A Man A Bike And A Food Fight
By Lynn Hasselberger
Determined to raise $50,000 for the Nature Conservancy, Nathan Winters spent 5 months pedaling 4,300 miles across the country. I met Nathan on twitter of all places—where he’s been touted as one of “The Top 20 Real Food Advocates to Follow”—and was intrigued by what could possibly motivate a man to set out on such a journey.
Nathan explains in this excerpt from his book, An Unconventional Harvest—
Why did I spend 5 months pedaling 4,300 miles across the country to rediscover our food system? Before I answer that question, I must point out that a major transition in my personal life and the undertaking of this journey had inexplicably collided with 3 timely events:
The economic collapse of 2008 reared its ugly head. While our newly elected President, Barack Obama was busy bailing out big bankers on Wall Street – the middle class working on Main Street were struggling to get by. No one felt the shattering impact more than our nation’s farmers and rural communities.
Our food system had become a hot topic. 2 months after my departure the controversial documentary Food Inc. was released claiming that agribusiness produces food that is unhealthy, environmentally harmful and abusive of both animals and its employees.
The social media phenomenon was in full swing. Web based services such as YouTube, Twitter, Facebook were growing their user base at an exponential rate. Suddenly, sharing user generated content with the masses was as easy as two taps on an iPhone.
It was the perfect recipe for an interactive journey into our food system. Before this nomadic excursion came to me I was busy working for a software development company specializing in the delivery of data driven fantasy sports applications. I was competing in the rat race of Los Angeles, working nearly 80 hours a week and trying hard to grab the attention of my peers. One morning it was business as usual until I got called into a meeting and informed that the company I had faithfully served was no longer in need of my services. Like millions of other hard working Americans, I had gotten laid off and was now in the unemployment line.
With a plethora of much needed free time on my hands I made a typical visit to the dog park with my beautiful dog Chaya. As she wrestled with her canine friends, I soaked up the sun and overheard a man rambling on and on about his wonderful getaway in Thailand filled with pristine beaches, cheap lodging and 2 hour Thai massages. His enthusiasm undoubtedly resonated with me and two hours later I returned home and booked a ticket to Bangkok. What can I say? I was feeling spontaneous.
For the last 2 weeks of what turned out to be a 2 month soul searching quest through South East Asia I drank cocktails and spent countless hours drifting aimlessly on a raft off the Island of Ko Chang. As the days slipped by and I carelessly squandered the hours bobbing up and down on the crystal clear waters, I started to reminisce about one of my favorite books written by Peter Jenkins called A Walk Across America. Ultimately, Jenkins’ disillusionment with society in the 1970’s drove him out onto the road on a walk across America to find himself. It was an amazing story full of personal growth, adventure and American culture. Needless to say I was in a place in my life where I could genuinely relate to Jenkins, his wanderlust and his state of confusion.
Don’t get me wrong, before this trek I had done my share of American travel. In fact, I accrued well over 50,000 road trip miles via automobile. As my gas powered engine whipped me across the heartland in pursuit of national parks and the next tourist attraction, I had never taken the time to get to know my fellow Americans. More importantly I had never taken the time to get to know the people in small towns across America. Suddenly, I was consumed by an overwhelming sense of discontentment and as far as I was concerned there were too many stones I had left unturned. This is when I decided to embark upon my slow journey across America.
It took Jenkins 3 years to walk from Connecticut to New Orleans. I decided a bike ride would suit me better.
With my new found mission and in preparation for my upcoming journey I returned to my hometown in central Pennsylvania where I witnessed a huge transition in both the landscape and the local economy. I hadn’t been home in well over a year and I was quick to notice that Pennsylvania no longer felt like the rural and scenic hometown I had remembered growing up. Instead, I observed so much farmland lost to commercial and residential development that I could barely recognize the place. And sure enough, according to the American Farmland Trust, Pennsylvania had lost 1.6 million acres of rural land due to development between the years of 1982 and 2007. It seemed as though everyone back home was now living in some housing development called “Cedar Meadows” or “Pine Trail Estates”, but without the meadows or pine trails.
In such difficult economic times I grew frustrated to know that the only “local” businesses that seemed to be thriving were the corporate giant Wal-Mart and its nearby fast food establishments. It just seemed odd to me that people were willing to give their money to multi-billion dollar corporations before they would invest in their own community. Granted, I had just come back from Southern California, one might anticipate a good bit of culture shock when returning home to a small blue collar town. But still, why weren’t the local establishments thriving? What had happened to much of the pristine farmland I remembered from my youth? Was this happening elsewhere? There was only one way to find out.
My journey now had a purpose and I was in search of the true answers. It was time to hit the road.
* * *
You can read more excerpts from Nathan’s book on CookingUpAStory.com. A new excerpt is posted every Wednesday.
I especially like this quote from one of the farmer’s Nathan met along the way.
“The environment affects agriculture and agriculture affects food and food effects people’s well-being. We should try and think about what we can do to make things better and would help assure that our future generations of children will be able to eat and have nutrition.” ~Meagen Kresge, Gather Round Farm, Cleveland, OH from Nathan’s book An Unconventional Harvest
Video from the road.
“On this journey I met and talked with many organizations and individuals that are very concerned and knowledgeable in regards to climate change and the role industrial agriculture plays in that relationship. Here are a few snippets I felt were important to share.” ~Nathan Winters
Mimi Arnstein from Wellspring Farm talks about the importance of not only getting to know your local farmer but, more importantly, get to know the land and then you will truly have a connection to where your local food comes from.
“We forget that food grows from the earth, with the help of people.” “Part of the solution is in fact to getting to know the growers. But to dig a potato and to pull carrots from the earth, that is moving for people. It’s not just about you purchasing from me. I want you to get on my farm and pick a tomato. That makes the difference.” ~ Mimi Arnstein, Wellspring CSA, Marshfield, VT
“The Unconventional Harvest seeks to reconnect us to our agricultural roots and put on a face on the farmers who provide Americans with food on a daily basis. This book shows us that agriculture is something that has been, and always will be, ingrained in America’s cultural identity.”
~ Greg Plotkin, Sustainable Food Writer – Change.org
“Winters has a knack for painting compelling word pictures, while taking us on an important agricultural journey. Read along and you will experience more than four thousand miles of farm and ranch faces, widely variable production methods and a genuine taste of what rural living is allabout in the 21st century. “
~ Hank Will, Editor in Chief – GRIT Magazine
“Winters has discovered along his slow, cross-country bicycle journey, the deeper meaning behind our food system. The probing questions he asks, provide a raw view into the soul of modern American life—finding remote pockets of hope—alive, for a richer, hungry tomorrow.”
~ Fred Gerendasy, co-founder – Cooking Up a Story
“A book that brings home the true essence of a young man on a mission, and shares his eye-popping agricultural education with us in a comforting, passionate way. He took it upon himself to learn where his food comes from, and the results are mind numbing and powerful. It’s a journey with whimsy, tact and brings moving portraits of the food heroes along the way.”
~Dean Sparks, Founder – Empire Organics
“This journey seamlessly blends the stories of American Farmers with the hard hitting facts of the food crisis in this country. As someone who has spent way too much time reading about food, I enjoyed entering into the lives of the individuals across the country who aren’t always included in the dialogue: the farmers. And you don’t just learn about their job, you get to know them as individuals. A very tranformative read.”
~Daniel Klein, Founder – The Perennial Plate
More about Nathan.
Nathan currently lives in Vermont where he farms seasonally. He has become deeply rooted into the sustainable food movement and various issues surrounding agriculture through his writing and activism. He continues to fight the food fight on his blog, Fair Food Fight.
For more information about his latest adventures visit http://www.follownathan.org You can also follow Nathan on Twitter, @follownathan.