July 19, 2008

A leap of faith

I hate baking. Baking involves following the rules and sticking to the guidelines, something I don't do with my other cooking, or life for that matter. But cooking light dishes with vegetables this whole summer has given me the appetite to create something a little more substantial. Just like I said I'd never marry a farmer, I also vowed never to get into baking. But as my mind has changed about farmers this summer, so it follows with baking. I dove in today and baked zucchini (from the farm, of course) spice bread. And it was delicious. So delicious. The pecan and date niblets inside add a silky and crunchy combination that melds wonderfully with the moist warmly-spiced bread. (recipe from Moosewood's 'Enchanted Broccoli Forest')

I use this event not to tout my newfound baking skills, but rather as an analogy to tell the story about how I got involved with Featherstone Fruits and Vegetables. About how I ended up here, writing about my experience being involved in a community that delivers nearly 600 weekly boxes of organic produce to local consumers. It was a complete leap of faith, a shot in the dark - one that turned out with pleasant results, also.

It all started with a haircut at the Aveda Institute in northeast Minneapolis last fall. As Tuesdays are student discount days, I had a half-hour to kill before I could get in for an appointment. The last thing I wanted to do was linger around the store and smell their awful cologne-like products from the Aveda Store by the waiting lobby. No thanks. So I decided to explore the neighborhood. I noticed this quaint shop whose sign hung attractively on the corer of the building. The sign read "Let's Cook," and the shop was home to a store that sold kitchen equipment and cooking classes. I was sold before I even stepped in the door. After perusing the store I quickly learned this place was way out of a college student's budget, so I asked if there was any other way to get involved with the store - food events, classes, etc. The cashier told me that the cooking demonstrations are run by a volunteer-staff. Needless to say, I turned in my application and in one week I had my first event. I loved this place as I was constantly surrounded by fellow-foodies. A type that is hard to find in my age-range. (But I was quite surprised as about 6 of my friends are now volunteering there.)

As we said goodbye to winter and hello to spring, farmers started to have an increasing presence in the Twin Cities in order to connect with their market. I had recently gotten an assignment from Edible Twin Cities to fact-check their list of CSA Farms for their directory in the next issue. Featherstone was on that list, but at the time they were just a line to get checked off on my list of farms I had to call. I didn't give them any more thought than I did the other farms. At the same time, in order to get the word out about Community Supported Agriculture programs, farmers and farm workers attended a 'CSA Farmer Fair' at Let's Cook. I happened to be volunteering that specific event, when I met Mary Benson - Featherstone's CSA Manager. After we got to talking, we realized that we had talked not a month previous when I was doing the Edible TC piece. (Writing for Edible TC was another leap of faith as I took a shot in the dark by emailing the editor, basically begging to let me help with the publication.) This conversation was followed by a few emails, a few phone calls, and a farm visit. After visiting Zephyr Co-op in Wiscoy Valley, where the farm is located, I was completely sold. Two months later I was trekking around to our different fields with Jack, our farmer, in his pickup, learning about the Farm Bill and ideal vegetable-growing soil conditions. Sure beats an a dry-corporate communications internship at (not naming names) in the bustle of downtown Minneapolis.

Some of the most worthwhile moments this summer have happened to me when I take that one extra step, outside of my zone of comfort, putting to sleep the creature of habit within and waking up the creature of new experience. If I've learned one thing, it's that you've got to insist life to happen - it doesn't just fall into place. Whether it's baking, spending that extra hour after volleyball for good conversation, jumping in the Wiscoy pond with Hugo in our work-clothes, or slogging through the mud for that perfect photo opportunity, these events have given value to my summer, value that wouldn't exist had I not insisted. It's a process of leaps of faith. Even when everything seems fine, it can always be better. It's like organic farming, nothing of value is produced unless the farmer wills the soil (albeit, naturally) to be a certain condition and have certain properties that makes it conducive to germination. That's when life happens, when one wills it.

So, go on. Leap - it's delicious.

July 17, 2008

It's that simple

Tonight I had one of the most satisfying meals I've eaten in a long time. Most satisfying, and most simple.

A day at Featherstone is not complete for me without trekking up to my cabin at the end of the day with two handfuls of fresh produce to experiment with. Mollie Katzen and her beautiful cookbooks have been a godsend as I cook almost every night. The problem is, I only have one mouth to feed and I have a stockpile of leftovers that are constantly nudged into the deep corners of the fridge by new leftovers. I like to cook more than I like to eat. (Wouldn't you have an itch to cook if you had access to a plethora of free vegetables, looked up recipes throughout the week for your job, and took pictures of gorgeous food ?)

Earlier this week, one of the female community members came to visit me in my stuffy cabin to inquire about having a dinner date some night this week, as her husband is on the road for work. We decided we'd do something light and refreshing. Perfect, I thought. An opportunity to share some of Featherstone's bounty (via my leftovers) with somebody else!

I walked over with an armful of iced Beet and Orange soup, Cucumber-Dill Yogurt salad, goat cheese, fig/curry dressing, and some mint lemonade. My 'contribution' was nothing, as my dinner-partner knew how to prepare a July dinner - salad, bread, and cheese. We set the table and spread the fare. While my complex dishes were a decent addition, her salad and homemade bread and cheese were just quite perfect by themselves. As I usually eat alone, it was almost strange for me to have conversation while eating. Usually I'm mentally mulling over my To-Do list. She asked me how my summer was going and I realized that was a question I've been too busy to even ask myself.

So I thought. "I'm busy," I said. But busy doesn't necessarily mean good, most often time its a key word for stress, which is quite the opposite of good in my book. The more I thought about it, I realized that, like college, the most valuable learning experiences this summer haven't come from the labor on the farm, the place you'd expect. In college, I've found I've learned much more outside the classroom than in - about how to deal with other people, about other cultures from my diverse group of friends, about how to handle stress, how to manage an unruly schedule, and how to set boundaries with work. It's similar here at the farm as I'm not learning nearly as much working on the farm, as I am living on the farm and interacting with the community.

I told her that living in the farm community has forced me into a new lifestyle, making decisions I've never had to before. For example, with my solar powered energy system, I have to seriously consider which lights I actually need on and which ones I can spare. Quite an alien question 3 months ago. I've seen that my actions and decisions have consequences. My rosemary plant will die if I don't give it a drink. Hundreds of our farm's members will have terrible dinners if I miss an ingredient on the newsletter's recipe page. My cabin's energy will run out if I don't conserve. My neighbors will be more warm to me if I feed their animals when they're gone. Simple things, really. But vital to be conscious of.

And I saw that what I've learned during this farm experience is reflective of the meal we were having: that Less Is More. I was amazed at how satisfied I was with bread, lettuce, and cheese. Its wholesomeness was as surprisingly nourishing as feeding my neighbor's chickens, picking basil, planting an herb garden, eating my usual morning nosh of granola and yogurt on the porch listening to nature wake up, or having an ice-cold beer with a friend on a hot July evening. Again, simple, but indispensable.

Just as less is more, more is less. I've met people here who are worlds happier with their humble living quarters than families living in suburbia. Living in excess forces one to neglect the essentials. How can one be in tune to how their body feels when they are preoccupied with making sure their pantry is overflowing? How can one enjoy the simple company of an endearing friend when they have 600-some virtual Facebook friends whose 'walls' have now become their main form of communication? (I apologize to anybody over 30 who doesn't get this reference- it's a Generation Y thing.)

I would have laughed had someone told me 3 months ago how complete I'd feel with scarce phone and internet connection, no TV, no meat, a pond, an occasional shower, dirt under my nails, a two-room off-grid cabin, a slightly sore back, vegetables, and a cluster of hippies.

Less is more. So much more.

July 11, 2008

Time for a visit

Whew. What a week - my family visited the farm! This visit was preceded by a family vacation. I wasn't very homesick to begin with, but, needless to say, I got my fill of family time for a while. Two weeks ago, I took my first few days off from the farm to leave for vacation at Fox Lake – a small lake near Welcome, MN. Since my aunt and uncle have a house on the lake, we were able to take the boat out during the evening on the fourth of July and watch fireworks all around. It was most relaxing – drinking wine and cuddling with my nieces and nephews out on the boat while we watched the lights glitter in the sky.

A few low-points of the occasion was playing volleyball (against the ‘in-laws’ of the family, to whom we lost 5 times) and mealtime. Mealtime was a chore not because the food was bad, but I had to constantly defend myself as my dietary decisions have changed after having lived on a vegetable farm for a few months. I’m in the wrong family to not be eating meat – they weren’t too excited about the whole thing. But I made it through the weekend. (So did my veggie-filled salads and entrees that I brought - I may have been the only one who ate a substantial amount of them!)

Although vacation was good, I couldn’t help myself from leaving early to go to Wiscoy’s fourth of July celebration (on the 5th.) Just as the weekend was exciting, it was even more exciting that some of my family decided to visit for a week after the lake-weekend.

As my parents, sister, and two nieces trekked down County Road 19 to Wiscoy Valley I could sense their amazement. It brought me back to the sensation I got when I first came in April- one of anxiousness and curiosity. The topography here is unlike anything we see in southwestern Minnesota. Even though this was their 'vacation,' they wanted to be put to work. So I honored their request and picked up some barn paint at Fleet Farm for them to repaint my cabin. That, and picking peas with us, kept them busy for a few days. They were even able to help out with preparing and packing the CSA boxes. The last two days of their trip we left the farm to go to Lanesboro, Harmony (to Niagra Cave), and La Crosse.

It was so fun for me to see them interacting with my co-workers, the various Zephyr members and the Wiscoyotes, and to see them gaining knowledge about and respect for organic vegetable farms during their visit. Despite my niece's exclamation that 'she wants a big steak when she gets home', I knew they had a valuable experience after my sister inquired about organic vegetable farms near her hometown and when she told me that she was going to be more adventurous in the produce aisle now. I (slightly) felt bad that I deprived them from their normal farm-fare, but I did let them break-down midweek and order fried-chicken from Rushford Foods, which was part of a picnic we ate with plastic knives because of a mix-up with the leftover plastic-ware from the lake vacation. And, every night (with exception of Friday) we did get ice cream.

Overall, their visit was very pleasant and I feel more connected to both the farm community and my family after having the two interact. It's almost like discovering how two foods, that you love so dearly by themselves, are more interesting and enjoyable together as you discover different characteristics of each when they are contrasted and complemented by the flavors and textures of the other. For me, that's toasted pecans and dates, or sugar snap peas and strawberries, or beets and oranges, etc. I saw that my family is a little more adventurous and accepting than I gave them credit for, and that the farm community is very adaptable, accommodating, and flexible. It makes me smile that, because of this experience, my nieces are quite possibly one of the few in their classes who know that kale is a vegetable, not just a boy's name. Small things like that, are what made this week wonderful.

That, and the extra hands we had getting work done on the farm :)

July 1, 2008

'Beeting' the odds

One update a week – that’s all I’ve been giving you. Sorry, guys. There is far more than one blog’s worth that goes on at the farm to update you on. Recently seeing the fanatic nature of various farmers has stimulated me to become more intense with my own endeavors. Just as farmers (especially organic) try to beat the odds in their farming practices, I am going to try to beat the odds of my being too mentally and physically exhausted and clue you in more often.

But back to the subject of farmers being extreme, I have met a lot of different farmers lately and I’ve concluded one thing: they’re insane. I have a huge amount of respect for them and don’t know how they do it. Farmers, especially organic farmers, are gamblers playing Russian roulette with nature.

I say this only because it takes a rare person to meet the demands and face the challenges that farmers do. It seems as though there are two kinds of people: those who run from challenges, and those who run to challenges. Farmers definitely fall under the latter category. Farmers have got to be operating on a small amount of insanity trying to manage something that is completely out of their control. I have quickly learned that farming is a process of reacting and responding hour-by-hour. Reacting to the weather, reacting to weeds, reacting to bugs, reacting to broken machinery, etc.

If there is one skill that a successful farmer must have, it is the ability to think quickly and on one's toes. This weekend I visited Hoch Orchards with former Featherstone farmer Rhys Williams, in Nodine, MN. The fact that farmers and others that were interested spent two days touring the farm, learning about pest-control, soil nutrition, equipment, and thinning (very technical information) says a lot about the usefulness and demand for that kind of information. (Hard cider was also served at lunch - you can make your own judgment about that one, but it was quite delicious.) This event, doubled with the previous week's scurry of last minute planting at Featherstone, showed me that farmers can only attempt to manage their land, but ultimately things are out of their control, which is why they have to be so intentional about the prevention of problems before they start.

Organic farmers have this especially bad because they don’t have the luxury to use a one-spray-fixes-all solution. Mid-week we found ourselves scrambling to get a bunch of our summer seed planted because rain was in the forecast; the sense of urgency changes each hour. Farmers, I don’t know how they do it. Farming is no 9 to 5 job, they are on all the time. I’ve even known farmers to sleep on a mattress pad on the flatbed of their pickup out in the middle of the field in order to keep the deer away. Their intensity about farming only makes eating fresh, local food all that much enjoyable - because I've seen the mental and physical work that has gone into growing it.

I leave you with a recipe I made up last Friday evening before hanging out with some visitors at the farm.

Quinoa and beet salad

2 bunches of beets and their greens
1 medium sized bunched onion
3 garlic scapes, chopped
1 cup quinoa, cooked
blob of oil
2 tsp butter
salt and pepper
lemon juice

Cut the beet bulbs from the greens. Wash them and steam them by method of choice. Chop up the beet greens, onions, and garlic scapes. Heat 1 2 tsp of butter. Saute scapes and onions, until soft. Put chopped greens into pan and wilt. After the beets are steamed, skin them if you wish, and cut them into bite sizes pieces. Mix (cooked, warm) quinoa with the beets and the beet green mixture. Add oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper to your taste.