Monday, October 28, 2013

Guest Post: Eleni Liberty Jacobson

Back in August, I was honored with a visit from Eleni, a shining light of the future and the teenage daughter of my friends, Val and Jake. Today is Eleni's 19th birthday so I'd like to share her take on that summer visit:

Eleni in the Tonka
My time at SCRANCH in early August was a lesson in absorbing contradiction, disorienting yet enlightening. I was visiting an open-minded, liberal woman living amongst a conservative population. Surrounded by thousands of acres of identical corn and bean plants, we kicked off her garlic harvest by pulling just 20 or so of her precious organic bulbs, planted in October 2012. Each of the bulbs made a delightful sound as it popped from the ground. That small joy of hearing that noise is an encapsulation of the rewarding energy cycle that goes into organic farming. Sadly, I think there are no such noises in the world of industrial agriculture - the organic sounds of crop harvest have been drowned out by the roar of engines and innumerable machines.

As much as I support and believe in the importance of organic farming, I appreciated the lifestyle and culture to which I was introduced. In the Northeastern corner of North Dakota, I met people who don't know much about anything but farming, a narrow scope of life that is compensated for by the depth at which they live. When all you do is farm soybeans, you know EVERYTHING about farming soybeans, and there is a beauty in knowledge so deeply entrenched.

In my college-student mind, industrial agriculture is the lecture hall of food production - thousands of identical organisms churned through massive machines on their way to becoming processed food. By that analogy, SCRANCH is the discussion seminar, where every element has individual merit and value, and every tiny, manual step of production matters.

I now realize that living in California has skewed my perception of reality to an alarming extent. "Open your eyes," North Dakota reminded me. "See that, here, the pace of life is slower, the space is wider, and the language is simpler and fuller than it is at home." A small moment which I carried with me all week occurred as I sat in Applebee’s on my first morning in ND. I pointed out to Heather that the limeade I had ordered was not really, truly limeade, but more of a syrupy glass of crushed ice with some citrus-ish looking slices on the bottom. 

Heather looked at the glass, and she looked at me, and she said, “That’s how you know you might be a snob.” Talk about culture shock! I carried that instance with me all week - a small reminder that, for a week, I needed to set aside my preconceptions about what I knew life to be, and adjust my reactions to what I was being shown.

SCRANCH is an intriguing place because it lies in such contrast to the immense fields of industrial agriculture that surround it. Among the physical hugeness of the fields and the smallness of rural life, SCRANCH is a tiny physical garden with revolutionary social implications - the inverse of its surroundings. The majority of the neighbors who know about Heather's garden can remember when everybody had a garden just like it – one without chemicals or sprays, using seeds saved from one year to the next, with which all able hands are expected to work. 

4-wheeling with Brent
I think her garden is a wake up call, a jolting reminder of how far we have strayed from this small, healthy, resilient scale of life. Her presence is her power, and her blog is her voice, and her produce is the lynch pin of it all - her impact. The crops are little edible packages of awareness! To encounter, scrutinize, question, purchase, and consume SCRANCH produce is to support, engage in, and become cognizant of the organic food movement.

At times, I felt that Heather was preaching to the choir - selling her organic produce at Amazing Grains (a co-op in Grand Forks) and at the Cavalier Farmer's Market, where people already appreciate and understand its intrinsic importance. But I wanted to see more outreach and education to the local population so it can follow along with this organic, "small ag" (the opposite of "big ag") movement.

Then again, what “local population” am I thinking about? Again, I went head to head with my preconceived notions of “outreach” and “population.” There are just not that many people to reach out to - North Dakota is a state with fewer people than San Francisco.  The town nearest SCRANCH, Neche, is 10 miles away, with just 366 residents, right on the Canadian border.

Spending time with the major players in Heather’s life was like taking a mind shower. I felt so awash and entirely inundated by the new perspectives on agriculture and economics that they shared with me. The farmers I met have ridden an incredible wave of change, and their lifetimes straddle two vastly, wildly different periods of time. We have so much to learn from their adaptability, resilience, and commitment to their livelihood. From Brent in particular, I learned tenacity, and it emanates from him so strongly that I can’t help but feel that a small touch of it rubbed off on me in the form of personal inspiration to never give up, even when my task seems fruitless.

With Wayne - he flew in a similar helicopter during the Vietnam War
Again, I cannot emphasize enough how personally rejuvenating it was to readjust my perspective on life. As I texted a friend, "Let's go to the Metreon in SF, or in Santa Cruz, or the farmer's market at CSM, or a photography trip to Stanford or the Ferry Building, or visit this urban Jewish organic farming operation in Berkeley I heard about, or go rafting, or hike San Bruno Mountain...wait...all I'm doing is naming things that people in ND would never even dream existed." Then again, I might just as well have texted them saying, “Let’s look up at thousands of brilliant stars, or slide down the pile of corn kernels in the silo, or kiss our newly pulled garlic bulbs that we planted ten months ago, or jump four-wheelers over logs, or go visit the cows in the bush, or chew wheat until it turns to gum in our mouths, or...wait...all I’m doing is listing things I never even dreamed existed.”

It’s all about the perspective.

For all my pondering of the grand metaphorical resonance of SCRANCH, these unheard of activities (grain-scrambling, plant-kissing, star-staring, log-hopping, etc) were just plain fun! I never get to try so many new things in a row. That sensation of newness is so lacking in my day to day life, and it was a breath of fresh wonder that I really hope everyone gets to experience every now and then.

I expected to spend most of my time working in the garden while carrying on intellectual conversations about the state of our food production system. I foresaw isolation, an almost yogic experience of cleansing and removal from my life on the San Francisco Peninsula. I saw a stillness of life and an almost halt to my usual mad rush of daily activity. Therefore the biggest surprises all came in the forms of a vast variety of experiences that engaged and delighted me--some of which are listed above, and many more of which are outlined in Heather’s original post--again, disproving my misconceptions of rural life.

I want to share a piece of advice my Ethnic Studies teacher shared with me last semester as we planned and executed an event together. I find it to be very true, very applicable to SCRANCH, and something that people need to understand as we endeavor, daily, to leave our impact upon the world. He told me that “the success of any attempt depends on the passion with which you put it together.” SCRANCH has succeeded thus far because of the intensity of care, dedication, and focus Heather has given to it. Heather, thank you for sharing that passion with me.

Queen of the Grain Bin
Happy Birthday, Eleni! The world is your organic oyster, my friend. Eat up!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Thoughts on Sugar

Gazillions of sugar beets
It's the annual sugar beet harvest this month and the roads are muddy and buzzing with truck loads. Recently, I was able to witness the 24/7 frenzy up close as I rode along with Wayne during a typical 12 hr. driver shift. Investigating big-scale farming realities is a hobby but really, it's an elaborate excuse to be around heavy machinery.

Another loaded truck down a dusty road
To harvest the beets before a hard frost, seasonal drivers generally work 12-hour shifts - either midnight to noon or vice-versa, over a 10-12-day period. Work stops for rain, frost and extreme heat only. Otherwise, the harvest runs 24 hrs. a day and there is an exciting madness about it all.

During beet harvest, the deep black of a North Dakota night is dotted with working combines and truck headlights, storming down the highway, resolute and united in their mission. The asphalt is covered in muddy tire tracks and the rumble of traffic anywhere near the piles is constant.

The process is simple:  A farmer drives a lifter which pinches up beets that are fed into a delivery machine. Meanwhile, drivers steer alongside the tractor, collecting beets as they are dumped into the truck bed. Lifter dude gives hand signals (at night, they are light signals) to Driver dude - speed up or slow down - to fill up the truck bed. When full, Farmer waves goodbye to Driver who then leaves the field, headed toward the nearest 'piler', where all the beets make up tremendous beet mountains.

Kelly works the lifter, giving signals

A piler is a massive cement spot on the prairie with mobile machines that accept and weigh a truck's beet cargo, returning rejects and extraneous topsoil back to the truck bed, where it is dumped back onto the field it just came from. From the piler, the beets are carted off to the nearest sugar processing plant as soon as possible. This part of the world is "beet country" with 5 American Crystal Sugar processing plants in North Dakota and Minnesota. (Founded in 1890, American Crystal is farmer-owned, becoming a co-operative in 1973.)

Beet mountains at Hamilton piler
Beet piles are heat-sensitive and will start to break down if the weather is too warm. (The colder North temperatures make the region ideal for beets.) To combat the risk of heat decay, empty pipes are inserted in the core of the enormous piles to keep them cool with circulated air. During Wayne's shift, we drove back and forth between the beet field, the Hamilton piler and the Midway piler, near Bathgate. At each spot, we took our turn in line, waiting to unload our sugar beets. 

Beet pipes, pre-season, piled up near Minto.
For an increasingly diabetic country like ours, sugar is big business. Whether its cane sugar, beet sugar or high fructose corn syrup (made cheap by government subsidies), a society that lives on processed food can hardly do without. The average American consumes 22.7 teaspoons of sugar every day. The American Heart Association's recommended daily limit is 9 tsp. for men and no more than 6 tsp. for women.

In National Geographic's recent cover story, "Sugar Love (a not so sweet story)", the author, Rich Cohen, notes that sugars were first introduced into processed foods in the 1970s. Then, we are presented with a disturbing graph showing a spike in diabetic diagnoses about the same time.

"In 1973, 2% of the population, 4.2 million Americans were diabetic. In 2010, it is 7% of the population, 21.1 million Americans. Almost all the cases in this epidemic spike are type 2 diabetes, once called adult-onset diabetes."
I just checked with the National Diabetes Foundation and as of 2011, 8.3% of the U.S. population is diabetic. Furthermore, they estimate that healthcare costs for diabetic Americans reached $245 billion, up 41% over a five-year period. War on Drugs? Meh. We've got much bigger problems.

Truck receiving beets from Lifter while moving
Like anything, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing, and so it is with sugar. Still, as I watched all the activity, I couldn't help but think, "Seems like an awful lot of trouble for a vegetable you can't really cook with." But again, this is the industrialized food system, food grown expressly for fuel, animal feed or processing, not for you and I to dice up and throw into a pot. 

Loaded trucks in line at piler
Moreover, the world demands the sugar beet as it is much easier to process than cane sugar.  Still, I think it worth noting that Ireland stopped growing sugar beets in 2006 once the government subsidies ended. (Russia is the world's main sugar beet producer, followed by France and the U.S.) The sugar beet is not like corn, potatoes or rice, it is not a nutritional staple found in kitchens around the world.

Which again makes me wonder how much our government - you know, the paralyzed, ineffectual one? - subsidizes crops that keep adding to our national health problem. Here's a brief explanation of subsidies from the Forbes' 2008 article, "Sugar's Sweet Deal":

Sugar subsidies in the United States work through a complex system of loans and quotas. Sugar processors take out loans from the government; then, after the harvest, they face one of two scenarios. If they’ve been able to sell their sugar for more than the cost of the loan, they pay off the loan and pocket the profit. If their crop is worth less than the loan, they can keep the money and just give the government their sugar.

Communication by radio
The loans are made to processors, but in order to qualify, they agree to make payments to the producers at a predetermined rate. The system guarantees the sugar industry a minimum price for sugar.

In order to prevent the subsidies from causing oversupply, however, the Department of Agriculture maintains marketing allotments, preventing producers from growing too much. A strict quota system also limits the amount of sugar that can be imported into the country.
With one-third of Americans officially obese, we are the unhealthiest industrialized nation on earth. No, I am not blaming the sugar beet and certainly not the amazing efficiency of large-scale farming, but I do question the spendy health damages of Cheap and Fast processed food. Government and large bio-tech companies who enable this market do not - I repeat, DO NOT - have our best interests at heart.

As for the farmers, they are doing what farmers have always done, grow crops that are in national and global demand. When I see these large-scale industrial harvest productions, I know full well that the average farmer is not thinking about the end result, the point where the crop meets the consumer. They are too busy watching the weather, the daily crop reports, global market prices, soil moisture and, my god, when they are going to have time to fix the header???

Brent, for example, is famous for not opening his mail until winter and getting haircuts only when his cap no longer fits. These people work HARD and would give you the shirt off their back anytime. I admire these farmers and feel sympathy as they are caught up in the same hyper-industrial system that makes their combines - currently costing $300-500K brand new - now run on complicated hard drives instead of just grease. Farming requires serious capital and involves massive unforeseen risks; it is not for the spineless or the weak.

The fact is, this too-much-sugar problem is our issue (meaning consumers) to deal with, not farmers. The only vote that counts in this country is the Almighty Dollar and farmers are going to grow, harvest and sell whatever pays their bills and keeps them working the land. Period. Right now, it is sugar beets (among other crop rotations) and I see no end to that in my lifetime.

Supply and demand always wins. What kind of products you buy, conversations with your grocer and the companies you support with your purchase - that's where we affect change. Looking upon those mountains of sugar beets, I saw Oreos, canned fruit, soda, pudding cups, Twinkies, muffins, granola/protein bars, spaghetti sauce, salad dressings, cereals (pre-packaged oatmeal - the worst!), juices, candy and condiments.

Of course, the body needs a certain amount of sugar for energy, and to carry out basic functions, but we've gone way beyond that point. Our liver takes all those extra Oreos and converts them into fatty acids which takes up residence on our padded bellies and major organs. High sugar levels in our bloodstream also set off hormonal responses, such as insulin spikes, that confuse our bodies, increase appetite, slow down fat burning, and encourage even more fat storage. So as we discuss the rising costs of healthcare, keep in mind we're really shooting ourselves in the foot with this sugar habit of ours.

Sugar beet trucks, working 24/7
My original goal here was to describe the magical sugar beet harvest only, not deliver a soapbox rant, but seeing the literal birth of sugar reminded me why I've come here. An enormous chasm of non-communication echoes between farmer and consumer and lately, that's where I find myself uncomfortably positioned. In these moments of personal division, I revisit the initial non-partisan thought that drives me forward on this project:

Everybody eats.


To see more of my photos from the Sugar Beet Harvest, go here

Wednesday, October 02, 2013


During Mama Iva's visit last month, we spent one sweltering day trying to clean up the homestead house that we donated to the Pembina Historical Society in 2003. Built in 1882 by my great-grandfather, Adam Curie Paton, it now sits on the grounds of the Icelandic State Park about 18 miles south of the farm. As the old timers will tell you, it was the first saw-cut house in the region - literally cutting edge.

Mama Iva, in the kitchen
The house was part of the the Paton's Isle of Memories, Grandpa Wilbur's historical project, his lifelong obsession to document the lifestyle of the regional farmers and homesteaders in the early 1900s. The Museum, located here on the farm was originally four buildings: the homestead house (where Wilbur and his siblings were born and raised), the one-room schoolhouse where my grandfather, grandmother and mother once attended, the church (he purchased it in Canada and drove it back, the only church known to have served two countries) and the Museum Shed, which once had small rooms displaying era-accurate kitchen, dry goods store, blacksmith shop, barber shop, music room and parlor. These days, the Shed holds all my furniture, worldly goodies, trinkets and treasures - a museum of my life now, I guess.

School and church, as seen from the Mae Flower
We were fortunate that the Park wanted the house, its contents and the great majority of the other buildigs. Once upon a time, the Isle of Memories was busy with visitor tours weekly. But no more, so we had it moved, where it now sits amongst the antique tractors, train depot, cook car and barns.

Homestead House, far right, at Icelandic
Cleaning the house was an awful task. There is no electricity there so vacuuming up thousands of dead flies and ladybugs was just a dream. I tried to sweep them up with a broom but they didn't go easily. Mom and I dusted everything best we could and took frequent water breaks. We wanted it to look nice for the upcoming Pioneer Machinery Show where all the buildings are opened up, the old tractors are dusted off and there's all kinds of nostalgia going on - log-cutting, flour mills, including the world's shortest parade.

Cousin Walter, age 92, on his 1959 John Deere 730, in the 2012 parade
Cousin Royce, in 2012, on a John Deere 4010

Miss Teen North Dakota pitches in during an antique demo
Everyone on the bench, and behind it, are family - minus the purple lady, who I'm sure is still very nice
During the Show, we were able to give some personal tours and allow some folks to come upstairs. (Normally, a chain blocks the super-steep stairs for liability issues.) A young family stationed at the nearby Air Base couldn't believe their luck - ironically, they were actually Californians so it all came full circle. They couldn't believe all the turn-of-the-last century clothing and china and the straw beds.

Adorable family
Soon, other folks came in the house and we were able to show them around too. A little boy tapped me on the arm and said, "Do you remember me?" I looked at him and had a memory flash from the previous summer.

"Did you come here last year with two of your buddies and I gave you guys a private tour?"

He nodded. "Yes! That was me! I came back!" (He's the one in the middle.)

Precious! The ropes are for the tractor pull, I think.
Those boys were the sweetest - so interested, so polite, so smart, so huggable. Pure North Dakota farm boys, every last one. (Wish I'd met their parents so I could gush.) I remember one of them saying, "Boy, we were sure lucky that you were here so we got to go upstairs!" - pure genuine gratitude.

I swear, kids here still talk like its the 1950s. If "Golly, gee whiz!" were to come out of their mouths, I would not be shocked. It's delightful.

This year, a few lucky folks even got to hear Mama Iva talk a bit about being in the house as a child and how meals were made in the kitchen, which seems so primitive to us now - no microwave, blender or dishwasher!

And at some point this summer, some true genius put in an honest-and-true Victory Garden right next to the house! Picnic table too! Oh, the sweet poetry of this delightful development - it was like getting positive confirmation from the Universe on everything I am trying to do here. 

Mom and visitors in the living room
Apparently, the garden was planted as a student project, to teach kids about the history of the Victory Gardens, a government campaign (here in the US, plus UK, Canada and Germany) that encouraged citizens to plant their own food to help free up rations for the war effort. Imagine that! Of course, this was before processed food became such a giant industrial diabetic bully and BFF to the government, but I digress...

House and Victory Garden
From Wikipedia:
Amid regular rationing of canned food in Britain, a poster campaign "Plant more in '44!") encouraged the planting of victory gardens by nearly 20 million Americans during the course of WWII. These gardens produced up to 40 percent of all the vegetable produce being consumed nationally. 
Hard to imagine this kind of national effort now, isn't it? Nevertheless, I think food gardens are making a serious comeback, just judging by the number of my friends who asked me to help me start theirs last winter. Then you have the tangible rise in demand for organic produce, school/community gardens, farmers markets, locavores and the comeback of canning - people are starting to take part in their own food sourcing and again, we move forward by looking back. Sure, it takes effort, you get dirty and battle bugs but the payoff - nutritonally and financially - is immense. Plus, kids get really into it. As my hero, Ron Finley says, "If kids grow kale, kids eat kale."

My grandfather's legacy was one sweeping gesture of remembrance, a museum to remind us of the past and rekindle just how much hard work and ingenuity played into our survival and success. It makes me think about my own legacy and I think it is seeds, not just the literal ones that grow into food but seeds of ideas on self-reliance. On this day when the government is MIA, it's the perfect time to remember when we did much for ourselves.

Before our food became overly processed, before our lives were saturated with chemicals, we made due and did just fine, we thrived with fewer ailments, allergies and syndromes and did not need 13 prescription medications (the national average, per person) to live. There's got to be a reason why all my farming relatives live - and thrive - well into their 90s.

At the risk of sounding like a ranting old lady (at 47, do I qualify yet?) I aim to plant seeds of independent consumer thinking and self-reliant actions. And that, I suppose, will be my legacy.