June 21, 2008

Strawberry Fields Forever

It was 9 a.m. on the first day of summer and my brow was laden with sweat as I was out picking fresh strawberries. That day was to be Featherstone's Strawberry Social. That morning we hadn't had as many strawberries stored in the cooler than we thought, so we had to go out and pick some for the strawberry shortcake topping. As strawberry picking can be somewhat time-intensive, and often painful (the thistles) I decided to bring out my iPod to take my mind off of the clock and the pricks. I have been listening to the Forrest Gump soundtrack for the last week because they played it at Wiscoy volleyball last week and I fell in love. (That's actually what we listen to when packing CSA boxes, too. That- and the Beetles, but I've made everybody here sick of the Beatles by now.)

While picking strawberries and listening to the music from Forrest Gump my mind wandered to his infamous 'Life is like a box of chocolates.....' line. And an analogy hit me: 'Life is like picking strawberries, you've got to get through the thistles to take hold of the berry. ( I've often thought that people are like vegetables, their true colors come through when you put them in hot water!)

The day rolled along and people started arriving by the van-loads to the social. It was so great to see our shareholders, especially their children who were very enthusiastic about the whole affair. Many kids said this was their first time picking berries and the thistles didn't seem to mind them one bit. One boy in particular was smart because he wore his soccer socks which went nearly up to his thighs - not one exclamation of pain was heard from him. After seeing the armloads-full of berries people were leaving with, it was clear that many strawberry pies and jam were soon to be in the works. And of course, strawberry shortcake and lemonade followed.

After the strawberry social farmer Jack gave a tour of the new land that Featherstone has acquired to build a new washing and packing plant. I, of course, was there with my camera - stumbling over mounds of dirt to capture some shots. The acquisition of this land is very exciting for Featherstone because it will centralize the farm as it is one more step in our attempt at sustainability.

The farm had cleared out upon our return, and the social was officially over. Before walking up to my cabin I stopped by one of the neighbor's house because he was outside prepping his bike for the 'bar crawl' ride that was to be on Sunday. As we were talking about strawberries, I shared with him a recipe I had made up the previous night - a strawberry and pea salad (no lettuce involved, here.) A look of shock, then intrigue was present on his face - so I decided to make another batch that night. As I entered the Common House kitchen Alex (who helps out with our Twin Cities deliveries) and Steve Yedder (the soon-to-be Warehouse Manager that I am stoked to be working with) were making supper because they were spending the night at the farm. They warmly invited me to join, which was perfect as I was going to make that salad (recipe below) anyways. We got to cooking as Steve told us of his many (as he would say) 'hippie journies'. This meal was the most Featherstone-filled meal I've had yet: Red romaine lettuce salad with sliced radish and zucchini; turnip, radish, pea stir-fry over rice; and my strawberry pea salad. We sat out on the porch, watched the sun set, and turned up our senses to soak up the beauty around us.

As the summer solstice came to a close, I decided I could not have spent the dawn of summer in a better way - picking strawberries with Featherstone's shareholders and having a fresh meal with my co-workers - all sharing the bounty together.


1 pint strawberries
1 tsp sugar, to taste
1/2 lb sugar snap peas
1 tbs balsamic vinaigrette
1 tsp olive oil
chopped mint, to taste
salt and pepper, to taste

Wash and slice strawberries, put them in a bowl then spoon sugar over them and stir. Cut the peas (in shell) into thirds and place in another bowl and mix with the balsamic vinaigrette. Combine the two bowls, mix, and add the oil, mint, salt, and pepper.

June 17, 2008

From their hands

The sunlight isn't the only beautiful thing contributing to the bounty at Featherstone. The hard-working and dedicated group of men from Mexico, the Gaska brothers, have blown me away with their willing, generous, and dedicated attitudes.

On my first farm visit in the think of winter, before they even knew who I was, they fed me menudo up in their trailer. It was a very kind gesture and I never imagined that months later we'd be to the point where they send me off with a To-Go box of their homemade 'mole' for my road trip to the Twin Cities. One never knows what generosity lies beneath.

The Gasca brothers are from Guanajuato, Mexico, and all have a farm together there. They all have children- many of them - one of them even has 11. Every spring and summer they come to Minnesota in order to make money for their own farm back home. Once in a while, one of them will go back to work on the farm for a few weeks. Currently we are waiting the return of Estaban who is bringing back some much-anticipated cowboy boots for some Featherstone workers, including farmer Jack. The Brothers consist of 5 actual brothers (Saul, Olegario, Salvador, Hugo, Estaban) and 2 cousins (Lupe and Ricardo.)

Saul, pictured above, is the oldest of the brothers; this is very significant as seniority has a much larger role in their culture. He is very well respected and looked up to. This was first made apparent to me as he always gets the first donut pick. Their soft smiles radiate nothing but kindness as we 'gringos' feebly attempt to hone our Spanish skills. They are actually as eager to learn English as we are Spanish and conversations often take the form of teaching each other words in our languages. There are a few phrases that are very important on the farm like, "mas rapido" and "quantos mas?"

Their sense of humor makes the long work hours much, much shorter. Yesterday as we were picking beans for 3 hours in the morning, the guys were laughing, talking, singing, and despite the fact that we had NO idea what they were talking about, it created a more pleasant work environment. It must be the presence of their smiles and constant laughter that gravitates us towards them. If we could pick where we were working for the day, the top choice would be working with the Gaskas. Although they are fun individually, they are most fun when they are all together because they are always cracking jokes at each other - or us. The past few days I have been the butt of the jokes as I decided to wear shorts when we went strawberry picking, and my mud boots while bean picking. Apparently these were hilarious decisions to the guys - and they let me know.

My Featherstone experience, thus far, has been heavily shaped by my interactions with these men, and our farm's harvest is, both literally and figuratively, the fruit of their labor.

June 15, 2008

The Wiscoyotes

Another night of sweat, sand, beer, and laughs – Thursday night Wiscoy volleyball. Despite my co-workers' apprehensions about me going out there to visit, I have been having the time of my life. I am not shamed to say that one of the social highlights of my week is spending a few hours with a handful of (I'm guessing) 50-year-old men playing volleyball. These are not your ordinary men- they dance, dive, and drink while they play, and completely pause the game when the music runs out. (They dubbed themselves the 'Wiscoyotes' for their winter volleyball league team.) I consider them harmless (though they laugh and disagree) and would be hard pressed to find another group of guys this age I would willingly hang out with. The only scary thing about that night was when a tree frog jumped at me while grabbing the volleyball out of the weeds.

After the lights turned off the moonlight sank in and nature’s song let itself be known. Stories of old 4th of July parties and conversations about glowing larvae and fungus hilariously followed.

Jim told me the story of the sauna that is very interesting. Turns out Ibrahim, one of the co-op members, intended to build it for a house to move up on the ridge. As it neared its completion, the other valley members convinced him to turn it into a sauna. They all pitched in with resources and time to make it happen. Jim said it best: “We’ve created our own little reality here.” It sounds as if the Wiscoy co-op is the materialization of the dreams of many.

Making one's dream a reality is a destination not many people reach in their lifetime. Usually dreams stay just that – dreams. These individuals are so in-tune to their values, passions, and selves that they are eager to make long-term investments to seek out the manifestation of their visions.

Bob was another sweet soul I met that night. In conversation he told me that he has a daughter who was born in the same year as me- the “Year of the Rabbit.” He said he loves people that were born in that year, very strong, confident, and nice. Bob is a very reinforcing and refreshing person to talk to.

Jim will be going to an IFOAM conference in Italy this week to run for the world board. The guy knows way more about organics than I can comprehend as he has written organic certification manuals which many organic certifiers currently use. I would never imagine somebody who is running for an international organization's world board to be so down to earth, friendly, and willing to help others learn as Jim is. Given the nature of his job, he is very generous with his time as he travels the state giving speeches, gives tours of his energy efficient house, takes local couples fishing, and still has time to play volleyball with his buddies in Wiscoy.

This attitude is completely reflective of their community at-large. Nobody is too busy to give you the time of day and delight to share their wisdom and advice. They live simply, consciously, humbly, and take pleasure in the simple things such as the vibrant moon's reflection on the pond or a good beer.

I see nothing but good things coming from these Thursday evening ventures to Wiscoy.

June 8, 2008

Me and Mollie

This was my first weekend spent at Featherstone Farm, and what a weekend it was. Work on the farm ended late Friday as we had a last minute lettuce-pick in the fields for wholesale boxes to be shipped up to Minneapolis Saturday morning. I hadn’t seen lettuce picked before so I was pretty excited. Salads, to me, have always seemed clean and dainty, things served at ladies’ luncheons with fruit pieces or roasted nuts or some fancy-schmancy vinaigrette. But a head of loose-leaf lettuce bulging from the ground is quite a humble sight. Loose leaf lettuce is just that – loose. Its open leaves create room for soil and sand to nestle a home for themselves. Not only is the lettuce host to soil before we wash it, it also is completely exposed to the elements – no shell, skin, or earth to protect it. Lettuce, fully mature, is completely at the mercy of its external environment. M.F.K. Fischer once said, “Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg until it is broken.” This is most certainly not the case for loose-leaf lettuce in all its exposed glory. It really is beautiful – almost like a firework coming from the ground.

Friday evening I took my new camera around Zephyr Valley (where the farm is located and where I live) while Simon and Garfunkel sang to me on my iPod. I never realized how photogenic this huge red barn outside my window is. While taking pictures, my neighbor Pryce mentioned his wife was good with cameras and to stop by if I had questions. And I did just that. After his wife Tisha invited me in I noticed the plethora of cookbooks she has. As I am in charge of putting recipes in the CSA newsletter, I’m on constant ‘hunt-mode’ for seasonal recipes. I encountered a particular cookbook author whose books I have seen on the shelves of many here – Mollie Katzen. Katzen organized a cookbook for the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, New York, and was a front-runner in popularizing vegetarian cooking. These books were a godsend as they are havens for veggie-infused recipes. Tisha had multiple books of Katzen’s, all of which she let me borrow. (Which leads me to what I did the majority of the weekend – more on that later.)

After a few substantial spoonfuls of mixed almond butter and vanilla yogurt on the porch of the common house Saturday morning, I packed my shoes, coffee, and a book. That day I had big plans to see a hiking trail I had gotten wind of both at Bluff Country Co-op and also from a barista at the Blue Heron Café. On my drive to Winona, the sky was looking as though the weather had different plans for me. A few sprinkles on my windshield were enough to solidify the decision to put off the hike for another day. Because I was more than halfway there I decided to go to the Winona Farmers Market. Many beautiful, beautiful things were there. I got green onions, pimento olive bread, spaetzle, bok choy, and mint. While there I ran into Kevin from Zephyr Valley, followed by Jan (also from Zephyr Valley) at Bluff Country Co-op. I couldn’t beat the bad weather home and was forced to spend the rest of the day inside.

But a few vital elements to my circumstance made it extremely tolerable: 1) I was stocked with good, fresh food. 2) I had new Moosewood cookbooks. 3) I had time. Before cooking I rummaged through the Moosewood books to find recipes for the newsletter. (I would reveal the recipes, but I don’t want to ruin it for all the CSA-member readers. They’re going to have to wait.) By this time, I was itching to prop these books open on my kitchen counter. In the next two days I ended up making Persian Yogurt Spinach soup, ‘Gypsy’ soup, sautéed radishes (twice), and green garlic scrambled eggs. I’m stocked with good eating for a while.

Not only did the crummy weather put a damper on my ambitious outdoor recreational plans, but it also depleted my cabin’s solar energy. I’ve got solar panels that source my cabin with energy, and the sunlight was nearly nonexistent this weekend. Needless to say, the panels are thirsty and I don’t foresee them getting a good drink of sunlight in the near forecast. But, candlelight is beautiful – nonetheless.

The weekend closed with a warm, hearty, home-cooked meal with my neighbors. Even though it wasn’t my family, it felt good just to be with a family. More warmth was extended as Mary (the CSA manager) called in to check how I was doing alone in this stormy weather – how powerful simple gestures can be.

June 5, 2008

Beautiful Day

This was the week – our first CSA boxes of the season were packed! The previous weeks have all been in preparation for this moment. Although the asparagus and radishes were far ahead of us in the season, the lettuce and salad mixes were not picked until this week. A buzz of energy was present as we assembled ‘the line’ to pack boxes full of radishes, asparagus, salad mix, red oak leaf lettuce, (and some green garlic.) Each person had their job, mine was putting the asparagus in the box and making sure it was facing the correct way so the person folding the box would have a consistent angle to go at it. The line went quite smoothly without any major glitches. We would occasionally catch a box that was missing a bag of lettuce, or catch one that had 3 – but hey, it’s the beginning of the season and we’re getting the kinks out now.

It was so exciting to think that the next day many families would have Minnesota-fresh vegetables in their kitchen, cooking up a storm. The green garlic left a tantalizing smell around the packing area, and I could only imagine that smell amplified days later in people’s kitchens with their families anticipating the first meal from the CSA box. You know you’re a foodie when a thought like this gets your heart pumping.

Although these first few boxes naturally aren’t as substantial as the mid-July boxes, there is something to be said for delighting in the anticipation of the first box – in all its simplicity. Much time, patience, and sweat have gone into the planting, growing, and harvesting of these crops.

My appreciation for a simple salad has grown twenty-fold. I cannot look at one the same anymore as every leaf of lettuce is the result of somebody’s care, somebody’s patience, and somebody’s back – which makes that fresh crunch all the more alive.

June 2, 2008

Dia de Lechuga - 'Lettuce' Celebrate

As the Gaska brothers would say, “Today is the day God smiled down on Featherstone.” It was a special day as the first big lettuce harvest occurred. In a matter of over 2 hours, nearly over 2,500 heads of lettuce were picked, washed, and packed for the grocery store orders in the Twin Cities. A big goof on my part in transferring numbers on the order sheet almost had us picking 3 times the amount we needed. I still feel sick about it.

I knew today was special when Jack put in an order for donuts to be picked up at the local grocery. (The first time we had donuts was last week when Justin had a birthday.) It was quite a paradox be celebrating the harvest of lettuce with donuts – but a quite delicious paradox. A large part of this celebration is cultural, though. Jack explained to me earlier a concept that the Mexican brothers adhere to and that is this: when a well-respected member of the family, or a boss, falls on good fortune, it is customary to ‘share the wealth.’ The first big harvest of lettuce obviously equals dollars for the farmer, so the donuts were in response to this custom.

The heads of lettuce were gorgeous with all of their rich, pure colors. (Red oak, green butter, red butter, and green leaf.) I learned that the biggest difference between the lettuces is the texture, as the butter lettuce is a little more slippery and soft. The process of washing the lettuce was a very delicate, yet rapid one. One of the brothers was obviously concerned with my speed so he kindly stepped in to show me the ‘right way.’ (And I have to say it was absolutely that.) After packing up the lettuce we all drove back to the farm to store it in the coolers that we power washed last week.

For lunch, a lady from the Twin Cities who is helping raise money for the farm made us one of the most delicious meals I’ve had here yet. (And lucky me – the leftovers are in the fridge!) She said she wanted to ‘feed those who feed me.’ Nicely put. She made us asparagus soup (whose garnishing I mistook for a side dish!), a tomato/parmesan/mushroom/spinach frittata, a salad, great bread and cheese, and a strawberry-rhubarb oatmeal bake with maple yogurt. So good. (You can hopefully find these recipes in next week’s Featherstone CSA newsletter.)

The rest of the afternoon was spent planning for our first newsletter going out with the crop share boxes we will send out tomorrow. This is an exciting time at the farm as these will be the first in the series of 12 boxes that will go out weekly to nearly 600 families.

I was also able to spend over an hour in the middle of 3 acres of lettuce taking pictures. A truck kept driving back and forth dumping and loading gravel onto a site, and I think he thought I was crazy. A few times he caught me actually laying down to capture a good shot. Another interesting encounter I had there was with a beekeeper, who was dropping in to see if we wanted to use his bees again this year; his bees pollinated our melons last year. He explained to me the plight of the beekeeper these days as many are dying out due what the keeper said was ‘pesticides and politics.’

Among other things I learned today was how rusty my Spanish actually is. I mistakingly told Saul that the asparagus was the same color as his road. ( I mixed up camisa and camina. ) The brothers got a good chuckle out of that one, like they usually do at our Spanglish attempts.

At the end of the day I felt a great sense of physical accomplishment as tangible results could be seen as a result of our labor- a feeling that one doesn't often encounter in school. I have to admit it felt slightly good to have a mildly sore back and a scrape on my hand. (I'm going to be eating my words come mid-July.)

Some sweat, laughs, fears, and reliefs were all had in a hard day's work.