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PARADISE SOLD

  • Subject: [cg] PARADISE SOLD
  • From: eliz eak@grandecom.net
  • Date: Fri, 12 May 2006 22:14:37 -0500

THE NEW YORKER
PARADISE SOLD
by STEVEN SHAPIN
What are you buying when you buy organic?
Issue of 2006-05-15
Posted 2006-05-08



The share price of the Whole Foods Market, Inc., 
now stands at $62.49. Adjusting for stock splits 
and dividends, one share would have cost you 
$2.92 when the company opened on Nasdaq, in 
January of 1992, so it has done extremely well. 
Last year, its total revenue was more than $5 
billion and its gross profit was more than $1.6 
billion. In 2004, according to the Financial 
Times, Whole Foods was "the fastest-growing mass 
retailer in the US, with same-store sales rising 
17.1 per cent quarter-on-quarter." Having opened 
in 1978 with a single countercultural vegetarian 
establishment in Austin, Texas, Whole Foods now 
has a hundred and eighty-one natural-food 
supermarkets, including many acquired in 
purchases of smaller chains: among them, 
Wellspring Grocery, in 1991; Bread & Circus, in 
1992; Mrs. Gooch's Natural Foods, in 1993; and 
Fresh Fields, in 1996. In 2004, Whole Foods 
opened a fifty-eight-thousand-square-foot 
mega-mart in the new Time Warner Center, at 
Columbus Circle, with forty-two cash registers, a 
two-hundred-and-forty-eight-seat cafi, and three 
hundred and ninety employees. "Our goal is to 
provide New Yorkers with an engaging shopping 
experience and to become an integral part of this 
truly unique community," a company executive 
said. And in 2004 Whole Foods crossed the 
Atlantic, acquiring six Fresh & Wild stores in 
London and making plans to open others there 
under its own name. Its ambitions are global.

I like to shop at Whole Foods. Sometimes I go 
there just to see the variety and the colors: 
what new kinds of chard and kale will they have 
today? The employees--"team members," as they're 
called--seem reasonably happy and are often quite 
knowledgeable about the things they sell. A 
Wellesley graduate is one of the company's prize 
exhibits. "I just hang on to the fact that my job 
is good in some larger sense," she says on the 
corporate Web site. "If people buy the sprouts, 
they're eating healthier foods, the farmer is 
doing well, and it's good for the planet because 
they're grown organically." Since 1998, Whole 
Foods has ranked high among Fortune's "100 Best 
Companies to Work For in America." Although the 
company is as ferociously anti-union as 
Wal-Mart--John Mackey, the volubly libertarian 
founder and C.E.O., has called unions 
"parasites"--Whole Foods limits the compensation 
of its highest-paid executives to no more than 
fourteen times the employee salary average, and 
it likes to talk about how it rewards team 
members' initiative. Mackey once told Forbes, 
"Business is simple. Management's job is to take 
care of employees. The employees' job is to take 
care of the customers. Happy customers take care 
of the shareholders. It's a virtuous circle." 
Whole Foods gives people what they want, or, at 
least, the increasing number of people who don't 
blanch at the prices, which have earned the 
company the presumably affectionate nickname 
"Whole Paycheck": $3.98 for a five-ounce plastic 
box of Earthbound Farm organic baby arugula 
salad; $2.98 for six and three-quarter ounces of 
intricately packaged Earthbound Farm organic 
"mini-peeled carrots with Ranch Dip." For the 
price of the fixings for a modest family dinner 
at Whole Foods, you could just about afford one 
share of its stock. The motto of the great 
English supermarket pioneer Sir Jack Cohen was 
"Pile it high; sell it cheap." Whole Foods has 
shown the rewards that can flow from the opposite policy.

Whole Foods is only the most visible face of the 
newly confident organic industry. In February, 
Consumer Reports announced that sales of organic 
products had gone up twenty per cent a year 
during the past decade, reaching $15 billion in 
2004--out of a total U.S. food system worth a 
trillion dollars--and that nearly two-thirds of 
American consumers bought organic foods last 
year, paying, on average, a fifty-per-cent 
premium over conventional foods. In March, 
Wal-Mart made the remarkable announcement that it 
would double its organic-grocery offerings 
immediately. Wal-Mart is betting that, if it 
follows its usual practice of squeezing suppliers 
and cutting prices ruthlessly, the taste for 
organic foods will continue to spread across the 
social landscape. "We don't think you should have 
to have a lot of money to feed your family 
organic foods," its C.E.O. said at the most recent annual general meeting.

But icons beget iconoclasm, and, just when the 
organic business has attained cultural 
legitimacy, a market has opened up for debunkers. 
"Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew" 
(Harcourt; $25), by the business writer Samuel 
Fromartz, is a cultural, political, and economic 
history of the modern organic industry that is 
markedly critical of the distance that "Big 
Organic" has come from its anti-industrial roots 
in the early twentieth century. "Agrarian Dreams: 
The Paradox of Organic Farming in California" 
(California; $21.95), by the geographer Julie 
Guthman, is a meticulous academic study of the 
institutional dynamics of the state's organic 
agriculture and asserts that organic agriculture, 
far from escaping the logic of capitalism, has 
wholly embraced it. And Michael Pollan's 
outstanding "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural 
History of Four Meals" (Penguin; $26.95) is a 
wide-ranging invitation to think through the 
moral ramifications of our current eating habits. 
Pollan undertakes a pilgrim's progress along 
modern food chains, setting standards for ethical 
eating which the industrial approach of Whole 
Foods and its suppliers fails to satisfy.

Such criticisms reflect growing discontent among 
many veterans of the organic movement. As one 
consumer advocate told Pollan, "Organic is 
becoming what we hoped it would be an alternative 
to." This disillusionment is fuelled by questions 
about quality, sustainability, and business 
ethics--but it is also, crucially, a matter of 
ideology and morality. For many who participated 
in the early phase of organic farming, its 
subsequent history is a story of paradise 
lost--or, worse, sold--in which cherished ideals 
have simply become part of the sales pitch. 
According to the Web site of Earthbound Farm, a 
major supplier of Whole Foods, eating organic is 
an almost spiritual quest: "We honor the fragile 
complexity of our ecosystem, the health of those 
who work the land, and the long-term well-being 
of customers who enjoy our harvest. . . . Organic 
farming encourages an abundance of species living 
in balanced, harmonious ecosystems." This is 
late-modern georgic in its ripest vein. Where 
Virgil asked, "What makes the cornfield smile?," 
Earthbound Farm's Web site has the answer: the 
use of "earth-friendly methods to grow healthful 
crops without relying on chemical pesticides or 
using synthetic fertilizers." But the reality is no idyll.



The plastic package of Earthbound Farm baby 
arugula in Whole Foods was grown without 
synthetic fertilizers; no toxic pesticides or 
fumigants were used to control insect predators; 
no herbicides were applied to deal with weeds; no 
genes from other species were introduced into its 
genome to increase yield or pest resistance; no 
irradiation was used to extend its shelf life. It 
complies with the U.S. Department of 
Agriculture's National Organic Program, a set of 
standards that came into full effect in 2002 to 
regulate the commercial use of the word "organic." So what's the problem?

It all depends on what you think you're buying 
when you buy organic. If the word conjures up the 
image of a small, family-owned, local operation, 
you may be disappointed. Like Whole Foods, 
Earthbound Farm is a very big business. 
Earthbound's founders, Drew and Myra Goodman, 
Manhattanites who went to college in the Bay 
Area, and then started a two-and-a-half-acre 
raspberry-and-baby-greens farm near Carmel to 
produce food they "felt good about," are now the 
nation's largest grower of organic produce, with 
revenues for this year projected at more than 
$450 million. Their greens, including the 
arugula, are produced on giant farms in six 
different counties in California, two in Arizona, 
one in Colorado, and in three Mexican states. 
Earthbound grows more than seventy per cent of 
all the organic lettuce sold in America; big 
organic retailers like Whole Foods require big 
organic suppliers. (Earthbound actually dropped 
the "organic" specification when it started its 
mass-distribution program, in 1993--even though 
the stuff was organic--because its first client, 
Costco, thought it might put customers off.) By 
2004, Earthbound was farming twenty-six thousand 
acres; its production plants in California and 
Arizona total four hundred thousand square feet, 
and its products are available in supermarkets in 
every state of the Union. The Carmel Valley farm 
stand is still there, largely for 
public-relations purposes, and is as much an icon 
of California's entrepreneurial roots as the 
Hewlett-Packard garage in downtown Palo Alto.

Success is not necessarily a sin, of course, and, 
for many people, buying organic is a way of being 
environmentally sensitive. Earthbound notes that 
its farming techniques annually obviate the use 
of more than a quarter of a million pounds of 
toxic chemical pesticides and almost 8.5 million 
pounds of synthetic fertilizers, which saves 1.4 
million gallons of the petroleum needed to 
produce those chemicals. Their tractors even use biodiesel fuel.

Yet the net benefit of all this to the planet is 
hard to assess. Michael Pollan, who thinks that 
we ought to take both a wider and a deeper view 
of the social, economic, and physical chains that 
deliver food to fork, cites a Cornell scientist's 
estimate that growing, processing, and shipping 
one calorie's worth of arugula to the East Coast 
costs fifty-seven calories of fossil fuel. The 
growing of the arugula is indeed organic, but 
almost everything else is late-capitalist 
business as usual. Earthbound's compost is 
trucked in; the salad-green farms are models of 
West Coast monoculture, laser-levelled fields 
facilitating awesomely efficient mechanical 
harvesting; and the whole supply chain from 
California to Manhattan is only four per cent 
less gluttonous a consumer of fossil fuel than 
that of a conventionally grown head of iceberg 
lettuce--though Earthbound plants trees to offset 
some of its carbon footprint. "Organic," then, 
isn't necessarily "local," and neither "organic" 
nor "local" is necessarily "sustainable."

Earthbound and other large-scale organic growers 
have embraced not only the logic of capitalism 
but the specific logic of California 
agribusiness. Julie Guthman's book shows how, 
ever since the gold rush, the state's growers 
have aimed at maximizing monetary yield per acre. 
First, it was wheat to feed the influx of gold 
miners and those dependent on the mining 
industry; then, after railways and refrigerated 
cars enabled the delivery of shining fresh 
produce across the country, it was orchard fruit. 
Later still, tract housing and mini-malls proved 
more profitable, which is why you'll have a hard 
time finding orange groves in Orange County. 
Guthman writes that big, concentrated, high-value 
organic agriculture in California is "the legacy 
of the state's own style of agrarian capitalism." 
You saw this style in action when, in 1989, a "60 
Minutes" exposi about residues of the 
carcinogenic pesticide Alar found on apples 
caused a consumer stampede to the organic-produce 
bins. "Don't panic, buy organic," was the mantra, 
and growers responded by borrowing heavily to 
expand their organic enterprises. When the scare 
subsided, supply outstripped demand, and, in the 
inevitable shakeout, some small-scale organic 
farmers had to sell out to larger players in the 
food industry. Washington State's Cascadian Farm 
was one such. Its founder, a "onetime hippie" 
named Gene Kahn, sold a majority holding to 
Welch's, and now it is a division of the $17.8 
billion giant General Mills. He hasn't the least 
regret: "We're part of the food industry now." 
The investors bankrolling Big Organic have no 
reason to fear the vestigial hippie rhetoric: 
it's not so much a counterculture as a bean-counter culture.

According to Samuel Fromartz, ninety per cent of 
"frequent" organic buyers think they're buying 
better "health and nutrition." They may be right. 
If, for any reason, you don't want the slightest 
pesticide residue in your salad, or you want to 
insure that there are no traces of recombinant 
bovine somatotropin hormone (rbST) in your 
children's milk, you're better off spending the 
extra money for organically produced food. But 
scientific evidence for the risks of such 
residues is iffy, as it is, too, for the benefits 
of the micro-nutrients that are said to be more 
plentiful in an organic carrot than in its conventional equivalent.

Other people are buying taste, but there's little 
you can say about other people's taste in carrots 
and not much more you can intelligibly articulate 
about your own. The taste of an heirloom carrot 
bought five years ago from the Chino family farm 
in Rancho Santa Fe, California, sticks indelibly 
in my memory, though at the time I hadn't any 
idea whether artificial fertilizers or pesticides 
had been applied to it. (I later learned that 
they had not.) For many fruits and vegetables, 
freshness, weed control, and the variety grown 
may be far more important to taste than whether 
the soil in which they were grown was dosed with 
ammonium nitrate. Pollan did his own taste test 
by shopping at Whole Foods for an all-organic 
meal: everything was pretty good, except for the 
six-dollar bunch of organic asparagus, which had 
been grown in Argentina, air-freighted six 
thousand miles to the States, and immured for a 
week in the distribution chain. Pollan shouldn't 
have been surprised that it tasted like "cardboard."



The twentieth-century origins of the organic 
movement can be traced to the writings of the 
English agronomist Sir Albert Howard, 
particularly his 1940 book "An Agricultural 
Testament." Howard was a critic of the rise of 
scientific agriculture. In the mid-nineteenth 
century, following the work of the German chemist 
Justus von Liebig, it was thought that all plants 
really needed from the soil was the correct 
quantities and proportions of nitrogen, 
phosphorus, and potassium: the N-P-K ratios that 
you see on bags of garden fertilizer. For many 
crops, it is the availability of nitrogen that 
limits growth. Legumes apart, plants cannot 
extract nitrogen directly from the practically 
unlimited stores of the gas in the atmosphere, so 
farmers in the nineteenth century routinely 
enhanced soil fertility using animal manures, 
guano, or mined nitrates. But, just before the 
First World War, the German chemist Fritz Haber 
and the industrialist Carl Bosch devised a way of 
synthesizing ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen. 
 From there, the commercial production of 
enormous quantities of nitrogenous fertilizers 
was a relatively easy matter. The result was a 
technological revolution in agriculture.

But Howard had worked in India as "Imperial 
Economic Botanist" to the government of the Raj 
at Pusa, and his experiences there convinced him 
that traditional Indian farming techniques were 
in many respects superior to those of the modern 
West. Howard was a pragmatist--the criterion of 
agricultural success was what worked--but he was 
also a holist and a taker of the long view. The 
health of the soil, the health of what grew in 
it, and the health of those who ate what grew in 
it were "one great subject." To reduce this 
intricacy to a simple set of chemical inputs, as 
Liebig's followers did, was reductionist science 
at its worst. Soils treated this way would 
ultimately collapse, and so would the societies 
that abused them: "Artificial manures lead 
inevitably to artificial nutrition, artificial 
food, artificial animals and finally to 
artificial men and women," racked with disease 
and physically stunted. You could indeed get 
short-term boosts in yield through the generous 
application of synthetic fertilizers, but only by 
robbing future generations of their patrimony. 
Soil, Howard wrote, is "the capital of the 
nations which is real, permanent, and independent 
of everything except a market for the products of 
farming." We have no choice but to go "back to 
nature" and to "safeguard the land of the Empire 
from the operations of finance." The "supremacy of the West" depends upon it.

Howard's ideas reached America largely through J. 
I. Rodale's magazine Organic Gardening and 
Farming, and, later, through a widely read essay 
by Wendell Berry in "The Last Whole Earth 
Catalogue." The organic movement that sprang up 
in America during the postwar years, manured by 
the enthusiasm of both the hippies and their New 
Age successors, supplemented Howard's ideas of 
soil health with the imperative that the scale 
should be small and the length of the food chain 
from farm to consumer short. You were supposed to 
know who it was that produced your food, and to 
participate in a network of trust in familiar 
people and transparent agricultural practices. A 
former nutritionist at Columbia, who went on to 
grow produce upstate, recalls, "When we said 
organic, we meant local. We meant healthful. We 
meant being true to the ecologies of regions. We 
meant mutually respectful growers and eaters. We 
meant social justice and equality."

There is no way to make food choices without 
making moral choices as well, and anthropologists 
have had much to say about the inevitable link 
between what's good to eat and what's good to 
think. Decisions about how we want our food 
produced and delivered are decisions about what 
counts as social virtue. One of the founding 
texts of modern social theory, Imile Durkheim's 
"The Division of Labor in Society," drew a 
distinction between what he called mechanical and 
organic solidarity. In societies characterized by 
mechanical solidarity, each person knew pretty 
much what every other person did and each social 
unit encompassed pretty much all the functions it 
needed in order to survive. Mechanical 
solidarity, in Durkheim's scheme, was largely a 
premodern form. By contrast, organic solidarity 
flowed from the division of labor. Individuals 
depended upon one another for the performance of 
specialized tasks, and, as modernity proceeded, 
the networks of dependence that bound them 
together became increasingly anonymous. You 
didn't know who grew the food at the end of your 
fork, or, indeed, who made the fork. But, then, 
the original English sense of "organ" was an 
instrument or a machine made up of interdependent 
specialized parts, as in the musical pipe organ. 
The application to living things came only later, 
by way of analogy with machines; the eye, for 
example, is the "organ of seeing." And so, by 
semantic inversion, champions of organic farming 
actually seek virtue not in organic but in mechanical solidarity.



The quest for the shortest possible chain between 
producer and consumer is the narrative dynamic of 
Michael Pollan's book, which is cleverly 
structured around four meals, each representing a 
different network of relations between producers, 
eaters, and the environment, and each an attempt 
at greater virtue than the last. Pollan's first 
meal is fast food, and he follows a burger back 
to vast monocultural industrial blocs of Iowan 
corn, planted by G.P.S.-guided tractors and dosed 
with tons of synthetic fertilizer, whose massive 
runoff into the Mississippi River--as much as 1.5 
million tons of nitrogen a year--winds up feeding 
algal blooms and depleting the oxygen needed by 
other forms of life in the Gulf of Mexico. Pollan 
then follows the corn to enormous feedlots in 
Kansas, where a heifer that he bought in South 
Dakota is speed-fattened--fourteen pounds of corn 
for each pound of edible beef--for which its 
naturally grass-processing rumen was not 
designed, requiring it to be dosed with 
antibiotics, which breed resistant strains of 
bacteria. Pollan would have liked to follow his 
heifer through the industrial slaughterhouse, but 
the giant beef-packing company was too canny to 
let him in, and so we are spared the 
stomach-churning details, which, in any case, 
were minutely related a few years ago in Eric 
Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation." Pollan also 
follows the American mountains of industrial corn 
into factories, where the wonders of food 
technology transform it into the now ubiquitous 
high-fructose corn syrup, which sweetens the soda 
that, consumed in super-sized quantities across 
the nation, contributes to the current epidemic 
of type 2 diabetes. All very bad things.

The second meal is the Big Organic one that he 
bought at his local Whole Foods store in 
California, featuring an "organic" chicken whose 
"free-range" label was authorized by U.S.D.A. 
statutes, but which actually shared a shed with 
twenty thousand other genetically identical 
birds. Two small doors in the shed opened onto a 
patch of grass, but they remained shut until the 
birds were five or six weeks old, and two weeks 
later Pollan's "free range" chicken was a 
$2.99-a-pound package in his local Whole Foods. 
This meal was better--the corn-and-soybean chicken 
feed was certified organic and didn't contain 
antibiotics--but still not perfect. Pollan's third 
meal was even more virtuous. After spending 
several weeks doing heavy lifting on a 
polycultural, sustainable smallholding in the 
Shenandoah Valley, Pollan cooked a meal wholly 
made up of ingredients that he himself had a hand 
in producing: eggs from (genuinely) free-range, 
grub-eating hens, corn grown with compost from 
those happy birds, and, finally, a chicken whose 
throat he had slit himself. Very good, indeed--and 
no nitrogenous runoff, and no massive military 
machine to protect America's supplies of Middle 
East oil and the natural gas needed to make the synthetic fertilizer.

Finally, Pollan decides to eat a meal--"the 
perfect meal"--for which he had almost total 
personal responsibility: wild morels foraged in 
the Sierra foothills, the braised loin and leg of 
a wild pig he had shot himself in Sonoma County, 
a chamomile tisane made from herbs picked in the 
Berkeley Hills, salad greens from his own garden, 
cherries taken by right of usufruct from a 
neighbor's tree, sea salt scraped from a pond at 
the southern end of San Francisco Bay, and--O.K., 
strict perfection is unobtainable--a bottle of 
California Petite Sirah, presumably organic. This 
was not a way of eating that Pollan thinks is 
realistic on a routine basis, but he wanted to 
test what it felt like to have "a meal that is 
eaten in full consciousness of what it took to 
make it." That consciousness, for Pollan, is more 
religious than political--every meal a sacrament. 
"We eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and 
what we're eating is never anything more or less 
than the body of the world," he says.

Pollan winds up demanding that we know much more 
about what we're putting into our mouths: "What 
it is we're eating. Where it came from. How it 
found its way to our table. And what, in a true 
accounting, it really cost." The "naked lunch," 
William Burroughs wrote, is the "frozen moment 
when everyone sees what is on the end of every 
fork." Burroughs meant it metaphorically; Pollan 
means it literally. He wants to know his farmer's 
name, and to know that his hamburger was once 
part of the muscles of a particular cow. He wants 
to do his bit to save the planet. That means he 
wants to eat locally, within a network of 
familiarity. But, even so, the knowledge required 
is potentially infinite. What particular 
bacteria, fungi, and trace elements lurk in the 
soil of your sustainable community farm? Does 
your friendly local farmer use a tractor or a 
horse? If a tractor, does it use fuel made from 
biomass? If a horse, are the oats it eats 
organic? If the oats are organic, does the manure 
with which they were grown come from organically 
fed animals? How much of this sort of knowledge can you digest?



Pollan seems aware of the contradictions entailed 
in trying to eat in this rigorously ethical 
spirit, but he doesn't give much space to the 
most urgent moral problem with the organic ideal: 
how to feed the world's population. At the 
beginning of the twentieth century, there was a 
serious scare about an imminent Malthusian 
crisis: the world's rapidly expanding population 
was coming up against the limits of agricultural 
productivity. The Haber-Bosch process averted 
disaster, and was largely responsible for a 
fourfold increase in the world's food supply 
during the twentieth century. Earl Butz, Nixon's 
Secretary of Agriculture, was despised by organic 
farmers, but he might not have been wrong when he 
said, in 1971, that if America returned to 
organic methods "someone must decide which fifty 
million of our people will starve!" According to 
a more recent estimate, if synthetic fertilizers 
suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth, 
about two billion people would perish.

Supporters of organic methods maintain that total 
food-energy productivity per acre can be just as 
high as with conventional agriculture, and that 
dousings of N-P-K are made necessary only by the 
industrial scale of modern agriculture and its 
long-chain systems of distribution. Yet the fact 
remains that, to unwind conventional agriculture, 
you would have to unwind some highly valued 
features of the modern world order. Given the way 
the world now is, sustainably grown and locally 
produced organic food is expensive. Genetically 
modified, industrially produced monocultural corn 
is what feeds the victims of an African famine, 
not the gorgeous organic technicolor Swiss chard 
from your local farmers' market. Food for a 
"small planet" will, for the foreseeable future, 
require a much smaller human population on the planet.

Besides, for most consumers that Earthbound Farm 
organic baby arugula from Whole Foods isn't an 
opportunity to dismantle the infrastructures of 
the modern world; it's simply salad. Dressed with 
a little Tuscan extra-virgin olive oil, a splash 
of sherry vinegar, some shavings of Parmigiano 
Reggiano, and fleur de sel from the Camargue, it 
makes a very nice appetizer. To insist that we 
are consuming not just salad but a vision of 
society isn't wrong, but it's biting off more 
than most people are able and willing to chew. 
Cascadian Farm's Gene Kahn, countering the 
criticism that by growing big he had sold out, 
volunteered his opinion on the place that food 
has in the average person's life: "This is just 
lunch for most people. Just lunch. We can call it 
sacred, we can talk about communion, but it's just lunch."

http://www.newyorker.com/critics/atlarge/articles/060515crat_atlarge



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