Corn, Corn and Cows in the Motherland:
on the road from Texas to Iowa.
Over the past six months or so, I’ve had the strange fortune of hitting the road numerous a time visiting and trading stories with many agrarian minded folks. Most recently I was invited back to my alma mater – Luther College (to the outside world, I reference Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds Live at Luther to indicate the college’s grand musical stature) – in Decorah, IA – which to most farmer friends, recognizable as home to Seed Savers Exchange. All this to say, my little 25-year-old was invited as part of the college’s Sense of Vocation speaker series. Around campus a poster proudly displays a photo of my days farming my front yard in Wilmington, DE – pitchfork in hand, along with a short bio submitted by yours truly:
Originally hailing from the mono-cropped farmlands of the Midwest, Bethel Erickson now resides in Waco, Texas, as a self-proclaimed agrarian social worker for the Heart of Texas Urban Gardening Coalition. Graduating from Luther in 2007, Bethel has since worn many hats as a counselor for ex-offenders on the South Side of Chicago, as a homeless outreach worker in Delaware, and eventually as a farmer at a lovely little place called the World Hunger Relief Farm in Waco. She is mother to eight chickens, two rabbits, a horse-sized dog and enjoys communing at potlucks, playing Scrabble and swapping stories with grandmas and anarchists – all at the same time.
However, my time on campus is only a short snippet of my ventures back to what I refer to as the Motherland – the Midwest.
Days One and Two: Left Waco for not-really-sure where. Planning on spending the evening somewhere at the in-between of destinations. In order to truly appreciate God’s good earth and the good work of people restoring her back to health, our first stop was – naturally – the WinStar Casino. I have never been in a casino – much less ever wanted to – but my boyfriend persuaded me. To get free drinks (because they have these beverage islands where one can stay caffeinated day or night . . .) So around noontime, we waltzed our way into the dark, dank atmosphere of ka-chings and chain smoke – feeling on the verge of a neon light-induced seizure – grabbed our drinks and hit the road.
Much driving – covering eight or so hours and three states – until arriving in El Dorado, KS, at the State Park where we open-air camped for the evening. Besides our picnic-packed snacks, we attempted to patronize local diners for meal times – which in small-town America means fried appetizers and perhaps an iceberg salad for those of us who are farm-itarians (definition: one who focuses their diet predominately seasonal produce and locally/sustainably raised meat). And yep, that’s not something I freely advertise to small-town folks. I usually stand out as a foreigner to these parts – and I certainly wouldn’t want to sound pretentious. Story of my life.
After our night under the stars, we had a nice little jaunt around Kansas City – exploring independent bookstores (Prospero’s Books) and neighborhood fall colors – before heading on through Missouri and arriving in Iowa (with a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte – who can resist?!) I must note that my heart swells rapturously upon seeing the farmed countrysides of the Midwest. This is a conflicting feeling as many of these hillsides are covered in corn. Acres and acres of corn. Monocropped. However, I used to view these acres as the Midwest’s attempt to create some sort of oceanic seascape for us land-trapped folks. My family and I still sit upon the back porch at night when there aren’t city lights to obscure the stars, and we’d watch fireflies dance through the fields of corn or soybeans (depending on the nitrogen-fixing crop rotation). When the wind blows, waving the stalks from side to side, the view is such an awe-fully beautiful horror.
These are the thoughts that hit me upon entering the North Country (or as my boyfriend, a proud Texan, might describe it, southern Canada). For others traveling with me, usually just horror hits them – no beauty or awe.
Our last meal before Decorah involved an overly-microwaved veggie burger at Burger King. Ugh.
Day Three: For those of you who don’t know about Decorah, you should. I like to think of it as what rural America can once again become: economically alive and viable with a thriving downtown with local businesses such as the Blue Heron Knittery, Decorah Hatchery, and T-Bocks Bar and Grill – where you have the option of ordering a local, grass-fed cow-turned-burger. Small-scale agriculture abounds – although a number of farmers still represent the average statistic (57 years old and beyond), new entrants into the field are encouraged and supported. Due to grand demand and supply, the Oneota Community Food Cooperative (or more simply, the Co-op) that I knew and loved expanded beyond its old, crowded location to a renovated building in bustling downtown. I still fondly remember the smell of bulk grains and spices roaming the aisles of the Co-op, as well as Thursday Night Soup Supper Club, when friends would gather, take to our bikes, take over the streets and down some soup – come snow or sunshine.
Here at the Co-op was my first appointed visit with Johnice Cross of Grown Locally. Johnice helps coordinate producers with a variety of distribution streams – which includes finagling local food procurements into Sodexo contracts at Luther, coordinating with kitchen staff for area schools to prepare food fresh from the garden to the cafeteria, and working with area producers to understand all the corporate mumbo-jumbo and legalities.
To say more about the Farm to School Movement, many schools contract their food with large distributors such as Sodexo or Aramark – which specify that the schools may only source their food products from said corporation or else be in violation of their contract. Usually there is no wiggle room for incorporating local producers – unless the contract is intentionally broken (by which the school must re-budget and figure out new sources of mostly wholesale food) or forces the corporation to bow to the school’s wishes – which Luther is doing with the help of Grown Locally’s Farm to School projects. Luther has the goal of sourcing 35% of its food locally – and is already incorporating fresh produce from campus gardens into its dining hall.
The local schools have no such contract and thus are able to integrate produce from school gardens and area farmers into their menu without corporate hassle. Food for the schools is prepared in one kitchen and distributed thus. However, working with fresh produce poses new problems for preparation. Grown Locally has brought in chefs from the Twin Cities to work with cafeteria kitchen staff to present recipes and preservation techniques that incorporate fresh produce into the cafeteria in a timely and economical method – not always easy for staff who are over-worked and underpaid. However, demand from the school kids makes the transition to fresh foods easier. In Decorah-area schools, students have a hand in starting seeds in the classroom, planting in the garden and harvesting for the cafeteria. Each school has a wellness team that involves educators, growers, and parents to ensure the garden is cared for over the summer and provide support to ensure the program is successful.
My caffeinated joy hit a peak from hearing local food systems hitting the institutional level (we’re a bit behind in Waco . . .) Jonathan and I wandered around the Co-op – gathering goodness for a lunchtime picnic at Seed Savers Exchange – including salad mix with pansies from Canoe Creek Farm, day-old thai tofu wraps from the Water Street Cafe in the Co-op, and juliette tomatoes and sweet bell peppers from other area farms.
So we trekked to Seed Savers just north of town – wandering through the shop, browsing books and collecting seeds during their 50% off/end-of-season sale. (I purchased seeds for moonflower, bee balm, borage, Marina di Chioggia squash, Turk’s Turban squash, Cherokee Purple tomatoes, and Lacinato kale – super-geeked about the spring growing season!) We went outside and oogled over the heritage breed turkeys, geese (please never keep geese in your backyard – they are annoying), ducks, and chickens – before hiking up a few trails and exploring the demonstration gardens and finally visiting with the Ancient White Park Cattle (they roamed the British Isles before the time of Christ!) All beautiful. Then we sat in the sunshine of the blue sky and ate blissfully.
Our last stop before returning to town – the Historic Orchard. Envision the Garden of Eden – without the snake and “don’t eat . . .” Rather, the only command was “Do not pick from the tree. (Gather from the ground.)” So we scavenged the ground for a myriad supply of apples – golden and red – flavors unknown greeted our tongues and our taste buds reveled. (Our tummies – not so much. Let’s just say we were regular that day. And the next.)
We perused the Depot Outlet (basically the cheapest and best thrift store – at least in Decorah) – picking up some books, A Prairie Home Companion Pretty Good Joke Tape (I don’t have a tape player), and perhaps the craziest board game ever – Jack Plot. We think JackPlot was produced by Monsanto – a game for the whole family to test their knowledge on increasing yields, applying fertilizer, and anticipating failure on the monocropped family corn/soybean farm (and there are national competitions for this game!) Yea! Next a cup of coffee at Magpie Coffehouse.
Then, an early dinner at T-Bocks (Jonathan had been pining for a grass-fed burger for days) – and to our delight, we ordered the Fun-Guy (fried portobellas on top of burger, covered in creamy ranch sauce) and the Southwest Burger (chipotle chili aioli, hot pepper cheese, and jalapeno peppers on burger) – choosing the local option of grass-fed burgers from Jepsen’s Grass Run Farms. Perhaps the best meal ever. And with a side of locally brewed Golden Nugget – from Decorah’s very own Toppling Goliah Brewing Company. We both agreed to come back again for burgers (and in fact, came back twice in the next three days).
To end the evening we strolled through Phelps Park over-looking the Upper Iowa River and a prairie restoration project (which includes a cut-out buffalo), before struggling down the bluff-side through twiggy terrain to the path below – which is part of the Trout Run Trail, a project of the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative.
The stars were big and bright – and we weren’t in Texas any more.
End Day Three. End Part One.