Earth Mamas

People are often surprised when I mention that my mom has a farm outside of Toronto. “Has it been in your family for a long time?” they ask. “What do you grow?”

“Well,” I say, sheepishly. “We don’t actually farm anything yet. It’s more like a cottage.” But it isn’t, really. Before the farm, we did have a cottage, up on Sparrow Lake in Muskoka, Ontario. It used to be a summer camp and we shared one of the old bunks with my aunt and uncle and first cousins. Even just my family was a tight squeeze — my brothers and I would nestle next to Grandma in one of the two bedrooms.

Our other relatives stayed in similar cabins around the lake. At some point, they started building large cottages, with air conditioning and big-screen TVs. Motorboats replaced canoes, their engines ripping through the quiet. Some cousins built swimming pools. Some brought up hired help to do the cooking.

When my grandmother was diagnosed with colon cancer, she reminisced about the simpler time at the cottage, sitting on the porch with a grandchild on her knee, looking out onto Sparrow Lake, listening to the loons and the whistle of the train at dusk. Then she would remark, sadly, on how the cottage had changed. My mom promised herself that if Grandma got through surgery, she was going to find a place where she could relive her memories of the cottage and be healed by them.

My grandmother lives in memories. She’s the great storyteller in our family, always talking about the old country, Auschwitz, the D.P. camp in Italy, her arrival in Canada after the war. Her reminiscences about the carefree days at the cottage differ from the others because they aren’t stories of suffering. Even with cramped space and mosquito bites, the cottage was pure pleasure. Some say that when you’re suffering it helps to visualize a happy, peaceful place. I guess that’s what Grandma was doing, without realizing it.

She did get through the surgery. And Mom remembered her promise. After taking Grandma to her first chemotherapy treatment, she drove out to the country to meet with a real estate agent. The first property she saw was a 15-acre plot of land in County Wellington, an hour outside of Toronto. Mom fell in love with the big hill, the pond, the stone wall, the horse barn. The next day the place was ours.

When Grandma was well into chemotherapy, Mom took her out to the farm and settled her in an easy chair on the wraparound porch, with its view of the pond, covered her with a blanket and went inside to make her tea. By the time she returned, Grandma was fast asleep; an hour later she awoke, rejuvenated.

I was a teenager then, resistant to nearly all change, and not happy about selling the cottage and buying a farm. I thought it was a crazy idea — no lake, no forest, no cousins next door. Now I understand my mother’s vision. She was looking for a sanctuary for Grandma, but she also saw more. In the farm my mom realized an opportunity to preserve a piece of beauty and sustenance and history in the changing Canadian landscape.

We’ve discovered that we’re not the only Jews who long for country life. So we’re working with Shoresh, a Jewish environmental organization, to create a rural center for sustainable, land-based Judaism in Southern Ontario. Just before developers could snatch it up, my mom bought the cattle farm next door: 99 acres of lush farmland owned by an old-timer fourth-generation farmer named Fred Cox. When Farmer Cox first met our group, led by Shoresh’s Risa Alyson Cooper and Sabrina Malach, he laughed at the idea of women running a farm. He’d never believe how many other Jewish women are already deeply involved in the nurturing and regenerative experience of farming.

We’re coming to understand what power the land holds. When Grandma comes out to the farm, she has her tradition: Mom covers her with a blanket on the porch, goes in to make tea, and comes out to find Grandma sleeping soundly, as she never can in the city. “We’re earth mamas,” my mother laughs.  

An Ethical Lunch
by Lincoln Schnur Fishman

My wife and I have a 45-acre farm with a few plowed acres for vegetables, about 15 acres of pasture, and the rest in woods, where we raise cows for milk and meat, pigs, goats, chickens, and all kinds of vegetables. Our job is to kill living things to feed humans. Unless you can photosynthesize, you (or someone, somewhere) have to kill everything you eat.

The most basic relationship between you and whatever you eat is always going to be the same: it dies so you can keep living. What you eat — animal or vegetable — obscures the real ethical question: what effect does your lunch have on the rest of the world? A vegetarian who eats a head of lettuce from a big, nameless farm somewhere has a lot of thinking to do. Chances are that lettuce was harvested and packaged by someone who was grossly underpaid. It was shipped — refrigerated — thousands of miles. It was probably grown in a field where erosion is destroying the productivity of that field for future generations, and where fertilizer runoff pollutes all the water downstream from it.  

The ethical goal in eating is to avoid screwing over third parties — whether farm workers, future humans, or marine life. At the moment, this goal is unattainable for most Americans. When you stop and think about it, it’s nearly impossible to get an ethical lunch. But people are increasingly asking to at least be given an ethical choice, and we feel part of a group of farmers trying to provide those options.