Our agrarian education has come in as a slow undercurrent beneath our workday lives and the rearing of our children. Only our closest friends, probably, have taken real notice of the changes in our household: that nearly all the food we put on our table, in every season, was grown in our garden or very nearby. That the animals we eat took no more from the land than they gave back to it, and led sunlit, contentedly grassy lives. Our children know how to bake bread, stretch mozzarella cheese, ride a horse, keep a flock of hens laying.
— Barbara Kingsolver, The Essential Agrarian Reader: The Future of Culture
Pulling weeds isn’t anybody’s favorite part of producing food, I assume. Last week at the Duke farm, I had the opportunity to get my hands dirty hauling dirt and pulling weed. Harvesting, the fun part, isn’t a part of the volunteer experience. And I think that’s a good thing.
This past summer, I went with my mom to a U-Pick farm where we picked 11 pounds of strawberries from a northern California farm. That whole process didn’t take more than 30 minutes. While we had a lot of fun gathering our food right from the source, as opposed to buying it at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods like we normally do, we didn’t really get the full experience. We didn’t need to haul compost or pick weeds. We didn’t help out in planting the strawberry beds or trimming the roots if they grew too much. We didn’t need to water the fruit or worry about insects and animals or anything of that sort. We just picked our fruit, ripe and ready.
Last week I experienced some of the nitty-gritty parts of farming. That said, two hours isn’t nearly enough time to really grasp the intensity of the work. I devoted two hours of my life and I thought I worked hard during those hours. But then I thought about the people who do this every day, every year, for many years. If I had the opportunity to grow my own food, I definitely wood. While I realize there is an incredible amount of work involved, I love making my own food. I love knowing exactly what goes into my food, from the soil to the water and everything else.
My roommate the other day asked me why I eat only organic fruits, telling me “it’s a waste of money.” Yes, organic foods are more expensive and maybe I just buy it because my mom has also only bought organic for the past twenty years. Her mom never buys organic. I was surprised at how growing up with different mindsets about foods continues to influence our choices even as we grow up. For me, I grew up listening to my family talk about pesticides and how the way food is grown and harvested influences the quality of that food. I feel like I’m betraying my body when I do consume non-organic, non-sustainably sourced foods. I might be a bit dramatic, but that’s just who I am.
Kingsolver’s passage, in the context of my farm experiences and those before, made me sad. I felt disappointed that I didn’t have the resources or the time to cultivate my own school. At home, I live in the city (in the Bay Area) where there is barely any space to grow anything. We have only a small backyard, although we make the most of it with our lemon, persimmon, and apple trees. We used to grow pumpkins and strawberries and mint too. But like most things in life, time got the best of us. While I’m appreciative for the opportunities I have for my education and my career, I envy those who like Kingsolver and her family can take the time to live that agrarian lifestyle.
Nearly every summer since I was four, my family and I have been traveling to Armenia where my grandparents live. Now, they still live in a city but their house has a huge yard with the most exotic fruits available to them daily (fresh mulberries are my favorite). Their grocery stores are more like farmers’ markets, although there are more and more “western” style stores popping up. There are shops with fresh fish from the rivers and shops that bake fresh bread every morning. The bread baking, especially in the villages, is an incredible experience where even children are allowed to help knead the bread and stick it in the ground oven (see end of paper for a pic!).
Kingsolver writes, “the animals we eat took no more from the land than they gave back to it, and led sunlit, contentedly grassy lives.” I stopped eating meat for about a year and a half just because I started to dislike the taste of it. Even the grass-fed, organic meat my mom bought just didn’t taste very good. In Armenia last summer, I was reminded of how the taste and quality of meat especially changes when the animal itself has led a good life. When you’re not preoccupied with raising them for just meat and treat them right, it makes a difference.
Even eggs, seemingly the same anywhere, have a unique taste and even color. I once found my five year old self stuck in my grandparents’ chicken coop. The hens were all sitting, laying eggs. And I stood there in the corner terrified that they would attack. But while I felt trapped at first, I then became comfortable just sitting there. More than that, I found myself curious at how these little hens make our breakfast every morning. How the grains and fruits and whatever else they ate from our garden helps make those eggs. If we are what we eat, then what our chickens consumed also counted. I never forgot that experience (it was pretty traumatic at first…) but the farming experience last week and Kingsolver’s passage reminded me of the intricacies of producing food and of the little experiences I had over the years that have contributed to my perception of farming and food itself.
While I love food and every process that goes into creating the food I eat, the reality is—like I stated before—that I just don’t have the time. The most I can do is to go to a grocery store (grocery shopping is my #1 hobby), read my food labels, and learn where my food comes from. I can take those extra minutes to make sure the foods I buy are sustainably sourced, to ensure that they’re as pure as can be without the use of pesticides or hormones. I learned only a few years ago the differences between “no antibiotics ever” and “raised without antibiotics” especially with poultry. It amazes me how much labels misguide consumers, including myself, and how big farming corporations find ways to inappropriately use those labels. For instance, unless chicken has an “organic” label and “raised without antibiotics label” then even if the chicken wasn’t injected with hormones after birth, it could have still received those hormones while it was still in the hatchery. To me, this revelation was mind blowing.
We can’t always eat 100% the way we would like. Life now just doesn’t always allow for those privileges (or rights?). But educating ourselves about food, taking the time to volunteer at a farm, and even spending time with some animals can make a difference in how we appreciate food and how we ourselves contribute to the producer-consumer lifestyle we’ve come to know.
Featured Photo: Baking bread with local villagers in Harav, a village in Nagorno-Karabakh (Armenia).
Wirzba, Norman, and Barbara Kingsolver. The Essential Agrarian Reader the Future of Culture, Community, and the Land. Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004.