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By Judith Alexander

We all have to eat. So it’s no surprise that food and how we can relate to it responsibly has become a central topic in a collective conversation. Can we learn to feed ourselves locally, after decades of reliance on industrial agricultural practices that have taught us to think food comes from grocery stores? Jefferson County, Washington says, “YES WE CAN!”

At a Grange meeting last August, local farmers got together to discuss “What Farmers Need.”  I heard the message loud and clear: for farms and farmers to survive they need more customers to commit their food dollars to supporting local farms.  For that to happen, food education is crucial.
Knowing that the Northwest Earth Institute offers Menu for the Future, I envisioned starting several Menu courses, with a farmer participating in each group. Having a farmer “at the table” would ensure clarity around the realities facing small farmers, and cultivate direct relationships between farmers and consumers. My goal was to reach a local tipping point in support of local, sustainable food consumption.

Food growers from local farmers markets were invited to participate in the six-week course and many readily agreed.  Volunteers also tabled after each local showing of Food, Inc. to invite movie attendees to participate in the Menu for the Future groups.  The Menu course seemed a perfect “next step” to encourage a continued dialogue around the issues presented in the movie.

In January, NWEI volunteers held an event promoting the Menu course, with speakers who are active in the Jefferson County food movement. This event, combined with the earlier outreach efforts, led to a very exciting response—over twenty Menu for the Future groups were formed!
Having the input of local food producers added value and enhanced the discussion course experience.  As personal connections between farmers and customers were forged, many misconceptions were corrected too. As groups reached the end of the course, mentors supplied participants with resources to inspire them to continue taking action to support healthy local food.

To celebrate the success of this effort Finnriver Farm & Cidery, a local organic farm, offered to host a sustainable food potluck in early April. Course participants were invited and a conversation engaging both farmers and course participants addressed the question “What can we do, together, to expand our capacity and support for local food?”  People were encouraged to name specific actions they were motivated to take; individual steps (like growing their own veggies), neighborhood projects (such as a shared chicken coop), and community-wide initiatives (like forming a food policy council) were all encouraged.

Seeing food as our common link makes the world seem a bit smaller.  Working toward a tipping point in sustaining our local farms and farmers is well worth the effort, and thanks to NWEI’s Menu for the Future, the conversation is only just beginning.

Judith Alexander has called Port Townsend, WA home for thirty years, and has been an NWEI volunteer for ten years. Photo by Bill Wise.

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Before moving to Portland last fall, I always considered my home base to be in Central Oregon. Having been raised in Sisters, the quaint little western-style town set amidst a wilderness paradise, I was understandably anxious about moving to the “big city.” Yet, I soon discovered that people refer to PDX as more of a big little city, and I couldn’t agree more. Never would I have imagined such a strong sense of community that exists in its neighborhoods, nor the serendipitous encounters with old and new friends on their streets.

In the following piece, Rick Seifert describes the pleasure he derives from belonging to the Hillsdale neighborhood and how “local morality” plays a large role in his experiences. If you’ve yet to develop an intimate relationship with your surroundings and to accept responsibility for them, take a look at our Discovering a Sense of Place discussion course to learn more about the benefits of a bioregional perspective.

Guest Contribution by Rick Seifert

(Article originally published in Rick’s blog www.theredelectric.blogspot.com on May 15, 2010)

I’ve thought and written a lot about being involved in my community of Hillsdale.

So I was curious what others would write about community as I settled into the chapter of readings devoted to the topic of “Building Local Community” in my “Discovering Sense of Place” course book anthology.

The “group-guided” course is offered by The Northwest Earth Institute and is centered around discussion of shared, stimulating readings.

All the readings were excellent in this chapter, but one essay by the clinical psychologist Mary Pipher provided me with new insights into community.

“Home,” Pipher writes, “doesn’t have to be where you were born or grew up….it does have to be a real place that you have committed to over time. I has to be a place where you have friends and know the names of many people you meet….It’s where when you sit down to talk, you don’t have to discuss Tom Hanks or Benecio del Toro. You have real people in common.”

That’s what Hillsdale, a neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, has become for me, and I’ve lived here “only” 20 years.
Pipher continues, “Communities are about accountability, about what we can and should do for each other. People who live together have something that is fragile and easily destroyed by a lack of civility. Behavior matters. Protocol is important. Relationships are not disposable. People are careful what they say in real communities because they will live with their words until the day they die.”

Because of this need for community civility, Pipher adds, “We behave better with people and places we will see again and again.”

Bad behavior, like “road rage” and war, happens between strangers who will not meet again.

And so Pipher says, “All morality, like politics, is local.”

A lot of the connection between neighbors is sharing our stories and our space, she notes. What is our shared history? What are our civic events and celebrations? What are our public spaces — trails and parks, plazas and markets ?

Pipher writes, “Those communal places are needed now more than ever.”

And increasingly, with the lure of “virtual worlds” and fabricated “television” neighbors, we have to consciously make our communities and commit to them.

Rick Seifert is a longtime Hillsdale resident and activist. This post was reprinted by permission from his blog at theredelectric.blogspot.com.

By Zoë Bradbury

I had my first official asparagus harvest this week and it was mesmerizing. Logging those spears one by one, down each row and back up the next with a sharp knife, I felt like a gleeful little kid on an Easter egg hunt: every asparagus a surprise and a treasure.

They are an amazing, mysterious vegetable, a pure Spring life force thrusting out of the ground towards the April sky. A quick glance and you wouldn’t even know they are there — no leaves, no fanfare, just long rows of single, slender stalks quietly defying gravity in the race to become an asparagus fern. They are all muscle: Name any other vegetable that can grow nine inches in one day, emerging fearlessly from cold, wet spring soil while everything else is still living a cush, pampered life in the greenhouse. If there were Vegetable Olympics, these babies would win some medals.

My first harvest feels like a major milestone as I head into my second season on the farm. These are the perennials that I painstakingly researched, planted and tended last year, but never got to eat or sell because it’s hands-off-the-goods during the establishment year. Planting asparagus — which can produce for 20 years — was a hopeful investment in the future, a long-term commitment to this farming odyssey. I suppose a little part of me doubted that they would actually grow — that I would do something wrong and kill all 2,600 crowns I planted. And somewhere behind that doubt was the lingering question mark about whether I, like a sturdy asparagus, could defy the odds and the statistics to muscle my way up as a young, female, beginning farmer.

I almost cried when I saw the first ones push up out of the ground.

Part of the reason my first harvest was such a celebration was that it symbolized having made it through Year One. Survived, and maybe even turned the corner from anxiously scrapping to walking on my own two feet. The asparagus will give the gift of Spring cash this year where last year I was spending in the red. And close on their heels, the June-bearing raspberries are leafed out and the strawberries are in bloom. It feels like that first year of hustling and guessing and sweating and hoping might begin to pay off.

No doubt, spring inevitably gives farmers a run for their money. Between wet ground and slugs and freak hailstorms there is always an opportunity for an ulcer, but I knew that was part of the deal I signed up for. It’s the baseline stress that is easing up — that back-of-the-head curiosity about whether or not I would be able to pull this thing off.

This week, bucketloads of asparagus feel like a good sign.

Zoë Bradbury is a young farmer on the southern Oregon coast. With the help of two draft horses, she grows over 100 different crops to feed local CSA members, foodbanks, grocery stores and restaurants.  Zoë’s website is www.valleyflorafarm.com.

By Susan Wulfekuhler

Spring weekends often find me indulging in one of my favorite pastimes, stalking the wild nettle.  Stinging nettle thrives in the lush, moist forests of the Pacific Northwest where I love to hike as spring unfolds.  Looking for nettles on the greening forest floor sharpens my attention.  Picking and eating nettles, I feel my slow winter energy begin to stir with nettle’s signature spring “wake-up” call.  Nettle brings a quickening in body and soul.

As the years have gone by, I’ve noticed more patches of my blue-green medicinal ally being taken over by Himalayan blackberry, an invasive non-native introduced as a food plant in the 1800s.  The blackberry thrives in the same disturbed, moist soil favored by nettle.  Over time, I’ve noticed that left to its own devices, blackberry always wins.  It is a master of abundance, a model of resilience.

A few years ago, growing tired of unsuccessfully ripping the blackberry out of my special nettle patches and struggling through a difficult time personally, I decided this plant had much to teach me about creating abundance.  I spent a summer “apprenticing” myself to blackberry, listening to it and observing it through the growing season.  This is what I learned from blackberry about developing resilience and thriving in times of change:

  1. Spread your seeds by providing food for others.
  2. Provide delicious food for a diversity of beings.
  3. Use more than one pathway to create abundance.
  4. Look for a vacuum (niche) and fill it.
  5. Go for the light.
  6. Be tough.
  7. Persevere.
  8. Stay firmly rooted in the earth.
  9. Adapt to changing conditions.
  10. Protect your creations–be thorny when you need to.

If you’d like an opportunity to connect more deeply with Earth and the Universe, check out the Northwest Earth Institute’s Reconnecting with Earth course and create a group in your community.

Susan Wulfekuhler lives in Corvallis, Oregon.

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