Pastor Loren Nelson never stops teaching, although the subject matter varies
Even when he's too weak to get out of bed because the cancer has sapped his energy as well as his eyesight, retired pastor Loren Nelson is on a mission. Only this time he's preaching community supported agriculture (CSA). Eating local. Growing local. Dining on foods that haven't been processed, pumped full of growth hormones or packed with preservatives.
It's a message he delivers with a minister's special touch.
"We should be profoundly grateful [in this country]," he said. "Even though the quality of our food isn't excellent, the quantity is. We are a well-fed people. It's just that we could do better in terms of quality of food."
As such, Nelson and his wife, Candace, are active members of the Fisher-Merritt Food Farm near Wrenshall, a part of the local CSA movement. They buy "food shares" along with other customers at the start of the growing season, and then the food farm delivers fresh food each week. In essence, they pay in advance for a portion of the farmer's total crop. Part of the idea behind CSA is to spread the risk, so farmers have a stable income and consistent consumers, and the customers get a better rate than they would at a farmers' market.
"I believe in [writer] Michael Pollan's advice," said Nelson. "Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants."
"You'd probably put in 'mostly local plants,'" she said.
No newcomer to environmental awareness - "I've been an environmentalist since Lake Erie died for our sins," he quips - Nelson's involvement in the local CSA movement came as sort of a natural offshoot of his desire to be involved locally and a lifelong passion for environmental justice.
"I believe if local government does its job well, then county government can do its job well and so on," said the one-time Mahtowa Township Board president. "I've always been locally focused."
In addition to being a volunteer at the Food Farm (where he helped with each week's harvest), until he got too sick Nelson served as the president of the Lake Superior Sustainable Farming Association. LSSFA boasts about 36 farmers who provide everything from strawberries to vegetables to locally raised beef and chicken. Not a farmer himself - although he dreams of starting a garlic farm - Nelson ran their meetings and helped the group with its long-term visioning process.
"The goal is to grow 80 percent of the food we use up north, up north," he said. "Right now we're at about 20 percent and a lot of that is milk."
The fact that this region hasn't been an agricultural haven is a good thing for Northlanders, he noted.
"We haven't ruined the soil up here with scientific agricultural practices," Nelson said. "The soil up here is much more pure, much more user friendly."
In September, Nelson received the Voice of the Farmer Award at the Harvest Festival in Duluth.
He's modest about it, saying there are others more deserving of the award, real pioneers who saw the "localvore" movement coming 20-some years ago. (To learn more about the Lake Superior Sustainable Farming Association, visit lssfa.org.)
Perfect diet (for cancer)
"Some people think it's ironic that the president of the sustainable foods association should get cancer," Nelson said. "But nobody's immune from that horrible
First diagnosed with cancer in his bladder three years ago, Nelson fought the disease with alternative as well as conventional therapies and was even declared cancer free at one point. Some cells must have remained, however, because the cancer came back, this time in his brain.
Having cancer has only reinforced Nelson's convictions about eating right. When asked what lessons he would pass on to people, food is the first thing he thinks of.
"Never drink pop in any form whatsoever," he said, noting that he believes artificial sweeteners like Aspartame are just as bad as corn syrup or sugar. "Also, if you happen to get cancer, don't eat sugar. Cancer cells love sugar. You'll just feed the cells."
Nelson points to David Servan-Schreiber's book, "Anticancer: A New Way of Life." On Page 101 Richard Belivean talks about how cancer tumors will not succeed in spreading if deprived of the inflammatory factors needed for growth, such as refined sugars, growth hormones and insufficient amounts of Omega-3s, among other things: "With all that I've learned over these years of research, if I were asked to design a diet today that promoted the development of cancer to the maximum, I couldn't improve on our present diet," Belivean said in the book.
Books are also important to Nelson. When he was diagnosed with cancer, he decided to learn all he could about the disease. But he doesn't want people to simply take his words - whether he's talking about farming, food, cancer or God - at face value. He'd rather make them think.
He suggests good books to read and encourages anyone who's thinking about what foods they put in their mouths to watch the film "Food, Inc."
"The more people know what's going on, the better," he said, talking about how companies like Monsanto and Cargill are trying to get patents on actual food seeds (genetically engineered by the company), which would give them unheard-of control over food supplies. "It's scary stuff."
Seeds, he said, should not be "owned" by a company.
"Only God can own seeds," he said. "Seed is manna, what was given by God to ensure there is food on planet Earth."
It's all about environmental justice for Nelson.
"That's my real passion," he said. "If you happen to come to my funeral, you'll understand how it's all played out."
Nelson isn't afraid of dying, but he's not ready to die. Not by a long shot. There are too many things left to do: start a garlic farm, help his two daughters and their husbands raise his four grandchildren, read good books, eat good locally grown food and enjoy life with Candace, who rarely leaves his side.
The two were married June 27, 1992, and together blended a family of her three sons and his two daughters. On their 18th anniversary this summer, Nelson gave her a card that couldn't have been more perfect. On the cover, it read:
They could not remember a time
Until now, that Forever didn't seem long enough.
Born in Colorado, Nelson grew up in the Mahtowa area. His family moved here when Nelson was 5, into the very house where he lives now. Back then, the house was out in the country, but his mother moved the house to its current location near downtown Mahtowa in 1959. Nelson bought it from his mother in 1989.
A Barnum graduate, Nelson went to college at Augsburg for a year, then the University of Minnesota Duluth, then the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colo., to become a United Methodist pastor. He lived in Buffalo, N.Y., Eagan, Minn., (where he met Candace), then moved to Duluth in 1992 to take the job of district superintendent for the United Methodist Church. Loren and Candace lived in a parsonage in Duluth for the next eight years, until his term was finished.
Then they asked themselves: Do we really want to go back to the Twin Cities?
The answer was "No."
Nelson became the pastor for two churches, J.M. Paine Presbyterian in Carlton and First Presbyterian in Wrenshall, where he served until he retired earlier this year.
J.M. Paine hosts a documentary film night on the second Tuesday of each month. Rep. Bill Hilty and his wife usually bring the film, and Nelson said it's always a great learning experience, although sometimes heart-wrenching. Films have covered everything from fresh food issues to learning about debt to sulfide mining operations in northern Minnesota.
Nelson's at it again, making people think. Book clubs, documentaries, sermons ... they're all aimed at provoking thought, engaging people. Even as he lies in the bed in their front room in hospice care, Nelson is still mentally prodding people.
"A lot of people have been in this house who say [Loren] is still filling their lives with grace," Candace said, telling how her husband isn't content to just talk about the weather. "They would come and he'd ask, 'What's the nature of eternity?'"
Nelson said he didn't have a correct answer for that question, he was just curious what his friends and family and other guests thought was the "nature of divinity."
"What really matters, what truly is the end of life? We had a lot of great conversations about that," he said. "If life is so important and we attach so much love and meaning to various parts of it, there has to be more [in the end] than us turning into compost."
Nelson has his own idea of what happens when people die, and it's not harps and clouds, or even pearly gates.
"My concept of God is that God is light," he said. "We move toward that light, becoming one with the light, merge with that light. Somehow we have a consciousness, so we're mindful of the others in that group. Jesus said, 'You are the light.' I believe that. And I believe that when I get to heaven, I will somehow recognize the consciousness of my parents."
Having said that, he's not planning to greet his folks anytime soon. Although his cancer is progressing, Nelson is still hoping for a miracle.
"Technically, I shouldn't be here now," he said. "But I am, so I'm planning to be at the annual family Christmas party at the end of December."