Thursday, December 31, 2009

One year ago

It's a cool, clear evening here in San Francisco on the eve of 2010. Rather than dancing at a salsa club or passing the wine at a dinner party in this most vibrant of cities, I'm in flannel pjs at my friend Erica's apartment and in a particularly pensive mood. Over a steaming mug of herbal tea, I find myself reflecting on the night in early January, just shy of a year ago, when I returned from a visit to Burlington, where I'd spent a few days with friends ringing in the new year. It was the night I told my parents and my uncle Clarence about this project. (It was still in the early stages: Becky and I had come up with the general farming-cycling-writing scheme at her dinner table one night in Montreal, but Meghan had not yet coined "a bikeable feast.") Mom was excited; dad looked like he had just been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Why, he asked, was I choosing this path? I had gone to graduate school for literature. I had gone back for a second graduate degree in education. I had worked in the nonprofit sector for years on child and maternal health issues. What about teaching? Global health? Writing? So, okay, making the world a better place through food: couldn't I just work at a soup kitchen and stay in the DC area? Now I was going to be a nomadic farmer? No, daaaad -- I was suddenly 15 again -- I want to learn about how to grow food in a way that's healthy for me, for all of us, for the planet. You know? Me? Food? How I can't stop thinking about it and reading about it and talking about it? Ever?? (Remember Thanksgiving dinner?)

While certainly a shift from my previous professional endeavors, the move was not entirely out of the blue. And I was not completely without skills or experience. I had come in contact with farm equipment before: I'd learned to drive a tractor while on a wetland restoration project during my time in AmeriCorps, I recounted. I knew a bit about plants: I planted trees during my national service work, too, and in the process learned to distinguish between bays (related to the leaves I use in soups and stews) and maples (mmm, maple syrup) and poison ivy (in its very different, more potent vine form, while I was doing a Tarzan impression... and here I'd been told all my life to keep an eye out for "three shiny leaves" and thought I was safe). I actually kind of like yard work and am not too shabby with the pruning shears, I pointed out. (But keep the chain saws at a distance, they make me nervous.) I could grow things: I had successfully started seeds for various windowsill and balcony gardens and managed to keep most houseplants alive. I knew a bit about sustainable agriculture: I had worked for a global sustainable crop program in Mexico for more than a year (though it was, admittedly, for the communications department; the only crops I saw were in the field I jogged around while training for a marathon... and it was a small field, so I saw the same few stalks many, many times). True, the actual farming was relatively new to me: my first formal experience was less than a year before Ollie and I hit the road, when, while backpacking through Latin America for a few months, I volunteered for a week at an amazing sustainable working farm up in the mountains of Costa Rica. (Incidentally, it was at this very farm where I met my friend Erica, on whose laptop I am now typing.) It's not a degree in agricultural science, I suggested, but it's a start. I already knew how to cook and how to write, though I'd been more focused on the former than the latter in recent years. Eh? Eh?

But why on a bike?? Dad was perplexed. (Anyone who has uttered the word "bicycle" around me in the past twenty-five years would have noted the look of panic that invariably appeared on my face. Dad knew this.) Because bikes aren't dependent on petroleum or coal or even electricity or ethanol. Because part of my project is about finding sustainable solutions. Because the maintenance cost is relatively low and I have limited funds at my disposal. Because it's a different way to see my country. Because I want to live at a different pace. Because it's time to get over my fear of bikes. Just because. (Is the offspring allowed to say that to her parent? The floor did not open and swallow me up, so I have to guess "yes.") I want to work with folks to help grow healthy food in different parts of the country, I insisted, and I want to bike to get there.

Because I can. Few people have the luxury of the kind of time, energy, and relative lack of commitments that I do (so long as someone takes my houseplants -- thanks, Jeanne!). I have grown up with a loving family, been well fed, and gotten a good education (the federal loans for which I'm hoping to pay off by the time I am 80). I have an amazingly supportive network of friends. I am lucky, I know that. I am not a trust fund baby, either, and I know that, too. There would be challenges, I admitted, but I was choosing this path because I felt, deep down, that it was the way I could best learn: by seeing, by listening, by doing. I was (and still am) willing -- even hoping -- to work. Dig holes. Weed. Shovel compost. Milk goats. Haul around large bales of hay. Walk through tall grass to find wild mushrooms in spite of my deathly fear of snakes and ticks. (Let's see, that brings the list of neuroses up to: biking down steep hills, skiing, jellyfish, chainsaws, exploding camp stoves, tripping while walking down the sidewalk and gouging my eye out on a fence spike, scorpions, snakes, and ticks. Yep, that about does it.)

Once it was established that I was really going through with the project, there continued to be a lot of questions. There was a lot to work out, logistically speaking. (Heck, there still is. I've got half the country left to navigate on my way back home.) I started planning like a madwoman, but somehow, even then at the beginning, felt that when all was said and done and I'd planned-planned-planned, in the end the success of the project would come down to determination, faith that everything was going to work out, and the kindness and patience and openness of my countrymen. And I'm not just talking about the farmers. This journey was meant to be as much about food as about connecting with each other. Talking. Listening. Thinking. Sharing. Helping. I wanted to be a part of this peaceful revolution, working with those committed to fostering more equitable and sustained access to healthy food. I can do this, I insisted. And, slowly, my parents began to believe I could, too. Sure, they still worry from time to time -- if they didn't at all, I'd think they didn't love me (I mean, for crying out loud, I'm traveling around the country by myself on a bicycle, what parent wouldn't worry?) -- but the fear is tempered by excitement. I'm excited, too, even now, nearly 12 months after I left my job to devote myself to learning about sustainable food. One year in and I still look forward to each new farm, each town, and each chance to learn and help. (For the record, I still dread some of the hills, cold nights of camping, and the impending date with scorpions on my way through the southwest in coming months.)

Here's to an equally fulfilling 2010!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

All I want for Christmas

Christmas will mark 8 months on the road for Ollie and I. That means it's been 8 months since I saw my parents or my brother! Sure, we talk on the phone (when it's working, ahem), but there's nothing quite like an in-person hug or time in the kitchen together. And of course it's always interesting to hear how I've changed. (I'm still a bit mortified recalling the Christmas I came home to visit after a college semester in Italy only to be greeted by my dad's "You've put on some weight... No, no, it's a good thing." I blame the Nutella I had for breakfast every morning. And the fresh pasta and mozzerella. And bakeries lining the walk between the campus and downtown Rome. Anyway, my family is nothing if not frank.)

My parents have asked me countless times in recent weeks if there's anything I'd like for Christmas, or something I need for them to bring from home when they fly out to meet me. It's been 8 months since I slept in my own bed, made myself a coffee with my espresso maker, or watched a Netflix movie in my queue, and while I miss these things from time to time, being on the road for so long has made me even less attached to "stuff" than before. Don't get me wrong, I still treasure my load of cooking gadgets -- I hope the juicer, the wok, the cuisinart, the pasta machine, the cheese-making kit, the brewing carboys are all being used in my absence -- and the boxes of books in storage. There will doubtless be a happy reunion with these things when I return to DC this summer. But as I have continued to pare down the supply of "things I need" as I haul the necessities around the country (which, collectively, are shockingly heavy even so), I find that there isn't much I lack. A new book from time to time, perhaps a map or some long underwear or a battery for my headlamp. I got Ollie a new set of front brake pads for Christmas: after a week off and a few plates of cookies under my belt, I want to be sure we at least are able to stop quickly when needed on the legendary switchbacked San Francisco hills.

As for me, now that I've been lucky enough not to die from a random bacterial infection in my thumb, I've not much to ask for. All I want for Christmas is a hug. And maybe a plot in my parents' yard to grow some heirloom veggies when I return, to supplement the tiny plot Shelly and I set up behind our place in the city. (Start digging up the back lawn, dad.) And, okay, maybe for my upcoming birthday I might not refuse a copy of Nourishing Traditions and a food dehydrator for when I get back home. (I'm totally hooked on drying fruit after the persimmon session at Jessica's last week and a dehydrator would round out my collection of odd culinary implements nicely.)

Happy holidays, faithful readers!

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Be the change you wish to see

I'd first heard about the Noyo Food Forest at the food security conference in Des Moines this past October, but I didn't manage to chase down the NFF folks in the midst of the hundreds of people I encountered while I was volunteering there. As it happened that Ollie and I would be passing right through the NFF headquarters on our way down the California coast, however, I realized I would have a second chance. I was excited for an opportunity to meet with the grass roots gardeners and community activists so I got in touch with the program's founder, Susan, who warmly invited me to check out the program. A few weeks later I found myself staying at the Grey Whale Inn -- a beautiful bed & breakfast in Fort Bragg and site of one of the Noyo Food Forest edible gardens. (Thank *you*, Katrina, for setting me up at officially the nicest place I've stayed along the way. Though there have been some comfy futons.) The innkeeper, Michael, and I feasted on local duck and a load of fresh veggies from the garden my first night there, and after an amazing raw food meal at a restaurant run by a Mormon Korean lady across town my second night, I was surprised with some of the best food of the trip. For a sleepy little town, Ft. Bragg could be a destination in itself. But back to the reason I came to visit....

The Noyo Food Forest was started a few years ago by a small group of dynamic women who had looked around themselves and been frustrated by a general lack of access to fresh local food while unused green spaces abounded. (It's not that there was nothing, but there wasn't much: a modest food co-op, one CSA, one small school garden.) Further, the decline of industry in this former mill town meant that many folks were disconnected from each other and the land. Morale was low in this isolated area. Taking Gandhi's mantra to heart, these gardening activists became the change they wished to see in the world: they began to build community gardens.

The first was the Learning Garden, which cultivates a plot of land behind the local public high school, utilizes buildings donated by the Mendocino County Office of Education, and is run by a small crew of devoted garden educators on the shoestring budget Susan cobbles together from sales and donations each year. Winding down its third growing season -- I learned from Sakina, the garden coordinator, as she showed me around -- the space has grown considerably from its humble beginnings, slowly expanding each year. It offers learning opportunities for adolescents and adults, supplies fresh produce to the school cafeteria and the farmers' market, and has been a point of pride for a number of high schoolers in the gardening class -- a well-attended elective -- who nurture the green oasis.

From the high school, Katrina, Susan, and I zipped over to the Head Start garden, where lunch and snacks are grown for the low-income-based preschool education program and an NFF staffmember runs weekly activities for youngsters and their parents. (Unfortunately, the timing of my visit didn't coincide with a lesson, but it sounds like a great program from what I can tell. Incidentally, improving child nutrition continues to be one of the strongest elements of Head Start programs across the country. It seems fitting that the tots and their parents learn how to grow and eat fresh, healthy veggies here.) Next it was over to the Come-Unity Garden, where we checked out 11 community plots and nibbled on apples as we admired the orchard under development. Then, after a brief walk around the town's only CSA (not an NFF project, but, really, it's all connected on some level and it was pretty impressive), we hotfooted it back to the Learning Garden to harvest fresh veggies and make a big salad for lunch. I needed my energy for the talk I was giving to the high school gardeners at 2pm.... They were a nice bunch, and asked lots of questions (mostly about the biking, though the adults sitting in prompted more questions about the farming and sustainable food pieces of my project).

Something that really impressed me during my time learning about the Noyo Food Forest was its amazing success with partnerships. This is partly because the need for pooled resources (money and land) brings NFF to the table with local groups -- schools, the Head Start program, the senior center (which I didn't have a chance to see), the Grey Whale Inn, Thanksgiving Coffee (site of the Come-Unity garden) -- but it is also because there are natural connections between gardening and so many aspects of community development. The gardens are sowing seeds of hope and awareness in Ft. Bragg: during one of our cooking sessions in the Inn's kitchen, Michael described the building of the garden at the Grey Whale as transformative, how neighbors had begun to stop by and admire the garden, complimenting the innkeeper -- who, until the garden, felt that he was considered an outsider here -- on its progress. He admitted to experiencing a quiet joy when immersing himself in the green space from time to time, sometimes incorporating the garden goodies into the Inn's offerings.

The Noyo Food Forest is working to empower folks to feed themselves, but the gardens are, in the process, fostering healthy communities as well. And not just here in Ft. Bragg. They have links to groups in places as nearby as Willits (30 hilly miles east) and as far away as Kenya (where a sister garden was started). It's the kind of program that could be replicated in many other places, adapted for different communities while maintaining its core philosophy. Gandhi would be proud.

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Friday, December 18, 2009

Due to budget cuts, the outdoors has been closed

As Ollie and I made our way across the midwest and are now more than half way down the west coast, we've continued to brainstorm new license plate slogans for each state we've gone through. (Hey, I need to keep my mind sharp, especially since the mp3 player bit the dust a couple weeks ago and I'm doing everything in my power to drive the gas stations' Christmas muzak out of my head. It's brutal, I tell you.) Here's what we've come up with since the last round in Ohio....

Indiana: Make the wind stop

Illinois: Home of Chicago's cycling mayor

Wisconsin: We brake for cows
(April's license plate is a close second, though, especially considering Growing Power's headquarters in Milwaukee.)

Iowa: #2 in wind

Minnesota: Our bike paths are great so long as you don't ride on them at night

Washington: The horizontal rain state

Oregon: Best bike touring state ever

California: Due to budget cuts, the outdoors has been closed
(Or should it be "the outdoors *have* been closed"? Shoot. And I used to teach English, too. Embarrassing.)

I really do hope the campsite situation improves soon. This closing of most all state campgrounds in California -- except, of course, for the ones with 50-cent showers and no way to make change to utilize said showers -- is putting a bit of a kink in my plans. Luckily I only have a couple more camping nights over the next week before visits with family and friends around Christmas.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

From the ground up

Eddie's worked on organic farms for many years. He's a darn good farmer (and a good cook, which always wins brownie points in my book) and I am indebted to my friend April for putting us in touch: I learned a lot working with him last week. He's a thoughtful observer, a meticulous record-keeper, and has a reputation for being a tireless worker. As I worked (and cooked) alongside Eddie for a few days on my way through northwestern California, I came to understand that for this inspired (and inspiring) grower, urban farming is as much about building community as it is providing fresh, healthy food to that community.

Prior to starting his own operation, Eddie had managed the nearby POTAWOT organic farm -- a local garden that provides fresh fruits and veggies to the Native American health clinic in Arcata. (Yes, a program directly linking healthcare and healthy food -- what a concept. Are you listening, Senators?) One morning when the ground was too frozen to harvest, and after we'd weeded the greenhouses, Eddie suggested that Ollie and I cycle over to check out the garden, health center, and hiking trails on the POTAWOT property. We did and I must say that it was pretty rad. Over the years, Eddie has continued to be an active member of the Arcata community and has fostered longstanding relationships with many in the small college town. So much so that when he decided to start his own farm, many of his CSA members were referred from the waiting list of another CSA farmer friend in town. (Farmers as collaborators rather than competitors -- not quite the conventional model, is it?)

When he started Deep Seeded Community Farm a year ago, Eddie explained, he could have found land further out of town for less money, an existing farm with developed soil and structures in place. But the most important element of the year-round CSA was for it to be accessible to its members -- who live and work in town -- so he's built it right in the thick of things, starting quite literally from the ground up. To Eddie, it is critical for families and friends to be able to connect with their food and each other. On CSA pickup days, Eddie chats easily with each of the 93 winter share members and their kiddos, exchanging recipe ideas, getting feedback on the quantity and variety of veggies, commenting on the unusually cold weather. They come by the urban farm each week to pick up their produce, sometimes also cutting fresh flowers in the spring or picking juicy strawberries in the summer. I overheard a few folks commenting on how they had finally gotten the hang of planning meals around the weekly boxes to use up all the produce, how they enjoyed the freshness and flavor of the new varieties available each week, and how glad they are that Eddie decided to offer a winter share (which, incidentally, was oversubscribed, but the farmer managed to produce enough to accommodate a few more people, as was the case with the popular regular season shares.) The farm and the food had become a part of their weekly routine.

I must say that the work itself seemed more manageable than some farms I've been to -- more sustainable in terms of human energy. At the end of the day, I was tired but not wiped out. Granted, it is the beginning of winter, so things slow down on farms everywhere. Eddie also confessed that he needed to maybe tone down the intensity a little in the farm's second year, that he'd put in ridiculous time and energy up until now. (I'm no slouch, but I was glad not to be banging on the frozen ground and sloshing around in rain as I had done at other farms prior to this one.) Still, he and the others I met while there seemed content and proud of their work. I enjoyed my time with the farmer and his part-time staff -- Jess, Scott, Rachel, and Will -- as we weeded, harvested, and washed produce. They were thoughtful and engaging conversationalists, passionate about food, energetic. At least two of them spoke of having their own farms in the not-too-distant future, I learned as we dug up carrots and snapped leaves of chard for the CSA. (Seriously, Will, I am going to look you up on my way through Mississippi.) During the slower cold months, in addition to evaluating the year's production and planning for the spring planting, Eddie is tinkering with the internship requirements for next season -- field work paired with an hour-long weekly seminar on a variety of topics. There is a lot of interest in local, sustainable food in Arcata, I would say (and not only because of the well-established and impressively stocked local co-op). The demand is here, the groundwork is being laid... Eddie is not only growing good food and a community of conscientious eaters. He's also helping to cultivate new farmers. Right on.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Let them eat kale!

I first heard of "massaged kale" from Marco's wife as we were making dinner together on my way through Olympia, WA. I was intrigued as much by the name -- good lord, after all of the biking I've been doing these days, the word "massage" evokes a whimsical sigh before I can stop myself (over 7 months and not so much as a footrub from any of the woodland creatures I've chatted with) -- as by the idea of eating raw kale. By the time I arrived at Yochi's house in Eugene, OR, I'd been thinking about massaged kale, which I'd yet to try out, for a solid week. Fortuitously, Yochi's CSA share the previous week left him with a rather sizeable bunch of kale and a pile of onions. I rummaged around my miscellaneous food stash to locate some dried cranberries, an apple, and raw almonds. A quick internet search and bit of tinkering later, our Thanksgiving meal had a novel addition, and it only got more flavorful by the next day. I give you...
"Let Them Eat Kale" Salad
(Serves 4-6 as a side dish)
Wash, remove the tough stalks from, and chop one large bunch of fresh, organic kale.
Put chopped kale into a large bowl and add a spoonful of salt. (Try between 1 tsp and 1 TBSP -- honestly, it depends on how much kale, what variety, and how tough it is.)
Toast a handful of nuts (almonds worked best, but sunflower seeds weren't bad, either) in a dry pan on the stove or on a cookie sheet in the oven for about 5 minutes. Cool, chop, and set aside.
Meanwhile, massage salt into the kale with your hands for about 5 minutes, until the kale is about 1/2 to 1/3 its original bulk and darker in color. (Don't be shy, get right in there with your knuckles. Like a good back rub. Ahhh, a back rub. Oh. Sorry.)
Add in:
• 1/2 small onion or 1 shallot, thinly sliced
• 1 apple, cored and thinly sliced
• 1 or 2 TBSP apple cider (or balsamic) vinegar
• a handful of dried cranberries (I think raisins or chopped apricots would work) or 2 sliced, ripe persimmons
• 1 TBSP olive oil
• freshly ground black pepper
• the chopped, toasted nuts
• 1/4 cup chevre or other soft, mild goat cheese (you can omit this to make it vegan, but it's darn tasty)
Stir everything together, serve, and enjoy!
I'm telling you, by the second or third day in the fridge, it's even better. (Yochi, back me up here.) I've made it three times already, including tonight with the mix of 3 kale varieties we harvested at Deep Seeded Community Farm earlier today. I know what I'm having for breakfast #1 tomorrow....

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Monday, December 7, 2009

In training

Last week at Lost Creek Farm, as we were cramming freezing cold hoophouse poles into the muddy ground and shivering in the morning fog, David made a passing comment about how bike touring was good training for farming. (Okay, he's way tougher than I am, he probably wasn't shivering. Meanwhile I thought my hands and feet might never thaw and I tried to control my chattering teeth while he spoke.) As a true farmer, he pointed out, you need to be able to withstand all kinds of challenges: extreme weather, hunger, fatigue. Just like biking, which he'd done a fair bit of himself. I've been chewing on that idea for the past few days as I've faced some of the most intense biking to date.

I see his point, but I think the parallel goes much further (as good metaphors often do). Long-distance cycling has pushed me farther than I thought I could go -- I mean, heck, my first ride was down the hall of Ben's apartment building and then I took the bus home, and now I'm nearly 3000 miles along! I've had many run ins with hunger, exhaustion, and less than ideal weather. Farming takes a heck of a lot of mental and physical strength and, to a degree, a denial of pain to push through the tough parts. I certainly am physically stronger than I was when I started. I know this for a fact because I didn't walk any of today's many long hills, including the 3.5-miler (who designs a 3.5-mile long uphill road??) and a few other substantial inclines along the 50-mile stretch. (Remember the days of the 0.8 mile high club? Ha!) Highway 101 does not kid around on the hills. So I'm stronger, maybe I will be less worn out baling hay or hauling bushels of carrots than before.

Farming is also about noticing things. The weather. How things grow. Pollinators. Pests. Sensing if something needs attention. Listening. To things like the thumping sound of a rear tire for the two or three seconds before it explodes as you're flying down the first big downhill stretch of the day. And being able to fix things when they break down. (Flat #8 of the trip is immortalized in the photo above.) I find myself noticing other things, too. Birds, wild onions, constellations. There's a quietness of mind needed, I think, to truly observe and listen, to be a good farmer. And the same is true of cycling.

A lot of people have asked me if I see myself on my own farm some day. Maybe. Frankly, I don't know if I'm tough enough. I've woken up with frost on my tent and frozen toes for the past three mornings and whimpered. I made my first phone call -- to my parents -- this morning from inside the sleeping bag. (It was so cold when I even poked my nose out that I snuggled back in for another half hour before I could work up the hutzpah to haul myself out into the frigid morning.) Tonight, with a forecast for freezing rain and 2 more days of serious biking until the next farm, I decided to dip into the slush fund and get myself a motel room (#6 of the trip). Would a real farmer do that?

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Thursday, December 3, 2009

How are we going to feed ourselves?

Farming is hard work. Seriously, I'm exhausted. I spent Monday and Tuesday working at Lost Creek Farm, an organic produce operation in central Oregon. (Technically, it was within the Eugene city limits, but it seemed awfully rural -- and hilly -- when Ollie and I biked the 12 miles back to town from the farm.) As we labored -- harvesting, washing veggies, packing boxes, constructing a hoop house (a temporary greenhouse), pouring concrete for a permanent greenhouse foundation -- I had an opportunity to rant...I mean talk...with David and his team about the challenges of organic food production.

Lost Creek is one of the larger CSAs that I've been to, and yet it is run by a skeleton crew of David and two helpers (two fellow AmeriCorps alums, actually, so we had much in common and much to rant...I mean talk...about). The diversified farm has over 60 varieties of fruits and vegetables that it offers CSA members, small grocers, and local restaurants, and I learned from David that the region is considered by many to be one of the most productive in the country in terms of food. And yet, considering the consumption habits of the vast majority of Americans, there is a good deal of concern about whether this kind of farming (aka organic) on this kind of scale (still much smaller than pretty much any conventional farm) can actually feed our country. "It's not likely," David grumbled. The problem, aside from the skewed government crop subsidy system (don't get me started again), and a general pattern of undervaluing both food and farmers in this country (again, I'm restraining myself), David pointed out that the biggest problem is that there are simply not enough people *growing* the food in comparison to those (over)consuming it. We need to eat differently and eat less (especially less resource-draining meat). And where possible, we can do a better job of providing for ourselves. Yes, gardening.

I recall learning during my time at the Strawbery Banke Museum -- on my way through Portsmouth in July -- that during WWII something like 40% of all produce consumed in the country was grown in Victory Gardens. Yes, in people's front yards, school gardens, formerly empty lots. Forty percent! And now? Hardly anyone knows what brussels sprouts look like on the plant, or when strawberries are actually in season, nevermind how to save tomato seeds or when to start lettuce outdoors. "Food" comes prepackaged in gargantuan portion sizes from Costco and Walmart, ready to be "cooked" in the microwave. And then there's fast "food." Ugh. As a society, we've managed to sever just about every substantial connection to our food: how to grow it, cook it, enjoy it. But there's hope.

As a former classroom teacher, of course I believe that the paradigm shift that needs to happen for our food system to recover comes down to education. Understanding the difference between good food and crappy pseudo-food (what Michael Pollan terms "foodlike substances") is key. Some knowledge of what goes into producing food will go a long way toward understanding why good food costs more. For as hard as it is to grow and harvest organic carrots, they should be $10 a bag -- those suckers use up a lot of water and they are heavy to haul around the field in bushel crates! They should cost more, but not so much more in dollars than their chemically-dependent conventional sister carrots: there wouldn't be such an atrocious price difference between conventional/processed foods and organics if the *true* costs of food were taken into account -- in terms of labor requirements, environmental and personal health impact, and in the case of CAFO meat production excessive animal suffering. It would help if the government subsidies that I am trying not to harp on in this post were more conscientiously distributed. (Oops, I slipped.)

Still another part of the worldview shift will necessitate respecting the challenging nature of thoughtful, low-impact farming, not viewing food production as a mindless job that merely requires enough brute force, petroleum guzzling machinery, and a bunch of chemicals. (Some serious physical strength is needed, though. Whew!) I'll tell you, farmers, like teachers, work their tails off. To be truly great at either takes a special combination of talent and a lot of hard work. And while we all realize on some level that we need food (and critical thinking skills) to survive, we don't really value the people who feed us (or those who teach us). If we did, more people would *want* to be farmers (and teachers). And the work would pay better. These would actually be considered professions rather than just jobs that anyone can do. These days I feel like there is a perception that the work in either field is something left to those not smart or ambitious enough to do something better. It's no wonder most people want their kids to grow up and be doctors, lawyers, engineers, politicians. (There are some pretty idiotic politicians who have held office in recent years. If I have a kid one day, I hope my child grows up to be an organic farmer, or at least an avid gardener.)

How, then, can we begin to change the system? Seek out your local, organic farmers and buy directly from them as much as possible. Failing that, seek out small co-ops and markets who source from these farmers. While you support the important petitions of advocacy groups like Food Democracy Now to effect change at the policy level, don't forget to think about where you are personally spending your food dollars: you choose three times a day the food systems you support. (Unless you're biking across the country, in which case you choose about five times a day. What? I get hungry.) As Pollan would say, "We vote with our forks." Actually, while I'm at it, I'd advocate Pollan's most recent line: "Don't buy anything you see advertised on TV." Share the cooking and eating of good food with those you love. And for heaven's sake, get cracking on your victory garden.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Where *not* to have a broken bike lock

So it's been just over 7 months, 17 states, and 2850 miles since Ollie and I hit the road. We're about half way in our round-the country loop. I've learned quite a bit about farming, cycling, and camping. I also have learned quite a bit about what is and is not "waterproof," "indestructible," or "functional." Prepare yourself for a long overdue series of rants....

Item 1: Waterproof, eh? Hardly.

Back in Pittsburgh, I bought a pair of "waterproof" cycling shoe covers at REI. It'd rained the better part of the first two weeks of my trip, so the investment seemed a wise (if pricey) one. But they were a bear to use. I swear I pulled a few muscles trying to shimmy them on every time, and then to zip them closed required the invocation of a contortionist with the patience of a monk and the strength of Samson (pre-haircut). I found that unless it was torrentially raining, I'd rather just have wet feet. This was all well and good until I began biking through SW Wisconsin at the end of September and the temperature started to drop just as the wind and rain -- that I'd been deprived of for whole days at a time during the stint in Madison -- picked up. I recall more than one occasion in Iowa and later in Washington State (aka the horizontal rain capital of the country) asking veritable strangers at campsites and folks I was staying with to help me get those blasted rain covers on. Oh, and also: once I finally had them on, they were only rain resistant, so once they were soaked through I had cold, wet feet that didn't let the moisture back out. By Eugene, I'd had enough and marched into REI. I returned them and bought neoprene socks. Like for scuba diving, yes. I've heard the material doesn't breathe, but it's waterproof and at this point, after months of biking with wet, frozen toes, I'm actually kind of looking forward to warm, sweaty feet. (Oooh, stinky. Probably doesn't make me such an appealing house guest, but I'm hoping my cooking and lively conversation outweigh the anticipated foot odor.)

Item 2: Indestructible? Ha!

Wouldn't you know it, less than a year after purchasing a brand new bike lock, the heaviest single item I've been dragging around the country, it crumbles in my hands in front of a Kinko's nowhere else but the bike stealing capital of the country: Eugene, OR. (It's true, ask any cyclist.) Luckily the nice folks at Kinko's let me store Ollie inside behind a display while I made some photocopies. The bike shop I'd bought the hefty lock from is across the country in DC, so I couldn't simply exchange it. You'd better believe I meant for the lock company to replace its faulty product, so I called them and told them as much. I don't want to get into the whole sordid tale, but I will say that I would have expected more from a "lifetime warranty." I bought a new one at REI, where words like "warranty" and "customer satisfaction" actually mean something. At least if this one breaks they will give me a new one on the spot.

Item 3: Functional? Only if today is opposite day.

I've about given up on the Verizon Navigator feature on the blackberry. Let's just call it the Windows Vista of the GPS world: it works occasionally and doesn't play well with other programs. Grrr. Good thing I picked up a book on cycling the Pacific Coast so I have a route pretty well mapped out. (Supplemented by the AAA maps you sent, dad -- thanks again!)

I'm feeling pretty good about things in general, in spite of the aforementioned product failures, and am really looking forward to exploring coastal Oregon and California in coming weeks. And if you're curious about how the neoprene socks are working out, rest assured that there will be an update (on the waterproof effectiveness as well as the stink factor -- all the better to keep curious marauding animals away from my tent at night, I say.)

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry