Schwartzman travels to Cuba, Detroit for book research

Terraced agriculture at Finca Marta (Marta’s farm) grown agroecoligically. Notice the diversity of crops – each terrace is growing at least one different crop – and the netting which is positioned above it all to block out some of the intense sunlight and reduce transpiration (used during the summer only). This farm has received a lot of international attention for its successful techniques. [Peter Schwarzman/submitted]

GALESBURG — Knox College Associate Professor Peter Schwartzman loves farming in Galesburg, and he recently took the opportunity to connect with others who share his passion many miles away.

In late June, the environmental studies professor took a research trip to eastern Cuba and Detroit, Michigan, to learn about how farmers have been growing and selling local food in their communities. Peter’s father David joined him for the Cuba portion of the trip, and the duo will include their observations in a book on the future of food and energy that they plan to publish by the end of this year.

The Schwartzmans visited various small farms while in Cuba through a Food First tour, and spoke to approximately 25 local farmers via translator to learn about their techniques. In Detroit, Peter saw how residents have been growing urban gardens in hoop greenhouses, including at D-Town Farm, which produces more than 30 fruits, vegetables and herbs to sell at farmers’ markets.

Though Peter saw many unique things in both places, one aspect of the farmers he met remained consistent no matter where he went: their passion for their work.

“When you see people like that, where they’ve found their purpose in life and they believe so strongly in the value of what they’re doing, to me there’s something contagious and inspiring about that,” Peter said. “I feel like that with my work, so to see others be that same way felt really inspiring.”

The Schwartzmans helped some of the Cuban farmers with planting to learn more about their farming techniques, including polyculture, or the simultaneous planting of multiple crops or plants. At one point, Peter helped plant hibiscus seeds underneath mango trees, and he noticed coffee growing under teak trees. The variety of plants helps deter insects, as the Cuban farmers do not use pesticides and the diversity of crops confuses the insects, Peter said.

He and his father also learned about the experiences of a Campesino, or a worker on the farms. In Cuba, one main farmer oversees the farm while the Campesinos work the land.

“They work almost seven days a week and they work in teams, and they’re the eyes on the farms to make sure nothing’s going wrong,” Peter said. “We worked for an hour and it felt like a full day’s work, so I can’t imagine how these workers feel (daily). You have a lot of respect for them as a result.”

The Schwartzmans also visited local restaurants where many of the farmers sell a bounty of their produce. Peter said the tourism industry recently took off in Cuba, and the farmers often sell their vegetables to feed to tourists who eat more greens and herbs.

Although Peter read about Detroit’s urban gardens and Cuba’s farming practices before the trip, actually venturing into the places gave him a new perspective.

“This summer I’ve been trying to put more emphasis on learning about how the food systems are being developed and looking at argoecology as a model,” Peter said. “It’s one thing to read a book and see this is how it works, but another thing to actually go out there and try to get it done yourself.”

Peter and David, a professor emeritus at Howard University in Washington, D.C., will feature their trip experiences in their book, which they have been working on for approximately two years. They conceived of some tentative titles, including “The Other World That’s Possible” and “The Next Transition.”

The duo also took a similar research trip over spring break, when they traveled from Atlanta to New Orleans to visit farms. As David also specializes in science, the trips and the book provide him and Peter with an opportunity to further bond over a subject they have always enjoyed.

“My dad and I have been close since I was young, but this is a unique thing that we do,” Peter said. “To be out there with him and watching him do (the farming), it was good to see him do it to understand a little bit better what it means to actually do the work, and of course some of the complications that farmers face.”

Rebecca Susmarski, The Register-Mail

July 12, 2017

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