Fig Nation

Figgy goodness

You just never know when good luck will turn on her high beams and hit you with some gifted produce or a home-brewed beer. We’ve been hard at what is best described as a homestead weekend on the farm. We’ve planted figs and blueberries, transitioned the summer to a fall garden, made mead and apple jelly, fed the bees…. Later today friends are coming over to donate an afternoon of converting logs to lumber.

Which makes me think of Fig Nation. A couple of years back, an elderly Slavic émigré visited the farm to buy a lamb for his freezer. A long conversation ensued (which seems to happen more often than not), during which he and I shared some of my homemade pear brandy (which also seems to happen more often than not). We walked about the fig orchard and got to talking about fig love and the joys and struggles of growing figs in the upper South. He mentioned a cold-hardy variety that he had had success growing in Blount County. The conversation and afternoon then drifted on to other topics.

A couple of weeks later, a mystery package arrived from an out-of-state nursery. It contained six small rootstocks of figs, a gift from the farm visitor. Since that time we’ve nurtured them along, first in pots in the house, then in the rich soil of the hoop-house. Finally, yesterday morning I dug them up and divided the rootstock of each into new plants. Two of each went into the orchard. The remaining figs were gifted to two more friends in the valley.

What took place here is an example of what I call “Fig Nation,” an informal farm economy and community based on producing, sharing, and enjoying. The concept of Fig Nation is simple: A few weeks back, my nephew and I harvested five pounds of elderberries. We cleaned, bagged, and tossed them in the freezer. Yesterday I pulled them out and combined them with water and honey to make an elderberry mead. Come winter, I’ll enjoy the mead with guests. Welcome to Fig Nation, where sharing brings pleasure and automatic membership.

Those friends coming over to help with the sawmill? While here, they also plan to use our cider mill for some perry from their pear crop. After milling lumber and pears, we will conclude the day with a glass or two of my newly bottled raspberry wine — members in good standing in Fig Nation must be prepared to produce, converse, work, and sip.

So you see, Fig Nation, in concept and in practice, isn’t difficult at all. Now, you may find the founding premise a bit too anarchistic, this making and giving and receiving. And, if you don’t comprehend, I’m not allowed to explain it in detail — except to say, it is not a bad way to spend your days and evenings and life.

The South is a Neolithic Fort: revisited

Paul Kingsnorth, in his latest collections of essays, references a Scottish poet who moved to a small isolated farm and never left. His friends visited and asked why he had withdrawn from the world. Standing there among his gardens, he answered, I didn’t withdraw, I attacked.

These past weeks as a residual collection of pond-scum Nazis and Klansmen fought against those swept up in an emotional new-Taliban-ish movement, it occurred to me both were hell-bent on purification, either of a people or a history. Both seemed an appropriate stand-in actor for our modern world, with its mania for either paving over an inconvenient past or an arable landscape.

The real rebel culture of the South has always been found in its gardens, chicken coops, and pigsties. So, today, I resolve upon leaving my study to go out to my gardens, where, in an act of rebellion, I will launch an attack against modernity, one tomato at a time. Let my monument be a well-stocked larder and a cured ham hanging under the stairs.

It was in a Steak ‘n Shake in Georgia, standing in a swirl of moderns, with their faux tribal tattoos and piercings, that a small girl protectively held the weathered fingers of her grandfather. He stood erect in his worn overalls, both hands slightly curled, as if gripping the wooden handles of a plow, looking out of place.

The image struck me that all of the people, the building, and the parking lot were intruders and interlopers, a mirage. That the old man was standing in the same pose, in the same place in a tobacco plot, hands gripped just so around the plow handles, two mules out front and a granddaughter by his side.

The South is like this. Sometimes it is a Neolithic fort in the landscape. A slight rise in the ground indicating the presence of a past for those who can read it. A place full of relics and behaviors that are deemed out of place in a culture easily bored and distracted. It is not a landscape easily read by the digital world or understood by soundbite.

It has a people, black and white, who are looked down on and discarded because they have not adapted quickly enough. Modest people who don’t know that a paved parking lot has more value than a small field of their own. It has an agrarian soul and a heart that still beats.

This South is a run-down home, chickens scratching around the yard. Its roosters crow at all hours, riling the neighbor from up north who built a McMansion next door, an outsider who did not know pigs can stink. It is a make-do world where fences get built out of scaffolding discarded by a now defunct warehouse, a world often stubbornly ignorant of the rewards of nine to five and cultures bought and traded on Netflix.

It is a world that doesn’t easily discard anything, even the burdens of the past. A world easily mocked with sitcom humor, by a world in which advanced degrees in identity politics measure a culture to the failed standard of a “New Man” emerging.

Drive down the backroads of our valley and find gatherings of men sitting on shaded porches in the midday heat. Surrounded by well-tended gardens, with chickens scratching and kids in the dirt, they talk sedition and plot the downfall of the moderns. An elaborate plan called Waiting Them Out. Meanwhile, they buy nothing new, grow their own food, slaughter their own chickens, hunt their own game, and grip the handles of the plow.

Join them if you wish … or not, they don’t care.

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Reading this weekend: Butter, a rich history, by Elaine Khosrova.

Peak Local

Doing the sexy work of farming

We were sexy once, back in the heady days of 2009. Courted by all, admired, imitated, and flattered. Yes, we were your local small farmers. Tho­se were the days of Food, Inc.; Omnivore’s Dilemma; Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, all released in a three-year span, exploding the world’s interest in all things small-farmy. We were, for a brief moment, in the zeitgeist.

That was the moment when the American consumers got it, realized that their health and their economy could be shaped for the better, and that they could make it happen. That was the moment when a friend in Nashville could sell all the $7-a-dozen eggs his hens could produce. Farmer’s markets were the place to be on Saturday mornings. The great recession provided a steady stream of new customers and people learning to do for themselves. In a fragile world economy, local was the anchor. Local had become hip.

But, Mr. Zeitgeist is both a capricious master and himself a servant to larger forces. If anyone thinks farming is hard work, try being an American consumer. A la Bakunin-turned-beer brand, capitalism was quick to pick up on a good thing: small farms became the darling for ad campaigns, commodified, eye candy for the machine. And social media played their role. The iphone, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram were all loosed on the land between 2004 and 2010, and all began carving a chunk out of our mental landscape. Instead of “eyes to acres,” we lost the battle to “eyes to screens.”

Sure, there were an expanding number of farmer markets, where friends could sit all day on a Saturday to sell $25 worth of peppers. But, the real question, behind the hype of buying local and keeping your dollar in the community, was: how much of that average dollar spent on food was truly spent on locally grown meat and produce? Precious little (at most, maybe 5 percent, according to the little research out there). It is just not culturally relevant, expedient, or, most important, convenient in our global economy for most Americans to think outside the grocery box-store.

Already, the voices of protest rise up against this message that local has lost the battle for the consumer. “Why, just last week, Huffington Post had a series on a local farm,” you say. “My mother and I went to a farmer’s market on vacation.” “Here is an article on restaurants supporting local farms.” “I like my favorite farms on Facebook.” “My ‘Where is a farmer’s market?’ app works great when I visit New York City.”

It is that very clutter of modern life that works against our efforts. We are irrelevant, not because of what we do but because we are a small, tinny voice, lost in the great Babel of the running of a great machine. Yes, we small farms still have our loyal customers who go out of their way to support us, and we thank them for their unwavering support. And yes, the press, social media, and even advertisers have made the education of the customer easy, allowing we small farmers to partially pay our way in this life we have chosen.

But that good press allows us collectively to think inside a bubble. We see the Tweet, the post, the like, the ad, the book, the movie, and we assume that there is a major change underway. Yet, the average grocery bill has an ever-diminishing content of locally produced food. The decline has been going on for a very long time: Even a short 40 years ago, many grocery stores still routinely bought the bulk of their produce from area and regional farms. Farm stands and farmers selling from their cars and trucks along the roadside were commonplace. The resurgence of local today is merely an upward blip on a declining trend line that mirrors another rising line, one of global supply chains.

So, it should not surprise my readers that I am not sanguine about the success of the local food movement. Yes, I support it, work in it, and encourage everyone to do the same. Because by doing so we preserve a functioning framework of what was and could be again. Yet, I have come to believe that a truly successful local food movement will come at the expense of the collapse of the global.

Local is the obverse of global. It’s not just a good soundbite to say that we cannot have both a dominant global economy and a thriving local economy. For one is the master and the other the servant. And this master doesn’t give a shit about the local. It is a destroyer of worlds, and it won’t stop until the fuel, both metaphorically and literally, runs out.

When that happens, if we are all very, very lucky, we will get the local economy we need to survive. And, we will all be sexy again.

It’s Not the Grapes

In the John Sayles play “At the Anarchist Convention,” one of the old anarchists makes it a point to say that he refuses to eat grapes at the annual dinner. In a beautiful bit of back and forth with his comrades, he conflates the grapes on the plate with the famous 1970s grape boycott in support of striking farmworkers.

As a small-farm farmer, I often think of this play and how we, as a society, are prone to confusing the thing (the grape) with the process (the strike). For example, we disparage any grain feeding of livestock, when what we’re really protesting are the practices of the industrial feedlots and the monocultural production of millions of acres of commodity corn. Now this is not to say, Mr. Pollan, that raising livestock exclusively on grain hasn’t got its own set of problems, whether on an industrial or a small farm. But addressing appropriate process, scale, and humane treatment can help us frame a better question that yields a better answer than simply blaming the thing.

Yesterday, we butchered a couple of dozen Cornish X White Rock chickens. The day-old chicks we purchased a mere 8.5 weeks ago had grown out to produce an astounding 4.5-pound carcass. (Think of a Rottweiler and a Chihuahua side by side, and you’ll have an idea of how fast the cross grows compared to the traditional farm variety.) As a super-fast-growing bird, the Cornish-Rock has several issues of concern from the small-producer standpoint — weak limbs and lack of hardiness, to name two. But the bird, in and of itself, is not the crux of the problem.

The real problem is its role in the agri-industrial system. This commercial cross was bred specifically and exclusively for industrial exploitation: The Cornish-Rock cross is an ideal partner for the vertical factory model — a model in which bird, agribusinessman, and illegal immigrant plant worker are tightly bound in the same machine that spits out soylent green parts for consumption by the masses. The model that provides cheap protein, provides cheap veggies, provides cheap clothing, provides a cheapened life….

The grapes ain’t the problem, folks. It’s the process by which the grapes got to your table.

South of the River

Our farm is located south of the Tennessee River, in an area composed largely of Roane County, but with portions of Loudon, Monroe, Meigs, and McMinn. It is bordered by the river on the north and west, Interstate 75 to the east, and State Highway 68 to the south. It is called South of the River, or simply by its initials, SOR.Roane County

John Muir walked these valleys on his way to points farther south in the 1860s. Eventually, he ended his journey in a still-wild Florida, many lifetimes before modern souls touched down in the Orlando airport for their annual blowout at Magic Kingdom.

At approximately 150 square miles, South of the River is crossed by a few broad and fertile valleys that run northeast to southwest. The valley of Ten Mile, cut down the middle by SR 58, which carries travelers from Oak Ridge to downtown Chattanooga, is the largest and most developed. But Paint Rock Valley, much of its large landholding concentrated historically in a few families, is the more pastoral and picturesque.

The western border of South of the River is inhabited by a small population of exiles of the upper middle class, now living large in retirement on the river in grandish houses with speedboats out back. Pushing in on them from the surrounding ridges and small valleys and hollers is the majority of the population, much of it brought together by the 2.5 churches per square mile that call SOR home.

That area is where we live, a vast community of smaller farms like our own, family-operated dairies, and one-to-two-acre hardscrabble homesteads. There is very little commercial life, aside from the occasional general store, in South of the River, and no incorporated towns. There are lots of gardens, pigs, cattle, chickens, and multipurpose workshops.

The designation “South of the River” is often used derogatorily by residents north of the river. It’s a wrong-side-of-the-tracks designation. But to those who live South of the River, it’s a place where boys still learn to stick-weld and girls still put up produce with their grandmothers, a hinterland of self-reliance, affordable enough for working people to own a modest piece of land, though never to grow rich from the same.

Twenty-first century South of the River is still, much of it, a tight-knit land of multigenerational families living next to each other. Like Roane County at large, SOR until 10 years ago had no building codes, leaving the architecture and site location eccentrically random. This area always has been, and probably always will be, a make-do landscape — a mix of modest homes with well-tended gardens and pieced-together trailers that repurpose abandoned schoolbuses to house goats.

My guess is that South of the River, which has never enjoyed wealth, will maintain a resilience long after more prosperous and less resourceful communities fall into crisis. That you can’t miss what you never had might just be the proud motto of the ridges and valleys of SOR. That reality might also be the area’s greatest strength.

The ‘self-sufficing’ farm

It was late afternoon when I stopped at a friend’s farm. An invitation to sample three new homebrews and some freshly sliced prosciutto from a 2-year-old ham had been issued. The short drive found me passing dozens of small homes and farms. None of them could be called financially “going concerns.” Most had vegetable gardens and chickens; some had fighting cocks staked to huts; many had a steer or two in a small pasture and a few pigs in sties near the barn; one had a gutted buck draped from a pickup truck. These are features of our landscape. It’s a traditional landscape of those getting by, doing for themselves. Not quite the “self-sufficing” farms of old, but closer than most in this modern world.

Lounging by the coop.

Tools of the trade

In the 1930 census, one-third of “self-sufficing” farms were located in Appalachia, accounting for the majority of farms in the region. These farms generated less than $100 a year, produced more than 50 percent of their needs on the land, and bartered and traded for the rest in an essentially cashless network. In a system hallowed by custom, kinship, shared work, and shared deprivation, these hill people still led a life rich in music, folkways, food, and craft.

Cashless networks create challenges within a capitalist economy. Communities operating outside the prevailing system must always be brought inside, to the sheltering embrace of improvement, progress, and markets. A people not in search of “the civilizing influence of a cash economy” will be given it anyway. And once it’s presented, they’ll often surrender to it, for after all, the sirens’ call of cheaper, plentiful goods is hard to ignore when there is money to spend.

The 1930s were really the midpoint in a long, complicated pursuit of bringing “progress” and wages to the mountain people. That pursuit ultimately resulted in the destruction of those self-sufficing farms, the cashless society and culture, and what remained was a shell, a dependent people, and the faintest ghostly echo of that world today.

Perhaps it is a romantic streak, but I see ghosts. Ghosts of what we have lost in our drive for progress and shiny baubles. One North Carolina woman, at the brink of the Civil War, anticipated the loss to come in that conflict: “How quietly we drift out into such an awful night, into the darkness, the lowering clouds, the howling winds, and the ghostly light of our former glory going with us to make the gloom visible with its pale glare.”

A friend of mine works with non-profits and universities establishing links between the peoples of Appalachia and the Maramures region of Romania. ‘Twas a link I thought a stretch until he sent me William Blacker’s chronicle Along the Enchanted Way. It is a haunting work, beautifully written, of a land isolated and untouched yet by the capitalist economy and unaffected by the communist government just fallen—a land like ours once was, of custom, barter, and kinship, of self-sufficing farms.

During the years Blacker lived among the Romanians, just after the fall of the Soviet Union, he witnessed the impact of cash and commercial goods on that society. How quickly a rural, traditional society unravels, one outside paycheck or charity at a time, leaving a pale glare to light the path behind.

We find it hard to step outside our immediate desires and see the long-term consequences. We bemoan the loss of kith and kin, praise the handmade, the local, yet undermine all by our gluttonous drive for new markets and consumption. Left behind is the debris of formerly stable societies, slathered now with the cheap, sugary pink frosting of hope and mountains of discarded plastic toys.

On our farm, we don’t lead a self-sufficing life. We try. But even with our table loaded each night with food sourced from just outside our door, with a pantry full of jars of preserves, pickles, and canned produce from the garden, with bacon, jowls, and hams under the stairs, we conjure only a pale outline of what was or could be. We try to barter and repair the literal and figurative fences in our community. But, we fail. Those links to a self-sufficing life are now severed. We are too plugged into this economy, too enamored to envision a way out.

The problem is not just our fossil-fueled lifestyle, our globally connected train of goods and services, or our commodification of all physical aspects of our modern existence. It is our mindset. We discard with ignorance and shortsightedness and embrace the new without question.

Perhaps we mistake the lowering clouds as security and the howling winds as the sound of contented voices. Yet … if the pale light guiding my path leads me to three homebrewed beers and some home-cured prosciutto, then I’ll gladly trudge on.

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Reading this weekend: Book of Tripe: and gizzards, kidneys, feet, brains and all the rest. By Stephane Reynaud. 

Small Town Resilience

Last week a colleague spent three hours advancing 15 miles in the cancerous landscape of Atlanta.

Around the same time, I was commuting in central Missouri down a two-lane highway through a largely depopulated land of corn and beef cattle ornamented with the occasional red-brick one-room schoolhouse sitting in a grove of trees. The schoolhouses, long empty, were universally well kept, no broken windows, grass mowed—buildings cared for symbolic of the hope or expectation that they might once again serve a purpose.

The housing stock was older, yet well cared for and solid. But it was a lonely landscape of older couples and few children. I drove past the occasional activity of men in distant fields loading hay onto trailers using tractors built to accomplish much, the work done with such little effort as would have stunned even their grandfathers. Little effort and fewer people, freeing up the children and grandchildren to follow the classic road to town and city, a well-worn path since the ancient world, but one accelerated by our fossil-fueled innovations.

I stopped for the night in Boonville, Missouri, on the banks of the Missouri River. Boonville is not a prosperous town. Its trail of empty strip mall architecture dribbles from the outer fringe of the town’s core to the interstate, signaling a raising of the drawbridge, a calculated retreat against a yet unacknowledged enemy. But the core is still vibrant with neighborhoods, small-town hardware and furniture stores, plumbing and electrical businesses, an elegant restored hotel, a diner, and a bar and grill.vfiles38877

That evening I walked from the old hotel to the bar and grill, a place called Maggie’s, for dinner. The Midwest small-town bar and grill is unique. It is the genuine third place Ray Oldenburg spoke about. Warm and friendly, with people of all ages and classes: farmers, workers and professionals, town and country, producer and consumer. These gathering spots are spread across the agricultural heartland. They are the glue to the community, providing face-to-face time between neighbors. Time not gained in a traffic jam.

I am not naively asserting a rural idyll, without strife, tension, unemployment, severed families and the ills of too much idle time. Yet the small town is fundamentally more resilient, resilient because of its smallness and its proximity to productive land. Rural communities, with their face-to-face interactions, have provided the template for human existence for the past thousands of years.

Communities within a megacity are a mere echo of that life. They can nourish and sustain in the ascendancy, but their larger host survives only as wealth is pumped in from the outside world. When the pump is turned off, the decline is inevitable and rapid. Consider Rome, from a city of a million to a village of thousands in the space of mere generations. Or the specter of Detroit, reduced by half in one generation.

Perhaps these Boonvilles, these freshly painted one-room schoolhouses, these Midwestern pubs are the starter-cultures for the wort, the yeast for the fermentation required to restart the small farm, small-town life, a way to redirect the human trajectory from the cancerous growth to the healthy organism, from the complex to the comprehensible?

The cities like Atlanta in our landscape offer nothing but a promise of continued sprawl, congestion, and three hours and 15 miles stalled in the present. And if history is the judge, they offer us nothing in their inevitable decline.

For all the problems in that rural Missouri landscape, it is still one of latent hope. The problems it faces are fundamentally local and scalable. And if the survival of our future allowed bets, mine would be on the Boonvilles and rural counties in this land.