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He’s got a vision for backyard farming

“If you know how to do it, the time commitment is not huge,” says Brian Donahue of his farming plan.Mike Lovett

Brian Donahue, a Brandeis historian and Massachusetts farmer, believes that New Englanders need to grow more of their own food. We’ll never be entirely self-sufficient, but if we made better use of our productive land, we could make ourselves healthier, he argues, by eating fresher produce and protecting our environment. In a new plan, called A New England Food Vision, Donahue and some colleagues suggest that we should be growing half of our own food by 2060. To do that, we’ll need to plant more suburban yards and convert precious timberlands to pasture.

Q. Is there really enough land available in places like Cambridge and Concord to make a dent in our food supply?


A. There’s a considerable amount of land in suburban and urban areas that could do this – probably a few hundred thousand acres. We could produce a pretty high percentage of our vegetables on that kind of land.

Q. And why would it be better to get our vegetables from Concord than from California or Colombia?

A. Vegetables really benefit from being very fresh — their quality and flavor and their health [benefits]. [And farming] engages people. It’s a road to empowerment, a road to better understanding of food, better cooking and eating.

Q. Is it realistic to ask busy people to add backyard farming to their lives?

A. If you know how to do it, the time commitment is not huge. You have to obey my one simple rule: hoe the weeds the day before you see them. When it gets to be a lot of work is when you get behind, and the weeds get to be big. If you get out there and weed early and often, it’s a pleasant 15-minute task to go around the garden with a hoe once a week.


Q. So why not grow everything ourselves?

A. There are things it makes perfect sense to import: grain, orange juice, coffee. You don’t want to have a food vision that says “Here’s our wonderful future: no orange juice, no coffee.” People get so engaged with this whole idea of growing everything locally. It’s a little off-putting and also implausible. And a recipe for starvation, which is what used to happen when all food was local.

Q. What do we have to give up other than time to realize this vision?

A. We have to cut a few million acres of trees. It doesn’t have a lot of great crop land, but New England has wonderful pasture soils. We have a great climate for grazing. You need to look for those places where the region might have an advantage.

Q. What drives your interest in this food sustainability plan?

A. I love to farm. My main concern as a scholar is sustainable farming, the production end. The essential connection of that to healthy eating and food rights has become much more obvious. The question is what kind of policies can be put in place that would make those links deliberate?

Q. Isn’t eating healthy going to cost more?

A. A lot of us think that large-scale production won’t necessarily be that cheap in the future, or that if all its costs were counted, it wouldn’t be so cheap now. It’s a reasonable bet that food grown sustainably by producers getting a decent return is going to be more expensive. So, we have to face that and find ways of making it accessible. Getting the food to be really cheap, which it has been, has not gotten rid of food security in the world or in our country and it has certainly not gotten people to eat in a healthier way.


Q. Do you think farming will help us cope with climate change?

A. I think having a resilient agricultural system every place is a pretty good way of addressing the future — not putting all your eggs in one basket, so to speak. We don’t want every little region trying to support itself or having a vision that’s driven by some sense of doom where we’re all going to plow up the soccer fields and tennis courts, and trying to peddle that as something we should be doing. I think we should be building for something that’s a little more attractive but that has the resilience to put us in a good position to care for ourselves better if the future is as bad as people think.

Q. You also teach a practical class in farming. Is there a lot of interest among Brandeis students in studying farming?

A. In the late ’90s, I was not attracting a lot of students. Somewhere in the early 2000’s, it started being overbooked.

Q. How does being a historian help you as a farmer?

A. I do think I have got some insights into what these farmers were dealing with in the Colonial era. This [New England Food Vision] has a lot to do with people wanting to take care of the places where they live, and when you do that, you become part of an ongoing story and the history of people who lived here before.


This interview has been edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at weintraubkaren@gmail.com.