Week 4: June 21-28
Onward to St. Charles!
A Big Day
It was mile forty on a single flat, straight, windy road that would take us all the way to Dixon, Illinois. Without a cloud in the sky or a bend in the road, the continuous pale grey of the pavement, waxy green of the corn, and pastel blue of the sky numbed my mind. My face must have looked like those chilling photographs of children mindlessly watching television; I’d have been drooling if I had any saliva left. I was so entrenched in mental and muscular boredom only one thing could save me: DJ Mazimar Kazumi.
Just about a month ago today, my friend DJ Mazimar Kazumi and I graduated from college. Surrounding graduation was a slew of late-night dance parties and gatherings at which his electronic music DJing was a constant presence. I can’t count how many times 2am rolled around and all I wanted to do, exhausted as I was, was sit down, but then he’d put on my favorite track (he knows which one I’m talking about) and I would just have to keep dancing! In the heat and cornfields of Illinois, his wildly eccentric dance tunes kept my legs going, just as they had at those college dance parties. The mission at school was to have as much fun as possible no matter what; the mission here on Shifting Gears is to get to our next destination no matter what.
While the sensation of the music overriding physical fatigue was a familiar one, the context in which the music blasted was completely foreign to me. Being visually stimulated by nothing but geometric rows of shiny corn leaves and two yellow lines stretching endlessly into the distance was a complete departure from the usual scene where DJ Mazimar Kazumi’s music blasted: dark house parties where everyone wore black pants and had glitter on their faces. This disjointed continuity made me question: what ties these spaces together? How can my memory be mobile with my body, music and physicality in different places converging as I move across this entire continent? But those questions would have to be put on pause because I desperately needed lunch.
The redness of my face was pulsing like the monster in some cult classic horror movie as I walked into the Lincoln Way Café. I almost felt bad sliming their blue plastic booths with my sweat, but in such heat my body was about to implode or melt or do something catastrophic if I didn’t sit down. After lots of intravenous Arnold Palmers and an incredibly satisfying grilled chicken sandwich, we hoisted ourselves onto our steeds again.
By that time, 3 o’clock, the sky had darkened and the temperature dropped about five degrees. Looking West we shuddered at the storm clouds churning in the sky like a villain braiding his hands. The simply wise phrase of my high school biology teacher and mentor Mark Stefanski came into my head, “Don’t Do Stupid S[tuff].” “Hopefully we’ll get to Dixon before it unleashes itself,” Lake said in her unshatterably positive way.
About six miles from Dixon, the heavens really put on a show. It rained, winded, thundered, and lightninged its guts out as we rode along Lincoln Highway. I didn’t need DJ Mazimar Kazumi now: my survival instinct and Mark’s words had me zooming towards safety. Dixon or Bust! Or was it more like bust it to Dixon and get busted by lightning?
When it cleared up enough that I could actually open my eyes properly, I nervously scanned the horizon for green sky. “If the sky turns green,” a professor and mentor, Paul Kane, had told me, “secure your bike to a tree and get away from it—you don’t want it to come flying and hit you. Then, get as small and near to the ground as possible.” Fortunately I didn’t see any green, so at least I knew no tornadoes would join the storm.
Just a few minutes later we were in Dixon, known worldwide as the birthplace of Ronald Reagan! Nowhere does the market flow as freely as in Dixon. A truly remarkable place it is… especially when it was getting on evening time and we didn’t actually have a place to sleep. So, we asked a church. No luck. They suggested we talk to the Fire Department. Luck. Firefighter Jesse Adjen is our guardian angel of the day. As we sat in the lobby strategizing and eating peanut butter packets, he made a thousand calls on our behalf trying to find us a place to sleep. He also let us pose with the fire trucks!
Nowhere does hospitality flow as freely as in Dixon. The Pratt Family—Andy, a seventh generation grain farmer, Katie, a farm and agriculture advocate in Illinois schools, and their two delightful children—generously welcomed us at their Grand Prairie Farm for the night.
Like the simultaneous familiarity and newness of listening to DJ Mazimar Kazumi’s music in a disparate landscape, speaking with Andy and Katie about their farming practices on their 5,500 acre farm and going inside one of their 280,000 bushel corn bins was a brand new juxtaposition and vantage onto the conversation Lake and I have been having for 24 days now. Asking their views on the benefits of GM, speaking with them about food justice, discussing how to more effectively get food education and cooking into school curriculum, threw brand new notions into the mix but also drew upon themes many of our farmers have mentioned.
In particular, hearing Katie express her discontent about the polarization of the farming world between “people like” Andy and Katie who grow GM corn and soy on what—at 5,500 acres—is considered a medium sized farm and “people like” the small-scale farmers we’ve met, brought me back to the questions I had posed to myself earlier today: what ties these spaces together? What common ground can we find to make our food production systems complementary, and to bring the people who grow our food together in support and collaboration?
As I go to collaborate with my bed, these questions remain. It was a big day.
Officially my first fire fighter traiding card!
Hoisting ourselves up into the corn bin
When this baby is full it holds 280 bushels of corn!
This is Ethan, a very cool kid and an excellent biker, his sister Natalie is zooming on her princess bike somwhere out there too ... new Shifting Gears members?
Caitrin and Jesse at the Dixon Fire Station
In high school, my beloved teacher David Dunbar had a phrase—more a state of mind or a way of being, perhaps—called the “Don’t Know I Don’t Know Zone.” He divided experience like a pie: there’s one tiny slice you know, one still little but slightly larger slice of things you don’t know, and the vast majority of the pie is all that WE DON’T EVEN KNOW WE DON’T EVEN KNOW! If we are attentive enough to life, we realize that we’re actually in the DKDK Zone all the time.
Sometimes, though, it doesn’t even require the art of seeing to recognize when you’re in the DKDK Zone. And that is where Lake and I find ourselves now.
Neither of us have been to western Illinois, Iowa, or Nebraska. We don’t even know we don’t even know what these landscapes hold! We imagine that they hold more hills than we’re expecting, Midwestern hospitality, corn crops…. To comprehend beyond that completely two-dimensional impression of these places, we just have to sit in our saddles and let the land and the people fill in their own story of who they are.
Entering the DKDK Zone
We said good morning to the Illinois but good afternoon to the Mississippi River! Farewell Land of Lincoln
Earlier that day we came across a very muddy trail. Our panniers, weighed down with peanut butter, happily sank into the gravel and mudd. Luckily, Gary arrived. A mile later we were dropped off where the pavement began with enough stories to last us for miles. Thank you Gary!
When we pulled into Dewitt the skies were clear. Sometime between signing the guestbook at the Garden Cafe and getting the inside scoop for the best deepfried pork tenderloin in town, the skies changed their mood. We had learned earlier that morning, that roll clouds meant trouble, and indeed, there was a giant one heading our way. Within minutes our phones received emergency weather warning messages and the tornado sirens followed. A man in a pick-up called to us, "It's moving at least twice as fast as any car. You two better hurry." Without a place to stay that night, we resorted to booking it to the Winsther Motel. A quarter mile later at the Winsther, all I could do was stare upwards and watch the giant blue donut cloud overtake us.
Harsh winds and heavy rain left the skies clear, allowing for a sunset stroll towards the best deep-fried pork tenderloin in town.
An Unexpected Place in the Middle of the Corn and Soy: ZJ Farm, Solon IA
We had the pleasure of bagging some of these beautiful greens on arrival at ZJ Farm.
Our night at ZJ Farm was a perfect collision of good fortune and fate. It just so happened that Fresh Forks, a female biking duo team investigating the stories of young farmers along the Mississippi River, was also staying at ZJ farm ( We swapped stories and insights with these two wonderful women and look forward to keeping in touch about ways we can further access and education to good food. Not only were we blessed with the like mindedness of these folks but also the company of neighborhood friends that Susan Jutz invited over for a potluck that night.
Susan is known for her garlic!
Although she has 80 acres, less than 10 are farmed and the rest are preserved as prairie and riparian zones.
Lots of rain = lots of kolhrabi to harvest
There are few vegetables that are more fun to stare at for a few hours than Kolhrabi. In the world of harvesting, kolhrabi is the party vegetable.
"The Kind of Meat You Like to Eat" B&B Farms, Grinnell IA
Activity 1: Get denied a tour of the Monsanto corn production facility
Next, Meet the gang!
Barney Bahrenfuse, Suzanne Castello, and their son Gabe are the primary caretakers at B&B Farms. They raise Berkshire pigs, cattle, chickens, and sheep. Their apprentice, Gus, a student at Grinnell College, holds an Abbe Hills feed bag. We spoke with Laura Kraus, the owner of Abbe Hills, back at ZJ Farms!
Activity 3: Move the chickens
Activity 4: Care for the sheep
Activity 5: Put up fencing and move the cattle
We will miss you!
Future Farmer of America!
All of their animals graze, including their chickens! While given grain for extra plumpness, the chickens are moved daily in these super mobile houses. In the photo on the right you can see how quickly the chickens do a number on the grass--good thing they're moved every day.
We learned a lot at B&B Farms. One: thin electric wire doesn't work with sheep. Their wool prevents them from feeling the shock, then they can get tangled and sometimes, as Gabe sees on the left, they die. Two: "Having livestock means having deadstock." --Barney. Three: "With animals, the more you hurry, the more things go wrong." --Gus. Gus and Barney approached the tangled but still living ewe slowly and with care they untangled her. Lake and Suzanne hoisted her into the 4x4 and took her to the barn. With enough food, water, electrolytes, and a salve of aloe and garlic on her raw ankle, we hope she's better in no time. Four: a large part of farming is contending with the unexpected occurances of the day. Suzanne, Barney, Gus, and Gabe handled these situations with grace and skill.
Suzanne and Barney own about 500 acres of pastureland, corn, hay, and wheat fields. All of the crops they grow become feed for their livestock. They graze their animals on pasture, moving them around almost everyday. Putting up fence posts, Suzanne got a thorn in her finger as she bent back an invasive rose bush to reveal more clover, "I just can't resist getting them the good stuff," she said with gusto as she repositioned the electric fencing.
Susan, Carmen, Fresh Forks ladies, and all the women at ZJ Farm, we feel invigorated and inspired after meeting you! Thank you for the dynamic, innovative work you do. We feel honored to know you.
Photo cred: Chisty Newell.
When you’re crossing the Mississippi River on a skinny bridge with a foot-wide shoulder between you and the semi trucks on one side and a churning river on the other, how do you know you’re not going to die? When it’s seven in the morning and the sky is black with thunderclouds and the road slick with worms, how can you be sure you’ll reach your destination? When it’s been raining for weeks straight and the ground is too wet to plant, how do you trust you’ll get a crop in at all?
I suppose it takes a little leap called faith. At first I was surprised by the centrality that faith played in many farmers’ lives both as food producers and simply as people, but the deeper into this project we go, the more I realize what an important role faith plays in keeping all of us on course.
Karen Washington has been a central force in community gardening—re-termed urban agriculture—since the 1980’s when she was crucial in transforming an empty lot in her Bronx neighborhood into the beautiful and productive Garden of Happiness. As we sat on a picnic bench next to the chicken coop, she described how changes in what the Garden grows reflect changes in the wider food justice movement in New York City today. For example the garden began as a beautification project to instill a sense of care, safety, and beauty in the neighborhood, and has evolved into more food production to address the interrelated issues of food security, obesity, and neighborhood conviviality. Karen has been a key community organizer and garden advocate since the get-go, and throughout her involvement she has seen the ebbs, flows, and standstills of the struggle for justice. A product of the 1960’s, Karen spoke about the sense of hope she felt during that time—and also expressed the growing anger she began to feel forty years later when she looked around and saw how little had changed in terms of genuine racial and economic justice.
Despite the bleak situation, she maintains positivity. So I asked her, “Clearly seeing how far there is yet to go, knowing the machinery geared against you, and while feeling angry sometimes, how do you stay optimistic and steadfast in your vision?” With just enough pause to let the sound of the birdsong reenter our conversation, she replied, “Will, faith, and desire to uncover injustices. Having strength and stamina to move forward in my work. It’s about sharing and knowing no one should be denied food. Acknowledging those who have gone before, I remember my purpose, I remember our common humanity. Humility, thankfulness, and faith.”
A very different farmer in a very different place shares Karen’s faith, gratitude, and trust. Claire Orner is one half of the dynamic couple that operate Quiet Creek Herb Farm & School of Country Living in Brookville, PA. Their place is secluded in the country, relying on a huge wood burning furnace, several hoophouses, sales at farm markets, and educational tours to keep the non-profit afloat. Gently petting a cat curled in her lap, Claire told us how her faith imbibes her “with joy and energy. Yes, I am exhausted at the end of the day but I get up in the morning so excited because I know and I trust I am living my passion. I know there will always be challenges, but I also know I have the strength to see them through.” Living her vision of the good life at Quiet Creek, she emits endless gratitude for the Creator who bestowed them with the nature she enjoys so much, and who gave her the curiosity to learn on the land and the ability to teach others how to care for it and for themselves.
In Solon, Iowa, we saw another iteration of faith steadying Susan Jutz of ZJ Farm. Back in 1994 when she began the farm and the Local Harvest CSA, she was literally “the only game in town.” Patronizing male farm loan administrators and other government officials belittlingly asked her things like, “How many vegetables to you have in your garden back there, Missy?” when they did not realize she was feeding over 1,000 people between her CSA and her donations to food pantries and soup kitchens. We visited her in Solon in the second week of straight rain, and the oversaturated soil and high winds were wreaking havoc on her crops. In the middle of this stressful time, Lake asked her how she sees her farm and her commitment to organic agriculture in the long term. “How do I see this long-term?” she asked back, “One day at a time.”
Despite inhospitable climates (political, cultural and literal), these women have faith to continue their work. Karen does not know what a just food system will look like in the future or if we are anywhere close to building one, but she has faith in her own small deeds. Karen and Claire share a sense of gratitude that invigorates the joy they feel to be alive and growing. Karen, Claire and Susan remain steadfast in a feeling of abundance and a recognition of common humanity, they keep growing real food with the conviction that everyone should have good food to eat.
Spending time with these incredible people, Lake and I felt firsthand how their faith also brings natural generosity and sharing. Meeting women like this, we have come to see that faith translates into a trust, strength, and welcoming generosity that envelops us every time. Their faith causes me to ask, how much can I give? From where does my strength come?