Friday, April 12, 2013

From Vine to Virtue

This winter, the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum (WMSBF) hosted its second essay contest. I entered an essay because the topic intrigued me, and I enjoyed writing something longer than my typical blog posts. The topic was inspired by the January monthly meeting presentation by Dr. Kim Cameron, from the University of Michigan, on the Value of Virtuousness. The WMSBF members were invited to share their reflections on: What are the virtues manifested by individuals or businesses/institution that most profoundly enrich your life? What character traits inspire and motivate you to create – and share – a meaningful and productive quality of life?

There is one winner and two honorable mentions. Michele VanHouten was the winner with the essay The Country Cemetery. Anne Reynolds, writer of the essay Constructive Dissent, and I received honorable mentions. My essay is below – and it is about food, of course.

We all read our essays, in celebration of Earth Day, at the April 2013 WMSBF monthly meeting. Click here to see the video. (Pay attention, because the essay contest is explained in minute 8, and my essay begins at minute 26.)

From Vine to Virtue by Theresa Hogerheide

As I step out my door on a frosty February morning I try to shake off the cold. Twenty degrees in Michigan is enough to give many second thoughts, but the anticipation of my destination warms me.  I pull my coat collar closer and head to the Fulton St. Farmers Market – ‘My market.’ As I approach, the buzz of activity is in view: cars entering the driveway adjacent to the small historic building; a person waiting by the bus stop; a partially-built structure, set aside for the weekend, soon to be a permanent building to house year-round vending.

The winter-hardy are here. Those who gather eggs, slaughter chickens, tend to lettuce in hoop houses, or package beans, teas, and soups from dried summer goods. They pull root vegetables out of storage or they bake all week. And, the shoppers walking, biking, driving, or busing – often with small children in tow - to a winter market for a half hour connection to Michigan’s food system. A farmers market is where personal enrichment and nourishment meet.

Whether the person is a shopper or a producer, just showing up is virtuous. The shoppers prioritize their time and their budget to support their values: health, economic, environmental. They show their children what real food looks like, and they look into the eyes of those that produce their food. The farmers get up at dawn to drive our food to market from 5, 10 or 50 miles away. Staff is there earlier to open the market.
Over the past 10 years, farmers, the market staff and volunteers, and shoppers have changed each other. Farmers understand that customers want to know how the food was produced. A conversation starts. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) – where growers and eaters share the risk and rewards of food production in Michigan’s climate – are now offered year-round. New businesses pop up out of back yards, incubator kitchens, and even the basement where one of the producers grows basil in the winter.

The Farmers Market management has changed; relationships rewrite themselves. The vendor committee fosters communication and feedback between management and the vendors, creating a positive relationship.  A volunteer planning committee has been convened to move the market to the next level: the development of a mission statement, bylaws, and a board of directors for 501 c (3) non-profit status.  The busy, knowledgeable market staff and volunteers are dealing with increased traffic, food stamps, and debit cards – so that we all have access to fresh food.

The shoppers arrive weekly, rather than occasionally. They ask food preparation questions and bring home a vegetable that they never knew existed. They recognize farms listed on restaurant menus and ask for local brands by name in grocery stores. This influence spreads.  Even fast food restaurants lure in customers with billboards stating claims of local food support.

As I walk through the market, I see my friends in both producers and shoppers. And, I understand that I too have changed. I grew up on home-canned food, but due to circumstances, I did not do my own canning until many years into adulthood. Inspired by the taste and nutrition of local foods, I practiced and gained food preservation knowledge. One steamy summer morning, I realized that I had walked home carrying one quarter of my weight in produce! I joined the guerilla marketing of blogging and social media. I wanted to demonstrate how easy it is to find, prepare, eat, preserve, and enjoy local food. These are the moments when I feel the most useful in the world.

A common virtue for producers and consumers is sharing. Food producers graciously tell me their stories adding dimension to my blog posts. Readers contact me offering to share their bounty or for advice for how to use a glut of an over-producing vegetable. Friends and neighbors ask me to help them to find recipes to deal with a new food allergy or to prevent a health issue. I sometimes spend an afternoon demonstrating how to can food. (I don’t know how we got tomato juice on the ceiling, but every time I look up and see it, my heart warms.)

On the way home, I think about the producers that I have met over the past three years. One, a man who grew wheat, milled it, and sold the flour as a retirement job. His place was one of my first farm visits. As I gathered pen, paper, and camera he asked: “So, what is a blog?” One August, I stopped by the wild rice harvesting weekend sponsored by the Native Wild Rice Coalition. I experienced the traditional way that food is produced. And, I faced a fear of bees by visiting a beekeeper and his daughter. I approach my home with my stash of winter greens, fresh eggs, and a variety of root vegetables, the cool winter breeze barely noticeable anymore.

Get all of your Foodie News at Mi Local Foodbeet on Facebook. 

The essay winners were also interviewed on the WGVU Morning Show with Shelley Irwin. Click here for the audio. 

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