Monday, November 15, 2010
Dirt Farmer is good ol' folk music. It won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album in February 2008. The music video for "Poor Old Dirt Farmer" also has interviews with farmers interspersed with it -- definitely worth a watch:
2. Heartland (Owen Pallett)
Heartland is the third album by Canadian indie rock artist Owen Pallett, released January 12, 2010 on Domino Records. The songs on Heartland form a narrative concerning a "young, ultra-violent farmer" named Lewis, commanded by an all-powerful narrator—named Owen. It is set in the fictional world of Spectrum. According to Pallett, the songs are one-sided dialogues with Lewis speaking to his creator. Pallett commented that the idea behind Heartland is "preposterous. I wanted to have this contained narrative that has the breadth of a Paul Auster short story." The lyrics raise all sorts of theological questions about believers’ relationship with a deity and the nature of fate, but the construct is just a blank canvas. Pallett said, "Really, it's just all about me. All records are about their singer. I was trying to play with that." (Thanks, Wikipedia!)
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
When a large number of individuals combine together for the purpose of accomplishing a certain object, there are just as many minds at work and just as many intellects laboring for the same object as there are individuals in the association, and among persevering, progressive men, there is always a noble contention or rather emulation to excel, which is continually spurring them on to greater exertions. Again, it is essential in order to make the greatest improvement, that these associations come together and compare notes and products, that they may know who excels in any calling or department, or in regard to any particular animal or article, and how they do it; whether by chance or by intelligent experiment.
For most of us, the succession of county fairs that mark the passage of mid-summer to deep autumn recall sticky hands filled with fried dough and the nausea of one-too-many trips aboard the almighty Gravitron. We might remember blueberry pie contests and big trucks smashing smaller trucks; we may even look forward to the ox-pulling. But with the distractions of the midway, it can be difficult for the average fair-goer to remember the original purpose of the county fair: agricultural education.
I recently attended the Northeastern Giant of ag fairs, FRYEBURG, with my family. I insisted that we travel to the fair on Thursday, not Saturday, so that we could see some part of the Open Dairy Show. Shows of this kind have been an annual tradition in Maine since the Somerset Agricultural Society held their first fair in 1819. At that time, the animal deemed best cow was awarded a premium of $5. (Reznick, T.) I don’t know what the premiums are these days, but Eddie could tell you. Eddie could tell you because the Bensons’ prize milk cow, Dolly, was named Grand Champion in the Holstein show at Fryeburg this year.
The Of Farms and Fables artistic team attended a smaller fair, the Ossipee Valley Fair, in July. At Ossipee, I developed a bit of an addiction for watching the Bensons compete in dairy shows. This addiction was in no way mitigated by my attendance at Fryeburg. First of all, the cows look gorgeous. They are carefully clipped and brushed and primped and pampered before each appearance, and the result is stunning. Second, the entire Benson family is on hand to do their part – prepping animals, showing in the arena, texting results back to Ryan at the farm. I have never seen Eben show, but Erica and Kati exhibit the utmost professionalism in their work; neat and trim in bleach white pants and bright blue Benson Farm shirts, they are graceful, poised, and attentive. And then, it doesn’t hurt that the Bensons tend to do really well. It’s kind of like I’m a Benson groupie; I know the stars of the show, and I get to hear praise lavished upon them (“the best udder in the show”!) and then sit in suspense as the judge walks down the line, trophy in hand . . . and then this cow – this cow that calved in my first week on the farm – wins Grand Champ!
Dolly (with Kati) wins her class at the Fryeburg Open Dairy Show.
Eddie and Becky both have described to us the role that the fairs play in the vitality of their farm. Doing well in competition helps them market the herd, and participating in the events helps them improve the genetics of their animals. Just like at the first fairs, it keeps them informed. And it is not without contemporary relevance that my opening quotation refers to "intelligent experiment"; science is a discipline increasingly embedded in a dairy farmer's lexicon of required knowledge. From individualized feed blends to embryonic transfer, experimentation and awareness of the latest trends keeps small dairy farms afloat in an industrialized agricultural world. The Bensons' herd of 60 cows in milk is average in Maine, but compared to some state averages of 1,000+ it is small. (National Agriculture Statistics Service) The Bensons remain competitive because of the quality of their animals. I’ve heard multiple stories about the friendly (and sometimes not-so friendly!) competition between Benson Farm and other area competitors, and I know that it means a lot when their animals are selected as the best of the breed. It is abundantly clear upon one’s first visit to Kay-Ben that the Benson family are experts in their field and that they are constantly working to improve their knowledge and approaches. Despite the fact that for many who attend them the fairs are all about rides and cotton candy, it is heartening to witness the core of their original purpose in full and thriving good health.
Sunday, August 15, 2010
“I’m lost.” I say with a sigh. “I don’t think these have been picked.”
“What do you mean, not picked?” he asks me.
“There are still beans on them.” I say doubtfully.
Pee Wee brushes past me and strides down the row; he is merely glancing at the plants below him as he moves. Stopping suddenly about twenty feet along, he bends to part the leaves of a plant at his knees.
“Here.” He says.
I shake my head. “How do you do that?”
In my final rotation on Jordan’s Farm, Penny has deliberately assigned me to work with The Guys as much as possible. I have tagged along in the fields, nervously wielded a hoe, and bumped about on the tailgate of the truck like Winnie-ther-Pooh on the stairs. I have harvested beets, cucumbers, the first of the season’s peppers and cherry tomatoes, and I have harvested beans. Lots of beans. Flat beans, amarillo, and green, green beans.
In the cucumber patch on Wednesday, in the heat, I find myself comparing this work with four jovial Puerto Rican men to the work I have done with the women at Broadturn. Here, I am generally just trying to keep up. Here, I am always trying to understand. And here, I am gently absorbing the wisdom of Pee Wee.
“What’s next, Pee Wee?”
“Same as yesterday?”
“No, the new ones. Have to be careful.”
Making our way through the rows, I can see what he means. We stomp straight across the rows of yesterday’s harvest – picked multiple times and succumbing now to weeds and rot. After six or eight rows we come to an expanse of vibrant and virile cucumber plants; these have broad, fresh leaves spilling across the rows and a look of being untouched. Pee Wee instructs me further that this time, the ripe fruit will be in the center of the plants, because the plants are young. “Take only the biggest ones.”
And this sets me to thinking, once again, about an awareness of life’s process. Somehow, never having gardened and knowing very little about plants, I always picture the strong, beautiful, and actively producing version of the plant. (Is this influenced in some way by our culture’s preoccupation with the “youth and beauty” phase of our own life process?) It affected me to fully realize that the cucumber does not go directly from strong and virile to dead. It continues to produce, only not as much and not as well. It begins to rot at one end while stubbornly creating new fruit at the other. And from the farmer’s perspective – less care is given once those plants have reached a certain point. One needn’t be so careful of accidentally treading upon the leaves; weeds are allowed to stake their claim upon shared ground. Fruit is harvested, but quickly. No time is wasted searching among the sub-par for the perfect fruit that likely is not there. The plant is no longer worth the extra work, but this transition is a gradual process.
On so many occasions this summer, I have felt a subtle expansion in my awareness of life cycles; in portions of conversation, in certain striking visions of bolted lettuces, in the endless repetition of particular physical actions I have noticed again and again – aha! This is life at work. In our Story Circle with the work share members at Broadturn last Tuesday, we asked what they see of the farm that the average CSA member does not. To clarify: work share members help to harvest once per week in exchange for their vegetables; most CSA members simply pay for a share and visit the farm each week to pick it up. The predominant answer we received: the dark side. The completeness and the complexity of the cycle. A paying CSA member won’t see the vegetables rotting in the fields, the eggplants destroyed by potato beetles, or the chicks that die in the night. Bea and Megan broadened this observation to say: without these experiences, one’s knowledge of the food is incomplete. Because of this, the perception of value attached to the food is different.
Work Share Story Circle at Broadturn Farm
Beyond simply expanding my recognition of life processes at work, the summer has taught me about the truth in cultivation: a practice of growing food for human consumption. A miniature example: I was harvesting cherry tomatoes at Broadturn Farm last week. Despite all efforts to the contrary, I discovered a large tomato hornworm munching his or her way across a vulnerable leaf. The protocol here is to snip the caterpillar in half with a pair of scissors. Shockingly green guzzles of hornworm innards can then be expected to erupt forth from the offending pest, bubbling their way toward earth as the worm’s legs wriggle through the throes of death. I asked Sam about the hornworm. A moth, she said. The moth lays her eggs in the tomato house; the soft green caterpillars are born, and they are poised for a delightful feast (they really like tomatoes). Caught between revulsion toward the hornworm’s insides and a sad appreciation for the beauty of the life it aspires to, I was momentarily immobilized. As I stood there with my open scissors arrested inches from the worm, my thoughts were something like: “Here is a life that I am choosing to end for the good of my own kind. Hornworms must be destroyed if I am to enjoy the fruit of the tomato plant; the interests of the hornworm are directly in conflict with mine.” It was the diminutive nature of this event that had the most profound effect on me. For I suddenly realized: every time I put anything in my mouth, every time I seek to sustain myself, I have at the very least killed a hornworm. The fact that I buy my tomatoes at the farm stand or the supermarket and never see the hornworm does not change the fact that legions of hornworms have been destroyed for my benefit. What was most striking was the realization that so many exchanges of this kind are part of my own sustenance, and for the most part I know nothing of them.
We can intellectually grasp the idea that our lives are built in relationship to others, and that we must kill and eat what was once alive in order to survive. To understand those relationships as a whole being, physically and mentally conscious, is another matter. There has been so much writing and reading in recent years about the divorce our society has created between the consumer and the sources of our food. Many people feel that if they had to kill a cow, they wouldn’t be able to eat it. But what John, and Stacy, and Bea had to say is that it is the Knowing that makes the whole process okay. By knowing the animal or the plant, by taking part in the process of choosing that life for mine, you take responsibility for yourself and for your natural place in the order of things. By adding your own labor to the equation, by working to protect the eggplant you will later eat, you are more likely to highly value that eggplant when you eat it.
Called up from vacant grasslands in the back of my mind, I glimpse the watered-down teachings of various Native American peoples as they were presented to me in early grade school. There is a picture here of a barefoot man kneeling by the deer he has just felled. Some words pass between the man and the deer in the final moments before all light passes from her visage. I don’t know the details, but I know that the man has said: “thank you”. As this image fades through my mind, I find another in its place: a family around a table with heads bowed at their plates. And so I wonder, in a culture divorced from knowledge of our food, what has happened to the mechanics and the rituals whereby we place our thanks? When we do take the time to say thank you, do we know what to be grateful for? Have we successfully abstracted our “thanks” to fit a weak understanding of the gift? Where now do we find the lesson: In knowing the sacrifice of our nourishment, may we aptly express our gratitude. In being truly grateful, may we humbly fulfill our purpose here on Earth?
Friday, August 13, 2010
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Without the barn there, the light just spills over the entire farm. It was quite breathtaking in an odd, natural disaster sort of way. The old hay barn got blown down in the big storm we had last month. It was a terrible thing, but like Eddie says, these things happen on a farm. Everyday it's something new. So, they pick up and move on.
Now what? Well, they aren't sure at the moment. They are conflicted about what to do and how to rebuild. There are several options on the table, and they all have their pros and cons. We discussed them last week while watching a giant pneumatic hammer attached to the end of an equally giant excavator pound the remaining foundation walls of the old hay barn into rubble.
They are thinking of extending the barn that was connected to the hay barn to hold more dry cows in the winter. Then they could build a separate, smaller hay barn for feed, hay and machinery. They have also considered building a completely new milking parlor. But that would cost a lot more than what they are likely to get from their insurance settlement. Eddie sometimes jokes about selling the herd and converting the farm into a golf course. The footprint of the old hat barn would make a swell starting place for a clubhouse.
I had another suggestion that I thought was really good. Since cows produce the most milk when they are happy, I thought, what better way to make cows happy than with a spa. They are hard working ladies, right? What hard working woman wouldn't like a regular spa day built into their weekly schedule. There could be a cow sized jacuzzi/sauna. Perhaps Erica and Becky could run a pedicure station? Seems like a wonderful idea to me.
Eddie said he'd think about it. He hasn't ruled anything out yet.
What I took from my last 2 weeks on Kay Ben was how they picked up and moved on and adjusted after the terrible results of the storm. Sometimes it's hard to let things go and move on, especially when they effect you on a personal level. But you have to. If you dwell in the past, you will never be able to see that sunrise for it's present day beauty. You'll just be thinking about how beautiful it used to be.
Sunday, August 8, 2010
I’ve tried to grow beets in the past- once in my little pocket sized garden when I was in high school and once when I was tending a kitchen garden for an inn. However, I tend to fall on the neurotic/ greedy end of the scale and couldn’t resist “checking on” my little beet-letts. This is not the sort of behavior that leads to good hearty full-sized beets and as a result I have eaten my fare share of gum-drop sized beets. This was going to be my first time experiencing a full grown beet “in the wild”.
What I didn’t expect was that they would stick together like they did. Beets tend to grow close together- we found that many of the bigger beets had little hangers-on that grew alongside them, carving out little nooks and crannies as they grew together. It was wonderfully satisfying to pull up these dark masses, shake the dirt off the roots and pile them into your arms until you can’t hold anymore. They made a certain sort of ripping pop as they came out of the ground- announcing their presence in this new, bright world.
We brought them over to crates, sliced the greens off and tossed them in, trading notes on which are too little to make the cut, the thunderstorm we all expect this afternoon- all the things you talk about when you’ve got a day of picking veggies ahead of you and bright beet juice staining your fingers. Then we head out again, each going a different way to load up: search, pull, rip, pop!, repeat.
Harvesting creates a funny conversational dynamic. There I was in the field with five other people, but I may as well have been alone for most of it. This was even true when we moved on to picking green beans- conversation lasts only as long as your pace matches up in a row with another harvester. As soon as you hit an already picked spot- you jump ahead. If a plant has a particularly heavy crop, you pick all you can and fall behind.
Mostly, you listen to your internal monologue: thinking through those friends who have not called you back, the things you forgot to do this weekend, etc. In the green bean field, I found myself making my usual mental lists, but also finding myself surprised to be in a different sort of dialogue with the plants I was handing: apologizing every time I ripped off a leaf or two- responding to the wit of a hidden clump of beans down by the root. This is another form of conversation entirely; the back and forth between our attention spans the the plant’s yield. In Jennie’s farmers almanac, we found a warning about always “keeping up with beans”. It seems that if you don’t pick all they have to offer, they’ll stop producing. For vegetables, they seem like quite the needy conversationalists. Before I realize it, its almost time for lunch and I’ve started to map out how to make a plant puppet that can fight back. (Remember those punching nun puppets? I was thinking they would be sort of like that.)
In the midst of all this picking, I remembered something Pete (another Jordan’s employee) said during one of our first story circles there. “People who think farming is really simple are dead wrong. The simpler the work, the more you have to have going on in your head to keep yourself sane.”
Oh, I totally agree.
At the farmers’ market on Saturday, Jennie and I spent some time talking to the lovely Jamie Berhanu of Lalibela Farm. She has been selling tempeh (if you haven’t tried it yet, I suggest jumping out of whatever chair you are sitting in and running out to go get some.) and veggies there for several years and says that one of the best things about it is getting to get out of the rhythms of her farm and meeting up with other farmers and people who don’t live their lives in those some patterns. “Its wonderful to be out in the fields and concentrating and weeding, buts its also really nice to take a break,” she told us.
In my life, the closest thing I’ve experienced to this phenomenon is not agricultural, but culinary. There is a wonderful story by Laurie Colwin called “Alone In The Kitchen With An Eggplant” that sums up most of my reasons why cooking alone is one of my favorite things in life. Her fascination with eggplants nearly equals my passion for beets- their universal usefulness, the many different ways both veggies can become almost anything without costing you much at all, not to mention the voluptuous nature of each vegetable... the list goes on. What really gets both of us excited about a night in the kitchen is the opportunity to retreat into that internal monologue and simply cook. Laurie says:
Certainly cooking for one’s self reveals man at his weirdest. People lie when you ask them what they eat when they’re alone. “A salad,” they’ll tell you, but when you persist, they confess to peanut butter and bacon sandwiches deep fried and eaten with hot sauce or spaghetti with butter and grape jam.
The only difference between this and my meditative harvesting experiences is that somehow cooking translates that monologue into an awfully revealing dinner choice rather than a crate of beets. Its a nice thought to cary around when you are stretching in the field and notice the other people picking around you, totally concentrated on their work. Maybe their thoughts are as normal and composed as a salad, but more likely their daydreams are more spaghetti and grape jam flavored.
Its not that I’m in favor of all solitude all the time. I’m with Jamie- Its wonderful to retreat, but its also great to end your day with full buckets and buddies to ride in the back of the truck with you.
PS: The whole time I was harvesting I had this song stuck in my head: The Beat Beat Stuff by Hannah Geogas. I invite you to substitute (as I did all day) the word “beat” with the word “beet”. I think you’ll find it turns the song into an anthem for love and root vegetables that is hard to “beet”. Get it? (sorry, I just couldn’t resist.)
Oh yeah! and PSS: I invited the group to try that Haymaker’s Switchel I wrote about last time. Here’s what Jennie thought of it:
She said that the taste of it stayed with her for at least three hours after trying it. I don’t think its going to be coming back into style anytime soon. Oh well- you win some, you loose some!
The two hours that I spent wandering with Claire among the many market stalls had the unexpected and delightful result of drastically broadening my view of farm production in Maine. As we conversed with first one farmer, then another, I became aware of various gaps in my own understanding slowly filling like plugs in a leak. Among the more fundamental of my discoveries: none of the farms directly collaborating on our project sell their products at market; therefore I have grossly underestimated the role of the farmer’s market in many a Maine farmer’s weekly routine and income. There are 90 farmer’s markets in the State of Maine. For many small vegetable farms, the market is the only place that products are sold. It represents the only time that the farmer interacts with a customer base. We heard multiple stories about the work involved in attending the farmer’s market; the crates and the tables have to be loaded on and off the truck; it’s a lot of heavy lifting; the bustle and activity of the market create a nice contrast to the solitude of work on the farm. And when I left, I understood a bit more about the choices that farmers make in the ongoing dilemma of how to bring their products to the consumer and how to make a living. I understood more about the choice between a CSA, a private farm stand, a farmer’s market, a co-op, and an agricultural production contract.
Our conversations with three of the farmers at the market were so lovely; I want to profile them briefly here:
We talked for some time with Jaime, whom Claire has met on multiple occasions in her work at Silly’s. Jaime met her husband Andy while living and working on a farm in Oregon, and the couple chose to move back to the east coast five years ago in order to be nearer family. They rent their farmland and were originally matched with a landowner through the Maine Farmland Trust’s Farmlink program. After a season or two, they were approached by another landowner and moved to their present location in Dresden. When asked about the transition from working on a farm to running their own farm, Jaime took a deep breath and said: “We just . . . jumped in”. Lalibela’s products have been at the Portland Farmer's Market since their first season, and Jaime is now on the market’s Steering Committee. At the end of last season, after trying out a recipe for themselves, Jaime and Andy began selling their homemade tempeh at the farmer’s market. They sold out immediately and spent all of last winter making more. The Lalibela tempeh is now sold in 26 stores and restaurants throughout Maine.
As we approached the plentiful tables of the Beckwith stall, I introduced myself to a woman who had moments before been helping a customer. I explained our project, and that we were “hoping to talk with some of the farmers”. “Oh, I’m not a farmer.” She said. “That’s the farmer.” She pointed us toward a tall and thin man named Jim who was replenishing the summer squash. (We have had many conversations over the summer about the definition of “farmer” . . . what makes a farmer?) We got waylaid on our way to speak with Jim, but we talked at some length with his nephew. We learned that four generations of the Beckwith family were at the market that day, and that the farm recently opened its own farm stand in an attempt to increase the presence of their product in the Yarmouth community. The nephew we spoke with had been working on the farm off and on ever since he was six, and he hoped that we were planning to include something about the weather in our play. “That’s a . . . “ he shook his head. “A lot of farmers had a really hard time last year, with the rain. Lost a lot of crop.” Beckwith Gardens has been attending the Portland Farmer’s Market for 25 years.
We had a lively conversation with Lester Jordan; it began this way:
Claire: “It’s a beautiful day.”
Lester: “Considering my age!”
Lester is related to Penny, of course, and he farms 2 of 22 acres on Davis Point Lane in Cape Elizabeth. Lester wasn’t sure how much we already knew about the Jordan Family in Cape Elizabeth and wasted no time filling us in. “We were originally from Italy,” he said, “The Jordanis. We were horse thieves. So they threw us out and we went to France. Where we became the Jordáns. But we were still horse thieves. So they threw us out of there. And we went to England. But we were still stealing horses. So they threw us out of there and we came here. Haven’t been thrown out yet.”
Lester told us that he started farming a piece of his father’s land over 20 years ago, when he “retired”. Before actively farming his own land, Lester was a commercial fisherman and a manager for UPS. When he and his wife began their farm, they were farming all 22 acres of their land. They’ve limited their production increasingly in the past few years; next year they may farm only one acre, and “just do herbs”. Lester says that way he can work in the greenhouse, harvest from a chair, and control the weather.
To close, I find this history of L&A Farm from the Cape Farm Alliance website both beautiful and poignant:
“Lester Jordan grew up in a farmhouse on Two Lights Road, a stone’s throw from the ocean. His father, Raymond Jordan, owned and worked the surrounding 100 acres. Like most other Cape farmers, the senior Jordan grew cabbage, lettuce, and squash for the wholesale markets – until the big grocers stopped buying from local farmers in the 1970s. Lester says his parents arranged to remain in their home, but were forced to sell the farm to fund their retirement. The Broad Cove housing development was built on the farmland.
Today, Lester and Audrey Jordan worry that ever-rising land values and the difficulty of making a livelihood from farming will result in the disappearance of the few remaining Cape farms, but their love and devotion to L&A Farm keep them planting, harvesting, and hoping that there is a future here for working farms.”
Friday, August 6, 2010
[Khidr] is the voice of inspiration to the aspirant and committed artist. He can come as a white light or the gleam on a blade of grass, but more often as an inner mood. The sign of his presence is the ability to work or experience with tireless enthusiasm beyond one's normal capacities. In this there may be a link across cultures...
We think of the Green Man as a visual image, as an object sculpted in stone or carved in wood, but the emotions he expresses transcend the form and their vitality is equally powerful when transmitted through the dance or the dramatic rituals of folk custom and in the rhythms and melodies of poetry and song. We do not only look at his leaves and blades of grass: we hear them singing and speaking to us; we touch and smell and taste his vegetation and his fruits. When an affection for a particular plant or tree is aroused in us we are linked through an emotional bond, more subtle and immediate than the effect of scent, to the greater world of vegetation of which the plant or tree is a part. It is a deep, wise world, one to which we can only respond because we possess it in our own natures and in the instinctive symbolism of the soul, in the tree of life that forms the spinal column, in the roots of our feet and legs, in the branches of our arms, and in the flowering and fruiting of our thoughts and feelings in the crown of the head.
Friday, July 30, 2010
For those who call Maine home, summer has become a season of alloyed pleasure, a time of waiting for its end ... As abrupt as a slamming door, Labor Day brings to a close this season of mixed blessings ... By the time of October's hunter's moon, the trauma of summer has been healed, health and sanity restored.
...to the deep purple pleasure of these little onions...
Monday, July 26, 2010
- Breads: ("Eggy Pop-Overs: Three cups flower, three cups milk, three eggs. Beat eggs twenty minutes, add milk and flour. Bake in a quick oven.")
- Meats, Etc. (recipes for Salt Cod, Potted Shad, Beef Tea, Green Corn Oysters)
- Pies, Puddings, Etc. (Best Indian Pudding, Imitation Mince Pie- a long section)
- Cakes (A much longer section)
- Fancy (Almond tarts! Meringues!)
- Salads, Pickles, Etc. (Grape Pickles, Brine For Frying Pork)
- Miscellaneous ( Cures for Boils, Dysentary, Poisoning, Small Pox, and Warts also- How To Choose Meat and Cook a Steak)
1 cup brown sugar1 tablespoon ginger1/2 cup molasses1 cup vinegar1 quart watermix all ingredients and chill with ice.