Posts filed under ‘Books’

What’s wrong with this picture?

By Dee Reid

Once I heard Jim Minick read from The Blueberry Years, I knew I had to take one home with me. It wasn’t just that this “memoir of farm and family” was named the SIBA Best Non-Fiction Book of the year.  Or that Jim is a superb writer and story teller. Or even that  his book might contain a young couple’s familiar real-life account of how they found their calling on an organic farm at the end of a dazzling country road.

What really attracted me was Jim’s honest approach to each story, which I suspected would reveal much more than the usual sustainable farmer’s story of salvation.

The first hint was when someone asked about the book’s cover image. Jim winced and quietly acknowledged that the idyllic scene on the front was not his farm after all. The publisher took a picture of a dairy farm, Photo-Shopped in an image of a man walking down a central row, and added some generic berry bushes.  We’re not sure they’re even blueberry bushes. The result is a symmetrical flat field that bears no resemblance to the Floyd County, Va. , hills where Jim and Sarah planted and mulched their pick-your-own berry operation over the course of a decade.

Thankfully, Jim’ s saga of the berry life is the real-deal. It’s a coming of age tale told with love and reverence for the complexities of small farming in America today. I savored the sweetness in each chapter along with the “What’s wrong with this picture?” moments tucked instructively between them, which  Jim labeled “Blue Interludes.” Here’s one entitled “Working off of the farm.” To wit: “One report summarizes that ‘the off-farm income share of total household income…rose from about 50 percent in 1960 to more than 80 percent in the past ten years….the message for those still wanting to farm has become: ‘Get big or get a job.’ Be a not-farmer in order to also be a farmer.”

Jim allows us to taste the freshness of ripe berries, the richness of teaching yourself a new way of life, the  challenge of making new friends, and the inconvenient truths about  the economics of small-scale farming.

Though he and Sarah usually excel at everything they try, they can’t harvest a viable living by cultivating one of the first organic blueberry farms in the mid-Atlantic region. Even after they pay off the mortgage in less than four years (!), it looks like their off-farm income will always have to exceed the dollars they glean from some of the healthiest blueberries the Blue Ridge has to offer.

It’s not their fault of course. It’s the reality of “sustainable” farming that is often not so sustainable for farmers even when they do their homework and their chores as well as these two bright pioneers do.

In the end, Jim and Sarah decide they desire time to pursue writing and basket-making more than farming. They sell the blueberry business and move to the next county, where  they live as teachers and artists, enjoy a slower rural pace, and grow enough food for their table.

The Blueberry Years were hardly wasted, though, in the living or the writing. This is the best small-farm book I’ve read in years, precisely because it’s as much about pursuing one’s passion as it is  about how farming should be.  I wish I could send a copy to every ag official and politician in the country, so they could learn a few lessons about what’s really needed to improve the future of sustainable farming.

I’m glad Jim has more time to write these days and I look forward to the completion of his novel in progress.

May 28, 2012 at 8:12 pm Leave a comment

Food Matters

By Dee Reid

I haven’t bought a cookbook in years. When I need a fresh idea for dinner, I Google a new recipe or improvise on an old one based on what’s in the fridge and the pantry. Yet one of the most important books I’ve read, and re-read, this year is Food Matters, by Mark Bittman, the New York Times Minimalist columnist.

Of course it’s not really a cookbook, but rather, as the subtitle claims, “A Guide to Conscious Eating.” The fact that it includes 75 recipes is a bonus.

Bittman’s premise is that we can change our impact on the world and our health by making a few simple but profound adjustments in the way we eat and cook for the rest of our lives.  After reading his book and following his advice, I believe he’s right.

This is not about losing weight, though if you follow Bittman, you will inevitably shed pounds. It’s also not about counting calories, because if you eat wisely, you can eat as much as you want (and even splurge on the high-cal stuff once in a while).

Bittman’s plan requires no secret  ingredients or complicated rules. And it won’t cost you more than you’re already spending on your diet, because you’ll be cooking more and spending less money on meat and junk.

He says, simply, we should eat less meat and processed foods, and more fruits, vegetables,  legumes and whole grains.  Sounds like Michael Pollan right? The only difference is that Bittman shows us how to do this with ease and flavor, and without breaking the grocery budget.

Bittman believes that food matters more than just nutritionally. Industrial agriculture depends on petroleum-based pesticides and transportation, producing more than its share of carbon emissions, thereby contributing to climate change. What’s more, factory meat farms use too many hormones and antibiotics, and also degrade the landscape.  And processed food contains too much fat and high fructose corn syrup, contributing to diabetes, obesity and other diseases.

Okay, we knew this. While Bittman acknowledges it will take wholesale policy revisions to dramatically reduce Big Ag’s impact on climate change, he shows that what we do in our own household will matter, and may influence policy change down the road. That got my attention.

“Eating a typical family-of-four steak dinner is the rough equivalent, energy-wise, of driving around in an SUV for three hours, while leaving all the lights on at home,” he writes. “If we each ate the equivalent of three fewer cheeseburgers a week, we’d cancel out the effects of all the SUVs in the country. Not bad.”

The Minimalist is not interested in tying anyone to the kitchen stove. He takes a practical approach to cooking and shopping. Stock the pantry with basic staples (flour, grains, olive oil, herbs and spices) and the fridge with fresh fruit, vegetables , eggs, cheese and if you like enough meat to enhance your meals. Do this and you should be able to whip up a great healthy dinner in no time.

He also recommends cooking up a pot of beans and a pot of grains every week, so that you’ll have the basis for many meals that can be put together quickly.

Cook up a big batch of your favorite meal and freeze some for those times when you’re too busy to plan dinner. Take the leftovers to the office for lunch.

For folks who don’t know how to do this, he includes a simple daily plan with recipes. I’ve tried his approach and he’s right: it has transformed the way I shop, cook and eat, all for the better.

Now you’ll have to excuse me while I re-heat my favorite tomato-white-bean-onion soup and grab a slice of the no-knead bread that was baking while I wrote this. I’m about to do my bit to reduce global warming  the Bittman way.

October 3, 2010 at 1:51 pm Leave a comment


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