Most of my friends spent their spring break flying south, migrating to white beaches or service trips in the outskirts of jungles. I spent my spring break being pulled north by the smokey, sweet lure of my family’s sugaring operation.
Late winter, early spring at my home in Western New York is a time of tradition. I know that tradition is an overused word, but it really is the only one that remotely describes what pushes my dad to spend his summers sweatily cutting down tress for sugaring fuel, and his winters freezing his fingers while untangling sculptures of knotted tubing. Tradition is what brings my family together around the evaporator for a night filled with Bob Dylan crooning from the scratchy radio and savory sugar-house specials: a steaming shot of almost-done syrup and dark Haitian rum.
In my dad’s younger days of three braids and hitchhiking, he picked up a long church pew in his travels. I doubt he knew where it would fit into his life then, but it has its place now. It stretches along the back wall of the sugar house, engraved into perfect seat cradles by the many neighbors, family members, dogs, and strangers who have found the warmth of conversation and syrup upon it.
Syrup is the embodiment of the power to connect. It quite literally connects itself. Syrup has boiled to completion when its stickiness is strong enough to hold it in a connected curtain across the edge of a special metal scoop. It connects recipes. Add a dash of syrup and I swear that everything in your recipe will come together perfectly. It connects generations. Your grandma might not recognize high fructose corn syrup, but I bet she understands the sweetness of maple syrup! Syrup brings together people, and ideologies, and animals. Sugar houses provide a space to take the time. To sit down next to someone with no agenda in mind and connect. Maybe to talk, but maybe to just sit in steam and sip.
Favorite and Simple MacKenzie Family Maple Syrup Recipes:
*The Favorite, Tried and True Spoon (or as my dad calls it: his medicine): All you need is maple syrup and a table spoon (or even a tea spoon.) Fill the spoon with syrup and drink. Feel free to refill as many times as you desire.
*Maple Grapefruit: If you like a bit of sweetness with your grapefruit, ditch the sugar and pour on the syrup. I guarantee you’ll never go back!
*Sap Coffee: Make coffee like you normally do but replace the water with sap. It adds subtle, but wonderful flavor and you won’t even need to add any extra sugar!
*The Sugar House Special: A shot with half warm syrup and half dark rum. Sip so you don’t burn yourself!
-Onagh MacKenzie ‘15
Sophie Mendelson ‘15 reflects on the idea of homecoming after attending The Berry Center Conference in Louisville, KY:
Wendell Berry speaks reverently of homecoming. Slowly and deliberately, stretching vowels into multiple syllables and soaking his verbal contours in Kentucky drawl, he describes the knowledge that one comes by through growing up in a place, absorbed through osmosis from family and the character of the land. The strength of these bonds of personal history, Berry insists, are unparalleled, and should be respected, nurtured, and tended to with care. Love for a place and a way of life that you know so profoundly that “knowing” takes on a whole new meaning – that is home. And that is where we should be striving to return, prodigal sons making our way back to the family farm. It is the point of origin that we seek.
I sit leaning forward in my chair, pen paused in my note taking, cheeks flushed. Yes, yes, yes! I am ready to leap to my feet, to fall in line behind this wise man, to wave a flag of homecoming and march until I have found it, my home, my point of origin. We – the agriculturally-minded youth of my generation – will reclaim the land and sink our roots so deep into the ground that our bonds of affection and knowledge will form a subterranean system with strength to parallel Wes Jackson’s perennial grasses, holding the rural landscape secure against the erosion of our resources and our values. I am ready to join the movement, to begin my journey back… To what? This is where I hit a snag in my grandiose plans.
Wendell Berry celebrates the importance of “education for homecoming” – and it is a very literal homecoming that he describes, to a physical space once inhabited, to the people and the place that raised you. But what about those for whom “home” is not a ranch or a farm, but a city block, or a suburban housing development? What about those of us who know in our bones – not how to tend to a sick cow, or how to know that it is time to get the crops in the ground – but how to navigate a subway system with our eyes shut, or how to parallel park on a curved street in a space that appears to be only half the length of the car? I grew up in a dilapidated suburb of Washington, DC, and while there is farming in my family, I reach out to those rural roots from the distance of several generations. My memory of the land as my home is not a memory, but a post-memory, a consciously constructed “recollection” that is one part history, two parts research, and seven parts imagination. And I am not unique in my predicament. In fact, it appears that the vast majority of the “we” falling into step behind Wendell Berry’s call to action are more familiar with concrete than with soil. How, then, do we come home to the rural home that we know is ours, but that we have never yet visited?
In order to succeed, Wendell Berry must make room in his vision of homecoming for those of who are undertaking a figurative, rather than a literal, homecoming. And there must be infrastructure in place to help us to build, rather than simply return, home. We do not have the advantage of lifelong exposure to generations of farming knowledge, and so we need training – and lots of it. We do not have the advantage of an inheritance of family land, and so we need help finding – and acquiring – land to call our own. We are not already part of rural communities, and so we need points of entry into the social support systems that such communities afford. In short, we are agricultural orphans, and we need adopting.
Given the state of farming today in the United States, such an untraditional construction of heritage might be just what is needed, not just for incoming farmers, but for outgoing ones as well. The vast majority of farmers in America are over the age of fifty – and most of them do not have children who want to take up the family trade. If these farmers want their land to stay in production and out of the hands of agribusiness, they need to find surrogate “children” to carry on their work once they can no longer do so. Older farmers are in need of inheritors; younger farmers are in need of inheritances – now we just need a way to find each other! Programs in which farmers-in-training apprentice to older farmers with the promise of knowledge transfer and the possibility of land transfer down the line – this is the ideal training structure for us agricultural orphans, and it provides older farmers with the opportunity to preserve the legacy and heritage of their land and their way of life, even if it is not through biological means.
So yes, let’s return home – but let’s expand the meaning of the term “homecoming” to include the homes we make and the homes we find and the homes we resurrect from scattered bits and pieces. Because if home is something that you know so profoundly that “knowing” takes on a whole new meaning, then it’s also something that you can learn – right?
Zoe Reich-Avillez ‘15, on how a favorite farm task transforms the mundane:
I first worked on a farm (rather, I first stepped foot on a farm) during my freshman year of high school. The trip to Gaining Ground was posted on a school bulletin board under “Community Service.” Gaining Ground, the sign proclaimed, is a non-profit farm that donates all its food to local food banks and meal programs. Located just ten minutes from my high school, it was the perfect destination for a mid-afternoon volunteer shift. Never one to turn down an outdoor field trip in early spring, I immediately signed up. Looking back now, the memories of that short shift are beyond foggy. What I do remember though, is the feeling of being engaged in manual work. I couldn’t articulate it then, but something just felt so right about working my hands through the soil and crouching over a bed of newly planted seedlings.
A year later, I heard about Gaining Ground’s summer internship. I had barely given my workday a second thought, but remembering that still-so-poignant feeling, I decided to apply. Through the summer, I weeded, planted, harvested, weeded, prepped beds, and weeded some more. As any farmer will tell you—and as I discovered that summer—there will always be more weeding.
For some reason though, I relished that never-ending task. What is often the bane of the farmhand’s existence became my favorite job: hand weeding. Massaging the soil, grasping for weeds, pulling the unwanted plants from their roots, and finally looking back to see a bed of head lettuce surrounded by dark brown soil, was deeply satisfying. I found myself looking forward to the days when I would be sent out to the field, with or without a partner, to weed for hours on end. Even now, when I crave a task that is comforting, that will re-orient me with myself, I crouch down in a pathway, dig my hands into the soil, and start to weed.
When I try to understand my love of hand weeding, I often turn to the physicality of the work. Search and pull, search and pull. So easily, I can lose myself in the repetition, in the sheer simplicity of the action. At my best though, it is not just my body put to work; my mind too, is engaged in that repetition and simplicity. When I say that I lose myself in the task then, I mean that I am completely and totally present. I’m reminded what it is to find home in myself. This groundedness, I now realize, is the feeling of “rightness” that I knew but couldn’t name during my first shift at Gaining Ground. Now, I know its name and I know it’s what keeps me coming back to the farm time and time again.
Triple Bottom Line
by Sophie Mendelson, ‘15
So I have this crazy idea.
It’s an idea about what the farm of the future could look like. Big topic, I know, and right now the idea is still pretty half-baked, I’ll be the first to admit. It’s fanciful and incomplete, with untested foundations, erratically constructed extensions and a leaky roof. But seeing as it’s an idea about collaboration, and the first step toward any kind of collaboration is communication, I’m going to lay it out for you anyway.
This idea, like so many, starts with the identification of a problem: loneliness. I believe that loneliness is a problem that is often overlooked in the discussion surrounding sustainable, small-scale farming. When trying to envision the farm of the future, we spend a lot of time talking about economics and chemicals – how can farmers make a living? How can they reliably produce food without harmful technology? What new economic models and low-impact technologies can we implement? These are all important questions, but I think equally important is the question: how can we make the farming lifestyle sustainable? In other worlds, how can we help farmers not to be so darn lonely?
In my personal experience, loneliness has been THE NUMBER ONE hardest part of farming. Isolated geographically and socially, farming is often a solitary business. There is a huge difference between working fourteen-hour days with a group of people and working those same hours on your own, and I’m not just talking in terms of productivity. For me, the former is exhausting but satisfying, while the latter leaves me flattened and struggling to suppress a creeping sense of desperation. It’s no wonder that so many young farmers start out with enthusiasm only to quit after a couple of years in the field!
So here is my crazy idea: the farming cooperative. I may be twisting the word “cooperative” to fit my purposes here, because I don’t mean a totally consensus-based, commune-like farming model. What I have in mind is more closely matched to the Zingerman’s business model (check out A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building A Great Business by Ari Weinzweig if you’re intrigued). I’m talking about a farming model in which several quasi-independent farms, all located in the same geographic region or even the same property, collaborate to coordinate operations and market their products under one front. You could have, for example, a vegetable farm, a dairy farm, a meat farm, a fruit orchard, and a processing facility for value-added products that all run mostly independently from each other, but draw on each other for support and all market through the same outlet and under the same label.
In my idealized and untested fantasy version of this model, the farm cooperative would work to meet “the triple bottom line” (to steal, and then tweak, a phrase from Dina Brewster): economic, environmental, and spiritual. Economically, marketing through one outlet would provide consumers with an incentive to buy from the cooperative, as they could meet most of their grocery needs through the products collectively assembled. Environmentally, the cooperative model encourages a diversified farming approach, where multiple kinds of farming are all taking place in coordination with each other on one piece of property, allowing farmers to close nutrient cycles and feedback loops. And now here’s the biggie: spiritually, the cooperative addresses to major issues for farmers. First, it provides a built-in community. This model of farming necessitates the involvement of many families and many workers, de-isolating small-scale farmers and creating a social environment. Second, it makes it so that one farmer doesn’t have to keep track of everything that is going on in a diversified farm all by his or her self – each operation is managed by a separate set of people, who then collaborate to bring their operations in concert with each other, thus diffusing the responsibility and easing the need for manic multi-tasking. Oh yeah, and each operation can help out other operations during times of particular need, like harvesting tomatoes or slaughtering chickens, strengthening social bonds and reducing the need to bring in extra labor during these times.
So far, that is the extent of the crazy idea. I would love, love, LOVE to talk to people about this, so please don’t be shy! Help me poke some holes in this thing so that we can build it back up even stronger.
Kendra Dawsey ‘13 explores cultural culinary traditions in her own college kitchen:
Over the summer that I spent working at the Yale Farm as a Lazarus intern, we grew collard greens. It was strange to grow something that I only knew as a food that my mother cooked on special events and holidays, or when she wanted to do something other than pasta. It was also strange hearing my fellow farmers call the big fans of leaves “collards” — putting emphasis on the d that my family always left out. It was a familiar food in a new space.
I didn’t realize how culturally tied I was to this food, and other staples in Black American/Southern food like cornbread, sweet potatoes, grits, and all the rest. It took me a while to realize that not everyone ate them. I didn’t do a particularly good job of absorbing these traditions of cooking either. Whenever my mother or grandmother was in the kitchen, I was doing homework or watching TV. This still goes on — over fall break, my mom shook a turkey leg and seasonings in my direction with the intent of teaching me, and I fended her off with staring at my computer screen and murmuring “I’m busy.”
This year is the first time that I’ve lived off campus at Yale and had to cook my own food on a regular basis. My first experiment with cooking the food I grew up eating was a sweet potato. Instead of calling my mother to ask for directions, I looked up a few recipes online, and then didn’t follow any of them. I tried cooking it with a friend and wounded up stabbing it with a fork, and then alternating between sticking it in the microwave and oven, and then hacking at the potato for it to cook faster. It was not a success.
I decided to try again with collard greens. I never watched my mother or grandmother cook them with a particular distinction — I only remember seeing the huge leafy greens fill the sink and then eating them a few hours later. Collard green can be a very laborious vegetable to cook — my grandmother in particular boils the collard greens for hours in a pot, leaving them sweet and buttery. Additionally, in typical Black American/Southern fashion, you cook it with leftover bacon fat and some ham. But being a busy college student, I didn’t have the time or ingredients for any of that. So I decided I would try my own sort of method for collard greens one Tuesday evening.
First, you clean the collard greens so that they are free of any dirt and debris. It is usually helpful to do it in a large sink, like a kitchen sink, but this one took place in a freshly scrubbed and rinsed bathroom.
Then, take the collards and remove them from the stalks. The leftovers should look like this.
Don’t worry, all of these greens will cook down really quickly!
Cut the collards into one inch pieces so that they are easier to handle, and then boil the collards in hot water for about fifteen minutes, or until they are soft and a vibrant green. Then strain to remove excess water.
Told you they cooked down!
Now, get a pan for sauteeing, and put in a tablespoon of both butter and olive oil, and then some chopped garlic to taste (I used about two cloves). Stir in the collard greens and add salt and pepper. Sautee them, stirring constantly, for about five minutes. Then remove from heat and add some lemon juice for a light tangy taste.
When I ate them, they tasted very similar to (but not quite like) the collard greens my mom made, and they took much less time to do! I’m glad that I found one more thing to cook that reminds me of home.