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June 2009 Archives

Big Momma's

Our friends Matt and Elizabeth from Shickley, Nebraska said that if we were going through Omaha on our way to Chicago, we should really consider stopping at Big Mama's Kitchen. Matt gave us a business card he'd been keeping in his wallet for just such a recommendation. And we're glad Elizabeth gave us very specific instructions for finding the restaurant once we arrived at the Turning Point Campus on the north side of the city. Formerly a school for the deaf, the campus is now home to a number of Christian community development ministries. Tucked away in the old cafeteria is an incredible soul food restaurant.

Big Mama is Patricia Barron, whom Matt and Elizabeth know from her involvement in the Mennonite Church Conference that encompasses their region. Just a year-and-a-half old, Big Mama's Kitchen has already been featured on the Food Network. And for as many people who seemed to find its obscure location on the Saturday afternoon we were there, word of mouth must be working in the restaurant's favor.

We were glad Pat was able to escape from her busy kitchen to chat with us for a bit. One of her primary values is making good food for people from scratch, the way she experienced cooking as a child. When food is made to order, it takes time and time gives eaters the opportunity to sit around the table and talk. Pat also tries to use local, organic ingredients when she can because our bodies weren't made to take in all the garbage that comes along with highly processed foods. Some of her greens come from City Sprouts, an urban gardening project in Omaha, while others come from a woman who grows them hydroponically in Iowa.

A short sentence on the restaurant's web site seems to sum up her approach: "Peace begins when the hungry are fed." I would say that Pat seeks to feed more than just physical hunger. Matt and Elizabeth mentioned that she tries to hire people who don't, for whatever reason, have any work history, allowing them to develop skills and a resume.

But of course, satisfying physical hunger with good food is still one of Big Mama's primary specialties. We had her famous oven fried chicken with cornbread, macaroni and cheese, greens and sweet potato pudding with a piece of sweet potato cheesecake for the road. Yummmmm.

Flatland Farm

Rob and I owe a large portion of the credit for inspiring the food tour to Matt and Elizabeth Troyer-Miller. Friends whom Rob met during his time at Goshen College, Matt and Elizabeth joined three others last summer in traveling around the region for the Central Plains Mennonite Conference. The mission of their tour, through conversation and worship, was to reinvigorate congregations in their practice of the church's Christ-centered peace ethic.

Given their inspiration for the tour and their blossoming interest in food production, it seemed appropriate to make our way out to visit Matt and Elizabeth in Shickley, Nebraska. They moved to Shickley, Matt's hometown which is located about an hour and a half from Lincoln, after their tour last year. After years away, Shickley still feels like home to Matt. While Elizabeth has had a harder time adjusting, she's made good connections with people, animals and land. In addition to their Pomeranian named Patmos, the small Troyer-Miller homestead two blocks from downtown is home to about 30 chickens, some purchased and some inherited from a local school project. A local family helped slaughter one batch of birds and the meat the Troyer-Millers eat is mostly very-local chicken raised in their backyard.

Flatland Farm 2In spite of never having gardened before, Matt and Elizabeth have also started several beds with onions, potatoes, herbs, tomatoes, leeks, peas, peppers and many other kinds of produce. A large portion of their garden is on the property of their 93-year-old next-door neighbor, Ethel, whose yard also contains perennial patches of asparagus, rhubarb and berries. Their friend Kate, in town between college and a Mennonite Voluntary Service assignment, helps out with the garden as well. In addition to eating and freezing what they grow, Elizabeth and Kate sell produce and home-baked goods at the farmer's market in York on Thursday evenings.

Another source of food for their household has been the small grocery store where Elizabeth works. When produce starts to look less than saleable or arrives damaged, she rescues it before it ends up in the dumpster, from a flat of strawberries to a bunch of red peppers that were over-ordered.

Members of Salem Mennonite Church, located outside of Shickley in the midst of cornfields, the Troyer-Millers understand their food habits as part of their quiet witness to a simple, stewardly way of life that maintains a connection to the land and their community. Matt articulates their philosophy this way:

One thing that we're aware of is that we're in the heart of agribusiness and there are a lot of people--a lot of really good friends--who make their livelihood and whose identity is wrapped up in farming. And farming in this area is very commercial, it's big. You either do one thing and you get big or you aren't a farmer anymore. While [Elizabeth and I] don't necessarily...talk a whole lot about why we're doing what we're doing or the choice not to use pesticides or some of those things, ...I think it's obvious that we're doing things differently. I think it's a way of being prophetic, but not being a jerk about it. Because if you're just yelling at people and just telling them what you're doing, but you don't really love them, then you're just kind of being an asshole. But if you don't necessarily rub it in people's faces and you're doing it in a way that opens doors, then it's a different way.

Matt and Elizabeth's witness is bearing fruit literally and figuratively. About 30 people attended the food and storytelling workshop we did at Salem Mennonite Church--a big deal in a town of 360. A mother of three teen-agers marveled several times at their influence, especially on the youth in the church. A couple of teen-agers even came to the workshop without their parents, just because they were interested in the topic. Seems like good seeds are being planted all around in Shickley, Nebraska.

For several years now, Rob and I have been involved with the Three Rivers Sustainable Food Group (or just the Food Group for short). Our friend Karla started the project as part of her doctoral work in spirituality and sustainability and it's continued as a point of connection for sharing meals, local food resources and advocacy concerns.

One of the group's advocacy projects over the past couple of years has been encouraging legislation for a cottage industry law in Michigan. Cottage industry laws, like those already in place in Ohio and other states, allow people to prepare foods in their home kitchens for sale up to a certain amount of income every year.

While we were in Shickley, Nebraska last week, we got to see a cottage industry law at work, as our friends Elizabeth and Kate prepared homemade breads, muffins, pies and granola bars to sell at the farmer's market in York. They baked, printed labels, created attractive displays and prepared some of the produce from their large backyard garden for sale. As a cottage industry, they're required to display a sign that specifies that their baked goods were not made in a licensed kitchen, but that didn't seem to stop the person who wanted six of each kind of granola bar.

I'm a big fan of cottage industry laws. As Kate and Elizabeth attempted to work out post-college summer income in a small town with cleaning, mowing and grocery store jobs, being able to bake good food to sell at the farmer's market seemed to give them a different kind of delight and sense of creativity and agency. For such micro-enterprise entrepreneurs, cottage industry laws mean that if they can find a market for quality, home-baked goods, there's an instant source of income.

And for eaters, in an age when "food security" is driving food sources toward bigger, slicker, more processed, less humanized operations, being able to buy something at the farmer's market that was made from whole ingredients in someone's kitchen is a refreshing alternative. All around, cottage industry laws seem to create space for good relationships, good work and good food.


Kate & Elizabeth's Chewy Granola Bars

Adapted from Mennonite Country-Style Recipes & Kitchen Secrets by Esther H. Shank

1/2 c. brown sugar
2/3 c. peanut butter
1/2 c. light corn syrup or honey
1/2 c. butter, melted
2 tsp. vanilla

Mix together until well blended. Stir in:

3 c. quick oatmeal.
1/2 c. coconut
1/2 c. sunflower nuts
1/2 c. raisins or dried cranberries
1/3 c. wheat germ
2 Tbsp. flax seeds
1 c. chocolate or butterscotch chips

Press mixture into a greased 9 x 13 pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, or until lightly browned. Cool completely. Cut into 24 bars.

One of the things that's accompanied us these 1,300 miles so far is a crate of food-related resources, including two cookbooks created by the Mennonite Central Committee. One is Extending the Table, featuring recipes from around the world and stories to connect cooks to other cultures in meaningful ways. Another that we have with us is Simply in Season, which organizes recipes according to vegetables that are in season simultaneously. Simply in Season has been getting rave reviews by everyone we know who owns it.

The inaugural collection in the MCC series was More With Less, which we don't have in our crate because we don't own it, though we really should. Released in 1976, More With Less has been hugely influential for people of faith who seek to cook simple, healthy dishes not just for health reasons, but for reasons of Christian stewardship. We've heard from many folks who refer to their tattered 30-year-old copy or have bought a second copy because the original was falling apart from so much use. It's amazing how the creation of these three cookbooks, beginning with More With Less, has proven such a subtle, powerful act of culture making. Blessings, stories and tips help contextualize a way of cooking that values a fully formed sense of justice, offering both an outlet for and a means of shaping good cooking. I think it would be great to see more cookbooks from churches, Christian schools and other faith-based groups reflecting the holistic Christian consciousness of the MCC cookbooks, as opposed to just random collections of easy, overly processed foods.

If you don't have these cookbooks yet, I'd highly recommend them. They make wonderful wedding, graduation and housewarming gifts as well. You can purchase them online or at your favorite local fair trade or independent bookstore. By way of whetting your appetite, here's one of my new favorites from Simply in Season that I made this afternoon for our dinner tonight. Admittedly, it's slightly out of season, as this one is from the winter section, but in Grand Rapids, we can still buy Michigan apples from last fall at our local grocery store.


Apple Lentil Salad

  • 1 c. lentils
Soak 15 minutes in hot water.

 

  • 1/4 c. olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp. curry powder
  • 1 tsp. salt
In large sauce pan, heat olive oil. Add salt and curry powder and heat until bubbly. Drain lentils, add to saucepan, and fry briefly.

 

  • 2 c. water
Add and cook until absorbed (adding more water if needed to cook lentils until tender), about 20 minutes. Drain any excess water. Cool.

 

  • 2 tart apples (cored and diced)
  • 1/4 c. lemon juice or cider vinegar
Combine to prevent browning. Mix with cooled lentils.

 

  • 2 potatoes (cooked, cooled, peeled and chopped)
  • 1/2 - 1 small onion (thinly sliced)
  • handful of fresh or frozen parsley (chopped)
Mix in with salt to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.

 

My notes:
  • Leave the extra liquid in the lentils when done cooking, which makes the salad a little more saucy and eliminates the need for extra salt at the end.
  • Definitely go with the cider vinegar.
  • Forego the potatoes to save a little time. Replace their bulk with things like fresh, chopped asparagus, zucchini or summer squash depending on the time of year.
  • Instead of or in addition to the parsley, use a handful of fresh cilantro.
  • Can substitute green onions for white or yellow.

Nebraska sunset

With a population of 360, Shickley is one of many tiny towns dotting the Nebraska prairie. As Rob and I were driving in on Wednesday evening, we could see a storm approaching for over an hour across the vastness of the plains. We arrived at the home of our friends Matt and Elizabeth just after dark as they were about to walk the dog. Only two blocks from downtown, their house is at what would be considered the northeast edge of town.

The next morning, we walked to visit Elizabeth at the small grocery store where she works. One of her co-workers informed us that the best place to grab lunch would be a few doors down at Dawg's, a classic small town breakfast-and-lunch diner. He recommended the daily special.

Dawg's

Though we arrived just after noon, the lunch special of fried chicken, hash brown casserole and creamed peas was already sold out to the number of sun-tanned farmers who filled the tables, drinking glass after glass of lemonade and iced tea to replenish their energy for a 90-degree-plus afternoon in the fields. In fact, the tables were so full, that it took the only waitress in the place about a half hour to even come over and take our order. We were hungry, but otherwise not in a hurry, so it was pleasant to sit and see the local culture unfold. We watched with curiosity as a woman who had apparently come in for lunch realized how backed up the service was and started clearing tables.

On sharing this detail later with Matt and Elizabeth, Matt informed us that it's part of the character of Dawg's that people pitch in to help. In fact, most mornings, people take turns grabbing the coffee pot and re-filling mugs around the restaurant. And typically, it's the white collar folks in the room who pour for the farmers.

Butler's

As often happens with tours of this sort, we packed our schedule extremely full--too full, perhaps. So when a particular stop didn't work out during the second week of our big Midwest leg, it was actually quite a relief to sit down in a coffee shop for a few hours and catch up on blog posts.

When Rob and I attended Dordt College in 1997-1999, there wasn't really a great coffee shop in town. There was one that was okay, and there was a better one across the cornfields in Orange City, but we desired a good place close to home. Thankfully, now there's Butler's Café & Coffee.

We met with some folks at Butler's for an interview on Tuesday and Wednesday, we were there over the lunch hour(s) making use of their wi-fi and air conditioning. The staff was really friendly and the space was cool and welcoming, though with a gas fireplace, easily convertible to the warm welcome appropriate to Iowa winters. A huge bookshelf in the center of the space had probably a couple hundred volumes for lending. The lunch options were well made with whole, healthy ingredients, though the coffee could have been better. I don't think I would have chosen to locate in a strip mall, but in Sioux Center, even a strip mall is centrally located, making it easily walkable. All in all, Butler's was a great place to relax and work.

Harriet Kattenberg

In the course of planning the first leg of the tour, Dan Perkins suggested I get in touch with the Kattenbergs at Seed Time & Harvest, a certified organic CSA and market garden in Hull, Iowa. While Dan was at Dordt College, he had worked at the farm, one of the many students who have participated in seeding, transplanting, weeding and other labor-intensive chores over the past several years.

We're glad we followed up and grateful that Harriet Kattenberg agreed to meet with us in the middle of a very busy week. Earlier that morning, a group of about 20 elementary school students had been on the farm learning how to enjoy sauteed radishes and picking vegetables to bring home as part of a program that's teaching them to delight in healthy foods and be young ambassadors to their families. After a storm system blew through, necessitating the children and the hay wagon covered in seedlings to be shuffled indoors, the afternoon was shaping up beautifully by the time we arrived.

Seed Time & Harvest

Harriet and her husband Henry bought their farm, which is surrounded on three sides by huge corn and soybean farms, in 1983. The very day they took possession, the weed commissioner (yes, there is such a thing) was on their case to clean up the neglected land where thistles had grown so big the stems were the size of your wrist. Having jumped in without any equipment to clear the land, they finally found someone to loan them some machinery and they've been cultivating and improving their land ever since. Out of the ten acres, about five are cultivated in produce and flowers. The Kattenbergs' married daughter maintains a cut flower business from the property and Seed Time & Harvest serves 80 families with CSA shares, in addition to having enough additional produce to sell at the farmer's market in Sioux Falls on Saturdays.

Harriet's emphasis as a grower is on being able to offer produce that is certified organic and nutrient dense, fertilizing with sea minerals and rock dust. Like many of the farmers we've spoken with, she recognizes that "certified organic" is only useful as a label as long as consumers demand it. As a term owned by the government, "organic" sets minimal standards that huge operations can achieve, while smaller farms like Seed Time & Harvest and Kinnikinnick Farm go far beyond the basics dictated by certification to maintain a more healthful balance on their land and in their products.

For Harriet, her efforts in the dirt and heat are driven by something that's simply in her blood. She grew up in a local farming family and, while her mother always gave the kids the easiest tasks when it came to harvesting and preserving, she found herself drawn to the hard, but rewarding work of cultivation. While her mother was reading magazines like Organic Gardening, her dad read professional magazines from the farming industry, and always practiced the latest methods of agriculture for the family corn operation. After her dad had health issues, however, Harriet's parents moved to Washington state and their eating habits changed as they both started responding to common reading material about the best foods for maintaining health.

In addition to the food and farming inclinations in her family line, Harriet finds that farming is meaningful work for expressing her faith in God and responsibility to creation:

I feel the Creator gave us a beautiful earth and we have really poisoned it. And that's not very comforting, to have poisoned it to the point where we're worried about water--good, clean water. Streams are dirty, the ground source water has chemicals in it, there are medicines coming back through water. It's just like, why is man so ugly? Why have we done these ugly things to such a beautiful creation? So you try to walk as gently as possible and treat the land as gently as possible.

I got the sense that her motivation comes from a place of deep sorrow as well as deep joy. Toward the end of our tour, we stood at the edge of a bed where five of the summer's eight college-aged employees were weeding rows of garlic that wafted around on the wind. Beyond Seed Time & Harvest's vegetable gardens and greenhouses stretched fields of corn and soybeans, as well as dairy farms and hog confinements as far as the eye could see. One farmer we had spoken with earlier described this as the prettiest time of year, with the fields in deep green, as peaceful and expansive as the ocean. I asked Harriet if she saw, in this vista from the farm, just a sad and broken world or a beautiful world. She paused briefly. "It's still beautiful," she said. "The land has a remarkable ability to heal itself."

On the way out, we passed the apple trees, which are certified organic, though Harriet is still fighting the worm battle. As we parted, she pointed out an oriole flitting around the orchard. Birds and butterflies and bees--they're all signs of a healthy ecosystem, indicators of land that, in partnership with humans and animals, is indeed healing itself.

Cornucopia Farm
Photo of Janna Wesselius at the Sioux City market (borrowed from their blog).

After a long drive from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, to Sioux Center, Iowa, we were refreshed in body and spirit by a good visit with John and Janna Wesselius at Cornucopia Farm, a new-ish CSA and market garden in the middle of big ag country.

After several years in southern Ontario, the Wesselius family moved to Sioux Center, where Janna grew up, in order to embrace better job opportunities and natural beauty. They lived in town at first, but were propelled to the country by their growing garden. Today, they and their four daughters manage nine acres of vegetables, heritage breed chickens, cows and very shortly: pigs. Our tour of the various beds and buildings around the property was a tour of constant creativity, innovation, imagination, hard work, collaboration and joy.

The Wesselius family belongs to First Christian Reformed Church and sees their farm project as a natural expression of their faith. Our short time with John revealed his place in a strong and growing line of Christian farmer philosophers, many of whom are returning to the land after or alongside other professions (John sells school supplies in a large regional territory). John referenced Joel Salatin several times as a primary influence. Salatin is featured in Michael Pollan's infuential book The Omnivore's Dilemma, as well as in a new film called FRESH. Salatin's Polyface Farm in Virginia is "in the redemption business" and John highly recommended Salatin's book Everything I Want to Do is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front. Like many farmers we've met on the road, John echoed the mantra, "I just want to be left alone." Food safety and land use regulations directed toward large-scale food production are making things more and more difficult for small family farms, where direct relationship actually mediates many of the problems the government is trying to address through complicated legislation.

Together, John and Janna nourish their family with good food that has been grown in partnership with God's creation, but they're invitational as well. They serve 21 families with CSA shares, offering a small produce stand at Central Park in Sioux Center alongside their Tuesday morning pick-ups. They participate in farmer's markets in Sioux City and Sioux Falls, as well, carefully tracking their inputs in terms of infrastructure, supplies and labor hours to set prices that reflect the careful, hand-cultivated nature of their products. Janna also enjoys inviting groups of students from Dordt College over for dinner so they can learn about faithful food production and preparation experientially.

We finished our evening with the Wesselius family over vanilla ice cream topped with fresh strawberries from the garden--experiential learning, indeed.

For more photos of Cornucopia Farm and other stops on the Eat Well Food Tour, check out the tour Flickr page.

The relatively new Creation Tenders group at Covenant Christian Reformed Church in Sioux Center, Iowa, has been doing some wonderful work for creation care, from collecting electronics for recycling (inspiring a new city-wide program?) to developing a Creation Care Day Camp curriculum for kids. Covenant also has a table at church during the growing season where people can share excess produce from their gardens, which has been very popular, even early in the season.

Community Garden Partnership

Another project has been a community garden in collaboration with Christ Community Evangelical Free Church. The garden, located in a trailer park on vacant lots owned by Habitat for Humanity, has 18 plots, about half of which are cultivated by Latino families who live in the park. The partnership between Christ Community and Covenant is a great example of the Spirit moving to inspire creativity across denominations, as the Covenant group showed up one day to several plots that had been mysteriously tilled, only to find out that Christ Community had been pursuing the exact same idea through other channels. Habitat the city arts and recreation community both chipped in to provide water access.

We've heard people at several churches on the tour reflecting on how much land their churches have that could be used for community gardens, which are beneficial on so many levels. They provide an opportunity for people from various backgrounds to come together in one place, inevitably inspiring conversations. They provide a wonderful space for teaching children about stewardship of creation. They provide food for church and community members. They stand as a beautiful, living metaphor for the work of soil preparation and seed planting that happens within the church. So we say, if you're considering starting a community garden at your church or on other land in your neighborhood, go for it!

Yesterday, we had the opportunity to talk with Bruce Dooyema of Center Fresh Egg Farm in Sioux Center, Iowa. With 5.5 million laying hens, Center Fresh is #14 on the United Egg Producers' rankings of just under 300 members--quite a different style of operation than the heritage breeds in chicken tractors that we've been seeing elsewhere on the tour. It was good to sit down face-to-face with someone who often gets ironically dehumanized by folks in various food movements. Though I wouldn't say we were converted to the necessity of such large-scale operations in feeding the world, we were grateful for the civil dialogue.

Sioux County contains the most productive agricultural land in the state of Iowa, primarily due to multiple large hog, cattle, chicken, corn and soybean operations. Bruce, and his pastor John Lee from Bethel Christian Reformed Church, emphasized the desire of Iowa farmers not just to revel in local success, but to contribute to global issues like hunger and unemployment through overseas partnerships. Working with Partners Worldwide, Bruce and his brothers are involved in a project to start an egg-laying operation in Mozambique. Other area farmers and churches are involved with Partners Worldwide in a Farmer-to-Farmer project:

Because many in Nicaragua are not privileged to own their own land they are forced to rent land or work for larger farmers. Farmers in Iowa understand the importance of owning land and the stability and security that comes with it. As a result, they started a Farmer-to-Farmer partnership and are purchasing large tracts of land in rural Nicaragua, subdividing it, and selling it to landless farmers. By addressing the problem of farmers with "no land and no capital," the partnership has grown to 54 thriving farms on 260 acres. Now, the farmers are growing high value crops, exporting coffee, have put in water systems for their communities and are sending their children to school. Each year for the past four years the Iowa farmers have returned to work along side these new land owners, encouraging them in their shared language--a mutual love for the land.

Though we still see a need for collective discernment and imagination in farming and eating congregations alike in this rural area, the pervasive consciousness of abundance and global justice is a hopeful sign of more good things to come out of Sioux County. Pastor John Lee's efforts in the community are also a sign of hope. Having grown up in a farming family in northern Michigan and served for three years in Nicaragua, Pastor John brings a unique ability for building bridges and challenging both eaters and farmers to deeper understanding of how theology, business and agriculture are interconnected.

John Scherer

Rob and I met John during our first year working at Calvin College. He was one of the sophomore students in our cultural discerner group, studying the interrelatedness of theology, philosophy and popular culture. Since then, he's become a good friend and we've enjoyed many late night conversations about every corner of life.

We've watched with interest as he graduated this year with a degree in philosophy and took up an internship on Kinnikinnick Farm in northern Illinois. He graciously received us in the course of the food tour to show us around the farm and engage in a fascinating conversation with Farmer Dave (David Cleverdon).

Kinnikinnick FarmDave and Susan moved to Kinnikinnick Farm in 1992, combining the desire to have a neutral space for a blended family and continue growing good food, which had begun in a backyard garden. Dave, in his 50s at the time, had taken a wandering path to the farm through theology, law and politics--not unusual, he says, for many of today's small-scale market gardeners, who didn't grow up in farming families, but decide to take their food concerns seriously by diving into the field. Another trend Dave sees is that chefs are increasingly interested in purchasing local produce and using unusual cuts of meat, often buying whole animals, which allows them to combine a new level of challenge with better flavor and personal economic and environmental values.

Located right down the road from the (in)famous Angelic Organics (see The Real Dirt on Farmer John), Kinnikinnick primarily sells at farmer's markets in Evanston and Chicago, as well as to Chicago-area chefs. In an effort toward financial viability, the next phase of Kinnikinnick's growth is to become part of the growing eco-tourism movement in partnership with Feather Down Farm Days. John notes that the farm has become a good gathering place for Dave and Susan's extended community of friends. In fact, two of them were on the farm the day we were there, helping build a few new chicken tractors, which allow mobile grass grazing for the farm's hens.

About a month into his internship at this point, John took some time out of one of his exhausted evenings to reflect on some questions about his experiences so far.


Who or what has influenced your interest in the sources of our food?
I read folks like Wendell Berry, Bill McKibben and, of all people, Richard Rorty. My career as a philosopher at Calvin and my penchant for criticism, I think, has led me to wander off on my own and figure out how food and economy work--separately and in tandem--what it is, exactly, we put in our bodies and how those things hang together in the broadest possible sense. Spending a life living into such questions seems to me a good way to spend my time.

You graduated in May with a degree in philosophy from Calvin College. How did that degree prepare you for work on a farm? In what ways do you hope to apply your studies in philosophy and other areas of a liberal arts education to working with the land?
Sustainable agriculture, I am beginning to say, is a "worldview laden" endeavor. All of one's history and outlook are operative in making the decision to live off the grid, for instance, or farm without chemicals. Anyone really serious about the land and our relationship to it can't, so far as I can tell, take liberal arts preparation too lightly. The further we probe in to the various dimensions of the natural world, the more unprepared we feel to make sense of it all. Or at least that's the hope. Calvin is in a longstanding Christian tradition that isn't afraid of that prospect. As long as it is impossible to divorce the question of what it is we ought to do from the question of who we are, I think philosophy and agriculture work quite splendidly together.

What have you been gleaning from your experiences on the farm so far?
There is a dislocation that occurs in the modern environment. Most often we have a hard time explaining where we are. Sure we know which city we might be in. We're pretty good at figuring out where we are in relation to other "destinations" as well. But a new sensitivity has emerged in my daily life that requires me to really know where I am. I need to know the soil structure of our north beds, because if we lime those this year, the calcium dispersed will act for over three years on account of the clay soil. Further west, and towards the front of the property, it's a different story. Grazing our chickens so that their rich nitrogenous waste acts in accord with future growing space is priority number one. And when storm systems move in I know they are the most volatile when they travel east. At that point, it's a scramble to get inside and review the instructions on how to shock a well until the rain stops. But the precipitation can stay for as long as it likes. There are few things more beneficial than a rich water table. It keeps this place alive.

How would you describe your ideal vision for your life ten years from now?
When you're sunburned and sore in late June, idealities no longer seem terribly appealing. It's not that I would prefer to live without them. Rather, I've learned to move with the environment, grow where I am planted and hope that I can muster enough fortitude to stay put long enough to catalog sorrows and joys. No vision is ideal. Rather, I think the ideal is in living brutally. I'd like to live where I work in the future and eat locally and organically, sure. But I'd also like to be an idealist, of sorts, about being real. I want enough strength to waver rarely but also enough courage to rest from to hard work of making the Kingdom a reality here and now. Such is the tension I'll be spending the rest of my life holding and reshaping.

mug.jpgI spent more hours than I should have looking for a new travel coffee mug when the one I'd had for years finally succumbed. I had a lot of criteria: a mug that would seal well enough not to leak in my bag and wasn't made of plastic, a mug that was fairly traded or made in the U.S. and at a price that wouldn't break the bank. Ha. I never did find the perfect option in all of my searching, so one day, as I got ready for work, I took an old hole-y sock, cut off the top and put it on a plain old canning jar--voila! A travel mug that's wonderfully reusable and replaceable. Another benefit of this mug is that it's easy to send one filled with hot coffee or tea or any other beverage along with our overnight guests when they have to leave first thing in the morning.

At a service station in Wisconsin today, I was intrigued by a logo and slogan proclaiming, "SQUAWKERS(R): WHERE THE CHICKEN ALWAYS COMES FIRST.(R)"

"Could it really be?" I thought. "A brand that's trying to bring ethically raised meat into the mainstream?" Not so much, at least from what I can discern over at the Squawkers (R) web site. Turns out what's meant by "chicken" is not the animal, nor even the meat, but it must be new corporate slang for: MONEY! Apparently, the brand simply serves as a way to move more prepared foods out the door. "Why branding?" you ask. Well...

Over the weekend in Sheboygan, we stayed with our friends Chris and Amy Nonhof, along with their children Alex, Sam and Chloe. We had a wonderful time visiting with them and exploring what their region of Wisconsin has to offer in the way of locally produced food. The Nonhofs are members of Oostburg Christian Reformed Church in a small hamlet just south of Sheboygan.

One of the things Oostburg CRC has organized to help address hunger issues in their area is a monthly Harvest Outreach Sunday. Basically, they realized that food pantries really struggle after the boom months of November and December when many congregations remember the hungry alongside their holiday feasting. In response, Oostburg CRC holds a food drive on the first Sunday of every month. The Sunday before, there's an announcement about what the pantry needs and the following Sunday, the congregation responds with gifts out of their abundance.

Chris and Amy, who are members of a local CSA and maintain a small back yard garden, hope to figure out this year how they can contribute fresh produce for the food pantry.

Holly Bechiri has a great post over at CRC Justice Seekers called "Foraging in the middle of miniscrapers" in which she reflects about a recent berry-picking excursion in the middle of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

It's been interesting along our tour to talk to people about all of the space in the middle of urban and suburban areas that goes uncultivated (or, in Holly's story, "wild" food that goes unnoticed). Tuttle Farm is a great example of the possibilities for growing food on an average suburban lot. And two of the churches we've visited have discussed what it might look like to use some of the land around their buildings for community gardens.

What might it look like if we all attempted to grow a bit of the food we eat on land we steward?

Natascha MalloyOn Saturday afternoon, Rob and I wandered around the Sheboygan farmer's market with a video camera, interviewing several folks about how their values influence their food choices. People were at the market for a variety of reasons; physical health, animal ethics, community, environmental justice and flavor all made the collective list. Some had been shopping farmer's markets for years, while others were just starting out. One woman we talked to had just read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and was trying to put what she'd learned into practice. Another woman expressed her desire to integrate healthy eating with the practice of yoga and her faith as a member of a local Catholic church.

One very interesting quality of the Sheboygan farmer's market is that approximately three-quarters of the sellers come out of the local Laotian community. After the Vietnam War, many Hmong people who had sided with U.S. forces fled their country as refugees and ended up in southeastern Wisconsin. In fact, the first Hmong Christian Reformed Church is located in Sheboygan and many local CRC congregations financially support the Hmong church's outreach to the immigrant community. Our best guess as to the high percentage of Hmong farmers at the market is that the refugees started growing traditional foods they couldn't find in Wisconsin supermarkets in the 70s and with the resurgence of farmer's markets, they've found a money-making outlet that intersects with their agricultural tradition.

The longest, most in-depth conversation we had at the market on Saturday was with Natasha Molloy, who was at a corner booth selling bread. Her husband Dean bakes artisan sourdough loaves loaded with seeds, nuts and other organic, healthful ingredients, while Natasha helps with other aspects of their business, called RealBread. She and Dean actually met at an ayurvedic institute where Dean was cooking. Today, in addition to raising two children and holding down other jobs, the Malloys run RealBread, selling at several area farmer's markets and maintaining a bread share program modeled on Community Supported Agriculture.

Born and raised in India, Natasha said that her upbringing taught her the values of eating a variety of foods and eating foods that take a lot of time to prepare. She and her family regularly attend a Unitarian church, while adhering to traditional principles of Veda, which is not a formal religion, but a way of life. Practices that emerge from this way of life include yoga, which aligns the body, mind and soul in preparation for long periods of meditation. Eating a wide variety of whole, organic foods is also a practice the Malloys take very seriously--seriously enough to start a business as a way of inviting others into more conscious, healthy living.

Even though we were coming to eating well from quite different angles, we found a lot of overlap in our desires for a healthy earth, creative preparation and loving stewardship of the body. I also appreciated her perspective on the interconnectedness of mind, body and soul, which I think we Christians sometimes tend to neglect in spite of Jesus' example and our understanding of our created nature. The gorp bread--with raisins and a variety of seeds and nuts--that we bought from Natasha was delicious and made a great addition to the snacks at the workshop we conducted the next evening at Calvin Christian Reformed Church in Sheboygan. In many ways, food is something that can unite diverse people in love and hospitality for conversation, encouragement and imagination.

One of the most common objections we hear when we start talking about making healthy, organic, locally grown and fair trade food choices is that it costs more money. Well, yes, it can. Sometimes, the family budget is stretched so thin that this is a legitimate reason to rely on the cheapest food available. Many times, however, our unwillingness to spend more money on better food is simply a reflection of our spending priorities--cable TV over fair trade coffee, for example. We all have to make these kinds of choices, many of them difficult with lots of angles.

I would encourage people making such choices to remember the idea that where our treasure is reflects where our hearts are. We also need to be aware of "externalized costs"--that is, sometimes the price we pay for an item doesn't reflect its true cost. In the case of coffee, when we pay less on our end, it usually means the person who harvested the coffee also got paid less than a living wage, in essence paying for our cheap coffee. In the case of cheap, processed foods, we may pay less out of pocket at the register, but more in the long run from the physical effects of ingesting more chemicals, fat, sugar and salt than we should.

Eating well on a budget doesn't just have to mean eating rice and beans for every meal (although rice and beans can be prepared in some incredibly delicious ways), but it does mean being more creative with our food preparation and finances. Here are some practical suggestions for eating good food without breaking the bank...


  • Learn how to cook. I can't emphasize enough how important it is to be skilled in the art of cooking. You don't have to be a gourmet chef, but you should be able to make creative, delicious meals from a variety of whole, inexpensive, staple ingredients, including using up all of your specialty ingredients like organic vegetables and meats.

  • Shop local farmer's markets and local grocery store sales. Contrary to prevalent opinion, farmer's markets are not more expensive and often are cheaper because of the direct market (meaning wholesalers and grocery stores don't have to get a cut). Supporting a locally-owned grocery store, especially in your neighborhood, means more of your limited dollars stick around to contribute to your local economy instead of lining corporate pocket who-knows-where.

  • Plan ahead and eat at home. You can save money on your grocery bills and make efficient use of what you have in the house if you know what you're going to make ahead of time, instead of running to the store or market multiple times or settling for more expensive prepared foods because you're pressed for time.

  • Get a farmer's permission to glean in local fields. Most rural areas have networks of people who are tapped into what grows in which fields and when. Spending some time to get educated about local agriculture and building relationships with farmers can really pay off in terms of lots of free food that you can eat, preserve, store or give away to people in need.

  • Grow some of your own food. This is a good supplementary option for people who have more time than money, as well as those who crave a couple of special luxury items that can be grown in the back yard for much cheaper. If you don't have room at your home or you've never gardened before, consider joining a community garden where you can enjoy company and free advice.

  • Eat less (and better) meat and dairy. Animal products should be chosen with special care, since they depend on the lives of creatures who depend on us. Rather than buying the cheapest eggs, milk, cheese, meat and other animal products, eat less of these items and find local sources you can trust. You'll be able to invest a little more in quality and save money overall to invest in other items like local organic produce.

  • Share meals. As the number of people around the table increases, the cost per person goes down. Math isn't my strong suit, so don't ask me how it works, but it does. The best setting for sharing meals regularly is a shared household, but you might also consider holding a weekly potluck with a couple of neighbors.

  • Barter with local farmers. Some Community Supported Agriculture farms already have a system for work shares, where you serve for a certain number of hours in exchange for all or part of your produce share. Other farmers might be open to the idea if you just ask.

  • Eat wild foods. Most of us have had the experience of stumbling on wild blackberries, but did you know you can eat most parts of a cattail? Or that garlic mustard is an invasive species that adds a great flavor to soups and salads? The more you know about wild foods, the more you can find free food growing almost anywhere you go.

  • Dive in dumpsters! Yep, you read that right and here's a great article about why a Christian might be into such an activity.

Obviously, not all of these options will appeal to all people. My point is that with some creativity, there are so many possibilities for eating well even if you don't have a lot of money to spare. Believe me: I speak from experience.

That said, even those of us with moderate income should never let our relative privilege blind us to reforming our food systems so that they benefit all people, not just the wealthy. What if kids from low-income, inner-city families learned how to grow and maintain urban gardens as a means of accessing fresh, free produce? What if you and a few neighbors organized canning festivals to preserve locally-grown tomatoes for the neighborhood food pantry? What if your church started a garden and sponsored a penny farmer's market once a week during the growing season for those who can't afford fresh foods? We shouldn't let any obstacle be an excuse to shut off our imaginations to the infinite possibilities for making good food accessible to all people.

A murmur rippled through the crowd perched on the tractor-drawn wagon. "That's Joe Leibham. In the red shirt. He's a state senator." As the wagon rounded the corner on the way from the parking field to the farm, Senator Leibham waved. Suddenly, I had a much better understanding of how the annual Dairy Breakfast functions in Wisconsin.

When we scheduled our stop in Sheboygan for the Eat Well Food Tour, we didn't realize we'd be there over Father's Day weekend. We also didn't realize we'd be in Sheboygan County on the weekend of the Dairy Breakfast, which draws thousands of people and moves from farm to farm each year, celebrating local agriculture throughout the state.

Community is a primary theme at the breakfast. Originally a means of connecting people with the sources of their food, the organizers maintain that goal by serving Wisconsin dairy products and hosting farm tours and other interactive events for families. While karaoke in the breakfast tent was an attempt to involve more folks in the morning's entertainment, the blaring music ironically inhibited conversation and was probably none too pleasant for the nearby cows, who were mostly massed in one corner as far away from the crowds as possible.

Another theme of the breakfast was abundance, as participants revel in the rich agricultural potential of the local region. The breakfast itself consisted of a huge helping of ham and cheese eggs, yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese cubes, bagels with cream cheese, donut holes, coffee and, of course, milk. The line between gluttony and feasting is pretty fine sometimes and I certainly can't make a call on that issue on behalf of everyone at the breakfast. I was mindful of a statistic I heard recently: the number of obese people in the world has just surpassed the number of malnourished people in the world, which begs the question of whether we in North America feast all too often.

Commerce is also a huge theme of the breakfast, in both positive and negative ways. As the current Alice in Dairyland suggested, buying food produced in the state helps maintain a healthy economy and support family farms. But I wasn't seeing much in the way of celebrating how eating local represents good stewardship of the earth by cutting down on transportation resources and encouraging seasonal habits. Pioneer had sponsored the paper plates and Ulta Genetics had branded the Styrofoam cups. Culver's was giving out custard for dessert (can you have dessert after breakfast?) in plastic cups with no recycling option available that I could see. (In case you're wondering, Rob and I brought our re-usable camp dishes along.)

Garrit and Muriel Ledeboer

Before we left, we had the opportunity to talk with Garrit and Muriel Ledeboer, the patriarch and matriarch of the family that runs the farm where this year's breakfast was held. A long-time member of First Reformed Church in Oostburg, Mrs. Ledeboer emphasized the family's dependence on God for everything, from sun to rain to good soil to healthy animals. The family has strived to honor the created rhythms of nature, as well as the rhythm of work and rest revealed at the very beginning of the Christian story. One year, she says, they even lost a crop because they didn't bring the hay in on a Sunday before it rained, but they trusted God to provide if they honored the Sabbath. Mrs. Ledeboer still cooks hearty breakfasts and lunches for the farm crew and sees that her children and grandchildren are increasingly conscious about the sources of their food.

I would have liked to talk to one of the Ledeboer sons before we left, but we had to get back to Sheboygan in time to make the farmer's market. My hope would be that the younger generation of this farming family would be able to further articulate how Christian faith distinguishes their specific farming practices, perhaps in contrast to other "faiths" that shape commercial agriculture today, including consumerism and rationalism, to the peril of the animals caught up in the system.

The Grand Rapids Press featured a story about the Eat Well Food Tour last weekend.

We have more photos of our adventures posted on our Flickr site. See the farms we've been touring and the growers we've been meeting!

Gary Lee Farms

This weekend in Sheboygan has been a smorgasbord of local goodies. There seems to be an awareness, at least in this part of Wisconsin, that eating locally is good for the state's business, good for our bodies and good for the earth.

Of course, it's not perfect. Eating too much locally crafted cheese or drinking too much locally brewed beer might stimulate the state economy, while clogging up, uh, certain other necessary functions. Also, we've seen very few enterprises that have it all together (like a local food celebration that produces tons of disposable food service waste). That said, at least the local options exist with active state support, unlike many other areas of the country, which I anticipate leads to less dependence on food from far-away states and countries.

I've already written about Field to Fork; we also enjoyed visiting Hops Haven Brew Haus, where you can purchase micro brews from the tap in half-gallon, re-usable jugs called growlers.

Breakfast on the Farm

Then, this morning, we headed out to the annual Sheboygan County Dairy Breakfast at the Gary Lee Farm, owned and operated by the Ledeboer family. Started in 1982, the breakfast was and is still a way of connecting people with the sources of their food. Since then, the breakfast has rotated to various farms, drawing thousands of people for a feast of Wisconsin specialties. They weren't kidding about it being a "dairy" breakfast: the menu included eggs with ham and cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese cubes, bagels with cream cheese, chocolate milk and even Culver's custard for dessert. In looking for information about the breakfast online, I stumbled on a listing at EatLocalEatDairy.com, which has a plethora of resources for eating closer to home.

And what's so great about eating local? What does it have to do with Christian faith? What we're hearing in interviews and informal conversations is a distinct regard for healthy, personal relationships as the foundation of a good food system. Cultivating those kinds of relationships with our food choices is congruous with other areas of our lives in which relationships matter: knowing if our neighbor is hungry and acting on a responsibility to help, wanting our selection of things like coffee and chocolate to help not hurt farmers around the world, hoping our children grow up with a healthy regard for our call to care for the earth's creatures. There's a recognition that caring for the health of one's own body is just a starting point; being healthy also involves right relationship, seeking others' welfare in conjunction with honoring ourselves as children of God.

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While visiting our friend John at Kinnikinnick Farm yesterday (more to come on that visit), the farmers recommended Stefano Viglietti's family of Italian restaurants in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. When we mentioned Stefano's to our friend Chris, who's hosting us in Sheboygan, his eyes lit up. Apparently, Stefano has quite a following in the area, with one of only a handful of U.S. restaurants certified by a Neopolitan pizza organization from Italy. We made the pilgrimage downtown to Field to Fork, the little grocery attached to the restaurants, to pick up some fresh, crusty bread to go with the lasagna Amy made for dinner and also grabbed some local chocolate milk and lady finger popcorn as treats. Field to Fork is one of those "I'll take one of everything" kinds of places with a delightful blend of international gourmet goods and locally-produced, organic goods like milk, cheese, produce and preserves. It reminds me of the importance of holding mindfulness of those who are hungry in tension with the abundance present in the creative, aesthetic delight of really good good.

On our way from Michigan to Indiana on the first day of the tour, Rob and I read through a couple of articles and several letters that appeared last year in The Banner, the magazine of the Christian Reformed Church. Rev. Leonard Vander Zee's "...Also Many Animals" explored Christian responsibility related to animals who are raised for dairy, egg and meat, sparking a slew of response letters, as well as an article by farmer Malcom DeKryger ("A Farmer's Perspective").

It seemed to us that what both of the article writers wanted, as well as many of the people who wrote in, was a closer, better relationship between eaters and the sources of their food. The detrimental effects of poor factory farming practices on animals and humans and land should certainly be concerning to all Christians. However, many farmers felt misrepresented by Rev. Vander Zee's article and continue to feel unfairly pigeonholed by the agendas of various conscious eating movements.

Our suspicion is that even if Rev. Vander Zee and Malcolm DeKryger sat down to talk about these issues over coffee, they'd still arrive at different conclusions. The defenses of factory farming in the Banner letters, while genuinely concerned with the welfare of the animals, seem to be representing a highly scientific approach to the lives of animals. I couldn't help but think of the world in Lois Lowry's The Giver as a human parallel to sanitized, climate-controlled hog confinements--it's a world that's safe, clean, orderly and predictable, and yet doesn't fully honor the created nature of the beings contained in it. So while there may be concern for the welfare of the animals all around, there may be differences of opinion on the best way to work out that concern. And yet, I think it's still worth face-to-face conversations, farm visits and other points of connection that help us see each other as thoughtful, caring people, rather than potential converts in the path of an agenda.

The Church seems uniquely positioned to help make these life-giving connections, most powerfully symbolized in communion as we share the same loaf and the same cup in remembrance of the most central story of our faith. My best hope is that such connections might lead to fruitful dialogue and creative, faithful collaboration on solutions that are life-giving for farmers, animals and eaters at all stages of production and consumption.

erin-tuttle.jpgBefore visiting Tuttle Farm on the tour, our interviews had been with folks who are (or plan to be) in farming as a business. While achieving some of the same benefits of commercial farming--raising a family close to the land, growing good food and so on--Tuttle Farm is a much different sort of project.

Located on an average sized lot in a subdivision in Aurora, Illinois, Tuttle Farm is a family experiment in suburban food production. Erin Tuttle, along with her parents and occasionally her two sisters, have been slowly transforming their turf grass to the extent that currently about half of the yard is now home to native plants, vegetables, chickens and bees. This year, they've made their first foray out of the fenced-in back yard and into the front, with a lovely little cluster of chard, kale and green onions gracing the corner.

Erin admits that they often get strange looks from their neighbors and they sometimes feel like the talk of the block, but their adjacent neighbor is really supportive and loves the four chickens, who each produce one to four eggs per day for the Tuttle family and their friends and neighbors. As the project has spilled into the front yard, they've even made some unexpected connections with new neighbors.

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The farm is definitely a family project and everyone has his or her specialty--gardening, cooking, caring for the chickens. Erin's mom has taken initiative with the two hives of bees, one Russian and one Italian, and they hope for their first yield of honey this year. In addition to being a source of satisfying work and good food for the family, Erin sees the project as educational beyond the bounds of their fence. She participated in area garden clubs and feels distinctly called to serve the suburbs with an imaginative vision for good food production. With ample land, much of it originally farm land, the suburbs are ripe for large edible gardens and a family's own crop can be supplemented by CSA shares and the burgeoning farmer's market movement.

For Erin, Tuttle Farm is more than just a hobby. It's a way to inspire and educate people about what's possible in an environment many have abandoned for its seeming lack of intentionality and vision. It's also a way of expressing some of the deepest values she holds as an Orthodox Christian:

I think one thing that is so important to me is just the idea of living within our limitations. I think that as Christians, we have a big God at the center of our faith who took on limitation to come and be with us. In the Orthodox church, we call Mary's womb "more spacious than the heavens" because even the heavens cannot contain God and yet God chose to be contained in a womb and then to come walk in this world of day and night, and warm and cold seasons, and hunger and thirst and tiredness and energy. And in doing that, God sanctified those limitations. I think living a life that's close to the land--and, again, even if we just know where our food is coming from--then we know that there are certain things that aren't available at certain times of the year and there are certain times weather inhibits what you can eat. And there are certain times that maybe people play a part and animals play a part and things outside of our control play a part and we therefore begin to know our limitations. I think that our goal then is to be able to rejoice in those limitations and live fully in them because I think that there are holy things and we become fully human when we walk in those things.

What beautiful connections! Thanks to Erin and the whole family of humans, animals and insects for welcoming us in to see their homegrown adventure in the midst of a busy time.

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I've written before about my fond childhood memories of Zandstra's Farm: roaming the acreage collecting vegetables for soup, building sod houses out of pallets and crates, making cups out of dried gourds, swimming in irrigation ditches and making mudslides through the onions. I couldn't help but feel a personal sense of loss in the nineties as the land along Indianapolis Boulevard in Highland, Indiana was gradually sold off until the entire area was taken over by housing and commercial developments.

Like many small family farms in the last quarter of the twentieth century, Zandstra's had to adapt to shifting trends in food and agriculture by making major changes in their operation. Today, the farm business is mostly in bedding plants, with large greenhouses less than a mile from the original farm and a location further south that still maintains about five acres in vegetables. We had the privilege of talking with Butch Zandstra, one of the brothers who currently own and operate the farm, about the history of the business and current cultural trends.

Like many Dutch immigrants around the turn of the century, Butch's grandfather quickly found factory work south of Chicago in Pullman, but as soon as he was able, he purchased a piece of land to tend. Founded in 1903, the Zandstra Brothers Farm served thousands of families with fresh produce over the years through the farm stand, u-pick and the market in Chicago. Butch noted that the family was especially attentive to growing vegetables that would appeal to local ethnic communities.

In 1978, Butch and his brother Nick bought out the farm from the rest of the family and change the name to Zandstra's Farm. Over the next couple of decades, the demands of the market shifted from fresh produce to bedding plants. Even though Butch still feels most at home among the vegetables, they followed the trend, which led to selling off the original farm. Butch isn't sentimental about the old property, but he admits that it made its way deep into his memory--where they planted certain crops and when, what weeds came up where, which fields tended to flood, all oriented to the path of the high tension wires and the sky blue Highland water tower.

The large majority of the Zandstra's Farm business is no longer in growing food for people, but the indelible mark of living from the land is on Butch's children, who are always glad to eat at home. He and his son Rob debate the nature of sustainability, often coming down on opposite sides, both theoretically and practically when it comes to the family farm. It matters, Butch says, whether your view of the world is geocentric, anthropocentric or theocentric. A theocentric view would indicate a kind of symbiotic harmony between land and people, use without abuse. What that looks like in particular is up for debate--the question of going organic, for example. Zandstra's Farm is not organic, but by understanding love of creation as a reflection of love for the Creator, the family has tried to live in harmony with the land. It's good theology and good business. Butch cites an example of how their crops are on a ten-year rotation in order to replenish the soil, whereas a fellow farmer in the area has a three-year rotation and sees the evidence in his yields. Zandstra's tomato plants have a very long season of production because of this rotation, while the other farmer needs to replant several times throughout the season in order to produce a substantial crop.

As a practitioner of agriculture, Butch doesn't come off as particularly defensive, but he does resist people's urge to blame farmers for poor eating habits that are contributing to health crises such as obesity and diabetes. The problem isn't corn syrup, he says, which is just a cheap sweetener, but it's overconsumption. We have access to more, cheap food than ever before in history, which is both positive and negative. It seems that both farmers and consumers are being adversely affected by the pressure to serve the market's insatiable craving for consumption. For example, advertisers help create a market for corn syrup to turn the wheels of consumption, consumers respond to the competition and farmers find themselves dependent on corn subsidies for growing a crop that's not even good for people to eat. There's a lot of complicity, but very few benefits. When we suggest that the ideal system might start with a collaborative, direct relationship between eaters and farmers, he is cautious but encouraging. He has seen a rising interest in locally grown food and from their five acres of vegetables, they sell produce at the Highland farmer's market.

What is the future of Zandstra's farm? Right now, the bedding plant business is thriving and they've put in new greenhouses and a paved parking lot. Butch and Nick have several years to go before retirement, but, even though several of their children have an intellectual interest in the family legacy, there is no one who is planning to take over the everyday operations of the farm.

We had lunch this past weekend with our friend Mary Lagerwey, who also participated in our tour at Perkins' Wholesome Harvest Farm and workshop in Demotte. She mentioned a creative new ministry that I just had to share about.

A member of Peace Christian Reformed Church in South Holland, Illinois, Mary is involved in something called Soul Food. Basically, people get together in the church kitchen for an evening to make a simple meal in a large batch. One week, it might be chicken soup and banana bread; another, chili and corn bread. The group divides the prepared food into individual servings in re-used containers, labels the containers and puts them in the church freezer. People in the church who know others in need of food or a gesture of care in a difficult time--or themselves are in need--are free to grab homemade meals from the freezer at any time.

I love how this project provides good, wholesome food for people who are hungry, sick or grieving, while also creating a community of friendship and creativity around the preparation of the food itself.

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The first official stop on the tour was Perkins' Wholesome Harvest Farm in Demotte, Indiana. Just last year, Dan and Julie Oudman-Perkins bought a 19-acre farm not very far from Julie's parents. Most of their time and energy so far has gone into renovating the farm house, where they hope to move soon with their not-yet-one-year-old son Harper.

Julie, who grew up in Demotte, said she'd never marry a farmer and she'd never move back to Indiana, though in the course of seeking to be faithful to the movement of the Spirit, she's done both. With Dan employed full time in the area of water quality, much of the work for the test garden has fallen to Julie and she's really enjoying the fruits of such labor, literally and figuratively, often with Harper on her back or "helping."

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On our tour of the property, we enjoyed fresh sugar snap peas and met Chaco, the Australian shepherd who guards the tender spring produce from woodchucks and deer. We also saw the beautiful old milk shed, which is a simple building that seems to have captured Dan and Julie's imaginations as they dream about what its potential might be. A bakery, perhaps? It's incredible how four walls and a roof can beckon creativity and possibility.

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The couple plans to start small next year with an organic CSA serving 10-20 area families with fresh, seasonal produce. They've begun the process for organic certification, even as they also attempt to heal the soil from years of highly intense farming that have stripped many of the nutrients. They've planted cover crops that can be turned back into the soil along with compost and manure to create a healthier medium for their vegetables.

After several years spent working for other farms, including Victory Acres CSA, the Oudman-Perkinses are relishing the opportunity to invest in a piece of land that may well represent their life's work. Dan, who grew up in Maine, was introduced to large-scale midwestern agriculture when he decided to attend Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, which is where he and Julie met. Explaining his interest in farming, Dan said,

[I became involved] more on the political side of things--taking an interest in what was happening with water quality, the side peripheral effects of raising food in an industrial way, what some of the negative consequences were that were beginning to show up from an environmental standpoint. So then I kind of came to the conclusion that if I'm going to talk to farmers, engage farmers and institute any sort of change, I have to know what the life is like; I have to at least be able to speak with some authority that isn't just educational--like, I'm a PhD or I have a Masters or something--something that's a little more direct. So I started doing apprenticeships and that's kind of where I got stuck.

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Toward the end of our interview and tour, Julie asked if we had dinner plans, leading to a spontaneous invitation to join the evening meal at the Oudman household, where Dan, Julie and Harper are living while their farm house is under renovation. We enjoyed great conversation, baby entertainment and tacos--with a side of fresh lettuce from the test garden, of course--before moving on for the first workshop of the tour at Bethel Christian Reformed Church in Demotte.

Thanks to Dan, Julie, Harper and the Oudman clan for their openness and hospitality! We look forward to seeing what grows at Perkins' Wholesome Harvest Farm and in the surrounding area in the coming years.

On Monday, I talked on the phone with a reporter from the Grand Rapids Press about the food tour and she asked what we'd be doing about the dreaded road food dilemma, especially on a tour about food. Attempting to balance idealism and realism in my answer, I said that if we hadn't packed our own food, we'd at least try to stop at a locally-owned business, rather than a chain, to support the local economies of the places we were passing through.

Well, Tuesday was our first chance to test that practice. We had to stop in Three Rivers on our way to our first food tour stop in Demotte, Indiana. Even though we live in Grand Rapids currently, we still have many responsibilities and ties in Three Rivers--including a fair trade store that we helped found and a budding building project for *culture is not optional. We ended up in Three Rivers in 2002 because my family has had a cottage there since the 70s and we plan to move back there in about a year. With three hours to do everything we needed to get done before leaving Michigan for two weeks, we were flying around town with no time to stop for lunch. Finally on the road to Demotte, we resisted the temptation to just stop at Wendy's (cheap, fast and predictable) and stopped instead at Tastee Twirl on Stone Lake in Cassopolis, Michigan.

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We've passed Tastee Twirl dozens and maybe hundreds of times on the route between the family cottage in Three Rivers and our hometowns in the south suburbs of Chicago, but I hadn't been there since I was very young. In fact, just being in the building, memories came flooding back of being there with my great grandma, which must have been when I was just three years old. Even after more than 25 years, the space looked exactly the way I remembered and I think I could even point out our table. It's amazing how eating in a place one time with loved people can embed a memory so deeply, as though it becomes a part of you through the food you take in.

The food was, well...what you'd expect from a roadside diner called Tastee Twirl. Bonus points go to the restaurant for using paper cups instead of styrofoam for their shakes and to the woman behind the counter for asking us if we'd like lids and a plastic bag, which helped cut down on trash, though I'm not sure that was their intent. But we definitely lost points for not bringing in the lidded Pyrex container we keep in our trunk and asking them to put our sandwiches in there instead of giant styrofoam boxes. It would have been a small action in the grand scheme of styrofoam hysteria, but every small action has a ripple effect, right? That's something the lake right next to Tastee Twirl should have reminded us of. I'm sure we'll have a chance to redeem ourselves soon.

Today is the last day of preparation before we head out on the first two-week leg of the Eat Well Food Tour. A friend just sent me a link to a great article that's really invigorating for me as to why we're doing this tour in the first place. The article, "Breaking Bread: When Churches Join the Good Food Movement," contains the following quote from Dr. Norman Wirzba:

How do we envision an economy in which the health of land and people together can be established? We need practices in which we can reestablish our relationship with the land. This is where church gardens are so important. To be in a garden is to learn that we need a new relationship with creation. It's where our own lives become a gift to be given to others. Gardens can be a powerful witness to the world for the church to be able to say, 'this is how you receive the world, this is how you receive each other, and this is how we share God's goodness. This is how we resist treating each other as commodities.'

As we've been spreading the word about the tour, we've been hearing about so many community garden projects happening at churches all over the U.S. and Canada--what an amazing way to express so many of the Church's deepest values! We look forward to exploring some specific projects more deeply throughout the summer, so stay tuned...

Wow! The past couple of weeks have been a whirlwind of preparation for the first two-week leg of the food tour. We have stops confirmed in Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska. If you haven't checked back lately, see the schedule for stops near you or folks you know and help spread the word.

I said to Rob the other day that it's kind of ironic to be eating hurried meals in front of my computer while organizing a food tour. Thankfully, however, we've still been able to invest significant time and energy into preparing some wonderful seasonal meals with our housemate and other guests. The other night, we hosted nine people in our dining room, including the couple with whom we split a farm share, for what will probably be our last asparagus meal of the season. The Michigan asparagus season, which we longingly anticipate all spring, has almost wound all the way down. But, for next year or if you're still lucky enough to have some asparagus around, here's a wonderful recipe, which is our amalgamation of two similar recipes from Simply in Season and Moosewood Restaurant New Classics.


Lemon Asparagus Pasta

Serves 6
  • 1 1/2 pounds of asparagus
  • 1 pound penne pasta
  • 1/4 c. lemon juice
  • 1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 Tbs. fresh dill, chopped (or 1 tsp. dried)
  • 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • black pepper to taste
  • 1/4 c. grated parmesan or asiago cheese
Bring to boil a large pot of water for the pasta. In the meantime, rinse the asparagus, trim 1/2 to 1 inch from bottoms and discard the bottoms. Cut off 1 1/2 inches of the asparagus tips and reserve. Chop the rest of the stems. Steam the tips for 4-5 minutes until bright green and set aside. In the same pot, steam the chopped stems for 6-7 minutes until tender. Set aside separately.

Cook the pasta according to package directions. While the pasta cooks, use a food processor or blender to puree the asparagus stems, lemon juice, olive oil, dill and nutmeg until smooth. If needed for consistency, add a little bit of the pasta water. Stir in cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Drain the pasta and transfer to a large bowl. Stir in the asparagus puree and the asparagus tips. Eat it while it's hot and enjoy!

Communications are flying about the Midwestern U.S. as we make connections and firm up dates and locations for the Eat Well Food Tour.  Bethel Christian Reformed Church in Demotte, Indiana has agreed to host the first Food & Storytelling workshop of the tour.  Thanks for your interest and help, Pastor Rick!  We look forward to teaching and learning in the rural farming community of Demotte.  If you live in or near Demotte, we'd love to see you there.  We can also use all the help we can get for promoting this event, which is coming up in less than two weeks, so check out our promotion page for ideas.  We're on our way!

It's hard to believe that in just two weeks, Rob and I will be hitting the road for the first leg of the Eat Well Food Tour! There's so much to do before then, but we can't wait to start driving, talking, teaching and networking around food and faith at churches throughout the midwestern U.S. and southern Ontario.

The idea for the tour was born over coffee with Kate and Meghan from the Christian Reformed Church Office of Social Justice last October. We liked the confluence of mission and ideas between OSJ and *culture is not optional and wanted to partner on a creative project that would help families and congregations develop daily practices for social justice. Given our interest in food issues and the burgeoning local food movement, we thought a food tour would be just the thing. So throughout the summer of 2009, we'll be traveling and exploring, while detailing our adventures on this tour blog.

Please consider this your official invitation to participate, either in person at one of our stops or virtually by following the blog. Explore the tour web site for more details. The schedule will be updated as dates, times and locations are confirmed.

We look forward to seeing how the conversations generated about food and faith will help shape faithful eating and food production in the congregations we visit and beyond!