Perennially

This year is the first year we are harvesting a sizable amount of fruit from the farm.  Starting with strawberries this spring, in good quantity, and ending with apples and grapes this fall, we will finally be reaping the benefit of having planted (and carefully tended to) these perennial crops.

The funny thing about perennials for us is this: they are the heart and soul of a permaculture operation (since they bring in that permanence central to the philosophy) and yet, it is so hard not to push them to the side in favor of the immediacy of annual crops.  Although we planted apple trees on the farm before we even planted ourselves here, with the farmer coming out to water them and check on them those first two months the farm was in our name but we were still in town, the subsequent years of starting the farm business found us buying and planting lots of perennials but woefully not keeping up with the care they needed to come to fruition.  We were so busy with the annual vegetables that were making us money–weeding them and watering them and harvesting them–that the upkeep of those other crops was always pushed down the to do list in the face of the here and now goings on of the vegetables.

This was not working!

In some cases, we lost plantings of crops we had invested in to weeds (asparagus, rhubarb, artichokes).  Others were irrevocably stunted by lack of water (blueberries), others delayed further to harvest from lack of consistent watering or consistent weeding (some of the tree fruits, the raspberries, and the currents).  Some never even got planted after they were purchased.

After the first two years of this, after the dust of starting the business had settled, we were finally able to address the situation.  We would not buy anymore perennials unless we were fully prepared to give them the care they needed.  We started planting them out in the field with the annual crops so that watering needs would be met and we would be able to start moving the spaces on our farm to a more stacked system, where multiple layers of production would be happening symbiotically in the same place.  We started tending.

And now, three year later, we are reaping.  All of our fruit has been bearing for these last few years, but finally, this year, bountifully!

This isn’t to say that a quick look around the farm today wouldn’t show some heavy weed pressure on a new raspberry planting, but we have been balancing these two things so much better, the present and the future harvest.

Perhaps we have become better at it with the practice we get as parents.  With our children, we are continually having to tend to them with an eye to the future and not just by reacting to what is presenting itself right now!  With our oldest quickly approaching ten this month, we now have behind us a whole decade of parenting decisions and this little person, now so big, as a harvest of sorts.  We see the bounty of the care we gave him in his developing self.  Of course, he was never neglected like our first perennial plantings–quite the opposite I should say!  But we did have to give up the notion that we could get it all right a long time ago.  We never, however, gave up the notion that putting in the hard work of giving a small little sprout all the tender loving care it needs to grow big and healthy and to fruition was well worth it, delayed satisfaction sometimes and all.  And this little boy, he is pretty awesome!

And oddly enough, the hard work of sticking with it, of working to make this farm a viable operation and a real source of food for the community–a perennial of sorts–has taken the same perseverance, the same patience, the same fine balancing act of the here and now with hope and vision.

And the fruits this work has born are too many too list.  There is the great lifestyle we get to live, the contribution we get to make to the world, to our community, the ties it has given us to both the earth and the people we live with on this earth, the health and vigor of hard work and real food, love, friendship, time, courage, humility…I think I could go on forever.

Let’s just say that I imagine them to be gifts given to us, our customers and farm members, and our greater community this land ties us to, over and over again, perennially.

Beginnings

Hooray!  Today marks the beginning of another CSA season, our fifth.  This week we have been thinking back to our first year, the beginnings of Growing Wild Farm.  We were happy to realize that a third of our members are founding members, folks that have been part of this farm experience since the beginning.  Another third have been with us for almost as long, joining in our second or third years, and about another third of you are just starting with us this year or joined sometime last year.

For some of you, the start of another year is old hat and our history is part of your own history of eating with us.  For our new members, though, we realized that some of our story may be unfamiliar, so we thought we would briefly share it today.

So, how did Growing Wild Farm begin?

The seeds of our farm started to germinate  within the first year of our marriage.  We, admittedly, married and started our family while relatively young by today’s standards.  The farmer was just 23 (I was 25) and up to that point we were still pursuing other interests.  When we met, one of us was going to be starting a graduate program in literature and philosophy , the other was focused on making music.  We really didn’t have the kind of clear ideas about how we were going to make a living that many people do.  We were both idealists and at that point, we were happy to be doing what we loved and money was not a concern.

But together, we quickly realized that we wanted to start a family.  Long story short, after starting a family and beginning to grow our own food and becoming friends with someone who had spent time working on a CSA farm out here in the Pacific Northwest, we decided that this was the work for us.  It would fulfill both our need to make a living to support our family, as well as our own personal need to do work that we loved and that held significance to us, all while keeping us together as a family.  Having been introduced to Wendell Berry in college, the idea of local foodsheds had always stuck with me, and I had always imagined living in the country in a self-sustaining kind of way.  Once we began gardening, the farmer quickly found that he loved growing food, building soil naturally, and creating diverse and alive spaces where our crops flourished as well as provided a balanced ecosystem for wild things as well.

We read gardening books and permaculture books and some that pertained to commercial growing, moved here to Oregon, and began looking for land.  In many ways, we were so naive!  We had started our married life in Colorado were we knew we could never afford land, spent time in my home state of Nebraska where land was very reasonable, then moved here knowing that land was not too over-inflated, but it was still high close in to the community we had found in McMinnville.

So while we looked at properties closer to Sheridan and Grand Ronde, much farther away than we wanted, Grandma and Grandpa asked us how we would feel about buying something together.  There were many things to consider, especially since Oregon’s land use laws make it hard for you to have two residences on a piece of land with only one pre-existing home.  In the end, we decided we could figure this part of it out down the road since they would be staying in California for a few more years, and we all agreed it was a good idea.

Time was of the essence since they were selling a home to re-invest in the farm.  I was nearly due with our third child.  They came up for a week or so and there was a whirlwind of looking at properties and deciding on one that week!  It was not the long and drawn out search for our “perfect” property by any means, but it was going to be such a benefit to us all, and we would have some land to start our farm, so we were excited!  So that year we closed on the property on my little girl’s due date, she was born a week later, and we moved in when she was two months old.

The farmer started transforming this place even before we moved, planting our first orchard as soon as the farm was ours, coming out to water them while we coddled our new little baby at our home in town.  The rest of that year we walked the property, drew out a map of what we thought the whole place might look like one day (and we are always surprised, when we pull this out, how things are coming together so much like this first plan!), and we started to envision our business.

Again, we were naive in so many ways!  We knew we wanted to be a CSA farm primarily, while doing our one (at that time) local farmer’s market, as well as selling a little to restaurants.  This model has still proven to be the best fit for us and for a sustainable farm business.  However, not having grown food on such a large scale for production before, just having grown a home garden and selling some of that abundance at a very small Nebraska farmer’s market, we were not fully prepared to begin offering a CSA that first year….we just didn’t know that until after we were knee deep in our first season.

It was very hard and frustrating and, quite honestly, humiliating.  We took our permaculture growing method of sheet mulching and tried to apply it to our larger growing space on soil that was heavy, heavy, heavy clay, sold 50 CSA shares, and got really excited to be living out our dream.  That year, getting vegetables to grow in that soil was like trying to pull teeth that weren’t loose.  It hurt.  We kept our chins up, and worked really hard to meet our obligation to our CSA members.  We bought organic fruit from other farms to round things out.  By the end of the year we were exhausted and relieved to be done for the year.  We even ended farmer’s market two weeks early.

The farmer went back to work landscaping for the winter and we re-thought everything.  The truth was we didn’t want to do anything else at all.  We knew this was the work we were meant to do, we loved it and the life of living on the farm.  WE BELIEVED IN IT.  We knew that nourishing our community and the land we were stewards of mattered.

And so, despite that first year, we went forward.  We rearranged our farm model slightly, slowly building back up to this year, where we are right back to the plan we started with.  We have transformed our soil and are now growing on more land, all of it in good health.  Around our third season, we joked that we had completed our two year internship and that we were starting our business in earnest.  Now, in our 5th year we are happy to have a thriving CSA, two markets to attend with one year round, and some great local restaurants who like to buy our produce when we have it.  The farmer has even been able to retire from landscaping and is now a full time farmer!

We have had many growing pains along the way, but that comes with any kind of good learning.  We have been stretched and molded by the work we have done.  We have grown as our farm has grown, and found a home not only on our farm, but through our farm, in our community.

So, hooray!  Today marks the beginning of another season of eating together.  This year, you will share with us the delicious flavors of each season, of food that tastes unlike anything you can find in the store, full of life and nutrition.  We will welcome you to the farm, we will celebrate together this summer.  Each week, we will see each other and share small news with each other, all while communing together over the gifts of the earth, the beautiful produce grown on this farm.

Gathering together a new way of farming and eating

This weekend we hosted our second farm potluck of the year, this time in conjunction with Slow Foods of Yamhill County.  Unlike our earlier potluck this season, which was wide open to both farm members and market customers as well as our greater community of friends, this gathering brought in folks mostly from the Slow Foods mailing list along with members of Slow Foods and some of our farm members.   Many of the folks had farms of their owns, some were WWOOF-ers from another farm in town,and all of us were genuinely interested in not only eating and/or growing food locally, but in the greater implication of this act.

It occurred to me while talking with everyone that the new American small farmer can hardly help but also be a food and land activist as well.  While we not only attempt a different model of production from larger-scale agriculture through polyculture planting and direct marketing, we also attempt to take a somewhat man-centered activity–agriculture–and make it once again accountable to the rest of the ecosystem. This means many things, and covers a wide array of different approaches to raising crops and animals; but the common theme is that once again, farming feels as much like an act of stewardship as business.

a happy little frog hiding on a happy little pepper

And this is really the more important missing ingredient in modern ag today.  Large fields of monocuture grains aren’t going to dissapear and probably shouldn’t.  We buy grains for our animals and ourselves, and with the right approach, these fields could be providing just as much food without the chemical load and soil depletion that we commonly see.  And with even a wink and a nod toward the well being of animals, operations like Wright County Eggs wouldn’t be around to cause such huge food safety issues.

And one thing that has become clear to me this year, as more and more of our counties small farms add some portion of organic production to their retinue–a lot of this is demand driven.  The folks here at our farm this weekend are driven by conviction and belief, and this is a large percentage of where sustain-ably produced local food is going to come from; but many growers who have hitherto been fine growing more conventionally can see that the demand for less chemicals and more conservation is pushing them to make the decision to give this new model of growing a go.

And that is where all of us eaters come into the picture.  Our buying habits have more power than we can imagine.  Right now, there are not enough eggs being produced and sold at our farmer’s markets and directly from other small farms in the area–the demand is so high!  And yet, most of the time, if we can’t get eggs from a source such as this, we will still go to the store and buy them.  The egg industry can partly be the disaster it is today because we, as consumers, eat so many eggs.  This is a hard one even for us.  It is hard to see your way around consuming eggs year-round and as often as you would like when there is a such glut of eggs in production.

*nothing* compares to safe, healthy, delicious farm eggs

After we lost most of our laying flock to predators a few years ago, we had to go about a year without having our own eggs and we couldn’t always get them locally.  We would buy organic eggs from the store, raised in the Willamette Valley, but by bigger egg producers than could likely be considered sustainable.  When we got a small flock going again last year, we were happy to have just enough eggs for our family for a while.  Then this year we added enough to the flock to sell eggs again, but while we wait for them to start really producing (they are just now starting) and while we have an otherwise egg-laying strike going on with the older hens whom we moved mid-summer and disrupted somehow, we have not had enough eggs for ourselves again.  This year though, instead of buying eggs when we can’t get them at market, we are eating all sorts of non-breakfast breakfasts.  It has been a challenge for us all, in our minds mostly, getting over the egg thing; but it has been enlightening, and in light of the recent egg recall, it has felt especially important.

And all of this is just a roundabout reminder, to myself and others, to keep up the good fight we are all involved in, all at our own levels and in our own ways, of reshaping farming and food culture in this country, all with an eye towards a system that is more than just concerned with human activity and human desire.  Farming is at the same time so integrally connected with natural cycles and the natural world as it is so supremely anti-natural in what it attempts to do.  To bring these into balance is the goal of the new American farmer and should be the driving demand of the new American eater.  Together, small get togethers at small farms all over the country will be a much larger part of the picture than we ever could have imagined.

gathering

Thistle Blooms

In the last four years that we have lived here on this property, the summer’s have  brought with them hordes of this nasty, prickly weed.  The first few years, it was hard to squat and work in the veggie field without getting poked, and if we tried to work in our regular, thin gardening gloves, we were constantly wincing through our weedings.  Each year has gotten better, with fewer and fewer of these beasts in the main field that we have been working since the beginning, and virtually none in our lower field which is just too fertile for thistles.  Our one pasture, which had the largest patch of thistle and queen anne’s lace where the previous owner’s horses spent a lot time, is finally recovering thanks to the beauty of goats in just such cases.  And the ground we tried to work for the last two years but decided not to grow on again was luckily mostly covered back up with grasses and queen anne’s lace.  All in all, we have so many fewer thistles this year that this in itself is enough to be happy about.

But there is this patch where we had last year’s burn pile, covered in purple flowers right now, and a new field where we have potatoes growing where all the weeding is prickly and a pain…not to mention the rogue thistle, here and there.  We have been pretty diligent with what thistle’s we have, keeping most of them from flowering.  But this one patch is all in bloom.  And this year, this actually makes us a little happy.

The thing is, we can’t help but notice how many of the things that we classify as weeds are just the things we have that are covered with bees.  And since we haven’t taken much time to specifically plant a season’s worth of bee food flowering plants on our property, we find a small bit of joy in seeing how our sometimes “wild” farm really is benefiting the “wild” creatures that find refuge here. Granted, many of the bees on our property traveled here from a large honey bee keeper just up the road.  Still, we now have large populations of native mason and bumble bees.  Early in the spring, they cover the dandelion flowers, then a bit later our flowering cherry trees, then on to the orchard trees.  Then later,  the lamb’s ear (which I almost classify as a weed) is covered.  Having a lot of ground clover in the lawn that we do cut helps a bunch too, and they love the mint, blackberries, and raspberries too.

But right now, they love the thistle flowers.  Later when these seed heads dry up, these same flowers will be covered with birds.  Now, we love and revere and worry about the bees tremendously, but we like the birds quite a lot too, so this is another benefit to be found in one of nature’s most unfriendly weeds.  And all of this is above and beyond the real reason these thistles are here anyways…to improve the disturbed and less than fertile soil they have taken root on.  In these lights, seeing all these purple heads can’t be too bad.  We have suffered through the worst of it already as we slowly turn bad soil to good all over this misused old farm.  Even as we continually refine how we are going to make a good living off of this land, we never lose sight of the underlying reason we are even living out here on this piece of ground in the first place:  to build a healthy, natural ecosystem for us and the wildlings to thrive on and enjoy.  The thistles are as much helpers in this journey as they are headaches.  As with most things, really, there is more good in them than bad, more beauty than we at first imagine.

This week…

We baked in the sun, but the veggies loved the heat and we could use some more of it to ripen some of those heat lovers out in the field!

Relished the thunder, lightning, and rain that followed the heat and refreshed all of us, animal, vegetable, and human alike!

Spent all of my newsletter writing time yesterday trying to get our truck back home from town because the ignition is not working (Uhhhgg!)

Said good-bye to family as they headed back home for California.

Enjoyed some intensely beautiful sunsets all week and a lovely full moon.

Feasted on the first of our meat chickens. We were afraid to raise the standard chicken breed used for meat because although the cross of a cornish chicken and barred rock chicken produces a fast growing (6-8 weeks rather than 16-24) bird with large breasts, we had heard that these birds didn’t’ forage at all and just sat by the feeder eating feed and getting big so fast that they could hardly walk. However, after a year of roosters raised for a longer period that ended up being so tough that they all became soup birds, we decided to try for some chicken we could roast. We were so pleasantly surprised. We started them in our green house which has a grass floor and had plenty of mustard starts that we weren’t planting. From the beginning these birds foraged for green stuff in addition to eating grain, but never once have they gorged on grain and not ranged for bugs and good green matter. They are healthy in all ways, (they do indeed mature quickly), like every other chicken we have raised the birds are delicious !!

We were one of three farms featured in The Oregonian today in their Market Watch where they did a write up on the McMinnville market!!