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!

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