Tag Archives: sustainable agriculture

Family Farms Then, Farm Food Now

I found this photograph with some old family things and wondered who the white-bearded gentleman might be. He showed up wearing overalls in another photo taken with my great-grandparents, Noah and Mabel Short, and three of their six sons. From the North Dakota license plate and the house front pose, it looked like an out-of-state family visit by car, making me suspect the distinguished looking man was my great-great-grandfather, George Washington Short, and his second wife, Flora, who lived outside Stillwell, Indiana. When I sent my great-aunt the photos, she agreed the man with the trim white beard must be her grandfather, GW.

Next I spotted George Washington in a group photo with Mabel and Noah holding their two oldest boys before they left Indiana for North Dakota in 1907. The building looks like the church near the cemetery where my great-great-grandfather is buried, a photo I found later on find-a-grave.com. Noah and Mabel are just left of the photo’s center. Can you find GW on the right next to Flora?

And then GW and Flora appeared again in another photo taken at a house with a fancy porch, probably another church gathering. I recognized the young woman next to Flora as their daughter Pansy, who I had seen in a photo from her 1915 visit to Noah and Mabel in North Dakota. I also figured out that the handsome young man with the mustache in both photos was probably Noah’s brother Frederick Pershing Short, the “Pershing” for their mother Mary McBroom, who was third cousin to the General John J. Pershing.

Recently, I met a first cousin twice-removed through ancestry.com (first cousin twice-removed means she was my grandfather’s cousin). Our DNA tests matched, so we contacted each other to share what we know. I sent this newly found cousin my photos of George Washington and she affirmed I was right in my guess. Her father was GW’s youngest son, Welcome. I was thrilled to think this cousin had known my great-great-grandfather when she was a child, but the timing seemed odd since my own grandfather Russell, her cousin, has been gone a long time. That’s because she is descended from the second, younger part of GW’s family with Flora Dennie and I am from the first, older part with Mary McBroom. After my great-great-grandmother died young, GW remarried, creating two separate families, with my side moving to North Dakota in 1907, which was where my grandfather was born.

With the help of my expert genealogy friend, a little more research uncovered that at 16, George Washington Short left his home in Indiana to serve in the Civil War. In 1864, he was wounded in the battle of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and was discharged after the war ended in 1865. He saw a bit of the world for a young man of his time, but when he came home, he bought some land for himself. A photo from my new cousin put it all in place. Here was George Washington in work shirt and suspenders on his farm. In the background you can see an earlier view of the barn in my first picture.

George Washington Short became a farmer, just like his father, Silas Short, and his grandfather, Curtis Short in Sussex, Delaware, before him. That’s as far back as my records go. But the farming lineage reaches forward to GW’s son Noah, his son Russell, and—although he left the farm to become a surveyor—my father, Robert Short. The census records don’t say “farmer” next to their names, but my paternal grandmothers were farmers, too, from Hannah (last name unknown), Mary Ann Thompson, and Mary McBroom to Mabel Amor and Olga Jacobson, my grandmother. Farmers are also on my maternal side, but that’s another story.

This story about George Washington Short has gotten me thinking about farming today. In GW’s time and before, farms and farming knowledge passed from generation to generation in this country because the majority of the population lived on family farms. They grew and ate their own food and sold crops when they could. Their land was not just where they lived but where they made their living.

I found GW’s land at the northwest intersection of two roads in section 14 of a 1921 plat for Pleasant township, LaPorte county, Indiana. Seeing his name on that plat gave me another thrill. Now I could picture the land that held that big barn and fences around fields on which he grew crops and raised livestock and Flora kept a big garden to feed her family of seven.

Today, food barely comes from a farm, not when you consider all the processing and packaging that happens before we eat it. Farms and farmland are shrinking, both from loss of land to development and from consolidation of farms into bigger, corporate-owned businesses. Food is big business—but it’s not the kind of food my great-great-grandparents or even my parents ate when they were young.

To get a sense of the food industry today, take a look at how much of your food dollars goes to farmers—a mere 8.6%. And from that, farmers pay the costs of production, including farm laborers, seeds, insurance (a big chunk), irrigation, machinery, and structures. The rest of your food dollar goes to stuff you probably rarely think about when you sit down to a meal, like transportation, packaging, advertising and the costs of retail and trade services that get your food from the field to your plate.

Community supported farms like ours are keeping smaller acreages in food production and that’s important not only for farmland preservation, but for helping people eat closer to the plant. Here’s a chart showing the most common veggies consumed in the US today, with the green part of the bar meaning “fresh.” Potatoes, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and carrots are the most popular fresh vegetables on most people’s tables.

But when members join a CSA farm, their plate will include all kinds of other vegetables. Just this week for the third pick-up of our season, our subscribers took home spinach, green garlic, radishes, head lettuce, kale, and beet greens—all fresh, all just-picked, all organic. The first two weeks, they got rhubarb, too, which we’ll pick again this Saturday. And this is just the start of the season, with the bulk of the garden still to come. Once the basil’s in, we joke that people get back the cost of their membership in what they save on the price of supermarket basil (which comes in plastic, how appetizing).

Eating from a CSA farm isn’t exactly like eating from a family farm like my great-great-grandfather’s, but these days, it’s about as close as you can come. Small, local community farms help people eat closer to the land and closer to the health provided by the food. Even in the days before antibiotics and immunizations, George Washington Short lived to be 90 years old. I like to think fresh food and hard work on the land kept him healthy and fit. I hope eating food from Stonebridge Farm helps our members stay healthy too (check out our recipes here). Delicious vegetables, farmland preservation, and local community support for food production–I think my great-great-grandfather would approve.

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Dancing the 25th Harvest Season

img_9489Yesterday we celebrated Stonebridge Farm’s 25th season as a CSA with a harvest concert and potluck on a gentle September evening. We were joined by favorite local singer/songwriters who have graced our Stonebridge stage: Jenny and Tom Hodgson, Tupelo Honey, and Joe Kuckla, who built the stage for us many years ago. As the sun set over the mountains, we danced and laughed and ate delicious food while the children fished off the wooden bridge and played on the giant swing across the ditch. I’d like to share some of my remarks on this wonderful occasion with my pearlmoonplenty readers:

Here we are at the height of the harvest in our 25th CSA season. “Who could believe it?” as my Grandma Smith would say. John and I certainly didn’t imagine this day when we started out all those years ago.

rakewheelThis land we’re celebrating first became a farm in 1911, a dairy farm with cows pastured in the fields and milked in the big red barn with its haylofts overhead. This land has been stewarded with care by many generations of farmers. Their work brought the farm to us by cultivating it responsibly and by holding onto its agricultural promise rather than selling it for development profit. I feel the generations of farmers behind me when I stand on this stage and look over the land on this fine fall day. From here I can see your faces, too, and I want to thank you all for being with us today and every day on this land.

One of many things that makes Stonebridge special is that we’re continuing to grow farm-friendly generations here. We now have kids going off to college whose parents were members before those children were born. We even have third-generation members—families with grandparents, parents, and young ones all eating Stonebridge vegetables.

And we have our own four-year-old grandson, Collin, who loves coming to visit and takes an active interest in what’s going on here. He even helps us figure out how to solve problems. For example, three Friday nights ago a bear knocked over our beehive to get the honey. When we came out to pick on Saturday morning, we saw the hive in a heap and the angry bees buzzing overhead looking for their home. Our friends Jay and Orion got the hive back together but decided to wait until evening to capture the bees and move the hive to protect it from the bear, who surely would return for the rest of the honey that night.

Around 5:30 in the evening, John and Orion went to get the hive, figuring the bear wouldn’t have come back yet. You can guess what they found: the bear was right there and, when it saw the truck, it ran across the ditch, straight through the water and up the bushy bank. Not only that, when it got to the other side, it stood up on its hind legs and waved its arms as if to say, ‘I’m a BIG bear!” Then it got down on its four feet to run off to the north and we haven’t seen it back yet.

As I told Collin this story, his eyes were wide. He loves animals and animal stories, and he knows a lot about different kinds of animals, so when I got to the end of the tale, I waited for what he would say. He thought a minute before offering a matter-of-fact solution: “You should get a Siberian tiger.”

“Hmmm,” I said.

He thought another minute. “But you couldn’t let the chickens out.”

“That’s true,” I said. “We couldn’t’ let the chickens out.”

He thought another minute. “And you couldn’t go outside either.”

“You’re right. Maybe a tiger isn’t what we need.”

I could see from the serious look on his face, this was a problem he intended to solve.  “I wonder what animal would scare a bear,” he said, “but not scare you.”

“What do you think?” I asked.

Of course, his answer was his favorite animal: “You should get an elephant!”

It’s encouraging to look ahead through the new lives at the farm, but it’s also amazing to look behind. So very many wonderful people have passed through our lives at Stonebridge and, luckily, many of them are still here working with us in the fields, contributing skills to the land and all it holds, and celebrating with us here today.  We may never get an elephant, but we will keep this farm going as long as we are able, and, hopefully, for harvests beyond our time as well. As Jenny sings in “Dance the Seasons,” the beautiful song she wrote for our farm, “We’ll dance the seasons in and out as we cross these fields again.”

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Earth Day 46

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Today is Earth Day 46. Given the state of the planet, I’m not sure whether to celebrate or commemorate the occasion.  Either way, I’d like to share a couple paragraphs from the chapter “The First Earth Day–and Still Counting” in A Bushel’s Worth, followed by a story for Earth Day today. I’ll be reading from Dirt: A Love Story tonight at Wolverine Publick House in Ft Collins at 7 PM. Please join me and authors Laura Pritchett and Jane Shellenberger for Earth Day 46.

The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, was organized by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson to bring national attention to the growing problems of environmental degradation through grassroots actions focused on issues in local communities. On Earth Day, people were asked to demonstrate care for an earth whose gifts of clean air, water, and soil could no longer be taken for grant- ed. Earth Day would not only create awareness of the steadily declining health of the environment, but bring hope of a better future for the planet.

Our fifth grade class decided to join the first Earth Day celebration by turning the hard dirt outside our classroom into a beautiful garden of grass and flowers. All it would take, we thought, were some shovels and a few seeds. On April 22, we showed up with tools—the girls wearing pants, which wasn’t normally allowed—and worked like crazy all day to get that small square of soil ready for the plants we imagined would grow there. Mr. Osborn even let me run the block home for my wagon to haul away rocks and trash. With rakes and hoes in our young hands, we scratched tiny furrows in the soil to plant our hopeful seeds. A little water, a little weeding, and we’d have our first Earth Day garden. At the end of the day, we were dirty and tired, but proud to be part of something bigger than ourselves. . . .

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On that first Earth Day in 1970, were we optimistic or just naive? We didn’t yet now of the much larger environmental problem looming, I think I can say “literally,” on the horizon. I mark Earth Day each year to remind myself how these ideas that were so radical in 1970 are mainstream today, if not yet implemented. In a small step to move outside a framework that privileges humans over the rest of the planet, I’ve decided to quit saying “humans and the environment” (as in, “harmful to humans and the environment”). Instead, I’m going to say “the environment, including humans.”

To remain hopeful, I try to see the world through my grandson’s eyes. At three and a half, he loves animals and playing guessing games with his grandparents. Last week, he quizzed me: “Grandma Kayann, what’s the smartest mammal?”

I went with his favorite first: An elephant?

“No, it lives in the ocean.”

A whale?

“No.”

Then I remembered he’d just been to the San Diego zoo. Dolphins?

Yes! I’d gotten it right, so I thought I’d take the game a little further: What about humans? They’re mammals.

He shook his head. “No, they’re not very smart.”

My daughter and I had to smile at his three-year-old savvy. Even though it seems he’s right, his viewpoint still contains some hope.

Maybe the animals will save us.

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