The following is a book excerpt from "Year of Plenty: One Suburban Family, Four Rules, and 365 Days of Homegrown Adventure in Pursuit of Christian Living" by Craig Goodwin. The book tells the tale of the Goodwin family's year-long experiment to consume only local, used, homegrown or homemade items. Goodwin, who is also a pastor, also chronicles their year on their blog, Year of Plenty.
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This Commodified Life
When we began our adventure, we still had quite a bit of food in the cupboards and freezer. Slowly but surely our stockpiles started to dwindle. Staples we’d never even thought about suddenly became precious jewels of the kitchen. For the first time in our married life, we didn’t have a minimum of five boxes of cereal in the pantry. We had none. By March we were sugar-free or sugar-deprived, depending on how you look at it. Instead, we ate a lot of honey from Tate’s Honey Farm, located just a few blocks from our house, and experimented with palm sugar from Thailand. We used homemade butter instead of cooking oil. Bananas were a faint memory. We ran out of computer paper in mid-February and resorted to printing on the back of the kids’ coloring pages. Paper towels and napkins were going fast.
One glimmer of abundance at the beginning of the year was an almost full, five-pound bag of Toll House chocolate chips. I viewed this bag as a little refuge of indulgence. I would grab a handful here and there throughout the week. It was such a huge bag that I chose to focus on the positive. I would say to myself, I can’t believe there are still so many chips left! It was my little fantasy of the never ending bag of chocolate.
Then, one dire early spring day, Nancy burst my fantasy bubble when she discovered the nearly empty bag of chips.
I now know the shame and social alienation of the ancient villager who was caught raiding the winter supply of fruit wine. I rationalized my actions, saying, “We were going to run out soon anyway.” Nancy, unimpressed with my logic, told me that as part of my penance I had to write about my transgressions on the blog. She also hid the few remaining morsels of chocolate and refused to tell me where they were.
On a side note, Thailand is probably the worst source of sweets and dessert foods in the world. Mung bean balls anyone? Or how about a red bean popsicle?
One by one it seemed like every standard food item in our kitchen went down in the flames of the cruel logic of commodities markets. Early on, we turned to the Internet to help us find locally sourced staples like sugar. It didn’t take me long to find an article about a sugar beet processing facility only a couple hours to the west of us in Moses Lake. It turns out sugar is made from either sugar cane — which I honestly thought was the only source of sugar — or sugar beets. These beets bear little resemblance to the red beets for sale at the farmers’ market. These dusky hunks of tough fiber are chemically processed to produce sweet white granules of sucrose.
I dug a little deeper, eager to find out where to get sugar from this company, only to learn that the plant was shuttered in 2002 due to a bad harvest of sugar beets in the region and mechanical problems at the plant. The closest source of sugar was Boise, Idaho, well out of the range we’d set for ourselves. Upon discovering this, I went to the cupboard and grabbed a handful of chocolate chips to console myself.
Dairy products are a big part of our diet, and we were eager to find out where we could buy local cheese and milk. Because the labels gave no indication of the source of the milk and the folks at the grocery store didn’t know, we took the kids on a field trip to Inland Northwest Dairy, the local dairy processor. We wanted to make sure our milk was processed locally and that it came from cows from eastern Washington and northern Idaho.
As we approached the large, industrial-looking lot filled with semitrailers under the shadow of five-story towers of milk, we felt that ringing of the internal alarm system that tells you you’re about to break the rules. Maybe it was the 15-foot high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire or the clear absence of a public entrance, but I had a strange feeling we might get arrested, or at least accosted by a security guard. The smell of social anxiety in the air was confirmed when the kids yelled, “Daddy! Don’t go in there! We’re going to get in trouble!” Since when did it become such a radically subversive thing to see where our milk comes from?
Despite the kids’ panic and my own second thoughts, we crossed the threshold and drove slowly through the maze of delivery trucks, trying not to make eye contact as we scouted out the entrance under a towering Darigold sign. We parked the car and, holding hands in solidarity, walked through the glass doors and up the stairs. It was the first of many mysterious boundary crossings we would make between the food on our table at home and the facilities that process and package it.
As we reached the top of the steps, I was surprised to find a series of interpretive displays explaining the dairy business. They were all a little dusty and had a 1960s patina about them. I imagined a time when that great hall was bustling with students in horn-rimmed glasses and poodle skirts out on field trips to see where milk comes from. But as we stood in the strange silence, not another person in sight, I had a feeling it had been a long time since large groups had visited the dairy.
One side of the hall was wall-to-wall windows looking down at a busy stainless-steel highway of machinery filling gallon jugs and little plastic pouches with milk (apparently milk sometimes get packaged in baggies). The kids’ anxiety was transformed to joy as they stuck their noses against the glass and took in the scene. Lily said, “Look! That’s our milk from school.”
I also saw the familiar label of the milk that inhabits our family fridge. But in a moment of confusion, I also saw about five other brands of milk packaging, all getting filled with the same exact product. Maybe that’s one of the reasons tours are out of fashion. The appearance of choice in the grocery story for commodity items like milk is often just a choice between logos and color schemes on the packaging.
After a while we wandered down to the corporate office entrance and peeked in. We were greeted by one of the managers of the dairy. “Hi,” I said. “Our family is planning to eat food from eastern Washington and northern Idaho for the year and we wanted to know where your milk comes from.”
After making sure we weren’t some kind of government agents, he said, “Well, all the milk comes in from local dairy farmers.”
“What about sour cream, yogurt, butter, and cottage cheese? Do you make any of that here?” I asked.
“No, we don’t process anything here except milk: whole milk, two percent, and nonfat. All the specialty dairy in grocery stores around here is produced on the west side of the state and shipped over. Looks like you’re out of luck on that,” he said.
With an air of desperation in my voice I asked, “How about cheese and ice cream?”
“No, I’m not aware of any local sources. Of course there is always the WSU Creamery,” he responded. The Washington State University Creamery in Pullman, an hour’s drive south of Spokane, is famous for its Cougar Gold cheese in round tins and Ferdinand’s ice cream, all made as part of the student-run dairy operation on campus. The only problem is that the 30-ounce containers of cheese cost $20, and Ferdinand’s ice cream is sold only at the on-campus ice cream shop. Cheese was suddenly thrust into the luxury item category of our consumer lives and ice cream and butter moved into the homemade category. We figured we could live without cream cheese and sour cream.
We eventually made the trek to WSU’s relatively small cheese-making operation. While we were there, the manager told us about the large Darigold cheese making operation in Sunnyside, Wash. According to the president of Darigold, it is one of the largest and most efficient state-of-the-art cheese plants in the world.
Nancy went to work the next day trying to figure out how we could get our hands on some of this “local” cheese. The folks in Sunnyside were very helpful, but in what would become another recurring experience, we found that a food system built around maximizing efficiency and profit does not lend itself to identifying where the food originates. It turns out that Sunnyside churns out over 400,000 pounds of cheese every day but most of it, at least at the time of our quest, was shipped to far off places like Wisconsin. So if we wanted local Pacific Northwest cheese, we might have had better luck on one of those cheese tours of Wisconsin. Another option was for us to find a restaurant that bought Darigold’s 40-pound blocks from Food Services of America and have them cut off a chunk for us. Or we could find some friends who wanted to go in on buying the 40-pound block and share it. I also considered the possibility buying several blocks of cheese and becoming the neighborhood cheesemonger. Ultimately we splurged on gourmet cheese from the WSU Creamery, which is probably why I didn’t lose weight during the year.
In other random cheese news, we were told that cheese from one manufacturer in Oregon is shipped to Oakland, Calif., to be shredded and then shipped back north to be distributed.
I want to digress for a moment to point out that while finding local sources for food was a neccessary priority, our kitchen was not the only place we felt the strain of our rules. One morning Nancy started the day by declaring, “We have a crisis.” She went on to list all the things we were about to run out of or needed to replace. In response to Nancy’s distress, I came up with a list of possible locally sourced or used replacements:
Tin foil — used plastic shopping bags
Saran wrap — used plastic shopping bags
Sandwich bags — used plastic shopping bags
Cooking spray — used and melted plastic shopping bags?
Noel’s jeans that all had holes in them — used plastic shopping bags
Nancy’s running shoes — old running shoes lined with used plastic shopping bags
Used plastic shopping bags (We’d been using green bags from the grocery story since the beginning of the year, so our seemingly never-ending supply of plastic shopping bags was quickly running out as well.)
Wheat Is Wheat, or Is It?
A few days after our visit to the dairy, we took a trip to the local ADM flour mill. It had a strangely familiar feel to it. Once again, Nancy and I met with anxious protests from the kids as we pulled up to the security guard at the entrance. We explained our intentions and he surprisingly let us proceed. (I think the general rule when infiltrating local food processors is to always bring innocent looking first- and third-grade girls with you.) This time we weren’t allowed to go into the facility, but we were greeted by a friendly employee at the door. We asked him the source of the wheat used to make the flour and he confirmed that it was all from our region.
We couldn’t go into the facility, but as we chatted we could see through the half-open door pallets piled high with bags of different brands of flour, differentiated only by the logo. The employee told us there is one high-end brand of “stone ground” flour that ships flour from Spokane to Portland, so they can run the already ground wheat through their stone grinders, just so they can advertise it as stone ground.
These trips felt like opening the curtain on the old man pulling at levers in "The Wizard of Oz." The stories and images and names that led us to believe we were empowered with meaningful choices in the grocery store were often just illusions of choice. The marketplace of commodities had stripped all the stories and names and connections to the land from the food and distilled it down to the least common denominator: money.
The man from ADM summed up the situation by saying: “Wheat is wheat. Flour is flour. It’s all the same. When my wife asks me which brand to buy, I always tell her to just get the cheapest one.”
The bargain hunter in me felt a small victory in this knowledge, like we’d acquired some choice insider-trading scoop, but I wondered if it was true: that wheat is wheat and flour is flour and everything is the same. If that were the case, then our efforts to make connections with the farmers who grew the wheat that made the flour that went into Nancy’s new weekly ritual of baking bread was an unnecessary, irrelevant endeavor.
Having accomplished our mission, we turned to head home when our new friend from ADM stopped us and said, “You know there is one brand of flour in the stores that’s different than the rest. We get wheat from the Shepherd’s Grain wheat co-op and grind and process it separately from the rest.”
“Why do they want it processed separately?” I asked.
He said, “I’ve heard they use something called no-till methods of farming. I guess it keeps the soil from eroding. They call it ‘sustainable farming’ whatever that is. I don’t know what difference it makes.”
When I met Fred Fleming, the cofounder of Shepherd’s Grain, at a Food and Faith Forum he introduced himself by saying, “Hi, my name is Fred, and I’m a recovering conventional farmer.”
I responded, “Hi, my name is Craig, and I’m a recovering conventional consumer.” It was a match made in heaven.
Through my friendship with Fred and other farmers I’ve learned that in spite of what the ADM employee told us, there is a difference, that everything is not the same, that even something as basic and essential as wheat is not, as some would lead us to believe, a generic, story-less, land-less, people-less commodity.
Fred explained that there are different varieties of wheat that farmers grow on dryland in the Palouse region around Spokane: hard red winter wheat that’s planted in the fall, and soft white wheat that’s planted in the spring. I learned that different varieties of wheat have different nutritional content and different uses in the marketplace.
Most of all he helped me understand the different methods of planting wheat. Shepherd’s Grain farmers use the no-till method. Instead of relying on conventional tilling methods with broad blades pulled behind the tractor that dig into and turn the soil, no-till farming uses “seed drills” that are pulled behind the tractor with minimal impact on the soil structure. Instead of digging up the previous season’s stubble, the roots stay in the ground, helping the land retain water for next year’s crops and, most importantly, preventing erosion.
My conversations with Fred led me to a book by David Montgomery called "Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations." To my dismay, I learned that the “thin brown line” of top soil that covers the earth is more complex and more endangered than I could have ever imagined.
I had no idea that, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, it takes 500 years to create an inch of topsoil through natural processes.
I never understood that in many tropical regions, the rainfall eventually leaches all of the nutrients out of the soil itself. As Montgomery puts it, “Most of the nutrients in these areas reside not in the soil but in the plants themselves. Once the native vegetation disappears, so does the productive capacity of the soil. Often too few nutrients remain to support either crops or livestock within decades of deforestation.
The richness of the tropical rainforest is in the way it recycles the nutrients, not in the inherent richness of the soil. No wonder the tearing down of forests in the Amazon is such an important issue.
I was shocked to find out that farming in America leads to the erosion of millions of tons of soil every year, that when added up, it amounts to “enough soil to fill a pickup truck for every family in the country.”
I was especially intrigued to find Montgomery citing the results of a study done in the mid-'80s comparing two dryland wheat farms near my home in Spokane to illustrate the problem of soil erosion and farming methods. As he describes it, both farms were first plowed in 1908, one never using commercial fertilizers and the other using commercial fertilizers since 1948. Both farms boasted the same income, one leaving the field fallow every third year for a cover crop and the other harvesting continuously but paying big bucks for fertilizers and pesticides. That farm harvested more wheat but had much higher expenses that canceled out any economic advantage. Most importantly, the researchers found that the organic farm was actually building topsoil over time, while the conventional farm had shed six inches of topsoil between 1948 and 1985.
Montgomery sums up the study by saying, “With 50 more years of conventional farming, the region’s topsoil will be gone. Harvests from the region are projected to drop by half once topsoil erosion leaves conventional farmers plowing the clayey subsoil.”
So I guess there is a difference. Commodities actually are connected to people and land and history. Wheat is not just wheat, and flour is not just flour, and when given a choice, it is actually possible for consumers to make meaningful choices beyond brand and image, choices that pay off for farmers, families, and the land.
Who knew a little trip the local flour mill would put us in the middle of the grand drama of the rise and fall of civilization?
Farmer Fred has not only taught me a lot about farming and land use and sustainability. His perspective as a recovering conventional farmer has challenged me as I consider the task of integrating faith and the details of everyday life such as buying milk and flour. You could even say he’s got me thinking about what a recovering conventional Christian might look like. In describing the efforts of Shepherd’s Grain, Fred explained that, in response to issues like those described in Montgomery’s book, they are seeking to understand the soil not just as a medium in which to grow wheat, but as an integrated part of the process of life. I am learning that what farmers like Fred are doing agriculturally, I need to do theologically and pastorally in the church.
Like farmers, our lives have become disintegrated and fragmented by rapid cultural and technological change. Maybe we’ve imagined the whole world as little more than a medium for growing souls, pushing and pushing until we erode the fertile topsoil that’s essential to our faith — justice, goodness, mercy, compassion. Imagine what might change if we thought of the earth and everything in it as part of God’s redemptive plan, as an integrated process of life breaking out “on earth as it is in heaven.” Maybe even our stop at the dairy aisle and our choice of flour could be fertile ground for faithfulness.
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Reproduced with permission from "Year of Plenty" by Craig L. Goodwin copyright © 2011
Sparkhouse Press an imprint of Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved. Copies of the book may be purchased at www.augsburgfortress.org.
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