Upcoming Foxfire Friday: January 28. 5pm. Rootbeer Brewing with Gabe.
Join the Urban Gardening Coalition for another Foxfire Friday Workshop. Rootbeer Brewing with Gabe the Lost Boy – and ginger ale. Participants will learn hands-on how to rootbeer and ginger ale in their own homes. Gabe will be using sassafras root collected from southwest Missouri for our demonstration this evening. Woo hoo!
Location: Hope Fellowship (1721 Sanger Ave.)
Please RSVP your attendance to Bethel Erickson (firstname.lastname@example.org).
January 8, 2011 (Saturday): Planting a Winter Garden (Special MLK growing edition). Lean how to plant and grow and nurture a winter garden in this wonderful Central Texas climate. 10am-12pm. At the World Hunger Relief Farm – 356 Spring Lake Road.
Registration forms can be found here (Beyond the Backyard Registration Form) and should be returned to Bethel via email (email@example.com). Suggested donations of $5 can be made through Paypal on the Urban Gardening Coalition website.
’tis true – advent has arrived in full force – like the blustery winds that have through my immune system to kingdom come at night, left to air out in the 80-degree sunshine by day. this past sunday i – the raggedy one with braids – worshiped with my npr-supporting, garden-growing baptist brethren who welcomed this new liturgical season with a vision of kingdom come re-interpreted by david roseberg in the poet’s bible:
will come forward
to settle the conflicts between us
finally the one
even the finality of the holocaust
will melt away like lowland snow
the military hardware
translated into monkey bars
where children play
the hardened postures
like ancient statues
children will wave through the gunholes
rumbling off to the junkyard
people will find hands
instead of guns
learn to walk into their gardens
instead of battle
oh House of Israel
let’s walk in the sunlit ways
of God’s presence
Join the Urban Gardening Coalition for the first of its Foxfire Friday Workshops. Friday, December 3, we’ll be making soap with goat-lady Jessica Bullock. Jessica will be leading the group making one batch of soap. Participants will learn hands-on how to make soap their own homes. Soap takes 4-6 weeks to cure – so if you plan on making soap as Christmas gifts for loved ones, consider sending them a lovely IOU. However, Jess will have soap available and discounted for your purchasing pleasure.
FYI: We’ll be handling lye, which is a harmful substance until the chemical reactions finish occurring in the soap so 1) BYO kitchen gloves and safety goggles if possible. Everyone will have to wear them. 2) Wear closed toe shoes and long sleeves.
Location: Hope Fellowship (1721 Sanger Ave.)
Please RSVP your attendance to Bethel Erickson (firstname.lastname@example.org).
while meandering the midwest, i learned that one of my neighbors – a girl of 9 – stopped by to show me her pumpkin plants. the week before, her family had eaten some pumpkins – white and orange – and scooped the seeds. she came knocking at our door. “i know you grow things. and my family ate some pumpkin. and I saved the seeds for you. because i thought you could grow them. they’re white and orange.” i gladly accepted. that same week, she planted her own in a small tupperware container. now she was eager to display her fledgling seedlings. proud. i have since saved the seeds – calling them “feral dog squash” – as the neighbors have seven partially-domesticated dogs living under their house.
a few days ago – as i was hanging my laundry – my neighbor warned me that a giant snapping turtle is now roving our yards – loose from a recent fishing trip gone wayward.
my desk – crafted from random lumber in the farm barn – is situated against a south-facing window in my bedroom. i watch my chickens scratch in the dirt as they wander from their janketty-ghetto coop to the pasture i fenced off for them. watch my rabbit buttercup decide she’d rather not be feral for a day – returning from the alleyway, where she’s taken to living recently – hop back into the yard, nibble my rhubarb chard, finagle under the pasture fence and upset the chickens. recently numerous little sparrow-looking birds have taken to the chickens, scrounging the ground as they see their feathered friends foraging. neighborhood children walk the alleyway, stopping to watch the chickens as they pass. today i saw a bluebird – a welcome visit in the midst of the noisy grackles. squirrels have been scampering across my rooftop hopping to the boughs of pecan trees in my backyard. feral neighborhood cats lounge on our deck, in the shade of eggplant and pepper foliage. in the background, the harmonizing of children from an elementary school one block away, mariachi music from the super plaza on an opposing corner, and thundering bass from the rap music next door – interspersed at interval with a crow of a nearby rooster.
this may not be the scene of an idyllic farm in the pastoral countryside. but it’s my backyard. and it’s embedded in my neighborhood with all its lovely quirks.
Of Love and Lefse
Continuing with thoughts and reflections on my recent trip back to the Midwest – exploring adventures in sustainable agriculture in small town Iowa.
This is my first day of classes at Luther College in Decorah, IA as part of the college’s Sense of Vocation speaker series. First event chapel. Thursday mornings at the Center for Faith and Life have recently been reserved as mornings of quiet reflection and song centered around Marty Haugen’s Morning Prayer. After three or four drafts of a mini-sermon preaching the wonders of relationship to land contrasted with our industrial consumer culture, I decided to opt for a Wendell Berry poem instead. In keeping with the quiet reflective atmosphere. So I shared my favorite Wendell poem, one I’ve adopted as my own manifesto on staying sane in the city while struggling to be a bit more agrarian – Manifesto: the Mad Farmer Liberation Front.
English professors and old acquaintances for some Thursday morning Wendell – reassuring me that he is a theologian of his own sort.
From chapel I proceeded to Human Behavior and Social Environments (HBSE to the social worker world) – where I was to talk of ways for young social workers to be poor but not feel poor (voluntary service) as well as my path through the profession – in which I continue to be poor, but not feel poor.
Riding bikes with the Scallywags in Chicago – note tallbikes and homemade choppers. On dumpster dive spree.
To provide a brief background, I left college in small town Iowa for the southside of Chicago to work with ex-offenders (for no money); moved to the northside of Chicago to work at a family shelter and live in an intentional community (Jesus People USA) – for no money; served with the Lutheran Volunteer Corps as a homeless outreach worker in Wilmington, DE – for $100 expendable income/month); then wound up in Texas as the urban gardening intern at the World Hunger Relief Farm (making a whopping $250/month). Now I’m holy rollin’ with the Urban Gardening Coalition – and as I like to say – working for God and the government as an AmeriCorps VISTA banking $800/month.
The typical response in most classes where I spoke included the following questions: How do you pay off college loans? How do you avoid burnout? Obviously you can do this while you are single – but what about when you have a family and kids? Why?
Good questions. And I’m still figuring it all out. But my practical on-the-spot answers included: I was blessed with parents that scrimped and saved for their (only) child’s college education since before they met and married. I live in community, write, and find ways to express my joys and frustrations. I plan to struggle and love living on limited income. And I feel God has led me to many unique places and people and my life has been beautifully enriched by them all – and this life is just part of who I am
After lunch, I had the privilege of attending Amy Weldon‘s creative nonfiction class. As I walked in, Amy was presenting one of her own works about a horse giving birth, incorporating reflections of a modern-day patriarchal birthing industry and midwifery days of yore. Perfection. Amy invited me to the front to give a brief background of my story – as well as why I write. Currently the class is exploring the politics of place and how experience informs ones relationship to his/her particular place. Conversation hit upon the familiar topics already mentioned, as well as writing your own manifesto (or at least reading Wendell’s), goat cheese-making and delving deeper into dirt – dirt as a living matter, upon whose fertility we are dependent and whom flavors the food we eat. Terroir. Amy also happens to be dating an organic farmer, which seems to me one of the best combinations of vocations.
My last class for the day was another social work class – Practice III – of working with communities and organizations. Beyond my usual spiel, I added reflections from the time I worked on a congressional campaign four years ago in New Hampshire (and the tough decision not to drop out of college and work in politics). And my work now, attempting to encourage more and more people – young and old – to participate in their food system through growing or meeting those who do – while working to shift conversations about health care and hunger away from the reactionary to preventive approaches that include growing good grub.
This is a Norwegian sweater. This is not Decorah.
After class, Jonathan and I joined Pastor David Vasquez (who I might add – has recently returned from his sabbatical studying the social and theological implications of the 2008 immigration raid at the Postville, IA kosher meat-packing plant – the largest immigration raid in the nation – 20 minutes from Decorah) and some students for dinner at the Angry Pickle in downtown Decorah. Most of our conversation centered around food – the growing and distribution of food. Post-dinner, Jonathan and I scampered down to the Vesterheim – another Decorah jewel – as it is the largest museum in the country dedicated to any one cultural heritage – Norwegian-Americans. Decorah is famous for its proliferation of Norwegian sweaters during the winter season, as well as Nisse gnomes in windows across the town. And here at the Vesterheim, a person can learn all the reasons why we should be proud to be Norwegian-American – besides the obviously wonderful word uffda.
Our evening ended in a reunion of old farm friends. Kelly and Hannah now both live in Decorah – after both having served at the World Hunger Relief Farm in Waco as CSA interns. Kelly now works with Seed Savers Exchange and Hannah with a local farm, Rock Spring Farm.
Hannah and Kelly.
Another day of classes – beginning with Jon Jensen’s Environmental Philosophy. Jonathan and I gave our spiel about the Farm and were hoping for a bit more back and forth about the environmental implications of domesticating the land through agriculture – industrial or not. We inserted comments about Masanobu Fukuoka and the one straw revolution and even mentioned anarcho-primitivism. But we didn’t get many takers.
From environmental philosophy, I transitioned back to social work for an Intro to Social Work class. I enjoy talking to folks interested in social work – but not really sure what that means. To a certain extent, that’s still how I feel. But when I read about women like Jane Addams and Dorothy Day – I knew I wanted to become a feisty old woman living alongside those she served, doing things the world told her could not be done. And although I no longer “do” “traditional social work” – I still consider myself a social worker.
And my favorite response came from this class – “I don’t mean to be offensive, but it sounds like you hate wealthy people and are a bit communist . . .”
Jonathan and I ate lunch with Jon Jensen and a handful of former students to discuss farm-to-school programming in Decorah and their work with the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness program. We traded stories about working with students in garden club before heading to trails running along the Upper Iowa River to take in some fresh autumn air.
For dinner we supped with the LEFSE (Luther’s Environmentally, Fiscally, and Socially responsible Edifice) House – Luther’s latest and greatest sustainability house on campus. We talked about vermicomposting and dreams of a permacultured landscape over our dinner of butternut lasagna and arugula salad. And for dessert, a berry pie. All of it homemade and delicious. With full bellies, the most of us paraded down to the Elks Lodge for a Poetry Slam hosted by ArtHaus, the up-and-coming hostess of all things artful and great.
You might be thinking – o boy, a poetry slam in white-bread, All-American small-town. But believe it or not – it was stupendous. Poems flooded the floor telling of being a pregnant single lady like Mary, tending a friend’s farm when the cows run amok, and basic agrarian ponderings. These are my kind of people. The man who won the slam is also a baker of wood-fired sourdough from wheat that is bike-ground. He rambled about farming. And the crowd went wild.
We saw him the next morning, selling his baked fare at the Decorah Farmers Market. We didn’t buy any – but we meandered – oogling over apples and winter squash and finally purchasing a package of lefse.
End Day Five. End Part Two.
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 Urb an 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.
- kansas corn. fall harvest happens from dawn to dusk.
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.
- Edible Landscaping outside of Valders Hall of Science at Luther.
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.
- Seed Savers Exchange
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.
- Ancient White Park Cattle at Seed Savers.
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.
- Fall evening in Phelps Park.