Friday, February 7, 2014

Pondering About my Life of Urban Farming

A Tribute to Our Early CSA Days, that has Become Our Anthem

I was talking with a retired farmer friend the other day while we were discussing grasshoppers, unseasonally cold, icy weather and why in the heck we do what we do for a living; when we know there are countless other ways to make a buck or two. Many times as I wander up and down damaged rows of half eaten something or anothers, I have this thought to myself, too. But, most of us, push on and replant, replant and replant again. If it was easy, everyone would do it - was her late husband's saying. He said if he ran out of money to farm, he'd borrow some and farm some more. He never really retired before he left his field for the last time. He was doing what he loved every day and he left his part of the world, and through his wisdom, many others, a much better place. That's something I hope to be able to say, too.

Being able to grow food is a pretty awesome feeling. Being able to grow enough food to feed 30+ families and sell some at my neighborhood market day and then also to local chefs and still sometimes have more to give away to a food bank or "hungry family" basket; is enough to make me stop and pinch myself. Do I really do that? Well, most of the time. There have been some seasons where if it hadn't been for some of my generous fellow colleagues having bumper crops of something, we'd not have had nearly the selection, or the abundance, we did sometimes. You can't control nature and you can't guarantee anything in this business.
Introducing city children (Like I was) to one of our hens

But it is still pretty amazing to me that I get to do this for a living. Every day. I mean I'm sure my bank account would relish at the thought of me taking a second job. But I started out working full time and farming at night and on weekends, and I am here to tell you, after farming more or less alone full time now for the past 5 years, I have no idea how I did that! I can't imagine having to do all that I need to get done on top of working even a part time job right now. I'd be wearing pj's to harvest in before dawn and eating pbj sandwiches for all 3 meals instead of just grabbing one for lunch because I'd not have time to make anything else. I do get to sneak out to various food related events and do so among those I consider friends, but technically, that is working, too! It's just nice that I happen to love the folks in my local food community so much that I get to enjoy the company I keep while "working".

Houses bordering the main gardens of our urban farm
This farm is smack dab in the middle of a small but growing city with cars and trucks whizzing by the front of the nondescript house that sits on the 14 acres hidden behind it. There is an interstate about a block away, but some days you'd swear it was running through the pasture you worked in. I try to convince myself that the hum is really a distant waterfall - a cool trick someone pretty creatively optimistic taught me - and another friend has me hanging little wind chimes randomly among the trees to bring little twinkling fairy-like sounds to the woods. And there are houses and apartments dotting the borders on all sides as well as two dead end streets, one on each side of the farm. This is where neighborhood kids cut across the pasture to save a few blocks of walking, or occasionally, driving their golf carts or ATV's, all the way around the farm to get to their favorite corner convenience store. Apparently, they go to buy sodas, junk food and lottery tickets, judging from the litter found in their path. (I'm hoping the plastic bag ban catches fire in town here, too. Although, at least I have something to put the litter into as I walk along and find it.)

I hope soon to be able to reach out and show kids like them that they can stop and pick some fresh apples from an abundant food forest instead of going all the way to the corner stores for "food-like substances". Making healthy, fresh food affordable and available to the community where I live is important to me. And I really feel pretty fortunate to have the opportunity to share my work in so many cool ways. I'm humbled, yet sometimes taken aback, when people walk up to me and ask, "aren't you Eden's?" when I'm perusing the aisle of a grocery store or some documentary screening. Now it's true that I grew up in a town where a lot of people knew me. But I was the 3rd generation of my family to live about a block off of the main street where everyone shopped. My grandfather had been the barber and my uncle the local plumber and a very charismatic citizen well known throughout town and at 15 years old, I started working on the main retail strip initially at the dry cleaners and then in the only camera store in town - before the days of digital - where lots of folks in town had their holiday, birthday and everyday pictures developed. My family was all pretty well recognized in that town, but I never imagined being recognized in a metroplex of millions, 900 miles away from where I grew up. Like I said, it's humbling and a bit disconcerting all at the same time. I guess it's a good thing people like what I do, or it may not be so nice to be known around town. LOL

But all of these city components surround the most interesting and often times fascinating place I have ever had the privilege of working at - much less living on. It doesn't look like much sometimes from the street, unless I've had time to weed the flower bed and plant the cottage garden for the season. But once you step behind the gate, it seems to magically open up and welcome you in.

Next time we visit, I'll take you on a bit of a virtual tour of this little slice of paradise.

Till then -
 Eat Your Food - Naturally!


Sunday, February 2, 2014

No Matter How Long the Winter, Spring is Sure to Follow

“Your body is away from me,
but there is a window open
from my heart to yours.”
What a whirlwind of events, some life-changing, that can unfold in a year’s time. I have started to catch up on some fellow farmers' blogs and it seems I'm in good company with what the past year laid at some of our feet. It seems 2013 was a year of change and challenges - both welcome and some not so welcome - for many in the small farming world.

This weekend last year I was attending our state’s annual organic farmer’s conference with the love of my life and playin in the dirt partner. We listened to various speakers, volunteered, visited with colleagues and enjoyed some R&R. It’s great (and I think considered wise), to have someone you can count on in a united and strong partnership when running a homestead, farming or ranching on a small, organic scale. I’m not saying it can’t be done alone, I've done it on and off for several years mostly on my own.  But I must say for one thing, it sure is a lot more fun to have 4 hands in the dirt instead of just two, and makes the brainstorming and often, motivation to get things done, stronger. 

I share this rare highly personal post as a kind of PSA for those considering venturing out to start farming on their own. A solo career is one thing, but a bit of a challenging life can be in store if you do this on your own without a close knit circle of good, supportive friends on this special journey. They can be a lifeline, and have been one for me, especially if you’re not close to a town, but even if you are, I have found farming can be pretty isolating even if you have CSA, markets and such. They say many farmers are not always a people person, but even the most introverted often have someone besides the family cow or dog to commune with. I know the neighbors around here must think I'm a lunatic watching me talk, seemingly to myself, in the gardens. Though, I've always enjoyed a good chat with Nature.  ;)

Often you find others balancing out strengths and weaknesses, accounting, marketing, building stuff, sharing surplus seeds, seedlings, produce, trading unique experiences, expertise and equipment, favors at each others places and when there is a special someone, it's always nice for warming fingers and each others hearts along the way. It can really enhance your already full and pleasant life in a beautiful way to have a companion that understands the sorts of things that come with this lifestyle and make one even happier knowing you have someone by your side to celebrate the victories with, and share in the challenges that we know come in life. Challenges that come much more so often it seems, in this life where Nature provides plenty of her own.  At least, that was my experience.

To venture out in the world of any small business on one’s own is admirable, and as a woman I've been hailed as everything from heroine to crazy as I first opened an organic garden center and then started a farm from the ground up. But I will honestly say, it was never my dream or intention to work crops and critters all day and come home to a table set for one. Come to think of it, it was never my intention to do much of what I do today. Funny how some things seem to just unfold and develop into more than we planned. I try to make the most and best of what life offers.

As a person who often sees entrepreneurial opportunities, this investment property became a farm and this happy little native plant landscape designer/installer and garden center owner became a farmer out of the desire to see southeast Dallas County provided with a reliable, affordable and accessible source of clean, fresh produce. Since I already owned the land, that food source could also come with the experience of a small, local farm where the area's residents could see and learn how to grow their own food, too - and all just steps from their front door. It just made lots of sense to share this place with others. 

“It takes a minute to have a crush on someone, an hour to like someone, and a day to love someone... but it takes a lifetime to forget someone.”
Kahlil Gibran
I hadn't considered how difficult it might be if I suddenly found myself waist deep in this endeavor alone. I’d been fortunate to have the support of family and a few friends when I "retired" from corporate America and broke out on my own; not to mention equally as excited CSA workshare members and volunteers once I broke ground on the farm itself. Even with that, it was a struggle at times in between volunteers showing up and such, for sure. But things and plans were coming together finally and my ideas for turning this former horse boarding facility into an educational ground for new aspiring farmers needing land and experienced help, were only enhanced when someone came along and shared in my passion for playing in the dirt and offering to help. It was a pretty incredible time.

Offering a smiling face and encouraging, loving words to your partner after they lose most of a crop of melons to grasshoppers or having a tender hand to wipe your own tears after losing livestock to a freak accident, can go a long way to soften the blows of the discouragement and stress that can come with homesteading and farming's inherent risks. Like a shelter from the storm. You know you're not alone, even if they're not there all the time.

Putting up the yurt

Last summer my farm was chosen by a wonderful young newlywed couple who were long time CSA members and had become good friends of mine, to set up a temporary educational exhibit of an off-grid, sustainable homestead area to enhance existing farm tours. This also meant I’d have some relief from the daily animal chores that can sometimes dampen plans or at least, cause dawn and dusk to become like curfews to feed and stave off predators. I was really looking forward to the possibilities and production on both my beloved's farm and mine as we’d be able to enjoy and take advantage of this new-found flexibility. Getting up with the cool of the day, without missing an hour or two to chores and commuting the 17 miles between us, meant more accomplished before the daily heat set in.

You see, in North Texas, summertime gardening slows down as the heat bears down, and this is when building projects, repairs, hot sticky afternoons giving way to siestas and cheap movies and then working again after dinner till dark, become part of the agenda. Having a partner to share these days with makes lighter of the work and the idle time.

But, instead of the super productive summer together that I had envisioned, suddenly I found myself on my own, moving a bit slower than my usual spunky self. In the face of constant stress and challenges by the county for toxic assaults of mosquito abatement, the pending new farm safety regulations that threatened to really put a damper on things and the farm bill crazies, (which they still haven’t figured out), nursing a painful, and now chronic, case of tendinitis in my elbow, the piles of paperwork I normally catch up on in the summer, (all the while keeping the farm's summer crops on a lifeline and staving off grasshoppers at the remote property I was using while laying some of my land fallow for the fall); without the source of someone who often deflected some of the assaults from the outside world with that wonderful sense of humor and other distractions, it was a long "off" season, to say the least. But, you just do your best. 

Eden's was voted BEST CSA in a tie with Comeback Creek
The summer was not without it’s victories though, as I turned the frustration of my loss into the tenacity of a bulldog and after a fight with the bank to refi the farm, I secured a much more favorable interest rate and secured the appropriate and legal agricultural property tax rate for the farm – finally, that only took 2 years too many due to red tape and lack of consistent legislation. I managed to lower my monthly liabilities dramatically, a huge load off of my shoulders, and that of committed CSA members who stood by me through the ordeal.

I also managed to plow through income taxes and the application from the USDA so the farm can accept peoples' Lone Star SNAP cards this spring at Market Day – making another step closer, the reality of one of my original missions of affordable, clean food for some of my less fortunate neighbors – as soon as the paperwork comes back that is…. You know how fast the government can move.

But the fall brought much colder and wetter than normal conditions, putting a hamper on what is normally one of our best times to farm and a sure-fire mood elevator coming out of a hot, dry summer season that can depress even the happiest person; therefore keeping my mood still ever-challenged. With the many below freezing streaks of days that bombarded us so early on, grasshoppers were finally starting to die off, but so too, were tender seedlings that should have become mid winter season sales for restaurants and special seasonal markets and my CSA family’s pick your own weeks.

WWOOFer Preston and CSA Member Chris Helped Me Build a New Animal Shelter
With a fixed water pipe in my shop/interns' quarters and the help of some friendly media coverage, my farm intern program got a shot in the arm. (I'm still searching for the right couple!) I re-registered with WWOOF USA, both bringing a flurry of young, eager helpers applying to the farm for some experience and training. It was nice to have fresh voices and faces to break the monotony of the off-season in late fall.

I am your wildflower, Hold me close to your breast, Nourish and plant my seed Make a tea of me and heal yourself, Or throw me into a fire to keep you warm, I'm yours To do with as you please. Saleem

Cold, wet and tired of the crazy fall and winter weather this year brought, I was often reminded of less than pleasant winter memories of my younger days up north in the frozen tundra known as Chicago - from which I fled over 20 years ago to escape the long, harsh winters. At this point, spring with all of her promise of new beginnings, fresh starts and restored life to things seemingly dead – could come none too soon to this farm girl's now suddenly emptier world. It’s always been my favorite season anyway – this year, I hoped it would hold special rewards. Year of the horse - anything goes.

Recently I attended a one day lecture by farmer and acclaimed author/speaker Joel Salatin. I’d heard him speak about 3 other times over the years, but I was invited especially to attend and so I thought I would accept the invite and go. I might hear something new this time anyway – his lectures are very thorough, yet fast paced. He went over the history of his farm and how it came to be with wonderful pictures and stories of how he directs the ballet of farm animals in the pasture with nature’s approval and her many generations of examples to follow. He spoke highly and strongly of family and the importance of choosing a partner who can live frugally and flexibly to a young man starting out asking for advice; a thought I'm echoing here. It’s not often two people meet with such similar interests and the patience and understanding of what can at times be a demanding way of making a living. At least, it’s not been my experience and I’ve been at this 11 years!

"In friendship or in love, the two side by side raise hands together to find what one cannot reach alone.”
Kahlil Gibran

Yet through his words and testimonies I was reminded of how very fortunate I am to be hand in hand daily with perhaps the greatest partner of all – Nature – in all of its many forms. Male, female, juvenile and mature all at once. Plants, animals, insects, weather, ponds, compost piles, seeds and weeds – nature is multi-functional. Quite the humorist, very understanding and always forgiving of our missteps and shortcomings. While not a day goes by that I don't think fondly of the memories made and hope for restoring that shared life; Nature may very well be my new best friend and the best role model for life I could have. Hope springs eternal, or so they say....


Eat Your Food - Naturally!