Nancy on her porch in Home, KS (Photo by Tom Parker)
Honoring the ancestors -- single-mom organic farmer branches out into the all-American hotdog
By Tom Parker
Nancy Vogelsberg-Busch wants to tell you a story.
Actually, she wants to tell you a lot of stories, because she knows that stories are the individual threads weaving the fabric of our lives. They are the weft and warp, the underpinning, the foundation...your own personal polar star.
If you ask, Nancy will tell you that her polar star was her father, John Vogelsberg, an organic farmer before organic was the craze. She’ll tell you of the land and what it means to her, and of cows, too, especially cows, and one in particular named Bossie. She’ll talk of her farm—just north of Home—how she’s the first real owner since it was given to a widowed Civil War bride by Abraham Lincoln, and of hard times and hard work, of doubts and fears and a few stunning successes, of what it means to be a single-mother female organic farmer-entrepreneur.
But if you pry, if you ask her what this is really all about, not discounting the land and polar stars and directions and her father and a cow named Bossie but also not allowing them total credit—in short, if you ask her for the heart of the melon (an expression she’s fond of)—she’ll tell you about the Dineh.
Which might be a strange place to start a story about an organic farm in north-central Kansas, but all good stories, like all good maps, eventually lead you back to where you started. And for Nancy Vogelsberg-Busch, everything that came before and everything that would come after had its genesis in a dusty hogan on the Navajo Nation.
It was, she says, nothing less than a revelation.
It was 1974 and she was embarked on a grand adventure, a new chapter in her life, college and a dream of becoming a social worker. An internship program found her amid the Navajos near Window Rock, Arizona, living with an elder grandmother who could speak no English and her with a similar grasp of Navajo.
“I learned one word,” Nancy says. “Navajo is a tough language. It’s all about rolling your tongue, and I can’t do it.”
Besides the associated squalor and rampant alcoholism of the border towns of Grants and Gallup, plus the concomitant obesity, diabetes and hopelessness of a displaced people, there were a few glimmers of a former time, mostly with the elderly who kept the age-old traditions. Her elder grandmother, Bertha Tom, was among this group.
Bertha had a flock of sheep, both white and black. She did all the shearing and carding, walked into the hills to collect wild plants for the dyes, and then wove the fiber into double-weave rugs. One such rug was given to Nancy on her departure, an item she still treasures.
“I watched her do this,” Nancy says. “I really like the color red because I learned through the Navajos that in everything they make they’ll weave in a piece of red, or in their pottery they’ll leave a small space, that represents a way out. An escape.”
Red onion skins were used for red dye, walnut for brown, the two primary colors favored by Bertha.
After a while, Nancy began noticing a disturbing trend among the younger Navajos. English was the preferred language, and the old skills of shepherding, weaving and living off the land were disappearing. Hogans were being replaced with boxy government housing. Even Bertha’s children were disinterested in tradition. A way of life was passing and would never come again.
As a fledgling sociologist, this was little more than a dry fact, a report from the field. But as a farmer’s daughter, the implications left her reeling. For it wasn’t just the Navajo Nation that was tottering on extinction, it was also small-scale traditional farmers in the Midwest. Wasn’t she just as guilty of breaking the connection between the past and the future?
With that revelation, her determination to become a sociologist faltered. She was going home to be closer to her father and the land they farmed. But as a concession to what was probably an inevitability, she decided to pursue her degree at a local college. It was, she admits, partly due to a stubborn streak. And it might have been successful if not for a chance encounter with a man who introduced himself as Wes Jackson.
“This is a good story,” Nancy says. (The most poignant of her stories begin with this preface, so it is best to pay attention when she uses the phrase.) “We’d go into Gallup to meet other students, see how they were doing. All up and down the streets were these shops that the white proprietors managed. The Navajos made the turquoise and silver jewelry they sold, and we’d look at the jewelry and want it, but it was so expensive. And one day I was at a store when these two little boys came in, and they had a brown paper sack. This guy went over and just shook his head, and motioned for them to get out. So I followed them out, they were about ten, twelve years old, and I asked them what they had in the sack.”
The sack was full of silver bracelets, all handmade and meticulously engraved. When she asked how much they wanted, the boys said two dollars apiece. She bought three.
As she says this, her fingers caress the engraved markings on three silver bracelets that you may or may not have noticed adorning one wrist. The silver is worn on the inside, thinner by far than it was 35 years ago but every bit as luminous.
“I’ve had these on for the entire time,” she says. “I’ve never taken them off.”
Salina, more college, transportation an old ten-speed bike. One day she cuts through the park between classes and stops at the water fountain for a cold drink, and here’s this stranger who tells her that he’s starting a new school for sustainable agriculture and alternative energy. For organic farming.
He seemed a little cocky, Nancy recalls. So she bragged about her father, a true organic farmer.
The school would be called The Land Institute, the man named Wes Jackson said.
Nancy talked more about her father the organic farmer.
“We had this sparring going on between us,” Nancy says. “He acted like he knew everything about everything.”
She also told him to sign her up.
“I was the first student to go through the Land Institute,” she says. “And after that, well, there was no place to go but home. I was going to farm with my dad.”
“In theory, it sounds good,” Nancy says. “Putting it into practice is another thing.”
It’s not like she wasn’t familiar with farming. She could drive a tractor and raise hogs, cattle and crops, cook and sew and mend, but at the end of the day she was a woman and that meant a double standard. After supper it was her responsibility to wash dishes while the menfolk relaxed on the front porch.
“It’s not a woman’s work,” she says. “It’s just work that nobody else wants to do.”
At the time, women farmers were practically unknown. Other male farmers tended to be skeptical of her abilities; she even had to prove herself to her father. But their relationship was a close one, and he took her under his wing. When she married, her father gave her a black cow named Bossie as dowry. When her husband left her 17 years later, he told her she’d never make it on her own. He took all the tools and left her one pair of pliers. When her ex-husband refused to pay child support, the male judge told her he couldn’t squeeze blood from a turnip. When the first mortgage bill came due, she made it by the skin of her teeth. When her father died without a will, the fate of the farm was suddenly in question. But she made it. She’s still there.
In many ways, she considers herself a homesteader. Everything raised, crops, kids or cattle, is done naturally, without herbicides or pesticides or fertilizers or television. Food is grown from scratch; only the salt blocks for the cattle are brought in. Their methods are similar to that of her relatives who homesteaded in 1875.
“I’m doing this to honor my ancestors,” Nancy says.
And she says something that at first doesn’t register, and then it does with a start and a startle, even if you knew her story, or one of her stories: “I’m honoring both of them, my dad and Bossie.”
For if her father taught her everything she knows and who instilled within her that stubborn German know-how and pride and independence, it was Bossie that passed along her own splendid genes into her progeny—progeny that remains viable to this day.
The cows in the pasture? All from Bossie. And the organic beef she finally decided to sell when friends asked to buy some, all from Bossie. A direct lineage that Nancy considers just about perfect.
There are a dozen stories involved with Nancy’s decision to sell organic beef, and if you have time she’ll be happy to set you down in the shade of the big tree out front and tell you them all, from the problems of finding a butcher (and keeping the butcher), to navigating the arcane currents of governmental agencies and evermore intricate and mindbogglingly stupid regulations and requirements, to a man who decided he wanted his own meat locker and bought a small unit in Frankfort that he turned into the only certified-organic meat locker in the state of Kansas, and of her ultimate decision to sell hotdogs.
And she might even serve you hotdogs and chilled cucumber salad while she tells her stories, and if so, you might not recognize the hotdog on the bun as a hotdog because it’s so, well, different.
There was, she says, some lively discussion among friends over what to call the thing.
She wanted hotdog. After all, it was what American hotdogs used to be before processors turned them into tasteless spongiforms devoid of any nutrition or recognizable natural substance. Her friends wanted something else, something more descriptive. Any resemblance to a hotdog ends at shape; Nancy’s hotdog is dark, meaty and natural, with no preservatives or artificial anything. Not for nothing did she name them “Bossie’s Best.”
She’ll also tell you how ironic it is that she finds herself selling hotdogs when her father refused to allow hotdogs on the farm. He called them “kangaroo meat,” a story she found so amusing she had to share it with a group of visiting Aussies.
“But my hotdogs,” she says, “are the heart of the melon. I think he’d be proud of my hotdogs.”
She still sells beef in half-sides only, with the requirement that purchasers must pick up orders at the Frankfort meat locker. That gives them the opportunity to tour the farm and the locker and to see how the food supply works. It’s a whole-package deal that appeals to customers from the big cities, she says.
And it pays the mortgage, more or less.
“It’s a struggle,” she says. “It’s always a struggle. When I was with the Navajos, I was called ‘the Anglo.” It was humbling. I never before felt like such an outsider.”
As a single-mother female organic farmer-entrepreneur, it’s familiar territory. Drop by sometime. She’ll tell you all about it.
Later, Nancy was asked to speak with Wes Jackson, Wendell Barry and other traditionalists at a symposium sponsored by Yale University.
The other speakers had their speeches carefully prepared while she had nothing. Part of the day was spent in arguing semantics, creek versus crick and what the term actually meant not so much to those who understood the term in the regional context but what it meant or might mean to academics. For her part, she told the audience that organic farming was really all about raising children and cows. “There is nothing more important,” she told them.
But children grow up and depart into their own future. Her oldest son, Noah, teaches biology, field ecology, zoology and oceanography at a Wichita high school, and her daughter, Ali (named for the boxer) is an undergraduate with studies in psychology and sociology. Only her youngest son, Isaac, still lives at home; a junior in high school, he lives for football and uses his meat-and-potatoes-based muscle for farm aerobics, as Nancy calls it. Only land remains, and memories, and stories, too, but if you listen to the stories they have the magical ability to transport you to a terrain both familiar and necessary.
“In regard to raising children, I keep hearing myself say ‘raise and release,’” Nancy says. “Maybe because of being born female, my birth order, or the moon sign under which I was conceived or born or whatever, but I was blessed with a great childhood and was able to leave the farm to really realize the value of my roots. And fortunate enough to find my way back home.
“And so of all that I raise on this farm, crops and cattle and kids, my children remain my most important crop. And now I have a granddaughter who I hope to spend time teaching a thing or two about life on a farm.”
It’s a story Nancy can’t wait to tell.
For more information about Bossie’s Best, Nancy can be reached at 785-799-3737, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.