Working Off The Farm

Every day, I take the train to work (well, most days, when I don’t have a late meeting).

Work, for me, involves the 7th floor of a mid-rise office building in the middle of a mid-sized corporate park that happens to be the headquarters of a mid-sized cellular telephone company. I work at a desk, under florescent lights, in climate controlled stupor. I have biennial reviews, a bonus plan, and health care coverage. I swipe my ID badge to get in the door. I schedule my life in Outlook, spend a staggering amount of my time on conference calls, and take advantage of the free but really, really bad coffee in the lunch room.
In short, I work for The Man.
As instances of The Man go, this is a pretty good one, better than many I’ve been part of. But still, it is far from tilling the soil in our little urban homestead. Many days I wish I was doing just that, though, and I’ve killed time during many a conference call by browsing the John Deere website and creating a complex fantasy life that involves a tractor and acres upon acres of organically grown garlic or else stomping about in rubber boots while managing mash, sparge, and boil in my own brewery.
But back in reality, my work off the farm provides some needed resources to the family – greenbacks. Since society hasn’t completely collapsed, we are unable to trade our rutabagas for natural gas or my beer for lumber. And since local code prevents me from erecting a tower sufficient for decent wind power, we’re going to have to maintain some way to keep paying Puget Sound Energy to keep the lights on.
As you’d imagine, the corporate office park is a bastion of eat-at-your-desk, don’t-have-time-to-cook America. It is Starbucks on the way to the office, Lean Cuisine in the microwave for lunch, a soda and a Hershey’s bar from the vending machine to keep going, and drive through on the way to pick the kids up from day care. It is Applebee’s for the team offsite, fruit snacks in the shape of cartoon characters for the kid’s lunch snack, and a bag of chips during the lunchtime meeting.
But something odd has been happening of late – and I’d like to say I’ve played some role in fomenting this quiet revolution.
I’m not a hippie, a radical, or a crusader. If you asked around the office, I believe you’d find that my coworkers think I’m a damn good teacher, can craft a clever turn of phrase, write passable SQL, tell a decent joke, and know a lot of random facts. But I doubt any of them would describe me as a radical food revolutionary – because I’m not. I’m not about to go and burn down the headquarters of Monsanto or picket a feedlot.
But I do believe that food, and the decisions we make about it, have enormous short and long term impacts on our lives. I believe that the food that we as a family are growing ourselves makes a difference in the quality of our lives, health, and finances. I believe that finding ways to source quality food, raised and handled the way I believe it should be, makes a difference to my family and to the environment and economy we live in.
Now I could flame on about this – give the guy with the McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches a leering sneer or the gal with the microwave lunch a contemptuous snort. But that would make me an Urban Homesteading Asshole. And the truth is, those breakfast sausage sandwiches smell awfully good and perhaps the gal with the microwave lunch lives alone in an apartment downtown, is taking classes to get a forensic accounting certification and just isn’t in a position to grow her own Hubbard squash and whip together a fresh meal every night.
Instead, I try to make a little difference in a totally different way – by just doing what I do and being who I am.
Because Nick, the not-a-radical, the normal guy with kids and a Honda Accord, he’s eating grass finished beef. Nick, who took care of his action items from the last conference call, he’s growing most of his own vegetables. Nick, who wears a tie and slacks when he’s got a presentation, he’s buying organic.
So it is OK to be a normal guy and to think about (and to do) these things. It is normal to worry about your food supply and what is, intentionally or accidentally, getting into what you eat. It is reasonable to try and find alternative ways to get food that is grown in a healthy, sustainable, quality way.
I’m seeing more people bringing in their own lunches.
I’ve talked with an Alabama good ol’ boy about how the grass-fed beef from his Meat CSA finally tastes like the meat he remembers from childhood.
I’ve traded seed catalogs and growing tips with database developers.
I’ve come up to my desk to find someone left me a flier from a local lamb producer together with a recommendation for the product.
I’m getting chicken raising advice and swapping garlic growing tips with field auditors.
Best of all, I overhear people I’ve mentioned our lifestyle to having conversations with others…about organic food, grass finished meat, joining CSAs, cutting sugar snacks out of their kid’s diets, the dangers of hormones in milk, the complications of federal food subsidies. And that’s how change happens – not when a few loudmouthed radicals start waving their arms, but when dozens, then hundreds, then thousands, and finally millions of ordinary people start to see the world a little differently even while hunkered around the corporate water-cooler.
Have I played a part in this? Perhaps, perhaps not. Maybe the same movement that we are part of has caught my colleagues up – and done so entirely without my involvement – just as it has Jamie Oliver, Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, and others. Some of the gardeners, I know, were at it well before I showed up and started grousing about the 2010 tomato season.
But I’d like to think that, in my quiet way, I have played a part. Every one of us is an evangelist for our viewpoints. Some of us shout it from the mountaintops. Some of us do it slowly, quietly, one step at a time. Some of us do it accidentally, some intentionally. Some passively, some actively. But whether we deliberately or unknowingly and unintentionally do so, we are all evangelists of our viewpoints. By simply living our values, we demonstrate the possible more effectively than any raucous preaching ever could.


  1. says

    I am another Pacific Northwest resident who has become more conscious of all of the local choices around me here in the Willamette Valley – thanks for sharing your journey and inspiring me to keep taking those little steps!

  2. says

    AntoneClan – happy to share! It is easy to think of homesteading or anything else as all-or-nothing, but in reality you take as many or as few (or as big or as little) steps as you want. Out there in the Willamette valley you've got some great local choices (I was just brewing with some hops from there yesterday!).

  3. Jen says

    Terrific post, Nick, thank you! I have a small garden of veggies, herbs, flowers, I am limited in space, but not like I used to be. There’s more I’d like to do but space and skill is limited. I’m way over here on the East coast, and the state I’m in, we have plenty of options for local foods and some extra special good ones! Almost every week I find myself in light discussion with someone new to the whole foods way, the organic options and why, growing your own, or simply where to start. I can only hope it makes a difference.

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