Saturday, February 9, 2008

Yet Hope Grows in Nebraska

What we did not discuss, when I met with the farmers, was the glimmer of hope offered by the Slow Food movement, known by some as the food revolution. But the Slow Food movement has taken hold in Nebraska.

When I visited Lincoln in 2004 to give a talk at the university there, I had not heard of John Ellis and his Centerville Farmers Market—a store that he opened with other local farmers. It is stocked almost entirely with food that represents fifty farmers from within fifty miles of Lincoln. It was a brand-new, revolutionary idea when he first sold his farm and equipment to start it up. I read about John Ellis in Brian Halweil's Eat Here. The venture epitomizes the resilience of the human spirit—in this case linked to the resilience of nature.

John started his store even though he was well aware that there was a Wal-Mart Supercenter on the other side of town, with twenty-eight aisles of food. He believed that customers would buy from the Centerville Farmers Market because they wanted locally grown food. And in the Wal- Mart he knew that almost all the food had traveled thousands of miles to get there. Even a lettuce farmer just outside Lincoln must, if he wants to sell to Wal-Mart, send his produce 225 miles to North Platte to be inspected (each lettuce must comply with strict regulations concerning quality control and appearance). After which it is sent 225 miles back to be sold in the store in Lincoln.

Diet Start

In North Platte, the regional distribution center for Wal- Mart comprises a series of sprawling, hangar-sized warehouses containing the giant freezers, ripening rooms, and packing stations for all the "fresh" food—vegetables, fruit,meat, milk, and so on—that will be sold in the giant supermarkets throughout the whole of the American Great Plains region. How can John Ellis hope to compete? Only by helping to raise the awareness of the ordinary people, the consumers. And he, and others like him, are working hard to do just that. At the back of his store is a "commercial kitchen" where farmers can mingle with shoppers, where chefs demonstrate how to create mouthwatering dishes from the local produce. The walls of the store are devoted to paintings and drawings from local schools creating an art gallery where children can learn about food.

John Ellis is not the only one. Many other such stores are springing up. And more and more farmers markets are appearing in Lincoln and surrounding areas. Farmers are banding together, so that more people can be supplied with a greater variety of produce. There is growing support among politicians and voters for measures such as conservation easements and tax credits that will protect the farmers and their land—measures that also help to preserve the beauty and biodiversity of the countryside. Many farmers markets have become venues for social gatherings, music, and exchange of news, adding to their popularity. People get to know the farmers who grow their food, and sense that these farmers will be more responsible in their production methods.

Within the city limits of Lincoln is Shadowbrook, a thirty-six-hectare certified organic farm that serves seventy families. Community gardens are springing up, here as in so many places around the world, where city people can find the inner peace that comes from working with the soil, marveling at the growth of life that they have planted, hearing the song of birds and the humming of the honeybees. The harvests from these community gardens, and those of the farmers growing for their local communities, are truly liar- vests for hope. And the more people who support these efforts, who use their hard-earned dollars to buy produce from farmers markets, and their political power to vote for measures to protect the source of this produce, the more crop diversity will return to the despoiled land. Nebraska is even growing grapes and making its own wine today.

On the last evening of my stay there was one of the most amazing sunsets I have ever seen. Palest shell pink turning an unreal crimson, then purple, then fiery red. Tom, my sister, and I sat on a rise overlooking the river and watched and listened as the cranes came in, skein after skein. Their wild voices filled the air, a great volume of sound drowning out the trucks on the interstate. There was still enough food, still enough water, to sustain this ancient migration. Somehow, together, we must ensure that our grandchildren are not denied the opportunity to marvel, in their turn, at one of nature's most spectacular scenes. The last glow of the sunset was still smoldering against the almost dark sky as we walked back to the cabin, silent with the magic of the evening. The pale stubble of the corn harvest stretched away from the river into the distance; the dark shape of a center pivot loomed against the sky; a truck thundered along the highway. And the cranes were still calling.

... andjoyohoxing