By Grayson Shelor, AMI 2017-2017 Fellow
In troubling times, we return to our roots. For AMI Fellows and Alumni, that often means gathering in the kitchen.
When I came to AMI as a Fellow in 2017, I expected to learn best practices for crop rotation. I did not expect one of our first lessons in orientation to be how to clean and season a cast iron skillet. But as an AMI community, we always start with food, because food is, in itself, a place of connection--as well as a subject most of the human race is pretty passionate about! And so, even as Fellows leave the family-style meals of the Allegheny Farm behind, we continue to swap beloved recipes, to convene our community with potlucks, and to compulsively tell acquaintances to save their carrot tops for pesto. Over the years, we’ve seen the importance of that approach again and again: to begin from a place of nourishment, of connection, of community, and open possibilities together. Uncounted memories and visions for the future have been shared across platters heaping with roasted rainbow carrots, beets, and Jerusalem artichokes.
Roots are comfort food, brimming with wholesome nutrition and the memory of their origin in the soil. People often speak of being grounded or down to earth in the sense of practicality, and proximity to values. I see these connotations at play in the growth patterns of carrots seeded in the rocky soil of the Allegheny Highlands. I love to gather young children around a “wacky” tangled carrot, as we collectively imagine the taproot encountering an obstacle and growing on, imbuing the plant with the admirable traits of adaptability and persistence.
Recent discoveries within the field of soil science have added a fascinating new dimension to the already rich metaphorical value of a plant’s roots. While we’ve long understood that the eventual nutrient content of a vegetable is dependent upon the quality of the soil in which it was grown, we’re now finding that the plant’s ability to absorb those nutrients is reliant on ally organisms: beneficial bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi.
The good bacteria--the ones we know about so far, a mere fraction of the varieties out there--tend to be more of specialists, with roles like converting atmospheric nitrogen to a plant-usable form or manufacturing b-complex vitamins.
Mycorrhizal fungi, on the other hand, are generalists immersed in a mutualistic relationship with the plant roots we know. Their tentacles, called hyphae, extend outward from the primary root structure in a secondary network that permeates almost all of the soil beneath our feet. And here’s the bit I find so relevant to our human communities--the mycorrhizal network not only extends the reach of a given plant’s roots, but further brokers nutrient-swap deals to nourish those roots with nutrients that would otherwise have been out of reach. Similarly, the communication potential of the mycorrhizal network allows for greater resilience. When a neighboring plant is attacked by pests or disease, it’s distress signal, transferred through the fungal hyphae like a child’s game of telephone, can warn nearby plants to shore up their natural defenses.
The visible fruiting body of a mushroom is far exceeded by what’s beneath the ground
Pictured: Will (2019-2020 Fellow)
Like the roots of our favorite veggies, our communities too, rely on an ecosystem of care to reach our full potential and extend our influence throughout the region. As I look back on all the accomplishments that AMI Fellows and Staff are justifiably proud of, here at the close of a turbulent 2020, I know that we too, owe our thanks to a largely-hidden network of connection and support.
When 2020 brought a global pandemic, we returned to our AMI training and food heritage to grow vegetables for those made vulnerable by disrupted supply chains and isolation. AMI Fellows further reinvigorated our local food economy at farmers markets and through Staunton’s Local Food Drive-Thru. And we continued to share the magic of loofah gourds, kohlrabi, and cover crops with nascent gardeners of all ages, while upholding our commitment to training the next wave of bright, motivated, powerful AMI Farm and Food Fellows. We were able to do so because YOU, our community, supported us. Through CSA purchases, hand-sewn masks, farm to table meal boxes, virtual workshops, and gifts in honor of loved ones near and far, you helped us to invest in AMI Fellows. They, in turn, amplified the effects of your generosity, spreading benefit throughout our communities, far beyond the reach of their two arms.
The Crop to Community initiative from Augusta Health and the AMI Farm at Augusta Health brings a weekly box of veggies + local eggs and meat to 50 food insecure households
Pictured: Kaila (2019-2020 Fellow) PC: Mark Miller
In closing, I’m reminded of one of my favorite bits of practical advice around container gardening. When gauging if a given container provides sufficient space for an edible crop, always remember that a plant’s root volume tends to be twice the size of it’s visible greenery. In this season of reflection and generosity, we at AMI are so grateful to you, our often-hidden, yet expansive network of support, for the invaluable, nourishing, resilient foundation that makes all our progress possible.