Industrial Harvest


What happened to the flour, part 5: The ones that got away by sarah kavage

My husband Rob is the documentarian of the family.  I was into photography back in the pre-digital age, but pretty much immediately upon coupling up with Rob I decided I liked having my own personal archivist, put the camera away and just enjoyed living without looking through a lens.

This spring, however, all of that had to change once I realized that I was on my own in Chicago.  No personal archivist, no husband – just me, alone with my poor documentation habits.  Undeterred, I bought a camera and carried it around constantly, ever-so-slow on the draw, trying to figure out how to work the daggone thing on the fly, and re-remembering all that stuff about apertures and f-stops.  Even though I feel like I did a passable job documenting the major events of the summer, picking up the camera to capture a moment never became instinct.

And so, I have some regrets.  Rob will occasionally mention a missed shot from years ago that has been burned into his memory, which I’ve always found impressive but a bit odd.  Why hold onto it?  But now I understand.  This post is dedicated to trying to tell, in words, what I should have captured in pictures.

Two stories stick in my head.  The first happened when D. contacted me about getting 50 lbs. of whole wheat flour this fall:

I am a hobby farmer who happens to produce more than enough pumpkins for myself, family and friends.  Generally I give away the pumpkins and bread I make out of the pumpkins.  The crops are organic and grown in glorious DeKalb County soil in Sycamore, Illinois.  I’d be interested in 50 lbs of the flour so that I can make dozens of loaves of pumpkin bread this season to give away.  I could accept the flour ASAP because I’m already harvesting pumpkins and baking.

A couple weeks after he’d picked up his bag of flour, D. emailed me saying that he had a few loaves of pumpkin bread for me.  I was of course delighted, but running around that day and told D. if I wasn’t at home he could leave the bread on our front porch.

Later that afternoon I got a text from D. that he’d just dropped off the bread.  Although I was home at the time, it took me about 10 minutes to make it downstairs to the porch.  On the porch was a small box containing 5 loaves of pumpkin bread.  And on the box was a little squirrel.  He had chewed through the box, the plastic wrap and was so contentedly munching away on the bread that he barely looked up when I opened the door.  No doubt that if I had gone up to get the camera, he would have stayed there feasting and we could have had an adorable, hilarious photo shoot.  Oh, I could kick myself.

Of course, when I told Rob about this the first words out of his mouth were “did you take pictures?”

The second tale of documentary woes started with an email from N., who works at Urban Habitat Chicago.  They were interested in trying to grow wheat, and maybe taking a little flour too.  We went back and forth to figure out a time for her to come pick some up, and we were both kind of busy and ended up doing one of those “let’s talk on Sunday night and see if we can do it then” appointments that didn’t used to happen before everyone had cell phones.  And then when she called I didn’t hear my phone.  When I finally called back, it was hours later – well after dark – but N. said that was OK.  It would take her an hour to get up to my place, though – she was going to do the hauling by trailer bike.

The trailer was a sturdy, well-built DIY contraption that utilized milk crates, steel tubing and big cart wheels.  Turns out, this was its maiden haul.  I grilled N. about the handling, the weight, the construction as we loaded it up with 50, then 100 pounds of wheat berries and took it for a test ride down the alley.  Getting the bike moving was really not too difficult – with 100 pounds of cargo, you’ve got momentum on your side.  Turning was not too bad either.  But stopping – well, that was tougher.  N. was headed down Damen towards Pilsen, and the only part we agreed might be a bit sketchy was the downhill part of the bridge across the river.  Truth be told, I was slightly worried when I did not hear back from her for a couple of days, but it turned out she, the wheat and the bike made it just fine.  It was only then that I began kicking myself for not busting out the camera.  What was I thinking?  The only human-powered haul of the project (and surely the most bad-ass) and I stupidly missed it.

N. came by again a week or two later to pick up more wheat, but it was raining and she showed up with a friend’s truck.  There are no second chances.



Crunching the Numbers at Mess Hall by sarah kavage

I’ve been meaning to post more about my time at Mess Hall BEFORE my residency ended, but as things have been more hectic than expected the last couple of weeks, it just hasn’t happened until now.  I was thrilled to be asked to contribute to this anti-institution.  Mess Hall’s structure and spirit reflects much of my own philosophy about art, and the emphasis on non-monetary exchange makes it a perfect place to, you got it, give away flour for free.  For these two weeks, I wanted to focus on conclusions and solutions, and start to wrap up everything I’ve learned:  make some sense of all this movement of flour, money, markets and goodwill; draw some conclusions about all these intersecting systems and maybe, just maybe, start to think about how we might need to change them (with lots of help from people more knowledgeable than I).

This was not an insignificant task, as it meant getting serious about things like math, which I typically avoid.  I wish more of the programming had worked out.  Unfortunately this is the time of year when farmers are the most busy and their priority is harvesting and working around seemingly constant weather issues (like tornadoes, which threw a monkey wrench in the plans of the ASFC).  I hope that the annoyance of all the multiple date changes does not prohibit anyone from staying engaged in this discussion and attending the (dates to be determined) rescheduled sessions.  For those folks who came to the commodity trading 101 session, thanks for your thoughtful participation; a special thanks to guest trader Paul Maggio who created a open, congenial atmosphere in which we could start to pick apart this stuff.

Having a storefront was a blast.  People watching in Rogers Park is fruitful, and about 90 percent of passers-by would pick through the free box and clothes rack (about 1 in 20 would stop in for flour).  One woman came in, thrilled at her free box scores (and wanting to share, as the ladies do, the thrill of a good bargain), and then asked me for a bag, which of course we had.  About every other day when I arrived there would be a bag or two of clothes on the doorstep of Mess Hall, which would be incorporated into the free box and clothes rack.  I also took the liberty of adopting 4 boxes of records that someone brought in, which has made a couple people very happy (including myself) but may be pushing the free store thing too far for such a small space.

All in all, people took 261 pounds of flour.  Which is not bad for about 35 open hours, perhaps.  Most folks that came in did not look like they actually needed free flour, they were just ardent bakers or interested in the project.  But a few did look like having this gift was going to be of real value to them.  Two people came in and left with one of the bulk (50-lb) bags – one guy whose wife bakes for all their friends and neighbors, and a student at Loyola who helps out with Food Not Bombs Rogers Park.

The documentation and “research results” from the project are still at Mess Hall for the time being.  You can also see pictures here.