The 2011 farm

Wow… so February is slipping by & I’ve been so busy posting about bikes (and riding bikes), I haven’t even officially shared the bigger news:  I have a farm home for the 2011 season!  I decided to do a second season of apprenticeship at a different farm.  So, at the beginning of April I’ll be moving to Oxbow Farm.  Here is an aerial shot of part of the farm:

Oxbow from the air

So what’s the deal with this place?  How did I end up here?  Well, 2010 was my experimental year to give farming a try and see what I thought.  My frame of reference at the beginning of 2010 was: I knew that I liked gardening, I liked eating good food, and I was beginning to care more and more about where food came from and the farming practices used to grow it.  I felt a need to find out more about exactly what it took to run a small-scale organic vegetable farm.  I wanted to get to know people who were actually making a living doing what I thought I might want to do, observe them, learn from them and do the work alongside them.  That’s what the Bainbridge apprenticeship season was all about.  Brian and Betsey were the people I wanted to learn from, and I was ready to jump in and give it a try.  I was excited to be doing something totally new, and simultaneously a bit nervous about the possibility that I would hate it or be overwhelmed by it or not fit in.

But guess what?  You know what, if you’ve been reading my blog.  I loved it.  The results of my experiment were that I loved farming and the passion that I started feeling for it has changed me into a new and more interesting person.  It’s true.  As the 2010 season neared its end, I knew without a doubt that I wanted to keep at it.  I felt that I both enjoyed it enough and was good enough at it that I wanted to keep learning and pursuing this as a lifestyle/career.   I decided that a second year of apprenticeship was in order.  In year one, everything was new.  In year two, I will know the basics and I can focus on more of the important small details.  It kind of feels like college – like I’m in farming grad school or something.

Instead of returning to the Bainbridge farms for another season, I felt like I could learn more by taking a position at a different farm in the Puget Sound area.  I love the Bainbridge folks and will miss them a lot.  But it also felt right to branch out and meet a new farm.  I was looking for something just slightly larger-scale, growing a wide variety of veggies, with a traditional CSA program, farmers market and restaurant sales.  I was lucky to find just the place in Oxbow Farm.

Oxbow is located in the Snoqualmie Valley between the towns of Carnation and Duvall — east of Seattle by about 40 minutes.  The place is 20 acres of gorgeous panorama – walking along the river next to the farm’s fields and looking out over the long valley with the mountains in the distance makes me catch my breath.  The farmers in charge are named Luke Woodward and Adam McCurdy.  Luke has been farm manager for something like 12 years; Adam joined him as co-manager 4 years ago.   This is what they look like:

Oxbow Farm managers

I didn’t take that picture, but it correctly represents Luke and Adam’s enthusiasm!!  I’m excited to work with them.  The farm will have either 3 or 4 apprentices this year, with one being me!!  Another one is a delightful young lady named Alice, who was actually the reason I found out about Oxbow.  I met Alice at a conference and we hit it off big time.  She apprenticed at Oxbow last season and liked it enough to come back for a second year – which of course speaks volumes about the farm and managers. I followed up with her after the conference and went out for a visit to meet the farmers.  We corresponded a bit and I sent them some references, and they told me they want me to work there.  And I want to work there.  Everybody wins!

At Oxbow we will sell at 4 different farmers’ markets, two of which are in the city of Seattle.  That will be a lot of fun. I’m also looking forward to a bit of an adventure as far as my living situation goes: Alice and I will be living together in a 30-foot-diameter yurt on the property. We get to be very self-sufficient, chopping wood for our woodstove and hauling water to fill our water tank!  Sounds fun right now but I imagine it will sound like work pretty darn soon 🙂

An Oxbow, I learned, is a U-shaped lake that results when a river meanders and curves and eventually cuts itself off so that a lake is left behind.  There is one of these lakes on the property… see the pic above!   The farm actually sits inside a big bend in the Snoqualmie River, so there is river on three sides.   It’s very lovely and I am excited to be so near a body of water.   Looking out to see water or mountains always does something to me as I’m sure it does to all humans — it reminds us of the largeness and wonderfulness of the world.  I guess the correct word is “awe.”  It’s a feeling that used to overwhelm me a little.  When I would get to thinking about the bigger picture I started feeling small and insignificant and unsure of where I could fit into the universe.  My reaction has recently changed, however, so that now I somehow feel more alive and eager and excited when I contemplate the wider world.  It feels like a reminder of how great it is to be here – it gets me out of my little box of self-absorption that I usually walk around in.  It wakes me up to think about appreciating life and the opportunity to be in this world, explore it, taste it as much as possible.  I actually know exactly when this perception shift happened.  In August 2009 when I was in the middle of my “quarter-life crisis,” I took a backpacking trip to the WA coast.  The first couple nights I spent with some friends camping in a woodsy campsite.  The last night, my friends left and I remained there alone.  I moved my tent out to the beach, where I could see no other humans.  I had a long expanse of rocks, sand, gray churning waves, and windy misty skies all to myself.  I had literally moved out of an enclosed space into a place where I was addressing the infinite.  It would be hard not to have a life-changing moment in such a situation; that’s what I had gone there looking for and I found it.  As I walked along the shore by myself I started feeling empowered, optimistic, and *part* of this big world instead of an outside observer.  I came back from the trip eager to get out there and do something meaningful.  Within the next couple of months I found my way to the farm apprenticeship opportunity.

Took a tangent there.  The point is, I’m happy that I’ll have both water and mountains to look at from my front door at the farm this year.

At the moment I’m feeling stretched in between not two but *three* different worlds.  I want to hold on to my ties to the Bainbridge friends & community that I connected with so strongly last year, so I’ve been visiting the island when I can (I’m actually here right  now, housesitting and riding some horsies – yay!)  Secondly, I’m living in Seattle currently and keeping busy with city concerns (work, riding bikes, drum lessons, eating out, drinking, partying… yeesh ;-)).  Thirdly, I’m eager to jump into the Oxbow scene; there’s work to be done already and I’ve been trying to head out that direction occasionally too, to start getting comfortable with the place and people.  So, I’ve been feeling a tad bit scattered.  I want to get my singularity of focus back that I feel has slipped away during my city season.  It may be a hectic March with moving again… I feel like I *just* moved!!  And I’ll be sad to leave Seattle in just a little over a month.  But I’ll be really, really happy to settle in on the new farm and see what 2011 has in store.

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National Young Farmers Conference review

Tierney, Chandler, Becky @ Stone Barns

What with moving into a new house and starting a new job and navigating a new bike commute, I haven’t had time yet to write part 2 of my canning saga.  My writing energy this last week went into the following writeup for the  Washington Tilth Producers quarterly newsletter.  I don’t know if this will get published or not, but what came out when I sat down to write about the conference is worth posting here.

My Experience at the 2010 National Young Farmers Conference

by Becky Warner

In thinking about writing a summary of the National Young Farmers Conference that I attended in New York in the first week of December, I keep coming back to an image of what a “conference” looked like at my pre-farming job, which was in computer software development.  A tech conference is almost always held in Las Vegas in a massive, sterile event center.  Time is spent schmoozing and selling product.  Food is ample but tends toward large pieces of tough meat surrounded by mysterious high school cafeteria-style glop.  Attendees are there on their company’s dime and they make the most of it, spending lavishly on first-class flights, five star hotels, and limousine rides.

Attending the National Young Farmers Conference at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture could not have been a bigger contrast.  The venue was an idyllic piece of farmland in New York’s Westchester County, where beautifully crafted old fieldstone buildings have been modernized into warm-feeling workshop spaces and animals graze in the surrounding pastures.  The meals we ate in the vaulted hayloft-turned-lecture-hall were catered by the amazing farm-to-table restuarant Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and were freshly crafted from organic ingredients grown on the farm where we sat.

Perhaps the most striking difference was the attitude of the young farmers attending the conference.  There was a large group of us doing work-exchange for the conference and being a member of that group really hit home a point for me.  I’ll see if I can explain it.

In exchange for housing, meals, and part of the conference admission fee, we work-traders helped set up and serve the meals, and we were in charge of taking “official” notes and  audio recordings of the workshops we attended.  As a result, I got to know the staff/organizers at Stone Barns, saw a bit of the behind-the-scenes, and felt that I was an integral part of the event rather than just an attendee.  It made it feel really meaningful.

I gleaned a lot of information and inspiration out of the conference.  The keynote speeches by Kathleen Merrigan (US Deputy Secretary of Agriculture) and Bill and Nicolette Niman (Niman Ranch) were thought-provoking.  I attended seven workshops with wide-ranging topics such as crop rotation planning, do-it-yourself techniques, building a successful CSA, growing better starts in the greenhouse, and Farm Bill policy for beginners.  All were well-presented and full of useful information.  There were a multitude of other options that I didn’t have time for, including permaculture workshops, a hog butchering demo, and instruction in worksongs.

I was able to attend the conference and gain all these great bits of knowledge to add to my farming toolbox because someone or some entity was generous enough to provide part of the financial support to cover my being there.  In return, I was able to help out by doing work-trade: doing something for free that otherwise, someone would have been paid to do.  In this way, everybody wins and there is less waste in the system.

I feel that this is a small example of the way that the young farmer movement as a whole can work and is working.  Every young farmer there at the conference, whether they were doing work trade or not, is in the same position: We don’t have much money but we are passionate and hardworking.  We don’t expect to have things handed to us, but instead we want to work together with our compatriots and those who have the means to help us.  We can’t approach a problem by simply throwing money at it, like they often seem to do in the tech world.  Instead we have to work smarter to achieve results by making the best use of resources we do have and relying on mutual cooperation with friends and strangers.

There are those out there who want to help us get a leg up — mentors who are willing to share knowledge, give of their time and let us borrow their tools; organizations who can provide educational scholarships, financial loans, etc. But we have to put in the effort to search out these opportunities and make the most of them.  We have to show that we are willing to work-trade for them.

Young farmers, let’s continue to push the momentum of the food revolution that is happening in America today.  We are a part of something important.  We have lofty aspirations, and we can make them realities by living thoughtfully, sticking by our ideals, growing good food, and staying involved in our communities.  Attending the 2010 National Young Farmer Conference helped me see more clearly that we what we are doing here in Washington state is part of a real and growing movement across the country — I feel privileged to be a part of it and am excited to see what develops as we move into 2011.

A visit to StartNow Gardens.

Bremerton, WA.

The house next door:

Bremerton: The house next door to Jean and Glenn's.

Jean and Glenn’s house:

Betsey, Renee, and Erin observe the front yard with Jean. Zucchini, peppers, eggplant, lettuce.

Betsey took us on an awesome field trip a couple weeks ago, to visit StartNow Gardens in Bremerton.  This is an urban farm built since 2003 by an amazing couple named Jean and Glenn.  They have taken two city lots (they own two houses next door to each other, live in one and rent out the other) and transformed the space from boring yard into blooming farm.  A composting system, fruit trees, berry bushes, raised beds, tomatoes in pots, an abundance of beautiful vegetables.  Solar panels.  A walk-in cooler powered by a window air conditioning unit.  Three levels of rooftop garden connected by wooden catwalks.  Everything meticulously maintained and every inch of space seemingly used.

Glenn by the greenhouses, salad bed, and herb bed in the front yard

The pictures speak for themselves.  Farming is possible in the city.  Imagine how much food could come out of Seattle if every neighborhood had a farm like this.  Alternatively, imagine if every family had a single raised bed in their yard that made up a distributed, shared farm.

Fruit trees, strawberries, and solar panels on the multi-level rooftop garden

Jean and Glenn sell their produce, and soups they make from their produce, through a tiny, new, grocery store in Bremerton called FreshLocal.  They have a secure market for their food as long as the store can stay in business.   What do the Seattle city regulations have to say about growing food for sale on a residential lawn?  What if you could feed yourself and make money from your little front yard garden?

Parking strip full of kale

I was definitely inspired by the visit and by seeing Jean and Glenn’s commitment to making a difference in their own corner of the world.   Makes me want to go out and follow suit.  Starting Now.

More pictures here: http://picasaweb.google.com/rwarner2/StartnowGardens#

"This is super cool!" Me and Betsey with Glenn and Jean on the roof

Kindred spirits

Persephone Farm in Indianola is another great farm in our little corner of the world that does internships. In fact Betsey credits a former Persephone intern as the inspiration to start her apprenticeship program! Our booth is right across the way from Persephone’s at the Bainbridge Farmers Market, so we have been seeing each other every week, but the market is such a flurry that we’d all barely had a chance to talk. I had been wanting to make friends with the interns but it hadn’t happened yet.

So I was excited when our mutual friend Chandler, a former Persephone intern who now farms near here on Vashon Island, created an occasion for us all to get together and hang out.

We were invited over to Indianola on a Saturday for dinner on Persephone Farm. We were served amazing farm-grown food and homemade ice cream, took a walk around the farm/orchards/pastures/yurts, and then stopped over to a “prom” themed birthday party at the Indianola community hall. The next morning we had delicious local food for brunch at a home down the road from their place. It was great to sit around and chat with farmer Rebecca and her apprentices about how their farm works and to compare and contrast it with ours.

Apprentices Greg, Caitlin, Joel and Mo seem to be enjoying their experience and integrating into their community over there just as much as we are here. We are all understandably proud of our own farms, land that we are becoming intimately familiar with. We each respect and admire our respective farmers who we also get to live intimately with as part of the farm family. We hopefully agree with our own farmers’ methods and feel pride in ownership of our own farm products, vegetables that we’ve invested hours of labor into and watched grow from seed to fruit.

But although we come from different, unique farm operations, we are all here doing this for the same reasons. We care about the land and about living sustainably and thoughtfully on it. We are fascinated by plants and especially by the process of growing food. We love to eat real food and make this food available to others who appreciate it and help those who don’t yet appreciate it learn to value it. We started some good conversations over brunch especially, and I look forward to spending more time with Rebecca and her crew!

An update in pictures.

spinach in the greenhouse

First week of March at the farm: spinach, lettuces, and carrots in the greenhouse

sprouts

On the home front: the seeds I started indoors sprouted! (this is the sage)

dill sprouts

After they got their first set of true leaves, I moved them outdoors (this is the dill)

sage

Eventually they each get their own home in a 4" pot. (Sage again)

workin the tiller

Have been doing plenty of volunteering recently: Marra Farm, Harvest Collective, and Alleycat Acres (seen here).

Farm walk at Nash’s

The PCC Farmland Trust organized a tour of the farm at Nash’s Organic Produce on Jan 16th.   Located in Sequim, WA, Nash’s is one of the biggest and most successful organic growers in the state.  I went on the tour with my pal Emily who I met when we both volunteered together at Marra Farm.

I was really excited to see Nash’s because I have bought lots of their produce at PCC and at the Ballard Farmers Market.  The farm is big, covering over 400 acres, so I was interested to see how they make it work and still keep things organic and sustainable.

Visiting in the winter, it was a little hard to imagine how things must be at the height of the growing season – it was a bit bare and muddy but we did get to see the overwintering brassicas (cabbage, kale, etc).  Our tour leader was Scott Chichester, Vegetable Production Manager at Nash’s.  He had lots of interesting things to say.  What I found most interesting was the difference between this type of operation compared to all the little (10 acres or smaller) farms I’ve been visiting.  Nash’s seems to be walking the line between large-scale and small-scale farming.  They use lots of tractors and machinery for efficient planting and harvesting, and they use some organic pesticide sprays.  Scott said this was something he “had to get over” when he first started there.  With 400 acres they can’t do everything by hand the way the really small guys do.

Some awesome things that they are doing at Nash’s include their pork program and the grain they are growing.  These are both great because they are keeping down their inputs to the farm.  They grow their own grain to feed their livestock as well as turning the hogs out into harvested vegetable fields to let them forage and spread their manure directly on the beds.  The fields then have to sit for a period of time to let the manure age, and then they plant them with more crops.  The whole nutrient cycle is kept on-farm instead of importing livestock feed and fertilizer.   Then they also have the pigs slaughtered directly on the farm and sell the meat locally as whole- or half-hog packages.

They also sell their grain directly to consumers, which is great because it’s relatively difficult to find locally-grown grain.  Emily and I both bought some of the Nash’s hard red wheatberries after the tour and ground them into flour right there in the farm store.  It will make some delicious local whole wheat bread!

Check out more pictures of the piggies, veggies, etc at my flickr site!