Return to Nicholas Johnson's Main Web Site

Return to Nicholas Johnson's Iowa Rain Forest ("Earthpark") Web Site

A Home-Grown Solution for Iowa

Slow-Food Movement Creates Healthy Future

Mary Swander

Des Moines Register

July 9, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

I'm driving down Highway 22 from my home in rural Kalona, site of the largest Amish settlement west of the Mississippi River, toward Riverside, site of the largest casino in the state.

The storefronts in Riverside, a once-lovely downtown nestled on the banks of the English River, are boarded up with rotting lumber nailed across their once-graceful, red-brick facades. Even the antique store has gone out of business. The most upscale establishment on the block is Murphy's Bar and Grill. But Murphy's and most of the other businesses in town are gambling on gambling to make them more prosperous.

We all need to place our bets.

We can continue to support casinos, hog-confinement and slaughter houses in the state of Iowa, or we can provide sustainable, family-centered jobs that encourage a healthy environment.

We can lay our money down on more stinking air, lost farms, and lost fingers, or we can embrace the new agriculture.

My generation has begun a change. We've stopped chasing our losses and have returned to the simple idea of growing, selling, and consuming our own food within our own borders. We've led the way with pesticide-, hormone- and drug-free products. But we can't continue this journey on our own. We need young Iowans to travel with us.

When the die settles, the promised ice-cream store may open its doors in Riverside and the little old ladies will have their night out slipping their Social Security checks into the jaws of the slot machines. But what about the bigger picture?

Why does Iowa have more gambling per capita than any other state in the union? And why did casinos, factory farms, and meatpacking plants become Iowa's idea of "economic development"? How did we get into such desperate straits?

Once, Iowa had been a prosperous agricultural state made up of a web of small family farms, small towns and medium-sized cities. Then agribusiness, largely supported by the U.S. subsidies, forced out small family farmers who in turn supported the merchants in the small towns.

Wal-Mart and other box stores put a tighter squeeze on the local hardware, clothing, and grocery stores. Then in the 1980s, high interest rates pitched scores of wobbling small farmers into bankruptcy. A rural suicide prevention hotline was established for the first time.

Young people who received excellent educations in our school systems took one look at the boarded up storefronts, polluted lakes and streams, and moved away.

So how are we going to keep those young Iowans down on the farm? we asked ourselves. During the farm crisis, the state started to try to address its dying downtowns and brain drain with craps and caged pigs. Since that time we've lacked the imagination to come up with a better plan.

An alternative

The roulette wheel spins around and around and while it mesmerizes most, others have sought their fortunes away from the cigarette smoke, blaring music and lights.

In quiet pockets of the state, sustainable agriculture has taken root. Small organic farms, CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), the Iowa State University Leopold Center, the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, the Slow Food Movement, the Amish, food co-ops, restaurants, farmers markets and a host of other groups have joined forces to create an alternative economy, one based on the old-fashioned Iowa values of self-reliance, entrepreneurship and wholesome, local food.

The movement has gained such momentum that even Wal-Mart is trying to cash in on the trend and will soon stock its shelves with "organic" junk food.

Not always expensive

The choice is yours right now. Take a first step. Buy local, natural or organic food. OK, OK, I hear you protest that healthful food is too expensive.

Here are some tips.

Eat at home. Or bring a bag lunch. You'll be amazed how much money you'll save when you stop slapping it down for those giant-sized hamburgers and soft drinks.

Join a CSA - that's a farm that sells shares of their yields. You pay a seasonal fee and, in return, you receive an abundance of fruits and vegetables - often delivered right to your door.

The produce is fresh, reasonably priced and eliminates the middle person. You can often volunteer at the farm and pick your own.

Buy local produce at your own farmers market. Make it a social occasion and meet new friends. Hear some live music (many markets feature local talent). Take in the sensations of the colors, shapes, and textures of an array of fruits and vegetables that you've never tried.

Own your own pig. Throw out your ice cream and fill your freezer compartment with meat purchased directly from an individual farmer.

You'll be amazed how this transaction will cut costs for you. At the same time, it will support family farmers who create a good life for their livestock.

Join the movement and cultivate a vegetable plot in your backyard or in a community garden. Tend some chickens. Grow tomatoes in a pot on your balcony. Grow sprouts on your windowsill. Commit yourself to one small bit of rich Iowa soil and rediscover what made this state what it is.

Get cooking

All right, so now your head is out of the smoky casino and under a wide-brimmed straw hat. Now you're wondering where to begin with your grocery bag full of winter onions, asparagus, lettuce and spinach. What do you do with these things?

Cooking from scratch can be overwhelming for someone who has spent a lifetime heating up processed food in the microwave. Get on your cell phone and call your grandparents. Ask them for a couple of simple recipes. They'll be thrilled to hear from you and happy to help. Go to the library and spend a half hour paging through cookbooks. Go online and look for fast, easy recipes that can become your standards.

Save some time

Ah, but doesn't this all take time? Yes. But less time than all those trips to the convenience store. Less time than all those trips to the dentist filling your teeth from all those sugar-filled treats. Less time than those all those trips to the doctor treating obesity, diabetes, cancer and a host of diseases linked to poor diet. Insulin shots. Chemo and radiation. Now those things take time.

Once you join the movement, you'll also have more food on hand. You'll reach in the freezer for hamburger or step out in your garden to pick a ripe zucchini. You'll feel better. Your mind will be more alert. You'll have a better appreciation for the natural world.

I'm turning around on Highway 22 and heading back toward Kalona, where the downtown businesses are open, well-kept, and adorned with pots of blooming red geraniums on the sidewalk.

I'm heading back to Kalona where a local organic dairy, a local produce auction house, and numerous farmers markets are helping to fuel the economy.

I'm driving past plots overflowing with broccoli, cabbage, bush beans, beets, and carrots, ringed with beautiful red cannas and purple petunias. My stakes are garden posts holding up fences full of scarlet runner beans blossoms, hummingbirds fluttering around the bright red petals.

I'm heading back to Kalona and picking up hitchhikers. Want a ride?

MARY SWANDER lives in Kalona. This is an essay she wrote for the forthcoming book,"Letters to a Young Iowan," edited by Zachary Michael Jack. It will be published by the Standing by Words Center and Ice Cube Press.