Monday, November 24, 2014

A Drone's Eye View


We are at table 3, nothing between us and the music but a cheese plate and a bottle of 1854 wine.  Venue-wise, this qualifies as intimate; just Barbara Fasano, Eric Comstock, Blake and me and maybe forty other stalwart Nebraskans sipping the local wine of their choice, with their coats across the backs of their chairs this chilly evening, greeting acquaintances and waiting decorously for the show to go on. 


They are pros; polished and elegant, they regale the crowd with imaginative arrangements of the standards we do know and others we should.  They are not patronizing, nor do they mail this show in.  Blake and I are active listeners; we tap toes; we sway to the music; we nod at particularly witty lyrics; our eyes meet when we recognize the opening phrase of a particular favorite. But we cannot see anyone else in the audience or measure their reactions....what do the pros from New York see when they look over an audience in Brownville, Nebraska?  Do we look stolid?  Staid?  Old?  Are we like Eulalie Shinn and the ladies of the Dance Auxiliary in the Music Man: "Prudish, ignorant, and outspoken"? Or merely typical small town folks: "taciturn people with small-town values".  
 

Who do they see from the stage ? What do they say about us when they return to their home turf in New York? Should we care?

....And now the tables are turned. 
Its a fine bright Sunday morning in October when the film crew from 'Food Evolution' pulls into the driveway at 502 Spruce.  These are folks attempting, they say, to cut through the crust of mistrust, misinformation and propaganda to tell the story of food and agricultural production.  They come to Hurst farms from the World Food Prize awards ceremony in Des Moines and a visit with George Naylor, farmer, in Churdan, Iowa.   Mr. Naylor came back to the farm in 1976 from Berkeley, and "during the farm crisis of the 1980′s he was active in American Agriculture Movement, the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition and the North American Farm Alliance." More recently, he appeared in Michael Pollan's bestseller, The Omnivore's Dilemma.  

It is quite a stretch from the mindset in Churdan to the reality of our farm. The mood is a little brittle when they ask us if we are planting anything...are there any seeds they can film, anyway they can multitask with this trip during October, anything they can use later on.  They look out onto our backyard and ask if that's my garden....after all, doesn't Mr. Pollan tell us we should be eating homegrown?  Well, no, we grow corn...and soybeans...and they don't grow year round in Missouri...and yes, the backyard is covered with gardens.  But what you see is all flowers.  
The vegetable garden is a goner....just some overgrown basil and underwhelming squishy tomatoes remain. A sinking feeling,  as another line from the Music Man comes to mind "...but he doesn't know the territory! "

But we find common ground and conversation, appropriately enough, in the kitchen. Blake has told me our visitors want to see what we eat, how we eat, and by the way, gather up a few neighbors while you're at it.  Never folks to go halfway when whole hog is an option,  Ryan has smoked some big chunks of meat for pulled pork and the women have divvied up the Sunday dinner responsibilites for a noon time feast in the field. While they film Blake, I am peeling apples for two massive slab pies that will serve as dessert; the apples catch their imagination and we stop talking for a minute or two so the mike can pick up the subtle crunch of crisp fruit slicing. 

 Lee appears on her way to Sunday school to roll out crust.  With the kitchen is full of cameras and equipment, she takes her rolling pin into the dining room and baptizes the carpet with flour.  Gabe is fascinated by the novelty of it all and stays at the countertop til his mom makes him leave.  If they use any footage from our kitchen in the final product, we will hear Gabe's feet kicking the back of the counter, thump, thump...

How do we look from behind a camera?  How do we sound?  It is a fine line, I think, between the safety of talking points and the risk of real conversation while tape is rolling.  How do we condense our authenticity and convey something more than a sound byte?  That camera is a point in time; this film crew has dropped in like a parachute and will carry off for posterity one kitchen, one field, one meal.  Our farm spans acres, seasons, decades, generations; what should we say to convey the past that formed us, the present we juggle, and the future we must adapt to in order to thrive?
I am late to the party by the time the film crew heads to the field and I tie down the sawhorses and plywood that will be our serving table for the meal.  The combines are parked and one of the guys is in the cab with Charlie filming from the floor.  There are pickups everywhere and hungry children focused on food and blissfully unfazed by fim crews. As soon as the board is set, a veritable picnic feast is laid out: Millie's homemade potato salad, deviled eggs, pulled pork, baked beans, corn muffins and, of course, apple pie.  There are just two lawn chairs for seating but there are plenty of tailgates....



...and photo ops of this family farm feasting.


After the meal, back to work.  Family, neighbors: all gather 'round with something to say about farming as livelihood, or calling, or profession.  What will emerge from this question and answer? History, as Charlie and Millie provide the rock solid credibility of a life in this place.


Proficiency?  Blake and his brothers have more than a century experience as producers here and agricultural leaders in our state. The crew gets an earful about our facts and others' perceptions, Will we come off as defensive? Embattled? Or will the act of gathering together, working together and eating together speak louder than any words we say; will the cameras be up to the challenge of portraying what we know life on a large commercial family farm to be?


Some shots are staged....





.....and some are not.....




The party over, the farmers climb back in their machines.  But the film crew has one more trick up its sleeve.  Feeling like the natives when Columbus showed up, we stay to watch their drone buzz up into the sky and hover over the giant harvesters churning through the bean rows.  My first drone experience....


...and later on, I am fascinated to see that our bean field looks hyper real viewed from a drone, more like a HD video game than a photograph.

Is that what we will look like after editing?  Hard to imagine.  

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Somewhere Between....

 

The harvest lights are still burning when the Christmas wreaths are hung.


There's a great old country song to which I have referred before...the lyrics go something like this:
"Somewhere between Playboy magazine.....
And what all the dog did today..."
The song is talking about love and romance and routine and boredom and keeping marriage on the side of love and romance while dealing with the routine and the mundane....
It could be a blogpost all on its own! Or an advice column in someone else's hand.  But...despite the fact that my brain moves seamlessly...and uncontrollably.... from one song lyric to another, "somewhere between" in this title refers to holidays.  In particular the marvelous perilous strenuous...and joyous....weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

These are the weeks of Advent.  Our Lutheran church wore somber purple at Advent as we prepared our hearts every Wednesday night for the Incarnation of our Lord.  Despite the somber hangings Advent is a season of anticipation, promise, pent up excitement and barely concealed joy...

So what better time to be generous, to gift, to give of our hearts and talents, to spread our happiness across the fruited plain?  To reach out and have happiness handed back?  I've signed up for all of the above...and invite you to do so as well.  Read all about the "Christmas in the Country 2014"gift exchange and sign up if you'd like to start celebrating here "somewhere between" generous Thanksgiving and  joyful Christmas......


Christmas in the Country 2014

Saturday, November 15, 2014

"The Roots of My Raisin'"


 
 
I was born for this country. Well, no, I wasn't. Born in this country, I mean. I was born in Joliet, Illinois and spent the first 15 years of my life in a far southwest suburb of Chicago, on the cusp of the black land farm ground where 3 bedroom 2 bath ranch houses without basements cowered under the greenish skies of frequent tornadoes in the spring and huddled beneath the frigid gusts and snowy blasts of the long winters. These were the years when we future baby boomers flooded the existing elementary schools and new teachers were added mid year to ease the burden of crowded classrooms. Our church was a century old but our junior high was brand spanking new. Our family took the train downtown to the Loop to window shop in Marshall Fields or Carson Pirie Scott, or watch the sailboats on the Lake , or stroll the galleries of the Art Institute. We hiked the trails of the Forest Preserves of Cook county or skated the shallow sloughs in the winter. We bought sweet corn from some church members who had a farm just outside town; we pulled the fuzzy leaves of soybeans to use for play money with our friends.
 

And that's about as much as I knew about farming for many years.

 

My mom and dad bought forty wooded acres of Callaway county long before they returned to Missouri for good. While my sister and I were very young, we would stay at our grandma's while they spent time on the property. Later on, they acquired another 120 acres just across the gravel road; it had an abandoned house, a good well, and pastures quickly returning to cedar, sassafras, and persimmon. My father tells me his family thought he was nuts for buying land at his age, but he had the heart of a farmer and felt part of his wealth should be measured in acres. By now, Laura and I were old enough to be taught to work, and trips to Missouri meant picking up the little cedars and smaller trees my dad had cut, building brush piles and slowly, slowly reclaiming the pasture. My dad had a big pond built and we spread seed on the dam.


We learned to identify animal tracks; we hunted for fossils in the limestone creek beds that crisscrossed the property; we enjoyed the 'bob whites' calls echoing from grove and fence row and laughed because our neighbor down the road was named Bob White, too. The city kids whose chores included picking trash out of the yard every night before my father got home learned to work side by side with their folks, doing the same kind of work for the same hours, just as farm kids have always done.

Our rewards: floating on the placid green surface of 'Lake Ginger', watching fireflies by the kajillions, following the life cycle of the monarchs, tightlining for bluegill off the dock of my grandpa's farm pond, learning our way around the tool shed, shooting off fireworks in the humid humming twilight of a country Independence Day.


My father grew his female hay crew and tried to teach us how to ride his Honda motorbike (we drove it into a corner post of the corral). We helped rebuild a wind mill into a ham radio antenna. We learned the rules of rural electricity...and a rural water supply. We hiked cross country one snowy weekend to ensure the cattle had water and the house had electricity; we hiked back out Sunday evening. I spun the bicycle on loose gravel into a blackberry patch; I wandered for hours along quiet stony creek beds. My father piped WLS into the second floor so Laura and I could listen to the New Year's Eve countdown and watch our breath from under electric blankets. I don't know how much I learned of farming, but I grew to love our local landscape, its bony geology, its hard won carpet of grass on the gentler slopes, its deep leafy ravines in the woods. Picking up bales, painting gates. fixing fence, weeding, and helping repair and renovate a hundred year old farm house laid the foundation and prepared the seedbed for the conversation my father and I had when I was choosing a course of study for college. He told me that agriculture was a useful, vital, and moral industry...and I need never be concerned about my part in making the world better if I were engaged in agriculture. That clarity of purpose was all I needed. I consigned my love of music to avocation and enrolled in the College of Agriculture at the University of Missouri......

...Three years later two newlyweds packed their belongings in the back of a 1974 F-600 and drove north to become the third generation of Hursts to farm in Atchison county. We weathered the farm crisis of the '80s, three droughts in our first decade, floods of varying proportions in every decade, and years when prices were so low, the government bought everything we grew. We've watched the population of our county plunge more than 20 percent and our schools struggle to field a football team. We started a business when farming was hard. We suffered through the growing pains of that small business and learned to adjust to the vagaries of economic forces outside our control. We raised three kids on the farm, where they worked alongside us, learning responsibility and tenacity: to finish a task not just when it was easy, but despite it being hard.


It has been a whole forty years since my father gave me his opinion of my career choice.

Guess it was good advice.