A Sense of Place

Michael Ward’s Produce Stand

Every Sunday night, I take the garbage can to the end of the drive for pick up on Monday.  A couple of weeks ago, someone hit it with their car and cut it open.  That person stopped to make sure it was intact and standing for the garbage truck, which was very nice.  However, I still needed to buy a new can to replace the broken one.  When I got back from work later that afternoon, I stopped to pick up the old, empty can to take it back to the house. Amazingly, the person who hit my can bought me a brand new one and left it at the end of my drive. I think I stood there for a full minute, completely shocked.

I’ve never lived in a place where things like this happen. It’s such an antithesis to all the bad news we hear every day. People in the community are looking out for each other. There’s no doubt, I love living here.

A sense of community is one thing that makes a place livable. When Vicki Robin, author of Your Money or Your Life, spoke at the Slow Food Roots Music Festival, she said that when she bought her food from farmers within 10 miles of her home, it gave her, for the first time, a sense of place.  I often overhear people at the farmers market asking vendors where they are located, associating the place with the food.

Strawflowers Outstanding in Their Field

Knowing my farmers and buying my food from them connects me to my neighbors.  When I drive past those open fields on my way to and from work, I know who is growing crops, who is planting trees, and who is raising livestock there. The names of the farms are part of my neighborhood description and I point them out to visitors every chance I get.

The Farmers Market does more than acquaint me with my farmers. It becomes a forum where our community gathers, talks, and laughs together. I connect with those that I would otherwise rarely see. The market makes me break from my work-a-day world and reconnect with my community. I learn about upcoming events, find local books freshly published, and listen to local musicians as I shop. Stores in the vicinity reap the benefits of the greater mass of shoppers, while farmers find more outlets for their produce. In many towns, the farmers market has become a centralizing energy, an attracting force that helps to create a more livable and walk-able central core.

The Port Susan Farmers Market is about more than just buying food. It’s about experiencing the best of our community.

But Isn’t It Expensive?

One of the assumptions made about farmers markets is that the prices are higher than normal. I usually find that what I purchase is fairly comparable to what I would buy in the store, but that’s merely anecdotal. Let’s take a look at how our market’s prices compare to the current prices at the stores in town:

At our Port Susan Farmers Market, meat is more, cheese is comparable to the gourmet and organic varieties, produce is somewhat less expensive and flowers are considerably less expensive considering the size of the bouquet. If prices are similar to our local stores, why do we need Farmers Markets? Why should we patronize them? What good do they do for the community? Why are they important?

(Wow. That was a lot of questions.)

Most of us know that price isn’t everything. You want something good for the money you spend. Our local stores provide a valuable service. The give us food and many of the other items we need every day, any time we need them. (Where else are you going to get an emergency bottle of nail polish at midnight?) They also provide us with items we can’t grow here, such as oranges and bananas.

However, there’s a great deal of value in locally grown, hand raised food, produced by our neighbors. Farmers markets provide several intangibles that you just can’t get anywhere else.

First, the closer you move food from harvest to table, the healthier it is. Much of the produce at the farmers market is harvested that morning. You’re getting the maximum amount of vitamins and minerals because the produce is not a week or two old. Charlene Byde from Freshly Doug Vegetables says, “Doug and I both feel that a Farmer’s Market provides the freshness factor. The fresher the produce, the better it tastes; the better it tastes, the more likely it will be eaten. There is nothing tastier than a cucumber or tomato that’s been ripened on the vine and brought to market that same day! A real taste treat!”

Second, the better you raise food, the more nutritious it is. This has been proven in a number of studies. I recently discovered an article from the Atlantic magazine that referenced three 2012 studies. It concluded that the way we conventionally raise chicken in the United States contributes to a sizable increase in internal infections in people. It also said that these infections have become more antibiotic resistant in the last three years. Free range chickens raised without routine dosing of antibiotics don’t cause these problems. For my money, I want a healthier option.

Jim Hall, of Balanced System Farm comments, “An industrial chicken costs less to raise than a healthy chicken raised on an independent, small farm. The industrial chicken is bred to gorge so it is ready for market in eight weeks, eats subsidized feed, grows up with thousands of other chickens, is routinely given antibiotics to prevent diseases caused by overcrowding and probably never sees daylight. Healthy chickens eat quality feed, are given no antibiotics, are raised exclusively outdoors on luscious green grass that has seen no chemicals, and take 11-12 weeks to mature. We just had one for dinner and the taste and texture are incomparable.”

Third, farmers markets contribute to the genetic diversity of our foods. Local farmers can grow a greater variety of produce because it doesn’t have to be transported long distances. Large, commercial growers usually cultivate no more than two varieties of any single crop. Local farmers usually grow many, some heirloom or rare. The first time I had butter lettuce was from a farmers market and it was amazing. It’s the only place where you can find fingerling potatoes, Cherokee Purple tomatoes, lemon cucumbers, and a whole host of intriguing new tastes.

Fourth, patronizing your farmers market bolsters the local economy, supports farmers and keeps land that would otherwise go fallow under cultivation.

Fifth, you get to meet the farmers at the market. I love that part. I learn so much about the foods they produce and about how they will taste in the recipes I prepare.

Sixth, my friends are at the market and this gives me a chance to reconnect with them. The market creates a greater sense of community and makes the town more attractive to those passing by. It can also be the basis for creating small businesses and increasing the visibility of local businesses already established in town. If folks are coming to town for the market, they can get their other errands done, too. Why go anywhere else?

By far, though, the best reason to go to the farmers market is the food. It’s just so incredibly good at any price. I’m eating a peach from last Friday’s market and it’s the best one I think I’ve ever had. I don’t even care that there’s juice running down my chin, it’s so good.

(P.S. If you want to know when I post to my blog, you can follow me at @ruraltechgeek on Twitter or click on the “Entries RSS” link under the “Meta” heading on the right side of the page to get a notification in your email. Thanks for reading!)

Geek Girls

Having just attended the 2012 Geek Girls Con, I can say, without reservation, I am one. I get excited about science fictiony things, I play with tech toys, and I understand the significance of the number 42. I tweet. I skype. I blog. Yep, I’ve got it bad, that geek thing.

Geek culture, in many ways, doesn’t include much of a feminine perspective. Many women feel invisible within the ranks of nerdness and want to expand their voices in that world. To that end, the Geek Girl Con was created last year by a hard-working group of volunteers. The first one, last summer, completely sold out. This year, there were over 6,000 attendees, and it seems that it’s going to continue to grow next year.

I really enjoyed it. The panels, which talked about everything from creating comics to being a geek parent, were informative, hilarious, and engaging. My favorite one was about the Kickstarter experience. For those who don’t know, Kickstarter.com is a way to fund projects or businesses using a crowdsourcing model. It also is a method to gain new customers at the same time. Let me give you an example:

The Little Brown Farm on Whidbey Island started a kickstarter to raise $21,000 for new cheese-making equipment and to enhance their ability to teach cheese processing on the farm. The process is innovative: describe your project, create some levels for sponsorship, tell everyone that you have a “kickstarter” and that they can receive some great premiums for sponsering you, set a time limit, and wait to see if they sponsor you and you meet your goal. If you do, only then do the sponsors get charged. Once they are, you have to fulfill the requirements of the sponsorship. The Little Brown Farm used their classes, exisiting cheese stock, and notecards as premiums, which they then sent out after they met their goal. They raised over $22,000 altogether, introduced their products to some new customers, and didn’t have to pay back a loan. How cool is that?

This online tool works really well for small farmers, especially if they get the community involved. I’ve also seen small town theaters create projects to update their projectors to digital. All first-run movies are being sent to theaters in digital format, only, starting next year and small, historic theaters are disproportionately impacted by this. They must make the change or show only old films which are still available on film stock. A Kickstarter may be a viable way to help theaters make this change without going into serious debt.

(See my previous post, An Open Letter to Hollywood, on the difficulty we, in rural communities, have in trying to see a movie. It’s a bad business model when you make it difficult for your customers to give you money, no?)

But I digress. The Geek Girl Con was excellent fun and I would recommend it to any nerdette or nerdette supporter. (Yes, boys are welcome.)

And now, an obligatory and purely gratuitous picture of Chewbacca, who showed up at the con. Enjoy!



Celebrating a New Farmers Market

Today marked the much anticipated opening of the Port Susan Farmers Market, our spot for showcasing the produce, flowers, honey, meats, milk, and nursery plants our local farmers have cultivated. It was well attended, with one booth selling out within the first hour. It’s now possible for me to do a full week’s organic and local grocery shopping in one place, while visiting with my neighbors, friends, and farmers.

Port Susan Farmers Market Opening Ceremony

It took a great deal of work to bring this, (and you’ll excuse the pun), to fruition. Slow Food Port Susan, the city of Stanwood, the Food and Farming Center, and local businesses all pitched in to make this market possible. It would not have happened without Leslie Collins, the market manager. She, along with numerous volunteers, worked diligently to coordinate vendors, find a suitable venue, create and disseminate marketing materials, ensure proper permits, and even paint a huge mural for the market backdrop.

The market’s mural created by the Stanwood-Camano Arts Guild.

The mural signifies, more than almost anything else, that the market is going to be a fixture in our community for more than just this year. I believe that the market is an important step in making our town sustainable and creating that sense of community so crucial to a vibrant, healthy place to live. As the Stanwood-Camano Island area grows in population, it’s important to guide how we want the community to look in the coming years.

Nancy Chase shows off the plants and produce from Shambala Farm.

Of course, I picked up some great food, too. Balanced System Farm had whole, organic, free-range, heirloom chickens for sale. I picked up some beets and beet greens, along with a huge bunch of carrots from Freshly Doug Vegetables. Cat’s Paw Honey had their delightfully hand-painted jars of honey on display, while Old Silvana Creamery sold milk from their Guernsey cows. Shambala Farms displayed not only produce, but many of the plants used in the type of permaculture in which they excel.

Vivian Henderson, with Slow Food Port Susan, had information on the Slow Food Roots Music Festival happening in Stanwood, Aug 25-26.

Another critical aspect of the market is introducing folks to the local farms and the events they are hosting during the rest of the summer. What a fantastic way to bring people who are already interested in fresh, healthy foods out to the farms that produce them? Besides strengthening our community, these farm events teach kids where food comes from. I think that’s fairly important.

Farmers Markets have been welcomed in many towns. Some critics, however, say they cater to only the elite or are insubstantial when it comes to feeding the world and, especially, feeding those who don’t have enough. I think they are missing the point altogether. Farmers Markets help create and invigorate the communities around them and give the poorest among us  access to fresh, local produce at a decent price. (Many low-income food programs include farmers markets.) They bolster not only the incomes of farmers who sell directly to the consumer, they allow farmers to reach customers for their CSAs and other farm programs. Farmers markets become an important lynch pin in the link between town and country, between producer and consumer.

I believe that the Port Susan Farmers Market is a major step in creating the urban-rural connection we need to ensure the sustainability of our town and the health of our people. For those who still doubt that these markets are viable, I just point them to the big farmers market on Pike Street, in Seattle, which has been running for over a century. That usually settles any dispute.