Continuing east, simply put, is certainly a transition. As our next scheduled stop was not going to be until Little Rock, AR (a good 14-hour drive from Taos), we collectively decided a halfway-point stop would be appropriate for the night. We were sent a cheerful invitation from Olustee, OK on Couchsurfing, and promptly found ourselves facing the reality of the Midwest farming industry as we made our way to our bed for the night. Our wonderful bubble that we have been living in of organic and community-based agriculture was violently burst as we drove past acre upon acre of GMO corn and cotton, a shocking reminder of what “convention” looks like. Countless cows crammed in cages and chemically covered crops, we were presented with a solid reminder of how ginormous the monster we’re fighting really is. But among the monocrops and pesticides, we found a promise of progressive thought.
Our host Jeff and his family welcomed us right in with a warm bed and endless questions about our journey. Making pancakes for dinner and drinking Bud Light, we inevitably got to talking about food. “So what are you gonna do for the farmers around here?” Jeff demanded, “This is a farming town, ya know!”
“You can smell the pesticides in the air,” Jeff’s cousin explained: “It’s always windy and blows right into town… And they wonder about the high cancer rates,” she said with a scoff. The perspective of the people living in the heart of this food desert is most important. They seem to be well aware of what is happening around them; fields and fields of food they will never eat, but will be instead “shipped off to China.” Well informed and deeply unsettled, the residents of this middle-of-nowhere town in the heart of Monsanto territory are unsure as what to do to help. “We need more young, environmentally minded people to move to Oklahoma,” Jeff says. “Living is cheap, we just need to attract the right energy.” A lesson in the kindness and open mindedness of people all over, this stop truly recharged us and renewed in our minds our mission and the big elephant in the room we’re really trying to address with what we’re doing. There is a growing awareness in corners you would never imagine; communities are coming together to feed each other in any and every way they can. While we were not expecting to find community in Olustee, it found us.
Further east, we made our way to Little Rock, AR. Pogressive awareness seems to stem from capital cities (especially in these southern states), and Little Rock has a local food cancer growing rapidly, preparing to spread. Farmers, chefs, and restaurant owners are connecting to make local food in this city happen.
Although just newly catching onto the local food movement, the residents we met are dong it quickly and with passion. Mathew Bell and his wife, Amy, the owners of South On Main, are a perfect example. They are coming up on their restaurant’s one-year anniversary, and are a few of the key players in this city’s huge strides in localizing their food economy. A chef by trade, Matt sees the importance of sourcing from local producers, not only for the huge benefit to the community, but also the vast difference in food quality when it has not travelled for days to get to his kitchen. Proud of his work and the work of others in the city, he generously invited us to dinner to share in the bounty of the season. Along with ingredients lists with each dish presented, Matt was also able to list the farmer that provided it and the relationship he had with each organization. One source that continually came up throughout the meal was Dunbar Community Garden.
The farm being a source of many of the vegetables used in dishes served at South on Main and the coordinator, Chris, a good friend of Matt and Amy, it seemed a great resource to get closer to the dirt itself. We agreed to go see his operation the next morning, and were surprised with an air-tight model for an educational and production facility. The organization has had 20 years to work on their system, and the organization’s maturity is reflected in the smoothness of their operation.
Dunbar Community Garden is situated between two schools, residential neighborhoods and city districts, on two acres of city-owned land. While selling to local businesses requires much of their harvest year-round, they also sell to students and parents interested in coming to harvest on-site. The farm is busting with biodiversity, from various hop and barley varieties grown for a local brewery, to husk cherries. They’re also have a small animal husbandry operation mostly for experimentation, housing animals like angora rabbits, goats, chicken, and turkeys with the hope of one day raising quail.
While feeding all of these needs in their community, they’re also providing a beautiful space for residents young and old. Whether a neighbor is looking for a place to read for an afternoon, or a student is looking for a place to hang out after school, both Chris and Ariel, an on-site Garden Corps employee, are willing and wanting to work with all who are looking to learn. Along with collaborating with the surrounding schools by hosting science classes, Dunbar (and Chris) also serve as a launch-pad and consultant for people starting community and school gardens.
As Dunbar is technically on state (and not public school) property, this makes Chris and their program director state employees. This definitely serves as a boon for the farm, allowing them to receive funding from state organizations and a solid paycheck. They can also serve as a place to host individuals needing to perform community service and thus are able to open the gates to people that may not be able find their organization otherwise. This also provides some leeway with having school kids cooking and eating on the premises due to more mild food regulations.
Passing through the Midwest and into the South was a definite change in scenery, and brought us out of the comforts of the progressiveness of the West. These stops were an honest reminder of the thoughtfulness individuals put into their food, even in places where good food is hard to come by. But the efforts to ease this difficulty is apparent, and we hope to help encourage the flame burning in Little Rock to spread and catch like wildfire.