Sharing What We Know

Growing up, my mom kept a large vegetable garden, as did her mom. My paternal grandparents also kept a large garden along with cows, pigs and sheep. We had our own chickens for eggs and meat. My dad hunted wild game and fished for food. I both watched and helped with preserving fruit, vegetables and sauces, freezing corn and peas; watched my dad skin and butcher deer and moose, I helped my mom with wrapping cuts for freezing. We also had fresh (unpasteurized) milk from a neighbour’s milk cow. Although we had treats here and there, Mom was strict about what we did buy from stores: we didn’t have sugary cereals or ‘store-bought’ treats. I was 10 years old before I even realized there was such thing as ‘store-bought’ jam!

Photo by Nicole Shaw

I credit those years of eating homegrown, home-caught food as giving me a solid foundation of knowing where my food comes from. Nowadays, those of us who grew up with healthy, wholesome food have a growing responsibility to share what we know.

Just two years ago, at the Vancouver Island Exhibition in Nanaimo (Canada’s oldest agricultural fair, since 1894), a volunteer overheard a young girl ask her mother, “Mom, what is that?” Her mother replied, “I think it’s a cow.”

This example poignantly illustrates the deepening disconnect between us and our food. This isn’t just one generation removed—now it is two! And those of us who used to have a garden or grew up on a farm, are not immune to this disconnect.

Know Your Farmer

When we shop from grocery store chains and big box stores, we buy food products with packaging that depicts contented cows grazing in lovely pastures, chickens scratching around barnyards for bugs, and lush vegetable gardens—just like how we remember it growing up. However, these images are extremely misleading, as factory farmed food today has very little in common with what we grew up with.

What we eat directly affects our mental and physical health (which, in turn, affects our emotional health).

How do we ensure that we are not eating tortured animals, genetically modified food or vegetables sprayed with poisons? By knowing our farmers. Currently, about 1% of Canadians support (meaning, actually do their grocery shopping at) farmers’ markets. In Nanaimo, it is much less than one percent. By looking around at our fellow farmers’ tables at the end of the farmers’ market day (none of us are even close to selling out), it is evident that the lure of one-stop box store shopping seems too tempting for most to take the time to make local food a priority for their family.

Becoming a farmer has allowed me to renew my connection with food. The following are some of the great life lessons that have come from that connection.

Slow Down

Growing food has become a way of life for me. One day while walking with a friend, she asked if while gardening I listen to audio books or podcasts? “No.” I said. She asked if I had been meditating lately. Again, I admitted that I haven’t been. She then asked me to describe what I do in a given day. I shared the myriad of experiences: being close to the plants while weeding, leaving some, pulling others, hands in the soil, planting seeds, beetles scurrying away, ladybugs landing on me, dragonflies hovering in front of my eyes, hummingbirds playing in the spray from our water hose, rescuing a soaked bumblebee by moving it onto a sunflower to dry, discovering tiny frogs the size of my thumbnail, snipping sunflower heads and feeding them to the ducks and chickens…. A smile crept across my friend’s face as she helped me realize that I was, in essence, meditating all day.

The slow food movement, which started in Italy to counteract fast food, calls us to turn off the television and create meals from scratch. We have become programmed  to believe that we “don’t have time to make salad”. Now, many of us go to big box stores and buy a plastic package containing ‘micro greens’ or lettuce already chopped up (and some even include a packet of dressing)! The reality, is that it takes me about three minutes to make a salad (a few minutes more for picking the ingredients) and one to three minutes to make dressing from scratch. Most of our wholesome meals are simple and take only 15 to 20 minutes to prepare.

I’ve read several different studies of when families eat meals together (even just three dinners per week), that those children are 75% less likely to be involved in crime, less likely to abuse drugs, school grades are better and children are more likely to talk to their parents about things that they are dealing with.

Even the very act of eating our food more slowly creates connection. By eating more mindfully, we increase our awareness of craving, tasting, and savouring which allows us  more fully enjoy our food; we recognize sooner our internal signs that we are satiated; and our bodies have an easier time with digestion.

Embrace Diversity

Seed and plant diversity builds healthy eco-systems and habitats which naturally sustain a balance of wildlife. Monocrops—the epitome of lacking diversity—create breeding grounds for run amok disease or destructive insects. For example, in the Andes of South America, there nearly 4,000 different varieties of potatoes, whereas Canada grows about

150, with only a handful recognizable to most of us. Remember the Irish Potato Famine? A lack of genetic variation (different strains) resulted in very few resistant potatoes.

Culturally, many of us have been socialized to have a negative attitude toward anything that is different from our world view. We have been programmed (and even legislated in some neighbourhoods!) to see laundry drying on the clothesline as ‘ugly’, natural landscapes as ‘messy’, and soil for growing food as ‘filth’. Challenge your programming!

Embracing diversity promotes learning, flexibility, acceptance and appreciation. For example, I can appreciate that my neighbour likes his yard organized and controlled even though my preferences and aesthetic values are very different.

Eat Simply and Seasonally

Eat whole foods–things with no ingredient labels. It was once recommended to me to do the majority of my ‘grocery shopping’ around the outside aisles of a grocery store. That is where the freshest (what is commonly referred to as ‘perishable’) food is located: The inside aisles are stocked with foods that are chock full of ingredients we don’t need and are even detrimental to our health. And even if the ingredients are healthy, we are still paying for throw-away, recyclable packaging (usually shipped to China), plus we are often ingesting the packaging. Anything in cans, plastic and tetra-packs, usually goes in there warm; which means, that we ingest BPA as well as other endocrine mimicking and cancer-causing substances.

Two of the changes I have made over the years, which I find inextricably linked, are eating simply and seasonally. As a culture, we’ve forgotten what grows when. Because we are able to buy strawberries and grapes in winter, we’ve become inured to the fact that we have seasons and that our bodies naturally crave different foods at different times of the year.

At farmers’ markets, you can buy most of the food that you can find on the outside edges of the grocery store, except that it is local: cheese, fruits and vegetables, chicken, beef, pork, seafood, eggs, breads—even local salt!

The vegetables and fruit are always in season, and every week there is something to look forward to and discover: when the markets first open there are fresh greens (kale, chard, spinach, arugula) to help us cleanse our bodies after the winter months, then come radishes, broad beans and rhubarb, bush beans, raspberries, strawberries, potatoes and garlic, cherries, zucchini, cucumbers, celery, beets, carrots and more. Each year, I look forward to August so that I can eat my fill of tomatoes! The flavour does not compare to fossil fuel-fired, hothouse tomatoes. (Did you know that ‘BC’ hothouse does not stand for British Columbia?) August also sees a variety of fruit ripen from plums and grapes to pears and melons. As autumn weather returns, so do cool weather-loving vegetables: leeks, winter squash, root vegetables and greens.

At farmers’ markets, you can always find unique foods that the grocery stores don’t carry… how about trying kohl rabi or patty pan? There are also turnip greens, collards, dainty mustards, jerusalem artichokes, Russian kale, Tuscan kale, purple beans; as well as a variety of potatoes including French fingerling, German seglinda, Russian blue (purple potatoes), Warba and more.

Share What You Know

Passing on knowledge and experience is vital. Not only are we losing our ability to identify real foods (this year, I’ve been amazed at the number of people who don’t know what scarlet runner beans are!), the loss of traditional ways of preparing, cooking, and preserving our food is quickly becoming a reality as we are presented with, and duped into, buying pre-packaged foods.

An easy way to pass on knowledge is to involve children in growing our own food, or at the very least, involve them in our food purchasing decisions. I love seeing young families at our farmers’ markets with strollers and babies in slings, little ones choosing their own cucumbers and beets.

I’ve recently begun a local ‘WomanShare’ barter group whose purpose is for women to opt out of the dominant economy. We trade, hour for hour, no matter if the hours are babysitting or graphic design. Although many of us in the beginning thought only of sharing what we ‘do for a living’, more recently we’ve begun to explore branching out to broader ‘skills sharing’. How about learning new ways of cooking or preserving food? Spinning yarn, knitting or sewing?

For me, reviving ‘traditional ways’ instills a sense of confidence and security in my ability to be more self reliant and self sufficient. Through learning together, we are also forging new relationships, across generations, with those in our communities. This kind of sharing is one way that we can create a better, more integrated and harmonious world.

Among other things, Nicole is a farmer, feminist, artist, founding member of the Bowen Road Farmers’ Market, and volunteers her time to publish this magazine.