Away we Grow

As a mammal I often forget how lucky I am to generate my own body heat, and to not be dependent on ambient temperatures to animate my life.  I’m reminded not to take that for granted, as I watch nature jerkily attempt to wake up from winter: making short leaps of progress with the little bouts of warmth and sunshine, and grinding to a halt in the cool grey spells.

Things are growing here, though.  The greenhouse is filling up quickly…

Radishes are up in the field…

And the strawberries look better than any we’ve ever grown.

This most surprising crop I’ve been taking care of, however, grows inside, and has been nurtured and fertilized largely by your encouragement: the written word.  I’ve gotten a gig as a columnist at the Farmer’s Forum and this month they’re publishing something I actually wrote for you at this time last year.

So, I went back to visit Neil Banks to get a photograph of him for the article, and had the pleasure of an hour and a half of conversation with the most high energy 81 year old I know.  Neil covered a wide range of agricultural topics, personal philosophy, several genealogies, as well as a complete history of the Briar Hill (the area between Sweet’s Corners, Lyndhurst and Morton).

What struck me most about Neil’s recollections was the drastic amount of change he’s witnessed in his lifetime.  And I don’t mean social trends like women wearing pants, but downright basic stuff like seeing the power lines go in for the first time.

Generally speaking, since the modern great leaps forward of central heating, indoor plumbing, automobiles, electrification, and mass media, our lives haven’t really materially changed a whole lot from someone alive in say, 1980.  We drive to work, put our food in the fridge, listen to the radio and watch TV.  The only real difference is that today we have a bit more stuff, and carry a distracting little computer with us at all times.

Because we take them for granted, I think it’s hard for us to imagine how transformative the introduction of all those technologies actually was.  I can only assume it had a profound effect on the collective psyche and generated a great deal of culture shock.  The hilarious television series The Beverly Hillbillies ultimately uses this as its fundamental gag: the sudden transformation from backwards rural life to the world of modern affluence.  (I especially enjoy this episode: Jed Buys Stock)

The Beverly Hillbillies effect is still happening worldwide, as the global standard of living continues to steadily rise, and modern conveniences manifest themselves in formerly remote corners of the planet.  I suppose because we’ve grown so accustomed to our amenities and comfort, we rarely think about how we’ve reached this point, or where the materials and energy we rely on even come from. 

The reality is that although our household level of technology isn’t a whole lot different than it was 50 years ago – now the vacuum cleaner just pushes itself (and spies on us) – behind the scenes, the systems that support our historically unprecedented lifestyle have continued to grow and evolve so quickly and drastically that they hardly resemble what they were a generation ago.

A great example of this transformation can be witnessed in this little video about a Domino’s Pizza facility in Indiana.  The 50 million dollar depot produces dough, and supplies ingredients to over 300 franchises in five different states, with a fleet of 28 tractor trailers.  It’s largely automated. I’ll be the first to give credit where credit is due – modernity is indeed technically and logistically impressive –  but this does not impress me; because what are all those robots and computers and lasers actually replacing? This:

A 60 quart Hobart mixer that you can buy used for a few thousand dollars: it will knead your dough and with that “pelican” on top, slice your vegetables and shred your mozzarella cheese – everything that fancy 50 million dollar factory can do – in the corner of a small kitchen.  So accessible and reliable is this machine, that generations of immigrants to North America, (largely) first from Italy, and then Greece, and later, Lebanon, took one of these tools, parked it in a hole in the wall, low rent commercial space, and built a legacy for their family from nothing.

For better or worse, their children are now doctors and lawyers and landlords, and apparently we now have to outsource the simple making of dough to high tech and high finance.  This tale is repeated with many different cultural groups in many different industries (my own family’s story included).  The problem of course, is that as much as we want “a better life for our children”, there is only so much room at the top, and someone still has to be at the bottom.   And we all have to have a purpose: as a matter of simple dignity.

Agriculture is no different than any other industry: where technology, financing, and ample, cheap energy have displaced traditional modes of production, family structures and so on.  Thanks to your support, Salt of the Earth is an example of the 60 quart mixer in farming today: it is simple and it works.  And after all, is there anything better than a fresh slice from that little hole in the wall? Dominoes can’t touch it!

As far as the “dignity” aspect goes, I hope that it cuts both ways…  As much as agriculture provides us with a home and a purpose, I hope that working with our little business is a reprieve and respite from the world at large: where you’re greeted with a smile and earnest salutation, and that you receive something of quality and health.  If you’ve made it this far into this email, it’s quite likely you care that everything in our lives comes from somewhere, and that even the little things matter.  Thank you for reading, and thank you for working with our farm!

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