March 2008 Archives

Headstone for a Small Farm


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There are gravestones made of wheat and here there are farmsteads marked with granite headstones. Tombstones to remember the once vital landscape.

This is the farmstead at the end of our section.

The Hansons erected this monument to their beloved. To a life well lived. I invite you to come visit this marker yourself. It shows a beautiful farmstead that I imagine with chickens, pigs, cows, small grains, a pasture, flowers, gardens, children. The windmill tower still stands. It is the most beautiful farm site-- right on a shallow lake. They probably saw waterfowl in the hundreds of thousands. I image they were happy, well fed, comfortable much of the time.

Was it a blip in time to have this American landscape populated with small farms? With self reliant, hard working folk? Is that all gone forever? Nothing remaining but old groves where barns and houses once stood. An occasional granite marker where the farmsteads and churches once stood.

I know a thing or two about grief-- and this is grief. One day last year I sat on the St. Paul campus in a group of faculty and rural community members. The metro faculty talking about how to confront all the encroaching growth and development. After 1/2 hour one of the rural people said "you talk about growth-- but we are just trying to stave off the grief at all the loss." The loss of our farms, farmers, children, neighbors. This county--Big Stone-- has lost 50% of its people in the last 30 years.

I'm not staving off grief. I never have. But we're certainly not ready to give up that dream of having more farms and farmers all around us. Did you hear MPR this morning? There are people who want to come back.-- to farm for a living.

I can show them some really nice farm sites....

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360 degree symphony

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Pre-sunrise 3/20/08-- the dark cloud on horizon is waterfowl in the distance

Dark clouds of geese rise on the horizon, darkening the sky. Waterfowl are migrating through Big Stone County in the 10's of thousands. Here on the farm there is a 360 degree surround sound-- a symphony of cries, calls, honking. Their encouragement, connection, community. Just before they take off en masse they start a din of honking. They fly in V's within V's within V's. It stops me in my tracks to see the sky so full-- they fly right over my head.

As I put Jens and Lake down to bed last night-- pulling down the shade to the yard light and the snow storm-- I said outloud, half thinking to myself "oh those poor geese." (we are buried in about 10 inches of fresh new snow). Lake says "don't worry mom- they have warm fur."

But I right now in the midst of this blizzard, I don't hear the geese muffled under the snow. Only an occasional isolated honk. I tried to go out for a walk by myself in the dark blizzard this morning. But those dang boys were up at 5:50 a.m. and caught me standing in the entry with my boots and coat on. So I had to suit them up to join me. The snow too deep for their 3-year-old legs. We followed a fresh set of tracks that looped around the yard along the tall grass. I think it was a mouse-- such small prints that didn't sink into the fluffy snow. The boys got cold and so I sent them in. Then I walked far enough away from the yard light to get into the dark out on the prairie and laid in the deep quiet snow-- pelting my face-- so silent-- dark--peaceful. It's in those moments I know I'm where I belong.

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minutes later-- sunrise with a flock overhead-- not retouched

A Saving Remnant


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Last Thursday I spent the evening in the Old Milan School in Milan Minnesota. The folks at CURE hosted a gathering of people from the Upper MN River basin interested in a local foods movement. I felt as if I were in the presence of a saving remnant. These are the people who see a different way in the world-- it's not a world of corn and soybeans as far as the eye can see. It is a rich and beautiful land-- with neighbors, food, the embrace of community, justice and beauty. Besides which, if things should go to hell in a hand basket and I can't feed my kids mangos on a winter night in Minnesota, I could feed them Audrey's elderberries and Mary Jo's beef and Carol's winter lettuce grown right there in Milan. A saving remnant indeed!

A 1936 essay by Albert Jay Nock appeared in the Atlantic Monthly pondering the Saving Remnant from the book of Isaiah and modern America. He says:

"Ah," the Lord said, "you do not get the point. There is a Remnant there that you know nothing about... They need to be encouraged and braced up because when everything has gone completely to the dogs, they are the ones who will come back and build up a new society; and meanwhile, your preaching will reassure them and keep them hanging on. Your job is to take care of the Remnant, so be off now and set about it."

Nock ends the essay saying "....hence a few of those who feel the prophetic afflatus might do better to apply themselves to serving the Remnant. It is a good job, an interesting job, much more interesting than serving the masses.."

I confess that I think of my own work as serving the Remnant--a good and interesting job--surrounded by many colleagues.

But right now I have to go out and play in the mud with my little kids.

Mangos, papayas, and other secret loves



Imagine this. It is March 7, 2008 in the heart of the tall grass prairie region—what was once the greatest expanse of grassland in the world. It is winter, 13 degrees below zero. I am feeding my children a treat-- mangos (from Peru) and papayas from some other very warm place. I bought them in Ortonville, Minnesota. A modern miracle of food supply.

As I stand over my warm stove, I’m listening to American jazz, also from somewhere other than this cold prairie. I have a sense of appreciation for the warmth that the sweet tropical fruit and the music bring to my life here on a winters evening at the 46th parallel.

I’m reading Plan B 2.0 by Lester Brown (click on this link—the entire book is available on line). Brown lays out the environmental and economic situation we find ourselves in today and lays out a plan for a much better tomorrow—much better than if we try to stay on our current path.

What struck me, while eating my mango (at least metaphorically) is that humankind tipped the balance of over using our resources (water, soil, natural resources) around 1980. This means instead of living off the “interest? provided by the earth’s bounty, we started eating into the “principle? of our natural resources. The same study estimates that “global demands in 1999 exceeded that capacity by 20 percent. The gap, growing by 1 percent or so a year, is now much wider. We are meeting current demands by consuming the earth’s natural assets, setting the stage for decline and collapse.?

We can’t keep going on this way and expect to have a happy ending.

Somehow, it makes the mangos taste even sweeter knowing that perhaps we are living in this blip of time (let’s say a 70 year period) when life is easy and sweet.

Chicken Confidential: Local Foods Part II


photo credit Ashley Hockenberry (forgot my camera in St. Paul)

I'm told that supply is an issue for local foods.

We had our first 1 dozen egg day yesterday!! We have reached the point where we are producing more healthy, local eggs than we can eat. With 38 layers we are on track to produce about 190 eggs per week or 15 dozen. They are as "free range" as a chicken in the winter wants to be, eat corn grown on our farm and shelled by a couple of three-year olds on the kitchen floor (note to parents-- little boys love to shell corn and it can keep them busy for minutes at a time!!-- oh but then there is the mouse problem what with corn everywhere).

So now we are trying to find an outlet for our eggs. We eat 3 dozen a week. We have family who will take another 3 dozen per month. I've started to talk to local places about selling them. The results:
1) local grocery store. Tried for a couple weeks, then said "no" very nicely
2) local restaurant. No.
3) neighbor-- can't abide eggs with bright orange yolks (what's with that??)
4) Trotters restaurant in St. Paul. Yes. So Trotters will buy eggs for $1.50 per dozen. 15 dozen per week would be $22.50 per week. The drive, however, is 360 miles round trip or about $180 in mileage reimbursement. I do travel to the Cities often and could drop them off at Trotters. My $22.5 would buy me lunch with a friend or a box of muffins for a staff meeting-- nice quality of life goodies, but not efficient or sustainable farming.

Finding each of these eggs is a treat. The kids and I actually saw one of the chickens laying an egg-- like it was planned. Her face to the wall, snuggled in the bedding-- you could see her settle in and fluff up to lay that egg. So there are many joys and lessons in growing our own food, apart from any economic motivation. But we would like to figure out how to get our eggs into our community.

My other motivations are in "continue reading" cuz it ain't pretty...

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