Sunday, September 28, 2008

The College Board Weighs In

An analogy:
waitresses: underpaid :: farmers:
a) overworked
b) underpaid
c) unappreciated
d) all of the above
e) rock stars

When I'm not on the farm, I moonlight as an SAT tutor in the big city. Among the countless reading comprehension sections about Frederick Douglass, time travel, and art appreciation, I occasionally get lucky and am able to use the SAT as a segue into farming. One short reading comprehension passage always makes me laugh, as it describes the rigors of farm life in language more suited to the soviet gulag:

The farm family does physically demanding work and highly stressful work at least 14 hours a day (often at least 18 hours a day during harvest season), 7 days a week, 365 days a year, without a scheduled vacation or weekend off"...Farmers lose perspective on the other things in life. The farm literally consumes them."
Don't get me wrong; farming is hard, sometimes disgusting, work. I've seen more sunrises this season than I did in the 23 years that came before it. I can speak eloquently about the various nauseating smells associated with rotting produce (potatoes are, unquestionably, the worst, though onions, tomatoes, and squash are each their own special kind of awful). I've trellised tomatoes until my hands bled, tromped through chicken excrement, battled the endless Bermuda grass rhizomes with everything short of a blowtorch.

Despite all of that, I can't think of a better job. Overworked? Even at the height of harvest season, I worked fewer hours than my best friend, an investment banker. I'm more than willing to put in long hours, but if Paige had called for repeated 18 hour days in July, I think any of us would have revolted. Underpaid? While I wouldn't want to try to raise a family on my apprentice's salary, I still feel like I've gotten a pretty sweet deal. My housing is provided; the farm's bounty is mine to feast on; and I still receive a monthly paycheck which, carefully managed, more than meets my expenses. In effect, I'm being paid to learn. Not bad, huh?

Perhaps you still doubt. What if I did have a family, if I needed more than an apprentice's wages? Can a farmer make a decent living simply by following her bliss and selling fruits and veggies? I believe that I can. I know that I will have to economize, delay gratification, or forgo some of the pleasures that contemporary culture has taught me to consider my due. I will have to balance my farm between the demands of the market and the conditions of my environment. I'll struggle to find affordable land near good markets. More than likely, credit will be limited, making capital investments (tractor, greenhouse, irrigation) catch as catch can. I'll need to be adaptive, committed, not to mention way more diligent about sunscreen application. I'll not be jetting off to Aruba in June, that's for sure. Nevertheless, I've met farmers who are making it work. Most of them are small farmers, as I hope to be. Slowly, steadily, they are challenging a paradigm, that farmers can only succeed by working more land and growing more crops. By some standards, I'm sure I will be underpaid. My standards, however, are not strictly economic.

But unappreciated? Far from it. I was fortunate to hear poet, essayist, and pioneering farmer Wendell Barry speak at Slow Food Nation. As he looked out over a rapt audience, he noted that he had sensed a change in attitudes in the past ten years.

I said, look, you’re gonna go on doing this [advocating for a "resettling" of America] and you’re gonna be virtually alone. And you’re gonna die and go under the surface and there will be a little bubble that will pop and that will be it. And it wasn’t very long after that this other thing started and it’s been remarkable. About 1994 or 95 I began to look at myself in the mirror and I said there are people out there doing what you wish they’d do! You got to go help ‘em.
The simple fact that you are reading my words is proof enough for me. Some folks at least think that farmers are interesting and that food is a subject worthy of contemplation. Either that, or you are all very hard up for recipes. More soon, I promise.

In the meantime, the takeaway from my little soapbox speech is clear: don't put too much stock in the old SAT.

Our new apprentice, Andrew, has just showed me how to embed video in my blog. Click below to see Wendell Berry's full address.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Further Evidence that Chocolate is Good for the Soul

Earlier this season, I noticed that some of our neighbors on Hutchinson Ferry have a small garden in their front yard which contains, among other things, banana trees. Now this is an inspiration to me. For one thing, bananas are practically the Antichrist of the local food movement. When are they in season? Who knows, as none of them come from anywhere closer than Mexico. But I'm excited by these hyper-local bananas for another reason entirely. Perhaps, if bananas can grow in Georgia, then I could grown cacao as well...

Realistically, this is probably one of my more ludicrous pipe dreams. And even if I could somehow pamper a cacao tree into fruiting in this phenomenally foreign environment, I wouldn't have a clue what to do with my beans: roast them? Eat them raw? Just add milk and sugar? Since bootleg, homemade chocolate is not likely soon to grace the menu of chez Serenbe, I am instead a huge fan of fairtrade chocolate. Several companies source their cacao beans from small farmers in Africa and Latin America to whom they have contracted to pay an equitable living wage. When you buy Fairtrade chocolate you are not only purchasing a far tastier piece of chocolate than the average Twix bar, you are also helping to prevent child labor (a common practice among large scale conventional cacao farms) while supporting small family farmer cooperatives.

With Halloween on the horizon, I encourage all of you to take a look at Reverse Trick-or-Treating, a website that will send you free samples of fairtrade chocolate for you (or your children) to distribute on Halloween. I'm sure no one will mind if you do a bit of quality control sampling before the big night...

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Fine Foundation

Check out September's National Geographic for an awesome cover story all about my favorite underrated subject: dirt. Read it--I promise you won't be bored.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Robert Frost and Charlotte's Web

I've never understood arachnophobia. To me, spider webs things of beauty, especially viewed through hazy morning light. I appreciate the diligent way their denizens make and maintain their homes, the neat predictability of a web. Spiders stay put, never scurry across the kitchen floor when you turn on the light in the morning. Unlike ants, spiders don't bite, in my experience. I've encountered more black widows while moving rocks on the farm than I'd care to dwell on, and yet here I am, unscarred.

So when , as I picked flowers for bouquets, I ran across a strange white spider with overlarge, crablike front legs, my first response was to recite poetry, rather than squeal or move away.


I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth-
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right.
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night
What but design of darkness to appall?
If design govern in a thing so small.

-Robert Frost

Despite the eery similarities (white flowers, a white spider), Frost's poem didn't fit, however. An innocuous white spider as an agent of darkness? Nothing about the scene, with or without moth, filled me with dread or even the faintest suspicion of divine foul play. For while I recognize the appeal of a zero sum and slightly ominous cipher, I can't reduce Frost's vignette to a simple equation whereby life for the spider comes at the price of death for the moth. This would be a limited, misleading sort of truth, as if I found a photograph of someone and assumed from it her whole history.

Looking around the farm, I can scarcely comprehend the scale of the infinite, constant shifting-between what Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn calls "manifestations." A raincloud manifests as a raindrop, then the brilliant new green of a carrot sprouting; a moth manifests as a part of a spider before joining the flower patch in the guise of a bloom. Viewing the farm as I do through snapshots, a montage of daily events, I am hard pressed to recognize these transformations as ongoing.

In my perceptual limitations, I'm much like the cicada that snatched me last night from sleep. Trapped in my windowsill, it buzzed hysterically from side to side and rattled the glass. Spiderwebs and freedom both stretched above it, but ten minutes passed before the cicada found the edge of the window and climbed with blind trust upwards. It had no sense of my watching or more than a vague idea of direction. Confined by limited information of its senses, the cicada threw itself into the glass until, by chance, it found a new path.

There is design to it all, but not an appalling one--death opening new avenues for life in the flux of a healthy system. I will never grasp the expansiveness of the farm any more than the cicada will someday draw a schematic of my window, but I can still appreciate the elegance of the design that places a white spider atop a white flower, waiting for a white moth to venture near. All three will be transformed.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

15 Reasons to Move to California

1. Peaches
2. Plums
3. Pluots
4. Pears (Asian and standard
5. Figs
6. Apples
7. Meyer Lemons
8. Melons
9. Dates
10. Strawberries
11. Blackberries
12. Raspberries
13. Nectarines
14. Pomegranites
15. A California law which states that any fruit on branches above public land (regardless of where the tree's roots rest) is fair game for foragers. Did someone say paradise?

In the meantime, I'm striving to bring the Fallen Fruit ethos back to Georgia. I began by sampling the "camouflage" apples that draped across our neighbor's fence. (Then I got permission to pick and found a ladder and a bushel basket). Shortly thereafter, I discovered pears in a friend's backyard--they are now ripening on my kitchen counter. Chef Nick at the Farmhouse informed me that there were figs on the property, so I wandered through their gorgeous gardens until I finally found my prize, down by the goats. Despite much bleating on their part, I did not share. And as I biked home with my figs, I pulled over for the first persimmons of the season on the edge of the woods along Hutchinson Ferry.

Maybe Georgia isn't so bad after all...

I brought a sampling of plum varieties back from California and put them to good use this week. Admittedly, as the Georgia plum season has come and gone, this isn't the most local of recipes if you haven't just gotten back from Eden (aka California). Still, it is the season for Cali plums, so I won't begrudge you some awesome sorbet and a killer salad.

Beet Salad with Plums and Goat Cheese
12 2-inch-diameter beets, shredded
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup walnut oil or olive oil
1 1/2 pounds firm but ripe plums, pitted, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 medium-size red onion, sliced into rings
9 oz. fresh greens (I used arugula, beet, and sweet potato greens)
8 ounces soft fresh goat chevre, crumbled

Saute the shredded beets in a bit of olive oil until tender.

Combine vinegar and sugar. Gradually blend in vegetable oil, then walnut oil. Season vinaigrette to taste with salt and pepper.

Toss beets with 1/4 cup vinaigrette. Toss plums and onion with § cup vinaigrette in another large bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Combine greens, beets, onions, and crumbled goat cheese. Drizzle with additional vinaigrette and serve.

Red Wine Plum Sorbet
This sorbet recipe is my response to a posting by Freakonomics economist Stephen Dubner against the need for more locavores. Maybe he can't make good sorbet, but I certainly can.

1 pound ripe red, black, or prune plums, halved lengthwise and pitted
3/4 cup dry red wine
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 cup water
1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick
2 (3- by 1-inch) strips lemon zest (removed with a vegetable peeler)
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
8 black peppercorns

Stir together all ingredients and a pinch of salt in a heavy medium saucepan and cook, covered, over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until plums fall apart, about 25 minutes. Discard cinnamon stick and zest. Purée in batches in a blender until very smooth. Force purée through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, discarding solids. Cool, uncovered, then chill, covered, until cold, at least 2 hours.

Freeze purée in ice cream maker, then transfer sorbet to an airtight container and put in freezer to harden, at least 1 hour.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Go Slow!

Remember when being called "slow" was an insult? Ok, perhaps in some circles it still is. But for me, it has become not only a badge of honor but something of a life philosophy. I came to this realization today while cruising on the tractor at the positively reckless speed of .1 miles per hour. Needless to say, I wasn't in a hurry to get anywhere. Far from it, every fiber of my consciousness was straining to maintain my pace while sending the tractor in something akin to a straight line, all without digging too deeply or too shallowly with the spader. Given that I find spading one of the most difficult tasks on the farm, I probably should not have been meditating on slowness.

The six trowel-shaped spades on our spader fluff the soil for planting without destroying the soil profile, creating a hard-pan base layer, or slaughtering the earthworms busily enriching our soil (all common problems with tillage-heavy agriculture). We spade our beds as the final step before planting, and it never ceases to amaze me how one run of the spader can turn a cracked patch of dirt into soil so soft I could sleep in it. Given spading's sluggish pace, watching someone spade a bed is probably about as entertaining as watching someone else watch paint dry; actually doing it yourself, however, is a bit more engaging. When the tractor moves slowly, it becomes increasingly difficult to judge a straight line. Only after you have gone through an area will the straight (or scoliotic) appearance of the bed offer judgment on your skill. By then, of course, you have to live with the consequences. The tilt of a bed can send soiling spilling into the path; too much tilt in the spader results in a mess of clotty dirt rather than a silky bed for planting. Sure, plants will grow in straight lines or curvy ones. But the sight of one of my spading jobs snaking across the landscape makes me red with embarrassment: we farmers take great pride in the appearance of our farms. This machine has brought to the brink of tears on more than one occasion.

Luckily, I've been able to take a lesson from all of my angst and frustration. For starters, I've developed an abiding appreciation for slowness and the skill that often goes with it. Living slowly requires patience (never a strength of mine), consciousness, and fortitude. I live slowly when I wait for bread to rise, when I put down my fork between bites, and when I wait two full years for Slow Food Nation. You knew I was building to that, right? If you haven't already heard of Slow Food USA's recent smörgåsbord of all things "good, clean, and fair," get ready for an earful. I've been anticipating this past weekend since I attended its international cousin, Terra Madre, in 2006. As much as any one thing, Terra Madre set me on this winding journey from school to table to farm, and Slow Food Nation was just the catalyst for future discoveries I had hoped it would be. I was thrilled by the number and dedication of participants fighting for radical change to our unbalanced agro-ecological-gastronomic system. I was inspired by the farmers I met who are operating agriculturally innovative and socially progressive small farms. Truly good food--food that was grown responsibly, prepared with artistry and equity--was the common thread connecting all the disparate elements.

I savored every bite.

p.s. You haven't heard the last of Slow Food Nation, friends. In all likelihood it will be cropping up in future posts with all the ubiquity of okra in August. In the meantime, make me a happy farmer by checking out (and signing!) the brand-spanking new Food Declaration, which lays out a set of 12 principles that can guide everyone from policy makers to former English majors in the steps to a better-fed future.