Episode 17: Fruitful Communities
Food is an essential part of our lives, but for many people fresh food is something they find in a grocery store, not growing in their communities. How can art and advances in agricultural science create new food resources, connect communities, and create more resilient food systems?
On this episode, host J. D. Talasek is joined by artists David Allen Burns and Austin Young of Fallen Fruit and professor Molly Jahn from the University of Wisconsin-Madison to explore how creativity and systems thinking can change the food system.
- Read about the “Subversive Beauty of Fallen Fruit” in Issues, and learn more about the Fallen Fruit collective’s artwork and projects by visiting the group’s website.
- Explore the Endless Orchard to collaborate in creating the largest public orchard in the world.
- Read Molly Jahn’s Issues article, “How ‘Multiple Breadbasket Failure’ Became a Policy Issue,” on her journey from making new squash varieties to trying to improve global food security.
- Learn more about risk in food systems by visiting the Jahn Research Group, and take her free courses on “Systems Thinking.”
J.D. Talasek: Welcome to The Ongoing Transformation, a podcast from Issues in Science and Technology. Issues is a quarterly journal published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and Arizona State University.
Everyone loves food. We eat for health and personal enjoyment, but also to connect with our communities and our cultures. When we look at food on the local, national, and even global scale, a number of questions arise about equity, food systems, and even food security. How are the assumptions about food constructed? What are the challenges facing our food systems, and what are the possible solutions?
I’m J.D. Talasek, I’m the director of Cultural Programs at the National Academy of Sciences, and I’m joined by three guests who think about food issues from different lenses. Contemporary artists David Allen Burns and Austin Young are known together as Fallen Fruit. They create vibrant, colorful, immersive spaces that encourage us to look differently at our environment and assumptions about social constructs.
Molly Jahn is a plant geneticist and breeder. Dr. Jahn is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the former deputy and acting undersecretary for research, education, and economics at the US Department of Agriculture. She has given much thought to our attitudes towards food and food systems through the lens of national and global security and sustainability. Molly, David, Austin, welcome.
David Allen Burns: Thank you so much.
Austin Young: Thank you. We’re excited to be here.
Molly Jahn: Wonderful to be here with all of you.
Talasek: David, Austin, let’s start by talking about your work. David once said to me, “We make beautiful things so that we can have difficult conversations.” I love that quote. It has always stuck with me because that’s exactly what you do.
Burns: Thank you. We do spend so much energy and focus on finding the beauty in everyday life, and the work we make is a collage of neighborhoods in contemporary time. We walk the streets of a city for days, weeks, sometimes longer, and we collect material that create these patterns.
I’ll use the example of Palermo, Italy, from 2018. We walked over 80 kilometers in that city to create this immersive installation and asynchronous repeat pattern. While we were doing that, we were making a map of all the fruit trees that existed in ancient Palermo, and we discovered that there were hundreds of sites in courtyards and plazas, up stairwells. The trees were cared for mostly just by natural rain, and on their own systems of care. Some of them were picked, and some of them were not.
Young: I think it’s important to note that those fruit trees are in public space or accessible by the public easily.
Burns: It’s true. Besides the rigor and the research that we’re interested in, we’re also interested in aesthetics—and how to make something so beautiful that you feel like you’re part of it, that you become the actual subject matter of the artwork itself. It’s less about the objects on the wall, or the collage that we have constructed, or the ideas behind it; so that for the person who may not know art, that’s fine. Maybe it’s just pretty, and you took a selfie for Instagram, and you were with your friends or family. But perhaps it’s also someone that knows a little bit more about the history of their neighborhood and they get excited because they know that plant or that tree or that thing that makes that place so special.
Or maybe it’s a historian that understands that most of the plants and trees in Palermo are like other parts of the world, like Los Angeles, where they’ve been transported culturally through conquering and colonialism and trade and migration over hundreds of years. So for us, it’s a collage of not just objects in a pattern, but histories and geographies.
Talasek: Molly, let’s turn to you for a second and hear more about your work. I know you come from a long family of plant breeders. So when we talk about this being personal, this is part of your family tradition. I’d like to hear a little bit more about how you got into your work and what motivates you and what you feel like is important. And then I’d like to hear about your response to David and Austin’s work as well as your own work with the arts.
Jahn: Well, it’s interesting. I don’t think about this very often, but when I was getting started, I was interested in healing. So I knew I was probably headed in the direction of biology, but I also loved photography, and as a child was very keenly tuned to detail—often detail that delighted me that no one else either saw or cared about.
As I moved forward in my education, I didn’t know how to put those two together, so I maintained them separately. But I launched into graduate school in genetics at a time when the world was full of reductionist hubris. I took great exception to that and actually left one graduate program that was sort of the epitome of that attitude and literally inspired by a book about my Canadian family. Came home at Christmas vacation, read that book.
My double-great-grandfather was the first director of what’s become Ag Canada, and his sons all were involved in natural history in various ways. His one son who really didn’t want to do natural history—he wanted to play the cello and write French poetry—that’s the son my double-great-grandfather made his partner in breeding a winter wheat variety that opened up the western plains of Canada for settlement.
So, I looked at that and I thought “plant breeding… I want to be a plant breeder”—because that does combine aesthetics with genetics and launched off to the only department of plant breeding in the country at the time, which was at Cornell University. Picked vegetables because there’s such an incredible sort of richness and also willingness to accept differences in form, especially form connected to flavor, and learned plant breeding essentially as a trade.
But I never forgot that background in really rigorous basic science. And so my career has been an orchestra of those themes coming out to play. I’ve bred a number of varieties that—actually it’s delightful for me because I don’t think I can find a supermarket where I can’t walk by something I bred.
Young: That is crazy. That’s crazy. I have to tell you, it’s way beyond our scope of knowledge, but it’s our fantasy to think about making trees that survive in a city street that are stronger and might stay on the vine—like a grape, or something that grows easily and is a hardy street tree.
Jahn: Well, when one has the background I have and I know about the plants that human beings started with eight or nine or 10,000 years ago, it’s quite clear, even just with old-fashioned, unprofessional plant breeding, we have made massive changes in plant form and function.
Really it’s hard to overstate not only how great those changes are, but also their consequences. There’s nothing that says we’ve, quote, “plateaued” at all. Just during a period of my career, it used to be that we were told, “You have to meet these specifications in a vegetable crop,” let’s say, even in a vegetable crop. Well, I broke those rules as a young plant breeder because why not? And I ate what I was breeding to make sure it tasted good, which was considered quite revolutionary at the time.
And then I put unique appearance on those varieties, so that a consumer would know that striped squash tastes better than that all-green one. That turned out to have worked magnificently. And it’s just opened up this explosion of both professional and non-professional people who understand that they’re empowered to imagine and then pursue, create.
Young: Yeah, that’s interesting. One thing that you inspire me to think about is I think that we come to art thinking about healing as well. Also, I think it’s sort of the magic of being an artist is that what we think about is how can we get everybody to think that they’re equal and important when they’re coming upon our artwork?
It’s like to us, the five-year-old is as important as, say, the academic. So, through our artwork, we at first came upon the idea of wanting to connect people. That’s how we started focusing on fruit trees, because fruit trees is something that we all share in common—no matter what our politics are or backgrounds or class, which we actually feel was a pretty radical way to approach art, especially since art can be actually something that really divides people, because you might have to be educated to appreciate it or to understand the art world. And so we always were consciously creating artwork about fruit in the beginning, mostly that just sort of gave people a safe space to appreciate and to feel that they were part of this art.
Talasek: Austin, I wonder if you and David could actually talk a little bit about what that is actually like. Not everyone is thinking about art as a form of social engagement or community engagement as an art process.
Burns: Yeah. Let me talk a little bit about how Fallen Fruit got started. Fallen Fruit was started in 2004. It was a response to a call for submissions from a magazine called the Journal of Aesthetics & Protest. At the time, there were three of us, Matias Viegener and Austin and myself. We wanted to participate, and we didn’t know the answer to the basic question that was posed for submission. Is it possible to use the agency of activism but without opposition? So can you do the right thing without making anyone else in the world wrong?
We thought, well, as artists, well, I don’t know. But we do know that if we’re going to find the answer, it’s probably going to be something that we’re overlooking that we’re not paying attention to. So the three of us set out and walked the neighborhood between our three houses in Los Angeles. We knew there was a lemon tree over here and loquats over there, and we started marking the trees. We learned that there were over 100 fruit trees in city spaces that were publicly accessible. And we researched the law and determined that in Los Angeles, it was not illegal to harvest or pick the fruit that hung over a fence or was planted in the public right of way—that there was no law actually about that.
So we wrote a text, we drew some maps, we took some funny pictures. Austin thought we should call it Fallen Fruit to quote the old Roman law and part of Leviticus that says not to take the fallen fruit from the edges of your field or vineyard, that you leave the fallen fruit for the stranger or the passerby.
That’s the origin story, but it actually emboldened us to think about how the public engages with each other in public space, and what is the righteousness of being part of the public? Is it the guest, or citizenship, or are you just there? And more than that, how does art perform within this realm? It set off to this trajectory that changed our lives. It’s incredible.
Talasek: Molly, I wonder if you could respond to that. I mean, what were some of the assumptions that impact the way that we think about food and food security and food systems? In your work, how does that manifest itself?
Jahn: Well, one of the assumptions or important things to know about contemporary Western worldview is that we’ve been profoundly affected by the European intellectual tradition that takes everything apart and imagines that we can take everything apart as a science, isolate this effect from that effect from this effect from that effect, and then roll it back up again into a detailed understanding of everything that matters. And art, I think, flies directly in the face of that kind of reductionist mechanical worldview.
As I was listening to our colleagues, I’m struck by the fact that they threw away the boundary between art as a representation of something and the physical something. Their work really celebrates that continuum between the representation of a thing and the physical thing, the tree and the thing that comes from the tree, the fruit and the taste and the bounty.
Young: I love what you’re saying, Molly, but isn’t it interesting too that in a time now with so many people just glued to their phones and Instagram, I think it’s very important to make art which is actually in real life. That was actually one of our original goals, was to sort of get people off their cell phones and out of their cars and to explore their own neighborhoods. I mean, our work has evolved over time because this is 2004, we’re starting this project. Now we think as much about creating parks as we do creating physical spaces to give people the experience of the sublime. We want people to sort enter into an artwork and gasp.
Jahn: Well, I was raised by a pretty traditional Midwest housewife who really hated being so confined, so she was very involved. I grew up outside of Detroit, and she was very involved in the Civil Rights Movement. And so for me, baked into everything I have done in my career is this awareness of the obvious recognition that these concerns in our society are not separate. They are us. They’re every one of us.
So, I have found, actually, fruit trees, same as you, have been this invitation to communities that have not benefited historically from professional science and the products that we create in agriculture and all of that. I’m really struck by two stories from the city of Milwaukee, one of the most segregated cities in the country, a city with many challenges and problems, but with some incredibly vibrant communities that have come together around horticulture and horticulture in general: gardens, fruit, and vegetables.
One is a neighborhood effort, another is a nonprofit that’s been really active in schools and in feeding school districts. And the one that’s closest to me was a high school that was terribly challenged, among a number of terribly challenged schools in a terribly challenged district. And so about 10 years ago, I began working there, and we’ve created Vincent High School of Agricultural Sciences. And one of the first manifestations of that was an orchard.
For students who had no concept of where food came from and very little concept of fresh food, this has been possibly the most meaningful thing I’ve done in my career. There are deep challenges. It’s right on the front, it’s very much on the front, but it has been such a joy to watch people 13, 14, 15 years old realize what is out there and what their relationship to it can be.
Young: I love that. It’s just amazing that you’re doing that, and it’s something so closely related to what we’ve been working on. I mean, especially when you’re working on an orchard that’s existing in a place like a school, that has its own challenges. I think I’d like to share how we think about planting fruit trees, because we think about the trees that we find that maybe just have been on the street for 20, 30, 40 years and it’s doing really well and it’s not taken care of.
It’s also interesting that a lot of cities haven’t allowed fruit trees to be planted in public spaces. One of the ways that we sort of side-stepped this and created community engagement was to have people adopt fruit trees and plant them next to the sidewalk. And then we map them on our endless orchard project, so that in a way we just ask individuals to care for a tree and then share it with community.
We consider this project to be ever expanding, sort of a contiguous orchard that can be everywhere. In that sense, we’ve sort of put the responsibility of care into the owners’ hands, getting that tree’s roots started for the first three to five years and then sharing. Such a beautiful and easy thing to do to make a difference.
Burns: What Austin’s bringing up is such an important topic that I’m curious about, also, Molly, which has to do with policy. I mean, one of the biggest issues that Austin and I embrace, I think is the best way to say it, is the opportunity to create edible resources in the public domain with civic leadership involved, with community leadership involved, with the public involved.
It’s a very interesting process. It’s always a little different, but to have the ability as artists to create public fruit parks and orchards and fruit trees as monuments has been an incredibly rewarding experience over the last 10 years. 10 years ago, we planted our first public fruit park in the state of California. And the way that we were able to do that was we were awarded the 1% for art artist project for a public park in the county of Los Angeles.
It took over a year of conversations that were very challenging about requesting and really insisting that living material can be art—that what is the difference between a piece of lumber which has been killed and kiln dried and processed and a tree that is not dead, that just happens to produce fruit. Can we have that conversation?
It invoked all kinds of policy questions and all kinds of righteousness questions and all kinds of safety issues. And in the end of the day, it’s very important because—Austin brings this up quite often—is that we really challenged this leadership and government to take a risk on trusting the public to make really great decisions together.
The park is still there today. It is vibrant, it is a landmark, and it has become an example to help change policy and attitudes in Southern California about what parks can do for people, how neighborhoods can perform themselves, and how government can get involved in a meaningful way in the everyday experience. I don’t know if you have thoughts about policy from the flip side, but we have boots on the ground stuff that gets us excited.
Talasek: I want to jump in there, David, and I love what you’re saying. In fact, it’s oftentimes we think about art as playing the role of communication. Especially within the science, we’re thinking about science communication, but your work is actually a platform for discussion, it’s a platform for change. And this ties in with what Molly was talking about of bringing the different components together. Molly, I’d love to hear your response to that.
Jahn: Well, I think this is a beautiful illustration of how systems work. By introducing art into this neighborhood, you’ve created a set of dynamics that spread out in lots of dimensions, some of which I would argue we probably don’t either have names for or don’t have good names for, and we certainly don’t know how to, quote, “measure.”
I was struck by that story because back in the day when I was breeding a lot of vegetables, the university I was working for at the time deemed our fields “attractive nuisances” because people wanted to come in and take stuff out, especially after we had finished with the fields. One of my colleagues here on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin went through the exercise to get permission to glean his fields, his breeding fields, after he’d harvested to donate that food to a food bank.
I see more and more of these sorts of victories over the kind of one-size-fits-all, linear, narrow-minded, quote “risk management,” but as it often has been in human history, art is what breaks some of those barriers as the pointy end of the spear.
About, I don’t know, five, six, seven years ago as I got more and more involved in the work I do today, which is not plant breeding, but it is more focused on risk in food systems, which by the way is massive, and COVID as well as the war Ukraine have shown us that. I began to realize the pretty profound limitations of my training as a scientist.
In 2016, I designed a course and began teaching a course called Systems Thinking. That course has certainly changed my life. I’m told by almost all the students who took it each year I taught it that it was the one course that put all their other courses together. It was an amazing thing for me to realize, that I could systematize people’s journey to systems thinking. It illuminates effects like the fruit park and the importance of not only looking for what it is we’re expecting, but to remain open, and this is a tentative systems thinking for what are sometimes called unintended consequences.
But you always in systems thinking look for what you expect and what you do not expect. You give both of those equal weight and you look for what is there, but you also look for what is actively not there. When one takes that view of the world, the world looks very different, whose voices are not there, whose actions are not in sight? Sometimes that impels a very different set of actions.
Burns: That’s so interesting. We have done this work for a long time, like you but in a different capacity, and a lot of our engagement is with civic and state, local leadership and public policy process, but also with community and community activism working often in collaboration with social services groups, or maybe it’s already an existing community garden, or perhaps it’s parks and rec, or a combination of all these things.
But what’s so interesting about this, the thing that we repeatedly run into is an understanding of what the role of public policy is. Most of the city ordinances that we are still under the umbrella of were created in the nineteenth century, and they’ve never been adjusted. It’s when cities incorporated between like 1830 and 1890, and they wrote a list of what the laws were going to be. And so the landscaping for cities are focused on ornamentals that mimic European fantasies. They really have nothing to do with us taking care of each other.
It’s just one of those things that I find so perplexing: that if you create a community garden and you have a fence, it seems like people are okay with what you do with that when it comes to a civic process. But if you don’t have the fence, they seem to get really stressed out about it.
Young: It’s always the same fears that any city will bring up. Matter of fact, we’re planting a fruit park as an artwork in Reno, Nevada the end of this year. And we just found out after three years of planning, the city came in and said they drew a line on the other side of the sidewalk on the property of where we’re planting this park and said, “No fruit trees are allowed in the city at Reno along the sidewalk,” which is so interesting because it’s really like the crux of our project. Then we realized quickly that we can plant fruit bearing bushes and other things there, but we had to move all of our trees like four feet, five feet from the sidewalk.
Burns: I just am curious if Molly has thoughts about these funny things like arcane laws and how these policies perform themselves. We as artists try to use art, as you described, as that tip of the sphere that can invoke a shift in thinking. I mean, that’s the goal of art: use aesthetics as a weapon and embrace the opportunity to collaborate as an action.
Jahn: Well, I think that kind of tension in a sense is a struggle. Isn’t that really the point? You’ve gone and found that boundary on purpose and launched your efforts right up against that barrier. And you have illustrated the contradictions, potentially even immorality of these rules that were made for a different time, different place, very different understanding of our obligations to each other, of the problems we face as a species, as a nation.
So I see art as poking at all of that space. That’s what art has done over and over again. It challenges in a way that science can follow—but science generally doesn’t play that role.
Talasek: I’d like to think about ending our conversation with thinking about solutions, but one thing as I’m listening to all three of you talk, is that this sort of systems thinking is very much the solution. It’s not so much that we have bullet points of we have to do this, this, and this, although I’m sure that all three of you have those thoughts.
But you’ve all talked about the importance of getting the various voices involved, everything from scientists to the people living in the community, and I think that’s really amazing, but I wonder if we could talk a little bit more about this as we end this conversation on steps forward. What are the solutions that you’re finding within these communities that you’re talking to, and what do you feel like are some of our biggest opportunities for change?
Jahn: I have two really quick but big deal things that are on my mind. I would like to see one of these public agricultural high schools in every major American school district, at least one. There’s been one in Chicago for almost 30 years. It’s tremendously successful. And yet even in Chicago, they haven’t been able to replicate that success. In our case in Milwaukee, with all the help we received from Chicago, it’s been two steps forward, one back, lots of drama and tension and challenge in that effort.
And then I’d love to see a systems thinking course in every high school or in every university. I realize formal education is, almost at its own hand, less and less important. But I have found building out what it is I mean by systems thinking. Actually, the course was so successful it became a required course for the sustainability certificate at my university. Shortly thereafter, the dean of my college literally canceled the course on five days notice, overenrolled. And it hasn’t been taught that way since. So I put it online.
Young: Oh wow.
Young: I cannot wait to go and check out this course. I’m really excited to learn about it. I would say for Dave and I and Fallen Fruit, it’s really interesting, I think we have a living project. Every time we do a new project, it’s often the same challenges repeated and then a whole new set of challenges and curve balls.
As artists, I think that I just love having the opportunity to be a part of that experience. I think the more places that we can bring our art, then it’s really just about educating that community about what is possible in public spaces.
Burns: Yeah. The thing that’s happening for us in the past 10 years is no accident. It’s a paradigm shift in the way people think a neighborhood can behave and perform itself. And it comes in two different realms. One is the civic leadership and the policies, which sometimes have to be circumnavigated with variances, or they get to kind of sneak through with special approvals as an artwork or something like this.
But how profound would it be if a city robustly took on a responsibility that a percentage of landscaping in public buildings had to be edible or medicinal? What would happen? And then what would happen if that one city became an example for other cities to understand that the risk management is a fear that’s not real, that this is just an obstruction of privilege? I mean, that we as artists and as scientists and as community leaders can show by example that celebrating the successes is something that many places can do.
It isn’t a silo in one special city. It is something with effort that we can learn from each other and create, in our own ways, new community resources and a new model of educating people about their relationship to food and the people around them, which I think is the key that we’re all kind of talking about.
In the end of the day, we’re all connected through ritual and culture and family and history, and that our commitment to food does not need to be moderated through corporate culture, transnational relations where our apples come from Chile, and a grocery store where apples are $2 to $3 a pound. Perhaps it is about walking around the corner and picking three or four as you go to your friend’s house.
Talasek: Well, that could be just a wonderful place to end this conversation. So much to think about and to digest. I just really want to thank the three of you, Molly, David, and Austin, for sharing your insights and your time with us today. Thank you for being here.
Burns: Thank you so much.
Jahn: And thanks for bringing us together. It was delightful.
Young: Yeah. Thanks J.D.
Talasek: Thank you to our listeners. To see David and Austin’s incredible visual art, visit fallenfruit.org. You can find more information and participate in the largest public orchard in the world by visiting endlessorchard.com. Find Molly’s work and take her systems thinking courses for free by visiting jahnresearchgroup.net. That’s J-A-H-N research group dot net. Find these links and more in our show notes.
Subscribe to The Ongoing Transformation wherever you get your podcasts. Email us at [email protected] with any comments or suggestions. And if you enjoy conversations like this one, visit us at issues.org and subscribe to our magazine. I’m J.D. Talasek, director of Cultural Programs at the National Academy of Sciences. Thank you for joining us.