January 10, 2011 – Iowa Local Food and Farm Plan

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.

one year ago…”Cheap Ice Melt”

February 3, 2010 – What/Who is an “Activist”

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.

one year ago…”Thingamajig Thursday #152″

February 17, 2009 – Book Review in Wapsipinicon Almanac

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.

one year ago…”This is Getting Redundant”

August 31, 2008 – Masanobu Fukuoka,

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.

one year ago…”Photo Friday “Insignificant””

July 13, 2008 – Tribute to Dad?

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!


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.

one year ago…”BWCA Trip Day 2″

February 1, 2008 – Musings from Tomorrow

“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 on 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 wonder what the consequences are to a person who repeatedly follows the same pathways – whether they be roads, habits, or actions?  Does this expand to a cultural level as well?  Is that one of the reasons that we are so unwilling or unable to try things that are out of the ordinary?  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?  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 on 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!

one year ago…

January 15, 2008 – Sandra Steingraber Lecture

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

January 13, 2008 – Getting Ready for Public Hearing

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.

one year ago…

April 15, 2007 – Wendell Berry/Barn Burning

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.

one year ago…

March 19, 2007 – When I Grow Up…

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. 

    one year ago…

    March 4, 2007 – Frustration Begins to Set In

    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…

    December 16, 2006 – New Local Foodie Magazine

    There’s a new publication devoted to the family farmers, chefs, and food artisans in eastern and Central Iowa titled Edible Iowa River Valley.

    The first issue has articles on heritage turkeys, microbrews, a day trip from Iowa City to Decorah, foraging for wild mushrooms, and restaurant reviews. It’s a publication geared towards foodies and farmers equally. You can find out more at the ebible web site.

    one year ago…

    September 19, 2006 – Family Poet

    Here’s Claire’s thoughts on the threat of frost tonight.

    The summer labor, under the burning sun
    beating down, warming and browning our shoulders and the land
    has nearly come to an end.

    The tediousness of an extravagant crop,
    all summer plucking the fruits from the vines
    again and again,
    to the point of insanity
    where you honestly want to set the luscious fruitful gardens ablaze
    and stand and relish the leaping flames devouring your precious
    but exhausted plants.

    But then the cold comes,
    a bitter chill, and then they seem more precious. Out
    to pick more of the never-ending supply before the crop is wiped out by winter winds.

    Out to pick the fruits
        Out to cover the pumpkins
             Out to harvest the last bits
    of the garden that you thought you despised – for its bounty
    but found in reality, you love.

    August 29, 2006 – A Garlic Testament

    This is a wonderful gem of a book about farming and life, exquisitely written. The title is A Garlic Testament (I think that because it is “a” garlic testament and not “the” garlic testament, author Stanley Crawford, New Mexico garlic farmer allows for another version).

    Here’s a great passage that is entitled – The Cranky Farmer Talk.

    “Is your stuff organic?”  There will be a moment of hesitation, I will look you in the eye to assess what kind of response you want. If a rhetorical one, I’ll say merely: “we have never used any chemical herbicides or pesticides and never will.”

    Often this suffices. But sometimes I see genuine curiosity. Then I go on to explain that the only organic pesticides I have used are rotenone for bean beetles and sabadilla dust on summer squash, and only occasionally. Yet even these, because they are still poisons, however, organic, I’m still reluctant for a narrowly personal reason, that of my own health.

    So what about you? I would conclude. What about your life? Is it organically lived? Here I might pause to summon up the courage to bring up the forbidden subject. And if I might ask, what about the money you would offer to pay me with? Is it organically earned? In short, how have you managed to solve these problems in your life? Have you actually figured out how to live a clean life in a dirty age?

    Then I will listen. I may hear rationalizations of a fanatic, fretting over notions of exalted states of bodily purity. And for good reason. Perhaps in the poisonous desert of a city there is little else you can do besides seek out what you hope is “pure” food. Yet I hope I will also hear the deliberations of someone who understands the endless dilemmas of living in these times, someone who understands the term organic as pointing towards an ideal of how a community might better elaborate itself around the use of land and water. How it might regard the rural landscapes that surround it, the cycles of nature and the interactions of the vegetative, the animal, the human and cultural. How it might seek to draw back into its life what the fashion of the moment has exiled to “the country.”

    The question is posed. I will ask it or not, you will answer it or not. But whether spoken or not, all this and more comes to bear on that instant of suspicion or of trust in which I hand over at last a small sack of garlic in exchange for a few pieces of paper.

    These will be new and crisp or wrinkled and smudged. Either way, as always, they will be engraved with magical images and words, and will reveal nothing about the uses to which they’ve been put.

    But enough. Thank you. It’s been good talking to you. Enjoy your garlic.

    Now go read it.

    Last week I lamented about the world swallowing up Martin. Well, today, my fears of letting the world engulf him were justified. The little guy came home with a battered nose, mouth, and chin from falling off playground equipment. He looked bad, but I don’t think he is any worse for wear. He said the nurse was nice.

    June 27, 2006 – Early Summer Garden/Musings

    It’s now officially early summer. Here’s a view at some of the garden.

    It’s much easier to focus on what’s going wrong or not according to some plan, so today, I celebrate the things that are on track.

    I suppose we’ve all got those mental lists of things to do – fix that, organize those photos, clean that. But amongst all those things, kids get raised, good work gets done, and the world is improved little bit by bit.

    I’m paraphrasing a quote I heard a few days ago – I think it was attributed to an old Cherokee saying:

    “When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.”

    This goes along with a magazine my mother dropped off this weekend that I had not yet seen – here is the philosophy of Countryside magazine:

    “It’s not a single idea, but many ideas and attitudes, including a reverence for nature and a preference for country life; a desire for maximum self-reliance and creative leisure; a concern for family nurture and community cohesion; a belief that the primary reward of work should be well-being rather than money…and a taste for the plain and functional.”

    These are eerily like our wedding vows (we celebrated 17 years last Saturday). I like to think of it as our mission statement as a couple – I like to re-read them at least once a year to see how we are doing. So here are the thoughts that were read at our wedding – our wishes for ourselves concerning our marriage and life 17 years ago.

    “First of all, we wish for you a love that makes both of you better people, that continues to give you joy and zest for living, that provides you with energy to face the responsibilities of life.

    We wish for you a home–not a place of stone and wood, but an island of serenity in a frenzied world. We hope that this home is not just a place of private joy and retreat, but rather serves as a sacred place wherein the values of your life are generated and upheld, We hope that your home stands as a symbol of humans living together in love and peace, seeking truth and demanding social justice. We hope that your home encompasses the beauty of nature–that it has within it the elements of simplicity, exuberance, beauty, silence, color, and a concordance with the rhythms of life. We wish for you a home with books and poetry and music–a home with all the things that represent the highest strivings of men and women.

    We wish for you children–children who will not be mere reflections of yourselves, but will learn from you your best traits and will go forth to re-create the values you shall have instilled in them. We hope that you will give your children the freedom to find their own way, that you will stand aside when it is time for them to seek their personal destinies. But we hope you will pass on to your children the concept of family, not as an economic unit but as a transcendent force which brings people close in time of joy and in time of need.

    Finally, we wish that at the end of your lives you will be able to say these two things to each other: Because you have loved me, you have given me faith in myself; and because I have seen the good in you, I have received from you a faith in humanity.”

    So how are we doing regarding the children finding their own way?

    I’m not sure I would have selected “Bob the Builder” underwear as a hat – but so be it!

    November 1, 2005 – Wapsipinicon Almanac

    Ever seen the Wapsipinicon Almanac? It is a wonderful publication hard to describe – perhaps the offspring of a marriage between the New Yorker and Farmer’s Almanac. It contains fiction, reviews, wit, poetry and local color.
    wapsipinicon almanac
    The Wapsipinicon Almanac has been edited and published Anamosa and part of its charm is the simple black and white layout produced on a 60-year-old Linotype machine, and printed on a ’50s-vintage, two-color cylinder press. The cover is printed on a German press from the 1930s. It has the feel of a publication well-crafted and personal, a real difference from traditional publications.

    September 28, 2005 – Flat World

    I’m almost through with “The World is Flat,” by economist Thomas Friedman. I’ve had people from many disparate jobs and occupations recommend the book, I had to read it. The book looks at the breakneck speed of global economics and the threats and opportunities to worldwide and American ways of life. Although it is hard to distill the book in a short space, one of the most intriguing dealt with science and technical education, a national mission, and energy. Here’s a link to a very short, but good synopsis of this part of the book.

    July 5, 2005 – Knee-High By 4th of July

    I don’t know where the saying came from that advises corn should be knee-high by the 4th of July. Maybe it was from northern Minnesota where I grew up and you were lucky enough to get a corn crop, maybe it is just a catchy, rhyming phrase that was valid before hybrid vigor. Around these parts, you’d be awfully worried if the corn was only knee-high, no matter how tall you were.
    Martin as a measuring stick.
    Where’s Waldo? (a.k.a. Martin)

    We’ve had requests for some of Claire’s writings from Writer’s Workshop Camp. Here is a short piece tangentially related to agriculture. She has spent the most time and e-mail on a fantasy piece, yet unfinished, but this one will have to do for now.
    It is entitled “The Wheat of Gold” inspired by two paintings in the University gallery.

    The cattle were softly lowing, like some soft lullaby in the bright nighttime moonlight. Softly singing in the dark, lulling the little ones to sleep as they were comforted by a soothing, restful sound. Continuing through the night till the last had fallen into a deep nighttime doze.
    But Marianne was not asleep. She was out under the full, intense silver moon. The golden crop of wheat had to be harvested before the rain came, but when the wheat was yet in its prime.
    She continued working along with her husband to help tie the bundles of wheat scattered along the grassy field like stars across the sky. Shining up with a luminescent glow from above and below Marianne. The gold below, and diamonds above.
    They had made a lot of progress, in the few short days they had been working. About half the hay was standing elevated above the flowing green grass, tall and strong, like the sturdy little house that had lived in since they were married, ten years ago. It stood out against the bright moonlight and just setting her eyes on the wheat made her swell with pride and she was gratified for the wonderful hard working husband she had.
    The next morning Fredrick woke up in the early hours of the morning. He looked over at his peacefully sleeping wife and then got out of bed. Today they were going to have help for the final push to finish the wheat. The farmers in the area had this unspoken agreement that whenever one needed help with something they’d help. It was a wonderful little system and worked very nicely.
    Fredrick peeked in the loft and saw his children, three boys and two girls, sleeping calmly with looks of tranquility and serenity on their faces. His oldest was nine, and the youngest still under a year, and sleeping in the room with Marianne. They had six children. There were originally two sets of twins but three years ago, Patrick who was at the time six, got lost in the fatal, waving grasses of the Kansas prairie. They found his body numerous days later, several miles from the settlement. It had been a heart breaking experience and he was so grateful he hadn’t lost more then one.
    That afternoon, they were almost done with the hay, thanks to the neighbors and friends who had turned out to help. Marianne had never worked so hard in her life. There was barely any time to cook dinner. But no one seemed to care much what it tasted like, although they all said it was the finest they’d ever had in a long time. Suddenly she saw a dark shadow spread across the field next to the grove of cool green arching trees they were working near. She quickly looked up to find the source of the shadow. What she saw chilled her to the core. Her very soul was shivering even though the hot sticky sweat was pouring off her body droplets at a time. Huge black and gray clouds were churning with a decisiveness that no one could comprehend. The last time she had seen clouds like that was when she was visiting her aunt before she was married, and her aunt taught one thing she never forgot. The signs of a tornado.
    As she thought of this, the wind picked up and she could feel the gusts of hair whipping through her hair and skirt as if they wanted to tear her up and leave her barren and disheveled.
    She found Fredrick. He was the only one who could console her at times like these. As she got there, he was standing there, solemnly looking up at the sky. “There’s a tornado coming,” she shouted at him over the blustery gusts of wind. He answered inaudibly and she couldn’t hear him, but she could read his lips. He knew too. “Go get the children in the cellar,” he said. This time audibly. She ran toward the house and got the kids. She explained to them as she grabbed their little hands and lead them to the cellar. Then, once they were safe, she went and got baby Kate and took her to the basement.
    She grabbed some food out of the once cozy kitchen that was now shaking with the force of the wind. By the time she reached the cellar, all of the men and women who had been helping her were in there safe. She got in and securely latched the trapdoor and waited.
    An hour later, it was safe. Fredrick heaved himself out of the cellar and stared around at the vast emptiness before him. It was gone. It was all gone. The house, the barn, the fields were destroyed. They said their farewells to their friends, and then walked around the landscape that was once a beautiful haven to them. They could find nothing. They went to the fields. And in the middle, was one beautiful, heavenly, golden bundle of wheat. They walked up to it and started crying. And then sobbing, and through the tears, they knew nothing could tear them apart and as long as they had each other, they had everything. He put his arms around his wife and kids and they just stood there, for a long time.

    April 13, 2005 – Those Gone Before Us

    Springtime has seen the death of many of my relatives. I’ve been the one asked to write and give the eulogies for my father, grandfather, uncle, and great uncle. I guess since I’m the only writer around and my experience as an alter boy specializing in funerals makes me the logical pick? When I was in grade school it seemed that Patrick Endres (wherever you are now) and myself were the only reliable alter boys who would not snicker and laugh during funerals. I’m not sure why the others couldn’t keep a straight face – maybe it was how they were able to handle the grief???

    At any rate, I’ve had these eulogies just sitting on my PC and thought that it would be good to have a “cyberspace” presence for them – for family members and others to read. Even I am surprised at what is contained in the eulogies – what I have already forgotten about the men who preceded me. The eulogies and other essay-type writings by Linda are on a special high hopes page.

    March 18, 2005 – No Snow!

    Just to the north of us, winter has re-appeared. Instead of the nearly 2 feet of snow, here in tropical central Iowa we enjoyed 50 degrees.

    Since my laptop went on the fritz, I went into the office this morning (my laptop has needed 2 new motherboards and a new hard drive and my desktop has needed a new hard drive – it is becoming painfully obvious that I am working much too hard and the computers just plain cannot keep up with me!)

    Spent a lot of time today finishing up the labels and getting the surveys printed. We’re now ready to stuff envelopes. By special request from Sugar Creek Farm, another poem by Claire:

    The Night Song
    The swirls of the milky way
    the twinkling of the stars
    glittering planets, shining alone.
    The beautiful half moon
    settling into the sky
    surrounded by a
    halo of stars
    and as I gaze wondering
    I softly join in the chorus
    of the night song
    of the sky.

    March 7, 2005 – Capricious March

    As nice as yesterday was, today is nasty. The lightning and thunder made it here about 11:00 pm, but not much rain. There was nickel-sized hail in the neighborhood, but none at high hopes. Strong north winds make it too raw to do much of anything outside. It’s the kind of windy day that sets up some kind of resonance in the gutters on the house that just hums and the same in the metal machine shed, vibrating the metal panels. I have a hard time making peace with days like today.

    Worked on getting the surveys for the farm entrepreneur class ready. It reminds of jobs long, long, ago stuffing envelopes. No thank you!

    Today’s poem from Claire
    Tree Whispers
    Trees are refuge
    Refuge from the world
    No worries
    Just calm
    No heed
    to the trucks
    speeding by
    with rolling
    clouds of dust
    climb up
    clear your head
    of all worries
    brain is calm
    relax, listen to the sound
    of autumn
    the last crickets chirping
    the combine
    chugging away
    the deep soft whisper
    of a tree
    getting ready
    for winter.

    Claire Barnes Runquist
    Fall 2004

    March 6, 2005 – Lightning in Early March

    Tonight Linda and I grabbed the dogs and went for a walk just after dark. The south wind was starting to cool after a 70 degree day. We saw the first lightning of the season in the distance. After we got home, we checked the radar, and the storm is still north of Fort Dodge. The gravel has softened and the cusp of a new season is here.

    We proceeded to grind up more corn cobs this afternoon. It remains depressing to see how many are left to do in the stall. The stall seems to be in an expanding universe of its own. The more we get out, the bigger the stall seems to get. I guess I’ll look at the bright side and know we have lots of free bedding. The grinder goes back with Ringo the goat who we’ve been goat-sitting for a week tomorrow. We were wondering who and why all the cobs were there in the first place?

    We’ve had requests for the budding writer to share a sample of writing, so without further ado, we’ll post some of Claire’s poems the next few days.

    The Journey of Water
    The rolling hills
    of golden plants
    clumps of trees,
    miniature streams
    to land in a
    new bigger place.
    With big waves
    rolling into the shore with
    sparkling sand
    with pink shells.
    With fluffy
    clouds under
    a bright
    yellow sun.

    Claire Barnes Runquist
    March 5, 2005

    February 17, 2005 – Tech Writing 4500 BC

    Many people don’t have a clue about what a technical writer does. Here’s a description of a tech writer from Ptahotep from 4500 BC that nails it!

    Be a scribe!
    Your body will be sleek, your hand will be soft.
    You are the one who sits grandly in your house;
    your servants answer speedily; beer is poured copiously;
    all who see you rejoice in good cheer. Happy is the heart of him who writes;
    he is young each day.

    February 15, 2005 VFW Day

    Tonight we were guests at VFW Post 839, Marshalltown, Iowa to honor essay contest winners. Claire won the Middle School contest and we were treated to dinner and a program of the elementary through high school winners reading their essays.

    There was salad along with the sloppy joes and chips for dinner, which is unusual in the Central Iowa food desert as some have tagged the propensity for a dinner to include the basic food groups of meat (optional cheese) chips, and pop. Hats off to the Auxiliary for including salad.

    The program was better than I expected. It seems like the winners stressed freedom – freedom of practice or religion, freedom to pursue your dreams, freedom to speak out against your government, and of course, recognizing the veterans who have served. I’ve always wondered how come we don’t really honor veterans on Veteran’s Day by giving all Veterans the day off from work and keeping the postal workers and government workers on the job…