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The conditions are nauseatingly predictable. It’s a miracle I’vnt vomited on my keyboard just thinking about using myself sitting next to Lauren in a car to grab your attention. She is talking on a portable telephone. I am not. There are sprinkles of water falling from the sky. The windshield wipers humwumm across their already mentioned place of residence.

I am not speaking. Fortunately, Lauren is:

“…well, ok, howabout this, we’ll harvest the stomach and if you want it you can have it, otherwise we’ll keep it for ourselves. Howabout…oh ok you want the lungs. And the small intestine….yeah they’re good for…Ok, you want them? Great.”

And the windshield wipers humwumm across their already mentioned place of residence.

It’s not so often these days that one’s ears are partial to such a conversation, though I’ve got to say mine were barely pricked by the subject matter. Perhaps if I were an innocent bystander on the street, I would have double tooken (yeah I know), but after spending a week with a family of abattoirs and butchers, its sort of standard operating procedure.

Head cheese at the dinner table, pig legs above the kitchen sink, sausages in the garage, pigs just beyond the backyard. It’s not just conversation that infuses the Sheard’s life with the beautiful reality that they are carnivores.

Walk through their front door and before you can slap a mongoose with a willow stick your nose will swoon with the sweetsmokysalty aromas of bacon. It lingers and wafts on gentle currents that flow throughout the first floor, the same ones that act on the various fleshy hunks formerly known as swine hanging in the kitchen. Well on their way to donning the titles prosciutto, pancetta, guanciale, and bacon, they hang like trophies. Placards. Crests, coats of arms. They are truly something to be proud of.

The charcuterie in the kitchen are an indicator of a lifestyle. Of a craft. Of an intense and deep body of knowledge. They are an outward material expression of how Brandon and Lauren live their life, of what they believe. There are two years of charcuterie hanging there, patiently watching every dinner Brandon cooks for his family. Every breakfast whipped up by Lauren. The prosciutto does not complain when Wallace revels with porcine squeals, sticky hands moving with remarkable swiftness, from the honey jar to his mouth.

Beyond the personal implications of the fermenting animal flesh* in the Sheards’ kitchen, they are also business investments. Products. The first fruits in a nascent business endeavor they call Farmstead Meatsmith.

“So what’s that all about?! Neither of those words are actually words! I don’t pay attention to gibberish.” If you are screaming this, which you are, I would have to start from the beginning.
Farmstead, as it turns out, is actually a word. I forgive your contemptuous outburst. A farmstead, according to my nifty dashboard dictionary, is a farm and its buildings. True, but boring. Let’s delve.

Farm, as Brandon and Lauren have expressed, is an increasingly specific descriptor of a farming endeavor that is family owned and managed. It has a deep connection to the land on which it is placed and the cultures and peoples that share roots in the same soil. Farms produce products that people eat or use. A stead is a place or role that someone or something has to fill. Therefore we have farmstead as a rich word combining the complex and webulous (new word. Bing!) implications of a farm and a farmer married with place-based intentions and roles. A farmstead is a locally and culturally rooted agricultural business intended to serve it’s similarly small-scaled immediate community of producers.

Meatsmith. This one certainly doesn’t exist. Excuse me, hasn’t existed before this. Well, meat is pretty straightforward…right? Lets take meat as the flesh of animals that we eat. Commonplace on many plates across this country and unfortunately increasingly around the world, meat is dinner. Meat is sustenance. Meat is life and meat is flesh. Meat comes from animals, and in the case of Brandon and Lauren, meat is a gesture of relation, respect and culture, as opposed to, shall we say other, less intentional manifestations of meat consumption.

Smith, short for blacksmith, is a craftsman. A tradesman. An artist and a community member. A village blacksmith is one who can quite literally forge any necessary piece, part, or tool to cater to anyone’s request. He is a product of years of intricate knowledge passed down, manifested in an exquisitely particular niche. His is a producer as well as an artisan. His products are a result of utter and complete transformation. He takes a virtually unusable material and creates utility. His goods are inseparably a product of utility and artisanship.

Have we sufficiently tenderized the derivation? You didn’t ask for a McGeeian breakdown, but you got it sister. A Meatsmith is a craftsman of flesh. An alchemist. She takes animals and turns them into desirable, useful, beautiful, delicious, and respectful products. Lauren and Brandon Sheard are meatsmiths. They serve farmsteads.Farmstead Meatsmith. Delightful.

Did the fellow who invented the elastic underpants band enjoy instantaneous fortune and international notoriety? The housewife that accidentally dropped a dollop of frosting on top of the muffins cooling under the precariously placed bowl overtop? Regardless of whether or not recognition comes back to the proprietors of ingenious ideas, we see that there are clear and distinct societal needs for certain innovations. I can, and will in just a few words, confidently say that Farmstead Meatsmith is a business vision of magnificent importance and spectacular implication.

There are plenty of drab, systemically informational reasons that Farmstead Meatsmithis well timed, like the disappearance of local slaughterhouses and processing facilities, the pile of policies preventing them, the flight of knowledge of how to properly, intentionally, transform animals into meat, and gabbity gab.

Truly, the most compelling argument, or evidence if you prefer to call it, is that as a result of the scale on which they operate, it is a manifestation of all of the generally non-practiced, yet well vocalized boons of local economics. Though unstated, they are a social enterprise – their financial bottom line is inextricably linked with social and environmental conscientiousness – facets that are inarguably part of a responsible business when dealing with friends and neighbors in a small community.

Beyond the structure of their business, however, there is yet another alarmingly inspiring aspect (businesspeople of a different disposition may choose to insert a different adjective to follow ‘alarmingly.’) Brandon and Lauren have managed to weave in to their model: education.
More often than not, Brandon invites the owner of the animals he will slaughter, butcher or cure to be present and even participate. He will take extra time to instruct the farmer. He will share his knowledge. Reveal his secrets. To anyone that is interested.

I’m no businessman. I can count on my fingers alone the number of times a tie has mingled with my collarbone, but I’m pretty sure that a cornerstone of traditional business practices is to keep your secrets of success well hidden in the vaults labeled ‘Prosperity.’

Brandon acknowledges it, posing the question just as much to me as to himself, whether or not he will eventually work himself out of business. If he is imparting the knowledge on which his trade is based, then will his customers continue to be that? Or will they themselves become endowed with enough knowledge to perform Brandon’s currently specialized task?

Farmstead Meatsmith is an open-source model working within an open-source movement. That which we now casually call the ‘local food movement,’ is one of inclusivity, of community. It is a revival of older agrarian societal structures. We have people returning to trades, developing skill sets unique to their craft. Not so long ago, there were town butchers.

Thus we have an interesting juxtaposition. The majority of businesses do not publish their activity in the way that Farmstead Meatsmith has chosen to. We must keep in mind that the dynamics of a bonbon shop on Vashon Island are quite different than a bonbon shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The question stands, then, whether theFarmstead Meatsmith model, which weighs local economies and community structure over the potential squandering of monetary profitability, can be replicable and viable in settings other than small agriculturally oriented communities. In fact, the question still stands, and Brandon and Lauren will be the first to admit, of whether said business model will be viable in small agriculturally oriented communities.

I would argue that localized and replicated businesses like Farmstead Meatsmith are necessary to the survival of the human race. When there is no more deceptively cheap energy to facilitate monsters like ADM spraying cheap animal products around the country, every community is going to need a Farmstead Meatsmith. Were I feeling spicy enough, I could extend that statement to any business venture. There are plenty of folks that have written far more coherently and eloquently on the topic (Bill McKibben, Wendell Berry, and The Transition Movement, to name a very few), and this is me throwing in my high five. Farmstead Meatsmith is the future.

Let’s call this essay an unprofessional, unsolicited shout out from Andrew  to those visionary Doers out there, cultivating skills and turning them into innovative business ventures. The wave is on its way up – we’ve got terms emerging for these folks. Agripreneur. Agtivist (I thought I made this one up until stupid Grist already has a series by this name. And its stupid good.). Urban Agtivity. We’re on the up. And let’s call this an urge and plea to make catching snippets of casual discussion of eviscerating an animal nauseating predictable.

This Is A Minneapolitan Farmer

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Stefan Meyer, farm manager of Growing Lots Urban Farm in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He’s finishing up his first year in production, having successfully served a seven-member CSA for the surrounding community. His farm is pretty rad, he’s basically farming concrete. Landscape cloth and soil on top of what was once called a parking lot. Solid.

James Olde Mercury Godsil (video)

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To call them labrynthic would imply negativity. Give you the idea that you’ll become irrevocably entangled, wandering blindly, waiting for the Minotaur to find you and put an end to them. I would not, however, describe the way Godsil releases his words with any other metaphor. Olde’s labrynth is not made of prickly death bushes, nor does it house monsters of any sort. It guides you with densely packed metaphor framed by tomato plants. There are ornate examples, years of (r)Evolutionarily informed rhetoric, and fish. Lots of fish.

Godsil is an academic turned rebel turned roofer turned urban agricultural visionary. He is the co-founder of Sweetwater Organics, an intensive urban indoor aquaponics farm (modeled after Growing Power’s) housed in a formerly abandoned industrial building in the Bayside area of Milwaukee.

To try to describe Godsil’s personality, demeanor, essence will be to greatly demean the many facets that make him whole, but to start he is a veritable well of knowledge. An uncapped artesian aquifer, given the slightest instigation, stories and facts and figures and historical references and lessons will come pouring out of his boundless reservoir, presumably housed somewhere between his head and heart.

He is a humble man, sharing his belief that transparency and acknowledgement are key to proliferation. He is a pragmatic radical community-based agricultural activist. He is readily distractable. Excitable. He loves to share and learn and think. He’s got an active curiosity rivaled by few that have crossed my path in years. He started one of the largest, most innovative urban farms in the country two years ago. He is a Doer.

The following clip is an attempt at an introduction. A dropperful of the rich, astoundingly complex flavor of which James Olde Mercury Godsil is made.

Where The Buffalo Roam

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“That one right there’s a dollar. You want it?”

Pause. Swing of the head. Consideration. Smirk…..?

“I’m serious. You want it?”

When I look, Mark’s finger is not pointing at a bouncy ball or a single twinkie. He’s not pointing at a rogue silly band, nor a cheaply made garment in an overstuffed street cart. He is pointing at his neighbor’s house. Rather, what would be his neighbor’s house if it had a neighbor in it.

Mark Stevens of the Wilson Street Urban Farm has become somewhat of a household name for those who run in the urban growing circles around town. With a rather theatrical splash involving municipal hurdles, communal organization, and eventual legislative success, Mark and his wife Janice began farming on vacant lots on the east side three years ago.

Most recently, Mark acquired an adjacent fifteen lots from the city. At the time of our visit they were cover cropped and set to be cultivated next spring. This brings up the question, particularly for those who have recently visited Manhattan or San Francisco or virtually any other city in the country – how did he find that much land?

Buffalo has the misfortune, or, perhaps it can now be argued, fortune (maybe a bit too soon) to have been ravaged by post-industrial decline. Bear with me for a moment while I tell you that Buffalo, as of 2007, has upwards of 3,000 acres of vacant land and over 30,000 vacant residences. It weighs in behind only Detroit and New Orleans in these two categories.∗ Well.

These statistics, while rather dry, are potent indicators that Buffalo is ripe for an agricultural revolution. One of the major limiting factors in urban agricultural systems is the availability of arable space, of which Buffalo has no dearth. From what I gleaned during my visit, Buffalo’s axles are well greased and there are plenty of people pedaling hard. If, of course, we are assuming Buffalo is a revolutionary bicycle. Which it is.

Seeing as there are approximately four thousand directions I could go with this article from here, let me commit an act of journalistic buffoonery and derail the flow of this article with the force of a blinded furry land mammal (get it?). I am not from Buffalo. I am a transient. A floater, moving in and out of communities, visiting urban agriculturists, attempting to share their stories. By virtue of this position, mine is inherently one predominantly based on hearsay. I visited with inspiring folks in your, unbeknownst to me, vibrant and beautiful city. I have taken their words and passions to make this article as fitting a portrait as it can be. In regards to the former acknowledgement, I apologize for any inappropriate assertions or faulty concluding.

Perhaps I’ve gone way off track. Ruined the arcticle. It will never be published in the New York Times. Sob. But the non-sequitirous (I’m pretty sure they don’t let you make up words in the NYT either) topic I’ve broached is one of ultimate importance within the urban agricultural movement. The topic to which I refer is the role of agriculture and agriuclurists within the framework of a city, notably Buffalo. There are a multitude of arguments for why urban agricultural systems are good, even necessary, into which I will not delve, though I will tell you I am a strong supporter. However, an ultimately important question to consider is the source of such opinions and the source of agricultural activity.

To be a bit more candid, I am speaking of the fact that urban agricultural activity, or agtivity, from here forward, is predominantly facilitated by people of relative privelege.

The privelege discussion is one that is not often publicized in media lauding urban agtivity around the country. It is not the most glamourous, or even a very palatable aspect of the conversation, but a necessary one. In the case of Buffalo, which has the third highest rate of poverty in the country, this conversation is arguably more important than in other cities.

The intricacies and complexities of the privelege discussion among urban farming extend deep into history and far beyond my capacity to responsibly discuss them. This is to say that in many places there are significant racial and related socioeconomic barriers to be overcome. It can be the case that people or projects are cast in a negative light. Rather than assigning a matter of quality to privelege’s role in agtivity, I think it is more important to acknowledge its presence in order to open the gates to having this conversation in a more open forum, with the vision of moving beyond the current and historical boundaries which prevent sowing new seeds.

Mark and I had this very discussion. This is a force of which he was acutely aware when moving in to his neighborhood and starting his farm. His process thus far has been that of transparency. From the beginning, he acknowledged the color of his skin and the role he has played as an outsider, attempting to make a place for himself within the Wilson St. neighborhood, as well as the greater Buffalo community.

Here we can see why Mark’s and other Buffalonians’ work is so inspiring. Being played out is the vision of utilizing one’s relative privelege as a mechanism to spread knowledge. To spread excitement and passion. Not to exert power. Not to tell people why they are doing things wrong or how they should be doing it. Mark is farming. And talking to people about it.

When it comes down to it, an important goal of urban agtivity is to empower people and communities most often described as underserved or marginalized. This inherently sticky situation of privelege, and the discussion of it, plays a key role in facilitating the transformation of communities utilizing urban agtivity.

If we, and I say ‘we’ because I am a member of the priveleged echelon working to broaden the horizons of urban agtivity, can use the privelege that has been gifted to us, not to assume a role of superiority or even place importance on ourselves, but rather work towards integrating knowledge and inspiration and passion throughout the communities in which we are working, this is the point. This is the goal.

Buffalo has got the building blocks. Like I mentioned earlier, there are plenty of people whose eyes glow with the drive to grow food and spead the love of it. Take Jesse Meeder at the Massachusetts Avenue Project, as an example. MAP is a well known organization among Buffalonians that has been growing food and teaching folks about it since 2006. He has been managing the growing operation at MAP for three years now, cultivating a variety of vegetables, building soil and an aquaponics system that currently houses 2,000 tilapia.

MAP is taking its mission a step further than serving produce to the surrounding community. Their Growing Green project facilitates social and agricultural entrepreneurship on the part of young Buffalonians. Not only are they empowering individual youths, but the local community and economy. Beautiful. This is inspiration. Take knowledge and pass it around the community. Allow your passion to float those around you. Hopefully they will surpass you. Take control. Take the reins.

Empowerment, in my opinion, is one of the largest goals of urban agtivity. Forget the implications of privelege and the opposite. I was inspired every day by my students at The Washington Youth Garden. Eight and nine year olds from D.C. public schools routinely turned my world upside down and invigorated my passion of growing and educating. Urban agtivity is empowering for everyone involved.

Buffalo has got the landscape. I’ve said it many times – it is a city laden with hardships from the past twenty years, but it’s on the way up. With the leadership of the folks who are getting their hands dirty, rustling interest and building projects, the city has great potential to be the next national conversation of urban rehabilitation.

I am no Buffalonian. I’m not going to buy the property next to Mark, I will not become his neighbor. All I’ve got to offer are my words. My opinion that Buffalo is a rich city with a wealth of character and more potential to grow into itself in the next few years. There are folks out there who are Moving, Doing. Folks who will take that one dollar in their pocket and make their community grow.

Good Advice (video)

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If I learned anything from What About Bob, it is the merit of baby steps. Take it slow, have a plan, get excited, but think about your excitement. Be smart. Be responsible. These suggestions are Peter’s response to the question of what advice he could offer to folks who were interested in starting up an endeavor similar to his.

This is a question I’ve been asking everyone with whom I speak on camera. Interestingly enough, Peter’s suggestions to plan, go slow and critically evaluate what is feasible were the first of the sort. Virtually everyone else, including but not limited to Eli Cayer/Dave Homa, Kevin Gardner, Mark Stevens and Jesse Meeder, were of the opinion that one of the most important aspects of having dreams, having visions, is to DO it. To not be afraid. Not think about what will go wrong, or skills that you don’t have. Go for it. Try. Be persistent. Just do it.

Here we’ve got a rather marked difference between Peter and some other folks in their approach. It would not be fair to assign value to either set of beliefs because both are ultimately so valuable. Clearly, each player has got his or her own personally discovered combination of ambitions and approaches, and, in the case of all of the projects we’ve visited, they are working.

As the title of this piece indicates, I think that Peter’s advice is ‘good.’ Yes. Absolutely. I think it’s great advice, in fact. Both in regards to a starting a small urban agricultural project and to a life. Does that, by virtue of being good, mean that the ‘kind’ of advice given by the others is not good? Absolutely not. Herein lies, once again, the beauty of speaking with a broad range of people in an indefinitely diverse movement – a diversity of views all united under the same progressive vision.
I love this question. I love the answers. I love the variability. It is a thinly veiled porthole into personal philosophies. Lifestyles.

I’m going to keep this one short. But first, I’ll pose the question to you. I invite you to consider it. Take a moment and really think about what you’ve learned from the past year of your life. You have acquired incalculable amounts of wisdom. I do not believe that the case could be otherwise. You know it.

With a grackleharumph, the interviewer cleared his throat. After the briefest self-conscious flick of his eyes to the floor, he directed them to those of his interviewee. Unblinkingly, so as to indicate the significance he placed on the words to follow, he posed the question:
What advice can you offer to a me, a young and energetic person, who believes in you. Wants to recreate what you’ve done?

To Profit or Not

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He owns a construction business. Manages jobs. He’s a designer and an engineer. He’s a builder. A farmer. Keeps chickens and geese and rabbits and goats. Grows vegetables. He’s a husband. A father of 10. Grandfather of 19. He’s an activist and a writer and an active member of the Ypsilanti community. He’s a landowner, a homeowner. A grower. Peter Thomason is a Mover. A Doer. I think it’s pretty safe to say that it was a rare sight to see, when we waltzed into his backyard this past Sunday, to find him snoozing in the crisp autumn sunshine.

I can’t blame him, to be honest. He sat in a chair sandwiched, if you can bear with me here and imagine a three sided sandwich, among his homemade chicken coop, towering Victorian house, and vegetable production beds. The crisp autumn winds swirled above, through the neighboring maple trees as the sun dipped in and out of view behind irresponsibly transient clouds.

With a mild start, Peter woke to my presence. In his defense, I was hovering. Without a skipped beat, we began a very enjoyable visit, chatting about Peter’s life, his operation, the Thomason Family Farm, and, among other things, Esmerelda the chicken.

Since 1987, Peter has been slowly transforming his 50’ x 140’ backyard into a rich and productive farmspace. He grows a variety of vegetables along with a collection of animals. Let’s hold there for just a moment. Let that sink in…. Fifty by one-forty is not your run of the mill farmland. Fifty by one forty is smaller than a regulation croquet court, which, according to the World Croquet Federation, is 84’ by 105’. Fifty by forty is nary large enough to fit a slip’n’slide worth the trouble of unrolling it and figuring out how to get a continuous water flow to ensure maximum enjoyment. Shall it suffice to say, for now, that Peter’s space is rather small for the magnitude of his operation.
Magnitude. Here we’ve got ourselves a nice little metaphor (get it?). Stupid joke. Anyway. Small physical area of land. Small growing operation, at least in terms of exchangeable monetary value. Large man, large visions. Large impact. Splendid.

Throughout the course of our conversations, Peter touched on some ideas that I found quite interesting, all of which served to reinforce certain themes that I’ve been seeing replay over meetings with various players and project proprietors in this ‘urban’ movement I’ve been exploring.

Most notably, His vision for TFF is not about the food that comes out of it. Not about the product. Certainly, the production and distribution aspects are inseparable from a growing operation, but in Peter’s case, selling a trivial number of dollars’ worth of vegetables at a weekly market is not his end.* Rather, he describes his space as a laboratory. A space in which he can, and is continually, conducting an experiment in regenerative living. Closing down the waste-stream. He is living his life as an experiment of a low impact lifestyle. This, for the record, is awesome.

It is a ‘lifestyle choice’ that Peter cites as the nature of TFF, as opposed to anything else. Profession. Hobby. Labor. Cultivating vegetables and raising animals and building structures and developing composting systems are simply activities that nourish Peter equally as much as the fruits of this style. The most notable concept to come out of this part of the conversation was Peter’s distinction between considering himself a member of the Ypsilanti community that manages a farm, and a farmer.

“I’m not a farmer,” he told me. “This is simply my lifestyle, it has flowed naturally from my interests and my actions.” Check. Already discussed. But this is a very important topic, one whose implications are widespread, because one reason he does not consider himself a farmer is that he could never support himself, his family, and his community’s appetites on the land he works. He could not generate enough income.

With this in mind, a feast of questions emerge: can backyard farming be profitable? Does it need to be profitable? What would be the implications if everybody on every neighborhood block were keeping a garden and chickens? Then would backyard farming need to be profitable? Can urban agriculture be profitable?

Here is the thing. Within this last question lies a gaping fallacy. A sweeping generalization that virtually every cognizant person is guilty of. Victim to, perhaps would be a more appropriate phrasing. Myself included. Yourself included.

“Can urban agriculture be profitable?” implies that ‘urban agriculture’ is a single entity. A single formula, a single type of operation. Growing vegetables and selling them. Unfortunately it seems that ‘urban ag’ is quickly treading the path so well worn by ‘local food,’ ‘sustainable,’ and ‘organic.’ It is becoming a buzz word, or phrase, which of course, one can extract positive meaning from this phenomenon, comes at the cost of considering what urban agriculture actually means. What it can be and how it will be actualized. **

I believe that the root meaning we intend to address when uttering the words “urban agriculture,” is that of an urban agricultural system. Within an agricultural system, there are myriad specialized processes – farms, distribution, storage, various inputs, blah blah blah, the list goes on. When we are talking about urban agriculture, in particular, talking about making ‘urban ag’ a viable and prosperous sector of communities, we must necessarily consider it a system.

Here’s where it gets less cynical and accusatory, and herein lies the beauty of the urban agricultural movements. Within an urban agricultural system, there are nearly infinite niches to be filled, especially at this stage of development. This is a young movement, there is a high ceiling. We’ve got room to grow. As a result, there are infinite distinct roles to play. There is the role of Peter Thomason, a contractor by profession, farmer by lifestyle, who experiments with his backyard inspiration education laboratory; and there is the role of the educational youth farm, and there is the role of the for-profit vegetable farm and the compost management business and the taco truck using corn from the for-profit farm and tomatoes from the youth farm and lettuce from Peter’s laboratory.

To return to the question from which this diatribe sprang, ‘can urban agriculture be profitable?,’ if we tweak the question with the newly defined, diversified nature of an urban agricultural system, the question then becomes, “can an urban agricultural system be profitable?”

I would argue yes to this, though further questions arise about the nature and intention of necessitating profitability as an end to an agricultural system. Lets stay on track, though. The beauty of this new question is that within the greater framework of a system, individual lifestylists don’t necessarily need to be profitable in and of themselves. The whole point of this being that within this movement there are roles to be filled. That Peter’s is not profitable, and could not be profitable is OK because there will be others that are. The point is that space dedicated to growing food and raising animals is space dedicated to growing relationships and spreading knowledge. The point is that the urban agricultural movement is rapidly spreading its roots, building farms and making moves. And occasionally, very occasionally, breaking for naps.

So…Tell Me More About Your Project

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I’m thinking about melting faces. Opening eyes. Earthquakes and rainstorms. The kind that rattle bones and move boulders. I’m thinking about smiles so radiant you can feel them in your chest. Fragrances so sweet they have nothing to do with a nose. I’m thinking about whirlpools and tornadoes and rolling down hills and washing machines. I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Ann Arbor, feeling uninspired.

I’d like to write something. About this trip. A ‘project,’ I’ve been calling it. Perhaps about the intentions. Perhaps about something that has happened so far. A whimsical anecdote. Something to draw a smile. A chuckle. Maybe even just the vaguest hints of crinkles at the sides of your eyes. Something a little to the left of where you were expecting the words to take you. I’d like to start with a scene. A curious statement. Perhaps an outlandish declaration, an assertion of wildly unimaginable origin. Something to slap you in the face with the force of a stinky fish carcass. Your eyes will water and lungs will burn. You’ll cough and sputter wondering where you are sitting and on what surface your feet are planted. Is it asphalt or pudding? ‘Do those feet even belong to me?’ you’ll wonder after reading this sentence. It will be the opening sentence to the greatest essay ever written since the invention of the letter g. It would be.

But it’s not coming out. The greatest sentence ever is not inside right now. Perhaps suppressed by these feelings most accurately described as the opposite of inspiration. They are understandable, I think. I have experienced a great loss recently. My camera and computer have been recruited by a strange and cold set of hands. Stolen. While those which have been lost, luckily, were Things, they were instruments most frequently used to create. To share a slice of the world seasoned to my palette. Along with the flight of my Things came an influx of questions.

Practical ones – what now? Buy new ones? Find the old ones? Go back to Maine? Any way to recover the photographs? Philosophical ones – what does it mean that Things are such potent facilitators of my creative process? Of sharing my creative visions with the world? Is this OK? Good? Bad? Do I need Things to be creative? Personal ones – why am I doing this trip? Self indulgence? It Farmrun a good thing? A not good thing?

One question which has never crossed my tangled mind is whether or not to continue. From the moment I saw an open car door and clothing strewn across the cracked Buffalo street, it was clear that the trip would continue. It will continue because the currents, the movements that I am documenting do not rely on a camera and a computer. There are still people out there, farming and gardening and cooking and helping and building and teaching and learning and playing. Unfortunately, a loss is a loss and emotions follow no rubric. Despite knowing, beyond any semblance of doubt, that I would continue, I was down. I am down. I am feeling the opposite of inspiration.

He’s got a laugh like windchimes through stadium speakers. It circles around you, tickles your ears and stretches your mouth. Sitting at the large wooden table positioned precisely in the center of their barn, hundreds of spectators, the heads of 22 varieties of garlic perched on the walls, look on as Tom and Viv Szulist console my fractured spirits.

Generosity and hospitality as descriptors pale in comparison to the way Tom and Viv took care of me during my visit the day following The Loss. A family cabin on the shore of Lake Eerie, all the apples and pears I could eat, and their personal video camera were all gestures extended toward me, though the most valuable offering were their words. Not only those of encouragement and advice, but also their words in describing their growing operation. Their mentality. Their philosophies.

Tom and Viv are specialty garlic farmers who dabble in dried fruits. If the ten-minute breathless address on the subject of garlician chemistry is not indication enough of Tom’s passion for his trade, it’s the smile. The day before the project crumbled, Tom called me out of the blue to see if I’d be interested in coming to see his farm. I was interested.

I arrived the next day in a saddened state. We chat. They tell their story and feed me apples and garlic. Tom laughs. We laugh. Then it happens. They ask about the project. “So, tell us more about your project.” This is a question that, perhaps not surprisingly, is often asked. When reaching out to folks, I often use vague, nonspecific terms to describe why I want to shove my camera in their face. “Documentary project.” “Innovative urban agriculture.” The reason I use such indefinite terminology is that since the beginning, there has been no definitive focus. No singular intention. It is not to find farmers in their 20’s, or traditional bakeries, or urban farms, or fermentation experts or cheesemakers. It is all.

Every time I’m asked this question, I pause to consider my answer. There has always been a distinct direction. I know exactly what I want to find and precisely where I am going, but it is a knowledge similar to one’s sense of direction while walking through a dense mist. A heavy fog that obscures any sight beyond your next few steps. The road is clear beneath your feet, and this is all we need. To make sure there are no rocks on which to turn our ankles. Ask me if a certain project or farmer is of interest, and you’ll get an immediate answer. Ask me what I’m looking for and I’ll ask if you’ve got a few hours.

Every time the question is posed, the answer becomes a bit more concise. Addresses a bit more of the formless mass that comprises Farmrun. It is focusing. Honing. Scraping the frost from the edges of the viewfinder.

“So…what are you guys doing in Ann Arbor?”

The question is posed.


“I’m looking for young farmers and urban agricultural projects to visit. To learn about and document. Using photographs, essays and videos, it is my intention to share the stories of the people who are taking initiative and making things happen. I am interested in Doers. People who are passionate, whose eyes glow when talking about their trade. People whose hands have been callused and will continue to harden with the labor of growing food and growing a movement. I’m looking for people who are Movers, who understand the importance of community and personal interaction. People who are living out their dreams, who are not afraid to go for It and see what happens. I am interested in talking to people about what makes them go. Why they are doing what they are doing. What gets them out of bed in the morning and puts them to sleep at night. I want to know from where they have come and to where they are going. I am not interested in hearing why industrial agriculture is bad or why the ratio of omega-3’s to 6’s in our diet is promoting rampant obesity or even why local food is good. I want to know about the people who are making this revolution happen. I want to know what lifts them off the ground and spins them around and puts them back down. I want to know what makes them smile.”

And I’m sitting at the table, across from Tom. Listening to these words come out of my mouth and watching him smile. I feel his radiance in my chest, helping my words along. Then it happens. As if coming from a speaker across the room, I hear this conclusion come from my mouth: “so…when it comes down to it, I’m searching for inspiration, and I’m looking to inspire.”

That’s it. That is the point of Farmrun. Inspiration. I want to be inspired. I want to inspire. And what greater goal could there be? Inspiration, I would argue, is a deep and underlying force that drives the universe. An energy that flows indiscriminately between humans. Like a mycelial mat suffusing the forest floor, connecting the roots of all living organisms within, transferring nutrients and information between. Inspiration travels in vast, indefinable networks with no framework. It is transferred osmotically. Gives life, sustenance, nutrition to all parties involved.

Inspiration (n.) is the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, esp. to do something creative; or, secondarily, the drawing in of breath; inhalation. While words have, perhaps obviously, little merit in describing a bodily, spiritual sensation, an emotion that affects every sense, I think these do well. It is a process. Stimulation. It is creative, it is breath, it gives life.

Everyone knows about the moment of inspiration. There is realization, an awakening of sorts. Seeing a person do or say something you have never considered. Having your world turned upside down. Spun round. Tweaked just the slightest bit. Inspiration does not necessitate magnitude. There is recognition. That you are just as capable as the sword swallower. There is the tingling that starts in your toes and works its way up to the inside of your ears, fluttering the whole way. Traveling like those wooden block-chain things that when you hold it at arms length and turn the first one over, it sets off a reaction of block flipping all the way down to the bottom, sending sprays of tingle to all extremities. Finally, there is action, where you Do. Take the inspiration and make it real. Congratulations, you have been inspired.

There is no rival to the moment of inspiration. That instant of internalization, the ‘wow.’ That instant is ecstasy, weightlessness where nothing else in the world matters. The blinds are drawn for just a moment, nothing but hope and positivity swirl inside. It is a drug. Inspiration begets inspiration. This is why it is the name of the game.

To say that to inspire and be inspired is the sole purpose of the project, though, would be horribly inaccurate. Farmrun is not a singular entity, a project with a single mission that will produce a single product, but rather a collection. A process, if you will.

It’s sort of like maple syrup. Or maybe vegetable stock. A bit less glamorous, but I think more appropriate. It begins with a variety of vegetables, each with significant personal merit, culinary possibility and unique flavors. They go in boiling water. With time, the individual vegetables’ structure breaks down. They incorporate into the broth. Though they remain discernable, the flavors begin to lose their definitive individuality and become a part of the greater pot. Finally, the stock is reduced, concentrated, so that the vegetables have intensified. They have mixed elegantly to form a product that is not definable as carrot or onion or pea, but rather a rich mix of all. Farmrun is vegetable stock.

Here’s the thing, stock is not a meal in and of itself. It is an ingredient. A building block. A very important one, too – if you’ve ever had a risotto made with water, then you know. The options for using a vegetable stock, the number of dishes you can make with this ingredient is quite limitless. Farmrun is a project that is not ultimately nutritive in and of itself. It may taste good, but it’s only a part. A stitch in the greater framework of a grand banquet that is being prepared around the country.

I think that we are all hungry for a good meal. A great meal. One that will ‘wow’ us, put our feet to the sky and head to the ground. Or perhaps we could say, we are all ready for a meal so inspiring, it just might melt your face.

The Opposite Of Fortune

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It is with great dismay that I tell you that we’ve encountered the first significant challenge of our trip. As a result, there will be a slight lull in the posting of pretty things. After a truly delightful two days in Buffalo, full of inspiring people and projects and karaoke, our car was burgled. Along with my computer, camera, and external hard drive, all of the content we have produced thus far and a small bit of the ubiquitous faith in the goodness of people were stolen.

Needless to say, this has been a big loss, but we are trying to look forward and figure out how to maintain the project and keep it going. Previous to yesterday, we have been making some great contacts and were feeling some significant excitement out in the ether. Obvious as it sounds, the well-being of our project depends fairly exclusively on having a camera to record media and computer with which to network and produce the stories. I’ve added a donation button down at the bottom of the site, and there is a new donation page. As much as I dislike sending out self-promoting pleas to the general public, we could use and would appreciate any help that you can afford.

Everything has been taken. Every photograph I’ve snapped and every essay I’ve written and all the faces of farmers we’ve visited hare all gone. BUT, we have still got our legs and our car and a sourdough starter. And there are plenty of apples and pears and pumpkins out there. We’ve still got farmers and gardeners and friends and family expecting us. There are still projects out there, growing vegetables and communities and inspiration and passion. And we’re still going to find them and talk to them and laugh with them and relate to them. And we’re still going to document them, but we do need some help. Thanks for following us this far.