As I type, I’m broken down on a side street in Alexandria, Virginia, a steel bolt the size of my thumb protruding from my front right tire. More than anything else, it reminds me of those metal diodes affixed to the side of Frankenstein’s neck: impossible to miss, and impossibly out of place. A blow-out like this exceeds my Jack-Of-All-Trades repair qualifications, so I’m waiting on a roadside service truck specially equipped to assist large vehicles. My customers are grateful for free-range eggs. I’m grateful for free-range repair men.
It’s only 8:15 a.m., and I’m already drenched with sweat. To get to my final market I just borrowed a fruit vendor’s truck, backed it up to my disabled vehicle, and quickly wedged twenty-five 50-pound coolers of meat, eggs and pasta (along with my tents, tables and signs) between the boxes of peaches and plums. God bless our fellow farmer friends, bonds cultivated on lonely winter days when our conversation is the only thing filling the market. I rushed off to Arlington, a half hour late. As I hurriedly opened the back door my scale crashed to the asphalt, the plastic cracking cleanly as an eggshell and the batteries skittering across the pavement. I sighed, staring down at my own little Humpty Dumpty. I’ll now be using a .99 cent calculator to tally today’s purchases.
Last week, NPR’s The Splendid Table named my farming book their #1 read of the summer, and tomorrow it will be featured on the front page of the L.A. Times Book Review. These are exciting times for a writer, opportunities that probably only come once in a lifetime. In the coming week, shoe-horned between farming and weekend markets, I have three additional signing events scheduled in the Washington DC area. Like every good farmer knows, I’ve got to make hay while the sun shines.
And the sun is shining brightly on farming right now, especially in the sustainable and organic communities. Consumer interest has never been higher, and everywhere I go people tell me how grateful they are that more and more courageous, intrepid farmers are choosing a sustainable path. There’s a tremendous hunger from customers for a connection to the faces behind their food, for an authenticity that’s been missing from the grocery stores for well over a generation. Knowledge is suddenly more than just power: it’s empowering. Now more than ever, customers can conscientiously impact their local agricultural communities for the better.
The most exciting part is that we’re just getting started. Because only 3% of our food is organically or sustainably raised, the opportunity for growth is nearly limitless. Nationwide, the number of farmers markets has more than quadrupled over the past decade, and countless CSAs now dot the landscape. Interest in homesteading and urban farming is propelling a generation of consumers who are deeply supportive of local food. And as the economy continues its slow recovery, we’ll doubtlessly see an expansion of more Whole Foods and other like-minded retail outlets, all of which will need more farmers to satisfy customer demand.
As much as we farmers would like to believe we can live in rustic isolation, removed from the bustling world of marketing and consumerism, we must recognize the enormous opportunity right in front of us. For the first time in a century, customers want to be our allies, our teammates. There’s a spirit of good will and collaboration out there that is brimming with hope. Hope that our farmers can grow healthy food, while making a modest living wage. Hope that sustainable agricultural practices can heal the soil, and possibly even heal the planet. And lastly, hope that a new generation of young people will hear the call, making the brave decision to commit themselves to a life of difficult, unending, yet impossibly beautiful work.
In a few minutes the repair truck will be here, a ballet of brawn and tire irons beside the rushing traffic. So what’s a flat tire got to do with food, or books, or sustainable farming? Like anything we choose to do in life, no matter how carefully we sculpt the architecture of our days, every now and again a smooth stretch of highway throws up a roadblock. Regardless of our busy plans we’re unexpectedly forced to slow down, pull over, and reassess our day. As a farmer, life has thrown monkey wrenches like this so many times that I tend to sleep with one eye open, searching the northwestern sky for storm clouds.
But it also gives us a moment to remember what we love, and why we do it. For as strange as it might seem to take solace in a blown-out tire, we must find our therapies somewhere. If not, chances are we risk more catastrophic breakdowns down the road. Speaking of which, here comes that service truck now. Drive safe out there, folks. I’ll see you back at the farm.
Editor’s Note: If you haven’t yet read Forrest’s new book “Gaining Ground,” you can get started with the first chapter here.