Category Archives: Farms

Status Update

What if, instead of posting status updates to Facebook, I just posted them here?

Today’s reading material, at various times while reclining on various pieces of furniture:

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Confession: I desperately – DESPERATELY – want to hang out with Coco Moodysson, who wrote and illustrated the memoir Never Goodnightup there on the upper left. Her Tumblr is here. Her husband, Lukas Moodysson, made her memoir into a movie called We Are the Best!. He’s pretty cool, too – he’s made a couple other movies I highly recommend, like Show Me Love and Together; His Tumblr is here. [He hasn’t updated since September 2015 because, he says, the internet takes more than it gives. I’m inclined to agree.] Anyway, I’ve gone in and out of Moodysson fandom for almost 15 years and today I’m feeling it pretty hard.

In other news: My friend Kathleen recently posted this interview from 2011 with writer Tamar Adler by chef/writer/candidate for office Kurt Friese. From the intro (emphasis mine):

It’s unanimous these days: Cooking food from scratch at home is one of the best ways to eat sustainably without breaking the bank. It also enables eaters to easily support food producers who use environmentally sound, ethical, and humane practices. But most Americans can’t pull this off regularly.

Now, four years later, I’m trying to square that with this article from just a couple days ago. Here’s an excerpt – again, emphasis mine:

No one wants to think about farmers calling it quits. It muddies the heroic glow cast around our food producers. It cuts through all of the feel-good chatter about food systems and local economies. Each time a farmer quits, a little piece of our new agrarian dream dies. But however hard it is to discuss, the rate at which farmers are walking away from their farms—whether by choice or by force—may be the most important measure of whether or not our food systems are actually working. Because although farmers’ markets are springing up everywhere, the average small-scale farmer is barely surviving.

“Heroic glow”. “Feel-good chatter”. “New agrarian dream”. I have such incredibly mixed feelings about this terminology – so aspirational, so lifestyle, so mainstream. I freely admit to responding to this kind of marketing even as I hate it, though, because I want farmers to win, and I like to imagine that together, we can do this! I want to support local producers and am in a position – for now, anyway – to be able to do that. But we have to get real about it. More from the article:

Wendell Berry asks, “Why do farmers farm, given their economic adversities on top of the many frustrations and difficulties normal to farming? And always the answer is: Love. They must do it for love.”

I have an immense amount of respect for Wendell Berry, but I am growing tired of this answer. Certainly it would be a mistake to become a farmer if you did not enjoy being outside doing, if you were not fiercely independent, if you did not enjoy the physical labor involved in food production. But a farmer cannot survive simply on love alone.

Related: This audio series by some local (to me) high school students about farming in 2015-2016 in Illinois. Full disclosure – these are my daughter’s classmates, though she didn’t work on this project, and they produced the series in partnership with my employer. I think they’re amazing.

Finally: Valentine’s Day brought us a couple of inches of snow.

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February is halfway over. I’m not sure how it happened, but I’m cool with it.

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I want to give a shoutout to a few random things that happened during those final three moons of 2015.

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The beautiful people at Blue Moon Farm sold me a buttload of tomatoes so we could taste summer once in awhile.

 

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That’s me on the left, talking with badass Jessica Hopper during a panel we were both on at the Pygmalion Tech Festival (you can watch the entire discussion here). I can’t properly convey how hilarious and awesome this photo is to me on several levels…

…nope, I can’t. (photo by Mike Thomas)

 

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Some friends of mine who shall remain nameless gussied up this statue (“Marker”, by Peter Fagan) at Meadowbrook Park – it gets cold out there. I like random acts of yarnbombing.

 

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Lily and I roadtripped to Minneapolis-St. Paul again in October for more college visiting. We did the Airbnb thing (that’s my room in the photo), and I read most of Patti Smith’s latest memoir. I was inspired by her Polaroids from the book; actually, all of her work has taken on heightened meaning for me as my kids grow up and I move through middle age and am always asking myself THE most important question: WTF? Aside: I wrote this little piece about her influence on me for her birthday, which was a few days ago.

 

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It’s not often we get the band back together, and the dynamic will change again when Lilly makes her move this fall. I’m not ready for that just yet, so I’m going to enjoy this photo from Xmess Eve 2015 while easing my way into 2016.

Happy New Year, friends. You’ve got 2016 in the palm of your hand.

The Teaches of Peaches (and Corn and Basil)

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Organic peaches from Prairie Fruits Farm in Champaign, IL.

I look forward to stone fruit season the most. Every summer when I was a kid/teenager, my mother told me I ate too much stone fruit and that my habit cost too much, so I could only have 3 pieces a day. Does that mean 3 pieces a day of each kind, or…?

I still eat a lot of stone fruit and and invite my family to do the same, which they do. Straight up. With shortcake. Over ice cream. In yogurt. Whatever. It’s expensive, yes, but it takes a lot of work to grow stone fruit (some seasons there’s no crop at all, due to weather), and I’m glad we can support that. Also, the season is short – we only get to eat Illinois-grown for about 8 weeks.

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“Nirvana” sweet corn from Schottman’s in Effingham, IL.

I’m also delighted every summer by the appearance of Mark Schottman’s red pickup truck at the local farmers markets; it means there is delicious sweet corn aboard. I’ve been buying corn from him pretty much exclusively for well over a decade. Why is it the best? I don’t know. The corn is really damned good. I also just really like the guy; it’s clear he respects his customer base and enjoys seeing all of us during sweet corn’s regrettably short (8 weeks, if it’s a good year, 10 if it’s exceptional) season. He’s one of the farmers who always asks me how I’m liking my new job, even though it’s been almost 3 years since I managed the Market.

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Genovese basil from my own backyard in Urbana, IL

I love buying food from other people – people I get to choose, people I’ve become friends with, people whose places I’ve visited – but I love growing it, too. I grow way less food than I used to. But every year I grow more basil than we need. I always talk about freezing it or freezing pesto and I never get to it, so we eat a metric ton of pesto every summer. My recipe for it is simple – basil, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil, salt, and Parmesan cheese – sometimes I go heavier on the garlic. This pesto (and, I assume, most pesto) is super-good on poached or scrambled eggs, especially if you have some fresh tomatoes just lying around, waiting.

Not pictured: The vast quantities of blackberries, beets, Swiss chard, lettuce, tomatoes, sweet peppers, and beans that we eat during the summer. We eat them because they’re ready NOW, in the gardens and the markets and the stores. But I also eat them to charge up for The Season Which Must Not Be Named. Food = sunlight. I’ll take it wherever I can get it – all summer long and into the fall.

Enjoy the sun, however you get it.

Another World in 45 Minutes

Backyard Industry (Tim Meyers on camera and me asking questions) decided the best way to spend a sunny early fall day would be to spend it here.

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(That treeline right there marks the highest point in Moultrie County.)

Actually, we planned this visit to The Great Pumpkin Patch in Arthur, IL weeks ago. In September in Illinois, however, one just never knows with the weather; you take your chances when you schedule an outdoor shoot. Today was clear, warm, and dry. Perfect, really. We were pinching ourselves.

Here’s what getting there is like:

Leave Urbana-Champaign on highway 57 (or, if you’re us, you take Rt. 45 through Tolono and Pesotum until you hit 57). Drive past Tuscola and start seeing signs for various attractions in Arcola, like Rockome Gardens. Exit the highway at Arcola, and start the drive through town, which is when the horse-drawn buggies become evident – suddenly, it’s pretty serious Amish country. Drive through Chesterville. Note the laundry on the line and enormous gardens. More buggies. The air is redolent with the scent of horse poo. Once arriving in Arthur, there are not only buggies co-existing with cars – the Amish are also avid cyclists. (And when I say avid, I mean Amish gents of all ages are on recumbent bikes that fit right in with those in “bike friendly” towns like Urbana or Champaign. Women were on bikes, too, though we didn’t see any riding recumbent bikes. Anyway.) Hang a left in the middle of town, just before the county line, drive (or buggy, or bike) a couple miles, take a right, and there’s TGPP, on the left. It can’t be missed this time of year – there are lots of signs coaxing visitors in last quarter mile, and a huge field of potted chrysanthemums is visible from the intersection. But there’s also this: Fields of drying corn and soybeans are everywhere, but the lack of corn and beans sets TGPP apart. They grow pumpkins, yes, but they also grow squash – hundreds of varieties of squash from all over the world. They sell seeds for these amazing vegetables. There’s also the all-day, every-day bakeathon in a bakery on the premises. It’s like arriving on another planet in about 45 minutes.

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(How cool is this thing?)

The Condill family has been there, on that same land, living and growing food and raising families and going out into the world and coming back, since the 1850s. In 2012, the Summer of Drought, I went down to interview Mac Condill, whom I suppose I’d title as The Main Guy, for Backyard Industry Radio – you can hear it here. (It was an excellent year for pumpkins, as I recall.) I’d known Mac’s brother and sister-in-law, Kit and Emily, for a few years, and Mac and I had corresponded over booth details for Urbana’s Market at the Square when I was working there; I’d also worked with Ginny, Mac’s wife, and Shana, his sister-in-law, to bring TGPP’s educational efforts to Sprouts at the Market. Mac’s parents still live on the farm (and  officially own the businesses) and the other Condills are close by. In short, they’re incredibly nice people, generous with their time and their premises (and trusting, jeez – they gave us our own golf cart to get around), and they run a beautiful operation designed to give guests, many of whom have no connection to a farm or rural life whatsoever, a gentle – but subtly powerful – on-farm experience.

And that is precisely what I love about them, and why we wanted to produce a video there. They’re happy to have you if you want to buy decorative gourds and mums, and they’re happy to have you if you want to spend the day there meandering the grounds and relaxing, but either way, you’re going to leave knowing a little more about heirloom squash and biodiversity whether you realize it or not. They want to meet you where you are. They do not look like farmers. They’re not Amish. They’re a highly-educated and well-traveled bunch who are very well-known in seed and farming/gardening circles. They’ve built walls of squash at the White House and have encouraged Martha Stewart to smash a pumpkin (she obliges at 5:15 in this video). They’re deeply respected by their communities – the local community, the farming community, and the local food community – and that respect is mutual, in part because they have elected to stay, when so many others got out of farming as soon as they could, not seeing potential or, in many cases, not being able to diversify.

The words “passion” and “empowerment” regarding what they do came up again and again in interviews and conversation today. “Are you guys for real?” I asked, but I wasn’t serious. It was evident on their faces and in their eyes as they talked that they are, indeed, for real.

 

Butter Can Make Your Life Better

 

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We were still in Ireland when the Time magazine article entitled “Ending the War on Fat” (only a partial article – ya gotta subscribe for the rest) was published.

Butter was the sexy cover star, though it looked a bit like a piece of pasta to me:

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The story coincided with my desire, on this trip, to demonstrate to my daughter and nieces that everyday dairy products in Ireland – the stuff you could buy at a supermarket or even the Irish equivalent of a convenience store – were way tastier than the products we could get at home in the same types of places. Backing up a bit:

Back in April, as I lay on the grass on some soccer fields in Rochester, IL watching my husband and the younger nieces fly kites, I asked the two older girls (they’re both 15) what they wanted to do while we were in Ireland. We talked about the ghost estates and some shopping, but then my niece Annie piped up: “Remember how you told us the chocolate tastes different over there? I want to find some chocolate.”

Right, I had mentioned that. On my first trip there in 1997, the dairy products had been a total revelation to my very inexperienced, Midwestern, nothing-weird-please palate. Everything, including the mass-produced chocolate, tasted richer, deeper, and farmier than anything I’d had at home. I noticed milk trucks everywhere – they were driving from farm to farm, picking up milk. Aw! So quaint! But it also seemed to explain, in some way, what I was tasting. My biggest regret at the end of that trip was not bringing enough chocolate home with me. Something a former Irish boyfriend had said to me years before, when he’d turned up his nose at Hershey bars, rang in my ears: “This isn’t chocolate. This is… CANDY.”

We ended up buying some chocolate when we stopped for gas on our first day in the country – several Cadbury bars (my favorite and best: Fruit and Nut). I didn’t want to make a big deal about it to the girls. I didn’t want to hover expectantly over them as they tried it, saying, “WELL? WHAT DO YOU THINK? IT’S AWESOME, AMIRITE?” I just sat in my seat in the van and watched them on the sly and enjoyed my Fruit and Nut. I could tell they were pleased.

Within a day of our arrival in Killarney, we discovered the Lir Café and their chocolates. Then Cody mentioned a friend of his told him some of the best ice cream she’d ever had was at Murphy’s in Killarney. The milk they use for their ice cream is specific to the Dingle Peninsula. Their tag line: Ice cream that knows where it’s coming from. Say no more! Off we went.

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It went over well, though, man, do I wish I could have done a blind taste test with some family members who deemed it “good, but not as good as (insert name of ice cream shop at home)”. Really? Hm. I thought it was damned delicious, especially the Dingle Sea Salt vanilla. 10/10, would eat again.

But… butter. Ice cream and chocolate were great, obviously, but butter was the delicate, delicious glue holding mealtimes together. The entire time we were in Ireland we bought huge hunks of Irish butter for cooking and for slathering on bread. It is insanely good, and you can buy it anywhere. Even the butter pats at the visitor center cafés, like at Newgrange and the Cliffs of Moher, are excellent. That’s just how it is. Good butter forever and ever, amen. It makes sense – wherever you look or listen, there are cows. Cows everywhere. And they’re on this gorgeously lush and green Irish grass, eating the food they’re meant to eat, over 90% of the time. For example, here I am with a cow, who really wasn’t having it because she was too busy eating grass to make milk for our butter.

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I thanked her, of course.

I’m not saying that American dairy products suck across the board. They don’t! What I am saying is that good dairy products are a lot harder to find in the US, and they’re quite expensive when you do find them, depending on where you live. Most dairy cattle in the US don’t live on grass; Irish cattle graze outdoors almost year-round. The milk we find at the grocery store is often ultrapasteurized; milk there isn’t. There are no growth hormones in Ireland’s milk. It’s just… milk. And since dairy cows are omnipresent in Ireland and the Irish dairy industry is committed to raising them this way, the end product isn’t as expensive as it is here.

I have a lot of thoughts about the cost of good, clean food in the US, who can afford it and who can’t and why, the psychology around food in the US and what we think we deserve (this includes labeling), US foods and habits making their way into and through other countries , etc. This trip wasn’t about food tourism, so I was mostly observing and thinking and comparing and contrasting and eating whatever I ran across. I wish I’d asked more questions of our driver, Austin, who told me on the last day of his trip that his wife grew vegetables and kept chickens, something I didn’t notice a lot of on our drives through the country. Maybe next time.

At the end of the trip Annie spent her last Euros on several bars of chocolate and I bought some cookies. I smuggled my airline-issued Irish butter pat off the plane. But when we got home, Jim reminded me that he’d packed this:

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Time for toast.

Wool Gathering

It’s finally here – the latest BYI video! My deepest thanks go to Cathe Capel, Harold Davis, Roxanne Sawhill and all the others for their time, Jack Brighton and Tim Meyers for their work on this video, Automatic Empire for the music, and our friends at Illinois Public MediaPBS, PBS Digital Studios, and PBS Food for their support. Now go watch it! I’d love to know what you think.

Not only that, there’s new audio available that happens to be completely unrelated to “Wool Gathering”. It’s an ode to urban wildlife that’s very influenced by Lyanda Lynn Haupt‘s Urban Bestiary and a field trip I took with Environmental Almanac‘s Rob Kanter. In a perfect world, they wouldn’t have been released at exactly the same time, but hey. Feast or famine. When it rains, it pours. That.

More soon.

 

Shorn Off, Pt. 2

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But first, a central Illinois sunset.

Much has happened since I was in Sidney, IL at 7 Sisters Farm, but recent footage review brought it all back. Most alarming: Spring has been so slow in arriving – we shot over a month ago and the landscape is only now starting to noticeably change. I wonder when the trees will fully leaf out; we’re a couple weeks away, still, from flowering trees.

Anyway. While my philosophy with BYI has always been to participate as much as possible in whatever’s going on, I was feeling a little weird about attempting to shear a sheep.

[When my son was little, I used to shave his head using electric clippers, and the shearing tool we were going to be using was basically a (much) larger version of those, but the clippers were heavy, and sheep’s wool, I discovered when I met “my” sheep, Dawn, is super-thick and springy. Shaving a head is pretty basic – it’s nice and round. Sheep’s bodies are not one shape – they’re many shapes. There are bony parts sticking out as well as super-smooth round parts. There are folds of skin and there are places where you have to be really careful. Also? Dawn was pregnant. I worried about her lamb in there.]

When Dick, one of the instructors, presented Dawn, waiting gamely on her stand, to me and my shearing partner Roxanne, I almost – ALMOST – asked Roxanne to do the job herself. Roxanne (you’ll meet her in the video) is young, interested in farming and livestock, and seemed quite fearless. She would have been great on her own. However, I a) did not want to disappoint Dick and the other instructor, Harold, by crapping out and b) did not want to disappoint myself by passing up a chance to learn something awesome from these amazing gentlemen. So when Dick told me it was my turn after Roxanne had hers, I grasped the (huge) clippers and gingerly had a go at Dawn’s wool along her flank. I won’t give anything else away, but the story ends with Dawn being safely shorn and Roxanne and I both feeling exhilarated, almost, that we had shorn (most of) a sheep and had not injured it or ourselves, plus… we had contributed, in some small way, to the gathering of the wool for the season.

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Work has begun on putting this episode (BYI2) together for a release date in early May. We just pre-interviewed the subject of BYI3 and will shoot this week for a release date TBD, and BYIr83 will air this week. Here’s a clue as to its subject matter:

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More soon!

Shorn Off, Pt. 1

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The weather here in the Midwest, which I’m certain most people are sick of talking/hearing/reading about, has finally taken a turn for the better. (Midwest is best!) Those chickens up there were complretely stoked to be outside in 40-degree (or so) sunshine. The BYI crew was out at my friend Cathe Capel’s place –  Seven Sisters Farm, in Sidney, Illinois – to watch (and film) the annual shearing of her small flock of very woolly (and in some cases, very pregnant) sheep.

First we had a freaking awesome meal around the dining room table in Cathe’s gorgeous 19th century abode. She dished up chili, cornbread, pie, strong coffee, and a most convivial table. I wish I could adequately explain how I feel about settings like this. I wanted to hug everyone while we were eating.

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We also ate some tea eggs that Emma from Lucky Duck Farm brought to share. They were exquisitely dessert-like. I love eggs anyway, but these were… sublime.

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After we ate, we went into the barn, where Tigger lives. She has three legs, amazing green eyes, and is a total badass.

IMG_6980We got a look at some vintage shearing equipment – this clipper hand crank (not sure what the actual nomenclature is) dates to 1910.

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The sheep were like, we know something is going on but cannot quite remember what it is. Hmm.

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Harold Davis, a sheep-shearing legend in Illinois, showed the group how to get to it, New Zealand style. Harold has shorn 900,000 sheep in his day and knows what he’s doing. Needless to say, the rest of us were not interested in giving this particular method a go.

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Part Two: I meet a ewe named Dawn, I come to grips with the clippers, and I feel sad when leaving Sidney. I’ll post that this week.

In the meantime, enjoy this radio piece I did two years ago (you can tell it was two years ago because I talk about how winter never came) about the same class, led that time by another Illinois shearing rockstar, Dick Cobb. He’ll also feature in Part Two.

OK. Time to jet. Cosmos is on.

 

(Not) One Direction

DucksI took this at Caveny Farm in Monticello, IL, back in early October 2013. I was there to see the turkeys, and they were impressive, but I was quite enamored with these geese living behind the barn. Connie Caveny gave me a bunch of heirloom tomatoes to bring home that day, too. She had too many – the plants were super-prolific into early fall. There was no hint, really, of what the winter would be like.

It is the midwest, and we know cold (and there is nothing colder than a big, swooping wind coming down through the prairie in January). But winters have been quite warm in our part of the midwest for several years, and the brutal cold (as I type, it’s 0.0 degrees and falling, and this is the second round of very cold weather we’ve had this month) has taken almost everyone aback. The windows here at 909 are the originals, so we’ve plasticked some of them and hung heavy quilts in others in an effort to limit the amount of cold seeping in.  Quilts! It’s like a freaking Laura Ingalls Wilder cave up in here! There is nothing like a super-cold winter to keep one inside, making a mental list of all the crap that really needs to be done to one’s house, slightly mortified about putting it off all this time. My list includes windows and a furnace. I have to stop there before I get the vapors.

The planning for “Ramen Shamen” is going nicely. We shoot Saturday and Tuesday. I’m working on Jim to help me with some graphic elements for the videos, for the site, for… whatever. Baseball hats? T shirts? Pint glasses? MASON JARS? Ooooh.

Prairie Lyfe

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Gulf Coast beachscape/prairie snowscape/beautiful either way

It was a lovely day in Central Illinois today, a bright and breezy 40+ degrees, and perfect for a walk at Meadowbrook Park, the prairie preserve just south of town where I go all year long (weather permitting) to get some exercise, clear my head, gawp at other people’s vegetable gardens, look for deer, birdwatch, look at art and just generally find some balance. The prairie is an amazing place, wholly itself but able to assume a disguise from time to time, as it did today. I listened to the new Damien Jurado record as I walked, and you can too, whether you’re walking a prairie or a beach or downtown or wherever.

Last night, I went to Prairie Fruits Farm to screen Course Work: Dinner Season at Prairie Fruits Farm, the short film I co-produced for Illinois Public Media, with about 30 other people. I love going to the farm for any reason at all, even no reason; I pull into the drive and look up at the windmill and park my car, and, if it’s at night, I look for the moon. If I arrive during the day I look for the farm’s dog, Blue. As it happened, I opened the car door and looked for the moon and Blue did his best to jump in with me. It’s one of my favorite places in the world.

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I never thought I’d make something suitable for television. (I never thought I’d make something unsuitable for television, either). It was incredibly difficult and super-fun and I learned a lot about what I need help with and what I’m good at and also about working with another person creatively. I learned that I need to be direct with interviewees and ask what I want to ask so I get what I need (a good prescription for life in general, not just work), I learned to be flexible, and I learned how to write and voice narration. As soon as it was in the can, I said to my creative partner, Tim, I’d like another shot at that, because I knew I could have done better.

Until last night, though, I’d never seen the film all at once, nor had I seen what I had seen with other people. The film was being screened in the farm’s barn, site of breakfasts in early spring and the farm’s dinners in inclement weather. Wes, Leslie (the owners), and Alisa (the chef and my good friend) had snacks and cider ready for everyone, people brought their own booze, and as the socializing wound down a little, we got everyone to have a seat. They waited. I stood. The film began. The audience laughed at the right times and were quiet and watching/listening during the other times and the farm looked as beautiful as I remembered it and I saw the piece through their eyes, as opposed to through my own often hyper-critical eyes, by myself, in my office, watching on the computer and stopping and rewinding and stopping and rewinding.

The film is viewable here. Tell me what you think, if you’re so inclined. This version has pledge breaks for our station in it – these include me and Wes and Leslie, so if you want some awkward with your pretty farm scenes, don’t skip ’em.

The radio series returns February 6, and we’re working up a plan for 6-8 Backyard Industry videos to spread out throughout the year. I’m reading Provence, 1970 to get in the mood. I’m not sure it’s working, but the writing is captivating – people were so bitchy and hilarious. I think I would have loved hanging out with Paul and Julia Child, though. I love how she started her major career ascent in her late forties. It gives me hope.