Building Community At America's Table

Meal Two: Learning From the Dark Woods

written by Grant

A long day visiting a farm is supposed to end with a campfire. The guitar comes out, maybe a harmonica (hey, I packed mine!) and you sing a verse or two of every song you know into the wee hours watching flames turn to embers.

The first day of Chef Camp at Spence Farm ended with a walk in the woods.

In the dark.

We donned headlamps and carried flashlights, following Marty, Kris and Will into their 40 acres of woods. Diverse farms often have woods and in this case the woods, nearly as wild as when the Kickapoo Indians lived in it, represents twenty-five percent of their farmstead. They carefully harvest from it – paw paws, stinging nettles, maple sap and more.

On this night, we all harvested from it; we harvested a peacefulness and knowledge.

Deep into the woods, we stopped in a clearing and Kris asked us to turn off our flashlights and listen. The sliver of moon offered little light. Fireflies darted about. And it was beautiful to just listen to the world. The sounds were magical, and they opened a door for Kris to speak softly to us about the aesthetic of their farm. Spence Farm has been in the family for 182 years and is the oldest farm in Livingston County. It is scattered with small buildings that each speak to their purpose – a chicken coop, a duck coop, an old schoolhouse for teaching visitors, a rescued smokehouse, a sugar house Will uses to make maple syrup. There are fields of course, but to the Spences, the woods are also a vital part of their farm, part of their aesthetic vision of a sustainable farm and lifestyle for the three of them.

Who stands in the woods in the dark and describes their farm as having an aesthetic!? Kris, Marty and Will do.

And how did such talk affect me?

It gave me this to think about – I get worked up in my effort to promote change in our food system. I go easily into argue and debate mode, trying to convince farmers they should farm differently, that pesticides and herbicides and GMOs and heavy antibiotic use are wrong. That we need labeling. And this activism is both energizing and sapping sometimes. And there’s a certain amount of angriness and negativism in it too.

But there could be another way to affect change. You could form community of like-minded people and gently, quietly do what you feel is right.

Can small farms feed the world?

Kris: “I don’t care – I’m feeding my community.”


Marty: “It’s not natural – animals, given the choice, would choose non-GMO from two piles of field leavings.”

Does the science support Farm Practice X?

Kris: “No science required. Our experience and that of others supports it.”

Driving home late the next night, I caught an interview with literary critic Northrop Frye on the radio. It’s interesting how my mindset from the farm tuned me in to catch this thought from him:

“I detest arguments because you’re going to lose any argument with an ideologue because you can only argue on the basis of a counter-ideology and I’m not doing that.  […] The actual technique of argumentative writing is something I avoid as far as possible because when you argue you are selecting points to emphasize and there can never be anything definitively right or wrong about an emphasis, it’s simply a choice among possibilities, and consequently an argument is always a half truth.”

 No arguing. No debate. No Science A versus Science B. No Kumbaya around the campfire. You just stand in the dark woods and choose the outcome you want.


3 responses

  1. Such deep thoughts from the deep dark woods Grant. I so feel the same as Mr. Frye. Ideology vs counter-ideology just keeps both ideologues stuck in their ideals. I get so frustrated watching the news/talk shows when that happens that I just switch the channel over to Swamp People.

    Pesticides, GMOs, Natural, Organic. I believe everything has it’s place in agriculture. All of it must be used responsibly and continued research must continue on everything. But we must also learn to accept the research and monitor ideology.

    After your last blog, I took the statement about livestock not eating the GMO crops and about the microbes not recognizing the GMO residue to a friend who has a PhD in plant genetics to ask him if he had ever seen any research that would confirm or refute these statements. He gave me an emphatic yes that millions of dollars and years of research confirm that livestock can’t and don’t differentiate between GMO and non GMO crops and also that microbes recognize and break down all organic matter. By personal experience, our cattle will break the fence down to get to the GMO corn in the neighbors garden leaving the plain old bermuda grass far behind.

    So I weigh my data. A chef who has some ideas or a scholar who has research. A pile of corn that their cow won’t eat or a garden of corn my cows will. We wind up back at the same place we started. Still asking questions and questioning the answers.

    July 17, 2012 at 9:38 am

  2. Another good post to make one think Grant. I cant help but to question why science would be shunned just because one can simply rely on experience. Just because we have always done something a certain way does not mean that we cant learn from others as well as science to improve for tomorrow. At first that last sentence may look like I am saying that if science supports that one method works then everyone should except it, but thats not what I am implying at all, one still has to stay true to their beliefs as well as provide the products their customers are seeking.

    Science can help determine what works best on each individual farm and prove or disprove hypothesis’s that we have come to rely on about our farms in the past. Without conducting trials and experiments while growing our crops and even cooking our food it is hard to tell what the reason was for better or worse results. That said, science is just part of the equation as farming, like cooking is also an art and when we rely on to much science behind the art of farming it can become boring, stagnant and undesirable for the marketplace.

    July 20, 2012 at 1:10 pm

  3. Pingback: It Takes A Village To Save Our Heirlooms | My Foodshed

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