When I was three, my family and I flew a Cessna 172 from Anchorage to Florida, stopping to visit every relative we knew. When I was twelve, sitting in the back seat of the car, heading over the mountains, while teasing my sister, was a standard recipe for summer. When I was 17, I went on a road trip from Tacoma to Kansas City and back. I’ve driven all around the South from coastal towns to the Mississippi delta to deep Appalachian hollas. I’ve driven the West Coast north to south and back again so many times, I’ve lost count. Road-tripping is in my blood. I’ve crossed the continent and been to every state in the union, save one. I’ve even been to most of the Canadian provinces.
Right now, I’m traveling through the group of four northwestern states, Washington, Montana, Idaho, and Oregon. I’m finding the landscape little changed, but the circumstances under which people are living has changed. Here are some observations:
- I’m seeing clean, well-kept trailer parks with community food gardens planted in the common areas.
- Church grounds now have food gardens in them, growing crops for parishioners and food banks.
- Clean, well-kept towns, are welcoming visitors with open arms, desperate for tourist dollars.
- Locals are supporting local businesses and farms, farmers markets, and CSAs as much as they possibly can.
What I’m not seeing are places to buy and eat the regional crops I so loved as a child. We would all pile into our car and cross the Cascades in search of locally grown apples, cherries, pears, and other tree fruit. Local restaurants would serve them in endless varieties of recipes, coaxing tourists from all over the state to visit. Then, in the 70’s, we noticed that Golden Delicious apples weren’t quite so delicious, and the smaller farms were being bought up by bigger conglomerates. Local fruit was exported. We found it at our grocery stores, no longer as fresh as it was. We stopped heading east for fruit. We stopped visiting entirely.
As I’m traveling through these western states, in the summer of 2011, I’m eating at diners that serve what every restaurant serves, namely food service fare. I don’t see any regional produce, with some exceptions at farmers markets. To find local producers, you really have to search. Small farms dried up out here and are only slowly coming back with organic, bio-diverse, and sustainable farming techniques. It’s only a trickle, though.
One other trend that’s interesting is the growth of Amish communities in the West. They have been buying up the small farms that faltered and making them work in quite a successful way. (There’s a community north of Eureka in Montana.) They will never be rich: they don’t really want to be. But they can feed, house, and cloth themselves with a little to spare for selling. Because of their community-based, sustainable way of farming, their farms are working.