Saturday, January 22, 2011

St. Louis Missouri: Stephen Inman, New Roots Urban Farm

It was a sultry, humid evening in St. Louis when we arrived at the urban farm project maintained by Stephen and a core group of a few other volunteers.  The farm is planted on a postage stamp lot and has a greenhouse, chicken coop, and picnic table toward the rear.

"I'm more prone to calling it a garden this year.  Before it was like, "don't call it a garden!  It's a farm!"

We sat at the picnic table and watched the sun set on the abundant crops while Stephen told us about the challenges and perks of being an urban farmer.  This garden has been functioning for about seven years and Stephen told us the story of the four individuals who got New Roots going.  Everybody is a volunteer and they have initiated or helped with several other food and social justice projects in St. Louis.  The produce that is harvested supplies an impressive number of CSA boxes for its size and it barely pays for the next season of the garden's existence.

It is difficult to operate not knowing if the yield will bring in enough money for another season of planting and harvesting, but that is the reality of most farms, rural or urban.  One of Stephen's goals is to have this garden produce enough to pay for a gardener who will lead the project and volunteers, since that position doesn't exist right now and the garden is run on hopeful volunteer labor and luck.  The volunteers do get to walk away with some of the food, but the whole project started when the founders realized that they couldn't afford their own produce on their rural farm outside the city.  A garden that won't sustain the folks who work it seems doomed to failure, or, at the very least, ironic.

Despite the typical volunteer and practical urban issues, the kale is looking lovely, and as we sit chatting with Stephen a few neighborhood folks wander in to check on the crops and do some harvesting, thankful for this abundant gift of food amidst the hustle and bustle of the city.  We watch the sun set and the city sky turn purple over the distant skyscrapers and abandoned brick neighborhood buildings...

Click here for Stephen's story in his own words...

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Council Grove, Kansas: Don and Doris Cress

On a hot Sunday morning, after sleeping at the Canning Creek Cove campground in Kansas, we pulled into the small town of Council Grove.  The town, located roughly between Salina and Topeka, is historically significant for being a key stop on the Santa Fe Trail.  As such, we were not surprised to find ourselves having breakfast at The Santa Fe Cafe, eating a remarkable breakfast burrito.

The Santa Fe Cafe had just changed hands and a family of four was there to greet us and take our order.  Our waitress looked to be about 9 years old and when we ordered 2 breakfast burritos she scrunched her forehead in thought and put her pencil to the order pad and scratched out "2 brayfast blotos" then happily skipped back to the kitchen where her dad was waiting and whispered loudly "Two breakfast burritos dad. But I didn't know how to spell that."

The burritos, or blotos as we now call them, arrived and they could have fed an army with as much eggs and vegetables as were stuffed into that fragile tortilla.  She came back to get our empty plates, offered each of us a raspberry candy and then went outside to hail in the passing motorcyclists that were roaring through downtown slowly on a Sunday morning drive.  There were swarms of motorcyclists out to take advantage of this beautiful bluebird day, and, as we left, a few came in and took our place to order their own blotos.

Trav and I decided that our next course of action would be to go to church, as we figured those Kansans who weren't riding around on their motorcycles would most likely be in a church on Sunday morning, and we wanted to meet people.  I called my dad, who is a minister, to consult and see which denomination would be most likely to have the best snacks and we ended up going with the Presbityrians.

There was a great time of singing and then we sat through an interesting service in which a woman told of her recent experience with a missionary school in Guatemala.  A youth group rafting trip that had been planned for the day before had been cancelled, so as we filed out of the sanctuary we grazed on all the Subway sandwiches that would otherwise be doomed to perish, as well as some excess cucumbers from a parishoners garden.  Between bites we introduced ourselves to the minister and got to telling him about our project with farmers.  With a light in his eye he snapped out his cell phone and called two church members who had just retired from their farm and moved into town, being 91 and 87 years old.

Don and Doris Cress are the oldest farmers that we had the pleasure of interviewing, and their stories about how things used to be were a pleasure, a history and a warning all at the same time.

Click "read more" to see what they had to say in their own words.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Thank-You Letter to everybody even slightly involved with this project.

 Many apologies for the vast delays in our blog updates!  We still have many farmers to write about, from Kansas to Oregon, and from Monsanto to Farm-To-School folks.  Kacy and I have both been doing plenty of writing, but neither of us are efficient at transcribing it into the internet yet.  We'll improve!
Just before Christmas we spent some days writing thank-you notes and hand-addressing envelopes to every farmer we interviewed, as well as most of the people we stayed with and the individuals who connected us with farmers along the way.  I'm sorry if some of you whom were key in the project have not received yours; we actually ran out of the postcard I created, which is pictured above.  

Each envelope included this postcard with a personal note on the back, a copy of the individual's portrait when appropriate, and a one-page letter drafted by Kacy, which is shown below.  I took the rather large stack of letters to the post office on December 23rd; I thought, "well, I've organized them by state, to help out the postal workers during this holiday rush."  Feeling like a good samaritan I presented the box to the woman at the counter, and she said in a definitive southern drawl, "Aw, that's sweet of ya, darlin'...but they all get dumped in the bin anyway."  And with a "whoosh!", my carefully organized pile joined the glittering mass of holiday cards and packages, bound for points across the world.

Thanks to everyone involved in the project!  Please read the letter below for an update on our process.

New years resolution: post on this blog at least once a week.

                                                                  Stewards: Stories and Perspectives on American Agriculture
                                                                                                Trav Williams and Kacy Spooner
Winter greetings!

We hope that this note finds you well and warm as December settles over your farms and towns.  Some of you are good old friends and others are people whom we met only briefly for an interview this past season.  This is a hearty Thank You! for being a part of our project; it’s also an update of our progress.

We traveled across the US this past spring and summer, interviewing farmers, ranchers, and other agriculturalists; our intent was to collect a diversity of views, perspectives, and creeds and to publish these conversations as an archive of modern agricultural thought.
In the end, we spoke with over 160 farmers, ranchers, scientists, homesteaders, veterinarians, viticulturalists, historians, seed-savers, editors, and agents.  We traveled for about 6 months on 12,500 miles of gravel and asphalt, seeking out characters and farmers of all types; we ended up with over 350 hours of recorded conversation, from Maine to California.
The youngest farmers were working on their 4-H projects in Illinois and studying sustainable agriculture in Maine.  The oldest were selling their farm in Kansas at the age of 94 or were documenting their own heritage in California.  Some farmers had made their fortunes; others were losing their property or struggling to get started.  Farm sizes ranged from tens of thousands of acres of rangeland in eastern Colorado to ¼ acre lots in St. Louis and Denver.  Some farmers stressed localized and diversified operations, while many others focused on a single crop that was distributed worldwide, such as soybeans.  The diversity within our larger agricultural community is amazing to us.
When we asked the question, “What should the role of the farmer be in our society?” a large number of people included the idea of “stewardship” in their answers.  The working title of this project was “Portrait of a Farm,” but we are now leaning towards the title, “Stewards: Stories and Perspectives on American Agriculture”.

This winter we are working on obtaining further funding that will allow more interviews to take place and allow for a more complete project.  We are transcribing those many hours of recorded conversation and pursuing potential publishers; we’ve begun proposing a book concept, but we will not likely have made publishing decisions before next summer.
You have helped us by either telling us your story, sharing your resources and connections with us, or providing a place to cook food or rest our heads during this trip.  It has been our honor to collect your unique perspectives; we hope that they will touch and educate those who read them.

Besides the interviewees themselves, we’d also like to thank the folks who helped us find farmers; Cooperative Extension and Farm Bureau agents were particularly helpful, connecting us with numerous people and organizations.  We could not have been nearly as thorough without your help. 

At the conclusion of our trip, we decided to settle in western North Carolina for the time being.  We are thankful to be in such a beautiful place.  Travis is working with photography in Asheville and Kacy is working on farmland preservation with the Agricultural Economic Development Office in Polk County.  We are happy and we’re counting on spending lots of time this winter working on this project and musing about the past and the future of American agriculture.
There’s a good chance that, in the next few years, you may find us settled on the farm Trav grew up on in Oregon, but we shall see.  The soil there is fertile and the history is strong.  We will continue to keep you updated about any significant progress on this project, but if you have any questions in the meantime, or if you’d like to continue to have a dialogue, please feel free to contact us anytime.

Within a day or two of today, dozens of farmers and families across the US are opening this same letter as winter approaches.  Whether you are snowed in up in Maine, prepping soil in California, or watching your apple trees turn inward for the winter, know that you are a significant part of a complex and necessary system that keeps us all going.  We hope that all of you and your families are well, that your crops did well, and that next season will be lucrative and satisfying. 

Thanks for telling your story--                                     --Kacy Spooner and Travis Williams