New Appointment: White House Farmer? [updated]

Leaders of the new food culture say rip up the South Lawn and plant a vegetable garden. Is this the beginning of the recessionary Victory Garden?

Update: Hours after we posted this item yesterday about foodies lobbying for a White House vegetable garden, Michelle Obama announced that the the White House would comply. She is scheduled to sink a shovel into soil near the South Lawn fountain later today in preparation for a 1,100-square-foot vegetable garden, the first at the White House since World War II. It’s a symbolically important gain for advocates of local food consumption and organic produce. Washington fifth graders will tend the garden, the First Lady said, along with every member of her family, including the president. It’s not yet known if she will appoint a Farmer-in-Chief. If she does, we nominate Fritz Haeg, a designer and environmental activist whom we discuss below.


I have a message for Michelle Obama: Fritz Haeg is standing by with trowel in hand.

On Sunday, Alice Waters, the co-owner of Chez Panisse and a force behind the Slow Food movement, told Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes that she has petitioned the Obamas and their predecessors to plant a vegetable garden on the White House grounds. “I have been talking non-stop about the symbolism of an edible landscape at the White House,” Waters said. “I think it says everything about stewardship of the land and about the nourishment of a nation.”

The idea is gaining momentum. In October Michael Pollan wrote an open letter in The New York Times magazine urging the appointment of a White House farmer to transform “five prime south-facing acres of the White House lawn and plant in their place an organic fruit and vegetable garden” whose produce would be prepared by the White House chef and given to local food banks. In November a website was launched to lobby for a White House farmer.

White House Garden

It’s hard to picture a compost pile on the South Lawn, but it may not be far fetched given the First Lady’s emphasis on food safety. If it does happen, I hope the Obamas appoint Fritz Haeg Farmer-in-Chief. Over the last four years Fritz has conducted a project called Edible Estates in which he persuades a series of suburban families to rip up their lawns and replace them with fruit and vegetable plantings. The eighth Edible Estate will be planted this spring at a housing project in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.

In equal measure arty intervention and radical landscape design, Fritz challenges our assumption that manicured lawns are beautiful and subsistence gardens are ugly. Of course it’s a provocation–the neighbors’ reaction is part of the fun. But Edible Estates is also a way of advocating for transparency in consumer habits: in the Edible Estates, everything is on view.


So how would Fritz transform the White House grounds? For starters he would make the 18 acres of the south lawn if not entirely wild then at least “a lot looser.” Because Edible Estates is founded on the notion that the gardeners themselves consume the produce, he might put aside plots for the White House staff, and the first family. “I’d like to see photos of Sasha and Malia out there weeding on the weekend,” he told me this week. “I think that would be a lovely thing.”


Is squash and rhubarb fattening on the world’s most famous lawn this generation’s version of Jackie Kennedy’s famous redecorating? Dream House, a book by Ulysses Grant Dietz and Sam Watters to be published in September, charts how the White House reflects the preoccupations of the time. George Washington used it as a country estate. For Teddy Roosevelt it was a mansion in the style of the robber barons. At the onset of suburbia, Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower barbequed on the roof of the south portico. So it’s entirely fitting that the White House expresses subsistence and sustainability since they may be the defining issues of our culture.