The sun finally came out. It has been an odd spring here in Missouri. It seems as if the sun has been hiding behind the clouds since April. As the Arctic is melting from unusually warm air, its polar vortex cold air has bounced along a confused jet stream so far south that when we would have normally been in the 70’s, it was weeks on end of cool chilly 50’s. Still, I pressed on with the garden. Peas, greens, carrots, radishes, all the cold-loving early spring veggies. As it turns out, they appreciated the delayed onset of our typical hot, muggy late spring. Although the dozen plus tomato plants grew root bound and tall in impatient frustration.

Suddenly, the clouds broke seemingly as miraculously as the parting of the Red Sea. I immediately filled a large mug with iced tea and found the sunniest spot in the yard to replenish a certain vitamin D deficiency. Quiet, still, nearly without thought, an almost truly zen moment, I took in all my senses could receive. A light breeze on my arm, the warmth of the sun on my face, and the smell of lilacs and maybe a little compost.  It was the sounds that awoke me from my serenity: the crow of a rooster followed by the clucks of a few hens. The roar of a plow, tilling a nearby field, and the faint bellowing of cows. 

It’s important to avoid spending too much time in your own head, but it does happen, especially when you’ve spent your days alone for over two months. The sound of the cow triggered recent conversations about…well, cows. I thought about our local ranchers panicking about getting feed in for their cattle and frustrated about the low price per pound they are getting from the field lots. And yet the grocery stores are charging $6-$9 a pound just for hamburger. I thought about the recent stories of millions of animals being put down because packing plants were forced to close as their employees began showing positive for Covid 19 in mass numbers. And yet, I COULD HEAR a cow from my backyard.  I thought about how it  isn’t just animals being wasted in our current state of affairs, it’s cabbage, milk, onions, eggs, nearly every type of commercial grower of fresh food items raised and grown in our country has seen their products tossed into a landfill instead of a produce department.

Robert Bye/Unsplash

It’s not just the shut-down of packing plants causing this mass destruction of food and animals. Demand, especially for vegetables has dropped drastically. The cause seemingly falling on the restaurant industry. Without restaurants open, the food suppliers have a massive surplus. Aren’t we all still eating? Most of us are. As it turns out, we eat more salads and broccoli when at restaurants than at home, hence the over-supply of veggies. Sounds like something we might all want to work on. Still, the occasional lunch or dinner out being off the table doesn’t seem like enough of a reduction to justify acres of onions being plowed under. Around 40% of the world’s food waste comes from restaurants, and most restaurants purchase their food from national supply chains, rarely from local growers. As horrific as it is to imagine millions of gallons of milk being poured out into open fields, consider this… 5 million dollars worth of food is wasted in American schools… every day.  The National School Lunch Act was signed into action by President Harry S Truman in 1946. The program originally began in 1937 at the height of the depression. With so many Americans unable to afford food, surpluses without buyers created a potential catastrophe for farmers similar to our current situation. Instead of wasting all of that unpurchased food, the USDA purchased it and provided it to needy families and created school lunches. Today, most of our school districts purchase their foods from national food service distributors. For schools to receive reimbursement for the meals they provide, each student is required to take milk with their lunch, even if they have no intention of drinking it. 60% of public and private school children receive these school lunches.

It seems we could come up with a better system.

We live in the northeastern edge of the Kansas City metro. Past the suburbs, past the acres and acres of shopping plazas, big box stores and chain restaurants. Miles of fields filled with corn, soybeans and cattle with intermittent tiny towns that look like Used to Be Mayberry’s, one stoplight and your back among the countryside. This is where food comes from, but not our food.

According to Missouri Soybeans, 97% of our soybeans (soybean meal- 20% of soybeans are oil) are used for animal feed while 3% is used for food meant for human consumption such as soy milk. Missouri corn is also primarily used for feed, while some is used for ethanol, some for syrup, bio-plastics and some exported. 

63% of Missouri’s land is used agriculturally. Of the 27.8 million acres of Missouri farmland, 15.6 million is used to grow crops, primarily corn and soybeans. 6.9 million is used to raise poultry, cattle and pork.

So basically, we grow meat in Missouri. 

What about carrots, squash and tomatoes? I’ll get to that. Back to the meat.

A week went by since that beautiful day in the sun. It faded once again, although this time it was just a little bit warmer. Warm enough to finally plant some green beans, zucchini and a few of those desperate to get out tomato plants. I became restless while every creative capability in my brain went on vacation. It’s funny how the littlest things can feel like the biggest miracles when life has slowed down enough to notice… I had my second Moses moment.

It wasn’t technically raining, more like a steady mist of water stagnated in the atmosphere. Remember the chicken sounds? Those are my chickens. Chickens and bees, eggs and honey. We probably should raise game birds, but we don’t. For the first time in fourteen years of raising chickens we had a broody hen. Little miss wanna be mama took the nest the first day of May and refused to retreat. This day was her due date, so I checked on the hour every hour. Mid afternoon I made my way to peek at her condition. Low and behold there was a tiny little fluffy baby chick with the markings of a chipmunk. The little one ran around mama, peeping away as she dove in and out from under the hen’s right wing. So not a burning bush, in fact only a natural occurrence and yet, it felt as if I had witnessed a miracle. This amazing yellow bird that spends her entire life providing food for my family and a few others, when allowed to follow her instinct turned five potential over-easies with toast into five beautiful little babies. Living among your own food reminds you how miraculous yet fragile life is, including our own.

While commercial egg producers are dumping eggs hundreds of miles away from their destination, my local grocery store, I’m eating orange yolked eggs from happy healthy hens in my backyard. While the cost of beef skyrockets and we have limits on how much we can buy, I still hear the moos of neighboring cattle. While the availability of fresh vegetables mostly grown in nutrient depleted soil on the coasts and in the winter the southwest, continues to be hit or miss, people are growing those same vegetables in their own gardens all around me. While 15.6 million acres of Missouri land is being used to grow animal feed, I, along with thousands of other Missourians have proven that our soil works wonderfully for growing nearly every vegetable, berry and many fruits known to man. I can purchase a $4 plastic box of organic salad mix from California, or I can grow my own salad greens, without chemicals and even from Missouri non-gmo heirloom seeds- which I did. 

I would tell you how many farmers grow actual vegetables for human consumption in Missouri, but no one seems to know that. Vegetables grown for roadside stands and farmers markets aren’t considered a commodity which means Wall Street doesn’t care. I’m beginning to realize that maybe that’s actually another benefit. For too long the most worshiped religious practice in America has been that of consumerism. Everything… is a product. Eggs are a product, happy chickens are part of a homestead. Potatoes are a product, polyculture is a conscious decision. Mainstream music is a product, indie labels are art. Brands satisfy egos, skill and craftsmanship provide value and satisfy souls.

During a recent interview, I was asked what I thought the future might look like. The interviewee stated he prefers to not refer to the other end of this pandemic as a new normal. He went on to explain that we have had enough crisis’ in this country that have resulted in massive change in our culture’s previous way of life that to discuss what the new normal will look like would be speaking as if it were to become permanent. So instead of looking to define a new normal, I responded with ideas to take sensible steps toward a more sustainable future. 

We can start with our food. 

Instead of using American tax dollars to pay corporate farmers subsidies for not growing or not harvesting, let’s provide incentives to farmers, big and small, willing to grow multiple edible crops. Ironically, SNAP benefits formally referred to as food stamps come out of the same funding bucket as farm subsidies. Many of our elected officials who work diligently to reduce SNAP benefits and are working to disallow use of them at farmers markets are themselves owners of corporate farms and the personal beneficiaries of that bucket of taxpayer funds. The Food Stamp Bill of 1977 was born out of big corporate lobbying and has continued since to be dominated not by the voices of farmers, but that of food giant distributors. Before the days of providing the food insecure with a monthly amount to be used in grocery stores and convenience stores, this country provided food grown by American farmers, often with USDA purchases of Seconds (2nds). There is absolutely nothing wrong with seconds produce, it simply doesn’t fetch as high a price because it isn’t perfectly pretty and harder for farmers to sell. Back before the days of modern SNAP benefits, if you were having a hard time making ends meet, you could go to a local food pantry and get canned surplus food purchased by the federal government from farmers who needed those sales. Though this program technically still exists through school lunches and senior meals, it is not the USDA labeled canned fruits, meats, and stir-your-own peanut butter of recent memory. It is instead, once again, large corporate food distributors that get these contracts. 

Instead of sending unusable food and scraps from restaurants, schools and grocery stores to landfills, lets create community-based composting programs. Scraps can be used to feed animals, while compost is free and composed of natural nutrients for future food. Also, if your community doesn’t have a program in place to allow restaurant leftovers to be donated to local shelters, create one!

Instead of adopting across the board federally designed school lunch programs, let’s invest some time into understanding the specific nutritional needs and preferences of our students one school at a time, then work to purchase as much of that food locally. Our country has a gift in its diversity, let’s respect that, the foods we eat are part of our culture and familial heritage. 

Instead of blindly purchasing whatever meat our grocery stores have on the shelves, lets expect our meat to be local. Our meat used to come from animals within our own states, today those animals are a part of a supply chain no different than the thousands of parts that come together from all over the world to make a car. Right now, we don’t have enough locally owned meat processors to handle a single herd of cattle. If we demand that our food comes from local farmers and ranchers, I promise, more local processors will open. Currently, the package of a t-bone steak will only read- Born, Raised, Harvested, United States. Imagine if instead it stated, Born in Missouri, Raised in Wisconsin, Harvested in Texas- that would cause you to stop and think for a minute. 

Strawberries are available in Missouri in May and June, blackberries in July and August Garden Lettuceand apples in September and October. We can still import some of these items during our off season. We don’t have to import them from so far away, and for some of us, learning to seasonally eat makes our food varieties that much more enjoyable. Oranges and coffee  beans will never grow here, these are the kinds of things to sensibly import. 

We take a dozen eggs to our neighbors here and there, sometimes a jar of honey or jam. Several weeks ago I noticed a random 50 pound bag of chicken feed in my front yard. I smiled and thought, that’s awesome, and it makes sense.  We have eggs, honey, jam, and a pretty good variety of vegetables. We should have peaches this summer and pears at the end of summer. Most of our neighbors have large gardens. There are a few things we each grow uniquely. One neighbor has a cherry tree, another an apple, another a few head of cattle. 

I’ll have tomatoes come August and a few more laying hens come October. 

We can start from our own centers and work our way outward. 

Audrey L Elder – Meaningful Living