Farm News

Harvesting Abundance, Part I

Every July, we begin a season within a season, a harvest within a harvest. In between the picking of tomatoes and digging potatoes, once the cucumbers are tucked safely in the cooler, or the onions are pulled and curing, we carve out small periods of time. From the peak of summer until fall temperatures drop, for fifteen minutes here or a half an hour there, we turn our attention toward our tiniest and yet arguably most important harvest: seeds.

Seeds aren’t a crop we sell, and with a few exceptions, we don’t eat them either. Instead, these diminutive harvests are a strategic initiative, a deposit into the bank of security. The gathering of seeds marks the start of next year’s work, an intentional act in which we collect our hopes for the future.

Garlic begins our season of seed harvesting. These porcelain bulbs of solidity pass through my hands as I select the crème de la crème for our seed stock. Wheat and rye follow, but only when a bout of hot weather, uncomfortably hot, is underfoot. We gather and work in the heat of the day, on days when water has run away to hide in the shade. This is crucial, for seeds must have a very low moisture content to avoid rotting in storage.

When the grain heads arch downward, as if bowed in prayer, we call our friends. Together, the bakers and the farmers, we cut the stalks low to the ground and thresh. The grain falls through a slender chute into a pail. This year, thirty pounds of rye berries from a morning’s work becomes the blueprint for future meals, seed by precious seed.

Every plant has distinct indicators of seed ripeness, like shrived pods or wilted petals, colors fading to tans and browns and blacks. Some seeds have sharp points, pepper-looking speckles, round balls of inky dots, spirals of ribbing that remind me of fossils. Look close and you will find the diversity extraordinary, sometimes other worldly.

Seed saving is visceral, requiring imagination, presence and patience. To be a good seed saver, you must listen, you must feel. The oats must rattle like rain on a tin roof, the wheat like the clinking of nickels in a metal cash box. Corn has to fly free from the swivel of your hand around the cob, as if it has been waiting its whole life for someone to ask it to dance. Peas must spring open from their pods, which clatter with the hollowness of dry leaves. Calendula must rustle like the grasses of early autumn tangled between your ankles.

The bread-seed poppies must roll softly with a loose timbre in their salt shaker vessel, beautiful and perfect, belying the unruly nature of their youthful frizzled blooms. At this advanced age, they have settled down into dark specks of grace, sequestered in a chalet of beauty.

I never managed to find the time in my first years of farming to catch seeds in their ripeness, on their time. But with every passing year, I am happy to witness our seed harvests growing more abundant. In the basement, our purchased seed boxes now share space with mason jars and plain paper bags, old feedsacks and manila envelopes, all with handwritten descriptions of their contents. I am far from a professional seed grower, but I am definitely a head-over-heels seed steward.

Seeds are evidence that miracles surround us. I sense the power of the infinite within them. When I am out collecting seeds, I contemplate the mystery and magnitude of life on this planet. I think of my farming journey, how each season folds into the next like one hand held by another. I can see clearly how life is layer upon layer of repeating patterns, an emerging spiral of consistency and change. Here at the farm, ends and beginnings are truly one and the same. Holding these beautiful packages of distilled potential, of enormous power, I fall in love with my work once again. ~ AJ

Read more

Yarrow, Unlimited

photo of yarrow blooming

It seems as if yarrow, (Achillea millefolium) has always been at the farm. Surviving in droughty soils, its niche is at the margins: field edges, tucked up next to both wellheads, growing steadily alongside fence lines. As with many of the naturalized plants co-existing in our yards and gardens, we rarely give them a thought. Such un-flashy, common plants simply exist, such as we exist in our own physical bodies. It is all too easy to forget, ignore and undervalue. And yet, with or without appreciation, there is a quiet richness that lies within us all.

Yarrow is a plant of multitudes. This medicinal herb contains up to twelve different anti-inflammatory compounds. It is also considered a catalyst herb, meaning it enhances the medicinal qualities of all other herbs with which it is compounded. But its medicinal qualities extend beyond humans to both the land and wild creatures. Yarrow is a nutrient accumulator, drawing up minerals from lower layers of the soil profile so more shallow rooted plants can access this fertility. This is a plant that works on behalf of the greater community. Even wild birds line their nests with yarrow to prevent parasites.

It has been said that humans too, contain a multitude. We sense this infinite potential in nature; it may be one reason wild places and plants resonate so deeply with us. To find yarrow’s beauty, it is necessary to look closely- beyond the wispy, plain stalks and thin, slight habit. Up to three feet tall with feathery fern-like leaves, yarrow has tiny clusters of white flowers with yellow centers.

My daily summer schedule is overflowing. I feed and tend, weed and harvest, water and gather. What a wonder then- no matter my work route—I find myself passing by some patch of flowering yarrow. On hectic days, this gentle, steady plant is my touchstone.

I never tire of seeing the flowers within the flowers; I pause, exhale, and soak up yarrow’s diminutive, but yet extraordinary beauty. This is a grounding ritual of simplicity; yarrow acts as a mirror, reminding me of my potential, my gifts within gifts.

Because our earth has provided such stability and abundance, we believe natural resources to be unlimited. Because we fall into the comfort of familiarity and routine, we believe ourselves to be of a single nature. We would be wise to remember the opposite is true: the precious, irreplaceable gifts of our world are indeed very finite. We ourselves, each unique individual being among us, is truly limitless. ~ AJ

Read more

Summer’s Gifts

photo of the tips of wheat against the sky

There is no way to sugar coat it. July and August used to be the months I simply endured. I am not a native hot weather lover. My light, naturally dry skin burns easily and if I’m not careful, the bright glare of midsummer days can easily send me reeling with a migraine. Initially, farming exacerbated this lack of affection. I carried a constant worry that my crops were in perpetual danger of wilting, burning or suffering from dehydrating winds. Past hot weather spells have hands down been some of the most stressful times I’ve experienced as a farmer. Hot weather means more time spent on irrigation duties, which cut into already shortened workdays. I think back on my early years and feel heartache and tenderness for how I suffered—both physically due to the intensity of heat and mentally for the responsibility I carried for the health of my crops and livestock. I worked long, long days, could never seem to drink enough water, ate infrequently due to the heat and stress, and worst of all, shouldered so many worries. It seemed no matter how much I did, I always felt there was more I needed to be doing to ensure I could fulfill the commitments I’d made to my families. There was no one else responsible for the success of my farm. It was up to me and only me.

I’ve come a long way. These days, I have confidence in my experience and a deep trust in the extraordinary capability of my plants and animals to persevere, to weather the weather. I’ve learned that I need not dread the intensity of light and heat, that worry is a waste of precious energy, that care of land and care of self are two sides of the same coin. I’ve learned a sort of adaptability that only my farm could have taught me. A tactical shift in my workday schedule has made all the difference. To accommodate the high temperatures, I start work at just-before-sunrise, eating lunch sometimes as early as 10:30 a.m. I take shelter in the shade through mid-day and tend to bookkeeping or tool repairs. I find time for a catnap and at least a quart of water. I return to the fields when I can sense the heat is ebbing. Refreshed, I love the feeling of this ‘second wind.’ It’s almost a day within a day. I tackle something small, tangible, necessary. A harvest of herbs, vining tomatoes up on trellis, a short weeding job. After supper, Brad and I slow our pace even more as we revel in the sunset and cooling temperature. We count chickens and shut coop doors, then take a farm walk, with no particular destination, just knowing something truly wonderful awaits.

One night a throng of fledgling barn swallows flew around our heads, singing a song of cheer. Actually, they could have been giggling instead of singing. These young fliers wobbled a lot as they practiced landing on the deer fence and bean trellis. With stubby little tail feathers, these petite chestnut and blue birds were confident enough to let us come close, but young enough to still cry out “Me! Me!” as their parents swooped in to drop off frequent mosquito meals.

One night we test dug a patch of potatoes, returning giddy to the packing shed to weigh the abundance. Three pounds of glowing golden warm fingerlings, off only one seed potato! All I could think as I looked down the long rows of healthy plants was, “Wait until our CSA families get to eat these—we’re all rich!”

Another night after watering the bed of dill—still full of this sweet aroma—Brad spotted one ripe cucumber, then another. Two slender, creamy green and white new beginnings, months in the making, now rested in my cupped hands. There are so many special places, unique to our farm, unique to this season, unique to these twilight summer moments. This especially, is the time of year when so much changes, so quickly. We can hardly find one field row that something has not, seemingly overnight, bloomed, ripened, or in the case of our oregano hedgerow, become home to a multi-cultural song of thousands of insects thrumming while they work.

These evening walks are how Brad and I remember to celebrate, in small and quiet ways, the sheer glory of summer’s heat. We celebrate the growing of this farm, the surprise of beauty, abundance, generosity down every row, any row.

We walk through the vegetable fields, past a hedgerow, across the meadow, or down our forest path. The fading heat rolls over us. We slow down. Always, always, there is something to greet, something to learn, some connection, some mystery, some fascination, some gift. Summer’s gifts.

Now, even in summer, especially in summer, this farm is my sanctuary. I have learned to dance with this heat, to appreciate its soft edges, the quality of light at dusk and daybreak, the swirl of energy it brings to life at my farm. I’ve learned to find the hare’s corners of summer days, those pockets of time I can work successfully, steadily, no burning up, no burning out. I’ve learned to pack my plants a good lunch and lots of water, and then trust they have the intelligence and resilience to thrive.

I’ve learned to give myself permission to retreat, set down the work, care for my own tired feet and thirsty body. I accept the necessity of summer, grateful for each and every drop of clean water, each and every leafy pocket of shade available to me. I allow the heat to rise and rise and rise, knowing all too soon it will fall and fall and fall away.

Which is all a means of saying that instead of being full of stress and bone-weary worry, these days I return to the house on hot summer nights full, so very full of gratitude, and joy and amazement at all there is to celebrate right here, right here at home, right in and amongst what I used to profess to dislike.

At summer’s dawn, when I go out to work, the fields are a special sort of quiet. I sink down to my knees among the weeds and vines and focus on the health, wealth and resounding hope that is right before my eyes, under my feet, at my fingertips. No matter the pressures, the uncertainty, the sense of potential loss, here among the living, my heart and head clear. I find unending comfort in the steadiness of wild creatures and thriving plants, a steadiness in the continuity of this working class, who regardless of temperature, continue threading the world together leaf by leaf, bloom by bloom.

This is how I have made my peace with weather that does not suit me. I may not be fond of ninety-degree days, but through kindness and creativity, I have found a sort of respect for July, somewhat of an admiration for August, and most certainly happiness in the heart and heat of summer. ~ AJ

Read more

The Clark Conservation District Needs Your Support

photo of row of hedges along a driveway

For over a decade, the Clark Conservation District (CCD) has been an advocate, ally and resourceful network for April Joy Farm. In partnership with CCD, we have installed hundreds of native plants, shrubs and trees to improve our watershed, buffer our crops from spray drift, and provide forage and shelter for pollinators and wildlife.

This year we are working on two innovative projects with the CCD. Our static aerated composting structure will transform our livestock manure and plant residues into certified organic compost. This will eliminate the risk of importing contaminated substances from purchased off-farm inputs. A second project has enabled us to partner with WSU scientists to create a roadmap for improving the health of our soil. Healthier soil means healthier produce and a more resilient farm. Without the support of the CCD, we would not be able to undertake such improvements so vital to keeping our land clean and safe. Increasing development pressures make the support we receive from CCD even more crucial. More neighbors mean more chemical drift, potential water/runoff pollution and greater disease and pest pressure.

One hundred percent of the food produced on our farm is sold in Clark County. Every restaurant customer, every chef, every family, every neighbor connected to our farm benefits from our partnership with the CCD. What we value so highly about the Clark Conservation District is that unlike many government agencies, the ethic of the CCD continues to be: “What do you need? How can we help?”

The CCD’s services are not a hand-out. Every tree, hedgerow and plant I purchased from the CCD has been planted and cared for by my family. Such voluntary and incentive-based conservation services are not only essential, but also the most fundamentally successful types of government assistance. With the CCD as their partner, any Clark County resident who desires to protect or enhance their environment can become an effective and successful land steward. CCD empowers citizens in their backyards, at school and at work to tackle projects that ultimately benefit our greater community and the future citizens of our beautiful and precious home.

Last winter I contacted my county councilor and invited her to visit the farm and talk with me further about her opposition to the CCD’s funding request. I received a form letter response, declining to engage in any conversation. Clean soil, water, air, and the local food and healthy communities which result from careful stewardship are important to all Clark County residents. We cannot afford to lose the Clark Conservation District, whose sole mission is to protect, conserve, and improve the natural resources of our county.

Here are three ways you can help in 5 minutes or less:

  1. Sign the CCD’s petition
  2. Write your county councilor
  3. Join the CCD’s email listing to be notified of upcoming public hearings

If you disagree with funding the CCD or have specific questions about how the conservation district works directly with landowners, I urge you to connect with me. I would genuinely appreciate the chance to hear your perspective. —AJ

Read more

Today

photo of iris seed pods open on a wooden table

Today

Today I reach for compassion
accepting I can never understand
the depth of layers all hearts fiercely guard.

Today I open my front door
to the forgiveness
that has been knocking patiently
all these years.

Today I exhale the memories
of choices I cannot undo.
I listen for the laughing freedom
in the crackling pyre of Almost-Regrets.

Today, I am finally ready to throw my offerings to the fire:
those reminders of who I once was
that I forget too easily
I am no longer.

Today I craft a smile,
help,
slow down,
forget the trivial.

Today, I remember how good it feels to be kind.

Today I keep my senses awake and in search of everyday ordinary peace that bubbles forth from a deep laugh,
flies into my window on morning birdsong,
quivers with gratitude at the sight of my beloved,
rests in each beat of heart, each breath filling my lungs.

Today, I make the choice
to live this moment
as if it were the whole of my life. ~AJ

photo of a bunch of dried irises

This spring I collected the dried stalks (filled with seed) from irises that were gifted to me the year I started my farm.

Read more

Tahini Parsley Dip turned into Asian Hummus

photo of tahini parsley dip

 

Tahini Parsley Dip turned into Asian Hummus
 
Adapted from a recipe by Suzanne Ziedy, Cairo Kitchen Cookbook
Recipe by:

Ingredients
  • 2 1⁄2 cups parsley leaves, plus more to garnish
  • 1 1⁄2 cups tahini
  • 7 1⁄2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 3 ice cubes
  • Salt
  • Aish baladi, (whole wheat flatbread) for serving

Instructions
  1. Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Add parsley and cook until bright green, 20 seconds. Drain the parsley and submerge in ice water. Drain and transfer to a food processor along with tahini, lemon juice, garlic, and ice cubes. Season with salt and purée until smooth.

Notes
AJ says: There were no lemons in the house. I did have two forlorn limes. So I made the recipe as instructed, substituting two squeezed limes for the lemon juice and one CSA bunch of parsley instead of measuring out 2½ cups. It was a little boring. But the lime flavor inspired me to attempt a pad-thai version of hummus. So I took off on an uncharted adventure by adding 1 healthy tablespoon of toasted sesame oil and 1 tsp of tamari to the food processor. I taste tested by dipping slices of kohlrabi in it, adjusting with the oil and tamari until it tasted just right.

 

Read more

Life At Hand

photo of Drought tolerant purple phacelia

This week Brad helped me with an informal farm poultry census. Currently we have 49 hens, 21 chicks and only five roosters. Here’s the rooster roster: Dashing, Hank, Sam, Ricky, and Pillsbury.

photo of a hen on farmer brad's headI have read a lot of books about “keeping” livestock. I’ll admit, I have a real bias against any author who makes black and white pronouncements. Their street cred goes out the window when they write definitively that a certain breed of livestock will “never” do this or “always” does that. I often joke that the animals at our farm have clearly never read these behavior manuals. Quite often they don’t act like the books say they are suppose to. Which, turns out, is one surefire way to get yourself a name.

You might think it’s cute that we name our livestock. But on a practical note, it is much simpler to name our animals, than it is to use various descriptors to accomplish the same thing. Telling Brad that “Lucky keeps foraging way up by the canyon edge and I’m concerned she’ll get picked off by a coyote, so please keep an eye out for her” takes a lot less breath than prefacing that information with: “You know that white hen with the tall comb and the fanned tail that we thought was a rooster until it laid its first egg in front of you?”

For me, naming the animals at the farm is also a form of humility, a promise that I will try to not be bound by blanket assumptions. I may know about the concept of chickens, but a name reminds me that I have a lot to learn about you.

My mom once told me, “I believe I get more hugs every day than anyone else I know.” I don’t doubt it for one minute. I know first hand the power of her presence. A lifelong educator, children instinctively love Mrs. Jones. She greets each child with all the enthusiasm in the world, and she is quick to instill confidence in fledgling capabilities and aspirations. One of the most incredible things about my mom is her ability to really be present with each learner, whatever challenges they are facing– while at the same time reflecting the awesome potential of their highest self. No assumptions, no labels, no judgments. Never, ever: ‘why can’t you be more like…?’. In return, she is repaid in hugs. Real hugs, not petite, half-hearted hugs, but those deeply genuine, I-am-so-happy-to-be-with-you hugs. Pedometers might be passé, but can you imagine what it would feel like to reach 100 on your hugometer in one day? Mrs. Jones knows.

Tara Jensen is the owner and sole operator of Smoke Signals, an artisan bakery in the remote mountains of North Carolina. In her book A Baker’s Year, she has a short section titled, ‘How to Make Bread.’ This is the preface, ostensibly addressed to all bakers:

“It is important to relax the classifying mind while baking. Engage with the dough in front of you, not the idea of it. Work with a loving attitude. To love in baking is to remain present. Herein lies the health benefit: the practice of caring. The quality of care you can extend to the bread is related to the quality of care you provide yourself.”—Tara Jensen

Tara has made thousands and thousands of loaves of bread, all by hand, all baked in a wood fired oven. Her tools and equipment are bare bones. To an outsider like me, it would seem this is a life that could easily become monotonous. It would seem almost impossible not to fall into the trap of assuming every loaf is just like the last one. But Tara knows how different each day is, how distinctly alive every single dough truly is. Engage with the dough in front of you, not the idea of it.

photo of chicks in haySo much of our world is focused on cookie cutter approaches that pigeonhole us in ill-fitting ways. I want to be absorbed not with the idea of life, but with the life right before me. Not chickens, but Lullaby and Midnight. Not Tamworth or Large Blacks pigs, but Rosie, and Polly and Kermit. Not customers, but Josephine and Nora and Edie and Lucy. I farm for the same reason Tara bakes, for the same reason my Mom teaches. We believe in the transformative power of cultivating relationships one by one by one.

It is past time we give up the false pretense of labels, set down stereotypes and over-simplified classification tendencies. Don’t dance with generalizations, or one-dimensional constructs. Name by name, hug by hug, loaf by loaf. Tenders and teachers and makers—all of us can be agents of change by eagerly engaging with those discrete and precocious living beings full of surprise that reside within both arms’ and hearts’ reach.

This Solstice, quiet your mind, open your eyes and with intention, remember one thing. There are no manuals for how to be human that reflect your full potential, your brilliant individuality. Know this: when you visit our farm, hugs are free. ~AJ

Read more

Warm Cabbage Slaw

photo of heads of green cabbage growing
Warm Cabbage Slaw
 
AJF says: Make a double batch! The leftovers are an excellent filling for lettuce wraps. Mash up diced garlic, sea salt and an avocado. Spread on butterhead lettuce, add the cabbage slaw, roasted chicken or protein of your choice and a bit of fresh parsley. Messy, but worth it.
Recipe by:

Ingredients
  • 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons tamari
  • 1 teaspoon maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
  • 1 tablespoon light sesame oil
  • 1 cup thinly sliced onion, scallions w/ green tops
  • Sea salt
  • 3 cups shredded cabbage
  • ½ cup coarse chopped lettuce
  • 1 cup shredded carrots
  • ¼ cup fresh cilantro leaves

Instructions
  1. Whisk the vinegar, tamari, maple syrup, and ginger together in a bowl.
  2. Heat the sesame oil in a large saute pan over medium heat, the add the onion and a pinch of salt and saute until the onion is translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the cabbage, carrots and a pinch of salt and saute until the cabbage is slightly wilted, about 2 minutes. Stir in the vinegar mixture and cook until the liquid is reduced by half and coats the vegetables, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the red lettuce and cilantro.

Notes
Recipe adapted from The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen, by Rebecca Katz with Mat Edelson

 

Read more

Intergenerational Inspiration

photo of two hens and their chicks in a barn

This is the year of the chicks. In her own, independent way, Lullaby went broody first. She selected an old milk crate half full of bailing twine and crumpled paper. Then BB (Black Beauty) followed suit. She more sensibly chose one of the beautiful new nest boxes our friend Chuck made, located inside the night roost. Across the other side of the barn, Thelma began sitting on a clutch of eggs and exactly a week later, her sister Louise decide to take up residence just two doors (er, nest boxes) down. It wasn’t many days afterward that Cormorant, the slender, tall Black Shamo, quietly snuck off to an old metal tool box to hunker down.black hen and chicks

We thought that was the end of the spring nesters, but then Gracie, after a few false starts, settled in and last Sunday, Midnight the Australorp began her twenty-one-day sit in. Our fledgling flock of forty chickens may be up to sixty before the year is out. It’s a good thing we build our night roosts with plenty of room to spare.

**

Early mornings are one of my favorite times at the farm, partially because you get to see a different side to all the animals. There’s usually a lot of snoring up in the piggery. Rosie and Polly are not early birds, so to speak, and Mabel the barn cat can typically be found curled up on a tractor seat, with her nose tucked under a paw. Down at the chicken barn is different story all together. By five-thirty a.m., a symphony of clucks and crows is rising. And if I’m not appearing promptly by 6:00 a.m., the clamor will be punctuated by the braying of hungry donkeys.

I’m accustomed to this morning-song. But it’s certainly changed over the years. It used to be a low whistling murmur because I only had a few hens. Then I added roosters to the farm, and their continued pronouncements brought boldness to the morning music. Now, in this year of the chicks, there are more soprano notes than ever before. Every morning I am greeted by an insistent peeping that fills the poorly lit rafters of the barn with a sort of unfiltered youthful exuberance. This new melody has an air of gleeful impatience. It’s the revelry of the young, awake and ready to rush into the experiences of life.

speckled hen and two chicks in hayBefore I let the chickens out, I fill the poultry feeders, making sure to spread a healthy amount of grain right on the ground in the corner for the littlest of our flock to find. I make sure the waterers are full, both the five gallon ones for the biggest of roosters and the one quart ones, just the right size for tiny beaks. Then, I open the doors to the night roosts. This takes agility—you’ve got to be fast to avoid being smack dab in the middle of a rollicking rush of feathers racing to the breakfast table.

Every time I watch these little chicks navigate this big, adult-sized world, I am mesmerized. Their interactions with hens and donkeys, roosters and flying bugs, the compost pile and their own mother fascinate me. These little intrepid explorers wing their way into oversized grain feeders and high roost boxes and even a fir tree branches that stretch my sense of what is possible, of how capable the smallest among us really are.

At breakfast time, you might think those little chicks, some weighing about 1 ounce, would hang back, nervously, while the six pound roosters and the dominate hens fly out first. But you’d be wrong. Those little birds clearly don’t see themselves as minors. They are usually right in the middle of the action, just as fast and maybe more confident and determined than any member of this flock.

My enjoyment isn’t simply because baby animals are adorably cute. What I love most about this flock of chickens is the diversity of breeds, of personalities and of ages. I realize how foolish I’ve been in the past, to so carefully keep young chickens segregated from the larger flock until they were nearly adults. When our hens raise their own chicks, there is no holding them back. After only two days, Mom exposes the family to the big, bright world, and the big bright world better be ready.

Lullaby weaned her chicks when they were one month old. The pack of four sticks together, but clearly they know they are the “big kids” on campus. A whole host of unrelated hens and roosters tolerate their dashing, fluttering play, and a few even allow the teenagers to snuggle close to them on the roost at night. Meanwhile the newly hatched chicks, any two of which would fit in a tea cup, find their way to the big chicken feeders, hopping right in to eat amongst the biggest roosters, scurrying between legs and enjoying themselves until they lose sight of mom. Every one has been lost for a time, insistently peeping mournfully. But through their own persistence, they eventually navigate their way across the barn yard, or under a fence to be reunited with their family.

Thelma and Louise are Silver Leghorns. The only way we can tell them apart is by the curve of their comb. Apparently their chicks aren’t sure who is who either, because a few days ago we noticed these two have decided to co-parent. They roost together, and spend their days together, taking dust baths and allowing their 11 kids to climb over and scurry under them for safety.

This additional layer of diversity, full of song and companionship, is also full of surprise. These baby chicks and their supportive flock have taught me how incredible young creatures are. We’ve come out to lock the flock into their night roosts, (to keep them safe from predators), and found the teacup sized smallest of chicks six feet high on the roosts, or even more amazing, on top of a hen!hen with a chick riding on her back

Hardly anyone I talk to has a story which involves a nice rooster. But I have an entirely different perspective. I love our roosters and have come to appreciate the important function and role they play in creating a healthy, happy flock. Our roosters—there are at least seven with Dashing as their benevolent king, show a respectful deference to us, do not attacked others, and aren’t cruel to the hens. It’s a peaceable place for the most part, my job being to keep the ratio about 10:1 hens to roosters. Meanwhile, at the small chick waterers, on any given day, you may find three little chicks drinking right alongside Pillsbury, the biggest rooster of them all.

With over fifteen heritage breeds of poultry, our showy roosters and these new chicks, our poultry population is booming. When I only had a few hens, I never realized how empty my chicken yard really was. There is something inherently joyful about this robust extended family; it makes perfect sense. I don’t like monocultures in my fields, so why would the barnyard be any different? I’m thoroughly convinced: intergenerational learning works the best, especially when the natural world is the classroom.

We are enriched by our community; we can only be as healthy and well adjusted as our community is diverse. They say birds of a feather flock together, but no one ever said anything about all those feathers being the same size, the same age, or the same ability. At my farm, I say birds of all feathers, come flock together. ~ AJ

Read more

Diversity Works

photo of seedlings pushing up through the dirt

In any given year, Brad and I source seed for about 200 varieties of plants. This year we added more than forty varieties to our crop list. Before you get too excited about all those new flavors, I have to come clean: just a few of them are vegetables.

The rest? We’re talking about things like Elecampane and Blanketflower. Eupatorium and Milkweed. Pleurisy root, Comfrey and Springbank Clover.

That’s a lot of additional seeding, watering, transplanting, weeding and tending. What sense does it make to devote over 16% of our market crop field to plants that we don’t intend to sell? Remember, this is soil that has been carefully weeded, amended, and groomed specifically for growing food for over a decade. Why take this substantial amount of our prime farmland out of vegetable production? From the capitalist’s perspective, it seems like a poor business decision.

Good thing I’m not a capitalist. I’m a steward. My central goal is not financial gold, but a healthy community. I’m not chasing the dollars. No, I’m focused on a more rewarding pursuit. In the name of integrity and stability, I’m chasing diversity.

It’s taken me a good ten years to become comfortable with eggplant, chard and pole beans. I’m not saying there still aren’t mysteries to learn from the tomatoes and basil. However, I have a familiarity with these market crops. I’m conversationally fluent you might say, in growing plants to feed humans.

But when it comes to growing plants that feed pollinators, I’m a novice. Last year, I couldn’t have told you the difference between Puget Sound Gumweed and Early Figwort. But thanks to support from the USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program and Xerces Society, I’m on a steep learning curve to improve the working conditions and food supply for the vast number of pollinators that are laboring, mostly sight unseen, to sustain themselves, support plant communities and in their crucial way, feed the world.

Pollinators need to eat, and not just in the summer. Our goal is to have at least three different plants flowering from early spring until early winter. Early spring bloomers, like Dandelion and Douglas Meadowfoam for instance, are especially critical because that’s when food sources tend to be scarce and pollinators are starting to hatch out. Early spring is also the time our honeybees have used up the last of their stores of honey. They are hungry, and on any warm, dry day they’ll be out looking for food. (Please remember this in the spring before you mow the lawn for the first time. Dandelions are an important food source for our friends.)

Paige Embry, in her book, Our Native Bees, notes that there are over the four thousand North American species of native bees, along with birds, bats, wasps, flies, beetles, moths and butterflies that act as pollinators. Four thousand. With the forty new plant species we’ve added this year, I’m hoping to recruit some winged farming partners to take up residence at April Joy Farm. I’m hoping the Goldenrod and Asters, the Echinacea and Astragalus, along with the Comfrey and Yarrow and Angelica will make a difference.

I have seen first hand that every time I break free from the monoculture mindset in which hyper-efficiency reigns supreme, whole communities—connections and collaborations I could not have imagined—take root and flourish around me.

Thus, my distinct style of farming rests upon a foundation of inclusivity, because as challenging as the complexity it invites, I know in my heart of heart, diversity works.

There is a certain ethos that successful people from all walks of life employ: from improvisational comedians to dispute mediators, from educators to entrepreneurs to parents. Their secret is simple. It’s to approach life with a “Yes, and…” mindset. Instead of finding all the reasons why something won’t work, they work at finding the value in every offering the world sends their way. As Holly Mandel, founder of the performance school Improvolution says, “It’s a total philosophy of creativity.” ” ‘Yes, and’ creates, while ‘no’ stops the flow.”

In my farming life, I say yes to diversity. Yes to creatures great and small, yes to learning about extraordinary plants, yes to the work and care and extra effort to help our winged community gain a foothold. Each week, I love visiting all these new plants, witnessing their growth, and watching for new insects to miraculously appear. These new plant families have already added so much joy to my life, and over time, will hopefully result in thousands of new farm pollinators. Yes, and… can’t you picture it? From March to November, imagine how all these flowers will light up our fields with beauty. ~AJ

Read more