Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Ames
January 1997

This week, I received a package containing a large plaque from Dekalb Genetics with a patent inscribed on it. Included in this package was a personal letter from the president of the company congratulating me on my patent. I was shocked that he had bothered. They own the patent. I also found it wholly unsustainable that they would send this plaque overnight express for a patent that was granted several years ago, the letter was dated for 3 months ago! What’s the rush?  The patent is for a gene that is found in bacteria; I assume they have used it to genetically engineer corn. I had very mixed feelings about the award. I don’t personally think genes ought to patented. I feel it cheapens them, how can they be owned? At the same time I was thrilled to be recognized for something, I just wish it could have been for my work as a mother or a teacher or towards something, however small that I am doing on behalf of sustainable agriculture. But most of all, it was a reminder of where I’ve come from.

15 years ago I worked for a genetic engineering company. I spent 9 months washing dishes and the remainder of my 5 years there participating in research. I learned a lot. I was fascinated at the intricacy of gene expression, the way by which a plant comes to be what it is and how interrelated all the genes were. Noting that changing one thing was likely to change a whole host of other characteristics. I was amazed at how much detail we could know. I wanted to know more. I applied to Iowa State University for grad school or as my major professor called it, g radual school.

After convincing this rather wonderful, handsome, soul mate from Northern Minnesota to go to Iowa State by agreeing to marry him we moved to Ames. I had every intention of returning to the genetic engineering business.

One of my first surprises here was the lack of good farm produce. Why weren’t there fresh tomatoes from Iowa in the grocery stores? What about local sweet corn, squash, peppers? I could not believe that not even a little corner of this rich, rich Iowa earth was devoted to putting produce on the shelves of the local supermarkets (It is a bit better today). It would make so much sense to eat what was already here. I began attending lectures on nature and sustainability, e co-feminism, and about agriculture. We started gardening.  The first garden was with someone was willing to share with us provided we did the majority of the work. It was 10 miles from our home. We tilled and planted, dreaming of fresh tomatoes, corn, carrots, and squash. To our amazement our dreams came true to the extent that we had to find a way to preserve all of it or let it rot.

We began freezing and canning. I sincerely believed that our canned goods were suspect and must be inferior to those bought in tin cans. We found that if we spent the time gathering foods from local woods we could justify spending more time poking around the woods, listening to the quiet, getting off the trail, hoarding wild black raspberries, and grapes. We made wonderful wild jams. We gathered morels in the spring, if for nothing else to look for hours at a time at the forest floor noting all the springtime wild flowers. We would go to bed at night with brown and gray brain-shaped mushrooms behind our eyes. We also fished, a lot. Gathering enough crappie and sunfish to feed us a evening meal once a week for a year. Mark figured out a way to dip the fish in water and freeze them and repeat the dipping to prevent freezer burn. Iowa was literally becoming part of our bodies, we were being fed, nurtured physically, emotionally, spiritually by this place.

Our gardens got bigger and more numerous.  At one point we had 4 separate garden locations. A friend told us that we had advanced in a manner like that of human cultural evolution, from hunter-gatherers to agrarians. We longed for land and longed to be out of grad school. I was becoming disenchanted with my chosen field of study. I was increasingly convinced it wasn’t where I should be. Certainly I was loosing passion for it. But I did love to teach, and this was my saving grace. I could earn a living, with this degree and still do something I love.

 We started lusting farms, and eating more eating organic food. Growing heirloom varieties of vegetables saving their seeds. I was sorry not to have the privilege of being taught how to save seed by someone from my own family. It was routine to save seed from one year for planting the next, just two or three generations back. 

We decided to go into business. A small business. Selling vegetables, grown without pesticides or herbicides, planted and tended by hand. We made very little money and learned a lot. It contributed to our mental health. It connected us to the earth and to other people. It was nurturing. It was peaceful. It was a beginning.

So, we bought a little 7 acre farm near the school where I teach. We spend our time talking about where to put in the raspberries, apples, and maybe a papaw tree. We talk to people, and get wonderful advice. People who share our this vision of sustainable food sources have been generous and cooperative.  We are planning the next phase. We are interested in becoming part of our community, becoming part of the land. Sustaining it, sustaining ourselves.