Friday, January 29, 2010

This is what building community through the farm looks like

Oh man. It has been brought to my attention that I am easily excitable. This past week people described me as, "peppy," and "perky." Words which don't conjure up the most pleasant images in my mind. Someone else said energetic, and I guess I will stick with that.

Well, people- I am excited right now. Freaking out on the inside about to explode with excitement excited. So, read the following. I dare you to try to keep the pep out of your step after reading.

Exciting thing#1- Join the Farm/The Abundant Table Farm Project is linking up with Cal State Channel Islands (CSUCI-about five miles down the road) as a community partner for the Sociology Deptartment's Capstone Project. Sociology students work with community organizations design and implement surveys to help organizations better provide community services. ATFP came up with project ideas and Kat and I presented them to the capstone students. Our Capstone collaboration ideas focus on lower-income local produce accessibility and local institutional local produce accessibility (rad, right?!). We will work with students to design surveys that will help us better understand factors in low-income and institutional food consumption, so we can more effective reach those communities with our produce.

Exciting thing #2- So after I gave the presentation (alongside my community heroes Cathy Brudnicki of Ventura County Homeless & Housing Coalition, Kathryn Benner of Cabrillo Economic Development Corporation-affordable housing and Kathryn is also our CSA subscriber, Todd from Project Understanding, Sandy Nirenberg from Camarillo Hospice, Rafaela Frausto from Neighborhoods for Learning, and Cameron from Coastal Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy) Cameron from CAUSE approached me about a future survey CAUSE is planning to assess food access/security in Santa Paula and South Oxnard. He is experienced and knowledgeable in designing surveys and would like to help us with our capstone to make sure our surveys are relevant and appropriate to gather the kind of data our organizations can use to work together to improve healthy food access in Ventura County! CAUSE can then use some of our survey questions in their survey! Again- this is rad. This is the type of cross-organizational community building that can really affect local change. I'm visualizing Aspen grove imagery. When organizations collaborate, or build solid connected root systems, the community organism as a whole can thrive. We are building solid foundational systems to support big efforts that ultimately result in a healthier community.

Exciting thing #3- Rafeala Frausto of Neighborhoods for Learning works with parents, schools, early childhood educators, and service providers to offer a web of support for young children and families designed by and for each community. She wants ATFP to come out to their next meeting to connect NFL families with our CSA! Young families in the county eating our local, organic vegetables!

Exciting thing #4- Sandy Niremberg of Camarillo Hospice has been a wonderful resource in connecting Join the Farm! with the Camarillo Farmer's Market. Today, she also gave me a great connection with food service at CSUCI. Join the Farm! produce in CSUCI's cafeterias!

I know all of these relationships and opportunities will take time to cultivate and grow. It's like seeing a yellow tomato blossom or bean blossom. You know it is going to grow into something good. Yes, that is exciting.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

don't count your chickens

Apparently hatching is only the beginning of the hazards in a chicken's life. There are diseases, hawks, farm dogs, small children, and even other chickens (think origin of the term "pecking order") to worry about.

On Monday I noticed that one of my hens wasn't doing well. When she does make it to her feet, she sort of staggers in whatever direction she wants to go and then flops down. She’s still eating and drinking, but seems pretty uncomfortable.

As Erynn noted, a 100% survival rate for nine chickens is probably a bit unrealistic. One of the other hens already owes her life to a more or less miraculous recovery. Before Ted had fully reinforced the chicken run to keep Oliver (farm dog) out and the hens in, I had a heavy set of wooden slats propped against the gate to the run (most frequent site of escapes leading to traumatic Oliver-chicken encounters). One day as I was trying to block their most recent escape route and the chickens were gathered around trying to…well…escape, I accidentally knocked the slats over, trapping one poor hen underneath.

It was awful. I pulled the slats up and she staggered, squawking into the coop where she sat awkwardly, panting and blinking very fast. Kat helpfully came in from the field to help me examine the chicken (and not so helpfully suggested that the vegetable pot pie she was planning for that evening’s dinner could easily become a chicken pie). I spent the morning bunching kale, renewing my commitment to vegetarianism by repenting of my recent fish consumption, and hoping that the hen would be dead before Kat had to kill her.

But when we went in to check on her before lunch, she was up and walking around. Within a day or two, Squashed Chicken was indistinguishable from the other eight.

I’m guessing I/we won’t get that lucky twice. Four days later I’m still trying to figure out the merciful thing to do.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

here it comes

Lately Sundays have turned out to be my only almost full day off. I sleep in a little (although honestly usually can't make it much past 8:00am) and take some time to read or make phone calls or go for a long run. In the afternoons I often end up at the beach or on a hike with the other interns.

Not so tomorrow. Our Monday harvest for Tuesday CSA box delivery has been moved up 24 hours because the rain is coming. Four storms are converging to dump inches and inches on southern California starting on Sunday evening at the rate of up to an inch an hour.

While this volume of precipitation is very unusual, it's made me notice how we talk about rain around here. The (admittedly only two or three) times it's rained since I arrived in August, the rain has been more of a nuisance than anything else. It makes harvesting cold and uncomfortable (even the joys of jumping in puddles don't quite make up for it) and the moisture can make our crops more susceptible to problems that thrive on dampness like molds and mildews.

After growing up in a place where rain meant the difference between health and starvation for many people, it's strange to talk about it as an inconvenience. Drip irrigation (plastic tape running down the middle of the rows with small holes) means our crops need not depend on the weather for water. Though the rain does replenish the local groundwater supply that we use to irrigate, we by no means depend on the timing of any set of showers. So here we are - farmers - stocking up on ponchos and rain boots, and complaining about the rain.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


"Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away".

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Every few weeks on the Farm (okay, maybe more often than that) I learn something new about food or farming that seems so logical and self-evident that I can't believe I could have missed it, and yet I realize I would never have made the connection if left to my own devices.

Take vitamins in vegetables, for example. It's a pretty basic equation - plant takes in sunlight, water, and nutrients from the soil and produces something that we eat. Seems fairly straightforward, yet I was blown away a few months ago when I realized that you had to plant crops that restored manganese to the soil after a round of tomatoes because, well, tomatoes are high in manganese...

Around the same time I started noticing that there are almost no birds in our part of the Oxnard plain. The occasional crow tries to eat our seedlings and the occasional red-tail hawk tries to eat the chickens, but you never hear much in the way of birds singing. However obvious it seems now, I didn't make the connection myself - there's not much for birds to eat out here after most of the fields have been sprayed or watered with pesticides. (Maybe that explains why an egret has recently taken to making daily appearances on our farm.)

I had another one of these self-evident epiphany moments yesterday. I've been listening to Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food (appropriately, while I pick organic whole foods), and yesterday, somewhere around my 20th bunch of kale, he made the observation that many of the techniques used in processing food to make it less likely to spoil actually rely on reducing it's nutritional value, thereby making it less attractive to anything non-human that wants to eat it. It just makes sense. (For more on what happens when you don't/can't block the other things that want to eat your food, see my previous post).

The thread running through all these "aha" moments is a slowly deepening understanding of both the complexity and absolute gorgeous simplicity of how connected everything is.

I'm so happy to be learning.

A farm student's perspective on education

Photo from

This last week, the Atlantic published a disappointing article by Caitlin Flanagan criticizing school gardens, in particular Alice Water's famous Berkeley garden. Her argument is essentially that education in the garden is useless; or worse, it inhibits children from moving up in cultural and economic class.

Of course the article triggered an enraged retort from all different sectors of the food movement. Chefs, food writers, teachers, gardeners, and others raised their collective pitchforks and challenged Flanagan's arguments in a cyber-slam of rather entertaining zingers such as this one, "I'd put them [the Atlantic pages] in the bottom of my bird cage, but one parrot with those ideas already is more than we need" (Prairie Fyre, Comfood).

After reading the article, I got pretty riled up too, especially when she subtly devalued physical labor. Criticizing Waters' philosophy of encouraging children to enjoy physical labor, Flanagan writes, "Does the immigrant farm worker dream that his child will learn to enjoy manual labor, or that his child will be freed from it? What is the goal of an education, of what we once called “book learning”? These are questions best left unasked when it comes to the gardens."

No, Ms. Flanagan, let's not leave these questions unasked. Really, what is the goal of an education? I found myself asking that question this last year as I neared graduation from a liberal arts college with a B.A. degree in anthropology. I stepped off the stage with a diploma in my hand and a heart full of questions and vacancies that my "book learning" could never answer. It is here, on a farm where I am doing manual labor, that I feel my deeper education actually beginning.

Farm work teaches skills that complement my degree, such as business management, research methods, nutrition education, public speaking, teamwork, and familiarity with farm worker justice issues. Yet those "marketable skills" are not why I joined a farm rather than a firm. I am a farm worker because this work is filling some of the gaps left after 16 years of book learning. It teaches me how to live in connection with the land and with a local community. This education finally acknowledges that I'm a body (not just a brain) that was not built to sit behind a desk all day, whether in the classroom or in the office. I'm becoming increasingly literate in the language of ripening vegetables, and the slow signs of change that correspond to a specific place. Finally, this work teaches me that my hands can be involved in the awe-inspiring work of creation, nurture and growth, lessons necessary for children and adults of any age and all social classes. Try creating a standardized test for those values. If these lessons and others like them are not the valid goals of an education, then the educational system needs some serious re-evaluation.

Our ATFP community is connected with a family of immigrants. The parents are farmworkers who do the manual labor of picking the fruits and vegetables upon which we all (if you don't pick your own, that is) depend. On several of their days off, our farmworker friends have brought their children out to our farm to weed and harvest with us. They say they want their children to better understand what their parents do, and to learn from that work. Their educational goals for their children extend beyond "book learning" and ladder climbing. Ms. Flanagan would do well to learn from them, for they know the value of physical labor.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

gopher/rabbit art

Organic means our produce is SO GOOD that everything wants to eat it. That's what I try and tell myself when I encounter holes in the lettuce or little nibbles off the summer squashes.

But this...
...can be frustrating. Happy thoughts about sharing with the other living things on our land aren't what comes to mind first after pulling up one gnawed-on beet after another...
I mean, seriously, why not just go ahead and eat the whole thing (though these pre-chewed beets did end up in a delicious dip).

Farmer's Market

Sarah, ready for the veggie-loving masses

Every time I staff our stand at the farmer's market in Oxnard, I am struck by how completely different it is than any grocery store experience. There's a dj playing 90's jams, old men in cowboy hats smoking and exchanging news from where they lean against the palm trees lining the park across the sidewalk, the smell of tamales and churros mixing with their smoke, and women with strollers who linger after their purchase to chat with vendors they know by name, exchanging recipes, digging for just the right bunch of cilantro... It's hard to summarize why I love the market in a few lines, so I jotted down some notes while we worked.

Here's the sort of running journal:
One of my favorite things about the Oxnard Market is that the majority of our customers are Spanish-speakers. One older woman comes into our stall and starts speaking Spanish with me, then suddenly catches herself and peers at me, saying "Muestreme sus ojos," or "Show me your eyes." I lean over and she inspects them. "Oops," she says in English, "green." She thought I was Hispanic because of my dark hair, and refuses to switch back into Spanish because now she wants to practice English.

We're starting to recognize some regulars. The first regular who drops by is Teresa, known as "that hot evangelical lady" by my housemates. She's a pretty young woman with long hair flung back away from her eyes and always has on the same tight black pants that she wears for motorcycle-riding, her favorite hobby. Teresa has been known to pray in tongues in our market stall over people, sending them on their way with radiant faces. When she spies our newly harvested spinach, she exclaims, "Greens, thank you Jesus!" We talk about what she eats for breakfast and how she prepares it (kale, steamed), and she buys out most of our kale and an impressive 20 beets.

The spinach buying reminds me of Bill, and I look around for him. Bill's a big trucker, at least 6'5", with an insatiable craving for spinach. He's a walking advertisement for our farm. Every time he buys spinach from us, he stands in front of our table booming out praises and raving about the different dishes and delicacies he's prepared with it. I let him go on as long as he wants, since curious onlookers soon gather inside to check out the cause of his excitement.

a guy with long hair and a broad smile comes by. He introduces himself as Tom, and we soon discover that he loves our radishes and knows more about leeks than Sarah and I combined. We learn some new recipes. I say, "You must be some sort of cook, Tom!" He says, "Well, when I have access to cooking facilities, I like to." I find out that Tom is homeless, and only buys the vegetables from our stand that he can eat raw.

Three little kids pause outside of our stand with their mother. I lure them in with broccoli samples, thinking 'this will never work.' "Es muy dulce," I say. They don't need convincing. Five minutes later, I see the same kids, dragging their mom and grandmother in tow to buy broccoli! They are such cute little veggie lovers, I have them pose for the camera.

Around noon, I call Nashi because we have extra fennel. Nashi and his family are recent immigrants from Egypt who I met at the market a few months ago when they spotted our fennel, which they love to cook with in traditional dishes. A relationship was formed over food, as is often the case, and a visit to our farm soon followed. As we start cleaning up the stall around 1, Nashi and his wife rush over just in time to get their fennel.

As the market closes, I put some of our remaining veggies in a bag for our neighbor flower-seller, Ben. He sometimes gives us potted plants to beautify our house and lends us plastic bags when we run out. More veggies disappear from the already dwindling supply as I go out, encouraged by Sarah, to promote the informal trading culture that is the privilege of sellers. I first approach the mushroom seller's son, avoiding the father who, we have learned, considers a sloppy kiss on the cheek proper recompense for a bag full of greens. I do business with the son, informing him that we plan on making some enchiladas tonight that could only be made more delicious with his mushrooms. A few more stops on my way back, and we have peanut butter fudge, strawberries, avocados, a lemon, tangerines, and cucumbers. A successful day? Yes, I'd say so.

"I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart′s affections and the truth of Imagination" - Keats

Although I love Keats, the farm is teaching me that the truth of the earth and physical reality is at least just as important as the imagination. And, it is beautiful. Consider the fields...our fields in the photograph here.

Or our Mexican limes in the backyard.

I'm thankful for these reminders to enjoy the amazing earth around us here at the farm!