Continuing with my interview with Rebecca Terk of Flying Tomato Farms.
Could you describe a bit about your work with the Vermillion Area Farmers Market board? I am heading into my sixth year as president since we loosely organized ourselves into a Board. The Vermillion Area Farmers Market Board is the most stable organization I’ve ever been involved with—we have the same four members as we had when we organized: me, Grace Freeman of Prairie Moon Herbs, Vito “Mike” Gaidelis of Red Rooster Farms, and Jen Gaspers of Dantien Massage and Bodywork Therapy. Now Jen has joined the Peace Corps and is heading to Swaziland this June—we joke that that’s the only way to get off the Board—moving to Africa.
We are a small and sometimes-embattled organization. When we first informally organized ourselves, the market was in the parking lot of the 4-H grounds on Saturday mornings. The bathrooms were always locked—we’d have to hold it or sneak out behind the cattle shed to urinate. We weren’t visible from either Cherry or Main Streets—Vermillion’s main drags (which might’ve been good since we had to pee outside). So, we decided to try to move downtown. That precipitated a verbal spat with the Clay County Commission. We wanted to block off the 10-block of High Street—right where it converges with Main Street, and next to the County Courthouse. The City said yes, and the County Commission sent a letter of protest, saying, among other things, that the market was for our Board’s own personal profit. Yes, we were all vendors, but the goal of the market was to try to expand beyond our small crew plus whomever else we could get to show up at our old location. We don’t make money off being on the Board (if we did, we’d all be way overdue for a raise). But, we were able to placate the County Commissioners, and we spent the next two years in that location.
The problem was that Vermillion is a sleepy little college town, and the people who do get up on Saturday mornings don’t tend to stick around. Another issue was that twice in the second year we’d had vehicles drive through our city-supplied barricades—one almost running over a vendor (she never same back—who can blame her?). We decided two things—that we should move to a safer location, and that we should switch to a mid-week market, when we’d be more likely to attract vendors who sold at larger markets on the weekends. So, in 2005, we partnered with the Vermillion Area Arts Council and set up our Wednesday evening market on the grounds of the Washington Street Arts Center. This provided us with the use of the historic building in inclement weather, and much-needed bathroom facilities for both vendors and patrons. It wasn’t the most visible of locations—a couple blocks up from Main Street, but at the time we weren’t able to find a suitable downtown location.
Our partnership with the Arts Council also allowed us to get a bit of free advertising on their mailings, and after the better part of a season (and with the beginning of the Vermillion Community Garden Project in the Art Center’s backyard), we started seeing good sales and more vendors. Another huge help was our hiring of a market manager, Caitlin Collier, last year. Up to that point, it had been the Board’s responsibility to do all of the work involved with vendor and customer relations, and it was an incredibly difficult thing to do when we were also trying to get ready to sell at the market, along with all our other work responsibilities. Caitlin has been a godsend.
Now, we are in a bit of a location bind once again. The leadership of the Vermillion Area Arts Council Board has, without the authorization of the membership, executed a purchase option on another building, and raised the question of selling the existing Arts Center and Community Garden lot to finance the move. You can read more than you care to know about my thoughts on this in my official farm blog—I have also been on the VAAC Board, and as a VAAC member with quite a large stake in keeping the Arts Center where it is (I am also a coordinator of the garden project), I am actively fighting this move. But, for the Vermillion Area Farmers Market, it necessitates looking at other location options.
Currently we are working with the City and the Downtown Vermillion Action Team to see if we can locate a reasonable downtown location with parking for vendors, customers, and truck farmers; bathroom options; and a few other details–all while retaining administrative control over the market in order to keep our “Home Grown, Homemade, Garden-related” mission intact. We may seem to be moving a little slowly to embrace the promise of a downtown location, but we are well-seasoned nomads, and we’d like to make sure our new hosts will want to keep us for a good long while before we commit.
I should also say that I’ve recently met a couple whose son ran the market almost two decades ago, when he was active in 4-H, so another project I’d like to look into is recording a more detailed history of the Farmers Market in Vermillion. Since I’m not planning on moving to Africa anytime soon, I’ll keep plugging away on the Farmers Market Board until they decide to get rid of me!
What kind of future do you see for small-scale farming/regionally-produced food in this area? I think that unfortunately, a lot of the growth of local food systems depends on how difficult things get in terms of fuel prices, political stability, and the economy. I would very much like for people to be more conscientious of their food choices as a matter of principle, but for most, conscience will only come when their pocketbooks, or their ability to get a meal, are threatened. In, “In Distrust of Movements,” Wendell Berry asks, “What could be more superstitious than the idea that money brings forth food?” We live in a society where most people value everything in terms of money. But when you have a food shortage, all the money in the bank may not buy you a piece of bread. If I am hungry, and I have a piece of bread, I could not be seduced by money to give up the bread. Of course, I would not wish for such a situation, even to prove myself right, but such a scenario is helpful to remind people that our basic needs do not include money—though at this time many of our basic needs may be purchased with money. That may not always be the case.
But beyond such dire scenarios, the media has been very much in locavores’ favor in the past year or two—with books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma; Deep Economy, by Bill McKibben; and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver. Local food manifestos like the 100-Mile Diet have been all over the Internet, and sites like Local Harvest and Green People have made it easier for people to find local growers and local markets.
I also think that if we are wise, we will (as individuals and as a society) make a deliberate effort to encourage local and regional food networks in our areas. This is a situation where almost everyone, no matter what part of the political spectrum they inhabit, can agree. When I talk about local food, I can talk about reducing our dependence on foreign oil and becoming more self-sufficient in case of terrorist attack. I can talk about building our communities and protecting our children from awful reconstituted school lunches. I can talk about how our elders’ health is undermined by eating commodity foods served in hospitals and nursing homes. I can talk about taste, and about variety, and about how a “fresh” tomato in the middle of winter just doesn’t taste…fresh. Everyone knows these things instinctively; we just have to take action on this knowledge—even if it’s just by planting our own little plot, signing up for a CSA, or visiting the farmers market. How about asking your favorite restaurant if they serve any local food? How about asking your grocery store manager if they stock local food?
There are a few people in this region who are actively working to build local food systems. I am particularly impressed with the efforts of Pat Garrity, who used to run an apple orchard and u-pick tourist farm near Mission Hill, South Dakota. He has been instrumental in organizing and promoting the Floyd Boulevard Local Foods Market in Sioux City, and he is now working with grant funding from the Leopold Center at Iowa State University to bring “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” labeling to various regions of Iowa and South Dakota. While I am all for naked food, I know that branding can be an important part of the perceived status of food (yeah–food as status symbol, what gives?). I say, if it helps the local farmers make a better living, and it doesn’t degrade our environment, why not?
You’re not originally from South Dakota but have been here for quite awhile. What do you like about SD? What kinds of changes would you like to see in our state? Is this a trap? Just kidding.
I love South Dakota because I feel like it’s still so wide open—like it’s not all bought up and “taken.” There exist so many possibilities here—especially for young people! I’ve had a number of friends on both coasts ask me why I stick it out here—why I stay in South Dakota when I’d “fit in” so much better in a place like Washington state or Massachusetts, or back in Vermont, for that matter. My standard answer is that I don’t necessarily want to “fit in.” But also that I’m fitting in pretty well in my own little community, and I feel like I can make a substantive difference here. In my relatively short time here I have seen a lot of people and possibilities come and go. It’s sad when someone who is brilliant and full of energy and an asset to the community leaves for someplace where there are all kinds of people like that, and where they won’t make nearly the difference they’d make here. It’s just plain perverse when people recognize you’re brilliant and full of energy and will make a difference and they tell you that you ought to leave or your talents will be “wasted.” People with talent ought to be encouraged to use those talents for the betterment of their home and community, and what betters the home and community has a strong tendency to better the self.
I have felt the most invested in the Vermillion community when I’ve been breaking a sweat—whether helping to prepare a free community meal for The Welcome Table or for our Farmers Market vendors, or scrubbing the bat guano out of the Arts Center’s choir loft, or helping build raised beds in the new community garden. I like to question, and even poke a little fun at, people and organizations in Vermillion and in the state, but it’s because I very deeply care about this community and the organizations here in which I’m involved.
One thing I see in South Dakota that troubles me is that there are many people who are so anxious to get “caught up” with the rest of the country/world that they don’t learn from others’ mistakes. This proposed oil refinery project in Union County is one of those mistakes that we may be very close to making. Sometimes when you live in a place, maybe especially if you’re young, you can only see what you don’t have, not what you do have. I am inspired by those elders who got up at the public hearing on the refinery to talk about the high quality of their way of life, and their desire to preserve the land. It’s not that they don’t want their kids and grandkids to have jobs, it’s that they know the value of what they have, and they want their kids and grandkids to have it, too.
Maybe I am getting a little older, or maybe it’s the influence of my wonderful (and older—sorry, Harry!) partner, but as much as I have longed for change since I have come to South Dakota, I am starting to see how important it is to preserve and maintain what we have. It’s not that I don’t welcome certain kinds of “progress”—it’s just as easy, maybe easier, to get stuck in the ruts of old ways—but I think change has to be thoughtful and deliberate and has to be considerate of the past.