Some Questions for Your Farmer at the Farmers’ Market

Every Saturday my family and I load up and go out to our local farmers’ market (pictured above). We’ve been going for awhile now as it has become part of our Saturday routine liturgy. From there we depart for the local library and then head home.

When we first started these practices, we really had no idea what to expect or what to do. We weren’t aware of any differences between this farmer and that one. Why is this bundle of carrots more expensive than that one? Is there a specific certification I should be looking for? Basically, we walked in wanting to better our diet through local organic foods, but didn’t know where to begin.

The odd fact that there were bananas for sale in the middle of the winter in Syracuse didn’t really phase us. The plastic wrapping some vendors had around their produce seemed normal. After all, we were comfortable with plastic wrap because of its ubiquity at the grocery store. It took reading, research, and getting to know our local CSA farmer – now friend – to chisel away at our grocery store-formed imagination when it came to food.

When our imaginations begin to crumble or shift, we begin to have a new world open up before us. This new world we enter into hands us questions we must ask in order to make sense of things. Not only do coherent questions give us new markers by which we can live by, they also lead to deeper investigations and stories we (possibly) never knew existed. I know for my wife and I that this was the case in regards to our food. We were ignorantly accepting things as normal, good, and healthy simply because we didn’t know what questions to ask.

For many of us this is true due to this simple truth: we are the most divorced from ecology and agriculture civilization in history resulting in a cultural ignorance when it comes to food. As was recently said by Joel Salatin, “we know more about the Kardashians than we do about what we eat.” And because of this multigenerational predicament, many of us do not have anyone in our lives from whom we can imitate their healthy ecological and agricultural ways of life. Rather, the situation as it is, isn’t that we aren’t imitating others’ ecological and agricultural practices altogether; the problem is we are imitators by nature, thus leaving us to imitate those who are formed predominantly by the industrial/commercial/political forms of ecology and agriculture and we are unconsciously perpetuating this phenomenon.

This is fresh in my mind as we returned from the Farmers’ Market this morning. Next week a friend of mine is joining us as he and his family prepare to embark on a similar journey to ours. As I stood there today in the presence of farmers, pseudo-farmers, and food shysters I began to ponder what initial questions we asked while perusing produce and what might be helpful to others. Here is what I came up with:

1. Are you organic? Eating organic is certainly a hot topic today. Many people are wondering anew what it means to eat organically. I find it ironic that we must label what is inherently organic as such. Doesn’t seem to indicate a looming problem? Now, not everyone who grows organically is certified as organic. This is due to amount of profits, inspections, and some other factors. Regardless, they should be able to tell you how they practice organic farming. If you aren’t aware, check out the USDA Certified Organic website for more info. For local folks, check out Northeast Organic Farming Association for an abundance of helpful info.

Any easy way to tell – and a true story, no less – is to compare prices of produce from different organic farmers. If a quart of tomatoes from one seller is a steep $3 difference from another, you can bet the cheap one isn’t actual organic.

2. Where is your farm? Or in other words, are you local? Many people at the Regional Market – some even say 60% of the vendors – do not actually farm. They attend an auction where they buy surplus produce and then sell it at a major mark up for the betterment of their bottom lines. In some, if not many cases, they do not know what it is they are selling because they don’t know what it is they are buying at auction. Sure, it looks like a potato, but the conditions it grew in, the treatment of the workers who harvested it, and the amount of miles it has traveled to get to them is unknown. Unknown produce is a commidified product that will empty your wallet as it fills your stomach with potentially harmful material.

3. Can I visit your farm? If they are local and grow their own food, stay with them. Shop there for a few weeks and then ask this follow up question to, “Where is your farm?”. Many farmers are on their property for the majority of their work week. The ones I have spoken with have been more than hospitable in inviting me to visit. The ones I have visited have allowed me to see their fields, barns, animals, etc. which has easily ensured me of the quality of their harvests. Be wary of a farmer who won’t let you visit their farm.

I don’t presume to be an authority on any of these matters. I bring up these questions and concerns as one who is curious, worried, and longing for health. For me, there is no fragmenting between spiritual, physical, and ecological/agricultural health. The further I have investigated and participated in healthy ecological/agricultural practices, the further I have wanted others to join with us. I hope what I have learned thus far is helpful.

What questions do you ask? What has been helpful in your context? I’d love to hear.

 

Wendell Berry: Poet and Prophet [An Interview with Bill Moyers]

Not too many people have the wit and wisdom of Wendell Berry. Coupled with his erudite insight and, as Bill Moyers says, clairvoyance, Berry has been a voice of critique and hope for multitudes of people over the past several decades. Longevity in an age of immediacy and instant amnesia is a testament to the level of perennial relevance found in Berry’s words.

Yet beyond his words, his actions have spoken volumes. He does not merely write from a place of privilege and comfort; no, he writes as a farmer living on a family farm overlooking the Kentucky River and participates in sit-ins in that same state’s halls of assumed power. All that to say, the particular and the local he writes of flow directly from a life lived in the particular and local.

I have read many of Berry’s works and have – quite honestly – been changed and challenged for the better. Please watch the above interview regardless if you’ve been a follower for years or have never heard of him. Then pick up one of the following books. I pray you will allow the candor, angst, humor, and, above all, intermingling of hope and love to transform you.

The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture

What Are People For?

Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community

Jayber Crow

The Way of Ignorance: And Other Essays

Soil & Sacrament: Fred Bahnson

Fred Bahnson is quickly becoming one of my favorite theologians.

Not because he is bringing an abundance of theology and exegesis new to my ears and heart. Not because he is well known and widely read. Rather, it is the practices of his life combined with his nuanced understanding of God at work in, through, and among God’s creation. In short, he gets his hands dirty.

This is not to say he is solely a theologian. Indeed, he is much more. He constantly weaves history, global agricultural methods, and sociology – to name a few – with theological astuteness. Together, he is able to speak to myriad of connected realms.

And this is precisely what he does by tying back together in the name of the kingdom of God what our society has compartmentalized. In my humble opinion, he – along with others such as his coauthor Norman Wirzba and legend Wendell Berry – speaks to the most often overlooked and relegated aspect of the kingdom of God: creation. Throughout his work – both written and physical – Bahnson brings to our attention the need for understanding interdependently living with and among creation as we are a part of it.

Today I ordered his newest book (through Speakeasy) by the same name as the above video clip: Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith. I am really looking forward to it as he is one of the few theologians/practitioners pushing for an ecological theology. Once I’ve read it I will post a review, so stay attentive.

In the meantime check out these other Fred Bahnson resources:

Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation (coauthored with Norman Wirzba)

FredBahnson.com

Wildgoose Festival: Speaking on Soil and Sacrament

“What grows in a garden?” – Washington Post article

Roasted Chicken and Vegetables: A Simple Meal (With Great Leftovers)

I am not a cook and am nowhere near anything resembling a chef. Thankfully, my wife grew up in the house of a chef – her father – and can cook. I have reaped the many benefits of this upbringing and, for this, I am forever grateful. Seriously, it is amazing.

However, this meal is quickly becoming my favorite. Not only does it taste unbelievable, is locally grown and organic, it is also ridiculously easy to prepare. In our efforts to simplify life while becoming more and more aware of what it is we are eating, we have found that this meal has become a weekly staple in our house. Not only do we love it, our daughters (ages 4 and 2; 9 month old will soon) eat it up too. In many ways, this meal and others like it, have begun to reshape our imaginations and practices surrounding food as we participate in both our local ecology and economy.

What you see below feeds all of us well.

Ingredients

Whole, cleaned chicken

2 Carrots

3-5 Potatoes – both red and white

1-2 Sweet potatoes

1 Red/green/purple pepper

1 eggplant

(Add any other vegetables you’d like.)

Olive Oil

Coarse Kosher Salt

Materials

Parchment paper

Dutch Oven

Baking/cookie sheet

Cook Time: 50 minutes

Preparation

1. Preheat your oven to 450° F.

2. While waiting for the oven to preheat, rinse your vegetables. Peal and cut into similar sized pieces for even cooking.

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3. After vegetables are rinsed, pealed and cut, place the parchment paper on the baking/cookie sheet. Drizzle them lightly with olive oil as a coating, so they don’t stick to the parchment paper.

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4. We purchase organic, grass fed chickens from Hilltop Farms in Moravia. For local folks, Hilltop Farm’s farmer, Delmar, is in Shed A at the Regional Market every Saturday. He is always in the middle of the aisle waiting with chickens, eggs, and a warm Mennonite smile. (We always get our eggs from him as well.)

Clean what remnants (feathers) may be on your chicken and place breast-side up in your Dutch oven. Graciously salt and place in your oven for 25 minutes. We always place it on the upper rack to ensure crispy skin and juicy meat.

After the initial 25 minutes, place your vegetables sheet on the lower rack for another 25 minutes.

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5. Take both vegetables and chicken out of oven after 50 minutes. Poke the thighs with a fork; if clear liquid comes out, then it is finished.

Let rest for 15-20 minutes and then dive in!   DSC00896

Leftovers

My wife always uses the leftovers of the chicken to make stock for future dishes. Again, it is easy as the meal above.

Stock

1. Fill Dutch oven with water until approximately half of the chicken is covered.

2. Turn heat up to HIGH until boiling.

3. Once boiling, turn heat to LOW and let simmer for 45-60 minutes.

4. Take chicken out of Dutch oven.

5. Place a strainer in your favorite refrigerator-safe container and pour contents into it.

6. Allow to cool prior to refrigeratoring. After it chills, use it in rice, orzo, or whatever else you want.

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I hope this was helpful. If you are just embarking on the local, organic, slow food journey or have been traveling this path for some time, I’d love to hear what and how you eat. What have you learned? What are you enjoying?

Summer Activities: Intentional, Slow, Reflective

This summer has been a sabbatical of sorts for my family and I. For the past 11 or so years, we have been involved in church planting efforts here in Syracuse and in Philadelphia during, and for a short while after, college. As the saying goes, sweat, blood and tears have gone into our efforts and in many ways we are now in need of some rest.

Awhile ago I posted Summer Reading: Intentional, Slow, Reflective. There I listed the books I was going to be engaging with, not for information alone, but for their formative aspects as well. I have since completed the first two and have enjoyed them immensely. “Enjoyed” isn’t the proper word; it is more like finding a soothing balm for my soul. It has been said that God meets us in the things we love. Reading is something I love and have found God’s subtle whisper in many of the pages I have covered.

And yet, rest is not the cessation of activity. It is not a pulling away from work. (Indeed, reading itself is not rest; it requires quite a bit of attentiveness, reflection, and vulnerability. It is not nothing, as some might assume.) Rather than simply putting the brakes on certain things and allowing a void, my wife and I have put down some markers for our summer. Just as I have purposely engaged in intentional, slow, reflective reading as a portion of my formation, we have purposely placed before us some activities that are equally as formative. One might call it a rule of life for the summer. I share them here in hopes you might find some encouragement, insight, or furthering of your own ideas.

Getting In Bed By 10pm

One of the main disciplines I have always struggled with is sleep. Yes, sleep is a discipline. Many of us, myself included, are unaware and thus very unintentional about our sleeping patterns. We have assumed our spiritual lives have nothing to do with our sleeping or lack thereof. Like small children, we all get cranky, apathetic, and/or sick due to insufficient amounts of sleep. For many, our physical bodies have had nothing to do with our Christian discipleship – beyond not having premarital sex – and yet we wonder why lethargy creeps in emotionally, spiritually, socially, and many other ways when we are constantly tired. We are whole beings, living with bodies intimately tied to our souls, both needing rest. For my wife and I, being aware of our sleep, especially with 3 small children, is vital to our overall health, both physical and spiritual, which are eternally tethered.

Working on the Farm

We joined a Community Supported Agriculture community for the summer and early fall. This means that we have financially contributed to the well-being and productivity of a local farm, 1860 Organics, in exchange for a weekly share of their produce. Theological convictions coupled with ecological and economical realities have pushed us into doing this and we have already learned much.

In an effort to engage in hands on learning, we have decided to help out at the farm once a week. Receiving local, organic fruits and vegetables on a weekly basis has already changed our outlooks on food, but we want to learn the skills necessary for cultivating these things. The 15 or so minute drive to the farm is well worth the education we have been receiving in understanding the ins and outs of what it takes to put food on the table. Thankfully, we have been able to bring our daughters to the farm and our oldest daughter has been able to do a small amount of work alongside me. Having their imaginations formed in a way that sees food as something that takes time, patience, and tenderness instead of just easily picked up as a grocery store commodity is something we see as highly beneficial.

Moreover, it has been eye-opening to see the deep correlation between church planting and actual agricultural work. Planting, weeding, watering coalesce with patience, humility, and openhandedness in a way that brings to life many of Scripture’s stories. Yes, it is work, but it is a work that has been subtly formative as we endeavor to understand the dust we are made from.

Being Attentive to Our Neighbors

One of the recurring themes within the missional, church planting movement(s) is being attentive to our neighbors. I firmly believe this to be true, especially as we move deeper into the neighborhood in our efforts to join with God as God works. However, one of the most overlooked and underdeveloped practices of many in the missional conversation is this actual attentiveness to our neighbors. The busyness that comes along with trying to cultivate, organize, and equip missional disciples often manifests itself in leaders who have little to no time for those living next door or down the street. I know this was and is true of me and I have heard similar stories from many church planters.

So, we have been intentionally sitting outside with our girls. And not out back, which is still open to seeing others due to being on a corner lot, but out front. In the little time we have been doing this daily activity, we have already had frequent conversations with our next door neighbors and have also met “new” neighbors. Hearing the stories of our neighbors’ work days, children’s schedules, and summer traveling has furthered the posture we believe Jesus wants to develop in all of us: being listeners. It’s amazing how much learning can be done by simply being present to people.

These are just three areas we are purposely engaging in for the summer – and (hopefully) longer. Each one is intentional, slow, and reflective, for which time, patience, and rootedness are prerequisites. Certainly, there seem to be shortcuts, quick results, or unconscious efforts we could engage in. Unfortunately, we often do seek to skip ahead, fast forward, and ignorantly become concave people. The life this brings about generally reeks of self-importance, self-aggrandizement, and self-contentedness. Our hope is to push beyond this in restful ways this summer.

My prayer underneath all of this is from the beginning of the Benedictine Hours: Apertis oculis nostris, which means “Let us open our eyes.”