Monday, August 7, 2006

Linda Williams - Margins and Momentous Moments

Linda Williams at Windrush Farms was going to be my first farm stop in Missouri. I hadn’t been on a farm in over a week, not since my stay with the Amish just west of Marion, KY. Since then, I had been stuck in Carbondale, IL for five days dealing with bike issues, followed by one of the most intense and pleasurable rides of the trip so far, Murphysboro, IL to Farmington MO. It would be an 85 mile trek, my longest distance to date, and before the end of the day I would be entering the edges of the Ozark Mountains.

I finally got a super early start on the day, waking at the Murphysboro city park pavilion at 5:45 AM and on the bike and down the road by 6:20. The morning was crisp and beautiful and headed straight towards 100 degrees by shortly after lunchtime. I had determined to take the Mississippi Levee Alternate route and it proved to be one of my best decisions yet. The road was flat and beautiful farmland all around, with some sections of the road actually right atop the levee. Here’s an early morning self portrait.

By lunchtime I had arrived in Popeye’s home town of Chester, IL. That’s right, the sailor man himself… toot, toot! Ironically, Popeye was born about as far away from an ocean as one could possibly get, but his creator Elzie Siegler grew up watching ferrymen and steamboat captains on the Mississippi River and apparently, they reckon themselves as sailors too. Go figure. I’m a pretty big Popeye fan so I went to meet the man, or at least a bronze statue resembling him.

Here’s a little poem I’ll call Ode to Popeye (I’m rather fond of “odes”)

Though his height be small

his stature’s tall….

with squinty eye, meaty calves,

and forearms tough as ropes,

he stood before me peering down

out o’er his square jutting jaw.

Something there’s to admire

A salty pilot on freshwater

Ugly, honest and courageous,

Protector of the slow, gangly and fatherless,

He owed his strength to something bigger

A superhero born from the garden

A man who ate his spinach.

Guh, guh, guh, guh, guh!

He stared me down, I promised to eat my spinach, then promptly left the state as quick as I could crossing the mighty Mississippi and entering state number four, Missouri.

I rode and I rode and I rode, and just before 9 PM I came to the top of the hill and pulled down Sand Creek Road where Linda Williams was waiting for me, lighting her drive with the headlights of her car. At the end of the day, I never tire of having a friendly face awaiting your arrival, and welcoming you into their home to take a load off.

Linda apologized about half a dozen times for the state of her home, not realizing that four walls, running water, and a way to sit up off the ground were extravagant luxuries to someone like me. We sat down at her kitchen table where I began to consume vast quantities of water, apple juice, and any other liquid substance she chose to present before me. We had an immediate repore and I was glad to be off the bike. Linda’s home was cooled with one small air conditioning unit, and because of the extreme heat of the day, it was still a bit warm even inside. She had cordoned off much of the house by closing doors and putting up plastic to separate the rooms. The back wall of her living room was covered with books, three ring binders, and leaflets all about organic gardening and farming. The binding of nearly half the books were bright green, a popular color for books on gardening apparently.

As she heated some Amy’s organic soup and grilled up some cheese sandwiches in an iron skillet (with lots of butter, just the way I like it), she told me about her inspiration to become an organic grower. She had first become an avid gardener, but the kind dependent upon Miracle Gro and the seed options available at the local hardware store, and had always imagined that growing organically would be too challenging. Where would she learn how to do it? Then one day she was watching television when a program on organic gardening hosted by Eliot Coleman changed her life.

What was most interesting about Linda’s story was how her obsession with organic gardening had changed her in some foundational ways. Having been fairly quiet and shy in her personal life, her voracious appetite for all things organic gave her a venue to become a leader. In the mid to late nineties, the USDA organic standards were just going into effect, and many organic growers were ill-equipped to make the transition from an unorganized, semi-professional operation, to one that behaved more like a business and was capable of demonstrating that they met the requirements of certification. The expense of organic certification was also ridiculously high, nearly $1,500, which in keeping with so many other government regulations, was going to prevent small farmers from entering….or remaining in the market.

Linda began lobbying for the small organic farmer. And during this time, she and other organic “true believers” formed the Missouri Organic Association. As a result, they were successful in reducing the organic certification costs to less than $200. But through the process of providing support and advice to farmers facing the big decision of going organic, or applying for organic certification, they created something far more important; a community. Linda, who lives and works by herself, not only leans on and depends on this family, it depends on her.

She began to fill me in on the politics of organic farming in Missouri. The current governor of Missouri, Matt Blunt, is being groomed as a potential presidential candidate, and presumably as a demonstration of his allegiance to the industrial powers within agriculture has all but eliminated the state programs designed to assist small sustainable farms, including the organic certification cost reduction. Linda’s disgust with these political adversaries has undoubtedly weighed heavy on her. Being on the front lines, has taken its toll, as her passions and beliefs are so intertwined with her very identity that much of the political warfare has manifested itself both physically and emotionally. She began to have back swelling first, which then led to a slipped disc, finally resulting in back surgery, all of which she now attributes to her unbalanced frame of mind…and her anger during the fight.

As we talked I was reminded of my own experiences in advocating for a more sustainable agriculture, and so I shared with her perhaps my earliest watershed moments regarding agriculture, and one that undoubtedly led me to this current journey.

In the late ‘90’s, the state of Alabama was being wooed by the industrial swine companies of North Carolina who were looking to expand their operations. Hurricanes in the Carolina’s around this time had finally pushed the state over the edge in their tolerance of giant hog facilities. North Carolina had invented the practice of concentrated hog farming where as many as 5,000 animals could be enclosed under one barn, the liquid waste then collected in giant, one acre long lagoons, whereupon the waste would be spray irrigated to the land, and too frequently seeping into shallow groundwater supplies contaminating the drinking water. Many of these waste lagoons were built in floodplains and when the hurricane rains caused the rivers to rise, the lagoons were breached, and millions of gallons of raw waste was flushed out into the Atlantic Ocean, first causing giant fish kills along the way, and then leading to Pfisteria outbreaks along the coast. The disaster indefinitely prolonged a North Carolina moratorium on all new swine farms until more stringent regulations could be enacted.

Meanwhile, the industry was on the rise, and with North Carolina out of commission, it was time to expand in other states. Alabama has always been known for their kindness and understanding to polluting industries, so the Alabama Farm Bureau began showing taking the pork people for tours around the state. Alabama has no shortage of struggling agrarian communities, so they were looking for an area where farmers would be anxious and capable to put up the capital for new barns and lagoons, where a new processing facility could be built (hopefully with state tax exemptions), and most importantly where the surrounding community was docile enough not to complain.

I spent two years trying to organize the residents all over Alabama to show the Farm Bureau and the pork industry just how docile they could expect Alabama citizens to be. The very first thing I did was write an editorial describing the consequences of industrial swine, and submitted it as an Op-Ed in every small paper in the state. It was picked up by at least 27 papers, whereupon I overnight became the most hated man amongst Alabama’s agribusiness elite, as well as many of the local extension agents and NRCS staff as well. That was their job to tell people what was, and was not good for their local agriculture. I was only about 24 or 25 at the time and had no idea what I was getting into. I was working for Alabama Rivers Alliance at the time, and I learned first hand two very important life lessons.

1) Industrial food production was a system with enormous unaccounted for consequences and a modern reality I was never again going to be able to overlook, and ….

2) Prolonged advocacy fights always run the risk of becoming personal which end up affecting one physically and emotionally.

As a result, I became a lifelong proponent of sustainable agriculture and much more conscious of how many full-fledged battle royals I was willing to take on.

Linda and I bonded over our war stories and then at one point she said something that will stick with me for the rest of this trip. I was joking about how all I seem to do is go from house to house, farm to farm, mooching off of people, getting fed and watered, and cleaned-up and rested, and then thanking them very kindly and heading on down the road to the next place that will take me in. And then she said, “You’re making people feel important. That someone would go to this much trouble to do something like this makes them feel what they’re doing is important.” It was the best compliment, the best explanation for the value and the purpose of my trip that I could imagine.

Linda continued my education in sustainability gurus. She was amazed that I had met Joel Salatin and camped in his hay barn. Then she told me about John Ikerd who I just discovered during some research today has written about 100 papers that I want to read. Here’s a link to his entire online collection. (Did anybody read Michael Pollan’s stuff yet…it’s blow me down awesome?)

With our grilled cheese and soup we ate three varieties of homegrown heirloom tomato. And if you haven’t eaten an heirloom tomato yet this summer, or heaven forbid, you’ve never eaten an heirloom tomato, or you’re not sure if you have, do yourself a favor, go to your next farmer’s market or your gardening neighbor, or somebody who knows and get yourself a real tomato.

After dinner, Linda broke out….get this….a brand new inflatable mattress. Not only was I going to get to sleep inside, but she was going to put me in the closet, which was right next to the air conditioner. Ahhhhh….I was so tired from riding nearly 90 miles I didn’t wake up until quarter to 9.

That morning Linda took me out to show me her garden. What I liked about Linda’s garden, and the commonality that I find at all small operations is the love and pride for every new development. She had taken cattle wire fencing, lashed it together, and built a hoop house on the concrete pad that had formerly been her carport. She then added greenhouse plastic and a shade cloth and was using it as her honor system roadside farm stand. Come winter she was going to pull the shade cloth off and use it as her nursery. Like most good organic gardens she had an incredible diversity and had developed her niche at the local markets by growing heirloom varieties that no else had, like the black zebra tomato, and 8 ball squash.

But what most impressed me about Linda’s place was her native plant buffer zone filled with native perennials and understory trees. This was Linda’s training ground, teaching ground and favorite place to sit. In an area that was maybe one third of her rear yard, she was educating herself on local plants, adding to the diversity of the land, and observing the changes such as an increase in numbers and diversity of native pollinators which makes up for the disappearance of the honey bees due to mites. She had also observed the increase in birds which eat much of the pests in her garden.

She explains how important it is to use ecology to help you. In conventional production every area is used towards a cash crop, there is no room for nature to show you a better way. Wendell Barry refers to this in The Unsettling of America in his chapter entitled simply Margins. It is in fact his final chapter, and he explains how vital these margins are.

I’ve seen a lot on my trip so far. Linda was the first to visibly show and teach me about margins. We hit it off in our brief encounter. She’s a woman with a big, big heart. One of the last things she said to me as she showed me her potted orange trees that she had grown from the original parent plant was “Everytime something momentous happens I like to plant a tree.” I looked around the yard and saw a bit deeper into the life that had planted itself there.

Blessings to you,


This entry was posted on 8/7/2006 7:45 PM
  • 8/10/2006 9:32 PM Kip Glass wrote:
    I don't know if you get these comments, but I've just read back through a lot of the blog, (the bike mishap to current) and wow this is great. I'm hooked on reading this.
    I will go back to the beginning and start reading. Your are an excellent writer! Just a conglomerate of your blog with farming insights you learned along the way could be your premise of the book.
    I have noticed you realized just what I did a long time ago, that is most people in this world are generous and very giving and will open up to you if you recipricate in kind.
    I'll be thinking of you in your travels and I'll pray for your safety.
    Kip Glass

  • 8/10/2006 9:42 PM vicki pense wrote:
    Hey Justin,
    YOu are really an interesting writer and a great bike traveller. I enjoy reading about your adventures and the farms you visit and the great scenery you have photos of. Keep up the good work. I wish you could have met Seb and our son Andy. When I told Andy about you he said - oh, he should meet Wendle Barry! You too would have gotten along well! Maybe next time.

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