Next week I’ll be participating in the Breakthrough Leaders Program as part of the 2012 Food Systems Summit organized and hosted by The University of Vermont.
A few weeks ago, the PR team contacted me to answer a series of questions for a profile of participants. I started writing and ended up with way too much material. Rather than trash it, I thought I’d share the “extra” verbiage here.
Question: How did you come to be in the role you are currently in? What was your journey?
First Draft of My Response:
In some ways, it’s like the rest of the world is finally catching up to me. I’ve always loved what I call “real food.” I grew up in a rural area in the late 1960s and 1970s at a time and place when many people still had gardens and still cooked at home using ingredients that were produced without as many additives, preservatives, chemicals.
Many of my relatives were farmers, including some who had small dairy operations. My parents weren’t vegetarians but they preferred vegetables, dried beans and fish/seafood over meat and poultry and they preferred to eat at home, except when we went out for seafood.
The Early Years: Books, Food & Nature
In the early 1970s, when I was about 9-10 years old, I discovered the Foxfire books at the library. These focused on folk remedies and traditional Southern Appalachian foods. Around the same time, I read Jean George’s book, My Side of the Mountain, which introduced me to the idea of living off the land. The latter book led me to Thoreau and an old book written in the 1920s, Camping and Woodcraft. All of that led me into whole grain breads, yogurt, granola, alfalfa sprouts and the “health foods” that became mainstreamed in the early 1970s.
I also grew up as an outdoorsy-child. We always lived “in the country” and I played outside and in the woods. My paternal grandmother was a nature-lover and we used to go back into the woods after dark with a tape-recorder and capture the sounds of night creatures. I attribute my early love of nature and the natural world to this grandmother’s influence and to my childhood experiences.
All these aspects of my early life were mutually-reinforcing, so by the time I was 10 years old I was convinced that I would be a “wildlife conservationist” when I grew up. I didn’t call it an environmentalist or anything like that.
Life in “the Country”
Around that time, my maternal great-grandfather died. He had been a big farmer all his life and a lot of land in Northwest Alabama. My parents inherited a sizable tract about 2 miles from where we lived at the time and built a house on the new land. The farm was a combination of cultivated acreage (leased to a soybean farmer), pasture land, woods and a creek.
From that point on, my brother and I really did play in the woods all the time. We camped and hiked and explored. My family also occasionally had a variety of farm animals. At any given time, we might have a small herd of cattle, chickens, a pig, horses. One year, I was given the responsibility of getting up at 4:30 a.m. and mixing powdered milk to bottle feed about 6-8 calves.
By the time I was in high school, I had developed an interest in law as a career, but I did spend the summer before college working as the office assistant for the county soil conservation office, where I learned a lot (that I essentially filed away for later) and felt the continuing pull toward a life outdoors.
Launching a Career & Rediscovering “Me”
The next 15-20 years are pretty non-eventful. I continued to love nature and the outdoors, as well as cooking and eating real food. But I was busy with college, law school and building a career.
I ran, hiked, occasionally went camping, cooked regularly but didn’t do much to pursue anything formal either environmentally or agriculturally until the late 1990s, when I left the practice of law to pursue a Ph.D.
Having a more flexible schedule at that point allowed me to really start to reevaluate my life, who I was and what I wanted to emphasize. I had always eaten healthy foods, but I really cranked up the emphasis on fresh and healthy during my grad school years.
Discovering the “Slow Food Movement”
In 2003, I moved to Oklahoma to begin my career as a college professor at Oklahoma State University. Although I wasn’t involved with the agriculture communications program, the land-grant mission of Oklahoma State contributed to my renewed interest in food and I began to actively read about food production, industrial agriculture and more.
In summer 2005, I planted my first real backyard garden (of my own) and, in learning about how to grow my food, I discovered the slow food movement and realized: “This is where I’ve been all my life. Why didn’t I start this movement.”
From that point forward, everything really began to accelerate in a more systematic way in terms of my emphasis on real food, the environment, nature, and my concern about the industrial food system.
I had an opportunity to return to Alabama to practice law with my previous firm, so I took it. But I soon realized that I felt stymied by a desk job and that I wouldn’t have as much flexibility to pursue my research interests–and I didn’t have as much time to exercise, either. A faculty position opened up at Samford University in Birmingham and I accepted the offer and moved to Birmingham in 2009.
Epiphany & Farm-to-Table Restaurants
During my 2 years back in Tuscaloosa, I discovered a fairly new restaurant, Epiphany, that emphasized local and regionally-produced foods. I dined there often and got acquainted with the chef, Tres Jackson.
Although I was familiar with Alice Waters and Frank Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham and Slow Food International, I wasn’t particularly knowledgeable of the “farm-to-table” movement when I got acquainted with Tres Jackson at Epiphany and talked, first hand, with a chef who was trying to promote a farm-to-table approach to dining in Tuscaloosa, which was still basically a smallish-town in a rural area of Alabama. I was active in the West Alabama Chapter of the Sierra Club, which was promoting sustainable foods at the time and that led me to further explorations of this movement in Alabama.
When I moved to Birmingham in 2009, I discovered a much more vibrant farm-to-table movement and “food scene” was underway.
As I’ve watched this food-and-agriculture movement take shape in recent years, I’ve tried to figure out how I could become actively involved. But it’s been a bit like being an outsider in Birmingham, because I actually do come from a rural background, so I don’t have the employment connections to Southern Living that most area “food professionals” have and I don’t have a background as a professional chef or an educational background as a nutritionist. And I’m not in a financial position to dine out weekly at the more expensive farm-to-table restaurants here.
Then it occurred to me last year that I could make sustainable agriculture, food and environmental issues the focus of my scholarly research efforts. And that’s where I am now.
What’s YOUR story? Do you eat real food? Do you care about food or agriculture? Why OR why not? Please share your food story by leaving a comment. I’d love to know more about how YOU feel about food.
[Footnote: Of course, I had to edit that down for the actual profile, which is here. I should point out that I didn't write the title of that post: It's safe to say that "farmer" is a bit premature. I'm nowhere near being a farmer, although my parents probably qualify for that designation, at least on a part-time, small-scale basis.]