Kitchen Garden Writing

Working in the High Tunnel

In the High Tunnel
In the High Tunnel

RURAL CEDAR TOWNSHIP— We soil-blocked the rest of the seed trays in the greenhouse yesterday, and planting is well underway at the CSA. My weekly work sessions give me a snapshot of  what is a much broader amount of activity in local food production. The experience is paying dividends in understanding the cycle of growth to support the market.

Used this to prepare the bed

For the first time, I worked in the high tunnel, preparing a bed for planting. High tunnels extend the growing season, producing vegetables for an early or late crop. They also serve to mitigate risk of cool temperatures, and of disease and pests. On a farm, margins mean everything, and high tunnels create an opportunity to increase them. They also create the ability for new customer offerings in the form of a spring or fall share.

My life is richer for working in a limited way on a CSA farm. It is a way of life that survives on the cusp of an agricultural landscape dominated by row crop agriculture. Like the high tunnel, the work is around the margins, and there are plenty of those for local food to be a vital force.


Earth Day 2013

1970 Earth Day Button
1970 Earth Day Button

LAKE MACBRIDE— There is little new to say this Earth Day. It’s not that I’m down about it, but most everything has been said before.

What started in high school as a way to participate in a national environmental movement by selling green and black buttons leading up to April 22 has become institutionalized in a way that takes the punch out of things.

Government and corporations have Earth Day activities, and not as many of them this year compared to last. It is a sign that corporate reputation management is at play more so than the grassroots efforts of men and women who want to see our government act on the Keystone XL pipeline, reduce the use of hydrocarbon and nuclear fuels, and preserve our air, land, water and biodiversity.

Earthrise 1968
Earthrise 1968

There are a lot of things individuals can do to reduce, reuse and recycle, and many people do them year around. What is lacking today is the political will to reduce CO2, methane, mercury, and other emissions. Our culture is driven by corporations more than government, and the business models upon which they operate continue to consider the atmosphere the same way we do an open sewer. That has to change if human society is to survive. It’s not just me saying that.

It has been a long struggle to get environmental issues to have parity with war and peace, economic progress, social justice, and man’s inhumanity to man. Environmental issues are not at parity yet, but should be.

What we know today is that the time for individual efforts is past. Only by joining together with like-minded colleagues will change be possible, and there is no agreement on what change is desirable, nor a path to determining how to proceed.

For a while, we must stop talking, stop thinking… and consider where our lives on the planet place us. Earth Day or no, many will reduce, reuse and recycle as these behaviors have become part of our daily habits. It is not enough.

On Earth Day 2013, I plan to dig in our garden, and let the work produce a sweat as I plant spinach, radishes and turnips. A brief retreat from talking and thinking, appreciating the irony that it was agriculture that started the release of greenhouse gases that led us to today.

What is the greater good when it comes to the environment? I don’t know, but more than seven billion others on the blue green planet have a stake in an answer. It’s time to renew our efforts to find one.

Environment Social Commentary

Pelicans and Cranes

Crane at Mehaffey Bridge
Crane at Mehaffey Bridge

LAKE MACBRIDE— The pelican migration is underway, and flocks of the white and black birds fly lazily— above our lakes and river— back and forth in a pattern I recognize, but can’t adequately describe. Pelicans appear here twice a year. I stopped during a trip to North Liberty to watch them fly near the construction site for Mehaffey Bridge.

I am leading a new life with my beater of a car. The radio has six preset buttons, of which four are set. I haven’t tested the cassette and CD players and listen mostly to a country station in Cedar Rapids owned by Cumulus Media. The music fits my new lifestyle, or seems to.

Country music on Cumulus gets me thinking. It is imbued with a certain familiar life, and while on a trip to work or to market, it is easy to suspend disbelief and listen. The songs are places where I don’t have to be me until Monday, people cope with loss as they drive your truck, and where “I found Jesus” rhymes with “I wrecked my first car. I tore it all to pieces.” Whether one likes the new country music or not, the snippets of reality are tangible, visceral the way manual labor is— stripping away the intellectual aspect of our lives. That may be the point of my predilection to hit number four on the presets most often— sometimes it is good to just stop thinking.

Consider the cranes. Man-made with engineering specifications that enable a reach four stories above the roadway to build the new bridge. They are built to fit the task, work from floating barges, and reach heights limited by design. Our lives today tend to be more like cranes than pelicans. Near these man-made lakes, we lean toward believing Bill McKibben, that we are at the end of nature. Except no one told the pelicans.

Beyond the fixed world of my used Subaru, with its country music tuner and enough life to keep me going for a while, are the flocks of pelicans, doing what pelicans do— part of which is inspiring us to believe there is more to life than what we find on main traveled roads needing an overhaul.

Work Life Writing

Sustaining a Creative Life

Barn WallLAKE MACBRIDE— Today, the key element in sustaining a creative life in Big Grove Township is magnesium sulfate, or Epsom salt. A thirty minute foot bath provides a form of relief few other things can provide. I recommend it, although for the most part, people already know about it, and for some it works, for others, not so much. Well-cared for feet are something we take for granted, but shouldn’t, because they are an important foundation to creativity.

When I was at university, I shared a house with a constantly changing group of creative people. We had our own rooms, and shared the living room, bathroom, and kitchen. Every once in a while we had a joint clean up activity, although housekeeping was not a priority. My contribution was to attempt to keep the kitchen clean, and recall doing a lot of everyone else’s dishes. I didn’t mind and enjoyed seeing pots and pans my grandmother had given me mixed in with everyone else’s kitchen gear.

Writers, poets, musicians, artists, a drum maker, a publisher, an aquarium builder, a travel guide and emerald seller, an auto mechanic, and guests of all kinds passed through the doors of that place. Some found notoriety in what would later become the city of literature, but mostly, people were not well known, except to each other.

I briefly shared my room with some buddies from Davenport. One went on to become a librarian. Another, who practiced martial arts, moved to California, and eventually got a credit on the Hollywood movie “The Matrix.”

A woman arrived halfway through my stay. She found a part time job, and spent every morning at a table in the entryway writing. As an early riser, I often ran into her, but tried not to interrupt. She hooked up with a poet, and eventually left with him for California, taking one of my grandmother’s saucepans with them on the train. I don’t think we called it hooking up during the early 1970s.

Later, the poet was known to sit at a typewriter with a gallon of cheap wine and write until he finished the bottle. This lifestyle is said to have led to his early death. I don’t know what happened to her.

That house was a place to camp out while pursuing other things. For me it was finishing a mandatory, but uninspiring bachelor’s degree. It was there I spent a morning tie-dying T-shirts while listening to my commencement address on the radio. I declined a job offer from the Oscar Mayer Company, which had provided a four year scholarship. When the summer ended, my sparse belongings went into storage, I took what money I had, converted it to American Express traveler’s checks, and went to Europe with my backpack for what began without a plan, but ended being twelve weeks of youth hostels, art museums and train rides. My backpack was stolen when I arrived in France, and that is another story.

There is no defined path to sustaining a creative life. Instead, we secure food, shelter and clothing, protect our health and well-being if we are able, and go on living. If we are creative, it is that spark of interest in society that sustains us, or can, if we recognize it— and Epsom salt and other common elements to help ease the pain of living.

Social Commentary

Main Street Today

Main Street
Main Street

SOLON— The city recently upgraded the street lights, sidewalks and business entryways to make Main Street more appealing. Mostly successful, Main Street is welcoming… and more handicapped accessible.

With the rise of our automobile culture, combined with an ongoing movement from rural to urban areas,  Main Street suffered. What was a stable rural community developed into a place to live away from work in nearby Iowa City, Coralville and Cedar Rapids— a bedroom community.

Main Street Shops
Main Street Shops

What’s left on Main Street is a conglomeration of businesses: places to eat and drink, a grocery store, a hardware store, a barber shop, a newspaper, and insurance and financial services offices, all serving the needs of locals. It is typical of this part of Iowa.

The city bought a property on Main Street and is expected to tear down the existing structure to build a city hall. A microbrewery with a newly imported chef from the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley is under construction, scheduled to open in July. It’s not like Main Street is dead, it’s not.

Main Street
Main Street

What Main Street isn’t, is a place for a person to open a business with the idea of earning a living from the local population. Do the math. The city had 2,037 people during the 2010 U.S. Census. Add in nearby rural subdivisions outside city limits, and there are maybe another 4,000. In order to generate revenues of $100,000 per year locally, that is about $17 from every man, woman and child in the area. Parting with a 20 dollar bill still means something here, and creating a local, sustainable business seems challenging at best.

The key to success in any business is finding customers. There is no foot traffic to speak of here, so a beginning assumption is that every customer will have to be attracted to a business as a destination. With so many destinations, a Solon business must have a unique offering, and that is the challenge for entrepreneurs. In order to start a business with prospects of success, the work must necessarily begin with two elements that are more important than capitalization: a unique offering and customers willing to come to Main Street.

As we search for a sustainable life on the Iowa prairie, one considers opening a business on Main Street. It is possible to open. The better question is can a local business endure? During the coming months, I will be working on an answer.

Work Life

Working to Live

LAKE MACBRIDE— Let’s face it, we’re not like the Kennedys. We have no progenitor who leveraged a rising mass society in a way that both produced wealth and enabled new generations to focus on life free from financial concerns. That such a family existed, was well known, and equally well documented, influenced my generation in ways that continue to be revealed. There may have been others like them, but the Kennedys were it when it comes to a lifestyle free from financial worry, an algorithm built into the software of the lives of sixty-somethings.

It is not that there haven’t been brief periods of financial independence. While serving in the U.S. Army, there was no time to spend money, and I had almost an entire year’s salary in my savings account upon discharge. This created the financial freedom to attend graduate school full time and receive my masters in 17 months without worry. There have been a few other times like that, and I felt free to enter and exit the work force as it met my short term needs. I still feel that way, but as I aged, options changed.

It is one thing to talk about creating a sustainable life on the prairie, and another to actually do it. The comfort of regular pay, on a predictable schedule, can be addictive, even when it is not sustainable. Sometimes we become crack-heads of routine inside a career, with all the problems addiction brings.

When one breaks from the cocoon of a long career, it is a world of light and uncertainty— part was expected, but everything is brand new in its unique iteration. The hounds are let loose from their leashes.

Part of the breakup with a career is living and working with much younger people than relationships built over decades. It is refreshing. It is scary. There is risk. There are sore feet and chapped hands from doing new things.

We can find income to live. It is not even a question. When a friend first suggested temp jobs as an option for extra cash, it took me a month to decide to pursue the idea. Once I did, it took exactly six days from decision to working the new job.

Making money is not the problem. The challenge is creating a process for living focused on something other than our job. We are not the thirty second elevator story about who we are and what we hope to be. When we recognize all work has merit, we have a chance of breaking from the enslavement of careers.

We may work to pay for food, shelter, clothing, communications technology, transportation, insurance, interest and taxes, but until we experience the epiphany that working is living, and such living is fine compensation, a happy life may elude us. We could go on hoping to build a nest egg for retirement, get money ahead so we can take a break, win the lottery— such notions a malware embedded in the stories of Camelot and of summers in Hyannis Port playing touch football.

What else can we do but go on working?

Kitchen Garden

Cotton, Capital and Sustainability

LAKE MACBRIDE— During the Rattlesnake Roundup in Sweetwater, Texas, lodging books up well in advance. The annual March event started as a way of controlling the snake population and has evolved into a festival that attracts more than 40,000 visitors annually. I haven’t tried rattlesnake meat, which is popular at the festival, but it reportedly tastes like chicken.

During a business trip the weekend of the event, I stayed at the home of an area cotton farmer because there were no motel rooms available. The octogenarian owner provided a pickup truck tour of the local cotton operation before dinner one night, driving most sections of his 5,000 acres. There were other large cotton growers in the area, and our conversation covered a range of topics from government subsidies, soil quality, tumbleweed, boll weevil control, growing conditions and harvest. We drove by the large cotton gin built by a cooperative of growers. Cotton hulls were stacked in gigantic piles near the equipment. There was a use for cotton hulls, but not enough of one. He was cottoning up to me because of the financial investment our company made in his sons’ troubled trucking operation.

We wouldn’t call  his cotton growing practices sustainable, quite the opposite. It was as good an example of industrial agriculture as there is. If there was a boll weevil outbreak, the crop dusters came out in force to spray the section and eradicate the pest. He did what he needed to manage the risk of growing cotton, and cooperate with his neighbors to get the annual crop planted, grown and harvested.

I met his two sons, and they leveraged the farm to try to make ends meet in their trucking company. The reason I was in Texas was the troubled trucking operation. The experience helped shape my view of the importance of capital in a farming.

It is one thing to locate a plot of ground and grow vegetables to sell at the farmers market. It is another thing to sustain operations over decades. The lack of adequate capitalization seems to be a primary tension point for beginning, local producers, with start-up, scalability and processing mentioned frequently as challenges. Like any farmer, local food producers make deals with people who have capital in the form of land, equipment and money: banks, government, parents and neighboring farmers.

For a local food grower to sustain operations, managing capital is equally important with managing growing practices. In my experience, not enough attention is paid to capital management by sustainable agriculture practitioners. Financial sustainability goes with everything else in sustainable agriculture, and can take decades to achieve in the best of conditions.

My experience in West Texas was a bit disturbing. The way the land was treated, the use of chemicals, the attitudes of the farmers, all of it had a sense of desperation about it. It was especially evident in the way the sons used the farm as leverage for their failing trucking business.

If sustainable agriculture has a chance in the 21st century, practitioners must learn more about the relationship of capital to farming. As a successful practitioner of sustainable agriculture recently told me, “the ‘kids’ who were not depression era people never got the hang of the financial end of things and overspent even though much was handed to them on a silver platter.” Last time I checked, very few people continue to hand out silver platters.

Home Life Writing

On Our Own

Main Street
Main Street

LAKE MACBRIDE— Unexpectedly, as the automatic garage door opened, the rural mail contractor was pulling up the driveway in his SUV to leave the box that contained my last 1,610 posts, written in a fever since 2008. They didn’t seem like much for the investment in time and resources. I thanked him for the delivery and walked into the garage and closed the door.

Within a few minutes the box was opened on my writing table, the volumes examined, then in place on the bookshelf with the previous iterations of this blog. Familiar with the work, it was time to turn to other things.

It was foggy on Sunday as I left the newspaper to return home. The new lamp posts faded from view down Main Street. I focused on traffic, instead of a distant view obscured by weather. The new crosswalk was comforting— the brick-like impressions guiding me across Highway One and toward the vehicle which would carry me home via Main Street, then Highway 382, going west out of town.

It is hard to imagine the landscape without roads and pathways. Harder still to believe it is possible to step off main traveled roads. Yet, in the fog of morning, after the snow has been melted by rainfall, we think we can make our own path— and sometimes do.

At times like these we are on our own, hard pressed to explain how or why— making it hard for others to provide succor, even when succor is needed. In a turbulent world, full of beaten paths and depleted resources, we make choices and ask, is all vanity, or is it possible that if the earth shall abide forever, we shall too?

With this refreshed blog comes a challenge, the same challenge as before, to sustain our lives on the prairie, but with it, something different. It is an edgy feeling— an urgency. That before long, our time to make a difference will have elapsed and our relevance in society faded like the vanishing point on Main Street that morning. By beginning again, there is new hope, a fresh view. There is a belief we can depart from la vie quotidian and sustain a life when people seem caught in a vortex of desperate conformity. It doesn’t have to be that way, especially once we realize we are on our own.