Mountains are one of our most knowable landforms. They are easily personified -- we tend to “know” the ones we live near or look out upon. Even the oldest, most weathered mountains still define our horizon. They are remarkable, singular, and scenic. Home to exacting terrain, extreme weather, and stealthy creatures, mountains are as foreboding as they are relatable. Mountains are both majestic and mysterious, easily becoming landmarks in our imagination and everyday. We consider them immutable and enduring.
In reality, mountains are especially vulnerable to global warming and changing at an alarming rate. Mountain communities are facing unprecedented challenges as well. As climate change destabilizes mountain communities and residents migrate to urban areas, their accumulated knowledge about the mountain ecosystem and how to adapt to climate variability is lost.
December 11th is reserved by the United Nations General Assembly as International Mountain Day. This annual observance gives voice to mountain-specific issues and draws attention to neglected mountain areas and communities. The 2018 theme for International Mountain Day is #MountainsMatter. The UN page details seven overarching reasons mountains matter on a global scale (for water, disaster risk reduction, tourism, food, youth, indigenous peoples, biodiversity). In addition, we are all invited to use the #MountainsMatter hashtag to share why mountains matter to us.
“At Oak Spring, the story of rock begins nearly a billion years ago. The story of mountains reaches 30,000 feet.”
So reads the intro to An Oak Spring Landscape written by ecologist Michael Gaige. Stochastic and gradual geologic action shaped Oak Spring over millennia and gave rise to the wealth of flora and fauna we have today. Indigenous peoples, and later settlers, developed strategies for living in these mountains and adapting to variability, influencing the landforms and plants we have today. Centuries of human-environmental interaction has endowed us with rich food traditions and diverse crops.
We are excited to honor our unique bioregion and diverse food heritage by taking tangible action to protect mountain environs and culture with our Biocultural Conservation Farm Fellowship. A “bio-cultural conservation farm” is a farm that stewards the cultivation of heirloom and heritage vegetables and fruits, and conserves them as living plants or as seed, in order to illustrate, save and share the biological diversity of the edible plants that underpin our food system. We are still accepting applications for this incredible opportunity and looking forward to partnering with an individual dedicated to bringing this vision to life.
Below, we have selected some #MountainsMatter categories from the UN website that give great global context and have elaborated as to how we envisage the Bio-Cultural Conservation Farm might address each issue:
#MountainsMatter for Food as they are important centers of agricultural biodiversity and are home to many of the foods that come to our table, such as rice, potatoes, quinoa, tomatoes and barley.
The Appalachian Mountains have been recognized as the most diverse foodshed in North America with nearly 1,500 identified “folk and indigenous crop varieties of heirloom vegetables and fruits.” Nearly one third of the identified varieties are apples, explaining the nickname “Apple-achia.”
Anthropologist James Veteto and ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan, who led the study, sought to understand the socio-cultural reasons why this immense crop diversity exists. Veteto explains, “Specific culinary uses, locally-defined tastes, food preservation technologies and their resulting foodways, and cultural heritage and memory are the most important reasons why heirloom cultivars are maintained. Utilitarian reasons – market value and high yields – are secondary.” If you are interested in reading more, the publication resulting from this study can be found here.
We see the Bio-Cultural Conservation Farm as a means to celebrate and protect biodiversity and socio-cultural foodways. We envision the Fellow will maintain and promote heirloom and heritage varieties, preserve crop diversity with living plants and seed saving, and elevate cultural food traditions.
#MountainsMatter as many mountain areas host ancient indigenous communities that possess and maintain precious knowledge, traditions and languages.
In author Ronni Lundy’s new book Victuals, she explains, “Until very recently, there were five regions that anthropologists considered “world food hearths,” the places where early peoples first branched out from hunting and gathering and began to domesticate plants for food and develop the practice of agriculture.” For example, the Middle East is considered a food hearth for the domestication of wheat and barley. Lundy notes, “More recent study suggests that the eastern woodlands of North America, extending from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean, the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, may be a sixth world food hearth.” Archeological findings in the Red River Gorge in Kentucky reveal that the Indigenous peoples who lived there cultivated, in addition to better known crops like squash “several original crops, including sunflowers and sumpweed for oil, and goosefoot (a relative of quinoa), maygrass, erect knotweed, giant ragweed, amaranth, and little barley as starches.”
We aspire to address a more complex cultural history than is often presented. Appalachian mountain communities are often viewed and portrayed as the group descending from those who “settled” this region in the 1700’s. This telling erases Indigenous habitation, agriculture, foodways, and contemporary challenges. We are excited to see how the successful Fellow will promote a more nuanced understanding of bio-cultural foodways and work towards a more inclusive and equitable food system.
#MountainsMatter for Youth as despite the beautiful landscapes, life in the mountains can be tough, particularly for rural youth.
We found the UN’s “#MountainsMatter for Youth” provocative. It spoke to shrinking rural communities, population shifts, and the associated break in cultural transmission of story, knowledge, and tradition.
This is especially relevant to our agriculture system. The age of farmers continues to creep upwards; the 2012 census revealed the average age of farmers to be 58.3. With the majority of farmers nearing retirement age, we face a massive turnover of land and production in our near future. Around 100 million acres of farmland are predicted to change ownership over the next five years. Fortunately, we have a burgeoning cohort of young farmers. Some 75% of young farmers are first generation farmers who, by definition, don’t come from farming families and often do not have access to farmland. At the same time, land is more expensive than ever. A 2017 survey by the The National Coalition of Young Farmers found that among the 3,517 current, former, and aspiring farmers surveyed, “the top challenge cited by young farmers is land access, particularly finding and affording land on a farm income.”
Our Bio-Cultural Conservation Farm will support emerging farmers and agricultural leaders. The Fellow will collaborate with organizations like Chesapeake Foodshed Network, whom Oak Spring Garden Foundation is proud to currently work with. We envisage Oak Spring as part of a growing movement to make land more available for young farmers dedicated to creating a more ecological, local, and equitable food system.
We are beyond excited to announce the Bio-Cultural Farm Fellowship! We are even more excited to work with the successful Fellow in the coming years. If you are interested, there is still time to apply -- please see the Opportunities page on our website.