I’ve been quiet for a week or so, but for good reason.
I’ve reached a turning point in my “Real Food” journey. It’s been “going” for awhile, but now it’s gaining greater direction.
Months ago, I had a sudden realization: If all the grocery stores and all the markets and all the farmers went away, how would I eat?
Yeah, I had a garden last year. It was…meh. And guess what? Unless you’re the best gardener ever, getting adequate calories (or even a decent portion of your calories) from plants is darn near impossible unless you buy-in to the generally non-local, mass-produced food system. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but let’s be honest – the produce section at Whole Foods is a First World privilege. Salad is a modern luxury (if you’ve ever tried to grow your own lettuce, you know what I mean), and so are plant-based diets – unless you’re growing your own rice & beans or – blech – soy. Adding eggs from ducks or chickens that can roam and eat the goodies you may not want to – like bugs and grubs and such – makes self-sufficiency slightly more possible (animal products are a more renewable resource, and more calorie-dense). Adding livestock helps enrich the soil (so you can fail miserably at a well-fertilized garden, like me) and means a dense source of calories that plants can’t match. I’m just sayin’ – if the ultimate goal is self-sufficiency, animals hafta be involved somehow.
I’ll be honest – this Cave Girl can barely cook; let alone grow, raise, cultivate or (gulp) farm. And farming is, in my opinion, the only way a non-nomad (ie a modern human being) can truly take care of him/herself in a way that, when done right, is pretty darn self-sufficient. Especially if you let your animals eat what they’re supposed to eat: grass, bugs, and stuff that’s not a corn, soy or canola-based antibiotic-laced by-product of the vegetable oil industry. This kind of farming is a way to be a responsible steward of the amazing gifts the earth gives us.
Cave Husband and I do dream of one day cultivating family land and feeding ourselves and a million little Cave Children off of it. (Well, maybe not a million Cave Children. Also, let me specify that any CCs will be of the furry variety – such that nobody can frown upon my shoving them outside through a doggie door or making them sleep on the floor.)
But what would it actually take to raise and cultivate my own food? I can typety-type all day about “Real Food” with the soft glow of my Mac illuminating my
pristine CrossFit-abused fingernails, but that’s not going to put food on the table. As I pondered this idea – the concept of what it takes to produce food (ENOUGH food) sustainably and continuously – I realized that I truly, deeply, with all my heart wanted to know how. I wanted to put into action all the stuff I jabber on about. So I applied for a summer internship at Polyface Farms.
Polyface is among the few sustainable, ethically-run and grass-based farms in the nation that offers internship opportunities like this. Joel Salatin, Polyface front-man and well-known farmer, was featured in Food Inc. and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I have followed the happenings at Polyface since reading Salatin’s books – among them, Holy Cows & Hog Heaven and Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal.
I was fortunate to be called through to the second round of consideration, which involved a 2-day on-farm visit. I very much intended to keep this entire journey private, but I was given gracious encouragement by the Salatins to write about my experience. I didn’t take pictures, however, except for one taken as I left the property – I wasn’t there to accumulate photos or “blog fodder.” I was there to work and learn.
And work and learn I did. It was the most physically difficult 2 days I can remember. I joked about it being a never-ending CrossFit workout (and may have promised a Polyface “benchmark” WOD). From sun-up to sun-down we lifted buckets and bales, distributed hay, mucked through wet earth, and spent hours clean-and-jerking and loading large, awkward stumps and branches into a trailer in order to haul them back down to the farm, unload, and repeat the process. It was beautiful and enriching and difficult and extraordinary. I loved every minute. I was bruised, tired, and exhilarated. And did I mention bruised?
That wasn’t all. I tended pigs, cows and chickens. I moved more heavy things and helped make (and deadlift) giant railroad ties on the saw mill. I high-fived the fantastically good-natured Mr. Salatin in the most out-of-context moment of my existence (but when you feel that high-five comin’ on, you just gotta go for it. And deal with the embarrassment later.)
The crazy thing is, this 2-day experience that changed me so completely is ongoing, daily work to those who actually make Polyface what it is. I’m a nobody in this process – just a passer-by who got to dig in for a few days. As over-wrought as it may seem, that experience will forever represent to me the true nature of good work, and the physical and intellectual demands of living with integrity. This imperative, to me, appears to involve considering the needs of one’s family, one’s land, and the health of one’s entire operation moment-by-moment, all while understanding how those demands interact with the pace of politics and global need. Does that make sense?
So I left Polyface a different person from when I arrived. I’m so grateful to have met the staff, including Daniel Salatin (who orchestrates the day-to-day at Polyface) and his amazing family – his wife Sheri, an extraordinary writer; and their three kids, who are all profoundly wonderful and sweet. I must thank them for their incredible hospitality and willingness to discuss everything from politics to the process of writing with a relative stranger. Thanks to Brie and Leanna, who were wonderful hosts and conversationalists.
Look, I know I was only there for 2 days. But when you’ve got no computer, no internet, no facebook, no time-sucking iPhones and no Housewives or Bachelors to watch, you actually end up with ample time to appreciate the talents, hard work, and terrific qualities in others. Who the heck knew?