Integrity

Integrity: noun

1. adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.
2. the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished: to preserve the integrity of the empire.
3. a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition: the integrity of a ship’s hull.

In the documentary* Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, a health worker talks about the integrity of traditional people who inhabit the high Himalayan desert. The villagers, she says, take care of the land and water. They know not to throw rubbish in their waterways. In fact, there is no such thing as rubbish, because everything they gather is used to the fullest.

“See how good the villagers are?” she says, contrasting their lives with the decline of values (along with air and water quality) after this remote region of India was developed.

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Ladakhi woman, photo via Pixabay, Creative Commons license

The film shows how the Ladakhis’ quality of life deteriorated after roads linked pristine “Little Tibet,” as the region is called, with the Indian plains. Ladakh had been a cooperative, sustainable society, based on traditional Buddhist values and the principles of interdependence. But once subsidized products, Western ideas/images, and tourism hit the region? It all changed rapidly.

Small farmers struggled to compete with lower-priced items trucked in from elsewhere. Villages dwindled as young people left their ancestral lands for paid employment. People began competing for scarce resources, where before there had been plenty for all, even with a brief four-month growing season and precious little rainfall.

With competition came enmity for “the other,” as insecurity became the new normal. Ethnic tensions, crime, and poverty, which had never before been an issue, began to taint the larger culture.

Then there were those waterways, which all became polluted around the cities and towns (where more and more people lived in housing developments completely disconnected from water sources.)

You could say it became harder to have integrity, both in terms of ethics and in terms of wholeness/soundness. And this is the state of much of the world, wherever global consumer culture has taken over.

What struck me about the film—even more than the clear contrast of Before and After documented by the venerable Helena Norberg-Hodge—was its demonstration of what human nature really is.

Were the villagers “good”—as in “better than” westernized society with its throwaway mentality and penchant for soiling everything worth protecting? Thinking this way puts such behavior on a pedestal.

But integrity is not some snooty, hard-to-reach thing involving self-sacrifice and personal pain. It is about wholeness, about choosing to act in ways that are aligned with our highest path and purpose.

Looking at footage of Ladakhi villagers laughing and singing as they help their neighbors harvest grain, you don’t get the sense that they are having hard time adhering to lofty principles. They’re simply acting in a way that makes total sense, that preserves life.

In other words, they live in a culture that nurtures alignment with true human nature, which wants to express itself through collaboration and interdependence—with other human beings and with the entire natural world.

Our culture is skewed to greed and self-interest, but this is not “human nature.” How hard is it to approach wholeness in a fractured culture? Really damn hard. You have to be willing to swim upstream, to pay attention, to make countercultural choices.

We have been taught to think that humans are inherently selfish. But voices like Norberg-Hodge challenge that notion, and tell us that we’re looking at humans in an artificially warped setting. Take away the subsidies, the dehumanizing images, the denigration of simple life with its wholesome collaboration, and something else might have a chance to emerge. Something based on a sense of belonging.

Until that day, we have to nurture a consciousness shift within ourselves and each other, toward alignment with our truest integrity.

*Note: See my earlier post about Norberg-Hodge and the need for relocalization.

Made of Sunshine

I first heard about Healthy Hoosier Oils when shopping at my food coop, Pogue’s Run Grocer. As a local food enthusiast, I was thrilled to find out that there was a new local alternative for culinary oils. I didn’t know much about how the product was made, but after I took home my first bottle of sunflower oil, I knew it was delicious. Seriously flavorful.

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Once you’ve tried it, you will crave its buttery flavor.

I ended up buying bottle after bottle of sunflower oil as we drizzled it on our salads all through spring and summer. And popcorn popped in the stuff is amazing. It’s great for stir-frying too. Then there’s canola oil, which has a more neutral flavor and a higher smoke point.

Eventually I suggested to my Farm Indiana editor that we do a story on the Boyer farm in Converse, Indiana. That’s where the seed crops are raised and turned into this fantastic staple of my dinner table.

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Sunflower fields forever.

Yes, this is the amazingly fortunate position I find myself in at this stage of my life: I get hooked on a particular foodstuff, and get to go visit with the folks responsible for it. I write a story about them and collect a (smallish) paycheck.

I met Craig Boyer, the 81-year-old patriarch of a family that manages to stay tightknit and geographically close in an age where that is rare. (All of his and wife Nancy’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren live within just a few miles of where the above photo was taken.)

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Craig Boyer with a section of the filtration system for the culinary oils.

The land has been in the Boyer family since 1848, farmed for six generations and counting. The culinary oil enterprise is fairly recent, and arose partly out of Craig’s health crisis. He had to semi-retire after a major cardiac event, and he was supposed to watch his diet. His sons Mark and John experimented with converting their biodiesel operation into culinary oil production, in part because of the market—but also because their dad loved his fried foods.

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Brady Bolen bottles and labels the freshly pressed oil.

I was pleased to hear that the oils are free of solvents and additives. I actually was a bit clueless about how conventional oils are extracted (through a nasty-sounding process involving hexane and high heat). Healthy Hoosier Oils go through a cold press.

The oil crops themselves grow in a minimally-tilled row-crop setup, in rotation with the corn, soybeans, and wheat that the Boyers also raise. “We use zero chemicals,” Mark told me, speaking of the canola and sunflowers. I asked about weed control: “It actually is relatively easy in that both canola and sunflowers eventually will canopy. When they canopy, they cover the ground and protect themselves from invasive weeds to a certain extent.”

Honeybees are key to the Boyers’ strategy too—they partner with a local beekeeper to make sure that honeybees are working their magic on the crops.

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Honey from Bastin Honey Bee Farm of Knightstown is sold onsite along with the oils.

 

I enjoyed my tour of the operation that July day, even the sweltering 1940s-era corn crib (repurposed to store the oil crops). Here’s the writeup for Farm Indiana, if you’d like to read more. Locally, you can find Healthy Hoosier Oils in Kroger stores, Pogue’s Run Grocer,  and other independent grocers.

 

To Pause and Give Thanks

Gratitude is not just a seasonal thing for me. I look to be aware of the blessings in my life all the time, the better to enjoy them. Lately I’ve been taking a few minutes before I eat a meal (when I remember to!) to celebrate all the contributors to my food.

I will look down at a humble bowl of oatmeal with raisins and almond butter and pause for a second. I will think (or say), Thank you! I love you I love you I love you! And then, if I feel like I have the wherewithal in this moment, I get focused and consider:

  • the farmers responsible for growing these oats, grapes, and almonds
  • the bees that pollinated them
  • the sun and rain
  • the worms and microscopic wee buggies that do so much unseen
  • the people involved in processing and transporting
  • the folks at my local food coop where I bought these foods.

Thank you, I love you!

What’s really fun is to look down at a meal and realize how many personal connections it embodies. I’ll think: Oh yum, I get to eat Amy’s spinach (from South Circle Farm) or Randy’s squash (from Stout’s Melody Acres). The celebration feels even more expansive when I know my farmer. And the food tastes better too.

Today’s lunchtime moment: thanking Earl (Blue River Natural Foods) and his pastured hens for the beautiful eggs, Laura (dear friend) for the tomatillos that went into my salsa verde, Matthew (Big City Farms) for the gorgeous carrots.

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Local eggs cooked cooked “over hard” and topped with homemade salsa verde, with dilly carrots and spicy sauerkraut on the side.

Also Joshua and the folks at Fermenti Artisan for the spicy Latin American kraut known as curtido. And…myself for the small part I played in planting and harvesting dill from Seven Steeples Farm, where I sometimes help out Mike, the farm manager.

Thank you, I love you!

No matter where the food comes from though, this mindful, grateful state brings texture to a meal. A good thing, to pause and give thanks.

Relocalizing the Food System

I love writing stories about food and farming. The people I meet are so passionate about their work. Almost everyone I interview is invested in reforming the broken food system. Bonus: They give me tasty things to eat.

Here’s a rundown of the treats I’ve sampled just in the past few weeks.

  • Cissy, a woman who’s long been the vanguard of Indiana’s organic movement, gave me some intensely flavorful pickles she made from cucumbers raised in her kitchen garden. I washed it down a glass of homemade kombucha that couldn’t be beat.
  • Jim, a farmer in Owen County, sent me home with a bunch of carrots he pulled from the wet earth like a late winter miracle.
  • Anna, a farmer in Rush County, gave me a huge jar of rolled wheat that her cooperative had grown and milled. (I used some in banana bread I baked for my weekly writing date—my writer buddies pronounced it wonderful.)
Checking out a display of LocalFolks Foods at Moore Corner Store while on assignment

Checking out a display of LocalFolks Foods at Moore Corner Store while on assignment

And a couple weeks ago, at Moore Corner Store, proprietor Jasen Moore offered me a taste of ketchup made by Indiana’s own LocalFolks Foods.

I’m no ketchup connoisseur, and in fact we never purchase it. But if I were a fan of this most American of condiments, I would never buy a national brand again. LocalFolks’ is sweetened with sugar, not the genetically modified scariness that comprises high-fructose corn syrup.

I happened to be in the natural food store when Hoosier Microgreens’ Alex Sulanke came along to introduce his product. So I got to munch uber-fresh sprouts of radish, cabbage, kale, arugula, and mustard from “the smallest farm in Indiana” (120 square feet).

Moore Corner Store is in the business of connecting small farmers and food entrepreneurs to the consumer. Though its hours are limited at present, this shop and others like it fill a critical role in relocalizing our food system.

For Jasen and his wife Sara, Moore Corner Store is more than just a business. It’s a mission. Jasen told me the enterprise arose out of concern for the state of our economy. Big box stores have fragmented communities and hurt the little guy.

Moore2“But a store like this…supports the local economy, minimizes carbon footprint, puts actual nutritious food on your plate, and it’s close to home.” The Moores live just up the street from the shop, though both must spend time elsewhere to make ends meet.

I just saw a documentary called Down to Earth in which the iconoclastic farmer Joel Salatin (made famous in Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma) made an important point: Your purchase of a farmer’s product might be the thing that keeps that farm afloat another week.

Is it worth changing our habits to spend a little more of our money at a farmers’ market or a shop like the Moores’? I would say yes. What about you? Have you connected with a small farmer, producer, or locally owned shop lately?

Check out my piece on Moore Corner Store here.

Localizing the Winery

When is a winery more than a winery? When it contributes to revitalizing a rural community, putting the local economy at the forefront of its mission. Owen Valley Winery, which I discovered on assignment for Farm Indiana, is just such a place.

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Here’s a look at the piece I wrote for this month’s issue of Farm Indiana.

I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with Tony Leaderbrand (pictured above), who told me the whole story of the family-owned business’s evolution. Aside from their commitment to showcasing Owen County’s locally grown and made products, the winery is unique in another respect. It is the first Midwestern winery to run on solar power.

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A grant from the Renewable Energy for America Program helped pay for the solar panels that now produce a large portion of the winery’s energy needs.

Locally grown persimmons are among the fruits used in Owen Valley Winery’s products. I was moved by stories of people bringing their excess fruit in shoeboxes and buckets every fall to sell to the winery. Tony made me see that winemaking is truly a local ag-based endeavor. (Due to demand for dry wine, they also use some California-grown grapes as well.)

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Photo by groceris, via PhotoDune

Tony told me all about the repurposed items that went into construction of the tasting room and production facility. In fact, the second tasting room is kind of an upcycling project in itself: It’s located in the renovated Tivoli Theatre, a historic building in Spencer, IN.

On a personal note, Tony talked about how eating produce from local farms is a winner both in terms of health benefits and reduced packaging. Not to mention the benefits of keeping dollars circulating in the local community.

“I think there’s such a need for us all to come full circle on purchasing,” he said. “We have to break these old habits of going to these superstores. You’ve got to know where everything you buy comes from.”

You can read the full article here (do a search on Owen Valley Winery to jump to the piece.)

A Week in the Life, Irvington-style

Last week, I realized how much I rely on my neighborhood for commerce, entertainment, exercise, and other essentials. To wit:

Tuesday morning I took part in the Writing Habit, a weekly mini-retreat for writers put on by Urban Plot in the library of a local church. With two other writers tapping away on their keyboards, I cranked out some verbiage.

Kitley finds writing more taxing than stalking sparrows. Sometimes I agree.

Kitley finds writing more taxing than stalking sparrows. Sometimes I agree.

In the evening I walked two blocks to Dairy Queen (OK, it’s not locally owned, but a business in our own little plaza). My neighbor had called a meeting, sweetening the deal with ice cream. We were there to explore teaming the Irvington Green Initiative and a budding arts initiative with local organizations like Trade School Indy to share admin/event/classroom space sometime in the future. An intriguing possibility.

Wednesday, before sunup, I went to earlybird piyo (Pilates/yoga fusion) at Irvington Wellness Center, my favorite place for yoga and other such pursuits. In the afternoon, I biked over to meet a writer friend at Starbucks (because our old haunt, Lazy Daze Coffeehouse, tragically closed this summer).

I walked from there to Help My Mac Plus, where I found a refurbished MacBook Air with my name on it. A stunning development, given how terminally conflicted I am about gadgets and the resources they require. I had just begun to put out feelers for a lightweight laptop for my upcoming research trip/ writers’ residency. I’m thrilled with my find, awarding myself double bonus points for supporting a local business and avoiding buying new.

Thursday evening it was back to Irvington Wellness for yoga class, taught by another Irvingtonian (I inquired after her hens, as one does here).

Friday evening was the highlight. First we went out to eat with a friend at local eatery Legend, where the owners know us by name and the food is delicious. Then to see Delta Duo and friends perform at Bookmamas in the Underground 9.

JJ plays a resonator slide guitar in the style used by Delta bluesmen of the 1930s. Irina's violin accompaniment is haunting.

JJ plays a resonator slide guitar in the style used by Delta bluesmen of the 1930s. Irina’s violin accompaniment is haunting. Photo courtesy of the Delta Duo.

Two local singer/songwriters kicked it off, after which the headliners laid it down. Delta Duo pairs JJ the Chicago-born bluesman with Irina the classically trained Russian violinist for a sound like none other. Suffice to say this monthly show will be a priority from now on. (Bonus: no cover charge.)

But the weekend wasn’t over yet. Saturday after supper, Judy and I rode our bikes to our new neighborhood ice cream shop Wyliepalooza, then popped in on old friends to catch up.

And Sunday was the farmers market. Judy and I biked over, bought bread and produce, and ran into several friends, including the aforementioned JJ and Irina.

This is the third mention of ice cream in this post. Confession: I actually can't eat ice cream! Wish I could!

This is the third mention of ice cream in this post. Confession: I actually can’t eat ice cream. Wish I could!

In short, it was a great week to be an Irvingtonian. What’s new in your neighborhood?