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Holiday Message 2010 – Unabridged

What a year it has been!  New beginnings galore!  New baby.  New jobs.  New opportunities.  I graduated from Boise State last December with a degree in business management and I wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to go in terms of a profession, much less have any clue what I wanted to be when I “grew up”.  I wanted to keep my options open with a business degree but at the same time my passions lead me down different academic roads – hence my minors in history and philosophy.  In my last semester I fussed passion with practicality and realized the potential benefits of an education geared toward business while still pursuing the kind of life I wanted to live: a simple life, connected to the community, and close to the Earth.

I became interested in the local, organic food movement a few years ago for many reasons – concern for the environment andbenefits to personal health the chief among them.  My interest quickly grew deeper than that of a consumer, and I felt the call to pursue a life of organic farming.  I want to grow food not just for people, but for people I know and interact with.  I want to be in a profession where I know that I am leaving the land healthier than it was the year before.  I want to work for a movement that strives to make communities truly sustainable (environmentally, socially, and economically) and resilient enough to absorb shocks to the system.  I want to be apart of a community of farms, eaters, and restaurants that operate under a new paradigm of cooperation, openness, and concern for quality and people (as opposed to cost and the bottom line).

So I looked around for apprenticeship opportunities in the area, and Mary’s farm stood out immediately as the ideal place.  Being as new as I was to even the idea of farming, I thought it would be a positive experience to learn from somebody who had started out as I was, fresh to the field.  I also knew that Mary is an integral part of the Boise local food movement, and training under someone so connected would be extremely beneficial.  I loved how the farm raises ducks.  I lovedthe vision the farm enacted of an holistic system, striving for minimal off-farm inputs.  It’s easy to see Mary’s profound dedication to the health of the animals, to the land, and to the people who make her farm possible.  So I applied and I was, gratefully, accepted.

The apprenticeship was everything I had hoped it would be and more.  I had the unique and fortunate experience of being the only apprentice.  So, while I felt like a regular green-horn, I was treated like an integral part of the farm from very early on.  Every thing from the farm, to the crew, to the members that support us made it such an unbelievable experience.  I consider myself unbelievably blessed to have the opportunity to continue to grow (pun intended) at Morning Owl.  I can’t think of a better farmer, teacher, and friend to learn under than Mary, nor can I imagine a more passionate group of people to grow food with.  I would also be hard pressed to find a better community to grow food for.  I am pumped, monumentally pumped, for the future and for the movement.

 

During the summer I also became a father!  Just before graduating my wife and I discovered we would be having a child.  It was not unexpected, but we were surprised by the… ease of the sowing.  The pregnancy went swimmingly.

Kolbie was amazing and very much ready by the 14th of August (a few days past due) to have the baby.  Finally, at around 3:00 in the AM on August 15th, 2010, after a slow 16 hours of labor, the womb reached critical mass and launch was imminent.  At 3:16am we had our little girl, Danika Elizabeth Meyer.  She weighed 8 pounds 3 ounces.

There is an endless list of cliches regarding the birth of a child; most of them true, many of them incomprehensible, all of them devoid of the proper poetry to describe such a thing.  It is a fierce love.  A lovewe felt very early on in her pregnancy, and one that has only tightened its grip on our hearts just as Danika tightens her little hands around our fingers.  And, just like her, the love grows with every passing day, with every moment, with every soiled diaper, with every three-second smile, with every ambiguous cry, with every new face, with every new sound, with every self-discovery, with every flash from her pale blue eyes – it grows.  What fun.  What a challenge.  What a joy.

It can be a difficult thing to recognize the best times in one’s life while they are in the midsts of happening.  That’s not surprising.  It is in our nature, it is to our advantage, and it is the deepest and most powerful way to live our lives, fully in the present moment; not to be bogged down with yesterday, and not to be preoccupied with tomorrow.  But every once in a while it is not the slow rolling passage of time that is required for perspective and understanding, but a kind of present moment so power, so defined and crystalized in clarity, that full awareness of its significance in the great timeline of our life is not only inevitable, but profoundly imprinted on our character.  2010 was filled with these moments.

Here’s to 2010.  As it fades into memory, may it usher in a new chapter of growth and learning for 2011.

Entry #10 – 12/27/10
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This has been a strange season.  I have heard experienced farmers (some who have been farming for decades) say they’ve never seen anything like this.  Though no Spring will blossom like another, there are of course extremes that standout from time to time to confound us, to baffle us, and to remind us just how little control (if any) we have of some things.  It is both humbling and awe-inspiring to be in a line of work that is so at the mercy of the seasons, the weather and their innumerable, unpredictable variations.   It is unbelievably freeing but at the same time, madly frustrating.

It started, at least for my part, with an unusually warm late-winter.  It seems to be tradition in Boise that in late February or early March, people, drunk off the first warm rays of sun, ruffle through their dresser drawers, trading out their winter coats for light sweatshirts and short-sleeves.  They stumble out of their air-tight homes in a squinting stupor, soaking up the still-low sun to the South and somehow convince themselves that Spring has sprung.  This little tease, this … ruse of Mother Nature’s, usually lasts a day or two before the reality of the true season comes back like a cold hand on the neck and a short-lived conviction is revealed as nothing more than a whisper of a wish, shivered out through tiny hairs on the arm.  The exception for this past winter was that the ruse lasted a couple weeks and the biting cold that so often characterizes Boise in the first few months of the new year, had no teeth.  Spring attempted to make up for this in two ways; by staying cooler for longer and copious amounts precipitation in its various forms.  As spring slowly arrived without any real transition it was unpredictable, wet, and indiscernible.  Summer, thus far has been wearing different shoes as well, stable and well-meaning, but dragging her feet.

We were in the green house for most of the early Spring but when it came time to get stuff in the boxes and in fields we quickly and quietly got about three weeks behind schedule, mostly due to poor weather.  Despite the early setbacks in the planting schedule, the cold crops or ‘the greens’ (lettuce, spinach, kale, boc-choy, broccoli, etc.) were absolutely beautiful this year, thanks to continuously cool temperatures and lots of Spring rain (even into June).  For other crops such as peppers, tomatoes, and squash that need the heat, the weather hasn’t been so welcome.  Temperatures have remained relatively cool throughout Spring and into Summer (there was snow in May, hail in June, and the high yesterday on the 14th of July was 83) and there has, thus far, been only one day in the triple digits.  At Morning Owl Farm, in the six years it has been in operation, never has it snowed after getting tomatoes in the ground – this year it did (and they were even late getting in).  Hail has been a factor, effectively throwing a layer of ice on crops that would rather be basking is hundred-degree sun.  Boise even saw a tornado on a cold windy day in early June and though the tornado didn’t touch the farm, the wind left its mark by taking out a portion of a fence in the upper garden.  The result of the late planting and this “interesting” weather has been that most crops have been slow to come on.  As of today, peppers actually seem to be doing alright; smaller than they should be, but tasty, tomatoes are small and green when they should be harvestable, squash started to pop after a short heat spell but have since slowed with cooler weather.

For this strange weather, Matt blames the Icelandic volcano, I blame climate change, and Mary says it is what it is.  For all practical purposes, I like Mary’s answer best, but, as with most things, it is probably a combination of all these things and more.  For me – being the newb that I am – I guess it truly just is what it is, but in a way I can sense that things are a little off.  It is not good or bad, just off.

In a particularly raw and personal weekly news letter sent to M.O.F. members on June 21st – the summer solstice; a day marked by the sun’s zenith, the longest day, and the passing of a season that wasn’t necessarily kind to local farmers – Mary described her frustration:

“…I thought of the seasons, they go ‘round and ‘round. Indeed they do. I want to curse the season we just gave up. It seemed to never end. It seemed to never have an identity all its own, too influenced by a winter with no real backbone of its own. I wanted to separate the two, insist that spring wear its own clothes and stop trying to be something it ought not be…”

Mary’s strength and wisdom that flowed from that news letter came not only from her ability to speak honestly to herself and to others about what she thinks and feels but also from her continued passion for learning.  She goes on to talk about what she has learned this season.  She doesn’t talk of it like the lessons are silver-linings, or that bad things bring about good things, or that bad things are just something we are made to suffer.  She doesn’t go digging for the lessons either, making something out nothing.  She simply recognizes that it’s a real, beautiful part of life and learns from it.  Learning takes effort, it takes humility, it takes dedication.  It is also a never-ending process.  Here, today, it is learning to live with the land, instead of against it.  It is learning to see and appreciate the necessary connection between sun and peach, water and tomato, dirt and potato, shit and food, death and life.  It is understanding those bonds that bind us as a community of life and hold us together as community of people.  It is learning to embrace ambiguity, struggle, and even your own angry feelings – not in order to appreciate their opposites – but to realize that this is a beautiful part of what it means to be alive.

Mary put it best:

“…if I don’t learn from farming and its relationship to the seasons that life is not to be cursed, it’s to be savored and enjoyed one bite at a time, that if I don’t grasp that it’s to make and hold and cherish memories, that it’s for planning and scheming and failing and feeling and for being grateful when someone else makes lunch and makes a miracle of the mundane, that if I don’t learn that, REALLY learn that, then I will never be a good farmer. Less fighting, less competing, more appreciating more cooperating. Why do any of this at all if not for appreciating the connections we make and hold and that make and hold us?”

Entry #5 – 7/14/2010

 

 

 

 

The following is an excerpt from the Morning Owl Farm Apprenticeship Application I filled out in January or February of this year.

Application Questions:

1. Why do you want to apprentice on an organic farm?

I graduated from Boise State University in December 2009 with a degree in Business Management.  Despite the fact that I also double minored in history and philosophy – two subjects I love but can’t “do much with” (aside from teach) – I was plagued with regret by my “safe” decision to study business and “keep my options open.”  Initially I chose this path of business – a road overly traveled – because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.  I realized very quickly that a career in the corporate world wasn’t for me, but I still didn’t know what to do.  My schooling experience became increasingly characterized and dominated by contradiction and contention between what I was studying and who I was becoming as an individual, as a member of society, and as a being on this planet.  By the time I found my passions I was in my last years of school and just needed to be done.  Today, I find myself in a better place where I’ve realized the potential benefits of an education geared toward business while still resolving to live a life I can be at peace with.

So what about the question?  Why do I want to apprentice on an organic farm?

The philosophical and lofty version: An apprenticeship on an organic farm opens up opportunities for me to live the kind of life I’m passionate about – a life close to the earth, connected to the community, and working towards a new paradigm.

The practical version:  Though I’ve always had a love for things that grow, I have zero background in farming (aside from the typical backyard garden).  I simply need hands-on experience.

Entry #4 – 7/13/2010

I’ve received many questions regarding what the local and organic food movements are all about.  Originally this post was going to be a brief introduction to what these two movements are, why they are important, and how they contribute to the larger picture of sustainability.  Instead, it has morphed into a short critique of the industrial food system with a few suggestions at the end on how to slowly break free from this system.  Rest assured, more posts are to come that will focus on the local and organic food movements more specifically.

Before we get started, I want to pose a question: What could possibly be more important than the food we put into our bodies?  As far as I’m concerned, there are two possible acceptable answers to this question: 1) the air we breath and 2) the water we drink.  Apart from those two necessities of life, the food we eat is the most vital part of our physical existence.  So, what would it look like if food was where it should be on our list of priorities?  What if we were as interested in the origins of our food as we are with reality television and celebrity gossip?  What if we spent as much time thinking about and preparing food as we do on facebook and entertainment?  What if we took a proactive role in our food from farm to plate, rather than continue to be the passive consumers we are today?  Keep these questions in mind as you read on and as you go about your daily lives.


“Food” has changed more in the past fifty years than it has in the previous ten-thousand.  The rise of new technologies in agricultural production and food processing, as well as advances in food science have given us a bounteous, season-less, and exceedingly cheap harvest.  Not only has the food itself changed, but also the way in which we consume it – increasingly fast and in front of the television, in the car, or at the desk.  At the same time, we seem to be a people absolutely obsessed with food, nutrition, and health.  What are the consequences to all of these new technologies, sciences, eating habits, and obsessions?  That is the question I hope to scratch the surface of answering with this post.

Today we produce massive, unprecedented amounts of food and we do it at very low monetary costs to consumers.  Sounds great, right?  Perhaps, but there are consequences and costs to this kind of agriculture – costs that are not necessarily monetary and are, more often than not, difficult to see.  For instance: the way industrial agriculture produces food has tremendous costs to health; that includes costs to the health of the environment, costs to the health of the plants and animals being produced, and costs to our own health.

Costs to the environment: There are costs to the health and sustainability of the land and the total environment as products are grown in unsustainable ways and shipped hundreds or thousands of miles from pasture to plate.  What I mean by “grown in unsustainable ways” is we grow in ways that might work well on an economic level, but not on an ecological level.  One easy area to see this is in monoculture (the cultivation of a single crop in a given area) and it is prevalent throughout modern agriculture.  Nature doesn’t produce things in monoculture, and there’s a reason – it’s terribly inefficient.  Without going into too much detail, as more and more of one crop is grown in a given area, dependence on large amounts of water and fertilizers increases as the soil becomes unfertile degraded.  Dependence on pesticides also increases as the risk of bugs destroying entire fields of crops is a very real concern.  This is a topic I’m sure to hit more on in the future.  For now, if you want more information on the environmental impacts of modern agriculture check out this site: http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/~agroeco3/modern_agriculture.html

It’s also worth mentioning here the degree to which modern agriculture depends on oil, or maybe more importantly; cheap oil.  In many ways we are eating this cheap oil – it’s connected to everything from the fertilizer, to the pesticide, to the farm equipment, to the processing, to the packaging, and to the transportation.  Modern agriculture simply could not do what it does without oil, and it could not continue the way it does today if oil becomes more expensive.  There are two things that are guaranteed to happen – oil will become more expensive and oil will eventually run out.  There are disagreements on when these will happen, but it is undeniable and inevitable that oil will one day be depleted and before it does it’s going to get very expensive.  Forget ecological sustainability, our system is physically and economically hinged on a resource that is volatile and finite – how could it be anything but unsustainable, how could it be more related to food security?

Costs to the plants and animals:  There are costs to the health of the animals as they are fed food they weren’t ecologically designed to eat, they are kept in cages their whole lives in which they have no room to turn around, and they are living their lives in a warehouse or a crowded factory farm, knee deep in their own excrement.  In order to keep the animals alive and producing in these horrible, unhealthy environments, large amounts of antibiotics are needed.  In addition, to get the animals to grow faster and produce more meat, eggs, or milk, they are given steroids and hormones, which are effective but have drastic and painful effects on the animal.  It’s the same sort of deal for plants.

Costs to our health: Then there are the costs to our health as we ingest all the chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, preservatives, pollutants, and diseases) that are needed by industrial agriculture to produce these large amounts of cheap food.  There is also food processing, which produces for us thousands of “edible food-like substances,” products that are not “food” in a traditional sense but are none-the-less consumable.  Often these products are easy or ready-made for us in nifty little packages or cans.  But there are consequences to buying products that suggest eating and preparing real food is an inconvenience or an interruption to our busy lives.  There are also consequences to allowing corporations to do our cooking for us.  Add all this together and we have the makings of our very own pandemic of prevalent diseases; obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, just to name a few.  We are literally poisoning ourselves.

For a nation and a culture that is absolutely obsessed with health and nutrition, we are undeniably a country filled with very unhealthy people.  Michael Pollan talks of this ironic paradox in his book In Defense of Food.  Part of the problem is we take our health cues from the very industry that is poising us in the first place.  This is one reason why he suggests avoiding foods that make health claims.  The other reason is that if a certain product makes a health claim, it’s a good indicator that it isn’t really “food.”  Another part of the problem is the mechanistic and reductionist paradigm under which food science operates.  Nutritionists are in constant pursuit of the optimal equation for a healthy human being.  Often a group of researchers will advocating one type of diet, or food, or nutrition over another (e.g. the Atkins diet).  But food science, while providing us with a host of knowledge, is massive in volume, very limited in contextual understanding, and extremely confusing (especially for the average consumer).  Is milk good or bad?  What’s healthier, egg yokes or egg whites,? margarine or butter?  Everybody has an opinion, but even “experts” don’t seem to have definitive answers and if they do it took years to get there.  We’ve been bombarded and influenced by so much information, so many products (47,000 of them in the average supermarket to be precise), constant advertising, and an endless array of food “fads,” it’s no wonder why walking through the supermarket today is a very confusing and overwhelming experience.

Wendell Berry wrote an essay in 1989 entitled “The Pleasures of Eating.”  In it, he discusses the problems associated with industrial agriculture which I have paraphrased below.  He goes on to outline seven ways in which we can reconnect to our food and make our eating experience more healthy, ethical, and pleasurable.  This essay can be found in its entirety HERE or in book of collected essays entitled What Are People For?

The over-riding concern for the agricultural industry – as with any industry – is not quality and health, but volume and price.  The entire industrial food economy, which is the primary (if not the only) source of the food we eat today, is obsessed with volume and makes decisions based on costs and profits.  So the industrial food economy, from large factory farms and feedlots to the chains of supermarkets and fast-food restaurants, has increased scale in order to increase volume in order to reduce costs.  But as scale increases, diversity declines; as diversity declines, so does health; as health declines, the dependence on drugs and chemicals necessarily increases.  As capital replaces labor, it does so by substituting machines, drugs, and chemicals for human workers and for the natural health and fertility of the land.  So it’s a cycle set in motion by the system itself to become more efficient and profitable in an economic sense, but has the effect of becoming more destructive and unhealthy in a human and Earthly sense.

Eaters must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.  This is a simple way of describing a relationship that is inexpressibly complex.  To eat responsibly is to understand and enact, so far as we can, this complex relationship.  What can one do?  Here is a list, probably not definitive:

1.  Participate in food production to the extent that you can.  If you have a yard or even just a porch box or a pot in a sunny window, grow something to eat in it.  Make a little compost of your kitchen scraps and use it for fertilizer.  Only by growing some food for yourself can you become acquainted with the beautiful energy cycle that revolves from soil to seed to flower to fruit to food to offal to decay, and around again.  You will be fully responsible for any food that you grow for yourself, and you will know all about it.  You will appreciate if fully, having known it all its life.

2.  Prepare your own food [as opposed to letting corporations do it for you].  This means reviving in your own mind and life the arts of kitchen and household.  This should enable you to eat more cheaply, and it will give you a measure of “quality control”: you will have some reliable knowledge of what has been added to the food you eat.

3.  Learn the origins of the food you buy, and buy the food that is produced closest to your home.  The ida that every locality should be, as much as possible, the source of its own food makes several kinds of sense.  The locally produced food supply is the most secure, the freshest, and the easiest for local consumers to know about and to influence.

4.  Whenever possible, deal directly with the local farmer, gardener, or orchardist.  …[b]y such dealing you eliminate the whole pack of merchants, transporters, processors, packagers, and advertisers who thrive at the expense of both producers and consumers.

5.  Learn, in self-defense, as much as you can of the economy and technology of industrial food production.  What is added to food that is not food, and what do you pay for these additions [in monetary costs as well as in costs to your health and to the health of natural world]?

6.  Learn what is involved in the best farming and gardening.

7.  Learn as much as you can, by direct observation and experience if possible, of the life histories of the food species.  [For example]…I dislike the thought that some animal has been made miserable in order to feed me.  If I am going to eat meat, I want it to be from an animal that has lived a pleasant, uncrowded life outdoors, on bountiful pasture, with good water nearby and trees for shade.  And I am getting almost as fussy about food plants.  I like to eat vegetables and fruits that I know have lived happily and healthily in good soil, not the products of the huge, bechemicaled factory fields…  The industrial farm is said to have been patterned on the factory production line.  In practice, it looks more like a concentration camp.

The pleasure of eating goes even beyond the categories of politics, esthetics, and ethics of food.  “Eating with the fullest pleasure – pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance – is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world.  In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.

Further Reading:
In Defense of Food – by Michael Pollan
The Unsettling of America – by Wendell Berry
Crisis and Opportunity – by John Ikerd
Deep Economy – by Bill Mckibben

Also watch the 2009 documentary, Food Inc.

Entry #2  4/10/2010

 

Currently Reading:

The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer
By Joel Salatin

The Winter Harvest Handbook: Year Round Vegetable Production Using Deep Organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses
by Eliot Coleman

The New Organic Grower
By Eliot Coleman

Recently Read:

Eaarth - Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
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The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability
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The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food
by Ben Hewitt

Anthill: A Novel
by E. O. Wilson

Strangely Like War: The Global Assault on Forests
by Jensen, Draffan

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