Jim VanDerPol, Conversations with the Land



Part I: Jim VanDerPol
Conversations with the Land

Jim VanDerPol farms and writes in a western Minnesota world very different from the one in which he was raised in the 1950s and 1960s. The small, diversified farms and tight-knit communities of his youth have been replaced by town jobs and gigantic equipment operating on huge tracts of land. The culture of the agriculture that Jim knew is almost entirely gone, and he wants it back. Through his farming, alternative marketing, writing and work with sustainable agriculture groups in Minnesota, Jim is making an important contribution toward efforts to resurrect that culture. Where others simply pine for days of yore and lament what has happened, in Conversations with the Land Jim offers a clear and down-to-earth vision for what each of us can do to return agriculture to something that can do better by the environment, the people who live within it, and even the nation as a whole. Those who are concerned that we have moved too far from the land will find much to think about – and draw inspiration from – in the pages of this book.


Caryn Hartglass: Hello I’m Caryn Hartglass and you’re listening to It’s All About Food. How are you doing today on this May 30, 2012? Well we get to talk about food on this show, my favorite subject and touch a lot of different subjects related to food, food and health, food and the environment, food and all life on Earth. I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on food, well I think about food all the time, but I’ve been realizing how many of us who are talking about the alternative food movement and trying to change the way our food is grown and how it’s grown, going from giant agribusiness to encouraging more organic locally grown farming, farming that is sustainable. I realized that a lot of us that are in this conversation really have a privilege to be able to make choices about our food. There are many people who can’t even make choices because either access to food or because of their financial situation, they just eat whatever they can and that’s a problem. We should all have access to affordable, healthy food and there is a wide range of that and what I’m really focusing on lately is aligning myself with other people that are in the alternative food movement. I was exposed to a  great deal at the Brooklyn Food Conference recently. There were so many different panels, over 175 with people talking about all different kinds of issues when it comes to food. The thing is many of us disagree on some of the fine points and I think it’s so important that we align on the broad strokes, big issues: organic, fresh, locally grown, food that supports our communities. With that, I’m going to introduce my first guest. He’s an author, Jim Van Der Pol, he has a new book, Conversations With the Land and he farms and writes in western Minnesota, a world very different from the one in which he was raised in the 1950s and 60s. The small diversified farms in tight knit communities have been replaced by town jobs and gigantic equipment operating on huge tracts of land. The culture of the agriculture that Jim knew was almost entirely gone and he wants it back. Through his farming, alternative marketing, writing, and working with sustainable agriculture groups in Minnesota, Jim makes an important contribution towards efforts to resurrect that culture, where others simply pine for days of yore and lament what has happened in conversations with the land. Jim offers a clear and down-to-earth vision for what each of us can do to return agriculture to something that can do better by the environment, the people who live within it, and even the nation as a whole. Those who are concerned that we have moved too far from the land will find much to think about and draw inspiration from in the pages of this book. Thank you for joining me on It’s All About Food, Jim.

Jim Van Der Pol: Well I’m happy to be with you.

Caryn Hartglass: I read your book, I enjoyed it. I like especially in New York City, books that have short chapters, unique essays. So this is a collection of essays. It’s very convenient to read on a subway.

Jim Van Der Pol: Yes, good.

Caryn Hartglass: When you’re just sitting and you don’t have a lot of time, you can get a nugget each time and get back to it later. Very good. There’s a lot of passion in this book and a lot of different emotions and we might hit on some of them. The first thing I wanted to talk about was the beauty and the love of the land that you find over the seasons, the change that goes on, how dynamic it all is. How surprising it all is. There’s a number of different essays where you go over a number of situations like that. Well the seasons, farming is never ever the same.

Jim Van Der Pol: No, it’s not and it takes command of your life, basically. When you do it for as long as I’ve done it, because the day length constantly changes and because the work needs to fit the season and the seasons in effect chase the work so you get it done when it needs to be done instead of two weeks or two months too late, there’s that constant attention to basically the environment or the world that you’re living in. I think of it as a conversation and that’s part of the reason why I used the title I do. It’s a conversation, it’s a communication with the environment. I’m not exactly sure how to express it more fully than that.

Caryn Hartglass: I really like the title and it’s so important to pay attention and so many of us don’t pay attention to most things that pass us by. So that’s really an accomplished skill that you’ve developed that unfortunately many of us have lost through the generations.

Jim Van Der Pol: That’s right. One of the things I try to point out in several of the essays is that it’s important for us, whatever we’re doing, to live in the place we’re living and that starts with living in our own bodies instead of on television or on the internet. You don’t have to farm to do that, but farming, at least farming the way we do it here on this farm, kind of insists on it. I guess I feel pretty lucky, I’m not sure that with another occupation I would have been led into the kind of approach to my surroundings that I am.

Caryn Hartglass: Well there’s lots of things we can always imagine, oh I could have done that or what would have happened if I made that choice, but you’re definitely, you seem very well suited for farming.

Jim Van Der Pol: Yes, I think I am. It’s a curse sometimes of course, but most of the time it’s a blessing.

Caryn Hartglass: Well, you know, a lot of things in life, a lot of things that people have difficulty in life, any challenge that comes along, we tend to resist and that makes it so much more of a struggle no matter what challenge it is, it’s resisting. The feeling that I got with farming was that you understand that you’re not in control.

Jim Van Der Pol: Yes, that’s right.

Caryn Hartglass: You just have to go with whatever comes, try and be prepared.

Jim Van Der Pol: In order to operate a farm or to live on a farm and work on a farm, you need to be pretty steady temperament and strong minded, but at the same time you have to admit that everything that you think you’ve got planned for the plan or for the week or for your life or for this project or the other that has to do with the farm can be knocked awry and taken apart in an instant just by change in the weather, the biology of the plants or animals that you’re working with and by a number of other things, markets in the financial system for example.

Caryn Hartglass: Something that we are not doing, we as a global culture. When we evaluate wealth in the world we don’t really, I don’t think the equation has got it down at all. I’m not a doom and gloom kind of person, but if we had horrible crisis that made it really difficult for people in urban areas to access food, it would really, really be serious and we do not value people who own land and grow food on that land enough. If we ever come to a situation, we’re routed. Everything falls apart. Those that are on the farms with the food are the ones who are going to survive.

Jim Van Der Pol: Yes, that’s right. If we ever come to a situation where everything falls apart, I hope and I’m sure probably yours as well is that it falls apart a little slowly so that we’ve got time to react to it. We have ourselves in a lot of ways in a situation that would be a catastrophe if we’re facing a sudden change.

Caryn Hartglass: And so we don’t value farming enough or at all in some situations. People don’t even realize that we need to eat every day. We just take food for granted, many of us do and so now we’re in this situation where we have really given away our choices. We’ve given away our freedom when it comes to food by allowing giant corporations to take over and do what they will with our food system.

Jim Van Der Pol: That’s right, we have. And that’s the situation I was talking about where we’ve put ourselves in a position where a change could be a catastrophe. When you put that kind of control in the hands of so few people, so few powerful people that have a kind of a truncated goal having to do with making lots of money generally. Just under the theory that things are going to work out. We approach food almost as a religious belief that is that, our modern food system is all automatically going to be able to adjust immediately to whatever changes might be forced upon it. and we all might be able to find what we need in the grocery store and I don’t think that’s true.

Caryn Hartglass: You write in many different essays there are some continuing themes, if you were the emperor who was in charge of the entire world, I get a feeling for how you might change things, but it’s clear that we have trouble with the economy, many people are out of work, and we’ve created this situation by taking away jobs, especially on farms, by having these big corporations grow in really unsustainable ways. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that. How important it is for kids to grow up in a farming environment and participate.

Jim Van Der Pol: I’ve written in a few places, in a few essays in the book about that subject because when you life in a rural area, you’re always almost automatically needing to be concerned about the kids because we’re in a situation where we have steadily shrinking populations, our towns are smaller and smaller each decade. Our schools are needing to consolidate and the school buses travel more and more miles to get enough kids together to actually operate a school and we have all too many cases with both parents working some miles away from home. Often the kids are not seen to as well as they should be because the income from the jobs that the parents have just really isn’t enough because that’s not paid well enough. As a matter of fact we should as a nation in an area like this, we short our kids because we do not honor what the entire working people do. Including farming and a lot of other things as well that make our economy and our society run. I have one essay in the book entitled “Boys” and it simply is my reflection on what it seems to be to grow up male in this day and age compared to what it was when I grew up some 60 years ago on this farm that I’m operating today and the difference as I wrote that essay, the difference became really startling to me. I grew up wanting to demonstrate my value to my elders and that was economic value as well as a social value and that I would fit in and so on. It was a great joy to me when the day came that I could keep up in terms of physical work with my own father and with my uncles and hired hands and neighbors that got together to do the work. When I really arrived at that stage of young male adulthood where I could do that, I could sense acceptance all the way around the circle of men that were working, that I was working with. I don’t think very many boys have that chance today. I think the closest that we get with it is high school athletics and of course that’s only a minority of the kids that participate in that. I end that essay by saying something I believe, if I’m remembering it right, something of girls to the effect that I wasn’t speaking of girls because they didn’t grow up wanting to be a man and I wouldn’t be able to speak intelligently about it. I think as a general rule, we can only do a good job with our kids by needing them in a lot of ways. One of them is economics, that’s important. Needing them socially in terms of their view of what the world looks like and what they can tell us older ones who have got more experience than they do, but different perceptions because we didn’t grow up with the same surrounding social furniture that they have. I think we need to need our kids and I think when we can figure out ways and means of doing that in a real way, that is, I think our kids will have fewer problems growing up.

Caryn Hartglass: I agree with you 100 percent. We seem to be doing less and less in this country. So we’ve shift so much manufacturing oversees and even some of the farming that’s done with giant agribusiness I know that we have a lot of illegal aliens and very low paid foreigners that do a lot of the work mostly because people don’t want to do that work and the pay isn’t good for that kind of work.

Jim Van Der Pol: That’s it of course. In one of my essays, or two, I write about where I think this started. It started in the 70s when corporations caught on to the fact that they could benefit financially by disrespecting laborers and it’s been getting steadily worse ever since. I’m sitting on a phone talking now just six miles south of a dairy that milks 6,000 cows every day and they have built several bunkhouses to house the young men they get from Ecuador and Colombia in order to do that work. It’s not that that’s the most pleasant livestock kind of work that there is because it isn’t. Being in confinement, it’s not real attractive work really for anybody but the fact of it is that the young folks that are here from South America because the farm that gets them in can pay lower wages that way. That’s really the entire fact and there would be people in our society, people that have been here for some generations, that would take those jobs if they paid 50 percent more than they do.

Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely. Everything is so crazy in terms of where the subsidies go to pay for who benefits and who doesn’t and we pay for so much in our tax dollars that are invisible to us. If we could take some of that and put it towards paying better salaries for people would make such a difference.

Jim Van Der Pol: You make a wonderful point and that pops up here and there in my writing, which by the way is ongoing, this is a collection of columns and I read one every month but you make a wonderful point about that, that the money that we are spending helping all the victims would be better spent organizing an economy that didn’t produce so many victims. We don’t seem to get that, there doesn’t seem to be any political voice for that in our government, in our senators in power and so it just keeps getting worse and worse. Another thing I think that shouldn’t be ignored, that can’t be ignored from my point of view that I feel very strongly about this is that kind of situation where young men who are not paid enough money and are always away from home are caring for livestock is kind of in and of itself not a good situation for the livestock either.

Caryn Hartglass: I’ve heard so many horrific stories about workers that are brought in from other countries and some of them are treated almost like slaves. This is in our country America, but there are things that we can do, aren’t there.

Jim Van Der Pol: There are.

Caryn Hartglass: What can we do Jim? What can we do?

Jim Van Der Pol: Well, are you asking me for suggestions?

Caryn Hartglass: Help!

Jim Van Der Pol: I think you know what my answer’s going to be, if you don’t you will by the time I’m done giving it. That is that there’s this whole idea of a small change that I write about in the last essay of the book, which is 5 or 6 columns put together. We best change things by changing how we think and changing how we live and that requires going a little out of our pathway. It maybe requires buying food at a farmer market. Maybe it requires making a link with a farmer for some of the things that you want to buy. Or maybe it requires simply putting pressure on our grocery store or choosing a grocery store that is willing to be pressured to establish better communication between you the buyer and the people that are supplying the store. In parts of the world and I’m talking more about Europe here, there are postings on the supermarket or on the market walls leading you to an understanding who it is that brought the food and what some of the ins and out of producing it were. There’s a place for electronic communication in that. So I think that that’s the best place to start and you can do more that start. You can make up your mind to live your life that way. You can also, if you have access to some space, you can garden. Gardening teaches a lot about life and about what farming really is. Again, depending on your neighborhood, you might get in a few backyard chickens which are a wonderful kind of project because it teaches you about what really tastes good in an egg and that may teach you about some of the silly attitudes of your neighbors too, depending on your situation. Whatever I think, what it amounts to is paying more attention to what we eat and if we have the wherewithal to do it and if everybody does it as you pointed out in your lead in, but if we have the wherewithal to do it and be willing to pay a bit more for that kind of food.

Caryn Hartglass: Well it’s all about a long term perspective and that’s just something that’s unheard of in this country. Everything is short term. Pay the least amount you can without thinking of the long term impact of your purchase and where it comes from.

Jim Van Der Pol: Yes, that’s right. We talk in our circles here a lot about three part goals and double bottom lines and things like that, the double bottom line being not always catch profit but also that we produce quality. The idea that a profitable farm is not enough by itself, there has to be a high quality of life enacted with it and that there has to be a community connection connected with it. I guess what I’m saying is that we need to try whatever we can think of to do the best we can to encourage that kind of thinking and planning in the people that we buy from, instead of just the cash profit margin.

Caryn Hartglass: There are a number of really critical things that absolutely have to change. This is my vision. I would love to see all the giant corporations out of food production. I would like to see the return of small farms. I would like to see genetically modified food and seeds disappear and I think foods should be grown organically and for people to most of their food within a region that’s near where they live.

Jim Van Der Pol: I can’t argue with a single item.

Caryn Hartglass: I don’t know if you’re aware of this Jim, but I’m a vegan and I encourage people to eat plant foods and I know that you’re a livestock farmer. We might not agree on some things but we definitely can agree on some very, very big concepts and those are the ones that I just outlined and they’re so important.

Jim Van Der Pol: I think we can, I agree.

Caryn Hartglass: One of my favorite essays was in the beginning where you talk about the weatherman and weathermen on television.

Jim Van Der Pol: Weather reports sound different to a farmer than they do to most people I think.

Caryn Hartglass: It’s funny because I related to it and I never really thought about it the way you put it. Where for most of us the weather matters on the weekends.

Jim Van Der Pol: That’s true and I can see where that comes from.

Caryn Hartglass: I’m here in New York and I think it’s CBS where we get the weather with Lonnie something or other but we see him around New York City sometimes, riding his bike and he’s on television with his gorgeous suits telling us about the weather and it’s a joke. Ok, let’s see we just have a few more minutes. Have you ever experienced or been pressured by some of the giant agribusiness companies when it came to your own business? I’ve heard about so many stories about small farmers not being able to compete and sometimes actually being run off the land.

Jim Van Der Pol: The latest version of that is generally or often has to do with Monsanto and their efforts to protect their patented seeds and they’re pretty aggressive in court and don’t have too much trouble getting their way as far as cooperation with law enforcement. If they think some farmer has saved a seed of theirs they regard that as patent infringement so they pursue that person in court. That’s kind of the latest version of that.

Caryn Hartglass: You know people that have experienced this.

Jim Van Der Pol: I know of people. I don’t have any close friends and nobody in this community that I know of. What we do have in kind of a more general way is anybody that farms organically and our farmland is certified organic, you worry about general drift. Corn is very promiscuous and the pollen goes for miles on wind and if the pollen drifts from a neighbors GMO corn to my organic corn what I’m going to harvest at the end of the year is going to be something less than organic whether I wanted it that way or not. So you live in a little anxiety thinking that at some point the organic buyers are going to apply another test and they’re going to see that GMO amount in there and I’m going to not be able to sell my crop that year. Or maybe it might be possible that I might even be pursued by the company that thinks that I planted seed without buying it from them because I’ve heard those stories and I have every reason to believe they’re true. It’s not a personal experience as much of a generalized anxiety about that. Before the GMO controversy grew up over the past few decades, farmers my size have been encountered agribusiness largely through price discrimination and that has taken place not so much when we sold our products as when we bought our input, when we bought our seeds and so on. We can’t get the volume deals on seeds so we’re paying sometimes a good deal more money for the same seed. Sometimes on livestock particularly, it’ll happen that if you don’t sell enough animals at a time, you’re going to take a cut on the price on those. I’ve had that happen to me so that I’ve taken ten percent less price because I’m bringing in ten hogs instead of 100. So it’s those kinds of things that the agriculture business are always there, they kind of make the playing field in terms of our finances and our economy and it’s always a worry. Sometimes it really reaches out and hits you but most of the time you’re just living with that generalized worry.

Caryn Hartglass: Well thank you so much for talking to me on It’s All About Food, and I hope you don’t worry too much. Have some peace in your life.

Jim Van Der Pol: So do I.

Caryn Hartglass: Enjoy your farm and your family and thanks for writing Conversations With the Land. I really enjoyed reading it.

Jim Van Der Pol: Thanks for having me on.

Transcribed by Meichin, 4/18/2013

  2 comments for “Jim VanDerPol, Conversations with the Land

  1. I enjoyed reading Jim VanDerPol’s article. I understand his love of the land and his desire to reverse the damage intensive farming has caused. We transitioned to no-till farming in the 1980s’ and know first hand how soil organic matter and nutrient holding capacities increase. With financial incentive provided by the Conservation Stewardship Program we have integrated more cover crops into our farming operation. The soil building techniques Jim writes about featuring perennial grasses and broadleaves have the potential to sequester massive amounts of green house gases and keep the precious top soil in place. Our deep, productive top soils developed and were sustained by this process. Living roots in the soil the year around should be every farmers goal. My most memorable farming activity was planting soybeans into six foot standing rye grass in 2019. Today we have the equipment and technology to adopt “planting green” to protect out soils.

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