Unlike capitalism’s specialized goods and services, food is practical to barter or gift
by Peter Kalmus / Dec 25, 2017

“I grow a half-dozen fruit trees along my 40-foot stretch of sidewalk. The generous fig tree just finished, two young apple trees and a pomegranate are full of bounty, and the kumquat and persimmon are ripening. As much as I love the simple act of orcharding, I’m also sharing a radical vision for food and economy in my suburban Los Angeles community of Altadena. What if all my neighbors grew food in their yards, too? What if we shared the bounty with each other? What if you could eat a delicious, varied, and healthy meal from the abundance provided by your neighborhood trees?

Forty percent of the food produced in the part of the planet we call the U.S. is wasted. Much of this waste ends up in landfills, where it produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The food–climate nexus is a window into a deeply broken system; studying it­—and experimenting with alternative economics within our communities—can reveal solutions that benefit everyone. Consider the gift economy, brilliantly on display every Sunday in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, California.

Pancho Ramos-Stierle is a driving force behind this free community farm stand, FrutaGift, which is painted in the colors of the season. For over six years, Ramos-Stierle and his friends have gone to a local farmers market after closing time to help farmers clean and pack up. Farmers began offering their unsold organic fruits and vegetables for Ramos-Stierle to bring to the people in his neighborhood. Using this produce, he and his friends cook a sumptuous vegan meal that they bring the following week to share with the tired workers. A circle is created; everyone benefits. There is bounty and gratitude.

“strained seeds from the pulp of hedge balls”

And yet, FrutaGift is just one part of a larger gift economy. Ramos-Stierle’s inspiration was the Free Farm Stand in the Mission District in San Francisco, started decades ago by a man named Tree. Says Ramos-Stierle, “I still remember the sense of awe and gratitude he evoked in me when I first met him. Like the giant redwoods and sequoias, Tree’s giant heart is filled with selfless service and love for all.” Ramos-Stierle tries to carry this same gratitude for food and community to FrutaGift in Oakland. “Before we start distributing the food, we make a gratitude circle. We hold hands, and someone gives a blessing in their own tradition to honor all that made it possible to gather and be nourished in such a way.” Visitors to FrutaGift and the Free Farm Stand have gone on to do the same in their own communities.

Capitalism and its cash economy seem to lead inexorably to exploitation and wealth disparity, a few haves and mostly have-nots. But perhaps food can be the leading edge toward a sustainable, resilient economy of abundance. Unlike many specialized goods and services, food is practical to barter—or, better yet, to gift. Here in Altadena, I’m part of a group that exchanges homegrown produce. We meet once a month in a local park, each bringing whatever surplus we happen to have. We create community and share abundance outside the cash economy. Imagine if instead of only one household every few blocks, all households were growing and trading food? The density of fresh, in-season produce would be so high (except perhaps for some portion of staple crops that could be grown on larger farms outside of town centers) that we’d meet each other’s needs, creating a local, waste-free, cash-free food system.

Ramos-Stierle likes to point out that an entire complex civilization, the Inca, functioned without money or markets of any kind. Everyone participated in growing food. Our societies and economies are reflections of our food systems. I mull these things over while walking my dog, the sun setting in the L.A. sky. As I walk, I take another bite of a perfect guava, a windfall from my neighbor’s wonderful, sidewalk-facing guava tree. A gift.”

Guerilla gardeners turn city trees into fruit trees
by Ilana Strauss / May 21, 2018

“A ragtag group of guerilla gardeners and I marched down the street with a covert mission: to turn a row of city trees into a different species of tree. Cities plant tons of trees in parks and along the street to keep temperatures down, clean the air, and just generally make people feel less like caged animals in a concrete dystopia. New York City, for instance, is currently planting a million new trees. These city trees tend to be decorative — they don’t bear fruit — and some people think that’s a waste. There are so many hungry people in cities; why not plant fruit-bearing trees? Whole cities could be lined with free apples and peaches. So people take this issue into their own hands by turning decorative trees into fruit-bearing trees.

These folks are called guerilla grafters. And I joined them on one of their expeditions. It started when the grafting group and I gathered inside a small, messy Brooklyn building. Branches wrapped in wet paper towels sat on a table. Marilyn, the woman in charge (not her real name) showed about five of us how to cut the branches. “You can do a pencil cut, or you can just do a straight diagonal,” she said. “I don’t know; I haven’t actually tried most of these.” We were learning how to transform trees through a process called “grafting.” Grafting is when you take a branch from one tree and splice it onto a different tree. People have grafted since ancient times. In fact, the apples in grocery stores generally come from grafted trees. “If anyone else wants to jump in, please do it,” Marilyn said midway through her explanation. “I don’t really know much about this.” There are people that graft a lot more regularly, but Marilyn had just recently learned.

We grabbed the branches and went out the door. I’d imagined guerilla grafters sneaking through the city at night covered in face paint, hiding illicit cherry branches in their black turtlenecks. But we just sauntered down the sidewalk in the middle of the afternoon. As we walked, we passed a guerilla garden Marilyn had set up. Lettuce and other vegetables grew in the small bit of soil between the storefronts and sidewalk. She’d stuck a sign, “FOOD IS FREE,” in the garden. I’d passed by the sign before and always thought it was some sort of a philosophical statement. Marilyn looked at the sign and sighed. “People still don’t take the food,” she said. “Wait. Should you maybe just write, ‘FREE FOOD’?” I asked. Her eyes lit up. “Ohhhhh,” she said. “Yeah, that makes sense.” We were looking for a row of ornamental cherry trees that Marilyn had seen earlier. Ornamental cherry trees are bred specifically to not actually make cherries, so the irony of grafting fruit-bearing branches onto them would be delicious. Unfortunately, Marilyn couldn’t remember where the trees were. “Maybe this next street?” she murmured. We walked in circles. On the way, Marilyn pointed out other grafts people had made years ago. One tree in someone’s yard looked completely normal, until you noticed a strange branch growing out of the base with different leaves. It grew up a few yards and made up the bulk of this odd, Siamese tree. I realized that grafts had probably been around me my whole life; I’d just never noticed them.

“The hands of someone better at grafting than me.”

Finally, we found them: a row of decorative cherry trees lining a quiet street. “You can try grafting a peach branch onto a cherry tree,” Marilyn suggested. “Will that work?” I asked. She shrugged. I approached one of the cherry trees and found a branch the width of the peach branch in my hand. One guy lent me his pocketknife, and I started cutting. The knife was dull, so I ended up whittling the branch rather than cleanly slicing it. I accidentally made it into a poky shape, which coincidentally turned out to be a grafting technique. “Oh nice, you went with the pencil method,” Marilyn said. “Mhmmm,” I said, like I did it on purpose. I slid the peach branch into the cherry branch. Then I covered the branches in wax, taped them up, and wrapped a rubber band around them. Down the line, maybe someone would enjoy free peaches. Take that, agribusiness.”

Grafting the Sterile Tree
by Margaretha Haughwout  /  April 15, 2018

“Grafting is a skilled performative and skilled sculptural gesture to cut branches in a way that make more branches, to attach branches that make fruit and viable pollen, to engage in relationships that fold economic divisions and redistribute abundance. What we wish to show is that scarcity is a condition of capitalism, and our performance/ sculpture point to a way out, a very tiny step among many, of this condition, a condition that fundamentally relies on binaries of nature and culture, public and private. Guerrilla Grafters encourage looking at neighborhoods of more-than-human life in ways that generate resources rather than deplete them, from sunlight falling on rooftops, to coppiced ash for buildings and pathways that make for healthier trees, to deadheading plants like Hypericum perfolatum, a practice which makes more blossoms, for medicine. Guerrilla Grafters think that all artists (everyone) should make this kind of labor the center of their practice so that our earth, and our cities especially, are laboratories for survival.”




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