A ‘Guerrilla Harvest Dinner’ heralded the birth of the Ashland and Bayfield chapter of the Wisconsin Farmers Union
I. An Improvised Feast
The spreadsheet for the harvest dinner stretched 49 lines deep.
Each line was an offering from an individual that reflected a different aspect of the harvest: “Two pecks of apples and some onions.” “Three chickens.” “One dozen eggs; one dozen corn on cob; tomatoes; eggplant; squash.” “Rough cut bacon, 10 lbs.”
And that classic catch-all: “Let me know what you might need and I can bring it.”
We all know the maxim that food brings us together. In Bayfield, Wisconsin, on September 20, a virtual (and probably literal) ton of food brought more than 100 people together for an event described as a “guerrilla harvest dinner.” The food and labor was donated; the menu was written at literally the last minute by sizing up the pile of shared edibles and applying a combination of hard-won kitchen lore and frantic Googling for recipes.
This dinner, hosted at the new Wild Rice Retreat near Bayfield, celebrated the birth of the Ashland and Bayfield chapter of the Wisconsin Farmers Union. In a sense, it was just a meal; in another sense, it was something much more significant. There was an electricity in the air not just from excitement over the harvest, but also from neighbors and friends reconnecting in a festive atmosphere. The lakeside retreat was filled with that joyful noise naturally produced when you combine people, wine, cider, and cheese in a homey space.
That the dinner “sold out” in less than two days after being posted on Facebook is a tribute to two things: the tight-knit sense of community that binds people together in the Chequamegon Bay area, and the area’s two-sided identity as a comfortable, civilized corner of the Upper Midwest that also happens to be deeply rural.
“As a percentage of GDP, rural tourism and recreation has surpassed farming in America,” says John Adams, the president of the local Farmers Union chapter. “Up here you see that pretty clearly. The nice thing is they pretty much work in tandem in Bayfield. We have a real good tourism economy that’s based on small farms, and we’ve taken many steps to protect that.”
For Adams, a former print journalist and working potato farmer, the harvest dinner was a way to kick off what he hopes will be a monthly series of potlucks. By bringing together farmers and neighbors, his goal is to help them fight for common causes, including clean water, rural access to broadband Internet, healthy communities, and small farms.
“I came to the [Farmers Union] through a historical interest in rural activism and one thing I realized was that rural people used to get together in big parties and they’d politic and gather in ways like that, and I feel like that’s the ingredient that’s missing,” he says.
Adams’ chapter of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, already more than 40 members strong, is dedicated to preserving the rural character of places like Lake Superior’s South Shore, and ensuring that small farmers continue to have a place in society. He views the Farmers Union as a necessary counterweight to conservative agricultural forces like the Farm Bureau.
“If you go to the Farm Bureau, or often [University of Wisconsin] Extension or [Wisconsin governor] Scott Walker for that matter, the message is ‘produce, produce, produce,’” he says. “That doesn’t help small farms; it helps processors and governments.”
II. ‘The Most Radical Act’
The dinner was the brainchild of chef Mary Dougherty (formerly of Good Thyme near Washburn) and author of “Life in a Northern Town.” Dougherty helped lead a fight against a 26,000-hog concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) in Bayfield County. She has also been working with Adams to build up political and social capital on behalf of the area’s small farmers and other agricultural producers.
Opening the meal, Dougherty framed the evening as one of defiance, organized around a simple shared meal: “It just may be that the most radical act we can commit is to stay home,” she said.
In addition to giving the dinner’s introductory speech, Dougherty built the infrastructure that made the meal happen: dozens of donations of seasonal produce and local meat, nearly 20 volunteers swarming the kitchen to prep and cook the food, and the location—the chic Wild Rice Retreat, an expanding collection of cabins and gathering spaces sheltered under Lake Superior–adjacent woods.
If you talked to your neighbor at the meal, you’d inevitably discover someone with a story to tell—a park ranger, a greenhouse grower, a student at Northland College with a dream of making the world a better place. While hanging out in the kitchen, we chatted with one of the volunteers prepping vegetables; it turned out to be Scott Griffiths, who served as mayor of Washburn for six years.
“The local food movement is one of those things that people from all walks of life can get behind,” he says. “We need to keep digging for things that are not divisive, and we need to find common ground, and we can always find it across the table, and you can always find it in the kitchen. When you’re pulling good food out of the ground and you’re having a glass of wine with it, what can go wrong?”
Also typical of the crowd assembled at the Wild Rice Retreat was Evan Flom, who manages the Lake Superior CSA. The CSA is a cooperative of more than 20 purveyors bundled together and distributed under the aegis of Bayfield Foods. “This is an opportunity to break bread with people, share a meal, celebrate this place—it’s just a moment to have a meal and enjoy each other’s company,” Flom says. “Mary has been a really good voice for wanting to raise awareness of the dinner table and its place in our lives and our families.”
The dinner started at 6pm and ran for hours; introductions flowed into conversations into dining and a shared sense of celebration.
III. … And a Story on the Plate
The guerrilla harvest dinner presented guests with a cornucopia—more than a dozen different salads, meat dishes, root vegetables, and other dishes covered an impromptu buffet in Wild Rice’s expansive commercial kitchen, and guests made their way through the line goggling at the sheer volume of flavors in front of them.
In an era of cosmopolitan culinary flourishes ranging from miso glaze to lemongrass paste, the farm dinner’s distinguishing characteristic was restraint. Seasonings were basic: butter, salt, pepper, and garden herbs ruled the day, with sprinklings of cheese here or bits of browned bacon there. As a result, the plate popped with understated harvest flavor: roasted tomatoes that burst with tangy, earthy brightness; green beans that popped with vegetal sweetness; chicken that needed little seasoning because of its tender texture and inherent depth of flavor.Diners helped themselves to towering plates of ratatouille or venison stew or salt-crusted potatoes or locally made Dandelion Addiction cheese from Happy Hollow Creamery, and the result was something like a late summer Thanksgiving dinner: a diverse mishmash of vegetables, starches, and proteins telling the food story of a specific place and time.
That was no accident: a sense of place was central to the meal, as Dougherty explained.
“What does that mean to finally commit to a place, to a people, to a community?” asked Dougherty of the assembled group, quoting author Terry Tempest Williams. “It doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it does mean you can live with patience, because you’re not going to go away. It also means commitment to bear witness, and engaging in ‘casserole diplomacy’ by sharing food among neighbors, by playing with the children and mending feuds and caring for the sick. These kinds of commitments are real. They are tangible. They are not esoteric or idealistic but rooted in the bedrock existence of where we choose to maintain our lives.”
It’s hard to imagine organizing this kind of a harvest dinner—community driven, tightly knit, dedicated to rural activism—anywhere else but here, in this lovely little corner of the lake. But then again, once you’ve attended one of these events, it’s hard not to feel inspired to organize one yourself and effect positive change wherever you happen to live. Such is the power of sharing a dinner table with an entire little slice of the world.