Three years ago, my wife and I decided to redirect our farming efforts to create a CSA. Our farm is located in some of the most spectacularly beautiful scenery in the whole of this country. When folks think about Iowa, the first picture that comes to mind is one of immense fields of corn broken only by the occasional little town and its grain elevators that stand like towering parapets over their own private prairie landscapes. Here in the extreme northeastern corner of Iowa, it is so antithetical to that perception, you feel as if you are in a different state altogether. A different state altogether – Allamakee County is all that and more.
Those who have chosen to make their living by farming in this part of Iowa are a different breed. You don’t see a lot of new equipment like you do with the large-scale, factory farms covering hundreds or thousands of acres. Most of our farms are less than 200 acres and we do quite well with our 1962 Allis-Chalmers and our two-bottom moldboard plow and four-row corn-pickers, thank-you! There are tires on one of our tractors older (and by all indications, wiser) than most members of Congress. There is a great deal of pride associated with sitting on the same tractor your Dad sat on, doing the same work as he and his Dad did and still make a living at it. We are proud of doing things the “old-fashioned” way and hold on to that old equipment as tenaciously as we hold on to our love of the land we choose to live on.
We do not have the luxury of expansive, level fields that stretch as far as the eye can see. We have hills covered in dense woodlands. We have remnants of ancient oak savannahs and goat prairies. We have bottom lands between the hills that are rich and fertile, the soils of which have been laid down by the countless floods in the valleys between our scenic hills and woodlands. And those bottom lands are what make up the greatest share of our cropland here. Little patches of corn or beans here and there, ten, twenty, thirty acres in size are the norm. Given the small size of the fields, it is an area more than suitable for the organic farmer – or the owners of “Kitchen Table CSA” (that would be my wife and me).
Our CSA is similar to any other CSA in that we offer heirloom vegetables, all of our produce is organic and we have a fairly wide variety of fruits and vegetables available throughout the growing season. We offer baked goods made from fresh-ground flour we do right here on the place. We have recipes and methods we share with our clients so they don’t have any questions when it comes to preparing some of our more “exotic” offerings. It is the “exotic” that sets us apart from your average CSA. We offer shareholders wild foods we harvest from our woodlands. The variety of wild greens, berries, nuts and mushrooms we forage is nothing short of remarkable. In the first three weeks of Spring, the woods are just coming to life after a long, cold winter. The first of the native prairie and woodland wildflower species to come up are the “Spring Ephemerals”, an astounding number of which are not only edible, they are delicious! The leaves of the Trout Lily are added raw to salads. They have a subtle citrus flavor and their burgundy-mottled leaves are a visual treat. Wild onions (“ramps”, as they are known in these parts) also appear at this early juncture in our foraging season. The flowers and leaves of “Spring Beauties” add a very distinct, sweet pea-like flavor to salads and side dishes alike. Far and away the favorite of all the foraged foods we offer, is the lowly and much-despised Stinging Nettle. The benefits of Stinging Nettle have been recognized for generations. My Grandmother kept two potted plants in her kitchen window sill year-round – an Aloe for burns and as an antiseptic – and a nettle plant for her “rheumatism”. Both Native Americans and the early settlers of this country used the sting from a nettle plant to ease the pain of arthritis. There is no other leafy green on the planet that contains more iron per serving than nettles. Tea brewed from the leaves of the nettle (both fresh and dried) is refreshing, healthy and delicious. It is unparalleled when served as an iced tea. And you flat haven’t lived until you have had one of my nettle pies! Our shareholders simply couldn’t get enough of them last season. We saw pictures of nettle pie, nettle quiche, nettle omelets, nettle teas, nettle pesto…all things nettle were showing up on our shareholders’ Facebook sites every day! It was an incredible experience for those who had never availed themselves of nettles in any form and made us feel like we had really done a wonderful thing in sharing the benefits of our foraging labors. There was an added benefit. Harvesting the nettles from near our house and along the fence lines between yard and field, really made our yard look a lot nicer!
Who would have ever thought the best way to beat weeds in your yard is to eat them? But as we discovered, that was true not only for the nettles, but for dandelions, garlic mustard, purslane, lamb’s-quarters and a few other species that pop up as weeds. There are evenings when Mary and I sit down to dinner for what we call “front yard salad”. With a wild berry vinaigrette and carmelized wild onions, these “weeds” make for a dining experience akin to those in the world’s finest, four-star establishments.
About three weeks after the appearance of the Spring Ephemerals, the mushrooms begin to show their distinctive heads through the thick, fluffy humus on the woodland floor. One of the first to appear is the highly-esteemed morel, an unmistakably wrinkled, dusky yellow gastronomic treasure. It is with the appearance of the morel that one of things we work hardest to promote to wanna-be foragers becomes abundantly clear – sustainability. As it is with anything that grows wild in the woods, it must be harvested judiciously, with an eye to next year’s season. It is simple mathematics. If you take everything away, nothing is what’s left. Each season that passes, the price of morels (yes, some people only harvest to sell) goes up. And each season, the greedy harvesters who are only in it for the money, become more numerous. I cannot tell you how many times I have encountered folks dressed head to toe in camouflage, trespassing on our land and taking every last morel they can find. I once asked one of these poachers if he ever wondered why there were no mushrooms in the same place where he picked a couple of pounds the year before. His reply made me sick at heart, angry to my very core and keenly aware of the mentality driving the oil and gas boom this country is suffering through right now.
“Don’t matter to me one bit, long as I get as many as I can right now. The price per pound is 22 bucks and if I have to walk a little farther to find ’em or work a little harder to get ’em, I don’t care! Besides, the more we take, the harder they are to find next year and the higher the price goes.”
And that brings it all home to the dilemma we face on our farm because of far-off fracking in far-away places. There are no shale plays here in Allamakee County. There is no fracking. But there is the best sand in the world for use in the process of hydraulic fracturing, and there are mining companies falling all over each other to get at it. It is nothing less than mountain-top removal.
The rhetoric the sand-mining companies use to sell their plans to the local township boards, county boards and city councils is exactly the same pitch used by the oil and gas companies to justify their systematic plundering of our finite natural resources. They promise jobs. They promise prosperity. They promise a brighter future. They promise reclamation. They promise no harm to a fragile environment. And every one of those promises is a damned lie. Yet they proliferate, gobbling up land at an alarming rate in Wisconsin and an increasingly alarming rate in southeast Minnesota, our neighbors a scant 15 miles to the north. And all to harvest one finite resource that can never be replaced just so someone else can use it plunder another finite resource that will never be replaced. Sounds pretty senseless when it’s all boiled down, doesn’t it? (Note to self – future article re: abundantly redundant stupidity in species Homo sapien)
We are in a unique position in Iowa when it comes to whether or not we allow the sand miners to come in and pillage our hills and farms. We can learn from the serious mistakes the folks in Wisconsin and Minnesota have made, if only we have the wisdom to do so.
Our little group, Allamakee County Protectors, hastily formed last November when we learned of the first proposed sand mine near our homes, has been successful in lobbying our county officials for an eighteen-month moratorium on sand-mining and it’s parasitic tentacles. That gives us a little time. But the wolf they like to call “energy independence” is most assuredly at the door.
“Energy Independence” is the new catch-phrase the government, in collusion with the gas and oil giants, is using to dupe a vast majority of Americans. American society has been transformed from a society which used to accomplish things, into a society that simply uses things. Most Americans are happy as long as they have the latest in electronic gadgetry, nice cars, a warm home in the winter or cool one in the summer and a lot of friends on Facebook. We have been duped into believing the more we have to make our life easier, the better off we are. Nothing is consumed anymore with an eye to where it will come from in the future. It is just “there” when we want it. Simple mathematics once again comes into play here – the more we use up, the less we have. And that is a hard and fast certainty when it comes to the thing that fuels our cars, keeps our homes comfortable, powers our I-pads and I-pods, powers our computers, our TV’s – all the things specifically designed to entertain and distract us from the real issue at hand, fossil fuels are running out.
I forage our hillsides for edible greens, berries and mushrooms with an eye to sustainability, never taking it all so I can return to the same spot next year and harvest again. And this is a certainty, they will come back as long as I am careful in my harvesting. Such is not the case for fossil fuels. They do not, will not grow back. Therefore, our thoughts toward energy sustainability must be focused differently. We absolutely must begin thinking about replacing fossil fuels with those energy sources that do grow back, or are derived from those sources that are truly unlimited, like wind and solar.
We have become oil junkies; the oil and gas giants are the dealers. As long as they continue to supply our drug of choice, we will not quibble about price and we will do whatever it takes to keep getting it. We are addicted to oil, just the same way a lot of us used to be addicted to tobacco and the dealers know damn well they can do whatever they want, charge us whatever they want and treat us like sheep being led to the slaughter. And we go willingly every step of the way, because it’s the easy choice to make. America, it’s time to make the hard choices and suffer the pains of withdrawal. I did it with tobacco and I’m the better man for it. We can all do it with fossil fuel, but it’s going to be tough. But, just think how good it will feel when the “Greedy, Lying, Bastards*” finally get their due! We will be free of our dependance on their oil/drug and free of the mindless willingness to throw our money into their hands because they have what we want. The solution is right in front of us, we just have to have the guts to take the first step.
My wife and I have taken that first step. We heat our home and our hot water from wood. Trees die in our woods all the time, it’s a part of the natural cycle of life and renewal in the woodlands, and when they are blown down in a storm, they become the fuel we need to make our life a little more comfortable. We have a wood stove in our kitchen we use for preparing meals and keeping warm in the winter.
Our total fuel consumption for preparing our gardens last year was a paltry 2.5 gallons of gas…period. That was for one day’s worth of plowing and dragging the garden spaces. Everything else was done by hand for the remainder of the year. We have a solar-powered pump attached to an abandoned (now cleared and refreshed) stone-lined well that allows us to irrigate our gardens in these drought-prone times. We use no petroleum-based chemicals or fertilizers to kill (oops, I mean enhance) our soil. Our sheep and cattle make a wonderful, very natural fertilizer that does an incredible job for us.
This will be the year when I give up mowing the lawn with a riding mower. A large part of our yard will be transformed into perennial gardens of edible plants like Jerusalem artichoke, burdock, wild grape, sage, milkweed and a host of others. The remaining portion of our yard we would like “manicured”, will be done with an old rotary push-mower, ca. 1908, that I found in the barn and have refurbished.
All of this points to the simple fact that if you’re willing to work for it, “energy independence” is real. But has NOTHING to do with fossil fuels!
As much as I love the farming part of my life, the intimacy with the earth that comes from planting a seed, tending it as it matures and reveling in the miraculous transformation from seed to fruit, it’s the foraging that makes me happier than a june bug on a big ol’ tomato. For me, being in the woods on a sunny spring day, scouting the hillside for a patch of wild onions or Trout Lilies, morel mushrooms or a big patch of "chicken-of-the-woods" (a bracket fungus which truly does “taste like chicken”), wild strawberries or "black-caps" is its own reward. Beyond the reward of the truly unique and delicious wild foods I harvest, is the occasional encounter with a huge, brilliantly-crested Downy Woodpecker or the sight of an Indigo Bunting, starkly contrasted against the emerald-hued leaves of an ancient, gnarled oak tree. As I walk through the woods, my boots turn the soft humus beneath, releasing a scent that mixes with that of cedar, oak and basswood, a potpourri only a divine hand can make. The single most overwhelming aspect of all of this is the fact that man enjoyed doing the very same thing as I do in these hills for a hundred centuries before me. It’s here because they treated it with reverence and thought only of subsistence with sustainability.
That’s why I make this promise to the frackers and the frack-sand miners: I will fight with every last ounce of my strength, exhaust every resource available to me and do whatever it takes to stop you from taking the land I love just so you can continue to suck the earth dry in your greed-fueled quest for oil and gas. You have used me for the last time. You are through stealing from my friends and neighbors. Today, I have thrown off the yoke of addiction you have made me bear my entire life. Today, I am one man on a mission to change my life. Tomorrow, my friends will join me, their friends will join them and their friends will join them. Very soon now, you “Greedy, Lying, Bastards*” will know the difference between stealing for a living and working for a living.
As my Grandpa would have said, “Tie me to the side of a hog and roll me in the mud if that don’t make some kinda sense!”
*Soon to be a major motion picture near you! Don’t miss it – GreedyLyingBastards.com