The day before yesterday I pedaled 60 miles roundtrip to make an appearance in a Kickstarter video for the Food Farm CSA. An image I’ll leave you with is spandex and rubber boots. Just kidding friends, I packed a full array of appropriate farm wear.
Nine hours of effort went into the experience, and I’m guessing I might appear in 30 seconds of footage. It occurs to me that nine hours of human activity boiled down to 30 seconds of actual productive use (a ratio of 1080:1) just might be representative of our entire productive lives as humans, meaning how much of what we “accomplish” is useful to others in a measurable way. Perhaps. This realization can be either sobering or liberating, depending on how you look at it. The key is to find joy in the journey, which also can’t help but bring joy to others as well.
Half the day was spent pedaling my fancypants carbon fiber bike, and the other half involved interacting with others. We broke bread together, laughed with and at each other, and I absorbed just a bit of the soul of the place. In short, I was blessed with an experience—simple as it was and perhaps this is what made it special—unlike any other in my life. You can’t measure this. I contend that in many cases how we handle the first number in the ratio of 1080:1 is the most important.
Arriving by bicycle enabled me to appreciate the place in a way that arriving by car wouldn’t have. Mind, body, and soul were seasoned and tenderized throughout the arduous journey, particularly during the climb out of the Lake Superior basin that lasted a full country mile. It also seemed to give me a semblance of street cred with the workers, who thrive on working hard every day. Here they are slicing up seed potatoes for planting:
I poured a healthy dose of mulligatawny soup into my cup, and the astonishing aroma set them to drooling at 1:00 in the afternoon. Alas, lunch for these farmers wouldn’t come for another hour, so they’d have to wait for nourishment. I only had a few minutes to enjoy my first serving amongst this gathering before everyone dispersed to individual tasks, but found it to be immensely enjoyable. Having been laid off from my own job, I derive a thrill from interacting with people doing useful work that they feel good about.
I find it profoundly interesting to grapple with the realities of farming as it relates to time. This was the first sunny day following a week of rain during their busiest season. They do not have the luxury of meandering throughout their day. Every step is purposeful. It is critical that the crops be planted timely, especially when the weather provides a window of opportunity. I found myself grateful that Janaki Fisher-Merrit (who co-owns the farm with his wife) expended valuable time during a busy day to give me a tour and sit down for lunch at the table he built from wood milled from trees taken from his own property (see picture at the top).
Here’s a picture of Janaki with the bike (obtained from Goodwill) he uses to get around quickly on the property, because it’s cheaper than a four-wheeler.
His name is pronounced John-a-key. Interestingly, his two brothers have more common names. It’s a name his mother simply made up after becoming acquainted with him as a baby. His mom still lives on the property, and I hope to ask her about it some day. In college Janaki learned that it’s a common name for females in India, which explains why there’s often a pause of confusion when he calls into the call centers of large corporations based over there.
Janaki is in his fifth year of owning the farm, which he purchased from his parents. This necessitated taking out a large mortgage. It wasn’t possible for him to simply inherit the land. His parents had no other retirement plan at their disposal. In this day and age it truly is difficult for family farms to pass from generation to generation, but it is absolutely crucial for any kind of momentum to continue from generation to generation. The vocational learning curve is steeper than in perhaps any other field.
His salary is shocking for its smallness. Since I’m a member of Food Farm’s CSA I’m privy to this information. A detailed budget is sent out to members each year, which makes for a fascinating read, actually. I commented on his salary, which is rather surprising given that we were complete strangers until this meeting (which speaks volumes about his openness). His attitude about finances is remarkably upbeat, but he recognizes that his income will need to increase with a growing family (he and his wife Annie have recently welcomed a baby into their lives). This is part of the impetus for the large state-of-the-art root cellar currently being constructed to house more root vegetables for sale further into the year. Janaki has them on a surprisingly methodical plan to grow sustainably over a period of years. Organic farming requires thinking years in advance.
As it is they were able to provide organic carrots to the Whole Foods Co-op through the end of March this year (possibly April, but my memory remains fixated on the taste explosion I experienced as a special treat each day and not the exact date in spring). When they sent out word that the last of their carrots were delivered from the fall harvest, I immediately rushed down to stake claim to 10 pounds of them. They really are the best carrots money can buy. This is because they allow several hard frosts to hit before making the last laborious harvest, which causes sugars to concentrate in the carrot. While we eaters benefit greatly, it causes a ton of work for the farm because tens of thousands of pounds need to be harvested quickly (just days before the ground freezes up for winter). It is amazing just how much they put on the line in this and numerous other areas. These are things we eaters take for granted, but may be thankful for.
I was under the impression that carrots were an easy vegetable to grow. They’re pretty much bulletproof in my garden. On a large scale like this, however, Janaki says they’re a gigantic pain in the ass. They require much labor in hand-weeding and there’s the issue of waiting till the last minute for harvest. Also, their carrots are bred for taste and not rubbereyness like the ones you find in the grocery store that have a slightly bitter, metallic taste and are bred for ease of harvest (those carrots can handle the rigors of harvesting better with fewer being damaged through the process). Anyhow, this explains just a bit about why their carrots cost more than those produced by that “lovable” green giant we all are confronted with in the produce aisle.
I could carry on and on about all that I learned. The main point, however, is that I developed an actual connection with the growers of my food for the very first time. This meant more to me than I expected. Like everyone else, I am faced with budgetary realities every day when weighing the additional costs of eating local and organic food vs the corporate food in the grocery store. I’ve been a member of various CSA’s for years and had appreciated the potential for connection, but now I feel as if I have actual roots in the Food Farm in a small passing way. It’s a marvelous feeling, and it helps to know that there is a delightful young family running the place while joyfully struggling along to keep their efforts sustainable in every sense of the word.
In the background of the above picture you can see their greenhouse, which is currently filled with vegetables that are nearly ready for planting. Janaki’s father keeps a fire going in the woodstove that heats it (waking in the middle of the night as he has done for decades to do so). There is a lot of soul in this place. Not only is it a family affair, but it is uniquely tied to the community. For me, the ability to bike out and shake the hands of good people growing our food is priceless, the very definition of local agriculture and of local economy in general.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m on a quest to meet as many artists as I can. Janaki, who interestingly enough is married to Annie Dugan—a darling in the local art community, effectively amalgamates artistic, scientific, and managerial prowess in his fields of plenty. I’ve taken the following verbiage from their website, which says it well:
At the Food Farm our passion is providing high quality food for our CSA members, a sustainable livelihood for our farmers, while improving the productive capacity of our land. This is possible by cooperating with the natural and human communities to which we belong, and unleashing the creative power of human imagination.
Food Farm, located in Wrenshall, is surprisingly close to town. Since I live on the eastern fringe of Duluth, it required a 30-mile ride. However, folks living on the western edges of town are only 10 – 15 miles away. Wrenshall, is a little-known treasure that I encourage you to experience for yourself.
Heading south you would think the land would remain fully forested, as you see in this overlook:
Without warning, the landscape suddenly turns agricultural in what is a rare pocket of fertility. Here’s the first hayfield you’re treated to, on the left side of the road. Living in the northland, which is home to so little agriculture, I tend to eye the tender grass longingly as a deer might after having emerged—still alive—after a hard winter of starvation…
Treat yourself to a ride along any county road or along the Alex Laveau trail for rare visual delights of an agricultural variety. Read a post here that I wrote last year about a splendid loop that I commend to you. That particular ride, coming shortly after I lost my job last summer, was positively sublime.
This bike ride, so foolish on paper, abounded in contrasts. I could easily celebrate them over another 10,000 words. As Woody Guthrie presciently wrote:
All you can write is what you see.
Well, this sort of experience not only provides an abundance to feast the eyes upon physically, spiritually, and emotionally, it provides another way of seeing altogether. For some reason it reminds of my first experience of the Grand Canyon (written of in the “emancipation” portion of my book). As others enjoyed rapturous religious experiences, I was actually disappointed. This is because I had walked a mere 150 yards from the bus that conveyed me to the famous and often photographed view from the South Rim. Virtually zero effort was required, and I gained nothing. I captured strong feelings in this memoir, and I share a bit here because they seem to convey a bit of my experience from biking out to the Food Farm. In this scene, following the hike out of the canyon, I’m enjoying warmed canned venison with a kind stranger who offered it to me after carrying it around in his pack for several days (perhaps substitute mulligatawny soup for imagery at the farm):
We sat three feet from the steep cliff in a scene of majesty. We were part of the sublime heavenly setting. This wasn’t just an overlook anymore. My DNA was left in the canyon, and a part of the canyon was in me. It was as if the deer had been sacrificed and was now being offered as a sweet-smelling burnt offering to the Maker of the Grand Canyon.
These are ethereal moments. Words don’t paint a full picture, but they are my most effective means of communicating this idea.
While crossing through the gritty part of town on the return trip, an unvarnished city-scape, an enormous quantity of pigeon poop (presumably) literally fell into my lap. The splatter covered both pant legs of my shorts. That was a first for me, and I could only laugh. Everybody poops, after all.
I’ll leave you with two more photos of beauty from the trip. Since I’m rarely in the vicinity of the neighborhood of Gary, I stopped in to visit with a close friend, who did a fine job of editing my book, by the way. During the visit, I lingered as long as I figured daylight would allow, and I couldn’t help but capture this special father and son moment. At this very moment, Isaac is asking his dad about the possibility of being entrusted with more chores. So special, and worthy of documentation it is…. I am thankful for having witnessed a moment of real family life, and not the artificialness that hospitality often engenders.
The closing moments of the ride were spent along Lake Superior, amidst lengthening shadows, sore muscles, and a well-earned hunger. Home. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Always wonderful to return to it…