On a Memoir of Farm Life

— by Hannah Lee

Memoirs allow me to live vicariously in others’ lifestyles and cultures. They have taught me about the diversity in people’s choices and values. I was first drawn to Suzanne McMinn’s new memoir, Chickens in the Road, because of the red barn on the cover, the mention of chickens, and the subtitle, “An adventure in ordinary splendor.”

What I got was more than just a chronicle of “Do It Yourself” (DIY) self-sufficiency projects. McMinn’s journey, from being a city girl to a farmer, is also a road map for finding inner strength in the face of adversity. Fear had paralyzed her from making difficult decisions, but when she finally did so, the right choices were awaiting her.

More after the jump.
McMinn begins her tale with her move to the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia, where her family had lived for generations. She uprooted her three children from their city life in Texas to live in the old farmhouse (dubbed “the slanted little house” for its uneven floors). There she learned to can food, kill raccoons with a .22 Long Rifle, and ignite the gas stove in the “cellar porch,” in a futile attempt to keep the pipes from freezing.

Later, she built a new home on a 40-acre farm with her new partner. It was so isolated that it could only be reached by fording three creeks in one direction, and a river in the other one. Poverty was another kind of isolation in Appalachia. They had neighbors who did not have a phone service, and still relied on an outhouse.

McMinn gathered around her a veritable menagerie of chickens, dairy goats, sheep and pigs, but they were more of a petting zoo than hardworking farm animals. The addition of a milk cow finally made her feel like a real farmer. The cow, although elderly, bony and ugly, was an abundant source of milk.

However, the physical effort of milking was greater for the novice farmer: The first day, it took her an hour and a half to yield just three-quarters of a gallon of milk. Over time, her fingers, arms, and back got stronger, and she acquired more stamina. Then she ventured into making butter and cheese, but the first batch of cheese was inedible.

McMinn explained why she chose this lifestyle:  

For some reason, there are those of us who leave the collective cocoon of public care, determined to test our grit against the challenge of individual self-sufficiency. Maybe it’s stubbornness. Maybe it’s arrogance. Maybe it’s the desire to meet and defeat challenge. Other people jump out of airplanes. Some climb sheer mountain faces. Still others race cars. It’s all about testing some deep place inside that the comfortable, secure world today won’t make you test otherwise. For me, it was surviving winter on a remote farm. That was my airplane, my mountain, my race car. My test.

I preferred Barbara Kingsolver’s 2008 memoir, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life” for her narrative skill, and because it was first farm memoir that I have read, but one plot twist in Chickens in the Road made it worthwhile. McMinn made an emotional breakthrough, that could be a source of inspiration to all of us facing a difficult life decision. [Spoiler alert for the rest of the article.]

Her partner was ready for any new self-sufficiency project, but he had a bizarre temper. While it was gut-wrenching for me to read about their fights, and the verbal abuse he heaped on her, it made the climax much more riveting.

She loved her farm, and she needed his physical strength to do chores. She could not manage to do those chores by herself on a remote farm with an inconvenient layout, that was cut off from civilization with the first snowfall. However, when their relationship problems came to a head, she surprised them both by moving out.

Two miracles occurred at this point. The first miracle was that McMinn quickly found another farm just 10 miles away. It came with a paved road, mail delivery, and a bus stop in front of the house, so no more overnight stays in town for her children when she could not get down the steep driveway.

The small but charming 1930s farmhouse had been restored and maintained, and it had gas for heating. A separate studio was suitable for classes and farm-related events, equipped with up-to-code plumbing. The farm had mature cherry and apple trees, and wild berry bushes.

Much of the 100 acres, that were flat, had been cleared and fenced, ready for animals to move right in. There was a faucet in the goat field for water (no more carrying water!). There was a good well, and public water too. To the delight of the teen daughter, there were a stable and a pasture for horses. With the accessible layout of the farm, the chickens could finally even go “in the road.”

The second miracle was almost mystical: For two years, the farm had stood empty, while the owners entertained several offers. One of them, who was a psychic, kept refusing to sell it to people who were “not the one.” And every time, as she predicted, the deal fell through. After McMinn’s first visit to the farm, the psychic told her two brothers, “She is the one.”

To McMinn, it was the only farm she visited, and she wrote that “It looked like it had fallen off the pages of a children’s storybook and it was everything I’d ever dreamed a farm would be.” The farm had lain fallow for two years, until McMinn was ready to step out on her own. A religious Jew would call that bashert (predestined).

The lesson for me was broader than the feminist message, of breaking away from her abusive partner. It stood for the times that we have to make difficult decisions, and we are paralyzed by fear: fear of the unknown and fear of change. God has a plan for us, and we have to trust in the timeliness of how people and events come into our lives at the right time. And that is a lesson for 5774, in which we face new challenges, for the good and the not-so-good.

Chickens in the Road will be released on October 15. It has an appendix of recipes: an iron skillet upside-down pizza recipe, that came from a West Virginia Department of Agriculture pamphlet; and one for making vanilla extract, that will be a cost-saver for home bakers. Another appendix, of crafts, includes instruction for making hot-process soap (faster than cold-process), beeswax lip balm, and laundry detergent.

Beyond the avid DIYer, this book would be useful for a school pioneer project, or a recreation of shtetl life. A blog by the same name is available here.

A Living Link to Our Jewish Farming Past


— by Hannah Lee

Dressed in the modest garb of an observant Jew, Nachum Helig may not be what you’d expect of a farmer, especially if you’re only familiar with the young hipsters of Adamah and Jewish Farm School.  However, he’s the fourth generation to till his family’s land in southern New Jersey and he spoke last week at Lower Merion Synagogue, after a showing of the 1993 documentary, The Land Was Theirs.

More after the jump.
Baron Maurice de HirschAfter the assassination of Alexander II of Russia in 1881, the Jews were persecuted and displaced. To counter these pogroms with his utopian vision of a better life for Jews, the German-Jewish philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch funded farming communities in Argentina, Canada, and Palestine. He also set up a smaller trust for the United States. Of the 100 Jewish or so farming colonies eventually founded in this country — from South Dakota to Connecticut — the most enduring one was in southern New Jersey.

The first group of 43 families arrived in Alliance, New Jersey in 1882. They had no farming skills, but they wanted a healthier alternative to the stifling factory work available in the major cities where most immigrants landed. Land was relatively cheap because the soil was either of a sandy loam or clay — the latter is worse, because it doesn’t drain rainwater — both of a low quality avoided by the experienced farmers. The first year, everyone lived together in three barrack-style buildings. The following year, they divided the land into 15-acre plots and they built two-room houses with a cellar. The colony’s main advantage was its location, 40 miles south of Philadelphia and along the tracks of the Jersey Central Railroad, which carried their produce to markets.


Still shot from This Land Was Theirs, The National Center for Jewish Film.

It was grueling work for these earliest pioneers, and one elder recalled, “cooperation was key. There was no competition.” Monthly meetings of the cooperative consisted of long, loud arguments, said another elder, by “people whose intellect was 40 times greater than what their [farming] jobs required.” A third senior recalled her father plowing the fields while reading a book propped up in front of him.

In the early years, they worked for non-Jews while they learned to farm. Later, the Jews accepted outside funding to build side businesses that generated income: cigar production, garment piecework, and canning. By the 1920s, raising chickens became the profitable source of income, and southern New Jersey became known as the “Egg Basket of America.” Prior to World War II, most egg production came from farm flocks of fewer than 400 hens, according to the American Egg Board.

As a boy in the 1950s, Nachum Helig raised steer as a member of the local 4H agricultural youth organization and worried his mother by sleeping in their stalls at the county fairs. At age 10, his father gave him 1,000 broilers (chickens raised for meat, not eggs) to raise; with his earnings, he bought more of his beloved steer. He was already driving a tractor by then, long before he was eligible for a driver’s license.

The Helig family became respected members of their community. Helig’s father, Jacob, served as mayor of Pittsgrove Township for 28 years and also a justice of the peace. He built a courtroom in his basement; when the policemen would traipse through his house in their shiny boots, his mother would point to them as her enforcers of good behavior.

At the first Yovel (golden jubilee, 50th) celebration in 1932, Isaac Helig, son of the pioneers, Sarah and Simcha Helig, served on the reception committee; at the second Yovel (centennial, 100th) celebration in 1982, Jacob Helig served on the planning committee.  Of the fourth generation, Nachum Helig attended Rutgers University, earned a degree in industrial engineering, and served in the United States Army. He remained involved with the farm while working in industry, returning full-time to farming in 1995. At the farm’s peak, the Helig family farm had 25,000 egg-laying chickens, 25 beef cattle, and 80-100 acres of land devoted to corn, soybeans, and hay. These days, his biggest cash crop is alfalfa hay, grown on 70 acres. His newest customer is the Cape May County Zoo, where his hay is favored by the giraffes.

Devorah Helig grew up in Vineland as the daughter of a dry-goods merchant and is also a descendent of Jewish farmers who settled in Connecticut. Nachum Helig drives twice each work day to pray with the small community at the Vineland shul, located 7 miles from their farm, but for Shabbat and holidays the Heligs come to the Yeshiva of Philadelphia. A remarkable couple, Nachum and Devorah Helig represent the long tradition of Jews tilling the land while maintaining Jewish practice with integrity.

Why Does the Farm Bill Matter to Us?

— by Hannah Lee

Most Americans are protected from the travails and vagaries of our food sources.  The five-year cycle of Congressional debates on agricultural subsidies may underwhelm you, but it is relevant to your family’s well-being in hidden ways.  On Thursday, the Senate approved a new farm bill that would cost nearly $1 trillion over the next 10 years.

More after the jump.
Sugar subsidies were left in place.  Crop insurance was reduced for the wealthiest farmers, those with adjusted gross incomes of more than $750,000.  This was through the efforts of Senators Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) and Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), saving $1 billion over 10 years. Recipients would now have to take steps to reduce erosion and protect wetlands, according to a last-minute amendment by Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia).  The bill eliminated about $5 billion a year in direct payments to farmers and farmland owners, whether or not they grew crops.

The limited good news is new funding for the next generation of farmers through an amendment by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).  The bill will also expand block grants to states for research and promotion of fruits and vegetables.  It will encourage the expansion of farmers’ markets.  It will consolidate several conservation programs to make them more efficient.

Despite the efforts of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), the biggest cuts were to the food stamp program, now known as the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP.

The House will begin discussion of the bill after the July 4th recess.  The House Republican budget presented by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) would reduce food stamp spending by about $134 billion over the next decade and turn the program into block grants for the states.

Among the 64 Senators approving the Farm Bill was our own Robert Casey (D), while among the 35 Senators rejecting the Farm Bill was Patrick Toomey (R).   Senator Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) was the sole abstention.  

Profile: Leket Israel

–by Hannah Lee

Just in time for the holiday of Shavuot with its agrarian setting and the message of hachnasat orchim (welcoming the stranger), I got to hear a presentation by Paul Leiba, the new Director of Development for Leket Israel.

Founded eight years ago by Joseph Gitler, Leket Israel combined two formerly small food-rescue organizations into an enterprise that now serves 55,000 clients daily.  Fully supported by private donations, it employs 80 people, operates nine trucks that do food runs by day from corporate kitchens, and deploys thousands of volunteers for the nightly runs for pick-up from catering halls and restaurants.  Their field-rescue missions help farmers by harvesting produce from the fields that the farmers cannot sell because the items do not conform to consumer expectations for color and size.  Because volunteers tire easily in the field, Leket Israel also employs 22 full-time pickers who are mostly Israeli Arab women.  Leket may well be the only organization in the world that offers health insurance and a pension plan for its field workers.  It’s also a living model of the Biblical mitzvah (commandment) for paying your workers on time.  In 2010, Leket rescued 9 million pounds of fruits and vegetables from over 300 farms throughout Israel.  All was delivered free of charge to 290 non-profit agencies serving the poor.

More after the jump.
Leiba quoted from Jonathan Blum’s book,American Wasteland, in which the author offers the powerful image of the 90,000-seat Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, CA filled to capacity being equivalent to the amount of food being wasted each day in this country.  And scholar Tim Jones has estimated that 40-50% of food being grown is not even harvested from the ground, because it would not be worth the effort by the farmers because of declining prices or changes in consumer demand.  And 90% of the water used in the U.S. is used for agriculture, so the critical issues of food and water usage is intimately connected.  Finally, the methane from decaying crops in the field may be more harmful than car exhaust, according to Leiba.

Leket’s clients are about 85% Jewish and 15% Arab, majority immigrants, and mostly elderly.  Originally, they’d planned on dealing only with kosher food, but Gitler consulted with his Rabbi and was advised that it would be a shanda (shame) if they neglected the non-kosher food when there are poor people who need food.  Now, they pick up non-kosher food from restaurants and, in the south of Tel Aviv, every Friday afternoon, Leket serves the food to about 400 African refugees encamped there.  (The official statistic is 30,000 refugees from the African nations of Sudan, Eritrea, and the Ivory Coast, but Leiba estimates that there may well be twice as many Africans.)  He reports that the shopkeepers in the nearby neighborhoods are grateful because they’ve experienced fewer thefts of food from their shops since this feeding program has begun.

I was curious that this Biblical mitzvah of leket (gleaning or leaving the dropped grain in your field for the poor) was brought to life by an American oleh (immigrant)  and modeled on a gleaning project of an evangelical church in New England.  It is a continual logistical challenge and, maybe only possible in a country that’s less litigious than ours.