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

 

 

Advertisements

Chicken Shit

*** Sensitive reader advisory! As you can probably sense from the title, I use the word “shit” a lot in this post! I know there are other words I could have used instead, but when you’re talking about mucking out chicken shit there really is no better word to accurately describe the horribleness that it entails. Consider yourselves warned. ***

 

Last week Andrew and I mucked out our hen house. You may remember the beautiful mobile house that Andrew built early last season. It’s a lovely red barn-like structure built on a trailer, with next boxes, roosting bars, and small chicken-sized doors that can be locked when necessary. The bottom of the hen house is comprised of metal grates with holes small enough to keep critters out, but large enough to let their poo pass through. Or so that was the idea. Chicken shit is actually pretty sticky. It globs together, forming a thick cement-like paste as it dries. It had been several months since we last cleaned out the hen house, and when we recently moved it to a new spot we noticed there wasn’t the normal accumulation of shit (also great fertilizer!) underneath it. That’s when I opened the door and took a look, and a whiff.

A layer of hardened chicken shit cement about four inches thick had accumulated below the roosts. The chickens walk around on this shit floor, and then go into their nest boxes to lay eggs. That creates dirty eggs, which creates lots of extra work for me, as it is my job alone to clean eggs (by hand, using sandpaper!). We decided it was time to do some mucking.

Another feature of our hen house is that it has one human-sized door. This is great until you realize that you can’t reach the far end of the hen house without climbing through and under (shit covered) chicken roosts. Our longest handled shovels couldn’t reach. We did our best, me awkwardly straddling and scooping and passing full snow shovel loads back to Andrew to dump outside. We also angled shovels through the little chicken doors, doing out best to scrape and scoop what we could at awkward angles. Eventually we couldn’t do any more with our shovels, and we brought out the hose with a spray nozzle to finish the job. The water pressure at the farm isn’t terribly high, so it was a long, wet, shit-flying-everywhere process.

Andrew and I took turns, as you can only handle so much. Chicken shit is relatively odorless once dried, but get that shit wet and boy howdy! The ammonia almost knocks you on your butt. As I was bent outside the hen house, gasping for fresh air I caught an amazing glimpse of the mountains that peek out when the weather is clear. This got me thinking about life. I think a lot of life feels like shoveling and or spraying shit off the walls, but sometimes (or often, if you’re lucky) you get a beautiful mountain vista that brings your Chi back to center. Then when you go back into the shitty hen house you can bring that image of the mountains with you, and focus on the beauty that abounds despite the drudgery of the task at hand.

Things at the farm are slowly starting to pick up speed. We’re still planning for our season ahead, and have orders placed for our chickens and turkeys. We’ve had one surprise lamb already, and more lambs and goat kids are due any day. Just last night we artificially inseminated our sow Tuesday, and are excited about hopefully welcoming little piglets in a few months. We also have six purchased feeder pigs on the farm in preparation for our upcoming summer Meat CSA program.

After the four floods we survived in November, Andrew and I made a promise to each other that we wouldn’t have animals here at the current farm next winter. In theory that means we somehow find and buy our own farmland in the area, either small acreage nearby so we can go back and forth seasonally, or large space where we can move our entire operation. In practice I have no idea what this will actually look like. We certainly don’t have the capital that many land-purchasers have, and we probably don’t have much opportunity for traditional loans. Our low paying livelihood, in combination with our outstanding student loan debts doesn’t make us look like the most promising candidates. We have begun exploring unique opportunities to land access, and our fingers are crossed that something will come our way. Please keep your eyes open for opportunities in the greater Puget Sound region, and if all of my readers send out positive land-acquiring vibes out to the universe, perhaps she will respond.

While we wait for the next exciting chapter we are busy as ever preparing for the upcoming season. Our popularity is growing in leaps and bounds, despite having no products for sale at the moment. New people are joining our mailing list every day, and I’m fielding lots of new queries about our meat and the CSA. We are hoping to add a Seattle farmer’s market this year, and also increase our restaurant chicken sales. Big things are coming! We just have to muck around in some shit before we get there.

 

 

 

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!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Tiny House, Giant Life!

The moment you’ve all been waiting for has finally arrived! We are officially living in our “tiny” house, and it’s time for the great reveal! I put “tiny” in quotations because compared to many of the tiny houses that are out there, at 388 sq feet (including the loft) ours is pretty much palatial. We’ve actually been living in it for a few weeks now, but I have been so busy (and the house has been so messy!) that I haven’t had time to sit down to write this until now.

Living in the tiny house is fabulous. I absolutely love it. I love that Andrew and I put our own sweat and blood into every nail, board, and screw. I don’t even care that I have to (temporarily!) climb up a ladder to get into the house, and climb up another ladder to get into the loft. I don’t care that we (temporarily…) don’t have running water and have to use a bucket collection system for dishwashing, haul water from the well for toilet flushing, and shower up at the mill (or in the river when it’s warm!). I don’t even care that we (temporarily?) don’t have our propane-powered refrigerator piped in yet and are using a camping cooler with ice to store our food. And I definitely don’t care that we (temporarily?!?!) don’t have our lights wired to the solar panels yet and are using a gas lantern at night. I don’t care about any of these things because this house feels like home and I sleep better here than I have anywhere before in my life. Some of that has to do with the level of exhaustion I attain before crawling into bed, and some of that has to do with the phenomenal mattress we splurged on (Amerisleep memory foam…so amazing!!). But most of that has to do with how comfortable I am in this space, and how perfect it is for our little family.

The farm is a busy place during the day, with lots of people coming and going for various things. There’s Father Jim and his sidekick Bob, who come tend to a huge plot of potatoes, squash, and beets they are raising for the local food banks. There’s Court, who drives trucks for the mill and comes down often with wood for Andrew or loads of sawdust for the compost heap. There’s people who come to buy hay, and random strangers who see our sign by the road and want to check us out. Neighbors walk their dogs through the farm, the girls from across the street ride their bikes over to laugh at the pigs, and the farm is buzzing with activity from dawn to dusk. But those rare moments when Andrew and I are alone at the farm in our house, listening to the coyotes yip and howl, or waking to the sounds of the Canadian geese flying over; those times are magical and I relish them.

Every morning I wake up before Andrew and start the water boiling on the camp stove for our coffee. I make breakfast, which is almost always 100% gathered from the farm: fresh eggs, potatoes, beets, berries, summer squash, and winter squash have all recently made it onto the menu. After Andrew snoozes a bit I kick him out so he can start the morning animal chores while breakfast is cooking. When he’s done we enjoy breakfast and coffee while the farm comes to life, and when we’re done we step outside and begin our day!

Every day at the farm is different, and I am still learning SO much. Yesterday Eric (the owner) baled up some hay, and with rain on the horizon it was all hands on deck “bucking” the hay onto trailers to get it under cover. I attempted to load a bale or two before I was relegated to driving the truck. While truck driving is not physical labor like bucking, it’s not the easiest thing when you’re navigating hay bales, going slow enough that the buckers can toss their bales up, and trying not to run over the dogs, all in a janky old truck without brakes!

Earlier in the week I was fortunate enough to get to ride in a helicopter with Sarah from next door. Sarah and her husband Bob own “Bob’s Corn” which has a corn maze every year that Bob designs and cuts himself. It’s an amazing feat, and every year they need good aerial photos for their advertising and maps. Sarah and Bob were nice enough to let me go up with Sarah (Bob didn’t seem to enjoy his ride last year!), and I was thrilled to fly over the beautiful Snohomish river and see all the amazing scenery. We flew over various farms, the river, and saw the beautiful cascades in the distance. After taking our photos of the corn maze, we flew down to the river where Andrew and his brother were jumping off the cliff into the water. Our pilot brought the helicopter down low, and then buzzed past the rock just as Andrew jumped off. How cool is that?!

In a couple weeks Andrew and I are heading out into the Nevada desert to check out the Burning Man festival. We are so excited about this, although the thought of leaving the farm for a week is stressful. Fortunately for us Kyle has agreed to stay through the month, and that is a huge relief. Our friends Kevin and Marissa are also going to come up and housesit for a bit, so I know we are leaving the farm in good hands. Until that day comes though, it’s business as usual, chugging along at 10,000 miles per hour, putting out fires, and keeping the farm afloat. Thankfully I know I can rely on my lovely little home (and kick-ass mattress!) to make the end of every day worth the effort.