life lessons from a farming conference

Two of the sisters and I recently attended the New York regional meeting of the New England Organic Farming Association (NOFA).  It was inspirational, informative, and light-hearted.  I hope my anthropology peeps won’t take offense at this, but NOFA conferences are infinitely friendlier and more encouraging than the academic conferences I’ve attended.  People are there to share information, to try to help one another succeed, to relate stories of what works and what doesn’t work, to introduce new paradigms and scientific theories… You just don’t see any grandstanding from audience members, no one is trying to poke holes in the presenter’s talk, and there's no sycophant-ing around “big name” speakers.  

Instead, there’s energy, and excitement, and a lot of respect for folks who’ve gained experience—even if they’re relatively young.  And there are a lot of young people there!  Many, many young farmers, interns, and food activists were there, some with young families, making this event a truly multi-generational happening.

But beyond the distinctly optimistic and energetic mood of the conference, I was just struck, as I was at the big NOFA meeting this summer in Amherst, Massachusetts, at just how much there is to learn.  Want to learn how to make great compost?  Want to learn how to run an artisanal cheese business based on sheep flocks?  Want to learn medicinal herbs and their properties?  Integrated pest management?  They had all that, and more.

Some of the panels and presentations I attended included:

  • creative farm infrastructure (how to plan the various spaces of your farm)
  • the health benefits of raw milk and the government’s (long-running!) campaign against it (see
  • the no-till corn cultivation methods of the Iroquois in the 17th and 18th centuries, which far surpassed contemporaneous European yields of wheat
  • culinary herbs
  • handcrafting soap

and I took a full-day, hands-on workshop on cheesemaking, and came home with my own chunk of bleu cheese that now must ripen for 6 months!!

Perhaps more important than any specific piece of information, here’s what I took away: you can learn how to do most anything. 

The young farmer who gave a talk on farm infrastructure had done a short apprenticeship with a carpenter, and then learned as he went, tearing down his old farm house, rebuilding it, building a new barn and a new vegetable washing and refrigeration building.  He kept telling us that we could build too, that it isn’t that hard, and that one way to get started is by observing and assisting someone with experience.  He also encouraged us to tell people our story, to relate our goals and vision to others; he had received tremendous help from other people who were inspired by him and who wanted to help him on his way.

“Take-away” number two: it is wise to reconsider things that we think we know.  Farming, like all human activity, is cultural.  There are things we take for granted, things we assume to be true because that’s the way folks have done it for a long time.  But looking across cultures, across eras, we can see that there are many ways to approach the same problem—and there is much to learn from others.  Whether or not to till is a debate in farming; proponents point to the fact that tilling breaks up the soil and makes it easier to plant, and opponents argue that breaking up the soil kills some of the valuable soil biology and breathes life into dormant weed seeds.  Culturally, we associate farming with plows; the plow is an iconic artifact and most of us probably assume that plows are necessary. 

But at the conference, I learned that the Iroquois, when encountered by European colonists in the 16th and 17th centuries, weren’t tilling their fields to grow corn.  The colonists’ letters express amazement at the size and the plenitude of the crops.  Instead of plowing, the Iroquois created mounds of dirt and planted the corn seeds in the mounds.  A few times during the season, they’d come and clear away any weed growth on the mounds, and at the end of the season, they’d harvest the corn and leave the mound as it was until the next year.  The stalk would decompose and the next year, all they’d have to do is clean up the mounds and plant new seeds. 

The agronomist who gave the talk theorizes that the soil the Iroquois were working with had a nitrogen level of 4%, and that this high level of nitrogen contributed to the vitality of their corn crops.  She tied this practice to the Iroquois’ no-till method, because tilling soil reduces the amount of nitrogen in the soil over time (which is why factory farming adds chemical fertilizers, too boost nitrogen and other levels).  At Bluestone Farm, we’re going to experiment with creating some of these mounds this year, and see how it works; one difference is that now we have a whole different set of weeds than the Iroquois did, so the low-level weeding of the Iroquois may not turn out to be true for us.

Finally, I came away with deep respect for experimentation, and for the patience that it requires.  Larry, the “soap guy” from Vermont Soap,  gave a great presentation on soapmaking. If you’re looking for a brand of good, organic soap to use, I’d definitely encourage you to check out his products!  At his presentation, I  learned the basic chemistry of soap making, and how to think about the variables that might cause any particular soap recipe to go wrong.  Rather than tips, he gave us tools for thinking about soap making, and I felt like I really learned something.  Basically, soap is formed by a chemical reaction that takes place when you combine a fat (acidic) with an alkali (basic) and water.  But beyond the information he imparted, I got a real sense of how much trial and error goes into his work.  

And, actually, it’s like that with farming in general.  Each year, you have to observe what is happening with each of the crops, their germination, their placement, the weather, the soil conditions, and then use all that information when planning for the next year.  Try to do a little more of this, shift this crop’s location over there, start this one a little earlier, harvest that one even later.  Add more minerals to the soil, introduce more fungi, bring in plants that attract beneficial insects.  Use row covers, a hoophouse, a greenhouse. . . So many variables to account for, so many strategies to consider, so many experiments to try.  And in the end, you do your best and leave it in the hands of God.

When I was working in education, I followed the work of James Gee, a great scholar  and someone you should definitely check out if you are interested in what we know about learning .  At one presentation, he talked about an experiment on motivation that had been done with chimps (I think) in which they were instructed to solve some puzzle, and after solving it, they were given a treat.  The scientists hypothesized that when the treats were taken away, the chimps would lose interest and eventually refuse to solve the puzzle.  But it turns out that the chimps kept on solving the puzzle with or without the treats—this is, Gee says, because they enjoy it!  And we humans, just like our closest relatives, simply enjoy solving problems too.  Gee’s point is about situational learning—that people can learn things in context that are difficult to grasp in the abstract, that giving a kid a real chemistry situation to solve is more compelling than memorizing abstract facts—but I think it extends to farming as well.  Farming is like one big problem to solve, and there is great pleasure in just puzzling through it…like a giant crossword, with nearly unlimited variables.

So here I am, six months into this experience of being on the farm, and I’m energized and excited to tackle new things and to experiment, to observe closely, and problem-solve.  Maybe that’s one of the larger lessons I’ve been learning here: to think of my entire life as an experiment, a chance to learn new things, to push my comfort zones, and to have fun.

root cellar salad, and the value of a potato

root cellar vegetablesOur root cellar is a thing of wonder: boxes of sawdust and sand filled with roots from the garden: carrots, turnips, parsnips, rutabagas, mangels, and salsify.  Parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas are full of flavor, and complement potatoes really well--if you haven't tried them in awhile, it's worth a venture.  You can even make mashed parsnips just like mashed potatoes, just with a bit of a peppery flavor.  Mangels are related to the beet, and are sweet and delicious.  And salsify is like a long, skinny parsnip, with a mild flavor that's great in soups or roasted dishes.

The root cellar is chilly enough that you wouldn't want to slowly browse, but not cold enough to freeze.  Imagine: you just run downstairs and grab what you need for the soup, or throw together a pan of veggies to roast.  

Gives a new meaning to the word "store."

The roots need watering just about once a week, and the sand and sawdust hold that moisture and keep the roots in good condition.  But as you can see from the picture, little greens pop up from the crown of the root, as the plant continues to grow, even under such different conditions.

root cellar salad greensAnd lucky for us.  

These little root greens are a tasty reminder of the summer that's passed.  Sister Carol Bernice, who cultivates the lettuces, went down to the root cellar the other day to harvest.  The salad that was made was delicious, with a crisp and a crunch that are hard to find in the wintertime.

Living off what we grow means taking a long view, thinking ahead to how best to preserve food for as long as possible.  We use up the roots first, because the cellar can't preserve them indefinitely; then, the foods in the freezer; and finally, the dried, dehydrated fruits and vegetables.  We processed these crops as they came in, beginning with the spring peas, which await in the freezer, to give us a taste of May, even in the coldest of winter.

The amount of thought and care that goes into these crops vests them with value, and my close connection to the work that cultivated them means that I see these foods in new ways: in a potato, I see much more than a golden oval starchy root, I see Sister Helena Marie on her knees, "hilling" or pulling dirt over the potatoes in the early stages of their growth; I see Bill spraying the plants with a milk and water mixture, to try to prevent blight; and I see Sister Carol Bernice and Sister Emmanuel out in the garden with potato forks, turning soil to find little treasures, and their smiles when they bring a full basket into the barn.  And in the barn, I see Sister Catherine Grace, who heads up our preservation and storage efforts, sorting through the potatoes, leaving them out to cure.

In every stage, there is our hope and our toil.  And so we admire what we've cultivated, gathering around the kitchen table, praising the particular yellow-gold of this potato, how easy it is to slice, how delicious it tastes.  This love of food--not just as an ingredient for culinary skill, but as part of the amazing diversity and beauty of creation--was one of the first things that attracted me to this Community.

Recently, I saw a sign in a grocery store window advertising 3 pounds of potatoes for $1.00.  It was shocking.  How could all that effort and care be worth, or even just be exchanged for, only a buck?  I know that grocery stores lure people in with cheap staple goods, counting on people buying processed foods at inflated costs when they get inside.  But I was saddened, nonetheless, that most of us are so disconnected from the experience of growing food that such a price seems reasonable.  How could a farmer make a living selling potatoes at that price?  How could they be grown with care and attention, at that price?

The answer is that they can't.  Prevention Magazine recently asked the experts which foods they'd never eat, and non-organic potatoes are on the list.  Here's why: they're sprayed with fungicides when they're planted as seed potatoes, the plants are sprayed with herbicides during the growing season, and then the potatoes are treated with some other chemical to prevent them from sprouting while they sit in the warehouse or grocery store.  That's thrice-doused, not twice-baked.  That's a commodity potato, with all the energy going to making each plant produce as much as possible with as little human attention as possible.  

removing potato eyesRemoving sprouts from shriveled potatoesWe've got a weird expectation that all our food look perfect.  I was surprised to learn, for example, that potatoes that have grown long sprouts and are all shriveled up are still perfectly good to eat.  You just remove the sprouts, boil them to rehydrate them a little bit, and then cook as normal.  But until now, I've always thrown out sprouted potatoes, thinking they were no good.  How much food do we all just throw away?

There's a difference, I would argue, between a commodity potato and a potato grown with care. This is why I hope more and more people will start to patronize farmers markets, and get to know the people who are growing your food.  

If we can re-establish the connection between the farm and the table, between growing, preparing, and eating food, perhaps we can revitalize the role of family farms in local economies, move toward more nutritious meals, and improve our health through more mindful eating.  

To take a minute, and really see our food, to appreciate it, to become nourished by it . . . this is what I'm learning here at the farm, working in the dirt, learning about how food grows.


antiphons and anticipation

CHS Melrose chapelThis is the first Advent season that I've ever really paid attention to, probably in my whole life.  The quieting down of farmwork, and shorter days, have made our time in chapel all the more prominent these last few weeks, and for that I'm glad.

Sister Helena Marie, a classically trained musician, has created beautiful "Offices" for us to observe throughout the four weeks of Advent.  (An Office is a daily prayer, sometimes called the "Liturgy of the Hours" or the "Divine Office". They are sung at specific times of day; for example, Lauds in the morning, Vespers in the evening.)

For our Advent worship, there are specially chosen psalms and antiphons (short phrases sung before and after a psalm, that frame the text), and carefully selected hymns.  For some reason, I find this manner of worship inviting and meditative, which is so wonderful after all my angst about religion and "The Church" for the last twenty-five years!  Perhaps it has something to do with the intimate nature of the setting; we are usually only six or eight gathered in this little chapel.  The energy that's created when people are fully present and focused is a powerful thing.

plainsong Lauds

We sing "plainsong," which is an ancient musical form developed in the early days of the church, and then elaborated over time.  Lines are sung in a kind of chanting style, sticking mostly to just a few notes, except for a few more elaborate phrases that mark feast days and special occasions in the church calendar.  

And of course, the Advent candles.  Four, each one symbolizing one of the weeks of Advent; we light one the first week, two the second week, and so on.

Advent is a time of waiting, preparing.  I think I was particularly primed for Advent, as I had been desiring to turn inward, to start meditating...and to stop checking websites for job listings and real estate, to stop pushing and prying and trying to force the future to make itself plain to me ahead of time.  I'm thankful for the prayerful practices of Advent that have helped me turn away from my frenetic worry and toward stillness.

simple Advent centerpiece

Here at the farm, the Sisters have a different way of anticipating Christmas.  We don't decorate the tree, or sing carols until Christmas Eve.  We don't exchange presents.  There's no stress of dealing with shopping crowds or harried clerks.  Instead, the Sisters contemplate and pray.  The snow adds a blanket of quiet beauty to the woods.  The winter solstice, happening today, marks another turn, and we begin another anticipation, of the longer days that are coming, of the seeds that will need to be started and nurtured, and eventually planted . . . but I'm learning that you have to go easy when anticipating--if you're not careful, you can throw yourself all the way clear to May, with the advent of asparagus and green leafy lettuces.  In the same way, most of us spend so many weeks anticipating Christmas, to the point of focusing all our attention on the 25th, on gifts and feasts, and lists and shipping . . . and speeding past the pleasure and fullness that comes from waiting, from savoring the present moment.

The time for celebrating is coming, but it's not here yet.  We are still in the darkness, our faces illuminated by candlelight, singing, and waiting. 

stuff and space and simplicity

It's been a busy "rest day" here at the farm, as I spent most of the day cleaning out and rearranging an old bedroom that was being used for storage.  The room was quite full, containing some of the left-behind belongings of two elderly sisters, who now reside in nursing homes.  I found boxes of useful sewing, crocheting, knitting, and crafting supplies, in addition to a couple lifetimes' worth of recipes, which I plan on perusing carefully!  While going through these things, I got to wondering about my own possessions, the life-stuff I surround myself with.  The books and books and magazines, the vases and candles, the hobby projects I start and often never finish . . . Our stuff documents how we pass the time, what we value, what we think is beautiful.  

Over the years, I've struggled to reduce the amount of stuff I own, in great part because we've been living in a small apartment in New York City.  We've only got two regular-size cabinets for storing food and plates, and only a couple of small closets; we simply don't have a lot of room for stuff, or shelf space to display knick-knacks. Whenever we visit friends or family for the first time, we "ooooh" and "aaaaahhh" at the closet space, built-in shelving, and kitchen cabinetry.  Dwell, a contemporary architecture magazine, with its layouts of modern homes, perfectly organized and beautiful, made me drool.  

But since I've been living here at Melrose Convent & Bluestone Farm mostly full-time, since August, I find that I need even less stuff than I thought.  I've got a few sets of farm clothes and a few good pants and shirts, but only about 1/4 of the clothes I have in the NYC apartment.  A few books and magazines.  Some warm slippers and boots and hats and gloves.  A travel bag of toiletries.  And my computer.  So I've come to find, after too many seasons of wanting a bigger apartment and more closets and more clothes and more stuff, that I am happier having even less.  I think that I'm coming to see that living simply is itself beautiful. . . I do think that it's easier to cultivate this perspective when I'm away from the city, where the pace is so intense, and there is so much to do, and so much to buy.  Here, I can go for many days without even picking up my wallet, or thinking, "You know, I could really use a . . . "

One of the benefits of cleaning out that storage room is I got to create a little meditation area in my living space, with a small table on which to put a candle and a bell.  (There had been an extra bed in my living area, which got moved to the storage room.)  Creating that bit of spaciousness, marking aside a spot for meditating feels like such a gift.  A spot intended for my spiritual growth, a present to myself.  At this moment in my life, more than any material thing could, having this space fills me up and makes me content.  I'm so very grateful to the Sisters here for sharing their lives with me, for giving me this space in which to work and rest and pray and grow and be.  

And in this vein of appreciating simplicity, I thought of sharing the following cooking idea with you.  I realized recently that mostly I don't use recipes, but just go by broad guidelines in my cooking.  So bear with me while I figure out what to call these things, for now "cooking idea" will have to do.

Sunny-side eggs in sauteed greensThis idea is based on a recipe I read in Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (which, if you haven't read, you really should!  It's beautiful and interesting, a great read.).  

Take some of your favorite leafy greens (spinach, kale, beet leaves), and saute them in olive oil with whatever spices or seasonings you like: garlic, red chili flakes, salsa, ginger, or soy sauce, for example.

Then, after a few minutes, when the greens are wilted, make little divots and crack an egg into each hole.  Let the eggs slowly cook on low heat; you can separate out each egg and its surrounding greens, and flip, if you like.  Serve alone or with some good crusty bread.  

Simple and delicious.  


thinning, in order to grow

There’s a technique in gardening called “thinning.”  If new baby plants are coming in close together, you pull out a few of the plants in order for the others to flourish.  In one of our gardens, a broccoli raab plant had gone to seed in late summer, and dropped hundreds of seeds in an area about 7’x10’.  Hundreds of baby plants came up, and I spent one morning removing some of them and leaving the strongest, healthiest looking in the ground, with about 4” of space between each.  Thinning plants gives you some tender greens to eat while the plants mature, and allows for the remaining plants to make the most of the available nutrients in the soil.  I wasn’t able to finish the whole patch that morning, and when I went back recently the difference was striking: where I had thinned, each of the plants was sturdy and a strong green, while the others that were still packed in close together fared less well.  Some were pale, withered or stunted, others had brown spots.  That patch of soil simply couldn’t nourish all of those plants…they needed attentive tending, pruning, thinning.

broccoli raab plants

I’ve been thinking about thinning in relation to my own growth lately, what it is I’m removing, what it is I’m trying to help flourish. 

There were clear choices to be made when I prepared to leave a stable job, to depart from a recognizable career path.  Anne and I knew our financial situation was going to change, and that we would need to discern what really mattered to us, and what didn’t.  In some ways, the economic crisis that became apparent in September 2008 helped me begin preparing to make these changes, as I began to take stock, go frugal, and begin saving in earnest.  Buying non-processed food, cooking almost all our meals, curtailing our shopping, repairing instead of replacing, getting rid of cable…all of these helped me get clearer on how I wanted to live, what I valued.  Those were some easy plants to thin.

And since I began coming to the farm in March, and more intensely since I moved here in August, I’ve been occupied with doing another kind of  “thinning.”  It’s like I entered a kind of natural New York Public Library, with stores of knowledge available to me, and I’ve been winnowing through the possibilities and picking out a few stacks, at least to begin with.  I now see that there’s many ways to be involved with the “good food revolution” as Will Allen calls it: food policy, food activism, food-related public education, food distribution, commercial production, community-supported agriculture, and “homesteading” (small farms, to feed family and neighbors, possibly with some farmer’s market activity).  For me, I think my heart is drawn to the idea of homesteading, which is basically what we’re doing here at Bluestone Farm.  We grow our own food, from corn and oats to honey and eggs, from bok choi and kale to kidney beans and celery.  Herbs and spices, roots and greens.  We save our seeds and tap our own maple trees, make our own hominy and our own yogurt.  And the Sisters are learning to weave scarves and cloth towels, with visions of weaving their own simple clothes.

I still entertain the idea of diving deeply into a specialty, perhaps medicinal herbs, or mushroom cultivation, but I’ve always been kind of a generalist and I’m strongly interested in systems. I am pretty clear now, based on what I’ve learned so far, that I’m most drawn to learning how to grow a wide variety of vegetables, how to preserve and store foods, and how to plan a diverse garden throughout a whole year’s cycle.  I’m also interested in learning which plants flourish together, and which insects and flowers work in harmony with a vegetable garden.  And what I really value is being off the grid, being healthy, feeding and cooking for my friends and family, having a spiritual practice, and making a simple living. 

Those kinds of thinning have been pretty easy, I see now.  Although life here is pretty packed, there is time to meditate and pray every day, and in that spaciousness I have come to perceive that there’s more thinning to be done.  A kind of gnarled psychic understory, complete with dead branches and thorns, is in competition with all these new young plants I’ve been cultivating.  I think I naively believed that I could just press the “restart” button on my life when I came to the farm, and that the rhythms and the rituals here would shape me into the person I want to be, the person I know I am (somewhere deep down!).  I easily managed to bring only a few small bags of clothing, and a handful of books.  Turns out I just as easily brought a bunch of less useful baggage as well: insecurities, fearfulness, embarrassment, cynicism, doubt. 

I saw this all too clearly just recently, and the abrupt recognition of this old baggage actually caused me to laugh out loud.  The last few months, I’d been spending a good portion of my free time exploring various finance-tracking software.  I tried a bunch: Mint, Moneywell, Quicken, Moneydance, various Excel spreadsheets, and more…  I began the project with the notion that, in addition to monitoring our new budget, if I had a better idea of how we spent our money I could see if we could save even more.  All well and good.  But somehow that question got twisted up with various attachments and fears…See, I had saved up a bunch of money before I left my job, in order to be able to pay my not-insubstantial student loan payments every month.  I put that money in an account, and thought that these funds would provide me with some security, some freedom to really explore what I want to do in the world, to find my new path.  But somehow that money just seemed to loom larger in my mind, until it was nearly yelling: “what will you do when I’m gone!”  Because I am trying not to live out of fear, I kept just pushing that thought away.  And then going to the computer and playing with financial software.  I was getting more and more frustrated, as no one software seemed to do all the things I wanted it to do: track every expenditure, update automatically, show all the balances, create detailed budgets and reports…I spent hours manually categorizing various expenditures, correcting items, trying to convert a csv file to a qif file…on and on…None was meeting my needs, I was getting more and more frustrated, getting stressed out…losing sleep. 

And then it hit me.  I was trying to find a perfect software that would somehow alleviate my fears about the future, about how I would pay next year’s student loans.  And no software was ever going to do that.  I had more money in my savings account than I’d had in years, and yet I was stressing about how I was going to pay bills a year from now.  When was there ever going to be enough?  Was I worrying about money just out of habit?  I saw, in an instant, that my anxiety about money is related to a larger, deeper lack of belief in abundance, and that no amount of accounting can dispel that fear.  And then I just started laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. How many hours did I spend, trying to fill in a hole with bubbles?  Driven by doubts, I push so, so hard to arrange the world, toiling in vain attempts to ensure that things will turn out ok.  I’ve got to learn new ways of being in the world, of having faith and trust that good things will come.  So here I am, working to clear out this old, old, old brush, to find the stillness within, to cultivate the good soil, and to flourish.  Keep those garden gloves nearby, I may ask for your help.