spirituality and self-sufficiency

Some folks have asked me, "How do you manage all winter without fresh produce?"  For most people, it probably seems unimaginable.  We're so used to being able to buy fresh veggies and fruit all year long, whenever we want.  But I can assure you, here at the farm, we've hardly been left wanting this winter.  The Sisters have food storage and preservation down pretty well.  This week, for example, we had a wonderful salad made up of raw carrots and sweet red onions, little sprouted greens that grow from the stored roots (even in the dark and chill of the root cellar!), and defrosted spring peas, which had been blanched and then frozen last summer.  Take a look, and tell me that doesn't look delicious!

We also ate a grain and veggie dish, made up of whole oats (which, when not processed into oatmeal, look a lot like rice), frozen broccoli and peas, and small pieces of steamed root vegetables.  The dish also included raisins, which were the only ingredient we didn't produce ourselves.

The Sisters have been working toward becoming increasingly self-sufficient over time.  We still buy a few staple items, like milk, butter and some cheese (though we're beginning to make cheese from the milk we buy!), flour, sugar, salt, yeast, and some treats, such as popcorn and raisins.  As much as we can, though, we're trying to grow what we need to eat.  We've learned to make pizza with a polenta crust, to use oats as rice, to use maple syrup instead of sugar . . . all sorts of tasty substitutions. 

It's hard to imagine giving up all store-bought items altogether, but we think it's a good goal to be working towards, as best we can.  I'm enthusiastic about this idea for many reasons: I'm livid about the amount of packaging that is used to ship and store food, and the plastic in our landfills and oceans that's never going to decompose. I also think our culture has undergone a long and unfortunate period of forgetting--forgetting how to cook food, how to store food, how to grow food.  I was saddened, but not surprised to hear that first-graders can't identify common vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes, and mushrooms.  Jamie Oliver (a British chef and advocate for healthy meals in schools, who recently won the TED prize--see his great 20-min speech here) is heavily involved in food education, and has videoed children's attempts to identify common produce (watch the video here).  He also has a new show, about his efforts to change the food culture in one city in the US, called "Food Revolution" that premieres on March 26 on ABC. (By "food culture," I mean how we actually grow, select, buy, prepare, and eat food, and all our commonly held ideas about how we should do those things.)

In my experience so far, I've found that growing and storing food encourages a certain amount of creativity in the kitchen.  I was looking, for example, for a simple dessert to make that would be appropriate for a lunch during Lent, and came up with this:  frozen berries, topped with yogurt.  At the freezer, I thought I was choosing blueberries, but accidentally grabbed a bag of garden huckleberries.  Garden huckleberries grow easily around here, and look like a large, purplish blueberry; they aren't particularly sweet or tart--so I drizzled a teaspoon of honey on the berries, then covered them with yogurt.  Fresh, tasty, healthy--fruit in winter!  

I enjoy the challenge of cooking with what we grow, and I treasure this time of healthy eating.  I'm so thankful that I'm not purchasing plastic.   And I'm hopeful that more and more Americans are learning to grow and cook food, that school gardens are making a resurgence, and that people are starting to acquire those basic life skills that have gone by the wayside.  It's going to take conscious effort and time to rebuild a healthy food culture in the US, to make sure that young people are better equipped to weather recessions through simple cooking, to turn toward a healthier future.  

One of the concepts I've learned through my exposure to the Transition Town movement, which is focused on getting communities to organize themselves to face the challenges of energy insecurity, economic instability, and climate change, is the notion of "resilience."  The idea is that resilient communities can withstand economic, political, environmental "shocks" to their system, and be able to survive stressful changes.  A community becomes resilient by reducing its dependence on oil (developing local renewable power grids, greening buildings, and conserving), by shifting consumption and production patterns to increase the production of staple goods locally, and by building social networks and strengthening neighbor- and community-level interaction.  Part of this whole equation is increasing the amount of food grown locally.  It's said that there's about three day's worth of food in your local grocery store.  A resilient community, with a good level of local food production, would be able to handle a gas shortage or other kind of economic crisis that might affect the food supply chain.  The Transition Town folks suggest that for a community to be truly resilient, all the teenagers in that community should be able to know how to grow and harvest at least 10 crops.  How far are we from that, today?

The longer I'm here at the farm, the more I'm coming to understand how much our culture has lost in terms of commonly held, basic life skills.  I scoffed at "Home Economics" classes in seventh- and eighth-grade, but now wish I had paid more attention, and that the classes had continued on into high school.  

I'm also realizing that there's something spiritual--maybe not inherent to, but certainly present in--the practices of self-sufficiency and sustainability.  When you grow your own food, or buy it from your neighbor, it takes on a different quality than your typical mass-produced consumer item.  You realize your dependence on the Earth, and you treasure what you can learn from and what you can share with your community.  Somehow, trying to become more self-sufficient has made my relationship to the Earth and to my community more deeply felt; becoming more resilient has meant becoming less of an isolated entity.  It's meant realizing the truth: that we are all part of the same whole.