Thursday, April 23, 2009

USDA gets in on the Earth Day 'People's Garden' action

WASHINGTON, D.C. — I’m beginning to get the feeling that the U.S. government, perhaps channeling Thomas Jefferson’s vision of America, would like us to return to being a nation of self-reliant, small-scale truck farmers/landscapers.

I'm not sure we've still got the grit for that because many of the people I know take cheap food an American God-given, and that it's always available neatly packaged at any local super store. Somehow it just miraculously appears on store shelves. No fuss. No problem.

I can confidently say that that's not the case, having misspent the summers of my youth working on truck farms in northern Ohio, most of which have long since disappeared, the land apparently being better suited for growing houses and strip malls. Based upon the many days I spent hoeing peppers and cucumbers, pulling sweet corn at the crack of dawn and picking green beans, tomatoes and all sorts of other edibles, I think I'm qualified to say that farmng, include its smaller cousin gardening, ain't that easy.

Landscaping, I've since learned, isn’t something for the untrained or sedentary either, although I think the point the U.S. government is trying to make in regards to some of photos ops it has staged recently involving the planting of vegetable gardens in places like the White House is that we've got to do a better job of taking care of our land.

That said, at the Earth Day ceremony at the USDA headquarters here Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack declared the entire grounds at the USDA Jamie L. Whitten Building as 'The People's Garden' (whoa there, sounds too much like the People’s Republic for my taste) and unveiled plans to create a sustainable landscape on the grounds.

A positive gesture, a symbolic gesture, a reminder that we should get off our fannies and get reconnected with the land that we live on, but, alas, mostly an opportunity for a photo op?

Here's the release (shortened) from the USDA regarding the Earth Day ceremony. You can click on the headline to be taken to the news release and a slew of images of the ceremony so you can judge for yourself.

"USDA is an every day every way kind of department and this garden will help illustrate the many ways USDA works to provide a sustainable, safe and nutritious food supply as well as protect and preserve the landscape where that food is produced," said Vilsack. "The garden will help explain to the public how small things they can do at home, at their business or on their farm or ranch, can promote sustainability, conserve the nation's natural resources, and make America a leader in combating climate change."

The People's Garden is designed to provide a sampling of USDA's efforts throughout the world as well as teach others how to nurture, maintain and protect a healthy landscape. If practiced, these garden concepts can be the general public's, government's, or business' contribution to providing healthy food, air, and water for people and communities.

In response to the overwhelming public support and hundreds of letters the 'People's Garden' concept has received, Secretary Vilsack challenged USDA facilities around the world to plant their own 'People's Gardens.'

Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan officially kicked off the Earth Day event at the Whitten Building with Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Brings Plenty who performed a traditional song and planted seeds at a ceremonial Three Sisters Garden to celebrate American Indians' contribution to American agriculture. Merrigan led volunteers and USDA staffers in planting vegetables, herbs and flowers to complete the first phase of The People's Garden. Eventually, the garden will include organic raised vegetable beds, organic transition plots, an organic urban container garden, an organic kitchen pollinator garden, rain gardens and a bat house.

A Three Sisters Garden is a traditional garden consisting of corn, beans and squash that has been planted by American Indians for centuries. Stories of the Three Sisters refers to a tradition of interplanting corn, beans and squash in the same mound. It is a sophisticated, sustainable planting system that has provided long term soil fertility and a healthy diet to generations of American Indians.

The People's Garden is not confined to USDA headquarters in Washington, DC. Secretary Vilsack has challenged all USDA facilities-across the country and around the world-to create similar gardens and create healthier landscapes. — Ron Hall

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