Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category
Today is the day the Iowa Local Food and Farm Plan was delivered to the state legislature. A bipartisan request was presented last year that stated: “To the extent feasible, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture established pursuant to section 266.39 shall prepare a local food and farm plan containing policy and funding recommendations for supporting and expanding local food systems and for assessing and overcoming obstacles necessary to increase locally grown food production.”
It’s a rather remarkable request from the legislature. The report was released today and you can find the report on the Leopold Center webs site. I helped write part of the introductory section, and my favorite few paragraphs of the introduction that place the report in a historical context are copied from the report below.
Iowa’s soils are among the most productive in the world, and are considered to be one of the state’s most important natural resources. Through a fortuitous combination of geological history, abundant rainfall, and hard-working farmers, Iowa offers an agriculturally productive environment that few places on earth can match.
More than 30.8 million acres are devoted to agriculture in Iowa, which accounts for 86 percent of the state’s land area. Iowa ranks first nationally in corn, soybean, hog, and egg production. In 2009, Iowa farmers produced agricultural products worth $24.3 billion dollars, and exported 26 percent of these products around the world. In addition to its contribution to the economy, agriculture plays an important role in the cultural and social fabric of the state. County and state fairs, farm toy museums and historical farm re-enactments offer Iowans a chance to celebrate and explore their state’s agricultural heritage. Many Iowans also honor their agrarian traditions through antique power shows, “barn quilts,” the recognition of heritage and century farms, and restoration and tours of historic barns. Agricultural events like the World Pork Expo, Cattle Congress, and World Food Prize Symposium attract many out-of-state and international visitors to Iowa.
Poised as it is on the cusp of all things agricultural, Iowa has led the nation, and sometimes the world, in agricultural innovation. Iowa was the first state to accept the provisions of the Morrill Act in designating Iowa State University as the nation’s first land grant university. The nation’s first tractor factory set up shop in Charles City, and agricultural innovator George Washington Carver is a prominent Iowa State alum and food pioneer. Henry Wallace, the inventor of hybrid seed corn and founder of Pioneer Seed Company, traces his roots to Adair County. Cresco native Norman Borlaug started “the green revolution,” and Grant Wood found artistic fame depicting Iowa’s agricultural heritage.
I’ve noticed over the past few months, that the word “activist” has become a new pejorative buzzword. I’ve been trying to figure out the rhetorical appeal of the word. I’ve figured out the typically an “activist” is someone out of step within the current system. There are environmental activists, organic activists, alternative energy activists who seemingly have a common agenda to somehow destroy life as we know it. I couldn’t figure out why these activists are so dangerous to the status quo. For example, even though organic farms are less than 1% of Iowa farmland, non-activists have spent lots of money on TV and radio ads subtly and not-subtly casting aspersions on organic and sustainable farmers. It didn’t make any sense to me why they would devote so many resources to defending the status quo. Then I ran across this paragraph by Maine farmer Eliot Coleman (few conventional Iowa farmers would consider anybody in Maine a “real” farmer) and was struck by the statement from Jefferson.
But there is one other connection between the word “radical” and small farms that I need to mention. The small organic farm greatly discomforts the corporate/industrial mind because the small organic farm is one of the most relentlessly subversive forces on the planet. Over centuries both the communist and the capitalist systems have tried to destroy small farms because small farmers are a threat to the consolidation of absolute power. Thomas Jefferson said he didn’t think we could have democracy unless at least 20% of the population was self-supporting on small farms so they were independent enough to be able to tell an oppressive government to stuff it. It is very difficult to control people who can create products without purchasing inputs from the system, who can market their products directly thus avoiding the involvement of mercenary middlemen, who can butcher animals and preserve foods without reliance on industrial conglomerates, and who can’t be bullied because they can feed their own faces.
On Monday, I gave a presentation about our household’s efforts to reduce energy use and increase dependence on renewable sources. I was followed by a member of a biodiesel co-op, and finally by someone from Alliant Energy. This person applauded the energy conservation efforts, but not-so-subtly, again mentioned the word “Activists” advocating renewable energy when it is perfectly clear to him that alternative energy systems will never replace coal plants and are essentially a waste of money. I guess if you have a hammer (an electric utility) then your job is to generate and sell electricity at the lowest possible cost. If someone comes along with a socket set, you don’t really think the socket set will work for driving nails. For if everyone used a socket with an attachment to twist in screws instead of a hammer to nail things in, your hammers wouldn’t be as valuable.
But this got me thinking about larger questions and confluences in food, energy, and farming. I think it boils down to a difference in values. If an urban Sierra Club chapter fights to save a wetland from “development” or a lake from being polluted by farm chemicals, they are labeled “Activists.” If a group of guys with guns like Ducks Unlimited or Pheasants Forever purchase wetlands/native areas they are not labeled “Activists.” Is the answer as simple as arming Sierra Club members? Is saving something for someone else besides yourself all it takes to be labeled an activist?
I think that small farmers, renewable energy proponents, and anyone else engaged in a pursuit that is counter to the prevailing system need to consider a different tack. Our economic system is supposed to serve us – after all, we invented it. Instead, most of us are slaves to the system, not being served by the system. The reason is simple. The practice of or current economic system does not meet basic human needs. Self-sufficiency, taking care of your family and neighbors is one of the historical human needs. So when I’m told I’ve made a terrible economic decision in installing a renewable energy system, or not farming like my neighbors, I think about this. Economics and profit are the motivating factor for every major corporation. Humans, are not like that, however. We don’t make decisions based on solely economic reasons (and if we do, we end up being unhappy and unfulfilled).
What’s the financial return on having children? What’s the financial return on taking care of aging parents? What’s the return on buying a $10,000 fishing boat and gear? What’s the return on a BMW S series? What’s the financial return on farming to conserve soil if you are only alive for 80 years and the soil has 100 years of abusive farming practices left before the other half is gone? There’s something larger than economic return going on here. For too long, organic, sustainable, and energy “activists” have been using the traps of the current economic system to justify their actions. My suggestion – stop explaining the economic returns of your sustainable methods in financial terms. Talk about how “It’s just the right thing to do.” You’ll be assaulted with terms like “niche” “hobby,” or perhaps if you are really on the edge “crackpot.” Talk about how it’s the right thing to do. It feeds my spirit. It connects me to generations in the future. Talk about the satisfaction of pulling a crop or kilowatt out of your place like hunters talk about their exploits outfoxing wild animals.
Our story is much more interesting than a corporate anything. Commodity agriculture doesn’t have a story. Who wants to visit a modern hog farm? Who wants to work in a modern meatpacking plant? Heck, who wants to visit a corn/soybean farm except maybe for a couple weeks in the spring or fall? Contrast that to the small farmer who has a diversity of crops and animals, an ever-evolving network of plants and animals, with a fast two-step throughout the season. Tell your story – it’s much deeper and more connected to the human spirit than any slick corporate ad. We need you, we’ve fallen below Jefferson’s 20% threshold.
The 15th edition of the Wapsipinicon Almanac is now out and this issue features a book review by yours truly.
I reviewed the book The Emerald Horizon: The History of Nature in Iowa (Bur Oak Book) by Cornelia Mutel. I’ve always wanted to be a contributor to this funky publication. The journal is still made on an old-fashioned linotype machine with editorial content somewhere between the New Yorker and Old Farmer’s Almanac. Thanks to a reader from Texas for this link to Eldon Meeks running the Linotype at the Wapsipinicon Almanac on youtube.
I can’t let it pass without noting the death of Masanobu Fukuoka at age 95. Fukuoka might best be described as the most pre-eminent Buddhist farmer. He advocated an approach to agriculture which some describe as permaculture, others might call natural farming. His most widely circulated book is The One-Straw Revolution. It’s on my winter reading list as I’m a bit sad to announce I haven’t yet read it myself.
Here’s a short summary (well, not so short) of Fukuoka’s perspective on farming.
A few weeks ago Claire was part of a Father’s Day service at church and she wrote and read this at church. We had requests to post it, so for better or worse, a 15 year-old’s perspective on her father!
TOP 10 THINGS I LEARNED FROM MY DAD
Fathers are one of the core places that we form ideas from, whether they are good ideas, or ideas of what not to do, fathers shape our lives, for better or worse. I am one of the fortunate ones to be born into a family with one of the good dads. One of the dads that helps me become a better person, protects me, while giving me independence, and listens to my thoughts and feelings and takes those into consideration.
However, being a good dad means that your child may not always agree with your decisions (especially related to chores and saying no to things!) But these actions by a dad show love and care. They teach us that the world is not a fair place, and sometimes we don’t always know what is best for us. Call it building character, discipline, whatever you will, but it is a crucial part to being an excellent father.
I would like to share the top 10 lessons that I have learned from dad so far. Many may seem humorous, but when you look beneath the surface, there is a greater lesson.
10. Duct tape can solve anything
From a young age, when something was broken, out would come the duct tape, and a quick easy repair made. Duct tape had many uses, innumerable uses. Dad showed me that. This philosophy soon rubbed off on me, whether I realized it or not. At homecoming I found myself in a hand-made duct tape dress, and I have made myself many a duct tape ball, and now I almost always keep a roll of duct tape in my backpack. Although dad has moved on from duct tape to greater things, that mentality from duct tape still stays with me. This gift of creativity from my father is a unique and useful quality, and I plan to find many more uses for duct tape in my life.
9. Scam off your kids
When you want to teach your kids responsibility, there is nothing like giving them the money they will need for everything and tell them to manage it. This was the system that my dad came up with three years ago. As a result, when I recklessly spend my money on something and I’m left lunchless, he will give me a pay advance- but, there’s a catch. I have to pay him a service fee. Or the time my sister Emma and I had our own mini business making and selling dog treats, dad charged us for electricity for the oven. These little things seemed ridiculous to us, and to our mom, but they are a great lesson in responsibility and accountability. I have learned not to take things for granted because of his little fees and charges.
8. Imitating singers with high pitched voices does not gain you popularity within the family
Dad also has a habit of singing along with rather sappy singers on the radio every once in a while, mostly to annoy us. These impressions are usually met with moans and groans from the back seat of the car. This lesson could be interpreted in many ways, tolerate people, or accept them for who they are, but I think the real lesson is be able to let loose, be free, have fun, and have no worry about what others may think of your little meandering into the wild and sometimes obnoxious side.
7. Even if photo documentation seems a bit excessive now, someday you’ll appreciate it.
Or maybe not. Who knows? In either case, Dad makes it a daily habit to photo document anything and everything around the farm and family. He’ll then compose a blog entry and post it for the world to see. Needless to say, we have countless photos of spring flowers, summer sunsets, fall harvests, winter icicles, family events, and hard labor around the farm. These photos really capture the spirit of our farm and family. It’s a way of showing how far we’ve come (the before and after pictures of remodeling projects or gardens). It can be a fulfilling experience of WOW! Look how far we’ve come. Or it can be a reflection of what went wrong. It’s a wonderful method of self reflection, and recording of memories for generations to come, or just for us in the future.
6. Being a nerd is not bad
Dad is a prime example of this. You’ll know exactly what I mean if you saw his middle school basketball picture. He is the tall skinny kid with the big glasses, the shortest shorts, and the highest socks. In high school, he was a sousaphone player for the marching band. Nowadays he is our computer guru, and fixes problems, and sets things up for the whole family and neighborhood. Dad also has a few strange hobbies including avid interest in Henry Wallace and collecting license plates. Coupled with high intelligence, an avid interest in Ebay, and a degrees in geology and English make him a top of the line nerd. Needless to say he has passed it on to his kids, and we appreciate it. Nerds run the world, they make a difference, so we all need to embrace any inner nerdiness that we may have.
5. Never set dates on when do it yourself project will be completed
This one is more something that he learned from me, that I in turn learned from him. Since we moved to the farm, we have been constantly remodeling our house (before this remodeling, it had been redone in the seventies. Let’s just say that it was far from attractive.) Until last month, my sister and I had shared a room since she was born (approximately 13 years and 9 months ago). At a young age, I was promised my own room by the age of 10, then it was 12, then 13, and then 14, and then maybe never. I of course, being a teenager, was rather bitter about this promise had been broken. As a result, my parents never put a time frame out for any project (at least to me anyway). In this way, I became extremely grateful when something was accomplished. And I do finally have my own room.
4. Family is not a democracy
This lesson was often learned the hard way, usually in some argument, or me whining how life wasn’t fair. Or even asking for a simple vote. On certain issues, yes, we could vote. But on other issues, the true nature of the family government came out- family is a dictatorship. A benevolent dictatorship, but a dictatorship nonetheless. This means, that in order to sway decisions in your favor, you have to get on the good side of the dictators. This could involve helping out with whatever task they are doing, or doing chores without being asked, or just being nice. This taught me that life isn’t always fair, and that you don’t always know what’s best for you when you are a kid or teen, and that those dictators will be there for you, to protect you and keep you safe.
3. Debate arguments do not hold up against the word of a father, no matter how logical
This relates to the concept of family not being a democracy. Last year, I became avidly active in debate, and I love it. But, when I tried the techniques (unconsciously of course) out on my dad, well, let’s just say it didn’t work. Because in debate, the argument, “Because I said so and I’m the dad,” doesn’t work. So he would automatically win any argument that we may have chosen to embark in. Of course I had no response to that, no matter how logical my argument may have seen. Debate may have useful skills for the rest of my life, but for home arguments and decisions, it does not have a place. Here too, the dictators rule the decision making process. And at this point in my life, it’s not a bad thing.
2. If you happen to have children, you might as well use them
Sometimes I wonder if my parents had children solely as farm labor, until I realize that we moved to the farm after they had children. So then I think we moved to the farm because they had children to help out with the work. But really, they have us trained pretty well in a variety of different farm chores. Doing all that hard work does definitely not seem like fun 80% of the time. But when I reflect upon it, it has also shaped who I am. There is something about hard work that changes something in a person, although it is difficult to pinpoint what exactly. I think a good general synopsis of that change is that it adds a different perspective to things. In any case, I am grateful for this perspective, despite the amount that I may gripe and complain.
1. How to start the car, but not how to stop keep it going
Recently, my dad taught Emma how to drive the stick shift car. He showed her how to start, about the delicate balance between letting out the clutch and pushing down the gas. Soon after, she had the car running down the driveway. When they began approaching the cluster of farm buildings at the end, Emma realized that she had not been taught where the brake was located. This relates a lot to the role a dad plays in your life. He helps you get started, and nurtures you, helps you through the tricky balances of things early on, but he’s not going to tell you how to finish your life, or what to do with it, just like he didn’t teach Emma how to stop the car. A dad has to know the balance between launching and controlling a child’s life. The car incident also shows that life can be scary. Letting a child figure out something for themselves and exploring their own life is the mark of a truly wonderful father.
We do not choose our fathers, but if I did have a choice, I would choose the one I have.
“Musings from tomorrow” means simply that I’m going to expand on some thoughts that were prompted from traveling home from tomorrow’s Iowa Network for Community Agriculture Conference. I’m not time traveling, just putting some blog entries out of order. Since the blogging police don’t seem to care, as long as the transgressions are confessed, I’ll just go ahead.
The conference was a time to think about those things that get neglected in the necessity of everyday life. Actually, I wasn’t truly conscious that I was having this moment until I got home. Then the cacophony of everyday life unleashed itself. Noise. Whistling. Radios. Two or three simultaneous conversations. In other words, a normal night at home. I’m not sure if the energy of the evening was greater since we were gone all day, or if the contrast was greater after a day of generally listening to one person talk at a time and reflecting on the thoughts presented.
On the drive home we were traveling on a road I had not traveled in some time. Being out of the regular routine, the landscape seemed to open itself more to me than the landscape I travel in my routine. It wasn’t any more or less remarkable than the landscape I regularly travel – just different and not so engrained. It allows you to “see” more than you do onÂ your own well-traveled routes.
Coming home from work on Thursday, I had a similar experience. I needed to run some errands to locations I hadn’t been before. Finally, traveling back onto the oft-traveled roads, the fact that I entered the roadway at a different place made the place seem different. Somehow the usual visual cues were different. It made familiar places seem unfamiliar – just due to the fact that the journey started at a different place.
Both traveling over “new” land and traveling over “old” land from a different starting point gave me a different perspective. I wonderÂ what the consequences are to a person who repeatedly follows the same pathways – whether they be roads, habits, or actions?Â Does this expand to a cultural level as well?Â Is that one of the reasons that we are so unwilling or unable to try things that are out of the ordinary?Â Is that why nobody at the Marshalltown farmer’s Market would buy the chocolate-colored peppers or cylindricla beets? Is that why old solutions are tried first to solve new problems?Â If simply driving on a seldom-traveled road, or going onto an often-traveled road can give a whole new feeling, how does this play out for larger cultural shifts, or lack of progress?
I found it interesting that the feeling on the seldom-traveled road was much more enjoyable than traveling the oft-traveled road from a new perspective. I was surprised and a bit uneasy that the road seemed unfamiliar, just because I started at a new spot – it took a while to really figure out that I really was in the right place. Humans seem to have a strange fascination with seeking novelty and the need for predictability. The interplay of this at a cultural and personal level must be what really gets sociologists excited. I just wonder how the daily entrenchment of our daily lives wires our brains. Is this why it sometimes takes a near-catastrophic event for a person or culture to change -whether it be a cancer survivor finding an unquenching zest for life, a recently unemployed person to examine their life from a whole new perspective, or a nation teetering onÂ a great calimity to work together to find a new solution or new country?
I’ve rambled long enough. I hope this makes sense to me in the morning!
Last night author Sandra Steingraber presented a lecture as part of a job interview for a position in the Iowa State MFA program in Creative Writing and the Environment. Sandra is an ecologist, researcher, and writer who is one of the few popular authors who combines science into a lively and engaging prose.
Her books include Having Faith, a story about the birth of her child, aptly named Faith. The book meanders through an intimate description of a pregnancy and delivery intertwined with evaluations of the critical life-giving systems, including investigations of the purity (or not) of amniotic fluid, brest milk, and other life-affirming fluids now contaminated with chemicals that just shouldn’t be there. She’s now looking at the data concerning earlier onset of puberty and the effect on learning, brain chemistry and future breast cancer risk associated with earlier onset of puberty.
I hope that both Iowa State and Sandra can figure out what they need from each other and begin a mutually beneficial partnership!
one year ago…no entry
Tomorrow is a special open session of the Iowa Utility Board to take public comments on the proposed Alliant coal-fired power plant, applying for a permit just outside Marshalltown. There are a number of reasons I am opposed to building such a plant at this time. The health, climate, and economic considerations are among the most important.
I realize many others can speak better to the health and climate ramifications – NASA climate expert James Hansen is among those in the expert testimony part of the deliberations. I thought I’d take a different tack than others and speak to the economic risks. Each speaker has only two minutes, so here is the statement I will read regarding the owners of the proposed plant and the risks I see for my friends and neighbors.
I would like to thank the Iowa Utilities Board for offering this period of public commentary.
I would like to address the board concerning the management of the coal plant and financial risk to consumers should this plant be built. Quite frankly, it seems like Alliant does not have a very long attention span. Less than two years ago, they sold the Duane Arnold Power plant in southern Iowa to FPL Energy. In the last few months they received permission to sell their power transmission grid to ITC Holdings. I do not understand why a company with the mentality of a day trader would be granted a permit to construct a generating facility shortly after they’ve sold one?
In the current environment, coal-fired plants are now risky enterprises; according to the US Department of Energy, utilities have canceled 14,000 megawatts of planned coal-fired generation and delayed an additional 32,000 megawatts. This is mainly due to properly managing risk. Environmental and political pressures make construction of coal-fired plants risky business. Governor Chet Culver recently signed a regional accord agreeing to lower global warming pollution 60% to 80% by the year 2050. Adding new coal plants contradicts this policy. I’m afraid the management of this company will not have the attention span to manage this risk.
I’m worried Alliant will continue to flip its assets like the recent sales of its generating plant and transmission grid. It is not unlikely that future mandates will require complete carbon capture from coal-fired plants. Alliant management should be fully aware of and financially responsible for this risk. Alliant plans to benefit financially by the operation of this plant; they should assume the risk. I urge the board to make Alliant bear the risk. In other words, if 2, 5, or 10 years from now, complete carbon capture is required, IT SHOULD BE THE MANAGEMENT AND STOCKHOLDERS, not the consumers that bear the risk.
It is not fair for the management and stockholders of Alliant energy to assume all the benefits, and have the consumers assume the future risks of increased costs. Therefore, should the permit be granted, it should only be granted under the condition that any future carbon or pollution controls costs be borne directly by the stockholders and management, not added to the rate structure. It is the duty of the Iowa Utilities Board to safeguard the public interest, not to guarantee a risk-free investment for the management and stockholders of a private company.
Not many days you can see a barn burn down AND hear Wendell Berry speak! First, to the barn. A few months ago, I wrote about a century farm (one that is honored to be owned by the same family for over 100 years) that was let slide into disrepair and intentionally burned).
We were headed to church on Sunday morning and the smoke had just started pouring out of the barn. Mesmerized with the size of the fire, we pulled over on the side of the road to watch (I wasn’t willing to drive back home to get the camera, some moments have to stay that way). It was about three minutes from the time the barn was in full flame until it collapsed to the ground. Huge vortexes of flame shot out of the door to the hay loft. The barn wasn’t it good shape (see picture from last winter), but it is sad to see another barn go. It is way too common. Our skyline changes once again.
That night, about seven hours later, we were driving back to Ames to see Wendell Berry and something had re-ignited the ditch near the barn and the fire was heading south quickly – the fire trucks arrived as we were driving down the road to survey the fire and whether anything was in its path to stop it. Now we have a complex – our 2 now-famous fires (two different trips) where places we were just at/just arriving burned in Texas – and now, happening across the height of two different fires in the same place, the same day, hours apart.
In case you haven’t seen it, Sugar Creek Farm has a post and incredible photos of an old barn burning down.
In the evening we went to see Wendell Berry, an author, poet, social critic, and farmer whose work I have long admired. He appeared at Iowa State in the Great Hall. In an attempt to make the evening more intimate, it was set up like a talk show – with other speakers besides Wendell on stage to make conversation. Unfortunately, the sound system sounded and acted like it was purchased second-hand from a McDonald’s drive-thru, so I wasn’t really sure what all he said – there was an overflow crowd as well.
When they opened it up to questions from the audience, again, unfortunately, there were questions that didn’t elucidate elaboration, or worse yet, just plain ramblings by people using the microphone to introduce the audience to their web site and pet peeve. All in all, it was an unsatisfying event that held so much promise to be good. I’ll have to read his latest book to make up for it.
We need to keep asking ourselves what we want to be when we grow up. I don’t think the options are necessarily limited to one choice, or that a choice is anchored like a corner post of a long fence.
I recently learned that Iowa State has started an MFA program in Creative Writing and the Environment. Here’s how the program designers envision the students:
Students in this MFA program will:
write with skill and knowledge about place as a personal, political, and natural manifestation; gain a cultural-historical understanding of environmental complexity; become familiar with literary works that expand environmental and place-based consciousness; produce publishable creative works in the area of the environment; utilize critical insight to evaluate their own writing and the writing of others.
I think it would be a rewarding curriculum. So now that I’ve envisioned it, I need to start thiinking about finding out more about the program and trying to decide if I should apply. I’ve spoken briefly with one of the leaders, Mary Swander, but she is out temporarily, so when she returns we’ll get together and talk about the program some more and if I’d fit.
Eight to nine days after the power went out, our neighbors on the roads a mile east and a mile west still don’t have power. We are lucky to be part of a small rural co-op and had our power restored in 3 days, the neighbors are part of a multi-state power company with over 1 million customers, with much larger resources, and are still waiting for power. Another vote small and local over large and centralized?
A couple of days without power is an adventure, but eight days in the winter turns to misery fairly quickly.
Here’s a hand-made sign just a mile due east of us offering instruction to the local electrical foremen! You’ll also notice the tractor and red generator working to keep the people warm inside and pipes from freezing.
one year ago…
Today it’s page 3 of the Christmas letter.
Yesterday was page one of the Christmas Letter. Today it’s page 2.
Today, the last of the lambs went into the locker. Now, I have five lambskins salted down in the barn, the first stage of tanning.
Once again, it’s time for the annual Christmas Letter. I like to take a little different tack than most and try to have some fun. The next few days, I’ll post a page or so.
Without further ado, Page 1 of the Christmas Letter.