“Together in Silence”

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. –Frederick Douglass

A special advertisement appears in this week’s edition of Big Stone County’s newspapers. Signed, “Two Concerned Big Stone County Residents,” the anonymous ad calls upon community members to join one or more sessions of “silent prayer/meditation for healing in our community and ourselves.” (See ad below)

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I do not doubt that these concerned residents have good intentions. I think prayer and meditation can be useful tools for healing and reassessing one’s direction and role in community.

But, in my last few years in the area (handily coinciding, I guess, with the time frame of the community “becoming fragmented”), the biggest problem I’ve seen in Big Stone County is silence. Many long and short-term residents here have related stories to me about being silenced, shut down, shut out and told either directly or indirectly what they should not say and with whom they should not associate.

One can assume that the main “event” referenced in this advertisement is the proposed Strata Quarry project. Township, county, and regional residents raised their voices, held public meetings and listening sessions, and took to their keyboards to try to raise awareness of their struggle to save the outcrops, the quality of life along the Upper Minnesota River, their health and safety, and their community sovereignty.

But now that the city has annexed a portion of the township and unanimously passed a conditional use permit for Strata to begin quarrying there, we who have fought long and hard for justice, and even to be heard, should be silent? Get over it? Accept our fate and make Minnesota nice with the people and corporations who have been deaf to our testimony?

The message of the ad, that “we need each other,” is true. But the message coming from the county and city governments was ever that we “needed” Strata more than we needed those community members whose quality of life and, in some cases, livelihoods would be diminished or destroyed by allowing the quarry project to go forward.

We do all play a vital part in our community. But too often in Big Stone County, it seems that while all residents are equal, some residents are more equal than others. And those more-equal residents have too long held the power to determine the public face, reputation, and future of this county while silencing, vilifying, or ridiculing the voices of the less-equal.

How’s that going for us? At the city’s Strata quarry CUP hearing, I was the recipient of a lecture from one of the commissioners about “people who are not from here” failing to understand that “all we have is our rock.”

I was being schooled that, with our declining, aging, and impoverished population out here on Minnesota’s west coast, we are darned lucky that we have a corporation willing to come in and pay us a pittance to take…well, all we have. I mean, thank goodness they decided to come here when everyone knows how easy it is to push through industrial development in South Dakota! And here are these agitators making so much noise and trouble that could scare them away!

Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce director gets on the local radio station, pleading with business owners and local folks to be nicer to those who’ve come to live among us during the retrofit of the coal plant across the lake.  It seems a few were actually leaving due to the treatment they received here. No wonder the old joke about Ortonville “eating its young” keeps resurfacing.

Of course, they don’t eat their young, and there are lots of friendly and helpful people in Ortonville and throughout our fair county. And the question about where all the young people go is easily answered by, “we send them off to college.”

So, how come we haven’t lost ALL our population by now? Well, a few natives do return to the area, but the studies about who moves to western Minnesota clearly indicate that it’s people looking for great quality of life, opportunities to be involved in their community, and people who appreciate the rural and small town atmosphere.

The reason that people move to western Minnesota isn’t because they were hoping to get to that glorious land to our west–the place of unfettered industrial development and low taxes–but their wagon broke down on the way. The vast majority of people who move here (and people who continue to live here) are here because they WANT to live in rural western Minnesota.

And they’re not blind. In fact, with an outsider’s perspective, they can often see much more clearly what makes Big Stone County an incredibly special place–our waters and wildlife and prairies and, yes, our rocks and our people. In many cases, these outsiders (as well as many local folks) have a vision of community and economic development that sustains rather than undermines those priceless resources. But that vision lacks vocal champions in local government and economic development.

So, back to the advertisement’s call for silent prayer and meditation. If you are so moved, what would you pray for?

While I tend to subscribe to Mary Harris’ directive to, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living,” I’d meditate on the same things I work for: A voice for the voiceless. Justice for the people of Ortonville Township. Individuals with vision, compassion, and courage to run for public office. Real public dialogue. Preservation and appreciation of our beautiful lands and waters. Community spirit that is about cooperation rather than control.

But, I will also demand them out loud, and I will do so because, as the ad indicates, we need to move forward in a way that is productive and healthy for everyone.

And we have been silent about what way that is for too long.

The Empty Table

Last week, I set up at the farmers market–not with vegetables, but with information and petitions on the Food Safety Enhancement Act.  I think it was disappointing to some of my regular customers that my table held books, papers, and a clipboard rather than veggies.

I can understand that.

Truth is, I don’t have a lot ready in the gardens right now–I planted heavily for the early spring, so that I’d have lots of greens and spring veggies for the first few weeks of the market, when the bigger truck farmers are generally just starting to do their heavy planting.

My spring harvest tapered off right about the time that the other farmers started bringing their produce in–pretty decent timing, though I am constantly encouraging others to plant “early and often,” so I’m not the only one with produce during the first few weeks.

Too, in keeping with my research and development goals this year, I planted some of my summer crops–beans, cucumbers, melons, squash–a little later than usual, so I could avoid the plague of cuke beetles and squash bugs that can really take over and destroy crops if the pests find the crops when they (or the crop) first emerge.

That has worked really well so far.  Coupling a later planting with moving the main squash and melon patch to a completely different area of the farm has drastically reduced the pest problem–I’ve only seen (and squished) three squash bugs and two of their egg clusters so far, and I haven’t seen a single cucumber beetle (or potato bug) so far.

I had to put the cucumbers in one of the main garden areas though–there just isn’t enough room yet on the far hill for all the cucurbits–but I planted them late, and under the row cover I’d had on the spring cabbage, and left the cabbage stumps there to rot.  I finally uncovered that row yesterday and set up some supports for the cukes–they’re doing great!

The beans I planted earliest of all were the shell/drying beans.  I’m really not sure how many of those I’ll sell–the point of that crop is to fill my own pantry with good organically grown dried beans–and to see if a couple of 45′ trellises will produce an adequate crop to do so.

The heirloom snap beans just got in a couple of weeks ago and are growing fast–but there’s not quite so much space devoted to those this year–most of them will go in the freezer after being roasted together with summer squash and sage.

I’d also like to reserve a fair number of sweet peppers on the plants this year to get them red and ripe before roasting and pickling strips of them in jars–I can’t get enough of those for sandwiches and salads, and at $4-5 a jar in the store, I think I can do it better and cheaper.

Tomatoes will go in the canner and freezer as usual–as many as I preserve, there’s never enough of them to last until the next year’s crop. What broccoli side-shoots I can get (after the plants developed hollow stems from the heavy rainfall and started rotting away) will also find their way to the freezer.

Does it sound like I’m being stingy with my harvest?  Does it seem like I ought to be bringing more to the market instead of squirreling it away in my own pantry?

Let me bring this post back full circle, then, to what I had on my table at the market last week: petitions calling for small/local producer exceptions in the Food Safety Enhancement Act and information about the Farm Beginnings sustainable farmer-training program starting this fall.

Then let me refer back to what I’ve been blogging about in the past couple of weeks: Monsanto, SDSU, and GMO wheat; farmland speculation by foreign countries and big investors; and again, the food safety legislation.

I spend a lot of my time doing research–thinking, learning, and writing about local food, small producer, and food security issues.  While there is a lot of positive and exciting news in those areas, there is also a lot of troubling news.

Without sounding too much like a “Repent-the-End-is-Near” nutjob, let me just say that I think more people and more small communities at the end of the supply lines should be more concerned about how (and how well) they are going to eat in the coming hard times.

Yes, I do think they are coming, and on a global scale.  You can point at a stock market rally to say things are getting better, but as far as I can see, those rallies tend to mean that someone cut a deal that made some rich people richer by costing other people their jobs, their livelihoods, their food supply, their lives.

No one likes to talk about doom and gloom stuff (OK, some people do), but we in South Dakota are living in a food desert at the end of a very long and complex supply network.  Even if, at the worst, food continues to come through that supply chain, it could get impossibly expensive.

And here we are, sitting on top of some of the most gorgeous farmland in the world, and we’re shipping off the bounty of that land to the ethanol plant, the corn syrup and partially-hydrogenated soy oil manufacturer.

I don’t have anything against the people who work the land growing corn and soy for a living, but I think we as individuals and as a community ought to seriously consider carving out some of that land to ensure a steady and adequate food supply (planting early and often), as well as a facility or two for the processing and storage of that food.

So, that’s pretty much what I do in my spare time–what I’m doing when I’m not teaching classes or puttering about in my own humble gardens.  I’m trying to encourage others to take up a fork and a spade, and fighting against those who would regulate or restrict  that fork and spade in the name of land speculation or food “safety” or a swanky new development.

But I know having a table full of petitions isn’t as fun as having a table full of shiny young summer squashes, glossy peppers, and bazillions of tender beans.

The most fun I had at last week’s market was this: I got some of those tender yellow beans from another vendor.  And I got a cherry pie, two sacks of new red potatoes, a bag of the best homemade laundry detergent ever, and some tiny little white onions because all I’m growing are yellow and red ones.

Then I went home and made a big salad of those beans and potatoes and onions, roasted in the oven, plus cherry pie for dessert. And then (with my mouth occasionally full of my dinner), I got on a hour-long conference call with other activists and organizers from five western states.

The call was a Western Organization of Resource Councils meeting about how we will approach our legislators with the best Food Safety Act amendments so that the beans and potatoes and onions–and yeah–the cherry pie, too–will not only still be there in the coming years, but hopefully there’ll be more for everyone.

So, without being too righteous about it (after all, I really don’t have that much ready in the gardens right now)–let me say that the empty table is a sort of subtle reminder about what can happen without people working behind the scenes for the rights and freedoms of small farmers and those who want a fresh, secure, and sustainable local food supply.

See you at the market!

Dirty Crude. Dirty Pool?

Anti-Hyperion activists came out in force this afternoon and evening for the Hyperion air quality permit public comment period with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Board of Minerals and Environment.*

Despite the better than three to one testimony against granting of the air quality permit–especially without an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)–the general feeling was that the decision is already made–the permit’s in the bag for Hyperion.

Why?  Well, as political appointees of the pro-Hyperion regime in the state government (I’m lookin’ at YOU, M. Mike Rounds), the BM&E seems likely to be in favor of pushing the thing through even in the face of all the public outcry against it.

After all, they’ve already let Hyperion skirt the EIS, which is incredibly obviously called for in this situation if in NO other.  As one testifier commented, if an Environmental Impact Statement isn’t required for a ten BILLION dollar oil refinery and accompanying coal-fired power plant, then what exactly would it be required for?

And then there’s the matter of dinner: one woman testified that she witnessed the BM&E having dinner at Whimp’s in Burbank TONIGHT–on the night of the public comment–with Hyperion officials!  The BM&E did not deny the charge–the chair simply stated that, “it’s a good place to eat.”

Well, as an occasional Whimp’s diner myself, I can certainly attest that it’s a decent place to eat.  In fact it’s the very first place my dad and I ate in the Vermillion area when I was considering my move here back in 1993–recommended by my USD admissions counselor.

But is it a decent and appropriate maneuver for the supposedly neutral government body in charge of granting or denying the permit–the body in charge of protecting South Dakota citizens and the environment in which they live–to be dining with the party whose permit is in question?

I would like to hear the BM&E either deny the charge or own up to it and explain how exactly they expect to be perceived as neutral if they did, in fact, sup with Hyperion.

Let’s hear it BM&E.  Don’t worry about posting your comments here, though.  I’ll be sure to ask you about it tomorrow.

*The public comment period continues starting at 9 a.m. tomorrow (Thursday, April 16) at the Elk Point-Jefferson High School gym.