Baby Talk

It’s been a long while since I’ve updated this here blog! Every time I let so much time slip I become anxious about getting back into it. It’s hard to decide how much to include in each blog, what is worth writing about, or what you all will find interesting. This year is turning out to be especially hard to blog about, because lots of really big things are happening! So I sit here looking at a (mostly) blank “page” on the screen and don’t know where to begin.

I guess the biggest news (so far) for those of you who haven’t heard yet, is that we are expecting our first child this summer. Late July to be exact. Which is absolutely the WORST time for farmers to be having a baby, but sometimes these things can’t be helped. I have spent the last few months marveling at how different my body is becoming, and how much it affects my day to day. And the baby isn’t even here yet (although it’s currently kicking me, trying to tell me otherwise). Other than increased fatigue, little things like my abs stretching out and becoming weak are affecting my ability to lift buckets of chicken feed or haul water. Andrew is pulling far more than his share of the weight around here these days, and I’m more than a little nervous about what the looks like as the season progresses, our responsibilities on the farm grow, and then this baby appears!

Fortunately we are friends with a wonderful couple (who are also new parents), who have quit their corporate jobs and want to try their hand at farming. Sounds familiar! We are currently scheming up ways for them to help us out this season so we can have some relief and they can gain some skills. I’m sure having babies together at the farm will be a nice bonus as well! Oh, and for those of you who are wondering, we are not finding out the sex of the baby before it is born. I recently told that to a farmer acquaintance and she said, “Oh, not finding out is the new thing!” Of course my smartass response was, “Uh, actually, it’s the OLD thing” hah. We’ve only had the technology to learn the baby’s sex before birth for about 40 years. It seems to us there are so few surprises in life (although we’ve certainly had our fair share!), and we’re willing to wait to learn all about our little one after he or she enters this world. So stay tuned for that big reveal!

In other news, Andrew and I were lucky enough to escape to Costa Rica back in January. It seems like ages ago. The ten lovely days we spent in the tropics were rejuvenating, but this long, wet Pacific Northwest winter continues to drag on. We have lots of new projects coming up at the farm, including building new portable chicken pens that will improve quality of life for our meat chickens (as well as ourselves!). We were awarded a grant to build these new pens and are excited about the change. We have also had many new goat and lamb babes born this season, our first piglets of the year made an appearance, we will soon have meat chicks in the brooder, and they will be followed quickly by the turkey poults.

Finally I need to mention that my wonderful grandmother passed away last month. I have written about her many times in the blog; she and I were close and I miss her. Fortunately she lived to be 93, and passed away peacefully in her bed after a few months of slipping away. I mentioned in my last post that I got to visit her before her mind was completely taken from her. I was able to tell her I was pregnant, and suddenly she knew exactly who I was and what I was telling her. She was so happy for me, and it was all I could do to keep from bursting into tears on the spot. I’m sad that our child won’t get to meet my grandmother, or his/her own grandmother Nancy. Yet bringing new life into this world as other life departs is a powerful reminder of my own humanity and mortality, and brings to light the important role we each play in the continuity of this wonderful world.

Hanging with Hindy

Those of you who have been following my blog for a while know that I am close to my grandmother, Hindy. When she fell ill and needed help moving into her assisted living facility a few years ago, I drove to Tucson and stayed with her for three months while we got her settled and her health improved. Since then she has had several physical ups and downs (she’s almost 93 after all!), but suddenly I am really having to grapple with the reality of her age.

Recently my grandmother has been spending most of her time in bed. Her hearing has become so bad that she no longer answers her phone, which is difficult for me since I live so for away. What little she can hear doesn’t always make sense to her. With these health updates in mind, my mother and I traveled together to visit her in Tucson. Hindy is often disoriented, and while she was happy to have visitors and has many strong memories, she usually struggled to place us in context. Hindy is from Belgium, and her native languages are Dutch and French. As her mind starts to wander into the depths of dementia, her French is returning. She tends to start her sentences in French, then pauses with a frustrated look on her face and attempts to rephrase her words into English. This experience is new for me, as my grandmother has always had the most astute memory of anyone in my family. She remembered details from vacations many years long passed, who gave her a holiday card (and who didn’t!), and what every one of her beloved family members were up in their busy, disparate lives.

My grandfather died when he was in his early 80s, and was also sharp as a whip at the time. My mom’s parents both died very young. I have no experience with dementia, though I am grateful it took as long as it did to show its tragic/comic face. My grandmother is in relatively good spirits. Her face lights up when we walk into the room. She laughs at herself. She exclaims, “wow I guess I am old!” and there are small daily victories, such as her remembering a stroll we took just the day before. But it also feels like my grandmother is no longer my grandmother. She claimed my father, Rob, was almost 8 years old and was a “little angel” which she accented with a heavy, sarcastic eyeroll. It was funny. But it was also sad. And I suppose that’s a microcosm of life.

I wish I lived closer to my grandmother. My grandparents moved to Tucson just a few months before my family moved to the Bay Area, but they loved the desert and there they stayed. After my grandfather died my grandmother didn’t miss a beat. She continued volunteering at the Tucson Visitor Center, translating for tourists who came in speaking Dutch, Spanish, or French. She was an usher at the local theater. She played bridge and mahjong, and had an active social life. So of course she wanted to stay in Tucson where she had spent the last two wonderful decades of her life. But it’s hard. There is no family in Tucson. Her friends are all either gone or in similar health. She’s at a wonderful facility and has her every need met, but she’s not with those who love her. This is common in our culture, which has the modern family nucleus going…well… nuclear and exploding all across this huge country in search of a better job, climate, quality of life. Family cohesion often gets lost in the fray, and I’m a perfect example. My mom and step-dad now live in southern California (after four years in Australia). My dad and step-mom live in northern California. My twin sister and her family live in Maine. My brother and his wife live in Oregon. My grandmother is in Tucson. And I live in Washington.

Every single one of us is living where we choose, and with good reasons. But I can’t help feeling a deep sadness and longing every time I have to say goodbye to someone at the airport. When you’re a child growing up with your parents and siblings you fully expect the rest of your life to look just the same, but maybe with an added spouse and children of your own. Now our spouses and children take the place of extended family, until they too explode off around the country to colleges, careers, and their own little family units. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with this picture, until someone turns 93 and starts to slip away, and you are lucky to be able to afford time and airfare to go visit once a year.

This is part of the appeal of farm life for me. I can envision a large extended family sharing communal space, in a big house or smaller houses nearby. Land that feeds us and gives everyone a job to do. Hands to help with chores, harvest and child rearing. Laughter. Hugs. Big, boisterous mealtimes. Part of me recognizes this as the dream of a bygone era, but part of me hopes against hope I can make it happen. Living in the same state as most of Andrew’s family is a good start. And parents: know this: if I ever have a house with an extra room, you are welcome there. If you are able bodied I will likely put you to work of some kind, but you will be cared for and loved, and never alone. I know my grandmother chose her lot, and I don’t fault any of her family for honoring her wishes. Forcing someone to move to a new state at the end of her life isn’t always the most ethical choice, and it wasn’t for her. But I’m peering into my future and I don’t like how I feel about it. If there was some way I could get all of my family living together again I would do it in a heartbeat.

For now there is nothing left to do but say goodbye to my grandma with hope and trepidation. I don’t know when I’ll be back, and I don’t know what she’ll be like. I can only hope she keeps her spirits high and meets her dementia with the grace she’s shown through all of her remarkable life’s tribulations. As my mom and I drove through the desert on this drizzly solstice day, the sweet mesquite smell of the damp dirt jolted me back into my childhood. When all we knew was life with each other, and the unbridled joy we felt when grandma enveloped us in her arms.

 

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A Year Without Nancy

It is hard for me to summarize this past year in a succinct way. I was intending on posting something on facebook commemorating the one year anniversary of Andrew’s mom, Nancy’s, passing, but I can’t do it in so few words. I can’t tease out the emotions from the rest of what this intense year has brought us. This has been a tremendous year of struggle and growth for us and our farm operation. There have been many days of stress, tears, and bitter words that have passed between Andrew and me. This is the truth about all marriages on occasion, but I’ll wager that those couples who own and run small businesses together experience more than our fair share of this kind of tension. The trouble for us is that Nancy was always our go-to, especially for Andrew when he’s feeling overwhelmed. She was just a phone call away, ready to offer soothing words and practical advice. Ready to remind us that we are loved and celebrated, that our hard work is worth it.

Of course we have many other champions in our lives, and are lucky to have a large support network. But there is nothing like the comfort of a mother, and especially a mother as loving and warm as Nancy. For me the grief of not being able to call her when Andrew is upset is palpable; I can only imagine what it feels like for him and her other children. The knowledge that my future children won’t know their grandmother is a pain I didn’t plan on, a pain that is compounded since my own maternal grandmother died when I was an infant. I often wonder what my grandmother was like, and while I know about her through my mother and her siblings, it’s not the same as forming a true relationship.

At this same time of renewed grief, my only living grandmother is struggling. She suffered a small health setback a few months ago, and while physically she is ok it’s like suddenly her mind realized, “oh…I’m 92!” and has started to slip. When I call her sometimes she is confused, her words are a little slurred, she repeats herself often. I am so very grateful it took 92 long years for her to get to this point; I am well-aware many people go through years of dementia, often times from a relatively young age. The hard part is that it didn’t feel gradual. One day I was having meaningful conversations with a woman who had a vibrant social life and excellent memory, and the next it was like talking to someone completely different. Someone who sleeps a lot and tallies the time of day by what meal has been recently eaten. Still, I would have given anything for Nancy to have been around as long as my grandmother. It’s hard to imagine what kind of justification there is for a 52 year old mother and grandmother to be taken from us.

My grandmother is a survivor. She fled Holland with her family at the onset of World War II and survived a harrowing journey at sea to arrive in Indonesia, only to be thrown into an internment camp run by the Japanese. She then lived in Ecuador, New York, and finally Tucson, raising her two boys and loving her four grandchildren. Nancy was a survivor too. She lived for years with chronic pain as her cancer spread. Before she was diagnosed with cancer she (and her whole family) survived a horrible car crash and her leg was badly damaged; pain and mobility issues plagued her ever after. Through all of her trials Nancy never wavered in her faith. While I know she sometimes questioned God’s reasoning for her illness and pain, she strongly felt there was a purpose and a plan for her struggles. My grandmother never talked to me about such things; her generation was much more focused on moving on; she and my grandfather did their best to forget about the emotional torment of their youths. But Nancy laid it all out. She was a woman of words, who wrote beautifully and shared her thoughts with those who asked. I knew I could ask her the hard questions about her faith and her disease, and her thoughts about death. She never avoided the subject and always answered honestly.

This evening we will gather as a family to celebrate Nancy and mourn her loss. I only had the privilege of knowing her for five years or so, but those years were crucial. I learned so much about my husband by knowing and loving his mother. He inherited more than his smile from her; he inherited her thirst for knowledge, her passion, her way with words. There are a million small ways in which I am reminded of Nancy when I look at my husband, and I am so glad I knew her long enough to notice and appreciate them. In some ways I think it was difficult for Nancy that I did not share her faith in God and Jesus. And yet when Andrew and I got engaged she told me that she had prayed for me since the day Andrew was born. This is not a line I take lightly, nor will I ever forget it. Nancy’s faith worked in powerful and mysterious ways, and while she may not have fully understood my views, she accepted them without judgment and opened her arms and heart to me. Nancy was a Christian in the truest sense of the word, and knowing her helped me unlearn some of my preconceived notions about devoutly religious people. I have learned so much from my relationship with Nancy, and as we remember her today I am humbled by the love I still feel emanating from her memory.

Almost Famous

Farmers are having a moment. A story about us was recently published in a local free monthly newspaper called the Herald Business Journal, and after being online for a couple of days the reporter emailed to tell me that the article had been picked up by the national wire, which means it could get published by other news outlets. We have also appeared in several other magazines and newspapers, and were interviewed on the local NPR radio station last winter. And we are not alone. Our “land-mates” who grow vegetables here at the farm have also been published in magazines including Modern Farmer (a very hip national magazine for farmy folk), and one of the farmers was even recently featured in Glamour Magazine!

What does this mean? Why is this happening? One of the more obvious reasons is the increasing public awareness of our damaged food system, and how it’s affecting the health of our nation and our land. Authors like Michael Pollan are making these topics mainstream. With the publication of the excellent (and highly recommended!) book The Omnivores Dilemma, Pollan created a celebrity farmer out of Joel Salatin. Reading Pollan and Salatin books helped Andrew and I develop our rotational model for farming and allowed us to fine tune our ethical philosophy. We are certainly not unique. The nation is currently booming with young(ish), small-scale farmers. Many of us have no farming background, and did not decide to start farming until after graduating college. There’s even a name for this movement: we’re called The Greenhorns.

A local Seattle-based photographer recently started a series called the Female Farmer Project, and her work has blown up. She is now traveling the world taking photos of female farmers, and people are incredibly interested in this side of farming. The photos are wonderful, which obviously increases the appeal, but I think there’s something deeper going on. I don’t think this is just an interest in female farmers, although we are certainly getting some extra attention these days.

I think there is a strong longing somewhere deep in our genetic code to be outdoors. To experience the seasons, to feel the sun on our faces, to stick our hands into the soil and create life. Our ever-increasing dependency on technology has our society moving farther and farther away from these simple pleasures. Many people are able to compensate for this by going on weekend camping trips, creating a flower garden at home, or even jogging in a city park. But as I watch thousands of people descend on our neighbor’s pumpkin patch each October it becomes more obvious that there is a real desire to feel some kind of connection to farming, even if it is now merely a form of entertainment.

To look at photos of farmers, female or otherwise, invokes a sense of nostalgia, of longing, and sometimes even a little envy. I have had many, many people tell me that they wish they had my life. That they have dreams of owning a small farm one day, if only they didn’t have so many bills to pay! There is a side of farming that somehow now seems glamorous (I mean c’mon…Glamour Magazine!!!), poetic, and romantic. Of course no one is publishing photos of me crying hysterically while holding a disemboweled lamb that was attacked by a coyote. No one sees the days Andrew and I have a screaming match about something as silly as who should do the dishes because we’re both exhausted and stressed out. We rarely talk about the financial burdens of farming, although everyone I know seems to be aware of how little farmers make. And yet there’s still the appeal. Why?

Most farmers are passionate about what we do. We do it in spite of the challenges, we do it for the love of the work, the animals we tend, the crops we grow from seed to harvest. We do it because we want to feed our neighbors and friends, we want to provide healthy options, we want to undo some of the damage our industrialized food system has caused. So many of our peers are unfulfilled in their work lives, and so they see the contrast vividly. Unfortunately there are other sacrifices farmers make besides good incomes. Weekends during the growing seasons don’t often mean anything to a farmer except another day of work, or possibly a farmers market to attend. Days off the farm are rare, and for us that means spending hours getting everything on the farm ready for us to leave, and then arranging one or two different people to come take care of chores while we are gone.

Just like many other small business owners, I use my cell phone for work. I am constantly checking my emails, even when we are not on the farm. I’ll answer emails at 10pm at night if I think they need answering. This is what we call the hustle. We are not guaranteed success in farming, just because it’s currently a cool profession. We have to work and work and work our asses off to make this viable, and we’re still figuring out what viable even looks like!

One of the things that frustrates me the most is customers who walk by at the farmers market and say “oh! I am SO glad to see you. You’re doing such amazing things! Please keep up the good work!” and then walk away. Obviously accolades like this feel good, and there is certainly satisfaction in knowing that your work is appreciated. I’m sure this is obvious, but the best way to show appreciation to a farmer is to buy something she has grown. I realize not everyone is in the market for frozen meat when they happen to come across my booth, and that’s ok. Maybe you can sign up for my mailing list! Or stop in and ask me a question or two. Engage. Show me you care. And it’s even better if you can put your money where your mouth is. Lip service doesn’t go very far if we can’t afford to keep farming. Gorgeous magazine spreads are exciting but they don’t pay the feed bills.

Being a farmer is definitely a cool profession and I’m very honored (and still a little bewildered!) that I get to call myself one. If there isn’t a reality television show out there about young farmers living in a tiny house trying to learn the ropes, I’m sure there will be soon. Farming as entertainment is great; but supporting your local farmers is even better. Every single one of you reading this blog has a (relatively) local farm you can support. Join a CSA. Shop at the farmers market. Don’t haggle on prices. Sign up for a newsletter. Send an email thanking us for our hard work. Smile at us. Be kind. Be generous. And remember all the hard times we have been through when you see us beaming at you from the glossy pages on the newsstand.

Our Press (so far!)

Monroe Monitor 2013
KUOW interview 2015
Mill Creek Living 2016
The Guardian 2016
The Herald Business Journal 2016

 

 

The Endgame

It’s hard to imagine someone as busy as me feeling restless, but I do. In between animal chores, chicken harvests, farmers markets, and washing dishes (I feel like all I EVER do is wash dishes! Someday I will have a sink with running water and a dishwasher!), I’ve been looking at flights to Costa Rica. I have this mindset that I need to travel and see more of the world to really stretch myself and grow. To experience. To live. Which is kinda hilarious, right? My life right now is foreign to many people, and is a completely different from what it was a few short years ago. Sometimes when you are living your own life there is a kind of tunnel vision that develops. It’s hard to see the forest for the trees.

We are an outcome-based society. What is the endgame? When will we be successful? When can we relax? When can we feel more comfortable? When can we afford a new car? A new house? These are thoughts that creep into my mind. Well, maybe not the new car part…I vow to never own a brand new car again! But we do struggle to predict our story in the long-term. Where will we be in five years? Will we have land of our own? And how important is that, really?

I am constantly reminding myself that virtually no small company is confident and settled after only three years of business. We have taken huge gambles, big leaps, and sometimes we stumble. We are so fortunate to have a strong safety net; a community and family that want us to succeed. We have educations and job experience to fall back on if the farm goes bust. We are privileged enough to turn our lives upside down for a grand experiment. We have the freedom to pursue our passions because we know that we won’t starve. We have a roof over our heads. We are relatively secure, and for that I am grateful. That isn’t to say we don’t worry. We stare at the calendar as the days steamroll by, wondering if/when the first flood will come and if we’ll have animals in the “danger zone.” Wondering if we can afford to rent high ground, and how many extra hours we can squeeze into our side jobs while trying to keep the farm together.

In many ways this season has been one of our easiest. Or rather it is at least less hectic than years past. We have dialed in our systems better, and are no longer chasing goats and turkeys all over the farm (thank you so much, Barnraiser supporters!). Our customer base grows exponentially. I have over 900 people on my email mailing list, and we sold out of turkeys in early August. I am at something like 12 farmers markets a month, teaching people about our mission and how to cook a mean chicken dinner. We’re approaching the end of our “growing” season. The last batch of broiler chicks is almost ready to leave the brooder for the pasture, and the piglets are beyond ready to be weaned and moved into their own pen. The changing of the seasons means we have to start thinking not only about the winter and the flood risks, but what next season will look like. We need to decide if we’re ordering more chicks for our egg laying flock. Our ladies are getting old and laying less and less, but if I want eggs in the spring we need chicks on the ground soon. And that brings us back to the flood insecurity question. Plan. Mull. Fret. Repeat.

Back to my thoughts about the endgame. I know this isn’t a novel idea, but it’s something I keep landing on. Sure, we struggle and have our bad days, but damn if we aren’t happy. I feel so fulfilled, and though I don’t always feel fairly compensated for my hard work I enjoy what I do. I have to remind myself how few people can really and truly say that. What if we never do own land? Well, so what? If we have stability and a strong lease, a roof over our head, and food in the freezer, does ownership matter? We may not have much to leave any future kids, but the legacy of working hard, feeling contented, striving for what’s important has to count for something, right? Should we quit the farm and get high-paying jobs to save up for a future we aren’t guaranteed? That might be right for some people, and maybe years from now when I’m broken and bent and unable to lift 50lb feed sacks I’ll have some regrets. But for now, I’m ok. And I think I might just go to Costa Rica anyway.