Stereotypes No More

I was at the farmers market yesterday morning and had an interesting conversation with the gentleman from whom I occasionally buy pork. Most of these small farmers are selling “small ticket” items—a couple bucks for bell peppers, three dollars’ worth of Mr. Stripey tomatoes—and I always come with cash. I’d stopped at the bank on my way into town. But when you’re talking about a roast to throw on the grill for a few hours, the tally is likely to be more than a few dollars (and I had more shopping to do), so I asked if he could take my debit card.

Big grin. “Sure!” He pulled out an iPhone. “I only got a smart phone last year,” he said, while he settled a small plastic square—to swipe a card—into the jack on one end of the phone. “I never thought it would be so useful. My wife did the research and got us set up.” (This was Jamie Weaver of Weaver Farms, it turns out.) We had a chat about the beauty of technology.

Farming has long adapted to technology, of course: breeding, milking, high-tech tractors (and so much more that I, being a city girl, cannot speak about with any semblance of intelligence) long ago revolutionized the way farmers live their lives. But old stereotypes die hard, I think.

I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley of California—the heart of California’s agricultural industry—and when I was in high school (we won’t discuss how long ago that was) our social cliques divided along lines that seemed to indicate (to us kids, anyway) where our lives were leading: among others, the jocks, the stoners, kids headed to college, and … the aggies. The latter grew up on farms and were likely headed to a life of farming. At the time, that sort of life was the farthest thing from my mind.

Fast-forward a few decades. My brother earns his living as a farmer (mostly flowers and herbs), I love to garden (for a decade maintained a backyard vegetable garden, but a move to a new house with a shady yard put paid to that), consider myself a fair cook, and am an appreciator/supporter of the slow-food/locavore movement. I’ve read Joel Salatin, Michael Pollan.

Tennessee backyard, mid-summer.

Tennessee backyard, mid-summer.

I’ve blogged about the farmers market phenomenon more than once … the last one of the season; one I wandered through in Kilkenny, Ireland, with a raging case of pneumonia; another we found in Mountshannon (Co. Clare), Ireland; and one about a farm dinner. I have at least one other post planned but not written yet (so many ideas, so little time). This is a topic I love.

A Saturday Market on the Square in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

A Saturday Market on the Square in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

And certainly I love eating what comes home with me from the farmers market.

And certainly I love eating what comes home with me from the farmers market.

But this post is really about farmers and stereotypes. And social media (in this case, Twitter), which sometimes busts those stereotypes and sometimes is just plain fun. A couple afternoons ago I stumbled—via an editor in Co. Clare, Ireland, I follow—into a hilarious conversation with a bunch of farmers in Britain. Young guys, probably early thirties, clearly tech savvy, great photos of sheep (don’t laugh) and countryside. Look:

• “Keen young farmer working hard to produce your food sustainably alongside some diversification enterprises. #‎BuyBritish.” (@FarmerBeary) Located Staffordshire, UK.

• “Livestock farmer and free range egg producer. Amazing wife and 3 boys under 6. Trying to breed Texel sheep and Saler cattle. Loves: family, beer and triers.” (Will Case @will_case) Located Ulverston, Cumbria.

• “Husband. Father of 3 little Girls. Arable, Beef & Free Range Egg Farmer. Harper Adams Grad. Welsh Rugby, Test Cricket & LFC fan. History geek & Music lover.” (Will Evans @willpenrievans) Located Bangor-on-Dee, Wrexham, Wales, UK.

• “450 pedigree lleyn sheep. Producing purebred and commercial cross lambs. Fencing, hedge planting, firewood and a bit of arable keep us out of trouble.” (Hawcroft Lleyn @PVickerton) Located East Yorkshire.

• “Husband to the beautiful and talented @scarassem. Mid Wales sheep and beef farmer. Graduate of Aberystwyth Uni. Interested in learning more every day.” (Andrew Meredith @Merry_Meredith) Located Wales.

Seriously, great stuff. (Of course, Gerry noted drily the next morning that I have always had a soft spot for sheep.) Me, I know sheep-with-white-faces and sheep-with-black-faces. That’s pretty much the extent of it. But these guys know their sheep. (And cows.)

Our Stealth Sheep, in front of the kissing gate.

Our Stealth Sheep, in front of the kissing gate.

And there is a lot of, you know, farm-talk (ahem, farming industry) in their tweets:

• Tweet: Asst. manager position available on a progressive and expanding dairy farm, would suit an ambitious and driven person. All RT’s appreciated

• Tweet: Don’t forget it’s #BuyBritishDay on 3rd October pls make that extra effort to buy something produced here in UK #buybritishbrands

• Tweet: We are looking for an assistant shepherd for large sheep flock. Check out http://{etc.} livestock followers please retweet!!

• Tweet: Dear Tesco. Not very nice having your expected profits completely evaporate is it? Yours. UK Farming.

• Tweet: #pretupping continues today. Finishing fluke drenching after positive muck sample and two rams to fertility test #rathemthemthanme #sheep

• Tweet: Lamb freezer packs ready for collection as of Sunday afternoon from #GlenBeary Staffordshires finest lamb also available @EssingtonFarm

… but also a lot of current events—the Scotland referendum, Ryder Cup play, local politics about which I know nothing, ISIS, Emma Watson’s UN #heforshe speech—as well as, well, drinking, football (soccer to some of us), kids, and much more.

So if I still harbored stereotypes—I like to think I didn’t—they were well and truly busted this week. The farmers I met—in person and in Twitter feeds—are educated, smart, outward-looking and forward-thinking … and working the land. Makes me feel like maybe there’s hope for this planet after all.

Black Chronicles II — Through 29 November 2014

I came across this article (“The black Victorians: astonishing portraits unseen for 120 years”) in the Guardian, about a photographic exhibit at Rivington Place* in London, and I wanted to bring it to your attention while there’s still time for you to see it if you find yourself in London.

The newspaper comments the photos “show colonialism in all its contradictions”—but notes also that these photos (they’re beautiful) “challenge the received narrative of the history of black people in Britain.”

“Black Chronicles II is part of a wider ongoing project called The Missing Chapter,” says Mussai, “which uses the history of photography to illuminate the missing chapters in British history and culture, especially black history and culture. There is a widespread misconception that black experience in Britain begins with the arrival of the Empire Windrush and the first Jamaican immigrants in 1948, but, as this exhibition shows, there is an incredible archive of images of black people in Britain that goes right back to the invention of photography in the 1830s.”

All of the images featured in the article are copyrighted and reproduced with permission, which I don’t have, so you’ll just have to visit the links (here’s another) to have a look at these gorgeous antique photos.

And if you’re anywhere near London, this is just one more good excuse to make a trip into town.

* With a tagline that reads “Art, debate & diversity,” Rivington Place deserves a post all on its own. It’s a free public gallery and the home of Iniva (the Institute of International Visual Art) and Autograph ABP. It also houses the Stuart Hall Library, meeting rooms, and education facilities.

I Know This Goes Without Saying …

I know this goes without saying, but Stonehenge really was the most incredible accomplishment. It took five hundred men just to pull each sarsen, plus a hundred more to dash around positioning the rollers. Just think about it for a minute. Can you imagine trying to talk six hundred people into helping you drag a fifty-ton stone eighteen miles across the countryside and muscle it into an upright position, and then saying, “Right, lads! Another twenty like that, plus some lintels and maybe a couple of dozen nice bluestones from Wales, and we can party!” Whoever was the person behind Stonehenge was one dickens of a motivator, I’ll tell you that.

Bill Bryson in Notes from a Small Island (pub. 1995)

Stonehenge on 27 January 2008. Image obtained from Wikipedia.

Stonehenge on 27 January 2008. Image obtained from Wikipedia.


There is always the garden …

People are already talking about autumn, but here in the South we’ve got a good six or eight weeks left to enjoy what’s growing in the yard. And I imagine in Morocco one needn’t worry about it at all.

That’s where Marella Agnelli—widow of former Fiat magnate Gianni Agnelli—now resides. And where she gardens.

An old family friend, Sandro d’Urso, used to say to me, “Why make one’s dreams come true when the best part of any project is just dreaming about it?” He was right, of course, when it comes to making a house or writing a book. But with gardens it is different. And, like all living things, they grow and change. That is a fascinating process to experience.

Putting my energies into making homes and gardens—imagining how they would turn out and finding ways to improve them—has been a central part of my life. Of all the gardens I have created, I would say that Ain Kassimou is the one that comes closest to my idea of happiness. Sometimes, as I wander here alone or in someone’s company, my imagination flies back to the garden of my childhood, in Florence. I used to sneak out of my bed at night and wander down to the end of the garden. Just for the thrill of it. In the darkness I could hear all the invisible presences. That’s when I first became aware that gardens breathe and are alive, just as we are. One is never really “done” with a garden, just as one is never “done” with life. Day by day and step by step, one just keeps on finding new and clever ways to make them flourish, both in sunshine and in storm.*

I love the image of a garden in darkness, living and breathing! Agnelli has lived a glamorous life and yet … it’s in a garden where she finds joy in her late years.

Agnelli collaborated with garden designer Madison Cox to create that Moroccan garden. He is profiled in this Wall Street Journal piece (in which you can see some photos of Agnelli’s garden—look for the slide show). “Good gardens demand a lot of research and patience,” Cox says. “Along the way there will be amendments, detours and, sometimes, reversals. There’s no such thing as a beautiful ‘instant’ garden. The most important [thing] is to slow down, watch and wait.”

It’s true. Be patient. You’ll be rewarded. 🙂

Some old faithful rudbeckias in my late summer garden.

Some old faithful rudbeckias in my late summer garden.

* This excerpt is from a Vanity Fair article, “Becoming an Agnelli,” which was adapted from Marella Agnelli: The Last Swan, by Marella Agnelli and Marella Caracciolo Chia, to be published in October by Rizzoli; © 2014 by the authors.