June 21, 2008

I'm Proud to be a Farmer's Granddaughter

That's me, summer of '76. Wearing my pride for my maternal grandparents, dairy farmers in rural Minnesota. My "What I'm Going to Be" list when I grew up included farmer, along side of cheerleader and stewardess. As I grew, my pride waned, and farmer because as suspect to a budding feminist intellectual wannabe as "stewardess." If it ever came up in conversation that my mother grew up on a farm, I was quick to point out that both my grandparents were college educated, and that their children left the farm to do other - subtext, more important/non-farming - things.

When I read Barbara Kingsolver write in Animal Vegetable Miracle that farming was seen as unintellectual and bumpkinish, I was guilty as charged.

But awakening to the realities of a seriously damaged and degraded food supply over the past several years has made me marvel at my roots in local eats, and at how far we could stray over the course of a generation.

My grandparents raised their own food. Almost all of it. They had milking cows, providing raw cream and milk, and belonged to a dairy cooperative in town for which they were credited butter, yogurt, buttermilk and ice-cream. They had pigs and chickens, raised for meat and eggs, and each year they'd butcher a few of their cows.

My grandmother had a vegetable garden, the size of which still overwhelms me. She raised their fruits and vegetables, berries, carrots, peas, lettuces, onions, tomatoes, asparagus, etc... trading with the neighbors for this variety or that. She canned fruits and vegetables, until she upgraded to a chest freezer, and then she preserved her bounty by freezing.

There was an apple orchard out their front door. They foraged for food, too: berries, game, fish. If I make it sounds romantic, which I think I'm doing, I know it was more like never-ending, backbreaking labor. Up at dawn to milk the cows, working until dusk, seven days a week, year and in out, decade after decade. In the summer, things might slow down enough to take a day and go fishing, but even that was food gathering.

This was no organic farm, either. My mother remembers slathering their screen doors with DDT. It, and other post-war left-overs, were in use on the crops. But it was a small-scale family farm, the kind that disappeared in the 70s and 80s; self-sustaining and diverse. Crop rotation vs. mono-culture.

I remember when the neighbors, shirt-tail relatives, buckled to planting a soy crop. They had one of those Scandinavian names like Bergerborgstrom, that sounded particularly comic when hissed in phrases like "The Bergerborgstroms are growing poison in their fields! People try to pass it off as a milk product!." I was trained to detect soy in ice cream. Later, of course, I grew up and became a vegetarian, bought the soy hype, and couldn't figure out why my grandparents didn't see it for the wonder protein it was. I've come full circle now, realizing that soy really wasn't meant to be digested by the human body - or by ruminants for that matter - unless in a fermented form. I also see what they saw; how mono-crops threatened their way of life on the family farm. Their ancient red Farmall tractors maybe looked shabby in comparison to the fancy green John Deers, purchased through debt and subsidy, but they supported a family of 6, and retired and sold the farm with money in the bank.

They were lucky. Most family farms went under. But I know they felt the loss of their way of life. I know they wanted their children to inherit and to continue farming. Getting out intact was not what they labored for all those years.

I wonder what my grandmother, the woman I spent countless hours with baking daily bread, preparing jams and jellies, canning pickles, I wonder what she would think of her granddaughter trying to find her way back to food sources from small, sustainable farms? My pride isn't in question, or even the issue. What matters now is can I find food that would make her proud of the life she lived? Proud to be a farmer? There are three small farms in my life, giving me produce, meat and grains. I believe in them for their sustainable farming practices, and buy from them because I know this is the food economy we need to adopt for the future. I'm constantly looking for more sources. But it's not just about organic foods, traveling short distances to my plate, it's about a way of life well worth the living.

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