Monday, September 27, 2010

Web 2.0 for the Sisters

This past week I was at a conference in Denver, one very specific to what I do. It was the National Communicators Network for Women Religious (NCNWR). It was attended by 114 communication directors and others from Roman Catholic women's religious orders. It was a great conference, in part because they always get very good speakers to talk about technology and social media and in part because it is very interesting to be with that many people who do exactly what I do.

I get to hear about what others are doing and always learn about some online program I can use in my job. And I usually hear in depth about something that I had only barely heard about before. This year, it was mobile phone media. What you need now, it seems, is a Web site that people can read on their phone. The mobile Web site, it seems, is actually a blog that consists of short bursts of information (your Facebook updates and Twitter feed) and a few links to longer things that are on your regular Web site or blog for those who are really interested. Once they click, of course, they'll have to read the piece they're interested in on their little phone.

I'm not happy about this development. It takes away the photos and design and any substantial length from the Web. Nor am I happy about the advice to not really communicate anything in an e-newsletter anymore, but just make it into a set of links to your Web site or other places where information is stored, for those who are really interested. "Click-throughs" are the measure of success.

I run a very successful e-newsletter for the Sisters. To see a sample, click here. I write all the articles except the brief, introductory piece by Sister Gen. There are links to videos I've posted on Youtube or registrations or our blog or the secure online donation form. People do indeed click through. They also open it at a rate of about 40%. Our open rate was even higher six months ago, when we had 2,000 subscribers. As we get more subscribers (now at 3,000) we get a lower percentage of opens, but still a very large number of (950-1,100) opens. What we get very few of is "unsubscribes." Maybe 2-3 a month.

Maybe it's because our audience is composed of readers. Or because they're interested in the Sisters. I like to think the newsletter is interesting and is changing some people's ideas about what nuns are like. I like to think it's because I don't waste anyone's time and have interesting content and good photos.

I know about the other kind of e-newsletter. I get one of these from my college's alumni office and the alumnae office at the college near the monastery. Sometimes I click through, mostly on links to articles in the New York Times or other big publications where my college was mentioned. If not a set of links, the Web 3.0 newsletter is what this expert recommended instead: one message, repeated over and over in each paragraph with a different wording that is also a link to what they want you to do-- click through to the donate page or information-gathering page on their Web site. I get several a day these days, now that political season is upon us. I give to one candidate regularly, and am happy to have a Web link to do it more easily. The rest I summarily delete. I barely glance at the subject lines.

The world has changed, even for the Sisters and their communicators. I am watching it-- both at a distance and up close. Learning to communicate in the new world in a new, and yet, I hope, meaningful way.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

County Road 51

It's fall, and the best time of year for long bike rides. Cool and crisp and no wind, just blue skies. The views are starting to open up, the fields are still beautiful and, of course, the trees. Last year I took my camera out to record the ride from St. Joseph to Avon along the Lake Wobegon Trail. This year, I wanted to chronicle a ride along County Road 51 between St. Joseph and Collegeville, toward Avon and Cold Spring.

One difference on this route is the traffic. Although the road was recently widened, and there are solid shoulders, cars race down this road at speeds of 60-70 mph. The other difference is the hills. They don't call it the Avon Hills for nothing!

I think of this road as an artery of what is best about this area in terms of entrepreneurs in the local food business. I decided to make the bike trip after driving it this morning to get apples. When the road ends, you can turn left to get to Hidden Cove Orchards, which has the best Honey Crisp apples around, or you can turn right to get to Collegeville Orchards, an energetic family farm with a petting zoo and the attraction of pumpkins and the full force of fall. I'd purchased my apples and toted them home, had lunch and then headed out for the ride.

I didn't take a photo of the first sign you pass on this road, turning off Route 2 after passing under I-94. The first sign is for Flaten Taxidermy, an established old business to be sure, but probably not one I'll be patronizing.

The first local food place is Dancing Bears Company, Jim DiGiovanni's farm. It's an organic farm with a bed and breakfast attached. Lately they've also started selling lamb meat and wool at the St. Joseph Farmers' Market, where they have a popular and well-stocked stand. I bought Jimmy Nardello's sweet red peppers from them last week for my yellow tomato salsa.

The next property is not part of this story, the private home of a young, local cardiologist. He is Steve's best customer, and Steve is currently working on a big swath of prairie restoration for them. It's nice to see that it is kind of the ethos of CR 51 to restore prairie.

Farther down the road is one of my favorite businesses, Forest Mushrooms. The mushrooms are sold at all area grocery stores, but this is where they grow them. They used to be at the St. Joseph Farmers' Market, but have moved on to bigger and better things. Which is a shame, because I loved buying their special combinations of mushrooms, which I don't see anymore. One thing they do is dump all the old mushroom bales out in front of this barn for local gardeners to pick up and use. These are hay bales with a coating that was used to grow the mushrooms. The bales are smaller now, which makes them less friendly to work with, but to have access to free mushroom mulch is pretty great!

A couple miles farther down the road is Collegeville Artisan Bakery. This is a favorite at the Farmers' Market and known for their bread and also their almond croissants. It's the home and business of Steve and MaryAnn Nelson, who are good friends with my sister-in-law Amy. My husband Steve made this logo for him when he was starting out, after breaking from a family business down the highway a bit. That was a popular truck stop with lots of fresh baked goods, but not really the vision Steve and MaryAnn had for their baking operation. People take classes in bread baking here and, of course, buy baked items. Their bread is also now available at the St. Joseph Meat Market, which is a plus.

The final stop in terms of popular businesses is Thomsen's Nursery, a great source for plants. I've decided to buy all my tomato plants here (why grow from seed when you can get 4 for $1.69 already started?) and their plants are famous for heartiness and quality.

Across from Thomsen's I saw this great sign: "Rocks for Sale." If that's not the sign of an entrepreneur, I don't know who is. Stearns County is known for its rocky fields, and there are many field stone churches in the immediate area.  Still, I would imagine many people driving out to Thomsen's might appreciate some small fieldstone to border their new beds.

A few hundred feet from the end of the road, you can turn in to a nicely kept, trim house and buy maple syrup.

At the end of the road, if you're not turning left or right for apples, you can pull over for a visit to the Virgin Mary at this extensive shrine. Built in 1954, it is a Queen of Mary shrine, with Mary wearing a really nice crown. For a shrine not attached to a church or any visible landmark, it is very well-maintained and elaborate.

On the way back, I stopped to photograph the Saint John's Abbey apple orchard, and then got lured into a Johnny football game where I stopped and visited with Father Cletus for a few minutes. Finally, it was over the bike/foot bridge and back to the Wobegon Trail, which was much flatter and an easy ride home.

For a complete album of my ride, click here.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Orchard

Logging in today, I realized I forgot to publish the State Fair entry-- it was written back around September 2, but here it is the 13th...

What I saw instead was the entry about keeping the farming under control. Which I haven't been so successful at, since I find myself now in possession of another preserving book, Deborah Madison's Local Flavors and a cheese making kit. And tonight I ordered Wendell Berry's Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food, Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Vegetable Miracle (since I have to return the one i borrowed and read), and Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. Also, I spent more than an hour tonight going through the Seed Saver's catalogue 2010-- seeds that I can not even order-- and marking what I want to buy for next year.

Of course, that's all intellectual pondering. So I wouldn't be worried, except that this past weekend I did buy four fruit trees and Steve and I planted them in a newly tilled area near my garden. There is room for more trees if these work out. Basically, an orchard. Or at least, in the near term, room for the blueberry and raspberry bushes I want to put in next spring. I got Honey Crisp and Macintosh apple trees, which I'm completely excited about, and two pear trees which may or may not make it. One did have actual pears on it already, but juicy, edible pears seem like a long shot to me.

Really, I'm not usually like this. And I am giving myself periodic talks. It's about local, not growing it all myself. On that front, I may have found a venison source, and so can look forward to venison chili and stew this winter. Steve also pointed out in church on Sunday the dairy farmer who rents some land from us a few pews in front of us as a possible source for milk for that cheese I want to make. Why would anyone pluck chickens when organic, local chickens are about $7.00 at the meat market? And at the farmers' market last week I actually bought a half-gallon of locally-made sunflower oil for the price of Trader Joe's olive oil. Let's just say, this is local food mecca, but also, well, it could take over one's life. At least for a little while.

Steve's putting in three more raised beds for me this fall, since I really hate weeds and think that big garden bed will be harder to maintain, not to mention how great things grow in deep, rich compost. I do feel like a sponge-- and there's plenty out there to soak up. Tonight watching one of the PBS cooking shows (my favorite is New Scandinavian cooking, though I'd never cook anything they do), I saw part of a show that starts on an organic farm and moves to cooking. The farmer rotates his crops: leafy/fruity/roots. Good to know! I think that's one of the things I like best about this revolution-- the progression of the crops and the way one behaves in the kitchen because of it.

So here we go. Taking it up a notch. Or two.

Still in the garden: butternut and acorn squash, leeks, kale and spinach...and the end of the sage, rosemary, oregano and basil. And could it be a few more pumpkins that might mature before the first frost?

Great Minnesota Get-Together

Thursday, on a day that felt like fall, Steve and I went to the Minnesota State Fair. We haven't been there for three years, though we think every-other-year is the perfect balance. Last year we tried to go-- on a Saturday. We were a couple miles from the fair when I had a high-level anxiety attack. The car traffic alone was more than I could handle. Instead, we went to see his brother Mark's new baby and walked around the lovely campus of the University of Minnesota, which was for some reason deserted. And vowed to only go to the Fair on a weekday.

The main event of the fair for me is the food. Between the two of us, we ate a buffalo kabob (bland, not worth it) followed by cheese curds and then a great dish at a booth with no waiting, a jerk chicken roti.
The booth is Harry Singh's in the food building. It wasn't just good, I also love it from a colonialist perspective. The presence of Indians in the Carribean has resulted in some great dishes, and this hot jerk chicken wrapped in a lightly fried corn tortilla was truly delicious.

For dessert, I got the key lime pie on a stick. By far the best thing I ate all day. Homemade pie dipped in dark chocolate and frozen. 'Nough said. For Steve, we found a very good cup of coffee (with an extra shot) and a strawberry crepe. Then we were fortified and ready to see the farm buildings.

In the 4-H building, we saw the gigantic pumpkins and my favorite, the crop art. This is basically framed art, most of it political or pop-culture based, made out of seeds. I like the political art the best, because it is surprising to me that people will spend so much time making something so topical. In a year, or certainly five, none of these pieces will have any relevance at all. The best one this year was the Alice in Wonderland/Tea Party commentary, which was even 3-D. There was also a gorgeous hat covered with seeds.

I was on a mission at the fair, and that mission was to see what I had missed last time: the dairy princesses carved in butter. I guess this is standard fare at fairs, but I had never seen a 250-lb butter sculpture. When we finally found it, the exhibit far exceeded my expectations. One of the princesses was in the process of having her likeness carved, while she took questions from the crowd. The other princesses, including Queen Kay of the Milky Way herself, stood outside the rotating, refrigerated booth, and worked the crowd. Working the crowd involved taking questions and also handing out collector cards of themselves.

All the princesses, let it be said, had gorgeous complections.

Questions reflected the fact that the fair is in St. Paul, Minnesota, unlike the many state fairs in rural areas of the state. They included: "How do you tell your cows apart?" (The answer: "That is a good question. We tell them apart the same way we tell people apart. They look different and have different personalities.") It was clear that the princesses had their work cut out for them and were providing an important public service.

The barns closed for cleaning just as we were getting started-- we only got halfway through the sheep barn before an earnest 8-year-old came up and asked us, "Will you please exit the building?" We did get to the kind of rodeo building, a fine piece of engineering with a broad, unsupported, cement-block ceiling that has the appropriate dim lighting with spotlights on the dirt-floor arena. We watched young boys wrestle young steers to the ground. It's a very defined culture, the "rodeo" culture. These boys all wore cowboy hats (not FFA or John Deere caps) and ironed button-down shirts tucked into deep blue jeans. The shirts were pin-striped, pink, blue, green, etc. It was oddly beautiful and even formal attire for wrestling calves in the dirt. After getting the calf down, two adult cowboys on horses would come out to guide the animals back to the paddock, and the boys would jump up and brush the dirt off their shirts and jeans.

All that was left was buying an overloaded bucket of fresh, warm cookies at Sweet Martha's and touring the art building, and we were done. We did almost buy a vermicomposter (worm composting) system and stopped and talked to a dealer about a 6' rototiller for Steve's business. We also looked at some fine used dump trucks and discussed their merits at length (I really want Steve to get a new truck, but he insists he's replaced every moving part and really, there cannot be any more breakdowns).

It was a fine day at the fair, and when we came home, we ate gigantic green salads from the garden to balance the eating we'd already done.

For other photos from our day at the fair, click here.