I come from humble roots – a letter carrier and a pie maker; and before that, a teacher, a carpenter, a seamstress; and before that, and above all, mothers and farmers. I spent all eighteen of my childhood years in farm towns across the heart of the Great Plains – South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota – traveling the selfsame roads as Laura Ingalls Wilder, Willa Cather, Ted Kooser, Bob Dylan. My first experience with farming that I was old enough to remember was on a rural hobby farm in northwestern Iowa in the late 80s. My father had taken a job with the USPS in the town of Spencer; and my mother, who was the stay-at-home kind, ran a childcare business out of our old farmhouse. We had ducks, chickens, goats, a garden, an endless supply of kittens, and even a pony; and I was surrounded by playmates on a daily basis. It was a four year old’s dream brought to life on those four acres. And though I may not have known it at the time, a deep love of animals, of the countryside, of a slower, more homegrown way of life was taking root inside me, sending out shoots from my playful, rugged little heart to the tips of my chubby, dirty little fingers and toes; it spoke directly to my spirit, asking it to dance.
That little girl grew up, left the mid-west faster than you can say, “A Prairie Home Companion” and headed for the tall trees and crowded streets of the East Coast. In the years to follow, I went to three different colleges, spent a summer on a Minnesota island working with youth, and made homes in the Pacific Northwest and North Carolina. Through all of these transitions and adventures, though they’ve pulled my interests and physical body in different directions, I have come to understand that all of the passions I’ve discovered as life has unfolded are intrinsically linked – branches of the same tree.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of working and living at Hillside Prairie Gardens in eastern South Dakota. The garden was re-established – repurposed in a sense – in 2009 when my fiance and his twin brother returned home after college and launched a CSA, drawing on the vast knowledge of their parents, Steve and Mary Kay. The business has gained steady support ever since, providing for up to 50 shareholders per growing season. Steve built the 7-acre farmstead from the ground up starting in the 70s and raised four kids to boot, while Mary Kay pursued a career in higher education.
Their wood-sided home has been a symbol of friendship and generosity for me over the years as I’ve enjoyed many delicious meals around their ever-welcoming table. They have constructed such an extraordinarily warm, nurturing environment, manifest in the serene garden sanctuary that rests on a prairie hillside, one that I can only hope to re-create someday in my own family.
During my time at the farm, I participated in the lives of plants from beginning to end – from seed to harvest to sale, and everything in between – transplanting, weeding, thinning, composting, managing pests and weather phenomena, worrying…. But the lessons extended far beyond organic vegetable production. I caught a glimpse of a perfect food system, one that aims not to outwit nature, but rather to be in complete harmony with it; I came to know what a healthy local food economy looks and feels like – and especially what it tastes like: I partook of arm roasts, tenderloins, and all manner of gourmet cuts grass-grown by our friend and cattle farmer, Cliff, one of the most soft-spoken, insightful folks you’ll ever meet; I rendered lard from heritage pork fat raised on nearby pastures and used it for fruit pies and tarts I then sold at the farmer’s market; for breakfast each morning, I had a fried egg laid by own chickens – ones I had raised up from baby chicks – with a slice of toast from a loaf obtained in weekly trade, like clockwork.
Powered almost exclusively on fresh vegetables, my body had never known such strength; all those raw nutrients entering the bloodstream generated a surge of energy, a resilience in the face of the intense, manual labor required of it. Nature has a way of taking care of itself. I, too, wish to live this way as much as possible; living not just off the land, but along with it, in touch with it; at once giver and receiver.
Perhaps it’s an ancestral pioneer spirit that still survives in me: moving, exploring, settling, moving on; or, rather, an inherent, insatiable curiosity alive and at work in me to figure out humanity’s place and purpose on the earth. Someday, though, as if answering some calling, I’d like to settle in a place – a homestead – for good; a place crafted for fresh, local, quality food accessible to all, not just for the wealthy or elite; a place for community members to gather in an old-fashioned spirit of neighborliness. Every experience I’ve had over the years has invited me to grow more certain in my belief that eating consciously and responsibly is a profound act of love. Sometimes humble roots are the roots that grow up and weave themselves into a foundation for a life that breathes truth and grounds a way of being to what truly matters.
Editor’s Note: To learn more about your local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) options and local produce suppliers, visit Local Harvest.