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The One Thing Oprah Isn’t an Expert On (and 7 Pieces of Advice We Would Give Her)

You’ve probably seen the cover of the June issue of O Magazine: Oprah is knee-deep in kale with her health guru Bob Greene. They’re sporting matching gingham shirts, cargo pants and thousand-watt smiles at their new vegetable farm in Maui, Hawaii.

Oprah's new farm

Now, we love Oprah. And we obviously love food gardens. And we love that Oprah is building buzz for the grow-your-own movement. And we almost always love O Magazine (full disclosure: Amanda has written for O in the past). But even though Oprah’s cover article has lyrical moments (like when Oprah describes working as a child with her grandmother in the Mississippi vegetable garden that fed their family) and some laugh-out-loud moments (like when she dubs her giant fuschia radishes “baboon-butt radishes”), it also has some glaring blind spots.

The story — and Oprah’s Hawaiian-farm endeavor more broadly—reflects a narrow view of local homegrown foods, and at times lacks both the pragmatism and the vision that Oprah is known and loved for.

So, here are seven pieces of advice we have for the ultimate advice-giver:

  • Grow Closer to Home 1 of 7
    Grow Closer to Home

    Let's start with the fact that the farm is in Maui, Hawaii — that's just over 2,500 miles from Oprah's home in Montecito, California. Her private jet produces more than 5000 pounds of CO2 per hour of air travel, which translates to tens of thousands of pounds of CO2 for a trip to Maui — a big planetary price to pay to get to your personal lettuce patch.

    Oprah certainly deserves a private jet and a vacation home — or three — in paradise, with a sprawling staff-tended vegetable garden. But most of her readers don't have second homes, and their only access to paradise is via screen savers. A story about a far-flung food garden doesn't quite communicate the benefits of backyard farming, which is, at its best, low-carbon, low-cost, and truly close to home.

  • Get Dirty 2 of 7
    Get Dirty

    Not one of the 12 pictures of Oprah's farm shows her touching or even kneeling in the dirt. (There are four pictures of gorgeous vegetables held by dirt-caked hands, but they're not her hands.) Oprah, the queen of feel-good, might be happy to know that soil actually acts as a serotonin booster, and has a neurochemical impact on the brain that is a natural antidepressant. Read: Soil is the New Prozac…and Nine Other Reasons To Grow Your Own Food.

  • Lose the $245 Straw Hat 3 of 7
    Lose the $245 Sun Hat!

    One of the great attributes of backyard farming is that it does not call for expensive accessories. (Amanda typically tends her 8x12 mini-farm in her pajamas.) This NPR blog post notes that the $245 straw hat by Anne Moore which Oprah wore in her Hawaiian-farm photo shoot might have been a little excessive, and quotes Kansas City urban farmer Katherine Kelly saying, "I try to keep my outfits to under $15 when I'm out in the field." Our gardening outfits tend to exceed $15, but not by much. (Jeanne swears by Sunday Afternoons hats, which average about $35 a pop.)

  • Paradise Not Necessary! 4 of 7
    Paradise Not Necessary!

    Oprah relishes the optimal food-growing conditions on Maui — where the soil is so rich and the sun and rain are so copious that, "we can grow tomatoes all year long, and they taste like real tomatoes."  Lest readers think that DIY farmers need such conditions to grow food, we want to emphasize that there are lots of ways to grow tomatoes year-round. Pictured here are Earl and Clarisse Snell, of Skipperville, Alabama, growing tomatoes in a hoop house in December. 

  • Start a Food Bank or a Farmer-Training Program 5 of 7
    Start a Food Bank or a Farmer-Training Program

    There's an awkward moment in Oprah's Hawaiian farm story when she confesses that she hasn't decided what to do with the 145-pounds-per-week of vegetables that are growing on her farm: "We're still figuring out the best way to make use of our bounty, but for now I walk down the road with bags of lettuce, going, 'Hi, would you like some lettuce? I grew it!' I feel like I can't waste it." Random goodie-bags of lettuce? There's gotta be a better strategy. Why not set up a fresh-food bank for local Mauians in need?

    Oprah and Bob eventually plan to expand the farm to 16 acres, in hopes of helping the island of Maui (which imports 90 percent of its food) become more agriculturally self-sufficient. It's a great idea that could offset CO2 and create jobs. They might consider creating a farmer-training program for Mauians that empowers them to grow a food supply in their own backyards.

  • Go Urban 6 of 7
    Go Urban

    We love Oprah's infectious enthusiasm for farming, and we're excited that she's excited. One last idea: We hope she'll extend her enthusiasm beyond Maui into the urban communities she's a part of in LA and her longtime home of Chicago. The urban farming movement is taking hold in every major American city, providing healthy, nutritious food to communities in need and creating jobs where they are needed most.

  • "(If We May Be So Bold…) Read This Book!" 7 of 7
    (If We May Be So Bold…) Read This Book!

    One of the best lines in Oprah's story comes in the last paragraph: "I've come to see the process of growing things as a metaphor for living. In life, as on a farm or in a garden, we get out of it what we put into it."

    We couldn't agree more. This statement is the very essence of Jeanne's forthcoming book, "From The Ground Up: A Food-Grower's Education in Life, Love, and the Movement That's Changing the Nation" (Random House: Spiegel & Grau), which will be released July 16. It tells the parallel stories of Jeanne's incredible life journey, and the rise of the sustainable food movement.

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