Of Farms and Fables combines the efforts of professional and non-professional artists by engaging artists in farm work and farm workers in storytelling and acting. The result will be an original performance in October of 2011 which will engage performers and audience in dialogue about local agriculture, farming, and the future of small family farms in Maine.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Ag Trade Show: Part 1 (Jennie)

On January 12th, I drove to the 70th Maine Agricultural Trades Show in a blizzard. When I arrived at 10:30, the parking lot of the Augusta Civic Center looked like this:

And when I returned to my car at four o’clock in the afternoon, it looked like this:

And what happened in the intervening hours of relative warmth amid the fluorescent glow of stadium lights? Well, the show was sparsely attended, to say the least. This is in sharp contrast to Tuesday, which as I heard from one exhibitor was “mobbed”. Organizers were expecting roughly 5,000 attendees at this year’s show, and I’ll bet a good number of them made the trip on Tuesday. One highlight of my trip was a chat with Bib and Jodie Jordan. Bib said he thought most people were attending on Tuesday or Thursday, due to the weather. He implied that I probably should have made the same choice, and I can’t really argue. “Whatcha doin’ here?” he says. “Just crazy enough to come out in a storm?”

That day, in the quiet and the lull, leadership of convening organizations were filling in for missing presenters, “winging it” through lecture schedules missing half the key players. And yet talks were given, and productive conversations were had. I got to see some really, really shiny tractors. People nervously checked the front doors at regular intervals to see how the storm was coming, conferring about the safest plan – stay until it slows, or get out before it’s worse?

I attended one talk at the Maine Grass Farmer’s Network Annual Meeting. It was about a trial in “direct-cut silage” and was given by Rick Kersbergen of the Cooperative Extension. Apparently, “direct-cut” silage systems are not heavily used in the US, nor have they been generally recommended by the Extension in recent years. I have difficulty following the details (and there are many details), but it has to do with the water content of forage immediately after cutting, and subsequent moisture loss from seepage during storage. The wetter it is when you store it, the more likely it is to seep. Here’s what I find on the North Dakota State University website:

The high moisture level in direct-cut silages can cause an abnormal low-temperature fermentation producing conditions favorable for undesirable clostridial organism growth. This produces silage that has an unpleasant sour, butyric-acid smell which severely reduces livestock consumption.”

What most Maine dairy farmers use is a “wilted silage” system – forage is left to dry a bit in the fields and then either wrapped in round bails or chopped and pressed in a bunker (the Bensons do both). The stated concern for small operations farmers (those with a small herd of sheep, for instance) are the costs involved with wilted silage systems. The machinery involved in cutting, gathering, baling and wrapping the feed is expensive. With the machine that was the object of this trial, a farmer can cut, gather and store the feed in a single pass through the field. The machinery looks like this:

A full description of the results of the trial would be lengthy, and coming from me - inaccurate. The primary goal was to compare the nutrient content of feed produced with this direct-cut system to that produced with a traditional wilted silage system. Though not completely sold on the system, Mr. Kersbergen seemed pleasantly surprised by the results. Though the direct-cut feed from one field of alfalfa was effectively butyric to the point of poison, a sample of direct-cut ryegrass (I think?) compared favorably to its wilted counterpart. There’s more information about the trial here.

I was fascinated to hear and to partially absorb the details of feed testing and optimum fermentation conditions. However, what was most exciting for me about this presentation, and the photos from the trial, and the comments from the farmers in the room was the sense of curiosity, experimentation, and problem solving that drove the conversation. While the fairs serve this purpose in a competitive environment, the trade show gives farmers and leaders and educators and advocates a chance to sit down and share what they’ve tried, what they’ve learned, and how they’ve failed. The farmers in this room were eager to compare practices and commiserate over frustrations. Observing the easy manner in which this community laughs and marvels together gave me a chance to see that famed farmer ingenuity in action.

There have been other examples for us. Eddie and his boys fashioned a travel milking parlor from a neighbor’s old compressor so that Dolly and the other show cows can be milked right in the stall when they compete at the fairs. I learned at the trade show that it’s fairly common practice to control weeds with a propane weed burner. Pictures showed one Maine farmer’s home-built propane-holding backpack. The farmer that ran the direct-cut silage trial designed and built his own trailer to collect the feed. John and Stacy haven’t got a lot of irrigation built into their fields, so in the drought last summer they loaded water-filled tanks onto a tractor and drove to the parched cabbage beds, distributing water to thirsty plants through a garden hose. Techniques among farmers may be similar, but individual approaches will depend on the farmer and what he/she has in front of them. Watch out, industrial designers, farmers have been solving their own problems for centuries. Farmers are industrial designers. Farmers are inventors.

Some related thoughts from my brother (a designer) in a slightly different context: mhahndesign.

That’s all for now. Look for a lively discussion of farmland preservation practices in the upcoming Ag Trade Show: Part 2.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What's For Dinner? (Claire)

From my dining room table I have a lovely view through bay windows looking out over the city of Portland. As the sun shines down on our latest accumulation of snow, the largest per-capita collection of restaurants and bars in North America (or so I’ve been told) ready themselves for another busy night of service. Its getting to be dinner time and since I have the night off from my job waitressing at Silly’s restaurant, I have no food in the house. There are three different large supermarket chains in my view, two convenience stores, and a local grocery store chain just out of sight, but my pallet is just not convinced any one way or another. I know I have some pasta, and rice... I could try that thai place down the street? Through the drafty heating ducts that run between my downstairs neighbor’s apartment and mine, I hear the echoey instructions from their television, perpetually tuned to the Food Network. In a TV studio somewhere, someone is making pot roast.

From my spot on the hill, its easy to see Portland as the food- filled bonanza it sometimes seems to be. Thanks to press attention, (especially a lengthy New York Times Feature I’ve heard a lot of descriptions of our fair metropolis as a “foodie town”- and for good reason. With a relatively small population, we boast an impressive collection of chefs and a very active “slow foods” community devoted to the use of locally produced foods. Heck- we even have a winter farmer’s market these days. With this heady vision of abundance, the view from my snowy dining room table begins look like one of Carl Warner’s fantastical all-food landscapes. (www.carlwarner.com)

As I try to recover my senses, I think back to my summertime in the fields and remember listening to the Broadturn farm interns talk about what they would have for dinner. “Are there any pork chops left?” “Yeah- and we’ll grab some zucchini before we leave the field.” “And there should be some lettuce left out there too.” - in the dead of winter, that sort of decision making is appealing for a number of reasons, (Salad! With real tomatoes! That you can just go outside and pick!) but unfortunately, the crop from my apartment's little raised-bed garden was used up long ago, and -seasonally speaking- I am just about as far from fresh tomatoes as a person can get.

The thing I find I’m longing for the most is being able to look around and find out what’s for dinner in the land rather than on a grocery store shelf. Alice Waters, the owner of legendary “slow food” restaurant, Chez Panisse, wrote about this in her essay, “A Delicious Revolution”. In her mind, this connection between the land and our tables is imperative to living a full life.

“When you understand where your food comes from, you look at the world in an entirely different way. I think that if you really start caring about the world in this way, you see opportunities everywhere. Wherever I am, I'm always looking to see what's edible in the landscape. Now I see Nature not just as a source of spiritual inspiration — beautiful sunsets and purple mountains majesties — but as the source of my physical nourishment.”

(You should really read the rest of the essay here: www.ecoliteracy.org/essays/delicious-revolution its lovely.)

Eager to find opportunities for eating in my wintery food landscape here in Portland Maine, I took it upon myself to heed these words and really use what I've got right in front of me. A few weeks ago, I pulled on my boots and set out through the constant deluge of snow to make such a meal for my roommates and me. I wasn’t alone in my quest- Keith had proposed that each member of the artistic team make an attempt and share their successes and challenges with the rest of the group.

In the summertime we were in the practice of making dinner for each other so we could eat together during our Tuesday night meetings. Most of the time our food came from the farms were working on. There was always salad- and always desert. For me, a full-time waitress- it was my one meal a week I could count on eating while siting down and having time to fully finish. I always looked forward to our little Tuesday rituals. When I started planning this wintertime meal, I wanted to bring that kind of meal to my house- where all my busy roommates and I could come together and really share in eating a meal.

For me, the meal started with Kale. One of my roommates happens to be dating a farmer from Durham, and he had brought us the last of the sweetest, latest Kale still left in his cold-frames. She offered up the whole bag when I first proposed the idea, and I was very happy to have it. After Kale came some turnips and Rutabagas from our friend Leah's garden down the street. With my side dishes taken care of, I started thinking about what I could get for a main course that would be really fresh and from somewhere very close by... and then, on a walk on the near-by eastern promenade, I thought, of course! Fish!

At the Harbor Fish Market I found bags of shiny black Muscles harvested from Bangs Island- a little slip of land just off the just a mile or so off the eastern coast of Chebeague Island and the same hop skip and jump from cliff island, right on the edge of Broad Sound in Casco Bay. All in all, about 10 miles straight out to sea from my house on the hill. (Look for the tiny point A and point B on the map below. My house is point A. The muscles were living at point B)

After I had my muscles, I found onions, garlic, shallots and carrots (from Durham, Union and Freedom) to add to a broth of "Villager" white wine, grown and bottled in Warren Maine. Add to that a little thyme and rosemary we grew in our little window boxes this summer and some bread made with stoneground wheat flour fresh from Houlton, and we were well on our way to a full meal.

While I was visiting my roommate at her workplace, the lovely Rosemont market, the day of our feast, I picked up some "micro" salad greens and hot house tomatoes grown in New Glouster to round everything out. I spent most of the day working at the restaurant and ended up telling my boss, Colleen, about the mission. She loved the idea and donated two bottles of a blended red wine from Falmouth, known as the "Scarborough Beach Series" on the spot! What a treat!

That evening, my roommates Liz and Seren gathered around the kitchen table for a meal consisting of the following:

Muscles from Bang island (10ish miles from where I live.)

Wine grown and brewed in Warren Maine (70 miles or so)

Shallots and carrots from Freedom Farm (84 miles)

Onions and kale from Durham (25 miles)

Garlic from Union (74 miles)

Flour from Houlton (247 miles)

Greens and tomatoes from Olivia’s (19 miles)

Turnips+rutabagas from Lea down the street (.25 miles)

Rosemary and Thyme from our gardens (no miles)

Wine grown and brewed in Falmouth (8 miles)

Sea salt (the ocean is .5 miles from my house, the store it was purchased at, 1 mile)

average distance of this feast traveled: 49 miles

Here's something that I read on the Maine Coast Vineyards website (makers of the Scarborough Beach Series wine we enjoyed that night): That is what wine is all about anyway, creating a beverage from a product grown on the land that goes with the native foods of that land. And that is what we are doing.” That kind of holistic approach to eating- choosing food that is grown here and pairing it with other foods with a preexisting geographical relationship to each other seems like the way to honor the place you are in. As Alice Waters puts it, "How can you marvel at the world and then feed yourself in a completely un-marvelous way?"

Let me tell you- it is marvelous to sit a at table with friends with fragrant muscle broth steaming up the windows and feel like you've pulled the snow right off the city and discovered all the delicious secrets it was hiding all this time. The snow is flying down now- but knowing that the food I eat can connect me to the sunny fields I remember from the summertime feels like I'm loosening this winter's hold on me. Tonight I might have pasta with butter or whatever is hanging out in the freezer, but the memory of my Local dinner and the planning that went into it will stay with me long after I've eaten a million other dinners, and keep me planning more of them.