Friday, March 25, 2011

Fiona McAnally

This marks the first in what I hope will be an ongoing series of informal profiles of people whose work closely parallels and compliments the ideas of the Urban Land Scouts. Without further ado I would like to introduce Fiona McAnally.

Fiona is currently pursuing her masters in Public Horticulture at the University of Tennessee after working stints with AC Entertainment, the Knoxville Visitors Center, and Ramsey House Plantation. I asked McAnally about the term "Public horticulture" and she was quick to explain that, "Public horticulture is just sharing gardening with the public. I'm truly interested in the vegetable side of it. Teaching kids that potatoes grow in the ground. That you can eat food right off a plant."

McAnally grew up working on a farm and talked about spending weekends moving rocks and digging post holes-- the type of hard labor that dissolves romantic ideas about farming. She credits her work with the Ramsey House Plantation and working with renowned seed saver John Coykendall with rekindling her interest in growing food. "John was a big inspiration."

Now at UT, McAnally interviews many growers (like Coykendall) about the varieties of heirloom seeds they've saved as well as the oral history that attend them. "I have a special interest in the Southern Appalachia. Two generations ago, we were all eating vegetables. We weren't growing ornamental flowers. That was a luxury."

Our conversation veered to the trying economics of vegetable growing. Her own father was a full time engineer and full time farmer. McAnally asked rhetorically, "What if you do everything right? You hit the market just right and everything grows just right? Can you then sit down and do the math and make a living?" Many of the growers she interviews are retired or have another supplemental income to make that math work out. Our current food system is based on unsustainable government subsidies and a soil-destructive system of herbicides and pesticides. In the face of this enormous and well entrenched system the question arises: What would a sustainable food system look like? One in which growers can "make a living" with practices that preserve soil health and biodiversity and in which consumers enjoy the food security of having enough?

I am glad to know someone as capable and engaged as Ms. McAnally is on the problem and more specifically, looking to bring a base level of knowledge, access, and experience to the public. If you're in Knoxville and would like to learn more about sustainable vegetable gardening, consider visiting UT's Organic Crops Field Tour on April 28th. Pre-registration is required and lunch will be served.

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