SEJ Food Shed Trip Part One

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The sun rose to our right beyond wave after wave of blue ridge as the bus headed north along I-81 on Thursday morning–Day 2 of the SEJ conference. Touring journalists could not have asked for better weather for the two hour bus ride north from Hotel Roanoke to Polyface Farm near Staunton.

Following the mission of giving tour attendees the most possible information bang for their buck, an informational data-stream was offered by a number of guides, leaders and experts who took their turn swaying at the front of the bus with a microphone, their purpose–to help us understand what we would be seeing and better understand how the diversified 550 acre Polyface farm fits into the context of future farming practice, not just in Virginia but as a model for a successful and sustainable national bottom-up agriculture.

Tour leaders freelance journalists Joseph Davis and Christine Heinrick and Senior Rodale Institute Editor Dan Sullivan deserve the credit for arrangements at the day’s destinations, coordinating travel, and arranging for the lunch meal (provided by Chipotle and enjoyed at the Frontier Culture Museum near Staunton.)

I took copious notes that day–my handwritting under the best of conditions I can barely read. Taken on a bus at 70 mph, it seems I lapsed into Klingon. I’d planned a long narrative of the trip but life intruded. So I’ll offer a lesser recap in snippets with a few pix, probably in two parts.

  • Farming is a $70B business in Virginia employing 49,000 folks who give their occupation as farmer. (Mention was made that being “just a farmer” was about to change; in the future, farmers–especially those like Joel Salatin who we were soon to meet, would become folk heroes.)
  • The number of farmers whose incomes fall between $5K and $250K are falling; the “small family farm” is disappearing–not because people have stopped needing what those farms once produced
  • Journalists need to be able to tell the stories of farmers, to “give a face to our food” and to encourage readers to “enlarge their educational footprint” with regard to the food they buy and eat
  • more direct relationships are growing between university and school food services and farms and farm co-ops; the trend is toward local production. Even so, it is still difficult to get Virginia products into Virginia schools (the example of apples was given).

Speaker Lyle Estill was a business major before life imposed different directions for him (as one’s occupational life often does.) In 2002 a search for something useful to do with several gallons of used oil from deep frying some left-over turkey began his unexpected career in turning fats into fuels.

He is now co-owner of Piedmont Biofuels whose production from various organic oils and fats has surpassed a million gallons a year. During the past six years, Lyle has learned a lot of biology, chemistry and carbon math. What’s more, he is very passionate and articulate about his experience and his future energy hopes–and his misgivings–about supplanting fossil fuels with bio-fuels of any stripe, especially when food crops are the source. His well-reasoned and informed position is offered–among many other places–in this recent essay.

So this would probably be a good place to end for today and begin in part two where I’ll be better able to read my notes taken from the moving haywagon navigated across Polyface Farm by Joel Salatin–whose erudite and highly-impassioned monologue would fill an entire notepad. I’ll offer more snippets.

Almost Heaven

Grayson County, Virginia

No, it isn’t West Virginia but Southwest Virginia. This is Grayson County whose southern border is the North Carolina line.

The county contains the highest peak in the Commonwealth, Mt. Rogers, and that might be it in the far distance, upper left. What you can’t see here (but I will show you soon) is the New River that completely wraps around this high promentory of land, itself worn smooth like a river stone, plush-carpeted in eastern deciduous greenery.

I’ll have images to show you of the river from high above, from the river-at-my-feet, and of the people who own and care for–and I mean care for–this place on earth.

You’ll hear how this part of the county is becoming a model of earth-care and stewardship that will insure the land remains in a condition both of best use and best preservation.

I went along for this visit on October 13, a journey that seems much more like participating in a story than an assignment.

I’m working on several more posts from SEJ out of my notes and have not even dipped into stories and topics from the bag of pick-up items or videos on CD offered at vendor tables during the five days of conference.

Also, I know there will be audio and video from each conference session. I’m not sure it will be publicly accessible–I hope it will–so I’ll be digging into that resource as I’m able and will be highlighting those for your edification. If you don’t wanna be edified, well, that’s another deal.

I’m heading back to the House of Pain today, putting back on my Physical Therapist hat. I feel like Cinderella. Fetch me the bucket and mop, the Grand Ball and Pumpkin Coach were something else, now back to real life as we know it.

Debriefing SEJ 2008: a Beginning

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You probably know the feeling–the mixed emotions after a week away, relieved to be free of steady-state, always-on attention to names, words and issues, now home, in the quiet let down to be out of the wash of adrenalin, zeal and the buzz of so many good ideas.

Ah, but to flop on your own worn napping couch, to sit once more in your favorite chair that holds the impression of years of your sitting, to sip coffee from your own stained mug. The dog who has missed you so sits at your feet, the kettle gently hisses on the wood stove (since in your absence, winter has come!)

Alas you face this morning the emails, the phone messages to return, bills to pay, fires to put out even while you keep the one behind the glass door of the stove perking along; you will attend to the piles that contain your life and under which somewhere is a once familiar oak desk.

I want to go back through the copious but not-terribly-rigorous notes I took over five days of meetings because I know there are websites and quotes and topics I’d want to share with you.

That I have a lot of notes is not difficult to understand if you realize that we never sat down to eat or to ride a bus but that some planned speaker was informing us of one thing or another or the person to your left and right at dinner were immensely interesting people worthy of their own scribbled notes that you hid on a slip of paper under your napkin.

There was very little dead air at SEJ; and one could not afford the luxury of free time. On the other hand, there were practically no moments–as there are typically many  at long conferences I’ve attended in the past–in which my internal dialogue was muttering “I don’t think I can stand another minute of this waste of my time. I’m not getting any younger!”

Impressions: this was in many ways to me more like being with my “kind” than a family reunion of genes shared by chance alone, than a high school reunion of vaguely-remembered fight songs, than a conference within my day-job peers of goniometer-carrying physical therapists.

The folks at this conference by and large were “like me” in ways that matter a lot to me, being both respecters of the power of words and engaged, earth-aware citizens who looked you in the eye with genuine interest and wanted to know your story. I was not the stranger in a strange land I had expected and dreaded I would be.

I’ll be pulling from the experience toward a consolidated expression of the event in a week or so. Until then, let me recommend this 13 minute youtube video of Wendell Berry (perhaps the only video of the man) giving a January speech against MTR that he read to us at breakfast yesterday morning. I challenge you to watch it all and listen from the heart and gut and not be moved.

Of this I am certain: many writers from across the country who attended the SEJ conference in Roanoke have come for the first time to our southern mountains; many have seen first hand the “garden land that has now become the waste land.” And they have been moved. Thank God for their voices while there is yet time.

Fieldtrip to Polyface Oct 16 2008

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I may have a net connection later today, but for now, this image composite of Joel Salatin from Polyface Farm is all I’ll have time to post–that, and a link to other images at SmugMug, not yet labeled.

The Foodshed Field Trip was an education.

The SEJ conference has been a very good experience–if exhausting. I have bags and folders and files overflowing, to be sorted at some point in November. I’ll share with you at some point.

Have a good weekend, y’all.

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