Farm update: February 4

The first time we walked into our old house, the one we sold last year, we fell hard for the woodburning stove and the built-in bookshelves. We don’t have a woodburning stove here at Quiet Farm – hell, we don’t even have a furnace – but we have the opportunity to make our own custom built-in bookshelves. And so we did.

Here’s how this project went in my head:

  1. Look at gorgeous photos of floating bookshelves on design blogs.
  2. Buy authentic vintage distressed barnwood and artistic handmade wrought-iron brackets.
  3. Attach aforementioned barnwood and hardware to wall.
  4. Fill with carefully curated books, black-and-white photos and trendy succulents.
  5. Admire. Photograph. Repeat. Earn generous sponsorship from major power tool companies. Probably succulent companies too. Quit farming to run profitable design blog. Live happily ever after.

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Our library, pre-shelving. Don’t judge the brassy ceiling fan; it will be replaced eventually.

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Enough

Back in the Ye Olden Days, N and I worked on boats. One of these boats – the one we met on – was a scuba diving liveaboard that plied the waters between St. Maarten and St. Kitts, in the Netherlands Antilles. Much of our history together, along with thousands of other people, was erased earlier this year with the landfall of Hurricane Irma. The island we knew so well doesn’t exist any longer.

Thanksgiving magazines

Every year, they promise the PERFECT Thanksgiving. And every year, we buy it.

On this particular dive boat, there were as many as eighteen guests and eight crew. I cooked, and N guided dives. And because provisioning in the Caribbean is never easy, the weekly menu was set by the home office, and it was the same, week in and week out. We had Taco Night, and a barbecue, and because most of our guests were American, every Thursday was a full Thanksgiving spread. Because – trust me – there is nothing you want to eat more in the middle of a humid Caribbean July than the heaviest meal known to man. Every. Single. Thursday.

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We’re so rich in this country that we will give you a free turkey!

I’ve cooked well more than fifty full Thanksgiving meals in my time on this planet thus far, and I’d like to state here and now that I am done. Unsurprisingly, N cannot stand the meal either. I’ve talked about this before in my classes – how much I really, really loathe this season – but this year, it’s worse than ever. I simply cannot embrace the excess. The waste. The sheer, utter, obscene overconsumption just for the sake of pointless tradition.

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Over two hundred million pounds of food will be thrown away on or shortly after Thanksgiving. The USDA conservatively estimates that over one-third of all turkeys raised for this one day will be thrown out, uneaten. These animals lived a horrible life and died for nothing. This is the season both for abundance and for waste, when we’re both begged to donate to hundreds of needy charities yet told at every turn that we need to buy more, eat more, consume more. I can no longer support America’s most gluttonous holiday: we’re the only country in the world that celebrates Thanksgiving, and we do so with such little regard for the shocking overconsumption that we promote to the rest of the world. And then there’s the day after Thanksgiving.

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Because nothing says “giving thanks” like buying a bolt-action rifle on Black Friday.

A holiday devoted to proudly eating oneself into a “turkey coma,” followed by camping out so we can buy ever-larger televisions or the latest iPhone? Or a new gun? What is there to celebrate, honestly? While this holiday may have actually originated as a rightful celebration of having enough, now it’s about having more. More of everything. More food, specifically the dishes we just “have to have at the table.” You know, Aunt Mildred’s casserole that everyone secretly hates but it’s tradition. And so it sits there, congealing, and is quietly thrown out at the end of the evening because no one, no one wants to take it home. Or the two meat main courses, because everyone really needs both ham and turkey. And everyone really needs eight different side dishes. And everyone really needs three desserts. And everyone really needs to throw all this excess food away on the Sunday evening after Thanksgiving because, quite frankly, everyone is f*ing tired of looking at it.

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How about this year, we declare it enough. We have enough. Enough food. Enough electronics. Enough guns. Enough unused things in our house collecting dust. How about this year we agree to eat less, to buy less, to not feel sick at ten o’clock at night while we’re camping out at Bed Bath & Beyond. How about this year, we don’t worry about what do with all those leftovers because we just cooked enough. How about this year, we just decide that what we have is enough. And how about we leave it at that.

Let’s learn about the farm bill!

Since about – oh, let’s just say November 9, 2016, not to be too precise – many Americans have found themselves much more interested in politics than in times past. And while that’s a good thing, it’s an understatement to say American politics can be rather confusing. As in, we don’t really get what’s going on, but it doesn’t seem to have that much impact on our relatively comfortable day-to-day lives, so we just go along, merrily forwarding cat videos, virtual-signing critical online petitions that have absolutely no real-world impact and binge-watching the new season of Stranger Things.

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Finding Quiet Farm tries hard to both educate and entertain, so today we’re going to talk about the farm bill. Oh, I can hear you rolling your eyes right now all the way across the Interwebs, but bear with me. The farm bill, which as Michael Pollan says “should actually be called the food bill,” really does affect every single American, every single day. Multiple times a day, to be honest, because each bite of food you eat in this country is directly tied to the farm bill. And if you have kids, and if they eat any food at all in a school environment, then you’re affected even more. Without further ado, then, a brief, (hopefully) simple introduction to the farm bill, and why you should care about it.

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Let’s start with the basics. What is the farm bill?

The farm bill is a “multibillion dollar tangle of agricultural subsidies, welfare programs and environmental patronage,” or, more simply, it’s legislation that connects the food on our plates, the farmers and ranchers who produce that food, and the natural resources – our soil, air and water – that making growing food possible. It costs just under $500 billion – that’s half a trillion U.S. taxpayer dollars!

It’s a multiyear omnibus (meaning it covers many different programs) law revamped about every five years and the current farm bill will expire in 2018. That means it’s time for our beloved politicians to start crafting a new farm bill.

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What does the farm bill do?

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition puts it best:

“In the simplest terms, the farm bill has a tremendous impact on farming livelihoods, how food is grown, and what kinds of foods are grown.  This in turn affects the environment, local economies, and public health.  These are some pretty good reasons to become involved in advocating for a farm bill that supports health and sustainability!

Through programs covering everything from crop insurance for farmers to healthy food access for low-income families, from beginning farmer training to support for sustainable farming practices, this powerful package of laws sets the course of our food and farming system – in good ways and bad. It’s our job to make sure the farm bill reflects what our country’s farmers and eaters need for a sustainable future.

Every five years, the farm bill expires and is updated: proposed, debated, and passed by Congress and then signed into law by the President. (The current farm bill, The Agricultural Act of 2014, was signed into law on February 7, 2014.)

The farm bill got its start in 1933 as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. Its three original goals –  to keep food prices fair for farmers and consumers, ensure an adequate food supply, and protect and sustain the country’s vital natural resources – responded to the economic and environmental crises of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Although the farm bill has changed in the last 70 years, its primary purposes are the same.”

Basically, the farm bill does many things, but its most significant elements are the federal food stamp program (officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), crop insurance and crop subsidies. There are other, smaller aspects, but these are by far the most important (and costly).

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How does this affect me, or more literally, why should I care?

You should care if you either 1. eat food in the U.S. and/or 2. pay taxes, because you’re funding this monster. And if you’re concerned about our rapidly escalating health care costs, or that for the first time in modern industrial history the current generation has a lower life expectancy than their parents, or even if you only care about just your own household food budget, then the farm bill (and food policy in general) should matter to you.

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What’s wrong with the farm bill?

Where to begin? It was implemented in the 1930s, and modern agriculture is vastly different now than it was during the Great Depression and the ensuing years. After World War II, we got really, really good at growing vast quantities of corn, wheat and soy with the help of leftover nitrogen, which was made into powerful fertilizer. And in the 1970s farmers were encouraged to “get big or get out,” so the small, diversified family farm started to disappear, and farmers were paid to constantly increase their production of cereal grains, again primarily corn and soy – now used as inexpensive animal feed and as the primary ingredients in processed foods and drinks.

Now, fewer than two million Americans live on farms, while crop yields – and pesticide, herbicide and insecticide usage – continues to increase. Huge monoculture farms cover most of the Midwest, reducing natural diversity and vastly increasing the chances of another devastating Dust Bowl. Large monocrop farmers are millionaires many times over, and small farms are going under. We produce far more cheap, high-calorie, nutritionally-devoid food than we need in this country, and the result of that overproduction includes massive dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, sick animals raised in their own waste, and a population ridden with heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other lifestyle-related ailments. Plus, many low-income Americans cannot afford fresh fruit and vegetables and other whole foods.

Without question, the farm bill needs revision so it can better impact our current crises, including our food-insecure population and the serious health and environmental burdens our country is facing. But Big Ag has a lot of money and a lot of influence, and the 2018 version is unlikely to offer any significant improvements.

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What can I do to help implement changes in future farm bills?

Well, I’d love to end this on a super-positive, grassroots movement note and tell you to write your elected representative! Call your elected representative! Stand outside the office of your elected representative! But let’s be truthful here: all of our elected representatives are on someone’s payroll, and lobbying is a lucrative career. So the best you can do, to be perfectly honest, is vote with your dollars, because that’s the only vote that really matters. And you vote every single time you spend money.

If you value small farms, find your local farms, know your farmer, and buy directly from them. Skip the middleman. Search out local CSAs, and patronize them. If you believe more federal dollars should support organic farms, buy organic. Read labels, and ask questions. If you want to eat animals that have lived a good life and had a humane death, stop buying cheap commodity feedlot meat and battery eggs. Buy from companies who honor the same values you honor. Do some research. Don’t buy heavily processed foods and drinks made from soy and corn derivatives. Grow your own food, if possible. Anything helps, even a few windowboxes of herbs. And above all else, refuse to believe that something is in your best interest just because someone tells you so. Stand up for yourself, your family, your health and your values – because everyone is out to sell you something, and it’s your responsibility to figure out whether you really should buy it.

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32,831 miles later

About eight months ago, we decided to put our regular lives on hold for a brief period and venture out to see the world again. We were heartsick and weary and in desperate need of a break from pretty much everything except each other. So we gave away our chickens, threw a few clothes in a backpack and locked up our house. And thus it happened that on a chilly January day, we left Colorado for Japan.

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Colorado

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Japan

In Japan, we visited monkeys in hot tubs and worked on farms. We ate ramen and tempura and so many other delicious things. We walked Tokyo and Kyoto and fell deeply, completely in love with a country so strange and different and welcoming and lovely that we cannot wait to return.

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New Zealand

From Japan, we flew to New Zealand. We rented a ragged campervan and drove the length and breadth of the country. We stumbled on an old sheep station and did some stunning walks and learned how macadamia nuts grow. And we discovered that we are perfectly content to live in a campervan…and we plan to do that again soon, too.

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Cambodia

After New Zealand, we were off to southeast Asia. We started in Cambodia with Angkor Wat and we also saw interesting things being made, like incense and rice noodles and tofu. Oh, and it was hot. (At least we thought so until we got to India, where we learned what heat really is.)

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Vietnam

We traveled overland to Vietnam, where we jumped on trains, dodged motorbikes, devoured street food and struggled to learn more about a conflicted country with a conflicted history.

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Thailand

Then it was time for a brief rest in Thailand; we went to more markets and bicycled through rice paddies and learned how to make handmade paper. We didn’t ride any elephants but we loved our time on the Banana Pancake Trail.

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India

No matter what, we weren’t ready for the heat and noise and crush and total sensory assault that is India. We’ve never traveled anywhere that we loved and hated in equal measure – sometimes in the exact same moment – and this complicated country has for certain gotten under our skin. We’ll be back here, too, and much better prepared this time.

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Spain

We flew from India to England, with a brief jaunt to gorgeous Madrid. This is one hell of a city…we miss drinking canas and eating jamón y queso at 2AM with hundreds of other people in the city’s beautiful plazas.

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England

We finished with some restorative time in the Midlands’ lush, rolling hills, where the innumerable shades of intense green defy belief. Hours of walking with only cows and sheep for company and then perhaps a brief stop at the local pub for a pint of Tiger. It’s not the worst way to spend a day.

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Colorado

And that brings us to now. We’ve been home for about three weeks and we’re struggling to adjust. This is not the country we left; it has been immensely challenging to reconcile the joy and freedom and lovely people of our travels with the rage and divisiveness and fear currently smothering all of us like a dense fog. But we’re back on our bikes, we’re volunteering on a goat farm and we’ve planted our garden. And this fall, we’ll be out on the road again to search for our farm property in earnest. Thanks for joining us on our travels over these past months and please stay tuned, friends, as our journey has just begun. We’re off to find Quiet Farm.

The realities of travel

Friends, join me in the Trust Tree for just a moment and let us speak honestly. Let us speak honestly about the realities of travel, or Everything Is Not Always As Perfect As It Seems. As you are all well aware, we live in a manufactured world, where fake news and social media dominate our feeds and our brains. And the truth is…well, not everything is as it seems. This is especially true when it comes to travel.

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No, camping next to an airport won’t be loud at all. Why would you think that?

When you see beautifully Instagrammed photos of your friends and family sunning and sipping fruity cocktails on some pristine white sand beach, you might think, “What jerks! Why are they on vacation and I’m slaving away in this hellhole?” But what you don’t see in that perfect photo is the tortuous four-hour ride in a rickety school bus over gravel roads to get there, the thousands of sandflies currently attacking them, and the bar bill where those cocktails were $25 each.

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What a stunning beach! Is there a backstory? 

Travel is not always glamorous. In fact, unless you travel at a pretty high level (which we do not), travel is actually rarely glamorous. And this is where in a normal travel article I would pleadingly claim, “But that’s where the best experiences happen! You know, when everything goes wrong!” Rubbish. The best experiences happen when you accept that many, many things are going to go wrong, or at least take ten times longer than you thought they would, and you learn to deal with it anyway. That’s what good travel actually encompasses. Before we left, I clipped the following unattributed quote and pasted it in my travel journal: “I’ve always felt that lowered expectations are the key to a great holiday.” This has proved relevant on more than one occasion during our travels.

 

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Kyoto’s futuristic train station.

Allow me to provide merely one example: N and I wanted to do some laundry. Simple enough. We’re each travelling out of one large backpack, so doing laundry every week to ten days (unless we’re on a farm in Japan wearing all of our clothes at one time) is adequate. One Saturday, we decided to do our laundry early the following morning as we had to leave our campsite by 7AM, and the museum we wanted to visit that day didn’t open until 10AM. Three hours should be more than enough, right? So we do what every modern traveler might do: we Google “24 hour Laundromats in Wellington” and find two likely candidates.

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This backpack has served N well since he first ventured to Honduras more than fifteen years ago.

We wake up Sunday at 5AM and get ourselves together. By 5:30 we’re on the road, but our GPS has decided that it’s taking the morning off for reasons unknown. We have a vague knowledge of downtown Wellington from walking the previous day, but the Laundromats we’re heading for are definitely not in the touristy areas. So we opt to troll a few downtown hotels, waking up sleepy front desk staff and asking for old-fashioned paper maps. When we finally get one, it just reaches the outer edge of the area we’re headed for, meaning we’ll have to wing it from there. (Oh, and if you’re wondering why we didn’t just use GPS on our phones? When your American cell service provider swears that you’ll have “really fast unlimited data in over 140 countries,” THEY ARE ABSOLUTELY AND TOTALLY LYING.)

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The interisland ferry from Wellington on New Zealand’s North Island to Picton on the South Island. The photo was taken at 5:15AM; travel isn’t always about sleeping in.

So. Now the sun is just coming up, and I’m trying to use a paper map (remember that you always have to be in the map to navigate) to guide N through the narrow, twisty, turny, windy streets of Wellington (much like the hilliest parts of San Francisco) in a campervan definitely not designed for such silly Fast and the Furious games. We just make it to the first Laundromat when the GPS decides to show up for work. And the Laundromat is out of business.

No worries; onto the next Laundromat. It’s open! We grab all of our laundry and load up two of the tiny washing machines. Seeing that we’ve put our clothes in and are clearly ready to start washing, the young couple next to us asks if they can just pay us to use our KeyCard because the minimart next door where you buy them doesn’t open until 8 and it’s only just after 7.

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Sometimes travelers need a little guidance; Japanese train stations helpfully provide that. We could have used the assistance in Wellington.

Wait, what? What’s a KeyCard? We’d loaded up with coins, which shows you how long it’s been since we used a Laundromat. No, it turns out that this Laundromat doesn’t use coins (presumably because the machines have been broken into repeatedly) and instead uses a KeyCard that we don’t have and can’t buy. Remove all laundry from machines and climb into van, dejected.

Search for next Laundromat on non-working but unlimited data; it doesn’t open until 9AM. We find a supermarket parking lot where we can sit comfortably for about an hour; of course, the area we’ve chosen is the site of an annual charity run attracting about 15,000 runners to the waterfront. We may actually be blocked in unless we can find an alternate route across the city. We are making poor choice after poor choice and our quiet Sunday morning is quickly imploding.

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Race volunteers chalked encouraging messages along the course in Wellington. We definitely needed them too that day.

A few minutes before 9, we manage to make it to the day’s third Laundromat. It’s open! They accept actual money! We’re in! (And we’ve been to more Laundromats in one morning than in the entirety of our previous fifteen years.) We load in our laundry, then spend the time canvassing the neighborhood for potable water taps, clean public bathrooms and free Wi-Fi. Truly, when you’re campervan hobos like we are, these things matter. (And please note that we’re trademarking Campervan Hobos as our band name.)

Two hours and fifteen minutes, 30 kilometers, many wrong turns and $20 later, we have fresh, clean laundry. If you’ve been keeping track, it took us over six hours – six hours! – to wash and dry one large load of laundry, and we accomplished virtually nothing else during that time. And that, my loves, is often the reality of travel. So the next time you look at some glossy photo on social media and find yourself filled with envy, just remember the sandflies. And don’t forget your KeyCard.