To the Reader
This book, in the barest terms, is about 52 weeks of life on a diverse, sustainable farm in Central Illinois. It’s the place where I grew up, and the place I couldn’t wait to leave.
And leave I did—first to the West Coast, and then on to Japan for five years and New York City for ten. But I come from four generations of Illinois farmers on my father’s side, and untold generations of landless peasants in southern Italy on my mother’s side. So the gravitational forces exerted by a patch of fertile earth were hard to resist.
Central Illinois is where my paternal grandparents were born and farmed, and where my mother and father and half of my siblings now live. I have three sisters, all younger (Beth, Teresa, and Jill) and two brothers, one older (Fred) and one younger (Henry). Jill lives on the farm where my grandfather and father were born; Teresa raises over 70 varieties of fruits and dozens of herbs near Walnut Creek in the small town of Eureka; and Henry grows over 650 varieties of vegetables on 10 acres bordered by Kinder Creek and Walnut Creek, just a few miles downstream from Teresa.
The pull of these people and this land eventually became too intense to ignore it, and so, after decades living in major metropolitan areas around the world, I returned to Congerville, Illinois, population 350. That is where this book is centered, in a place that now centers me: my brother Henry’s farm.
His farm is nestled in the nation’s heartland, midway between the towns of Bloomington and Peoria, and also midway between the cities of Chicago and St. Louis. It is located in the Mackinaw River Valley, a mecca of diverse organic and sustainable farming hidden in the rolling hills of a small river valley in the middle of the flat, chemical–industrial corn belt that stretches for hundreds of miles in all directions. By contrast, Henry’s bottomland fields are in a sheltered bowl surrounded by oak and hickory forests, and his upper fields look out over forested bluffs and fertile valleys crisscrossed by waterways.
This book grew out of the weekly Food & Farm Notes emails I began writing in 1998 to let Henry’s customers know what was happening on the farm each week and what was coming to market. Slowly, the Food & Farm Notes evolved to include my sister Teresa’s “Fruit & Herb Notes” and my geneticist father Herman’s “Earth-Science Notes,” as well as various contributions from my nieces Zoe and Gabriela. The Food & Farm Notes gradually gained an audience beyond Henry’s market customers, as people forwarded them to friends and relatives around the world.
Getting immediate feedback from readers at the market week after week made me realize that people were not as interested in what was coming to market as they were in the details of its existence. Where it was grown? By whom? How? I learned people had a deep longing for earthly details: the quality of light in the fields, the smell of newly mown hay, the sound of frogs in the evening. And they wanted farming details too. How does Henry manage to get fresh greens to market after the temperature falls below freezing? How do the dogs guard the sweet corn from ravenous raccoons and the lettuce from marauding deer? How did one lucky tom turkey avoid his preordained fate? Slowly, I came to understand that the Food & Farm Notes were fulfilling something deeper than the need for food, or even the need for knowledge about how food was raised. They were feeding the hunger for connection—a connection to the source of all sustenance, the earth, and the people who work it.
While most of this book takes place during a single 12-month period, there are a few forays into other years—even other generations—but all are fitted into a single calendar year. Writing the Food & Farm Notes year after year let me see the remarkable consistency of the cycles of nature, and that they are cycles—circles—without a beginning or end.
The question then became where to start this story. My somewhat arbitrary answer is to begin in November—because it’s my favorite month, the month I was born, and most importantly, because it’s when we plant the first crop of the next season. Instead of calling it November, though, I hearken back to the “moons” of Native American lore, which describe recurring phenomena in the cyclical calendar of nature. We begin with November’s Hunter’s Moon, move through the summer’s Thunder Moon and Green Corn Moon, and end with autumn’s Fruit Moon and Harvest Moon. Each “moon” has been beautifully illustrated by Henry’s wife, my sister-in-law, Hiroko Kinoshita.
This book is tightly focused on one place and one extended family—my own—but it concerns ecology, economy, philosophy, literature, religion, politics, and more. One of my aims is to show how each one of us, when we eat, becomes part of the cosmic cycle of life and death via the plants and animals that provides us with our daily sustenance.
This book is also an invitation to eat great food grown by people near you who love the land. That’s why I’ve included recipes featuring produce as it comes into season. These are family favorites, all of them quick and simple: quick because life on the farm is busy, and simple because when you have the very best ingredients, you want to taste them undisguised.
Finally, this book is an invitation to return to cyclical time, the time of nature and of sustainable agriculture, which mimics nature. It is an invitation to recognize that growing good food does not have to mean destroying soil or polluting air and water, and that we can eat well and live well, and still leave this earth a better place than we found it.