Saturday, August 22, 2009

An oasis in the food desert

Bemoaning the limited food options in northwestern Ohio after last night's dinner of french fries, fried fish (not from Lake Erie, oh no, but flown in from Alaska), and canned green beans, Ollie and I were pleasantly surprised this afternoon when, by crazy random happenstance, we came across a sign on the side of the road announcing "all organic grown." I practically leapt into the stand of tomatoes, broccoli, peppers, and squash. Then I remembered my manners -- and my mission (to learn about food and the folks who grow it) -- and scampered over to where I saw an older gentleman in overalls working on some kind of tractor part.

About two minutes later, John was showing me around the vegetable garden, grown without any sprays, he told me proudly. "You see," he confided, "I was raised in town, I'd never used sprays. I tried it once. I had to get a suit with a hood and goggles to cover everything and I thought, 'Why am I putting this stuff on my food?' So I never used sprays again." John is retired from metalworking but sells certified organic hay. The vegetables are mostly around because he likes growing things; his wife is the cook. He has a little roadside stall for passersby to pick up a few fresh things and leave a few dollars -- the "honor system" plastic cash box sits next to the cabbage. Mostly, though, he just gives food away to friends and family. There are only so many tomatoes a man and his wife can eat, after all, and John seems to have quite the green thumb. The garden is bursting with fresh goodies, including the broccoli I clipped for part of my dinner.

Like many of the farmers I have spoken with along my journey, John possesses an innate love of growing things and a curiosity akin to childlike wonder when it comes to trying out new vegetables. "Those over there? Why that's butternut squash. I've never had 'em before, but I've heard they're good. I've grown summer squash and acorn squash and figure these will be good, too. I imagine I can cook 'em up in the microwave and add in some brown sugar like we do with the acorn and it'll taste just like pudding -- so sweet!" Wanting to know more about this midwestern anomaly -- an older man, a Catholic, an organic farmer who views Obama as "a man who took on a nearly impossible job and is working hard to try and help poor people instead of those people in Texas with silver spoons" and who listens to classical music while he tinkers with an antique cider press in the barn -- I asked if I could talk with him while he worked. I offered to cook dinner in exchange for a place to pitch my tent. (I reckoned I was a bit less than 15 miles shy of the campsite I was bound for and figured I could make up the difference and have a slightly longer biking day tomorrow.) John offered the apple orchard as a good spot, so after I pitched my tent I joined him on the front porch to listen to A Prairie Home Companion, a ritual here on Saturday evenings on the farm. After splitting a footlong sub for dinner (no cooking tonight after all), we chatted on the front porch until past sundown, at which point I strolled back to the orchard and crawled into my sleeping bag -- another cool evening in the 50s -- to do a bit of writing.

John reminds me so much of the farmers I've been reading about in Lisa Hamilton's "Deeply Rooted," a book profiling 3 unconventional farms in the midst of a sea of conventional agribusiness. All day I had biked past mile after mile of GM corn. It's across the street from John's property, I noted as we sat on the porch. He doesn't grow corn, so there's no concern about cross-pollination, but his neighbors are required to maintain a 25-foot distance from his land when spraying. (Having biked in the Ohio headwinds for the past week, I can tell you that 25 feet is laughable as a barrier, but I'm not the person who sets USDA policies. I wonder if that person has ever been to blustery Ohio.) But John continues doing things his way, refusing to spray, continuing to test out new vegetable varieties, and persisting in his determination to cultivate a sense of joy in people and the miraculous world around him. God bless this lone farmer, who has given me hope that our country may yet come around to celebrate and renew -- rather than destroy -- our beautiful land.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry


  1. Great post. Be warned, the farther in the midwest you go, the more stark the food desert landscape. But do let me know if you're rolling through ND!

  2. One of my favorite posts, I think.


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