlier, I am sure we would be dumbfounded.  It is all too easy to let flee the story of the last wild food (fish). 

When we enjoy Monterey today, we see beauty, perhaps without considering what it was like hundreds of years ago.  If we recall the old stories of fisher people and the fisheries that existed, it might help us to rethink how we care for our fisheries today, knowing the baseline potentials.  We might also find that modern small fleet fisher people and their recent histories and family histories can help us find an avenue to restoration of our fisheries before it is too late.  We also might better understand as consumers why wild King salmon can reach 24.95 a pound, as it is a valuable and now rare resource that should not be taken for granted.  Tracing the story of where our food comes from in modern stories of traceability and in historical tracings (especially the story of what organic and wild food existed before the era of industrialized food) may help us to remember the importance of our natural diets and a healthier ecosystem.  It also may urge us to return to a time when harvesting food was a human act of connecting to land and respecting resources with economic benefits.   

In another example, Allan Savory’s success with holistic grasslands management is completely dependent on the stories of the landscape and grasslands before drought degradation.  Savory found that tracing the herding and wildlife back to the baseline reality of hunters and prey was the way in which animals were natural stewards of the grasslands.  It didn’t take feed lots to feed the communities, but very regional and localized approaches to healthy protein, healthy land, and socially viable living.  

In consideration of the organic food world, there is a significant lack of oral history captured of the organics movement.  Many organic farmers today like my 25 year old friend Kenny Baker, who runs Lonely Mountain farm in Watsonville, CA with his family, are in many ways still pioneers of the industry.  However, his predecessors, who are still alive and kicking, have very different stories of how things got started and what challenges were faced amidst the backlash of commercial/convenient food production.  Kenny’s success today was built upon the audacity of his pioneer mentors. Luckily, there are community building opportunities at places like the Ecofarm conference, where the two generations may share histories and new ideas.

There is a great urgency to collect the stories of pioneers in the organics industry.  It is a contemporary food access, food justice, and sustainability issue that includes social, environmental, and economic ramifications.  Organics pioneers are still working, and I have found that many have been too busy, and many are still too busy, to invest their energies in the realm of recording their oral histories to preserve the legacy they built.  Their stories will illuminate for the people who consume organic products, or for those who ought to consume the products, the humane approach that organic food processors, farmers, distributors care enough to tend.  Stories can offer access points to productive dialogue to those in the industry.

Let’s be honest, if economics is what motivates consumers, stories are also the best marketing tool around.  If you look at Pacific Catch’s website, it is flooded with a "meet the fishermen" page of stories about the fishermen that harvest for this successful sustainable seafood organization.  It has been so successful that the owner, who is in his 20’s is interviewing with people like Allen Greenberg who has literarily written the book about the the history of the last wild food-in Four Fish, and his recent best seller.  

We even see this marketing approach in big commercial industry.  Safeway offers subtle implications that family farms are what fill their produce aisle.  Human stories of farming in some ways can be a way to greenwash, but what it tells us is that consumers want to feel a human connection to their food.  I think this can be done to a greater degree in this technological age.  Stories can be better amplified and distributed (even in small snippets of time) to motivate buyers to feel they are making a difference as they grocery shop.  

I think if done successfully and ethically, there is nothing wrong with using storytelling as a marketing approach. One of the most astonishing things that I have witnessed with seafood is that consumers I know want to buy sustainable seafood, but they can’t find a way to access it. Traceability is extremely cloudy.  Try asking a sushi waiter where the fish came from, or a steak house where the beef came from.  It is similar to organics history, before certification occurred: you could call an apple organic and people would buy it, regardless of the true traceability.  Consumers of seafood want to do the right thing, but when even sushi chefs are told that farmed salmon is wild, no one knows the difference except a keen eye of a fishmonger or salmon fisher person who can tell in a snap.  Stories can help trace our food origins, teach us about natural harvesting techniques, encourage sustainable practices, and help consumers to be confident in their purchases.