–  for a Gala Supper cosponsored by Organic Food Council of MB and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra at Hotel Fort Garry, Fall ’04

Thank-you, for being part of a community that seeks to support local food and local music. I’ll begin with an assumption; in the world in which we choose to live, every person must have access to the best quality food this good earth can offer and the finest live music our local artists can play. This requires a persistent gentle dedication to changing how we think, feel, believe and act. I appreciate your company in this brave ever-renewing world.

My words today are inspired by being brought up on a small scale, Mennonite family run farm in Southwest Manitoba, by our 10 years with Mennonite Central Committee – mostly in Africa –, by our travels around North and Central America as a family and by our relationship with a community that has lost 50% of its agricultural population in the last 40 years. We’ve learned through all of this that export agriculture is not serving farmers’ needs anywhere we know about and we also know by now that we won’t solve our rural development concerns unless we find ways of encouraging more people to live on the land – preferably growing quality food.

I grew up listening to Saturday afternoon opera. The radio was on in the kitchen because that’s where Mom would be humming along while baking buns and cinnamon rolls. In my memory the associated smells and sounds were accompanied by a sun that was always shining, my sisters always being sweet to me and Dad always having something useful for me to do. I can hear dad telling me to go ahead and have a bite to eat; that he would start cultivating the field out behind the pasture. Buns hot out of the oven with butter and honey. That was the best. With my stomach and palate satisfied I’d saunter across the pasture, crickets rasping, gophers whistling, aspens rustling and grasshoppers flitting drunkenly onto – then off of my shoulder, the cows and their calves grazing, mooing now and again over towards the creek. What a place. The pasture was the best.

Dad would go to the end of the field and back with me showing me what to watch for, and then he would get out leaving me to wonder if he was as inspired with nature’s melodies on his walk back across the pasture as I was. Before Dad had seesawed over the barbed wire fence I was turning the radio to CKY and pushing up the volume to better compete with the tractor’s monotone. I sang along with the Beatles, Elvis, the Supremes – at the top of my voice. How many of you have been similarly inspired by boredom on a tractor? It’s not all about driving out there.

Early on in life – probably because of a music immersion in church choirs, violin lessons, music camp, going with my folks to the symphony – I learned to pick out individual performers and individual instruments in any gathering of music makers. I’d focus in on the French horn until the music gave me a clear sample of its tone – its place in the total sound. Then I’d concentrate on the lead violin to see if I could pick out its particular quality. That was more difficult. Then I’d focus in on the altos (because most were both pretty and wholesome looking) and pick out their sound – all the while still being conscious of the French horns and violins. I found a myriad of combinations to be conscious of. Later, in my ’75 Camero I’d do the same with Mike Oldfield, Deep Purple and Queen. I learned to appreciate the individual efforts needed to make a beautiful blend of music. I’m no virtuoso but I love participating with voices and instruments creating a blend that will never again be made or heard. That is the best.

This feast is such a time – a blending of our talents, the fruits of our labours and our environments. This is a unique and largely local effort at supporting local causes. It has brought us together, connected us and our worlds. I use a ritual when I’m feeling disconnected – something I started while living in Maseru, Southern Africa. I close my eyes while eating and imagine the place and the people involved in growing the food on my plate. Call it meditation, or grace.  Two thirds of the food on our plates tonight was grown here in Manitoba by organic farmers. When I imagine the sources of this food I can conjure up faces of real farmers and real landscape. Much as I appreciate specialty foods that come from far away, it’s much more difficult to imagine how they are grown and transported to our tables. I contend, the more we know about each food item – where it’s grown, how and by whom – the more connected we feel with this earth and the better we appreciate and contribute to its melodies. Every farmer has a unique tone, a way of assessing the needs of the soil, or meandering through a herd of cattle, of studying the interplay of beneficial and harmful insects. There are schools and there are teachers, but the way we’ve arranged our farmland, each farmer is alone relating to the land. I have great respect for the farmers who allow the soil, its plants and its animals to become their most intimate teachers. I hear the music of the land most clearly early in the morning when the sun is coming up flat and pink and the horses are nickering their greetings and the birds are doing the surround sound trills. These are the finest sounds. We used to hear our neighbours more – when there was a farmer every quarter or half-mile. Those harmonies are fading. So please go home and make a farmer either by nurturing a person with those inclinations or by asking for an ever greater percentage of your food to be local and if possible, small-farm organic. We’re on a long road to recovery.

It’s a no-brainer that making music is an aesthetic pursuit; that the sounds and visuals can move us in every way. A diversely and sustainably farmed region, respectful of the native flora and fauna is also an aesthetically pleasing place to be in. The musical equivalent to farmland that is leveled and cleared for export crops, devoid of humans and wild creatures – is, like mass produced elevator music. Our global dependence on export economies is certainly part of our poor quality food problem today. We lose so much when we no longer support or depend on those closest to us for food. I believe the same is true for music. We know intuitively that we must avoid supporting the kinds of music and farming that diminish our, and our grandchildren’s, ability to connect with local wealth. Recovery requires respect for and protection of all things held in common. We want to be able to sing about and play on, grow food in and accommodate others into this world of beauty. To realize this renewed world we need to be more aware of our choices. Hopefully that continues to be what this partnership between OFCM and WSO is all about – informing and focusing our choices.

There’s a new rhythm in the air these days. It’s coming mostly from the bigger cities. It’s the sound of people looking for stronger connections with the earth and with the people who grow their food. New businesses are springing up, dedicated to moving quality food directly from the farm to the table. We see more and more people shifting away from fast paced, highly packaged food. Slowly, one decision at a time, we’re choosing to garden, go to farmer’s markets, celebrate with home grown potlucks and take our children to places where they can see and get involved in their food being grown and prepared. I am convinced Manitobans, along with homemakers across our planet, are eager to be healthier and more in touch with the potential of this good earth.

Magdalene and I – along with every musician and farmer here – enjoy the part we play in this renewing world. Thank-you for being here. You are truly the best. Enjoy!