Dirt Eaters

Work, Food, and Communal Transformation

(from the frontlines of a hopeful revolution)

A Definition of Terms

What I’m doing is objectively stupid.

Everyone everywhere prescribes resting up as much as possible in the weeks before having a kid. Make sure your battery is fully charged before the sleep-deprivation sets in, they say. Not to mention how important it is to savor those last few nights of sleeping alone with your partner, of hearing the alarm but deciding to cuddle just a bit more, before that treasured relationship is forever altered by the arrival of another human. And yet, I’m waking up early every morning, including this one right now, to read about agriculture, to write about farming.

In case you forgot, my livelihood currently has nothing to do with agriculture, and I’m certainly not a farmer, not really.

Also, money is tight because I spent the previous 18 months burning through my savings as I chased the farming dream, moving three times, and now preparing to welcome a kid into the world. Moving, apparently, is expensive, and so are kids. We’ve got to buy area rugs and strollers and health insurance, we’ve got to fix our furnace and install our car seat and pay our doula. And yet, I’m spending money left and right on my gardening hobby, on my urban farming dream, buying a walk-behind tractor and a cart with grow lights and a scuffle hoe and hundreds of dollars of seeds. I could, I probably should, just buy groceries like most reasonable humans.

What am I doing?

What are we doing?

Brassica seedlings get their start while it's still quite cold outside.

Brassica seedlings get their start while it's still quite cold outside.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and not just because I’m tired or stressed about money. There’s something happening not just in me, but in a lot of folks, driving us to make day-to-day (or larger structural) decisions that don’t always make logical sense. This is not the path of least resistance, not at all.

So, pardon my focus on semantics, but what is this?

When we cook daily from raw ingredients, when we plant a little backyard garden, when we get excited about a genuinely farm-to-table restaurant, when we shop at Whole Foods or the local co-op, when we subscribe to a CSA, when we try to evangelize by bringing up Michael Pollan or Mark Bittman or Alice Waters (or Wendell Berry or Wes Jackson or Eliot Coleman or Mark Shepard) at a dinner party, when we soak beans and bake bread, when we spend money on a new cookbook, when we make our own salad dressing, when we daydream on Good Food Jobs about changing careers, when we build a little coop for our backyard chickens, when we take the leap and start a food hub or a restaurant or a farm.

I do some of these things. What am I a part of?

I ask because, despite something deep and profound happening with regards to food, coverage and discussion of this phenomenon always seems lacking. I get it, of course. I recognize that once kale reaches a certain symbolic tipping point, once presidential candidates reference the price of arugula, once locavore becomes an official word in the Oxford Dictionary, once being interested in the origin story of your roasted chicken becomes fodder for satirical skewering on popular tv shows, then we’ve reached a point of confusion and incoherence. Divergent opinions and counter-opinions fly around and mix together, self-righteousness and cynicism bloom in equal measure, and it all becomes muddled.

I ask in order to - if for no other reason - selfishly figure out what I’m doing with my life, figure out why I’m waking up early and spending time/money I don’t really have. Because most everything written or said about “food” doesn’t quite feel right. It misses the point, at least for me.

Every spare moment, and every spare dollar, has been going toward keeping my farming dream alive.

Every spare moment, and every spare dollar, has been going toward keeping my farming dream alive.

Quite often, you’ll see mention of a “Food Movement,” and while there’s not quite a unified movement like those we recognize from the past century, the term is valid and describes something very real that’s happening. Folks are working to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables and advocating for school garden programs and pushing for SNAP benefits to be redeemable at farmers markets and fighting against GMOs and neonicotinoids and Big Ag. This is all important work, and I’d like to think that I’m a part of it.

But the Food Movement is inherently political, and therefore politicized. It is about reform, and regulation, and systemic change. It misses something deeper, something below our persistent arguments about the role of government and corporations in society, something that our most common language fails to describe.

Something far more personal is going on.

I increasingly call that thing the “Food Revolution.” Another term that’s both loaded and empty, sure. But for me, it speaks to the far-reaching nature of the changes bubbling up from many different (and often unexpected) pockets of our society. And it speaks to the length, the challenge, and the ultimately transformative nature of this work.

(Admittedly, I’m making up definitions here, because nothing I’ve encountered hits home. So let me expand on what I mean, and see if it has relevance beyond my little brain, beyond my particular life, beyond my attempts to justify irrational decisions.)

As I see it, this is a decentralized revolution, carried out and carried forward by many different people, without unifying language. But it does spring forth from one core conclusion about the world and our place within it:

  • The industrial food system is damaging to our earth, our bodies, our culture, and our spirit.

From there, folks arrive to varying degrees at several subsequent conclusions, each of which reverberate through their lives, through the decisions that define them:

  • In order to survive, in order to thrive, we have to produce and consume food in a profoundly different way.

  • Those different means of production and consumption are difficult, however, forcing us to change our priorities, forcing us to change our daily patterns and habits.

  • But by changing those priorities, those patterns and habits, we often find a deeper sense of joy and connection to the world around us.

That last part is important to me -- this stuff is fun and satisfying in a way unlike anything else I’ve ever done. This revolution is a hopeful one.

For me, this work has dramatically transformed how I view myself and my capacity to act as a change agent. I do sincerely believe that alienation -- from each other, from meaningful work, from the systems that sustain and impact our lives -- is a real and widespread thing. And an intimate partner of that alienation is cynicism, making us believe there’s nothing we can do. We’re small, we’re insignificant, the world is what it is, and our best hope is to be happy within it.

I believe this alienation and cynicism affects poor teenagers in DC and wealthy parents in North Carolina and everyone in between. We’re consumers, we’re passive recipients of culture and norms, we’re disconnected from the soil and the bees and the weather and the forest, we’re retail workers and office workers performing rote tasks to facilitate the existence of a system, rather than creatively working with our hands to build a new one.

I may be wrong about other folks, of course. But this is all true for me. It’s why I wake up early.

The work surrounding food and farming goes far beyond the political. It has the potential to change our daily routines, to change our brains and our bodies, to change our sense of self and our way of relating to the world, to change our heart.

At its most profound, it’s a revolution. And it’s one to which I’m dedicating my life.

So are many other people, young and old, across the country and around the world. It is rarely newsworthy, because it’s mostly decentralized and internal, the mundane and heroic work of slowly becoming a different person writ large.

But it’s happening, I promise. Every morning.

Priorities

Life comes at you fast sometimes, no?

Oh, past selves... we had no idea what the next nine months would hold.

Oh, past selves... we had no idea what the next nine months would hold.

I ain’t gonna turn this into a pity party, because I truly believe myself to be one of the luckiest humans on this here planet. But if this isn’t your first time to Dirt Eaters, you know that despite much larger stated ambitions, this website has mostly been a deeply personal chronicling of my attempts to become a farmer, to change my life, to change my way of relating to the world around me. You know that a transformative year of living and learning at The Farm School in Massachusetts ended in mid-September, and you know that I’ve basically written bupkis since. I’ve wanted to, sure, but writing (admittedly navel-gazing) blog posts for a readership that (maybe) tops out at several dozen has a way of getting bumped down the to-do list.

Life came fast these past 4-5 months, time got crunched, projects and energy had to be prioritized. With Ellie’s belly getting bigger everyday, with our first kid due to show up in early April (?!?!), finding and building some sort of stability became my primary job.

I remembered - no matter my beliefs or ideological predispositions - that money matters in this world of ours. I learned that you can’t force someone to make sacrifices, you can’t persuade them to want a certain life, and that the quicker you accept that fact the better. I realized that obligations and commitments are what define us, they deepen our joy and sense of meaning, and they’re worth whatever trade-offs they require. I discovered that debt can be a good thing, that to take ownership of something, you have to accept help, you have to take a risk.

I absorbed and accepted the fact that if you want to build something worth building, you have to first focus on the unglamorous work of establishing a solid foundation.

So writing got bumped.

I continue to have dreams and ideas and ambitions for Dirt Eaters, to move it beyond my little story. I’ll keep working on that, promise. But something dawned on me recently, and it’s that what I’m going through, this is real shit, and maybe it has relevance for other folks’ lives as well.

Here are some of the questions I’ve been grappling with. You tell me if you can relate.

  • When life gets busy, when life gets full, how do you balance it all?

  • When needing to make money is a reality, how do you hold onto the creative projects that you care about? Especially considering that they might never contribute to - and might actually negatively impact - your bottom line?

  • When you have responsibilities and duties to those around you, to those about whom you care deeply, how do you hold onto your selfish priorities? How do you properly value your personal dreams and ambitions?

  • When you believe in something - like truly, deeply, annoyingly believe in something - how do you work and fight for that while not losing sight of everything else you hold dear?

I imagine that these kinds of questions speak to all sorts of folks, with all sorts of lives, and all sorts of beliefs and dreams and day jobs. This balancing act seems one of the fundamental tasks of adulthood.

Katahdin's Knife Edge sure does continue to feel like a big ol' metaphor.

Katahdin's Knife Edge sure does continue to feel like a big ol' metaphor.

And yet, it feels even more relevant to me when thinking about the Food Movement, or the Food Revolution, or whatever you want to call it. Because any change in our imperfect world - in our politics, in our food system, in our daily habits, in ourselves - will only come from imperfect people, living in imperfect situations, making choices and trade-offs. It’ll only come imperfectly.

It’ll come by cooking just a bit more often. It’ll come by planting a slightly larger garden. It’ll come by shifting another small portion of our food budget to the farmers market, or to a CSA. It’ll come by eating just a bit more seasonally, by refusing a few of the conveniences of the supermarket in service of knowing and being connected to your food. It’ll come by trying to share that food with our partners and kids most days, by maybe even having a dinner party to celebrate good food with our closest friends and community. It’ll come by remembering to soak those beans the night before. It’ll come by paying more for less cheese because cheese is a damn miracle food and there’s at least a chance that seemingly-expensive cheese with the lofty packaging claims is made with milk from ethically-treated cows with access to pasture, made by humans with decent pay and a fulfilling job, because you’ve seen a massive dairy operation and you’ll never forget that smell. It’ll come by finally making time and budgetary space for that pickling and canning workshop you’ve been wanting to do, or that bread baking workshop, or that woodworking workshop. It’ll come by taking just a bit more control of your personal food system, by sharing with those around you the miracles of transformation that lie therein. It’ll come by taking a day once a year to visit a nearby farm, to make sure your kid knows, and you remember, how food is grown and who grows it.

And it’ll come by forgiving ourselves, and forgiving each other, when we ain’t quite perfect, even in those imperfect and incomplete aims.

Life comes at you fast sometimes, no? We do our best, forgive, then wake up and try again.

All of which is to say, I’m back at this writing thing.