On a Memoir of Farm Life

By Hannah Lee

Memoirs allow me to live vicariously in others’ lifestyles and cultures. They have taught me about the diversity in people’s choices and values. I was first drawn to Suzanne McMinn’s new memoir, Chickens in the Road, because of the red barn on the cover, the mention of chickens, and the subtitle, “An adventure in ordinary splendor.” What I got was more than just a chronicle of “Do It Yourself” (DIY) self-sufficiency projects. McMinn’s journey, from being a city girl to a farmer, is also a road map for finding inner strength in the face of adversity. Fear had paralyzed her from making difficult decisions, but when she finally did so, the right choices were awaiting her.

McMinn begins her tale with her move to the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia, where her family had lived for generations. She uprooted her three children from their city life in Texas to live in the old farmhouse (dubbed “the Slanted Little House” for its uneven floors). There she learned to can food, kill raccoons with a .22 long rifle, and ignite the gas stove in the “cellar porch,” in a futile attempt to keep the pipes from freezing.

Later, she built a new home on a 40-acre farm with her new partner. It was so isolated that it could only be reached by fording three creeks in one direction, and a river in the other one. Poverty was another kind of isolation in Appalachia. They had neighbors who did not have a phone service, and still relied on an outhouse.

McMinn gathered around her a veritable menagerie of chickens, dairy goats, sheep and pigs, but they were more of a petting zoo than hardworking farm animals. The addition of a milk cow finally made her feel like a real farmer. The cow, although elderly, bony and ugly, was an abundant source of milk. However, the physical effort of milking was greater for the novice farmer: The first day, it took her an hour and a half to yield just three-quarters of a gallon of milk. Over time, her fingers, arms, and back got stronger, and she acquired more stamina. Then she ventured into making butter and cheese, but the first batch of cheese was inedible.

McMinn explained why she chose this lifestyle:

For some reason, there are those of us who leave the collective cocoon of public care, determined to test our grit against the challenge of individual self-sufficiency. Maybe it’s stubbornness. Maybe it’s arrogance. Maybe it’s the desire to meet and defeat challenge. Other people jump out of airplanes. Some climb sheer mountain faces. Still others race cars. It’s all about testing some deep place inside that the comfortable, secure world today won’t make you test otherwise. For me, it was surviving winter on a remote farm. That was my airplane, my mountain, my race car. My test.

I preferred Barbara Kingsolver’s 2008 memoir, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life” for her narrative skill, and because it was first farm memoir that I have read, but one plot twist in Chickens in the Road made it worthwhile. McMinn made an emotional breakthrough, that could be a source of inspiration to all of us facing a difficult life decision.

Her partner was ready for any new self-sufficiency project, but he had a bizarre temper. While it was gut-wrenching for me to read about their fights, and the verbal abuse he heaped on her, it made the climax much more riveting.

She loved her farm, and she needed his physical strength to do chores. She could not manage to do those chores by herself on a remote farm with an inconvenient layout, that was cut off from civilization with the first snowfall. However, when their relationship problems came to a head, she surprised them both by moving out.

Two miracles occurred at this point. The first miracle was that McMinn quickly found another farm just 10 miles away. It came with a paved road, mail delivery, and a bus stop in front of the house, so no more overnight stays in town for her children when she could not get down the steep driveway.

The small but charming 1930s farmhouse had been restored and maintained, and it had gas for heating. A separate studio was suitable for classes and farm-related events, equipped with up-to-code plumbing. The farm had mature cherry and apple trees, and wild berry bushes.

Much of the 100 acres, that were flat, had been cleared and fenced, ready for animals to move right in. There was a faucet in the goat field for water (no more carrying water!). There was a good well, and public water too. To the delight of the teen daughter, there were a stable and a pasture for horses. With the accessible layout of the farm, the chickens could finally even go in the road.

The second miracle was almost mystical: For two years, the farm had stood empty, while the owners entertained several offers. One of them, who was a psychic, kept refusing to sell it to people who were “not the one.” And every time, as she predicted, the deal fell through. After McMinn’s first visit to the farm, the psychic told her two brothers, “She is the one.”

To McMinn, it was the only farm she visited, and she wrote that “It looked like it had fallen off the pages of a children’s storybook and it was everything I’d ever dreamed a farm would be.” The farm had lain fallow for two years, until McMinn was ready to step out on her own. A religious Jew would call that bashert (predestined).

The lesson for me was broader than the feminist message, of breaking away from her abusive partner. It stood for the times that we have to make difficult decisions, and we are paralyzed by fear: fear of the unknown and fear of change. God has a plan for us, and we have to trust in the timeliness of how people and events come into our lives at the right time. And that is a lesson for 5774, in which we face new challenges, for the good and the not-so-good.

Chickens in the Road will be released on October 15. It has an appendix of recipes: an iron skillet upside-down pizza recipe that came from a West Virginia Department of Agriculture pamphlet and one for making vanilla extract that will be a cost-saver for home bakers. Another appendix of crafts, includes instruction for making hot-process soap (faster than cold-process), beeswax lip balm, and laundry detergent.  Beyond the avid DIYer, this book would be useful for a school pioneer project, or a recreation of shtetl life. A blog by the same name is available at www.chickensintheroad.com.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/3524/on-a-memoir-of-farm-life

 

A Living Link to Our Jewish Farming Past

By Hannah Lee

Still shot from This Land Was Theirs, The National Center for Jewish Film.

Dressed in the modest garb of an observant Jew, Nachum Helig may not be what you’d expect of a farmer, especially if you’re only familiar with the young hipsters of Adamah and Jewish Farm School.  However, he’s the fourth generation to till his family’s land in southern New Jersey and he spoke last week at Lower Merion Synagogue, after a showing of the 1993 documentary, The Land Was Theirs.

After the assassination of Alexander II of Russia in 1881, the Jews were persecuted and displaced. To counter these pogroms with his utopian vision of a better life for Jews, the German-Jewish philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch funded farming communities in Argentina, Canada, and Palestine. He also set up a smaller trust for the United States. Of the 100 Jewish or so farming colonies eventually founded in this country — from South Dakota to Connecticut — the most enduring one was in southern New Jersey.

The first group of 43 families arrived in Alliance, New Jersey in 1882. They had no farming skills, but they wanted a healthier alternative to the stifling factory work available in the major cities where most immigrants landed. Land was relatively cheap because the soil was either of a sandy loam or clay — the latter is worse, because it doesn’t drain rainwater — both of a low quality avoided by the experienced farmers. The first year, everyone lived together in three barrack-style buildings. The following year, they divided the land into 15-acre plots and they built two-room houses with a cellar. The colony’s main advantage was its location, 40 miles south of Philadelphia and along the tracks of the Jersey Central Railroad, which carried their produce to markets.

It was grueling work for these earliest pioneers, and one elder recalled, “cooperation was key. There was no competition.” Monthly meetings of the cooperative consisted of long, loud arguments, said another elder, by “people whose intellect was 40 times greater than what their [farming] jobs required.” A third senior recalled her father plowing the fields while reading a book propped up in front of him.

In the early years, they worked for non-Jews while they learned to farm. Later, the Jews accepted outside funding to build side businesses that generated income: cigar production, garment piecework, and canning. By the 1920s, raising chickens became the profitable source of income, and southern New Jersey became known as the “Egg Basket of America.” Prior to World War II, most egg production came from farm flocks of fewer than 400 hens, according to the American Egg Board.

As a boy in the 1950s, Nachum Helig raised steer as a member of the local 4H agricultural youth organization and worried his mother by sleeping in their stalls at the county fairs. At age 10, his father gave him 1,000 broilers (chickens raised for meat, not eggs) to raise; with his earnings, he bought more of his beloved steer. He was already driving a tractor by then, long before he was eligible for a driver’s license.

The Helig family became respected members of their community. Helig’s father, Jacob, served as mayor of Pittsgrove Township for 28 years and also a justice of the peace. He built a courtroom in his basement; when the policemen would traipse through his house in their shiny boots, his mother would point to them as her enforcers of good behavior.

At the first Yovel (golden jubilee, 50th) celebration in 1932, Isaac Helig, son of the pioneers, Sarah and Simcha Helig, served on the reception committee; at the second Yovel (centennial, 100th) celebration in 1982, Jacob Helig served on the planning committee.  Of the fourth generation, Nachum Helig attended Rutgers University, earned a degree in industrial engineering, and served in the United States Army. He remained involved with the farm while working in industry, returning full-time to farming in 1995. At the farm’s peak, the Helig family farm had 25,000 egg-laying chickens, 25 beef cattle, and 80-100 acres of land devoted to corn, soybeans, and hay. These days, his biggest cash crop is alfalfa hay, grown on 70 acres. His newest customer is the Cape May County Zoo, where his hay is favored by the giraffes.

Devorah Helig grew up in Vineland as the daughter of a dry-goods merchant and is also a descendent of Jewish farmers who settled in Connecticut. Nachum Helig drives twice each work day to pray with the small community at the Vineland shul, located 7 miles from their farm, but for Shabbat and holidays the Heligs come to the Yeshiva of Philadelphia. A remarkable couple, Nachum and Devorah Helig represent the long tradition of Jews tilling the land while maintaining Jewish practice with integrity.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/2796/a-living-link-to-our-jewish-farming-past

 

Why Does the Farm Bill Matter to Us?

By Hannah Lee

Most Americans are protected from the travails and vagaries of our food sources.  The five-year cycle of Congressional debates on agricultural subsidies may underwhelm you, but it is relevant to your family’s well-being in hidden ways.  On Thursday, the Senate approved a new farm bill that would cost nearly $1 trillion over the next 10 years.

Sugar subsidies were left in place.  Crop insurance was reduced for the wealthiest farmers, those with adjusted gross incomes of more than $750,000.  This was through the efforts of Senators Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) and Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), saving $1 billion over 10 years. Recipients would now have to take steps to reduce erosion and protect wetlands, according to a last-minute amendment by Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia).  The bill eliminated about $5 billion a year in direct payments to farmers and farmland owners, whether or not they grew crops.

The limited good news is new funding for the next generation of farmers through an amendment by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).  The bill will also expand block grants to states for research and promotion of fruits and vegetables.  It will encourage the expansion of farmers’ markets.  It will consolidate several conservation programs to make them more efficient.

Despite the efforts of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), the biggest cuts were to the food stamp program, now known as the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP.

The House will begin discussion of the bill after the July 4th recess.  The House Republican budget presented by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) would reduce food stamp spending by about $134 billion over the next decade and turn the program into block grants for the states.

Among the 64 Senators approving the Farm Bill was our own Robert Casey (D), while among the 35 Senators rejecting the Farm Bill was Patrick Toomey (R).   Senator Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) was the sole abstention.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/2282/why-does-the-farm-bill-matter-to-us

Farming the Biblical Way

Touted as a “squash rock star” by Laura Matthews on her blog, Punk Rock Gardens, Tom Culton, 30, has not only appeared on the David Letterman show but he has participated in Sotheby’s “The Art of Farming” auction along with the gracious-living guru Martha Stewart.  He has been featured in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Bon Appetit magazine.  He supplies his heirloom and other weird-looking vegetables to local upscale restaurants such as  Vetri, Zahav, and The Farm and Fisherman in Philadelphia (the latter recently garnered a three-bell rating from the Inquirer’s food critic, Craig LaBan) and to celebrity chefs such as Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud in New York City.

What the other media interviews do not mention is that Tom is a devoted member of the River Brethen Church, one of only two remaining Old-Order Mennonite communities in Lancaster and in New Paltz in upstate New York.  Members of his family have been living in Lancaster County since 1740, but several generations back they were dissatisfied by the leadership and dropped out.  Tom is the first one in his family to return to his ancestral faith.  According to Wikipedia, the River Brethren oppose war, alcohol, tobacco, and worldly pleasures.  They also observe the Sabbath– on Saturdays, like the Jews–  in which they do not work.  Tom scatters extra grain for his chickens before the Sabbath, just as manna fell in double portion for the Jews in the desert.

Tom grew up farming but it was in his teens that he understood  “it’s one of the most important roles” he could have in the world.  After his mother’s death in 2001, he found solace in farming– nurturing something while Nature nurtures him in return.  ”Growing food is one of the beautiful things in the world, even when it can be a dark place,” said Tom.  His mother bequeathed to him the ancestral home (his father had left them when Tom was only three days old), and Tom ventured to turn his family farm– previous crops had been tobacco and carrots– to a more sustainable future.  His grandfather, now 81, has come to see the folly of his post-war generation relying on chemicals without  regard for the environmental impact.

Faith is a very important factor in Tom’s life.  It gives focus, strength, and understanding.  He “doesn’t look for answers in man-made solutions, but in God’s solutions.”  The farming life is so insecure, affected by unpredictable weather conditions and capricious market prices.  Farmers can easily lose faith in the face of difficulties but Tom turns to prayer during the sad times (deaths and relationship woes), crops failures, and husbandry diseases.

It is in church on the Sabbath that Tom feels embraced as a farmer.  In fact, his fellow church  members are all farmers, but he is the only organic one– and the one with the highest yield from his land.  Once a contractor for a fellow church member ventured to drive his truck through Tom’s land– with its access road that “would have saved him $5 in gasoline” costs– but Tom saw the guy in time and ran to block access, standing him off  “like the student protestors in Tiananmen Square (China).”  He was cursed roundly for his unneighborly action, but the unheeded drips from the guy’s pesticide-laden truck (and the wheels) could have cost Tom his organic certification or at least incur a hefty fine.

Tom has tremendous respect for the elderly and the ways of old.  His grandfather lives with him.  The senior Culton is not enamored of speaking to outsiders but he enjoys puttering on the farm.  He also cultivates his own saffron plot– for his favorite rice dishes– a therapeutic crop requiring a labor-intensive harvest of the stamens.  Respect for the elderly was also demonstrated by his church when their Bishop suffered a stroke.  To maintain his dignity, he and his wife were sent to a remote farm (away from bustling Lancaster) owned by a church member to live out his days in pastoral peace.  Ancestral ties are maintained through family burial plots on his property, a right protected by his church. In another affirmation of tradition, Tom is refurbishing his family’s buggy, which he plans to use on his wedding day when he meets the lucky gal who cherishes a farming life.  The River Brethren were among the last of the Mennonites to give up their buggies.

Organic farming can give comparable or better yields than conventional agriculture but it does demand much more labor.  Tom grows alfalfa, which is dicey to grow without pesticides, as feed for his dairy goats and as a cash commodity as well as a cover crop for fixing nitrogen (a natural alternative to petroleum-based fertilizers).  Every five years (in contrast to the seven years between Shmittah (Hebrew for “release”) years in the Jewish tradition), he takes out his alfalfa and rotates his crops in the fields.  He has located a French company that uses certified non-GMO (genetically modified organism) corn to produce biodegradable plastic for agricultural purposes.  It’s much more expensive, priced at $400 for 5,000 square feet versus $89 for the conventionally produced plastic.  Tom has seen farmers take the lazy way and simply plow the regular plastic under their land, where it doesn’t ever completely degrade but which does chip off and get into our food and water supply.

How did he learn to farm the organic way?  When he began farming seriously, it was already in his DNA.  So, he did not read much, because it was really just common sense.  ”You go with your heart” and do what is only sustainable for your land.  It has become a “very religious experience” to come to realize that modern research has confirmed his wholehearted experience on the farm.  Tom recently got his first computer and was able to search on the Internet for the correct spelling of the Red Piriform tomato (with ribbed shoulders) that was previously thought to only grow in the Ligura region of Italy but which Tom has succeeded in cultivating and supplying to his chef friends. On Tom’s kitchen table is a bobble-head figure of Mark McGwire, the discredited baseball player who admitted to steroid use last year, to remind himself that people still prize natural talent– and by extension,  natural food– without chemical enhancements.

Tom has one high-top (plastic-covered tent) greenhouse without any heating source and one that is heated by waste oil, processed by him (centrifuged to remove impurities) on his land.  He collects the oil from the area restaurants, which pay him to take the waste oil off their hands.

This year, Tom has the assistance of Matthew Yoder, recently returned from a stint in Maine and newly adopted into the River Brethren faith, and Ian Osborne, an “English” young man not of the faith– just as Jews might distinguish between themselves  and the goyim (Gentiles).  Matthew brought his knowledge of crops that thrive in New England and the two of them have planted heavily on the 53 acres of the Culton Organics farm.  What are his favorite crops?  Fava beans– or just about any bean– and artichokes with its purply, thistly flowers.

Tom’s plans for next year comprise of a reduced reliance on produce and the introduction of ducks and geese (for the eggs and meat).  His farm now supports 15 chickens (only two of which are now mature enough to lay eggs daily), a small flock of goats, and one turkey.  Most of the goats are milk-producing animals, but one lone billy goat was allowed to retain his horns and escape castration (which adversely affects the taste of the meat).  Why was this one chosen for the sacrifice (his eventual slaughter)?  He was the mean one of the flock.

Tom and his friend, Michael Solomonov, the chef at Zahav and a recent winner of the prestigious James Beard award, plan to tour Israel together.  Does he wish to see the Christian religious sites?  No, he is willing to follow Michael’s lead; besides he is more interested in seeing the Jewish historical sites.

You could taste the delicious dishes made from the heirloom vegetables from Culton Organics at area restaurants and you may meet Tom and Matt on Sundays at the Headhouse Square Farmers’  Market (open from 10 am to 2 pm at Second and Pine Streets).  Be sure to bring your smile or he’ll charge you double.