Friday, October 26, 2012

The Teacher

The Man in his workshop.
Every student needs a teacher and this summer, mine was Brent. Though I've known him my entire life, he's became more of a mentor whether he wanted the job or not; he certainly didn't seek it out.

Farming lessons
Despite a few hilarious eye rolls, he's been open to hearing my theories on organic farming. (When the seaweed juice arrived for the garlic soak, I thought he was going to burst into laughter.) Whatever he personally thinks of my project, I'm not sure, but he has been supportive and helpful at every turn.

More importantly, Brent has been more than willing to teach me (and show me) the basics of industrial farming. Thanks to him, I look at fields differently now, I notice things I didn't before ("Shouldn't they be worried about their cover crop getting so thick?") and, hopefully, after 4.5 months, I've started asking fewer stupid questions.

With grandsons, Levi and Layne, and brother-in-law, Sheppy
Y'see, Brent's father, Perry, was my Grandpa Wilbur's right hand man in every sense. Perry even lived in Wilbur's farmhouse (along with my grandmother and mother) as a young man. When Perry married Brent's mother, Dorothy (Grandpa's distant cousin), Perry went looking for a house to live in. "Nonsense," Wilbur told him, "we'll put a house for you right here on the farm."

And that is why our family farm is 'home' to Brent, it's where he grew up and a place where you can still find him nearly every day, for one reason or another. And the fact that his house protects The Mae Flower from so much wind, weather and road dust is not lost on me. Brent is here, even when he's not here.

Brent's worn boots
So, when I 'informed' Brent that I would be living on the farm for the summer so I could learn about farming, it was really more of a question to him. My Scranch Summer simply would not have happened without his complete buy-in. In addition to having a family and life of his own, plus farming, plus fixing everyone's tractors, combines and lawnmowers, he would now have to see to my well being and answer all of my probing questions.  As my friend, Heidi, once asked me, "How does that Brent guy have time to do other things?"

I have no idea, except that I don't think that Brent guy sleeps much. 

Making me a fire pit out of a trash barrel....
....and then fixing it after I backed over it.
The amount of tasks, favors and repairs that Brent generously offered up are endless, too numerous to mention, but here's a snippet:
Fixing the tailgate handle on my pick-up
  • Scoring a fridge for the shop to hold my extra produce
  • Arranging for electrical lines to be put in for the Mae Flower and the museum shed
  • Helping with Mama Iva's party by borrowing tables, chairs and a coffee maker from the Neche Fire Department
  • Providing bourbon, always
  • Letting me harvest an entire field of barley

Shooting a skunk in my front yard
  • Numerous crop tours
  • Helping me cover up the garden to protect it from freeze, too many nights, in the light of pick-up headlights
  • Chasing down those same tarps in a 40 mph windstorm, when I wasn't even there
  • Putting in trellis beams for crawling bean and pea vines (see below)
  • Keeping a grain bin empty so could sing in it (I sound better with an echo)
"Tra la la la la!"
  • Putting up Halloween lights on the shed
  • Keeping me supplied with propane (except for one loooooong, cold night - 27 degrees!)
  • Taking my direction for photographs of....whatever:
"Here, hold this so I can take a picture of it..."
"This one too, please!"
  • Buying and installing giant, badass shelves to store my lifetime of stuff
  • Loaning me his white pick-up for trailer travel (mine is too small)

Showing me how to count the layers.
  • Delivering arm loads of fresh picked summer corn, garden red potatoes and steaks and burgers from cattle he and his buddy raised themselves
  • Checking on me daily/nightly to make sure I was still alive
Not a pose, this is him chatting while I work in the garden
  • Scoring a giant bale of straw from a neighboring rancher and then helping me spread it on my freshly planted garlic (see below)

  • Not laughing too hard when I explained why I would be soaking the garlic cloves in seaweed juice before planting
  • Gently debating with me on food/ag issues - taking the time to listen to my consumer perspective and chemical concerns
  • Arranging for me to get my ass on a horse - exactly what my soul needed
  • Allowing me to tag along on so many farming adventures - everything from elevator runs to harvests
Building my sewer system
  • Showing me where all the bars are in every town
  • Buying extra fancy mouse traps and poison to protect all my stuff in the museum shed
  • Arranging for a flat bed trailer to come get my pick-up when the steering column broke
  • Tilling up the garden spot for 2013
  • Measuring said spot with me: 45'x115'
Tilling for 2013
And finally, helping me pack every single available inch of my pick-up for the drive back to Long Beach. I've packed as many fancy clothes, shoes and jewelry as possible because there is simply no need for it in my NoDak life. "More boots, high heels, something," he said, noting that there were still available spots in between the boxes. "Hand me something and we'll get it in there." 

With Kirk and grandson, Layne
Brent's famous, "I know a guy..." answer to all my problems always came through. Although I may have taught him just one thing, it wasn't much compared to the immense stack of knowledge that I was exposed to - not sure yet how much I retained, but it was all there for me to digest.

Unloading wheat at the grain elevator
And so, Brent and I are, in a sense, repeating our own version of family history. Grandpa Wilbur was famous for working at the farm until he spotted the season's first snow flake. And then, it was, "Pack it up! We're heading to Long Beach!" He and Perry would have a brief meeting about what needed to happen over winter and that was it, he was gone. Perry would then stay on the farm and run the place in his absence, with Brent right alongside. 

Grandpa Wilbur, in the farmhouse
Though I was more reluctant to leave the farm than Wilbur was, now I too have left the North Dakota winter behind and am pointed toward that same beach city, knowing that Brent will capably manage things at "home".  In fact, I'm sure he'll get much more done without his pesky sidekick around.

A rare moment of relaxation
Also, by the time I left, Brent no longer questioned my desire to photograph every single aspect of the farm, including him. He officially gave up hiding from the camera in late June. The very top photo is my favorite because it's about the time when he stops fighting or flinching and just gives in. I overheard him tell one farmer, "You just get used to it."

Among my favorite Brent conversations.... As we were driving through the tiny town of Backoo:

Me: "I wonder how many people live in Backoo. Do you know, Brent?"
Brent: "Well, let's see. (Starts pointing at houses, counting) 2...5...7...10...12...16...20...22. About 22."

Checking on my propane

Again, driving down a random road:

Brent: "When you get to this part of the road, remember to look up."
Me: "Why?"
Brent: "This guy here (he points to a farm house) flies and sometimes will land on the road here. Make sure you don't get in the way of the plane." 
Me: "Um, okay."


On another remote back road:

Brent: "You know you're in North Dakota when a state highway is a gravel road."
Me: "This is a state highway???"

Our family is mighty lucky to have Brent around and I've been especially grateful for his patience these past few months. Hopefully, I didn't scare him off too much for next summer....

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....

Monday, October 15, 2012

She Haunts Me

Occasionally, I make the 100-mile journey down I-29 to Grand Forks, usually to pick up a guest at the airport or to drop myself off. Like most drives in North Dakota, it is long and straight, and with exactly two turns from the farm, largely uneventful. The scenery is flat and even with miles and miles of farmland, the occasional sugar (beet) factory and a handful of billboards. Here is where I thank the gods for the airwaves that deliver the CBC. The Canadian Broadcasting Company saves my sanity up here, repeatedly.

Back in August, I was on this very trek, heading for the airport named for one of my favorite dudes, former NoDak Senator Byron Dorgan. I think I was flying to Denver for the Smile Train shows. I was thinking about the goal of the trip (raising money for cleft surgeries) and looked forward to seeing my Denver friends.

All of a sudden, there she was.

Photo by Rusty Clark
On the right shoulder, a Mennonite girl, in old-school prairie clothing. She was alone with a black suitcase on wheels. She was facing west, away from the highway, and turned toward me and then down, just enough so I could see she was young, maybe late teens, early 20s. She also wore a backpack, a hard modern contrast to her Laura Ingalls-era skirts. Of course, she wore the signature white bonnet as well.

I perked up, saw her, passed her and saw her again in my rear view mirror, my mind racing. What should I do? Should I stop? Is she running away? My cruise control was set at 75 (the speed limit) and I was now long past her. The exits here are few and far between and I was trying to catch a plane - I reasoned - I did not have time to stop for strangers.

Clearly, she was running away - she was packed up and all alone. Did she have money? A plan? What was she thinking?

When I arrived at the airport, I went through the briefest, nicest “security” screening and sat at the gate. My plane didn’t leave for another 1.5 hrs. I felt a flash of guilt - there was plenty of time to stop and see to her well being. I can’t describe how much this nags me to this day.

As women, I believe we have a duty to look out for one another. We are more vulnerable in this world, it’s a fact. Feminism doesn’t change the reality that we are still the preyed-upon gender and it means we have to stick together whether we have actually met or not.

The nicest man in the entire world could have pulled over to help her and she would still have to be fearful and suspicious; it’s ingrained in us. But if a woman like me pulls over and says, “Honey, what are you doing out here? Where can I take you?”, that girl just might fall into my arms crying, telling me everything. This is one thing I love about being a woman, that there are very few walls between us.

She was running away from her family, likely from Mennonite society and she wanted to go somewhere, probably anywhere. She wasn’t hitchhiking. She had no sign. I don’t think she had a plan. She likely came from Manitoba, where the nearest Mennonites live but that means she had a passport, which is unlikely.

It’s been two months and I still see her wind-whipped skirts and scared young face in my mind’s eye.

I should have stopped.

Next time, I will.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Exploring Minneapolis

Cousin Carol - Hostess with the Mostess!
Last weekend, I indulged in quick road trip to Minneapolis - a 6-7 hour drive, straight south, turning left at Fargo. Back in June, I had bought a ticket to see comedian Louis CK, because I happily buy anything he’s selling. I knew I’d be needing an urban break right about now and Louis is a brilliant writer and performer. I was right, this was much needed - a rare case of foresight.

Minneapolis Convention Center, awaiting The Master.
(Louis also goes out of his way to make things cheap and easy for the fans, even arranging his entire 45-city tour to circumvent the evil Ticketmasters of the world. Tix were a straight $45, every seat, every venue, every city, no extra charges.)

Photo by Flowizm
Lucky for me, my cousin, Carol, lives in the City of Lakes so I have a lovely place to stay - fancy plumbing and everything. (She is the daughter of Walter, my 92-year-old cousin.) Carol is the best hostess, always planning meals around my organic/local/veggie inclinations, and offering up show tickets. This time, I brought her a haul of Scranch produce (watermelon, squash, tomatoes, pumpkin) so I’m hoping she got a sense of my gratitude, beyond my stating it again and again.

I love a good corner.

Mississippi River from the Guthrie's Amber Room.
On Saturday, she took me down to their incredible Farmer’s Market, right next to the beautiful Guthrie Theater (behind Carol, above) and alongside the Mississippi River. It was a beautiful, chilly day. After spending a season on other side of the table, I now explore Farmer’s Markets with a new appreciation for all the work and care that went in to the gorgeous produce. I saw at least one head of broccoli that made me want to cry, it was so perfect. I marked the day by purchasing a hand-knitted hat (lined with fleece, no less) from Barn Swallow Garden - I love it!

Edible garden boxes downtown - super cool.
The market is held partly outside and inside a section of the Old Mill Factory, a beautiful building that is half art gallery, half ancient ruins. Most of the factory was destroyed in a deadly flour dust explosion in 1878 (killing 18 people) and they left it, as is. I didn't realize that innocent flour could be so explosive but this summer, I've been learning about the lethal potential of grain dust. One small spark and BOOM! Known as the Great Mill Disaster, it reduced the city's milling capabilities by a third.

The building included a moving installation called “The Bridge” which documented the survivors of the horrific bridge collapse in 2007 that killed 13 people. The entire place reminded me that every city, every town, every village has its own tragedies, woven into its history, often making it stronger as the community has to pull together to survive.

Explosion remants
Carol treated me to a delicious brunch at Spoonriver, right alongside the market and theater. We were shown to our table by the owner, Brenda Lee Langton, an inspiring agent for organic and local food in Minneapolis. I had an market-special omelette packed with savory fresh produce from the vendors next door. Carol had some fancy French Toast made with coconut milk, rosewater and cardamom. We finished up with some chocolate and pistachio cream puffs. Ah, city food!

"One of each, please."
Minneapolis is a city I could live in, no problem. First, they have the best public radio station I’ve ever heard and no shortage of art galleries, theaters, book stores and world class restaurants. I noted a concerted support of bicycles and public transportation and an eclectic mix of old and new architecture.

The winters, I’m sure, are brutal but then again, they don’t have to deal with the dreaded migration of Californians, something that is complained about wherever I go - like a rash that spreads the country. (I can only stand there sheepishly, when hearing this complaint.)

The Mary Tyler Moore statue, downtown.
I'd requested that we check out the Walker Art Center with it's accompanying sculpture garden next door and Carol obliged. The gallery was a fun space with many ponderous pieces - some incredible, some ridiculous and nearly all, thought-provoking. There was even an exhibit that encouraged people to take a piece of it home. (It was a poster of a b/w photo and I did.) Photography was encouraged, which is rather unusual for a gallery, so, I grabbed a few shots:

Wall-sized, um, necklace
I loved these
Eyeball wallpaper near the bathrooms
Cra-ZEE eyes watching as you head to the loo...
But the sculpture garden was amazing - truly delightful. It began with a small courtyard framed in stone benches, each one engraved with a thought. Of course, you naturally expect some beautiful bits of poetry, parables or deep life wisdoms but that would be soooooo predictable. These benches had a lot to say about everything else:

Like I said, random.

But the rest of the sculpture garden was equally fun - not huge but just big enough to ask yourself, "What's a giant spoon and cherry doing in the woods?"

In fact, the spoon/cherry duo is pretty famous in Minneapolis and I can see why - it's looks amazing from any angle.
And then, I caught this beautiful man smiling ear to ear - he was watching his children play - and I couldn't help stealing a shot....

...then he turned his head and GAVE ME SOME SUGAR!
Thus, giving me my favorite shot of the entire trip. God, I love strangers, they're my favorite. Other sculpture garden shots:

Carol also took me to see an incredibly funny (and totally necessary) sketch comedy show called The Rainbow Election ("Mommies and Mormons and Gays, Oh MY!") at the Brave New Workshop comedy theater downtown. It was a hoot. Honestly, the sketches were hysterical and spot on with neither the Dems or Repubs coming out clean - mud was expertly flung in every direction.

In the lobby.
Lordy, they did a whole bit on hoodies - how a normal citizen can become a criminal just by flipping up their hoodie, especially if they are African-American. Like any good satire, it was dead on. The dudes playing Obama and Romney (Andy Hilbrands and Bobby Gardner, respectively) really worked overtime. My favorite quote from the show:

"There are 7.5 million gay people in America but only 6 million Mormons. That means, statistically speaking, it's 25% less weird to be gay than it is to be Mormon."

Even the urinal in the woman's bathroom had something funny to say:

So yeah, Minneapolis - I dig it. They even have 80s-themed bachelorette parties here - what more do you need?
Oh yeah, you need a whole room made of yellow tinted glass, and a baby:

Thanks for showing me the town, Carol! Back to the farm I go...