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Family, Food and Farming

My Family Branch at the Reunion

Magical things happen at family reunions. The youngest set seems to bond almost instantly with their cousins two or three times removed (I don’t really know how that works) and even the oldest generation gets to hear stories about their parents that they never heard before.

My Aunt Doris, the only representative of her generation at this reunion, said she never knew that as a 15th birthday present my grandparents arranged for me to accompany my grandfather on a business trip to Chicago. We went on the elegant Twentieth Century train and I had my own roomette. My grandfather was nervous about being accused of hanky panky as he traveled with a skinny girl, exactly 15 years old, but his business associate chucked me under the chin at dinner, winked and said he would be happy to be my sugar daddy. In 1955 I giggled a lot and barely knew what he was talking about.

My cousin, Peggy Larson O’Connor, and two of her daughters, Meg O’Connor  Nelson and Kelley O’Connor Shastany, organized this Gilford, NH reunion with lots of help from the rest of the O’Connor branch. The food was fabulous and endless. The swimming pool kept the young set cool while elders like myself chatted in the shade. One topic of conversation was about change. How fast the children change, and how we elders are changing and what these changes mean.

I chatted with my cousin Susan at lunch. Now that her two children are grown she is thinking about the changes she and her man are considering. Growing their own food.  Raising animals for meat. And moving out of Massachusetts.  To  Maine?  Or West Virginia?  Cold or warm?  Hmmmmm – lots more to consider in those conversations.

As we talked cousin Travis joined us. It turns out that not only is he doing all those ‘homesteading’ things in Burlington, Vermont, he works at Invervale Center (www.intervale.org) , the non-profit organization founded by Will Rapp, who earlier in his life founded Gardener’s Supply which became an employee-owned company in December of 2009.

Intervale’ s mission is to strengthen community food systems. Since 1988, we have pursued this mission by preserving and managing 350 acres of land, supporting viable farms, increasing access to local and organic food, improving soil fertility, protecting water quality through stream bank restoration, and educating young people about agriculture and healthy food. Through these efforts, we have established an exceptional agricultural and environmental resource within the city limits of Burlington.”

I told Travis that many of Intervale’s initiatives sounded similar to our own local CISA (Community Involved in Sustainable Agriculture).  He is familiar with CISA and agreed, but I learned that Intervale combines elements of other organizations in our area.

We have Nasami Farm which propagates and sells a large number of native plants and provides education about the importance of native plants to maintaining a healthy ecosystem.  Intervale has a conservation nursery with the more limited  mission of growing native trees and shrubs for riparian  conservation, stabilizing river banks and buffer areas.

Intervale also takes 30,000 tons of kitchen, yard and wood waste every year and turns it into compost which is sold in bulk or in bags as potting soil or seed starting mix. It is considered Vermont’s leading compost producer.

Farmers cannot succeed without business skills as well as agricultural skills. CISA and Intervale both know this, and both provide training for farmers. Both also help with marketing initiatives.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Intervale Center is the acreage they have leased to independent farms in three categories: Incubator farms are the newest which receive training and help with equipment; Enterprise farms which have been operating for at least three years; and Mentor farms  which have been operating for at least five years and provide mentoring for those incubator farmers. I was happy to note that all Intervale farms follow the organic standards set by the Vermont Organic Farmers (VOF) organization.

CISA and Intervale are examples of the way our society’s attitudes about our food are changing.  Organic farmers are no longer considered a kooky  fringe  and more of us are thinking about food miles, and food security.

We are beginning to recognize that agricultural methods and food distribution have real costs to our environment and our health. This realization means we also have to pay attention to the way public policy  affects our food supply and examine the full costs of our food supply.

Who pays for the irrigated cattle pastures in the far west? Who suffers from shortages of clean drinking water in cities?  Why do big agribusinesses get government subsidies while dairy farmers can’t get make any profit on the milk they sell?

In 1939 my grandfather, an immigrant from Sweden, and Uncle Wally (then age 25) and Aunt Ruth bought a 300 acre farm on Lake Champlain outside Burlington where they raised five children.  My birth family spent a few years working on that farm as well. Those childhood years with my cousins remain important to me.

As I looked over the New Hampshire landscape, and thought about the Vermont farm landscape of my childhood I could not help thinking that while a farm is a significant part of my personal history, the future of farming will be important to my grandchildren and their cousins splashing in the swimming pool, and indeed to the future of our nation.

Between the Rows  July 31, 2010

5 comments to Family, Food and Farming

  • Lisa at Greenbow

    Your family is beautiful. Isn’t fun to get together. My family used to get together more often when my Mother and Aunt were alive. I miss those gatherings.

  • Pat

    Lisa – I do have a beautiful family – and you should see those O’Connor ‘girls’. Our reunions are on a 5 year schedule, and we are passing responsibilities on down the generational line for organizational responsibilities – but we do become more far flung each time.

  • This was one of those many (thank goodness for our good fortune!) wonderful essays of yours that offered plenty to ponder and enjoy. Far more gracefully than many academic treatises, yours manages to cover a tremendous amount of territory and suggest the complexity and contradiction that is woven into our system of food supply. No doubt food supply systems have historically bordered on the Byzantine and bizarre, but ours seems hell-bent on winning a blue ribbon at some absurdist county fair. By treating us again to glimpses of your family’s reunion, you offer a picture (and pictures) of real people grappling with how we responsibly and sustainably live on this planet and, among other things, eat. That said, I was most enraptured by the image of you in 1955, chugging along to Chicago, seated with two business men in the dining car of the 20th Century Limited. Lucky girl! Which will probably prompt you to next post your thoughts on automobiles and airplanes versus civilized train travel. [http://www.20thcentury.org/] Very fertile soil you’re tilling, Pat!

  • Very interesting post Pat. Since I’m involved in our farmers’ market and on the board of an organization that is just starting to look at similar things for our area, I’m intrigued by Intervale. The amount of work to get to where Intervale is now, wow, tons! You are so right about how important farming will be to the younger generation. I think it is heading in the right direction, government be damned.

  • Pat

    Flaneur – We did cover a lot of ground at the Family Reunion – personally and more globally. A very rich time for all of us.
    Jean – I certainly hope we are all heading in the right direction agriculturally, because if we aren’t I think we will be in big trouble.

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