All About Community

There is so much to tell you, friends! I could write paragraphs about the crazy, bewildering, exhausting, frenzied, super-charged, awesome weekends spent working at Bob’s Corn in October. I could write about how much we accomplished these past weeks (more chickens were harvested, some turkeys were dispatched, we completed our CSA season, built a new goat shelter, survived a massive windstorm, huddled around the woodstove, tromped around in pig muck, etc etc). But what I’d really like to write about today is community. Now that our harvest season has ended, I want to take some time to reflect on the role our members played and how their encouragement and support made our first farming foray such a tremendous experience.

Every week for 21 weeks, the same 26 families stopped by the farm to pick up produce. Slowly but surely we learned everyone’s names, met their children, chatted about the weather. As the weeks progressed we picked up on members’ personalities, hobbies, professional interests. We traded recipe ideas, asked for advice on where to eat, play, hike in the area, and got more and more comfortable with our new friends. Two new babies were born during the season. Many of our families brought their kids to the farm so they could feed the pigs, pet the goats, have picnics, and enjoy their farm. This was more than just a weekly service. The farm is a community space, and having an authentic connection to the people I fed nourished me emotionally.

As the season progressed so did the relationships. One of our members gave us probably ten different homemade jams to try, along with cookies and treats for Zephyr. Another member brought us homemade granola. She always set aside a couple bags, one for her kids, and one for us. We received an offer to borrow kayaks, made a new fishing buddy (who always gives us new poles and bait to play with), and attended a member’s dinner party. I started reading a couple of blogs written by a few moms who are members, and they started reading mine. One of our members frequently travels to Afghanistan for work, and recently she returned with a gorgeous pashmina for me and a warm scarf for Andrew.  Another couple gave us a card with the cost of admission to a local Native American heritage museum and an invitation to have dinner with them. We have received offers of warm showers and laundry room use. One of our members is a pilot, and has promised to take me flying over the Cascades. Another member gave us some (very!) constructive criticism, and she was so worried about hurting my feelings that she was in tears (which brought me to tears) and afterwards we hugged each other tight.

These are not experiences I could have had working in an office. I miss the daily interactions with coworkers who became dear friends, but the weekly interactions with my new community eased my anxiety about living in a new place, doing something so new, fumbling my way through this farming adventure. We asked our members to complete a survey for us so that we can improve for the next season. Many people had ideas for growth, and we know that we have much to learn about how to produce the best crops possible. But over and over again we received high marks and comments about our customer service, friendliness, and personalities. This farm isn’t just a business; it is a lifestyle, a place for connection to the earth, food, and people. In other words, this is my community, and I am so grateful to have found it.

And So it Begins…

Phew. Phew. Pheeeeeew. We have successfully accomplished three major tasks on our giant season-long “to do” list, and I can now let out three giant whopping sighs of relief. In the past two weeks we slaughtered, processed, and sold 90 chickens for the first time, we had our first CSA box pick up, and have finally moved our cabin into its final resting place. Each of these events provided yours truly with plenty of anxiety, and each one warrants a little attention.

Let’s start with the chickens. We had been raising these chickens from day one knowing we would be slaughtering them ourselves. The idea of slaughtering and processing chickens was not causing me anxiety; in fact I was looking forward to taking part in this ritual so I could better understand what it is I was actually putting into my mouth and body on a regular basis. The logistics of processing 90 chickens in two days, with (on average) three people working, was what worried me. We had to lug in a giant container of potable water since we haven’t had the farm well tested. We had to rent equipment (kill cones, a giant scalder, and a cool contraption that pulls the feathers out). We had to set everything up so we made sure to capture all of the offal for the compost pile, and keep everything sanitary throughout the process. I am happy to report that other than a few hiccups (like over-scalding a few chickens, and Andrew starting a fire), things went really well.

I have to admit that I did not actually kill any chickens. I was going to try, but between the fear I might not do it right the first time, and that I might cut myself in the process, I left it to Andrew. Instead I spent the days slicing into them and scooping out their insides. I am actually quite skilled at this now, and take pride in doing it well. Just like most difficult things in life, once I got good at it I rather started to enjoy it! There is something innately satisfying in preparing nutritious food, and while I get that healthy vibe all day with the veggies, I feel more connected to the great circle of life when I am dealing with a creature I raised for its meat.

Our second great accomplishment was having our first CSA pick up day. If you’re not familiar with a CSA, read my previous post for the run down. Each week our members get a full box of produce, and I think this first week went off quite well! We have been extremely lucky this spring with warm, sunny weather and our vegetables and strawberries are going gangbusters. The boxes were stuffed with gorgeous, bright, colorful vegetables including butterhead lettuce, carrots, radishes, cucumbers, zucchini, strawberries and much more. Throughout the day on Friday our members arrived, many with small children. We chatted, they visited our pigs and goats, and I felt a wonderful connection to this community, despite having only been here for four months.

 Last but certainly not least, we moved our “tiny” house into its permanent location (assuming it doesn’t roll away!). Of course when I say “we” I mean Andrew and Eric moved the house. Four different pieces of heavy machinery were put to work pulling, pushing, angling, adjusting, nudging, and heaving before everything was just right. I didn’t think I would have anxiety about the house moving, but when they actually started to move it my stomach jumped into my throat. There were a few moans and groans from the house and I could just visualize it tumbling down and smashing into pieces, taking Zephyr out for good measure (does that make me a pessimist?). Fortunately Andrew and Eric are extremely capable and creative, and everything went swimmingly, even if it did take three hours!  

I’d like to report that now we can relax a little and enjoy the fruits of our labor, but you know better than that. We’re farmers! We have to make sure we have delicious boxes ready every week until November 1st. We still have to finish working on the house so we can actually live in it, although I feel confident things will start moving along rapidly now that we can see how amazing our views will be. In the meantime you will find me huffing along with my fingers in the dirt, pausing now and again to squint up at the sky and wonder when the rain will come so I don’t have to drag sprinkler hoses around the whole farm. Can you believe this Cali girl just said that? Washington has certainly gotten itself underneath my fingernails, and I like that just fine.

Good Enough is Perfect

Famous sustainable farmer and author, Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, has a quote that goes something like “when it comes to farming, good enough is perfect.” This is a piece of advice I am desperately trying to take to heart, although it is hard for me. Historically I have had an overachiever, straight “A”, quasi-perfectionist mentality, and when I see weeds growing amongst my vegetables I have an urge to pull out every single one. Which is completely ridiculous, because by the time I finished weeding the whole farm, I’d have to start all over again. And that would be fine, if the only job I had to do was weed all day. Thankfully, there are a million other things to be done, so I am learning how to best prioritize my tasks.

Every day we get to the farm in the morning and start with animal chores. Usually this involves moving the chicken “tractors” to fresh pasture, a process we now have down pretty well (although occasionally a chicken or two sneak out and we have to do some wrangling). We feed all the chickens, give them fresh water, and feed and water the pigs. We check on the goats to make sure they are all accounted for, something we never worried about much until one of our wethers (young, castrated male) went mysteriously missing, which just about broke my heart. Then we set about starting our other farm tasks, which usually means weeding in my case, and working on the tiny house in Andrew’s case.

Other than the daily animal feeding, our schedule is pretty varied and loose. Usually what happens is we discover something that needs fixing right away, and all of the things on our “to-do” list get bumped. For example we might discover that the goats’ hooves need trimming, and so we’ll spend a couple hours catching them and trimming hooves. Recently we decided that the pigs had outgrown their pen, so Andrew spent two days building them a “pig palace” and a new enclosure, putting our own abode on hold. There’s a kind of feeling on the farm that we’re always putting out fires, or staying one step ahead of imminent disaster. At first I worried that this was due to our novice status, but I’m starting to see that this is the nature of farming. You are at the mercy of the elements, trying to harness nature and encourage the “good” parts while avoiding the “bad.” Sometimes there’s not much to be done but panic, scramble around fixing things for a few hours, and then stand in front of a patch of overgrown weeds, wheezing while silently cursing your aching back.

Our farm operates as “CSA” based, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture. What this means is that people pay up front for a weekly box of produce, and that box is expected to be varied and plentiful. It’s wonderful because it allows community members to become a real part of the farm; in our case all boxes are picked up at the farm so people can come meet us and see where their food comes from. The pressure is on to make sure we are providing high-quality produce with a good variety in order to keep our members satisfied. I was beginning to have some anxiety about the approaching deadline when our farmer neighbors stopped by to have a chat and see how we were doing. They were impressed by how far along many of our vegetables are, and reassured me that we were going to have very happy customers. I feel relieved about that now, although we will have to work hard to make sure the weeds don’t strangle out some of our younger crops before they have a chance to get established. Part of the challenge of farming is timing; you need to ensure that you have harvestable crops every week throughout the season, and that you always have a good variety in rotation.

Our other impending deadline is our first chicken slaughter, which is only one week away. We have been talking to lots of experienced people, watching videos, reading books and blogs, and learning as much as we can about the process. Unfortunately the only real way to know what it’s going to be like is to actually do it, so we mostly just have to wait until the day comes and then dive right in. For the most part I am excited about this. I believe that it is important to understand that a chicken breast is actually a piece of meat that came from a living creature, and to be able to slaughter the chickens we raised from the day after they hatched is something I will take pride in.  Although I do think that pulling intestines out of a still-warm carcass with my bare hands may take some getting used to!

In the meantime, we will keep chasing our goats, laughing at the pigs, enjoying the delicious young zucchinis and beets, and marveling at the scenery. Oh, and when the rain lets up long enough for the ground to dry out, we will get back to hacking at those weeds!