Eulogy for a Mad Farmer: In memory of Don Halcomb

What is happiness but preparing its place?

What is its monument but a rich field?

-Wendell Berry, from “Prayers and Sayings of The Mad Farmer”

The focus of much of academia is our outputs: how many journal articles, scores on student evaluations, attendance at workshops, grant dollars brought in. The production of knowledge is cast in either the romantic light of the mad professor scribbling away in their office, or the cold rationality of the data table or lab report. I don’t think we talk enough about the soft and deeply personal side of our work, and the innumerable relationships that it takes to keep the intellectual machine chugging along.

Which is my overly intellectual way of avoiding my emotions and getting around to saying that the Kentucky agricultural community is grieving the loss of a beloved farmer. This past month Mr. Don Halcomb was laid to rest on his family’s seventh generation farm in Schochoh, an unincorporated community over in Logan County. Seems like everybody involved in farming knew Don or knew of his reputation as an independent spirit and a thought leader. Scott Smith once told me that Don “may be the smartest farmer in Kentucky.” For those of you who don’t know Scott, that’s high praise indeed.

Part of the Halcomb farm, site of our field day

First and last encounters

I first encountered Mr. Halcomb in abstentia. On a field-day at his family’s farm last summer I walked the test plots of barley and rye that they were growing in collaboration with UK extension researchers and stakeholders from the distilling industry. It was an almost painfully perfect day complete with a locally-sourced meal prepared by kids at the high school, and the kind of sparkling conversation that comes from passionate people sharing their knowledge and curiosity.

His two sons and their wives impressed me both with the graciousness of their hospitality and with their innovative spirit. Turns out they came by those traits honestly, thanks to Don. On one of the tables that day was a copy of a home-printed spiral bound booklet with the title “A 30 year Wheat Safari in Kentucky.” Inside was a speech Don had delivered to the Practical Farmers of Iowa in the summer of 2017 where he openly shared the lessons he’d learned experimenting with no-till farming and wheat breeding. I saw just enough flipping through the pages to know that if I wanted to understand the heart of a progressive farmer, he was a man I needed to meet.

Later that summer I was able to spend a day with Don, his sons, and his long-time friend and co-conspirator Dr. Dave Van Sanford. They showed me around Schochoh and we talked about the history of their farm. Our conversation wandered through farming, plant breeding, community, and family. I had hopes of returning for another visit, but time and Don’s progressing illness kept that from happening. I received regular updates from Dave and the family, and I sent what little support I could offer. In the end what I have is the audio recording of that one precious day, and I have been struggling with how to honor that gift.

Test barley on the Halcomb farm

Footprints

While Mr. Halcomb is the subject of this story, it turns out I’m not quite ready to tell it. I’m not even sure it’s mine to tell. Which brings me to the question of how we as researchers and fellow food-system collaborators understand our relationships with each other. I owe Dave Van Sanford a great debt of gratitude for introducing me to the Halcomb family. As I told him, the relationships that we as researchers cultivate with our community are priceless; they are made through years of trust building, knowledge sharing, and mutual risk-taking. To bring me in to the fold of a 30-plus year relationship was an immeasurable honor. It also reminds me to sit with deep appreciation of the partnerships we’ve been so fortunate to develop through our work. This blurring of the line between the personal and professional is so hard to navigate and sitting with grief helps illuminate just how much we cherish each other.

Being at a loss, I’ll close with an excerpt from a letter I sent to Don before he passed, and the extension of my profound gratitude to all of you who are our Food Connection family.

“In telling the story of your trip to England, you referred to [another farm family] as “innovators for generations,” and it made me chuckle because that’s precisely how I’ve come to see your family: early no-till adopters, traveling the world to learn new farming lessons, developing new seeds to support farmer’s independence, funding wheat research to benefit farmers and eaters rather than just input suppliers, developing knowledge and markets to support estate grown grain. Innovators all the way down…

You also spoke about an English farmer who told you the best fertilizer is the “footprints of the farmer.” This strikes a deep chord with me… It is such good and humble work to tend the land, feed the people, and care for the community. I am so thankful for the footprints you’ve left for us to follow.”

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If you’d like to make a donation in Don’s memory, the family has invited contributions to The Boys and Girls Club of Franklin-Simpson, Kentucky. Don was a long time supporter of their community garden efforts, and proud of their service to the community. You can donate via the donate button on their Facebook page, and add a note to your donation that it is in his memory: https://www.facebook.com/bgcfs/

Smiling Don (002)
In Memory of Don Halcomb: Husband, Father, Farmer, Neighbor, and Friend

The Stillness of the Earth

“Nature does not achieve balance by keeping to one level. Rather, elements and seasons alternate with one another in succession. Balance… is not stasis but a dynamic process of many overlapping alternations.” – Deng Ming-Dao

Stepping into the brisk morning air this weekend, the fleeting touch of a snowflake drew my eyes from my beleaguered mud field of a back yard (thanks both to torrential rains and my over-enthusiastic dog) to the muted-bright of the winter sky. Watching the snow fall between the branches of our birch tree, my mind drew paths from cycles of seasons and soil nutrients, and to complexity’s need for stillness.

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Photo credit: Kentucky Division of Forestry

Going to ground

There is a stark beauty to winter that’s easily subsumed in habitual griping about the weather and our flailing efforts at ‘productivity.’ Our tendency to rely on unnecessary binaries (viewing the world in black and white terms) is evident in the assumption that if summer is good then winter, as its antipode, must be bad. Alternately, those who practice Bio-Dynamic agricultural believe that winter is the time when the earth’s energies turn inward, repairing and preparing for the exuberant work of summer to come. To quote Rudolph Steiner: “I know about what I am as man only when I don’t live along stolidly, but when I allow myself to be lifted up to the heavens in summer, when I let myself sink down in winter into the Earth mysteries, into the secrets of the Earth.” Our challenge is to resist the push to irrational business and do the same: turn inward, and accept winter’s call to the slow work of cultivating complexity.

Many moons ago, Dr. Krista Jacobsen made a heroic effort to teach me about the soil carbon and nitrogen cycles. With saintly patience well suited for winter, she walked me through the processes by which essential elements are taken-up, taken-in, and re-integrated into ever more complex molecules that are the bedrock of our corporeal world. Grappling with diagrams and flowcharts, I was struck by the almost mystical quality of the biophysical transformations indicated by a simple arrow; intimate relationships between soil-microbes, decomposing beings, the air above, earth below, and the water between. All that life transmogrified in the stillness of the earth.

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The fallow field behind my parent’s house, and my mud-making dog

Fallow, not idle

If we find the joy in eating with the seasons, might we also explore what happens when we think with them? Slowing down from the raucous exuberance of summer, we might find unexpected gratitude for moments of planning and contemplation as we bundle up with blankets and books (or seed catalogs). We need not rush to solutions or action in these months of winter, but rather embrace the chance to grapple.

Winter is my best season for reading and thinking. I’ve been alternating my attention between a wonderfully befuddling book of social theory by Donna Haraway (full of sea-monsters and butterflies) with a more practical effort to learn about small-grain production. Bryan, our extension associate, and I have been parsing the fall’s lessons to see what needs distilling in publications or worksheets. Dr. Maynard has been sequestered in his office with student advising and syllabus revising, and Chef Tanya is keeping the kitchen full of the warm smells of slowly developing Burgoo and the methodical work of deep cleaning and reorganizing. We’re all sharing countless pots of coffee, clasping hot mugs between chilled hands and gazing out the window while our thoughts and plans coalesce.

Just as a fallow field is a site not of idleness but of hidden transformations, we have these days of waxing daylight to assemble the experiences we’ve gathered into new understandings and approaches. Working with the clarity of winter air, we can think with this season, abandoning our need to divide our world into the good and bad. Fueled by the quiet intensity of winter’s chill, at this moment between earth’s inhale and exhale, let us sink deep into the rhizomous processes of exploration and transformation and see what spring awakens.

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Post Script: The title of this post is an allusion to the brilliant Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin in which a physical world defined by its never-ending changes and upheavals is referred to as The Stillness. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/26/books/review/nk-jemisin-stone-sky-broken-earth-trilogy.html

A Big Lesson From The Big Steer

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This past month Knickers, a 7-year-old Holstein steer from Australia, took the internet by storm. Amazement, bewilderment, and raging debates ensued over whether “Big Cow” was a hoax or a freak of nature (standing 6’4” at his shoulder, Knickers is, in fact, a big steer). In the same week that we as humans managed to land a functioning robot on Mars, The New York Times science correspondent was compelled to pen an entire column on basic cow facts. As beguiling this all may be, the buzz generated by that behemoth bovine opened my mind to an invaluable and easily overlooked opportunity.

For those of us who work closely with agriculture, people’s lack of familiarity with our food system can be disheartening, or we can take a different perspective. The delightful banter that ensued from Knickers’ fifteen minutes of fame reminded me to meet folks’ curiosity about our food with open arms, as it can lead us down a path of mutual discovery. What ag-nerd wouldn’t have fun talking about the thing we’re most passionate about in the world?


Nerd Squad


I frequently stumble into sharing what humble knowledge I have about food and farming with people of all walks of life. Earlier this month I visited with an after-school science club for girls. While my plan was to teach them how to design a survey and analyze data, I spent most of my time satisfying the girls’ seemingly endless, if morbid, curiosity about how chickens and pigs are slaughtered. While I narrowly avoided a detour into the literal birds and the bees (“So could all the eggs we get turn into chickens?”), we had a great time. At the end of the day I vowed to brush up on my knowledge of animal husbandry, and the girls did eventually get to make a bar graph and learn the word ‘parsimonious.’

Just a couple weeks later, and the same week that Knickers was in internet-ascendance, I sat in on a graphic design class whose final project is to design campaigns that promote the great Kentucky foods available on campus. The students had a lot of exciting ideas for promoting our local food efforts, but not a lot of experience with actual food. I had to gently remind them to be sure the images they used are of foods that can actually be grown here. From there we veered into a rambling question and answer session that led to the revelation that avocados and coffee are not grown in Kentucky, but a whole host of other fruits and vegetables are (I was duly impressed with how many types of produce I can name off the top of my head). We also discussed in the complexities of storing winter vegetables and why you shouldn’t wash sweet potatoes if you plan on keeping them through the winter. Once again, not where I was expecting a conversation about graphic design to go, but I was happy to be along for the ride.


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It’s easy to take what we know for granted, and even easier to miss opportunities to share our passions and help others connect with them. As farming and farmers continue to diminish in their prevalence in the social and economic structure as a society, those of us who care about the future of agriculture would do well to take every opportunity to can to share the wonder we find in the goings-on of our food system. If it takes a Big Steer to make a big difference in someone’s interest in where their food comes from, how it’s produced, and the people and landscapes that are impacted along the way, so be it! And, if we’re being honest… Knickers really is one heck of a beast.

In Praise of Odd Family

We’re lucky to form a unique kind of family here at The Food Connection, both in immediate and extended ways, and this semester has been full reminders of how lucky we are to have each other.  I should tell you all the story of the gaggle of the farmers supplying our UK Dining Salad bar program, or of my conversations with the patriarch of a multi-generation grain farm in Western Kentucky. The story of the surprise deliveries of experimental Okra from a grass scientist and the resulting crisp refrigerator pickles is another good one.  However, those will have to wait because for now, I want to brag on one of our kids, and I’m sure none of you will fault me for that.

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Three of our student works: Viktor, Rachel, and Natalie

 

We have an incredible crew of student workers who keep our kitchen humming; washing dishes, setting up cooking classes, serving as petit sous chefs. We met Viktor his Sophomore year, and while I won’t claim to have favorites, what Chef Tanya and I appreciate ‘our Viktor’ is his diligence and earnestness. Now in his senior year, we’ve watched him transform from tentativness in the kitchen to holding his own with any recipe we throw at him, as long as there’s AC/DC blasting (which I am happy to indulge…mostly).  I may also be partial because he sneaks me the heels of baguettes while I’m stuck working in my office, which he knows are my favorite.

A Class of His Own

If you know one thing about Viktor (besides the AC/DC thing) you know he loves to cook. If you know two things, you know he’s proud of his Hungarian heritage. We’ve long heard about his mother Katalin’s fabulous cooking, and the stories of how she carefully transcribed recipes from Viktor’s Hungarian grandmother over the phone when she was a young mother finding her way in the United States. When the College of Arts and Sciences announced this year’s theme was Year of Migration, we knew we had the perfect way to launch our annual cooking class series. What better way to welcome the campus to the Food Connection family then by celebrating one of our own?

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Katalin, AKA Viktor’s Mom

The night of Viktor’s cooking class, the kitchen was filled with both familiar and new faces, and the warm scents of paprika and braised beef. Viktor and his mother spoke to us in English and each other in Hungarian as they moved from table to table deftly guiding the class through Gulyás (peppery beef stew), Nokedli (egg noodle dumplings), and Palacsinta (sweet crepes). Sounds of friendly banter were punctuated with yelps of joy as someone successfully flipped a crepe. The dish we shared at the end of the evening was a true delight; a rich stew, hewed red with dried peppers grown by Viktor’s grandmother, ladled over toothsome dumplings and finished with a bright dollop of sour cream.

In praise of odd families

It’s hard to say exactly what made that meal so special. I’m inclined to say there’s no one thing but rather a magical mix that can best be described as family; not only the bond shared by Viktor and his mother, but also the deep affection and pride we have for our students, the familiar bonds of community built with those who join us in our kitchen, and the farmers whose names we praise at the beginning of our classes and the land they steward. Woven through our bowls of stew were delicate ties of new and old affections, shared and personal histories, lands distant and near, and the work of making family wherever we find ourselves.

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When I travel home to my parents’ place, I like to walk the stubbly cornfields and wooded marshland behind their house like I did when I was a teenager. Blowing clouds of breath into the dusk, my legs re-learn how to walk on uneven furrows, and the cries of blackbirds reminds me that our non-human world is also bound in family and home. The friends and neighbors who we’ve adopted over the years join us at our holiday tables and remind me that our bonds are where and with whom we build them. In our precarious times the best (and only) way forward is through an expansive understanding of who we are kin to, and who and what is kin to us: through a recognition that we are responsible for each other.

As we head into the winter holidays, I hope you all have the chance to connect with your families both by birth and by affinity. If you’re ever in need a place at the table, you’ll always find one here with us.

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The Viktor Fan Club

The Herens Bells

This summer was full of incredible experience, and most of those came from the two weeks I spent accompanying a study abroad trip to France and Switzerland with Dr. Tim Woods. One experience, in particular, pulled together a number of thoughts and sentiments I’ve been grappling with over the past few months, and I’ve done my best to put it into words in this post.

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With typical francophone somberness, Mr. Berguerand greeted us outside the tiny town of Verbier, Switzerland, and bid our bus follow him up to the summer pastures. Climbing to nearly 14,000 feet, we arrived at the fields that for generations have been home to Herens cattle and the farmers that tend them. Our students ambled among the gentle cows as they nuzzled our hands for a scratch. Each animal had a large, handcrafted bell around her neck which rang constantly and in varied tones as they grazed on verdant grass and tiny wildflowers. My words cannot do that music justice (please see this video, and turn your sound on).

The herdsmen stood watch, alternately leaning on their staffs or leaping into action to corral an errant heifer. Shirts tucked into blue jeans and faces shaded by well-worn caps, they could have been any one of my neighbors from back home. An old border collie looked on benevolently. Their work was timeless and endless. We were floating off the edge of the world, carried by the song of bells and bellows of cows.

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Savior Faire and the Bon Vivant

They still milk the Herens, though it was unclear how robust milk sales are. Our translator explained that the trend in Swiss dairy, as everywhere, is for fewer, larger operations concentrated in the low lands that emphasize export and homogenized product. The Herens cattle are now kept mostly for sport and spring festivals. They’re known as ‘fighting’ cows, but its better described as mildly strenuous wrestling. Heifers vie for dominance in the spring when they’re set out to fresh pasture, and a queen is crowned. They drape her with flowers and parade her through town with children riding on her back.

Lunch was a simple picnic arrayed on a few flat stones above the milking barn: cured meats, rye bread, Raclette cheese, tiny cornichons and pickled onions. Sharing a bottle of red wine we spoke together of things both idle and profound. With my very broken French, hand gestures, and the occasional help of our translator we learned there is no Swiss equivalent for “Bless her heart,” nor English equivalent of  ‘Bon Vivant’ (someone who is a joyful mess; good at living, bad at life). We also learned that Mr. Berguerand has four children, but they work in banking and have no plans to return to the mountains or the heard. Looking down on the valley, our young translator observed that in his lifetime the village has expanded by at least a third, primarily for vacation homes for the global elite. James Blunt has a place there. “It’s getting harder for the local people to stay,” he stated simply.

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Mr. Berguerand and his dog

Willingness to pay

As our bus descended back to town, one of the students speculated that you could accurately asses a customers willingness to pay to preserve the Herens breed and thus determine both the price of cheese and the future of the breed. While I appreciated their enthusiasm for the tools of their discipline, I was reminded of Oscar Wilde’s observation that in our cynical era we know “the price of everything and the value of nothing.” In a food system that can change with a trending hashtag, should we trust the abstract ‘consumer’ with determining our agricultural and cultural legacy? The Mayans built monuments to corn; will future generations will uncover digital archives of Unicorn Frappuccinos?

I won’t get into the heartbreak of the dairy crisis currently facing farm families in Kentucky and across the United States. The local and national media have done a better job telling their story than I could. It’s enough to say that during our visit to the mountain I couldn’t stop thinking about the shared life and challenges faced by dairy families around the world.  While the Swiss nostalgia for their agrarian past keeps our Herens herdsman friends afloat, who can say how long that will last. There are currently fewer than 12,000 Herens cattle alive on this earth, and those numbers continue to drop. Left to the unbridled market forces, it may come to pass that the mountains stand silent, the song of bells having passed out of memory.

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And yet they ring

Our visits during the trip alternated between massive multi-national operations striving for large scale production to meet globally homogenous standards, and petit artisanal enterprises highly attended to the distinct characteristics of each plot of soil and the traditions of their community.  The question at hand is whether these two systems can co-exist. In bleaker moments I heard our French hosts talk of downsizing their operations or decreased sales in artisan bread. In short, I worry that the full realization of global food system leaves no room for the small, the slow, the gentle.

Thankfully, those moments pass. Through the stories from our new French and Swiss friends I am reassured that they can and will continue to thrive through collaboration and the continued support (both through both patronage and policy) from their communities. Back home I’m heartened by the new salad bar and whole animal program our dining program is rolling out this fall (watch for big news announcement soon!). However, a brighter tomorrow is never promised today, and we must all continue to advocate for and tell the stories of the small farmers whose timeless work sustains us all.

September 1, 2018

friends!

 

Time for Food

If you catch Chef Tanya deep in thought, she’ll likely confess she was thinking through her next menu. If you ask her her plans, she’ll say that her favorite radishes should be coming or, if you confess an affinity for lamb, her face will light up because she knows just the farmer to contact. Occasionally she’ll page through well-worn cookbooks to garner extra inspiration. I love these conversations because it gives me insight into her deep knowledge of both food and farmers.

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Let it shine

I’m continually impressed by Chef Tanya’s ability to make local food and seasonal cooking accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds. The dishes we make in our learning kitchen are deceptively simple, emphasizing quality of the ingredients over fancy technique. Under her patient tutelage, they coax together frittatas golden with pastured eggs and caramelized onions, crisp coleslaw of crunchy Nappa cabbage from the South Farm, or a simple bruschetta from vine-ripened tomatoes. These meals let the produce and the budding chefs with their newly acquired knife skills shine.

As much as I value Tanya’s way with novices, I also look forward to the few times a year that she really gets to show up and show out in the kitchen. One of those showcase times of year is our annual board of directors meeting in June. Even after two years of working side by side with Tanya and watching the gorgeous dishes she elicits from beginner cooks, I’m still awed by the meals she gifts us: a trio of salads that turn your least favorite vegetables (beets, kohlrabi, cabbage) into delicate gems, perfectly cooked lamb chops with a miraculous addition of a local lavender in the crust, and a simple berry cobbler so good I had to stop mid-agenda item to collect myself.

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Kentucky lamb, green tomato pickle, pommes anna, ratatouille, and other magic. A work of art by Chef Tanya Whitehouse

Find the time, make excuses, and get to the good work of living

I share this story in part to brag on Chef Tanya because she’ll never brag on herself, and I’m awfully proud of the work we do together. The larger point, however, is to celebrate the joy and beauty that come from knowing your craft and knowing a place. The meal we enjoyed was as much a product of Tanya’s years of studying in the kitchen as her years of walking our farmers markets and working directly with farmers. I should also add a sprinkle of the deep Kentucky roots that speak through her grandma’s tomato catchup and jars of jewel-like watermelon pickle that is better described as candy.

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As we enter the height of summer, I hope you find the time and make excuses to develop your own art of local eating, whether that’s a sit-down meal with loved ones or sprinkling salt over a perfect tomato that drips into the sink while you devour it. Dig through your family’s cookbook collection to resurrect the recipes on the most battered pages, or ask a farmer their favorite way to eat something they’ve grown. The more we explore our local food systems, the more excuses we have to come together as a community and cultivate a more profound knowledge of the place we call home. Now go get busy exploring at the market, in the kitchen, or at your neighbor’s table, and I’ll expect a full report from you all at the end of summer!

Loma my second homa

Thanks to my far-flung friends, summer means a string of weddings that provide the perfect excuse to high-tail it out of town for a long weekend, and an opportunity to step out of my day-to-day perspective. Which is how I ended up in Nebraska for the first time this Memorial Day weekend and was reminded of how food plays a vital role in the enigmatic nature of what makes a place home.

The day after the wedding a group of us ventured an hour outside of Omaha, down a gravel road, past a church and two abandoned buildings to the Loma Tavern. We had to park well down the road lined with two-tone farm trucks, and a small crowd of people gathered outside the tavern. As our feet we crunched along the gravel I overhead a woman walking back to her car comment to her well-dressed friend “we should have skipped the winery and come straight here.” She clearly wasn’t from Loma, and I was excited to see what awaited us.

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Squeezing inside we found the full tavern cheek to elbow with people from all age brackets sharing tables and cold drinks. Clustered at the back wall were a tuba player, a tattooed man behind a small drum kit, and a teenage girl cranking away on the accordion. Despite the close quarters, a middle-aged couple bounced back and forth to the polka music, and other folks clapped along. We managed to belly-up to the counter and caught the eye of a white-haired woman in a white dress with a white apron. She asked how many suppers we wanted (not what kind) and waved us to find a seat wherever we could.

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Our plates arrived minutes later: duck thighs roasted golden with caraway seeds, a pile of potato dumplings hidden under an even bigger pile of slightly sweetened sauerkraut, a helping of sweet corn and a fluffy dinner roll perched on top. Our local guide, Anthony, announced that this was exactly the Sunday supper his Czech grandmother used to make. My belly full of sauerkraut and ears full of “The Saddle Horse Polka” I simultaneously felt at completely home, and that I’d never been anywhere quite like Loma. It was then I noticed the hand-made sign behind the tuba player: “LOMA MY SECOND HOMA.”

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Back in Lexington, I’ve been thinking about how the work of fostering local food systems can feel overwhelming; the global food system is so vast, the trends towards convenience and homogenized food cultures so strong. Similarly, it can be challenging to communicate the importance of local food systems when we’re so used to talking about food’s value primarily in terms of cheapness.  Unlike clear accounting indicators of ‘gross margin’ or ‘net profit,’ the values of local food are intertwined with each other in particular histories, cultures, and landscapes.

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I can’t express my experience at the Loma Taproom to you all with a number, but I hope the experience resonates with your own memories of home. For me, it was my favorite diner in the small town I grew up in that served simple meals made from scratch like chicken and dumplings and apple pie with a crust so flaky I’d sometimes skip class on Wednesdays just to be sure I got a slice. (To any of my current students, that is not an excused absence!) They closed when the grandmother running the kitchen finally retired. There’s a national fast-food chain where it used to stand, and that town feels a little less like home every time I pass through.

The Loma Taprooms of the world are kept afloat not by tourists like me, but by the grace of the farmers and other rural folks down the road who stop in for lunch or a cold drink as often as they can. Those same farmers probably get their pick-ups worked on at the garage in town, which may, in turn, keep the drummer of the polka band employed. Making the extra efforts to track down their potatoes for Sunday supper not only keeps those farmers on the land but also our traditions vital and that sense of ‘home’ alive.

Dr. Lilian Brislen

June, 2018