“Do you think you could teach a class that relates The Odyssey to the modern veteran’s experience?” Our friend Evelyn, a high school English teacher, asked me three years ago.
“Sure,” I said. I re-read The Odyssey and realized that I didn’t identify at all with Odysseus. He doesn’t seem motivated enough to get home, he doesn’t delegate anything or trust anyone, and he eventually gets all of his men killed. Still, several aspects of his journey still resonated with me, and I discussed the parallels I found with Evelyn’s English class in May 2014.
It must have been ok, because I taught the class again last week. Between teaching those two classes, I started Odyssey Farm, which has given me another perspective on the journey. I’ll spare you the class outline for now because the most interesting learning point—for the students and for me— came from the students’ questions:
“How did you work through your struggles after returning home from the war?”
First of all, the assumptions behind these kinds of questions annoy me. Several times over the years that I did presentations for the Farmer Veteran Coalition, I had strangers who didn’t know my military background tell me, “you need to heal,” or something to that effect. They meant well, but the general assumption I hear in that statement is: Veteran = Broken.
“I didn’t have any PTSD or nightmares,” I explained. I stayed in touch with fellow Marines up and down the chain of command. I made new civilian friends when we moved back to Seattle. I got into woodworking and ultra-running. Sarah and I biked, backpacked, and kayaked throughout the Pacific Northwest. I came home to a great network of family and friends. I was happy as hell to be starting a new chapter in my life.
“So what do you mean by ‘struggles’?” I asked the class.
One young man in the front row clarified their question: “Did you have trouble making the psychological transition from combat back to civilian life?
I explained that after leading a rifle company in Iraq, nothing I did felt as challenging, interesting, and important enough to throw myself into as a vocation. My ultra-running was a great challenge but it only served me. Woodworking served me and a few others at best.
I started thinking out loud. “The real struggle was that I had to find new struggles.” Now they were drawn in. Or maybe I just confused them with the mental hairball that I’d coughed up. “I mean, I need to struggle,” I said.
I explained to the students that Odyssey Farm is thirty-two acres and that I do most of my work with a walk-behind tractor or by hand —such as hand-picking corn. (Another teacher, whose husband had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan with the National Guard, laughed out loud, “Oh, you are a Marine.” Compliment taken.)
After combat’s life and death decisions and counterinsurgency’s complexity, nothing else has satisfied my need for combined physical and intellectual challenge and a sense of purpose as raising food in partnership with nature to feed my family and my community. I enjoy the challenge and the process of farming this way.
My answer about taking on farming as my new struggle inadvertently reinforced some of the parallels I’d already drawn to The Odyssey:
—Transition is harder than it first appears: Odysseus’ ships are within sight of Ithaca when his men open the bag of winds which blows them all the way back to Aeolia. I integrated very easily back into civilian life but struggled to find a calling that felt equal to my challenges and rewards of leading Marines. And I’m just beginning to go down this new path.
—The need for a mission: Odysseus turns several events of his return trip into battles. I don’t go around picking fights, but I do understand the desire to take on a “mission” —some larger purpose that engages me fully.
—Arrival is a temporary state: Odysseus finally makes it home only to leave again. Every time I accomplish something that I’ve been working toward, it becomes a stepping-stone to the next thing I need to learn or want to do.
“I think we all need to struggle in our pursuits,” I told the class.
I’ve since learned that my gut response about struggle is backed up by the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. According to Csikszentmihalyi, we achieve our greatest satisfaction when we engage in something that perfectly matches a high level of challenge to our own high skill levels. He called that perfect match of challenge and skill Flow, what we often think of as being “in the zone”.
Selected struggle isn’t just for wacky-former-Marine-infantry-officers-turned-horseless-Amish-farmers (or the ancient Greeks). We find our best selves in that sweet spot where bringing all of our knowledge and skills is just enough to meet the challenge.
The best cornbread I’ve made begins a few steps prior to most recipes. I start by shelling corn.* I’ve grown Hickory King, Reids Yellow Dent, and a few others in my quest for good cornmeal (and when it’s not the best cornmeal, it’s still great hog feed). Gene Logsdon wrote that some people found their favorite cornmeal came from popcorn. I only grow open-pollinated corn, old varieties from which you can save the seed and replant (if you plant hybrids, you have to buy seed every year from seed companies).
Since I can’t get much separation on 15 tillable acres, I had some cross pollination between our Pennsylvania Dutch Popcorn and our Reids Yellow Dent corn. The kernels are popcorn-shaped, a mix of white and yellow throughout the ear. It doesn't pop well, so I shelled and ground some yesterday and made cornbread. It's excellent. The cornmeal has a much stronger flavor and aroma than most cornmeal I’ve tried.
I often fall down the rabbit-hole of small-scale, labor-intense production, but the discoveries are worth it at times—the eating down here is wonderful.
I use a King Arthur Flour recipe for cornbread.
I’ll have some cornmeal for sale at the Madison chapter’s Weston A Price Foundation meeting tomorrow night in Monona. Details Here.
--Video of the hand-cranked sheller in action.
*Actually, I start by building soil with cover crops before I even prepare ground for planting. That may seem like a long reach back, but the point is to raise animals and crops with the best flavor. As mentioned in the Underground Secrets of Nutrition post, flavor begins with soil.
“You are what you eat eats.” In six words, Michael Pollan nailed a profound truth about health and nutrition. We eat plants. We eat meat from animals that eat plants. Healthy plants are key to our own health. What makes for a healthy plant? In, The Third Plate, Dan Brown explains how the best tasting and the healthiest food comes from the richest, biologically dynamic soil. Here’s my quick takeaway from Part I, Soil:
In 1942, a time when people’s food still came from close to home, Dr. William Albrecht, a scientist at the University of Missouri, studied the state's military draft rejection rates. Albrecht created a map of recruit rejections for ill health. The highest rejection rates came from the state’s diluted soils of the southeast while the mineral-rich soils of northwest Missouri produced much healthier men.
Albrecht understood that soil microbes “dined at the first table,” and that soil lacking minerals could not grow healthy plants. He warned that the nation’s declining soil fertility would lead to a health crisis.
Fast forward sixty years. Not long after chef/author Dan Brown sets up Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a restaurant connected to its own farm, his farm manager tests the Brix of two carrots. Brix measures the percentage of sugar in plant matter. One carrot comes from rich soil that had been a dairy pasture for decades. The other carrot is from an organic farm in Mexico. While the sugar percentage, not surprisingly, correlates to taste, it also indicates mineralization in the soil and the biological activity to make those minerals available to plants. The carrot from the former dairy pasture measured 16.9 Brix, meaning 16.9% sugar, an amazingly high number. Brown explains that a good, sweet carrot might have a Brix of 12. He describes the 16.9 carrot as “astonishingly delicious.”
The organic carrot from Mexico? Zero, as in a reading of 0.0 Brix. It’s organic, but in the industrial sense—raised in a monoculture where the farmers are adding inputs (though organic ones) instead of building the soil.
Several studies over the years point to the same loss in vegetable nutrition that Albrecht predicted and that Dan Brown’s farm manager measured between carrots.
Albrecht noticed in the 1930’s that cattle could get a balanced diet by grazing pastures grown on well-mineralized soils. However, when cattle were confined to a barn and fed grain, their bodies tried to compensate for the lack of micronutrients by overeating. They got fat, but not necessarily healthy.
John Ikerd, a professor emeritus also from the University of Missouri, connects Albrecht’s findings to the contemporary American diet based on cheap, processed grains, and the obesity epidemic: “The lack of a few essential nutrients in our diets might leave us feeling hungry even though we have consumed far more calories than is consistent with good health.”
So what can you do? Buy local vegetables when you can. (I know, this is Wisconsin, that’s not easy for much of the year). Buy them from a farmer you trust. Our mouths may tell us as much about our food as any laboratory test. Really tasty, fresh vegetables are likely to be more nutritious.
What’s this mean for me? I need to stay focused on building soil fertility with diverse cover crops and less tillage that destroys soil life. I need to grow even more of my own feed for the pigs. Healthy soil=healthy pastures and crops=healthy pigs. Soil building is my obligation to the land, to the animals on the land, and to you, the consumer.
Some foods come with a regional pedigree and an experience that can’t be replicated elsewhere. Hofbrau Dunkel beer tasted the best best when I was drinking it with two thousand raucous Germans at a beer garden in Munich. I’ve gone out for Middle Eastern food several times since returning from Iraq, but restaurant hobus (flatbread) has never had the mildly crisp outside, doughy interior, and slight smokiness of the bread that Iraqi women handed to us straight from their outdoor mud ovens.
Sarah and I eat out to experience flavors that we can’t create at home, but our home cooking is the gateway to flavors--and a satisfaction—that no chef can give us. Sarah made carbonara last week with guanciale that she cured, bacon that I smoked myself, and eggs—with sunset-colored yolks—so fresh they were still warm from the nest box. Food historians debate the origins of carbonara, but I think the intent behind the dish was a quick-to-make meal with ingredients commonly available to Italians at the time—fresh eggs and cured pork. You can debate the authenticity of carbonara made in a Wisconsin farm kitchen, but I think ours is truer to the dish’s intent (and tastier) than one we could order in a local Italian restaurant anyway.
It’s the same with cassoulet. The French can’t agree on what makes a proper cassoulet. Julia Child says as much in Mastering The Art of French Cooking: “The composition of cassoulet is, in typical French fashion, the subject of infinite dispute… arguments about what should go into this famous dish seem based on local traditions.”
Restaurant cassoulet might be tasty, but it won’t be true in the spirit of the dish. In The Third Plate, chef Dan Barber admits that even farm-to-table restaurants like his are guilty of “cherry picking ingredients”. Cassoulet was a peasant dish, a one-pot meal. Having grown up around more than a few frugal farm cooks, I think the real tradition behind cassoulet was about the cook making a good meal by making do.
Making a cassoulet with beans and whatever meat you have on hand can give you a delicious meal, truer to the dish's origins than any restaurant version.
Sarah’s version uses three kinds of pork because that’s what we had in our kitchen freezer. The recipe is a guideline, not a rule.
Sarah’s Cassoulet (AKA clean-out-the-refrigerator)
Julia Child recommends that you make cassoulet in stages as you have time. Like so many stews and bean dishes. this one is better when it's cook a day or two ahead of time and then reheated before serving. The flavors well meld over time.
"If you are working on a problem you can solve in your own lifetime, you're not thinking big enough." —Wes Jackson, Founder, The Land Institute
I’m about to read Dan Barber’s The Third Plate—Field Notes On The Future of Food. My wife, Sarah, enjoyed the book and gave me a partial report, enough that I’m looking forward to reading it and learning. The book gets great reviews for interweaving science, culture, agriculture, and food. A good story helps you see your world differently. When it comes to food and farming, that world is my backyard. I wonder if this is one of those books that changes my outlook on what I do, or a part of it. If so, will that cause me to change how I farm, raise food, or eat?
While delving into this stuff is plenty interesting as a solo expedition, I think it'd a lot more fun with a few other people. After a couple one-on-one exchange visits with other farmers and attending a book club last night, I though it might be fun to read a food/farming book in a book club.
I don’t have the time to schedule/host/moderate a regular book club—especially this time of year, but I’m interested how many other people might be interested in reading The Third Plate during the next month. The book has 450 pages divided into four sections. Reading a section a week should be pretty easy even if your only reading for the day is at lunch (as it usually is for me).
If you are interested in trying this, comment on this post, drop an email or hit me on the Odyssey Farm Facebook page. If there is enough interest, then we can figure out the rest from there. Though the internet has astounding reach, I’d enjoy gathering in person with any local readers in May for drinks and discussion.
It must be the light.
The days are longer. Brighter, clearer spring sunshine has driven away winter’s soft pale light. The hens waddle and scratch farther from their coop. The cats have already left the barn when I fill their food dishes in the morning.
The urge to get out there seems universal.
While the sun lures me to the field, the rains hold me back. Almost four inches of rain over two weeks have saturated the soil. I can hear water gurgle under the low ground. I’m confined to staying around the barn and in the shop. It’s like crunching in the starting block for too long on the track.
I’ve started spring training instead.
It’s probably better than jumping into the work. At 42, I feel like my body and my ’96 Tacoma are at the same stage in life —still capable as ever, but requiring a lot more maintenance. My farming style keeps me fit, but only to a point. If my strength, flexibility, and stamina aren’t solid when it’s time to plant and build fence, I might hurt myself —like running a marathon without building up the the training mileage.
I’ve never been much of a weights guy, but I own a bunch of weights —old-style one-inch-hole plates that I use to ballast and balance the BCS. Since these Craigslist deals came with bars, I’ve started using them.
My "workouts" are short and minimally structured: Deadlifts. Carry 60 lb tractor weights in each hand for 200 feet. Turkish-Get-Ups for core work. Bang out sets of pull-ups and push-ups within the workout or randomly. Workouts only last 20 minutes, two or three times a week. No gym membership. No commute. After just a couple weeks, I feel stronger for not much time invested.
The dirt gym (my barn doesn’t have concrete floors) has been a great outlet for all my coiled spring energy. When it’s time to heft a shoulder load of T-posts, lay wire from a 44-lb spool, carry two 50-lb feed bags across the pasture, or drag a hog shelter, I’ll be ready.
I can’t wait.
In January, I attended the Routes To Farm Summit—a two-day forum of peer-to-peer discussions among small to medium scale food producers. Instead of presentations and workshops, the participants determined the discussion topics for this Open Space meeting. The first discussion I joined focused on greenwashing—the deceptive marketing used to make a product appear more local, healthy, environmentally friendly, or socially responsible than it really is.
It’s easy to find examples of corporate greenwashing, such as Volkswagen’s diesel emissions scandal and Monsanto’s environmental PR campaigns versus their effort to cover up findings that glyphosate, Round-Up’s key ingredient, causes cancer. Our discussion opened my eyes to back-yard greenwashing.
Vegetable farmers in northern Illinois talked about CSAs that aggregated vegetables from outside the region but market them as locally* grown. A Wisconsin farmer described seeing her farm’s name promoted as the restaurant’s vegetable source.
“We hadn’t sold anything to them in months,” she explained. Not only were they using the farm’s name without buying her products, if the restaurant used an inferior product, it would reflect poorly on her and her farm.
I realized that I had examples from my own experience, though I hadn’t thought of them as greenwashing at the time. Before I started raising pigs, I called well-known pastured pork farms to get a sense of what feed rations and pasturing practices worked best for them.
“We grow corn and soybeans here on the farm,” one woman replied in a chirrupy voice. “It’s all non-GMO,” she added, with the Wisconsin emphasis on the “O”. “Well, we plant non-GMO,” she acknowledged. “I can’t guarantee that the feed is non-GMO. You know how it is.”
I do know. Corn pollen can travel for miles and pollinate any other field of corn that’s at the same growth stage and thus receptive to pollination. To avoid GMO contamination, organic corn farmers plant ten to fourteen days after their neighbors have planted. That way, the conventional corn has stopped shedding pollen when the organic corn begins pollinating. Non-GMO corn requires the same precautions to produce non-GMO seed. Consumers look for non-GMO products because they want to avoid GMO foods. The farm’s website says Non-GMO feed. Is their lack of detailed explanation about their feed a communication oversight or intentional greenwashing?
Another example comes from some very loose interpretations of “pastured pork”. There’s not an enforced definition of pasture when it comes to raising pigs. I’ve visited a few pastured pork farms where the pigs live in a dirt lot that started out as a pasture. It’s far better than raising animals in a confinement building, but calling a dirt lot a pasture is greenwashing.
Here's my preferred definition of pastured, adapted from the National Organic Program (NOP) Rules: Within the climate’s grazing season, pastured animals must have constant access to fresh, green forage that they consume by breaking it off from living plants whose roots are still in the ground. If animals can't do that in their living space, then they aren't pastured.
What can a consumer do?
Our discussion group at Routes To Farm concluded that journalists and watchdog organizations could not be expected to regularly investigate and expose backyard greenwashing. The most powerful check against greenwashing is you—the informed consumer.
There are four steps you can take to ensure you are getting the food you want: know your farmer, ask questions, consider the price, and see for yourself.
1. Know your Farmer. If you buy directly from the farmer, you have a pretty good idea where your food is coming from. Admittedly, knowing the farmer doesn’t necessarily guarantee truth in advertising, but it eliminates the middlemen who While the farmers in the local greenwashing examples above weren’t transparent on their websites, they were open with me when I asked questions. Knowing your farmer gives you the direct communication that you cannot get through a grocery story or food company.
2. Ask questions. Nothing beats the back-and-forth and body language of face-to-face communication (See step 1). It’s much easier to get direct answers when the person selling the product is the same one who grew it.
Some example questions: Who certifies you? (If the product is certified). Do you use herbicides or pesticides in your pastures? What about in the grains you grow or buy to feed your animals? How can you guarantee that your animals’ feed is GMO-free? Is this 100% grass fed beef? Your product says natural. How do you define natural? How do you deal with: cucumber beetles, ragweed, pink-eye, predators, etc? Do you source any of your products from other farms?
How the farmer answers can tell you as much as the answer itself. Did she give you a vague response or a enthusiastic explanation that shows how much she believes in what she does? Asking questions is the first step to holding farmers and other business owners accountable. When a friend of ours asked if I could guarantee that my pigs were slaughtered humanely, I decided to tour the processing plant so I could give her an honest, detailed answer. If you decide not to buy something based on the farmer’s answers, you have empowered yourself as an informed consumer, and you are holding the farmer economically accountable for his answers, if not his actions.
3. Consider the price. It’s not hard to grow high-quality food for yourself. It’s much harder to do it profitably as a business. If something is touted as healthy, organic, pastured, etc is priced like industrial food, it was probably raised more like industrial food. There are few shortcuts to quality.
4. See for yourself. Ask if you can visit the farm. Don’t expect the farm to have a drop-by-any-time policy. Farmers have a business to run with schedules (farmers’ markets), deadlines (trying to beat the weather), and family commitments (kids’ soccer) like everyone else. You at least want to know if the farm is open to any visits. As a chef told me, “When a farmer hems and haws about a site visit, I start to wonder what he’s hiding.”
Visits take time for the farmer and the consumer, but it can be a win-win outcome. Half of my customers from 2016 came out to see the pigs on pasture. Those customers are some of my most enthusiastic supporters. Visits also allow you to see the farm in its larger context and notice things that might not appear in promotional text and photos, like the feedlot for “grass fed” cattle. (Full disclosure: I avoid taking pictures that capture the full immensity of the all-brown, metal sided structure that the previous owners built for horses. Come out to visit if you want to see pigs on pasture with a back-drop of what the Death-Star would look like as a 1970s pole-building.)
There’s no particular order to these steps. You may visit a farm at an open house and ask questions, the steps that lead to knowing your farmer. However you follow the steps, I hope you become an empowered consumer who can see through the greenwashing.
*The USDA defines local as four hundred miles—farther than the distance from Indianapolis to Iowa City. Under that definition, the CSA could have been selling local produce, but when was the last time you crossed two state lines to get groceries?
I seeded another acre of cornstalks with a cover crop mix yesterday, walking up and down rows with a hand cranked seeder. I did the same thing on an acre last month. By the end of April, I should see the beginnings of oats, medium red clover, sweet clover, perennial ryegrass, and kernza. Over time, this combination will fix nitrogen, sequester carbon, and create an environment for microbial soil life to flourish, all while giving the pigs something to graze.
Most farmers and gardeners till the previous crop under before planting the next crop. This is especially true of the long, almost woody stalks left over after corn harvest. No matter what the tool they use—disk, plow, tiller—or the size, working cornstalks in requires horsepower. Unless it comes from an actual horse, horsepower burns fossil fuel. I try to limit my fossil fuel use on the farm, and since I don’t have a tractor, I’d like to avoid tilling two acres of cornstalks under with a 30-inch tiller. But there are even better reasons to avoid tilling the stalks.
Tillage, while necessary at times, works against nature. Most soil organisms live in the first four inches of the surface. One teaspoon of good soil can contain one billion invisible bacteria, several yards of fungal hyphae, a few thousand protozoa, and dozens of nematodes.* Tillage tears through these dense microbial communities like a tornado through a trailer park, shredding fungal hyphae while ripping earthworms and arthropods from their homes and crushing them. The regular tillage in conventional gardening and farming, along with salt-based fertilizers and toxic herbicides, turns soil from the living means for growing plants into a dead medium that holds the roots of chemically dependent monocultures.
If destroying the microorganisms’ home isn’t bad enough, tilling corn stalks under also throws their food system out of balance. Soil microorganisms thrive with a diet of 24:1 Carbon to Nitrogen (C:N) ratio. If you have ever tried composting, you know that this is the ratio of dry material and grass clippings that makes a pile “hot” with microbial activity. Tilling cornstalks in overloads the soil with carbonaceous material at almost 60:1. Soil organisms then immobilize any excess nitrogen in order to break down the carbon, leaving any plant life starved for nitrogen. Tilling stalks under before planting makes nitrogen unavailable right when the farmer or gardener needs it.
By seeding into standing cornstalks, I hope to get a green mat of cover crop growing up around them. By mid-summer, there will be far more nitrogen and microbial life in the soil. Then, when the pigs knock the stalks flat while grazing, the soil surface environment is optimized to begin decomposing that carbonaceous material.
So how can just scattering seed over the ground work? It’s what nature does all the time. The trick is timing. By seeding now, several cycles of frost, thaw, rain, and sun will work most of the seeds into the soil surface where they will germinate and grow. I seeded an acre on the 27th of last month. In the photo below, which covers about 5 x 8 inches, you can see at least six tiny clover sprouts in a triangle pattern.
That’s two acres of pasture sown without ever firing up an engine or turning a single handful of soil. I can’t think of an environmentally friendlier path to greener pastures.
—Find A Way--
* From "Teaming With Microbes" by Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis
(At Least In The Kitchen)
Admit it. Sometimes you want all the benefits without any strings attached. You want pleasure without subsequent effort. You know who you are (and so do I).
You don’t order ham.
Ham epitomizes what we love about pork —the sweet, smoky character of cured meat, hugged in a savory layer of fat, revealing richer treasures of taste as you near the bone. Ham can take center stage in some of the best meals shared with family and friends. Ham often ranks behind bacon and some sausages for pure flavor reward, but when you cook the latter two, the joy ends with the meal. Just try to find a recipe for leftover bacon. Ham, on the other hand, is the cut that keeps on giving.
When we cook a ham, we only eat part of it for dinner. Then I’ll carve stacks of slices, keeping some for immediate use and wrapping a few packs for the freezer. Then I cube some pieces to go in omelets and cube some more for Rigatoni Modo Mio (Pasta with cauliflower and ham) from Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Cookbook. The odd cut offs get ground for ham salad.* The bone with some meat still on it goes into beans or lentils. It doesn't have to be immediate. It can all be frozen and used later. Either way, cooking a ham begins a short-term relationship that gives you a week’s worth of meals.
But maybe you don’t want that.
Enter the ham steak—a wonderful, half-inch cross-section of everything you love about ham. One steak serves two people or smaller portions for three or four. You get all the smoke-cured, bone-in deliciousness without the commitment to follow-on meal planning. It’s the one-night-stand of ham.
Fry it, grill it, or heat it any old way to eat as is, or chop it up to put in omelets or pasta. Enjoy it. The next day, you can move on to another cut without any guilt.
I have ham steaks. You can even substitute them for ham in the 25lb box. Order what you want. We all have different needs at different times. I promise I won’t judge you.
* I learned this from the queen of the meat salad —my mom. In her kitchen, and now mine, the final leftovers of beef, pork, or chicken often go through a century-old hand-crank grinder with hard-boiled eggs. Then that gets mixed with mayo and relish. The trick is to get the mayonnaise ratio just right so the meat spread sticks to itself and stays in the sandwich. That way, you can eat one-handed while operating trucks and tractors. You steer with your left hand and hold the sandwich in your right between your thumb and first two fingers. That leaves your third and fourth fingers to work with the heel of your hand to operate the throttle, gear shift, and hydraulic levers. It's multi-tasking before the smart-phone age.
Former Marine Infantry Officer. Iraq Vet. Interested in Regenerative Agriculture at any scale.
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