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Thursday, Sept. 24, 2009 12:06 am

A woman for all seasons

Terra Brockman of The Land Connection, author of The Seasons of Henry’s Farm.
PHOTO BY GINNY LEE.


Terra Brockman is a busy woman. As founder of the not-for-profit Land Connection, she works tirelessly to promote “community-based food systems in the Midwest in which every farmer has the opportunity to grow food in a sustainable manner, and every person has the choice to enjoy local and organic foods.” She’s one of Illinois’ most persuasive advocates of creating a sustainable food system.

But when we last met, she wanted to talk about something other than The Land Connection’s workshops or initiatives. Something besides her just-published book. Brockman wanted me to know about an Illinois Senate Agriculture and Conservation public hearing that will be held Sept. 30 on chemical drift.

Agricultural chemical drift isn’t a new issue. Environmentalists have long cited chemical fertilizers, herbicides and insecticide runoff with polluting bodies of water. In 2005, when the U.S.D.A. collected such data, Illinois farmers used 30 million pounds of herbicide on corn alone. But there’s a new player on the agricultural chemical block: fungicides.

Four years ago conventional farmers began worrying about the potential spread of soybean rust from the South to the Midwest. Even though soybean rust has not yet been able to withstand northern winters, “the idea of taking preventive measures against disease was off and flying” said Western Illinois University agriculture professor Gordon Roskamp.

Everyone agrees that crop spraying in Illinois is increasing dramatically. Proponents insist it’s safe, and that strict adherences to U.S.D.A. protocols and guidelines are followed to insure that spraying affects only targeted fields, with little impact elsewhere on crops, animals, or humans. Those opposed strongly disagree. They cite the lack of enforcement during the previous administration of those U.S.D.A. restrictions, many of which concerned weather conditions such as wind, humidity and heat. Clare Howard of the Peoria Journal-Star wrote a recent series of articles about the crop-spraying controversy. Carlock, Ill., organic farmer Denny Wettstein was quoted saying that, “with fewer farmers doing their own spraying than in the past, most chemical applications are now done by companies under contract with the farmers.

“These big companies have so many acres to cover and they can’t interrupt their schedule due to weather. They won’t stop,” Wettstein said.

Grapevines can be particularly susceptible to chemical drift — a threat to Illinois’ wine industry, not least because most are adjacent to conventionally farmed corn and soybeans. Mackinaw Valley Vineyard owner Paul Hahn experienced devastation this year because of drift from the herbicide 2,4-D. “My vineyard was burned real bad this spring,” he says in Howard’s articles. “I can’t tell the extent yet, but it’s bad. All my neighbors know I have grapes, and they all know what 2,4-D (drift) does to grapes, but someone used it.”

Even more terrifying is a rural Knox County family’s story. When Rick Collins picked up his two young children, he found his babysitter’s yard had just been sprayed by a passing plane. In the pool, his six-year-old daughter, Arianne, had dunked her head under the water. Three-year-old Liam, however, was still wet from the spray. Collins rushed the children home, showered them, then frantically began telephoning to find out the spray’s source. After fruitless frustrating hours, he called his state representative, Don Moffitt’s (R-Gilson) home. Moffitt was in Chicago, but his wife eventually tracked down the chemical: Quilt, a fungicide that Jean Payne, president of the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association, says has “low toxicity.”

However, a scientist from the Pesticide Action Network North America disagreed, saying that a one-time exposure to a Quilt component could cause developmental or reproductive damage.

Rep. Moffitt was appalled at the time it took Collins to get information. He’s working with state senators Michael Frerich (D-Champaign) and David Koelher (D-Peoria) who set up the Sept. 30 hearing, which begins at 10 a.m. in Room 409 of the Capitol.

Brockman is encouraging those with personal experience of chemical drifting to testify or submit written testimony (call Sen. Frerich’s office, 217-782-2507, or the Illinois Stewardship Alliance’s Wes King at wes@ilstewards.org or 217-528-1563 for information) at the hearing; and asking anyone concerned about chemical drift to attend.

Learning about chemical drift problems was upsetting, but the perfect antidote was reading Brockman’s book, The Seasons of Henry’s Farm: a Year of Food and Life on a Sustainable Farm. Henry is Brockman’s brother; produce from Henry’s Farm is sought after by top Chicago restaurants. Brockman writes about food politics, environmental concerns and the philosophy behind them.

But above all, the book is a love story: the love Brockman has for her family, and the love the extended Brockman family has for the land they’ve long farmed. It’s a memoir that traces one particular year, but also reaches back to stories of past generations. It’s called Henry’s farm, but the book illustrates the reality that sustainable farming must almost certainly be a collaborative, usually family, effort. Still, it’s Henry who decides when and where to plant and rotate, makes the calls that risk losing a crop by planting too soon or harvesting too late, and keeps meticulous records of the innovative methods and plant varieties used — some so new, they’re ancient: methods and varieties that work with the land rather than bullying it into submission.

Brockman follows the year by month, although she substitutes the more evocative Native American “moons”: Hunter’s Moon, Harvest Moon, Green Corn Moon, etc. Much of this book is deeply nostalgic for me — from the numbing cold of washing fall produce, the satisfaction of getting the Farmers’ Market load in before thunderclouds burst, and slip-sliding in mud if we didn’t, the calm at season’s end when “all is safely gathered in,” to the excitement of the arrival of seed catalogues.

Even without those shared experiences, anyone who’s curious about life on a sustainable farm will enjoy this book. So will anyone who knows or wants to discover what it’s like to live in harmony with the land — complete with pleasures and problems, strife and satisfaction. I highly recommend it.

Terra Brockman will be guest speaker at the Illinois Stewardship Alliance fundraiser Sept. 25 at Pasfield House. She will be signing copies of her book, also available at Food Fantasies. The event will include a sparkling wine and cheese reception at ISA’s new location across from Pasfield House, a silent auction and a local foods menu. Call 528-1583 or visit ilstewards.org.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.
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