Planting Crops Could Be Like Paying Taxes

In 1998 Glenn Roberts, a Charleston-based historic restoration consultant and thirty-year veteran of restaurant and hotel concept design, took his career in an entirely new direction.  He founded a company, Anson Mills, to grow, harvest and mill near-extinct varieties of heirloom corn, rice, and wheat organically, and re-create ingredients that were in the Southern larder before the Civil War. Anson Mills now works with 30 organic growers in six states to grow a variety of native heirloom grains.

  • Transcript


Question: What will we be eating in 2050?

Glenn Roberts: I think that because the geneticists that are still around can still exert influence on the younger geneticists coming up, I think that the ethical responsibility to grow and preserve and sustain land-raised systems will survive and those cuisines that are based on land-raised cuisines that are place-based will return and thrive.  That means that if you’re growing some obscure apple, that it actually fits into something larger than the straight concept of buckles or pie or anything, or syrup.  That it actually relates as an apple to a dish that’s place-based.  That is unique to that area and that the land-raised ideas of these foods were always influenced by other areas.  But they will never be homogenized, they won’t be monolithic.  You won’t have the same interpretation of the land-raised plants, even if they’re the same ones grown in this county and that county.  You’ll have different interpretations of that and there’ll be more of these kinds of foods available.  They will never dominate, I don’t think.  We do have to feed the world in some way, shape or form, and no one, including me has an answer with land-raised systems at this point.  I would love for somebody to do that.  I think, going back to another question, if somebody wants to fund something, that’s something to fund.  Is it possible to develop a land-raised system that can be set in place intact, not just certain crops as we are doing through UNESCO and the NGO system, but the entire system.  Is it possible to set that in place and survive?  That’s the one we should be studying.  And we’re not. 

So, having said that, if everybody just takes a few of these things and grows them.  If I have a 3,000-acre farm and I’m doing cattle, pasture, wheat, corn, soy, whatever.  If I just take as my ethical responsibility, like paying taxes, like defending my country, if I take the pre-World War II attitude of the American farmer and the agrarian ideal and say it’s my ethical responsibility to grow five acres of some sort of land-raised system, not just one grain, not just one plant, not just one bean, but some sort of land-raised system... That can be my kitchen garden if nothing else.  It would serve me.  But that’s what I should do on top of my whatever thousand of acres I’ve got.  If everybody involved in that does that, I think that just the kitchen garden movement alone, that the Liberty Garden Movement, which my mother remembers and everybody I know remembers that one if they’re my age and older, which is very cool.  I think that’s not enough.  I think that the farmers that are out there that have large farms need to think about scale and need to provide expertise and provide preservation and provide repatriation services.  Provide sustaining services for land-raised systems that keep biodiversity out there so that, down the pike, if we need something, it’s not 100 grams in a starving gene bank somewhere, that actually not just the scientists are the only people responsible for keeping these things.  This is what I really care about; that we actually get it out there.  And so the language we look for to make this relevant has to come forward, certainly from the scientific community so you’re not making things up as you go.  And then you have to have integrity, but you have to have broad understanding.  It’s very, very difficult.  It’s very difficult to make that bridge. 

But I think that farmers should just start.  That’s my current message.  Just get something and start growing it.  Because that’s what farmers do.  They grow things.  And I think that they don’t think that it’s their responsibility because we have the USDA, we have CIMIT.  It was never predicated that the people at CIMIT or CIAT, or the Asia Rice Foundation, or the USDA-GRAN system were going to be the only people engaged in this.  And then somehow it comes back to us through this monolithic seed system, someday.  It was never predicated for that to be.  These were agencies, all of them set up to serve the public as well.  And I think the public has drifted away from that and as the interest for growing your own foods comes back, I think then looking 40 years ahead, you see, I wouldn’t be the exception, I’ll be the rule. 

You’ll have land-raised rice.  There’s rice grown right here in the Northeast right now.  Takeshi Akaogi and his wife Linda are doing SRI rice.  They’re doing rice.  And the purpose of that rice is to do tributary watershed protection from runoff because rice sucks it up, and then you can serve the Northeastern rice market with local rice production.  Everybody thinks this is so crazy.  In a land-raised system, it’s nothing.  It’s done the world over, and it always has been.  This is something that I think will be 40 years down the road.  I don’t even think it will take 40 years for that.  I think that Takeshi and his wife will probably interest enough people in the next 10 years that we may be net zero on rice up here, and maybe exporting rice in the Northeast.  That’s near and dear to my heart since I am a rice person.  But I think it’s extraordinary that it could be food that we know... it was grown in Vermont.  Whoever heard of rice being grown in Vermont?  Oh boy, it’s Vermont rice.  Why not?  Okay, I live in Burlington; I’m going to have some Vermont rice.  That’s what’s going to happen in the next 40 years.

Recorded on April 28, 2010
Interviewed by Priya George