Friday, December 19, 2008

Onward! Upward!

Despite all of the heat of summer, there are some perks to life in Georgia. At present, it is 61° in Atlanta, and creeping slowly towards a daytime high of 70°. Despite the misconceptions of wayward New Yorkers, who think that Atlanta is always this tropical, this weather is rather bizarre. I noticed a cherry tree putting out its first tentative blooms yesterday as I went for a run, and I lamented the fact that the poor tree will be slammed when winter returns in earnest.

I'm particularly appreciative of this respite from winter, as I just returned from the frigid north lands of New England. I escaped before the recent ice storm truly vented its fury, but I did still get to partake of animal chores in 9° weather, which was invigorating, to say the least. I made the trek North on a three-fold agenda: visit Andrew in New York City, attend the Young Farmer's Conference at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture (pictured at left), and tour and visit potential farms for next year's apprenticeship. In case you hadn't guessed yet, this farming gig has me hooked.

I decided to look in New England for a number of reasons. Paige spent her formative farm years in upstate New York at Sister's Hill Farm, and she can't say enough in praise of her old farm boss, the general beauty of the area, and the fertility of New England's rocky soil. In addition, many of the more established organic farms in the upstate New York/ Western Massachusetts area encourage their apprentices to participate in the CRAFT program (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training). CRAFT farm apprentices have the option of fortnightly road trips to nearby farms, where the farmer provides a tour of the operation and gives a lecture about a particular specialty of the farm (pastured poultry, compost, food justice, or value-added dairy, for example). The apprentices at CRAFT farms are thereby connected to a larger network of mentors and fellow young farmers whom they can call on for friendship and "technical support." CSA farming, an idea native to Europe and Japan, first came to the United States by way of Massachusetts, so there is both an unusually robust demand for local, seasonal, organic vegetables and an established community of very successful farms. Some very prominent activists in the Food Justice movement--Elizabeth Henderson, the Hartford Food System, Just Food, and Added Value urban education farm--are working in New England, so I knew that this was an environment with soul as well as roots.

All of these factors drew me north, lured as well by the spell-binding apprenticeship descriptions on ATTRA--my fantasy farming go-to website. What began as a road trip to visit two or three farms expanded to an epic seven day farm touring extravaganza that left Andrew and me inspired, exhausted, well fed, and smelly. We had hoped (ok, I had hoped, Andrew was, by this point, merely going with the flow) to tack on two additional farms to bring the total up to nine, but the weather conspired against us and we returned to the city--and showers--instead.

Some highlights of the grand tour included:
  • Learning the finer points of scythe selection at Crabapple Farm in Chesterfield, MA. Farmers Tevis and Rachel also fulfilled a holiday dream of mine by allowing me to put hay in a manger (sans baby Jesus) for some very plaintive sheep.
  • Hearing about Holcomb Farm's long history of partnership with the Hartford Food System. They also had the coolest market truck I have ever seen: envision a small barn meets circus tent constructed in the bed of a pickup truck.
  • Touring the under-construction milking parlour and cheese-making facility at Woodbridge Farm in Salem, CT. Woodbridge also has the distinction of being the only certified biodynamic farm that I visited, and they are pioneering a new two year biodynamic apprenticeship program that will involve biodynamic farms across the country.
  • Witnessing the construction of Simple Gifts Farm's new irrigation system. In order to bury the pipes deep enough to escape freezing, farmers Jeremy and David had hired a backhoe to dig a one-and-a-half mile long, seven-foot deep pit, which was vaguely reminiscent of WWI trench warfare. They also showed off the best greenhouse irrigation system I have ever seen: the hose hangs in coils on tiny pulleys that run along a suspended line This allows the farmers to pull the hose from one end to the other without ever dragging the hose through a bed or kinking it around a table leg. Genius!
  • Seeing the yogurt making facility at Sidehill Farm. Farmers Amy and Paul hope someday to move to a larger piece of land, so when they decided to invest in yogurt making equipment, they built the whole ensemble in a trailer truck. Should the perfect piece of land suddenly become available, they can load the ladies (read: cows) on another truck and move the whole operation wherever. If you are ever in Massachusetts, try their maple yogurt! Amy and Paul also have the distinction of coolest farmer accommodations in their round, strawbale house. (Not, unfortunately, mobile)
  • Discovering, at Homestead Farms, that pigs are not only delicious and good for turning manure, but will also uproot certain noxious weeds better than anything else (take that, Roundup!) Linda's pantry of canned goods is an inspiration to me.
As I traveled from farm to farm, I found myself pulled in seven different directions, wishing that it were somehow possible to work for all of these wonderful farmers in a madcap season of vegetable love. I had to chose one, however, and after carefully considering my goals for the season, I finally settled on Caretaker Farm in Williamstown, MA as this yeoman farmgirl's next piece of earth.

Caretaker is a strictly CSA farm with 200 members, 1 milk cow, several head of meat cows, pigs, laying hens, a bakery, an orchard, two adorable children, and the most engaged and vibrant CSA community I have ever seen. I am thrilled to be joining the Caretaker family as well as the western Massachusetts CRAFT program. I look forward to sharing this beautiful farm with all of you in the coming season. In the meantime, I will be heading south of the border come January. Having realized that my Spanish will never progress beyond babytalk without an immersion experience, I'm traveling to Colombia for two and a half months. I'll still blog in English, of course, as I visit the coffee farms and savor the fruits of Medellin. Trading January in Atlanta for Colombia's "city of eternal spring" sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

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