Tag Archives: rural

Weather Whiplash, Rhubarb Revival, and a Big, Black Bear

IMG_3120

With our first basil and garlic picked last week, the farm is poised at that ripening moment in wait for the high summer harvest to come. How did we get to the middle of July already in this topsy-turvy season of cool June, three-hour hailstorm, and loss of trees and fruit blossoms from last November’s abrupt freeze?

“Weather whiplash” is the term I’ve heard lately for the extreme unpredictability and sudden, ping-pong changes in weather patterns these days. Having a lifetime of familiarity with the weather in this region, I know we’ve entered an era of uncharted climate conversion, but to what we’re converting isn’t clear.

Take rhubarb in July. We’ve never picked rhubarb in July before. This year, we’ll get a second round of rhubarb—and that’s weeks after a hailstorm ripped the rhubarb to shreds. Rhubarb revival, I’m calling it. Sure, we’re happy to have more rhubarb, but it’s unsettling to realize our climate has changed enough to alter the growth pattern of a perennial plant. Perhaps the hail stimulated the plants into going to seed again as a survival mechanism. Is rhubarb sending us a lesson about adaptation that we ought to heed?

IMG_3124

A couple weeks ago, John and I were eating lunch on the screened porch of our community room when we sensed something moving nearby. A magnificent black bear with a tan face ambled around the corner of the ditch bank and onto the wooden bridge 50 feet from where we sat. The bear sat down Buddha-like on the planks near the end of the bridge, calmly licked its paw, and looked around. It didn’t seem to see us through the screen, but it may have smelled us. Soon it put its front paws down, turned around, and wandered off the way it had come, stopping to tip the nearby bench first in case it found food underneath.

What you don't see is the bear sitting on the end of the bridge--this close to the porch

What you don’t see is the bear sitting on the end of the bridge–this close to the porch

Did we really see a bear? A real bear? It came and went so quickly, it seemed more an apparition than a wild animal. Still, I waited a few minutes before tiptoeing out across the bridge to see where the bear had gone. Bears can move quickly; it had disappeared into the trees along the ditch. I must have been mesmerized by its beauty, that lustrous fur, its wise face. I wanted to see it again—from a distance.

After another fifteen minutes, John and I crossed the bridge together and walked out cautiously to check on the bees. (In hindsight, we should have taken the truck.) Luckily, we didn’t run into the bear, finding only a trampled spot along the ditch where it stopped to check for bugs at the base of some trees. The bees were fine; an electric fence is protecting them now.

We’ve seen lots of bear evidence on this land but I’ve never seen a live bear here and John only has once from further away. We were surprised to see a bear in the middle of a June day; they usually come down in the fall before hibernation.

What we hadn’t taken into account was last November’s freeze. The same 70-degree drop in one-day temperature that destroyed our fruit harvest also decimated the food supply that bears and other animals would be eating in the mountains right now. Weather whiplash strikes again.

Later that night, we heard a noise outside like a door slamming. Ten minutes after that, our neighbor called to say the bear was in her yard and heading for the highway. I ran down our driveway with my camera in the hope of getting a picture from a safe distance, but when I saw that the bear had knocked over our trash can, I thought better of being outside with an animal that large running around. Even today, a certain kind of dark shadow in the trees makes me pause. If one bear has come down from the foothills, what’s to stop another from following? As a friend suggested, we may need to bang pie plates together when we’re outside at night.

And so the season goes. We make the summer’s first pesto, cover our crops with net to deter deer, and hope the second round of tomatoes has time to ripen before the first fall frost.

IMG_2665

I read a report recently about governors in states with large rural populations meeting to discuss the impact of climate change. People in rural areas, they realize, will be more heavily impacted than people in cities, at last initially, since we depend on weather for our livelihoods, live closer to the natural world, and have reduced access to emergency services. I don’t know the outcome of that meeting, but I am glad that officials are recognizing the difficulties farmers and others in non-urban communities are already facing.

Weather has always been the factor least under a farmer’s control. Today, that incapacity is magnified by a political paralysis to stop the conditions creating even more instability in the climate upon which we depend. In the midst of all this uncertainty, one thing’s for sure: it’ll take more than banging a couple pie plates together to face off what’s coming.

3 Comments

Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

For the Rest

The Big Dipper hangs across the meadow as John and I walk to the granary for the night. We’ve been sleeping out there for the summer. Our house is hot, having no central cooling (or heating, except for the wood stove), and the granary’s cross ventilation makes for perfect sleep.

DSC_0691

We sleep in the East Room, the one I call the Oat Room. Sometimes I call it the Gluten Free Room since the West one is the Wheat. The Oat Room has two high rectangular openings on the south side from its former days when grain was loaded into the room with an augur. Now those windows are screened for bugs and the night breezes blow through to the window on the north. Even in July, the temperature drops along the irrigation ditch next to the granary. In the early morning, we pull up an old patchwork blanket from the foot of the bed to banish the descending chill.

DSC_0020

Walking out to the granary at twilight separates the day from the night more completely than sleeping in the house. Inside, we’re busy up until the minute we hit the sheets. Except for the nightly bathroom routine, we don’t take a moment from the book we’re reading or the email we’re sending or the dishes we’re washing before we go to bed.

But when we leave the house to sleep, we walk away from the tasks of the day. We leave them behind, knowing they’ll be there the next morning when we return.

DSC_0837

Something is different about the night outside than in. Maybe it’s the air, fresher than inside four walls. Maybe it’s the dark, a relief from viewing the chores we face every day. We don’t have to worry about “to do” when we walk back to the granary. Instead, we watch for bats swooping from the barn’s cupola to capture their fleeing prey.

In the twilight, the traffic on the highway near the farm has quieted. We listen to the nighttime sounds of the animals: the goats bleating from their pen as we pass, our neighbor’s too-many dogs barking, a last bird calling from the trees along the ditch. As we walk over the stone bridge, we pause to check the water flow. If it’s moving swiftly, we know we’ll have water to irrigate the next day.

DSC_0016

We pass the barn, the greenhouse and Sunflower Community Room, across the festival field and past the tractor barn, coming out between the glass bluehouse of tomatoes and the granary that faces the meadow. The other night, a storm approached, with distant lightning flashing and low thunder rolling in waves behind the hills.

As we looked north, tiny lights beamed on and off as if in code across the pasture. Were fireflies signaling the storm’s advance? I had never seen fireflies on the farm before, and John only once. How had we missed them in our nighttime strolls? Later, when I stood on the wide porch to watch the lightning gathering above us, the fireflies were gone, or at least had stopped their sparking. Now I watch for their tiny beams each night, like children playing with flashlights after dark.

Separating our days from our nights seems important this summer. With concerns about bees and water and land, we need to regenerate our hopes somehow.  In the granary, we read novels. We have no internet to warn us of the future, no distressing emails, no news of coming destruction, no bulletins of doom.

John and I have become, lately, the bearers of bad news. Sometimes, we’re not fit for company. We forget that not everyone wants to hear about these things. People want to hear about the latest sports scores, album releases, or celebrity scandals, not the latest bee die-off (50,000 in an Oregon Target parking lot from pesticides to prevent aphid droppings on cars).

But John and I read compulsively about the environmental degradation before us like an accident from which we cannot look away. We know that peak water also means peak grain. We know that loss of bees means loss of food. We worry about what we will collectively leave for our grandchild and for his grandchilden after him. We don’t know how to stop the forces that destroy for short-term profit. We only know that we must keep doing what we do.

We built the granary for guests, but, for now, it is our refuge and our regeneration. Maybe the old wood walls bring dreams of return to a time when “local” was not a selling point but a fact. As we take the best from the past to sow a better future, we’ll watch for tiny beams of hope to light our way.

DSC_0026

I’ll be taking August off from pearlmoonplenty for the publishing of my book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography. If you’re in the Boulder area on August 20, join me for the launch of A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography at the Boulder Bookstore, 7:30 PM. For more on the book, including upcoming readings and a digital excerpt, see abushelsworth.com. And check out this thoughtful first review from Notes from a Reading Life.

 

9 Comments

Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

Seems like we’re getting there

I think it goes this way, parallel.

No, the handles have to cross like this.

Got it.

John attaches the hoses while I get the strainer ready.

Have you seen the filters? Oh, here they are near the back of the drawer.

Does it fit like this?

I think that’s upside down. Try the other way. Yes, that’s it.

Okay. I think we’re ready. Let’s go.

Stainless steel machine in hand, we walk outside in the evening’s glow to the shed where Folly and Dancer wait to be milked.

Years ago when John and I imagined retiring from teaching, we knew we wanted to create a schedule that was more farm-centered and focused on the simple ways we wanted to live. That meant many things: driving less, staying home more, and spending less money and more time together. A whimsical, yet practical, aspect of our vision was to milk goats at our friends’ CSA dairy once a week because we like what our friends are doing and we eat a lot of goat cheese.

Last night, we milked two sweet goats for the first time by ourselves and brought home two gallons of milk. We warmed it in one of our largest pots and added the rennet and culture for chèvre. It’ll curdle today and we’ll strain it tonight. Soon we’ll have cheese for eating and cooking and someday we’ll branch out to other varieties.

So Tuesday is milking day and the other days of the week are falling into place as well. We’ve got movement practice for our bodies and writing projects for our minds and farm work every day to keep our fields green and our community strong. We spend more time in solitude, away from the busy-ness of the world, and more time enjoying the company of friends. Some of the dreams we’ve had for years are coming to fruition. And in July, we’ll greet our new grandchild.

This morning as I walked over the stone bridge between our house and barn, I startled a mother Canadian goose and her six goslings swimming three by three at her side in the ditch below me. I’d seen the parents in the water over the last couple weeks and knew the babies must be near. Watching for spring goslings will be part of our seasonal schedule now, another way we measure nature’s passing.

We’ve worked hard to reach this point in our fifties where we have more control over our time than ever before. We’ll continue to work hard, just not at the place or in the way we worked for so many years to get here. Nothing is rosy—as farmers, we struggle with weather, pests, and an unending “to do” list; as activists, we face encroaching development, environmental degradation, and political injustice. We also know that our physical stamina won’t hold up forever. But for now, we’re making goat cheese and waking up each morning to face a new day on the farm, happy to be getting here at last.

3 Comments

Filed under ecobiography, sustainable agriculture

Our 21st Season Opens and the Greens are Glowing

May 12th was the first pick-up of our 21st CSA season and the biggest opening pick we’ve ever had. With April’s warm weather, many of the crops that normally aren’t ready until a few weeks later were already big enough for harvesting. We knew the fall-planted spinach was ready because we’d been picking it for ourselves for a couple weeks and it was starting to show signs of bolting, which happens when the weather gets warmer and the plant senses that it better go to seed because its days are numbered.  We were also expecting to pick radishes, turnips, and green garlic for opening day, as well as lettuces from the rebuilt bluehouse, two beautiful, big heads per share. Still, we thought the pick wouldn’t take very long and we’d have some extra time for weeding before the subscribers showed up at 11 AM to start the season.

But when we got to the field early Saturday morning and took the row cover off the other garden greens, we discovered that they were ready to pick as well. The bok choi and totsoi especially don’t like warmer weather, which is why it does better in the fall here on the Front Range. We plant it in the spring anyway, just in case the weather is cool, but with April’s high temperatures, those greens were raring to go.

So as the bartering members thinned and harvested pounds and pounds of urgent greens, the bikers rode full trugs into the barn for two of us to weigh as we tried to figure out where it all could go. The lettuces alone filled the shelves of the cool room and we had twice as much spinach as would fit the large bins we’d planned. With the trugs coming in as fast as we could weigh them, we couldn’t believe this was opening day.

When a few members showed up a little before 11 AM, eager for the first of the season’s vegetables, we had to ask them to take a short walk while we finished getting the barn ready for its 21st season. But at the stroke of 11, everything was ready to go. Each type of vegetable was weighed or counted, labeled, and displayed in the barn under the big chalkboards that declare how much of each a subscriber should take.

As we gathered the new members outside the barn for a farm tour and barn talk, we apologized for giving so many greens on opening day. It hadn’t been our intention to overwhelm people with first greens, but the weather had trumped our plans. Besides the beautiful spinach and lettuce, people would weigh and bag greens with which they were probably less familiar, like spicy greens, bok choy, and totsoi. Graciously, everyone assured us that lots of greens on opening day was fine, but I did notice that we had more of the unfamiliar veggies left at the end of the day than the old stand-bys.

That’s okay. The chickens were happy with the leftovers and we’ll slowly educate our members about these other nutritious and delicious greens through our recipe email list and tips in the barn. Eating seasonally takes some getting used to and we’re patient with that change. We don’t want our members to feel guilty for not eating every last leaf. Share with friends, we say, or bring us your compost and we’ll put it back into the soil.

Last Saturday, the greens weren’t quite so urgent, giving members a chance to catch up with the haul the week before. We still gave spinaches and lettuces but we added only bok choy, now bigger with more substance to its toothsome stems. We hope people will adjust to this versatile vegetable, which can be used in similar ways to celery in stir-fries or salads. We like it steamed with sesame peanut sauce, as in the recipe below.

Despite the rush to get everything in that morning, we were glad to offer such bounty on opening day. As a share-the-harvest farm, we want people to know that we don’t base what they get on the market value of the food but instead share what the garden has to offer each week. In the early part of the season, that means quite a few greens–including the best spinach anyone has ever eaten–but don’t worry: the brassicas are on their way!

Sesame Peanut or Cashew Sauce

This sauce is great over steamed vegetables but can also be stirred into rice with raw, slivered veggies and baked in an oiled 9×13 pan, covered with foil, for 45 minutes at 375.

In food processor or blender, mix the following:

1 cup natural, unsweetened peanut or cashew butter, smooth or chunky

¼ cup rice vinegar

6 Tbl honey

2 tsp sesame oil

½ cup water

½ cup tamari or soy sauce

1 Tbl fresh ginger grated or 1 tsp dried

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 tsp thai basil, dried

A few shakes of hot pepper flakes to taste

Warm gently in sauce pan until heated through and drizzle over steamed vegetables.

1 Comment

Filed under ecobiography, sustainable agriculture

Rain, Finally, Rain

With no snow in March and little moisture in April, we’ve been thinking about drought here on the Front Range. Snow pack looked good last fall but dropped to 50% levels with the dry spring. Agricultural experts are warning that this is the first of a three-year drought cycle and advise farmers to plan properly. We’re not sure what “properly” might mean for us, except to water as much as we can now, especially perennial plants and trees in the hope of getting them through the hot summer.

In 2002, the irrigation ditch at our farm went dry. If it hadn’t rained in mid-August, we might have lost our crops. We planted our vineyard that year and did lose many of the vines. We’re worried that this year could be that bad or worse—and if not this year, then the next. The grass near the barn looked parched already; we’ve been watering the fields as much as we usually do in July. We’re luckier than others who don’t have a ditch at all or who live further from the head gate and run out of water earlier in the season than we do, but once the water’s gone, it doesn’t matter where on the ditch you live. Last Friday hit a record high temperature and we wondered how we’d get through a summer that seemed to be starting months earlier than it should.

And then it rained. Sunday night was a real rain, not just a few drops but enough rain to wear a raincoat, and yesterday was cloudy with a little drizzle. Both nights were cool but not cold enough to freeze the grape buds or baby fruit on the trees. Perfect. The mountains got some snow as well, which may help ease irrigation worries later on.

This morning, the farm looked different: fresh, verdant, and relieved, like it might make it through the season after all. I transplanted mint under the outdoor water spigot at the house. That’s where my grandmother kept her mint on the North Dakota prairie, the only place it was guaranteed moisture; when she’d water the flowers along the side of the house, the spigot would leak onto the mint. My grandmother didn’t waste water. She even washed dishes in a tub in the sink so that she could throw the water on the flowers when she was done. She’d make tea from that mint, the coolest drink in the hot summer.

The smell of mint still reminds me of my grandmother and the childhood summers I spent on the farm. Planting mint under our own spigot seems like a hopeful tradition. Whatever this summer brings, we’ll do our best. We’re still worried about a warming climate that is changing our weather patterns and impacting the way we farm, but for now, we’re happy for the reprieve of a rainstorm and the return of spring.

3 Comments

Filed under ecobiography, sustainable agriculture

This is What Fresh Tastes Like

“What passes for cookery in England . . . is cutting off the delicious skins of vegetables. ‘In which,’ said Mr. Bankes, ‘all the virtue of the vegetable is contained.'”

                                                            Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

At Stonebridge Farm, we like to say that fresh is a flavor. Some students discovered that this weekend when our friend brought four of her sustainability students to the farm to help us weed the newly emerging spinach and carrot beds. As we worked with horis and hoes in the soft spring sun, one young man, a former student in John’s calculus class, asked me what my favorite thing was at the farm.

“Besides John?” I teased him.

I have so many favorites here, I had to think a bit. “The flowers,” I said, “and the chickens because they’re so friendly.” From his laughter, I don’t think he’d ever heard that chickens are friendly before.

Another new discovery was the taste of vegetables right out of the garden. After we finished weeding, we picked radishes for everyone to take home. I told the students they could eat some as they picked. “Is this what a radish tastes like?” one asked in wonder. “I’ve never tasted one like this before.”

“That’s because,” another friend said, “you can’t get a fresh radish at a grocery store. Not fresh like this anyway.”

“Fresh is a flavor,” I told them. “This is what fresh tastes like.”

When we moved to the spinach bed, another student declined the offer of spinach. “I don’t like spinach,” she assured us.

“Just try a leaf, okay?” She tentatively chewed a piece–and then smiled.

This is spinach? . . . Okay, I’ll take some.”

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. How sad for 18-year-olds—from upper middle-class families who undoubtedly have some access to raw vegetables in stores—not to know the fresh taste of vegetables. A salad bar may be the closest they’ve encountered and that’s just not the same.

Fresh is a flavor. Years ago, before processed food composed the majority of people’s diets in this country, even the Morton’s salt company knew about the flavor of fresh. Here’s an ad from a 1940s Life magazine that features the taste of “tender, young” vegetables as part of a flavor duo:

At Stonebridge, spring means fresh, tender vegetables like the ones pictured in the ad. Our members anticipate the sweetness of newly harvested spinach and the sparkle of plump radishes on opening day. Our season starts a few weeks earlier than most CSAs in our area because we can grow early vegetables so well in our foothills microclimate. Green onions, radishes, and lettuce offer a first salad to our members, while spinach and chard are the main ingredients of so many of our favorite meals: lasagna, fritters, enchiladas, quiche, and pastas. Even fresh chives can flavor the filling for a goat cheese tart.

In the foraging class we recently hosted, we learned about other spring plants that provide delicious and nutritious meals. Dandelion greens, of course, are great in salad (watch a 92-year-old cook prepare her Depression-era salad here), but did you know that nettles make a wonderful saag? We got to sample some, along with nettle gnocchi, at our workshop, right after we picked nettle tops for everyone to try at home, a new taste for spring since it’s one of the first plants to emerge. (You can learn more about foraging at Hunger and Thirst for Life).

Asparagus, too, means spring. We have two patches on the farm, one we planted and another along the fence line that we didn’t. There the birds “plant” the asparagus as they sit on the wire and sing. We let some of those plants go to seed every year to help them spread.

And in the foraging class, our teacher discovered another wild spot for asparagus near a bridge over our irrigation ditch where we’d cleared willows last fall.

With asparagus at $5 a bunch in the store, we’re rich in asparagus. Tonight I’ll drizzle some fat spears with olive oil to roast and eat with grated goat cheese and walnuts over pasta. Last week, I placed a few spears left out of the previous night’s quiche on a pizza—delicious as it roasted on top of the cilantro pesto.

This is what fresh tastes like as April turns to May: the virtue of spring vegetables, the scent of lilacs and dogwood, and the down of dandelions drifting in the breeze.

9 Comments

Filed under ecobiography, sustainable agriculture

New Home for an Old Granary

Out on the prairie, east of Stonebridge where our highway meets the interstate, a granary sat empty for years. Granaries are structures for storing grain, in this case a wooden building once filled perhaps with wheat through a door in the roof. Where I’m from in North Dakota, “granary” is pronounced “grainery,” but there “threshing” is called “thrashing” and a “creek” is a “crick” too. I prefer the older pronunciation, with “an” like “grand”; it lends elegance to the building’s simple construction and mundane use. Today grain elevators have replaced farm granaries but many still dot the countryside in this part of the country. You may have passed one without even noticing.

At Stonebridge, we like making old buildings useful for our needs as a small commuinity farm today. After renovating the few built here a century ago—the chickenhouse turned guesthouse, the hog barn turned community room, the farmhouse refurbished, the barn repaired—we were looking for another old building to restore. We wanted sleeping quarters for friends to visit and writers to retreat, so we asked our friend and scavenger extraordinaire Jon to keep an eye out for us.

On one of his jaunts out east, he found the granary on an abandoned farm sold for development that hadn’t yet reached the eastern edge of its forty acres. The houses are coming its way, though, and we thought we might as well move the granary to our farm than let it be bulldozed for subdivision sprawl. Jon found the owners living down the road and asked their permission to take the granary to a new home at Stonebridge. They’d bought that old farm at the edge of the highway a couple decades ago to try their hand at farming and raising hogs. But as the edge of the city moved closer, they were ready to sell when the right offer came through.

The granary sat empty for years, but it isn’t the worse for wear. The building houses three rooms: a center room for storing grain; a small side area with a ladder for checking the grain at the top of a wall that doesn’t quite reach the ceiling; and a larger storage room on the other side with a chute near the floor on the inside wall for filling grain bags.

Besides the door in the roof through which grain could be poured into the center room, the building has an outside door to the storage room and a small door into the space with the ladder. Despite sitting unused for years, the building is pretty clean. We found some grain sacks and a wooden box, a little dust, and some old lumber. A few mice have undoubtedly made their home inside but no one has bothered the building, graffitied the walls, or been up to mischief there as far as we can tell.

Moving an old building requires a lot of effort. Jon, Joe, and Peter spent hours on cold, windy days in February and March removing the roof shakes and rafters so that the building would be low enough to fit under wires as it came down the highway on a flatbed trailer. While they were at it, they took down 200 feet of old board fence as well, using some of the pieces to panel the outside of the “bluehouse” they reconstructed this winter for growing this spring’s lettuces and next year’s winter greens. They’ll use the lumber to rebuild the granary on its new site at the edge of our meadow too. You can’t buy wood like that anymore, fine-grained and strong without chemical toxins, sounder and safer than the lumber euphemistically called “pressure-treated” today. A couple of the boards may even become a guitar someday.

Roof and beams removed, the granary left its original home last week to make its way down Highway 66 toward the foothills for its new life at Stonebridge Farm. The team jacked the building up on old beams four feet high to allow clearance for the 30-foot-long trailer.

The young man we hired to move it down the highway slipped the trailer underneath and belted the building from top to bottom, making sure each chain or buckle fit snugly around the frame. It was as wide as legally possible without requiring a special permit and, we would soon find, as wide as would fit through the space between buildings on the road at our farm. With the old building secured to the trailer, John and Jon loaded the extra beams into their trucks for lowering the granary at its new Stonebridge site. And then, we were ready to chivary down the highway.

Which didn’t take long. A granary on the back didn’t slow that truck down. I stopped for a picture of it coming west towards me on the highway but had to jump back in the car and speed to pass in the only multi-lane stretch so that I could catch it turning onto the farm. I don’t think anyone gave the granary a second thought, if they noticed it at all. Just an old wooden building coming down the road, not a piece of history moving from times past to a new home going forward.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our young trucker started driving machinery on his family’s farm at age nine but had never moved a building like this before. Nor had he navigated his trailer through such a narrow path as between our barn, community room, and glass greenhouse. He even stopped a couple times to take pictures of how tight it all fit, but by pulling a few fence posts and turning up the corner of a metal roof just in case, he got granary and trailer through without a scratch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We all breathed a sigh of relief when he pulled the trailer out into the wide meadow, hauling the granary as close as he could to its future site. The crew stacked timbers underneath onto which the building could be set as the trailer moved out and then they jacked the whole thing down onto longer beams newly milled for the foundation. As soon as we can, we’ll move it with the tractor to its proper angle facing the meadow.

The granary doesn’t look like much right now without a roof or proper windows or doors. In time, we’ll clear it out, hose it down inside and out, rebuild the roof, remove the low wall, cut another outer door, add some windows and a porch, and paint it white like it used to be. I think it will be prove a quiet space for writers and friends to relax and work and listen to the birds in the old willows along the ditch at the edge of the meadow. No one will suspect that it didn’t begin its life at Stonebridge, although they might wonder why there’s a door in the roof. We’ll leave that, evidence of its former purpose, to remind us how close we once lived to our food.

 

 

8 Comments

Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

42nd Earth Day and Still Counting

On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day, I was a student in Mr. Osborn’s fifth grade class at Sherwood Elementary. Earth Day was organized by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson to bring national attention to the alarming state of the environment through grassroots actions. On Earth Day, people were asked to demonstrate care for an earth whose gifts of clean air, water, and soil could no longer be taken for granted.

My fifth grade class (I'm in the lower left hand corner with knee socks)

Our fifth grade class decided to celebrate the first Earth Day by turning the hard dirt outside our classroom into a beautiful garden of grass and flowers.  All it would take, we thought, were some shovels and a few seeds. We showed up with tools—the girls in pants, which weren’t normally allowed—and worked like crazy all day to get that small square of soil ready for the plants we imagined would grow there. Mr. Osborn even let me run a block home for my wagon to haul away rocks and trash. With rakes and hoes in our young hands, we scratched tiny furrows in the soil to plant our hopeful seeds.  A little water, and we’d have our first Earth Day garden.  At the end of the day we were dirty and tired, but proud to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

 

Around the world, 20 million participants representing thousands of schools and communities organized events like ours from planting trees to picking up trash along highways in what Senator Nelson called a “spontaneous response at the grassroots level.” Earth Day proved that many people did care about the environment, becoming a symbol for the new ecological movement that at that point held so much promise.

Today Earth Day and its message of stewardship is still part of many school curriculums. Children learn about the value of recycling, saving energy, and protecting endangered species.  Since the first Earth Day, stricter standards have been passed for air and water pollution, cars have become more fuel efficient, and many contaminated areas have been recovered.  But 42 years after the first Earth Day, we are living that fearful future of vanishing species, toxic food, oil spills, nuclear disasters, and climate change-amplified weather crises.

To celebrate Earth Day’s 40th anniversary two years ago, we planted an Opalescent Apple tree at Stonebridge Farm in memory of Mr. Osborn, my fifth grade teacher who had died just a few months earlier.  Many years will pass before Mr O’s tree bears fruit in the old orchard beyond the barn, just as many years have passed since planting my first Earth Day garden. When I tend that tree, I remember how Mr. O inspired us to care about the natural world by getting our hands in the soil. He taught us the Earth Day lesson of working together to care for our environment by visualizing the world in which we wanted to live. Even though the grass and flowers didn’t survive long in the high traffic area outside our schoolroom, it didn’t matter because the real seeds had been planted in us.

Ecology stickers I've saved from fifth grade

This Earth Day we’ll celebrate by learning to forage wild plants on our farm. Foraging lends a new perspective on so-called weeds by showing us that plants we overlook or eradicate can have value. Similarly, Earth Day teaches us that we need to look more closely at the earth’s interconnected ecosystems if we are to be good stewards of this planet.

We’ll plant an apple tree too, one John grafted from the branch of a blush apple tree in our farm’s old orchard. That tree probably came from a seed planted by a bird or squirrel or apple fallen from another tree. Since apple trees grown from seeds don’t come true to the parent tree, until we grafted it, our tree may have been the only apple like it in the world. Now this second Stonebridge apple will bear more wine-fleshed fruit born of this place and bringing the past into a future we hope promises harvests for generations to come. 

In fifth grade, I believed that solutions to the world’s environmental problems would be achieved in my lifetime. How naïve I was to underestimate the economic forces that value profit over preservation and the lack of political will to challenge them. The view that the earth is only ours for the harvesting has led us to disregard its limitations. We should all participate in “green” efforts to plant school gardens, recycle our cans and bottles, or eat locally grown organic vegetables as ways to honor the earth as our home, yet actions like these alone will not save the planet. The changes needed to stop further ecological degradation are monumental and our individual efforts so small, it’s hard to see how the tiny seeds of stewardship planted 42 years ago can still grow.

Celebrate Earth Day on April 22 this year by planting a tree—and then join others in the insistence that the environment must not only be protected for ourselves, but for generations as far as we can count. Together we must create a new vision that inspires fresh seeds of environmental activism, one that looks not only at individual actions but at collective intervention in the mounting crisis of our only earth.

1 Comment

Filed under ecobiography, sustainable agriculture

Horse Barn, Milk Barn

I never saw a horse in the horse barn, but harnesses hung on the weathered walls and hay still covered the loft floor. My grandparents didn’t like us climbing up there because we might fall through the slots in the planks where years ago the hay was pushed down into the mangers below for the horses to eat.  But sometimes we’d sneak up the steep stairway along the barn’s thick, wooden wall, our feet fitting the hollows grooved into each step from years of burdened climbs. At the top of the steps, we’d peek into the dark vault of the gabled roof, smell the stale hay, and wonder what treasures lay hidden in the loft’s dusty depth, abandoned when the horses were no longer needed for farming and now long forgotten.

According to my mother, the family historian, the horse barn and other buildings had been moved to the Smith farm when my great-grandmother Flora’s sister Edith—who was a Crum, as they used to say after a woman married—left her nearby homestead to go “out West” with her family. “Out West” was another colloquialism I heard growing up, usually referring to the two states most west of North Dakota—Idaho and Washington—Montana lying geographically in the right direction but not far enough away to constitute the “out” part.

My great-grandparents farmed with horses in the days before combustion tractors, so a horse barn was a valuable building, providing shelter not only for the horses, but for their feed. Hay could be brought to the barn by wagons after it was cut in the fields and then hoisted by pulley to a door at the top of the barn loft and stored there through the winter. But after tractors replaced horses, the barn stood empty, inhabited only by the farm cats, who would have their kittens in the soft hay. Then my grandmother would take us up in the loft to find the newborns before they’d even opened their eyes.

On our summer visits, one of our chores was feeding the cats in an old bowl outside the horse barn. After each meal, Grandma Smith would scrape the plates and pans for leftovers—skin, bones, crust—into a clean ice cream container from our Uncle’s creamery, adding a little milk on top for the mother cat. My sisters and brother and I would take the scraps out to the barnyard, hoping to catch a glimpse of a cat, but they were wild, having found their way to the farm on their own or having been abandoned by the side of the highway on which my grandparents lived, their city owners hoping that this farm would provide a more convenient home. My grandparents fed the lost cats and even gave them their shots if they could catch them. In return, the cats would keep the farm buildings free of mice.

The Smith Farm in later years. The horse barn is farthest right; the milk barn-turned-garage with white doors is directly to its left

Across the barnyard from the horse barn stood a gambrel-roofed milk barn, but my mother’s parents quit milking cows before I was born, so that barn was cut down in later years to make a new garage for my grandparents’ car. Even though baby pictures show me and my mom in the farmyard with the milk barn towering in the background, I don’t remember it.

Milk Barn on the Smith farm

But I do remember the milk barn at the Short farm. It didn’t have a high loft like the other farm’s barns but was a lower-roofed building into which the cows plodded from the pasture every evening. As children, we didn’t understand how the cows knew when to come to the barn, lining up in their stalls to be milked by my grandfather. We didn’t know how cows worked, how their udders would fill with milk after pasturing all day, but we could watch my grandpa squirt the milk, creamy and white, into the stainless steel buckets, keeping an eye out for a stray hoof as the cows switched their tails and waited patiently for my grandfather to finish. That cream would be separated from the milk in a round-topped machine on the back porch of the farmhouse and taken to the creamery in town once a week for pasteurization and sale.  We children never drank that fresh milk because my parents were afraid we’d get sick from stray bacteria. Now some nutritionists say we’re all less healthy than when we lived on farms because proximity to animals strengthened our immune systems. 

Playing with Poochie in the Short milk barn as cousin Debbie watches from the doorway

In later years, after Grandpa Short gave up raising cows, the milk barn slowly leaned inward and collapsed, as if swallowing itself. The barns on the Smith farm were torn down after my grandparents’ death when the land was sold to a neighbor who would farm it along with his own hundreds of acres of wheat.

Until I was older, I didn’t realize that barns were special because they symbolized a part of my family’s farming history that was being lost on a national level as well. Barns once stood at the center of our farmyards and our food system, but as this country has turned away from its rural roots, barns have become an endangered species. Once families depended on them to house the animals and store the food required for survival, but as agriculture became first mechanized and then industrialized, barns like those on my grandparents’ farms no longer held what was needed to live.

The Short farm with the milk barn to the far left; even then it was starting to shrink

Our own barn at Stonebridge is a part of that rural history, but it’s not the same as those old barns were to me. Our barn was saved because it continued to fit the needs of small-scale farmers on a farm that was preserved by our forward-thinking predecessors. We’re lucky to have our original barn, but it lacks the mystery of my childhood barns. Those barns were imposing, larger than the life that had been lived in them because, even when I was a child, that life was fading away.

Built for a kind of farming that died out with my grandparents’ generation, the horse barn and the milk barn could not outlive their use. Nor could I imagine that one day, like the farms themselves, they would be lost and my childhood summers left behind. So I conjure them here in words that can only tell my part of their story. Preserved in memory and old photographs, those barns still stand against the prairie as hay turns to dust, boards sink, nails loosen their hold, and rusty chains drop coiled to the floor.

My dad in front of my mom's horse barn in 1960, a year after I was born

Leave a comment

Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

In Celebration of Local Food

Finally, a cool down. After the hottest August in the last 140 years with temperatures in the high 90s for over three weeks, I walked outside at 6:30 yesterday morning to noticeably cooler air, as if a damp towel had been laid over the farm. We welcomed the cool down as we harvested for four hours, our biggest pick yet of the season—and we haven’t even started on the winter squash. Until the first frost, the garden will be burgeoning and we’ll be running to keep up with it.

Last week we participated in several activities for Local Food Week. I spoke on a “So You Want to Be a Farmer?” panel for Transition Boulder about nurturing community in CSA (I read Red, Red Barn to portray what community looks like at Stonebridge), and our hundred-year-old farm was one of four hosts for a Slow Food Bike-to-Farm Tour. Cyclists sipped our cold mint tea as John showed them around the vineyard and talked about creating a local winemaking culture on this side of the mountains, or Front Range Backyard Viticulture, as we call it.

Bird-netted and protected from raccoons with electric fencing, our vines look great and promise to be heavy enough to justify the purchase of a large crusher-destemmer for our cold-hardy grapes. John’s been teaching classes in planting, pruning, and harvesting grapes and the idea of growing varieties suited to this climate—and discovering what wine grown here tastes like—is catching people’s attention.

Every week is local food week at Stonebridge but this time of year brings its own pleasures. The fall garden is just starting out with small bok choy, turnips, and napa cabbages to pick for the share, while the summer garden is at its height with zukes, cukes, green beans, arugula, basil, dill, cilantro, parsley, chard, kale, onions, garlic, carrots, and beets.

The heirloom tomatoes are ripening fully and the peppers are gorgeous. We gave five varieties of peppers yesterday, from the sweet red skinny Jimmy Nardellos (so delicious stuffed with slivers of Manchego cheese and roasted at 395 for 20 minutes or so) to juicy Red Cheese for slicing to San Ardo Poblanos for stuffing to Hungarian Hot Wax (our favorite to spice up marinara or salsa just a bit) and the hot hots like Serranos, as well as the more prudent sweet green bells.

Even the As You Like table of “cosmetically challenged” freebie vegetables is full—but it’ll be empty by the end of the day because our members know a little scratch and dent doesn’t ruin the vegetable.

Except for yesterday when we were up and outside early for the pick, I’ve started each morning of the last week by slicing something for the dehydrator. We got our Western Slope peaches a week ago so I’ve been drying those in wedges for winter fruit. One day I dried parsley to give as part of our Thanksgiving share, but mainly I’ve been drying paste tomatoes for all our winter and spring pizzas and pastas. I grow four varieties of paste tomatoes—Opalka, Amish Paste, Flame, and Gold Paste—and we’ve come to depend on them for our off-season pantry. One of my favorite things about paring tomatoes is how excited the chickens get about tomato scraps for breakfast!

This week also brought something new to our local food preparation and cuisine: goat milk. A friend gave us some milk from their dairy and another friend shared the additional ingredients and instructions for making chevre, so we got to make a little cheese of our own this week. We used it on a wonderful bruschetta last night by layering arugula, chevre, fresh tomato slices salted and peppered, dried parsley, and a little sprinkled romano on a locally made crusty baguette and baking for 20 minutes at 400. Served with a little white wine, this was local food at its best.

In the overfilled barn yesterday, one of our members stopped to thank me for my guest editorial that appeared in several of our local papers this week against the growing of Genetically Modified crops on Boulder’s Open Space. I appreciated her gratitude because it shows that people are paying attention to the issue. John and I attended the community comment session this week and, although the vast majority of speakers listed compelling reasons to ban GMOs on Open Space, I don’t think that’s what the commissioners will decide. They’re too worried about managing weeds on county land and too near-sighted to make the necessary changes at this point. We’ll see.

For now, we’ll rejoice in the plenitude of local, organic food as we turn the corner from summer to fall and the overlap of vegetables that fills the barn with thoughts of simple meals prepared in celebration of taste.

2 Comments

Filed under ecobiography, sustainable agriculture