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Archive for the ‘Growing’ Category

Sweet globes of fruit, in any of many forms they may take, are as necessary as drinking water on the hottest days of summer. We found ourselves coordinating mid-morning melon (eating) sessions as part of the bi-weekly harvest routine, or enjoying a late afternoon graze through green grape vines, standing in the sun pulling bites from bunches again and again. Summer saw everything alive, beckoning, bellowing, as branches in the orchard cracked and fell to the ground heavy with more ripe plums than my mind could have imagined. For nearly a month this summer the constant knock of small, dense wild plums fell onto the roof of my aluminum trailer, splatting and thumping me awake from well-earned rest. Now, deep into autumn, any sounds on the trailer’s roof are of eager wood rats attempting to get inside or heavy raindrops, constant and cold. I wonder, already, about where I’ll find myself the next time fruit matures. Without fully realizing it, I’m strategizing ways to dwell in a place where the orchard is a short walk from my doorstep, where the melon and tomato vines flourish and berry bushes resemble small wild fires at their peak.

tall sprinklers helped the green vines grow, feeding the fruit throughout dry, hot days.

But all of this excitement took a good amount of time and energy to cultivate. As we lovingly planted the melons in late spring, whether plant by plant from starts in the greenhouse or by laying seeds in shallow furrows in groups of three (plant security), I was beckoned into a world of sweet diversity, patiently awaiting the promise of fruit gifts. We planted 10 kinds of melon, waited patiently for 78-90 days to pass, and only then were invited to enjoy the fruits of our labor. The promises held true this year, even exceeded my expectations, of summer and juices, fragrance colored in clean greens, delicate pinks, fruity and bold reds, orange, yellow, like small statements from a flower’s nectar, so different from the next, beautiful, a celebration.

Transplanting, my nose was covered in dirt before too long: have you ever thought to smell the soil block, a tangle of roots in the farm-made potting soil mix, from a melon plant just before the moment of transplanting it? Impossible to replicate in any artificial manner, these fragrances were so completely unique to me. The subtle fragrance differences mirrored the equally subtly unique color spectrum that the mature fruits possess: from pinks to greens, pale orange and yellow hues, colors ranging from bright to sleepy, loud to delicate, playing along in the same raised garden bed.

These young cucurbit starts seemed to hang on to their seeds as they morph in to new, thriving plants.

This summer I was designated our melon harvester – not in charge of watermelons, which have a different list of ripe-factor criteria altogether – but the proud and delighted monitor of the Earlichamp, Earligold, Arava, Earlidew, Honey Orange, Krenshaw, Rockyford, Sharlyn, San Juan, Lilly, and Ambrosia honeydews, cantaloupes and musk-type melons. There were weeks, in late August, when I’d find myself in the patch for hours, making trips back and forth between the garden and processing area with wheelbarrows piled high with dirt-covered balls of every size and color. We streamlined the harvesting process a few times: Seth stood in the lane catching what I would toss his way, setting it in his wheelbarrow quickly and with precision before running that load to the processing area while I remained hunched, peering through vines for treasure. And while there were so many perfect melons there were many, too, that were slightly damaged from rot, hungry gophers or rodents, or some that simply grew less than perfectly, misshapen or small in a way that left us less than proud to send them to our CSA members. I would try my best to eat these rejects, delicious often despite their imperfections, cutting around large areas when necessary and taking more time to carve the fruit than to actually consume it. But the volume of culled melons adds quickly. They would sit in boxes perused after lunch, at first, then ignored for a good while until rot and fermentation processes, which care nothing about time or our thoughts, took hold with vigor despite best attempts to slow them. Finally, when the fruits were soggy, oozing, squishy, moldy, or a combination of these factors, one lucky person would get to toss the melons to the pigs.

i "heart" the pig on the left.. and the one on the right, too, to be fair.

Sometimes I’d approach this slowly, heaving one melon in to the pigs at a time, watching them fight for the biggest pieces, or any piece, for that matter. Other times I’d throw many rotting fruits over the fence all at once. They would go berserk with excitement, running from one fruit to the next thrilled by their newest discovery bite after bite.

We feed the pigs any and everything we don’t eat ourselves: the rotting melons, green tomatoes ruined by frost, eggplants and peppers so plentiful this year we couldn’t give them away or use them fast enough, leftovers pulled from the back of the fridge a few too many days after its first preparation, nearly all kitchen scraps with the exception of onion skins, leek tops, and other allium-related refuse, and parsnip greens (who knew?). It’s quite beautiful to feed two systems at once: the food we take great pains in cultivating and harvesting gains an extended life as it is passed on to the pigs and the pigs, after many months of time, assistance, and companionship, become, again, food for us. Eliminating inputs from sources off of the farm and making the best use of what we have here helps close a sensible, more sustainable, life-cycle circle, a core concept for biodynamic farms.

pancakes cooked in bacon grease taste like doughnuts: delicious!

My interest in growing melons in the future, complimented by my new love for pigs (and pork, I have to admit), plus combined with a desire to start up and operate exciting, sustainable businesses, caused me to look back to experiences in Brazil I had a few summers ago. In every park, on many street corners in cities all over the huge country, and alongside highways, too, vendors sold coconuts. Not the shriveled brown variety with cream inside that we often see at grocery stores in the States, but young, green coconuts, served very cold, with a hole adeptly drilled through the top of the flesh and a drinking straw quickly tucked in to that hole. The drilling and serving of this popular fruit/drink are gracefully executed and I would recommend asking for a coco gelado just to see it performed. This is a vessel and a refreshing sports drink at the same time (coconut water contains lots of potassium, very little sugar and calories, and naturally occurring electrolytes). The empty coconut is, of course, compostable when facilities exist to collect and deal with them.

Coconut water is a hit all over Brasil (this shot was taken at a park where there are lots of joggers). Sometimes I'd spot trucks carrying the shells away but there didn't seem to be an organized way of dealing with compost vs. trash.

This coco vendor slices the top of the fruit then drills into it before serving.

The whole experience generates nearly zero waste with the exception of the thin, plastic straw used to extract the water and the fuel in the truck used to bring the fruit from point A to B. So…If I grew melons, somewhere in the Hudson Valley, for example, and could transport them by sailboat down the Hudson River to a park in New York City or, better, set up shop at an even closer park in whatever town may be closest to my Pig and Melon Farm, then I could serve simple, beautiful melon slices, as they are: no plastic, no paper, no fancy value-added gelato deal, just a slice of melon in the middle of summer. I think it would be enough! The finished rinds would, of course, be collected, packed up on the boat and taken north to the pigs on the farm again. Seasonal, sustainable, wind powered sailing work sounds good to me.

tasting the melons for ripeness is an important part of the proper harvesting process - also never a problem for me!

As the farm crew and I here at Live Power Community Farm brace ourselves for the end of the season, busy with harvesting still while balancing clean-up projects and field prep, we’ve thrown ourselves into research to see what else is out there, possibly determining where we may end up next. I’ve been drawn to the many examples of cooperative fruit orchards growing in places all over the country: in Portland, Chicago, St. Louis, Missouri, Oakland, San Fran, and a service that will tell you where to find fruit wherever you are.

I am fascinated by these projects because, I wonder, if we all had access to fresh fruit while it’s in season, and preserved seasonal fruit to eat throughout the other seasons, if we’d find ourselves a bit happier, healthier, more content with the naturally occurring rushes of nectar and less likely to drink soda, bottled and shipped-from-everywhere -juices, and other sugary, artificially or overly sweetened foods that play on the same need that fruit fills. When communities live alongside or on the same land that they are empowered to steward then we are one step closer to meeting our collective food needs.

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August Is Over

August is over. At the rate that I’ve been able to post new stories and updates on this blog, September could easily fly by before I get what I’ve got up here, too. Without falling ridiculously into the land of Apology, I only want to say that the next few posts may entail some summertime backtracking. So much happens on a farm in July and August that it would be a shame for me to not share some of what I’ve learned, experienced, and seen! And I have promised my Mom that I’d use this forum to show her our method of pruning tomato plants so, if nothing else, I will do that soon. But, with a speedy end to my guilt-ridden feelings of slacking here, and to my Mom (who always understands, anyway), and any one else who reads this, I hope you’ll accept my delayed on-line presence.

With the end of August and move into September there is relief; a collective sigh leaked out cautiously that may not have been heard but that was felt, strongly, deeply. The days are markedly shorter, cooler, cloudier, less outwardly intense and demanding. We start work at 6:45 instead of 6 am, the summertime start time, allowing us minutes of extra sleep, writing or reading space, or a chance to hole up in cozy beds or the warm kitchen in the cold morning before the sun rises. Any threats of the ‘August Exodus’ are, according to the calendar, at least, officially over, although we did lose one dear crew member in late July. He left the farm for many positive and necessary reasons and on mostly good terms despite the abrupt announcement of his decision. His leaving shook some things up in me: a sadness, undeniably, as when a circle of any sort is broken even slightly, and the reconsideration of my own wanderlust (or is it freedomlust, or boyfriendlust)?

Steve, Kim, Ryann, Michele and I were taking refuge from the heat of a 107 degree day: sorting and cleaning cured garlic that we’ll continue to send to CSA members through November.

The August Exodus is a notion that Steve, co-owner of Live Power Community Farm, has termed based on his 30 + years of experience working mostly with a transient, apprentice-based work force and other seasonal workers on occasion. It is uncommon for apprentices to leave before their official commitment is over, Steve shares, and him and Gloria have seemed to perfect the art of screening applicants for reliable, committed help so that this happens very rarely. Still, if apprentices do leave mid-season they have consistently done so in, or close to, the month of August.

By August we were thick in the routine of farm life. Our stays have approached the four and five month mark and there is a confidence and skill set that develops over this kind of time spent in one place. Where we were regularly planning, prepping soil and beds, sowing seeds, planting, maintaining and weeding, we’ve moved instead into irrigating, harvesting, irrigating some more, and harvesting again. Comprehensively, this is a beautiful process to embrace. As time progresses it becomes clear that there is less and less control one has over the vegetables: there is only so much to do that will aid or care for the ever-maturing and fruiting plants. This can drive some of us, used to having more control in life, a little batty. It’s truly time to just keep up: with the harvest, with our relationships here, our health and ourselves. That is enough. Before we know it, it will be over.

the winter squash and fall brassicas, broccoli, cabbage, kale and cauliflower, are planted and thriving!

There is so much food living right outside of my door that it’s almost overwhelming to think about. It’s joyous and bountiful and beautiful but I need to admit that I, too, during the still-long days of August, found myself scheming a way to find release from this season-long commitment earlier than originally negotiated. There have been days upon days where everything feels the same, where my actions and even actual steps were repeated again and again. I couldn’t help but feel stuck in a Groundhog Day version of reality, finding myself silent and exhausted at the dinner table at the end of the night, uninspired or too tired, or both, to write, unable even to communicate well with my loved ones living outside of this experience.

Thankfully, I had a big wedding to attend in late July. My sisters and their partners were all invited and all attending the fancy, perfect long-weekend celebration in Sonoma County. My sister Michele had made plans to visit the farm for a week following this and pulled into the farm’s driveway, still a little drunk from wine tastings and country roads, after 10 pm on a night when the full moon was beaming. The moonlight bathed the farm the way rainwater can fall gently on Northeast evenings: accentuating details that get covered in dust and revealing them in shiny, new ways. Michele marveled at many of the things I’ve been taking for granted: the orchard, with trees so full of fruit that branches snapped, laying heavy on the ground, the blanket of silence that night ushers in which continues clean into our day’s work as very few fossil fuel operated machines are used here. The sounds of animals and the more subtle sounds of plants and wildlife have a place here. Michele, somehow?, even said that the outhouse was perfect!

Michele took some hilarious photos while she was here. This is one of them! She also took the photo at the start of this post, of me herding the animals from pasture into their mangers.

Showing her around and introducing my life here to her was reinvigorating. It felt good to bask in her positivity and to see the impact that what we are embodying had on her: an alternative way of living that differs dramatically from mainstream society’s, work-work-work in order to make-money-spend-money-obsess-about-money-and-work sort of scene. It’s easy to get caught up on believing that his is how we all need to live. I can get caught up with this, am caught up with this, on regular basis. Occupy lies at the root of occupation. I wonder if there’s a way to live, and a word for a way to live, that goes beyond the identification of tasks and time?

relaxing in the orchard after work - eating more plums this season than I ever thought possible - and excited to dry some prune plums for the winter, too

Deep in my thoughts about work, and my place with work in the world, I recalled a reading that Stephen shared with us one morning, during out weekly Monday meeting. The passage, one of great importance and inspiration for Steve, is from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. It is a long passage but I hung on to every word as Steve spoke it, as tears welled in his eyes and his voice shook, reflecting how deeply he is touched by these concepts as they relate to our daily toil.

Then a ploughman said, “Speak to us of work.”

And he answered, saying:

You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth. For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons, and to step out of life’s procession that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite.

When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music. Which of you would be a reed, dumb and silent, when all else sings together in unison?

Always you have been told that work is a curse and labor a misfortune. But I say to you that when you work you fulfill a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born, and in keeping yourself with labor you are in truth loving life.

And to love life through labor is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret.

But if in your pain call birth an affliction and the support of the flesh a curse written upon your brow, then I answer that naught but the secret of your brow shall wash away that which is written.

You have been told also that life is darkness, and in your weariness you echo what was said by the weary.

And I say that life is indeed darkness save when there is urge,

And all urge is blind save when there is knowledge,

And all knowledge is vain save when there is work,

And all work is empty save when there is love;

And when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God.

And what is it to work with love?

It is to weave cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.

It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.

It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.

It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit,

And to know that all the blessed dead are standing about you and watching.

Work is love made visible.

And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.

For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger. And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distills a poison in the wine. And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man’s ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.

I don’t expect the seasonality of working with the land to materialize for me completely this growing season. I hope to join the low-wage-earning retail forces this winter in order to earn some money, making my next adventure or project possible. But I have hope that someday, as I set myself up to make a living growing and sharing food and stewarding the Earth and all she has to offer, it will make sense: a spring-summer season to embrace fully with one’s body and labor followed by a season, nearly two, to rest, use the winter’s quiet and silence to internally explore new ideas. Oh, to rest and let that magic happen…because I have seen, am seeing, the magic that happens from the daily, extreme physical, outward push! It is so beautiful that I can’t, now, at least, muster words for it.

Steve, Pete and Laura off to work: digging potatoes that we collect, clean and pack.

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At the very early start of every Saturday, Monday, and Thursday mornings we gather materials to build compost together. What was once an awkward, wayward, process has become routine, beautiful, and assembles in silence communally, ritually. I can’t express how much I enjoy being able to wake up at 5:50 a.m. and be in the field, working, 10 minutes later, without the need to exchange many words or glean instruction. As summer pulls at our bodies and souls it is comforting to have a task that one knows; what to gather, how to assemble what has been gathered, and how to do it all quickly, with relative grace and intuition.

Kim and Seth build the compost pile layer by layer.

Compost has been called the heart of Live Power Community Farm in a few varying contexts… Perhaps it’s the black-gold end product that’s so nutrient rich and important in the fields or added to the potting soil mix that almost every plant has its start embedded in. Or maybe it’s the fact that what’s sometimes considered the nasty, rancid parts of our lives, and the lives of many animals here on the farm, has an important and hopeful future role to play thanks to these piles. The finished piles offer second chances — to be part of something bigger! or just to be part again, as we all are, undeniably, of every action, every circumstance. Compost transforms: from refuse to fertility through a natural process of decay that resists aseptic conditions, laughs in the face of such an isolationist idea by instead celebrating life, funkiness, and fermentation.

It becomes something in the face of nothing.

The process itself is what makes the farm’s heart beat, so to speak. We gather like witches to build this new empire, and then dissipate – sometimes for days before seeing one another again in the field, or so it seems – each tending to our parts that make up the whole of the farm organism.

But we always meet again, every Saturday, Monday, and Thursday mornings, by the pile in the compost yard, arriving with wheelbarrows mounded with shit, to do it all over again.

The compost pile is, quite literally, a series of layers. Animal manure is key: from cows, sheep and horses, scooped carefully from the corral and milking cow stanchions. Load by load we collect it with leaf rakes and large shovels. At the compost yard we add additional nitrogenous elements (weeds that have yet to go to seed from the garden beds, cut grass, and any kitchen scraps that the animals won’t eat like orange peels, peach pits, coffee grounds, etc.), to the manure layer. This is balanced by hay, a carbon-rich material, in a ratio of 40% nitrogen to 60% carbon. At the end of the process a small amount of garden soil is added over the hay layer to bring and hold the bacterial, microbial, parasitic, and other invisible, magical life forms together. Between each layer we use a garden hose to spray a generous amount of water. The layers should feel/look like wrung out dish washing sponges. This promotes and hastens the decomposition process. We bring the layers together by shaping and tending them, fostering new life from and through them. It’s a simple and glorious process that I can’t help but feel like an alchemist in the midst of: combining elements in right proportions, with care and some amount of precision, to make, over the course of 6 months to a year, a new and beautiful substance.

the compost piles are decorated with skulls or other things once the biodynamic preparations have been added to them. More on the preps in a post coming soon, I hope!

It was 110 degrees here at one point last week. That’s not odd for Covelo at the height of summer but this past (late) winter and (exceptionally rainy) spring were odd. The weather has seemed to go berserk all over this country and world, in fact. So, as we focus with all of our energy and intention on this very little part of the earth, it is clear from all of the reports that Her larger being is quite out of balance despite it all. The solution does not seem to include running and hiding, isolating or discarding the mess we’ve all gotten ourselves in to. Slowly, with patience and trust, it seems like we can only do our best to connect ourselves to the mess. Working with compost gives me access to our part of the earth in a deep and intimate way, as something that needs to be part of the solution, I’m telling myself. With our hands willing to get dirty, eyes and ears open, muscles ready to work, we move on, integrating, brewing, mixing, stewing, listening, hoping.

At breakfast nearly every morning we listen to Democracy Now! This post was inspired in part by  an episode aired July 12th – highly recommended giving a listen to, if you can.

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New (to me) Veggies

I’ve heard many stories of farmers pouring over seed catalogues in the middle of winter, planning for the next season and its bounty. As a gardener, I’ve done a bit of this in the past but always needed to limit myself because of space constraints (our 20′x20′ Community Garden plot was just the size my sister Katie and I could handle while maintaining all sorts of other life/work responsibilities).

This spring my taste buds are gratefully rejoicing in the 30 years of vegetable growing experience the Decaters are sharing with me and my fellow apprentices at Live Power Community Farm.

The photo above is of a hakurei turnip, harvested ideally when 2″ in diameter, or so. Crisp, sweet, with the texture and form of something sublime (a radish at its height, devoid of any pithiness or stringiness, or like a very young apple, juicy, bursting). They are great eaten raw, directly from the ground (the earth’s temperature adds an amount of life to them), or thinly sliced in salad, lightly cooked with a splash of soy sauce or rice vinegar. The greens are wonderful added to salads, too. Lew, who absolutely hates turnips, ate some of these in a salad I made thinking they were radishes. He enjoyed them tremendously.

D'Avignon radishes are so lovely and delicate and delightful to unearth. When I get married I will carry a bouquet of these, and cherriettes and amethyst radishes, too, maybe mixed with dill and geranium..

Oracle is a purple, succulent leaf that's great added to salads. Salads can, and should, be colorful, especially this time of year. This leaf tastes pretty otherworldly and the texture is so nice, surprising, combined with spicy and mild salad greens.

This is not the best photo of Wrinkled Crinkled Cress but it may give you the idea: spoon-shaped leaves are fluffy additions to other salad greens and they taste refreshing, energizing, exciting, in their own little way.

This is Shungiku, an edible chrysanthemum that flowers eventually but, until then, is a somewhat succulent, lemony salad green. The shape of the leaves is a meditation in and of itself. After I tasted this I knew that I would need to grown this, add this, use this, as consistently and in as many ways as I can possibly imagine. This is a salad green to fantasize about.

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Two weeks in one spot, inland, feels new. I have recently, willingly, entered into a labor-living-education exchange of the kind, I’ve learned, the state of California deems illegal despite decades, lifetimes even, of this model flourishing in farming communities here and the world over.

A snapshot of the beautiful open meadows and winding road leading from Rte. 101 to Covelo, CA

Despite consistent farm and food adventures that I’ve sustained in one way or another for the past nine months I have hit something altogether new; a lifestyle shift of sorts, a birth. As an apprentice at Live Power Community Farm life and work intermingle with everything else I am surrounded by. As a group of apprentices we engage in a 12 hour work day 5 and ½ days a week, soon-to-be 110 degree summertime heat, lizards and snakes (just as I start to feel confident, thinking that I am developing a sense for where I am, a lizard will cross my path or, yesterday, a three-foot-long gold and maroon snake slithered from under a rotting wood pallet: reminders, or warnings, of something I can’t name?), lost cell phone service, a busted zipper on my (formerly) trusty sleeping bag, dirt bikes and three-wheelers ripping over random piles at the edge of the driveway while giant horses plow the fields (a stunning sight in early evening light, a stunning juxtaposition, too), a dirty trailer to live in, a dirtier mattress to sleep on, and other odd things I’ve needed to look beyond in order to keep pace (replacing a random human tooth, an animal skull, half burned sage sticks embedded in feather and sequin sculptures that hung from the ceiling, for example, with a place to store a bath towel, toothpaste, some clothes). My apologies for the run on sentence but it’s an eyeful, a mouthful, an earful to report — possible in no other way at this moment.

My arrival here came after hours of driving 30 mph or slower on a long and winding mountain passage, gas tank on empty and car brakes on the verge of exhausted. While exhausted can be used to describe how I feel at the end of most given work days there is much more going on and, somehow, I am surprised and relieved to see my outward self resist old norms and hang ups in exchange for finding some energy to delve into change, new manifestations of my self and habits.

my nose was in a fight with some intense blackberry bushes that we used bush scythes to take down

I was scooped viscerally into this living farm organism from that first moment of arrival. It wasn’t through a warm welcome or reassuring words. The nature of this place is what brought me in, expressed best, perhaps, by the farm’s motto, a quote by Rudolf Steiner: “Matter is never without spirit. Spirit is never without matter.”

The labor arrangement, the land we work on, the animals that occupy it, the food we grow and eat, and the fertility that runs through all of it, speaks louder and clearer than any binding contract, or instructions, could.

This is my new home for a while and I am grateful for it. It’s a place to live (and I needed one of those), and it is also a classroom designed for immersion, to engage intensely and communally with the attached laboratory that’s open day and night, night and day. There are 4 additional apprentices who have traveled from all over the country to be here, a garden manager who has apprenticed at Live Power for 4 seasons previously, and a projects/infrastructure specialist who is teaching us how to weld, sharpen scythes, and use the wood shop, to name a few of the things we’ve tackled so far. There are two farmers who have been living here and over seeing everything on the farm for over 30 years. They guide and lead us with great experience, dedication, and patient kindness, too.

Journals are kept to record planting plans and details, lessons and techniques learned, weather and planetary observations, plant growth, insect and bird sightings, and more. This, coupled with readings and discussion, aims to heighten our sensitivities and observation skills, a discipline that fosters one to see and comprehend wholeness. This practice of seeing is the first step in operating a farm and it’s so much tougher to develop properly than I could have imagined. So, my eyes are open, though sometimes sleepy, and on a rainy day with a little down time I find myself able to reflect on where I’ve been, make sense of it in some way while still focusing on being here, present, listening, looking, experiencing all of the life this place has to offer.

Google the farm on my t-shirt! Chris and Sam have a growing CSA and are wonderful, talented friends who farm in the Hudson Valley. I have the fondest memories of last year's tour and lunch that they hosted for Mary Alice and me.

A sweet gift from two of my sweetest NYC friends, Ryan and Karen. Oh, New York.

I jetted from NY to the Midwest last summer and made it to a marvelous organic farm, Food Farm CSA, in Northern Minnesota, in time to harvest with the pros. I would go back there to live just for the accent that old people have.. and for the food people are growing and art they are incorporating into all of it..

I bought this t-shirt for myself at the Farmer's Market in St. Louis, Missouri. Still happy about that!

I've yet to cut the sleeves on this t-shirt so that I look tougher than I really am when I wear it around town. There are a few stories and reports in process about Crannog Brewery and Left Fields Farm where they make Backhand of God Stout, so this is like a teaser, I guess. Really, really great place is all I've got it in me to say right now.

I took a photo of this hoodie at the White Earth Land Recovery Project...

... a great spin on the milk campaign, important to remember in every talk of land and stewardship, I'd say.

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A rainy day (or a string of them) affords me the chance to spend time in the greenhouse. I find solace between the glass walls, dirt floor and semi-opaque roof; balance between exposure and refuge.

The radio’s tuned to the local NPR station, KUOW out of Seattle, but drops of rain that hit the corrugated plastic roof create twangs and bangs that mimic banjo and stand-up piano music, a meek country song or an apropos soundtrack to me scrubbing 40 or so pounds of carrots clean over the utility sink. It’s the end of last season’s carrots here and I reflect on how impressively they’ve stored in the ground without much worry save for a few lucky slug feasts and some rot that, only recently, made way into the sugary, orange powerhouses.

The program on the radio is about this weekend’s Lunar New Year celebration, celebrated in many countries throughout the world, including ours. The story, “Vietnamese Dumplings for The Lunar New Year,” described some holiday food traditions that take center stage this time every year. To outline briefly: back in the day in Vietnam, when material gifts were hard to come by, food was the gift of choice. Food is a form of love…and labor, I’ll add, as that’s one main thing I’ve learned from my journey working on farms for the past six months.

Also this week, somewhere between my cabin and the greenhouse, I noticed the first crocus of the year: bright yellow and shooting proudly from the green grass surrounding it.

Like the first crocus in the Pacific Northwest, a groundhog who looks for his shadow, or any other number of signs that we look to for guidance and proof that the seasons are changing, Lunar New Year also marks a Spring Welcoming/Festival. Across cultures and continents, time is one constant we share. Always passing, regardless of boundaries and borders, there is security in the fact that it keeps on going on. And brings new things with its passing.

A benefit of being on one farm for months and months is seeing the fruits of the labor put into growing come full circle. It’s thrilling, really, and I look forward to being at a single farm for a full growing season. Though not nearly ready for harvesting, the garlic and shallot seed bulbs that Jasper and I planted 3 full months ago have sprouted. These culinary necessities are some of the easiest alliums to grow, in my opinion, requiring lots of time in the ground but next to no maintenance otherwise. Here’s a link to clear, step by step directions to grow your own garlic (not a bad idea to consider: I remember a few mid-winter/late-spring seasons where much of the organic garlic that was available in grocery stores was imported from countries as far away as Argentina and China.. but garlic grown in yards and gardens will store easily throughout the year in the right (cool, dry) conditions). Use the same process to grow shallots, too.

From this...

..to this! Then harvest for the bulbs and start the process over again. What happens underground, between magic and worms and darkness and air, is never tiring, never dull, maybe not even fully understood. It’s a gift, joy, and a celebration. A sign that spring is coming.

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Dark Days, Paper Whites

The sun sets in just the amount of time, past 4 pm, that it takes me to make a cup of tea. I know this because I slide into my cabin at 4, thinking of going outside again with tea in hand, then find that it’s dark, darkening, rapidly.. It’s not such a bad thing but it certainly slows me down, finds me sleepy and rethinking any ambitious plans. Until the winter solstice happens seconds of light will be shaved off each day until, at our darkest, when there’s a 7:55 a.m. sunrise and 4:20 p.m. sunset, the system, like clockwork, will begin to gradually reverse, toward light, longer, once again.

Paper whites, or narcissus tazetta, are hardy bulbs that are super easy to grow. Put them in water, over stones or beach glass, until they shoot roots. Move them to a sunny window - preferably one that's not too warm - just until the green stalk shoots up. Don't get the bulb too wet or it will rot.

Laying hens’ egg production drops to its lowest this time of year (the flock of 70 or so chickens at GreenMan Farm are laying around 21 eggs a day, possibly because their diet is supplemented with good, raw, milk? Most flocks of this size, this time of year, lay 3-5 eggs, max). Like magic or, rather, like Nature, once the solstice arrives their production spikes with the consistent increase of daylight. My body, more connected than I realize or am possibly ready to admit, feels this in a new, unfamiliar way. It is marvelous, indulgent, and indisputable. I cannot fight with whatever’s pulling me inside: for warmth, to take cover, to live out of sight, read, dream, and sleep.

At the start of this new pattern I felt guilty, preoccupied with thoughts of what I could do or accomplish if I just had more energy, more daylight to see by. It’s a revelatory notion to really live with the seasons, to let go and acknowledge that these are unique days and special times. The land

they grow really quickly and too much sun will make them leggy.. a little sunlight is okay, especially at the start

I work on and the sky I work under dictate my schedule rather than an alarm clock, a time clock, or deadlines. Of course, it’s hard to turn off responsibilities that are embedded in the way I’ve lived my life up til now, or to quiet inspiration that wants badly to drive some parts of me. But when I’m able submit to this I am also immobilizing fear and terror, and their paralyzing, choking ways. With a good freeze Winter knows exactly when, and how, to quell the ruckus so that we can start again, refreshed and rested.

after 10 days...

So I will take sleep, simple, slow, and plentiful, over these other modalities. For now.

I’m readying myself to fly back to New York, to celebrate Christmas with my family in Cropseyville and to visit with friends, regroup for a while. While I’ve successfully down sized many things in my life (and will do so further when I’m confronted by a wall of boxes in my parent’s garage this visit home), there are a few important pieces of paper that have stayed close to me, secure in the glove box of the car for easy access when I need them. Paper with words have helped me in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

From an excerpt of a letter from Alan McClintock, describing his experience hitch hiking across the States in the 1970’s:

“East of Skaneateles, New York, I got a ride from a weathered dairy farmer taking a holsten calf to auction. He drove a faded and worn old Dodge, its cab rear window broken out and the calf licked our necks as we rumbled along. The farmer, whose name I’ve forgotten, asked where I was headed. I replied that I was traveling west to sit by the Pacific. We spent almost an hour together and he shared that he hadn’t made time to travel since his children left home and he gave up a job (he called his “hard-time job”) selling milking machinery during some previous winter of economic hardship. Laughing, he said he now stayed home with his wife and cows.

When I asked what he missed most, he said Sunday dinners with the family and his children who had scattered like seeds on a late summer breeze and stories they would share about their week’s adventures.

Our ride together ended at some crossroads running into the four directions. Before departing, he asked that when I returned East would I make my way to his farm and share my adventure with him and his wife. One of my regrets is that I never stopped to tell my pilgrim’s tale.

Remember you are loved and that your family and friends travel with you. We await your return and the telling of your story.”

At home I will share my story and hug the people I’ve known for years, decades, a lifetime – a feeling so impossible to describe or fake or replicate – and be drunk on the love and familiarity and the smells and the memories, the sweetness and laughter and fun and new adventures (hopefully involving snow). Though the time there always goes by so fast, like time everywhere does, really, it will sustain me for what is still a long winter ahead.

I let my paper whites get a little too long for the containers they're in. To prevent this add a capful of rubbing alcohol to their water: it stunts their growth, making them more manageable or at less of a risk of flopping over.

the farmstand and my cabin - glowing - at GreenMan Farm

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chard 5

Here’s a joke told more than several times by my friend, Peter Alexanian.

PA: What’s a pirate’s favorite vegetable?

Me: What?

PA: Chaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrd, matey.

And a second version –

PA: What’s a gay pirate’s favorite vegetable?

Me: Uhh.. what?

PA: Rainbow Chaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrd!

I’m not good at telling jokes, have even been criticized in the past for not laughing (hard enough) at them. This joke made me chuckle and smile the first time I heard it – a feat, of sorts, for someone who secretly fears not responding properly/under pressure. It’s clever, easy to get, and swiss chard is my favorite green vegetable. Thoughts of it make me smile. And pirates, the cute, nice ones, anyway, have long held a special place in my heart.

I could go on and on about swiss chard: its incredible nutritional profile, recipes that I love using it in, how hardy and easy to grow to it is, or how each plant gives and gives, the leaves only getting sweeter as it gets colder outside and the season goes on. Mostly I just want the chance to share some beautiful pictures. The sun was out for a long time today.

chard 1 chard 2

Once a friend told me that he was so dehydrated he had to take a shower. I suggested instead that he drink some water. He had already drank as much water as he could but knew that his body needed to be in it, submerged, in order for his thirst to go away. I always thought this was a little crazy until I had a similar experience with swiss chard. No joke.

chard 3

I want to grow it, be around it, see it in bouquets on the table, in flower boxes on windowsills, or in those big planters that city beautification teams maintain. And, of course, I want to eat it in lots of different ways. Some examples include adding delicate baby leaves in with other salad greens, adding chopped, fresh leaves to the inside of an omelet with onions and cheese, or cut into chiffonade and lightly sautéed in olive oil or butter until it’s still bright green but wilted, then served right away with a squeeze of lemon, sea salt, maybe more olive oil. It’s a quintessential ingredient, really, in Greens and Beans and makes a great alternative burrito or taco shell (softer than the collards in this recipe).

My sister Katie and I grew so much of it one year in our community garden plot that I thought we’d tire of it (I think our respective partners at the time, less attached to this particular harvest, did). But in November, when it was one of the last things remaining in the garden, it was wonderfully appreciated by everyone at our table.

chard 4As you can see, there’s a sweet rainbow swiss chard explosion happening now at GreenMan Farm. And even signs of a nice pirate: I have a new friend who lives on a boat on the Puget Sound.

If someone had told me a year ago that I would be farming and thinking of sailing and living on an island the following November I would never have believed them. Not even for a minute. That I am is possibly one of the greatest things about being alive.

chard 6

peter a

Peter - I know there is question about the joke inspiring this post being yours originally.. but you told it so well! Nice pic I thought - hanging out in the Spikenard Farm Cafe.

 

 

 

 

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Harvesting Rain

puddle

Sometimes I wish that my cell phone auto-saved text messages for longer than it does. Or, I need to learn to write some of the best ones down when they come through, fleeting and complete with misspellings and funny grammar.

I received a classic message from my sister Sarah about 6 weeks ago when I was trying to figure out where to live for a few weeks between farm gigs. I had asked her, via text message, if it was really okay if I came to Seattle for a while. I was in the process of confirming plans to stay at GreenMan Farm on Vashon Island, just across the Puget Sound from Seattle, and would have a few weeks of time to spend somewhere before that commitment, which will last through December, started. I requested that she check in with Dan, her husband, about a long-term visit (their house is relatively small, they have a young son, etc). But Sarah texted me back immediately, something like: “Most def okay to stay! Rainy season starts then – don’t want you to hate seattle + leave – ruff”

I smiled, hoped that Dan might share a little bit of my sister’s unbridled enthusiasm and sincere concern, and then started to mentally pack up (real bags are still always already packed) and embrace this next step into the west coast. Honestly, I didn’t think twice about what a rainy season in the Pacific Northwest might entail..

VIGA Farmer's Market

Rain doesn't (entirely) keep shoppers away from the Vashon Island Grower's Association Farmer's Market

..until I arrived. And, then, I was just in it. Every day.

I’ve found myself impressed by the gamut of styles of rainfall here: from gutter shaking water bullets and wind wars that scare you even when you’re buried under the covers to consistent drips that twang against metal surfaces, soldierly like a snare drum beat that never quite crescendos. There’s sometimes light, sideways flying drops that cut through sunshine (and you smile because it doesn’t seem like it’s really happening – or maybe because the sun is just in the background), and sometimes just so much of it, washing everything away, you wonder how things stay put around here at all. I was less impressed when my camera got wet on the ferry ride over to the island and now doesn’t work.. but when it has dried out I’ll post pics of the sound and of island living – amazing.

I found it funny, then, when I arrived to live and work at this small plot of presently soggy, well-tended, bio-intense farm land, to find that I would not only be harvesting the last of the greenhouse tomatoes, and leeks, celeriac and beets, all of which will be plentiful through November and December, plus kale and chard – so sweet this time of year thanks to dipping temperatures. At GreenMan Farm we also harvest rainwater.

GreenMan Farm Tomatoes

Goodbye til next year, tomatoes. To ripen the last of the green ones we'll place them in a dry place in a paper bag with an apple amongst them.

The farm grounds, farmhouse, food processing kitchen and guest house all share water sourced from a very shallow, 16 foot deep well. Typical island wells are dug 200-300 feet, about the same level that we sit from the sea.  While it seems like water is everywhere, surrounding us and falling from the sky on a daily basis this time of year, summers are hot and dry and there’s a real threat that the well could run dry. Japser and Will have a system set up to supplement the well water supply by collecting rainwater in 1,100 gallon black bins as well as an array of open containers on the property. To save even more water there’s a water-free toilet in my cabin. The refuse from this, after decomposing for 2+ years with other compostable materials, is used to fertilize ornamental plant beds.

water bins

There are three 1100 gallon black bins on the property that collect water from the rain gutters. Additional open bins are used to provide water for the cow and goat.

 

 

 

humanure toilet

Here's the Humanure or Composting Toilet: a bucket with a seat structure over it, basically. There's a 50-50 peat moss and wood chip combo added to the bucket and used to cover everything. Guys have to pee in seperate containers, not in the bucket, because of territorial smell issues, I'm told.

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Mud and Magic

carrots_1

Subject: Ernie

“So your potential date [Ernie] stopped in at the farm today. Drunk.  Before 9am.  Dave says to let him know if you’re still interested.  (btw, he still has as many teeth as he did 2 years ago)  Hope you’re well!” ~Janaki

A message from Janaki, friend and farmer at Food Farm, CSA, in northern Minnesota, showed up in my inbox the other morning. It has been over a month already since I started driving west so it felt great to get word, however brief, from a friend in the middle of the country. Is it a good sign that Ernie (still) has as many teeth these days as he did two years ago?

I have yet to meet the mysterious subject of Janaki’s email although I’ve heard a share of intriguing stories about him. Some went down like this: Dave, who has worked at the farm for over 15 years, was enthusiastically proposing that I meet one of his single guy friends in Duluth, with whom I’d be a “perfect” match, (and therefore consider a longer stay in that part of the country – aww, sweet Dave). In the middle of this proposal, however, he jumped instead into telling me more about Ernie… an interesting character like so many others I’d get to know, or just have the privilege to hear about, in Wrenshall, MN.

Once Ernie traveled by foot from 20 or more miles away to a party that Dave and his wife were hosting in Duluth, was already drunk (as is his style, I guess), and proceeded to make things interesting for the waning late night crowd who considered themselves P.C. and what not. He goes missing for months at a time but is always spotted walking or hitching rides when he decides to appear again. Apparently, he is missing enough teeth that his smile often scares children that he meets along the way, he is an expert fisherman, and shows up to work at the farm when he’s moved to (or needs cash?), often unannounced.. I couldn’t help but think about how these are the kind of details that must fuel Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Minnesotans. There were others, in addition to Ernie, like Uncle Dougie the strawberry farmer who visits and talks with a toothpick just hanging precariously, constantly, from the corner of his mouth who grows beautiful red things one month out of the year, Karola & Rick, the super cute Buddhist-Christian farmers who live close by and love Minnesota with a vengeance, the elderly woman looking to buy a cheap heap of dill for her son to make pickles with, the Vietnam Vet who wears this fact on his baseball cap and just wants to find a good tomato. These people envelop you quickly into their stories and histories – all tied to the land they live on and know in some way – and you can’t help but want to hunker down, stay a while to hear more, or forget that you had anywhere else to go at all.dave_carrots

The stories become farm news, gossip, a version of the same magazine-type stuff (maybe better) that I’ve been known to pay $3.99 for at the airport to stay loftily fixated on (anything but the fact that I’m 37,000 feet off of the ground, traveling hundreds of miles an hour to get to faraway places).

Without lively exchange we may have found ourselves lonely scattered souls in a field pulling things out of it. The fun banter, the friendly people, the gossip and rumors, all fueled what turned into thoughtful conversation and then, at times, some beautifully concise and genuine advice, much of which I’ve scribbled into notebooks and still reference. Harvesting together brought out a real desire to connect and engage: with the land, with one another. For me, this was an introduction to a whole new work environment and one I could find myself getting used to. Of course, there were times when this labor was just plain backbreaking, hot, and difficult, but I found myself caught up, happy, in love even with the work itself. carrots_3

There is something magical about the process of pulling carrots from dirt. Each and every time I harvested them I was surprised to see how consistently beautiful these organic vegetables could be, heaving themselves just above ground, full of nutrients, color, and life. What’s not magic, but science, is that organic farming can transform the world. Check out the Rodale Institute’s good news with a glimpse into how, here

“(the) growing organic movement is proving that we can not only feed the world with healthy food, but also reverse global warming, by capturing and sequestering billions of tons of climate-destabilizing greenhouse gases in the soil…” ~Ronnie Cummins

Food Farm CSA harvested 32,000 pounds of potatoes this year.janaki_carrots Despite cold and wet weather they are still in the midst of harvesting many thousands of pounds of carrots, parsnips, and rutabagas, too. The amount of people they feed with this organized place in Northern Minnesota is another kind of magic. Again, not wizardry, probably not even science. It’s this extraordinary thing that is the result of hard and smart work on behalf of a totally dedicated, small staff and volunteer crew. With speed and efficiency, stories and jokes, there is also an important place for complete and wonderful silence. The process is like an entire field of onions that we work steadily along, pulling each one out of the ground and leaving them to cure there: round bulbs resting in the dirt while the bright green stems turn yellow, dry, then brown, all toppled over on top of one another until – alas! –  they are born again in our kitchens as the days get colder and shorter and we need that onion-cooking-in-the-cast-iron-smell to warm the air, soup on the stove, to keep us going.

onionsI look forward to visiting my friends in Wrenshall again someday, maybe meeting Ernie for real the next time around and certainly to check in on Catherine’s progress. Catherine is an amazing farmer, and person, who I had the privilege of working with at Food Farm. She has just purchased land to start her very own operation! She’s one to watch, for sure: part of a new wave of young people and women who are taking this work on and can hopefully benefit from the customer demand that Food Farm, after twenty years of operation, has helped cultivate.

My visit will wait until the winter’s over and soup’s no longer the first thing on my mind. Oh, and hoping that things work out with my car.. another story for another time, though.

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