A love letter to the North Country
The writer, turned farmer, turned author, Kristin Kimball says it simply, “as much as you transform the land by farming, farming transforms you” (5). I can’t say what really catapulted this change in me, to become a conscious consumer, and I’m really not sure it can be pinpointed to one precise moment. It wasn’t simply a chapter in McKibben’s Deep Economy or a lecture one afternoon in class. I think this conscious lifestyle is rather the culmination of my four years growing up in the North Country. The St. Lawrence County, with its rugged and diverse landscape and its motivated community, has become my home, my classroom and my most rousing mentor. It affords me the opportunities to engage in the Locavore movement as an informed member of the Canton community. This region endows me with a reservoir of new experiences, transformational relationships and aspires me to act with purpose.
Though I wouldn’t define myself as a “Locavore” just yet; my reliance on other people to prepare my food at this point in my life has made certain of that. I am a person on a path leading toward something meaningful; moving at my own pace toward my own unique definition of what it means to eat “local” and support small economy.
Growing up in the Greenbelt region of Niagara in Southern Ontario, I’ve known a “home” that is certainly surrounded by a land of nutrient-dense soil and vast expanses of orchards, vineyards and farms. Yet these earthy riches and glacial valleys carved into our landscape are surmounted by the density of its populated pockets of people. Subdivisions, strip-malls and drive-thrus find us leaning upon the crutch of an industrialized food production. We are distracted, hyper-individualized consumers, spoon-fed commoditized foods churned out by the plows of multinational food corporations that erode our agrarian landscape (McKibben 96). I grew up in a “borderland” of sorts. I rode on highways framed by vast spaces of greenery that connect the region’s cities and towns. These fields always felt as though they were a mere mirage as I moved from one consumer bubble, to the next.
Somewhere in the midst of Niagara’s vast, green labyrinth of fields, when I am neither here nor there, is a sign that clings to the edge of the highway pavement. It has always seemed strange to me, so out of place and so small that you might very well miss it if the radio volume is cranked high or if the yellow dashes of paint that divide the road entrance you with peripheral blindness. But it is there; a white cross, stuck between the edges of gravel and earth. It reads, “God Loves You.”
Whether one practices religion or not, I find there is something unnerving about this reminder, stuck on the side of the road. Extending from its beautiful sentiment, I can’t help but feel a sort of dismal feeling: this angst of separation. I imagine it as a proverbial commentary on our society’s detachment from faith and belief. “God Loves You,” it says, but to whom is it speaking? A literary interpretation might perceive “You” as an amalgam of inclusiveness, and the personal. But when I travel this road that moves me down a linear path from one city to the next, my focus seems entirely occupied with myself and not upon others. This sign seems to act more as a reminder of the disconnect in the values that drive society through our day-to-day lives. It draws on our tendency to move as disengaged individuals, indifferent to the consequences of our actions and detached from penetrating, mindful introspection. If we remain focused upon the destination then we begin to lose sight of the merit endowed in process. If we are constantly moving toward an end-point – a result - we run the risk of absorbing the values, vices and desires that are created, controlled and maintained by someone else.
At some point in this most recent decade, when national nutrition began to feel the heat from health epidemics and the pressures to reform, rumors began to circulate illuminating our country’s obesity epidemic. My hometown of St. Catharines, Ontario earned the harsh delineation coined by journalists and newscasters as “National Fat Town.” We were the region in Canada with the highest number of individuals suffering from chronic obesity. Not one to be typically roused by rumors, there was something penetrating to these claims - something in our food system and health reforms that seemed deceptive and deeply unsettling. As the documentary, Fresh, so aptly divulges, the increase in food processing since the 1950s have expunged key nutrients, minerals and vitamins from our foods by upwards of 40%. The notion of “cheap” food has become a myth loaded with costly environmental consequences, health implications and corrupted government subsidies.
The food we eat reflects the environment in which it is produced – the depth of its nourishment and sustenance are inextricably grounded in its roots. This “gout de terroir” as author Kristin Kimball observes, is seeded within the food itself (94). If our consumer choices embrace highly processed, highly packaged, factory farmed foods, injected with preservatives and enhanced as Genetically Modified Organisms, then we welcome all the nuances and implications that follow. Along with cheating our bodies of health by choosing a cheap imitation of a well-rounded diet, this consumer practice posits society with classist disparities and socioeconomic rifts, perpetuating a pyramid of power that benefits few and enhances society’s skewed vision of prosperity.
We need to encourage reform that begins from the root, up. These sorts of educational revolutions should call on our family members, neighbors and strangers to return to the earth: to cultivate, within these individuals, the most universal and humanizing, primal instinct, of gathering food. The dialogue is out there – but so often it is shared in a space between individuals who are already “aware” and conscious participants. The dominating preference in western society is for efficiency. From the myth that equates “big” with “better,” and casts an illusion of “choice,” we emerge as disenfranchised consumers, sold ideals, values and ethics that obscure our food origins. Michael Pollan dispels one of agribusinesses’ greatest myths: Organic. What was once a voice of sustainability and diversity, an advocate of counter-culture, now runs parallel with industrial agriculture; their means of food production now “virtually indistinguishable” (159). Our challenge, then, is to extend this dialogue into our other social circles and relationships. It means endowing other consumers with the information that awaken aspirations for change. It means encouraging a growth in values, environmentalism and compassion by however great or small an endeavor. It means beginning at the most rudimentary foundation: returning to the earth, together.
Kristin Kimball paints food as “the first wealth.” She writes, “Grow it right, and you feel insanely rich, no matter what you own” (16). There is no such thing as monocultures in nature: when we respect the design of our landscapes, we thrive toward our natural, human role to act as tenants of the earth. Bending over the soil, knee-deep in dark brown dirt, I recall an October morning spent in the gardens of Little Grasse. Pruning an overzealous batch of Asian turnips, radishes, beets and chard, I packed them high into buckets that cautiously rocked with every new vegetable tossed upon it. In this moment as the bucket threatened to topple over, something clicked. It became so transparently simple - so clear to me, that small farms really could sustain our community (McKibben 66).
The Local food movement thrives in an eternal process of change, at once its most fruitful of qualities, as well as one of its greatest threats. The way we think about our food should not be bounded by a system: it is not static but thrives through the cultivation of an array of efforts. The power of the Locavore movement is seeded in diversity. If we envision a future for Local food that moves past that which we can sensibly comprehend, then we sacrifice our agency to act as mindful consumers. Our scope for the movement should be as local as our food choices. There is incredible worth found in “shared risk” - in turning capital inward to sustain the local community along the lines of reciprocity that allows access to equitable foods. Our expectations are not restricted along a path of linearity but focus upon a process that casts no end in sight. There is power in the process - in planting, trimming, pruning, harvesting and growing.
There is no one, true, definition of “local.” As such, it remains open to our own deeply personal interpretations. We must determine what it means for each of us, guided by approaches that are unique and meaningful. Some of us may do away with our urban, fast-paced lifestyle and find ourselves hitched to a farmer and a farm like North Country resident Kristin Kimball. Perhaps we will source our food from farming co-operatives or at roadside stands and farmer’s markets. We may join a CSA, choose to harvest an acre of soil for vegetables, or plot a windowsill garden of potted herbs. Our focus shifts away from the potential daunting aspirations for the movement, and toward a real, honest, and viable approach. Farming has became for Kristin Kimball, a natural extension of her personhood and purpose:
“For the first time, I could clearly see the connections between my actions and their consequences. I knew why I was doing what I was doing, and I believed in it. I felt the gap between who I thought I was and how I behaved begin to close, growing slowly closer to the authentic.” (158)”
I don’t know where my path will lead, nor do I know the place that will one day become my home. As a community of individuals, we are granted with a choice to become conscious of our food’s origins and approach our food systems equitably, as mindful, compassionate, consumers. Thanks to the North Country, “local” has become for me, not simply a consumer choice, but a rejuvenation of all that it means to be human.