When the Barn Falls Down

Woke up in Wisconsin, drove West and North through Madison for lunch at Alchemy, and on up to the University of Minnesota. 
The screening, set up by the kind Helene Murray of MISA (Minnesota Institute of Sustainable Agriculture) was hosted at the Bell Museum on the University of Minnesota campus, a beautiful venue. Chipotle and Mike served up burritos, and people ate and looked at the displays of the museum. 
About 125 folks sat down together, most of them community members, as we had the misfortune of being on campus during the last days of midterms before spring break, meaning most of the students had either skipped town, or still had to study for a test. 
The resulting conversation was really wonderful, and what we may have been missing in numbers was more than made up for in passion, and insight. 
John Mesko talked about how he got into farming, about the decision to make less money, but to live what they deemed a more fulfilling life. He gave an example, that this past weekend, the family barn, which he had just told his daughter would stand for about 10 more years, came crashing down. They didn't have the money to maintain it, and they sure don't have the money to buy the materials, or the sheer people power to rebuild it. 
A bold fellow in the audience talked about how when he was in an Amish community, a barn went down, and everyone in the community worked together to put it back up. Women and children cooked food in shifts, and the men worked and worked until it was back up. 
Our culture, and our agriculture has become very isolated. People are often sealed off in personal spaces, like cars, or cubicles, or GPS tractors. John mentioned that his closest neighbor is barely visible, and that their barn had fallen down, too. The problem is, in much of our rural communities, neighbors are stretched so far a part, because the only way that a farm can be viable, is to get more acres to put into corn and soy. The result is neighbors are miles apart, and schools consolidate, and main streets in rural America become shuttered storefronts, distant memories of a once thriving community. 
A young woman in the front row is starting a CSA, and she wanted help. We all told her of different organizations and different farmers to talk to for support. The truth is, that whatever agriculture that we develop in this country, whatever culture we develop, we need it to become a culture of community, of collective commitment. Our old ideas of a rugged individualist, are indeed of value, and much can be learned from one person going it alone. However, to make sustainable, resilient systems, we need to have regional systems that are built on strong rural communities, places where people are able to know their neighbors, places where when a barn falls down, people come together to help that farm rebuild and heal. 
Driving North to Princeton, we talked about how it would be cool if everyone at tonights screening, went to John's farm this summer, and helped their family rebuild. Perhaps the greatest test of a community, is what happens when a piece of it, or a person within it, faces hard times. 
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The Power of Young Farmers

There has been a lot of talk about the importance and impact that young farmers will have on the future of agriculture but it's often nice to step back and reflect. As the median age of farmers increases and new/young farmers will shape the face of agriculture there seems to be a shift in the direction many people want to see farming go.

Seeing the passion and enthusiasm that many young farmers posses for their carrer paths is inspiring and encouraging for the future of agriculture. All of the young farmers we have stopped to interview along our journey share a similar outlook on life; being outside and tending to the earth is of the utmost importance to them. That's why the Young Farmer Screening Series and the Young Farmer Video series are both so important. These are opportunities for communities of young farmers to come together in support of an overarching goal, the goal to re-establish priorities in the way we eat and the way we view food.

For people who are thinking about farming as a career path, it is crucial for them to understand there is an entire network of likeminded individuals who would love to share and support the endeavors. Starting a farm is hard, most farmers will attest to their struggles along the way but those stuggles make the finished product sweeter. Waking up every day to something that you have cultivated, you have created is a feeling that's tough to rival.

The Stone Barnes Apprentice Program is a great example of young farmers coming together and forming a common bond. These apprentices are rising to a call to help change a current system, a system in dire need of repair. Seeing their camaraderie and desire to support each other speaks to the primary theme of this movement. People helping other people. Whether you help support your farmer down the street or your local butcher our message is to show that people are there. For the past 40+ years the human aspect has been removed from food. We haven't known where our meat, milk or veggies come from but that's changing and it's starting at places like Stone Barns.

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Cinncinnati and Out

We finished editing the portrait of Tyler Palmer and headed out to the farm where Matthew made hash browns, and Karen scrambled eggs with onions, cilantro and bacon. They're a good team in the kitchen, telling stories, laughing.  

We said goodbyes and thankyous and headed South to Cinncinnati where we set up camp in the McDonald library at Xavier. There was a large buzzing fluorescent light that took some time to adjust too. Andy edited Matthew's portrait, and e-mails were sent, phone calls made as we prepare for Minnesota, and for our theatrical release in NYC in about a month. 
Andy's parents, Debbie and Bob joined us about a half-hour before the screening, a brief moment to talk about what we've been up to, what we've got ahead, and that Andy's starting to look like the Amish, as the beard grows. Matthew joined the panel again, and hopefully picks up a couple new members to the CSA. 
We filled the 45 seats in the library classroom, most people being farmers and from the surrounding community, with a handful of students. We ate some thai noodles Ann brought, and then everyone introduced themselves, and why they'd come out. The reasons were good to listen to, and various, from health, to awareness, to getting the word out about a CSA or a farm, to finding a job. 
After, we had a brief conversation, which dealt largely with the economic winners and losers of our current system of agriculture. Farmers like Johnny Glosson, has to take out massive upfront loans for chicken houses, and then spends decades paying those barns off. And just when they are paid off, the technology has leapfrogged ahead, and then the farmer has to take out a new loan to retrofit the houses, or buy new ones, putting the farmer back on a treadmill of debt. 
The large integrators, the Tyson, Pilgrim's Pride, Smithfield, are receiving massive government subsidies for the corn and soy production that gets fed to the animals. So these companies are the winners in a system where individual farmers assume most of the financial risk, and then major costs, like feed, our subsidized and insured with all of our taxpayer dollars. 
It's time for a system that pays farmers fairly for the work they do each day to feed all of us. 
We headed out as soon as the conversation concluded, heading North and West towards Minneapolis, getting past Chicago in the early morning hours so as to avoid the weekday morning congestion of motorized vehicles. 
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Matthew Keener

Sunday was a day of rest, as it is for many. We enjoyed a ridiculously good breakfast, eggs from the hens, raw milk from the local farm Land of Milk and Honey, bacon so thick only 3 slices could fit across the plate, pancakes with organic blueberries from the Indiana farm of Peter's uncle, and all of it topped off with Ohio Maple syrup, the sap of which had been harvested and boiled down in the woods next to the house. Four helping later, breakfast concluded. 
Took the rest of day converting footage and planning the remainder of shoots for Minnesota, until a phenomenal dinner at Catherine and Jerry's, Catherine being Matthew's sister and daughter of Dave and Karen Keener. 
Monday was supposed to rain, and it did. At dawn, got up and stuck a hand out the front door out across the overhead cover of the porch, and felt enough rain to make it a bad idea to record with delicate electronic devices. 
A couple hours later, the rain stopped and we set up gear and headed over to the main Keener Farm. Matthew watered the baby chicks, which means provided water for.  They're in metal tubs with a heat lamp and covered by a big dark tarp. It's crucial they be kept warm, to minimize the amount of deaths, which are many in the first days for any form of life. 
From there, headed over to the smoker, where a side of  bacon hung in an old refrigerator looking container. In the soft rain, there was no trouble starting a fire with hickory bark and firewood, which is put in the bottom, allowed to burn a time, and then put out, to create more smoke, which in turn, cures the bacon, providing more flavor. 
From there, Matthew walked into the woods, Andy following, recording, as he checked the buckets for sap, which were full but couldn't be collected until the ground froze, and the old tractor could navigate the often muddy trails of Spring.


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Arrival at the Keener's


We got in to Keener Farms super late, and found Matthew and Peter up playing cards, feeding the pot belly stove with wood, and drinking Miller Lite. It's been a year since the last visit to Keener, a place where one always feels welcome, always laughs, and always eats well. 
We drove for an hour before dawn hit, South on small roads to Seaman, Ohio where we met Tyler Palmer and Andy, who helps out on the farm. It was cold enough the tractor wouldn't start, and Tyler and Andy finally got it started after a little while. 
Tyler drove the tractor, and Andy tossed hay, while Andy, a different person that is, filmed and I tried my best to stay out of the shot. The cows warily approached the hay and started eating, with the ground hard and a half-white frost on the grass and hay bales. 
After feeding, the two moved hay in the barn, sunlight streaming through two old windows, the particles floating between the soft rays of light, the cold beauty of the moment, calming. We interviewed Tyler who talked about how he enjoyed working with his Dad, how he grows corn and soy, making sure to buy seed from his wife- who sells seeds. The past two years have been record highs for grain prices, and as a result Tyler's investment and work have paid off. 
We said goodbyes and thankyous, and hope to return soon. 
Got the chance to talk w Laura Hedlund and Karen on Food Freedom Radio halfway back to Dayton before we headed over to the main portion of Keener Farm, where Dave heated up some of Karen's eggplant parmesan. We all talked in the kitchen for awhile, discussing the year that had passed since our last meeting, and Andy talking about his Dayton upbringing. 
After some time, we got to some farm work. It started with spreading woodchips on manure in the barn, then spreading out straw, to make the bedding for the animals more carbonaceous. Which makes it smell better, too. 
From there we headed out into the woods, where 400 two-gallon buckets were sitting at the base of maple trees. In the late winter, early spring, there are certain days when maple trees produce lots of sap. Basically, if at night the temperature drops below freezing, and then the following day the temperature rises up in the 40s or 50s, the tree will shoot massive amounts of water from the roots up to the leaves. If you put a tap in the tree, connected to a hose, then you can gather the sap in buckets. By the way, this does not hurt the tree, as long as it is an old enough tree, and it is tapped in different places each season. 


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Collective Commitment

Once again we got a full sleep, and said goodbyes and thankyous to our kind hosts Sally and Chuck, both longtime friends of Andy. 

We drove a couple hours North to Cleveland where we filmed a brief interview with Chef Dean at Case Western, who talked about how his knowledge and commitment to local agriculture has grown much in the last 5, 10 years. He seemed to be a chef largely driven by taste, his descriptions of preparing pork belly, about the creative aspects of creating dishes outshining his knowledge of, or connection to farms and farmers. He said he hopes to visit Miller livestock, if he has time to get out of the kitchen. Hopefully, that time will come, because being on the farm where food comes from will definitely inform what kind of food that someone will choose to buy. 
We headed to Akron Ellet HS, for a truly odd experience. Expecting the documentary to be almost wrapping up as we arrived, we found instead the FFA chapter room to be filled with dogs, birds and other animals, as well as students, community members all standing in the midst of a fully-operational dog grooming parlor. It was like being in a dream, a really weird dream. Ms. Rose explained that they have a business grooming dogs, which generates revenue for the FFA chapter. Some students were dutifully grooming pets while others helped customers, and others just relished the opportunity to pet the dogs and observe the birds and rabbits in the back room. After the initial shock, we got everyone huddled together, about 12 of us, and watched the first segment from Polyface Farms, and then the story of Richard and Mary Morris transforming their health by changing the way they ate, then changing their jobs, then changing where they lived. The kids were kind, as were the teachers, and seemed to genuinely enjoy the segments we showed. 
We hadn't eaten yet and discovered we would have to wait longer, because Oberlin was too far for us to stop. We arrived early at the beautiful environmental science building, where the screening was hosted. The crew at Bon Appetit put together a truly phenomenal spread of local food, featuring meats and vegetables. Andy and I piled our plates high, lucky to be quenching our hunger with such healthy, wonderful food. 
I talked to Dan, who manages some BAMCo operations in Ohio, and who was at the Case Western screening as well. He talked about the co-op at Oberlin, where students share food, cook, clean and live together in the same space. I talked to some students there, who are super excited about this new arrangement, and who want to start growing food for the co-op too. 
The panel after was great, Jon Peterson talking about how we need to change the systems completely. About how our current system only works with a lot of fossil fuels, and that a local farm system can function in a post fossil fuel world. He talked about how attitudes can shift in an entire culture, quickly, about how smoking became significantly lessened in America, because a shift happened, and that he believed that processed foods, like what's at Coca Cola and McDonalds may soon be headed for similar fates.
Eric, a nutritionist talked about how GMO foods haven't been tested much for nutrition and health effects, because scientific studies are often funded by large companies that may not want to hear and publicize the results of such studies. 
Scott, who brought his whole large, young family of farmers, told the audience where they can buy their farms' food, which included the on-campus food, as well as directly at the farm, 3 times a week. 
At one point, one of the students in the audience, who along with his friends are to be particularly admired for coming out on a Friday night, talked about how we all need to make a collective commitment to changing out food system. The idea really resonates. Whether it is investing in a cow-share, as Glenn, in the audience has done along with other people in his community, or investing collectively into a farm CSA, or cooking together and sharing costs, it's something we all need to do. 
Urged everyone to collectively commit to calling the senators in Ohio, so that we can put back in to the farm bill victories for local food like the Beginning Farmers and Ranchers act. And I urge all of you to call your senators, too. We need to support legislation that will support our local farmers. Please go to National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition sustainableagriculture.net and they'll give more information about what to say and who to call. 
This whole movement that's taking place is really going to be a group effort, we're all going to work together to make ourselves and our environment healthier. 
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Waynedale to Denison

We slept in, which was much needed.

Showers, breakfast and on the road around noon, heading North for Waynedale HS in Apple Creek.

We drove through backroads after being on the main roads, an enjoyable change of pace. Ohio is full of rolling hills, and the last dustings of snow as the winter days rapidly approach spring. Waynedale High School was kind enough to host us, Don McConnell the AgEd instructor in his final days after teaching for 32 years. Don's passion was evident in the shop room, where students were building model homes from scrap wood.

The school is going through a financially challenging time, and as a result the FFA program has recently been cut out completely, and will be phased out over the course of the next couple years. The equipment needed repair, and the wood shop was cold because Don said that one of the roll gates to the building wouldn't seal shut. About 20 kids shuffled in, surprised to find the TV setup. We screened some scenes from the documentary, and talked about the advantages and disadvantages of different systems of agriculture. A few kids in the back talked about something else, perhaps the recent state wrestling tournament. One student upfront, was super engaged, and after the screening told us he thought the presentation was awesome, which is appreciated. The kids headed out and we talked a bit with Don, learning about how little he's being paid, and realizing just how often that our nation's AgEd teachers are working because of a sense of purpose, and not because of any financial reward. It's something that matters deeply to them. Which is why it was sad to hear that FFA was cut at Waynesdale, a school district that because of disappearing revenue, it seems, may actually itself be consolidated in the years ahead.

As we drove out of the parking lot, it the sadness of losing a school, losing a community became especially real. We drove through Wayne County and Holmes County towards Granville. Those two counties are the most heavily populated with Amish people in the world. We passed a number of black horse and buggies, filled with huddled Amish folk, keeping warm together in a slow-moving vehicle without a windshield or any sealed-off shelter. We cracked our window a bit in an attempt to feel a little of the cold, and wind they felt, an awkward gesture.

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In honor of our trip through Ohio, it seems appropriate to dive into the state's history and talk about one of it's more interesting stories. More specifically the origin on the term "Porkopolis."

Cincinnati for much of early American history was known as Porkopolis. Due to its geographic proximity to the Ohio River pork processors could use this strategic location as easy access for raising, processing and shipping pork. Ohio Pork was shipped all around the world, from Boston and New York throughout the south and even over to Europe. Cured pork was easy to store due largely to Ohio's freezing climate in the winter time which allowed the meat processors to store pork throughout the colder months.

Cincinnati was a major hub for pork processing well into the late 1800's and it stayed that way until that Chicago began to overtake it as the major pork processing area in the US. One disadvantage that Cincinnati possessed was the Ohio river's tendency to freeze in the winter time. This freezing significantly decreased productivity in the winter months which is where Chicago's access to railways allowed it to ultimately surpass Cincinnati as America's pork processing epicenter.

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Miller's to Wayne to OSU

We got up at around dawn and filmed with Aaron Miller of Miller Livestock. All the pigs and cattle were in the barn, because it is cold outside, and because the pasture gets so much snow, with out much freezing of the ground. The result is that if animals are out on pasture, they'll rip up the sod. 

Aaron took care to provide alfalfa for the animals, using a pitchfork to move the feed in front of the animals. He spread some straw, which is used as bedding, around for the pigs, the gentle steam of warm bodies perspiring into crisp late-winter air. 
Melissa arrived as we were in mid-shoot, and started cooking up breakfast in the large spacious farm-kitchen. 
Meanwhile, Aaron, Andy and I flipped over three 5-gallon buckets, sat down and did the interview. Aaron has been raising animals since 4-H, which was a few decades back. He talked about the importance of diversity on the farm, diversity of the species, and diversity of markets. In 1999, they stopped spraying pesticides when they realized that they would be eating the vegetables themselves, and decided they'd rather find other ways to ward off bugs and pests, then to spray future food that him and his kids would be eating that had warning labels about being hazardous to health. 
In the kitchen, ham, eggs and potatoes awaited. Truly phenomenal food, from the farm, from the kitchen of the skilled hands of Melissa. We ate and talked about birds, and farming and any number of things. 
We said goodbyes and thankyous and headed out to University of Akron in Wayne County, Wayne College. We drove on back roads when possible and got there in plenty of time. About 60 people gathered into a classroom, where we were hosted by Stephanie and Carol of the Global Green club. The conversation after was good, a young entrepreneur talking about a website he's launching hoofty.com or something like that, that connects people with farmers. A woman who farms and sells her and her family's produce into a co-op in Wooster, OH. 
A professor spoke about soil, how without soil, there's no farms, and no food. 
We headed South and West to Columbus where we were hosted by Katie Wilkinson of Chipotle, as well as Brittney and Caitlin of the Food Science Club at OSU. We were in a beautiful new theater, the Gateway, where about 150 people filed in for free burritos, a film, and a conversation following. 
The conversation covered the topics of global exports, transitioning agricultural systems and the viability of local and regional food systems. There were a number of different positions as to the solutions that will work, and a shared passion to support agriculture, and to arrive at the best system of food production for our country's heartland. 
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Bardo to Case

Because of multiple tasks, we split ways for the better part of the day. Andy, headed to Case, to document the chef skills of Chef Dean, who worked to prepare locally-sourced foods for a reception we would be a part of later on. 

I drove North and East, or was it South and East to West Branch High FFA, where Mr. Greg Sharp and Mr. Mike Bardo, the kind, knowledgable instructors there hosted. 
Mr. Bardo, or Bardo, as the kids affectionately called him, was showing the kids how to cut wood in the expansive Vocational Ag section of the highschool, which recently got some new construction from taxpayer dollars well spent. Talked to a couple of classes, before Bardo took me out for lunch at Subway in between classes. Bardo is almost 60, a man who has been raising dairy cows his entire life, with the thick strong hands of a dairyman. Four generations of family live together, on the farm where he lives, truly a wonderful thing. 
We finished the tour, and lunch and talked with another class, who like us, was a bit tired after just eating. On the way out, Bardo gave a West Branch FFA t-shirt, which was a really nice gesture. 
Drove up to Cleveland, where Andy and I and about 50 or so folks ate appetizers prepared by Chef Dean and the talented crew of BAMCo, at Case Western. 
The ensuing panel was focused on personal responsibility, about how every dollar that we choose to spend is so vital to our nation's agriculture. Chef Doug talked about the joys of sourcing from farmers, about learning about the hard work farmers do, and introducing the wisdom into his restaurants. Mary announced a new Slow Food chapter at Case. Chris talked about how with a small gift from BAMCo, he's been able to start up and run a greenhouse that actually sources the cafeteria at the school. Students often volunteer in the greenhouse, providing food for one another. 
Piper talked about driving around the country with a car that runs on vegetable oil, starting conversations about agriculture with college students. A pretty cool job. 
Aaron, of Miller Livestock, who provided a good amount of the beef and pork that we ate at the reception, talked about the dangers of GMOs and encouraged people to look up the topic, as do we. 
The Miller's kindly invited us to stay at their farm, which we accepted. We shared a great meal with Damen and Anna, two local food lovers who introduced us to an amazing place with the best chicken wings in the world. Sorry, can't remember the name. 
We drove towards the PA border and crashed in the beautiful farm home of the Aaron and Melissa Miller. 
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