Farm News

Network Collaborators

This is the time of year when harvesting seems to permeate all our waking hours. Some harvests, like potatoes and onions, continue for days or weeks, as we work by hand to collect, clean and store our entire annual crop from the coming fall rains or hungry voles. Other harvests take only a few hours, but must be done often. We kneel and search each cucumber plant every other day for months, and once a week we bend pepper plant by pepper plant to fill bucket after bucket.

On Saturday mornings we look forward to a different kind of harvest- a gathering in of community. During CSA pickup, we like best the burgeoning yields of stories and laughter, of appreciation and encouragement. When we find out all those meant-to–be-canned tomatoes didn’t get preserved because the tomato soup simply had-to-be devoured or that the butterhead lettuce was eaten plain because dressing wouldn’t have made it any better, it is truly a harvest which refills our energy reserves. There is nothing quite like seeing a teething baby gleefully gumming an AJF tomato, or a young boy happily clutching his ‘snack’ of cilantro. I don’t take lightly the importance of these few moments we spend in each other’s company.

Our time together represents a genuine and growing bounty of connections. Not only do I thrive on the encouragement, but I also learn something every week in the cultivation of our friendships. In this sense, our weekly CSA ‘harvest’ is a powerful way we can build that web of interconnections integral to all healthy systems.

Interconnections are the energy that drives systems thinkers to action. It’s these interconnections which engage one’s heart and hands. Cultivating such connections, what I call Network Collaboration, is #2 on my New Farmer Skill Sets list.

In my mind, Network Collaborators have two distinct proficiencies:

  1. The ability to develop an intricate “web” of meaningful community connections (The Network)
  2. The ability to utilize this network for mutually beneficial and evolving results (The Collaboration)

I don’t harvest food week after week after week simply because it needs harvesting. I plant and weed, tend and harvest because I feel a certain responsibility of connection to the systems of plants and land, to our water and soil. I harvest food even on the occasions I’m physically tired or mentally drained because I’m connected to you. I’m deeply connected to feeding you.

**

Last Saturday after another successful CSA pickup came to a close, Brad and I headed to the field for an entirely different sort of harvest with similar motivations. We were eager to spend some time with a plant family I intensely admire. Clover is of the genus Trifolium (Latin, tres “three” + folium “leaf”), which is one of about 300 species of plants in the Legume (pea) family. By evaluating the root structure of our crimson clover plants, we hoped to find out to what extent our field clovers are actually- in a systems-thinking way – feeding us.

I remember Clover as one of the first plants Mom introduced me to as a little kid. She spoke of Clover as highly of as she would a best friend, and boy is she right. Clover is the best kind of friend- a generous plant who is the epitome of a network collaborator. Clover works in partnership with soil dwelling members of the Rhizobium bacteria family to literally harvest nitrogen gas from the air and store it in visible nodules attached to the root system of each clover plant. This is important because nitrogen is a fundamental nutrient for all of our crops. So by counting numbers of nodules and observing their color, scientists (and curious, systems thinking farmers, especially those with soil health grants!) can assess the quantity of nitrogen being fixed (stored) in the soil. From the outside, these little nitrogen balls appear white.

But a deep red or bright pink interior indicates the Rhizobium – Clover network collaboration is active and healthy. When the clover dies, the nitrogen stored in the soil feeds the next crop and the root system itself adds essential organic matter back into the ground, which truly feeds our soil. Interestingly, when clover is grown alongside grasses or grains, the nitrogen fixed by the Rhizobium bacteria is available to neighbor crop, while the two plants are still growing.

The Clover-Rhizobium network collaboration is phenomenal. This symbiotic relationship produced excellent quantities of fertilizer for my crops, with no work on my part. Contrast this against the extraordinary energy intensive method humans have developed (The Haber-Bosch Process) to develop the plant soluble nitrogen fertilizer anhydrous ammonia. Some estimates indicate 5% of all natural gas is used solely to produce this chemical fertilizer, which in the process, creates significant amounts of pollution. (Such pollution is estimated at 3-5% of all global emissions.[1]) Imagine- all that waste while Clover and Rhizobium are capable of producing up to 500 pounds per acre of nitrogen: cleanly, quietly and freely.

It’s miraculous that Clover feeds our soil and our market crops, but Clover also feeds insects and animals at our farm. Clover is an important food source for our pollinators, blooming early in the spring when other sources of nectar are scarce. Freshly grazed or cut as hay, clover is a highly palatable source of nutrition for many animals including cows and pigs. Imagine this: animals grazing the aerial parts of the plant while at the same time, underground, Clover is “feeding” neighboring pasture grasses. What generosity!

There’s one more reason I love Trifolium. Clover, red clover in particular, is a nutritious and healing plant for humans. Red clover blossoms are rich in nitrogen, calcium and iron. Red clover blossoms are “one of the premier herbs used to help clean and detoxify the blood and are often found in formulas to treat skin problems such as eczema and psoriasis. Red clover is also an excellent expectorant for the lungs and is used to treat bronchitis and deep, persistent coughs.” [2]

Just like a farmer’s mental health, or building community through stories and encouragement, network collaboration is a sleeper skill set. Because it’s difficult to see, it’s hard for humans to quantify. And anything that is hard for us humans to quantify seems to be doubly hard for us to value. Fortunately, Nature provides ample examples to inspire us. Clover is truly a remarkable network collaborator who bridges many “languages” to create and sustain health across our entire farm system.

Connecting, sharing, actively cultivating new ways to utilize our natural gifts- this is not an easy, innate skill set for many of us. But we must be willing to keep on building networks- these cooperative labors of love- that oblige us to expose our true selves and share our gifts. Paul Solarz, a fifth grade teacher from Illinois, explains it simply. “Collaboration allows us to know more than we are capable of knowing by ourselves.” And in fact, collaboration allows us to do more that we are capable of knowing we can do!

In these continuously connected days of harvest, I remain inspired by my three-leaf friends of the field and my big hearted families who show up, week after week, to collect vegetables and share stories. Network collaborators are role models who teach us how much richer our collective lives are when we give what we can, and in the spirit of reciprocity, graciously accept what is offered. Systems hold all of us and network collaboration holds all of us together. ~AJ

[1] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fertilizer-plants-grow-thanks-to-cheap-natural-gas/

[2] Carpenter, Jeff & Melanie. The Organic Medicinal Herb Grower

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Tending Spirits

I woke this morning to a crimson sun and ash falling from the east. I set about my normal chore routine all the while feeling hazy inside and out. My eyes feel raw. I think of my farm animals. They can’t escape ‘indoors’ as all the health organizations advise. An irrational fear streaks across my mind before I regain my composure; the thought of having to evacuate my livestock nearly chokes off the air in my throat. I remind myself the forecast eventually calls for rain. I hope water comes soon to wash clean my white-grey dusted crops and my agitated spirit.

This is a day set apart from all my previous days of farming; I am hard pressed to navigate the eeriness. I sit down to write, but remain edgy in a way I can’t explain. Honestly, I’d rather just not talk about it.

**

When farmers congregate, they discuss many things: economics, plant physiology, crop rotations, husbandry, and yes, sometimes the weather. But beyond such tangible tools and evolving production methods lies a field each one of us is independently responsible for cultivating. This is a deeply personal section of land we rarely admit to owning—the terra firma of our mental health. It’s the plot of ground we have seeded to feelings and emotions we often don’t remember planting. It is not a proving ground on which we are eager to evaluate yields or discuss our management strategies with others. Instead, we tend to rush on by, especially when we find spiny weeds that chafe or a thicket of burrs that lodge in our heart. But even in neglect, this is hallowed ground. This is the small earth we flood with unshed tears, where we bury our fears and hide our deepest hope.

To some extent, I can understand a lack of personal introspection. The long-time farmers I know don’t much care for dwelling on loss, even privately, even when coming face to face with their own mortality. Churning in such a state is a route down the slippery slope into despair and worse yet, the stagnation of indecision. If I had to sum up the philosophy of my rural Indiana heritage, it would probably sound something like, “Sitting around doing nothing except wearing your thoughts thin—now that is a sure way to die.”

So in one way, I get it. Just like the profile of our soil, we don’t choose the mental predispositions we are tasked with tending. Why dwell on it? So what if I am edgy? My pigs still need fed and the chicken eggs collected. Toughen up! We can’t spend all our time being hypersensitive to hardship. But at the other end of the spectrum, ignoring the deeply astounding, powerful experiences we alone are intricately connected to—well, this is simply not a recipe for good health.

I know of no plant that can survive in thin soil watered with fear and nourished solely by despair. Just as we must learn the inherent characteristics of our soil before we can skillfully work it, so too we must be devoted to attending to the nuances of our own internal landscape. Being desensitized to death or unmoved by miracles is not a path to longevity of spirit. The stewardship of our mental wellbeing is every bit as important as the stewardship of our soil. Our lives and our livelihood depend on both.

Farmers may be known for tending that which is beneath our feet. But I would like us also to be known for tending spirits, for living and speaking wholeheartedly the truth of our experiences. This is much different than “wearing our own thoughts thin”; I refuse to be simply complacent or grossly ignorant of my misery or joy. I am choosing to both stay close to the acrid smog of fear and to speak up, even if my message is tinged with worry or edged with concern.

During these hazy, uncertain times, my hope is that each of us, farmer or not, will find the courage to visit the terra-firma of our mind and tend to the seedlings. Perhaps you’ll find a sapling of fear that requires a heavy pruning. Perhaps you’ll find a weeping plant of kindness, thirsty for a drink. Whatever you unearth, however vulnerable it may feel, know there is a steadiness, a power in consciously choosing connection over isolation. We are all community stewards. We can all tend spirits. ~AJ

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Systems Thinking: A Family of Good Children

photo of peppers on the plant and in a bucket

Bucket after bountiful bucket. Seven, eight, nine (!) from a single plant. Thick-walled, glossy skinned, lipstick red or glowing orange, yes– to us every one is a Gatherer’s Gold. The late August sun broils on high. Our backs talk loudly to us. I bruise my knee on a sharp piece of metal. No matter. Without pause, Brad and I kneel and bend to the real life version of Success. We pick and pick and pick.

photo of peppers in a row on the plantsIn December, when the work has fallen into a momentary pause, and the glossy catalogs are piled in a stack, we turn page after page after page. Our backs rested, our hands too clean, our eagerness growing into a strong and thick-willed desire, we read one varietal description after another, fueling the long-range dream of Gatherer’s Gold. Bucket after bountiful bucket.

An outstanding harvest, followed by a new crop of seed catalogs, perused in the Persephone months by a warm, crackling fire—now that is sure way to germinate a vigorous dose of Farmer’s Amnesia. Farmer’s Amnesia is a state of mind in which one remembers disproportionately the ease of a successful, abundant harvest. That microcosm which represents only the fair weather elements of agrarian life. Farmer’s Amnesia is a common affliction, powered by a diet of enticing full color photographs of produce and varietal descriptions soaking with saccharinely cloying phrases like, ‘highly ornamental plants with mouth-watering flavor’ or ‘gardener’s all time favorite’, ‘rich and aromatic’, or ‘sure to be a winner’.

Let me set the record straight. Not to disparage the wonder of mid-winter dreaming, but nothing in this profession—ever—is ‘sure to be a winner.’

Crop failure. The burden every farmer has at one time borne. Spoken in soft words, like a funeral procession for a dearly beloved. Pity. A quiet, wringing, heart ache– feeling low. Nothing to do, glossy eyes, empty hands. Thick-wooded feelings, a restless sadness. Bucket after bucket after empty, empty bucket.

Crop failure certainly motivates a farmer to become deft at reading between the lines of seed catalog descriptions. When the authors wax glowingly over the physical uniformity of a varietal, mentioning its ‘storability’ but not its flavor, that’s red flag. Or when they discuss how delicious the ‘cute’ fruit is but fail to include its average yields, I proceed with caution, knowing that most likely means a scant harvest of tiny things.

The problem with most seed catalogs is that they don’t tell the whole story, and the whole story is a disproportionally large part of what determines our success. The whole story includes the stewardship of generation after generation of seed. The whole story is the root of systems thinking.

**

So many seed varieties and have come and gone at my farm over the last ten years. But year after year, Gatherer’s Gold and Jolene’s remain. These are the names of the sweet pepper varieties within whose seeds are the story —the system—that I am steadfastly devoted to.

Willamette Valley farmers Frank and Karen Morton have been breeding exclusively open-pollinated seed varieties for organic farming systems for nearly forty years, and their seed stewardship efforts are second to none. No one likes parting with his or her money, but I can tell you this: the Wild Garden Seed Catalog is at the top of our winter reading stack, and it never feels wrong when I send my money on down to P.O. Box 1509, Philomath, Oregon. I know that whatever good I might do with it, The Mortons will surely find a way to leverage those funds in triplicate. There are very few color photographs in the Wild Garden Seed Catalog. It’s not thick or showy. But the philosophy with which they approach their work, and the honesty found within each variety description is a reassuring pleasure I can take to the bank.

And amidst erratic weather and pest issues, I need reassurance. The environmental pressures on my crops are never exactly the same, and from one year to the next they are also entirely unpredictable. Will there be a steady deluge all through June? A gusty windstorm in August? 100 degree heat in May? Every growing season presents its own unique challenges. For farmers like me, open pollinated seeds represent the best hope we have to overcome un-foreseen environmental challenges. This is because open pollinated seeds safeguard the largest pool of genetic diversity possible. A bigger toolbox can hold more tools, tools that my plants desperately need to fend off what may come. There’s no shortcut to achieving hale and hardy seeds. It takes time- years and years.

Every one of Wild Garden’s open pollinated seeds are cultivated for longevity- i.e. resilience and tenacity to overcome adverse growing conditions. Furthermore, Frank and Karen use the pages of their catalog to educate, not simply to sell seed.

One Distinction between Hybrids and Open Pollinated (OP) Seeds: Breeding OPs involves ongoing improvement of the progeny. Breeding hybrids is a lot of work on perfecting parents in hopes of creating a single generation of perfect offspring. In the end, with OPs, you are left with a family of good children, rather than the memory of good parents. There are no heirloom hybrids.

These are farmers truly devoted to the integrity of ecological and agrarian systems. Their varietals have been specifically adapted to both our region and to our semi-wild, diversified organic production system. Frank and Karen’s seeds haven’t been mollycoddled, spoon-fed refined fertilizers and grown in artificial, climate controlled (wind and weatherless) environments. These are robust, tough, healthy seeds ready to jump out of the ground and get to growing. These are seeds ready to take on the world – and that’s what I depend on to ensure you go home with healthy, well grown produce- bucket after bountiful bucket.

“[Frank] Morton’s proudest accomplishment is not any particular variety, but the acceptance of several of his genetically diverse gene pools into the garden seed trade. As he has written, “Exposing gardeners to the idea that the ‘genetically uncleansed’ can be exciting, beautiful, useful…is a small step toward accepting diversity as an asset.” He’ll feel doubly rewarded if some gardeners are moved to select their favorite forms from these gene pools so that “new varieties or landraces appear in diverse climates around the country as a result of this aesthetic impulse.”

Morton has moved beyond the preservation of heirlooms to the creation of composite populations formed by crossing several heirloom varieties. These may exhibit the same degree of vigor expressed by hybrids, but with a much broader base of genetic diversity. “Heirloom varieties are not the end of the line–they are the beginning of new lines.” — Source: Fedco Seeds

This week’s harvest of Sweet Italian Frying Peppers is a testament to Frank and Karen’s ongoing stewardship. Since the beginning of my farm, I have been sowing and harvesting Jolene’s and Gatherer’s Gold. Every year, I eagerly anticipate the new members of Frank and Karen’s ‘family of good children’. This Saturday, you’ll get the opportunity to take home two siblings: Early Perfect Italian and Karma.

Which is one more reason I am a fierce supporter of Wild Garden Seed. Karen and Frank see their work not in terms of perfection but as a process of continuous improvement. Their work is not stagnant or repetitive, but by necessity dynamic and evolving. Therein lies the challenge, and the joy, the hardship and the rewards. Karen and Frank continue to reflect and refine, just as I do here at the farm. This is not easy.

Being devoted to open pollinated seed is dedicating yourself to honoring a natural system that has functioned effectively for thousands of years, instead of shortsightedly circumventing it to make a quick buck. Seed stewardship is unglamorous work, requiring patience, and diligence and trust—year after year after year.

All in the hopes, but never the guarantee, of producing bucket after bucket of overflowing, absolutely gorgeous, intensely healthy food. The goal is not hyper-uniformity – but solid, reliable diversity. I want every pepper I harvest to be a little different, because that means a lot more tools in my toolbox.

So as you can see, the whole story, before back aches and bruised knees, includes the stewardship of generations of seeds, and generations of diversity. The whole story inspires in a way that’s more lasting than any case of Farmer’s Amnesia. The whole story motivates us to align our actions with our beliefs. That is to say, the whole story awakens us to the power of being a systems thinker.

Oh, and one more thing. The Mortons aren’t even most well known for their sweet pepper breeding, but instead for their brilliant and astounding assortment of lettuce varieties. Their allegiance to diversity isn’t just one crop deep, but also many plant families wide. Year in and year out, Wild Garden Seed’s sweet frying peppers, parsley, lettuces, greens, basil, beets, chard, celery, collards, fennel, cilantro, winter squash, spinach, onions, and kale have fed our CSA community. Frank and Karen’s dedication inspires and enlivens my dinner table, my work table and the table of my soul.

photo of flats of picked sweet red peppers

I revel in all of our bountiful harvests, but there is an unmatchable, indescribable pleasure I experience when I set out crates of ‘Gatherer’s Gold’ for my CSA Community to carry home. It feels like the coronation of the beautiful, fruitful, healthy system I deeply desire for our world. The Morton’s breeding work fuels our farm’s stewardship and stability; our farm’s success fuels the stability of the Morton’s breeding work. And you, dear CSA member, are an integral part of the equation. Your choices support this incrementally improving, dynamic, deeply community-minded system. Seeded, grown, nourished, and loved: all within a one hundred and twenty mile radius of your kitchen. Now that, that is a whole story which celebrates what is truly, unimaginably, possible. ~AJ

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Roasted Eggplant and Tomato Pasta

photo of roasted eggplant and tomato pasta
Roasted Eggplant and Tomato Pasta
 
AJ says: Thanks CSA member Meg who shared this recipe and photo with me. Meg said she often makes her own summer squash pasta and turns this dish into a real celebration of AJF summer produce. That makes a farmer happy!
Recipe by:

Ingredients
  • 1 ¾ pounds eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 to 2 banana or Italian frying peppers, halved, seeded and thinly sliced
  • 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, more for drizzling
  • Kosher salt
  • 12 ounces pasta, such as campanelle or farfalle (or summer squash noodles made with a spiralizer)
  • 2 pounds very ripe heirloom tomatoes, halved through their equators
  • 1 to 2 fat garlic cloves, grated on a Microplane or minced
  • Large pinch crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 tablespoons brine-packed capers, drained
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter (optional)
  • Grated ricotta salata or Parmesan cheese, for serving (optional)
  • Fresh mint or basil leaves, for serving

Instructions
  1. Heat oven to 450 degrees. Spread out eggplant cubes and peppers on a rimmed baking sheet. Toss with 3 tablespoons oil and season well with salt. Roast, turning everything, until eggplant and peppers are very soft and deeply golden brown, 30 to 40 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, cook pasta in well-salted boiling water until about 1 minute shy of al dente. Drain.
  3. Using the large holes of a box grater, grate tomatoes over a large skillet so the pulp falls into the skillet. To do this, hold on to the curved side of the tomato in your hand and slide the cut, flat side across the holes. Stop grating just before you reach the skin.
  4. Add the garlic, red pepper flakes and 1 tablespoon olive oil to the pan with the tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Simmer until tomato pulp is reduced by half, then season to taste with salt.
  5. Add the pasta, capers and butter, if using, to the pan with the tomatoes and bring to a simmer, tossing until butter melts and pasta finishes cooking, about 1 minute. Turn off the heat and toss in eggplant and cheese, if using.
  6. Serve pasta drizzled with a little more oil and the herbs.

Notes
Adapted from a recipe by Melissa Clark from The New York Times

 

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Goats. In the Drive. Naturally.

photo of farmer brad with cat "cheetah" on his shoulder

The farm is a powerful magnet for stray animals. Maybe there is an aura we humans cannot see that the wayward beasts are attracted to. Maybe they somehow know that naughtiness is accepted here. Whatever the reason, they show up regularly. We have met Apollo and Big, both happy labs from the neighbor out near the road. On separate occasions, they decided to do some extended exploring and ended up at the farm. We have also met Buddy the Saint Bernard from a neighbor accross the ravine. Another time, I got scratched helping a peacock over the fence.

photo of goats grazing down the driveway on the farmAnd then there are the cats. Lots of cats. Some of you know Thumper, she was a stray that wanted to be a farmer five years ago and still enjoys helping us in the field. And we can’t forget Lambert, the giant puffy guy that just wanted to be part of the family. Also, we can’t forget Elmer, who stuck to me like glue. We nicknamed him Baby Cheetah because of the spots on his belly. He was a fun companion in the field for over a year.

There was also Pickles, a wild tomcat who appeared at the pig barn several months ago. He has since moved on, unfortunately, but I did manage to convince him that getting pet and sitting on laps was ok.

The most recent visitors stopped by a couple days ago. We were out in the field doing things when Kaylene approached me and said, “Just so you know, there are goats walking down the drive.”

Naturally. Why wouldn’t there be goats walking down the drive? Problem is, we don’t have any goats. Luckily one goat had his lead rope still attached, so it was not difficult to get ahold of the pair and get them off in the right direction. We took them next door and one of the little girls was very happy to see her goats. We learned their names are Chocolate and Dwight. It’s actually White, but I like Dwight. So now we can add them to the list.

I wonder who’s next? ~BT

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Why Ever Would I Treat You the Same?

photo of bunches of ripe radishes

From the beginning, my agricultural ambitions were deeply earnest, even before anyone else was taking the idea of me learning to farm seriously. Even before I had made commitments to animals, plants or my community, I was a studious, determined and wholehearted researcher voracious for practical knowledge my own two hands could put to use. In many respects, this was not a conscientious choice. I didn’t know there was any other way of working toward a goal except hard and unrelentingly; I blame it on my parents.

In my family, once you made a commitment, you don’t stop until the job is truly done, and done well. You don’t give up because something is arduous or puzzling. This is a vastly different mindset than the old idiom about us Joneses. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I heard about “keeping up with the Joneses.” In fact, in my childhood, keeping up social appearances was never applauded. Our familial values had to do less with competition and more to do with personal growth. We weren’t to waste any time comparing ourselves to anyone but the face reflected back at us from the pond. As kids, our efforts were purely assessed by to the progress we’d made toward becoming more authentically our own inimitable selves.

When I complained about sibling inequality, my experienced and wise Mother would grin, hug me close and say mock-insulted, “Why of course! All of you are individuals, why ever would I treat you the same?”

When we embarked on a new challenge in which the outcome was far from certain, I remember telling each other: “Let them know a Jones was there.” Which really meant: work hard and with pride, give to the very best of your ability, and above all, remain true to yourself. This life ethic, instilled by generations of my family, is the genuine seed of my farming story. This is where I first learned that when it comes to the edging closer to the mastery of a craft, knowledge and heart are both indispensable and wholly indivisible. 


Early this year, I was asked to speak about the education of emerging farmers at a Food Summit. How was I to distill down the vast quantity of technical expertise and heart that new farmers will need to have? There are, of course, many resources to aid beginning farmers- educational programs, classic reference texts and extensive online resources.

But what about that elusive ability to connect subject matter expertise with trust? How does one balance market demand with exhaustion or contractual obligations with uncertainty? What does love have to do with botany or pest management with loss? Is it possible to authentically reconcile the pursuit of money with the stewardship of life?

Humans are not machines or plants. No matter the profession, we all infuse a horizon of emotion into our work. But in farming, this line is not a distant, abstract concept. This line is sharp and thin, as thin as the single blade of breath that separates the living from the dead. On behalf of many, it is we farmers who are tasked with wielding the knife.

Traditionally, such heady work required a lengthy education. Apprenticeships started from the time one was old enough to be entrusted with the egg basket or responsibly care for the bottle calf. But I was facing an audience of would-be first generation farmers. Without twenty years of on-hand farm experience, (age 0-20), how does one adequately prepare for the daunting work of stewarding so many beginnings and ends? What are the most important things an aspiring farmer needs to know?

These inquires are wholly unanswerable; such questions acutely typify a farmer’s central task. We can’t expect to ever find complete answers to our most crucial questions. Nevertheless, our work is to absolutely, doggedly, keep up the pursuit.

Over the coming weeks, I intend to share my conviction about the necessity of nurturing a new generation of agrarians as well as the knowledge and heart these fierce and courageous souls will need to cultivate. Now, I know that many of you have no green-thumb ambitions. Please understand: what I write is for you too. As stewards of land or self, we are part of an evolution; our job is to immerse ourselves in the work best suited to our individual and changing abilities—to revel not in perfection but in practice.

The sweet truth is that what I have to teach beginning farmers is actually what I hope all of us can learn: new tools and skillful encouragement for the journey toward becoming our own, inimitable selves. It’s time to roll up your sleeves. Systems Thinker, Network Collaborator, Creative Processor, Resourceful Innovator, Resilient Entrepreneur, Hardworking Learner. These are the varieties of seed I wish to teach you how to sow in the soil of your life. ~AJ

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Peperonata

photo of a bunch of sweet red peppers
Peperonata
 
AJ says: Double this recipe. You will want leftovers.
Ingredients
  • Three good splashes of extra-virgin olive oil
  • Two cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed by the side of the knife
  • Two large Sweet Italian Frying Peppers, deseeded and sliced
  • One small onion, sliced into fine rounds
  • Fine sea salt
  • Handful of flat-leafed parsley, finely chopped
  • Handful of fresh basil leaves
  • Crushed dried red chili

Instructions
  1. Place the oil in a deep frying pan along with the garlic, and heat the oil gently, allowing the garlic to impart itsf flavor into it. Do not let the garlic could and burn.
  2. Add the peppers and onions long with a good pinch of sea salt, and fry gently for around twenty to thirty minutes, stirring frequently to make sur the peppers do not burn. If the garlic starts to burn, remove it from the pan.
  3. When the peppers and notions are sot and emptying, sprinkle over the parsley and basil, stir well then add a few pinches of chili, if using. Taste for salt, and add more if desired.
  4. Serve hot, with lots of fresh crusty bread – though this dish tastes more delicious the following day, served at room temperature.

Notes
Adapted from a recipe by Tracey Lawson in her book A Year in the Village of Eternity

 

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Standing In the Heat of the Kitchen

photo of heirloom tomatoes on a blue farm crate

Our mornings bloom cloud-covered and cool, making this late summer heat illusive. But by 10 a.m. the mottled, smoky skies—which carry the message of northern wildfires—belie the swollen, rising temperature. Then gravid afternoons, heavy and inflamed, burst alive with a hazy fervor I must will myself to work in.

I find I need a certain amount of toughness and skill to successfully navigate this bright, dry, intensely robust season. It also helps to have had a lot of practice. (In fact, I count my blessings every year I get to ‘practice’ again.) The reality is, come the drying winds and triple digit temperatures, my physical work remains physical, and there isn’t much of anything I can do about it. This means I have to change tactics, and one of my most effective strategies is actually all mental. It has to do with how I prepare and plan for the physical work itself.

In Spring, the ideas flow effortlessly. With great enthusiasm, I can map out an easy twelve months at a stretch. I can think in big blocks of time and organize my days with albeit a ‘relative’ certainty. It’s like is hiking the bottomlands, close to water and shade, where the ground is flat, free of scree, and gentle on the knees.

But by late summer, I’m sun-scorched, feeling the weight of the fully loaded pack and staring upward at the boulder-strewn, switch-backing trail leading to the top of Mt. Winter-Fireside. There’s no turning back, and no alternate routes. The world narrows to the metaphorical mountain and me. This is when the mental training and rigor of a life lived close to the ground pays off.

photo of two children on a farm petting a cat

Two eager learners attend Mabel’s class on kindness and trust.

I begin now, to traverse each short section of my farm ‘trail’ with a discrete beginning and end, instead of the long master ”To-Do” list born of hopeful spring days. My summer self is like an wary wild critter – too easily spooked by the loud rustle of an unfolding long-range map. So instead, and quietly, I go back to the basics to keep from feeling overwhelmed. Each block of work time, I set an overly-reasonable short-term goal, and then, without pause, I tackle the trail of my work.

Step, by step, by step. I do not open the door of my psyche to any unhelpful voice wishing to linger or re-negotiate my choice. I move to action quickly, before my mind can trigger a landslide of “hot-tired-hard” excuses.

This time of year, I fold up my well-referenced ‘master plan.’ I trust my instincts and my experience to carry this farm and I exactly where we need to go. In the merry-go-round abundance of a diversified crop farm, the enigmatic summer harvest ‘schedule’ nearly demands this mode of work. Anyone who has ever had a successful garden can understand. August harvesting is nothing like the discreet, tidy task of crisp spring or budding summer where we ogle over the first green tomato or tiny wisp of bean, so grateful the magic of produce is literally coming to fruition.

August harvesting is a sprawling, ongoing flow of buckets and knives and hands moving, picking, carrying, up and down rows, eyes catch the possibility of ripeness, fingers evaluating weight and tenderness, then heft or rigidity acting as the final judge.

We bring down three bins from the field and load up four more. We finish one picking, stop to close a gate, and spy the tell-tale color of another blush of ripened fruit. Brad and I give thanks to our fields, our plants, our farm, and then we give thanks again, and yet again, for every harvest, for such health and wealth and unbelievable yielding of Life on our behalf.

My Life—my August Farm Life—pound by sun-ripened pound, adds up to a weary happiness I could not, would not trade. The bottomless pot of tomatoes cooks down into a heady, thick sauce on the stove; my horizon of planning becomes a purposeful practice in the art of reduction. Both yield a savory reward, but also require standing in, as Harry Truman use to say, “the heat of the kitchen.” ~AJ

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Peppers and Eggs

Peppers and Eggs
 
Recipe by:

Ingredients
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • Bell pepper rings (1/2-inch thick)
  • Eggs
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • Fresh herbs: diced parsley, basil or celery leaf

Instructions
  1. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat, about 4 minutes.
  2. Add the bell pepper rings. Cook 1 minute on each side.
  3. Place a small bit of garlic in the middle of each ring, spreading it out a bit so it is evenly distributed.
  4. Crack an egg into each pepper ring. Season with salt and pepper. Lower heat to medium-low. Cook until whites are set, 5-10 minutes.
  5. Sprinkle eggs with herbs and serve.

Notes
You can also make this dish in the oven. Simply brush a baking dish with the olive oil, slice your peppers legthwise (in half), crack the eggs inside the pepper halves. Bake 10-18 minutes (or until whites are set) in a 400-degree F oven.

 

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Weathering Change

photo of a frog on bagged produce at the farm

Pseudacris regilla, the Pacific Treefrog, is the state frog of Washington. This little guy hopped a ride from the lettuce field in a harvest crate to surprise the packing shed crew. Brad, of course, made sure he found a cooler, greener home.


Weathering Change

Now it is August and the heat bears down hard. I rise exceptionally early so my work can be done in the coolest hours of the day. I fill extra water troughs to ensure livestock stay hydrated, and I double down on irrigation schedules to help vulnerable plants weather the weather. All the while I work, I am thinking of the commitments I’ve made: to my animals, my plants and to you– my human community.

Expertise and heart. For five years, with no summer irrigation, and at the near center of our field operation, this wild chicory has found a way to both live and bloom—abundantly.

Experienced and diligent farmers know there are a good number of things they can do to soften the blast of heat and drying summer winds. I can teach myself the science of evapotranspiration, absorb studies regarding temperature effects on the physiological workings of plants. I can delay transplanting fall crops, store them cooped up in shaded houses, and hope they’ll not be too stunted to produce marketable food. I can learn the most critical developmental stage of all our annual crop families, and strategically schedule plantings to avoid undue suffering. I can hand water new orchard saplings and pull shade cloth over tomato houses. I can rely on drip irrigation, mulching, and windbreaks to increase irrigation efficiencies and reduce plant stress. From long-range efforts that strengthen soil health and improve heat-tolerant seed varieties, to the day-to-day in the trench tactic of literally carrying water, I’m proactively doing all I can think of to prevent unnecessary loss.

Such heat is new and daunting territory for me– territory in which it is easy to succumb to a sad irony. This very minute we humans are tipping the balance of climate patterns on a global scale. But right here, today, on my own farm, I can’t change the weather.

As an agrarian, I’ve learned that being well educated and astute is not enough. Like the fields you care for, you too must find a way to be of good heart. But being of good heart is also simply not enough; to survive one must be knowledgeably resilient.

These days, when I feel myself reaching the top of my own heat index, I retreat to the shade of my porch for a glass of ice water. This is not entirely a respite. Having done all I can physically do, I face the equally formidable, age-old task which at some point, has confronted every farmer. I must find the courage to expose my good heart to the expansive, uncertain reality of letting be what will now be. ~AJ

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