This is a feature on Carolyn Hocquard of Farmpunk.ca. Carolyn is a host at the Hub Halifax and also a guest speaker at the Hub’s upcoming Harvesting event on Friday, October 4th. For more information on this event, please click here! (Photo credit: Ria Sajan Thomas)
Carolyn Hocquard graduated with a degree in architecture. Then she started a blog about food.
It’s a bit of a twist, but as she explained to me during our Skype call last week, it happened quite simply. “Really, my degree is in architecture, but for my thesis I did a theoretical project that was an educational kitchen and restaurant where tourists could take a tour of the whole food cycle within the restaurant. So they would see, for example, different growing and preservation methods. It gave me the chance to research all kinds of food issues, and then after my degree I realized I was much more interested in the food than I was in the architecture.”
She was searching for an outlet to channel this interest when she decided to start her food blog. And yet, it isn’t just a blog for foodies; its purpose is about larger issues. Yes, she posts quirky recipes (a chocolate peanut butter shake!), neat tips (ever hear of sautéing and eating unopened daylilies?), and the occasional restaurant suggestion (The Wooden Monkey is one of her favourites), but there’s a broader, more impassioned vision to the project. The angle is decidedly political: as Carolyn sees it, each of us ought to take control over our own food cycles (“it’s about food sovereignty” she says), and seize the freedom that comes with being aware of the life cycles of that which we eat. She hopes for a world where we are unshackled from the harmful hazards of the current global food system, and where we are instead empowered to play a role in every step of our food’s journey, from the ground to our stomach. Ideally, each of us would eat food we ourselves worked in some way to produce. At the very least, Carolyn insists, we ought to be aware of how the food we eat makes its way to our plates. “In my perfect world,” she says, “everyone would have access to environmentally conscious and socially responsible food. They would know who grew it, where it came from, and have peace of mind that what they’re eating is real food free of scientific experiments, known toxins, and that it was grown in a way that left the earth healthier than before.”
Carolyn’s vision has taken time to develop into its current shape. Growing up, she never heard of the concepts she now works to share with her readers. “My parents didn’t really care what I ate when I was growing up. We ate in restaurants and I ate packaged food and I had no idea that what I ate could actually make such a difference in my health.” By the time she became a vegetarian in the eighth grade, it was mostly about animal rights. While she’s still concerned about the treatment of animals, she has over the years become increasingly concerned with sustainability first and foremost: “I’m definitely still concerned about animal rights, but I’m now a lot more concerned about food sustainability in any way – how it’s produced, how far it travels, what farming methods are used. It’s far too big of an issue to be focused on just animal rights at this point. “
In the months since she launched it, her website has become a well-suited space for her vision to call home. When I ask her how she came to name it Farmpunk, she explains it was inspired by the steampunk genre.
“Steampunk has a very do-it-yourself ethic – for example, a lot of steampunk fans make their own costumes, or they hack their electronic devices to make them look old fashioned. They also take inspiration from a past time and bring that spirit into the present, and a lot of the food sustainability issues that I’m passionate about are also inspired by a do-it-yourself ethic, and are about bringing the spirit of the past into the present when it comes to food production.”
She also liked the name Farmpunk because it had a somewhat rebellious feeling to it: “I want to carry on that attitude of rebellion against “Big Food” and the global food market as it is now, while demanding more independence and freedom when it comes to our food system. So when people see the ‘punk’ part of ‘Farmpunk,’ I think that’s what they take away.”
In preparation for my interview with Carolyn, I read her blog from start to finish, and when I was done I found it pretty difficult to knock her vision. Of course, most would agree that we ought to strive to take the necessary steps to make our food cycles as socially conscious and environmentally responsible as possible. Yet as it seemed to me, the challenge for Carolyn’s vision wasn’t so much the ‘why,’ but the ‘how.’
We lead busy lives. Is it reasonable to expect that any given one of us can ever make the time to follow through with what Carolyn’s proposing, regardless of the ways in which we agree with her? Can we reasonably expect people to put aside the time to learn about all the food they’re eating, or to play an active role in the production of their food? Is Carolyn’s vision for food sustainability in itself sustainable? Can it be ever be easy enough such that everyday, reasonably engaged citizens will ever make the effort to follow through?
I put some of these questions to Carolyn and it was clear that they were ones that she herself had already considered.
“I’m definitely concerned with not only the why, but the how. The fact is it can’t be as easy as having take out every day or having TV dinners. But I think it can be a lot easier than people think it will be. And also I think it can be a lot of fun, especially if you get the community involved.”
With such high demands for food, and with each of us having less and less time to spare in our already chaotic lives, Carolyn admits that it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the prospect of playing such an active role in your own food cycle. At the individual level, she suggests that advance planning helps make it manageable. “What I used to do was shop at the Farmer’s Market once a week, purchase everything I needed, and then prepare it all after getting home. I would cut things up, and put them in reusable containers in the fridge so that I would have everything ready for the rest of the week – I would just have to take a salad out of the fridge and I was set to go. That’s one thing that makes it a lot easier on an individual level.”
Yet I kept thinking about how far such an idea could go. Not everyone can shop at the farmer’s market – local farmers can’t produce enough to meet such demands. And surely not everyone can produce his or her own food – not everyone has access to the land they would need to do so. So isn’t mass production inevitable?
Carolyn says that what’s inevitable is that we need to feed 7 billion people, but mass production can look very different than the destructive monoculture that we associate with mass production. She suggests cities could implement edible landscaping. Suburbanites could have permaculture food forests instead of lawns.
“Permaculture is a great possibility — the word comes from the words permanent and agriculture, and it’s basically like a food forest,” she explains. “You design an ecosystem with food plants so that they all cooperate with each other. If you look at a forest for inspiration, for instance, you see that in forests nothing is wasted, and everything has its niche. There are tall plants, and short plants and forest edges have different things growing on them than what’s growing inside. So if we look to nature for inspiration, and then plant things in a way that will allow them to maintain and reseed themselves such that human effort is decreased over time, we can go a long way toward feeding more people socially conscious and environmentally responsible food in a way that would eventually not take much effort.”
Community collaboration is also an important factor in making her vision possible.
“I want to help people work towards what I’ve been calling “food sovereignty,” on not only an individual level but also and especially a community level – like sovereignty within a community where there is sharing and bartering, and local farm trading. Common Roots Urban Farm is an example of this sort of community collaboration in action. I’m really amazed by what is happening there — before I had been there I thought it was just that people rented their individual plots and did their individual thing, but it’s really more than that – they have market garden, and people can stop by and volunteer whenever they want, and there’s plenty of people meeting other people, coming together to collaborate and enjoy how awesome gardening can be. We need more stuff like that.”
It’s a tough battle to fight, but a worthy one, and Carolyn says she’s up for it. When it comes down to it, she tells me, it’s not only about being socially and environmentally responsible, but it’s also about having freedom, and it’s about being empowered by our food-awareness. “A lot of it has to do with knowledge,” she says. “Even when people have a wide range of food products available to them, and if they’re okay with packaged food and don’t care much about what they eat or what they’re eating has been through, then there are a lot of choices for them out there, and some might say that choosing to disengage from the current global food system would restrict your freedom. But to me that’s a fake sense of freedom — they’re being sold products by large corporations who are selling them with empty marketing buzzwords like “lite” and “low sodium” and “gluten free.” I feel like if they were really free they would be more aware – they’d be fully aware of the decision they were making and then they’d make an informed decision based on that awareness. I think that’s a far truer sense of freedom than having plenty of choices that are actually bad choices packaged and sold to you by corporations whose first goal is their own financial gain.”
So it’s not just about food. It never is.
Looking forward, Carolyn hopes to continue updating Farmpunk regularly while her audience continues to grow. She’s also working on a plan to offer an online course tentatively titled “Fast Track to Freedom.” She’s currently considering what markets to target, as well compiling the program content, which she hopes will include learning modules, shopping lists, menu plans, and tools to make the vision manageable. Watch Farmpunk.ca closely for more information.
Want to hear more about Carolyn’s vision? Come by the Hub’s Harvesting event happening this Friday, October 4th, where Carolyn will be a guest speaker.