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Cow Tipping

December 3, 2009

Blue Marble yogurt

I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point a while back.  It was fascinating.  I loved it, but I remember thinking that although I could see the power in it, I couldn’t quite figure out how to apply it myself.  I hate to condense all his wonderful work to one sentence, but in case you haven’t read it, just understand that large change can and often does come from actions that are very small.  If enough people make a tiny change, the net result is huge and will tip the scale in favor of how people are thinking and behaving.

For me, it went like this first.  I was in the car with my friend Kirk a few years ago and he was just chatting conversationally about recycling.  I could tell he was passionate about it and was trying to get his office to implement a better program.  I found myself nodding my head and totally agreeing about the importance of recycling even though I wasn’t doing it myself!  It made so much sense and I had done it years ago when I lived in Germany, but frankly, Chicago just wasn’t supporting it.  The blue-bag recycling program was a joke and I just wasn’t interested because it was “too difficult”.  Talking with Kirk was a moment though that turned me around.  Feeling his enthusiasm made me want to solve it.  I did some research and found that the city was just then in the process of implementing a single-stream recycling pilot program for condo buildings our size.  Within weeks we had dumpsters and our entire 8 unit building was recycling!  So Kirk “tipped” me, and the interesting thing about it is that I don’t think he knows it.  A casual conversation where he showed his enthusiasm for recycling impacted an 8 unit building.

Thrilled to see how much less “garbage” our little two-person household was now producing, I started looking around to find ways to use even less.  Europe again:  I stayed at a little inn in Austria for a week years ago and we took all our meals in their restaurant, sort of B&B style.  They gave each of us a cloth napkin that we labeled somehow and we re-used them for many meals.  Anytime we felt they were too far along and needed laundering, we dropped them into a bin; otherwise we kept using the same napkin.  Brilliant.  So obvious.  Carolyn and I started doing that and two things happened: we of course use fewer paper napkins, which we used to mow through, so it’s good we’re not throwing those into the waste stream, and secondly, we don’t buy paper napkins, so that is money saved.  My mom saw this and asked for four distinct napkin rings for Christmas.  Now she can do the same, and we each know our napkin by the ring.
Score one for me — I “tipped” my mom!

I learned years ago to be passionate about the ingredients I cook with.  I LOVE to do things the hard way, from as scratch as possible.  My mom used to own a gourmet chocolate dessert business and the care she showed for each individual ingredient was remarkable.  You can’t bake a cake with poor chocolate, substitute butter and skim milk and expect it to taste good.  It will be a cake, yes, but not one of hers!  So when the farmer’s markets hit my radar screen years ago, I loved that because I care about the quality of the ingredients going into my cooking.  I didn’t need a food movement or Michael Pollan to tell me that, but I am absolutely thrilled that the movement is happening and nothing has influenced me more lately than reading his two books.  Wanting only the highest quality ingredients was good, but Michael has helped me see and understand the entire food system and why it needs to change.  Nobody’s tipping more people than Michael!

I don’t get around to exercising.  I hate exercise just for the sake of it.  I like to feel healthy, but I’d rather achieve that by just naturally being outdoors and active, kayaking, camping, fishing, skiing, you know, just doing stuff.  Still, I live in the city and I’ve been doing less “stuff” these days.  My blues obsession has me hanging around in bars more than playing outdoors, so I do need to force myself to be active a little more than I used to.  I have a friend, Russ, who is in his sixties and he’s my role model.  He bikes and hikes avidly and is in such good shape for his age, despite bypass surgery.  He has biked across the entire state of Iowa!  I found myself thinking, when I get older, I sure hope I’m as healthy as he is.

View over the handlebars

On vacation a year ago, I found myself renting a bike for a casual rail trail outing.  For the same price as a mountain bike, I could rent a road bike.  I always wondered what those were like to ride.  Me, I had a clunky old mountain bike that I occasionally knock around the city on and occasionally ride the bike path trying to exercise.   It’s not an inspiring bike.  This rental road bike?  Now that was inspiring!  I was amazed at how comfortable something with those skinny tires and skinny, hard seat could be.  Plus, it was fast and responsive, like driving a sports car.  I was hopelessly hooked.  All last fall I mooned around and debated whether to buy one or not.  It seemed silly.  It was definitely not something that fell into the “I need it” category, but…come November in this terrible economy, when everyone else was either scrimping or at least buying skis and snowboards, there I was at the bike shop spending A LOT of money for a road bike.  But it’s beautiful, light, fast.  It’s so much fun to ride and I’ve been on it over 850 miles already, even through the winter.  I’m shooting for 1000 miles my first year.  When I grow up, I wanna be just like Russ.  I’ve been tipped!

What am I getting at with all this?  Well, I find it interesting to see the connection, to see the changes occurring in my life and to notice that they have causes, often small ones.  Facebook really interests me this way.  I enthusiastically posted that I was growing micro-greens and buying seeds from Seed Savers Exchange.  Who cares?  Well, one person responded that she was going to buy her seeds from SSE and another person responded that he’s inspired to plant something in his windowsill.  For me, it is nice to see that there are people out there wanting to share ideas about how to change the food world.  There are people looking for ways to change, and they can be reached, they can be “tipped” on Facebook.  I did it.  I didn’t really mean to, but it happened, and I think it’s great.  People need to think more about their food given that it is the fuel they put in their bodies.


My last story is about the milk man.

I was buying my yogurt and milk from the guy at the Green City Market, and you know, you can’t immediately know all the vendors.  One day though, I got to talking with Nick Kirch of Blue Marble Dairy.  He’s a sweet, quiet guy, more of a “cow whisperer” than a soap-box shouter, but he’s definitely got things to say.  He’s the little guy standing up to “big agriculture” and large, unhealthy farming practices.  His high quality milk was going to the local distributor and being blended with other, less healthy milk.  This bothered him because he was trying so hard to produce above average milk.  So he bottles his own milk to control production all the way to the consumer, me.  Nick milks cows, puts it in a bottle and sells it to me.  I love how direct that is.  I titled this Cow Tipping because Nick’s cows are tipping me, not the other way around.  They are pointing me, and you, in the right direction.

So it seems like often we don’t know we tipped someone.  Kirk didn’t know he’d tipped me and encouraged me to get the recycling happening in our building.  What would our society be like if we told people that they’d tipped us, that they’d led us to think and act differently?  Try it.  Approach a grower and thank them for leading you toward better food choices.  They are there, at the market, and working hard on their farms, because they believe in healthy food and because they want you to have access to that healthy food.  Thank them.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 8, 2009 5:28 am

    This is great writing! Keep it up…you really have a knack for the blog thing. Writer and photographer…the complete package. Now if you can just figure out a way to work your blues songs into the audio track of your blog you’ll become a “triple threat” 🙂

  2. Michelle Freno permalink
    December 17, 2009 12:02 pm

    I agree with James – awesome writing, great photos (as always) and very interesting topics! Keep it up! And yeah, the idea about adding a “soundtrack” is good, too 🙂

  3. John Kessler - dad permalink
    February 14, 2010 7:07 pm

    Yes, we are all often “tipped”, but usually are not aware of it. It is a natural part of growth.

    As a father it is rewarding to watch a son be “tipped” in directions that contribute to a better world. The tiny positive changes that add up to make a difference create a mass consciousness which is very powerful.

  4. February 15, 2010 6:36 pm

    Kathy Bean – Florida family! …. Awesome article, Grant! “Tipping” can be as contagious as a warm smile! … Before you realize it.. you’re doing it! … Wonderful idea and well stated and shared! Thanks!

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