The subject K. and I sat at her kitchen table, a breeze redolent of ripe tomatoes and new hay wafting through her open windows on a late afternoon June breeze. Outside, her rooster crowed and hens clucked, and a newly adopted kitten soon appeared for a treat of half-and-half. Born 1943, raised in Iowa.
I hadn’t thought about the Sixties as being a particular mind set or period of revolution. I didn’t get involved in a lot of the protests, but I was in the Peace Corps. A few years ago I was in this Extensive Service leadership training class for serving the rural community, and they showed a video about paradigm shifts, and I think people who were in the ‘60s were on one of the films we saw. It showed how different time periods affected people’s life view, or world view. The ‘60s, at least part of it -- the early part -- was a bridge between the ‘50s and earlier, where women especially saw their roles as the housewife, and then beyond that, it’s different. That period of time when I was in college, and a young adult, was that transition period.
My mom’s family put a very high value on education. My parents weren’t active on issues, but they talked. Dad talked about soil and water conservation. He had a farm, and then about the time I got into high school, my mom and dad decided they needed more money, so he got a job in town in social services as a caseworker. And my mom, because she grew up in such poverty, she was sensitive to social issues, like people treating each other fairly. She was real concerned about that.
My dad was born in the house that I grew up in. His father had immigrated from Switzerland and bought that farm. Dad was the only surviving son, and it was expected that he take care of that farm, and I don’t think he was ever happy farming. It was hard to make a living. We changed from Methodist to Presbyterian sometime when I was in grade school, junior high or something. The churches were in the same block. Dad was easily pissed off by all sorts of people. He was critical of everybody, including us kids. He was never dedicated to the church -- it was something that was expected. I think one of the reasons he didn’t enjoy going to church was because we weren’t well dressed. Later, when he was working in town and had good clothes, he didn’t seem to mind going to church. Anyway, somewhere along in junior high I decided I was going to be a missionary. I felt called, saw some clouds form that looked like the continent of Africa. Sometime in high school, I was sitting next to a guy who said, well, what do you really believe? And I started thinking about it, and a lot of things I’d been taught I didn’t feel very comfortable about, and from then on, I sort of tapered off about church stuff and other traditional Christian thought and beliefs. But I still felt like I should do something that was good for the world.
I started college in fall ‘61, which I think was the year the Peace Corps started. A group was training for it on campus and they were so enthusiastic, the idea of going to live in some other part of the world was interesting, and I knew it would be helping somebody which felt right, so I applied and was accepted, and that experience more than anything changed my world. I went to a Turkish village. Our project was community development. You stick a pair of people in their 20s that can barely speak the language into a traditional village and tell them to work on the social and economic development, and it was like, duh... [laugh] -- so I had a degree in home economics -- a Turkish girls’ course teacher came in and I helped her a little bit, taught a little sewing and things like that. Mainly we – just by being there – changed people’s attitudes a little bit, and were sort of a catalyst for things coming into the village because we were Americans. There were a couple of Turkish agricultural engineers who came in to visit the village who had been in the states for a short time and spoke a little English -- and they said, hey look there’s wild strawberries growing along this road -- this would be a great place to introduce domesticated strawberries as a cash crop. This one family that was real close to us said, ok, you can plant some in our garden here. After the strawberries started bearing, and they were eating them, this one young man in the family said, well, that was a good idea. We thought it was a silly idea, but we did it just because we wanted to help you, because you wanted to do it, you’re our friends. I went back to visit about eight years later, and there were people all over that village growing strawberries and selling them, and they were also growing poplar trees, or some fast growing soft wood trees that they could use to make boxes, strawberry boxes. The other thing that changed was -- when I went in there, I was advised to buy a small bottled gas stove, which was handy and quick and clean, but all the other women in the village were using wood fires, either in a fire place or in a little metal stove. But when I went back, almost all the women had the little gas stoves.
When I came back from Turkey, it was miniskirt time, and I looked at those bare legs and gasped, because the women in Turkey are all covered up -- not like in Iran or anything, but skirts that came below the knee, stockings, and they covered their hair. So I was surprised by the short skirts. But the other thing was all the waste, and that still stays with me. In the Turkish village, people didn’t waste anything. At the little general store, they had groceries and matches and school notebooks, oil, flour, sugar, things like that. And the baker made bread that most people would just stick under their arm, no wrap or anything, and walk home. (That was a real treat, to buy white bread -- many people couldn't afford to buy it.) But when I went to the bakery, he would wrap it in newspaper, because I was a special person. They didn’t waste anything. But when I came back to the U. S., it was toss, toss -- all the stuff we tossed, they would have found a use for. It made me angry, and frustrated.
I came back to Iowa and looked for a job, and got a job at the welfare office. After six months, they said you’re not the person we want, bye -- I wasn’t good at it -- I couldn’t see what the problem was with all these folks. I’d go visit them, and they had a television, a car, electricity, running water -- what’s your problem? And I just wasn’t trained for the job, and they didn’t work with me to train me, and I never was good at writing reports, and that was probably the worst thing, having to write up the stuff in a timely way.
I lived in Canada for awhile. One of my jobs there was testing water, doing an analysis to see if it was clean enough -- a university lab -- and so when I got back to Iowa, I found a job at a packing plant doing wastewater analysis.
I never lived any way but the straight life. While I was in Turkey, at the capitol city at some kind of Peace Corps gathering -- we had an office party, with a big water cooler full of vodka and orange juice -- big party, lots of fun. The group I worked with in social services enjoyed drinking, but I never experienced marijuana until I was in graduate school in the early ‘80s.
During Vietnam, I thought draft dodging was right. I never thought the war was right. Women’s issues - the ERA -- I was sympathetic. I joined the American Association of University Women -- some were real pushers for change. One of our study topics was women as agents of change --- in 1973, I was fed up with working in the packing plant. They hired young men to work the same job in the laboratory. I had learned everything I needed to know about the chemical analysis of the water, the meat products and the by-products, and they hired young fellows to work in there, and I helped train them, but they paid them more than they paid me. So I got fed up with that, and decided to quit, and so they asked on the exit interview, well, why are you quitting, so I told the personnel manager, I’m not getting equal pay for equal work. I should be getting more -- I’m training these guys. He says, "Well, we can’t pay women as much as we pay men -- like Rita out there, she’s doing accounting, but we can’t pay her like an accountant, because she might get pregnant and quit." I did file suit and won some back pay. It was the principle of it.
So I told the man I was dating that I was quitting, and that I had saved up enough to go back to college or buy a piece of land and try market gardening, and that was what I’d really like to do, and he didn’t want me to leave. We had been friends for five years. We bought an 8-acre place and started remodeling the house, and I planted a garden, and we had chickens, a couple of calves, some bottle fed lambs, various stuff. I felt like it was silly for him to be doing all this work on the place and not living there too, so I pushed the issue and we got married. Then he sold a property in town and had some money he needed to invest, so we bought a 100-acre farm and sold the 8 acres. By that time I was feeling like we couldn’t talk about issues, because whatever we didn’t agree on, he’d say I was getting a little carried away and would hide behind a newspaper. So I started looking for other companions.
Before we married, we were pretty spontaneous about our sex life, but as soon as we were married, he would say, like, we shouldn’t do that now, somebody might stop by. It was like I became a mother figure or something. Our sexual relationship tapered off. I was just 30, still interested. I started looking for intellectual, emotional, and physical companionship. I made me sort of deceitful. I decided that wasn’t what I wanted, so I left.
Going back to college was a graceful excuse. I still appreciated him as a good person and friend. I moved into the older student graduate dorm. In a lot of ways it felt wonderful. I was so unencumbered, and there were all kinds of people to talk to. At first, I thought I’d go into nutrition, with the idea of helping the world somehow. Working on malnutrition in the developing world. But then I decided I’d probably end up being a dietician in a hospital or something which wasn’t appealing to me. I wanted to be out in the field. I was concerned with doing something that would help people.
I went to a mid-life career changes workshop and the person who put it on had us do this visioning thing, and so then I changed to horticulture. My interest was in fruit and vegetable production as a small farm opportunity. It seemed like there was a possibility of making a good income from that. That’s what I’m trying now. It’s a lot of hard work for the hours a person puts in -- and pays at minus a dollar an hour? I think that as a person works through and becomes more efficient and works out the marketing, there are possibilities to make a fair income. I like it, it’s outside.
I think my folks had something to do with the fact that I don’t buy into the mainstream materialism. They didn’t have the means to spend. They had an old car, and they said it -- dad had a term for it -- rather than having a new car as a status symbol, an old car is a symbol that we don’t have to have a new car -- like an anti-status symbol. Truth was they wouldn’t have been able to buy a new car.
After I finished my master’s I worked in Iowa for USDA doing field research for a few years -- I was living like a student, sharing a house with four other people -- I rode a bike. I might have stayed, but my supervisor had harassed me -- in fact, someone else filed suit for sexual harassment -- the working situation wasn’t good at all. I got a call about an opening with an Indian tribe in Kansas for a project manager there -- they had a grant to start vegetable production on tribal land. They offered me a big increase in salary and it was just exactly what I wanted to do -- so I took the job -- fall of ‘85. I worked with them for a little over a year -- the grant was for one year. During that time, there was a new tribal council elected, which led to a lot of upheaval. They had no idea that vegetable production and marketing takes a lot more labor than growing soybeans. We had started with 10 acres, and it was all mapped out what we were supposed to plant - this many tomatoes, this many watermelon. We didn’t plant it all, and we couldn’t pick and market all that we did have planted. But we set up a roadside stand and sold to some restaurants, and we were coming along, learning how to operate the equipment. But in order to do this another year, they would need another grant, but in order to get another grant, we needed to expand. The council said they wanted me to write a proposal and show that we would expand to 30 acres -- and I thought, oh god -- but I wrote up the proposal and made all the plans, and we got funding for another year, but I didn’t want to stay. I knew it was doomed. We couldn’t manage ten. I thought we should go down to 5 acres. And they said, couldn’t I just stay until things were planted -- so that’s the easy part, so I stayed until the end of June and then I left.
I learned about this project down in Fox, Arkansas, at Meadowcreek. There was a 10-week internship in sustainable agriculture and farm design ---- and I had enough saved. I had been earning a lot of money, and it was easy to start slipping into a lifestyle that I didn’t feel comfortable with, and I saw Meadowcreek as a way to get my mind back where I wanted it to be. There were seven of us interns. We had discussions and lectures and projects we worked on.
I must have been somehow biased against chemical use to begin with, and then the Meadowcreek experience -- I knew people should be careful with chemicals, but there were times when I used them. I knew there were people involved with the environmental movement. And dad always talked about it, like soil erosion was catastrophic. I grew up in a bridge time, when things were making a big shift. I still got involved in traditional stuff, but nontraditional is very comfortable. I may wear purple one of these days. Bit by bit, and even the classes at Iowa State -- the weed science class, for example, I knew 2,4-D was bad stuff. It wiped out the grape industry in southwest Iowa which at one time was a big grape producer. When farmers started raising corn and using 2,4-D, the grapes were so sensitive it just wiped them out, even the wild grapes. When I was a kid, we could go out to the back fence row with a wagon and pick grapes, and mom would make grape jelly, it was a family outing. And then, entomology classes were moving toward integrated pest management, using biological controls, cultural controls before we hit with chemicals, because resistance was developing and there were side effects. I was paying attention to other environmental issues, too. Thru AAUW I got involved in some educational projects. Iowa at that time had started putting environmental education in the public schools.
So, I needed to find a job, and OOGA [Ozarks Organic Growers Association] had a grant to start some chapters and increase their technical assistance, and I applied for that, even though it was real low pay. They wanted somebody to start a chapter in Fayetteville, so I came here for about 4 months and got another parttime job to help support myself working for a sprouts growing place. But while I had the position with OOGA somebody with the Rodale Institute who had met R. while he had been a farmer in Kansas contacted him about an open position, and he showed it to me -- it was halftime as an ATTRA technical specialist, half Rodale staff person to work in Arkansas, networking to get people involved in sustainable agriculture. The job description suited me, so I called the Rodale person -- I could have gone full time at ATTRA after a year, but in order to get the Rodale stuff off the ground, it needed to be full time, so the supervisor said fine.
I worked on this project for six years. I liked the program. I traveled in Arkansas and other southern states, getting acquainted with farmers who were doing innovative things, including alternative crops. Originally, I was supposed to pick farmers who were growing vegetables, either in part or on their whole farm. They didn’t have to be organic farmers, but they had to be doing something to reduce their chemical use. I would meet these people, get acquainted, and get them to do on-farm research, like trials. Most of them were pleased with field days, so I started setting up more of these, where farmers would come and see what they were doing. In the winters, we would have workshops that would have speakers, farmers, extension, researchers that were doing sustainable ag. I officed at home, writing letters and grant proposals and reports, and I traveled a lot.
I am working through a regional organizer for the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, to develop a network of people we can call on to write letters, make phone calls, go to Washington DC or lobby their government reps locally on sustainable ag issues, legislation we need to get funded or passed. They needed somebody to organize the southern region, working 10 or 15 hours a week, so it’s housed at the Fayetteville office of ATTRA and I do it. It turned out to be more time than that, but a young man who likes to write is helping. I know a lot of the people, because I was previously involved with the southern sustainable ag group, which makes it easier to makes contacts. Programs involved are like various conservation projects, like Conservation Reserve programs, wetlands programs, funding for sustainable ag research and education program and for socially disadvantaged farmers.
For the last four years, I’ve been gardening for market, and selling up at the farmer’s market. I like what I’m doing, but then I help out part time at ATTRA, doing intake, answering questions -- I worked last winter. Anyway, market gardening is hard work, and I’m not in the black yet -- I grow all the vegetables -- lettuce, spinach, onions, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, sweet corn, potatoes - squash & pumpkin, flowers, strawberries -- I need to expand the strawberries, everybody wants them. We were selling them for $2 a pint.
I believe that things have spiritual connections. At one point, I might have thought it was coincidence, but I believe if we really want to connect with somebody, like an old friend or something, it will happen. My ethic is to live simply so that others may simply live, caring about nature, appreciating the beauty of nature.