Friday, January 30, 2009
Separating the Rhetoric from the Reality
An Interview with Tapahpunjah Dasa of The Small Farm Training Center
as reported by Bhakta Chris Fici
Q: What about privatization of the food supply? Why can’t householders who own their own farmland grow and sell to the temple?
A: Privatization sounds great on paper but if it’s that simple, why hasn’t some enterprising household couple launched it? As a farmer, I know why…. the vagaries of weather, the short growing season, the costs of labor, the costs of mechanization (if you can’t hire labor), the unpredictability of good help, the deer problem, crop failures. etc.
The only entity who can rebound from these vulnerabilities is the temple. I can name four land owning families in New Vrindaban who courageously attempted to keep a
family cow and failed because it made no economic sense. Had they been subsidized they may have succeeded. The subsidy I’m referring to is not a welfare handout. It’s a compact of trust between the temple management and those devotees inspired to work and live on the land. It’s a subsidy for supporting young devotees who require land and encouragement to get started.
Q: It seems that you’re painting a picture that incorporates both decentralization and guided centralized control. Can the two strategies function simultaneously?
A: Yes, both systems must co-exist. On one hand, we’re energizing the family unit by creating “farmetts.” “We’ll give you a cow, the feed, the bales of hay for winter and you keep the milk to drink and the manure for your garden.” On the other hand, the temple is functioning like a ksatriya landlord, safeguarding the interest of the institution. This is what’s meant by “the stepping stones to real cow protection.” Without the temple acting as a loving, empowering parent, self-sufficient culture will not evolve. Our strategy should be to teach the value of cow protection by first coaching a family in fundamental life support skills, e.g. organic gardening, that culminates in a natural yearning to keep animals..
Q: If subsidized land and living arrangements succeeded as a working model, what would be the positive effects on a rural devotee community?
A: It would have an immediate short term effect of opening up settlement for younger devotees. What a morale booster that would be! Imagine if we could legitimately say that the bhoga used in our college food programs, vegetarian cooking classes, Sunday feasts and offering to the Deities was all grown by devotee hands on devotee worked lands. Right now our reputation as environmentally conscientious people who “walk-their-talk is tarnished by the abuse of the yukta-vairagya principle. .
Q: The yukta-vairagya principle was often cited by Srila Prabhupada to explain his use of modern amenities like airplanes and Dictaphones. How is this concept being abused within ISKCON?
A: Yukta-vairagya has become like a magical wand—just wave it and poof!!.. you’re immunized from anyone questioning environmentally unfriendly management decisions. The philosophical principle of seeing everything as potentially useful in Krishna’s service is beyond reproach. It’s the application that has disgraced us as it applies to self-sufficient living. Besides derailing our preaching, its misuse numbs us to the order of the spiritual master.
Q: As a spokesperson for The Small Farm Training Center, you attend agricultural conferences, speak at universities and host students visiting New Vrindaban. How do they perceive the movement?
A: They see us as quaint …but irrelevant . Instead of being guardians of the mode of goodness, we’re perceived as philosophical chauvinists. I recently spoke at a Quaker high school in Ohio.The students visited New Vrindaban on three occasions last winter and participated in a series of min-workshop presentations ranging from yoga to Deity worship. On their final visit the teacher phoned ahead and asked me if it would be o.k. for the kids to bring their own plates because they objected to eating off of Styrofoam. Trying to change the subject, I asked her what the students thought about subjects like reincarnation and karma. She replied, “ I don’t know, they can’t get past the fact that you serve prasadam on Styrofoam plates…that’s all they talk about.” In the minds of those teenagers, we’re hypocrites.
Q: One unique feature which distinguishes us as more than just secular vegetarians or animal rights activists is the message of cow protection. Are we effectively getting that message across?
A: Cow protection resonates with our Hindu constituency but rings a little hollow with Western people. To use a crude analogy from the card game poker, “it’s not our lead card.” Vegetarianism—and more specifically, vegetarianism guided by spiritual motives—is our lead card. According to the U.S. government’s estimates, 1 out of every 200 adolescents in a America are actively vegetarian. (Center for Disease Control study). That statistic should send ecstatic shivers down the spines of every ISKCON North American temple president. To be honest, we’re a little cow myopic. We need to gradually introduce the value of mother cow rather than philosophically thunking people over the head. For example, connecting a person’s personal health concerns to the environmental health of the Earth’s life support systems is comprehensible compared to evangelically insisting that cows are God’s favorite animal. Preaching directly about cows smacks of elitism because people suspect that your real agenda is converting them into cow loving Hindus. In our rural communities, we make a similar mistake by telling entry level homesteaders to get a milk cow and an ox team. Introducing new people to sustainability by encouraging them to “get a cow” is like introducing a three year old child to bicycle riding by sitting them on a Harley Davidson motorcycle.
Q: I’ve sometimes heard you use the phrase, “No spirituality, No sustainability!” when talking to visiting colleges classes. What do you mean by that?
A: The transcendent fact is that there is no such thing as “sustainability” in the material world. Everything is subject to the devastating time factor. The only true sustainability is our relationship with guru and Gauranga. Without a spiritual motivation, however, even the best secular plans reinforce the illusion that the material world is fixable. Our Krishna conscious gift to the worldwide debate on sustainability is the message of transcendence.
Q: You mentioned connecting the dots between spirituality and sustainability. What advise do you have for devotees eager to spread Krishna consciousness through the medium of ecological activism?
A: Be humble and learn to speak the language of environmental kinship. Last February, I conducted a workshop at Penn State University before 100 participants entitled, Bad Karma Is Not Sustainable: Farming As If Your Next Life Depended on It. Many of the attendees were organic meat producers. I started the talk by apologizing. I assured them that my purpose was not to sit in judgment of them. I begged permission to share an ancient secret of sustainability that would have a great impact on their personal destinies. For the next 90 minutes they sat in rapt attention hearing about the soul, the nature of embodiment, karma, and varnashram. I even dared to recite the seven co-conspirators in the killing of an innocent animal. You could hear a pin drop. I felt Srila Prabhupada speaking through me. The point is this: People of all persuasions are saying the same thing: THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM IS SPIRITUAL. Devotees are uniquely qualified by the grace of Srila Prabhupada to define the cause and effect interplay between lost spirituality and world scale environmental degradation. Devotees are uniquely positioned to explain why spirituality should be the motivating force behind care of God’s creation. Because of the clarity and authoritative nature of Srila Prabhupada’s books, we—and only we—can articulate how the laws of karma govern. No one else has that information. What’s missing is a working model.
Q: I’m sure you’re aware that many ISKCON leaders have expressed a renewed interest in farm communities and self sufficiency. At this year’s GBC meetings in Mayapur it will be a key agenda item. What are your thoughts about that?
A: I’m encouraged. Radhanath Swami and Devamrita Swami have been very supportive of how I’m trying to develop The Small Farm Training Center. My hope is that their good intentions translate into inspired capital investment in self-sufficient infrastructure such as greenhouses, root cellars, grain silos and the like. Last summer we began construction on a combination workshop pavilion and wood fired baking oven. Winter wheat is planted and we’re balancing our vegetable production with the growing of grains. New Vrindaban is Srila Prabhupada’s first farm. We have land, labor , management and plenty of vision. What’s missing is capital. Capital is the lubricant which makes it all flow like nectar towards Lord Krishna’s lotus feet.
Thursday, January 29, 2009
We believe in taking loving care of the animals for their entire lives, even when in their old age they may appear to be unproductive.
Our intentions are to:
interact with and contribute to the community at large providing goods, services and educational opportunities while representing the vision of MISCOWP;
develop a self-sufficient CSA farm with a store, an education center, and several miniature earth-shelter homes to act as demonstration and experimental models;
offer fresh, organic, bio-dynamically grown produce for 100 CSA members for the year 2009 and increase membership to 300 members in two years;
provide a training center for development of skills related to maintaining a small organic dairy, using ox power, sustainable organic gardening and farming, eco-friendly construction, creating renewable energy, and marketing cottage crafts.
As spiritually minded stewards of the Earth and its precious resources, we pledge to protect and maintain the soil, water, plants, and animals. We are always searching for progressive and creative ways to farm and distribute our blessed harvests.
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
We are writing to ask you to help us establish our first Krishna-conscious farm in Michigan. With great pleasure, we wish to inform you that on January 11, 2009, our non-profit organization, The Michigan Society for Cow Protection (MISCOWP), signed a sales contract to purchase a beautiful 80-acre farm in Whitmore Lake, Michigan.
This farm project will be called Vedic Village. Our inspiration comes from Srila Prabhupada’s desire that devotees establish spiritually centered farm communities based on cow protection and agricultural self-sufficiency. We believe that this farm, working together with the Detroit Hare Krishna Temple, presents an extraordinary opportunity to expand the culture of Krishna consciousness and attract the hearts, minds, and souls of a great many people. Vedic Village is strategically located, far enough from suburbia to be nestled in peaceful farmland, and close enough to major cities to be a convenient drive. It is less than a half hour from Ann Arbor and Chelsea, and less than an hour from Lansing, Flint, and the Metro-Detroit area. We plan to interface with society on all levels, especially the education system and agricultural community. Before long, we would also like to develop a chain of sit-down, drive-thru vegetarian restaurants.
To help finance this project, and to provide the best produce and milk products possible to the Detroit Temple, our congregation and the general public, this Spring we plan to develop a 15-acre garden on the farm where we will cultivate over 40 types of organically-grown heirloom vegetables and fruits. By early summer, we also plan to have our first milking cows. We will offer community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares to at least 108 families for our first season. This means that people can redirect to our project some of the money they normally would spend on commercial produce, and thus receive a 10-15 lb box of fresh produce each week for 21 weeks during the growing season. Please see the attached 7-page CSA packet for more information and to get a good general understanding of our goals for Vedic Village.
Srila Prabhupada has pointed out that every major endeavor requires four things, namely land, labor, organization and capital. By Krishna’s grace, we have the land. Now we are asking for your help with labor, organization and raising capital. Please allow us to present our “wish list,” which includes some of the volunteer service and donations we need for our project to get off to a good start. Remember that because MISCOWP is a federally recognized (501)(C)(3) non-profit organization, all in-kind service and monetary donations are tax-exempt.
Volunteer help: In brief, we need help with fund raising; financial planning; grant research and writing; recruiting CSA members; garden design and construction; farming; carpentry skills to renovate the barn and outbuildings; care for the cows and oxen; and help with secretary, treasury and public relations.
$1,000 a month to cover the $12,000 rent for the first year
$2,400 for the cost of purchasing organic, heirloom vegetable seeds
$900 for 30 fruit trees
$600 for 100 blueberry bushes
$450 for professional help to formulate a business plan
$1,500 for liability insurance for the first year
$500 for an assortment of garden tools and several wheelbarrows
$500 for 120 specially-made durable reusable Vedic Village CSA boxes
$3,500 for four 6-7 month old Zebu bulls at $800 each, plus $300 for transport expenses
to pick them up in North Carolina and bring them to our farm. (Two are a pure Indian
breed called Gyr, and the other two are American Brahmans, which are a mix of several
Indian pure breeds. Please see the attached photo of the two Gyr calves. In mid
February, we would like to bring them from North Carolina to a friends heated barn
near Vedic Village where they will receive much loving care. Eventually, we will learn
from Balabradra prabhu (co-founder of ISCOWP) and other experts how to train them
for agricultural purposes.
$1,500 to purchase several beehives, bees and equipment. We need bees and other flying
insects to pollinate our open-pollinated vegetable and fruit plants.
$2,000 for equipment to use for ox plowing and hay cutting.
$15,000 for a 3,350 foot long 8 foot high deer fence to protect the garden.
By May we will also need a sizable walk-in cooler, a delivery van, and a mini bus to transport people back and forth from the Detroit Hare Krishna Temple and Vedic Village.
We have faith that Krishna will help us every step of the way to develop this farm for the benefit of as many people as possible. The overall goal is to demonstrate to the world a healthy God-centered lifestyle that can be replicated anywhere. We believe humanity and Mother Earth needs Krishna consciousness more then ever and we are dedicated to develop a model educational farm community that everyone can appreciate.
If you would like to donate your time, join our team, or have any questions, please either call or email me at (313) 823-3815 / firstname.lastname@example.org. According to your inquiry, you may be put in touch with either one of our two vice presidents, Antariksa dasa and Navadvipa dasa. If you would like to contribute towards any of our projects, please make your check out to MISCOWP and send it c/o Adiraja dasa, 313 Newport, Detroit, Michigan 48215. You will receive a receipt within two or three days. We also accept payment by credit card. In closing, we would like to thank you again for your interest in the success of Vedic Village and we look forward to your participation. Hare Krishna!
With warm regards,
Monday, January 26, 2009
Separating the Rhetoric from the Reality
An Interview with Tapahpunjah Dasa of The Small Farm Training Center
as reported by Bhakta Chris Fici
Editor’s note: The Small Farm Training Center is a land based non-profit educational organization which organically farms and conducts farm tours on temple owned land in the heart of New Vrindaban Community. For information about apprenticeship opportunities, or general farm related information email Tapahpunjah dasa at email@example.com or visit www.farmeducation.org
Q: Give us a nutshell version of what you mean by “real “ cow protection and “the stepping stones” to achieve it.
A: Cow protection conveys an image within North American ISKCON of being a timeless truth which weaves together animal husbandry, food production, homesteading skills and vigorous preaching. Unfortunately, cow protection has morphed into a nostalgic maintenance burden in isolation from our day-to-day lives as rural Vaisnavas. What I’m suggesting is an approach to cow protection that first teaches the skills—practical and social—that gradually integrate cows and bulls into the fabric of rural Krishna conscious life.
Q: Are you suggesting that our attempt at cow protection is a failed paradigm?
A: Let’s call it a sleeping paradigm. Cows are to devotees what Toyota Priuses are to yuppies—something you wish we could have, but can’t figure out how it fits into your economic reality. The real question to ask is how to make cow care a relevant factor in shaping our rural communities. My reference point is what I saw happen in New Vrindaban when we leap-froged from hand-milking a few cows to maintaining more than 400 animals. The social, economic and spiritual ramifications are still being felt today, not just in New Vrindaban, but in other ISKCON rural communities where that pattern was copied.
Q: New Vrindaban’s present herd size has steadily decreased to about 90 aging cows and bulls. There seems to be ample pasturing grounds and hay fields so why make a fuss about decisions made years ago?
A: The impact of those decisions are still prevalent thirty years later. Cow husbandry has virtually dominated decisions about land policy and land usage. It has monopolized the use of farm equipment, over-shadowed food production and even set the tone and tenure of our preaching. As Prabhupada’s disciples expire or voluntarily retire from management, the next generation of Vaisnavas will hopefully avoid our mistakes.
Q: Srila Prabhupada often held up New Vrindaban as a model community for cow protection. Has the community lived up to those expectations?
A: Thanks to the determination of some extraordinary devotees and due to the generosity of the greater Indian community, goraksha-seva marches on. Our challenge has been to adjust the theory of cow protection to the reality of cow protection as we experience it in the cold Northern climates. You can’t imitate an Indian model. An Indian family keeps a cow or ox team behind their residence; a neighborhood cow herder takes everyone’s cows to government owned grazing lands and then returns in the evening in time for milking. Pasturing land is available all year long, and there are no snow blizzards.
Q: Given the difficulties inherent with sheltering and feeding cows through six months of cold weather, someone could easily question the practicality of keeping cows at all. Can the case be made that the kind of cow protection Srila Prabhupada sought is only applicable to places like India?
A: In a traditional village setting—East or West—cows and bulls are the ecological cornerstone of society. No one is questioning either their functional or spiritual significance. What is being questioned is cow protection based on sentimentality, cow protection based on a business plan to sell milk products, cow protection whose principle aim is Hindu fund raising and cow protection lacking a social and cultural support network.
Q: In Hare Krishna Dasi’s Srila Prabhupada on Varnashram and Farm Community Development, Prabhupada stated that a rural community’s first priority is ”to solve the food problem”… Elsewhere, Prabhupada said that the purpose of our farm communities was ”to grow food.” Most ISKCON rural communities only grow a small portion of what they eat, opting to buy bhoga from outside sources. How did food production become so divorced from cow protection?
A: Where do I start? Once you start down the road of over breeding, you’re locked into a maintenance merry-go-round that won’t stop for the 15-20 years lifespan of the animal. In a large herd, for every 1 cow copiously giving milk, there are 12 cows standing dry or idle, 50% of whom are bulls. Who’s going to work the oxen? Who’s going to shovel the manure? Who can fix the flat on the manure spreader? This is just the math and mechanical side of the equation. Then there’s the social dynamic percolating within managerially challenged ISKCON. In retrospect, the devotee farm leaders who could have shaped ISKCON’s first farming communities into beacons of food and energy independence, were also expected to raise families, perform sadhana bhakti, adjust to the challenges of living in a community and be subject to the dictates of absentee managers who held the purse strings. That’s quite a brew…not exactly your typical American family farm.
Q: What’s the lesson learned?
A: No subsidy, no farm. It’s hard enough to find people who have the physical stamina and mental discipline required for farming. Farm communities can’t develop if the farming is under funded and the farmers are pauperized. In North America, the farming aspect of our rural communities is an amusing sideshow to the main event which is elaborate city temple Deity worship amidst a backdrop of gentrified country living. Management’s focus is cash flow, resolving personality conflicts and who’s dressing the Deites….never mind mobilizing anyone for planting, harvesting, weeding etc. The result is no farmers, no vision for the cow program , no development of farm based skills, no real food production beyond hobby gardening and utter dependence on Hindu fundraising. The rural environ is really the city temple environ transplanted to the countryside and characterized by the same urban attitudes and tastes. Devotee families live on the land but not really with the land. None of their occupations are land based. They reside within walking distance of the cow barn and organic garden but buy their milk and veggies in town. By way of example, New Vrindaban has spent roughly $800,000 on bhoga in the past 14 years. While it’s fair to note that New Vrindaban hosts thousands of hungry guests, it’s also accurate to say that almost nothing has been invested to create a farming infrastructure to stabilize and secure a home grown food supply. That’s an embarrassment. Imagine standing before Srila Prabhupada and explaining that uncomfortable fact of life.
Q: You’re basically saying that agriculture requires temple subsidy to survive?
A: Subsidy sounds like a give away. Let’s call it investment in authentic land based culture. As devotees, we have to become natives to our place. How do you stabilize a community food supply when there are no granaries, silos or root cellars dotting the farm landscape? Our conditioning is to think of land as a commodity. We think first of its ownership before we consider it’s use in Krishna’s service. We don’t acquire land by inheriting it and assuming the duties of farm stewardship. Devotees acquire land through purchase and sale. Land is a quantifiable measurable entity. Our only personal responsibility is to ourselves (what’s my bank balance?) by protecting the resale value of the land. Land means equity and equity means money and money means travel and the ability to buy exotic things from faraway places. This mentality is a far cry from the honor extolled on farming as given by Srila Prabhupada. He called farming and cow protection “the gifted professions” and “the most noble occupations.”
Stay tuned Friday for Part 2!
Sunday, January 11, 2009
This is a chance, for once, for a favorable political situation to help restore our essential heritage to the land.
Christopher Cook of the Christian Science Monitor spells is out clearly: "As Mr. Obama weighs a massive stimulus package, he should include new funding streams that promote sustainable food - to build up alternatives such as farmer's markets, local "foodshed" programs that promote consumption of local produce, and farm-to-institution projects that encourage schools, hospitals, and other large buyers to purchase local organic foods when possible."
We stand at a fork in the road. The ascension of Mr. Obama, and all he claims to represent, may actually increase mainstream acceptance of organic, natural, local production of foodstuffs.
Click here to read the whole of Mr. Cook's suggestions for the new head-of-state.
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Our example of "simple living" provides profound answers to the problem of over-consumption that plagues our culture and lives.
In an article from BBC News, Professor Tim Lang of the UK Food Council challenges the current practices of food production, saying that "We are going to have to get biodiversity into gardens and fields, and then eat it."
Hands on, dirty fingernails...Prof. Lang's friend, chef and long-time food campaigner Raymond Blanc agrees...
He is heading a campaign called Dig for Your Dinner, which he hopes will help people reconnect with their food and how, where and when it is grown.
"Food culture is a whole series of steps," he told BBC News.
"Whatever amount of space you have in your backyard, it is possible to create a fantastic little garden that will allow you to reconnect with the real value of gardening, which is knowing how to grow food.
"And once you know how to grow food, it would be very nice to be able to cook it. If you are growing food, then it only makes sense that you know how to cook it as well.
"And cooking food will introduce you to the basic knowledge of nutrition. So you can see how this can slowly reintroduce food back into our culture."
Amazing...how far removed we have come from the land. It is one of our prime imperatives as devotees to help our friends re-connect to the original source, both environmentally and spiritually.