Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Surrogate gardeners

While in Minneapolis, I attended an informational meeting about a newly formed group called Backyard Harvest (a subsidiary of the Permaculture Research Institute, Cold Climate project). While they refer to themselves as a nonprofit, it seemed awfully like a regular small business: homeowners (or, in theory, renters could as well) hire professional gardeners to convert their 80 to 120-foot residential yard into seasonal organic vegetable gardens. The cost is roughly double the price of a CSA share, and the produce is just as fresh and diverse. Imagine having a year-round professional team designing, planting, mulching, weeding, and harvesting your backyard for you!

Me, I would do the gardening myself. That's part of the point. Initially, I was pretty suspicious of the program that in some crucial ways maintains the disconnect between eaters and their food by letting them off the hook of having to *do* anything to get organically grown, seasonal food; that once again money seemed to "solve" the problem; and the wealthier, as usual, are the ones who could access it. But upon further reflection, I revised my first impression: this may be a viable alternative for some folks who have money but not time to support sustainable agriculture. It's reaching a different demographic, one which would otherwise not be engaged at all in the Great Food Reformation. As such, when I think about it, this is a pretty good program.

On the one hand, Backyard Harvest seems to cater to those wealthy and busy enough to "not have time for that sort of thing" but who for whatever reason -- they read something by Michael Pollan in the NY Times or saw an article in Oprah's magazine that convinced them that organic gardening and eating are the keys to happiness -- want someone to grow good food for them at home. They're missing out on a large part of the joy of the food: getting to know their gardens and the seasons, or at least getting to know their neighbors at the farmers' market or food co-op or CSA pickup.

On the other hand, at least they're supporting organic agriculture and local business. And they're (by proxy) enriching the soil for the future and using their green space for more than just a useless lawn (that they probably rarely even have time to look at or care for anyway). On a personal level, they're eating a wide variety of fresh food and they're not spending their food dollars to support the gargantuan chemical companies or food processors. There is a contribution at the community level as well, I learned during the info session: each customer is encouraged to donate 10% of their garden's yield to a local food pantry. According to Stefan, the lead farmer, every single one of his customers opted to make this donation. So it isn't just the rich hoarding all of the organic brussels sprouts.

One thing that I have come to realize about sustainable agriculture as I've been making my way around the country is that it is by its very nature not a "one size fits all" kind of thing. Different programs are successful -- and necessary -- in different climates, and the communities and regional systems will determine for themselves what works best for them. Generally speaking, communities with a variety of food options -- such as farmers' markets, community gardens, co-ops, CSAs, Market Baskets, Slow Food group meals -- seem to work best. This way, as we collectively work toward more equitable access to seasonal, fresh, regional food, folks can find a way to eat in line with their budget, lifestyle, and schedule. For the Twin Cities, I hope that groups like Backyard Harvest -- just now wrapping up its first year -- continue to be a part of the solution.

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Get out of hail free card

I have no regrets thus far that I have undertaken this journey. There has, however, been some inner turmoil about the decision to alter my original plan of cycling completely around the country. I'm still biking most of it, but as Ollie and I discovered ourselves in the midst of an impending midwestern winter, with snow already falling in the next three states we were slated to cycle across, I think we're okay with the decision a few weeks ago to consider my friend Paige's offer of a "get out of jail free card" in the form Amtrak reward miles for a ticket to warmer climes. (God bless Paige.) Tonight we boarded the Empire Builder out of Minneapolis....

Around the time Ollie and I landed ourselves in Milwaukee, we were still on schedule to get all the way -- or within a couple hundred miles, anyway (those Rockies were still keeping me up at night) -- to the West Coast by around Halloween. I have, however, found myself somewhat behind schedule since then. (What is time anyway but a human construct, right? That's what I thought until it snowed in Des Moines before Columbus Day.) First I met Julie on the bike trail while making my way to the Growing Power headquarters, who along with Martha convinced me to stay in town for a few days (rather than just the afternoon, as I had planned) to explore the growing food scene. Then Madison swept me off of my feet nearly a week and a half longer than the anticipated five days. (It wasn't just because the hip college town provided me with my first opportunity to hear Michael Pollan speak, but that did encourage more lingering than usual.) Then I rerouted and spent nearly a month in Iowa, which was a state not even included in my original plan, but I'm glad I did. And... and....

I'm okay with it. It's not like I need to bike every inch of the trip. Early on, I had made the decision that I would compromise the biking-only element of the project in situations where I could hitch a ride with folks already going in my direction or if I was really stuck in baaaad weather and was a reasonable drive for friends to come retrieve me. I still have logged many days in weather that, were I not doing what I'm doing, would induce me to stay indoors altogether, stay in my pajamas, perhaps not even open the front door to check the mailbox. (Ah. I remember having a mailbox.) But I also determined before setting out that learning opportunities at outstanding farms and interacting with inspiring people would always trump the biking. (I do love the biking, even so.)

In the end, as I gaze out at the Minnesota landscape zooming past in the dark, the decision to take the train to Seattle and pick up as planned once I hit the coast is one I am at peace with. I just won't get my gold star from the cycling community.

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Local yokels

My friend Sheffy brings up a good point, and it's something I've been trying to work out for myself for some time: what does it mean to eat locally? Here are some of the explanations I've encountered....


When I went through Ithaca, NY, a few months back, the local farmers' market had a requirement that farmers could only sell things they grew themselves, and there was a 50 mile radius from the market within which the farms needed to exist. At the Seward Co-op in Minneapolis, MN, some items in the produce section with 'local' tags listed not only the farm and town but also the number of miles the food had traveled. In my quick survey, most of these were under 50 miles. (In case you're wondering, the items from California, Hawaii, and Chile did not have mileage listings.) In a chapter of "Deep Economy," Bill McKibben attempts to 'eat locally' for one year as an experiment. The criteria were largely geographical in nature: he tried to purchase and consume seasonal foods from Vermont for an entire year. Barbara Kingsolver, in "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," attempts a similar feat in her year of growing (or buying within a short drive -- 10 miles, was it?) food for her family. Distance that the food travels from its origin (generally under 150 miles) seems to be the focus of 'locavore challenges' around the country.


A number of farmers I spoke with explained that 'local' is a term that is used as shorthand for a set of values, much like 'organic' as a category used to have certain associations back in the day. Like 'organic,' what defines something as 'local' varies depending on the values held by the person you ask. (What 'organic' actually means technically, since the USDA has established a checklist, is a far cry from the Back to the Land organic farming philosophy of the 60s. Some of the early principles have fallen to the wayside with the rise of what Michael Pollan calls 'industrial organic' -- operations that don't use lab-manufactured chemicals or seeds in their fields but who do not espouse the focus on land stewardship, natural resource conservation, or seasonal polycultures that the early organic food movement advocated.) 'Local' actually seems to be more about knowing how your food is grown -- having a relationship with the producer -- and eating seasonally (which implies that the food is seasonal where, or near where, you are living, so it's also still somewhat linked to geography).


There is a commonly held understanding that the food money spent within a local community largely stays within that community, changing hands multiple times to support a number of small businesses. (Whether 'community' means the village, the township, the region, the state, the country... it depends on who you ask.) I am not against a global economy, mind you -- some of my favorite wines are from South Africa, France, and Australia; I buy Italian olive oil and balsamic vinegar -- but I want the majority of my food dollars to go into the pockets of the hardworking farmers in my area. Not giant food processing conglomerates. Not Walmart.

Thus, in my mind, what it means to be 'local' is partly geographical, partly philosophical, partly economic in nature. These are fluid categories, interconnected and complementary like a functional ecosystem. But I don't claim anything close to the final word on this. And so, as the blog readership now appears to extend beyond my parents and former students, I'll stop here and pose the question: what do *you* think it means to buy and eat locally?

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Hog heaven

Nearing the end of my stint in Iowa, land of corn and pigs -- no, really, most of the postcards in the state feature one or both of these -- I stopped to assess a few things. Had I worked on a cornfield in the state? No. Pig farm? No. Hmmm.

Now, Iowa has a reputation as largely the land of CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation) pork farms and fields of genetically-modified feedcorn and soybeans (to fatten up animals crammed into the CAFOs). This is actually the case: across the entire eastern half of the state which produces most of our country's pork I never once saw a pig outdoors. (Not even on the handful of nice days over the course of nearly a month as I roamed from Dubuque to Davenport to Des Moines to Decorah.) However, I'd heard of alternatives and was hoping to spend a little time on a sustainable pork farm. I'd read a bit about Niman Ranch's commitment to free-range, humane animal treatment, so when the opportunity arose to work with Paul, who has a hog farm himself and manages the organization's pork farmers in the region, I gladly took it.

Paul and Phyllis welcomed me onto their farm -- and into their kitchen -- in Thornton, IA for a few days to learn about free-range hog farming and their lifelong devotion to raising animals conscientiously. They have been doing it for over 30 years. They have continued their work while being surrounded by confined animal feeding operations and neighbors who scowl and yell and wag fingers at the upstarts who dare to go against the grain, who have the poor manners -- it *is* the midwest -- to question the status quo. They try to be friendly toward members of the community, but at the same time the Willises stand firmly behind an unwavering code of ethics when it comes to raising their animals. (They are also avid birders and land stewards, I learned, and had converted large portions of their property back to native prairie -- also uncommon for their area. Rebels with a cause, those two.)

I tagged along with Paul on morning chores each day. I helped him relocate a mama sow and piglets who had nested outdoors during the freezing rainstorm, shepherding them to a nearby corrugated metal shed. (Dozens of these straw-filled, single pig family homes dotted each grazing field, offering shelter from the elements while one open side retained access to the pasture at all times.) I learned about the lack of market for boar meat due to its intense, er, 'musky' odor and the standard practice of castrating the young male piglets to prevent the hormone-based flavor development. (The procedure was quick and the tiny piglets healed quickly, I observed... a bit squeamishly.) We pitchforked fresh hay into the pig houses for the sows to nest and checked to be sure the feed was accessible. (Paul quite deftly sprung into and out of one of the feeders at one point -- quite spry for a man probably double my age. Must be all of the exercise and great food... he and Phyllis are quite the cooks.)

I also should admit that I was often distracted by the pigs. As I approached each section of the field, sows and piglets sprinted away, then crept back toward me. As I stood still, chatting and leaning on my pitchfork, they curiously sniffed, shuffling ever closer, and tried to nibble on the fork tines or my plastic boot covers. (So: goats like my pants, turkeys like my shoelaces, pigs like my boot covers.) Paul often smiled and shook his head, patiently reminding me after awhile that we did need to, you know, finish up the chores. The pigs were so cute!

I have to agree with Dave, who regularly visits the farm, ostensibly to collaborate on farm policy initiatives: the piglets at Paul's free-range hog farm are possibly the cutest animals ever. (Though Dave and Paul are good friends, and co-founded the advocacy group Food Democracy Now, I wouldn't be surprised if Dave stops by sometimes just to cavort with the piglets in their pasture.) They are happy pigs if I ever saw any. And after a life of fresh air, romping around in the mud and grass, and being processed a few at a time at small local butcher shops (like Ventura Locker, where we picked up the porkchops for Friday night's feast), I swear they are the most delicious.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

It starts with a seed

I've been doing a lot of thinking these days about what it means to live in line with one's ideals. To walk the walk, as it were, or as Gandhi suggested, "Be the change you wish to see in the world." My journey in recent months seems to have thrown me into the path of many people who are doing just this (and, thankfully, not into the path of too many aggresive drivers trying to run me off the road). One of the folks whom I have had the good fortune to come to know who easily falls into this category is David, founder of The Pepperfield Project.

After many years as a garden manager at Seed Savers Exchange -- where he grew out something like 15,000 heirloom varieties of vegetables and flowers -- David has quite the gardening pedigree. Before that he'd run an organic farm out in California and collaborated on multiple books about mankind's relationship to nature. His life demonstrates an ongoing commitment to reconnecting people to the land and celebrating the food they can grow on it. During each of our conversations over the course of the few days at his home, I admired David's strength of conviction, generosity of spirit, and ability to bring out the good in those around him. (As if that doesn't make him awesome enough, he has also captured nearly impossible images of beauty with a 35mm lens during his days as a professional photographer -- success which has allowed him the financial freedom to start the Pepperfield Project -- and he's a good hugger to boot.)

Through a series of previously unimaginable coincidences that began in Dubuque a few weeks back, I found myself in Decorah last weekend working alongside my new friend Wren (a fellow volunteer at the food security conference), Mary (and her family who had recently moved to the area), and David on an exciting proof-of-concept edible landscape garden on the grounds of the local hospital. The project was born out of a fledgling 5-county initiative in northeastern Iowa to incorporate more fresh produce into local foodsheds (including the oft neglected hospital, public school, and prison systems). The medical center plot was meant to be a test case to see how on-site organic gardens might be integrated into institutional settings. The garden, begun earlier this year, was both productive and aesthetically pleasing, and had quickly become a point of interest in the small town. It was featured in the local paper. People would stop David on the street to hear more about it. A sign in one of the windows facing the green space read, "Thank you for the garden!" It was a hundred times more well-received than David could have anticipated.

It didn't just happen spontaneously. The project was successful because of the relatively small size of the garden (which took 8 of us a little over an hour to pull up all of the plants for composting over the winter, but apparently it produced a heck of a lot of food), a willing board of trustees, and the cooperation of food service and groundskeeping staff at the facility. David and a small cadre of volunteers raised and transplanted hundreds of seedlings, harvested crops, and maintained the demo garden during the growing season. (He envisions being in more of an advisory capacity for future gardens, encouraging institutions to take over management of the edible green spaces.) A flexible food service purchasing manager waited to see what was available in the garden before placing the biweekly orders. Menus were altered to incorporate the seasonally available produce. (Better not to pay the doctor *or* the grocer when you grow it on site, no?)

The Winneshiek County Medical Center garden is the first of many Pepperfield Project brainchildren of David's, I suspect, as he continues to foster relationships between people, gardens, and food. The next project in the pipeline is an edible garden on the Luther College campus. David says there's been some hesitation on the part of the groundskeeping staff, but they haven't met him yet. I tell you, after about 10 minutes of talking with him they'll probably be scouting out the best spots on campus to transplant heirloom tomato seedlings.

Monday, October 19, 2009

To market, to market

Have I mentioned my concern about the long-term economic viability of organic farms? I've asked a lot of farmers about it. I've asked food activists and co-op produce buyers about it. I think I probably even mutter about it in my sleep these days. (Maybe the grumbling's what keeps the bears away from my campsite through the night. And here I thought it was all of the dirty laundry I had lined the inside of the tent with.) There are thousands of devoted organic farmers all around the country working long, laborious hours to get healthy, responsibly produced food to their communities. Most of these are small or medium-sized operations that have barely a handful of people to help with planting, mulching, weeding, and weeding, and weeding -- rainy year -- and harvesting. Who has time for marketing? (There have been workdays when I've been so exhausted at the end of the day I could barely spell the word markzzzzzz....) And yet, I learned from Matt, who along with his partner Pat runs Coyote Run Farm, the fledgling sustainable food system will fail without it.

On the ride from the food security conference in Des Moines to his farm in Lacona, and as I helped out with chores around the farm, Matt and I talked a good deal about some of the financial challenges facing farmers. Now, nobody goes into farming for the money, just like nobody goes into teaching for the money, but it should be an occupation that earns enough to support the farmer and her family. It seems that many these days are starting or joining organic farms because "it's the right thing to do" for the community and are finagling ways to make ends meet for the short-term expenses. I don't disagree with this impulse, but I worry about how the farms are going to support themselves in order to buy land, build a home/ barn/ greenhouse, acquire fencing and irrigation supplies, afford insurance and repairs, be able to pay enough people fairly to help with the work, and not be in debt for the rest of their lives. (This is, of course, not even taking into consideration a collapse of the market or acts of god.) At least they're not beholden to fertilizer, pesticide, and seed companies every year, as conventional farmers are, but it still takes a chunk of change to start and maintain a farm.

Some are given land through various means (grants, land trusts, generous family members, benevolent wealthy folks hoping to have their land used for something worthwhile), but most have taken out loans to buy or lease the farmland. Others are homesteaders or those who grow extra food on the side, who consider sales at the market or to a few CSA members an opportunity to earn a little extra cash but not something to depend on for their livelihood. Many have second jobs or off-farm partners. (Matt acknoledged that he is fortunate enough to have a position as part of Drake University's Agricultural Law Center with a schedule flexible enough to accommodate his farming endeavors while Pat works full-time with the land and animals.) Food production takes a lot of work -- have I mentioned the weeding? -- and because of the relatively small scale of these operations there is not much money coming in. How can these smaller farms compete with the big guys who sell conventionally grown food at an unsustainably low price and have at their disposal a seemingly limitless advertising budget? (I mean aside from a more equitable governmental farm subsidy system, which is fodder for a whole other series of blog posts....) It takes something like 10 years to establish a farm, Matt suggested, and at the rate we're going most of the small farms starting up these days won't be around that long.

Organic farmers consider themselves food producers, land stewards, activists, but very few see themselves as small businessmen and women. Terms like scaling-up, marketing, consumers, and networking smack of the large-scale, bottom-dollar capitalist system that got us into the current food crisis we are trying to fix. (No, I'm not a Communist, but thanks for asking.) I'm not suggesting that we corporatize regional food systems, but I do think that some basic economic principles apply if these small businesses are going to flourish. The most successful farms that I have worked with -- in terms of financial stability -- seem to have a few things in common. These are the very things Matt enumerated as crucial components:

1. A consistently high-quality product. Folks may be willing to pay a fair price to try something once because it's in line with their philosophy, but they'll only continue to buy it if it's good.
2. A niche market. You need to sell something they can't get elsewhere. In the case of Coyote Run, there are rare (and delicious) heirloom vegetables, free-range eggs, and heritage turkeys.
3. Loyal customers. This means that when competition arrives, customers don't want to go elsewhere.
4. Getting the word out. People need to know you're around and know what you're selling.

Aside from a listing in Local Harvest, Buy Fresh Buy Local, or another general organic farm directory, very few small farms do much by way of marketing their products beyond having a sign at their stall at the farmers' market. Some farmers simply refuse to pony up the $50 for the Buy Fresh Buy Local directory listing and market stall sign. I've worked with some farmers who have complained about being pestered to join up with their local chapter, their reasoning often stemming from a belief that they don't really get anything out of the $50 membership and/or a resistance to being affiliated with a larger group that is not in line with their values. (Incidentally, local chapters seem to vary widely in their practices. It seems that some do much more outreach and market development.)

More people are buying more local, seasonal food than they have in quite some time. The agricultural tide may be turning. Even the USDA is launching initiatives like "Know Your Farmer." It's hip to eat locally these days. (If it wasn't, mainstream media wouldn't keep running stories on it, and the food co-op in Decorah, Iowa wouldn't be able to sell organic carrots from Iowa for more than the organic carrots from California.) There is a growing market out there. But as with most trends -- and I speak here as if I'd not talked my way out of the requisite economics course in college, but Matt confirmed my hunch here -- the "locavores" will decrease in number in the not-too-distant future unless farmers are able to make a good enough case for continuing to support them. It's as much about farmers and eaters getting to know (and trust) each other as it is about the actual food being sold.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Food safety: asleep at the wheel

In a recent article in the New York Times, I read about a woman who was permanently paralyzed as a result of her exposure to E. coli-tainted ground beef. Now, I've written a few times about my ongoing internal debate about eating meat. This piece, along with the cover story from a recent issue of TIME magazine, seem to confirm what Eric Schlosser and others have been warning us about for years: you just can't trust large-scale food processors. With the huge amount of money at stake, public safety is, at best, an afterthought for the food industry.

Part of the problem is the sheer scale of mass food production and processing: it's difficult and sometimes costly to sufficiently test it for contamination. According to the Times piece, "Testing has been a point of contention since the 1994 ban on selling ground beef contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 was imposed. The department moved to require some bacterial testing of ground beef, but the industry argued that the cost would unfairly burden small producers, industry officials said." Oh, please. Like industry officials can even name five small farms that they deal with (unless they're trying to shut them down). How about, oh, I don't know, having the processing plants do the testing before they grind everything together beyond recognition?

Global sourcing of raw materials which are mingled before most tests are run further complicates the ability of inspectors to pinpoint the origins of contamination and subsequently halt its inclusion in the mix. I am not against national and global trade, mind you, but does my beef fat need to come from Uruguay? No. Unless I want a fatty burger and happen to *be* in Uruguay (which I hear is nice this time of year).

"I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health," claimed an industry rep in response to a call for more robust food safety practices following the E. coli incident. Herein lies the crux of the problem: greed. And there is a fairly simple solution to the problem: relationships. Know your farmer, know where your meat comes from, and stop supporting the food giants (who don't care about your health) with your food dollars. If you want ground beef, it's better to buy directly from smaller local farms and grind it yourself, or at least find a responsible butcher to do it (sans imported South American beef fat).

I don't know that I'll be able to eat a hamburger for awhile. Nevermind that cookout season came to abrupt end with midwestern temperatures in the low 40s for the past week. The burgers pictured here at the UW Slow Food dinner a few weeks ago, with meat direct from nearby Fountain Prairie Farm, were pretty delicious, though....

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Show me the movement

I have come into contact with a lot of inspirational people so far in my journey to learn about food. Many have been the farmers who have chosen to devote their lives to sustainable agriculture, to growing good food for others in their community because they feel it's the right thing to do. Some are folks I have read about for some time, who have emerged as voices speaking powerfully on behalf of the movement toward better food in our country, those changing the way we interact with food. There's Michael Pollan, whose books and articles continue to examine the bizarre animal that is the American consumer of foodlike substances in an effort to inform and advocate for a food system overhaul. (I really did get kind of giddy listening to him speak, and found myself entirely too shy to introduce myself when I was within 3 feet of him during the book signing at the Food For Thought festival back in Madison.) There's Will Allen who is fostering relationships within his local community and beyond while he produces massive amounts of chemical-free food and teaches folks how to grow their own. (I was also too awestruck to introduce myself to him when he gave a talk at the local community center during my time in Madison.) And there's Dave Murphy, the food activist I finally worked up the nerve to try and contact and subsequently had the pleasure of meeting at the recent conference on food security in Des Moines.

Dave, who founded Food Democracy Now in an effort to promote more sustainability-minded Secretary of Agriculture candidates for appointment under the new White House administration, comes to food from an entirely different angle than many at the conference. Some folks work on community organizing, some on food production, some on establishing connections between farms and buyers, some on nutrition education. Dave works on policy. It's important for folks to know how to produce and consume food responsibly, he conceded, but for real change to happen on a larger scale, what he argues for is a change at the policy level. In short, we need legislation that shifts state and federal funds to encourage more sound agricultural practices, and which ceases funding to programs that are destroying farmers and their livelihoods (not to mention the planet and our national health).

While he casually references the ridiculous number of miles he's put on his car going around to talk with farmers all over the state, it's evident that he really does his homework: talking with people who make the policies and those affected by them to get a real understanding of what's going on. (And talk about smart. I swear he eats those indecipherable proposed House bills and regulation documents for breakfast.) From Dave, I learned about the horrific state of large-scale animal food production in our country, and in Iowa in particular. There are more humane ways to raise animals for food than on confined animal feedlots (or as they are known in the business, CAFOs) -- I have visited farms all around the eastern half of the country, so I know there are alternatives. Dave told me of a pending proposal to give millions of dollars to perpetuate a failing (and, in my opinion, ethically reprehensible in its treatment of animals) factory farm system to stem the farmers' record losses resulting from high feed costs and massive overproduction. Another bailout?? Rather than amending their practices, these farms who are sitting low on the hog (for a change) are asking for more government money to continue (subsidized) business as usual. What will be done with all of the excess pork that can't be sold? Most likely it will end up in some fried pork foodlike substance on your kid's styrofoam school lunch tray.

"Show me the movement": I've heard the now famous instance of President Obama -- well, it's famous in the local food movement world, anyway, since Pollan has bandied it about in a few of his talks by now -- claiming that in order for the White House to get behind the relatively small but growing call for sustainable, regional food systems, people were going to have to get louder about it. There needs to be a public outcry against the current system that is slowly but surely making us poorer and then killing us earlier. Our current food system, like our healthcare system, is broken. (And you thought I could make it a whole post without ranting about healthcare, which, incidentally, was another hot topic at the food security conference. Well, as I've said, they're related.) The fact that Ag Secretary Vilsack gave a talk at breakfast during the final morning of the food security conference means that Washington may be starting to listen. But we're not loud enough yet.

Change. Michael Pollan may write about it, but it's people like Dave who will make it happen. Right now, he is part of a campaign that is gathering signatures to protest the pork bailout package. You can add your voice to the petition here. It is a small but important step toward the long overdue overhaul of our country's food system.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Great (Food) Reformation

As my friend Martha and I wandered about the World Food Festival and nibbled on cuisine from Ethiopia to Ecuador (not at all local but certainly delicious) yesterday, we invariably began to talk about food policy. I mean, we're both in Des Moines to attend the Community Food Security Conference, so even more than usual we both had food politics on the brain. Something that Martha mentioned that really resonated with me pertained to the idea that we are in the midst of what many -- including me, just ask my parents -- have been calling a Food Revolution. (Yes, with a capital R.) Change is coming, to be sure, but really what *needs* to happen, she suggested, and what is beginning to happen will more closely resemble a Reformation. "Like the Church?" I asked. "And Martin Luther?" Well...yes. (I get Church metaphors. I was raised Catholic, after all, though I don't go to church much these days. Sorry, dad.)

The metaphor is not mine, or Martha's, or even Michael Pollan's (though he is something of a godfather of the increasingly vocal local food movement), but one coined by Joel Salatin, and via Michael and then Martha has trickled down to me. It's a brilliant metaphor, though. The statements nailed to the door of the Church of Conventional Agriculture -- which brandishes most of the money and power and control over the food system -- are documents like Pollan's "Open Letter to the Farmer in Chief" and Dave Murphy's petition for President Obama to appoint a more sustainability-minded Secretary of Agriculture. The Church's splinter groups are programs like Growing Power, farmers' markets, organic farms and CSAs, even home gardens and food co-ops, that offer alternatives.

Joel didn't articulate the hyperbole so specifically, but I think there's something to these parallels. Like it or not, large-scale farming is not going to disappear any time soon. It's too ingrained in our culture, in our economy. I suspect that the face of industrial agriculture will continue to change, perhaps it will evolve into a more resource-conscious and humane system. But even now, instead of one Church of Food, if you seek it out you can choose the version you want to support with your food dollars. Amen to that... now let's eat!

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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows

I can tell you with total certainty: it is coming from whatever direction I am trying to get to.

Since I left Burlington back in late July, it's been all headwind all the time. "Don't you know about the winds from the west?" seasoned cyclists continue to ask me. Yeah. Well, clearly when I planned this trip I thought that was a bunch of hooey. What's a little breeze? "It will help keep me cool," I thought. Ha. Double ha.

It's gotten to the point where I know intuitively (by the lack of wind in my face) when I've made a wrong turn. It's happened a few times, and before I realize my error I foolishly find myself thinking, "Well, at last there's a break in this constant wind. Wait a minute, I'm on 6 *East*?? Doh! Time to make a u-turn...."

"There's no crying in baseball!" I recall Tom Hanks' character insisting in "A League of their Own." But I ask you, is there crying in cycling? 40 mph headwinds would deter many a cyclist -- I'm not giving in, mind you, I just want to know if a little whimpering is okay when I am pedaling downhill and still only going about 5 mph.

This wind had better still be blowing in the same direction -- I mean it hasn't let up in 2 1/2 months, so one would think it would have the decency to continue -- when I get to southern California and start heading east in a few months.

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The mad farmer's garden

Ollie and I arrived on the doorstep of The Mad Farmer's Garden in Coal Valley, IL in the midst of a torrential rainstorm last Thursday. (Have I mentioned the less-than-perfect weather yet? Oh. Yes. I believe I have. It was like the famous storm in King Lear, but maybe with less people losing their minds. Actually....) From what I know of the Wendell Berry collection of poems from whence the organic farm takes its name -- a sequence of diatribes and manifestos that critique society's destruction of land and community -- the weather was somehow fitting. The farm's very existence rails against modern, conventional practices. The property is owned by Ian's great uncle and run by Ian with the help of a small, tight-knit group of friends, with practices that stubbornly recall a simpler, less industrialized time. The goats are milked by hand twice daily. Seeds are saved. Food is grown without fertilizers or pesticides or hormones. They grow things not only to sell but to support themselves. They compost. This, while being surrounded on all sides by giant, GM operations and manure spreaders.

One of the things I have been doing as I roam about the country learning about food is, in a sense, peeking into different variations on sustainable lifestyles, trying them on, seeing which elements fit. Trying on places and ideas and communities. Kind of like shoes. What feels right? What's missing? Is this uncomfortable? Will I get blisters? (Another metaphor, yes. I'm talking work shoes here, but I suppose some of you are thinking about dancing shoes. Those shouldn't give you blisters, either.)

I had heard about the Coal Valley homestead farm from my friend, Hannah, who had, along with her (and now also my) friend Lindsey, built a raft and traveled down the Mississippi River to learn about sustainable farming in 2008. Talk about spunky: these were my kind of people!

Hannah, Lindsey, Ian, and Andrew welcomed me into their midst from the start. They invited me to join in with the farm chores, the market, the cooking (yes!), and frankly answered whatever questions I ventured -- from how each came to the farm to how to use the indoor composting latrine. The two couples share a vision of self-sufficiency, communal living, and innovation that informs their daily lives. It's not perfect yet, with personalities still at odds sometimes and different ideas on how and when to do things, but they're making it: they produce the majority of food for themselves, generate very little waste, are revitalizing the land, and are developing a loyal customer base through the Davenport farmers' market (less so with shops so far). Each season, there are new projects, experiments, and techniques that the young farmers undertake -- companion planting, seed saving, greenhouse construction, trying out new heirloom varieties -- based on the interests and needs of the group. These are undertaken with a spirit of joy and curiosity and, finally, the desire to make things a little bit better. Who could ask for more? Wendell would be proud.

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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Dry socks

Not to be outdone by the near cataclysmic storms in southwestern Wisconsin, Illinois put in a strong bid for "worst weather of the trip" during Ollie's and my passage to Davenport, IA: cold, rainy, and with a headwind that had me pedaling like mad even on the downhill stretches. (And, yes, there were hills.) I found myself tacking back and forth along the road shoulder, trying to stay off the rumble strips as I simultaneously attempted to counteract the gusts from 18-wheelers flying past like bats out of hell.

About 5 miles into the planned 45 mile trek from Clinton, IA to the next farm in Coal Valley, IL, on Thursday my shoes were soaked and I couldn't feel my toes. (Frostbite, anyone? No? Is hypothermia more your cup of tea, perhaps?) The rain jacket, 2 shirts, and 2 wool sweaters I had piled on to combat the chilly air were all at various degrees of damp disgustingness. And pants? Blech. Spandex and water are not friends. (I believe this was established earlier on in the trip.) Shoes? Socks? Forget about it. If I were a bit further south on the Mississippi, they would call it frog strangling weather. Even the ducks stayed indoors. True story.

As I pedaled, white-knuckled, along the highway, I found myself contemplating something Paige's dad told me at dinner one night when I was visiting Carlisle, PA a few months back. He was regaling me with tales of his time in the service and spoke about how in the midst of the horrible conditions that he and fellow soldiers had to endure -- I think it was in Vietnam, but I'd had a bit of wine by this point in the story, so the details are a little hazy -- he was comforted by the knowledge that at all times he retained a pair of clean, dry socks in his pack. No matter how cold, wet, or miserable things got, there was always that pair of socks to look forward to. ("Clearly this is a metaphor, ladies and gentlemen," I would point out to my students, were I still in the classroom.) It was crucial that they were there at the ready, Don confided, but if he were to wear that last pair, he wouldn't have a backup pair. (Socks as hope. Got it.) I was daydreaming about dry socks and flannel pants -- on both the literal and figurative levels -- for hours on end through the bone-chilling rain last week.

Near the end of the 5-day trek from Madison, WI, after I'd almost been run over approximately 3 times near the Quad Cities airport and had pulled over to call Hannah for alternate directions (VZ Navigator's "bicycle" setting is not to be trusted), a friendly woman with a truck offered to give me a lift the last 5 miles. An angel in a (heated) truck, to be sure. As Ian and Hannah helped me drag my sopping gear into the house, all I could think of was my dry socks. And wouldn't you know it, I found after I'd soaked in a hot bath for a spell, I had two pairs left in my pack: one to wear and one for backup. Nice. (And people think I overpack. Psh.)

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Thursday, October 1, 2009

13 at dinner

I've thrown a lot of dinner parties in my day. It's true. Soup dinners. Wine dinners. Come-on-over-because-I-got-a-little-overexcited-and-cooked-too-much-curry dinners. Apparently-the-power-is-out-and-it's-Mexico-so-it-might-be-days-before-it's-back-on-so-time-for-a-barbecue dinners. (I mean, I can't let the whole duck or lamb chops in the freezer or the random assorted cheeses or the tequila go bad. Okay, maybe the tequila isn't in danger, but still....)

I was thinking as Ollie and I cycled along yesterday who I would invite if I could pull together a lively group of food-related folks for a dinner at my place. Since I'm on the road these days, having my own place is as much of a fantasy as the impressive guest list, but I can think of a few folks who might be willing to host the crowd I have in mind....

So who would I invite? Firstly, Michael Pollan. He's in the forefront of my thinking these days, as you might have guessed from recent posts. Next, Alice Waters, Wendell Berry, Barbara Kingsolver, Eric Schlosser, and Dave Murphy (founder of Food Democracy Now!). Since there are already heavy hitters at the table, I'd invite the Obamas (the kids can come, too, but they're not in my official count), Ag Secretary Vilsack, and Jon Stewart (because he's awesome, if not specifically food-related, and I know the conversation would be both hilarious and thought provoking). I'll include Bill McKibben (whose "Deep Economy" is rocking my boat these days as well) and maybe George Clooney (an activist in other arenas, and a charmer, and I have to keep up the facade of a mild infatuation with him that I built up with my former high school students... who may still be reading this). Did I miss anyone? Probably. I'll invite them for dessert and espresso. (N'espresso, of course, with George in attendance.)

In the kitchen with me, I'd have an equally impressive line-up. The cooking dream team: Felicity, Alessandra, Julius, my cousin Sonia, Mark and Lee (ohhh, for the apple cider caramel sauce alone!), Nick (flown in from the Philippines -- why not?), my dad (if I promise not to make bouillabaisse -- but wasn't the fish stock from scratch amazing??), and pretty much Jeff's entire Chicago apartment. Kind of like fantasy football, but for cooking, I suppose. Less fouls, more fowls. Har, har.

And I'll bet you're wondering what I'd make. Well, it depends on the season....

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