Back in the USSA – The United States of Sustainable America

“Then I realized – I’m a farmer. I can do anything.” — Jim Koan

Jim Koan (pronounced with Michigan pragmatism as “cone” not “co-an”) has a dog named Felony, raises mighty-antlered reindeer, and Royal Palms – a breed of turkey so antique Ben Franklin was probably the last person who ever heard of it. Jim is also the 3rd generation owner, after his dad and grand-dad, of Al-Mar Orchards where he is brewing excellent hard cider and raising pastured heritage pigs. Jim is among the leaders like Joel Salatin from Michael Pollan’s now-famous book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, who is that rare breed of farmer succeeding (he’s put 5 kids through college) and expanding his business. Jim is producing organic fruit, hard cider and pork in a way the American revolutionaries would recognize, and in a way that is also informed by the very latest research and technology.

Reading Michael Pollan’s description of Joel Salatin, the farmer who figures out a sustainable system for raising healthy pastured chickens in a way that enriches the land they’re on gave me a tiny bit of hope that we might not be going to hell in a hand-basket after all. There are ingenious people out there, motivated by love and learning more than by money, taking the first steps on the thousand mile journey toward a sustainable future.

By shepherding closed loop cycles that can continue indefinitely, rather than simply extracting resources for an end product, people like Joel Salatin are pointing us toward what the future is going to have to look like.

Asked for his opinion about whether Salatin’s Polyface farm is a throwback from the past or a harbinger of the future, Michael Pollan says: “If you look closely, you are seeing a farm built on the most sophisticated understanding of the ecological relationships between different species and the land and the soil. That it is truly a knowledge-based business, and Joel is right when he talks that way about it. For my money it’s the future, but it is built off of borrowing the best things from the past.” Pollan rightly points out that the path to any real progress, both for individuals and as a society, is in synthesizing knowledge from the experience of the past with the most informed perspective of the present.

It was mostly the past I was recollecting on a recent trip to Al-Mar Orchards, 120 bucolic acres of apple trees and another 200 acres of woods and pastures just outside of Flushing, Michigan. Al-Mar was my Grandma’s favorite place to get apples, cider and hot crispy donuts back when my sister and I were little girls. Coming in the door on a wintry day last week, the warm smells of apples and of the donuts coming from the fryer had me thinking nostalgically that nothing had changed in the 25 years since I was last there.

We were on this road trip for a little piece of Al-Mar history – some of owner Jim Koan’s softly effervescent, spicy-sweet, apple-blossom-y hard cider. He started making hard cider again when the old-timers he knew as his dad’s and grampa’s friends wouldn’t stop reminiscing about that good hard cider they used to get at Al-Mar. Using the family recipe, he started making it at first in small batches for friends. Jim says: “Then they started bringing jugs for their friends and their friends’ friends. After a while I knew I was going to have to get legal.” Now fermenting 40,000 gallons at a time, Jim says he understands making hard cider as a process of “farming yeast.” In everything he does, he’s looking at the inputs and the outputs of the process, working toward optimizing a self-sustaining system.

Jim has help from a marketing friend selling his J.K. Scrumpy brand of hard cider in 24 states. Part of what makes his cider so good, he says, is that he uses organically grown apples that were picked at the apex of ripening. And he uses the real straight juice of the apples – no concentrate. He says you can taste the difference.

Here’s something interesting about Jim: Before going organic, he spent 20 years growing apples conventionally, with the full complement of nerve poison, insect-controlling pesticides that made it unsafe to go into the orchard for up to 3 days after spraying. He was always adjusting the fins and the sprayers, optimizing his equipment and technique, but noticed that no matter what he did most of the spray went where he didn’t want it. Not only was it a wasted expense, it was also unacceptable to him that these poisons became part of the air, ground and water. And it was an escalating cycle of needing to use larger amounts and more toxic applications every year to control the acclimitizing pests.

So 10 years ago he started to use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques, encouraging the good bugs while minimizing the bad, to grow apples both organically and with what he calls “softer” pesticides overall at Al-Mar. He says the variety and cycles of apple-damaging pests make it almost impossible to grow apples organically and that he wouldn’t be able to do it without the experience of years spent growing conventionally. At this point, Al-Mar is one of only a handful of small organic apple producers in the country. Jim says that to them, producing organic apples was a huge accomplishment. But their puffed up chests were quickly deflated when, instead of celebrating, the first thing customers wanted to know after seeing organic apples was – “What else do you have that’s organic?”

So few people know how to grow food now that we don’t have proper appreciation for what it takes to develop that expertise. The knowledge of soil types and ecologies, plant growth cycles and pathologies, business and marketing skills, knowledge of weather patterns, government regulations, and everything else that is required. At the same time, people are equating cooking with re-heating boxed macaroni and cheese in the microwave. A result of the depleted foods that we consume without second thoughts about who grew it or where it came from is an unsatiated national hunger that underlies the epidemic of obesity and depression we’re experiencing.

Real food, food that is recognizable as food (not a product of processing) and that has a known origin, nourishes us with deep sensual and intellectual enjoyment from both its flavor and its provenance. The pleasure of real food is that it comes from a specific community and must be enjoyed and celebrated in the context of a personal or family community. Real food (or what Alice Waters calls “living food”) is often something that you grow yourself or comes from the farm of someone who has developed a level of expertise that is now remarkably rare.

Jim Koan is an example of someone who has developed that rare level of expertise. Failing to celebrate Jim Koan’s organic apples is like saying Beethoven doesn’t matter because we’ve got Shakira and Fifty Cent. It’s skill at a level we don’t have the knowledge to judge. We’re not in a position to have an informed appreciation of things like great-tasting local organic apples and we suffer atrophy of other basic daily life skills – like making an apple pie – because we believe we don’t have time. And the reason we believe time is short for spending on a central family activity like meaningfully feeding ourselves is that we’re told in a thousand ways every day and we have been told – there’s no time – for 3 generations now.

David Kamp writes in his critique “The United States of Arugula: How America Became a Gourmet Nation”: “Throughout and immediately after the war years of the forties, the big food conglomerates were putting ever-more grotesque packaged products on the market, many of which were by-products of their efforts to produce tinned or freeze-dried field rations for the troops…In time, the packaged-food companies would abandon any pretense of claiming their processed and frozen products were superior in taste, instead stressing their convenience. Cannily (and often with canned foods), these companies’ advertising campaigns actually stigmatized the experience of spending hours in the kitchen. As Laura Shapiro puts it in Something from the Oven, her history of 1950s America cookery, “During the postwar era, time became an obsession of the food industry and eventually of American homemakers as a manufactured sense of panic pervaded even day-to-day cooking.”

This manufactured sense of time panic is now a given in our over-busy lives. And the only remedy to the surfeit of choices, information, and activity is to make intentional choices about what is truly meaningful. That’s why finding someone like Jim Koan here in Michigan is like stumbling on a jewel. I can’t think of something that matters more on a daily basis and for all future grandchildren than beautiful, sustainable food. At the very foundation of the Maslow pyramid of human needs, it’s not an exaggeration to say that food is connected to every single thing that sustains our lives and it always will be.

Jim says that he taught his 5 kids that the only thing we have in life, really, is learning. In learning to grow organic apples he’s created a systemic (rather than chemical) approach to controlling pests that damage apples. His latest innovation to the closed loop system he’s working out has been introducing pastured black and white Berkshire pigs to eat windfall apples. Fallen apples being the home of some of the most destructive bugs, including the plum curculio, having the pigs eat the apples breaks the pests’ cycles of reproduction. The result (in his first year) has been a 5-fold reduction in crop loss and a bonus of 5-8 thousands pounds of heritage breed, organic pork. Jim picked the Berkshire breed of pig because they are known to be good mothers to their piglets and gentle farmyard denizens. Watching Jim scratch the ears of his 400 pound boar, I can attest to the fact that these pigs are indeed eaters, not fighters.

Listening to Jim talk about farming yeast, and raising pigs that are good moms, and how close to impossible it is to grow apples organically, I found myself surprised and a little embarrassed by a lump in my throat and and a tear in my eye. It wasn’t until later that I understood from where that emotional response to a complete stranger had come. When you go to a play or a symphony and you see someone give the performance of a lifetime, bringing forth everything they are and pouring out everything they know, it brings tears to your eyes. There’s something in that combination of skill and heart that we recognize as a gift that an individual gives to the rest of the world, a gift that makes the world brighter, more spacious, more filled with possibility. And even if Shakespeare instructs that “all the world’s a stage,” somehow we can miss virtuoso performances if the klieg lights aren’t pointed directly at someone like Jim Koan.

I thought we were just going on a road trip to get some of Al-Mar Orchard’s spicy-sweet hard cider, lovely in no small part because it’s also organic. I hadn’t expected to be both thunderstruck and brought to tears at finding in addition to sweet cider, the pragmatic ingenuity of a man who has spent his entire lifetime learning how to create sustainable growing systems. After talking for a couple of hours with Jim Koan, Al-Mar’s 3rd generation owner and apple grower after his dad and his grand-dad, it was clear that I was talking to a maestro orchestrating his finest performance. Seeing something like that is sweeter than cider.