Farm News

Gifts: Part 2

purple iris photo

Gifts: Part 2

It is one thing to see a U-Haul truck parked in front of an empty house, but as most anyone knows, it is quite another thing to be the one unloading it. Staring up at our newly discovered bee swarm marked a similarly daunting challenge, and thanks to our friend Karen, I wasn’t just a passerby. No, I was about to be handed a moving box.

Before I began farming, serendipity didn’t much cross my mind. But there are no two ways about it: farms are magic. My agrarian journey continues to bloom with unexplainable, unbelievable synchronicities. The discovery of a bee swarm in the middle of a farm tour at the exact point in time in which we were talking about bee swarms is pretty notable. But at that very moment there also happened to be a graduate student from WSU working on a Carabidae (ground beetle) research project about twenty feet away in our high tunnel. Did I mention he was an entomologist? I mean, let’s be real. What are the chances of this?

Still chalking it up to luck? Hmm. Maybe. But Karen had brought an empty beehive to the farm just days prior, in hopes that if she heard about a bee swarm, she could relocate it to our farm. Pretty good timing, don’t you think? Apparently, our ordinary Tuesday was not meant for tours and transplanting. No, Tuesday was moving day.


“When a swarm of bees lands, the bees form a cluster around their queen. This is called festooning. The bees hang onto one another’s arms and legs like little acrobats. This cluster of bee bodies is an indescribable state of matter. It can wrap itself around branches, wires, or any other obstructions. If you were to stick your bare hand into it, you would feel hundreds of tiny prickings of bee feet, a surprising amount of heat, and the soft beating of wings. When you try to scoop bees from their swarm cluster, they are reluctant to be parted. Often little chains of bees will stretch from your hand to the cluster. When you attempt to catch a swarm this behavior is advantageous and will make it easier for you to transfer the bees from wherever they are into your swarm catching container of choice.” [1]


Karen and I did not put our bare hands into the festooning bees, partly because they were twelve feet up in the air over the edge of a steep drop-off, and mostly because we aren’t that brave. Instead, we set her empty beehive on the ground next to the swarm. With a bucket duct taped to a long pole, she gently jostled the swarm off the branch and lowered them into the open box, while I did my best to ease the bees off the edges of the box and set the top bars (inch wide strips of wood that make up the inner lid of the box) in place one by one.

While I was excited to help Karen relocate the swarm, I was not fully prepared for the instinctual desire to flee that gripped me when I heard the sound of the swarm being dislodged from the fir bough. Festooning bees are nearly silent. But once on the move, the ‘bee hum’ was instantaneous, full and fevered. This proved to be the most challenging part of the whole experience: overcoming my apprehension.

Many insects are shackled with cultural stigmas; such misguided beliefs stem from fear based ignorance. Believing that buzzing bees are synonymous with getting stung is equivalent to thinking the sound of a car engine means you are positively going to get hit by it. Understanding what motivates a honeybee to sting is one way to dismantle such arthropod illiteracy. Honeybees tend to sting when: they are attacked, (swatted at), trapped (tanged in your clothes or hair), or threatened (their house disturbed/honey stolen). But when bees leave their hive to start a new one, they are at their most docile. They have no honey to defend, their bellies are full of honey, and they are focused entirely on finding a new place to live.

I resolutely decided not to adopt a distrustful attitude. The bees weren’t defensive, so why ought I be? Slowly and carefully, I rooted myself to the ground adjacent to the hive. Goofily dressed in rubber gloves and Brad’s dry suit whitewater jacket, my face was totally exposed to the uprooted bees Karen was pouring into the hive. The bees were lining the inside of the hive and spilling out over the edges on all sides. Karen kept urging me to, “go ahead, start closing it up.” It looked impossible; there were so many bees!

I used to get so discouraged when facing seemingly impossible tasks, or jobs that appeared to be so difficult and that I lacked the skill to overcome. But all the same, I couldn’t very well just walk away or give up. Thankfully, farming has taught me to think incrementally.

When I am supremely frustrated or confused, I get myself out of my quandary by ceasing to try and solve the bigger problem all at once. Instead, I think in small pieces, asking myself, what is the next littlest thing that I must do? Then I go about figuring out how I can accomplish just that one, small step. Once I have a little success, I move onto the next minute goal; I am buoyed by each small achievement. Centimeter by centimeter, this is how I have worked my way through challenges that looked nigh impossible.

So I became determined both to stop hiding behind a baseless fear and to stop focusing on how I was going to carry the entire U-Haul truck stuffed to the gills. I tuned into my immediate experience, not my fearful expectations. I thought in terms of one box at a time. With just two hands, that’s all any of us can carry at once anyway. In the thick of challenging times, when we are consciously working to break down old barriers, when our path is lined with uncertainty, why overburden your mind and heart?

With the lightest touch I could muster, I stopped focusing on the impossibility of moving all those bees, all those bars. Just one bar, one bee at a time, I could do that. I hesitantly touched a bee and she gently crawled down into the hive. Then I touched another bee, with the same result. Suddenly the humming noise wasn’t scary at all; I understood the exuberant energy of the swarm. In fact, I felt incredibly lucky and happy to be at the center of the party! In a flash I went from overwhelmed to overjoyed. I fell in love with bees and with myself. I became awake to the change unfolding both before me and within me.

Bee by bee, I helped my new friends find their way home. Bee by bee, I dismantled my ignorance. Bee by bee, I uncovered yet another farm wellspring of joy.

It’s been two weeks now, and this new beehive is thrumming with activity. The hive is at the center of our farm, sheltered by the Gravenstein apple tree with a big patch of comfrey at its doorstep. Just the sight of it brimming with life brings me so much pleasure.

When a new family moves in, neighbors often bring over a housewarming present or a homemade pie. But bees don’t eat pie, and probably don’t need a set of kitchen towels. What can I do to make their house more like a home? I’ve decided their little place deserves a proper name. Serendipity sounds just right. I’m not sure when I’ll find the time to make the sign. I’m not sure whether to stencil it on a wood shingle or mount an inscribed metal placard on a stake that can blow in the breeze by their front porch. But even though I don’t yet know how I’ll accomplish it, I hold faith that in due time, providence and chance will work their magic.

Actually, there are two signs to be made. Our older beehive rightly merits a name too. That swarm miraculously arrived, totally unexpected on a warm spring day just two years ago. It’s a tiny settlement, a harbinger of mysterious intelligence and abundance, which alighted at my farm full of golden energy and pure power.

This home, I’m christening Joy.

[1] Hilary Kearney http://beekeepinglikeagirl.com/how-to-catch-a-swarm-of-bees/

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Gifts: Part 1

honeybee organic farm

Gifts: Part 1

Brad, a born naturalist, has stitched together the storyline of our barn swallows from observational scraps he has a knack for collecting. It’s not as if he sits out in camouflage among the trees, still for hours at a time. We are both farming steadily day in and day out, absorbed in the parallel work of tending plants and soil. But to my delight, bit by bit, he continues to offer up to me the gifts of his perceptive awareness.

I’ve passed by the same mud puddle a thousand times, but it is Brad that finds the copper breasted, blue winged swallow carrying straw to its wet edges. It’s Brad who is able to follow her quick, perky flight and find her chosen nesting site. It’s Brad who acknowledges the bird and her companion’s chittery morning greetings from the donkey fence. And it is Brad who filled her mud puddle with water when hot weather baked it dry. Ever aware, he knew with all certainty the mud nest construction was not yet finished.

Here on the cusp of summer, I watch my husband offer a helping hand to the wild among us. His actions startle me awake to the immense potential and invisible prosperity hidden in farms and humans.

Recently, The Naturalist really outdid himself. Brad and I were hosting a group of restaurant staff at the farm. We stopped to look out north over the unruly orchard grasses so we could show them our active beehive. I explained why we respect bees and consciously work to ensure an enriched habitat for our pollinating partners. I told the group how our bee colony was very small and had arrived by their own accord two years earlier.

When bees reach the physical capacity of their home, the colony divides itself and one group of bees leave to establish a new hive. This departing group of bees is called a swarm. They protect their queen by clustering tightly around her. To the uneducated eye, swarms may look frightening. In actuality, swarming bees are very docile. These are homeless beings, entirely focused on locating a new, safe place to establish themselves. They have no reason to sting, as they have no honey stash to defend.

We never saw our bees swarm into their new home. One day we simply noticed they had moved in. In fact, it is rare for us to witness a swarm. In all our years at the farm, Brad and I have only ever seen one. That was in 2012 and it was moving so incredibly fast we didn’t recognize what it was until it had disappeared into the woods.

“Bees reproduce new colonies by one of Nature’s most remarkable methods — they swarm. While common sense would imagine the new hive is made up of the newest bees, it’s just the opposite. The old bees leave their established location to the younger bees who inherit and take over the old hive.

A swarm is made up of the old Queen and the mature forager bees, about 2/3 of the colony. The swarming bees fly off together to seek a new home in a distant location where they setup house, thus adding another living community of bees to the area’s hive population. The younger bees are left behind to care for the next generation of bees and the new Queen who will hatch, mate and become the matriarch of the new hive who took over the old colony’s home.”

While I answered bee questions from the tour group, Brad moved quietly away, captivated by an entirely different conversation. Minuscule motions had caught his eye at the canyon edge, fifty feet north, and high up.

In that single moment, I observed two extraordinary things. A surprisingly silent swarm of honeybees, these angels of agriculture were clinging to the branch of a fir tree. All of us were looking, but it was Brad alone who could see. Effortlessly, he read aloud to us that wordless language of untamed creatures. A born naturalist, this fluency of perception is his gift.

With enough seasons under my belt now, I have no residual hesitations. I know my gift. I know my place. I know my work. I claimed my contribution to the world in the same way the bees set out from their cramped home to start again, or our little barn swallow built her nest. I recognize the alacrity in bee, bird and me: an intrepid leap into the unknown followed by many small actions, repeated with concentrated care. This brash undertaking of devalued, often invisible work, simply because it is ours to do. I can’t imagine my insect or avian friends having the doubts I carried for so long. But now, it matters not- that shell has broken. No longer a fledgling, I too, have my own version of wings.

* *

As I’ve written before, I’m daunted and discouraged at the ways Clark County is systematically dismantling the ecological integrity of our land. When I drive to the post office, or return books at the library, I pass by what many keep telling me is progress. The scenes haunt me. The callously scraped earth, each inch of topsoil that has taken up to one thousand years to form, is piled up like trash. The living, breathing, soil and the irreplaceable ecosystem it supported is being discarded in the interest of development. What other one thousand year old treasure would you actually pay someone to rid you of?

Clark County residents benefit from a wealth of natural and community resources most other regions of the country do not have the luxury of. We have rich topsoil, sufficient precipitation, access to excellent markets, even a unique climate exceptionally suited to vegetable seed production, (there are not more than a handful of these regions in the world). Plain and simple, we have an unmatched ability to create a regenerative food system. We could actually produce the food we need to feed our community, and not just for ten or twenty years, but in perpetuity. There are not many counties in the United States that could pursue such food security, even if they wanted to. Yet I look around and see self-inflicted scarcity at the end of every cul-de-sac. If I let my mind race, I envision a bleak future for my farm. It’s no wonder I never rush into town to pick up my mail.

Unlike my doubts as a young agrarian, these days, I don’t question if farming is a viable profession. Now, it is the decimation of all I hold dear that preoccupies me. Ignorance and greed are the obstacles I must work hardest to skillfully traverse. How do I navigate those troublesome thoughts about the rapidly disappearing farmland in Ridgefield, the fear and worry and sadness of such a profound loss? I question my responsibility. How does one make sense of any of this? What is my part of the equation? What can I do?

Sometimes I gently remind myself that I do not have to carry this mental burden. I have a choice. Other times, the farm demands I set it down. I return to the immediate work at hand, simply because there is so much of it. Often, I can’t belabor the broader picture because my trained hands are needed in the trenches. I have personal commitments to families, fields, and even a small forest. I plunge into the realities and necessities right before me. Water troughs need scrubbed clean and refilled. Tomatoes need staked. Grapes need pruned. Cedar trees need planted. Families need food. Bees need homes, safe from pesticides and the starvation that follows asphalt and a monoculture of turf grass.

I have a responsibility to my community to not simply lament, but to act; I pick up my posthole digger, my seedlings, my harvest crates willingly. I traverse my farm with visitors and together, we pollinate ideas one by one. In the face of discouraging scenarios, instinctually, I move to carry the smallest batches of mud and straw, again and again and again. I smooth and shape this small farm nest. I tend to each seed, each head of cabbage, each donkey hoof, each tomato vine with a precise attention born of heartache and hope.

Here is what I know. It is in the submitting to such delicate details that I discover the salve to my sorrow. In the context of the greater tragedy, I become painfully aware of the astonishing complexity and brilliance at my very fingertips. Watching a pig yawn, waking to the melody of a Swainson’s Thrush, bearing witness to harvest after harvest pulled from this good Earth, I wonder at how and how much longer these marvelous things can happen. Each one in turn, becomes equally more precious.

Everyday, I work with partners in the natural world that until dead, do not give up. With these partners as my mentors, I expand to embrace a broader perspective of individual responsibility. Concurrently, I take shelter behind an outcropping of grateful curiosity.

It’s no wonder I find reassurance in grass that keeps growing. Each spring, like old friends, Lambsquarter, Chickweed, Persian Speedwell and Pigweed grace the rows of onions and potatoes. What irony! I weed and I am thankful to see the weeds. For I fear a day when the weeds do not return, when herbicide drift might injure my annual crops, or kill my decade old grape vines.

These things I have learned: I am not a community organizer, an impassioned orator, a leader of people. These things I know: how to collaborate with seeds and soil, how to cultivate joy, how to treasure the splendid observational gems Brad gifts to me, how to give voice to the silent among us.

**

Picking peas, Brad shows me a newly hatched preying mantis. Then, on a farm walk he spots two lemon winged Swallowtails and a brilliant orange Monarch butterfly. These are the moments I think to myself: Of all people, I get to be here, doing this work, right now. The common? It is priceless.

Each small bit of mud and straw, placed where needed most, holds the fragile idea of a healthy, safe home together. Each set of legs, clinging to the partners surrounding it, protect the Queen of Life. Thousands of bees hold themselves together, upside down, on a high bough. A bird, weighing barely half an ounce, constructs her house on a sheer vertical plane with nothing but dried grass and wet soil, teaspoon by teaspoon. How are these things possible?

In the forthright light of the day, through the heaviness of rain, and long into thick, moonless nights, others travel into the constructs of human built worlds, into places of progress and development. But the bee, the swallow, the farmer– we stay here, at the intractable, liminal borderlands called farms. We stay, knowing our job is to safeguard the places where Life begins, steadies herself, then hungrily reaches out both for what she needs, and for what she alone can gift to the world.

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A Decade of Hope

Pak Choi bunch image

It’s quite something for me to be back at my early morning writing station, tapping out this note which kicks off a new decade of April Joy Farm community supported agriculture. In some ways I still feel very much like a beginning farmer, and in other ways, I surely do not. I continue to be delightfully fascinated by the everyday miracles of seeds and soil. But just as certain, my legs, shoulders, and mind are strong from climbing the uneven terrain of each and every past season. Thankfully, both my methods and mindset have been weathered and shaped in very profound ways which no doubt prepare me for the journey ahead.

Paralleling my farming journey is a national conversation around farmland, the ethics of seed production, how we as a country intend to feed future generations of Americans and who we trust to do so.

Across the states, new agricultural organizations such as the National Young Farmers Coalition and the Rogue Farm Corps are cropping up to support eager beginning farmers. Likewise, there are now farm incubator programs for college students, inmates, inner city youth, and veterans. One can even find undergraduate and graduate level degrees in the field of Organic Agriculture. These changes are good and necessary and as far as I’m concerned, can’t come too quickly. It sure felt lonelier when I was getting started.

In my own small way, I too have been mulling over what the NGF (Next Generation Farmer) will need in his/her toolbox to overcome the mounting challenges of growing food in resource depleted times. This year, woven in among a passel of musings I’ve planned, I’ll be sharing my thoughts about the kinds of bright, determined individuals we desperately need to undertake farming as a career. It’s good to hear Barbara Kingsolver highlight in Letters to a Young Farmer, the exact conviction I’ve carried in my heart from the beginning.

“However calloused your hands, however grimy the uniform, however your back may sometimes ache, you are a professional. Your vocation is creative, necessary, and intellectually demanding.”
—Barbara Kingsolver

I’ve always put it more bluntly: dirty hands are not indicative of a dumb mind. By sharing my experiences and exposing the biases I have personally faced, I hope to encourage others to reconsider the profession of farming and other ’blue-collar’ careers in the context of our modern times.

Meanwhile, what’s new at April Joy Farm? On the homefront Brad and I have undertaken a significant planning effort to develop a long-range vision for our farm. Why? The incredibly shortsighted and seemingly en masse development of Ridgefield’s agricultural lands is nothing short of tragic. A deep-seated ethic of community stewardship is driving us to search out potential partners who are willing to help preserve what we can.

Our elected officials have carelessly disregarded many of the pieces to the puzzle that would secure a viable long-range future for Clark County farmland. The acute lack of agricultural literacy in our general population is exacerbating the situation. It’s hard to fight for something you don’t understand. It’s hard to protect something when you can’t comprehend its value. The phrase “dirt-cheap” is a painful reminder of what we’ve already lost.

But we’re forging ahead—learning and changing to meet the needs of the times. Your farmers are recent graduates of Cornell University’s inaugural Climate Smart Farming Class. We now have in place an April Joy Farm Climate Change Adaptation & Mitigation Plan that identifies protecting and improving soil health as our most critical task. Thanks to Clark Conservation District, we are also en route to achieving Salmon Safe Certification and building a state of the art composting facility to produce the highest quality fertility right here at home, no off-farm inputs required.

We continue to look for ways to improve the stability and resiliency of our home and farming as a livelihood, not just for one decade, but for hundreds of decades.

To this end, we’re transitioning our farm system to a model of regenerative agriculture, a philosophy of farming in which we work to not simply maintain but actively improve the ecological integrity of our land and its ability to produce food. Regenerative agriculture places our work as farmers in a context much greater than just food production. The farm is viewed as a leverage point to restore ecological health to the larger world system. While this has always been our mindset, now we have a strategic plan to move forward. This commitment has required us to make hard choices, including the difficult decision to suspend our flourishing heritage pork program. On the bright side, we’ve doubled the size of our fruit orchards. Over time, we intend to incorporate many perennial food crops (including hazelnuts and kiwis), and skillfully integrate livestock back into our farm system.

So, life remains an irony. We keep taking significant steps to protect the soil at our feet, while mere miles away from us, this non-renewable resource far more precious than oil is being scraped away and dumped to make way for ‘progress’. That hurts. A lot. Regardless of the long term forecast, we intend to keep doing everything we can to care for our corner of the world, and we trust you are doing the same. I once read that wise people never undertake daunting work because they expect the results to be favorable, but simply because they know with all certainty a thing is worth doing.

“Every purchase you make constitutes an agricultural, social and political act that directly affects people, ecosystems and economies around the world.” —Regeneration International

Which is exactly why we deeply appreciate your conscientious food dollar vote. Rest assured your farmers are devoted to resiliency. As we trek forward, know without a doubt that I’m packing plenty of Joy along for the trip! If you want to watch inspiring, (not depressing, I promise) real life stories from the food movement, check out Sustainable and Unbroken Ground. Both short films are a testimony to the fact that Soil is Life and good people are everywhere.

Speaking of everywhere, that’s where our produce is! Yesterday Brad and I walked the fields to identify the choices for this inaugural week of the 2017 CSA season. I can hardly believe the beautiful, long list. I well up with gratitude each time I think of all the diversity ripe for the picking. Soil, how good you are to us. Photosynthesis, how I love thee. From radishes to rhubarb, snap peas to salad turnips, it is astounding. This generous bounty is especially meaningful considering a mere five weeks ago we were still in the dreary midst of one of the coldest, wettest spring weather patterns on record. Which brings me full circle. As we embark on the next decade of April Joy Farm, no doubt, we’ve many challenges to come. But our backs are strong and are minds are clear and our hearts still make room for hope. Ah hope. That must be what makes farmers, farmers. ~AJ

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This is Not Hard

Last Saturday morning I did something I’ve never done in 10 years of farming. I got caught transplanting in a downpour and had to stop. The whole time, I kept trying to remember when this had happened before, but the truth is, it really hadn’t! I looked at my soil soaked gloves and knees and boots. I looked at the five remaining flats of tightly packed lettuce leaves reaching hungrily for more space and light. I looked west at the darkening sky. I looked down at the soft, vulnerable earth.  I picked myself up out of the aisle and retreated from the field.

Our water year average precipitation thru April is 30.6 inches of rain. Thru the end of March, this year, we’ve received 44.6 inches of rain. So you might think that as I packed it in and set those lettuces flats back in the greenhouse to wait out the weather, I was grumbling and discouraged.

But you’d be wrong.

 

 

This is the year that has taught me that when it rains, I need be grateful it is not raining hard. And when it rains hard, I’m to be grateful it’s not windy too. When it is windy, I’m grateful it’s not gusting. When it is gusting, I’m grateful it doesn’t last long.

The day the windstorm picked up one of our little field poly houses and wracked it crooked, I saw pictures of a friend’s greenhouse in Montana that’d been leveled by — of all things– a heavy silage tarp that slammed into it compliments of a capital G gust of wind. That made me grateful my field house could be repaired.

This is the Spring I’ll remember with thanks giving. For all the rain, for all the erratic storms, for all the ways I’ve had to adjust or patiently regroup, I’m not perennially discouraged because you know what? This is not hard. None of “this” is hard. Challenging? Yes. Stressful? Yes. Unsettling? Yes. But not hard.

I’m safe, I’m loved, I’m well fed. My house is intact and I’ve a soft bed. Through each passing storm, power outage, and rain delay, I take account of my blessings. I walk the field, the barn, the seeding house, the high tunnel. Life is streaming forth everywhere I turn. Barns and greenhouses are intact, and the animals and plants relying on them are safe and dry. Robert Frost’s “A Prayer In Spring” starts, “Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today;/And give us not to think so far away/As the uncertain harvest; keep us here/All simply in the springing of the year.” 

The more I take less and less for granted, the more I’m reminded of my good fortune.

**

Thru one big storm in March, I nervously kept planting peppers in the seeding house. The rain and wind gusts were so loud I had a hard time concentrating. In a moment of anxiety, I unwisely began fixating about the poly “roof” above me. Two layers of 6 millimeter plastic is all that thinly separated this crashing, blowing, pelting rainstorm from me, the thousands of small, irreplaceable plants representing three months of work and thus my ability to fulfill my commitment to each of you.

I paced. I went to the door and peered out. I closed the door again and tried to reassure myself that every storm sounds louder under barn and greenhouse roofs.

Then, my saving grace came. I looked down at my hands. In a new light, I saw the power of a few small seeds I was holding. My heart steeled and softened at the same time. I remembered.

I remembered my purpose. I remembered I had no control over the storm or the durability of the plastic roof at this point. I was compelled to go straight back to my work. In that moment, my job was to keep on seeding new life, and in the process, rekindle the kind of never-say-die gutsy hope I most admire in other farmers.

Time and again, when I toe the edge of what seems an unsteady cliff, I look to Nature and suddenly find beneath myself a scrap of solid footing. Bridges I did not know could exist span out before me. Motivations, ideas, small acts of perseverance galvanize within me. In some unexplainable way, my work keeps me in conversation with teachers who do not speak Human and a powerful tenacity that does not need translation. I guess that’s one more layer of gratitude to add to my list.

Oh, and did I mention I have clean, hot, running water?

This is the Spring which is pushing my boundaries and testing my creative capacity for adaptation. This is the Spring which has stripped away the superfluous and forced me to question what and why and how and ask, what if?

This is the Spring that isn’t allowing me to settle for complacency.  Out of sheer necessity, I’m learning to dig deeper, think more powerfully, and experiment more courageously.  2017 is teaching me how to be a more patience, resilient land steward. The petty frivolousness has been washed away.  I’m less focused on the ancillary, ragged edges and more focused on the heart of my work.

This year, I will not be burdened with expectations of big successes.  I am determined to just keeping work toward little wins.

This is not hard.

It’s the mantra that keeps me centered, open and working every day to bring good food, grown with love out of our fields and into your kitchens. ~AJ

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Restorative Work

seeds sprouting in fall

I have a winter confession – a really unpopular one. I love the rain. I love the grey skies, I love the dim and quiet dampness of our Pacific Northwest climate. I love the intensity of an afternoon squall, the indescribable music of wet energy on the metal farmhouse roof. Furthermore, I love the sincerity of the landscape. In winter the trees and shrubs, hillsides and meadows all reveal their distinctive character. The past summer’s raucous vibrancy has been quieted. One falling leaf at a time, the opportunity for over-stimulation is quelled. All things are stripped of glamour; basic truths endure. Yes, it easy to thrive with sunshine, bright colors and constantly flourishing fields which propel me forward. But winter farm life, it turns out, has a way of fueling my life too.

In ‘dreary’ late November, I am buoyed forward by the happiness of a successful year. I have around me the riches of the season — sacks of onions, brightly hued winter squash, cans and cans of tomatoes, and moreover, the gratitude of all the families my work has touched. I am filled to the brim with thoughts of your kitchens, your dinner tables, and your meals that have been blessed by Good food, grown with love. These delightful remembrances and a secure winter storehouse intermingle with the physical tiredness of my body. I always feel as if I’ve reached the end of a nine month long wilderness hike. I’m healthy, I’m happy, and I’m also ready to sit down for a while and revel in success!

But it is not because my work ends that I look forward to the cold, dark days. It is because the nature of my work changes. This shift teaches me new skills, challenges me to pace myself, and offers me the chance to shed that often abused multi-tasking mentality.

After planning such intricate schedules and tending to the constantly changing needs of so many crops, I am thankful to switch gears. I am eager to undertake slow, simple, immediately gratifying tasks. Summer is a season of fully committed days, so it is a pleasure to have small, discrete rainy-day projects I can start and stop on my own schedule.

Flushing of water lines, organizing and storing supplies and sharpening and repairing tools gives me space to unwind, stretch out, and relax. I may be the only person in the world who looks forward to cleaning out an old barn. However, each tool I unearth, each rusty hinge I recycle, each corner of my farm where I get to spend a winter day adds to my delight. Slow, easy work is healing, helpful, cleansing. To notice, tend, and love in such small ways is an often overlooked, yet immensely meaningful contribution to the greater good. I know how these little tasks all set the stage for next year’s success. Restorative work is a luxury I most often enjoy in winter.

When the days grow short and dreary, we think that life outside our homes is dull. But life is still alive! Ecological mystery surrounds us—we only need shift our mindset. Austere can be fascinating. Stark can be beautiful. Winter does not need define us—we can define winter. A good raincoat, warm socks and the right attitude is the place to start.

The more I get outside, the more restorative work I take on with a measured, easy pace, the more I come to love the rain, the dampness, the uninhibited restful nature of winter. Simple, meaningful work, great food, time for contemplation and time for rest – these are the hallmarks of my winter days.

As Thanksgiving draws near, I give thanks for the recuperative power winter offers me. I remember that no matter the weather, there is always a lovely world outside. Just because it does not look as inviting as summer, does not mean it is not beautiful. The door is always open. I need only release my expectations, drop unhelpful comparisons and be willing to truly value the everyday miracles surrounding me.

Inevitably, at least once each winter, I’ll find myself caught in a prolonged deluge of rain. That’s when I give into the best of the season. I decide right then and there to fully celebrate the accomplishments, connections and joys of the passing year.  I close my eyes. I turn my face skyward. With a smile, I just let go. ~AJ

A lot of people are waiting for Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi to come back – but they are gone. We are it. It is up to us. It is up to you. ~ Marian Wright Edelman

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In Search of a Newt

autumn leaf on the ground

 

On Sunday I caught myself folding laundry just a little less hastily than normal. It was surprising to discover in my hands a new sort of patience for the task. With so many months of relentless farm work nearly behind me, this menial job suddenly had become a moment of pleasure. It may seem silly, but the simplicity of the situation made me downright giddy.

For some reason, I then remembered Eisenhower’s Matrix —the classic time management tool that prioritizes tasks based on their importance and urgency. With respect to laundry, I mused, Eisenhower’s Matrix only works so far. Depending on your philosophy, laundry starts in the delegate or decide category. Unfortunately, this isn’t the White House. So the number of assistants I can simply delegate such a task to is a sum total of zero. In the decide category (in which you schedule time to do the task yourself), my classic approach was to mentally throw the laundry in the “Take a number, the line starts way over there” bucket. Neglected, it often languishes until a critical point is reached. Usually that critical point is NCU (no clean underwear). Per Eisenhower, at NCU, the task moves instantaneously to the most critical category: important and urgent.

I’m on a roll, so I might as well air all my dirty laundry. I have never been the one who folds clothes with military precision. My shirts do not hang all in one direction and my socks often co-mingle un-attached in the drawer. None of my towels align precisely at the corners, and my sweaters are rarely stacked evenly on the shelf. At some times of the year laundry that is clean is the only attainable victory. In the peak of the summer season, folding is bypassed; the clothesline acts as my dresser.

Clearly laundry, it turns out, is at the bottom of my “priority” hamper. So last Sunday, when I experienced a moment of enjoyment from the task, and subsequently was mulling over Eisenhower’s techniques, I though more about time and priorities. As I reached for a few more clothes hangers, I began to think how I habitually determine certain tasks to be wasted time. The implication of this value judgment? If I don’t like it, or I consider it a frivolous but necessary inconvenience, I callously rush through it. The rushing is fueled by the belief that I need to be doing more important things, and when I am doing important things, I won’t rush.

buddy system comic socks in dryer

I began to take notice of the possibility and power contained in all these little moments of ‘wasted time.’ I saw how often I rushed thru the household tasks because I deemed them less valuable than the big important works of managing a farm. This value judgment seems correct – pigs need fed, thirsty plants need water: both are more important and more urgent than matching up socks, and yet in a flash I recognized the fallacy.

By rushing thru the unimportant tasks, I set a dangerous precedence. I energize a hurried mentality that without consciousness can permeate everything I do. Haste spins up this cycle. Oblivious, I begin rushing through the important tasks too. Totally unaware, I find I am constantly racing headlong toward a future that I perennially deem greater than my immediate experience.

Then, quickly came the realization that I had this choice regardless of the time of year; being present has nothing to do with the pressing nature of the workload. I thought to myself, “You know, even in July, I have to clean my clothes. Spending an extra five minutes on laundry is not going throw a big wrench in any schedule.” In fact, quite the contrary occurs. Taking a mere ten seconds longer to turn a long-sleeved shirt right side out? In a tiny but powerful way, that makes me feel right inside and out.

This mindset goes part and parcel with accepting that the farm (and my life) is a work in progress. It’s utterly defeating to think as I fold clothes, “How many more times will I have to fold these clothes?” By contrast, when I plant tomatoes each year, I never, ever, think to myself, “How many more years will I have to grow tomatoes?” Yet watering, transplanting, weeding, pruning, training, and harvesting tomatoes is infinitely more work than any minuscule time I spend hanging sheets on a line to dry!

If I prioritize little chores as less important and proceed to rush thru them, it sets the pace for everything that follows. For each task, in turns feels less important than the “bigger” things I’d rather be doing. It’s like a habit, which unattended sets me on autopilot. Now, I don’t expect I’ll ever fall in love with folding fitted sheets or matching up pairs of socks. But I think it wise to give each task its due time. If I haven’t practiced some small measure of steadiness with a mundane task, how will I have the competency to stride with a measured pace into the bigger endeavors of life?

**

On Sunday evening, my young nieces and I went walking in the canyon behind the farm. Patches of the forest path were covered with the classic sign of fall: one section of the trail was hidden by the mossy bright green of alder leaves, another by maple leaves in an impressive rainbow of orange shades. We spotted a little newt and squatted to inspect the vivid colors of its skin – the reddish brown back and carroty colored belly. I broke the spell first, and stood up, then immediately wished I’d let the girls, who were still fascinated by the little creature, continue watching him for as long as they were enthralled. Once again, my rushing habit had programmatically overridden the gift of the immediate experience. But this time, I’d noticed it.

Fortunately, Nature gave me another chance. A little gust of wind blew more maple leaves from the treetops so they came careening down around us. We looked skyward, giggling. It started raining. I laughingly said, “It is a beautiful day for a walk!” Nearly three-year-old Mae chimed in, “It IS a beautiful day for a walk!” Julia, at 5 years old, agreed. She paused, adding thoughtfully, “I hope the leaves do this next year.”

What a powerful, openhearted statement. She was full of gratitude and appreciation for the richness of this one common moment. Yet in her innocence, she was not racing forward to take any of tomorrow’s gifts for granted. I felt determined then, to find a way to live each day without the waste of haste.

From here on out, the leaves of fall will serve as a reminder that each and every day is a beautiful day for laundry. Each and every day is a beautiful day for a walk. Clean clothes to fold, Ike’s power of priorities, and the three of us, there on the forest floor, with the help of a woodland creature: this is the unlikely tribe that taught me about tiny, measured intentions, that taught me how to give up rushing. Surrounding me, I see now a multitude of diminutive minutes that indeed, are one big rehearsal lesson. The pace at which I walk through the little moments informs how gracefully I navigate the big ones.

You know what? I want such grace. So I’ll practice in petite ways. For starters, I’m planning to ask two little girls to go again with me, in search of a newt. ~AJ

“Life is determined by a lack of attention, whether it be to cleaning windows or trying to write a masterpiece. ~ Nadia Boulanger

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A Beginner’s Bounty

garlic growing under hay

For eight years now, I have planted my garlic in a very specific way. I climb on the tractor and till up one full length of our field. Then it’s a race to break apart, sort and sow thousands of garlic cloves. Before dusk comes, leaf or straw mulch must be spread over the entire area to protect the exposed and fragile soil. As one might imagine, such a project makes for a long workday. This year however, the deluge of October rains washed away my method. The soil has been simply too wet to till.

Farming is never, ever the same! I cycle between the confidence of my experiences and the humility of facing many unknowns. So many of the variables we farmers must navigate are imbued with a headstrong sort of energy that frequently defies the easy repeatability found on a manufacturing floor. Soil, seed, weather, water and our environs all collaborate but not always consistently. Really the only stagnant thing about farming is the human’s mindset—it’s never the work itself.

Which is why I’ve learned when such uncontrollable variables thwart my plans, it is best to humbly re-evaluate my purpose. When I have to start over, I like to go back to the basics. I try to tap into the bounty of a beginner’s mind, where anything is possible because nothing is mired in assumptions.

With respect to the fall rains, on one level, our goal was to overcome a soggy seeding challenge. But on another, our ultimate aim is one of land and community stewardship. As farmers we are tasked with sustaining a very important public service. If I get soil care right, we all have a chance at eating. If I get it wrong, garlic will be the least of our worries.

 

So, it is pure delight (read: on my List of Top 5 Joys of Farming) when a beginner’s method successfully overcomes a challenge in a way that is far superior to a previous ‘learned’ approach. When this sort of thing transpires, i.e. I not only recognize the invalidity of my approach, but I actually find a way to cease doing it? This sends me giddily OVER THE MOON.

In this fashion, we solve our garlic dilemma. Two shifts made the difference. First, we realized the tractor was entirely unnecessary. Second, we worked small. One after another, we did the next little, right thing.

Blessedly, early last week it stopped raining. On an afternoon walk through our field Brad and I pulled back one corner of the black plastic that had covered our summer cucumber bed. I plunged my hands in, squeezed a palm-full of soil and dropped it from a foot high back onto the ground. The soil crumbled apart nicely instead of sticking together in a big heavy clod. This was promising! Brad removed a fifteen foot section of the plastic mulch and hand raked the soil with our old, simple four-tine cultivating hoe. I gathered up only two of our six garlic varieties and a cart full of wheat straw shocks. I began breaking apart bulbs of the hardneck garlic named Music, while Brad removed the occasional aisle weeds and loosened the soil. Worm after earthworm appeared from under the old mulch. We rejoiced – knowing then how completely damaging and unnecessary tractor tilling would have been.
In two hours, we’d planted fifty feet of garlic. Over the next five days, in between rain showers, it would take only two more afternoons to complete our work. There was no rush. We could start and stop easily. At each juncture of this journey, I remained a beginner. Each next, little, right thing I experienced through fresh eyes. Bit by bit, we gave ourselves to the task, savoring the time it took, not belaboring the fact that it took time. This garlic planting was not grand, not overwhelming, not dominating. It was not tractor engine loud, fast paced or exhausting. Forced by the weather, I gave up the ways in which I had been told it should be done. I let go of so-called expert opinion and efficiency-at-all-cost. I started over. An intrigued novice, I had the luxury of awareness.

In the quiet of those few autumn days, I broke open each bulb while watching Brad carefully preparing the brunette-colored soil. I witnessed this beautiful work unfolding. Earthworms, soil structure, farmer health, community stewardship, all remained intact. A golden light reverberated off the glowing maple leaves and filled the sky with a richness that summer often lacks. I spent a few hours in an October farm field with the Loves of my Life.

autumn leaves

Lesson after lesson, my profession keeps on handing out learning assignments. The 2016 garlic was a reminder in the value of beginning again, of starting small, of doing the next right thing with full awareness. Good Food. Grown with Love.

Susanville, Polish White, Red Toch, Music. As I inked the garlic names onto wooden stakes, I marked the moment as one that rekindled for me the pleasures, power and purpose of my journey. ~AJ

“If your mind is empty, it is ready for anything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” ~Shunryu Suzuki

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Garlicky Fingertips

garlic plants growing

This is the week for garlic planting. At least that is what the calendar states. The saturated soil and pouring skies are singing a different song. So we farmers will acquiesce; it’s one more chance to practice something I call ‘the patient pause.’

The patient pause isn’t a stall out. It’s not a giving up or admission of defeat. Rather, the patient pause is a moment of reassessment. It’s a reminder that when I feel stuck, the stickiness is only a feeling. In actuality, I have a choice. Re-evaluating one’s situation represents a choice with substantial consequences.

The patience part of the pause is critical. Anytime one starts mucking around in self-inquiry, our stuck-in-a-rut ways of doing things can come irascibly roaring to the forefront. With respect to the garlic, it seems stupid to ask, “Why do we bother planting garlic?” But as I patiently wait out the rain, I pause to consider this very question. The patient pause is a chance for me to re-commit myself to the valuable effort, time and investment I am about to make. Is my standard operating procedure still worth it?

dried garlic ready for planting

To plant garlic, one must break apart the bulbs, select the largest cloves, and tuck each individual, correctly oriented, into the cold soil. As we grade for size, our hands probably touch 3,500 cloves of garlic in order to select the 1,600 most valuable for planting. Depending on the variety, the breaking apart of cloves is sometimes easy and sometimes hard. No matter what, it is our hands that carry the heaviest load. Gloves or no gloves, days after garlic planting, my garlicky fingertips will remind me of their industriousness.

How incredible, I think to myself, to have two gracious and strong hands. Year after year, my palms and fingers labor in concert to make new life possible. It is only hands that possess the miraculous, agile strength it takes to separate bulb after bulb, yet be so gentle as to not to bruise or break the tender life inside.

The patient pause re-affirms for me that I am making the right choices with my time and skills. But more often than not, it also drops me down square in the lap of gratitude.

To many outsiders, my profession—in fact my whole ‘simple’ life—seems unduly mundane and restrictive. But the world I choose to inhabit is ultimately a liberating one. I have the responsibility and the pleasure to shape each of my days. I am not cornered into maintaining systems that no longer suit me. I am not saddled with preserving a status quo.

I love my farm. Even when my work is hard to love, I love my work. Despite every rigid requirement weather and soil ask of me, I still carry the gift of choice. In fact, it is the precious why and the gritty how which create the structure of my life. Amidst all the touted busyness of business, I hold most assuredly to the formidable beauty of the patient pause. ~AJ

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Weather Talk

autumn leaves in the fields

Few things seem to be more inextricably linked than farmers and the weather — or more accurately, farmers talking about the weather. So it might surprise you to know that between these two farmers, weather talk takes up a very minuscule amount of time. We of course, use forecasts to tentatively plan our workweek, as some tasks can’t be done in wet, muddy or overly hot conditions. But I say tentative because most forecasts can be trusted as far as you can throw the forecasters themselves.

Why we discuss the forecast changes, just as the weather does. In the summer, we are mainly focused on upcoming bouts of high heat. Knowing ahead of time gives us an opportunity to deeply water sensitive crops, set up shade cloth, move potted plants out of the baking sun, and fill wallows and water troughs for animals. In the spring and fall, the weather changes with great frequency, sometimes flip flopping all day long, and often on a dime. But nonetheless, we keep an eye on the forecast attempting to pick the best string of days for transplanting or working the soil. In the winter months, frankly, we just don’t care to waste our time reading forecasts. After ten years, I can usually tell by the clean, hard skies when we’re headed into a significant cold snap. It is then we gather the buckets and supplies to break ice and carry warm water to livestock, and we cover the storage crops resting in our un-insulated shed. Here’s the funny truth. The only time I’ve ever seen Brad read the weather report every single day is when we are on a fishing trip, because fishing is serious business!

Yes, at the risk of shattering this long held farmer stereotype, I submit this fact: we often go days, sometimes weeks, without reading or discussing the weather. Why? Because our commitments are, well, commitments. We promise to deliver vegetables every Saturday, which means we need to harvest every Friday. Rain or shine. Cold or hot. Muggy or windy or soggy or dry. The weather affects the pace, tactics and even the order of harvest, but it doesn’t change the harvest itself. So why spend any time crying over spilt milk? Why spend any time wishing for something different? If it’s hot, I think about how good it will feel to sit down to a glass of ice water on the porch, followed by a nap. (Farming has taught me that catnaps on hot summer days are the most wonderful naps of the whole year. It is so restorative to rest quietly after a satisfying morning’s work.) If it’s a deluge I’m facing, I treat myself to multiple cups of hot tea to warm up my fingertips. (In the interest of full disclosure, there is also sometimes a lot of dark chocolate involved.) In short, we dress appropriately, we prepare properly and we get on with it. The farm? It’s a “no weather whining” zone.

I learned a long time ago not to make the weather my adversary. It is amazing how much energy fighting something you truly cannot change can sap out of a person.

Truth be told, the most frequent time we find ourselves caught in weather lamentations is when we are talking with community members. Especially as summer shifts into autumn, we hear sighs, groans, and a fair number of ughs. A wise friend once told me about confronting situations we don’t like. We all have two choices she said. You can change the stimulus or you can change your response to a stimulus. In the case of weather this means creatively changing your environment, or deciding not to whine about the weather (and just eat more chocolate instead). But what you can’t do is change the weather itself.

Now, all the disparaging weather talk is a little bothersome to me, but that doesn’t mean sometimes the weather doesn’t actually bother me. Of course I cringe at the sound of high gusty winds, wondering if our lightweight poly hoop houses have sailed across the field and left a mangled mess to clean up. Temperatures of 100F have put me on edge with worry about keeping precious plants and animals alive. But these are fleeting feelings with specificity, not a perpetual generalized grousing. Growing so many crops and caring for livestock has opened my eyes to the diversity of climactic needs. What is ideal weather for cabbages would make any tomato droop its sorry leaves and commence to rot. What feels balmy to a pig has me pulling on extra layers. So, (except for extreme weather events), regardless of what the weather is doing, I take comfort in the fact that some of the plants or creatures under my care are thriving under the current conditions. For that, I give thanks.

Oh, and there’s one more hidden reason I don’t complain about fall rains, even though it slows our harvests and makes my fingertips ache. Fall rains are a harbinger for me of the restful, quiet days to come. Rain means my summer vacation is just around the corner. On wet, cold, harvest days, I’ll gladly put on a thicker pair of socks, don the heavy muck boots and head out into the elements. I know, just like the weather, this time will all too soon be a memory — one I’d like to remember fondly. It’s like the joke my South Dakotan grandmother taught me.

A traveling salesman commented to a Dakotan, “My, it is so windy here all the time!” The Dakotan replied, “Wind? No, we don’t have that here. But a lot of it blows through.”

~AJ

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The Wealth Beneath Us

digging holes for planting

Fall is settling in and around the farm now. Brad has built our first fire. I’ve had the pleasure of working in the fields on several autumnal afternoons and hearing the ‘trilling – honks’ of the first Sandhill Cranes passing overhead. It’s become a tradition – every year now I look skyward and call out, “Have a safe trip!”

Yes, the days are slowing and the nights are seeping further into the mornings and evenings. The chickens are discarding their summer outfits and channeling their energy into growing a winter coat of down and thick fresh feathers. Even my beloved weeds are in decline now.

October is a transition time, a time of preparation and of decisions. We drain water lines and clean out barn gutters. We make the hard choice to end the life of the plants that have fed us so unfailingly all summer, through heat and insects and even browsing deer. We take down and put away trellis supports and tools. We seed cover crops, wait expectantly for the right weather and hope for ‘not-too-much’ soil moisture to put out our garlic.

The rhythms of a decade of farm life have become familiar to me, while the anxiety of an entrepreneur’s start-up phase—of ‘so many business unknowns’—has receded. My shift in attitude is not to be mistaken for complacency. Already, Brad and I are discussing varieties, crop sequences and other improvements for the coming year. For me, the joy is truly one of refinement and innovation.

The joy is in the discovery, in the trial beds, in new crop rotations, in the first ripening of our young fruit trees. The joy is envisioning and then literally putting my hands to work. Every shift, in some way, moves our farm toward better, more thoughtful systems that support the health of farmer, plants, livestock and land.

This ‘tinkering’ restorer’s spirit of mine? It is most definitely genetic. Oct 1st marked my grandfather’s 94th birthday. W. O. Jones celebrated with his annual tractor drive. An antique tractor restorer held in the highest regard, Grandpa Jones, along with family members and his tractor club cronies, drive a procession of two cylinder tractors for several miles in a loop that starts and ends at his home. This year there were 25 tractors. It’s quite an event for the little Indiana town he’s lived in for just about seven decades.

As I travel around Ridgefield I think of the changes I’ve seen in our “little town” just over the last three decades. I think about both the blessings and challenges of living in a community which is experiencing substantial growth. Our little town is now a growing city and the rolling fields surrounding it are increasingly valued for housing. In one Farmer’s humble opinion, this is a shortsighted waste of our most precious natural resource: irreplaceably rich soil.

I read and hear of many farmers across our country who struggle to grow food in harsh climates that contain scare resources- places with poor to no topsoil, places with not enough water, places with contaminated land that cannot grow healthy food. Ridgefield is incredibly fortunate. In fact, I would argue that Ridgefield has some of the finest soils and climate for producing food in our entire nation.

The native abundance of our locale has endowed us with the irreplaceable building blocks to support a robust, stable food system. Astoundingly, we have a true economical asset that happens also to be of great beauty; it troubles me deeply to watch such wealth scraped up by bulldozer and hauled off like trash from more and more parcels.

We as a community are foolish to waste this gift. We are shortsighted not to value and protect the asset at our feet in a way that, no different than compounding interest, will support our health and wealth year after year. Unlike thousands of other communities, Ridgefield actually has the resources (soil, water and climate wealth) to sustain the necessary food infrastructure for our residents.

Just as we set aside lands for roads, water treatment facilities, power generation and distribution, schools, parks and community facilities, we need to allocate space and soil to produce food for our citizens.

Not all of us need become farmers to learn to value the riches at our feet. But we all need to learn to see food production as a basic right, a right that any forward-thinking community protects and ensures for its residents.

As the rain soaks our fields this October, Brad and I are thinking deeply about our place in the community. While we select seeds for spring planting, while we cut firewood and mull over machinery improvements, while we store away onions and pick apples, we continue to imagine the wonderful possibilities. In my tinkering, restorer’s way, I am holding out hope. For in my heart, I can envision a Ridgefield that has revitalized its proud food and farming culture, one that treats our incredibly priceless soil with reverence. Maybe then I too, at age 94, could have the pleasure of a birthday tractor drive. ~AJ


“What is soil? Soil is basic to life. It is made up of rocks, minerals, roots, insects, small animals, bacteria and other living and dead materials. It is an association or community of all these parts. Man’s primary needs of food, shelter and clothing come from the soil.” — 1969 Clark County, Washington Soil Conservation Service Brochure

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