Honoring our food – and those who grow it – this holiday season

November 25, 2022 8:05 am

Jordan Laatz, a UW-Whitewater student who is a member of the university’s Native American club, braids white corn cobs together so that the cobs can be hung and dried before being processed and distributed to Oneida Nation tribal members. Photo by Julian Emerson.

For years I had heard from my friends familiar with agriculture in the U.S. about the many benefits of eating food grown locally or regionally, and about the importance of supporting the people growing and raising those products.

As I listened to them and learned more about the local food movement, bit by bit what they told me made sense, and my wife and I turned our friends’ words into action.

We began to purchase the beef and pork we eat from small-scale farmers here in the Chippewa Valley where we live. We got to know the farmers who raise the animals we eat, to learn how that meat is free of pharmaceuticals, how the animals are fed healthy diets and treated humanely. A year later we decided to become members of a local CSA (community supported agriculture organization) through which we buy the majority of our vegetables during summer and fall months.

My wife and I were happy with our decision to eat more food locally, happy to eat healthier, and happy to support local farmers working hard just to keep their heads above water and continue the way of life they cherish. And, as food prices at grocery stores skyrocket, we realize eating this way can stabilize our food budget and serve as an investment in our values.

Still, I didn’t really understand the scope of corporate agriculture in the U.S. and its effects on farmers and consumers until the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on a supply chain far too reliant upon a system in which a few giant agriculture companies have concentrated power, whether it be the meat processing industry, the dairy sector, or farm equipment manufacturers.

Suddenly, amid virus outbreaks and stay-at-home policies, the links of that chain collapsed. Meat wasn’t processed. Store shelves were bare. Dairy farmers dumped milk. Equipment backlogs meant crops were difficult to plant and harvest.

Jim and Alison Deutsch remember all too well the difficulties they and other farmers faced when the pandemic hit. The couple raises hogs and chickens and operates an organic dairy on their 160-acre farm south of Osseo. When much of their market dried up in the early days of the pandemic, they worked to sell more of their product directly to consumers.

The Deutsches are part of a growing number of farmers in west-central Wisconsin and in the rest of the state who operate small- and mid-size farms that increasingly sell products to restaurants, stores and directly to consumers. While those efforts expand as more people are concerned about where their food comes from, and the conditions farm animals are raised in, the Deutsches and others acknowledge the challenges they face from so-called “big agriculture” and pressures to find efficiencies by growing operations ever larger or going out of business.

“People like us are doing what we can to get into new markets, to find ways to reach more customers,” Jim said on a recent morning at his farm. “But the policies now favor the big operators. They aren’t designed for farmers operating at our size.”

‘It’s about so much more’

When Jennifer Falck and a group of her fellow Oneida Nation tribe members began growing white corn a few years ago, corporate agriculture was the furthest idea from their minds. They simply wanted to try to raise a type of corn that is high in protein, a food that their ancestors had grown.

Their effort was first and foremost a way to provide their tribe with healthy food. Numerous studies show the Oneida Nation and other Native American tribes have significantly higher levels of diabetes, heart disease, and other problems that all too often lead to chronic health concerns and early deaths. Tribal members also experience poverty at higher rates than other racial groups in the U.S., making access to healthy food and quality medical care an issue for many.

In October, in my role as communications specialist for Wisconsin Farmers Union, I visited with Falck and many other Oneida tribe members as they gathered white corn and meticulously tied cobs together in large groupings, then hung them from the rafters of a storage barn. After the cobs are dry enough, they will be processed in a variety of ways and distributed to tribal members.

As attendees at this gathering took turns shucking and linking cobs, they chatted amicably, greeting old friends and meeting new ones. A mother showed off her new baby, eliciting smiles and cheerful congratulations. People partook in a range of tasty native foods made in part with white corn. Several Native Americans attending the event described the pride they felt in being part of growing a crop that was raised by their ancestors.

Falck talked with one person after another, often exchanging hugs. She introduced me to person after person. At one point she stepped back to take in the scene around her, dozens of people enjoying each other’s company.

“This is about the white corn, but it’s about so much more,” Falck said. “It’s about community, about bringing people together. And it’s about reclaiming a bit of our past.”

Wishes of Thanksgiving

My wife and I can’t say our little attempt to eat local food has any aims nearly so important. We’re simply trying to do our part, in our own little way, to eat healthier food while supporting the people who work hard to grow or produce it.

But as I sit down to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner, I will not only be thankful to enjoy the day with family and friends, I will also appreciate the people who grew that food, who raised those animals and for the animals who gave their lives so I can sustain mine.

I will wish for a world in which more people have access to high-quality, healthy food. I will wish for an agriculture system that prioritizes healthy food over profits. I will wish that Jim and Allison Deutsch and other small, family farmers like them find a way to remain in business. I will wish that Jennifer Falck and her Oneida Nation colleagues find ways to continue to expand their white corn initiative and that it leads to great health, more income and happiness for her people.

I will wish for systemic changes that would allow all of that to happen. And I will be grateful for those friends who taught me about the importance of local food, and how it’s really about so much more than any one of us, but benefits all of us, if only we’re able to realize that.

This story first appeared in Wisconsin Examiner, a States Newsroom publication and sibling site of the Minnesota Reformer.

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Julian Emerson
Julian Emerson

Julian Emerson grew up in the woods of rural Trempealeau County and now lives in the Chippewa Valley. He is the Communications Specialist for Wisconsin Farmers Union.