Hello, Blog. Hello, Self.

In June 2013, the date of my last blog post, Allison and I were trying desperately to balance our new and demanding professions with our shared love: Blogging about farming, gardening, cooking and challenges in the food system.

Allison was lobbying for funds for a campus farm, seeking local and seasonable produce for an institution serving more than 30,000 students, and never taking a break from inspiring young students to get their hands dirty growing their own. I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed waking up for 10+ hour days trying to grow vegetables, raise chickens and graze goats on a then-small farm within a 4,000 acre housing development damn committed to raising agricultural awareness and culinary confidence.

Neither of our careers has changed, but with every passing day, season, solstice and calendar year our responsibilities grew. Our commitment to “doing something about it” outgrew the number of hours in our days. Emails went out to one another late at night, from Virginia to Maryland and back, apologizing for not posting. The blog, and time with one another, became to something we wish we made more time for. For me, a lot of things did.

Farming took precedent. I started working through meals, choosing sleep over showers, and learned what it meant to sacrifice. Months passed between visits with my family, relationships fell apart, the only time I saw friends was when they stopped into the farm with sympathy in their smiles, offering to help wherever they could, asking if I was okay. I wasn’t. Self care was last on my list. I shifted towards a not-great diet – ironically, the trap I work to free others from: convenience over nutrition. I sacrificed every ounce of my strength, energy, sanity, time and heart for this cause and opportunity I believe to be so important: building a farm that feeds the people building a community around it.

But working on a farm is the dream, right? So peaceful!

Yes and no, simultaneously. It. Is. So. Hard. When we interview applicants, we often say: Tell us about your hardest day farming or working outdoors. I think what I want to hear in the answer is that they’ve had not one but many; that they understand the organism of the farm is the real boss, they’ve raced the sunset or a storm, worked with one hand out of commission, set alarms to care for livestock all through the night, won, lost, hurt and laughed all in one day. And then gotten up the next morning to do it again every day since.

As the 2017 season beings, I get up every day to do it again thanks to inspiration from the farmers I work alongside, encouragement from great people, email inquiries about renting the goats, the Cecropia moth cocoons I’ve kept safe all winter, the tiny seeds that hold so much DNA and are beginning to express it in the greenhouse, the tiny victories against early weeds.

But I’ve lost some gumption and cheer – traits that I’d like to think defined me. So it’s time to take it back! Back to the start, with a blog post:

Advice to a New Farmer (or perhaps to the version of myself that last posted here). Inspired by farming, farmers and also by Tony Robbins, Sheryl Sandberg, John Mackey, Bill W., good friends, good goats…

  1. Identify your principles, goals and profit centers and be loyal to them. There are a lot of different ways and things to farm, methods of sale and plenty of buzz around what’s going to be the new kale. No one is doing them all at once, but everyone likes to talk about them. Find the things your market demands and then set short, medium and long-term goals for how to grow and market those products with practices you believe in. Sure, experiment with an idea or crop that excites you and reminds you why you started, but don’t let visions of homesteader-level diversity convince you to bite off more than you can chew. Budget time to observe, be proactive and analyze successes and failures.
  2. 100% Customer Satisfaction is not achievable. Mark Zuckerberg famously said, “If you’re pleasing everyone, you aren’t making progress.” When our farm was only growing vegetables and serving 40 CSA members, the people-pleaser in me was very satisfied. But then we added chickens, and goats, and more chickens, and more members, and more staff, and more pick-up days at more locations, and more hours of operation at the store, and more volunteer hours, and more educational programming, more varieties and successions, and you get the drift. There aren’t enough hours in the week to live in a constant state of accommodating others, be them human, animal or plant. Help the ones that can’t help themselves, first, but beyond that, grow the best products you can, sell them proudly at the place and time you said you would, then close the gate and go home (especially if someone is waiting for you). Your time is no less valuable than anyone elses.
  3. Livestock farming is not for the faint of heart. Even if you do everything right for and by the animals you raise, nature happens and it’s hard to watch. The herd mentality. The pecking order. The predator doing what predators do, merciless and inhumane. And then there’s processing – a time at which you must remember: Nature made humans omnivores and humans defined the term “humane.” Every animal you raise the right way, the best way you can, is an animal spared from the conventional, industrial system.
  4. Learn from it. Forgive yourself. The first big failure hits hard. You see almost instantly what you missed, forgot, opted to skip because some other aspect of the farm called and you feel GUILT. You’re disappointed in yourself. Even when it wasn’t your fault, you know that you decided to engage in agriculture, you’re domesticating animals, putting plants where they wouldn’t just pop up on their own, so nothing on your land is ever just the circle of life, right? In some ways, sure, but this is the nature of farming. You’re a farmer trying to choreograph nature like a god, but you’re not a god. In these moments of defeat, I fall on the ol’ standby: Accept the things you cannot change, have courage to change the things that you can, and wisdom to know the difference.
  5. There’s pain you need to push through and there’s pain you need to pay attention to. Learning how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable is Farming 101. You will ache, itch, burn, bleed and crack. If you’ve got the innate grit that most people called to farming have, you will amaze yourself with your ability to endure, but you also need to recognize your breaking point. There are a lot of ways to get injured or killed on a farm. If you are hungry, tired, itchy and in a rush: step away from the role of machine operator. If your spirit is suffering, see number 8.
  6. Done is better than perfect. As you learn to delegate, you will learn that no one else sees, thinks or works the exact same way you do and that’s just that. Hire hard-working people who are eager to learn, teach them, then trust them. If you can’t let go of a little control, you will fatigue fast, your colleagues will grow frustrated, and you’ll end up pretty powerless.
  7. But… you will never be done. You know that feeling when your house, vehicle and hair are all clean at the same time? Me neither. Okay, I’ve felt it a handful of times in my life, but my point is: I don’t think you ever feel that way farming. There will always be beds that need something, projects that need to be finished, emails that need responses… At some point you have to accept that you will never FEEL done and have to CHOOSE what can wait until tomorrow, what can’t and when to cut it off.
  8. Befriend fellow farmers. Not just working, neighborly relations. Friendship. Whether they are many years ahead of you, a few behind you or side-by-side in the journey of farming, you will help each other. Open up to them, break down with them, seek advice, collaborate, vent, eat, rest, love and trust them.
  9. Accept that you will spend more time doing what you HAVE to do than doing what you WANT to do. This is true in all professions, right? It’s just that when you’re trying to simultaneously tame nature and run a business, there are a whole lot of “have to’s” at once. Animals need care every day, multiple times a day, regardless of the weather. Mother Nature will boss you around and test your limits, but you still need to show up at market at the same time, with the same smile. Wind will sweep your row cover off after the rest of the staff has left for the day. Things will break. People will quit. You will do every single job on the farm and it will frustrate you, but sometimes that’s just what you have to do and that’s that.
  10. Cherish the moments that you feel gratitude, grace and purpose. Even on the hardest days, there is beauty. Beauty in a completed task, an oddly-shaped vegetable, an insect, a breeze, a critter, watching the chickens lining up at sunset. Don’t lose track of them. In fact, look for three a day and talk about them at dinner. There’s a Cherokee legend about the two wolves that battle inside each of us, one good (humility, empathy, truth, peace, joy) and one evil (anger, resentment, inferiority, ego). Who wins? The one you feed.
  11. Eat what you grow. With people you love.

Note: This reflective/inspirational tone is not the norm on here. I promise we will return to useful gardening tips, practical tools, recipes, labor debates, insect identifications and hard-hitting journalism soon.

Meeting Michael Pollan

POLLA3_130425_346On April 25th, my parents, who live in Arlington, Virginia, invited Jen and I over for a home-cooked family meal inside the tiny window of time after a work day and before we were headed to the heart of Washington, D.C. to hear Michael Pollan speak about his newest book, ‘COOKED: A Natural History of Transformation.‘ Even with the wealth of farm-to-table restaurants in the city, many of their kitchens stocked with products grown and raised by close friends, we felt that the best way to honor the movement and the debut of the new book was to celebrate it quietly at home. And then chase down Michael Pollan with a Willowsford Farm gift bag and our cameras ready to shoot.

Over vegetarian lasagna, greens, and strawberry shortcake served on fresh baked biscuits, we talked about the season to come, about the 8 lbs. sweet potato my parents grew in their backyard garden last year and how we hope to beat their record at the farm this year, and what to write in the card we were slipping in the bag for “MP.”

Then something magical happened. For the first time in my “Pollanated” career, I realized we were going to be late to a Michael Pollan talk. Instead of flying out the door, however, we picked up our plates, double checked our will-call receipts and watched Jen take an extra moment to thank my parents for the meal. Sure, I still kind of rushed us out the door, but being a little bit late because we are busy farmers committed to family meals felt perfectly reasonable. It felt like Michael Pollan would completely forgive our tardiness.

As always, the talk was inspirational and articulated every thought, feeling and goal inside each one of us fighting to regain our connections with nature, the food chain, meal time, and our role as chefs in our own health and destiny.

Pollan referred to the family meal as “the nursery of democracy,” a time when we learn to take turns at the favorite parts of a roast chicken with our siblings, give guests first dibs at the homemade whipped cream for strawberry shortcake, and take back this activity and time from a world perhaps too populated with convenience and choice. He discussed the history, and interesting timing, of the ready-made, frozen meal in combination with the growth of dual-income and dual-career households and in doing so, reminded me of how many “food-like substances” have fueled so many of us along the way. Who hasn’t grabbed a bite of something from the convenience store at a gas station or hurried through a sandwich over the kitchen sink so that they could use that time for a different form of personal enrichment? Heck, even farmers order pizza once in a while.

But on the beautifully bright side, this has led many of us to a place where each meal cooked at home, shared with family and in our case, farm-ily as well, feels like a treat, like a special occasion. Although I long for weeks, months and years when it is simply part of the daily routine of life, I’m more than happy to invest extra time in Willowsford Farm and fields to ensure that our CSA members and Farm Stand shoppers have rich, diverse meals that are good for them and grown via practices that the author of “In Defense of Food” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” would be proud of. And lucky for us, as the bounty of the season is growing all around us, it’ll once again be easy to refuel with fresh peppers, tomatoes, and greens throughout the days and roast, stir fry and grill in the evenings.

Chesapeake Compost Works Now Accepting Orders

The remarkable team behind Chesapeake Compost Works just announced that they are open for orders of their first batches of product. Way to go, guys!!

Email them (info@chesapeakecompost.com) with the product you want, the quantity you want, and your zip code and they’ll give you a quote.

Chesapeake Compost: Our original 100% multi-purpose compost, made from recycled brush, garden trimmings, and food scraps.  $32 per cubic yard plus tax and delivery charge, $28 per cubic yard for orders of 10 cubic yards or more.

Chesapeake Garden Mix: A 80% / 20% blend of Chesapeake Compost and fine sand, perfect for raised beds and other plantings where you are planting directly into this soil.  Holds water and has a rich, soil texture.  $37 per cubic yard plus tax and delivery charge, $34 per cubic yard for orders of 10 cubic yards or more.

Chesapeake Topsoil: A 50% / 50% blend of Chesapeake Compost and fine sand, perfect for starting new grass plantings or rejuvenating distressed landscapes.  $40 per cubic yard plus tax and delivery, $37 per cubic yard for orders of 10 cubic yards or more.

Chesapeake Potting Soil: Our blend of Chesapeake Compost, spagnum peat moss, and vermiculite, designed to be light and airy yet hold water.  Perfect for starting seeds in flats, trays, or growing in pots.  Coming soon!

Chesapeake Sustainable Potting Soil: Our blend of Chesapeake Compost, coconut coir, and expanded rice hulls.  Made entirely of renewable materials.  Performs just as well as Chesapeake Potting Soil, perfect for starting seeds in flats, trays, or growing in pots.  Coming soon!

Chesapeake Rain Garden Mix: Blended to the specifications of Blue Water Baltimore, this mix is designed to let stormwater infiltrate the ground.  Blue Water Baltimore uses this mix to construct rain gardens throughout Baltimore.  Coming soon!

Chesapeake Castings: Worm castings made from red wiggler worms fed a diet of spent brewery grains and lettuce.  This super rich soil is used as a fertilizer to add life and nutrients to everything from your container garden to your farm.  Coming soon!

Fleetwood Farm

On my way to the farm every morning, I slow down as I pass Fleetwood Farm to see if I can pick out Sam, the Maremma on duty, from the rams and ewes he guards day and night. I usually can’t, but I’m hopeful that one of these days I’ll spot him and then – like riding a bicycle – will be able to spot the dog(s) in a herd anywhere.

Last week, I volunteered to take some leftover produce to the mulefoot hogs so that I could spend a little time with the new lambs and Sam. Walt Feasel was there, working with a border collie in one of the fields, but took a break to introduce me to the new crop of babies, chat about his operation, and even sent me home with sausage that my taste testers ranked above all others. Seriously. Two out of two meatatarians said it was the best sausage they have ever had.

Here are five reasons to love, support and purchase from this farm:

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5. Sam. Fierce when he should be. Friendly when you’ve earned his trust. Once you win him over, he squeezes between your legs, lifts you up, and nuzzles into your heart very quickly.

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4. Diversified livestock. This handsome Bourbon Red tom waddles around with New Hampshire and Plymouth Rock chickens.

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3. The close-knit herd. Seeing them moving around the pasture together will makes you all warm and woolly inside.

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…so will their adorable lambs.

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2. Momma Mulefoot loves Willowsford Farm leftovers.

IMG_5084 resized1. And Sam loves the the Willowsford Farm dog, Bella. They’ve been seeing each other since last fall.

Fleetwood Farm is located at 23075 Evergreen Mills Rd in Leesburg, VA and raises heritage breeds on pasture for meat and eggs. Farm visits are by appointment only. Learn more here.

You know you’re ready for spring when…

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…you’re talking to your friends (and plants) about the “thigmo response.”

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…you’re nearing the end of cleaning jobs and getting creative.

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…things on the winter project list (operation organization aka chalkboard wall) are getting done!

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…you’re excited to start shoveling.

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…you’re so eager for new life around you, the smallest creature catches your eye.

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…you’re photographing that new little life around you so you can post it to various media and blog about it (because you are procrastinating on your succession plans).

Balsamic Roasted Baby Roots

This recipe from Sprouted Kitchen was a huge hit at holiday parties last year and now that fresh carrots are on our minds again, I thought I’d share and recommend. WebMD also recommends this recipe as a lower cholesterol and lower calorie food and recipe.

BALSAMIC ROASTED ROOTS + SPINACH SAUCE // Serves 4

1 lb. Assorted Small Carrots
1 lb. Assorted Small Beets
2 Tbsp. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 Tbsp. Balsamic Vinegar, divided
1/2 tsp. Sea Salt
1/2 tsp. Black Pepper

1 Bunch Fresh Spinach Leaves
1 Large Clove Garlic, minced
2 tsp. Unsalted Butter
1/2 Cup Light Whipping Cream or Whole Milk
1/3 Cup Finely Grated Parmesan Cheese
Squeeze of Fresh Meyer Lemon Juice
Salt and Pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 425′ and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or foil.

Toss the clean and dry root veggies in 2 Tbsp of olive oil and salt and pepper to coat. Sprinkle 1 Tbsp of the balsamic vinegar in and toss again. Place coated root veggies on the baking sheet and roast on the middle rack for 30-45 minutes, depending on size. You want to be able to pierce a butter knife through the largest vegetable on the tray.

Once the vegetables are roasting, steam the spinach for just a minute or two to cook down. Remove from heat to cool, squeeze out any remaining water and chop well.

In a medium saute pan over medium-low heat, drizzle olive oil over the minced garlic and cook for about a minute. Add the butter if desired (I did not and sauce turned out fantastic). Add chopped spinach and cream and stir to coat. Cook until the spinach absorbs most of the cream. Stir in the Parmesan and a few pinches of salt and pepper. Allow the creamy spinach goodness to cool a bit then transfer to a mini or immersion blender. Give it a few pulses to break it down then add it back to the pan and thin with milk/cream if you wish. Squeeze in a bit of fresh lemon juice to taste. Turn off the heat and cover to keep warm.

When the vegetables are ready, remove to cool slightly and drizzle on the remaining balsamic.

Farm Crew Positions Open at Willowsford Farm

Farm July 2012Willowsford Farm is now hiring full-time farm crew members for the 2013 season.

Farm Crew is a paid, hourly position.  Crew is involved in all aspects of farm production: planting, cultivating, mulching, harvesting, washing and distributing produce, and caring for laying hens.

Work Experience/Skills Desired: One full season on a vegetable farm, or similar experience.  Other demonstrated skills or work ethic are considered.

Farm work is physically demanding and we work in all conditions: cold and wet and hot and humid.  A commitment to working hard, having fun, and getting the job done and done correctly required.

Educational opportunities: This is not an internship, but there is a lot to learn here for the interested crew member. Willowsford Farm is also a member of Chesapeake CRAFT, a series of farm tours, workshops, and potlucks – a lot of fun and an excellent opportunity to see how other farms do sustainable agriculture.

These are paid positions, $10/hour.  Housing is available.  The farm crew season is April – end of October.

Please submit resume and statement of interest to farm@willowsfordfarm.com or through our posting on Good Food Jobs.

ROOTING DC: Saturday, Feb 23, 2013

Rooting DC is a free, all-day gardening forum that aims to provide education about food production and consumption, to cultivate health, and to preserve the environment from which we receive our nourishment. The program consists five tracks:

Start It – Gardening basics
Grow It – Honing skills, workshops and container gardening tips
Eat It – Cooking and food preservation
Teach It – Learn how to share your knowledge
The Big Picture – Growing into the broader landscape of food

Hope to see you there! Here are the conference details:

Where: Wilson High School, 3950 Chesapeake St. NW
When: Saturday. February 23rd 9:30am – 4:30pm (Doors open at 8:30am)
Registration: FREE – Register here

For additional information, check out the Rooting DC website.

 

Food and Farm Books to Pre-Order for 2013

As each chilly January day is ever-so-slightly longer than the last, I’ve found myself not only counting down the days until spring, but also the days until two incredible books publish and get into my library, mind and heart: Michael Pollan’s Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (Release date April 23, 2013), and Forrest Pritchard’s Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers’ Markets, Local Food and Saving the Family Farm (Release date May 21, 2013).

The Amazon.com summary of Pollan’s Cooked reveals that the book will explore the four classical elements of food and cooking – fire, water, air and earth – seemingly in the deep, co-evolutionary style of  The Botany of Desire. Pollan dedicates sections of the book and of himself to understanding the human relationship and dependence on the “primal magic” of fire, the “art of braising,” the transformation of grain and water into bread via air, and the genius of fermentation. All of which encourage we readers and food system reformers to continue our quest to bring our meals back to the basics.

“…Cooking, above all, connects us. The effects of not cooking are similarly far reaching. Relying upon corporations to process our food means we consume huge quantities of fat, sugar, and salt; disrupt an essential link to the natural world; and weaken our relationships with family and friends. In fact, Cooked argues, taking back control of cooking may be the single most important step anyone can take to help make the American food system healthier and more sustainable. Reclaiming cooking as an act of enjoyment and self-reliance, learning to perform the magic of these everyday transformations, opens the door to a more nourishing life.”   – Amazon description

While I hope each year welcomes a little more kitchen and cooking time into my personal food journey, the heart of my education and energy takes place on the farm. Lucky for me and all my fellow farmer friends, Forrest Pritchard, author of Gaining Ground and pioneering farmer at Smith Meadows Farm in Berryville, Virginia, captures the spirit of those experiences and lessons in his blog posts and speaking engagements. Just this weekend, he ignited applause from an audience of farmers at the Future Harvest conference with a pivotal comment during the panel discussion “Down a New Path  – Stories of Change and Transition.”

“We could be considered niche farmers… Or we could be considered early adapters in a new paradigm.” – Forrest Pritchard

A recording of the discussion will be airing this week on the Marc Steiner Show and the Gaining Ground is set to be released May 21st. Until then, Pritchard and Smith Meadows’ free-range meats can be found at several DC, Maryland and Virginia farmers markets.