May 30, 2008

Week in Review

Variety - it's the word of the week. The kind of work I did this week varied as much as the vegetables we'll be packing for next week's CSA boxes. Preparation is the runner-up for the word of the week as it is the driving force behind our work these past few weeks.

I returned to the farm Monday evening after a long, relaxing weekend back home and at a friend's cabin at Lake Pepin. Eating pizza the first night home was a shock to my system, as I hadn't had meat in a while. I did get a little sick from the rich food back home (on Sunday I had pork TWO TIMES in ONE DAY!), and needless to say - my system is greased up. My family was able to munch on Featherstone asparagus and radishes as Jack lets us bring some home.

On Tuesday Jack had a project for me that involved a little more head labor than back labor. He had me work on the permit application to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Featherstone is getting a new packing plant warehouse and machine shop in the middle of what is hoped to soon become the 'home farm.' A lot of Featherstone's plots of land are dispersed through and around Rushford (because of the difficulty of acquiring it.) This creates problems as it increases transportation time and cost, and difficulty with communication. Building this new warehouse is an attempt to centralize the farm - and a very good one at that. I didn't mind doing the application at all, especially since Jack made himself so available for any questions. It gave me a firsthand view of the technicalities that come along with expansion. After work I strolled out to the greenhouses to snap a few shots of the farm.

Wednesday I went to the library to work on the MPCA permit again. (We had unexpected guests in the office that we were in the process of getting rid of, thanks to Evan.) Jack came to the library around noon to get me for lunch at 'The Creamery' with his son, Jasper, and mother who was visiting from Kentucky. She reminds me of Ruth Jackson, the mother of my future roommate. Before we drove back to the farm, we picked up a local to scout-out land for Jack. This brought me to the back of the pick-up, which was quite refreshing after sitting inside all day. The guys were scouting out potential entering/exit sites for the new land. Once one gets off of the main roads in Rushford, there are some extremely beautiful houses and off-roads.

I did some work for the newsletter on Thursday, acquiring some recipes that go along with vegetables in the CSA box, writing a letter introducing myself, and recapping James Beard's advice concerning asparagus. (It's great I can call this 'work!') Jack also got me started on applying for a grant to the United States Department of Agriculture for a geothermal energy system they are going to install on the new warehouse. Also on Thursday, all of the Featherstone employees had the first of a series of meetings concerning labor laws, labor agreements, and work culture. Featherstone is on the cutting-edge of being a certified Local Fair Trade farm. These meetings are a part of that certification. Featherstone has a group of brothers from Mexico that come up every spring and summer to work. This certification ensures that everybody is receiving a living wage and treated equally. From what I have experienced, the brothers (as well as the other workers) are very happy with working for the farm. A Spanish translator from the Agricultural Justice Project came to make sure everything was communicated effectively in Spanish. It was a very useful meeting. The usual Thursday night volleyball at Wiscoy was cancelled due to a downpour of rain. So I cozied up in my cabin with some pumpkin/walnut/date soup, some candles, a Frank Sinatra CD, and James Beard's collection of food writing, "Beard on Food." I also spent a chunk of that night designing the header graphic for this blog, and working on some writing assignments for 'The Mix' and The Mill City Farmers' Market.

My sisters wouldn't believe me if I told them what I did Friday - powerwashed. As their husbands are hog-farmers, they often get recruited to do a portion of the power-washing. We were cleaning out the coolers in preparation for their increased usage in the next few weeks. After lunch with Justin, where we discussed the hilarious dietary habits of the farm-house fraternity at the University, I started laying out newsletter. Evan invited me to my first Winona party tonight, which will me my first social outing here of the summer (second, if you count volleyball with the hippies in Wiscoy.) Friday evening brings me to the Acoustic Cafe in downtown Winona, whose wireless internet connection I'm currently writing this from. I'm falling in love with Winona as there are new things I discover each visit. After getting a Thai Chicken Sandwich from The Winona Sandwich Company, I learned that this cafe stays open until 10! I was getting a little nervous as I had gotten the impression that Winona shuts down at 6pm. (This was a problem as I don't get off of work until 5.) Hopefully this pint-sized mug of coffee will keep me awake enough to go out tonight. In all, I'm still getting my feet planted on the farm and in the area - but I have no doubts that soon I'll be off running.

Here's a simple recap of some things I've learned thus-far:

1) There's much more to farming than being out in the field.
2) Farmers are extremely dependent on many external factors - on the cooperation of machinery, the cooperation of the weather, and the cooperation of workers.
3) Melons are very difficult to grow in southeast Minnesota.
4) Deer don't like cabbage.
5) Biodiversity is key.

Things I've learned, not exclusive to farming:
1) "You're not a true Zephyrite if you aren't comfortable going to the bathroom outside." (Wise words given by my neighbor Kevin after I told him the Common House toilet was plugged.)
2) The Wiscoy Valley has a reputation - enough said.
3) Green lentils make curry dishes look very unappealing. (Another cooking experiment Wednesday evening.)
4) Find your matches to light your candles BEFORE it gets dark.
5) 'Chivlar' means 'to whistle' in Spanish. (Wisdom from Salvador while planting in the greenhouse.)

May 23, 2008

It's settled.

It almost happened again. I had to shower this morning because if I hadn’t that would have meant another 3 days would have gone by without one- volleyball got a little late last night. I especially wasn't going to walk back and forth in the dark to the cabin and the shower after Carl Lacher told me those horrifying statistics about coyotes eating humans.

After my usual morning nosh of yogurt and granola, it was back to working on the office. Today, Bob (the all-around office/electrical handyman) and Larisa (Featherstone’s bookkeeper) were helping out with setting the computers and internet up. After Bob fixed my wiring mistakes with the computers, we walked up to the cabin where he fixed my solar energy system. Everybody involved had a different prognosis and solution for the electricity problems I had been having, hence 3 plus nights living by candlelight. As things stand, I have electricity - but I'm not completely sold yet on this solar-powered system.

The remainder of the afternoon was spent cleaning CSA boxes with Justin and reorganizing the shop's packing area. It was a fairly mindless task, so it was a good time for Justin and I to get to know eachother. He shared some of the 'local wisdom' and some stories about his experience at the University. We pulled up Evan's truck that has a new satellite radio, twanged along to Justin's favorite country music tunes, and occassionally munched on Peach Rings from Fleet Farm as we cleaned.

But soon enough Justin left to help Jack load a refridgerator for me (and the other farm workers) at the farm; it is my primary source of refridgeration since I don't have one in the cabin. The Brothers even helped unload the fridge. So now I officially have everything I need at the farm: electricity, refridgeration, heat, and a bed.

Towards the end of the day I got supplies ready for the Winona Farmers' Market. It was strange to think about being on the other side of the table at a farmers' market. Featherstone isn't going to the market all summer, but just the first week to let the local community know that there are CSA shares open to residents of the Winona area. It's a great attempt to reach out to the local community and let there presence be known there.

May 22, 2008

Just as exciting as radishes

My father would be ashamed that I haven't eaten meat nearly all week and that the majority of the things going into my mouth lately are green; I come from cow-country.

Today I spent the morning tiding things up in the office, getting the computers hooked up and the internet connected. I kept thinking how busy this place will be in the next few weeks – very exciting.

Some of the afternoon was spent planting pumpkin and corn seeds with the guys in the greenhouse, and the other half was spent looking up recipes for the CSA newsletter that will be going out with the first crop share box. I get to choose recipes that include vegetables that are in the box. We are anticipating salad greens, chives, turnips, radishes, asparagus, and spinach. The recipes I chose include: Crispy Turnip Fries; Turnip Salad; Lentil, Radish, and Spinach stuffed Pita; Asparagus and Chive Frittata; Spinach Salad with warm Bacon Dressing; and Citrus Vinaigrette for salads.

Then it was off to the greenhouse to plant some pumpkin and sweet corn seeds. This event was accompanied by a few Spanish lessons via Salvador. He’s quite patient with me, and graciously tells me my Spanish is good when we both know the opposite is quite true.

The farm was fun today, but the evening was what held the day’s gem. As I was walking back from the common house to my cabin, my neighbor Kevin followed up on our conversation the previous night about the nearby valley community playing volleyball on Thursday nights. So we hopped on our bikes and started the trek. He said it ‘wasn’t very far,’ but this was coming from a man who just finished a triathalon. The whole way there was up-hill, which made the downhill ride back in the stark-black of the night all the more exciting.

I didn’t quite know what to expect with this nearby Wiscoy village. I had heard a lot about it as it is the big brother to our village- what our village aspires to be. They’ve got a full-fledged volleyball court, stadium-esque lighting, a stage for a band, a full-on outdoor seating area, a swimming pond with a beach, and a beautiful garden. The pinkish-blue night sky was beautiful as we started hitting the volleyball around.

For the good first half hour I was the only female and the only one who didn’t grow up in the 60s. Soon enough a motorcycle rode up with two 20 year olds from Winona, which made me feel a little more in place. Although, age in this case was a bad indicator of abilty as the older guys really pulled some magic on us out on the court – especially Carl Lacher. After coming to the game late, he insisted that he play with his gloves on. His other mechanism he used was distraction- talking while you were trying to pay attention. His best attempt was when he was giving me statistics about mountain lions eating humans after I had expressed concern about them being in the area.

There were many other interesting people to meet that night: Ebrahim – the star server, Jim Riddle (an organic certification inspector who works for the U) who brought the cookies and music, and Bill – Kevin’s fellow triathaloner who also has a mean serve. The night rolled along with playing volleyball, having a beer, and chatting. I got to talking to Jim for a while- a most interesting guy. He mentioned that he worked with Jack for a while and that they farmed the land near where we were playing volleyball. Jim was very excited when I told him I was a journalism student interested in sustainable living/agriculture because he deals with those very same things for work. He explained to me (as Jack did the previous day) that a land has to be out of chemical for 36 months in order to be certified organic. We also talked about why farmers are transitioning to organic. He mentioned consumer demand, farmer interest, and federal dollars among other things. All around – a very interesting bunch of men that love to get together to drink a beer and play volleyball.

I must say I am more than excited to come back.

May 21, 2008

I’m surprised I’m not turning green; I’ve been eating asparagus in quantities my body isn’t used to. It’s so fresh and delicious. This morning was spent cleaning up the shop/office again, and getting to know my new co-workers Justin and Evan. Justin reminds me of my brothers-in-law – a farmer at heart. He grew his own garden last year and sold at the farmers’ market, making nearly $5,000. He goes to school at the University of Minnesota. Evan reminds me of one of my old high school classmates, Cody Scholten. He is very nice, and knows each piece of farm equipment like the back of his hand. He loves motorcycles and is a total gear-head, handy around the farm – a very integral part of the farm.

There is also a lot of excitement around the farm as one of the Mexican brothers that works on the farm, Estaban, is going back to Leon, Mexico to plant his own field of corn next week. He will be back in two weeks, but in the meantime, Jack, Evan, Justin (and even Mary!) will be waiting with anticipation for their real snakeskin boots, which Estaban will be bringing back because they only cost $100 instead of $450. Jack claims he doesn’t own a pair, and that they will be his first. (He’s a unique mix of a farmer: he wears Carharts and Birkenstocks.) Estaban informed us that there are even pink, purple, and blue ones – with matching belts. I was slightly tempted, but declined politely.

It was Justin’s birthday today. Jack told us that the Brothers usually cook a big feast for the birthday bashes, but nobody had known about the special occasion yet except Jack, so he ordered some donuts for a mid-afternoon snack.

I got dirt under my nails again today! This is due to the rest of the morning spent planting tomatillos and apple peppers in the greenhouse. Jack showed me how to put the soil in the tray, compact it down a ways, place a seed, and cover it again – a pretty straightforward process. These seeds were planted in trays in order to be transplanted at a later time. Jack explained that certain seeds need a deep and densely packed soil environment. The peppers in particular, are very finicky. No matter how many things this guy has going on at once, he'll never hesitate to explain how to do the most mundane task- a very thoughtful and considerate boss.

Today my lunch consisted of half a bagel with baba ganoush with, you guessed it – asparagus. And a leftover brownie from the community meal.

The afternoon was spent with Jack, running errands and visiting the various fields near Rushford. I cannot comprehend how busy this man is, his cell must have rang at least 10 times during our trip. He brought me to the land where they are growing peas, radishes, spinach, arugula, eggplant, garlic, lettuce, among many other things. The largest section of this land is dedicated solely to lettuce – nearly 3 acres of it – green leaf, butter, romaine, spinach, red oak, and I’m sure some more that I missed. As we walked through the field, he explained to me at which point they harvest and how they go about contacting the store to tell them they’re ready to ship. It sounds like the relationship is not nearly as contractual as corn or soybean farmers’ relationships is with their buyers. Jack said, for most of his crops and his buyers, he is not obligated to give them an x amount of a certain vegetable, with a few exceptions.

Before leaving the field, Jack and I stopped to pick some green garlic and radishes for me to take home. And that brings me to supper- I had linguine with sautéed green garlic, radishes, and asparagus (again!). I’ve just realized that I’ve eaten meat once this whole time I’ve been here. The dish went great except for the fact that I burnt the green garlic, but I don’t mind a toasty flavor – it adds another element. This was the first time I turned on the stove, and I’m very excited for future food adventures from the farm.

The rest of the night consisted in a long stroll along the gravel roads (where you find the best reception), talking to my family on the cell phone. As I was walking up back to my cabin I stopped to talk to one of my neighbors ,Pryce. He gave me a housewarming gift of a beeswax candle that his wife made from the farm. Again, another gesture of warmth that has slowly made me feel at home.

May 20, 2008

Running for it

I started on this day with my first jog through Zephyr Valley. What was once my iPod that filled my head with music during my runs has now been replaced by chirping birds. The driveway to the farm itself took nearly 10 minutes to jog. The dogs were on my heels as I left, and I think they’re slowly getting used to me. The jog was beautiful and peaceful.

Today was the first day I officially got dirt under my fingernails. We picked asparagus in the morning, reminding me of my family back home picking wild asparagus in the local ditches, and my brother who proceeds to pickle them. This experience is going to make grocery shopping completely different now that I see that somebody had to chop every single sprig in the bunch. It’s just something you’re never forced to think about. The five Mexican brothers that work on the farm showed us the ropes. The language barrier was overcome by their ability to show us what is ‘bien’ and ‘junke’.

I got to talking to one of the guys, Olegario (Ole for short) , and attempted a conversation in Spanish. If things were understood correctly, he’s got 7 children back home in Mexico. He asked me if I was married, and why not. He told me he likes to work on farms in Minnesota better because we don’t use chemicals. And then they had to make fun of me that I was wearing ‘zappatos’ (tennis shoes) and not farm boots. They’re really fun to work with. After we picked the asparagus, we packed it into 1 pound bundles to put in the cooler.

Evan, the farm’s handy-man who is my age, drove another summer worker and I up to the Lacher Ridge where Featherstone has another plot of land. This ride was of no-speed I had taken before. These are nowhere near straight-roads mind you. Evan warned to be cautious of random cows or sheep crossing the road throughout the summer.

Once we got back we had a staff meeting and were free for the evening. I made a dash to Winona to get some groceries from Bluff County Co-Op grocery store where one of the ZVCC members works and where I ran into the girl in front of me at the cashier who worked at Featherstone a few years previous. I picked up some quinoa, pears, grapefruit, yogurt, baba ganoush, lentils, and balsamic vinaigrette. After getting groceries I joined the community meal at the common house, where we had the quiches Tahira, Charisa, and I made with asparagus from the field.

After clean-up I did a load of laundry and worked on a freelance assignment on the porch of common house. It was so peaceful working to the sound of crickets and birds (AND an occasional coyote howl!) Kevin, who lives down the road from me, informed me that the nearby community in the valley has a volleyball league on Thursdays. It sounds pretty intense and serious, I don’t know if I’m quite up to par for them. I’ll keep you posted.

And as an end note to keep things exciting, today I showered for first time in 3 days.

May 19, 2008

Settling In

As I write this entry I am laying in the loft of my cabin. I’m officially living at the farm! The day began snaking up the valleys between Winona, where I stayed overnight last night, and the farm. I didn’t know if my car’s motor could take the battle, given that all of my stuff from my dorm room was in the car. My car made it to the farm ok, and Jack got me started in settling in. But before I settled in, Evan and Justin, (the other college-student workers) along with Jack and I – pushed two flatbeds full of butternut squash seedlings out of a barn and into the sunlight- my first official task of ‘intensive labor’ of the summer.

The cabin was left in very good shape from the previous stays. Nothing more than a few swipes on the counters, shelves, and floor was required . I was most excited to take the plastic off the windows to let the direct sunlight in and bring the greenery into view. After multiple loads back and forth to the Buick, my car was finally relieved of its previous weight.

Soon enough my stomach reminded me I hadn’t eaten for a while so I drove to Rushford, and got a few groceries. Upon returning to the farm, and after placing an order of (shockingly, to me) nearly $1,000 of seed, we got started on some clean-up around the shop and office, which was a great idea because it sounds like in a few weeks we won’t necessarily have time for this. The best part about the office is the ‘Featherstone Museum’ , which is a two-shelved corner that has memorabilia from previous memories on the farm. (Including choice-memorabilia left from a band member from a music-festival near the farm.) After clean-up Jack topped off my cabin with electricity, water, and heat. The day on the farm was done and meeting the community members followed. The community meeting was held at the Common House and the members are extremely warm. As I was back at the cabin unpacking, I stopped Tihira (a Zephyr Valley community member) as she was walking back to her house. She is in charge of the community meal tomorrow (a once-a-week event in which members take turns cooking for everybody). I told her I had nothing to do since my unpacking was near completion, so we decided it would be ok if I helped make her quiche for tomorrow, which also had asparagus from the farm in it. As we were cracking eggs and cutting asparagus, Charissa – another community member stopped by, and we had a glass of wine while we chit-chatted and cooked. It was a great welcoming note on the farm. As Charissa left she told me, “You’re that 20-year-old we’ve never had.” They remind me of my big sisters.

Speaking of food, although I have been counting down the days until I was able to have my own kitchen – I have not cooked yet. That’s partially because I’m not set up with a fridge quite yet. This is what life without refrigeration means to my meals – a bag of trail mix and a bagel with Nutella and cinnamon.

At the end of the day, this was a great start to a great summer.

May 18, 2008

And it begins....

It is my first night with Featherstone Farm. As the cabin is yet to be set up, the farmer, Jack, warmly invited me to stay a night with his family in Winona, MN. I was greeted by two energetic boys, Oscar and Jasper, innocently running around the yard. Jasper immediately reminded me of my three little nephews back home who are the same age. As soon as I walked in the kitchen, supper was nearly served. The meat choice was perfect. As many of my friends can attest because of my forceful insistence that they try it – lamb is my favorite. Although this was no leg of lamb, eating the rack of ribs was quite a rustic experience. Mint jelly was the perfect accompaniment, as advised by Jack.

We had dinner out on the deck: lamb, quinoa, salad greens, bread, and asparagus – which was, of course, from the farm. As conversation rolled along, which terrificly ranged from pine cones to the Farm Bill, the crisp air eventually nudged us inside. After Jasper had his snack of a (direct quote from him) “honey, peanut butter, and butter sandwich”, and after Jenny read some books to the kids, Jack and I swapped portions of the New York Times, during what he considers his 15 minutes of reading the newspaper for the week. His wife set me up with my sleeping arrangements and we called it a night. My uneasiness about leaving my family and friends behind for the summer ahead soon subsided as I felt right at home with this welcoming experience; it was like having a normal Sunday evening dinner with my family. Featherstone is now, for the time being, excitingly my new family.


I am about to get the last night's sleep in a building that I have lived in for three years. Tomorrow begins a new, pivotal chapter in my life as I am moving from Minneapolis to a farm. As I look out my window, I see the skyline of Minneapolis. Within 24 hours, I will look out my window and see a thicket of trees, and the glitter of the skyline will be replaced by the glitter of the stars. As a journalism student at the University of Minnesota - I am taking on an internship at an organic vegetable farm in southeast Minnesota. I will be working on their CSA newsletter, helping out with the planning of their Web site relaunch, and also fieldwork. I hope to gain a greater sense of appreciation for the seasons, learn how to grow vegetables, and get a behind-the-scenes view of local food production. Going from living in a building of 600 University students, to living in a cabin alone, I cannot anticipate what differences in lifestyle this summer will bring.