Road Trippin’ Through the Local Food Psyche
I drove my little red wagon down a lot of skinny single-lane in rural Illinois and Iowa last week, headed to southern Iowa to do some fishing, all the while talking to my slipping clutch: “Hang in there! Take me there and back again please!”
Ordinarily, my music choice in the car would be electric Chicago blues but I found myself reaching for country blues and bluegrass this trip. The warm acoustic instruments and voices seemed to fit the drive through the browning fall countryside. The music felt expansive, like a soundtrack, and it drew my mind out of the car and into the scenery as though I were in a film where the camera pans across beautiful rural scenery and music plays in the background.
I passed field after field of corn drying in the sun, corn that was a point of pride to me as a kid. Amber waves of grain. It’s the landscape of my childhood. I even spent a summer detasseling corn, a grueling job for high school kids where you walk the steaming hot, scratchy rows of corn and pull tassels off way above your head to stop self-pollination and instead encourage cross-pollination with another corn type. I was hybridizing corn – yikes!
Of course I see the fields differently now. On this trip my dad tried to describe the awkward feeling of being a former John Deere employee. He understands as I do now that all this corn and soybean is not food…but his life was in support of industrial farming for years. It paid the bills, it took our family abroad for a year, it sent me through college. Now we have to turn away from the hand that fed us. It impresses me that he can do this.
“Hang on, clutch, hang on!”
The farmers I rolled past are people like my dad, trying to make a living. They must be proud of their work, proud that they feed us. Asking them to change their way of thinking is a big demand.
Visually it doesn’t seem big business is out there as you roll by farms and fields, but its tentacles are there, snaking through the rows and waving bright little signs at the ends of the rows of corn and soybeans, signs that say DeKalb and Pioneer and ConAgra. And if you think nothing of those long, low-slung buildings with the huge blower fans on the end of them, well, you should think about them. Those are containment for animal factories. Those are pigs and chickens, completely enclosed, never exposed to daylight or actual fields to forage in.
My playlist came around to the Fairfield Four singing in deep, resonant, ominous, a capella voices:
“You got to go to the lonesome valley
You got to go there by yourself”
But I don’t want to go alone. I want people to join me and I don’t want it to feel lonely. It is a joyous feeling to see a farm, to eat food from a farm, to know a farmer.
Meadow Haven Organic Farm was my last stop. Jeremy House is a quiet, thoughtful young farmer who raises cattle, pigs and chickens and he was gracious enough to spend hours with me showing me the farm and talking a lot about his farming philosophy. Jeremy described his farm as an attempt to replicate a natural system. He works to be tuned in to what the animals and land are telling him. Here’s one example he gave:
His laying hens were not always laying in the boxes designed for that. Because they are free-range and not confined to a laying box, one problem Jeremy faced was that they were laying all over the yard and it is difficult for him to find and collect eggs that way. He would eliminate one little hiding place and they would find another. He chased his tail that way for a while until he realized there was something he wasn’t noticing. He phrases it like the cell phone commercials, “Can you hear me now?” “Can you hear me now?!” The natural system around him was talking to him, but he wasn’t hearing it at first. Finally he realized the laying boxes weren’t dark and secluded feeling and the hens weren’t comfortable laying there for that reason. It was simple to drape something over the openings to provide the seclusion they wanted.
Life on Meadow Haven Farm is all about listening to your surroundings and responding to problems with natural solutions. Large commercial farms would have moved away from free-range in Jeremy’s shoes and simply enclosed the hens. Yes, it solves the problem, but it creates so many more. It is wonderful to meet farmers like Jeremy and to know they are out there working to produce food for us in healthful, natural ways.
By the last miles back into the city I’d moved to swingin’ sax tunes. Country blues was behind me…skyscrapers were in front of me…my clutch had made it…
But I know there is chicken poop and cow poop stuck in my shoes.