Keynote Address Cynthia Thayer

Winter 2006-2007
In her keynote speech at the 2006 Common Ground Country Fair, Cynthia Thayer talked about the delicious foods produced locally – mostly on her farm – that make up family meals at Darthia Farm in Gouldsboro. English photo.

Another Way to Eat

For 28 years, the highly diversified Darthia Farm in Gouldsboro has been MOFGA-certified, and during that time owners Bill and Cynthia Thayer have trained dozens of MOFGA apprentices. The Thayers are well-known figures at the Common Ground Country Fair, as well, where Bill gives horse-drawn wagon rides and Cynthia spends the weekend with the Wednesday Spinners, demonstrating her skill at spinning, dyeing and other fiber arts. Curl up with a good novel, and it might be one Cynthia wrote – such as Strong for Potatoes. Check MOFGA’s history, and you’ll find Cynthia listed as a former board member. On Sept. 22, 2006, Cynthia gave this farmer-keynote speech at the Common Ground Country Fair.

My husband, Bill, and I, and our children moved from Massachusetts in 1976 to an abandoned farm, which we named Darthia Farm, located in the coastal village of Gouldsboro, way Down East. No one had farmed the place since the ‘40s, and all the land was overgrown with poplar, alder and raspberry bushes. Since we began, our children have grown, we now have grandchildren, much of the land has been cleared, we have a successful farm store and mail order business, we’ve bought a woodlot, and we’ve had around 200 apprentices who have worked and learned with us over the years.

One of the first things we did when we moved was to join MOFGA, which, at the time, was a small organization working with a few of us so-called “Hippie Farmers,” and putting on a wonderful little fair in Litchfield with animals and vegetables and lots of singing and dancing.

And we went to Hancock County MOFGA potlucks, listened to the farmers who had been doing it longer than we had. We signed up with the apprentice program, which we ran for a number of years, and I belonged to the MOFGA board.

One of the major areas of concern when we moved is that we wanted to eat bioregionally, or eat what grows around us. For many years we bought almost nothing. We made our own soap, milked goats and cows for milk, yogurt, cheese and butter, did all our work with small ponies. Over the years, we’ve expanded and evolved. We now have a team of Haflingers and a team of Fjords. We have a couple of tractors for haying. Some of our grandchildren are going to high school. We’ve brought in a gardens manager, Sonja Heyck-Merlin, one of the best farmers I’ve ever seen, who is improving soil health and production. And we’re growing older every minute. But we’re still concerned about the land and the food we grow, sell and eat.

The Disconnected

Have we lost connection with our food? Sadly, consumers, overall, are disconnected from one of the most important components for their own health and happiness – the food they eat. We have been brainwashed by big business when we walk into a supermarket to expect and demand any kind of food, from anywhere, any time of year. We want tomatoes in January, lettuce in February, potatoes in May, apples in early July, kiwis any time, and we don’t much care what they taste like.

Wendell Berry said in his “The Pleasures of Eating,” “the passive American consumer, sitting down to a meal of pre-prepared or fast food, confronts a platter covered  with inert, anonymous substances that have been processed, dyed, breaded, sauced, gravied, ground, pulped, strained, blended, prettified, and sanitized beyond resemblance to any part of any creature that ever lived.”

Many people in our country don’t know carrots, beets, potatoes, turnip all grow underground. Some shoppers think that the small, finger-sized carrots found in every store’s vegetable aisle are really baby carrots. You know the ones I’m talking about.

We often give farm tours at Darthia Farm and, as they say, “Kids say the darndest things.” Yet, from the mouths of babes come truths.  One six-year-old yelled for his mother to come to a garden he was checking out. “Quick, mom, come quick.” When the mother arrived at the edge of the garden, out of breath because of the urgency in her child’s voice, the boy said, “Mom. You won’t believe it. Look.” He pulled a radish out of the soil, held it up like a trophy and said, “and you can even eat it!”

Another time we were giving a milking demonstration using our Jersey cow. Before we started, when the children were gathering around the cow, one little girl pointed at the cow’s udder and said, “What’s that?”

“Hush,” said the other little girl, “that’s private parts.”

They were horrified when they realized that the milk they drank every day in school came from such a “disgusting place.”

In the first episode of his new series, Jamie Oliver, the renowned “naked Chef,” showed primary school students a bunch of celery and asked them what it was. Not a single child knew. But they ALL recognized the logos of McDonalds, Burger King and Domino’s Pizza.

It’s possible that if this trend continues, in another generation, most children will believe that all their food comes from the supermarket, manufactured in some mysterious back room. And perhaps they’ll be right.

Savoring Seasons

Until the last few decades, we all ate food in season. As a child growing up in Nova Scotia, we ate mainly potatoes, cabbage, carrots and turnips from November until May just because those were the vegetables that were for sale in the store. Occasionally there might be vegetables imported from down south, but mostly we ate with the seasons. We had oranges in our Christmas stockings and occasionally had bananas.

Now, I am pretty old, but I’m not ancient. That was only 55 or so years ago. We knew that with each change of season, we would also have a change of diet. That’s what’s supposed to happen when we live in New England or Nova Scotia or anywhere else on earth. But today, most people have no idea what food is locally in season. We have customers who come to our farm store (and they are more food-educated than the majority of Americans) and ask for corn in June and rhubarb in October. Of course, we have many customers who can’t believe we don’t have tomatoes in May.

Since we moved to Maine in 1976, we’ve tried to eat only meat, vegetables, fruits, and for most of that 30 years, dairy, that we grew ourselves. That means that we don’t have lettuce in January or potatoes in May unless we don’t mind shriveled up tubers covered with very long eyes. It means that we don’t eat oranges or bananas often, but we enjoy the sweetest strawberries in the world come June and the tenderest leeks anyone ever ate, in October. We’re not purists. We eat imported food when we go out to dinner. I buy lettuce and pomegranates for Christmas Eve supper. But generally, we eat with the seasons. And we love it.

I remember the taste of a peach from our tree, picked in August. Would a peach from the supermarket in April taste as delicious? I think not. I realize the anticipation is part of it. But the taste is definitely different. The first tomato that ripens the beginning of August is eaten out of hand, before I can even get back to the house. Has anyone ever eaten a supermarket tomato on the way home from the store? Maybe. But I never heard of anyone doing that.

A few years ago, I had a hankering for a peach. I think it was just after Christmas. I bought one at the local Hannaford and took a big bite as soon as I got in the car, remembering how our peaches taste. Luckily, I had a trash bag on the floor, because that’s where that peach ended up. It tasted like absolutely nothing and felt like straw in my mouth. Is that what most consumers in this country think a peach is?

A Feast for Friends and Family

I love to cook and consider myself one of the best cooks I know. The reason I say that is not to brag but to make sure you understand that I don’t just carve a chunk of cabbage off a head and eat that for supper. I appreciate good food and ethnic cooking and have very definite ideas on what a meal should be.

Pretend it’s the middle of winter.  It’s snowing outside and we have some friends expected for dinner.  What to have?  To start, some sourdough bread that I made the day before, slathered with hot pepper jelly from last summer’s peppers, tomatillo salsa, canned last August.  And then, squash soup made from one of our ‘Red Kuris,’ seasoned with dill or coriander – a result of our cilantro plants gone to seed.  And for the main course?   Perhaps a rib roast of beef from our two-year-old Angus, roasted with potatoes, turnips, onions and carrots – all from our root cellar.  And salad?  Sure.  Cabbage grated with some onion, seasoned with dried caraway seed and our herb infused vinegar.  And some dilly beans and pickled beets.  And dessert?  Not really necessary but really yummy on a freezing cold day.  Blueberry pie made with blueberries that we raked last summer and crust made from lard that we rendered from our pigs in October, topped with yogurt made from milk bought at a local diary farm.

Sure, we might serve a bottle of blueberry wine from the winery down the street. But almost everything is from the farm.

Our children don’t always eat with the seasons but they know, from years of listening to us, what grows here and when it’s ready to eat. They, at least, can make choices.  Most people don’t make choices based on their knowledge of growing food. Their choices are based only on what they feel like eating at the moment. When they buy raspberries in November, do they realize that the little box of berries has been shipped thousands of miles from Mexico and is coated in dangerous chemical pesticides that are even outlawed in our country? Probably not.

Food, Fuel and Miles

Chad Heeter in his “My Saudi Arabian Breakfast” [] tells us about the breakdown of fossil fuel used in the production of our food.  Twenty percent is consumed on the farm, 40% burned up in processing, packaging and shipping, and another 40% used to store and prepare food.  We at Darthia farm use horse power for some of our garden needs, and our crew is faithful about using people power with hand tools. We obviously don’t ship our own food to ourselves; we do, however, use a small percentage for processing and packaging, and do use a bunch for preparation of our food and running our freezers. However, since our cook stove burns all winter to keep us warm, we usually use it for cooking, too. My guess is that we probably use half the fossil fuel that most [U.S.] consumers do. We’d like to lower that percentage and talk about what we could do to accomplish that goal.

Here are some shocking statistics. The grapes you buy in midwinter most likely have traveled over 6,000 miles from a vineyard in Chile to a grocer in Bangor or Portland or Lewiston. A bag of organic salad greens for Easter dinner was probably trucked thousands of miles from California or Mexico. A tomato to go with that salad sat in a truck for over a week, traveled thousands of miles, and then sat on the grocer’s shelves for another week before making it to your table.

A typical fresh food item in a North American household travels between 1,500 to 2,500 miles to your table. Our food travels 25% farther than two decades ago and 70% farther than when I was a kid.

I did some research on Earthbound Farm, the country’s largest grower of organic produce, and found out that much of their produce is grown in Mexico.  Tanimura and Antle, which own one-third of Earthbound Farm, recently settled for $1,855,000 in court to pay Latina farmworkers for alleged sexual harassment and abuse suffered while they were working.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in the local supermarket and took note of the contents of some of my fellow shoppers’ baskets. One woman had three bags of organic greens from California – before the E. coli scare. Another woman bought a package of imported hydroponic tomatoes from Mexico. A man with a couple of kids bought a bag of those fabricated carrots. And this was in September, when lettuce grows beautifully here in Down East Maine and tomatoes are ripening by the bushel. And what about the woman who buys cans and cans of green beans when we are picking fresh ones by the bushel?  Why weren’t they going to the farmers’ market?  Or to our farm stand?   Do we think we are doing a good thing for the environment when we buy a bag of organic greens that have been shipped thousands of miles to our local grocer?  Why do consumers buy ‘Red Delicious’ apples from Washington state in October or a ‘Granny Smith’ shipped all the way from New Zealand when our small-scale apple growers are selling apples just off the tree a half-mile away? These aren’t hypothetical questions. I really don’t know what the answer is.  Is it ignorance?  Or laziness?

Leaving taste for a moment, let’s look at nutrition. The Journal of Food Science says that “bagged spinach loses about half its folate and carotenoids after being stored in refrigeration for just four days.”  Each day a vegetable sits in a truck, it loses not only flavor but also vitamins.

Big Bucks Organic

Economics is another consideration when buying food out of season.  The average American farmer receives about 20 cents of every dollar spent on food.  But when customers buy directly from the farm, the farmer gets the whole dollar.  When we started farming over 30 years ago, the organic movement was young, small, a so-called “Hippie movement.”  We were all in the movement because we wanted to have healthful food and help the environment.  Now there’s money in it.  It’s the fastest growing agricultural commodity in this country.  Brian Leahy, executive director of California Certified Organic Farmers in Santa Cruz, says, “Now, for a company to have a full-service line, it has to have an organic component.”  Should it make us feel good to buy organic food? Logic tells us that it should.  Better for the environment.  Healthier.  But is it?

Listen to a few of these facts.

•    General Mills owns Cascadian Farm and Muir Glen – both part of Small Planet Foods.

•    Heinz owns Arrowhead Mills, Celestial Seasonings, Walnut Acres, Little Bear.

•    M&M/Mars owns Seeds of Change.

•    Coca-Cola owns Odwalla.

•    Philip Morris/Kraft owns Back to Nature.

•    Dean owns Horizon and the Organic Cow of Vermont.

•    And Tanimura and Antle own one-third of [Natural Selection Foods], which farms 29,000 acres in California, Mexico and Arizona, processes 30 million salad servings a week, and operates 30 different brand labels [including Earthbound Farm] under its umbrella.

Samuel Fromartz, a business reporter with The New York Times, says, “They have stolen the organic salad market from smaller farmers, over-producing and dropping the price until these competitors were driven out.”

In California, where growing conditions are ideal almost all year round, there are huge organic farms sitting in the middle of acres of chemical farms, producing just one variety of carrot or vast fields of Romaine lettuce that are eventually shipped thousands of miles cross-country in sealed plastic bags. These farms are not only taking over farmlands, they’re taking over the organic market’s profits, relying on subsidized water and heavy uses of fossil fuels.  Instead of using crop rotation and compost, they’re pouring bottles and bags of prefab organic fertilizers onto their crops.

Usually, I buy local Maine milk from local Maine producers instead of buying organic milk shipped from the Midwest, owned by huge conglomerates, who are in it purely for the money. And if I bought vegetables, I’d have to really consider whether I’d buy local non-organic or shipped-from-California organic, if those were my only two choices. Is ORGANIC better if it has to be shipped thousands of miles to your table?

Of course, the best of all is when you can buy organic local food, which is abundant in the state of Maine. Which brings me to the issue of school lunches.

Better School Lunches

Ironically, the first National School Lunch Program in the United States started after World War II to improve the nutritional status of America’s children as future soldiers.  It has morphed into a monster.  In its short life, it has changed from a plan to provide healthful food to our children to something that causes obesity, aggression, learning disabilities, antisocial behavior and adult-onset diabetes in children.

Here’s a sample of a lunch menu for the first week of school in a primary school in Maine that I found on the Internet, and, I might add, is very typical.  Monday – chicken nuggets, rice and corn, with chocolate cake for dessert. Tuesday – pizza and potato puffs and sweetened pineapple bits.  Wednesday – macaroni and cheese and baby carrots (really?) along with sweetened fruit cocktail.  Thursday – hot dog on a bun, French fries, sugar cookie.  Friday – fish sticks, french fries, Jell-O and Carnival cookies.  All served with milk or flavored milk.

And for breakfast.  Monday – granola bar.  Tuesday – cereal snack crackers. Wednesday – Pop-Tarts.   Thursday – cinnamon toast.   Friday – super bun.

I have NOT edited or added to these menus. They are real and typical.

Can someone tell me what a chicken nugget is? I don’t think it’s really a nugget of chicken. And what’s a super bun? It’s no wonder we are raising a generation of kids who are fat, diabetic and ignorant of what real food is. Why does our government think that it’s good to serve our kids a diet full of empty carbohydrates and full of fat and sugar?  Why do our schools go along with it when they can see that the bad diet disrupts learning?

How about this scenario. Sound better?  Monday – kale and onion soup, whole wheat roll, apple.  Tuesday – baby carrots – real ones – and broccoli sticks, sliced turkey, dish of blueberries.  Wednesday – potato leek soup, fresh garden salad, pumpkin biscuit.  Thursday  – chili, cornbread, strawberry ice cream.  Friday – broiled fish, beans, blueberry custard.

All of the above meals can be made from locally grown foods.  And the cost? Perhaps a little more.

But wait.

Cut out the dessert. That’s not necessary. And how about water – fresh, cool, Maine water, instead of calorie ridden milk – most flavored with imitation chocolate and sugar. My granddaughter had to have written permission from her parents to drink water instead of milk at school for lunch. What kind of thinking is this?

Five Delicious Solutions

Well, we have problems. Now what do we do about them? I have some suggestions and some examples.

1. Buy from a farmer.  There are lots of farmers in our state.  There’s probably one on your road or in your town.   How many of you out there are farmers?

You can join a CSA or spend the day at a pick-your-own.  In July you can buy beans by the bushel.  Freeze them.  Dry them.  Can them.  Make dilly beans.  In October, buy squash and pumpkin for the winter and put them in a spare bedroom.  They’ll keep for months.  Buy half a steer or a pig for the freezer. Make sauerkraut.

2. Grow your own. Turn a part of your lawn into tomatoes or peas.  Plant lettuce in your flower garden.  It’s pretty.  Comes in many colors and textures.  Connect with a community garden.

3. Forage. Pick berries from the woods – blackberries, raspberries, strawberries. Learn to identify mushrooms.  Harvest mussels or clams.  Ask a lobsterperson if you can buy crabs.

4. Eat local.  Try one meal a week.  See if you can eat a whole meal made from locally grown food.  It’s not hard.  Buy a local chicken.  Stuff it with basil.  Simmer it in broth and make a sauce with the chopped basil and some cream from a local dairy.  Pour the sauce over carrots, zucchini, onions, peas, or whatever veggies your local farmer is selling.  Make pizza with flour grown in Maine.  Cover the crust with pesto and fresh tomatoes from the farm down the road, add onions, broccoli, kale, fresh herbs on top.

5. Go to school.  Lobby for serving locally grown food to our children.  Offer to help with a school garden.  Or offer to help get one started.

I’m going to tell you about something that is working and making a huge difference.  It sounds like a dream.  Alice Waters’ dream.  Alice Waters is the proprietor of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, one of the best restaurants in the country and certainly one of the most famous.  She has always stressed the importance of fresh, seasonal, local foods from sustainable sources.  She had a dream that this same philosophy would work in the public school system.  At the Martin Luther King, Jr., Middle School a few blocks from Chez Panisse, Waters, along with a hundred volunteers, transformed an acre of asphalt into a fertile garden growing asparagus, artichokes, kale, pumpkins.  Working with the school, she established some new rules.  Students received academic credit for eating the nutritious lunch.  They were also expected to weed the garden, harvest the crops, gather eggs, clean the kitchen and cook meals for themselves and their fellow students.

Waters is trying to educate these kids at Martin Luther King, Jr., Middle School. She calls it the “delicious revolution.”  Her Edible Schoolyard overflows with kale, cucumber, pumpkin, and all food prep is done with hand tools.  The children are taught to sit down without TV for their meals, to pick a vasefull of flowers for the table, to try new foods like yellow beets and Jerusalem Artichokes.

Now, 10,000 children in Berkeley, California, have deliciously prepared, farm-fresh food served to them every day.  And Waters now has the backing of that Californian Governor from the “other” party to spread the idea throughout the entire state.

A resident at Chicago’s Interfaith House for the homeless, upon hearing the source of vegetables, commented, “You mean, all this time I have been hungry and sometimes have had to go without food, and now I find out that food grows in the ground?”

Jane Goodall asked a large group of 8- to 10-year-olds what they knew about potatoes, and only one knew that they grew in the ground.

Sometimes when I hear on the radio that we are the greatest country in the world, I consider our policy on Peace, our health care system and our school lunch program.  In Japan, the children are fed a bowl of rice, fish, soup with veggies and tofu at lunch.  In Finland they may receive ham and potato casserole or barley porridge.  Italian kids eat seasonal fruits, vegetables and whole foods throughout their 45-minute lunch period. Fresh flowers grace the tables.  In France the children eat meat or fish with vegetables, a slice of local artisan cheese, a piece of fruit.  All these kids are eating local food.  What could be more simple than eating the food that grows near you?

I’m certainly not perfect.  I’ll probably have a cup of that lemonade from the lemonade stand.  Sometimes I buy a peppermint pattie from the general store.  I still haven’t worked on the school lunch problem, but thinking about this talk made me realize that I must do that.  There is a growing Farm to School movement, which is gaining momentum, and I intend to join it. And we occasionally order something in a restaurant that isn’t grown here, and certainly eat at friends’ houses whatever we are served.  But we try.  We avoid citrus foods.  We avoid foods grown in South or Central America.  But a few weeks ago I bought an avocado.  It was delicious, I admit.

But we can make a difference.  If everyone here pledged to eat a locally grown meal once a week for a year, imagine the results!  Farmers would sell more food. Children would see the possibilities.  We’d feel a sense of satisfaction that we could make a difference.  Food would take on a whole new meaning.  We can all participate in the solution.  And won’t those tomatoes taste fabulous when the first ones ripen next August.

How about it? Who can pledge to eat one locally grown meal a week?

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