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The Field Behind the Plow


Fri, Jun 7th, 2013
Posted in All Commentary

By Eric Leitzen

You know, I can’t remember the last time I bought beef. I don’t mean staggering into the local gruntburger stand and grabbing a Whopper (or maybe a Villager Road Special to split with a friend or two), but actually going to the store and purchasing a cut of beef, a grind of beef, or even any of those potentially hazardous canned-beef products. Luckily, my parents happen to know a local beef farmer, and they can get a wholesale deal from him, which allows me to buy it from them at a decent markup or, more normally, my mother will just start throwing cow parts in my freezer before I get a chance to pay. What can I say, she is my mother, and mothers do what mothers do.

Looking back only a few years, I doubt I’d recognize myself. Or, at least, my plate. I suppose you could call me a reformed carnivore, trading out seven nights a week of meat-heavy dinners for even (shock!) one or two meatless nights a week. It’s partly economically motivated, but the recent financial crunches have managed to force my hand into eating healthier, and so I’m suddenly trolling the internet for vegetarian and vegan recipes. That sound you just heard is my father fainting in shame and a few generations of my ancestors groaning from the Great Beyond.

I’ve tried to make peace with great-great grandfather Johann and the others by following in their homesteading footsteps this summer. When my wife and I moved into our house in March of 2012, we had a small bare patch of earth in the (back yard) I managed to turn into a small amount of beets and lettuce thanks to the wonderful folks at Seed Savers in Decorah, Iowa. Sadly, my first bean crop fell victim to a dreaded plague of adorable bunnies, but it allowed me to catch the gardening bug not only as a mean of recreation and exercise, but also to satisfy my thrifty nature and be satisfied in the knowledge that I am eating by my own hand and my own toil.

This summer, I decided to extend the tiny, five-by-five square I’d planted last year into a bona fide gardening operation, adding peas, beans, squash, radishes, and even potatoes into the mix. However, my (back yard) was currently the domain of ragweed, creeping charlie, and enough burdock to block out the sun. Suddenly, I found myself connecting to the Leitzens of the past, turning over soil that hadn’t been broken in years, busting sod and planting my livelihood in the tiniest sliver of an acre to provide for my family. Sure, it’s nothing like the 160 acres of our homesteading past, but it’s my crop, warts and all. Within five years I went from a pampered college boy to an aspiring urban farmer, up to my elbows in loam, arms full of stinging nettle burns, and not a hamburger in sight.

I do still crave beef sometimes, that much is certain. But still, there’s something to be said for cutting some of the meat out of your diet, for health or wealth reasons. My picture up there may not, or probably does, show that I am what they might call a gentleman of increased carriage, and I am no less well-fed now that I was during my hamburger and taco-fueled college days… but I’m being fed a lot better than back then, thanks to my fantastic cook of a wife.

Give it a shot yourself: dig up a little of your yard, or stick a box of potting soil in your apartment window. There are plenty of plants out there that are darn near impossible to kill, and I’m speaking from experience. I have the personal grace of several bulls in the world’s smallest china shop, and even the squash seedling I stepped on two days ago was back standing tall yesterday. It’s economical, it’s healthy, and you can’t beat the satisfaction of putting a seed in the grown and watching it first poke up through the soil. Yes, despite my years of fancy book-learning, tens of thousands of dollars in student debt, and time on stage performing Shakespeare, Chekhov or Sondheim… it seems I’m still a farmer at heart.

Somehow, I hope that makes all the old Leitzens smile.

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