Monday, August 7, 2017

The Grand Gallivant: Meet Me at the Fair

Building a straw-bale veggie and mushroom garden at one of the hands-on workshops

Just a few days ago, one of the Facebook pages I like (WWOOF-USA) mentioned that they were going to be at the Mother Earth News Fair in Albany, Oregon, over the weekend. I nearly had a happy heart attack— I’m a big fan of the magazine and had read about the fairs before, but it didn’t occur to me that I’d be within striking distance of one on this trip. Albany is only an hour and a half away! I yelled to Zach that I had great news, chattered excitedly as I scrolled through the list of workshops, and bought an online package deal that cost $35, for both of us, for the whole weekend. Score!

I discovered Mother Earth News (begun in 1970) sometime last year at the library, and instantly fell in love: even though their target audience is generally rural organic homesteaders and farmers, their focus on sustainability through self-reliance applies to anyone. Their fairs advertise as “Bringing the magazine to life,” and I couldn’t wait to see what that looked like.

Schedule and notes
We drove to the Linn County Fairgrounds on Saturday morning, arriving just in time to dive into the first of five sessions that day. I had already carefully planned out what we were going to see (sometimes together, sometimes separately), and today was booked solid. 

We entered the expo center, dizzied by the sound of the crowds and the various demonstrations at the vendor booths, and looked around at the tapestry of people. A dreadlocked lesbian couple were sampling goat milk soap next to an old man wearing overalls and a plaid shirt; a cluster of middle-aged women with cross necklaces were oohing and ahhing over a log-splitting tool while a young bearded man carrying a baby discussed the pros and cons of Langstroth hives with a crisply-dressed vendor. Singles, couples, and families, young and old, rural and metropolitan, everyone was here for a common goal: learn how to make the best use of our time and resources through the lens of homesteading.

Each class or workshop was an hour long, with 15-30 minutes in between for us to catch our breath, sneak a snack, wander through the massive vendor area, peruse the Mother Earth News Bookstore (I wrote down the names of almost 40 books, and found 20 of them at my local library— I’ve put them on reserve for when I get home), or admire the cute heritage breeds that the Livestock Conservancy was showcasing (pigs, goats, sheep, cows, and a pony, all indoors!). 

Over the weekend, between the two of us, Zach and I learned about growing elderberries for health and profit, beekeeping basics, craft distilling, basic hydroponic veggie growing, building a pizza oven and a rocket mass heater from mud, dehydrating tricks, greywater basics, small-farm planning, solar greenhouse design, straw-bale gardening with mushrooms on the sides, a vision for a world in which fungi play a central role, and the steps processing a chicken from clucking bird to chicken dinner. Last night on our drive home, my brain was so full of information that I was almost nonfunctional, and it’s going to take me days to sort out everything I absorbed. Fortunately, I took lots of notes!

Although a lot of the classes were really interesting, our favorite class, hands-down, was Tradd Cotter’s workshop titled, “Mycotopia 2017: Medicinal mushrooms, magical molds, and magnificent mycorrhizae.” We weren’t even planning to go at first (the title made my head spin and I assumed he’d just be talking about how shittake is good for your health), but when we listened to Cotter co-host the straw-bale gardening workshop, we realized that he was an amazing speaker and we had to see him again. 

Cotter told us that “Mycotopia” is his dream city of the future in which mushrooms and fungi are used to their full potential. Using this whimsical framework, he discussed all the many different ways that fungi could be incorporated into the modern world. I had always thought of mushrooms as something to put on pizza (and then pick off because they’re too slimy), but Cotter’s lecture blew my mind open. He discussed possibilities for quicker and more effective composting, feeding third-world countries (he’s done extensive work in Haiti, teaching people how to grow mushrooms on old cardboard), providing disaster relief (again, mushrooms are a great source of protein that grow on trash!), filtering toxins out of water and soil, cultivating the cordyceps fungus to target pests, developing personalized antibiotics, making ink and rubber, creating self-healing building bricks, and even providing easy food on space stations. His enthusiasm and vision (not to mention his extensive research over the past twenty years) fired our imaginations, and I can confidently say that our “bacteria pet” collection is soon going to expand to the kingdom of fungi! (We also bought his book, which I would tell you about except that Zach has been reading it nonstop since we got back to Portland. It’s a good problem to have.)

In short, the fair was everything I hoped it would be: inspiring, thought-provoking, dizzyingly packed, helpful, encouraging, exhausting, and just plain fun. I’m so happy we got the chance to visit, and look deeper into what it means to be urban homesteaders in the modern world.


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