Tag Archives: farmland

Days 18 & 19 Part One: The Elephant In The Room


"Woman, 1965" by Willem de Kooning, paint on wood

Here’s the thing. I don’t know much about art, but I love looking at it.

I used to like creating it. As a kid, I remember the distinct oily smell of finger paints and the slippery feel of the special paper under my fingers as I smeared color in swirls and lines. Watercolors came in little tin boxes with plastic brushes, and after a bit of time the water in the cup turned a dark, sludgy grayish purple. It took forever for the paper to dry.

"Conception Synchrony", 1914 by Stanton McDonald-Wright

Later, I sketched things with pencil–I was fascinated by hands for awhile, and I seem to remember a horse phase somewhere around fourth grade. Unfortunately, our small school didn’t have an art program, and for some reason I just never sought out any books on art history or biographies of artists in my random borrowings from the Bangor Public Library. I don’t think I went to an art museum until I was in college, and even then I passed up chances to take art history in favor of other electives.

Now, at forty-something, I can’t seem to get enough of it.

"Composition In Light," Window from Coonley Playhouse, 1912. Frank Llyoyd Wright

Art is a window. We look through this window and see the world in new ways. We look into this window and see another person’s inner world. We learn something about perspective, understanding that we all view the world and its events through a psychological/emotional/historical lens which distorts, to some extent, reality.

"The Sorceress" by Jean Tinguely, 1961.

Every person’s lens is shaped a different way. I guess we’re all just bent.

Take this sculpture of a woman for example. She’s a twisted aggregate of rusted springs, iron, steel, and a motor. It makes me think–we are all of us made of the same elements, just molded and shaped in different ways, twisted by events big and small, worn out or still shiny new, motors chugging along just fine or backfiring now and then, maybe running a little rough and in need of a tune-up. The same, yet different. This is what art tells me. Appreciate the unique in all of us.

"Greenhouse" 1988 by Michael Lucero

Isn’t this the tower we all wanted to build when we were kids? It reminded me of playing with those Lincoln Logs toy sets. This piece also made me think of layers of civilization piled up, all the rusted out old technology finally topped by a more sustainable way of life.

Detail from Luceo's "Greenhouse" sculpture

Of course I loved this piece: rooster, farm equipment. Is it strange that I feel so alive here in a city environment while at the same time pulled toward “the farm” and an agricultural life?

David Smith "Big Rooster," 1945.

Perhaps my life-lenses are bifocals!

Willem de Kooning "Woman Sag Harbor," 1964. "Woman," 1964. "Woman," 1965.

Willem de Kooning’s bubblegum pink, clown orange, and candy-apple red portraits made me smile because we can’t take ourselves so seriously all the time. That’s something else modern art teaches me.

Joan Miro "Woman & Little Girl in Front of the Sun," 1946.

As fabulous as all these sculpture and paintings are at the Hirshhorn, some of the most powerful and astonishing pieces are the video projections–films and/or photographs projected onto huge screens. I’ve never seen anything like these.

The first took me by surprise as I entered a side gallery on the third floor. Here was Grazia Toderi’s “Orbile Rose,” 2009 and “Rosso Babele,” 2006. Walking into the room, your eyes widen to see a giant, bifold screen covered in a reddish projected image that looks like a cross between the planet Jupiter and a photo of a city electrical grid taken from an airplane at night. Flashes of light move your eye here and there. Lines of lights snake around a conical shape–right side up on one screen and upside down on the other. It reminded me of nothing so much as that old computer game Asteroids mixed with a background shot from a science fiction movie. Click HERE to see it on the Hirshhorn website. It’s redder in real life than it looks on the computer.

Sculpture Outside the Hirshhorn Museum

So are you wondering yet about the elephant in the room? Typically, they are the things we avoid talking about if we can help it, we pretend they aren’t there. Here I am referring to another projected piece, this one from the second floor in the Fragments In Time and Space exhibit. (Please, please click the link so you can see an image.)

I’ll attempt to describe what is best observed. Walking around the circular space into one gallery after another, you enter a dim room with white-painted walls and a whitish-gray floor. In the middle of the room, giant screens slightly overlap each other facing outward. There is a small screen with a close-up shot almost hiding in one corner. Projected on the screens, an image of a room with white-painted walls and a whitish-gray floor . . . and a big, gray elephant. The elephant walks around, swings its truck, lays down on the floor. The piece is called, “Play Dead; Real Time,” 2003 by Douglas Gordon.

There is, in a surreal way, an elephant in the room.

Turning The Corner

I thought, maybe sometimes you have to look at something that makes you uncomfortable, acknowledge it, talk about it, and then move on.

So I did. But later, this exhibit got me thinking about how important art education is for students. Art and music and languages should not be seen as “dispensable” subjects when discussing school budgets. More and more I’m thinking that budgets, if they need to be cut, should be cut across board. Our kids need access to the visual and performing arts in conjunction with language arts and math and science if they are going to be able to really get down to business and think . . . Outside The Box.

"ART surrounds us" poster

Fair Skies Over Maine

October 2009 056

Dear Reader:

It’s the end of the special time of year known in Maine as “Fair Season.” Starting July 2nd up north in Houlton and ending in the southwest corner in the lovely town of Fryeburg on October 11th, Mainers enjoy a long summer and fall of carnival games, amusement rides, craft exhibits, Grange tableaux, livestock shows, and horseracing, not to mention cotton candy, sticky caramel apples, hot chocolate at the Bingo tent, sausages smothered in onions and peppers, fair fries doused in vinegar, and my family’s favorite: hot turkey sandwiches with the fixins at the Farmington Fair Elks Booth.

This year I was lucky enough to also attend the Fryeburg Fair which is down here in my neck of the woods. Between Farmington and Fryeburg, I was able to hit almost all my favorite goings-on. Heading to the racetrack is always on the agenda. Maine harness racing has been around a long time. In these “trotting” races, the horses pull two-wheeled contraptions called sulkies on which the driver sits and directs the horse. The sport has waxed and waned over the years, but the racing community is a tenacious one. The history of harness racing at the Fryeburg track can be read here.

While harness racing has a long and fascinating history, the agricultural fairs have an even longer one. According to the Maine Association of Agricultural Fairs website, there are 25 fairs and the Skowhegan Fair is the grandmere of them all at age 190!

Skowhegan may be the oldest, but for me the Farmington Fair is dearest. Even though I grew up in the Bangor area, my family roots are in Farmington, so that is the fair we would attend every September. The weather was always a crap shoot. One year we’d be sweltering in the midst of an Indian Summer heatwave. The next year we’d bundle up in our winter coats and mittens. My sister remembers how cold the ferris wheel safety bar felt on her chin. Some years were rainy, and the walkways down past the exhibition hall, the livestock barns, the carny games, and the Merry-Go-Round would be slick and rutted with deep mud. Now they’ve paved the walkways, and while I suppose it is easier–not to mention cleaner–I rather miss the dirt.



No Maine Agricultural Fair would be complete without the barnyard animals. This beautiful beast is one of the many oxen I oggled (and who oggled right back as you can see) at the Fryeburg Fair last week. If you’ve never seen these animals up close, you’d be surprised at how huge they are. Walking behind them in the barn, we were very aware of the location of their large hooves and legs. Their backs were taller than my head. Their heads sported pointy spears of horns. They were gorgeous.

These strong, sturdy animals were once used on farms for pulling the plow, hauling logs out of the woods, and pulling carts full of hay or produce or maple syrup. Their equine counterparts, the large draft horses, are also impressive with their regal bearing and rippling muscles. While tractors took the place of oxen and draft horses on most farms when gasoline became cheap and easily available, some die-hard farmers chose to continue working with the large animals. They aren’t just used for cement-pulling shows at the fair, either.

Reading this article from the Amherst Bulletin, I smiled to learn that the farmers at Simple Gifts Farm have decided to train oxen to take the place of tractors. Red and Blue, five-month-old Jerseys are currently being trained in the yoke and will be doing some of the heavy pulling around the farm in the years ahead, replacing gas-guzzling tractors. I can’t help but think that using these animals rather than oil-powered machinery makes economic sense. What could be more efficient than harvesting hay with the very animals that will eat it? How about using the manure to replace nutrients used in the growing of food the season previous? The elegance–yes, elegance!–of such a cycle rivals mathematical equations in my romantic (and admittedly non-mathematical) mind. Someone else might just see poop. I see possibilities.

Like the oxen–and the goats and the horses and the chickens and the pigs and the rabbits–the craft and garden exhibits remind us of our agricutural heritage. Every year in Maine, women still create colorful quilts, warm woolen mittens and scarves, and other textile projects for entering in the contests at the fair. Grange members work together to fill their booths with rows of canned goods, fruits and vegetables, grains, eggs, baked products like breads and pies, and even displays of various tree-cuttings from someone’s back woodlot. Working farms create their own displays, showing off the products of their labor. Art exhibits line the walls with entrants of all ages–two to ninety-two. The 4-H clubs have their own shows and exhibits, sharing their projects with the community.

October 2009 070 One of my favorite exhibits this year at the Farmington Fair was the barn full of “old-timey” rooms. This kitchen has it all–wood cookstove, cooking utensils hanging on the wall, an iron warming on top of the stove, clothes drying on wooden arms behind.

Would I really like to go back to this way of living? Maybe not. But yeah, if I had to.

October 2009 072

And this is what I’d be doing! Oh, how I want to learn to spin wool. I’d love to take a fleece, comb it out, spin it up into some yarn, hand-dye it with some sort of natural, old-fashioned dye (bark for brown, some sort of flower for pink or yellow?), and knit up some socks or mittens or maybe even a sweater. Going to the fair reminds me that these arts and crafts and skills have not been lost, that all we have to do is take up mantle–err, handknit shawl.

October 2009 098
I’ll leave you with this final image taken from the Fryeburg Fair. As we head into the cooler months ahead, I wish you, my readers, a season of peace after the rush and bounty of the harvest.

Now, if only I could get my hands on some fried dough . . . . . . .

Outside the Bread Box

Homemade Bread

Homemade Bread

Dear Reader:

Spring has arrived here in Maine, and colors are popping after a season of white snow and black, bare branches. A male goldfinch–bright yellow flower in flight–perched on my window feeder for a moment or two before flying off into the beech trees. Pink blossoms adorn the crabapple tree I planted last fall, and the chives look about ready to show their lavender flowers. I think we may have seen the last of the frost. It’s the season of planting, and I have much to do this year in my brand-new “square foot gardening” boxes.

But I’m not writing about gardening today. In between manic sessions of digging manure into my flower beds, sticking a few showy annuals among the still-green perennials, and mulching the whole lot, I found time to bake a loaf of bread.

Last summer, after seven months on a macrobiotic diet that nixed processed grains in favor of whole ones like brown rice, millet, couscous, and barley, I took up the practice of baking my daily bread rather than spend $5 a loaf for the organic bread from the supermarket. To my surprise, I enjoyed mixing the dough, kneading it until the surface was baby-skin soft, and punching the risen ball back down into the greased bowl. The smell of baking bread perfuming my house for an hour or two was heavenly, but seeing those golden-topped loaves on my counter brought a deep, primal satisfaction impossible to replicate by throwing plastic-wrapped, corn-syrup laden slices of supermarket bread into a grocery cart.

When fall rolled around, I immersed myself in finishing the rewrite of a romance novel and my regular volunteer committments and let my bread-baking slide. Oh, I baked a few loaves here and there throughout the winter, but mostly I got out of the habit. However, with my renewed enthusiasm for all things local and handmade, along with a resolve to eat whole (if not completely macrobiotic) foods again, I’ve decided to resume baking my own bread.

Since I am a stay-home mom, I have more time than most women to practice the age-old art of breadmaking, but even working women can create their own bread with the use of a bread machine. Imagine coming home at the end of the day to the smell of fresh-baked bread and the taste of a chewy, delicious slice of whole-wheat or white with your evening meal. My friend Sharon at the library uses her bread machine almost daily and has experimented with whole grains until she now has her loaves perfected.

Even making bread the old-fashioned way doesn’t take much time, if you only count the minutes actually spend working the dough. I’ve been known to stash the dough in the refrigerator before the last rising in order to run errands. This “retards” the dough, and I think it actually improves the flavor of the finished product while earning me a little more flexibility in my schedule.

kneading the dough

kneading the dough

There are many good recipes for basic bread out there, so I won’t go into a blow-by-blow account of the process. This time, I used a basic white bread recipe from the Betty Crocker Cookbook. As I mixed and kneaded and punched and rolled, I found myself wondering if I could bake even a simple loaf of bread without the vast food network of big wheat operations in the mid-west, overland trucking, and supermarket chains. Where would I get flour? What could I use for leavening? At it’s most basic, bread is a combination of milled grain, yeast, and water. The addition of some sort of sugar helps feed the yeast, and most recipes call for a small amount of oil. In this white bread, for example, I put in a tablespoon of olive oil and a tablespoon of local honey. While the honey was locally produced, everything else came from the grocery store.

A self-sustainable community, the kind of community I envision, should provide dietary staples such as ingredients for bread. Who grows wheat or oats anymore, I wondered? Where does baker’s yeast come from? Could it be produced in Maine if necessary? Are there other options for leavening?

So, off I went into the wide world of the internet, in search of information about yeast. Yeast production on a mass scale is complicated and precise. The Dakota Yeast company provides an excellent webpage on the subject–beginning with the strain of yeast to which is added molasses as the sugar on which the yeast will feed and reproduce. Into various tanks this mixture goes until finally a “yeast cream” is achieved. This can be stored as is or dried into “yeast cake” and crumbled. Manufacturers then sell fifty-pound bags of the stuff to customers. I’m assuming these are customers such as Fleishmann’s who then package and sell their product to grocery stores where we, the consumers, purchase the yeast in those handy little, yellow packets or the brown-colored glass jars.

I think, perhaps, this process could be replicated on a smaller, more local scale if necessary as long as the requisite sugar substance–molasses or beet sugars–could be obtained. We can grow beets here in Maine, but I’m not sure if they are the right type for beet sugar. More research for me, I guess. I am constantly amazed by the pathways down which I am led in my quest for sustainability options.

There are other, more ancient, ways of leavening our daily bread, however. I have a jar of such stuff in the back of my ‘fridge right now, a sourdough starter given to me by the wonderful Sharon. The sourdough starter is simply a mixture of yeasts, water, and flour. The process of using the starter is more complicated than the baker’s yeast. For one thing, unless you are baking every day, you have to store the paste in the refrigerator, reactivating it for about three days prior to baking by feeding it with more flour and water until it is good and “healthy” again.

I’ve made some good old-fashioned sourdough bread from this starter, but I cringe at the waste of all that flour in the process. As you add cupfuls at a time, you end up with way more starter than you need, and so down the drain it goes unless you have a friend who wants to cultivate their own. Perhaps if food were scarce, we’d be glad of a fresh loaf of bread every day. In that case, you would simply reserve a cup or two from that day’s breadmaking, add some flour and water the next day, and use half to leaven tomorrow’s dough.

But where would we get all this flour?

I went on a search of the Maine Department of Agriculture website as well as the Maine Growers and Farmers Association (MOFGA), and found, to my amazement, that there are some hardy souls growing grains other than corn right here in the state. One of these is Hatchet Cove Farm in Warren. Click on the name to check out their website. There are others you can find at the MOFGA page here. We even have some grain MILLS in operation, though none in my particular area of southern Maine. Still, the technology is here and the processes haven’t been forgotten. Woo-hoo!

Here’s what I’d love to see in my community . . . and every community. Farmland surrounding the town center. And on some of that farmland I’d love to see fields of hardy winter wheat, oats, corn, and buckwheat sending up bright green shoots in the springtime. I’d love to see a grainmill in every town, perhaps beside a fast-running stream or river so as to be powered by a non-oil resource, and in every town a baker’s shop where those who didn’t have time or desire to bake their own bread could purchase a daily loaf or two.

pretty little ball of dough

pretty little ball of dough

Apparently, Governor Baldacci has similar concerns. In 2004 he commissioned a study by a Local Agriculture Department Task Force co-chaired by his wife, First Lady Karen Baldacci and Charles Spies, to come up with recommendations for policies to support and sustain Maine’s local agriculture. The study found that Maine food producers generate 1.4 billion dollars in sales per year and that Maine households spend 3 billion dollars on food. However, Mainers spend only 4% of this 3 billion on locally produced agriculture products! The study concluded that if Mainers would spend just 10% of their food dollars on Maine products, farm income in our state would increase by 40%.

Can you imagine farmers actually making a living wage? Wouldn’t that encourage others to take up farming, perhaps right in our own communities?

The study also identified eight issues that effect the growth and viability of local agriculture. They are as follows:

1. Lack of appreciation for agriculture’s value to community and local economy. If those who make decisions for our communities could be educated about the high value of local agriculture, and if we members of the community supported local agricultural efforts with our food dollars, then perhaps we could encourage the retention and creation of local farms.

2. Infrastructure–Fragmentation of farms and farm landscapes results in breakdown of local agricultural industries. This is a landuse issue, a zoning issue. We don’t need more housing development, people. We need to preserve and expand our farmland. High density housing surrounded by farmland is preferable to suburban living if we are talking about a sustainable future.

3. Lack of consumer knowledge about nutritional and flavor advantages of locally grown food. Local food tastes better and is better for you than the stuff trucked from California, Mexico, or Washington State.

4. Small growers and operators are at a disadvantage to large-scale agricultural industries. It’s the old “economy of scale” issue. The bigger you are, the more you can buy in bulk, the better the deal you can get. What if, though, local farmers could share some equipment costs in a cooperative arrangement? Or pooled their resources to order seeds in larger quantities for a better price? As the costs of oil and oil products rises, I believe the gap will close.

5. Preserve the farms currently in operation. No further explanation necessary.

6. Inadequate financing options. It isn’t easy to get financing if you are a small, independent farmer. We should encourage our state government and local banks to create financing packages for would-be agricultural producers. This is also something our overly-large federal government could do. Rather than giving subsidies to large-scale agribusinesses, why not subsidize (for a limited time) small-scale farms?

7. Help manage costs of production. Can you imagine trying to run a farm, feed and clothe your family, and still pay the exhorbitant amount needed for health insurance? Not to mention fuel for the tractors and heating costs for the home and barns? You don’t get health benefits and dental insurance when you are an independent farmer. Used to be there was a local doctor who would take farm produce in exchange for healthcare, but a doctor’s visit now costs over one-hundred dollars, not counting the extra charges for lab work and medications. If you were just starting out, would you chose a career that didn’t include health benefits? If we want more farmers, we have to figure out a way to make it a viable career option.

8. Labor costs. Running a farm takes many hands. Hands cost money. What happens when you have to provide health care for your employees? How do you pay a salary at planting time when the profits won’t roll in until harvest?

See the complete report here. You can click on the PDF link from this page.

It’s all about what we value, folks. I’m going to be searching out Maine-grown and processed flours. Proving the adage “seek and ye shall find”, when I clicked on the MOFGA homepage for the third time today, an announcement popped up regarding the annual Kneading Conference in Skowhegan this summer! There will be demonstrations in bread making, how-to’s on building your own backyard bread oven, and Maine grain growers. See here for details. And try baking a loaf of bread. It’s food for the soul.

ps: Do you have good bread-baking tips? A favorite recipe? A lead on where to purchase local milled grain in your neck of the woods? Post a comment and share the knowledge! I’d love to hear from you.

Community Garden . . . Inside the Fence

Last year's garden beneath the trees

Last year's garden beneath the trees

Dear Reader:

Sometimes thinking outside the box gets you into the strangest places–in this case it got me fenced in. Let me explain.

I live in a subdivision. Okay, nobody here wants to call it that because it doesn’t look like a cookie-cutter subdivision ala WEEDS (too many trees and dirt roads), but our “homeowners association” is 2000-houses big, is situated on the outskirts of town, and it is a good 35-60 minutes from any of the cities where most of our community members work. Every day, members of my community hop into their individual gasoline-powered vehicles and leave the community in order to travel to their place of employment. We have no restaurants, grocery stores, corner markets, coffee shops, bookstores or any other retail businesses within the borders of our incorporated development. We have to drive out of the community for food, clothing, furrniture, trash bags, tiolet paper, lattes, cigarettes, and everything else people can’t live without. Needless to say, there is no public transportation.

Our 1/4 to 1 acre lots are shaded by tall, half-dead white pines whose tendency to crash down during wind and ice storms can knock electricity out for days, but on this former productive farmland whose old stone walls stand testament to our community’s agricultural past, we cannot cuts trees in order to provide sunlight for backyard gardens. Tweaking the tree-cutting policy to make room for veggie gardens would take an act of the State of Maine legislature, or so one of the community trustees informed me at a Board meeting. However, the Board was willing to consider an alternate suggestion–the community garden.

I can work with that.

Community gardens provide space for food production, foster relationships among neighbors, encourage self-sufficiency, and give our kids a chance to learn gardening techniques. The American Community Garden Association provides guidelines and suggestions for groups just starting out on a communal agricultural venture. Click here to learn more.

Our first garden committee meeting was held this week, and we discussed possible locations. An unused tennis court seems perfect. It is 117 x 117 feet and surrounded by a tall fence–perfect for keeping out pesky deer that love to munch on tender vegetable seedlings. We will be asking the Board for permission to dig up the cracked court surface and to use community-owned loam to provide soil for the garden. Specifics have yet to be worked out such as size of lots, best-practices (i.e. rules), and whether or not we will make a driveway through the center of the garden area so that people can back their pickups to their plots, but community members are interested, echoing a trend across our country to pick up where Victory Gardens in the 1940’s left off.

When the First Family puts a backyard garden at the White House, we know something is changing out there in America. We are beginning to realize that in order to have a sustainable lifestyle, we need to bring food production back home, as in back of the home.

If towns and cities and subdivisions foster a spirit of self-sufficiency regarding food, then we are one step closer to weaning ourselves from big agriculture, big corporations, and big oil. We will provide a safety net for ourselves independent of big government. The spirit of freedom in a summer squash. Self-reliance in a sun-ripened tomato. Can it really be that simple?

A backyard or community garden is just one way to cut your reliance on multinational supermarket chains, food trucked thousands of miles, and genetically-modified vegetables. Other options are shopping at locally-owned grocery stores, frequenting local farm stands, and joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. More on these later. In the meantime, enjoy the warmer weather, the daffodils, and the sound of the “peepers” at dusk . . . outside the box.