This Drought has Clout

You guys. It has been SO hot and SO dry this summer. It’s astronomically ridiculous. It’s all anyone can talk about around here, and not just the farmers. It started with us though, a curmudgeonly lot griping about the unrelenting heat while the sun sucked the moisture from our overworked bodies. Our office-dwelling friends and families loved the early summer; for once the sun was still shining happily for them when their weekends rolled around. Things have changed though. Everyone is running around trying to find plug-in air conditioner units. People are complaining. People are wilting. This is the Pacific Northwest after all, and we’re not cut out for this.

That same relentless sun that has us moping our foreheads has also sucked what little moisture remained in the land. With record low levels of rainfall this spring, our pastures are suffering and our vegetable farming friends are almost at crisis mode. Irrigation is being run non-stop, and drip lines are being moved around their crops all day long. Alice, one of the vegetable growers from One Leaf Farm who shares land with us, just told me their recent harvests are 50% less than normal due to loss. The lack of moisture has weakened the plants which then succumb to pest and weed pressure more readily. On the animal front we are constantly checking water levels, making mud wallows for pigs, and helplessly watching our chicks pant in the brooder. Today we are forecasted to reach 90 degrees, and around here that is just too damn hot.

I know I don’t live in California anymore, and that’s where the “real drought” is happening, but for some reason this feels different. I was raised in Arizona and California, so water conservation and drought have always been a part of life. I think this is the first time that my life has so directly revolved around the weather so I’m more aware of the change, perhaps. Also the spectrum is greater: we’re used to cold wet springs followed by short dry summers. Seasons are a real thing here, unlike in my previous home states, so this prolonged summer is a crazy outlier. For a good read and interviews with local vegetable growers about the drought, click here. Of course compared to California, we are lucky. We still have a pond we can pull water from, and our well hasn’t dried up. These things may change though, as they are predicting an El Niño year for the west coast. In California that means drenching rains. In the Northwest it means little rain or snow to replenish our rivers and reservoirs. Add to that the recent terrifyingly brilliant New Yorker article about how we’re doomed to suffer a catastrophic earthquake within the next fifty years…and I’m thinking maybe I’ll go join my sister in Maine! Just kidding. Kinda.

Other than the crazy weather, we’ve been grinding away trying to promote and sell our meat. We’ve been attending a couple farmers markets, and the chickens are a little slower to sell than I expected. Ditto on the restaurant front. We’ve given sample chickens to several reputable farm-to-table restaurants in Seattle, but so far it seems our chickens are a bit large for most chefs. Customers at the market are often unprepared to take home a whole frozen chicken. But I am having many new interested people join my mailing list, and am doing a lot of educating about our food system and why we do what we do the way we do it. Building a business and a presence takes time; in the meantime I’m doing a lot of networking and trying to find creative new ways to get our name out there!

Over the past couple months we’ve made friends with a wonderful photographer named Tom Marks who is based out of Seattle. He has come to the farm several times to shoot us for his portfolio, and the attached photos for this blog are from those trips. They give a good snapshot of what our daily grind looks like, and he has a wonderful eye. Please keep in mind these are taken a while ago. While I may look nice and chilly in a sweater and scarf, rest assured I’m melting in my chair, occasionally peeling my sticky arms off the table to wipe off the sweat. Cheers!

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Escaping Winter: Part 2

Spring seems to be arriving early at the farm. Today I was walking around in a t-shirt while the low winter sun warmed my face. The pregnant sheep and goats are close to having their babies, and we’re scrambling to get ready for the season ahead. I have more of our winter get-away to write about, but if you’re dying for some farm-related news check this out: http://us9.campaign-archive1.com/?u=76509a2c1f99173c27cbcc178&id=d67b98781a

I also promise to post baby animal photos as soon as they arrive, so be sure to check out our facebook page as well: www.facebook.com/brightideacres

And now…back to the Southwest!

After leaving Salt Lake City, Andrew and I spent an uneventful night in Moab, Utah, one of our favorite spots from our 2012 road trip. Unfortunately in the winter Moab is like a ghost town, and most of the restaurants and shops are closed for the season. In light of this, we left early the next morning and headed down into Arizona. We debated about whether or not to hit the Four Corners region, but decided instead to drive through Monument Valley, which is in the Navajo Nation Reservation. We were fortunate enough to drive through this amazing landscape after a recent dusting of snow. The roads were clear and safe, but the red rocks that jut out of the ground like alien formations on Mars were sprinkled with white powder. The contrast of colors made for an unforgettable experience, especially when the semi-wild horses wandered past. We listened to the local Navajo radio station as we drove through, and felt our souls vibrate in tune with the native chanters as we marveled at the magnificent terrain.

That night we stayed in the Canyon de Chelle at a Navajo run campground. It was a frigid night and the campground water tank was frozen solid, so we melted snow to make some pasta and curled up in our tent early. I was thankful for the extra heft and warmth our new Pendleton blanket provided! The next morning we drove into the Canyon to take a look at some of the sights. This is a holy place to the Navajo people, and I was excited to notice some tokens of offering that had been left at the base of Spider Rock. I am thankful to Andrew for always packing every possible item we may need on our trips; were it not for the binoculars I would have missed this small, reverent detail. Our next destination was the Petrified Forest National Park, a place I had visited as a child. Unfortunately after the beauty of Monument Valley, the Painted Desert fell a little short. Many of the petrified logs once held glimmering crystals, but rude tourists and other scallywags have dislodged and stolen the crystals over the years, which also added to our sense of disappointment.

Happily for us our next stop was Tucson, where plenty of joy and amusement awaited. We were stoked to meet up with my sister Meghan, her husband Jonathan, and their baby Juniper, and spend some quality time with my grandmother as well. Tucson activities included swimming in a lovely heated pool (Jonathan’s all-time favorite pastime, and Juniper’s first swim!), visiting Biosphere 2 out in the desert, hiking in Sabino Canyon, enjoying delicious food and drink (including the various meats and eggs we hauled down with us!), and taking a family portrait at JC Penney for Grandma. One of the days we went to lunch in downtown Tucson at one of our favorite places, The Blue Willow. We invited our old nanny Kaye, who took care of Meghan and me from infancy through childhood while our parents worked during the day. Kaye was 90, and her health had rapidly declined in the year since I’d seen her last. I’m so grateful we were able to spend that lovely afternoon with her, as it would turn out to be our last. Kaye passed away last week at home with her family. If only I can be so lucky as Kaye, to live a long, happy, joy-filled life and pass away in my home surrounded by love. She was like a grandmother to me, and I will never forget the warmth and tender care I received from this wonderful woman.

We spent close to a week in Tucson, and were itching for some rock climbing so Andrew and I headed north to Queens Creek Canyon up near Phoenix. The desert landscape here was gorgeous, and Andrew and I hiked through a canyon, past a little pond where we waited out a rain shower under the shelter of a small mesquite tree, and came out on top of a cliff. We strapped on our gear and rappelled down a route known as Geronimo. This exposed cliff was nerve-wracking for me since I haven’t done much outdoor climbing in the past few years, but I was proud of myself. Once we rappelled down we had to climb back up (of course!), and I managed to do it without help from Andrew since he was ahead of me and couldn’t do much but holler encouragement from above. As we hiked back down to our truck we were treated with a gorgeous rainbow, and we deeply inhaled that damp, musky, invigorating scent that only rainfall in a desert can produce. That night we made friends with our camp neighbors and enjoyed some beer and company around a roaring fire.

While we would have loved another day or two in Queens Creek, we had Joshua Tree on our minds. We hightailed it through Arizona (thanking our luck that gas prices had dropped to $1.84/gallon outside Phoenix!), and zoomed into Joshua Tree in the evening. Joshua Tree is a very special place for us: we met there, were married there, and I even have a Joshua tree tattooed on my ribcage, so we were excited to spend some time in one of our favorite spots. We wound up sharing a campsite with a young couple from Montana. Sam and Ian were kindred spirits, and we had a good time sharing meals, laughs, and campfires with them. We even took them to the Chasm of Doom one night, which is a fun cave scramble you do in the dark (assuming you have a knowledgeable guide like Andrew!). Unfortunately for me my fickle stomach wasn’t on board with this adventure, so I spent most of that time lying on a picnic table in the dark alternately listening to their hoots and hollers as they wormed their way through the cave and keeping an eye out for nosy coyotes.

After a couple days of rock climbing, lounging, and general merriment, we told Joshua Tree “goodbye for now”, and headed into Desert Hot Springs for a few hours’ soak in a natural hot springs pool. The resort we went to obviously had its heyday in the 1980s, and we enjoyed the cheesy music, cheap prices, and delicious mai tais as the desert dust rinsed away. That night we spent at Andrew’s grandparents’ house in San Clemente. Andrew’s grandmother always prepares for his visit by baking a fresh batch of his favorite chocolate chip cookies, and we always have a warm comfy bed on standby. We had a nice breakfast the next morning and polished off the last of our traveling bacon, and then headed through the LA madness towards his other grandparents’ home. We stopped at my favorite LA spot: Scoops Ice Cream for a delicious treat, (their flavors are incredible and they have the BEST soy ice cream options I’ve ever seen!), and the stress from LA traffic vanished at that first bite. Once we made it to Andrew’s grandparents’ house we sat and chatted with them for a while about life, death, grief, and other important topics before hitting the road yet again.

Our next couple days were full of driving, though we were lucky enough to have the time and good weather to drive up the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. We stopped for a night in Mammoth and saw my pal Jill, and stopped for a couple hours in Reno to catch up with some of Andrew’s old friends from college. Finally we made it to Eugene, Oregon where we spent the night with my brother and sister-in-law (and their menagerie of dogs), and before we knew it we were back on the farm, frantically planning for the season ahead. One month later and we’re still at it, working on spreadsheets, business plans, and figuring out how we can afford to buy the animal feed we’ll need to keep 1,200 broiler chickens, 120 laying hens, 40 pigs, and 100 turkeys alive and healthy. Thankfully the goats and sheep eat grass, but there’s a lot of work involved with those guys too, so it’s bound to be a busy season for us again. After this nice relaxing winter I think we’re ready for the challenge!

A Season of Growth

Two years ago Andrew and I were wed in a campground in Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. We did not know what our future looked like, but it involved togetherness: on that front we were certain. A few months after we married I lost my job and we decided to travel across the US, exploring the great outdoors as we went. That trip was what started this blog, so I could share our experiences with friends and family (and for posterity, since I have a horrible memory). After our trip ended we decided to find fulfilling work outdoors, away from office cubicles and fluorescent lights. We landed on a farm in Snohomish, Washington, and after a (mostly!) successful season of farming I am happy to announce we have started our own business!

Obviously this has been quite a remarkable two years. What started out as an exciting adventure has become more than a job, it is a way of life. I have developed into someone I might not have recognized just a few years back. Or rather I have nurtured those parts of myself that were submerged, struggling under the overwhelming influence of commercialism. I shopped too much, I bought expensive makeup, I flittered my money away on things in an attempt to fulfill myself. I know it’s a cheesy troupe, but indeed it seems true that you can’t buy happiness. If I extrapolate my experience onto our society at large, I sense a great emptiness that we are trying to fill with junk. I suspect the lack of interpersonal connections that comes from cubicle culture and digital communication share some of the blame.

In this day, electronic gadgets are more highly valued than healthy foods, which of course I notice much more now that I am growing said food. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1950 a whopping 29.7% of total expenditures was on food. In 2012 this number landed at 12.8%. Of course there are many complicated factors which go into a statistic like this, but I have no doubt that the availability of cheaply made, mass-manufactured “food” products and the prevalence of cheap, unethically raised meats, eggs, and dairy are a huge part of the equation. People now balk at spending considerable money on food, although to my mind what could be more important than that which nourishes you and keeps you healthy? If we spent more money on nutritious vegetables, I bet we’d spend less on those ubiquitous pills!

In any case, where I once felt a need to acquire, I now put off going to the store and spending time and money when I could be/should be out weeding my beets. And maybe that’s really the crux of it after all: maybe when you’re farming (or otherwise working with your hands), you’re so busy and you get so tired from working hard that you just don’t have the time or energy for consumerism. It also doesn’t hurt that I have very little occasion to wear nice things. Either way, it’s a good thing because at this point I wouldn’t have the funds to support my old habits anyway! At the end of the day I feel more fulfilled than ever before, and I think a big part of it comes from living more in the moment, being outside in nature every day, and (honestly!) not having a television.

Okay I realize most people check in here to read about life on the farm, not about my personal hippie revelations, so let’s get back to it! This spring we had NINE new baby goats come into this world. We had two sets of twins and a set of triplets all born within a few days of one another in early March. And then a month later…my little darling Gretchen kidded a set of twins too! Her twins are special: not only are they like my grandkids (heh!) they’re genetically unique. They are 75% Kiko and 25% Boer, and because of this they look different too. The little girl is all white with one brown spot near her ear, and her bigger brother is all brown with a little white patch on his forehead. They are extremely adorable and love to be scratched, just like their momma. Gretchen is a great mom too, which is a relief since this was her first time kidding.

With spring came the rains, or rather, the rains stayed, and we had the wettest March on record with 6.65” of precipitation. This was about double the average, and boy did we feel it. The farm developed a few new “lakes” in some of the pastures, and our road was impassable for a couple of days. We were anxious to work the ground, but when nature has other plans, on the farm you must be patient. Now we’re well into April and the weather is doing the fun Washington spring thing, where one day it’s so sunny and warm you’re in a tank top and the next day there is a hailstorm. Thankfully we have had plenty of time to get things growing, and we’ve got quite a variety of plants in the ground and in the greenhouse.

Which brings me to our new business! This year we have decided (with the help of Eric, the owner of Chinook Farms) to develop our own company: Bright Ide Acres! We are doing basically the same things as last season, but in a larger capacity and with more independence. Our CSA membership will be capped at around 40 boxes, and we will be attending a Sunday farmer’s market in Snohomish. We also expanded our animal operation significantly. Our animal counts for the season (not including goats) will be: 20 pigs, 600 broilers, and 100 turkeys! We still have a relatively small egg laying flock, which is unfortunate because demand is outpacing supply. In other words, things are going great for us and we’re actually expecting to make minimum wage this season. Hooray! You can visit our farm website here: www.brightideacres.com. I have a mini farm blog there too, but if you want a good fix of farm photos you should like our page on facebook: www.facebook.com/brightideacres. I’m obsessive about taking and posting farm photos, especially this time of year when all the animals are young and adorable.

That’s been our spring, in a nutshell. We are chugging away, getting things ready for the crazy, busy year ahead. Farming can be fairly stressful at times, and I often have anxiety about the upcoming season. But in those moments I take a deep breath, sniff a calming blend of essential oils I keep handy, and stick my nose back in those beets. When things get overwhelming, there is no better way to come back to the moment at hand than by sticking your fingers (and toes!) in the dirt for a while.