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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What the Monster Actually Is

I heard my ancestors from the Trail of Tears at my elbow yesterday. I was sitting in a meeting of the Planning Commission in Ortonville, Minnesota. Briefly, the Township had repulsed the efforts of a company that wanted to do aggregate mining. They didn't want the environmentally damaging project next to a State Park and wildlife area. So, the City of Ortonville decided to annex the land and let the project go forward.

My ancestors reminded me that that's been the attitude of this society for centuries. “We don't like how you use your land, so we'll kick you off and give it to someone who can make money with it.”

There are many other instances of the same thing going on, from the spectacularly newsworthy XL pipeline to “local” issues like frac sand mining or nuclear waste disposal. That word, “local,” is the problem. Yes, each instance affects the environment and people in a particular place, but until we realize that they're all of a piece we won't be able to fight them effectively. Our aggregate fight is your pipeline fight is their plutonium fight- are the voter suppression and women's rights fights.

We need to remember that Capitalism isn't the normal economic state of humankind, but an experiment only a few centuries old. It involved, for the first time in history, creating economic organizations which are considered as legal persons. These life forms have only one ethical imperative- to grow and make profits. Such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Teddy Roosevelt warned us that they are monsters that need to be kept in cages.

For most of US history there were enough easy resources to be had that The Monster “just” displaced Native Americans. It “just” enslaved black people, then children. The fights that brought us the 40-hour week, safe working conditions, an end to child labor, even the Weekend, are barely a century old. We're in the process of losing them again.

By all means, we need to fight those local battles. We also need to be aware of how they all link together, and back each other up.

But what we most need to do is build an alternative System, as “off the grid” of corporate control as we can. Even growing our own food is becoming illegal in some places- imagine growing a garden as being the civil disobedience equivalent to Rosa Parks keeping her seat on the bus, or to a bunch of guys sitting at a segregated lunch counter. Pushing real Local Foods could get us into that kind of trouble.

Another bit of history. There is a saying from the Holocaust, attributed to Martin Niemöller:
First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
They're coming for Homosexuals.
They're coming for Liberals.
They're coming for Teachers.
They're coming for Organic Farmers.
When will they be coming for you?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

09/15/12- Elk's Bluff Open House

05:23:11 PM Finally, a break. I got here at about 12:30 to help with setup. I prepared with my computer, business cards, and books in the Processing Room, where I could explain the whys and hows of the greenhouse itself.
Coming up the Driveway

The overall setup is impressive. Coming down the long driveway a visitor sees a big white pavilion tent with tables and chairs. A low bandstand is ready along one wall with a white canvas backdrop. Around the garage are a couple of smaller tents, for serving food and taking entries for door prizes.

The center of it all is the barn-under-transformation. The construction is a bit behind schedule, as we've had several dry, dusty, windy days when little work could be done. They're still planning to be in operation by late October.

In the barn's entry and front room is the guest book, with a display of crafts and antiques for sale. Much of the barn has been converted to a funky antique and crafts shop.

Almost finished greenhouse
Toward the rear is the Processing Room. This fifteen by thirty space has two windows and a door that look out into the greenhouse. About one third will be where produce from the greenhouse is packed for delivery. The rest is set aside as a meeting area for organizing the greenhouse network that we envision, and for other community meetings such as Transition.

Just before 2:00, the scheduled start time, we wondered whether anyone would come. Ha! Right at 2:00 a line of five cars turned in- not related, just with the same idea. It hasn't let up since. Carol and I have traded off manning the room, explaining and elaborating. I've occasionally wandered about, taking pictures. I haven't looked at the guest book, but I wouldn't be surprised to find that over a hundred people have come through.

I've personally talked with people from several states- Iowa, Wisconsin, California, and Minnesota, and one from France. Many are thinking about building their own, but some have come representing groups such as food co-ops.

The festivities went on until about 8 pm. The band played, other musicians jammed, people kept coming through... (The short clip is of my wife, Carol Ford, and our friend Richard Handeen.)

This is the kind of community building that makes genuine Local Foods work.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Community- and questions


We had a fine party last night at Java River Coffeehouse in Montevideo, Minnesota. It was a fine party, but for a sad reason. It was to bid a fond farewell to the Wright family, who are leaving our area to move back to the Twin Cities.

That there was good food goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway. Aside from sloppy Joes it was mostly light stuff- crockpot beans, cupcakes, pico de gallo, slaw, chips. The loyal staff was on hand to make fancier drinks than the free coffee.

Many luminaries from the local arts and music scene, along with many Sustainable Ag folks, were on hand. Java River has two rooms, which worked well- those who wanted to could sit in the louder, more crowded music room, while the bar room was the place for more involved, philosophic discussions. Several people wandered about, alternating doses of crowd and chat.

Some of the folks were writers and scholars of note, so of course talk turned to my book- which brings me to the questions:


I really need some feedback from my loyal readers on this.

Writing my next book was spurred by people saying that perhaps the Local Foods and Sustainability movements had taken a wrong turn somewhere, so I went to see what was what. Conversations on my road trip, and especially since then, have shifted in their focus. They've become more dire. More and more people are seeing that we've lost the battle to stop Climate Change, that this civilization is going to run right off the Peak Oil cliff at full speed, and that politics has gone utterly insane.

They are losing hope- but the question is "hope in what?" I agree that we're not going to stop the calamities bearing down on us, but that doesn't mean that the situation is hopeless. Hope of avoiding trouble is a false hope, but hope to build something that comes through the tumultuous times to nurture our descendants is very real and sustaining. Pretending that this isn't a stormy sunset does no good, but neglecting that there will be a sunrise is downright blasphemous.

So my question is: Do people need me to take a somewhat darker tone in my writing, but saying that there will be a calm after the storm? We won't be there to see it, but who will be and what they will have to work with are our responsibility. Do I remind that Hope always includes Responsibility?

Thursday, August 30, 2012

08/28/12- Step by Step

Can You Dig It?  
We're plugging away at the Elk's Bluff Greenhouse. The trickier subground work is now done. The above ground work will go very fast, especially as a bunch of friends will be coming over to work on it.

Even if all the details aren't finished, they'll be ready for the Open House and party on Saturday, September 15th. See the Facebook announcement at Come one, come all! There will be food, crafts, our books for sale, and music on Saturday, September 15th, 2012, from 2 until 8 pm. Look for the greenhouse on the east side of Highways 7 and 59, just north of Montevideo, Minnesota!

Busy, busy, busy

My next book is also coming along nicely. It brings me joy to remember my voyage of discovery, and to talk over what I found with others.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

08/28/12- Good News and Bad News

Good News!
Progress on the greenhouse at Elk's Bluff continues. Yesterday I put in a few hours helping with ventilation pipe for the heat storage system. We should have the entire sub-ground section done by Thursday.

Their plan is still to have a big Open House and party on Saturday, September 15th. See the Facebook announcement at Come one, come all! There will be food, crafts, our books for sale, and music on Saturday, September 15th, 2012, from 2 until 8 pm. Look for the greenhouse on the east side of Highways 7 and 59, just north of Montevideo, Minnesota!

Bad News

I got a phone call today from a contact in the Twin Cities. She wanted to talk about the Great Garlic Disaster, which most of us only heard about at the annual Garlic Festival. Few people realize that most of the garlic in southern Minnesota was wiped out by a freakish invasion of leaf hoppers! These critters, blown in on strange winds from Texas, carried a virus that mostly effects garlic. We're lucky, as a slightly different version effects carrots, cone flowers (eccinacia), and dozens of other plants. She's been having some trouble getting solid information on just what happened, and on whether it's safe to plant her surviving garlic as seed for next year.

I told her that this illustrates something that I've seen in my travels- pretty much everywhere is having plagues of invasive species, or locals gone all out of kilter. I've seen mites, Japanese beetles, leaf hoppers, flea beetles, and various borers. In some places they're worried about grasshoppers going berserk just before harvest.

The problem that concerned her is that nobody seems to be talking about this. As gardeners/farmers we're all effected by such events. Knowing what's going on, and what did or didn't help, is vital. I remind folks that we have a site for discussing issues- It's not much, but it's a way to get the word out. Join us, and post what you've been seeing.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Taking It to a New Level

I'm carving out time as best I can to work on the travel book. My contacts around the loop gave me a lot of good material.

I'm also helping some people here get their greenhouse up and going, as the project has expanded on them. It started with a retired engineer wanting to put a small greenhouse off of his barn. Friends and relations got involved. The greenhouse is now going to be twice as big, and the barn converted into a shop for selling crafts and local foods. The guy is also planting more fruit trees, expanding his spring sugar tapping, and building a chicken coop. This is what the New World looks like.

They're having an open house/grand opening on September 15th, just northwest of Montevideo, MN. ( There will be food, a couple of local bands, and media coverage. We want to start this operation off with a bang. It would be wonderful if some of you could come, to meet our sustainability community, and to share your own adventures. Building community is the whole point, and if our community can help inspire yours, or vice-versa, great.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Road work can be good for you

This morning I awoke to find that it's our neighborhood's turn for the water and sewer upgrade work that's disrupted things around Milan this summer. I got home late from the theatre, so of course they started bright and early, with machinery that sounded like a whole battalion of tanks was invading. The critters were all upset. One cat kept running from window to window, trying to figure out what the heck was going on. I hid in the back bedroom and managed to get enough sleep- I hope.
When I awoke it was to find a workman at the door, asking that I move my car. I hadn't realized that they'd be tearing up BOTH streets on our corner. I guess that we'll be parking in the alley and coming in through the garden for a while.

I'm not really complaining. The work needs to be done. Change, especially positive change, tends to be disruptive. This had been put off for a while, so it was being a bit more disruptive than it might have needed to be. Things need fixing when they need it- the longer you wait, the harder it gets.

Being thoroughly awake, I put on some music and tackled housework. Today I chose a '50s pop mix: I like the old crooners, the McGuire Sisters, Percy Faith, and Les Paul. While doing dishes I was hit by an epiphany, one of those moments when several ideas crystallize into something new.

The first insight is very obvious, that change requires tearing out the old structures, and is disruptive and scary.

The second was in considering the sentimentality of the music. You can't really blame those who regret the passing of that age. I know, it wasn't great for everyone, far from it, but it was for a lot of folks.

The third element was the conversations that I've had with people about the idea that Western Civilization hit its peak around the late-middle Twentieth Century.

Then it struck me. By the 1950s we'd hit on the general framework for a just and prosperous society. The Civil Rights protests that were starting then were a sort of “road work,” fixing things that weren't quite right. It was work that desperately needed doing, but could be accomplished. The work got more intense in the '60s. We tackled racial equality, women's rights, pollution, and poverty. These things needed fixing, and could be in that general social framework.

Then it went wrong. Some people didn't like the “road work.” They wanted the peacefulness of the '50s without the disruption. They thought that things had been fine before all those troublemakers got uppity. They stood up to put a stop to the whole thing. Nixon got elected. Fundamentalist religions exploded.

We spent the '70s vacillating, then Reagan was elected, and our fate was sealed. The “road work” was left half done. It became mainstream to say that there'd been no need to “tear up the streets” at all.

Consider that Nixon, a scary conservative, would be a Lefty today. That's how much things have changed.

So, here we are, with far worse disruptions on the horizon. We could have avoided many of them if we'd finished what we'd started decades ago, but too many people found it inconvenient.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Home again, home again, jiggity jig

That's that phase completed. In a week I covered about 1650 miles. I brought back hours of recorded interviews, pages of notes, hundreds of photos, and a head full of memories. I found what I went looking for. It's surprisingly simple, yet fraught with implications. I was enraptured at scenery, inspired by what people were doing, intrigued at oddities, annoyed at foolishness, and saddened by looking ahead. I discovered the magical effect on a room of saying "I'm a writer doing research..."

I slept in a cottage in the woods, at two tourist hotels, on a couch on a hippie farm in the bush, in a nice suburban bedroom, and on a hide-a-bed in an apartment in St. Paul. I talked with people sitting around kitchen tables, standing around gas stations and tourist traps, on back porches, in a Chinese buffet, in college offices and classrooms, in lakeside parks, and in a semi-clandestine activist gathering. I rescued a disabled veteran hitchhiker, and jumped an oil worker's car.

I talked to store clerks, journalists, construction workers, civil servants, professors, teachers, and farmers. They were from several countries, and ranged from pregnant young women with strapping young husbands, to middle-aged hippies, to retired folks.

What I found, in barest bones, is that people are scared. They see things falling apart, that nothing is dependable any more. They see different Major Threats, but it all adds up to trouble. Most are just rolling with it. Some are getting pissed-off and protesting. Others are thinking long-term, patiently building.

The New World lies in Community, Trust, Compassion, Cleverness, and Foresight. Those words kept coming up, with spins according to situations and experiences.

As I review what happened I'm amazed at all that I did, and what people came my way. My greatest danger was in taking three hours to make a one-hour drive, with all the pictures and people along the way. I could have taken a month on this trip and filled it. I feel bolstered by the words of Steinbeck and Heat-Moon- I'm an apprentice in their Guild. I can write this book. Books?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Farther North than North

Looking south from farther north than North
Growing up in Minnesota, I came to think of the Lake of the Woods as waaay up there, the sticks, the boonies, a place where dog sleds and voyageurs still roamed. Imagine my surreal feeling at eating fish and chips tonight at a window overlooking that Utter North from yet further north.

My bed in a straw bale house at Room to Grow
Where I am- the Super 8 in Kenora, Ontario. In two days I've gone from sleeping in a hotel in a boom town, across miles of prairie, visiting the site of my earliest memories, crossing an international border, sleeping in the equivalent of an Irish thatched cottage, driving through miles and miles of canola (It smells like warm cauliflower), finding a friend of Minnesota friends on a back road of the Canadian prairie, driving through more miles and miles of canola, finding a place in the bush after three turns on unmarked gravel roads, crashing on a hippie couch, driving through glacial hills, across ordinary prairie, across flat-as-a-pancake prairie, through classic northern woods, past a huge meteor crater lake, into the oldest rock outcroppings on the planet among lakes and trees, to a place reminiscent of Grand Marais, but about five times as big.

Sunday, July 22, 2012


Good morning, world! Hello trees! Hello birds! Hello juniper bush! (If you get that, pass it on)

I was too bleary-eyed last night to file, although I did write several pages of notes that only I will need to decipher.

For a day when I really had nothing planned but travelling, a lot happened. In short:
  1. I saw the Prairie in all its glory
  2. I met a bunch of interesting bikers
  3. I picked up a hitchhiker with stories to tell
  4. I saw the camper-driving, Albertan, equivalent of the "Little Old Lady from Pasadena"
  5. I had an OK Chinese buffet supper with lots of people to watch

And all this while just heading toward the object of my quest. I feel a bit like Bilbo Baggins.

This morning I got an email about changes to the rest of the trip. My contacts, bless 'em, are hooking my up with excellent sources. I'll have to restrain and pace myself, but I'm embracing the itinerary changes. Oh, the places I'll see!

So, it's off to put the feedbag on Sleipnir, dig into my own life sustaining supplies, and head to Bottineau.

Friday, July 20, 2012

07/20/12- Onward

They got old on us!
“They've all gone to look for America
Simon and Garfunkle, America

I've been in the Local Foods Movement for about a decade. I've seen great successes in that time, including our own greenhouse, and our Northlands Winter Greenhouse Manual. Community Gardens, CSAs, Community Kitchens, and Food Co-ops are springing up all over. The “counter-food” culture has grown and changed enormously in that decade, even making the cover of Time magazine.

But some of my colleagues are expressing doubts. Have our successes been the “right successes?” Are we really building something sustainable, a sense of food-based cooperative community, or just a tie-dyed, free range parody of the Industrial Food System? What do we do now that our grass-roots movement has been overtaken by big players with huge resources, their own agendas, and little desire to coordinate efforts? Is that a good thing that we just need to adapt to, or something to shun?

Then there's the sense of urgency- or the lack of it. Fires, floods, droughts, and extreme temperatures are happening on unprecedented scales. Arctic lakes have begun literally fizzing, giving up their millenia-worth of stored CO2. The “recovery” from the Great Recession has stalled out but for isolated industries and places. Writers like Richard Heinberg and John Michael Greer point out that the “Era of Growth” is over. Yet, projects like the Transition Movement are making headway only spottily, and the Local Foods Movement seems to have little consciousness of its own vital importance.

I see enormous needs to prepare for, and have some grasp of how to proceed. Why do others seemingly not see or feel this, or don't know what to do? This isn't necessarily the End of the World, but it's certainly the end of centuries of exploitative “business as usual.” A big change is coming- We can do this easy, or we can do this hard.

It's also a spiritual question. Who we are is inescapably linked with the natural world around us, a fact that too many have forgotten. The Changes, which have already started, will force us to face that reality again. We'll need to devise new answers to the Great Questions: Who are we? What is our place? Is there a reason for our existence? What kinds of answers does a people who have lost everything devise? We've seen the wreckage when cultures are overrun and obliterated- What about when it's all human peoples, everywhere? I believe that those answers are growing, even now.

What's happening out there? Like Ulysses, I've fought my own “Trojan War,” and now undertake a voyage of discovery on my way home. What monsters are others battling? What narcotic lotus blossoms have lulled some to sleep? What seductive suitors are trying to steal away my kith and kin?

I need to go see. I may or may not like what I find. The voyage may even be perilous, but I doubt that it will be boring.

Sleipnir in Milan
I'll try to blog along the way, but may have limited Internet access in some places. The blog posts will also find their way into the book I'm writing, Travels with Chuck in Search of the New World, with an appreciative nod to John Steinbeck for blazing the road-story path. I plan that each chapter of the book will include interviews, photos, and the impressions and ideas that they bring forth.

Almost There

No Battle Plan Survives Contact With the Enemy”
        German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke

I've seen that the same can be said of trips. Just before, or just after, you start something will come up. This morning it did- nothing major, but resulting in a change of route and timing.

I wouldn't mention it at all, except that it relates directly to the book. Several of the folks I'll be visiting are involved in research to make Sustainable Ag more- sustainable. This often involves writing grants, which is a headache in itself. What's worse is how the grant agencies tend to write the requirements for their “Innovation Grants” in such a way as to exclude anything really innovative. They tend to want to fund projects to make fundamentally unsustainable Industrial Ag projects look “greener,” gobbling up funds that new ideas need to come to fruition. None of us has escaped this madness in our efforts.

One of my contacts emailed me today, that they need the time we'd planned on to recover from a surprise of this sort- disappearing funding and changes of plans. We'll still get together, just not when, where and for as long as we'd planned.

John Steinbeck got into trouble trying to take his dog, Charlie, across the US/Canada border. I'm planning to cross that border more than once, but Carol insisted that I need a “Charlie” along. I've also thought that this trip calls for a special cap. Problems solved!

Yesterday was Crazy Day in Montevideo. The dance studio on the main drag was having a garage sale, at which I found an authentic, new, well fitting Greek fisherman's cap, and an ideal traveling companion, a plush koala bear. I plan to name her/him “Travelin' Toonie, the koala copilot.” Toonie cost two dollars. In Canada they have a $2 coin called a “toonie.” Hence- Travelin' Toonie. (S)he will appear in photos along the way.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

07/19/12- Preparations

“We are on a mission from God.”

The Blues Brothers (The original, not that crappy sequel)

I finished Steinbeck's Travels with Charlie, again, and have started on William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways and Carolyn Baker's Sacred Demise. These books feel like conversations with good friends- sometimes sad friends, but simapitcos.

Christianity has a saying, “All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.” Most Faiths have something similar, but that's the best known version. For me, it's that smoothness when I'm “in the groove.” When I'm not, it's like I'm constantly bashing my head against obstacles and clashing with dunderheads.

As Joseph Campbell put it, “Follow your bliss.”

It was that way with Garden Goddess. We built the greenhouse, and things easily fell into place. People we needed to know just showed up. Chances to spread the word competed for our time. Not that it wasn't hard work, but it was work that flowed.

That changed. Yes, our greenhouse manual was selling. Yes, people were building greenhouses. Yes, we had speaking engagements. But, we ran into more obstacles. People started to get weird on us- Ones who should have been partners ignored us or got in our way. Connections and plans that should have worked out, didn't. We could feel that the context had shifted. I started saying to myself, “My work here is done.” We needed to rethink things.

With this trip and writing work, I'm back in the groove. Improbable but significant people have just shown up to be a part of it. I was prepared to camp, but folks all along the way have offered beds.

Carol's story is Carol's story to tell, but I'll just say that she's having similar synchronicities and bliss.

“I'm off to get my life-sustaining supplies- corn meal and gunpowder and ham hocks and guitar strings.”
Yukon Cornelius, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer

My, that preface got out of hand! What I was originally going to write about was going for trip supplies. Yesterday I went to the Big City out here, Willmar, population about 20,000. Don't laugh. That would have been considered a city anywhere on Earth clear up until about a century ago- context matters.

As I sat having lunch in my favorite Chinese buffet, finishing Travels with Charlie, and people watching, I got the feeling of being in Rome a few years before the barbarians invaded, or Pompeii before Vesuvius blew. No, not quite Rome- they knew what a threat the barbarians were. There was an episode of Doctor Who a while back that made the point- The Pompeiians didn't really know what a volcano WAS. They had no concept of the danger they were in.

Maybe both apply. Some people understand what kind of trouble we're in, but most don't. The insight that developed from last weekend's incident at the theatre, see my Lessons on Human Nature, is that they literally CAN'T. Getting angry and arguing with them is useless. It would be like arguing with that pleasant Down's Syndrome fellow the other night.

We must each ask, “What am I doing?” not “Who am I arguing with?” or “What fruitless protest am I involved with?”

Monday, July 16, 2012

07/16/12- Lessons on Human Nature

It's about half a week until I hit the road. My gear is mustered, and most of my supplies are laid in. I'm exchanging final emails with contacts about details. I'm hitting that angsty stage just before a trip- as Steinbeck wrote about in Travels with Charlie, there grows a conviction that it will never happen, that home is infinitely preferable to the discomforts of the road, that you're crazy to even think about going.

Where am I going? The “map answer” is: From West Central Minnesota up the Dakotas, across some of Manitoba and Ontario, back down to the Twin Cities via the North Shore of Lake Superior, then across Minnesota to Home. The “people answer” is: I'll be visiting folks who have accomplished things involving Sustainable Agriculture and Local Foods. The “philosophical answer,” the true core of my quest, is that I'm looking for signs of the new world that will emerge from our current predicament-ridden era.

Not to belabor the point, at the least we now face the end of about two centuries of energy-intensive, exploitative, “business as usual,” Industrial Civilization. Some respectable sources say that we may be facing much worse. I hope not.

Three of my efficient, courteous staffers
I experienced an incident the other night which has lessons for the situation. I'm Assistant Manager at a small-town, three-screen movie theatre. This means that I open and close, run projectors, sell tickets, supervise the cleanup and concessions staff, count money, and generally keep an eye on things. It's a great job for a writer- I can study and write during films and before we open.

Like any Mom and Pop scale business we have regulars. Among them are residents of local group homes for “challenged adults-” that's folks with handicaps, especially mental ones. A couple of nights each week they arrive in groups of five or six, with a caregiver/minder. That night I'd sold tickets to such a group. After the obligatory high fives and “have funs,” they went in to see The Amazing Spiderman.

About half way through the movie another regular came running out.

“Quick! Call 911! There's a guy in there having a heart attack!” he shouted.

I made the call, and ran upstairs to stop the projector and bring up the lights. The Good Samaritan said that he'd keep an eye on the cash drawer and all while I was gone. Three more guys came running out, saying, “Whatever we can do to help, just tell us!” They went out to wave down the emergency vehicles and make sure that the double exit doors were unlatched and wide open.

By the time I got back downstairs the EMTs and First Responders were there, working on the guy. None of the twenty or thirty folks in the movie freaked out. Many asked whether they could help.

In a very few minutes the ambulance arrived, and they wheeled the unconscious victim out on a gurney. Shit! It was one of the group home guys! As the Caregiver shepherded his flock out after their friend, one turned to reassure me with a big grin and two thumbs up.

“Thas' OK Shuck! We'll be back ta da movie next time!”

He had no idea what had just happened. I could have cried.

The first lesson I see in this is that most people, when they see trouble, want to help. It's pretty much an Article of Faith for me: Most people mean well. The other is that when bad things that are beyond their experience happen, they either put a good face on it, denying the severity, or they get mean, attacking the messenger: All people have limits on the bad news they can absorb. Both are normal. Humans are just like that.

The trouble today is, that while most people mean well, few can wrap their heads around the scope or time scale of the trouble we're in. Warning, warning, warning them isn't doing much good, as they freak out or stick their fingers in their ears and shout “la la la la la.”

We need to be able to say, “Yup, things are bad, but they'll get better after they get worse. Here's what we're gonna do...”

That's what I want to find out- what are those who see, doing? What comes in the next chapter of Humanity's saga?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Useless Meetings

“Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side”
For What it's Worth, Buffalo Springfield

 In sadness and frustration, I walked out of another meeting today. We Progressives have seen more of them than we can count- meetings that accomplish little more than making the organizers feel that they “did something,” and maybe passed along some warm fuzzies, or more likely a vague dissatisfaction. They never seem to realize that people's time and money are precious, and that the huge tasks we have to handle are too big and too urgent for farting around. I've seen many well-intentioned projects stall out and accomplish nothing because of this basic lack or organization. You know exactly what I mean, if you're willing to admit it.

I've seen what works, and I've seen what doesn't. Off the top of my head-


Meetings in general must provide:

  1. A challenge to the attendees to change something in their lives or to tackle a task- to ACT.
  2. Some new and interesting idea, not just a minor detail on something everyone already knew.
  3. An Action Plan- What do we do next? What do I do next?
  4. Some deeper insight than,”Yup, we're the good guys and they're the bad guys.”
  5. Definite solace to people who've been hurt- with a plan of how to help, even if it's just active sympathy and meals for a week.
  6. Clear affirmation that a good, or bad, situation is what it appears to be, and that we're there for each other in it.
  7. A progress report of a quality and clarity that you could publish.
Any meeting without at least two of these is questionable. Any with NONE was a waste of time.


Business meetings must have a clear, logical flow, including:-

  1. A clear agenda, either passed out or posted in big letters- and followed loudly and clearly.
  2. Time to clearly discuss/debate any item to be voted on.
  3. Candidates for offices speaking before the whole group before a vote is taken.
Failure to follow these will lead to confusion and resentment. If your group is incorporated, skipping them is likely illegal.


If it's an outdoor meeting-

  1. Provide LOTS of big, clearly legible signage saying-
    1. Who is welcome.
    2. Where the meeting is.
    3. Where to park.
    4. When and where any formal meeting will convene.
  2. If it's anything but a “blowing off steam” party, don't play music- it will limit conversation to trivialities. You will also annoy other people around you.
  3. If you have outdoor cooked food, make sure that it is ready to go, and has adequate staff. For two people to serve 100 people could easily take two hours- two hours of hot sun, hungry, crabby folks, and mosquitoes.
  4. Don't forget the drinks, the cooler, the napkins...


If it's a recruiting booth at an event-

  1. Have big, clear signage announcing who you are- mounted above and behind your people.
  2. Have “tagline” signage to pique people's interest.
  3. Have well-informed, briefed, people manning the booth.
  4. Have plenty of colorful, obviously informative literature. You have about 1/2 second to get your main idea across.
  5. Don't assume that anyone passing by has any idea of who you are or what you stand for.
  6. Saturate appropriate media ahead of time with the fact that you'll be there and why. Pay if you have to- then become so interesting that you won't have to the next time.
These are just for starters. There are more such rules, but you get the idea.

It may surprise you to know that there's a Right Wing, Conservative, Tea Party version of the Local Foods Movement. True, they do tend to be white, straight, Christians who are more concerned with keeping Commies out of government, the US out of the UN, and fluoride out of their water, than with social justice or sustainability. But, they know and use these rules. So do Corporate shills- which is why they're kicking the butts of arguably saner, more reality-based folks lately.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Willmar League of Women Voters Speech- 04/09/12

Willmar League of Women Voters Speech- 04/09/12


Rural America is colluding with those who would destroy it.
That's the bad news. I'll get to the good news.
I first became aware of this trend while researching a class I taught at the University of Minnesota, Morris- Social and Ethical Implications of Technology.
This shouldn't have been a surprise. It's part of an overall trend in our society. Look at the election ads and corporate propaganda- human beings are not valued as persons, but as units of production and consumption to be used and manipulated.
This is called “Colonization.” It's what the European powers did to Africa, Asia and America in centuries past. They turned living places into resource bases, homelands into commodity dumps- not to serve the people there, but to serve powerful people somewhere else. I'm pleased to see East African and Hispanic folks here- You know exactly what I'm talking about. It's being done to us, right here and right now- if in a sneakier way.


In their 2009 book, Hollowing out the Middle, Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas talked about the Rural Brain Drain, that how we educate our kids, how we train them to view rural life, ensures that the best and brightest grow up, excel in school, graduate- and leave. If they come back with “foreign ideas,” even wonderful ideas, it's an uphill battle to get anyone to listen to them.
But it isn't just education. We are doing the same thing with food- sending it away, and buying it back in inferior forms. We have some of the best soil on the planet, but many of our towns and counties are USDA-designated as food deserts.
Most farmers today aren't growing food, but producing industrial feedstocks. Old MacDonald's farm is a thing of the past. Look beside the highway-Those aren't farms in the sense we all used to know, but factories: They use highly mechanized and energy-wasteful methods to extract commodities which are useless without intensive processing. It isn't the farmers' fault- they know that the system is rigged against them, but what can they do?
According to a report by the Rural Economics Researcher Ken Meter of Crossroads Resource Center, once you compile all the numbers:
Nearly two-thirds of food consumed in Minnesota is produced out of state
Farmers (in Western Minnesota) lose $150 million each year producing food commodities, and also spend $ 600 million buying outside inputs, while consumers spend $ 250 million buying food from outside. This is a total loss of $1 billion of potential wealth each year. This loss amounts to 70 % of the value of all food commodities raised in the region.

So. We export our children through education. We export our soil, our water, and our true wealth through agriculture. This is not a good plan for long-term sustainability.
There is an oft-quoted Cree prophecy:
"When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money."


I should tell you who are at Garden Goddess. We're a good example of what's possible. We have seen huge changes in these last ten years:

Greenhouse/CSA Story:

In the Fall of 2002 we were getting our vegetables from the Easy Bean, a large CSA farm east of Milan, MN. When we opened that last box of the season, when we realized that we'd be dependent on grocery stores for “fresh” vegetables, Carol said, “Ya know, somebody ought to do something about this.”
“Somebody” soon became US. We spent three years in research, reading books, combing websites, visiting other installations, playing with and arguing over designs, before we came up with the Garden Goddess Greenhouse. We went back to first principles, as “standard” greenhouses are little changed from the first one built in 1843 in London. They are inefficient energy hogs. Our design uses something like 3% of the energy that a conventional greenhouse would. Others have built greenhouses based on our design, and their figures show the same savings.
In 2009 we published the Northlands Winter Greenhouse Manual. It's sold well, and is in its second printing. The book has led to requests for design help from all over North America, as well as Ireland, Bolivia, the Isle of Man, even Iran. Dozen or so greenhouses operating because of the book, and constantly hear second- and third-hand reports of others.
We've traveled tens of thousands of miles, presenting at conferences, conducting workshops, and helping others rethink their food options. We've spoken in big cities and teeny prairie villages. We've been before crowds of middle-aged hippies, and of tea-party enthusiasts. We've spoken with non-profits, farmers, and government officials. People have actually cried after some of our messages, since we brought them hope.
A concept that we've developed is “Building the Fifty Dollar Table.” When trying to recreate the food system into something more just and environmentally sound, you can't take on the big players in the current system, like Cargill and Monsanto, head-on. There is an old saying: “If someone asks you to sit down at the poker table, but they have $5000 and you have $50, DON'T SIT DOWN!” We are building that “other table” rather than playing an unwinnable game.
The most powerful force keeping things the way they are is ignorance. We believe that feeding ourselves is hard, maybe even illegal. We don't think that we can do much- but WE CAN DO MORE THAN WE THINK WE CAN. In our travels we've seen this time and again.
We've seen Community Gardens reduce crime and build community- what's more fundamental than food?
Neighborhood Gardens have created community among neighbors.
Locally prodeced foods have given small grocery stores a new lease on life.
West Central Minnesota is a hotbed of these activities, with dozens of local-food-dedicated producers, organizations providing training and support for them, and active projects to increase our ability to feed ourselves.

There are several worthy efforts in the Willmar area already:

Willmar High School runs a large greenhouse that we helped renovate from a semi-derilect unit on the MinnWest Technology Campus.
The East Side Farmers mMarket has been oiperating for decades, and is still going strong.
The Becker Avenue Farmers Market, right downtown, is a great operation, with a big year-opening event coming up next month.
The Community Owned Grocery, COG, is in its planning and fund-raising stage. It will be a full-range food store, with other services and products, centered on locally-produced goods, local ownership, and the local community.

So far, these are rather “traditional” ideas. But moving on from there:

According to the AURI (Agricultural Utilization Reasearch Institute) report- “Minnesota Food Production Sector: Growing Green Jobs,” some of the growing opportunities are in:
  • Producing Local Foods: People increasingly want to know where their food comes from.
  • Distributing Food: Is this “commuter food,” or truly fresh?
  • Locally-Sourced Food Service: Chefs and other food-service people know that freshness and quality are paramount.
  • Organics: How food is raised, and what extra is in it, is a growing concern.
  • Health and Food Safety: The more steps that food goes through, the greater the chances of contamination.
  • Livestock Production: Locally raised, free-range meats are a growing market
  • Urban Agriculture: People growing their own foods, in their own communities, share many benefits, including food security.

We're working on next steps, to implement these ideas. Two promising areas are-


This is what we're calling a sort of “cooperative of cooperatives,” as local foods groups from around the region have been discussing how to organize a decentralized food distribution network.

Food Hubs

These a growing and highly profitable business for communities. To quote a new USDA study, Food Hubs provide:
  • Expanded market opportunities for agricultural producers.
  • Job creation in rural and urban areas.
  • Increased access of fresh healthy foods for consumers, with strong potentials to reach underserved areas and food deserts (that's us)
A typical food hub:
  • Is a socially driven business enterprise with a strong emphasis on “good prices” for producers and “good food” for consumers.
  • Employs 6 full-time or part-time staff and uses volunteers regularly.
  • Works with 40 regular food suppliers, many of whom are small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers.
  • Offers a wide range of food products, with fresh produce being its major product category, and sells through multiple market channels, with restaurants being an important entry market.
  • Is actively involved in their community, offering a wide range of services to both producers and consumers.


Whenever I consult on such a project, I warn my clients that there are three main kinds of problems in a foods project- horticultural problems, engineering problems, and people problems, with people problems being the hardest. Building structures and raising crops are almost trivial compared to dealing with:
  • well-meaning but ignorant nay-sayers- people who say, “If I don't already know it, it isn't worth knowing;”
  • power-hungry manipulators- people who want nothing to happen unless they're in charge and get credit;
  • petty bureaucrats enforcing inappropriate rules- people who don't understand that rules can become obsolete, or that sensible rules for Big Business are fatal to Mom and Pop operations;
  • vested interests fearing a loss of power- those same Big Businesses that will claim “fairness” and “safety,” when neither is accurate, actually to shut down competition;
  • dog-in-the-manger folks who will stop things just because they can.
I've seen projects sunk, delayed, or tripled in cost by all of these.
R. T. Rybak and Megan O'Hara came by our place last winter to discuss greenhouses, and they agreed. Witness the crazy wrangling over the City of Minneapolis' recently passed food policy, in the face of people raising tons of food in back yards and community gardens.
The League of Women Voters is dedicated to the American way of Politics- working with the craziest, most vital kind of people problems. You know that it all boils down to serving the community. You, here, are the people who can tackle the people problems that stand in the way of our thriving. Look up the people who raised their hands earlier- they can tell you where to start.