Everybody’s gotta eat. I’m sure somewhere, someone has it figured out how much time the average person spends buying, preparing, and consuming food, not to mention all the hours boasted by the food service industry, which makes food for us when we opt out of “from-scratch” in the home kitchen. Certainly, it’s not nearly the amount of time our great grandmothers spent bending over the woodstove (or corncob-heated summer kitchen in my ancestors’ case), but three meals a day is still a considerable part of our human experience.
But how much time or thought do we put into the choices we make about those three daily meals, beyond our impulses over what we do or don’t “feel” like eating at the moment. Do we really know the story behind our food, where it comes from, who grew or prepared it, or what types of ethics were behind the choices being made by those whose lives are interweaved into our food chain?
That’s why people like me, who spend nearly every moment of every day growing, raising, and preparing sustainably minded foods, have to take each opportunity to share our story. Hi, my name is Laura. My mom and my sister and I run a farm in Wisconsin’s Northwoods. This is the food we grow, and this is why we care. We want to spread the opportunity to access healthy, wholesome, local foods, so this is why you should care.
Add in all the details, our passion for the work, and our commitment to community, and our local food story is off to a start. But it’s not always an easy sell. Many folks are motivated entirely by price, which means that some of them are merely deaf ears to our efforts. Others will only want what they want, which is usually something we don’t happen to have at that time because spinach is already several weeks out of season and the potatoes aren’t anywhere near being ready to dig yet.
Sometimes, what seems like a receptive audience for our farm-to-table story can throw a curveball we didn’t see coming. Back in May, I was asked to present at a state homemaker’s convention that was many months off. The coordinator said that members had expressed an interest in learning more about local foods and women entrepreneurs in agriculture. Sure, I thought, it would be a neat way to make an impact through telling our story.
Well, that conference was this last week, only five days after the catastrophic storm that rocked the region. After busting through chores and grabbing my laptop with a carefully prepared PowerPoint slideshow and a basket full of yarns from our sheep, I hurried off to Lakewoods for the gig. The parking lot was FULL, with ladies bustling about everywhere. A flustered registration officer scrambled to find my nametag and directed that my room was downstairs at the end of the hall on the right.
Down the stairs I scurried, thinking the elevators should be reserved for the elderly who needed them more than I, and found the hallway jammed with talkative ladies (and a few token gents) just letting out from the previous lineup of presentations. The narrow hall was a din of chatter, colorful sweaters, and permed hair.
“Excuse me!” I squeaked, trying to hold my basket up high while guarding the laptop bag with my other arm. “I’m a presenter trying to reach my room!” Few were listening, so instead I got to taste a bit of life as a salmon at spawning…minus the water. “Excuse me!”
The double-wide doors along the hall each supported an owl-themed plaque with the name of the next presentation being offered. I glanced at each one, with a, “well, not mine” thought, then kept swimming. Finally, I made it to the last room on the right, only to discover a massive quilt show. Oh dear, I don’t think I was going to be offering a PowerPoint presentation with quilts for a backdrop…might do something to the colors.
Eventually, I learned that ladies wearing owl pins were in some shape or form directing the event, and one was able to indicate that I needed to go even further down the hall. Really? It didn’t look like there were any more room. But then, taking a crook to the left, past some non-aesthetic shelving units, there was one last door. Just a plain, single door, with no window and no owl-guarded plaque.
Inside, the space was dim, lit by one bare light bulb in the ceiling. Made of cinder block without a single window, it was shaped like a wedge with humming raw ductwork along the wall and ceiling. I had the distinct feeling that I was in a storage room, where extra chairs and tables might be kept. But there, in little rows, were stark, black, metal folding chairs and one little table. This, apparently, was my palette.
But there was no projector for the slideshow, no extension cord, and no hostess. As I wrestled with the portable projection screen, which looked like it probably dated back to the ‘60’s, I implored several owl-pinned ladies to find a projector--PLEASE. In the end, one was discovered at the front desk, and we balanced the beast on top of some books I’d brought to share to gain a reasonable projection angle. Turning off the one token light bulb allowed for clear visibility of the screen, but setup was further complicated by the confusion over presentation locations. It appears that others were as baffled as I over this mysterious room at the end of the hallway!
“Is this where they’re talking about human trafficking?”
“Sorry, this is the presentation by North Star Homestead Farms about local foods.”
“Oh,” she glances around the dark little cell of a room and vanishes around the corner.
Hmm, well, guess what my little farm story was up against! Out of a building full of homemakers, 13 had signed up to attend my discussion. About nine of them actually found my room. Not that these are unworthy numbers—the ladies I shared the morning with were blown away by the plethora and diversity of things happening on our farm and the history behind it all. Our discussions at the end were animated about the hidden costs of cheap food, the ripple effect of supporting small-scale, local farmers, and the influence of each consumer to vote with her dollar. The ladies were enthusiastic and empowered, which I can only hope will carry through to their experiences beyond the conference.
As I picked up my room and returned the projector, again the halls were filled with the bumping babble of attendees. I couldn’t help but think about which would have directly impacted their lives more (learning the value of local foods vs. some sort of discussion on human trafficking), well, it seems apparent to me. So, what’s the issue with appeal?
If you were to ask Joel Salatin, as he discussed in the documentary “Farmageddon,” he might offer that “It’s beautiful! Good food production should be aesthetically and aromatically, sensually romantic.” But does it make the mainstream news that way like…human trafficking?
Food is such a central part of the human experience. Why shouldn’t talking about farming be its own form of sexy? Maybe if I’d given the talk in a bikini that would have made a difference. But then, the room was dark so we could see the pictures of hard working folks on the farm; I could have been wearing a Halloween costume for all it mattered. Oh well, we’ll try again next time. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com