On Monday i stood over a barrel of bubbling moonshine, listening to a chorus of crackle and pop, and swatting away any flies that dared venture close to that sweet vat of fermenting grain. Toby*, a farmer in town, had invited us over because his moonshine had just started to protest with its fermentation growls, and he wanted someone with a cellphone to record the sound. Toby told us all about the corn he uses to start his moonshine, his recipe and process, and how his religious parents hated his art form, but his Grandma was his biggest supporter (isn’t that always the case?). As a smell of yeasty hops filled the air, I suddenly realized that all of my favorite lessons, I’ve learned from farmers.
When I lived in a Costa Rica for four months, I conducted my research on a group of female farmers that lived in a rural, mountainous, farming town with just 14 houses, a school, a church, a pizza window, no store, and almost no wifi. From these women, I learned that a life filled with the most backbreaking hard work can simultaneously be a life filled with the most beauty. I learned the power of “home” when their “city daughters” would visit every weekend, and when asked to name the most beautiful place in Costa Rica, they’d respond “acá” (right here). I learned how being a woman means drastically different things in different societies, and to not compare my life as a college-educated woman from the U.S. with the lives of anyone else. I learned that no culture is good or bad, better or worse. I was constantly learning.
Yet, who would think that spending an hour with an Iowan farmer would give me an education that, while different, would prove just as strong. For my job this summer, expanding the Local Foods resources in my Iowan community, I have had the opportunity to meet with farmers of various identities. Some of these farmers are 30 year old women that wear Chacos and sundresses and sip iced soy lattes from the coffee shop in town. Some of these farmers are 45 year old men who moved to Iowa from suburban Massachusetts at 18 years old to pursue their history degree, ended up starting an organic farm, and haven’t left since. Some, like Toby, are 70 year old men who will show up at your student potluck with their wife and a home-baked strawberry rhubarb pie.
If you were running through the dirt roads in the early morning, the sunrise kissing your laptop-bent shoulders, your head swarming with algorithms and thesis statements (who or whom?), you may pass Toby on his tractor. You may envision him, like any of the farmers in town, riding his combine, baling his hay. You may not envision him at all.
From Toby I’ve heard stories of pain and triumph, sweet memories and painful recolections. This pot-bellied man with calloused hands will teach you how to brew moonshine, share his secrets for coffee-can English muffins and 10-minute rhubarb pie, he’ll tell stories from his days building stadiums in St. Louis and Washington D.C., and how his grandma lamented not flaunting her breasts before they grew saggy. Then in a breath he’ll tell you why he doesn’t trust Pastors, and that he was just 14-years-old when he decided he would break the never-ending cycle of child abuse, passed down to him by his parents. He’ll tell you that doctors thought his condition was terminal, but he’s been cancer-free since the 90s. He’ll tell you all of this before he describes how longhorn cattle throw their calves in labor, before you tour his garden. He’ll tell you this before he even hints at his identity. Farmer.
There is no denying it. The practices of farmers drive our world, our nutrition, our health, our capabilities, and our environmental quality. The practices of farmers drive our lives. Yet many of them don’t see it that way. You sit down with a farmer and they tell you stories about their life, stories they may view as common place. But to me, there’s nothing more beautiful than hearing someone who drives the world to such an extent tell you about his favorite English Muffin recipe. Once you learn about the lives of farmers, you begin to realize that their lives are so hard, so draining, but so rich and beautiful, so filled with lessons and knowledge that no one else has. You want to learn more. You want to sit down with a notebook and pen, listen to their stories for five hours, and write down every single word. You want to connect.
And shouldn’t you? Of course you should. The global food system has been taken out of the hands of the farmers to become the play-thing of corporate interests. These interests douse crops with chemicals to overproduce corn and fry the land. While they overproduce, they fail to solve malnutrition and hunger, due to their mono-culturalist focus. I have no doubt that in order to change this unjust, global food system and all the social inequalities and climatic damage it causes, we MUST connect. We must connect with local farmers. We must know where our food is coming from, where our money is going, and the development of what type of food system we are supporting. After all, these local farmers are the ones fighting for a more just food system, a safer planet, and a more just world. Maybe they are activists. But, more likely, they are just old men (and women too!), stirring their moonshine, raising their cattle, and tilling their land because that’s the job that their uncles passed down to them. Yet, whether they mean to or not, they are fighting for us. You give thanks to the teachers, the firefighters, and the doctors. Why don’t you give thanks to a farmer?