Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Round-Up Reality

Smoke from yet another burn pile
Sad but true, the time has come to leave Scranch for the winter. In just two short days, I must pack up whatever I think I’ll need through spring and puzzle piece it all into my pick-up. (It was a truck when I arrived here in June but it has since been demoted.)

Of course, I’ve already begun to reflect on what I’ve learned in 4.5 months and, in fact, I'll need the long winter to process it all.

Y’see, I didn’t come to North Dakota to attack our nation’s industrial food system; I came here to try and understand it at field-level.  My knowledge, up to this point, has been from a convenient urban/consumer perspective. In my quest to hold a truly informed opinion, I have made some headway, though I’m still a mighty long way from understanding – it’s just more complicated than I thought…  

But first, the irony.

About half way through the summer, the incongruity of this Green Acres (“Farm livin’ is the life for me!”) experiment began to dawn on me. This idea about me living this new clean life out in the country is true in most respects but not entirely. 

First of all, I live in a brand new trailer, which like anything brand new these days, comes loaded with chemicals (flame retardants, formaldehyde, etc.) and that’s not including the unscheduled leaking of ammonia from my refrigerator. I know for a fact that I ate a bunch of food infused with the chemical before I realized there was a problem.

Then, there is the water. Because there is no water source on the property, I tank my water in for the trailer and the garden. I was advised that the water is not potable, so I must refill plastic gallon jugs whenever I go to town at 38 cents a pop. This is all well and good but I am still using the well water to wash dishes, brush teeth and take showers. I should be more vigilant about using the distilled water for some of these things but it’s not practical. 

Of course, I am also surrounded on all sides by active fields of industrial soybeans, wheat, pinto beans and corn. All are sprayed with chemicals – either from the ground or air, or both.  Products with names like Colt, Tilt, Lambda, Everest and, of course, plenty of Round-Up. Farmers must pass a test every year just safely and legally handle these chemicals. 

Good news is, this stuff is not cheap and so the farmer wants to stretch it out as much as possible, meaning better to err on the side of a slim spray, unless you’ve got a direct problem. I know for a fact that Brent is loathe to use too much chemical because, in addition to being pricey, it's hard on the soil. But he's not the only farmer in this neighborhood, unfortunately.

Half the summer, I woke up in a WWII movie with a crop duster soundtrack. (“MROWWWWRRRR!”) I had plenty of time to lie in bed and ponder the truth: That I was, indeed, being bombed, like a flea. The planes sounded pretty cool but the their cargo made me nervous. 

Photo by ra_hurd via Flickr.
Then, there are ‘burn piles’ – mounds of yard waste, scrap branches, trash, plastic and scrap metal that people collect throughout the year and then eventually, set on fire. No permit. No warning. No nothing. Tires too.  

Early in the summer, I stopped at a roadside prairie fire and didn’t know what to do. Normally, I would panic ("Um, excuse me? Something's on fire, here? Hello? Anyone?") but I just stared at it and kept looking around to see if anyone was alarmed. (The land is flat and you can see the smoke for miles.) Nobody was. I finally got up the nerve to drive away and never heard anything about it. These days, I understand how common the are so I just photograph the fires, often without even slowing down the pick-up. 

Finally, to deal with mice and rats in the shed, we put down poison. Mind you, I haven’t handled too much of it, really. The few times I have set traps, I’ve used peanut butter spread on a ruthless device that snaps them in two. I don’t think the poison is a threat to my health or anything, it’s just another piece of the chemical scenery that is not normally part of my life. 

Billboard in Cavalier for chemical fertilizer
I once found a mouse with just his front paw stuck. He wasn’t even bleeding and he just would have slowly starved to death so I took him out and let him go in a field. I KNOW. I’m weak and emotional but I believe that if you are going to kill something, at least make it quick with a minimum of suffering. Otherwise, you’re just a dick who enjoys killing.

One night in the shed,  while doing yoga, a mouse ran across my toes as I was doing downward dog. Amazingly, I did not freak out but giggled. Isn't this what you get when you do yoga in the middle of nowhere? I did, however, follow the mouse to see where he came from and was amazed that he let me get so close. 

Then, I watched him/her die in a bizarre fashion - from eating the poison Brent had set out, I'm sure. He just kept going in circles, round and round and round, slowly going insane. Poor thing was just out of his mind. What a terrifying end. Watching him chase his own tail after ingesting so much chemical, I couldn't help but see a macabre metaphor for humanity.

As for the food, well…. Right now? The food is perfect. Every meal is either something I grew or created OR that a friend has grown, raised or made. When I go to the store these days, it’s only to refill my drinking water, fetch dairy products and other things like oatmeal and hamburger buns. Even the beans in my egg burrito were grown on the farm. A snapshot of my fridge and freezer:
  • Watermelon, parsnips, squash, tomatoes, spinach, peas, green beans and spaghetti sauce (me)
  • pumpkin cookies (Victoria)
  • pickles (both dill and bread/butter), zukes, onions, potatoes, Grape jam (Evelyn)*
  • chilis, cookies, apple-raisin bread, apple cider and apple sauce (Miles)
  • Raspberry jam, habanero salsa, fresh-baked rolls (Eldean)
  • Mini Apple Turnovers (Eilleen)
  • T-bone, rib steak and hamburger meat (Brent/Wayne)
  • Rhubarb wine, chicken (Powerful Pierre)
Nothing from the store except the butter.
*I no longer have her grape juice but it was a masterpiece. Every morning, I’d slowly drink it with one of Eldean’s raisin brain muffins and I’d want to cry – it was so pure. 

Chemical is written on sprayer windshield so they can keep track of what's in the can. Mixing not advised.
Manual sprayer
My point with all this is that the country is full of chemicals, just as much, if not more so than a city. (Not sure what is more chemically-infused, a field of non-edible industrial corn or a brand new house in the suburbs.) 

And knowing about all the chemicals that go into clothing, furniture, food, toys, electronics, personal products, household cleaners and building materials, I don’t know if there is a way to escape this toxic soup we have created around us. (Google "phthalates" or "endocrine disruptors" sometime, just for kicks.) 

A crop strategy for spraying.
Toxic chemicals are in nearly everything we touch. I’ve even heard some terrible things about the those thin filmy print-out receipts that we happily grab all day long. I used to request them when I filled up with gas but I’ve since stopped. 

Scorched field edge much too close to my farm.
Early in the summer, jogging down the dirt road, I struck up a conversation with a farmer taking a break from spraying. We got into a conversation and it came up that I was trying to grow organically. I thought he would give me the usual, 'Yah, good luck with that' attitude but instead, it became a confessional. 

"All the chemicals we use these days. It's too much," he said. "When it rains, I look into the puddled water and it has all different colors in it, like an oil slick." He shakes his head and goes silent. Then, he started talking about a family member with cancer. Swear to heaven, I did not offer a bridge to that topic, he took it on his own. This is a man who works deep in the industrial food system and even he is starting to piece it all together.

Then, he bid me a good day, jumped back on his tractor and went to work, spraying. 


Good news is, I have friends like Beth Terry and Lori Alper who inspire me to get more involved and dig deeper on this issue. Also, the world is filling up with filmmakers, bloggers and authors - citizens who are ringing the bell of alarm on the chemical makeup of our world. Of course, loads of empowered activist organizations are cropping up and slowly, consumers are starting to demand answers, reform and policy change.

Right now, I just feel like just a shocked observer who pulled one loose string on a nasty sweater that just keeps unraveling....


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