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


[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.” ~ Wild Garden Seed Catalog

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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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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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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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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Haircuts and Chaos: Happily at Play

photo of a chicken hunting and pecking

Even if I didn’t have a calendar handy, I could walk out into my fields and know that it is mid-July. A motley crew of plants (crops, volunteers, and weeds), are sprawling, climbing and tangling in an energetic race toward fall. The orchard grasses are tall, thin and wiry. The mature weeds are brittle, snapping off at nodes when pulled. This time of year, my fields look as if they haven’t had a decent haircut in months. Come to think of it, my bangs sure need trimmed too!

Ask any farmer about summer weed management and you’ll get an earful of advice. I think Becky Madden, an organic Vermont farmer, sums it up nicely: “For me, weed control – especially in July – is a lesson in achieving balance between intelligent effort and humble acceptance.”

Ah, humble acceptance. July is the month I confront my desire to have everything go back to being springtime orderly, precise and ‘according to plan.’ July is when I encourage myself to set down expectations of what a healthy, vibrant organic farm ‘should’ look like, and remember that diversity is the name of the game.

photo of pigweed in the field at april joy farmThe pigweed acting as a nursery to a recent ladybug hatch, the volunteer cluster of sunflowers capping the end-rows of chard and parsley, the false chamomile bunching out in bright yellow borders amongst the drying wheat, and the rattling dry vetch seed pods tangled in oats by the lettuces – these ‘experiments’ are not valued in human-centric sense of the word efficiency. But year after year, I become more appreciative that Nature continues to happily play in our produce fields.

So it is always in July is when I remind myself that my fields are like a highly productive artist’s work bench. Good invention, brilliant discoveries and beautiful connections come from being in the flow, not from restrictively clean desks where nothing is out of place for fear of messiness or ‘getting dirty.’ Diversity, unfurling in the full throttle of summer, plays a critical role in stabilizing the greater farm ecosystem. I don’t have to fully understand the how’s and why’s to respect the fact that it works.

Diversity, creativity and other forms of self-expression, like meaningful work, are inherently connected. I’m learning that such connections are an important aspect of the “organized” chaos inherent in vibrant, active, healthy systems. It reminds me of my awesome childhood, the fourth of five kids. Our house was always busy and rich with fun and funny happenings. Whether we were getting chased by Billy the goat, inventorying our dandelion family ‘collections,’ stirring up a batch of mud to hold together our creek dam, or riding bicycles barefoot around the gravel driveway, we were five messy, energetic, experimenting, always learning kids.

What I don’t remember about those long days spent mostly outdoors was if I needed a haircut. I laugh thinking of that- what a silly, irrelevant thing to worry over in the midst of the bursting-to-fruition-summertime-life.

What I do remember amidst the chaos and creek bank nettles and fresh plum eating and grass stains and homemade slip-n-slides is one thing: Throughout the course of our experiments, discoveries, and projects: I was happily at play.

And speaking of happy…

Not only are our fields full with connections, creativity and many things on the cusp of “fruition”, wonderfully, so is our farm business. Just as our farm crops grow and change every year, so does our ability to contribute to our community. Next week, I’m planning to share several “behind the scenes” happenings we at AJF are excited to be on the forefront of. These include: an AJF Farm Apprenticeship Program, a multi-year grant to study soil health and the achievement of another environmental certification. Like our tangling, climbing, interwoven field of plants, these projects are also connected in more ways than one. So, rest assured, between fantastic new farm opportunities and tending the bounty of summer produce, I will find a way to remain happy. July is the time I say to myself: forget the haircut, embrace the chaos, go outside and PLAY! ~AJ

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Deer Flies Do Not Lie

image of a fishing raft on a river in Montana

It’s early July. I am sitting in an expansive gold-brown grass valley full of fox dens, osprey nests and hardscrabble prairie life. North of Yellowstone, two hazy blue, somewhat parallel mountain ranges roll down and pool into flat benches and curvy foothills. One eastward, one westward, the wide valley sweeping low between them, these mountain ranges frame my experience with a silent serenity. A restful, arid, sun-starched breeze makes me want to stretch my lungs and hug the clean air inside my chest over and over. The presence of place here is undeniable, and yet impossibly elusive. I am unable to capture the dignity, the spacious freedom of such majesty, by camera or otherwise.

It’s late afternoon. I’ve spent the morning floating fifteen miles of an unbelievably complex and gorgeous river. Rivermusic is still shushing in my ears. Driving to the put-in, the bone-dry grass landscape rising miles toward waving foothills seemed a harsh and endless aberration. Just standing in all that open, unprotected space, under the hard, hot sun would be a tough line of work. It is not until I am safely nestled on the lap of the fluid, water ecosystem that the intense rangeland feels less daunting to me. The dry land, the wet river- these contrasting landscapes fit comfortably, unexplainably together.

Work, a wide, seemingly barren grassland full of parched hours and heavy steps. Rest, the quenching coolness of clear, green life. I have to think on this metaphor a moment, for it catches me off guard. From my shady perch, the grass meadows and fields look so still and at ease, but I think of the enormous effort it would take for me to cross on foot and the concept of Work blindingly drives the heat into each imagined step. And then I think of that crisp, bubbling bluegreen water like the punctuation mark of my morning. Decisive, ink clearly drawn, my refreshing river represents Rest. A partner paradox, for it is the river which never sits still, full of the energy and motion usually indicative of work.

Land, water. Brittle, fluid. Work flowing into rest; rest seeping into work. This highly-functioning ecological dance of dichotomy is exactly what I seek to replicate in my life.

But all my deep pondering comes into focus later, comes when Thinking Mind returns. Earlier, out on the river, the cold water freestone trail hastily lulled my brain into Mind at Ease. Mind at Ease is a moving meditation featuring caddis flies and red-winged blackbirds, a family of mergansers, the sight of a heron’s rookery, and the sweet comforting smell of hundred-year-old cottonwoods tickling their leafy fingers in the stream like giggling kids. Time still passes in clockwork fashion, but Mind at Ease abandons all clocks.

photo of montana wildflowers, river and mountainsOut on the river the edges of the valley blur and disappear. Imposing granite walls, knowing nothing of the timeworn marriage of creeks and soft banks, draw themselves determinedly down into the river’s bottom. I face this cleaving imagery from the raft: rock dropping sharply into water, leaving behind questions which waft into the hollow space inches above the waterline. Up from depths, on the nosetip of a trout, shadowy secrets rise laden with mystery. But all this flashes like the solitary golden eagle overhead. Mile after river mile, such latent energy is at once upon me, then gone again nearly before it is recognizable. What and why percolate inside me.

Out on the river, Mind at Ease detachedly allows such ruminations to bubble to the surface before swirling and sweeping them off into their own life. Mind at Ease is perfectly content to let questions embark on restful solo lives, untethered by the domesticity of working answers.

Out on the river, willows reverberate light off the hips of the bending riffles, where glassy, ebbing currents effortlessly deflect the machinations of Thinking Mind who wishes to worry. There is nothing I can do from so far afar. I sluff off expectation like a restrictive winter coat and absorb summertime as if it can be bottled. I become enough, as perfect and imperfect as I immediately am. It becomes quite enough- actually, it becomes everything, to simply float, to witness, to be still.

It gets better. Back from the river, I’ve had the most leisurely lunch imaginable, followed by a sweet little nap. The Peter Mayle paperback purchased for $0.50 at the local library sits beside me, tantalizing my fingertips to turn to page one and dive into the pleasure of a no-obligation, no-commitment evening. In the span of 756 miles, I no longer have irrigation sets to turn off, harvest orders to fill, beds to chisel plow. Stripped of farm life, who am I?

Farmers. The age-old description includes the following paraphrased characterizations: Hardworking to a fault. Up before sunrise. Tuesday, Sunday, holiday, sick days: on a farmer’s calendar, there is only one day: the Workday. Cows need milked, weeds grow round the clock, livestock knows nothing of daylight savings time, crops must be seeded and harvested on Nature’s schedule, not ours.

Yet here I am, sitting under the vast Montana skyline, brashly ignoring the playbook of agrarians everywhere, doing the one thing farmers are collectively known not to do: take a summer vacation.

The sequence of events that led to this cannot be wholly explained in one short essay. It took a devoted aunt, seven years, an injury, falling in love, a pragmatic epiphany, and the unending miracle of a generous, skilled farm family, but the deer flies biting me do not lie.

It is July. For a brief few days, I am a farmer at rest. ~AJ

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A Journal of Joy

four blue robins eggs in a nest

Each day, I honor a simple writing practice. In the early morning, I sit down to unwind my yesterday and mindfully plan my today. One breath at a time, I listen for the thrumming in the symphony of my own life. Out of my heart and through my pen, I carry the tiniest beakful of spent straw and common mud onto the page before me.

Metaphorically, each day I venture away from my rote and trodden footpath, away from the raucous rushing river of ordinary time that keeps flying, flying, flying away too quickly. I pick up my pen, take a breath, and meander down a quiet side channel. I sit down on the proverbial rock at water’s edge. I cool my weary feet in stillness and gift myself the opportunity to look skyward.

Some days I write just a few lines. Some days, the page fills. The notes I jot down fall under three simple headings:

  • Yesterday’s Joy
  • Yesterday’s Gratitude
  • Yesterday’s Discovery

First and foremost, I make a concerted effort to remember the absolute brightest moments of my day. Then I reflect on who and what I can be immediately thankful for. Finally, I consider what my journey has taught me about my work or myself. My notes are never polished, comprehensive, or all-inclusive. I take care not dredge up distant memories; I limit myself to exactly the last twenty-four hours of my life. This is my method of cultivating mindfulness; a way to pause so I can catch up on some necessary mental housekeeping.

Occasionally, my thoughts are languid and still. I cradle my hot tea and wait patiently until the memories peek out from hidden places. Other times the recollections tumble out like a nest of wrestling fox kits. Within the covers of a non-descript grey notebook I record compelling ideas, specific phrases, descriptions of precious time spent with those I love or things I witnessed.

“Taught a very young gardener how to properly harvest her first ripe carrot today—elation, then understanding flooded her face. Speechless.”

Sometimes just a fragment of experience, a scribbled sketch, or a meaningful quote fill the pages of what I have come to call my Journal of Joy.

I start my day with this practice, because at dawn, my critical judgments, fears, and worries aren’t fully awake yet. Unshackled, I don’t try to solve or fix anything. I just revel in the gift of yesterday, knowing it is a stepping-stone into tomorrow.

Joy, Gratitude, Discovery. I freely remember the sparks of connection, of genuine resonance that I personally experienced. What tiny moment spoke to me, unleashed a wave of goodness, touched or inspired me? Over the last twenty-four hours, who was kind to me? Who made me laugh? What grace did I witness? What positive change did I help create? I’m not looking for life changing events, rather the tiniest flashes of pure connection, of complete authenticity.

There’s an old saying that we often forget exactly what was said to us, but we never forget how it made us feel. Once every day, I pause to glean such richness of feeling. I categorically collect my most powerful emotions, the often unspoken but highly potent energy swirling just underneath the surface of the pond of daily life. If I’ve had a setback, if I didn’t act with compassion, if I lost patience or failed to skillfully navigate an opportunity? These hurdles find a home in my notebook too. Joyful and difficult, I take time to acknowledge the facts and uncover the truth of the experience, to transform the emotion into a tangible discovery that will guide my actions moving forward.

My Journal of Joy is a way to rebalance the scales of perception. This is critical. The inky shadows of fear and loss must not override the self-sowing goodness taking root in all manner of obscure places. This writing practice is one way of carding the wool, of separating of the wheat from the chaff. It’s like sweeping the kitchen floor, or washing the sink after the dishes are done, a way to respect the fortune, grace and beauty right before our eyes.

My little Journal of Joy– it’s a small thing, taking up no more space or time in my life than a one-cup coffee break. Until recently, no one even knew about it. I rarely share my words or sketches, and yet it’s becoming the most valuable book of my life.

For one, this practice effectively slows down time for me. I relive the most moving moments of my daily life and thus can cherish them a second time. I’m no longer the kid who rips off the wrapping paper, stares at the Christmas toy for two seconds before moving on to the next one. That may be how I move through hectic days, but my Journal of Joy asks me as a matter of routine, to collect the gifts, one by one, smooth the crumpled wrapping paper and take stock of the bounty with which I am richly imbued. I give myself the opportunity to celebrate again the clever, funny, tender, rich or peace-filled moments I was fortunate enough to encounter in the last day of my life. What could be better medicine for the soul?

Secondly, this habit is a magnificent way to tend the inquisitive spirit. How can one bring more joy into their life if they don’t quite know what elements support it? By reminding myself of my joys, I incrementally begin to more deeply understand what supports my health and happiness. I learn the peculiarities and specifics of what fills my reservoir. Or rather, what experiences allow me to be in the flow, i.e. help me feel most effortlessly and completely my highest and best self?

Over time, patterns emerge, and I am able to see myself from a very different perspective, often with deeper, kinder affection. As the pages of my journal fill, I can clearly connect the types of experiences that light up my world. What exactly was I doing when Joy flitted down and chittered happily on my shoulder? I begin to clarify what specific situations enliven me, boost my enthusiasm, and enrich my life. Seemingly unconnected events are now easily correlated; I can recognize the commonality of vastly different experiences through the undercurrent of parallel actions, partners, or environment. Was I was teaching or tending or leading when Joy arrived? Possibly I was fixing or solving or fine-tuning. And who was I with? And where? This cross-reference reflection upon our many ‘yesterdays’ is a powerful form of internal evolution. Experience-by-experience, I am gathering the very clues that will lead me toward a jubilant independence. With joy in the lead, I step closer each day to becoming my best self.

Finally, my daily musings remind me of how vitally nourishing it is to allow yourself to love without explanation, justification or judgment. In a society confined by untenable, narrow ideals of perfection, the power of reassurance and the celebration of individuality must not be underestimated.

a cat, hiding in a tractor, gets a chin scratch from a farmers gloved hand

Imagine if one of your ancestors had likewise kept a Journal of Joy? Page by page, day by day: an honest testament of what one loved, of what one unabashedly cherished most, of what one wrestled with and discovered about the living of their unique life. A private record of unfiltered truth, small delights, and deeply personal vignettes, bestowed to the ones who are now walking the next mile of this unfolding human experience.

A Journal of Joy is not a once in a lifetime retrospective tool, but rather a real time offering, a testimony recorded as we lived it: one short day, one small joy at a time. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to recount when and where and how it felt to be completely alive?

Where and when Joy perks up her soft little ears in your own life is worth noticing. Our little barn swallow uses mud as the connecting link, an interchange that supports the weight of home and protects newborn life. Likewise, we can use joy as a hidden infrastructure to support the discovery of who we really are and to protect the newborn possibilities of our precious, irreplaceable gifts. No one else can do this work for us; the journey is ours alone.

There is one final reason I am devoted to my Journal of Joy. My allegiance to optimism does not mean I live in a Pollyianish dream world. I espouse a philosophy of joy precisely because for much of my life, I have wrestled with a sensitive, impatient, and judgmental nature. Once, I actually carried the family nickname of Bad Attitude.

So on the increasingly rare day I can’t quite tap into the cheerful faith and hopeful positivity I admire, I don’t write. Instead, I open my journal and allow myself to flip backwards through the past entries. Let me tell you this. It never, ever fails. Sparks of happiness fly up at me, from every, single page. ~ A

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A Symphony of Collaboration

red poppy photo

A Symphony of Collaboration

Recently I wrote about the sound of swarming bees, which I later described as a phenomenal humming symphony. ‘Bees-on-the-move’ is just one example of the type of obscure live music that can bless a farm. Sometimes, my favorite agrarian concerts require a bit of imagination to hear.

When farm visitors first enter our high tunnel in early spring, a feeling of reverence envelops them. I liken it to walking into a concert hall, an old one-room schoolhouse, or a small chapel. It’s quiet, but it’s not soundless. Stories reverberate off the walls; there is music simply in the architecture of the place.

In one eighty-foot bed, slim bean vines spiral and twirl upward, flanked by lines of slender ballerina-like brilliant red beet stems, all seemingly en-pointe. In another bed, two rows of flat bluish-green kale leaves surround each stalk and arc outward like fireworks popping on-cue while willowy fennel fronds sweep up the middle of the bed—a tender anise-scented lace. Dark red and lime green rosette lettuces create the patchwork quilt of a comfortable lullaby that hugs the ground of a third bed. Above, angular multi-jointed pepper plants dressed in glossy green with purple trimmed nodes, rise rigidly like conductors with their stiff wands. Puffy, lavender colored Phacelia softens the hard corners of this room, a diminuendo edging to this boisterous performance.

It’s an odd juxtaposition: the space has all the energy of a sold-out concert, yet our human ears hear only distant birdsong or maybe a soft breeze. More often than not, my farm visitors sense this dichotomy. Often they stumble as they try to put into words this experience, saying: “It’s thrumming with life,” or “I can almost hear the plants growing.” It’s true. Packed in every particle of soil is life, multi-layered and pouring forth. Being in the presence of these miraculous plants in high states of inaudible growth can make a human feel as if they are outside the glass window, looking in.

I’ve come to believe such “thrumming” is the eloquent music of millions of soil, sky, and plant conversational exchanges. Think of it as an improvisational symphony of collaboration: interchanges of root, insect, leaf, macrobiotic and microbiotic soil life, all connecting for the benefit of Life itself. Each being from eggplant to earthworm, is driven to fulfill a mission by utilizing innate talents. Each being in essence is singing its gifts to the world.

Just think. If we could tune into the right radio frequency, would our ‘quiet’ early morning produce field sound as raucous as a New York city street on Friday night?

Just think. What if all humans could live up to their potential and work toward a mutually beneficial equilibrium as plants do? What would our symphony of collaboration sound like?

Each year, with eyes wide open toward the woeful march of development encroaching ever closer, I choose to settle into the rhythm and magic of many quiet, but not silent, green and lively lives. This is where I find refuge and inspiration. Like the mother swallow, or a swarm of bees, a plant knows itself in ways humans may not grasp. Each being has a mission, purpose, and potential that is not questioned. Each being takes what it needs, yes, but there is a sort of interminable giving. The scales of botany’s reciprocity are balanced. Plants can no doubt be self-serving – a blackberry isn’t sensitive to a fir seedling’s need for light. But even a blackberry does not play favorites. It shares it fruits freely: no living creature is turned away.

Whether in the high tunnel or out in my fields, when I stand in the presence of growing plants, I know I am surrounded by billions of generous beings, all united by their drive to express their unique gifts to the world. One universal melody carries the tune: the exquisite, common refrain we call photosynthesis. More than anything, I wish I could hear the song of photosynthesis. Take a breath. The oxygen you inhale? That’s the gift of plants and sunlight– the quintessential symphony of collaboration.

Photosynthesis can be represented using a chemical equation.

The overall balanced equation is:

6CO2 + 6H2O ——> C6H12O6 + 6O2
Sunlight energy

Where: CO2 = carbon dioxide
H2O = water
Light energy is required
C6H12O6 = glucose
O2 = oxygen

I hosted a group of Culinary Arts Instructors on a farm tour recently, and we stopped near a long bed of tall, purple-green plants. This was last year’s flower sprout crop, now abloom with humble-looking yellow petals. I asked everyone to stand among the waist high plants and fall silent. A previously unnoticed humming became audible. It was only then my guests became aware of the thousands of insects in our field. A thrumming passel of pollinators was actively foraging the ‘unimpressive’ yellow flowers. Suddenly, fascination filled the field too.

I broke the spell and pointed to the newly planted squash 30 feet away and the budding orchard 300 feet away. I explained the need for a healthy population of pollinators to ensure our crops are viable.

We feed the bees so the bees can feed us. In the complexity of our modern lives, the simple truth of how things work is right before our eyes, or rather, sometimes right before our ears. Yet, too often, we disconnect ourselves from the natural places where we can see it, hear it, and understand it directly, without interpretation, for ourselves.

Working farms are places full of such many points of connection to our natural world, and surprisingly also to our most sincere selves.* On a farm, one can watch, smell, taste, and feel working models of Life because they are everywhere, like role models and guides showing us ways we might walk more skillfully in the world. Listening may sometimes be a more difficult avenue for understanding, but stretching one’s auditory imagination can lead to extraordinary insights.

I grew up in a household in which it was understood that those of us living a life of privilege have an unspoken responsibility to work to better the lives and the environment of those around us. Our greatest power to transform untenable situations rests in knowing our gifts and knowing how to leverage them for the greater good. No two of us carry the same “genetic gift makeup.” No two of us can contribute exactly the same thing to the world, and no two of us need try.

Here at my farm, I keep working to reveal the invisible, often inaudible, gifts of life at our feet and fingertips. I keep working to translate these ordinary miracles, which support our very human existence, in the hopes of sparking very discernable human curiosity. Curiosity opens the door to gratitude and to the discovery of our own incomparable gifts. Cultivating a listening spirit is one way forward. ~AJ

*In this context, farmers become ecological system interpreters, stewards of reciprocity, and teachers of agricultural literacy. It is through the farm’s many ‘points of connection’ that I continue to discover the true nature of my work and of my gifts.

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…

Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour 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 labour you are in truth loving life, and to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret…

Work is love made visible.

– Excerpts from “On Work” by Kahlil Gibran 

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