Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Taste of Wilson County

Last Saturday, the day before Father’s Day, Lil’s grandchildren gathered at the farm as we have many times in the past. This particular gathering has come to be known as “The Cousins Reunion.” In the old days, when Grandad was still alive, his sons and daughters gathered at Easter, Father’s Day, and Christmas regularly. After he died in 1971, family issues that had been buried out of respect for him resurfaced and the gatherings ceased. Several years ago, after nearly all Lil’s step-children had died, one of my cousins stepped up and said, “ Whatever issues our parents had with Lil or each other, we liked the getting together. Let’s do it.” So we did. And we do.

Geography and gas prices are taking their toll. One family lives in Colorado. Another in Kansas. Most are in the San Antonio or Houston area. (There are also a couple in South Carolina and Florida who have not shown up, but we are still hoping to pull them in someday.) So this year Colorado and Kansas did not make it. And one of the Houston cousins took a fall and shattered her elbow a couple of weeks before the event. Nevertheless, about 30 folks representing at least four generations arrived in the ninety-eight degree Texas heat on Saturday.

Now that the farm is our responsibility, Debbie, Terry, Melinda and I took on the role of hosting the gathering. In the past we just showed up with our covered dish like everyone else. But we wanted to do something different this year.

So the four of us spent all day Friday traveling through Wilson County (crossing over to Atascosa and Bexar Counties briefly) visiting farmers markets and small farms to gather locally grown fresh produce for the meal.

In Pleasanton, Texas the South Texas Farmers Market Association sells produce on Fridays, so that was our first stop. There we met a friendly woman selling vegetables from the back of her pickup under a tree off one of that main highways passing through the town. That was the farmers market. We bought squash and tomatoes and got directions to the Verstuyft Farm in Von Ormy, Texas, another half hour away.

The drive to Von Ormy took us through Poteet, the Strawberry Capital of Texas. But the strawberries had come in a couple of months ago. The Verstuyft Farm was wonderful. We entered down the long drive through the fields yielding tomatoes and corn and beans and a dozen other wonders. Under the covered market area we bought onions, cream peas, corn, beets, green beans, and new potatoes. Then we headed back toward Stockdale.

After lunch in Stockdale at Mollie’s CafĂ© we drove just out of town on Hwy. 123 to Bush’s farm stand. (A sign on the wall says, “This is not H.E.B.”) We bought more tomatoes (salmonella free) and four big, juicy, sweet Stockdale watermelons. Stockdale is the Watermelon Capital of Texas and next weekend is the Watermelon Jubilee, celebrated since 1937. Just down the road was another stand selling organically produced garden fare, and we added to our squash stash.

From Stockdale we drove to La Vernia to get our Texas bred meat at Baumann’s Supermarket. Mike Baumann married my grandmother’s sister, Christine. They had a store in Floresville when I was a kid. It is closed now. I assume this is still part of the family business. When we walked in the store my sister and I both noticed the aroma. It smelled just like the Baumann’s store in Floresville had – just like most general stores in small towns. I’m not sure how to describe the fragrance – like cardboard boxes, fresh vegetables, and open freezers or something. We bought a brisket, two broilers, and some sausage made there in the store.

One more stop – Rhew’s Orchard. Frank and Ann Rhew live about four miles down the county road from our place. They grow peaches and pecans. We visited with Ann for a while. She’d been one of my grandmother’s friends. We bought a box of peaches and she threw in a small bag of some white peaches they were harvesting for the first time this year.

We spent the evening working in the yard and house getting ready for the next day’s event. The brisket cooked all night. Early Saturday morning we made a quick run into Floresville for breakfast at Olivia’s and a visit to the farmer’s market being operated in the Wal-Mart parking lot by the Local Harvest organization and a small stand in the parking lot of the donut shop. Then the kitchen went into high gear. It was as hot in there as it was outside. But it was worth it.

By the time the spread was laid out we had green beans cooked with new potatoes and onions, fried corn, corn-on-the-cob, cream peas, beets and beet greens cooked in balsamic vinegar, sliced tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, a squash & onion medley, peach cobbler, pecan pie (from pecans off our own trees), brisket, rosemary garlic baked chicken, sausage, and hot rolls. Cousins arrived with their salads and more desserts. Two watermelons were iced down for later. What we ate on Saturday had been raised within about 30 miles of the farm and most of it had been connected to the soil in the past few days. It was delicious. Melinda and Debbie did a great job cooking. One of the cousins said, “Lil would have been proud.”

Our goal is one day to serve such a meal all of which has been grown within about 200 yards of the house.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Farmer or Not?

I have been to a few conferences in my time. As a university professor I used to attend the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. That was usually interesting. Plenary sessions always had some big name scholar delivering an intellectually stimulating lecture. Break out sessions were organized around common interests: Hebrew Prophets, Pauline Literature, Synoptics, etc. Once (1985) I presented a paper at the national convention in Anaheim. It was for the Johannine Literature Section. The title was “Conflict and Christology in the EGO Sayings of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel and the Apocalypse.” That was not even a weird title for those presentations. We stayed in really nice hotels and had a big banquet with rubber chicken and green beans for dinner.

For the past twenty-one years as a pastor the conferences have been frequent: The Church in the 21st Century Conference (2x), Southern Baptist Conventions, Annual Meetings of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and the list goes on. Each of these had their own share of nice hotels and banquets serving rubber chicken and green beans for dinner.

In January, I went to a different kind of conference. Melinda and I attended a convention for people operating small sustainable farms: The Southern Sustainable Agriculture Work Group Conference in Louisville (LOO uh vull), KY. About 1000 farmers showed up. We stayed in the Galt House Hotel, walked the streets of downtown Louisville in well below freezing temperatures, ate a Hot Brown at the Brown Hotel, and attended three solid days of breakout conferences followed by a closing plenary session on Saturday evening.

I was surprised by the diversity of the people attending: people in their 20s and those in their 70s; about an equal number of men and women; a good mix of both black and white farmers. Some had on overalls and some wore Dockers and sweaters. (This prompted me to teach Melinda to play “Farmer or Not?,” a version of “Preacher or Not?” that Rick Carpenter and I used to play while attending Baptist conventions.) One of the unusual participants was a 20-something young man from Amber, Oklahoma who is part time on staff of a Methodist church and who has his own farm operation that is part of an organic co-op in Oklahoma City. He was interested in church planting and reads Donald Miller.

Breakout sessions were often simply people telling their stories. They showed PowerPoint slide shows of their farms and talked about what they’d learned, what had worked and what had not. They talked about marketing and economics and about dealing with weeds and insects. I heard a university professor from Alabama talk about building devices to harvest rainwater and another take me back into college chemistry discussing soil analysis. All this, not just the chemistry, raised the question for me as to whether I’m smart enough to be a farmer. These people were impressive.

One evening participants from each state were encouraged to gather and the eight or nine of us from Texas became acquainted. We met a couple running an organic farming operation for inner city kids in Lubbock and a good ole boy who works for A&M’s county extension service (now known as Texas AgriLIFE Extension).

The meeting contained two big highlights for me. On Thursday evening we joined about 500 other early arrivals in a hotel ballroom to hear Wendell Berry (photo above). He has long been one of my favorite writers and has been on my list of people I’d like to meet someday. Mr. Berry is 74. He is a poet and a novelist. He is an essayist and philosopher. And he is a farmer in Kentucky. And a Christian. His philosophy is sometimes called agrarianism. He stood up and announced that since he’d already heard about everything he has to say, the thought he’d read a poem and then we’d just talk. So he read a beautiful poem about hope and then talked with the crowd for the next hour and a half. Then he sat out in the foyer and signed books for another hour. What generosity!

The second highlight was the closing banquet, the Taste of Kentucky Dinner. It was unlike any conference dinner I have ever had. No rubber chicken. No canned green beans. Everything was produced locally and was seasonal (and this was for 1000 people in January in Kentucky). Rather than a menu on the table, there was a list of the foods and the names of the growers who produced them. The meal was delicious, exceeding expectations. At the end of the meal the hotel chef and all who assisted him and those who served the dinner were brought out and applauded. Then those in the crowd who grew any of the food we ate were recognized and applauded. It was a great reminder that food does not really come from Krogers.

Melinda and I sat at a table with six people from Ohio. One couple raised grass-fed buffalo. The other two couples were German Baptist Brethren. The men wore plaid shirts and jeans and shaved only their moustache. The women wore long calico dresses and small bonnets. They smiled a lot. They had a lot of children. And they farmed organically.

The speaker for the evening was Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms in Virgnia. Joel is a guy about my age. He is an inventive farmer, a shrewd business man, and a politically informed thinker. He has published several books, has recently testified before Congress, and contributes regularly to Acres Magazine, to which I subscribe. He calls himself a “Christian-libertarian-lunatic farmer.” He is also an entertaining speaker. His topic was “Healing America One Plate at a Time.” He spoke like an evangelist and several suggested he run for President.

The week in Louisville impressed upon me the reality that we are all dependent on the soil. We are made from the dust of the ground and we will return to it (Genesis 2:7; 3:19 ). Meanwhile every ounce of nutrition we receive, every meal we enjoy, has its origins in the soil (and that includes seafood). We are literally earthy creatures. That truth is easy to forget in the middle of our concrete existence.

I was also reminded of the way that, despite our dependence on them, we have made rural people out to be “hicks.” These people were anything but hicks. They were bright, clever, educated, hardworking, committed, and principled people. They ought to be deeply respected for who they are and what they do.

Next year SSAWG meets in Chattanooga, TN. Never been there. Hope to go.