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Thanksgiving, from the ground up

Every morsel on the table is a reminder of the value of the land and those who work it.

November 23, 2005|Michael Ableman | MICHAEL ABLEMAN is a farmer and author of "Fields of Plenty: a Farmer's Journey in Search of Real Food and the People Who Grow It" (Chronicle Books, 2005).

IN THE FALL OF 1863, in the midst of a civil war that divided the country, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of each November to be a national thanksgiving holiday. In his proclamation Lincoln said, "The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed, we are prone to forget the source from which they come."

This Thanksgiving, a time when our country is divided again, let us not forget the source, and let us try to understand the story of each of the foods that grace our tables.

Consider that the turkey that takes center stage is the product of a long and too often complicated journey, that each turnip or beet or head of lettuce started as a tiny seed planted in soil, that the herbs and cranberries and chestnuts and yams were brought forth by real people whose hands plant and nurture and harvest.

Reflect on the fact that each of these foods may have traveled more than 1,000 miles from the field to the plate, that it now requires multiple calories of energy to fertilize, cool and transport each calorie of food we consume. Consider that the majority of the world's fresh water is used to produce food, of which only a fraction ever reaches the intended plants or animals because of inefficient transport and application methods. Remember the soil, the Earth's placenta; each of us is dependent on it, yet we treat it like dirt.

Think about the 1% of our population we still call farmers, consider the enormous task it takes to feed a predominantly urban world. Remember the farmworkers, those whose hands do the hoeing, milking, feeding and harvesting -- often men and women who risk their lives to cross the border between Mexico and the U.S. illegally, to do work that most Americans will no longer do.

Think about how fragile and precarious our food system really is. Each of the foods that grace our Thanksgiving table are dependent on dwindling oil reserves, diminishing aquifers and people who come here illegally. What if the borders really were closed and all those who slipped in to work in American fields were removed? What if world populations continue to grow and demands on fresh water cannot be met? What happens when the oil runs out?

As a nation, we spend a staggering percentage of tax dollars to fight wars, to design and install high-tech devices to monitor, inspect and search -- all to supposedly make us more secure. But what is more critical to our security than fresh food and water and living soil? Supporting and participating in local agriculture may be one of the best forms of homeland security. It diminishes our reliance on foreign oil, restores local economies, rebuilds healthy soils, recycles nutrients and water, improves personal health and increases the pleasure of the table.

As we celebrate this Thanksgiving, let us remember to give thanks to the land and to all those who still work with it.

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