IMG_9146One of the simple pleasures of a living in a small town is riding a bike everywhere you go. My husband and I love to pedal downtown to Howard Park every Saturday morning for our local Farmers Market. We’ve frequented much bigger Farmers Markets in Florida and the Bay Area, but there is nothing like the friendly and eclectic mix in Fairfield.

There you can chat with Fairfield’s Amish and Mennonite neighbors who sell pasture-raised organic eggs (Robert Yoder Farms from Bloomfield), the healthiest flower baskets you’ve ever seen (Lengachers Greenhouse in Keosaqua), and freshly made pies and bread from a Brighton family. Smiling Amish teenagers help sell the produce, and shy younger children hide behind their mothers or chase each other in tag games under the trees, their bonnet strings and long dresses flying in the breeze.

IMG_8556And then there are our amazing certified organic farmers, like Steve and Susan McLaskey, who run the new MUM Student Organic Farm. Steve is from my hometown of Naperville, IL, and is a descendent of the Goodrich family, who more than a century ago donated their farmland for Goodrich School, where I attended elementary school.The talented Dale Goodale is wandering around the market, having already sold out of the spring greens and sweet organic carrots he started in February inside his greenhouse. In early May you could buy his spectacular hand-tapped maple syrup if you got to the market early enough.

IMG_6416I never miss a chance to talk with older, local farmers, such as Ernie Hinkle, who at age 90 still shows up every Saturday morning. He was one of the founders of the Fairfield Farmer’s market. Even though he’s not certified organic, Ernie hasn’t used pesticides or chemicals on his garden veggies for decades. The former mayor of Birmingham, IA, Ernie and his wife raised over 30 foster children and adopted six.

Last week I bought a bag of spring lettuce greens from Ernie and was treated to a story about his time in vaudeville. He’ll regale you with a song if you ask him. I also bought organic pasture-raised eggs from Steve and Kim Keller, whose father was a friend of Ernie’s and also a founder of Fairfield’s Farmer’s market. They carry on their father’s farming tradition and are certified organic. (The eggs, by the way cost only $3.50. In the Bay Area organic, pasture-raised eggs were 8.50 a dozen!).

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The Farmers Market is also a great place to meet friends, who gather for the food, music and fun. Eventually we settle down at a crowded picnic table and eat a hot lunch of the best Ethiopian food in the Midwest from our friend Gannet and her daughter Hermella. The lentil samosas are a treat I look forward to all week.

 

 

IMG_8533One of my favorite vendors in spring is Rolling Prairie Acres, run by the Webster family of Sigourney, Iowa. They start garden veggies in their greenhouse for the rest of us to plant in our gardens in spring. Every year I buy three kinds of tulasi (holy basil plant), tomatoes plants and zuchinni starters. All their plants are grown pesticide free, chemical free. Last year when the sow bugs mowed down my squash plants overnight, I asked Doug Webster for a bug-resistant squash. He recommended a bottle guord called Cucuzza, whose stinky leaves and thicker skin repelled bugs. Its vines wrapped around our garden and grew over 200 lbs of long pale green squashes that tasted a bit like zuchinni without seeds.

IMG_8529My Indian friends thought they tasted just like lauki, bottle gourd, and cooked them into fantastic Indian dishes. My gardening partner Charlotte Judge dubbed this prolific plant the Cure for World Hunger. I bought six starters from Doug Webster this year, to share with our friends.

It’s encouraging to see kids getting into the spirit of growing and selling produce along with their parents and grandparents. At Rolling Prairies, Doug’s son Dawson taught me how to plant a seedling in a peat pot. And Paloma and Marisol Braun, aged 13 and 10, run their own business selling snow cones at the Farmer Market. Marisol told me how she markets their tasty drinks: “I whisper to one of my friends that the stand is open and they whisper it to their friend and pretty soon there’s a whole line of kids at our stand.” Talk about word-of-mouth marketing savvy!

One Saturday in early May I drove my car to the market so I could buy flats of seedlings, and ended up with too much to carry away from the Lengacher’s booth, where the Amish parents had left the selling to a teenage daughter Lydia and her older brother.

IMG_8559Seeing my two flats, Lydia politely asked, “Would you like help?” I declined, not wanting to distract them from their job selling. I grabbed one of the flats and started to my car, only to hear bare feet padding behind me. It was Richard, the six-year-old younger brother of Lydia. He smiled shyly under his straw hat and I could see the gap in his teeth where a new tooth was growing in. He never said a word, but he carried my second flat to my car, happy to be helping and grinning all the way.

 

Photo credits: Linda Egenes

Photo of Linda Egenes by Charlotte Judge

BY LINDA EGENES

deborah madison, local flavors

Deborah Madison used her local farmers’ market in Sante Fe as a starting point for researching farmers’ markets all over the country for her book Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets. (Photo: Lois Ellen Frank)

When I was a college student in Bloomington, Illinois, I rose at 3:00 a.m. one morning in 1972 to ride three hours in our food co-op’s truck to Chicago’s South Water Market. In the predawn chill I rubbed elbows with the windy city’s chefs and corner-grocery owners to choose the ripest zucchini, tomatoes, and string beans from the tailgates of farmers’ trucks.

In those years, Chicago’s wholesale food market was the closest we could get to seasonal, locally grown food, other than our own gardens. A lot has changed in the American foodscape since then. Today, more than 4,000 farmers’ markets across the country directly connect consumer to local grower.

Deborah Madison, founding chef at San Francisco’s historic Greens Restaurant, author of nine cookbooks, and winner of the Julia Child Cookbook of the Year and three James Beard awards, has been instrumental in bringing about that change. In her colorfully illustrated Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets, newly released in paperback this May, she visits 100 farmers’ markets and provides a cornucopia of recipes based on the regional produce she discovered.

When Madison spoke at the Eco-Fair sponsored by the department of sustainable living at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield last month, I jumped at the chance to interview her. I found her to be as vibrant and nourishing as the food she writes about.

Linda Egenes: When you cook, do you first see what’s available and then plan your menus?

Deborah Madison: Absolutely. I always cook that way, whether I’m going to the supermarket or farmers’ market or my own garden. At certain times of the year, when the farmers’ market is predictable, you know ahead of time what is available. Say in summer you want to make the perfect ratatouille, you know that this is a time for peppers, eggplant, and zucchini. So you go with a recipe in mind. Otherwise, it’s good to go to the farmers’ market with an open mind, because you never know what you’re going to see there.

In Local Flavors I talk about the seasonal vegetables I saw and how they inspired what I cooked, to perhaps encourage other people to cook in the same way. I always work from the market out.

Do eating locally and eating seasonally go hand-in-hand?

What I have learned from writing this book is a kind of a truism that “in season” is where you live. In season and local aren’t separate. They’re only separate when you go to the supermarket.

When we try to treat our foodscape as a national one, we really have painted ourselves into some strange corners and ideas about what’s in season. June magazine covers will have pictures of strawberries, for instance, but I bought strawberries in Vermont in late October last year, because there are certain kinds of ever-bearing strawberries that last until the frost. Researching Local Flavors confirmed for me that even though we often cook by clichés, when you start to look around, you see that the available local produce is very different from what your national magazine is telling you.

It seems that Local Flavors is trying to break through those clichés.

Eating local and seasonal food is something I really care about. It’s not just about the romance of farmers’ markets. We want to become intelligent about who we are and how we relate to the world around us, rather than living in this kind of predefined encapsulated vision of what’s local and what’s in season. It’s really different when you go into a farmers’ market and look around. It’s an eye opener.

Is it possible to eat strictly what is local and in season?

Yes, it’s possible but I don’t think we need to do that. Certainly people used to eat from their local region year ’round.
A book I’m reading now, Kitchen Literacy, by Ann Vileisis, is a portrait of what it takes to eat locally. It’s a different way of living and thinking. It would be hard for us because we’re used to so much variety. It would mean returning to a life where you spend a lot of time preserving food. We would have to think about how to store food over the winter, how to grow food in winter greenhouses in a way that’s not incredibly fuel intensive.

How do you see the value of organic produce versus local?

When Local Flavors came out, I did some interviews with my friend Alice Waters, and she was very purist about organics. It had to be organic or else. I was saying, “I don’t know, after what I’ve seen, I really support local.”

Since then I’ve written a few articles saying, let’s not pit them against each other. Let’s try to see how we can look at each for what they are. Obviously, oranges aren’t going to be local in Iowa, but you’re not going to stop eating oranges. In that case, let’s try to find organic oranges. And at my local farmers’ market, if I have a choice between a vendor who is selling organic versus one who is not, I’m going to choose the one who is selling organic.

In general, though, I support local producers when that’s appropriate. There’s such a difference in taste in a vegetable that’s grown locally, picked ripe, and bought fresh at your market than a vegetable that’s been grown on an industrial organic farm and shipped from California.

(I originally wrote this article for The Iowa Source, July 2008. Reprinted with permission.)

 

BY LINDA EGENES

 

2010_09_francis_thickeOUTSIDE THE RADIANCE DAIRY milking parlor on a drizzly spring morning, Francis Thicke rings a bell and blasts a reveille on his trumpet. His Jersey cows amble slowly toward him in the misty dawn, waiting for him to slog through the muddy holding area in his knee-high rubber boots to unhook the electric wire that separates the cows from the milking parlor.

“I used to play this—majored in music in college.” He rolls the tarnished instrument in his hands. “It was once a fine instrument, but it got burned in a fire.” He turns and leads his cows into the milking parlor, like the pied piper, only with a horn instead of a flute.

A tawny cow named Harmony is first in. A few straggle behind. “It’s just like Rawhide,” says Francis, a gentle man who at age 60 flings grain with the strength of a lifelong farmer. “There are always a few drag cows. Each has its own personality, and there’s a pecking order. The older cows tend to run in first, because they’re more dominant.” He speaks quickly in his clipped Minnesotan accent, punctuating his words with a shy smile or a laugh.

“We don’t use antibiotics on our cows,” says Francis, who owns and runs the dairy with his wife, Susan. “If we have a health issue, we use homeopathic or herbal remedies that are designed for humans, with doses recommended for cows.” After 40-some years caring for cows, Francis rarely needs to call in a vet, although he has called in a chiropractor to reset the back of a cow who couldn’t stand up in the pasture.

How do the cows respond to such tender loving care? One statistic tells all: the cows at Radiance Dairy continue to produce milk up to 12 years, compared to the two-year life expectancy of conventional dairy cows. These cows literally spend their days in clover—grazing carefully tended pastures of organic legumes and grasses. If there is such as a thing as a happy cow, they’re here.

Working with Nature

But after spending time at Radiance Dairy, you begin to realize that special attention is only one part of the whole picture. There are many reasons why these cows live longer, why their milk is so healthy and desirable that Radiance Dairy can sustain a viable economic base by selling to a small community of 11,000. One thing binds all the puzzle pieces into a complete picture of pastoral success: Francis’s basic philosophy, to work with nature rather than try to overcome it.

Francis calls his farming philosophy co-creative agriculture. “Nature has a game plan,” he says in his quiet voice. “We just have to recognize it. Nature, with its intelligence, brings something to the table, and the farmer brings something to the table. Solving problems is a co-creative process, rather than one of dominating nature.”

This kind of nature-driven problem-solving is evident in the way Francis converted his herd from grains to grasses, a more natural feed for cows. “Cows aren’t really made to eat grains,” Francis explains. “Cows who eat grasses are healthier.”

It turns out that allowing cows to graze also conserves energy. “An organic farm mimics the efficiency of nature,” says Francis. “At Radiance Dairy, we don’t consider cow manure to be a waste to be disposed of, but a resource that fertilizes our pastures, improves soil fertility, and makes the grasses more nutritious—thus increasing the health of the cow and the milk. Better still, the cows harvest their own forage and at the same time spread their own manure, saving energy.”

When farmers do what nature intended, it seems, they solve economic and ecological problems in one stroke.

Farmer, Scholar, Public Servant

What makes someone start on the path to organic farming? For Francis, the dairy farming part is in his blood. He was born on a conventional dairy farm in Minnesota, working alongside his father and brothers since childhood.

It was while studying at Winona State University, where Francis majored in music but took all the philosophy courses he could, that he started to question many of his beliefs.

“I remember my philosophy teacher teaching us to always question everything, and that resonated with me,” he says. “So when it came to putting chemicals in the soil, I thought there might be a better way to do things.”

Back on the family dairy farm after college, he saw an opportunity to put his new ideas into action. In charge of spring herbicides for the farm, he decided to skip applying them to one of the fields.

“I just kind of watched it,” says Francis. “And I was encouraged with the results.” He showed the field to his two brothers, and they decided to try the whole farm without herbicides the next year.

Francis’s father didn’t like the idea. But the sons prevailed, successfully converting the family dairy farm to organic in the 1970s, when organic farmers were a rare breed.

Francis laughs and says, “That first experiment must have been pure luck, with a lot of climatic conditions coming together to make it a year without many weeds, even without any alternative weed control.”

Their trial-and-error approach caused a few disasters along the way, such as weeds taking over the fields before they learned how to do timely cultivation. “It took us a few years to get things fine-tuned,” he says.

With no one close by to show them how to farm organically, the brothers subscribed to early organic farming magazines, such as Rodale’s The New Farm and Acres, USA, which still exists today.

“We’d read how other farmers were doing it, and then we’d try it,” says Francis.

Francis and Susan left the farm in 1982 so Francis could pursue higher degrees, an M. A. in Soil Science from the University of Minnesota and a Ph.D. in Agronomy from the University of Illinois.

“I went to graduate school because I thought I could help change the system,” says Francis.  “I soon learned that graduate students are very vulnerable, subject to their professors’ opinions, so I learned not to talk about my views on organic.”

After getting his Ph.D., Francis and Susan headed for Washington, D.C. As National Program Leader for soil science for the USDA-Extension Service, he worked on water quality and sustainable agriculture. Again, he kept most of his views quiet, trying to effect change from the inside.

When he quit the USDA in 1990 to buy Radiance Dairy, most of his colleagues thought he was weird and radical, he says.

All that has changed now that organic is the fastest growing segment of the food industry. Perhaps more than anyone, Francis Thicke sees the danger in making organic farming the latest agricultural fad. Unless people have a commitment to organic farmingphilosophical or personal—it’s difficult to make it work long term, he has written in the Organic Broadcaster and other publications.

“I’ve seen a lot of farmers try organic as if it were another specialty crop,” he says. “You have to look at the big picture, and approach the organic farm as an ecological system, or it’s not going to be successful.” Francis knows a corn and soybean farmer who tried to farm organic soybeans by substituting organic fertilizer and pesticides for conventional ones. He gave up, believing organic didn’t work. According to Francis, another recipe for failure is to neglect inputs altogether—without adopting ecologically friendly practices to replace them—leaving the crops vulnerable to pest infestation and soil depletion.

Somehow Francis manages to live several lives at once—farmer, writer, and public servant. Even though he no longer works for the USDA, Francis has served on many national and state boards and committees and is now running for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture on a platform of greater energy efficiency for rural farms using wind and solar, creating more jobs and economic development by supporting local food production, exposing predatory practices by corporate monopolies, promoting wider uses of perennial crops to keep Iowa’s rich soils from washing into our rivers, and re-establishing local control over animal confinement operations.

Francis and his dairy are already known throughout the state. Each year hundreds of visitors—from school children to politicians to farmers—flock to the farm to see how solar-powered organic farming can be done.

“Radiance Dairy exists as an extraordinary model for the kinds of direct marketing to local markets that other farmers may do in their own operations,” says Fred Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow at  the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. “He’s also an engaging personality. He’s having an impact in Iowa.”

Kirschenmann also wrote the introduction to Francis’s new book, A New Vision for Iowa Food and Agriculture, in which he says, “We have the opportunity in the decades ahead to design an agriculture that can be more economically, socially, and ecologically resilient. That is the future to which Francis has dedicated himself—and so should we.”

Above all, Francis Thicke is a hands-on, old-fashioned farmer, with his heart tied to the land, the cows, the crops.

“It’s hard for a dairy farmer to give up milking his cows,” he says with a wistful smile. “I still milk them several times a week. When we first started, my wife, Susan, and I did it every day.

Linda Egenes (www.LindaEgenes.com) is the author of Super Healthy Kids and four other books on healthy, green living. 

Rick Donhauser is an award-winning photographer whose work appeared in A Home for the Souland other publications.

Excerpted from the book-in-progress Green Angels by Linda Egenes and Rick Donhauser.

(I originally wrote this article for The Iowa Source, September 2010. Reprinted with permission.

 (Photo: copyright Rick Donhauser, used with permission)

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