September 22, 2008

Squashfest 2008

The ring of fire - it was the song we all sang together with Simone Perrin’s beautiful voice and accordion playing to bring the Squashfest week to a close around the campfire. Although the week had nothing to do with burning in hell, this Johnny Cash number serves as the perfect anthem to describe the week-long event.

Planning for this event happened as the squash fields were still full blossom, being hand-weeded by Featherstone workers. Everything from lighting for the port-o-pots to prizes to field snacks were planned well in advance. For a farm to plan an event like this, in the thick of tomatoes and carrots and melons, is a feat in itself. We hadn’t anticipated it to be such a success.

The volunteers proved their squash-picking abilities the morning they started. Filling multiple wooden bins wasn’t their only achievement as they were able to hold conversations with each other in the fields, which was the start to the many connections made throughout the week. The range of volunteers spread from a Russian immigrant, recent college graduates, a professional food photographer, a cafe waiter - they were as diverse as the very squash we were picking. Conversation ranged from theories explaining current poverty, to the Chicago Cubs. That’s what I love about fieldwork. The redundancy of the work allows for really good conversation, especially in the basil patches.

While picking squash, your hands get really dirty. So dirty that the dirt literally stays on your hands for days after. This is because of a liquid the squash emits, that helps protect it, but also makes the dirt that much more adhesive. This ‘stickiness’ was very appropriate for the event – because it’s about bringing and bonding things together – people with each other, people and their food, producers and consumers, producers and chefs, chefs and consumers. As the week progressed, more and more connections were made.

The look on their faces after we finished our first patch reminded me of little kids bringing their gold-star report cards home - sheer pride from a job well-done. Soon the Gascas (a group of brothers from Mexico that work on the farm) were on their way with the tractor to collect the squash that we clipped for them to put in bins. Seeing the volunteers watch and help the Gascas- that moment, right there, was a major reason Squashfest was created – to allow people to see integrated labor, to see how necessary teamwork is for food production, and to understand that although vegetables may be light on the stomach, they’re not always light on the arms. For people to be able to hold in their very hands squash still on the vine, in which they were going to be eating for supper - redefined one’s sense of ‘local food.’

Delicious warm lunch was never far away, via the hands of a few cherished mothers – meals are, by default, always better when there is a mother present in the preparation. And those field snacks I mentioned earlier, could have served as a pretty satisfying lunch in themselves. Lunchtime was a highlight of the day as the volunteers shared their insights as to the day’s work.

Every evening we had a social hour, a meal, and a discussion lead by different community members - all surrounding food issues. On Tuesday evening Lafayette Montgomery, a chef instructor from Minneapolis was scheduled to cook for us and lead a discussion about his passion for food. The volunteers were able to experience a real labor of love as he started to prepare that evening’s meal as soon as the breakfast dishes were done, using nearly 4 lbs of butter throughout the day. The butter in our bodies wasn’t the only thing that stuck around; Lafayette decided to help out for two more days, picking squash, baking us lovely scones for breakfast, and couldn’t resist taking a spontaneous field trip to a local free range pig farm. The evening discussion around the bonfire lasted until nearly 11:00pm. This, also, was a culmination of what the event was about- to bring people (homesteaders, college students, chefs, photographers, farmers) together to discuss one thing, food -its production, its consumption, its presentation, its standards. Passion was contagious as one person’s comments would bring up ideas for another. That night most memorably wrapped up back at the kitchen, all having a midnight snack on lemon pound cake - with our farm’s raspberries.

Picking squash was not the extent of produce the volunteers got their hands on. They bagged potatoes, beans, and peppers for the CSA pack-out also. Learning how a farm sells to non-wholesale buyers, rather to individuals, broadened their understanding of the farm and rounded out their farm experience. From clipping it, to harvesting it, to washing it, to boxing it, to see the truck ship it. Local food unfolded in front of their eyes.

The volunteers experienced a real taste of farming when they learned our farm didn’t get the yield of squash that we had anticipated, due to a number of external factors. They saw upfront the devastation on the farmworkers’ faces. Farming in its completeness - a series of highs and lows, ups and downs, successes and failures – gave them an understanding of the risks farmers take. It sounded as though they left with a clearer picture about the difficulty with growing produce organically, and why it costs more as it’s more labor intensive and management intensive. The value of organic produce goes beyond its physical qualities, but also the care and attention its growth process has received.

The ring of fire - a community of Minnesotans whose desires and passion to support local farms burns strong. Intensely enough for them to spend a week with sweaty brows and dirty hands, laughing, lifting, eating, learning in a place they’d never stepped foot on. This event hasn’t only sustained the fire, but it’s sure to spread in places we’ll never know.