A Field Day with the Practical Farmers of Iowa

McGREGOR, IOWA

Imbedded in the older generations of farmers here in Iowa are certain skills that were practiced and understood and shared.  This was before the introduction of the post WWII chemical companies that in time would become the seed companies.  There was a bona fide love of the land, and with it, a celebration of rural community and of family.  A future for the American family farmer that transcended the introduction of commercial agriculture corporations.

The Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), based in Ames, have been in the business of getting the American family farmer back on this track for the past 25 years.  When I looked for a non-profit in sustainable agriculture to highlight, I was immediately impressed by PFI because politically, they’ve got the balance right.  The Practical Farmers of Iowa are endorsed by both the Farm Bureau (conservative) as well as Farm Aid (Willie Nelson, Neil Young, etc.).

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“We have a hugely diverse audience,” explained Executive Director Teresa Opheim.  “Conventional farmers down to bio-dynamic farmers, fruit and vegetable farmers, corn and soy bean farmers – and what really brings them together is an eagerness to learn, to try new things on their farm, to improve their farming systems [and] an openness to share information with each other.”

Which is where “Field Days” come into play, such as the PFI Grazier’s Day Event held recently on the Koether family cattle ranch in McGregor, Iowa.  Here farmers from across the state congregated to witness demonstrations on how to bring their operations chemical free, the importance of building soil, as well as the joys of old-school herd dog demonstrating.

I spoke with young, conventional dairy farmer Adam Martins, who was genuinely impressed with what he saw.  When asked if he saw organic, holistic farm management as a viable option, Adam responded, “I really like this method – it’s a lot more practical – taking cows and putting them out [to pasture] – it’s better for the ground, it’s better for the cows.”

One of the differences between conventional and sustainable (grass fed) animal agriculture,  can be measured in the longevity of the maternal animal’s life span, which observers note can be three times longer utilizing a sustainable production system.

While few people would argue the merits or the methods of organic farming for both the animals and people involved, the real question comes down to the brass tax – profitability – or as local farmer Craig Tritten noted during a question and answer session out on the ranch, “You’ve got to do something besides building soil – you’ve got to stay alive, too.”

The man with the microphone, six-generation cattle rancher Greg Koether, who took his family ranch organic back in 1982, responded, “Hopefully, at the end of the day, at the end of the season, you put just as many pounds on those cattle, even though you’ve used them as a tool for a few days, the ground’s better for it, and the cattle are as good or better than they would have been … grazed on that short grass we used to think was proper.”

When you talk about demand, the pendulum is finally starting to swing in favor of organic farmers, as seen most readily in the market price of milk which has dropped in the past year from $23 to $9 per hundred pounds, for conventional milk, versus $30 to $28 for organic milk, respectively.  A trend that has brought some relief to PFI member and local organic dairy farmer Dan Beards.  When asked how he saw the future of the American family farm, Dan explained, “Well in our particular case, I think it looks great.”

“Because you’re thinking long-term and you’re using a set of guidelines to make decisions,” expounded Greg Koether. “And those guidelines are essential – especially in today’s [economic] climate … In this ultimate pursuit of a goal that you’ve set out – that’s what holistic resource management is all about.”

Asked what the ultimate goal of his family run ranch is, Greg smiled before answering in one, quick sentence.  “That’s easy; to work as closely as possible with mother nature, in order to create a sustainable and profitable food production system, while providing a quality lifestyle for future generations.”

A Community that Feeds Itself

PRAIRIE du CHIEN, WISC 

Sustainable agriculture meets sustainable communities in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Albeit, for a town that bills itself as “forward thinking” it was interesting to witness first hand a winning strategy that effectively brings them back to their roots.

AGcommunityCPam Ritchie, Executive Director of the Opportunity Center and the former chair of Prairie du Chien’s Main Street Revitalization Project refers to her work as “community cultivation.” As she explains, “There are a lot of stories [from] many, many years ago about what Prairie du Chien looked like on a Friday night and it was lined with farmers in overalls and families on the streets – talking, gathering together, doing their shopping for the week – spending their money locally and supporting these businesses which in turn supported them.”

One of these farming families would have been the ancestors of six-generation sustainable cattle rancher Greg Koether, who resides on his family’s 600-acre ranch just over the bridge in McGregor, Iowa.
Besides raising and marketing his cattle locally through Grass Fed Beef, he takes time out of his schedule to introduce the importance of quality, AGcommunityBsustainable food practices to the bright young learners at Prairie du Chien’s B.A. Kennedy Elementary School.

And he’s most certainly not alone. When the school did not yet have a “Farm to School” initiative in place, local parents and self-described “concerned citizens” Kathleen Hein and Marty Green developed a spin-off  all their own which they called “Food for Thought,” complete with the motto: “Our Food – Our Community.” The big idea, “To educate the kids about where food comes from, grow a children’s community garden on school grounds, help local farmers by getting their products into the school lunch system, [and in so doing to] connect the community.”

Walking the streets of Prairie du Chien it is easy to feel a genuine excitement in the air from farms to schools to downtown businesses. As Pam Ritchie explains, “There was a group of citizens that really got serious – they got to the point where they were ready to apply for a Wisconsin Main Street status AGcommunityEand with that they were able to hire an executive director and create a membership of both downtown businesses and community members.”

Which has made all the difference – the bold, rather simple idea that when you talk about revitalizing downtown business, it’s not only business owners that are interested in creating change. Residents of the town can and do participate in effectively giving their downtown district a facelift – in so doing, creating what Kathleen Heim described as “a snow-ball effect” of bona fide town-wide enthusiasm.

Jake Stephens, originally from Florida, is considered a “new resident”, only having lived in this town for ten years. In an area where most families go back five or six generations it can be a daunting task to blend – to fit in. And yet as a direct result of Prairie du Chien’s revitalization he has decided to participate – to share his ideas and his talents – in essence to share with the town the time of his life. When asked to offer a definition of the term “sustainable community” from his perspective, Jake explained, “A AGcommunityAsustainable community [is] a community that … feeds itself, if you will, that keeps its energy churning and building here rather than going elsewhere.”

“The word ‘community’ is really starting to mean that here,” continued Jake. “Its great … it makes me wonder what I was doing for the past ten years and why I didn’t get involved because just a few people can make a difference. That’s what it all means.”

Dan Eldon, Abdi Roble inspire young Somali journalists

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota

When Ruqiya Warsame and Muhuba Ade talk journalism here at
Minnesota International Middle School they do so with a glint of passion in
their eyes. The duo of friends, both age 13, who were a part of a seven-student summer school journalism program, come from a world swirling with political and humanitarian refugees, of continual negative press, as well as a legacy of civil war which has been raging their entire lives.

“When I started researching things,” explained Muhuba, “I felt something that I’ve never felt before – I knew people were struggling … [and] it made me research more to know more.”

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In 1991, twenty-one year old photographer Dan Eldon set out to chronicle the famine raging in the girls’ home country of Somalia – a famine brought on by a devastating civil war begun the previous year – a famine that the world did not at that time know about.

“[Dan] had a beer with Aidan,” a Reuters photojournalist in the region, explained author Jennifer New who wrote the biography on Dan titled The Art of Life. “Aidan told him a little of what was happening in Somalia and invited him to come along on his next trip north.”

ELDONa“They heard rumors of a famine creeping across southern Somalia, [and] they wanted to visit the region themselves and see if there was any truth to the stories,” explained Kathy Eldon, Dan’s mother. “[He] was in Kenya for the summer, before returning to UCLA that autumn to continue his studies, [and] was utterly stunned by what he saw – hundreds of dead and dying women, children, and old people; thousands displaced in a desperate search for food.  Although barely able to view the horrors unfolding before him, he shot them with his camera and they were among the first to be seen by a global audience. Moved by the response to his images, Dan returned again and again to Somalia, recording the aid that flowed into the country- and its decline into chaos. He never returned to UCLA.”

Photojournalists like Dan Eldon and others like him who gave up their lives to tell the story are important not only because they led directly to relief at the time, but also due to the fact that they stand as an important inspiration for aspiring young journalists like Ruqiya and Muhuba – a new generation who only know about the past through their parents and the documented news articles that have stood the test of time.

ELDONc“I learned that when you’re a journalist, you get to save people’s lives,” explained Ruqiya. “Not physically, but emotionally – because there’s people
in the shadows that people don’t know about … and [it’s important] to help them.”

The lives of Somalia’s refugees are by and large lives lived in the shadows – the diaspora of a people who cannot at this time return to their native land due to civil war. Somali-born photographer Abdi Roble is likewise an inspiration to the girls due to his documentation of the Somali diaspora and active humanitarian work – a work which has taken the girls’ school administrator, Abdirashid Warsame, a friend of Mr. Roble, back to Africa in a combined effort to see how they could help.

Ruqiya and Muhuba represent the next generation of American-educated Somali-American journalists. Although still young, they’ve already interviewed the President of Puntuland, Somalia, who paid their class a visit this past summer. “We weren’t even expecting him,” said Muhuba. “It was a surprise for us.”

ELDONgPresident Abdirahman Mohamed Mohamud‘s question to the girls and their class was if they had plans to come back to Somalia. The girls told me that they smiled broadly when asked this question, answering together, in unison: “Yes, we do want to go back to Somalia … We want to make a difference.”

Photographs by Dan Eldon used with permission by the Eldon family.  Copyright Reuters/AP.  All Rights Reserved.

The Somali-American Journey

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota

The Muslim-American girls of Minneapolis are engaged in a triumphant journey of education, art, and community service, paving the way for what is to become the next generation of local doctors, lawyers, and political leaders.  

Helping to lead this charge is educator, leader, and community organizer Farheen Hakeem, mentoring a number of girls through her involvement in the Girl Scout movement as well as a new Muslim-based initiative dubbed the “Me” program. 

Ms. Hakeem and her loyal band of Girl Scouts are no strangers to the media – they have been featured on the front page of the New York Times S6(11/28/07), as well as in the 2008 College Emmy Award-Winning documentary “Bismillah”, produced and directed by Jolene Pinder and Sarah Zaman (destined for the Film-Festival Circuit and PBS in early 2010).  I spoke with Ms. Pinder regarding this story and asked, upon viewing the film for myself, about her take on the effect Ms. Hakeem is having on the girls she has come to serve.  “Farheen is empowering a new generation of girls,” gushed Ms. Pender.  “She’s an amazing role model … shap[ing] how the girls see their role in the community – the power and voice they can have.” 

And it’s true.  The girls I met from the film are enthusiastic about life, about the power of their voice, as well as a future that Hodo Ibrahim, age 14, described as “beautiful and bright.”  Such optimism helps foster creativity, courage, and success. 

I was able to shadow two additional girls from “Bismillah”, Mary Metchnnek, age 15, and Ayan Deria, age 16, as they traversed their Cedar-Riverside community of downtown Minneapolis – dubbed by locals as Little Mogadishu. 

S4Starting from the Brian Coyle Center of the University of Minnesota where Somali children of all ages worked on computers, talked music, and played basketball, we moved through the inner-city landmark of Cedar-Riverside Plazas, a low-income housing set of buildings – all colorful beyond belief – which have been reclaimed from a once drug/gang infested stronghold.  “You used to not be able to enter that area,” explained Ms. Hakeem, who ran for City of Minneapolis Mayor back in 2005 under the Green Party banner.  “But now you can walk around freely, even at 10pm at night.  When the Somali refugees began to arrive, they naturally moved into the least expensive section of town – Cedar-Riverside.” 

As I entered the neighborhood to meet Ms. Hakeem and the girls, my taxi driver, Hassan Mohamed, age 25, explained how this is so.  “We [as Somalis] get along in America … when we came to America we are very helpful to each other and other people too … Back in Somalia it’s all about tribes and every tribe wants to be the president.  But here [in Minneapolis] we put the tribes to the side – to come together.” 

S8Part of learning about pride in your community comes from actively pitching in to help it out.  As we moved along the streets and under the bridges, Ayan and Mary introduced me to their latest community project – a mural of Minneapolis they are working on in conjunction with “Articulture”.  Here, Executive Director Elizabeth Greenbaum explained that when it comes to at-risk kids mixed with art, “art is a wonderful equalizer, especially for students who don’t succeed in other subject matters.  When you think about it and take it a step further, we’re talking about the basic understanding and the basic concepts to write – and that leads into reading and that leads into learning – so [the] arts are very much orientated to learning on all levels.”

When asked what the mural of Minneapolis she was busy working on meant to her personally, Ayan smiled broadly before exhorting, “I guess I’m proud of it because we worked on it for months and I feel really great looking at it.”

Adjacent to Articulture is Jim’s Barber Shop, who between himself and his father, have manned the shop for the past fifty years.  I asked Jim what he S9athought about the mural, now bordering one side of the building his shop inhabits.  Without thinking, he simply said, “I think it’s a great idea.  I’m very impressed with the groups of people who go there.”  When asked how the old-school, predominately German and Swedish community is adapting to the large influx of Somali refugees, Jim thought before explaining, “While most people are okay with it, overall I think a lot of the seniors aren’t adapting.”  Although he was quick to point out that after all, these same old timers had once been immigrants as well. 

Part of a journey is looking back, as with Somali immigrant and political refugee Safia Wardere who, along with her husband, took part in the physical journey to America back in 1993.  While for the next generation of Somali-Americans, like unto Safia’s daughter, Shachi Hussin, age 13, the journey is two-fold:  one foot here and now meets the next step firmly planted in an American-based future – a future that is indeed both beautiful and bright.

Small Mississippi River Town Rallies Against Cancer

AITKIN, Minnesota

Here in the town of Aitkin, up in Minnesota’s Wild North, folks don’t mess around when it comes to cancer.  “We decided we would promote awareness,” explains Elaine Hill, co-chair for the county’s Relay for Life Committee.  And they’re doing it.  In the week leading up to the town’s big event, Aitkin is draped in purple (the designated color of the American Cancer Society), decorating their shops to celebrate survivorship, drinking purple smoothies, and raising money on a business and personal basis.

RelayBRelay for Life is in association with the American Cancer Society and is billed as their signature [nationwide] fundraising event to be held locally this coming Friday.  The money collected  “goes to research and to different services that are available,” explained Elaine, “including free wigs, a feel better program” for women and men, and in many cases, when needed, “a free hospital bed”.

But the story of fighting cancer in Aitkin runs deeper than affiliation with Relay for Life.  In a town of 1,984, when somebody gets cancer, it’s personal, because everybody knows everybody.  In a single day in town I found myself surrounded by stories of survival meets images of hope.

I spoke with multiple cancer survivors, many of whom had benefited by town fundraising events in which the good people of Aitkin stepped forward to help each other out.  Silent auctions, live auctions, family and friends not waiting to be asked for help.  But more than monetary support, this town truly lends moral support, as one young man explained, “even if it’s just in one person’s life – it’s still a difference in their life and it’s very important to them.”

RelayCCAt the age of 36, one town cancer survivor, Kathie Smith, a mom of two young children, explained that it was Austin Price, a young boy who was diagnosed with cancer at age 4 1/2, who “paved the way for my kids to handle me being diagnosed with cancer.”  “I graduated from high school together with [Austin’s mom] and Austin was in day care with my children.  He taught my kids that just because you have cancer [it] doesn’t mean it’s fatal.”  Somewhat of a living legend here in Aitkin, Austin, now age 6, has survived a year following eight months of hospitalization and treatment down at Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis.  “He’s made it,” beamed Kathie, fighting back tears.

RelayEEEWhen asked for advice for others who might be fighting for their very lives around the world, Austin, moving between examining the camera and sitting on his mother’s lap, rubbed his head before answering: “Be strong” – to be followed by the simple, hard fought admonition – “be brave.”

Small business meets community success – The Andy Wells Story

 

BEMIDJI, Minnesota

Andy Wells III of Wells Technology was honored recently by President Obama himself for his success in business as Minnesota Small Business Person of the Year, and moreover, for his willingness to share this success and knowledge with his community – the Red Lake Ojibwa Tribe.

 WellsAA“It was a surprise to get the award from the Minnesota Small Business Administration but also a bigger surprise to be invited to Washington D.C.,” explained Mr. Wells. Upon arrival to the White House with small business award winners from different states, Andy was seated in front as a ‘special guest’ – a guest whom President Obama would address in his speech on the “courage and determination and daring” of great leaders, stating: “It’s what led Andy Wells, a member of the Red Lake Ojibwa Tribe to invest $1300 back in 1989 to found Wels Technology, manufacturing industrial tools and fasteners, and creating jobs near reservations in Minnesota, where he lives.”

 On a reservation where the penitentiary equals the size of the local high school it can be a difficult thing, as a young person in the community, to move oneself forward – to actually visualize the word ‘hope’. Andy Wells hires the people that all other business owners pass up – the young, formerly misguided ex convicts, the alcoholics – people who have made poor decisions in the past but who show determination to make something better out of their lives. Wells’ philosophy:  “You’ve got to help people… that’s the root of success.”  He offers a program that not only teaches the machining trade but also betters and strengthens the character, teaching honesty, self respect, as well as what it means to truly have pride.

And he’s successful doing it. Last year, Wells Technology’s proceeds equaled 54 million dollars, profits which Mr. Wells turns around to better the community.

WellsAUpon arrival at Wells Technology, which doubles as Wells Academy, it struck me as an interesting concept to put a classroom front and center in the headquarters of a main business office. “Every day is an open house,” explained Mr. Wells. “Every day we’ve got a busload of reservation kids or church groups or even car enthusiast clubs coming around. When the busses pull up you can see who the tough kids are – the ones who smoke a cigarette outside before coming in and hang their head in the classroom. But when we start to show them how our products help shoot flares out of military helicopters and other interesting things, they perk up – they start to ask questions – they start to understand why it is important to learn about math and science.”

 Mr. Wells is a pillar of not only small business in Minnesota but also the pride of the local community as well. And yet all of this success hasn’t changed Mr. Wells, hasn’t made him at all prideful. When I asked the Mayor of Bemidji, Richard Lehmann, to describe Andy, he simply explained, “Andy is one of the humblest, kindest men I have ever known. Incredibly intelligent. A real pleasure to meet and to learn from.”

WellsC “There is book learning and there is other wisdom,” explained Mr. Wells, referring to the system of ‘elders’ within the Native American community. “The [positive] influences began in my life early – it was neighbors, my parents, my grandparents … A neighbor friend, named Charlie Barrett, who really had no formal education but was a very humble neighbor noticed me running ahead of the adult groups quite often and he said to me, ‘Why don’t you open the door for people when you’re up there.’ At the time I thought he meant the physical door but now when I look back, maybe he meant more. Maybe he was a wise fellow like many of the wise people I’ve met, and he could see that perhaps one day I would be able to open doors of opportunity for people – and now that’s one of my main missions in life – to continue doing things that help other people because so many have helped me.”

Passing on the dance of the Ojibwe

BALL CLUB, Minnesota

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When the children dance at the Mii-Gwitch Mahnomen Days pow wow money is thrown at their feet in a symbolic gesture of respect. The money is then collected and given to the elders, who watch on with great smiles from the elders’ booth.

DanceJVeterans, the youth, women, and elders are all honored at this traditional pow wow, now celebrating its 47th year, in multiple ways. Many of which are sacred and cannot be recorded by camera or sound. For example there are the songs of the drums. Each drum possesses within it a song which is special – a song within that only that drum can play.

Then there are the power rings which form a circle around the pow wow ring, used to hoist individual flags for family members who have passed on in active combat overseas. These flags must be raised by a veteran, and preferably a veteran who is a member of the family. I spoke with Don Schaaf, a veteran that saw combat in Beirut. Don was there to raise a flag for his father, Al Schaaf, who had fallen as a paratrooper in Korea. “It’s basically how [we] grieve and how [we] deal,” he explained.

DanceFWhat makes this particular pow wow special is that it features approximately 300 dancers and concentrates on the old and the young. My take for a story was to attempt to document how the knowledge of the dance is passed down from the old to the young, from generation to generation.

When I went to the source – a senior elder of this Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe – he instructed me in the best possible method. Instead of answering my series of prepared questions, he encouraged me to watch and to listen and to feel – to learn about the pow wow by witnessing it firsthand, for myself. Good advice from a professional educator. John Mitchell, the elder, is 87 years old and just won the National Education Indian Elder Award. He told me that dancing cannot be taught – that it must be watched and appreciated. That there’s a love about it that must come from within – a love that can be passed from generation to generation.

DanceZAnd funny enough, when I spoke with Andrew Wakonabo, a winning boy crowned “Mii-Gwitch Mahnomen Brave” from last year, he said the same thing, explaining, “I pretty much learned myself – watching other people dance.” The winning dancers are crowned “brave” and “princess” and their title is more complicated than simply wearing a crown and a banner. Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Councilman Joe Gotchie explained that once they win, for the entire year they must “demonstrate responsibilities [so] that other youth look up to them.”

There are all sorts of dances at the pow wow and members must be dressed in full regalia to be permitted to participate in competition. Here we witnessed grass, traditional, jingle dress (healing dress) and fancy shell dancers. There are also dances for everyone in the audience, dances for the entire community and all visitors to participate in.

When I met with the councilman the night before the pow wow he told me of an aunt of his who back in his rebellious youth was a real hard case. She’d get all the boys riled up and excited about the pow wow. “You know the pow wow’s coming,” she’d exhort, “yelling and cussing and telling us we had to sort ourselves out and get ourselves in line.” Joe broke down while he told me the story – he said that it was for her that he would dance – that to this day he’s going to all of this work year in and year out (now running the show) just to make this aunt proud. Even though the aunt has been gone now for several years, he can still hear her.

DanceXThere’s a bond between the old and the young within the Native American community that other cultures can learn from. The Ojibwe historically used complex pictures on sacred birch bark scrolls to communicate their knowledge.

Today, I learned that for the Ojibwe, dance communicates love. I saw a lot of smiles and felt a feeling that as one older member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe explained “is impossible to put into words”. A language all its own which is positive and knows no age.