Curiosity got the best of me as my colleagues in North American Agricultural Journalists edged around the White House’s Kitchen Garden, following Sam Kass, assistant White House chef and food initiative coordinator, during our April 26 visit.
They were the media wolf pack, which a few of us left. The pack peppered Kass with questions. I peered at the garden, kneeled, picked up some soil and rubbed it between my fingers. It was light and sandy.
Curious as I am, I did not take some soil, tuck it into my camera bag, spirit it out of the White House and send it off for soil testing. Sure, I thought about it. But it’s a matter of wisdom and respect to leave the soil where it belongs. For one thing, I was a guest at the First Family’s house. For another, there’s the sobering legal issue.
While the idiots who crashed the state dinner at the White House last year seemed to have evaded the long arm of the law, stealing soil would likely land me in Leavenworth. It’s one thing to steal the attention away from President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama and a visiting head of state. It’s another thing to steal something tangible like soil.
Kass told us that this was the first working vegetable garden at the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt had one more than 65 years ago. This garden, which was the First Lady’s idea, is tucked off to the side of the south lawn.
For all the media attention to this garden, I was surprised by its modest size. It’s two rectangles that abut each other, forming an “L.” For farmers and ranchers who run hundreds and thousands of acres, as well as others involved in production agriculture, it could be easy to miss the significance of the garden by focusing on two things.
At 1,500 square feet, this garden is relatively small. There are 43,560 square feet in an acre, which means what may be the world’s most famous vegetable garden is slightly more than 3% of an acre.
Size aside, there’s the organic question that the journalists pressed Kass for answers. No synthetic fertilizers or pesticides are used in the garden, Kass said. But it’s not organic and it’s not irrigated, Kass said. It survives on rain and hand watering.
“It’s a kids’ garden, it’s an educational garden,” Kass said. “It’s not organic.”
There seems to be concern, consternation and fear about this modest garden among some people in farm country. After all, if the White House isn’t using synthetic fertilizer and crop protection products, does that mean that the Obamas are anti “production” agriculture and pro-organic? I wouldn’t presume to speak for the White House or USDA, but when it comes to this garden, something else is going on.
Clearly, the White House is aware of potential health issues related to this garden. In answer to a journalist’s question about lead content in the soil, Kass said they tested the soil, which showed a minuscule level of lead that was far below the safety threshold set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
From the standpoint of risk management and crisis communications, not using any synthetic fertilizer or pesticides reflects an astute choice by the White House. Just think about it. Most members of the mainstream media and the public know little about production agriculture in general and even less about the rigorous regulatory scrutiny that EPA uses for crop protection products.
By eschewing organic certification on one hand and synthetic fertilizer and pesticides on the other, the White House maintains the focus on the garden, the food it grows and the families it feeds.
For production agriculture, this is a godsend. If a health issue developed with someone who visited the garden where a crop protection product had been used, the media would almost certainly draw a connection between it and the regulated pesticides farmers and ranchers use. That’s guilt by association. It’s also lousy journalism.
But consider this scenario: You’ve grown up in a city and have no family members who grew up on farms. Your child’s elementary school class visits the White House Kitchen Garden and has a great time. A few days later your son or daughter comes down sick. Maybe it’s the flu, the sniffles or a low-grade fever.
Then you hear that some synthetic product was sprinkled on cabbage, lettuce or whatever was growing during the class’s visit. It wouldn’t matter that the product was used weeks ago or dissolved in the rain days ago or was licked off by the squirrels that love to eat the plants in this garden.
It would only take one mildly ill child, who more than likely caught a bug from an ill classmate, to create a furor fueled by trial lawyers, TV networks battling for ratings and partisan politicians. All because some relatively benign synthetic product was used, safely and within the limits set by the EPA.
Not using any synthetics in this garden precisely illustrates the sayings of my Grandma Zinkand: “Why borrow trouble?”
The real genius of the White House Kitchen Garden is that Michelle Obama decided to do it at all. She could be doing anything in the world and she’s focusing on food, fitness and children. Everyone involved in agriculture should stand up and cheer that the business of growing food and feeding people is receiving such attention.
It should be music to the ears of every farmer who has lost crops to deer, geese and turkeys to hear that pesky squirrels attack this garden. After all, squirrels are pests, which all farmers who use conventional, biotech, biodynamic and organic seeds and methods must deal with. And no, Kass told the agricultural journalists, the Secret Service isn’t ridding the garden of the marauding squirrels.
It’s also good that there’s no irrigation system for this garden. No pipe, no drip tape, no custom-built, mini-center pivots with sweeps for the corners. Hauling water by hand can be hard work, as any farm kid who’s hauled 5-gallon buckets filled with water can tell you.
Instead of being an attack on the farming and ranching systems that produce massive quantities of relatively safe and relatively affordable food, this garden precisely illustrates why these large-scale systems are so important.
Not every American wants to garden. Not everyone who starts gardening will succeed. Some will develop a green thumb. Others won’t. Gardeners who fail may be good for agriculture because failure and frustration may create a deeper appreciation for farmers and ranchers, with operations of all sizes and production methods.
This garden is a giant, positive step toward helping people learn about the joy, complexity and utter disappointment of farming and ranching. If anything, those of us involved in the production of huge quantities of crops, livestock and poultry should help the White House expand this garden.
Expansion brings opportunity and complexity. There’s the opportunity for the White House to grow a greater diversity of crops in larger quantities that can feed more people. More children and adults can visit, tromp through the rows and even yank up a plant, whether it’s ready to eat or not. This garden needs to grow in size because, as wise farmers and gardeners know, it’s good to rotate crops to minimize disease, weeds and build better soil biology.
By enthusiastically supporting the expansion of the White House Kitchen Garden, commercial agriculture will introduce many adults and children to the challenges of producing food, day in and day out, year after year after year.
Complexity produces experience. Some are enjoyable and others are not. Carefully planted crops wither and die from insects, disease or ravenous rabbits. Hail shreds crops. Unexpected frost cripples and kills. As the refrigerator magnet given to me years ago after I broke up with a girlfriend says, “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.”
There are two ways to expand, as farmers and ranchers know. Move to land next door or find crop ground and pasture miles and miles away. The former is easier, but often quite expensive when neighbors won’t rent or sell. Growing crops or running cows on summer range far away has its pros and cons.
There’s a lot of room on the south lawn of the White House, which slopes down to a massive wrought-iron fence. As native-Iowan, I’d like to see a huge patch of sweet corn. Maybe even a corn maze. Having a larger White House Kitchen Garden would provide the public an inkling of the scale and complexity of the farm operations with hundreds and thousands of acres. But realistically, the White House is landlocked.
In the end, almost anything the White House does that draws attention to growing, harvesting and preparing food can create a connection with the public. Farmers, ranchers and agri-business yearn for this. If all of us in agriculture had a dollar for every time we’ve heard farmers and agri-business people say, “We’ve got to tell our story better,” well, we could pay off the national debt today.
I have just one other serious suggestion for Michelle Obama and Sam Kass. Don’t let the sun, rain and foot traffic beat down the bare soil in this garden. No-till it, mulching the garden with grass or other plant residue.
There’s another, perhaps easier, way to achieve the benefits of no-till. Use biodegradable plastic derived from corn to protect the soil and suppress weeds. Promoting this material would be a great media opportunity for U.S. corn growers. They took a risk when they invested their checkoff dollars for research and development of what became a commercially viable product that’s environmentally friendly.
While no-till might be a new concept at the White House, it’s been a watchword here at Lessiter Publications since our start in 1981. In fact, our CEO Frank Lessiter has championed this practice since he began editing No-Till Farmer 39 years ago.
No-till isn’t just for farmers who grow corn, soybeans, wheat, sunflowers, sugarbeets, vegetables and other crops. In fact, the USDA web site has a number of “how to” guides on no-till gardening.
I don’t expect the White House to immediately adopt no-till for the kitchen garden. There will be a delay. Why? Regardless of party affiliation, occupants of the White House like to say “yes” and, the first thing people hear about no-till is “no.” But rejecting “no-till” would be a mistake. The lasting legacies of admired presidencies include bold and exciting actions.
Enlarge the garden, invite in more children, adults and the media. Let them kneel down to weed and water. Let them get dirt on their clothes and under their fingernails. By no-tilling this garden, residue or mulch will keep the soil cool when the temperatures hit triple digits during the summer.
If all of these arguments fall on deaf ears at the White House, the following should persuade them to adopt no-till. I Googled “USDA+no-till+gardening” and quickly found a fact sheet that explained how carbon, along with water, air and nitrogen, is needed so earthworms and soil organisms can compost organic matter. As wise gardeners and no-till farmers know, organic matter builds the soil.
Where can the White House find a ready source of carbon? Well, according to the gardening guide I read on the USDA web site, newspapers are at the very top of the list of materials high in carbon. Has there ever been a First Family and a White House Press Secretary who have not wanted to shred newspapers from journalists dishing dirt?