Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Crop Tours

After talking to my father, sister-in-law and brother along Mississippi's Gulf Coast and absolutely NOT worrying about Hurricane Isaac bearing down on them, I thought I'd describe one of my favorite bits of my new farm life: Crop tours.

Maybe once or twice a week, about a hour before sunset, Brent pulls up in one of his many pick-ups (usually the black beater) and says, "Maybe take a crop tour?"

"Looks like the (weed) sprayer wasn't turned on yet."
This is where we drive around "in squares" and get intimate with the produce while measuring the progress of other farmers. This is really when the teacher-student relationship blossoms and the fields become my classroom.

"Seeder wasn't turn on yet", hence, the big empty spot.
Although automation has definitely taken a hold of agriculture, there are still some old school measurements that Brent, and farmers of his generation, live by. Namely, "If the ground cracks enough that you can drop a 12" wrench - and not get it back - you got trouble."

We need rain!
"Kelly Mac's got a nice, even field. See how most of the beans are yellow with only a little bit of green? That's what you want," Brent tells me. "If it's too green, the beans aren't formed yet. If the pods are too dry, the combine might rattle 'em and they'll pop. You have to pick the right time to harvest." 

Soybean field, just off County 1, near Walhalla.
Brent's soybeans, nearly ready for harvest.

Soybean pods, in their youth.
 We go down back roads, along culverts, through cooleys and border fences. At least once, he'll pull right alongside a wall of corn and reach in from where he sits in the pick-up, and pull in a few ears.  

"Count the rows," he says. I count 19. "Nope. Count 'em again." Ah, I was mistaken, there were 18 rows. "Yup. He says. Always 18 rows."

 The corn he is talking about is GMO, grown for ethanol and/or livestock feed, not for you and I to eat. In fact, I don't even think our mouths or digestive systems could handle it.

"Edible corn," he once told me, "is a niche market."

He's dead right. When you hear the word "corn" you think of summer sweet corn on the cob, right? But that romantic variety doesn't even register on this recent graph from Big Picture Agriculture:

Fact is, corn is used in so many ways, we're surrounded by it. I remember Curt Ellis, one of the co-directors of the documentary, "King Corn" speaking at the MOSES conference earlier this year. He recalled a '80s-era bit by comedian Steve Martin that was prescient.

"In this routine, he theorized that when you go to a McDonald's or any fast food joint, the food is really just different shaped forms of the same stuff and they just truck in tubes of 'food matter', ready for sculpting," said Curt. "Turns out, he was predicting the future. Today, it's all corn, just in different forms." Here's a brief snapshot of corn products:

* Food: Cereals, snack foods, salad dressings, soft drink sweeteners, chewing gum, peanut butter, hominy grits, taco shells and other flour products, specialty corn including white corn, blue corn and popcorn.
* Animal feeds: Distiller's dried grain, gluten feed and meal, high-oil feed corn for cattle, swine, poultry and fish.
* Industrial products: Soaps, paints, corks, linoleum, polish, adhesives, rubber substitutes, wallboard, dry-cell batteries, textile finishings, cosmetic powders, candles, dyes, pharmaceuticals, lubricants, insulation, wallpaper and other starch products.
* Fermentation products and byproducts: industrial alcohols, fuel ethanol, recyclable plastics, industrial enzymes, fuel octane enhancers, fuel oxygenates and solvents.

 Early in the season, Brent grabbed a few cobs so I could see how evenly they formed. He showed me what to look for and explained how each strand from the silks leads to a specific kernel, fertilizing and nourishing it along, like a very thin umbilical cord.

You can see which kernels didn't get fertilized.
Inspecting the corn over the weekend, Brent explained, "You want to look for the dents, that's a good sign. It means the corn is almost ready."
Lots o'dents!
"Edible beans", I've come to learn, is Brent's term for Pinto beans. I've only ever seen them in their final form, like most people, but had never seen them as Mama Nature intended:

"Them beans got to be slick and striped."
When the beans themselves accidentally get split open, the split pods get sold at a lower rate to the government, who then sells them as refried beans, mostly in the form of government aid to other countries. 

Every so often on these crop tours, we run across an achingly bored Border Patrol officer. We chatted with one fellow the other night for nearly 30 minutes - he was sad to see us go. He'd once worked along the Mexican border  and was used to catching 1,000 people a month. "We haven't seen anyone trying to cross in years," he sighed. "The only thing we've found was a shoe from last year. Only one. I wonder what the story is there." 
Chatting up the border patrol.
"Oh, that belongs to my grandson," says Brent. "They were running around at the border last year and they came back with one less shoe." 

 "Well, that solves that mystery," said the agent, wistfully. I almost felt bad for him.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Back on the Farm

Sometime in late April, I recall turning to Kirk and saying, "I think this might be the last relaxing day I have until maybe November." 

So far, I'm right.

Since the winds of change started to gather in early May, the gas pedal of my life as been stuck on the floorboard - on cruise control but without that mellow, cruise-y feeling.


Yesterday, I arrived back home to SCRANCH a little after 1 a.m., it was so dark (and there are no streetlights way out here) that I had to check the GPS on my iPhone to make sure I was making the right turn onto our property.

After the seven comedy improv shows for Smile Train (final fundraising number will come later this week) and the joy of getting together with old friends, favorite animals and dear family, I was truly whipped. I gave a short speech at the beginning of every show but in some, I performed, while others, I hosted. I also laughed, a LOT. I gave out a ton of energy and got that same energy in return, which I then tried to volley back in the form of gratitude.

All this was exhausting, and I had never really recovered from New York before I left. So naturally, I also got a cold and a visit from Aunt Flo on top of that; it all felt like I was barely hanging on to the tail of a very energetic tiger.

So, on Monday morning, I got up early, eyes still bleary, and tried to get as much done as I could before I had to leave for the airport. 'Don't worry,' I kept telling myself, 'you can sleep all you want on the planes home.'

But there were setbacks. Taking the giant bag of donated bills and change to the bank, I was told: "We don't have a change machine here. You'll need to go the bank on 52nd and Vance." 

"Fine," said I, "but can you tell me why you are taking money out of my savings account?"

I was then ushered into a mini-office where a nice young man did some rearranging for me. It was during this time that I received a text that Phyllis Diller had passed, an incredible woman that I knew. I wouldn't say we were "friends" but friendly acquaintances, at least.

Phyllis was 95 so it was a fantastic run for a life well lived. Still, I knew immediately that there would be no sleeping on the plane - I had put 'dibs' on writing the Phyllis remembrance with our entertainment editor about six months prior. (I had even thought about pre-writing up a tribute 'just in case' she passed, but that felt creepy so I'd have to write it fresh.)

I didn't think I was that upset about her death until, after finally leaving the second bank (the one with the amazing coin machine), I found myself lazily driving the wrong way down a one-way street. All that honking sure woke me up. Then, I listened to a heartfelt voice mail from my buddy, Pete, and the tears came; a legend had passed and her famous laugh would be heard no more.

The 1,000-mile journey home - a shuttle van, a big plane, a small plane and my truck - was a blur. Physically, I felt like a brain on a wobbly stick, with just one eye open and a bunch of dead-weight flesh attached to it.

At the Minneapolis airport, I bought a bunch of Rocky Mountain Chocolate, my attempt at staying awake with an infusion of second-home-state product. When I arrived at Grand Forks Airport, I still had a two-hour drive to SCRANCH. I must give thanks for the BBC, which kept me awake with it's fascinating rendition of world news. I now know everything about Ethiopia's dead prime minister, Meles Zenawi. Quite a fellow, from what I hear.

At long last, I pull into my tree-arched 'garage' and exhaled a bellow of relief. "I did it. I made it. I'm home," I say aloud, and momentarily rest my forehead on the steering wheel. I unload all my luggage and drag it all across the dirt gravel road toward The Mae Flower. For some reason, I look skyward and see a million sparkling diamonds, twinkling at me and a cloudy streak - The Milky Way. The constellations and planets of the night sky were so vivid and clear, something I could never see in an urban setting.

Man, it felt good to be back.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Smile Train Shows: Mid-Week Update

Me with Out of the Basement and Intentionally Left Blank.
This week, I'm in Denver for a string of comedy improv benefit shows for the cleft repair charity Smile Train. My comedy husband, Steve Loukas, and I put these on - this year is the 5th annual - and they get bigger every time. What began with one show at one theater with one group back in 2008 has turned in to 7 shows at 2 theaters with multiple groups and performers. Not including this year, we've raised enough funds for 32+ kids, which is wonderful.

Me and Steve after last year's shows. We're SO TIRED.
Though this whole campaign was originally my idea, Steve is really the lynch pin - securing the venues, herding the performers, printing tickets, updating the sites and always, always, always thinking about how we can improve it next year. I do a lot too but sometimes, it's all I can do to hold on to the tiger's tail. 

Tuesday night's cast of 'Gay v. Str8t' - it was sold out!
Because I'm technically now a North Dakota farmer and not a Denver urbanite, I hired Kirk's super smart daughter, Molly, to be my eyes and ears, arms and legs (only more toned) - which worked out great. I wish I were stinking rich so I could hire her permanently but alas, the world needs her more than I and she's blazing trails in the nursing world.

Me with Awesome Kirk Spawn - Molly and Jay
Meanwhile, we are 3 shows into this year's effort and have already raised $1,420! This will fund facial corrective surgery for at least 5 kids, which makes me happier than I can say. Because I went through so many facial corrective surgeries as a child (approx. 25), this is a very personal issue to me. The world's daunting problems - cancer, hunger, war, disease - overwhelm me sometimes, but this is one problem with a relatively easy fix - 45 minute surgery as low as $250 per kid. DONE.

We still have 4 shows left at the Avenue Theater (I will perform in at least 2 and host at least 1) and tickets are still available here. If you can't come to the shows but would still like to donate, please go

Awesome new logo by Lisa Friedman.

Come next Monday, I head back to the farm. Meantime, pray for rain! 

Friday, August 10, 2012

A Typical (Non) Average Day

My wildflowers have arrived!
I love it when cliches come true. To me, that means there is some small trace of order in the Universe, no matter how accidental it may be. The thing is, I do actually learn something new every day. For example, today I harvested an entire field of barley while operating this bad boy:

It actually growls.
It's terrifying at first, then meditative and then you start to think a combine cab might not make for such a bad office. Technically, it's still a cubicle but with a better view:

Brent had me do an entire field that is in a difficult culvert nearly overcome with weeds, so there really wasn't too much I could mess up. There are too many levers that do big, noisy things so it wasn't a perfect performance (Brent: "Stop. Stop! STOP!") but again, there's that learning curve.

I even had to square up the machine alongside the giant grain truck to unload the barley via the grain augur - the giant tube thing that sticks out the side:

I briefly considered the escape hatch...

And then I thought to myself, "What would John Deere say?"

But it was also a day of contemplation at my second favorite meditational spot, atop the grain bin:

Up there, I birthed thoughts such as, "What am I doing here? Where are the cabs? What do I do with all this food? How am I supposed to have a normal life? Why can't I be normal? What is normal anyway? Where, for the love of God, is my favorite yoga DVD?"

Alas, no answers - only questions today.

I also had to go check in on my neighborhood BFF, Evelyn, otherwise, she gets mad.

From the Hamilton Fair in July - in my cowboy hat.
Off I went so she could say, "Welcome home from New York!" and "Have a safe trip to Denver!" all in the same visit. She's tired of me photographing her so I just took a shot of the various barn cats that I love to cuddle:

While visiting Evelyn, I decided to bring along my peas to shell. Brent says they are not real peas, only the random fruit of the flower, Sweet Peas, but hey, I grew 'em, so I'm eating 'em. They're my babies and they'll always be peas to me.

I had interrupted Evelyn while she was partaking in that great NoDak pastime - canning. Or, in this case, pickling. She says when I get back from Denver, she will begin lessons in her kitchen, since my kitchen is really an extended hot plate with a tiny sink. Makes me sad. I dream about kitchen counters these days, a lot.

Not many city people know this but cucumbers do in fact become...


And gorgeous sunrises become...


... beautiful sunsets.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

BlogHer '12 in New York

There is no clearer example of the American dichotomy than to experience New York city and North Dakota in the same day. Hell, the same lifetime. Last Thursday, I headed to the Empire State for BlogHer '12, this time in New York.

I love the event but the crush of assertive estrogen always turns me into a bit of a wallflower, or a perky cheerleader when faced with a real wallflower. Even women are scared of that many women. And the number one question on all the social media channels leading up to the event? "What to wear????"

Because I've been wearing one of three rotating pairs of shorts all summer, I had to dig out my dresses, makeup and jewelry from the shed, amid the cobwebs and live mousetraps. I was fancy when necessary but what really got me some attention was this:

I wore it all day Saturday and gals were stopping me in the hall, giving me their cards and talking about their own connections to farming. Thanks, Tracey!

Anyway, as any BlogHer attendee knows, it's not the clothes that make the girl, it's the business cards. Mine were designed by my dear friend, Lisa, and I picked them up at the Moo booth at the BlogHer Expo Hall. Finally got around to looking at them in the cab on the way to a film screening of "Toxic Baby" (more on that later). They look sharp, right?

Starring The Mae Flower!

This year, I roomed with my pal, Beth Terry, who recently published a book, 'Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and You Can Too', based on her blog, My Plastic Free Life. Though the world knows her as a serious activist urging zero-to-minimal usage of plastic, I know her as a giggly pal who has the same inclinations for staying up late and partying until the wee hours. She brought along a bunch of her books and sold all them - yay!

Though, I was still stuck at La Guardia for President Obama's live satellite address, I made sure not to miss live interview lunches with Martha Stewart (funny, scary-smart, confident) and Katie Couric (warm, likable, smart) so there's that. Both ladies were warm and seemed genuinely happy to be there, which was nice. Also, it was Martha's birthday so we sang to her - fun.

Me and Cho
Also, I did run in to Margaret Cho at a party for Harley-Davidson at Whiskey Park, across from Central Park. She was funny, adorable and a terrific sport. In one weekend, I hit my celebrity quota for the summer.

A big highlight for me was being asked to lead a writing lab at the conference, entitled: "How to Give Your Day-in-the-Life Stories Universal Appeal." There were two 30-minute sessions and the 'students' were so delightful, we could have talked all day long. I was expecting to face a bunch of open laptops but they all arrived with paper and pen - yay for retro note taking! They asked smart questions, listened hard and shared their own challenges and successes. I wish we'd had longer time together.

A big plus of BlogHer is getting some serious face time with those I work with all year long online. It's truly amazing how much you can accomplish in one champagne-infused conversation, at least 50 emails/texts/Yammer's worth.

With BlogHer Editors, Julie Godar and Rita Arens.
On Sunday, I took the train to Brooklyn to visit my old friend, Tony Dokoupil. I met him when he was a young intern at my PR agency back in the 90s, but he has since blossomed into a husband, father and writer for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. We had lunch, watched his son, Oliver, do his best Tasmanian Devil and later, he gave me a tour of the world famous Park Slope Co-op while we slurped our gourmet popsicles from People's Pops. He's a good egg, one of those friends that feels like family.

On my way to his house, I walked by an auto body shop and a man came running out, yelling to me, "Thank you for walking in front of my shop, beautiful lady!" Odd, but sweet. As compliments go, this one was unique and yes, I'll take it.

Sunday morning, I indulged a deep desire to go jogging in Central Park. Cliched it may be but I can never seem to get enough of that green belt of humanity. I was beyond tired but that's what 5-hour energy drinks are for, yes?

I made it to the Jackie O. Reservoir but was saddened to see this sign announcing the upcoming spray of RoundUp:

That stuff is hard to avoid in this life.

Chemicals or not, I made the trek and took in the NYC skyline. Of course, I also partook in one of my all time favorite activities: helping tourists. Whether it's giving directions ("Strawberry Fields is that way.") or offering my photographic services to a German couple ("You want a picture together?"), I played the ever-helpful local. I used to do this all the time in San Francisco (look for freezing people with upside down maps) and I miss it. Mama Iva says I missed my calling as a tour guide.

Sunday night, Beth had made a hard-won reservation at Momofoku and we had the dining experience of a lifetime. They only serve 12 people at one time and reservations are made only one week in advance - and they are gone within minutes. We were served an unforgettable 12-course meal (with pairings) made by expert chefs right in front of us. There are no cell phone calls allowed, no photos and there are no menus. Yes, it is very, very expensive. It may be the most I've ever paid for a meal but each dish was its own culinary epiphany. It was the ideal way to say goodbye to big city food before I return to farm life with its own menu of red potatoes, sweet corn, privately raised beef and SCRANCH produce, also delicious but not that creative.  

I'm still recovering from my Big Apple adventures. I was tired when I left North Dakota and I averaged maybe 4 hrs. per night while there, so I'm still catching up. I have a couple of foot wounds that need tending but I'm here in one piece.

I LOVE New York....

... but it's good to be back at SCRANCH.