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

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Cilantro Carrot Slaw

bin of red carrots
Cilantro Carrot Slaw
“This quick and easy slaw is an excellent way to showcase multi-colored carrots. Our testers loved it on fish tacos; its also great with grilled chicken and fish. You can also make this slaw recipe with beets, kohlrabi, or radishes instead of carrots. It’s also delicious with mint or parsley in addition to, or in place of cilantro.”
Recipe by:

  • 5 carrots
  • 2 stalks celery
  • ½ cup diced yellow onion
  • ½ cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1½ tablespoons olive oil
  • 1½ tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

  1. Shred the carrots and celery with a food processor or box grater. Toss with the remaining ingredients. Taste and adjust seasonings as desired.

~ Recipe by Dax Phillips


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Agricultural Literacy Matters

I have come to understand that like it or not, part of my job description reads ambassador.  Only 1.9% of Americans currently list agriculture as their occupation, which means most visitors to my farm have no personal connection to farming or farmers.  Many have formed their perceptions of agriculture from behind rolled up car windows, thru glossy magazine photographs, or increasingly rarely, from the distance of childhood memories spent “at Grandma and Grandpa’s farm.”

Today, Americans collectively know little of the life cycle of any one plant, yet alone the distinct differences and characteristics of many of our basic crops.  In the news, the few articles about farming are decidedly one-sidedly, written by reporters without any agricultural background.  With respect to growing food, public discussions are reductionistic.  Impatiently we ask, is something “good” or “bad”?  In the case of agriculture, what we don’t understand, we overly simplify.

My primary goal as ambassador is to help restore a basic level of agricultural literacy in our community.  Because so many do not have a personal connection to any aspect of the farming cycle, everything from seed to table is foreign.  The fundamental tenants, the crucial processes, even the language of growing food is a complete mystery to most.

It use to baffle me, given this foreignness of agriculture to so many, given a societal reluctance to get ‘dirty’ and to think about the cycles of life and death, why year after year, so many people want to spend time at farms.  But then I came to witness first hand how visitor after visitor is captivated by the experience.

At the beginning of each farm tour, I use to work very hard to explain with great seriousness the entire system and structure of my farm.  But this approach was entirely unnecessary.  For how can you listen to the encyclopedia being read aloud when there is a pack of grunting, rooting pigs at your feet?  How can you pay attention to statistics and crop rotation maps when the air is perfumed with tomato leaves and you are bursting to ask the name of the most delicately beautiful flower you’ve ever laid eyes on?

No matter what the purpose of the tour, I notice that a comprehensive overview of what the farm is and how it “works” is less important than allowing tiny connections to spontaneously happen.  Any more, I don’t try to bombard visitors with the seriousness and sanctity of growing healthy food.  Instead, we walk and talk and experience small vignettes of today’s farm, which is different than yesterday’s or tomorrow’s farm.  One woman has “the best conversation of her whole day” with my hen Marigold.  Another peers closely at the tiny blue flowers carpeting the recently disturbed soil, declares them gorgeous and then bashfully asks, “But are they a weed?”  A gentleman sees the unique shape of our curved hoe blade and it reminds him of his summers spent in ‘Auntie’s pole bean patch.’  A young boy just wants to know if he can touch his very first pig snout, declaring afterward, that “it is definitely softer than most.”

In my ambassador’s quest for agricultural literacy, I field seemingly simple questions: why some sweet peppers are yellow, why there are sticky tiny bugs on broccoli heads, why some lettuce heads have a pointy top, and why tomatoes don’t grow in winter.  I patiently explain the connection between cilantro and coriander, and why can’t you plant one Brussels sprout if you want to grow more Brussels sprouts.

The questions come at me with a black and white innocence, revealing deep assumptions about how we position ourselves in relationship to Nature.  Some of the questions take me aback with their honest ignorance; surprisingly, there exists little common understanding between humans and the land we walk in.

What is a weed?  How do you grow a grape plant from a seedless grape?  Do you need roosters to have eggs?  A-B-C.  Agriculture Literacy 101.  First we learn the letters, their sound ringing strangely off our tongues.  Then, slowly, over time, because we begin to care, we learn how each piece goes together.

Interestingly, on my ambassador tours, it matters less whether I explain the life cycle of an onion or describe why pigs need wallows.  What matters is the flickering connection 98% of us never knew we yearned to restore.  What matters is that, without fail, every first time visitor to my farm sounds out one new letter, one strange consonant or vowel, and they do it happily, curiously, without any sense that “important, serious” knowledge about our basic human needs is being forced upon them.

Farm systems teach us much of the natural cycles of life, and in doing so, inform and affect our perceptions, our perspectives and our sense of possibility.  Most of us have not spent our childhoods weeding gardens, canning tomatoes, milking cows or watching Mom butcher the mean rooster.  Most of us do not have the luxury of agrarian knowledge accumulated over the course of the two decades of our childhood.

So letter by letter, word by word, concept by concept, I answer the curious questions.  It is brutally slow and an entirely un-comprehensive approach.  But I hold out hope that each naïve question I answer sincerely will lead to another.  I hope that each person who visits will leave yearning to gain a simple fluency of the language of our food.  Yes, here and there, I can only hope a tiny seed germinates common understanding.

It is an absolute delight to bear witness to obtuse misconceptions falling away, sloughed off like one’s heavy, dirty coat at winter’s end.  My own perspective and understanding is deepened by such experiences.  This is because, plant by plant, row by row, hand by hand, a small question leads to conversation, leads to philosophical ponderings, leads to more questions.  Question by question, I become a better ambassador.

Of course lessons from the soil affirm and provide perspective, of course they ‘ground us.’  Regardless of if we have ever kneeled to earth in wonder or not, we too, are of the soil.  We forget often and easily, but we humans depend entirely on the generosity of Earth.  Doesn’t it make sense we rekindle this fundamental relationship?

What are the primary agricultural lessons?  Watching the seasons come full circle, again and again, each year different, but each year with the common and comforting wild moorings affirms for me:  Life, beautiful, miraculous life, goes on.  Food, beautiful, miraculous food, is not to be wasted.  We, beautiful, miraculous creatures, plants and humans, and our fates, are all connected.  ~AJ

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