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The Education of an Eater: A Dancing Rabbit Update

Hi friends. This is Alline with a slice of life from Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage.

Danielle working in the lush garden beside her home.

Twenty years ago, after driving our moving van across the western half of the United States, we arrived in northeastern Missouri. I was stunned and excited by the acres and acres (and acres!) of corn. I envisioned a future where every day, all summer long my plate would be heaped with sweet, juicy ears of corn, dripping with melted butter and sprinkled with salt. When I emerged from my reverie long enough to mumble words like melted butter, Kurt (my husband) laughed (in a kind way), and told me it wasn’t sweet corn. What I was seeing was feed corn, or possibly for high fructose corn syrup. Puzzled, my suburban Californian brain couldn’t grasp food grown for cows and not for ME.

Thus began the education of an eater.

I had a naive vision of farms being just like my childhood storybooks: chickens in the yard, gardens out the kitchen door, men in overalls with names like Vern and Junior. I soon learned that the realities of the farming industry were quite different; wives of farmers often worked in town, and farmers themselves had second or third jobs to supplement a way of life that was subject to the whims of the weather, stock market, and many other obstacles outside of their control. (Note: yes, there ARE women farmers, which I find really exciting. I’m simply trying to relay my uninformed stereotypical assumptions.)

Farms often use seed and pesticide systems developed for great yield that also resulted in vast fields of monocrops (only one type of plant) and the destruction of many more insects than the ones eating the crops. There are subsidies, insurance, and a raft of really, really expensive equipment, often bought on time. Often, there is not enough rain when needed, and way too much rain during harvest and haying season. I watched a documentary entitled “King Corn” and learned even more. So much work, so little control.

A trip to local Amish farms, hosted by the Extension Office in Kirksville, was also eye-opening. One stop was a pumpkin farm. They were able to operate organically because they had eight children, all of whom were put to work every single morning plucking bugs from the plants. That kind of free labor isn’t available to most farmers. Quite simply, farming is a lot of WORK. 

Visitors to Dancing Rabbit, filled with (hopeful yet often inaccurate) assumptions of how we live our lives, are jaw-droppingly disappointed when informed that no, we do not raise all of our own food. Nope, we don’t even raise half of our food. Perhaps, in a very good year, a few of us, who spend a LOT of time in the gardens and who might also have Work Exchangers for the season, might raise 80% of our vegetables.

Those who participate in the care of the goats and the cow might produce (with the help of the goats and cow, of course) a lot of their milk, yogurt and cheese. During the summer when production is high we all benefit from the work of the folks who raise chickens and ducks, and find our kitchens overflowing with farm-fresh eggs, whose yolks are bright orange and stand up and practically shout good morning in the frying pan. Those same folks often have fresh meat. But growing food is hard, time-consuming, land-consuming work. 

Anyone who has canned summer’s bounty knows that it takes three pounds of fresh tomatoes to produce ONE QUART of canned tomatoes. Any product such as sauce and ketchup, involving cooking the water-filled tomatoes down, produces even smaller yields. I made ketchup just once; not only did it take hours bubbling on the stove like the LaBrea Tar Pits, but the fresh-fruit-to-finished-product ratio was an astounding four pounds of tomatoes to produce one pint. Doing the math, I quickly realized that raising enough tomatoes to feed a family for a year is a LOT of tomatoes. The same goes for all other vegetables and fruit. Multiply that by the variety of food in our diets (fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes) by the number of acres required to grow the food, and it quickly becomes overwhelming. This has given me a lot more respect for those who grow the food that I eat, and respect for the food itself. 

For the last nine years or so gardening was a kind of dream for me. The seed catalogs would start arriving in December, with page after page of full-color photos of all the amazing fruits and vegetables one could easily grow at home. All I had to do was buy the seeds and put them in the ground. Presto! Alas, while we were launching the Milkweed Mercantile our own personal garden consisted mostly of seeds and seedlings enthusiastically planted in the spring and left to their own devices as our B&B and cafe season got more and more busy. We were running a kind of a Darwinian test plot; if anything survived, then it got to stay. Most things didn’t.

With the creation of the Milkweed Mercantile Cooperative, Kurt and I have been able to reclaim a bit more of our time. Last fall Kurt and I vowed that 2019 would be different. This spring we planted ten tomato plants, eight pepper plants, and a gazillion pickling cuke seeds. On the south side of our house, Kurt ran livestock fencing from our garden plot at an angle up to the roof, providing a trellis/grid for the cucumbers to grow up and a tunnel for us to walk under. Gravity being what it is, the cucumbers themselves hung through the squares of fencing, making harvesting a snap. (Except for the very sneaky cukes that hide behind leaves and grow to be the size of Rhode Island…). We have harvested over fifty pounds of tomatoes and cucumbers, and a few peppers. We now have a dozen beautiful jars of salsa in our pantry, and two dozen jars of dill pickles, relish, and other cucumber-based yumminess.

Perennials are my favorite thing to grow – it’s a sure sign that spring has arrived when stalks of asparagus begin to poke their little heads out of the mulch. Strawberries amaze me, as do the raspberries and blackberries that drip off the canes. Besides adding manure (thanks, neighbors!) in the fall and a little weeding during the season, there isn’t a lot to be done except harvest. Better yet, they come back year after year. That’s my kind of food.

Also in the just-harvest category are mushrooms. When I realized what an abominable morel hunter I am, I arranged for the Mercantile to host a shiitake mushroom log workshop. Shiitake mushrooms have a rich, delicious taste that works in all kinds of foods, and have many health benefits, too. (I highly recommend sauteing them in butter, a dash of white wine, and garlic – heaven on a plate!) They can be farmed on logs kept in a relatively shady spot, and under the right weather conditions will produce many, many pounds of mushrooms. 

Anyway, back to the workshop: Ted harvested logs of the correct species and size (oaks are best, but hard maple also works well; 3″ to 6″ in diameter and cut 40″ long) and led the workshop where we drilled holes in the logs, inoculated them with mushroom spores, and then covered the holes with melted wax. A year and a lot of rain later, my logs are bursting with mushrooms, which we can eat now or dehydrate for later.

Gardeners and farmers have a great opportunity to contribute to the health and vitality of our ecosystems. Pollinators (including bees and birds) are on the decline, and need our help. What can you do? Start small. Plant things that you like to eat (sorry, cacao doesn’t grow in this area). There are zillions of websites to advise you on everything from seed choice to techniques. Plant local wildflowers, and let the ones that occur naturally grow and flourish. Here’s to a happy, abundant harvest for all!

Would it interest you to learn more about the realities of growing and preserving your own food? You should visit us for one or two weeks. Your last change for 2019 starts on October 6th, so act fast. You’ll get an introduction to some of the permaculture principles Alline mentioned, along with many other dimensions of ecological sustainability, as well as a taste of ecovillage life (including some of the delicious food the folks around here can whip up). We can’t wait to meet you.

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