What I am learning: Tenacity

(Reposted from my post to the National Young Farmers Bootstrap Blogger Series, here: http://www.youngfarmers.org/news/2012/06/07/what-i-am-learning-tenacity/)


I was so busy with spring farming tasks, I didn’t notice that it was May until May 19th.  That day I realized it was considerably past time to flip to the next page on my Nikki McClure calendar.  This local artist (she’s from Olympia, Washington) pairs each lovely paper-cutting image in her calendars with a single word.  Sometimes the word is clearly related to the picture; sometimes it takes a little bit of thinking to make the connection.

On May 19, seeing this word and this image made me stop and catch my breath.

“Persist” is a good word to keep in mind as a new farmer.  My mid-May had been full of ups and downs with our new multi-plot urban farming business, City Grown Seattle.  Half of the time I was on cloud nine, wallowing in the beauty of healthy growing plants and a new farm enterprise with a high potential for success.  But the other half of the time I was feeling extraordinarily stressed out by things going wrong, and by the feeling that I was making many mistakes.

For example, the summer squash starts I had so lovingly raised from seed got transplanted out at exactly the right moment: just when the weather was ready for them to be planted out, they had reached that perfect stage of two true leaves and a root system that was visible but not overgrown when I popped one out of the tray to take a peek.  My heart felt happy as I nestled them into newly-tilled soil and looked back over the straight rows.

When I returned to the plot a couple days later, I was dismayed to find the squash plants wilted and dying.  I had left them under a blanket of floating row cover, thinking it would provide them a comfortable enclosure for their first few days.  Instead I had left my carefully tended seedlings to bake and smother in the captured heat of a too-insulated environment.

That same week of unexpectedly hot, dry weather (where’s the Seattle rain this year?), combined with our inability to get around to all of our plots to water often enough, resulted in poor germination on the spinach, carrot, and lettuce seeds we had sown at the beginning of May.  Arriving at a plot to discover that seeds are sprouting is a glorious thing.  Arriving to find a bed only half-germinated and spotted with weeds where spinach should be leads to dismal thoughts of lost sales and missing items in the expected farmstand offerings next month.

It is easy to become overwhelmed by the negative.  Instead of seeing all the plants that are growing beautifully with no problems, I can focus only on the bits that are struggling.

Who was it that said, “the perfect is the enemy of the good”?  There is always going to be something less than perfect; on the farm there are so many ways that things can go wrong.  But it turns out that there are many ways that things can go right, and many ways to make things right.  This is what we have to do as new farmers: learn to make lemonade of lemons and persist in finding ways to overcome mistakes, failures, acts of God, surprises, and challenges.  It is important to have a good plan, but it may be more important to be able to accept and adapt to divergences from that plan.

We replanted the fried squash (only maybe seven out of the 36 actually died).  Luckily we had sown more seed than the number of transplants we actually needed, so we had extras to plant in their place.  As I poked more spinach seed into the ground to fill in the gaps in those beds, I realized that now I am doing two successions in one, and perhaps this staggered sowing will enable me to get a longer harvest from the same bed.  Since we are farming on such a small scale, with space at a premium, this seems like a fairly smart way to make the best out of it.

So let us persist in overcoming each challenge as it arrives, and also let us persist in an ability to see the bigger picture and all the good that is happening in spite of the challenges.

June second will mark our first day of farmstand for City Grown’s 2012 season.  June sixth will be our first farmers’ market.  I am feeling excited, and also nervous, worrying about all the little details and hoping that our first day goes well.  But as I finished up writing this post and realized that it is almost June, I peeked forward one more page in the Nikki McClure calendar to get a little preview of what next month has in store:

Planting squash at our Community Center plot
My farm partner Noe harvesting salad

Vegetables make me smile

Two years ago (really only two years?  Seems like longer), I was this happy about harvesting vegetables on Brian’s farm:

Feeling very lucky that two years later I can repeat the photo op with first harvests from my own farm:

Check the City Grown blog for more on what we’ve been up to.   Keeping very busy & very happy.   It’s going to be a good season.

Farming and intimacy

Well that’s a titilating title.

What I want to talk about is intimacy with place — familiarity with a piece of the world and the systems that go into its use.  Becoming a farmer has made me more aware of and attuned to this intimacy.  It has also made me want to explore how we could harness this innate human ability to become experts on our particular daily surroundings and use it to stop destroying the world and instead change it for the better.

Have you ever driven the same commute so many times that you can instinctively avoid the potholes in the road and you know a slightly different route to take for  maximum efficiency by turning right at a particular light if it is red when you get to it?  Have you ever walked the same route so frequently that when a certain front yard gets mowed it stands out to you as clearly as if your significant other came home with a buzz cut?  Have you lived in the same home for enough seasons that you can predict what week the crocuses are going to come up?  Then you know what I’m talking about, and you can imagine that farming a piece of ground leads to a familiarity even more heightened than any of these.

Farmers know their land and their systems like the proverbial backs of their hands.  That low spot over there holds moisture, that slight South-facing slope heats up more, one field has sandier soil than the others.  Because of the work they do, these individuals have observed, stood upon, sat on, and literally stuck their hands into, most every square foot of their 5 or 40 or 100 acre farms.  It has been a joy to me working on farms alongside the farmers that have worked them for many seasons, absorbing that delicious awareness of contour, vegetation, fertility, and overall feel of the place.

Wendell Berry, the quintessential farmer-author, conveys this sense all the time in his fiction.  His characters are farming families who move about their land in a way that implicitly portrays this intimacy.  Berry writes about it more explicitly in his non-fiction.  I found a passage from Berry’s 1992 book Conservation is Good Work where he writes about understanding the natural world as real places and not an abstract “The Environment.”  The passage begins:

No settled family or community has ever called its home place an “environment.”  The real names of the environment are the names of rivers and river valleys; creeks, ridges, and mountains; towns and cities; lakes, woodlands, lanes roads, creatures, and people. “

Becoming  familiar with the farm places the way I did made me realize that I can extrapolate this over to other arenas.   I am noticing and enjoying an increasing familiarity that comes with time spent in many types of situations.  I love the feeling of “owning” new places and feeling competent with the new tasks that come along with each of them.  The passage I quoted from Wendell Berry continues on to say,

The real name of our connection to this everywhere different and differently named earth is “work.”

Generally our work, the way we make our living, is an area in which we display our expertise and familiarity.  When I worked computers, I now realize I had an intimacy with the online “place” where our code lived and worked.  Knowing the directory structure and where to find a particular function that made the device do a certain thing was an intimacy.  Now, after a couple months at Trader Joe’s I have gotten to a level of competency and understanding of the systems that make the store run.  In farming, it is a familiarity with land and how things grow.  Lately it’s been hitting me forcefully how many little centers of intimacy there are in the world.  As I rode my bike home from work, I was thinking about how familiar I am with this trail now.  And then I noticed Dunn Lumber off to my right and realized, there are people for whom that lumberyard is their sphere of expertise.  And suddenly the whole world become populated with people and their unique intimacies.  Wendell Berry even mentions this next:

We are connected by work even to the places where we don’t work, for all places are connected; it is clear by now that we cannot exempt one place from our ruin of another.”

Expertise is a wonderful phenomenon: I have my thing and you have yours, and we can help each other out.  If I find myself needing <lumber/seafood/auto repair> I can visit my <lumberyard/fishmonger/mechanic> and benefit from their intimacy with their own bit of the system instead of having to <cut down a tree/cast a line into the ocean/I don’t even know> on my own.  But even within a particular area of expertise, real intimacy means that I understand my exact individual system inside and out and do my best to make it run exactly as perfectly as it can.

The name of our proper connection to the earth is “good work.” It honors the source of its materials; it honors the place where it is done; it honors the art by which it is done; it honors the thing that it makes and the user of the made thing.  Good work is always modestly scaled, for it cannot ignore either the nature of individual places or the differences between places.  Good work can be defined only in particularity, for it must be defined a little differently for every one of the places and every one of the workers on the earth.”

The thing about intimacy with place is that no two places are exactly the same.  The closest you could probably get is two McDonalds’ or two Wal-Marts, and those types of places have worked hard for uniformity.  But no two Trader Joe’s are the same, no two houses are the same, and, way down at the opposite and of the similarity spectrum, no two farms are even remotely the same.

The problem is that America’s idealizing of mass production and “understanding via uniformity” has led to a desire for farms to become business- or science-type entities that can be treated as all being the same.  Everybody should till with the same tractor on the same date and plant the same genetically engineered corn seed and spray it with the same pesticides and harvest it on the same day and get the same number of bushels per acre, and that will be a failsafe way to grow corn.  And then we’ll  just take corn and modify it to become everything we need to eat and then all we’ll need to grow is all this same corn.  No more need for messing around with various types of crops (not to mention varieties within types), or different cultivation techniques — it’s not an improvement to our perfect system unless it will help us grow more corn off the same amount of land.

It turns out, of course, that this does not work.  This system is failing us, in ways too numerous to detail.  America’s system of agriculture needs to be radically changed and getting bigger and more uniform is NOT the direction it needs to go.

“But how will we feed the world?”  This is invariably what comes up if you breathe a word against conventional agriculture.  “If the farmers quit growing Monsanto corn and start futzing around with specialty crops and heirloom this-and-that, what about the starving children?  We should just follow what Monsanto tells us about how to grow — they have the science around these things figured out so that we can maximize crop production.”  Well, do they?

Last fall at the Tilth Producers conference, I was lucky enough to attend a very inspirational keynote presentation by Dr. Miguel Altieri from U.C. Berkley, about his study of Agroecology in Latin America.  “Agroecology” was a new term for me, and his presentation was powerful because it addressed the above question in a new way.  I gained some new insight into how the world somehow survived during all those thousands of years before non-Monsanto agriculture.

From Wikipedia: “Agroecology is the application of ecological principles to the production of food, fuel, fiber, and pharmaceuticals and the management of agroecosystems.  It is a multidisciplinary study of the interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment within agricultural systems. Agroecology is not defined by certain management practices, nor do agroecologists unanimously oppose technology or inputs in agriculture but instead assess how, when, and if technology can be used in conjunction with natural, social and human assets. Agroecology proposes a context- or site-specific manner of studying agroecosystems, and as such, it recognizes that there is no universal formula or recipe for the success and maximum well-being of an agroecosystem.”

Agroecology, among other things, talks about farming with a sense of place.

What I gained out of Dr. Altieri’s talk is: there is research showing that peasant farmers in Latin America are growing crops with production levels matching or beating the yields that can be produced by American megafarms.  And these small farmers have been doing this on their land through the generations for hundreds of years.  Whereas America’s cornfield is unarguably depleting the soil and toxifying our environment, these native farming practices exemplify true sustainability AND let me repeat that the evidence shows they are high enough yielding per acre to feed people equally as well.  How are they doing it?  By maximizing their intimacy with their place.   Dr. Altieri’s talk went into some fascinating specifics of locales that have developed new crop varieties over generations, or have determined that it’s best to inter-plant two specific types of crops together, or have placed different crops at different altitudes on their steep, terraced slopes.  But the basic summary was that these farmers know their land and grow according to their specific micro-ecosystem.  Additionally, they create RESILIENCY in their farming systems by increasing DIVERSITY so that if weather wipes out one crop, they have another to fall back on.  This is the opposite of what American farming has come to.  Mono-cropping corn and soy has CREATED the need for increasingly terrifying pesticides and chemical fertilizers.  Wendell Berry says,

The name of our present society’s connection to the earth is “bad work” – work that is only generally and crudely defined, that enacts a dependence that is ill understood, that enacts no affection and gives no honor.”

The question is, have we completely lost our connection to our place?  The Native Americans had it, and we revere the story of Squanto et al saving the settlers from starvation because they knew the proper techniques to make things grow in this place that the Europeans didn’t understand yet.  But we quickly overrode those native traditions.  Modern farmers are still in touch with the quirks of their tracts of land.  But modern agriculture teaches them to ignore their site-specifics and just follow formulas, or at best to use that familiarity to work the situation their superficial current advantage.  Can we instead use agroecological principles work our situation to actually *be* better, for others, for the land, and for the long-term future?  Wendell, take us out:

Every one of us is to some extent guilty of this bad work. This guilt does not mean that we must indulge in a lot of breast-beating and confession; it means only that there is much good work to be done by every one of us and that we must begin to do it.”




A quick weekend visit with my dear ones from last year made for a happy heart.  It was good to check in with Betsey and Brian and the Bainbridge farms… some new and exciting things happening; much remains comfortingly unchanged.  I love these people more than I can say 🙂


Planning ahead for the cornbread of the future.


I’m taking slow food to a whole new level. Want to eat some delicious cornbread? First, plant some corn.

I had asked Luke and Adam here at Oxbow for permission to grow a little garden.  “Since I’m from the midwest,” I said, “I’ve been feeling the urge to have a cornfield in my front yard. It’s okay for me to bring in some nice super-sweet, GMO, RoundupReady Monsanto corn, right? That way we can bring this hippie organic farm into the new millenium.”  Pause. “Ummm, haha, just kidding!  Actually it’s some saved seed of an heirloom dry corn that I want to grow so I can grind it for cornmeal. Can I till up a little area to grow a few stalks?”  The farmers breathe a sigh of relief 🙂 

“Sure,” they told me, “and in fact, you don’t even have to prep your own ground. Have this huge corner of the field we just tilled for squash planting. It’s extra, we were just going to leave it fallow, and it’s right in front of your yurt.”  Wow! Just a small instance of  the principle that if you decide what you want and make it known, all the pieces will fall into place.

Betsey had introduced us to skillet cornbread on the farm last year. It’s pretty special —  with buttermilk and butter in the recipe you can’t really go wrong but it’s the freshly-ground heirloom dry corn that makes it magical.  I shelled and ground a bunch before leaving Bainbridge and brought enough for a few batches out to Oxbow. Everyone I’ve made it for so far has kind of flipped out when they tasted it. Warm and chewy and with a grainy toothsome quality, sweet and salty and with a drizzle of honey… it’s pretty allright.

At this point I’m almost out of my cornmeal. Time to restock my stash — time to carry on the Betsey tradition and grow the stuff myself. I picked up some seed corn from Betsey last weekend: a couple ears of her Painted Mountain and some loose kernels of Roy’s Calais Flint. Two heirloom varieties with cool coloring patterns and interesting histories about where and how the varieties were developed.

As soon as I got the corn home I trundled it out to the greenhouse, put soil in a couple of 50-cell flats, and popped in 100 multicolored kernels.  There was something so viscerally satisfying about planting these seeds with the end goal very clearly in sight. There is something super exciting about the prospect of tending this corn, my very own crop in the midst of all the other farm crops that I’m helping with but by no means in charge of.  I read up on corn cultivation tips. It is a heavy nitrogen feeder, said google. Make sure you fertilize every couple of weeks. Am I going to have to go out and buy fertilizer? Anothrt google, this time on “rabbit manure”, turns up the info that bunny pellets are extremely nitrogenous and also are unusual in that they do not need to be composted before being used as fertilizer on the field. Boom. A complete system here in miniature, yurt-scale farming.

Here’s a picture of step one in my cornbread recipe. Stay tuned for updates and if you’re lucky you can help me enjoy a skilletfull sometime around the October timeframe!

One trillion things I love about Alice VanderHaak.

In reference to:


Alice and I have a pretty standard history: we met at a dance.  I was at the Saturday night mixer of last November’s Tilth Producers conference when I noticed a vivacious young blonde shaking it next to me. I have since learned that she “doesn’t dance” so it must have been fate that she was there at all. I asked her name and soon we were chatting all about our farms. She was funny and smart. I got her number.

We saw each other a few times over the winter and by the time April rolled around we were moving in together. This Easter weekend as I write, I am up in Lynden with Alice meeting her entire extended family. We will be returning home with an adopted rabbit to co-parent.

We get along great. Alice is a lover of life, brimming with enthusiasm and forthrightness; she knows what it means to taste every breath. She adds a welcome element of goofiness to my sedate and serious life 🙂 She is adaptable, thoughtful, open and honest. She wants more than anything to be the best farmer she can be, she believes in herself and is working hard to make it happen. I trust her judgement and respect her decisions, which is a tough thing for me in relationships sometimes. She makes me belly-laugh on a regular basis!

Things I love about Alice: the way she is a badass farmer who can do just about anything but is also deathly afraid of chickens.  The way she can never decide what to wear but always looks awesome. The ubiquitous wood earrings. Her dog training skills: her dog is the only dog I have ever loved. Or even liked.  Her neverending enthusiasm. The cartoon voices. The way she describes us as “like an old married couple but one who laughs all the time”.  Have I affirmed you enough yet Al? 😉

It’s kind of a little too bad that Alice is not a tall and handsome, 30-to-35 year old, male gendered person who likes to ride bikes and swing dance. Wah-waahh, to use an Aliceism. I suppose it’s better that there is no romantic aspect to mar our perfect relationship. For the moment, until the end of August when she moves away, we are life-partners, farming together and supporting each other in our little hurt-home. I couldn’t be happier!

Hey what’s up, I live in a yurt

Hey so guess what… it turns out, I really love peeing outside!  I usually visit the potty first thing in the morning and last thing at night, as I’m sure many people do.  Living in the yurt with no bathroom inside, my roomie Alice and I have to walk outside anyway to get to our composting toilet.  But we’ve pretty much adopted the policy of using that guy only for #2 and just taking a pee in the grass/bushes like our canine roommate Russell does.  When I am just rolling out of bed and/or when it’s dark and sprinkling in the evening, this does not sound like the most fun thing and I often feel a lazy wish creep into my mind that there was a bathroom in the house.  But then once I throw on my boots and get out there, the cool air feels good entering my lungs, my eyes refocus on the mountains at the horizon, and my brain pauses for a second in its usual spin cycle.  Zen meditation while popping a squat.  I think I may continue peeing outside even after I move out of the yurt!  My coworkers at my next office job better watch out 😉

Hauling firewood

The yurt has been an adventure in many ways.  We have been learning patience and to appreciate the small things.  Our original wood supply was soaked to the core and we struggled with sizzling “fires” that produced very little actual heat.  We acquired dry wood and then had to tractor it out to the house.  But now being able to sleep in warmth under just one comforter warrants Alice and I having a little dance party in celebration!  Our refrigerator broke so we’ve been living out of a cooler.  There is running water but not hot water yet, so a warm face wash involves heating water on the stove.  We can’t drive out to the yurt yet in anything besides the farm Jeep (and even that is a bit of a gnarly ride), and the walk in to the barn takes about 15 minutes, so you don’t want to forget anything critical when you come in for work in the mornings.  All that said, I am truly not complaining!  I’ve loved the feeling of badassness at having to work to make our lives comfortable.  And now it’s all coming together and the place feels like home.  Next week Alice and I are going to build a bunk so that we can stack our beds and make room for me to set up my drum set!

Guests over for a yurt dinner! The first of many I hope!

Work itself has been going great these first two weeks.  I love it love it love it.  They’ve been taking it “easy” on us with a start time of 9:00 am! And we generally get done right at 5!  Clearly this is because the ground is so wet it’s impossible to do much besides work in the greenhouse… it won’t last forever so we appreciate it while it’s here.  Some tasks so far have been: transferring hundreds of tomato starts into larger pots, pressure-washing and packing up a few hundred pounds of parsnips for restaurant sales, assisting with greenhouse construction (loved it!), and transplanting a few thousand row-feet of cabbage and lettuces into the field with the Oaxacan crew (damn they’re fast!).  Early-season stuff.  Learning the ropes.

Potted up tomatoes for sale. Sturdy little guys!

Although on the whole I’m thrilled to be back in the farming mode, still there’s been a real mix of feelings in me these past two weeks.  Excitement to be getting dirty again and working outdoors and working & strengthening my body / soreness and tiredness from overworking my body.  Happiness to be in a new place and expanding my connections with new people / sadness and deeply missing my Bainbridge crew from last year as well as my Seattle friends.   Intimidation at learning new living skills / sense of accomplishment when successfully completing new-to-me tasks.

The main thing, over and above these others, is the way I’m having to work to keep the bigger picture in my focus.  I love growing vegetables and get a visceral sense of fulfillment at watching the plants spring into existence, working to help them grow, and knowing how to harvest and serve them.  But on the scale of production that this farm does, there are an awful lot of mundane, repetetive, less pleasant tasks that have to be done to make it happen.  I am just one small cog in the machine at this farm.  While I certainly don’t feel like “just cheap labor,” I am also not going to be making many important decisions but rather doing the legwork as instructed by my mentors once they make the decisions.  I can do my best to fully understand why they make decisions the way they do and use my smarts to take on more responsibilities where I can.  I will take pride in our products as I will have worked to help create them.  But I’m definitely noticing my yearning to make the jump into doing it on my own.  What could I make happen purely by my own decisions instead of acting out someone else’s?  How much I would want to throw myself into my own operation!  How much joy I would feel at selling beautiful veggies that were 100% mine!

So what gets me excited right now is thinking about doing it on my own.  I planted seeds for my own garden last night after work – mainly herbs and some quinoa.  I’m running an experiment to see if I successfully saved arugula, cilantro, and dill seed from my own plants last year.  I planted the seeds I saved next to commercial seeds of the same variety to compare germination and growth.  Fun fun!  Building greenhouse doors on Friday made me think, I could do this on my own.   I’m watching various Oxbow procedures closely and comparing them with what we did on Bainbridge, with an eye to how I would do the same on my own farm.  I’m hopeful that this year will solidify my knowledge and instincts about vegetable growing and give me a jumping-off point to starting my own business or somehow making my own way forward.

Making new doors for a hoophouse.