Part 4: Why Food is More than Consumption

Or: How I learned about organics, farmers markets, farming, and lived to tell the tale.

Or: How I learned about Organics, Locavores, Farmers and Farmers Markets.

I didn’t grow up particularly food conscious or in a gourmet household.  In fact, due to the fickle tastebuds of my siblings and I, we had a food schedule at my house which was almost militaristic in its regimentation.  Monday night meant you’d be eating baked chicken, boiled carrots and white rice.  Felt like coming by on Wednesday?  That’d be meatloaf, mashed potatoes and reheated frozen spinach.  I admit to not eating sauce on my spaghetti (Thursday night) until I was at least 11.

Unsurprisingly the list of foods I didn’t taste until I went to college was long: alfredo sauce, asparagus, avocado, beans, brown rice, couscous, mango, salmon, sushi…  How did yesterday’s conventional eater become today’s food iconoclast?

Answer: New Zealand.

The semester before I graduated college I was focused on one thing and one thing only, getting a diploma.  I hadn’t begun to contemplate the inevitability or possibility of living on my own, employment, and paying bills.  (As an “adult” now I’m not really how I managed this, but I did.)  I don’t remember having any conversations with mentors about getting a job, nor was I prescient enough to pursue companies, job fairs, or any sort of path to a paycheck.  This could have been a nightmare of stress.

Instead I was poring over the WWOOFing website.  WWOOF, or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, tacitly offered me the biggest adventure of my short life.  And I took it.

Here I am at 21, enjoying the Wairarapa region of New Zealand after a day of hiking. On the above map, where I am is about 45 minutes away from Palmerston North.

Over five months I stayed at 9 farms around the North and (upper) South Island. I weeded. Planted. Harvested. Mulched. Milked. Made Chicken Feed. Learned to Cook. Worked at Farmers Markets.

Mostly I learned about food and how, paradoxically, it’s more than just what you eat.

Farmers have philosophies about why they do things the way they do, and what life is all about, perhaps particularly organic farmers.  Many (but not all) of them like to talk about their methods.

So I learned from a lawyer who had gone part time in order to make wine from his own grapes and a hay bale home. Family farmers who talked about the layers to the land and caring for the soil (compost), plants (water, and weeding) and filling the air (beekeeping.)  The owner of an eco-tourist farm and forest told me she always washes dishes as though there is nothing else she’d rather be doing. While picking radishes I discussed the nature of self-actualization and the soul.

These people loved food.  And they knew about food in a way with which I wasn’t familiar.  It was more than a trip to the supermarket, or restaurant.  This food, animals and vegetables, came from somewhere, someplace where they had seen it unfold; seed to slaughter. To me this was novel stuff.  And because I was 21, and impressionable, and alone in a strange land, it stuck.

So. That’s where I started thinking about food.  I would probably have continued eating happily ever after without that education. But now I don’t.  There’s a whole lot of ways to think about food, and just eating what’s on your plate isn’t the way to start.

College Immediately vs Gap Year

Prestigious College Library
Orchard in the midst of Spring Blossom

I think I speak for a quarter or more of liberal arts college graduates when I state some of my own experiences.

I went to college because I didn’t know what else to do.  I chose a major only because I liked doing it.  I didn’t know what kind of job I would get when I graduated.  I felt unprepared to get a job in my field when I did graduate.  I got a job unrelated to my major.  I’m now sure I want to do something completely different than what I received  my undergraduate degree in.

Perhaps those who identify also followed this similar arc of contemplation as the years pass since their matriculation.

College probably isn’t for everyone, especially those who don’t know what they want to do.  I wasted a lot of time and money studying something that wasn’t practical.  At least I made good friends at college.  The books I read at college and the discussions they sparked taught me to think critically, reason intelligently, and search out primary sources.   Liberal education has provided me with a good basis for my continued education.   I’m glad I went to college, even if I didn’t know what I was doing.

This reflection, for me, spanned four years. In terms my occupation right now (farm volunteer) I’m doing now, what I did right after I graduated.  Then, I escaped to New Zealand to sort out what more there was to life than school.  Now I find myself in Canada again with the same program, placing me on these organic farms.  Repetitive experiences seem to remind me of the same questions I asked then.  I am also connected to two  18-year olds who have both asked and answered the question “Is college for everyone?” for themselves, but in different ways.

One, my sister, has made her choice of four year college, and will be attending next year as a French Education major. (Good for you!)  The other, a Canadian from Toronto, has chosen what I wish I had known more about at 18.  The international phenomenon known as the “Gap Year.” (Or more sarcastically known as “taking a year off” from the SWPL blog.)

Although, I agree that it is a privilege to be able to make this “gap year” choice, I also think it can save money (for the individual and government), cut back college drinking, and decrease that cultural phenomenon of extended adolescence.   I wonder if guidance counselors at school are prepared to admit that a time of exploration is perhaps more beneficial for 18-22 year olds than it is for those in their late twenties and early thirties, then they would be more likely to de-emphasize getting into a college so quickly without exploring the alternatives.

I would love to see more young people directed toward this website about gap year opportunities.  Or I would love to see the options presented in this article about associates degrees.  I would love to encourage students to volunteer.  I would stamp out that rumor that if you don’t start college immediately, you won’t ever.

I think there are a few pernicious lies we believe about college.  We need to tell ourselves a few more of the following:

It doesn’t need to be the fall after you graduate high school. It doesn’t need to be as a full-time student.  It doesn’t need to be your primary occupation. I don’t even think it needs to be practical in the sense of leading directly to a certain job.

What should be emphasized is the need for continual education, not just college.

Pumpkin Farming and Community

I have been busy the last three days hauling roughly 2000 ripe pumpkins with a cadre of international friends and learning how to make tofu from soy beans.  That, and reading The Small-Mart Revolution (by Michael H. Shuman).  Maybe you aren’t aware of this, but pumpkin picking, piling, wiping, and moving is repetitive, mindless work.  Since it took a total of 8 – 10 hours to complete a 4 acre field, I have also had time to formulate how best to sum up this book for the discerning community participant, which is y.o.u.  What follows are several “what you can do” points from the book (and more can be found here), a whirlwind of Massachusetts local information on farming and food, and some observations and ideas on retail and community living in Beverly.

Luckily for all of us, Shuman does not feel the need to start his book with a reiteration of WalMart as the anti-christ/devil incarnate.  (I usually put down books which waste ink, paper, and brain cells on repetitive diatribes without solutions.  Half this book is dedicated to solutions.)  As Shuman himself points out on page 7; the point of a Revolution is to “improve prosperity of every community…by maximizing opportunities for locally owned businesses… which is half the typical economy.” He also provides a statistic on page 43 that this half of the economy also provides “at least 58 percent” of jobs. (p. 43)

Jobs which are not place-based, and largely non-locally owned (ie: Walmart, Target, Best Buy, Amazon) leech from the community (best approximated by tax jurisdiction) money which could be spent improving the community. (p. 40)  They are also plied with incentives from community builders that usually destroy locally owned (ie: mom and pop) shops.  Then he describes an interesting term I hadn’t heard before: “multiplier.”  He writes, “Each purchase you make triggers purchases by others.  For instance, a dollar spend on rent might be spent again by your property owner at your local grocer, who in turn pays an employee, who then buys a movie ticket.”  This is a multiplier, how many times the dollar is used in the community.  He says, the best thing you can do, is keep your money local.  He cites a study of “leakage” of dollars in Austin, TX. which notes that of 100 dollars spent at Borders 13 circulate back into the local community, of 100 dollars spent at 2 local book stores, 45 circulate back into the community.  The more times the money circulates, the more tax revenue it generates.  (Also, you can view the study on this blog/website.)

Then he gives Massachusetts residents a kick in the pants about purchasing things in Tax Free New Hampshire.

That, friends, is the book in a nutshell.  It’s chock full of other case studies about big vs. small business, incentives the government provides to big businesses, and how diversification is best for an area, and as previously mentioned also full of five chapters of how y.o.u can make a difference.

A riddle posed at most farms, and among most foodies I’ve lived with and talked with can be summarized like so, “How come we’re buying apples from New York (Washington, Nova Scotia, Vancouver…etc) when we grow apples right here in Massachusetts (list other places here.) and they’re buying our apples.”  To this, Shuman proposes a little slogan that’s been kicking around for awhile. “Local First.”

“Local First” says, if you can, choose to buy your apples from a local source (perhaps one of the farms the Massachusetts government lists on their website here. Or one the Food Project so kindly provides a link to here.)  And if you can, choose to buy your beer from a local source.  And if you can, choose to eat out at a locally owned restaurant.  And if you can, choose to entertain yourself with a local band.  But here I am, just listing off to you half a dozen links I know of, and you probably can’t click them all.  But if you do get the time, click of them, and this other project that is really taking off called the 3/50 project.

Finally, since I spent 20 months in downtown Beverly without a car and had plenty of time to walk around Rantoul and Cabot streets in all kind of weather, I humbly propose that there are still several businesses missing from downtown that could round out the Beverly Main Streets. (Actually, I’m sure there are dozens, but these are the items that took the most hassle to get without a car.)

1. A shoe store.  2.  A book store (if you are going to forgo Amazon.com, or even just for the atmosphere) 3. Non-used clothing.  (I’ll be honest, thrifted socks aren’t appealing to me.) 4.  Home Goods (shelving, dishes, curtains, towels and the like.  It’s either Family Dollar or the Antique Shop.) 5.  A real honest bakery with bread.  I love pies and pastries too of course, but a good loaf of bread was hard to come by.  (sorry Stop and Shop, and Cassis.)

And, I will leave you with one last great idea to support local business in Beverly (and the North Shore).  The BevCard. which is like a insider SamsClub type card providing you with deals and discounts to different shops and services.  I think this is a fantastic idea, even better than the Beverly Main Streets coupon book, but hopefully would work in tandem too.  I hope that in the next few years it will be able to provide many more links between businesses and that people will rush to be part of a great network.