Observations from the Road

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.

Sustainability Fair

This last weekend I attended the Mother Earth News Fair which included all things having to do with sustainability. I found interesting vendors, new ideas, and amazing books. I met Dan Adams who, after discovering that there was no sustainability community online, created one. It is www.earthineer.com and even though it is still in beta, it’s a very active community. I joined.

Seattle Tilth was there sharing information on all the programs they do in King County. They have a Refugee Farming program, through their United People’s Farm Incubator, that I found intriguing. They combine empty urban land with those who have come to Seattle as refugees from other countries. Many have nothing when they get here and farming was all they knew in their former lives. Several farms are now successfully selling at farmer’s markets throughout King County.

So Delicious, one of my favorite companies, was giving away samples of ice cream made with coconut milk. For someone allergic to both milk and soy, this is a great way to beat the heat. I use their coffee creamers constantly.

Other highlights included a lovely yellow Tesla electric sports car, many models of tiny houses, a draft horse logging exhibition, lots of guest speakers including Ed Begley, Jr., thousands of books on sustainability, and good organic food vendors.

If you get the chance to go to this fair, do it! It’s happening in San Rafael, CA and in Pennsylvania, both in September.

The Project, with Details

A few posts ago, I mentioned a thought I was having about exploring the world of rural broadband in the West. That idea has now officially grown legs and is rattling about the house, searching for loose change. It’s time to get crackin’.

The main intention of this project (and it really needs a decent name) is to see how rural broadband is changing the nature of farming, ranching, and small town businesses. Some things to consider are:

  • How is the lack of broadband access holding some communities back?
  • Is there a substantial economic component to having broadband access?
  • Does the nature of farming techniques change with greater connectivity?
  • Is online learning, telecommuting, or social media helping rural economies? 
  • Are small farmers and rural businesses more empowered to influence the political process because of high-speed internet? 
  • Are you able to do more because you are connected? If you aren’t connected, how does that affect you?

In other words, does rural connectivity change the rural experience?

I plan, during the month of June, to travel through the following states: Washington, Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Oregon. While there, I’d like to interview any small farmers, dairy folk, ranchers, rural high-tech companies, local broadband providers, or rural businesses (especially those who cater to any of the above) to find out how they are using, or can’t use, broadband internet access. I want to do two things from those interviews: create a book and start a podcast series.

If you’d like to be interviewed or if you have any suggestions about a good person to interview, please contact me. My email is geek1@geekinthecountry.com. I can also be reached at @ruraltechgeek on Twitter or just leave a comment, with your email address, on this blog post. Suggestions for a good project name are always appreciated.

I look forward to postulating many pithy questions…