Thursday, June 29, 2006

Life is Simple

Tom and Denise Peterson have been journeymen farmers for 25 years. The concept is somewhat of a new one to me, but from the very beginning of their relationship, they have worked, lived, and raised their family on the farms of others. After extended stays in Vermont and Illinois, they decided to look for a place to settle in western Virginia. They loved the Appalachians, were envious of the extended growing season in the south, and wanted to be closer to family now that they had kids. In looking for a place to move, they decided to put a small advertisement in the newsletter of the Virginia Association of Biological Farming, telling people who they were and that they were looking for work. The ad appeared right next to an announcement for a position with Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD), an organization dedicated to developing markets for sustainable farm and wood products, and providing technical assistance to the producers. Fate is a wonderful thing, and after meeting the organization’s founder Anthony Flaccavento, Tom was hired as their first agricultural coordinator. Shortly thereafter, the family moved to the small town of Abingdon.

They now live in an 1876 farmhouse, known locally as the old Walden house. The house has a notorious history amongst the old timers. At one time about 60 years ago, the home’s owner, Mr. Maddox came home one day and killed his entire family before taking his own life. When the Peterson’s first moved in six years ago, their twin sons, who were six at the time, would occasionally catch a brief glimpse of a sad old man walking around the house. Denise too has caught glimpses of a young girl sitting up stairs staring out the window. Tom finds it a bit spooky that his wife and children have such interactions with the supernatural, as seeing ghosts are apparently not part of his repertoire of talents. The general consensus in the community however, is that the Peterson’s have brought a calm and a joy to the corner house, not felt there for years.

I had met Tom the day before during a visit to Anthony’s farm, the director and founder of Appalachian Sustainable Development. ASD was hosting a Sunday afternoon organic farm tour and the crowd of about seventy-five was impressively large, and diverse, with a number of traditional farmers in the mix. Southwest Virginia, not unlike much of country, is struggling to keep family’s farming. With the bottom dropping out of the tobacco market, and federal allotments being cut by as much as 90%, farmers are looking for alternatives for survival. What Anthony and Tom and the rest of ASD have accomplished is no small feat. The organization provides the link between producers and new markets and has generated a growing demand for locally produced foods at small and large retail outlets throughout the state and beyond. Though organized as a non-profit, ASD operates under an unconventional, entrepreneurial mentality. By making decisions as a business they have created a “middleman with integrity” that helps producers centralize their resources for grading, packing, shipping, and marketing. 38 organic growers now package under one brand call Appalachian Harvest, gaining access to gigantic supermarket chains such as Food City and Whole Foods. They now direct market to consumers, informing them about the farmers and the practices gone into growing the food with written materials available right in the supermarket. The more personal approach sells, and many of the large supermarkets are now mimicking the technique.

When I first arrived at Tom and Denise’s house, I immediately felt at home. They had guests enjoying themselves at stools in the kitchen while Tom cooked potato and corn chowder. One of their friends, Kirsty Zahnke, had just finished giving Denise a massage, as part of her homework for massage school. Denise had a glow on her face, relaxed and happy. Kirsty was also one of the farmers in the Sustainable Harvest network and had returned to her family’s farm after many years abroad to make a go of sustainable farming. She and her parents are English, and somehow settled in Big Stone Gap, a once affluent community deep in the heart of Appalachia coal country. A quite charming woman, (something about an English accent in rural Appalachia makes one charming), Kirsty was strong as an ox both physically and mentally. She possessed an absolute passion and commitment to food, sustainability, the environment and education. She had returned to the farm three years prior and was growing sheep, pastured poultry, and preparing a Devon cow for milking.

The evening was the first of my trip where I not only felt completely at ease (I have been fortunate to find that feeling more often than I would have expected), but also in the company of fellow soul mates. These were people who yearned for doing simple but vitally important things that would improve people’s lives, communities, and surroundings.

The evening came into focus when we discussed how the spirit of community is such a small and simple thing. “Life is pretty simple,” said Tom. “You eat, you breathe, and you die.” Each individual develops a vision of how they want that to happen, and for Tom and Denise the question is “who do you touch in the process?” “That’s what we’re trying to do here. That’s why we have people come over to the house to pick up their produce, because they don’t just come by and grab it and leave, they hang around, their kids jump on the trampoline, they see how we grow the food, and we talk or play some music.” Such a lifestyle was at once as appealing as it was foreign. I was instantly aware of the distance between neighbors in modern society, because the ties and the talents that bind us have been replaced with outside goods.

“In modern society, everything is provided for us,” Tom states and that makes us disconnected from one another. He mentions a friend who had visited an island in Greece where everyone wore shoes made on that island. The people were proud of their shoes because they were good quality and someone from their community was making them. You could actually go and watch them make the shoes. And it’s a skill, it’s an art.

The most fascinating thing about Tom and Denise as we stayed up past 11 pm, pretty late for farmers, talking about our search for community, is that their vision was still out there in the future somewhere and they were still working to attain it. Tom spent his day’s trying to find struggling farmers who were willing to risk the transition from conventional producer on a glutted industrial market, to becoming an organic or sustainable producer selling to local people within a few hundred miles who would read about his farm and have a picture of him in their minds as they ate his veggies.

Interestingly, when I mentioned my wonderful trip to Monticello and discussed Thomas Jefferson, one of Tom’s heroes, we realized that Jefferson too was an imperfect visionary with a similar dilemma. He nurtured the establishment of a nation, but the backbone and integrity of that nation required so much more effort. The work of visionaries is never complete. As recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and famed theologian Albert Schweitzer once stated, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.” The Petersons are a beautiful example of how to live, and one I’ll not soon forget.

6/30/2006 2:43 PM
Anna wrote:
Something is wrong with your last post...lots of code mixed in?? Anyhoo, I mentioned to my friend Bryce, a farmer in Berea, that you'll be travelling through. He'd be happy to have you come by. His website, with contact info, is:
Too bad it's so damn hot out there!

Reply to this
7/2/2006 12:26 PM Justin Ellis wrote:
Thanks Gal,

I know. I can't simply cut and paste or I get jargon. Ah, nothing is simple after all.

Hey thanks for the tip. I'll give your friend a shout. I love connections like this. Thanks for the help...again.

All my best,


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