Tommy Bleasdale Ph.D. has published academic papers and popular articles about food justice movements and urban agriculture in Phoenix, Arizona. Working closely with practitioners over the last seven years, he has both observed and taken part in multiple aspects of local food system establishment, from gardening to policy creation.

Dr. Bleasdale is an active participant in many local food movements. He helps shape urban and just community-based food systems using the best information available. By fusing the knowledge of academia with the experience of practitioners he crafts material to meet the needs of a community.

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MY STORY

One of the earliest photos I have of myself was when I was two years of age. I was 'helping' my father plant potatoes in our garden edged by forest.

Our garden then, maybe half an acre in size, provided a substantial portion of our food every year. Our 100-year-old farmhouse backed up onto a forest, the view from our front porch was of hundreds of acres of uninterrupted farm fields.

During the summers, I would go into those fields with my mother (who worked for the farmers) to help weed onions. There were also hundreds of migrant farm laborers doing the same thing.

Once a week we would go to town for the grocery shopping. I was excited about those trips. They had televisions at the grocery store. It was the mid-1980s and invariably during a program break, or when the news came on, the discussion was about famine in Ethiopia.

Even at that age, maybe six years old, the dichotomy struck me; I was in a grocery store surrounded by food, working with food all day long, and yet others were malnourished. I also understood the hard labor it took to grow food. The brutal work conditions farm migrants worked under, the tiny pay and shacks in which they lived.

By the time I was in my early 20s, we had moved across the country to Phoenix, Arizona. Gardening seemed impossible in the arid low-desert. The sticky beige clay turned away any shovel, and the summer heat seemed to wilt plants in an afternoon.

Instead, I was following a group of authors sometimes referred to collectively as "futurists." Futurists are scientists or (more often) popular authors who specialize in exploring possible futures for humanity. Futurists focus on technologies that exist, are in the "pipeline," or require only a few engineering breakthroughs to create.

What fascinated me about futurist writings was that they were developing technological solutions to solving environmental problems. For example, Marshal T. Savage describes a future in which algal cultivation is used to reduce atmospheric carbon and provide food. John S. Lewis wrote about ending the destructive practices of mining for minerals on earth in his book Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets, and Planets. Gerard K. O'Neill wrote about the human colonization of space, in part, to harvest materials and energy that would improve life on earth. Perhaps the greatest futurist of them all (to my mind) is K. Eric Drexler. His books about nanotechnology illustrated how space travel could be made inexpensive.

I was hooked. In my mind starting with a few nanites, we could grow forests, create species of corn that grew in the ocean (this was long before I ever heard of GMOs). Environmental pollutants could be molecularly 'disassembled' leaving us only with simple base elements. Food, resources, toxics and eventually space travel could all be addressed with one simple solution. Nanotechnology.

I went to my local community college and signed up for every science and math course I could find that I thought might, in some way, relate to molecular nanotechnology. I took math, physics and chemistry classes and a few anthropology electives for fun.

It was in a quiet little anthropology class (years later) focused on environmental justice that I began to question the futurist vision. The professor said something that, for me at that time, seemed like a wrecking ball to the futurist vision. Paraphrasing him, “Environmental issues arise through social mechanisms. But, we try to fix the environment using technological bandages instead of addressing the social issues that manifested the problem.”

“Environmental issues arise through social mechanisms. But, we try to fix the environment using technological bandages instead of addressing the social issues that manifested the problem.”

I thought about his statement for days. Eventually, I began to question my path. Was I trying to remedy social problems with technological fixes? The more I considered it, the truer it seemed to be.

What all these futurists had missed was the human element. Who were the politicians who would support these utopian technological futures? Who were the millions of taxpayers who would happily fork over part of their check to pay for these hideously expensive programs? Who were the engineers and scientists that would be willing to gamble years of their life trying to solve the technological details before any of the futurists plans could become feasible? The futurists had technological solutions, but they missed the most critical component, designing their systems around real people.

The next year I dropped my physical science courses and enrolled in anthropology and sociology. I began to reimagine how I would change my approach to environmental issues. First, I would start by trying to understand the social structure that created the problem. Then I would develop a social-based solution to the same problem.

The futurists had addressed very abstract issues, global energy, and resources. I wanted to study problems that were visceral, and the general population would understand. What is more visceral or concrete than food and gardens? With that vague plan in mind, I decided to start a new garden and took a Permaculture course.

I soon realized my earlier failed attempts at gardening in Phoenix were because I had tried the same methods used in upstate New York. I was no longer on land with a layer of fertile black humus one hundred feet deep. There was no longer 40 inches of rain a year. The low desert required vastly different gardening strategies then I had learned before.

My new Phoenix-based gardens were designed from the very beginning to provide for insects and birds. I created areas for flowers to attract pollinators and plenty of cover for birds to nest. I didn't realize it then, but I was going back to my roots.

After completing a bachelor's degree in anthropology, I applied to graduate school with the same professor who had asked the question that had derailed my thinking and plans based on futurist work in the first place. When I got the acceptance letter, I barely put down my garden spade long enough to finish reading it.

During my second year of graduate school, I learned about a set of Phoenix neighborhoods located in a food desert, and that were building community gardens. It was the perfect environment for me to start. Gardens linked to an existing social structure of a community, and they were using their gardens to increase access to healthy and nutritious food.

When I began working on the earliest phase of my dissertation research project, late 2009, there were only a handful of people and groups talking about urban agriculture in Phoenix. The neighborhoods in which I was conducting my study. The Valley Permaculture Alliance (VPA), and a few students at Arizona State University, School of Sustainability, most of whom I worked with in various capacities over the next few years.

However, the swell of interest among Phoenicians in creating a sustainable urban agriculture within the metro area has been humbling. A sudden surge in popular interest in community gardens and urban agriculture invigorated the public as well as community organizers. Organizations and city staff began carving out new Civic-based agricultural spaces, opening up grant money for local agriculture projects and creating new local small-scale, urban agriculture policy.

The growth of these new local food systems, as well as the policy, and initiatives put into place over the duration of my dissertation offered an unparalleled research opportunity. To draw a metaphor: the formation of urban agriculture over the last five years in Phoenix, for an urban researcher such as myself, might be similar to that of an astronomer witnessing and recording the formation of a new galaxy.