5 Questions for Mike Connelly

I interviewed Mike Connelly in Orion in 2006 when he was directing the Klamath Basin Ecosystem Foundation (KBEF) in Klamath Falls, OR, which worked with stakeholders to craft water-use solutions that benefited agriculture, rivers, and wildlife equally. A former rancher, a writer, and a creative thinker, he recently took his activism in a tasty new direction, so I thought it was time to check back in.

What have you been doing since 2006, Mike?

After five years, it felt like KBEF had done what we wanted it to, which was demonstrate that it really was possible to get all these people (ranchers, farmers environmentalists, tribes), who didn’t think they liked each other very much, working on the same projects.

One of the most striking lessons we learned from that experience was how central a role food and eating played in all of the most productive interactions. Sometimes this happened in a direct way, when we talked about sustenance, and about how respect for natural landscapes was tied to practical matters like making a living, feeding our families—this notion that, to the extent that we eat the landscapes we live in, we can come to love these places “as ourselves,” as the Good Book says. This connection was particularly prevalent between farmers and native people. Especially the older ones.

At other times food had a more contextual influence, where the elemental experience of sharing a meal—around a table in someone’s home, on tailgates at a project site, in the grass at creek-side, wherever—led to what the theologians call “open commensality,” or the practice of making everyone welcome, equally welcome, where food and drink are offered. It somehow helps people be more inclusive.

And that insight led to your next move.

Yes, I left KBEF to build a bakery. The Green Blade makes breads and pastries by hand, using locally cultured sourdough leavening and regionally grown organic grain. People thought we were nuts. People also saw it as a drastic change from the previous work with KBEF. But we never saw it that way at all.

Are you meeting your mission so far?

I guess I can only judge that by the response, which has been… I don’t know what else to call it but ”moving.” I should say that I really wouldn’t recommend to anyone that they dive into what is basically an archaic and notoriously infeasible enterprise, with no direct experience and even less liquid capital, just before the onset of one of the worst economic crises in living memory. But somehow it’s worked out. We’ve been growing since we opened our doors, and in three years we’ve gone from three employees to fourteen. In fact our biggest challenge has been keeping up with the demand, given that our

methods are so dependent on manual, labor-intensive skills that are not at all common in this day and age, and that takes a pretty long time to master.

Every step along the way, we have sustained a dialogue with our customers about ingredients, about grain and leaven and milk and butter and fruit, and about how all these things come from somewhere. We talk a lot about those places, those specific working landscapes full of dirt roads and farmwives, birds and big machines, sunburned kids and stories as old and worn as barn wood. We talk as much about these places as we do about the goods we put on the shelves. People seem to like that. They’re hungry for it, I guess you’d say.

You’re a real “out of the box” thinker. What’s your advice for others who also want to creatively make change?

At KBEF we spent a lot of time putting together community-based watershed analyses for rural areas in the basin. It was tough going, I can tell you. One day one of my partners from that work came into the bakery, and while we were standing in the lobby talking, a young woman walked in the door and said, “We are so glad you are here.” My old partner looked at me and asked, “In all the years we did watershed assessments, do you remember anyone ever saying that to us?” I laughed and said, “No… Well, maybe, when we showed up with the food.”

I think a lot of advocates think everything they do has to be so damn apocalyptic. If it’s not a fight, if it’s not a struggle and people aren’t pissed off, then they must be doing something wrong. I think we just started seeing that sometimes—well, all the time, really—people just want to feel like they belong where they’ve ended up, like they belong with the people that surround them.

We (as advocates) tend to come at people, well-dressed and wordy, with our “corrections”… When what we want to be bringing is connection. Love, really. That’s what it is. It’s an abused word, but that’s what it is. Knowing you’re part of something bigger than just you. And liking it.

Eating does that. I guess that’s why we’re doing this.

Do you still miss your ranching days?

There is a little patch of bare dirt, about ten feet by thirty, running along one side of the bakery. This year we tilled it and planted it to wheat, oats and beardless barley. We’re just about ready to cut it now, and I think we’ll have a little ceremony or something, like the blessing of the grapes, except with grain. All year long we posted little blogs on the progress, with pictures and such.

It’s remarkable how growing something like that keeps you tuned in to what’s going on, what the sky and the rain and the sun and the soil are all doing from day to day, month to month. And then, at the end, there’s something good you get to eat, and it’s just an obvious, practical fact that it has everything to do with that little patch of earth you’ve been walking on all year. There’s nothing mystical or revolutionary about it: We are what we eat, and when we eat where we are, we are home. Simple.

So yeah. I miss it quite a bit.

Erik Hoffner is Outreach Coordinator at Orion.

Photos by The Green Blade Bakery.