Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sitting in a Wisconsin bus station

Mississippi River, alongside the La Crosse Center.
 After finally securing a good night's sleep (10 hrs!), I can look back on the last three days and honestly say that the MOSES organic farming conference was time well spent. The sessions were rich with meaty information, with titles like "Crop Diversification" and "Farming With Native Plants, "Introduction to the Farm Bill" and "Working Your Holistic Fruit Orchard." Honestly? So much was way over my head but that's what happens when you jump in head first.

All the free chocolate milk...HEAVEN.
It's going to take me a while to process everything I heard and all the wonderful people I met. With 3300 attendees, it was North America's largest gathering of organic farmers ever. Such a funny mix too - young, bright-eyed students, traditional farmers in overall and John Deere caps, plus dreadlocked hippies and tons of Amish. I even dined with a table of charming lesbians and more than one woman in her 40s who had never farmed before but was taking a crack at it. Inspiration all around.

But it wasn't all happiness and joy, especially during the "GMO Contamination" session, which laid out exactly what all the GMO crops are doing to our land, our food, our environment and our children. Why people are not freaking out about this is a mystery to me.

The exhibition hall.
 While we were there, Monsanto was ordered by a judge to pay $93M (a pittance for them) to the town of Nitro, West Virginia to clean up their Agent Orange mess. This is the same chemical that is used to create 2, 4-D corn, which they plan to implement en masse here in the U.S.

Cheese! Including squeaky curds on the right.

So, the same chemical that we used to destroy the enemy in WWII is now being repackaged and sold to farmers and consumers as perfectly healthy food. Meanwhile, the rise of autism, obesity, infertility and obesity continues to rise.

This session was so packed, I sat on the floor.
Truth is: Cheap food, in the long run, is the most expensive thing you can buy.  As one speaker said to the audience, "Though you guys don't earn a physician's paycheck, you are working in preventative health care."

Recently, Monsanto was found guilty of poisoning a farmer in France with their damaging products. This is what the average consumer is eating! And this is why, GMO products must be labeled in every other Western nation on the planet....except for ours. A typical joke:

"What do they call organic food in Europe?"

My thoughts are all scrambled on this right now but I feel like my mission is more empowered and supported than ever. I'll try to be more coherent in this next post.

Okay, my bus is here, gotta motor to Minneapolis but you can be sure I'll have more to say on this later.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Holy MOSES, I'm off to farm..

On our North Dakota farm land.
Tomorrow, I leave for the MOSES Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse, Wisconsin. (MOSES stands for Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service.) I'll be stopping over in the Twin Cities to visit my cousin, Carol, which will be a hoot. I used to follow her around as a kid so not much has changed there.

The other day at church, I asked a nice lady to help me do a prayer about this trip. I told her what it was for, that I was all too aware of how little I knew about organic farming and nervous/anxious to get educated. Her response:

"You already know everything you need to know about organic farming. It's just a matter of remembering." 

I like that.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

I am...The WORM LADY

One of the benefits of earning my latest title - Denver Master Composter - is that I am occasionally called in to service. For the past few months, it has been my great pleasure to visit second and third grade classrooms to introduce the joys of vermicomposting - as in, composting with worms.

It is impossible to exaggerate how much fun this is for me. I am always so impressed by the kids' enthusiasm, honesty and strangely brilliant questions. Among my favorites:

Do worms eat spaghetti? (Yes.)
Do worms eat other worms? (Not really.)
Do the worms try to escape? (Not unless they are very uncomfortable - too hot.)
How do worms make babies? (Worms are genderless and lay fertilized eggs.)

On this last question, one young boy offered, "I know how they make babies!" Grateful for the help, I let him tell the story to a rapt audience while I held my breath:

"Um, they squirm around each other, then, they, um, pull apart and make a big heart (he demonstrates with his fingers) and then they are in love and babies come." 

They all looked at me for confirmation. "That is.... absolutely CORRECT, Evan! Well done." Whew!

Along with my worm partner, Everett, we instruct the teachers and/or parents to provide the following:
  • Big, plastic bin (Rubbermaid or the like) with holes drilled in on the sides and bottom
  • Lots of newspapers
  • Bags of dead leaves
  • Bricks or wood for the bin to sit on (needs to be off the ground, for drainage) 
  • Water jug and water source
  • Tarp or something we can put down for demonstration to avoid making a huge mess. 
What I bring:
  • Bulging ziploc bag of my food scraps
  • Two pieces of bread
  • Cutting board
  • Knife
  • Container of Red Wiggler worms
From the moment we step into the room, there is a hush of excitement. Every kid that can get to me wants to know only one thing: "WHERE ARE THE WORMS????"  I feel like a celebrity handler or the guy with the PricewaterhouseCoopers briefcase at the Oscars.

The show begins with the teachers organizing them in a circle and reminding them of their manners. I have yet to meet a rude kid in these classrooms and if anything, fall madly in love with each one. I then start asking them questions like, "Who likes worms?", "Are worms our friends?" and "What do worms do for us?" 

I dazzle them with random worm knowledge, such as "Did you know that worms have five hearts? or "Name the one state where worms don't live." (Hawaii.) Occasionally, I'll mention that there are over 4400 species of worms but, honestly, I don't know if that number is beyond them at this age.

Then, we start relating the preparation of the worm bin to their own lives. They live in a house so we are going to put the worms in their own 'house.' When they go to bed at night, the kids sleep in sheets and blankets; the worms will be sleeping in shredded newspaper and leaves. And so on.

Everett takes over the even distribution of newspaper among the kidlets and gently instructs them how to efficiently rip them into neat strips. They are so precise, it's adorable. Then, we gather up the paper strips and divide the class into teams. We call each team up one by one to add leaves and water to the bin and mix around with their bare hands. At this point, I ask them about what it smells like. They usually say, "Dirt!" and we talk about how paper is made of trees, which come from dirt.

When the 'bed' is damp like a wrung-out sponge, I bring out the food scraps. So many of these kids compost at home, that they generally have an idea how it works. (I'm so impressed by this. Kudos to their parents.) I try to stick to what they should NOT be putting in the scrap bag, namely, meat, cheese and bones. Seeds too. The other day, a young boy asked, "What about alcohol?" Um, no. Ditto for citrus and spicy peppers or jalapenos.

Ideally, one would take two moldy slices of bread to make a Worm Sandwich but I don't let that happen in my house so I come in with two clean slices. I put one on the cutting board, then dump some of the rotting food scraps on the bread and then add the other slice. There's lots of "Ewwww! Gross! I wouldn't eat that!" excitement going on during this so I like to slice it up like a proper sandwich and offer it to the kids. More squealing ensues. Then, I place the food in the bin as a "welcome meal" to the worms.

At long last, the time comes to reveal the stars of the show. They are all crowding around me now, eager to see and touch a worm. I ask each child to have a leaf in their open palms and I will place a worm on the leaf. They are to avoid "petting" the worm but instead gently welcome it to their classroom and tell the worm they are grateful for them. ("Denver Police? Yes, there's a pagan lady loose in the public school system and she's infecting our children....")

One girl got so excited about holding a worm the other day that she screamed and immediately dropped it. I had to stifle a laugh and advise: "If you think you're going to drop the worm, do not take one, okay?" Then, we ask them to put the worms in the bin.

Then, Everett and I discuss with the teacher what they need to know - feed the worms once a week, keep it moist and dark, then wait for spring!

 Watching these precious angels look at these worms and thank them with such heart just explodes with joy. Every single time I do this, I feel markedly better about the state of the world.

 If these kids can truly grasp and appreciate the natural order of things and the profound contributions of the tiniest being, then maybe the human race has a chance.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Weekend of Loss

This weekend ended beautifully but before reaching the Sunday night finish line, I received three pieces of bad news:

One of my favorite writers died.
Jeffrey Zaslow, staff writer for The Wall Street Journal, was killed when his car lost control on an icy Michigan road last Friday. As a WSJ subscriber, I was an ardent fan of his writing. We even exchanged some emails on the topic of Phyllis Diller after he'd written a brilliant piece about clean comedy. He wrote with such humor and tenderness, it was striking. As a writer, I looked up to him, and as a reader, I appreciated him.

Let's put it this way, when the time came to have their stories told, these people turned to Mr. Zaslow:

Capt. Chesley 'Sulley' Sullenberger (who spoke at Zaslow's funeral) with his book, 'Highest Duty: My Search For What Really Matters'
Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon professor who famously passed on his life's wisdom to his students before he died of cancer in an online video (14.5 million views, so far) and best-selling book, "The Last Lecture", co-authored by Zaslow

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her astronaut husband, Mark Kelly, co-authored the book, "Gabby" (due out Nov. 15) with Zaslow - it details the long hard fight to recovery after the tragic Tuscon shooting.

Great writers are not easily replaced. Godspeed Jeffrey Zaslow. My heart goes out to his wife and three daughters.


Whitney Houston. 
By now, there's been so much press coverage that there's not much more I can add here except to say that her loss is a real tragedy. Not as much for us (her voice and her sparkle died a long time ago) but for her teenaged daughter, Bobbi Kristina, who lost her mother at the most crucial time in her life.

I am so worried for that young girl.

And yes, this still gives me chills, lip-synced or not.


The Shed burned down. 
"Get Fed at The Shed", a mantra that I live by whenever I visit Mississippi. In fact, during my recent visit over the holidays, I insisted on a visit to The Shed on my final night in town. I remember my nephew, Robbie, looking up at all the dollar bills hanging from the ceiling and said, "If this place burns down, they're going to lose a lot of dollars." Ah, out of the mouths of babes...

My very favorite thing to do in the summer in Mississippi is to ride in my brother's boat through the gorgeous bayou waterways right on up to the tiny pier at The Shed. We hop out and enjoy the best BBQ I've ever had while taking in an awesome outdoor blues show. Then, on the way home in the dark, we scout for alligators. That's down-home fun, is what that is.

Other than my mother's meatloaf, The Shed is the one thing that makes me toss my vegetarianism right out the window. My order never changed: Pulled Pork with a side of beans and potato salad with a cold bottle of Pabst. DEE-LISH!

The owners say they'll be up and running again soon. Sticky fingers crossed. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Homemade Vanilla Extract

I'm all about the DIY lately - deodorant, bread, yogurt - you name it, I'll scratch it on out. It's become my form of protest against the consumer mentality and I find it liberating. Messy, but liberating.

Taking a tip from Jennifer Reese's funny and insightful book, 'Bake the Bread, Buy the Butter', I made my own vanilla extract today. Started it, really.

The book gave me a new awareness of the vanilla bean racket that goes on at the local grocery store. If you buy a jar of McCormick's vanilla beans (which contains 2 beans), you pay something like $11 at Safeway. As advised, I ordered a packet of 10 Tahitian vanilla beans from Amazon and ended up paying $14, including shipping. Big difference. Plus it's fun to get an incredible-smelling package in the mail.

The recipe called for 9 beans, so I had a spare. As luck would have it, I was also making vanilla ice cream. (Mainly because we're having a fancy dinner tomorrow night but mostly because this is the best $50 I have EVER spent.) So, I slyly scraped the #10 pod seeds into the creamy, white batch of heaven and thanked the kitchen gods for a happy coincidence.

HOT TIP: You should absolutely go cut your fingernails before you begin this recipe. The 'seeds' are really a very fine black dust and there isn't much of it, so don't waste it on your nail beds.

Once properly groomed, I cut each pod in half and thoroughly scraped the contents of each into a large Mason jar. Once the pod was more or less empty, I dropped the pod into the same jar. This took awhile and it can be hard to make sure you got all you can out of it. I used a small paring knife, which helped.

After the pod gutting, I measured out 1.5 cups of vodka (cheap is fine, I'm told) or rum, dark or light. (I chose light rum.) You pour the booze into the jar, secure the lid and shake the shit out of it until it looks like murky bong water.

Then, you set the jar on your pantry shelf for the next three months, shaking it now and again, whenever you feel like it. If you are the impatient sort, take your frustrations out on the slow process by picking up the jar, shaking it and yelling at it. This might help.

So, come May 19th, I'll have a yummy batch of vanilla extract at a fraction of the market price - HA!

Another sweet victory....

Thursday, February 09, 2012


Though my life is so fun and cushy, it's almost embarrassing, there are a few big pieces missing. Namely, a dog. Beyond my childhood family dog, Frisky (known officially as 'The Horniest Dog That Ever Lived'), I have not had a canine companion to call my own. Sad, no? 

Where we live now, the landlords asked us not have a dog to protect all the hardwood floors in the home. I can understand this, but it doesn't mean I like it.

As a result, I'm forced to develop relationships with other people's dogs and pour gobs of love into them whenever I can. One such dog is Matisse, pictured above with me last fall. She belongs to my neighbors, Helen and Annika, and every so often, I get her all to myself. (Matisse is shared by Helen and her ex, so I get her when she's on this side of town - when Helen is at work and Annika at school.)

When we see each other, there's is a lot of whining and moaning from both parties. I generally take her with me to nearby Sloan's Lake, where we jog, walk, sniff things or roll around in the snow together. At least one of us also gets to pick up poop! Sometimes, I even take her off-lease (gasp!) because she's so adamant about sticking close by and is a terrific pace-setter.

Though I've been an animal lover all my life, I'm still astounded at how much my heart expands during my time with Matisse. We both get so much out of it and I'm quite proud how much of her black hair can be found inside my truck.

Maybe someday soon I'll have my own doggie to get dirty with but until then, Matisse is my best canine friend. 

And yes, that may be the dorkiest thing I have ever posted here in this space. I am getting more and more sappy each year so expect more of the same....