community farms

Farmin’ Ain’t Easy

If you haven’t been following along on my Instagram (and really, why haven’t you?), then you may not know that last week, my little 2002 Honda Civic (which I’ve started to lovingly refer to as “The Tardis” because I’ve managed to cram an impossible amount of stuff in there and still be able to lay my seat back to sleep) and I made our way back to Oregon for an almost month-long stay at Dunbar Farms, a small, family owned, organic farm in Medford. I found the opportunity through WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), and, after a few phone calls, submitting my resume and waiting for references to be checked, I was invited to come out and get my hands in the dirt. And boy, have I.

I might not be a farmer, yet. In fact, I know I’m not. I get days off. I sometimes get to sleep in. If I don’t feel well, I can text my boss (the actual farmer) and let him know I’ll join the crew at 9am instead of 630am. An actual farmer gets to do none of those things. This farm is a living thing, and it doesn’t take, or give, a day off. Not really.

That’s one of the things I’ve learned. People don’t farm like this (organic, sustainable, in the rhythm that nature sets) because they want to become rich, or famous, or powerful. They do it because it’s in their DNA. I’ll tell you more about the folks who run Dunbar Farms in a future post, but suffice it to say, this beautiful spot in Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley is a labor of love.

Mondays and Fridays here are harvest days, so they’re our busiest, longest days. We get to work harvesting at 630 in the morning. On Monday, we’re fulfilling wholesale orders for local restaurants and other commercial customers. On Friday, we handle CSA orders. On either, or both of those days, we’re also stocking the farm’s “honor barn.” They have a farm stand on the property, which carries everything from greens, to flours made from the farm’s wheat and corn, to dried beans and popcorn. It’s open 24/7, so locals can stop by at their convenience, grab what they need, and leave cash or a check in the cash box up front. On their honor. It’s amazing and kinda beautiful that it works out that way.

After we harvest, we bring everything back to the clean room to be washed, dried, bagged, weighed, and labeled. Commercial orders are delivered on Tuesdays. CSA orders are picked up Friday afternoon, and customers are encouraged to stay for a minute and enjoy a glass of wine, also made here at Dunbar under the Rocky Knoll label.

On the other days, we do things like thinning the carrot patch, which involves laying down at ground level so we can get up close and personal with the soil to thin out carrot starts and pull the tiniest of weeds before they have a chance to lay down a root system that could choke off the main crop; or pulling last year’s left over potato sprouts (and more weeds) out of this year’s onion fields.

It’s hard work, but not too hard, and quite honestly, pretty satisfying.

As I mentioned, Dunbar Farms grows beans, among other things, and one of the first things I got my hands on to cook was some of their black beans. I know black bean soup isn’t revolutionary, but I wanted to share the recipe I used to make the version that’s been serving as the main part of my dinner almost every night since I got here. It’s super easy, requires only a handful of budget friendly ingredients, and, paired with a pile of lightly dressed greens, serves as a pretty great post-harvest day supper. This recipe makes about four servings.

Equipment:
4 qt sauce pot
Knife and cutting board
Measuring cups
Stick blender, stand blender, or hand masher, whichever is available
Spoon for stirring

Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups dried black beans, soaked in water overnight, drained
1/2 a large white or yellow onion, chopped
2 medium carrots, chopped
2-3 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
4-6 sprigs fresh thyme
1/4 cup of your favorite salsa
Salt, pepper, and any other seasoning you’d like, to taste

Cook the beans, onions, carrots, garlic, and thyme with enough water to cover by about 2 inches at a low boil for about an hour, or until the beans are cooked through. You may need to add a bit more water over the course of the cooking time to ensure the pot does not boil dry.

Pull out the thyme stems and discard. Reserve one cup of the cooked beans and veggies if you like to keep a little texture in your soup, like I do. If you’re using a stick blender, you can puree remaining beans and veg with the liquid right there in the pot. If you’re using a mixer, blend the remaining beans/veg/liquid in two batches until it reaches your desired consistency. If you’re using a masher, just mash away until, again, it reaches the consistency you like. You can add a little more water or some veggie stock as needed at any point to thin out the soup to your liking.

Add the reserved beans/veggies back into the pureed soup at this point, as well as the 1/4 cup of salsa, then season as you wish. We didn’t have much in the kitchen when I got here, but the tomatillo salsa I used provided a lot of great flavor so other than salt, mine didn’t need much. Cumin, chile powder, and/or fresh jalapeno would be nice additions, as well.

This soup holds well as leftovers, although it will thicken up in the fridge. At that point, you can pretend it’s bean hummus and eat it with pita or chips, or add more liquid to soup it up again.

Enjoy!

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Things in bowls…

As I write this, I’m listen to the popping and crackling of a fire burning in a little black stove in the corner of the room. It’s different from a fireplace, which, in my mind at least, evokes nostalgia and maybe a touch of romance more than anything else. But, the fire that burns tonight is one of necessity. It requires attention– poking, prodding, stoking, and feeding. It’s the fire that warms us, that heats the water for tea, that warms through chunks of leftover cornbread, and keeps a large pot of split pea soup bubbling away. This home is not without some modern amenities, but when this little stove can do so much with so little, it’s easy to forget that they’re there.  Like a ballerina dancing a steady, controlled adagio so slowly that you are somehow a little surprised when she’s made it to the other side of the stage, I’ve barely noticed that time has seemed to march backwards a little. I don’t feel inconvenience, or “without.”  Just… I’m not sure what the right word would be. Content? Sure? Serene? I do know I’ll miss that little wood stove when it’s time to move on.

My time here in Taos, so far, is making me thinky. Very, very thinky.

I’m thinking a lot today about things that cook in pots, and meals eaten out of bowls. Those soups and stews and braises cook for hours. They’re the things we cook when there is still so much work to be done. While chores are finished, projects moved forward, emails checked and answered, phone calls made, homework done, blog posts edited, snow to be shoveled… whatever it is that needs to be accomplished, these pots of things simmer and bubble away, filling the house with promises of an end in sight. When we finally sit down, bone and/or brain weary, to a bowl of comforting… whatever it is that’s been cooking in that pot all day, it feels like the logical, natural conclusion to something.

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Our soup feels somehow even more fulfilling because the peas, and the carrots, for that matter, came from the ground right outside the front door. It’s a big pot, and we’ve revisited it multiple times over the past couple of days. I’m not bored with it yet, and am actually a little sad knowing we’ll hit the end of it soon.

I ventured into town today, and, fortified against the cold with an Americano spiked with cinnamon and chile powder (called The Coyote), wandered around Taos’ central plaza. After a little bit of shopping, lunch was yet another meal in a bowl– a fiery green chile, thick with tomatoes and potatoes and a delicious broth that delivered on both heat and flavor.

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My server warned me, “It’s really spicy,” and kept coming back to check on me to make sure I was ok. “Geez, you’re a trooper.” I ate the whole bowl, and every last shred of the homemade tortillas that came with it. I’ll admit, it took another hour for the last vestiges of heat to fade away, so maybe I’m not so much a trooper as I am a glutton for punishment.

I’ve had some interesting conversations about food with the locals here. There’s a strange dichotomy that comes from living in a place that supports both a thriving locavore community as well as native culture, but also the hesitant necessity of big chains. I’m still learning, so maybe I’ll hold back on pontificating any further until I’ve gotten to dig in a little more. I really don’t think a week and a half will be nearly enough time to learn it all, but isn’t that the way? For now, I’ll just enjoy the lessons as they come. Hopefully there’s more to learn from the things that come in bowls.

Off I Grow!

Well, 2016 is done. It definitely had its ups and downs, both personally for me, and for the world. I, for one, am happy to see it in my rear view mirror. It wasn’t all bad, of course. I developed amazing friendships and learned a LOT about myself, and those are never bad things.

It’s time to look ahead, though. This is just a quick update to let you all know I have, indeed, hit the road. I left Colorado January 2nd, and am currently posted up in Taos, New Mexico. I’ll be here for about a week and a half, helping a friend with some winter chores for her little farm, making a day trip or two down to Santa Fe, and just generally learning as much as I can about the food and culture of the area while I’m here.

On my way here, heading down Highway 160, I came across this sign. I noticed it, drove past it, then felt that little voice inside me say, “Jordan. Go back and look again.”

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So I flipped a U-ey and went back. I looked again. I stared at that sign for a good five minutes. I know quite a few people who choose a word for themselves at the beginning of each year… something to help give direction and focus to their endeavors for the next 365 days. I’ve never really done that, but I think, at least for 2017, it’s a fairly apparent imperative (say that five times fast) that “Grow” is my word.

Here’s to growing… and learning about growing… and watching things grow.

On the Farm, Off the Hook!

Have you ever watched someone bliss out over compost? I mean, really just go into an absolute state of eyes closed, face glowing, pure happiness talking about decomposing food scraps and coffee grounds and egg shells? Let me tell you, it’s a beautiful thing. I imagine that’s kinda what I look like when I get all wound up about some food thing. But then again, compost is also “some food thing.” And when you’re sitting at a table full of people who get that, the urge to stand up and do some sort of happy dance while yelling at the top of your lungs, “I HAVE FOUND MY PEOPLE!!!” is overwhelming.

What the heck am I on about?

Heroes Like Us, Yelp Denver, and Rocky Mountain Farmer’s Union, along with some great local food and drink people including Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, Infinite Monkey Theorem, Upslope Brewing, DiFranco’s, The BSide Denver, and The Inventing Room, got together to put on the third  in a series of four dinners hosted by local community farms. The proceeds from each ticket sold go right back to the host farm, and once you’ve actually eaten dinner just feet away from the farm where the produce has been growing, and just chairs away from the people who have been growing it, you sort of start to feel warm and happy all over.

The August dinner was hosted by Sprout City Farms at Mountair Park Community Farm in Lakewood.  This farm has been at the park for a year, and has 35 CSA members who buy shares in the harvest and get a delicious box of whatever’s ready on a regular basis.

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As you can see, there was some weather coming, but before the worst of the rain storm blew through, we got a chance to walk around, check out the farm, and watch the chefs from DiFranco’s and The BSide work their magic with nothing more than their knives and some single burner camp stoves.

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Did I mention that the produce we enjoyed at dinner came right from this farm? I know that if it had been me cooking, it would have been impossible to keep me from wandering around looking for just one more wonderful, fresh bit of something to add. I wasn’t the only one feeling that way. I witnessed more than a few impromptu trips out to that beautiful herb bed (“Hey! They’ve got cinnamon basil!”) for some last minute touches.

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Speaking of dinner, check out this menu!

Passed Apps (DiFranco’s):

Goat Cheese Polenta Cake / charred tomato tomatillo chutney, basil vinaigrette

Pecorino Cheese Crisp / roasted beets, arugula, bacon

Course One (The BSide):
Hearty Greens Salad / haystack mountain chevre, Compton Acres plums, chinese mustard vinaigrette

Course Two (The BSide):
Hot Pepper Polenta / summer squash, roasted tomatillos, kokopelli peach basil chutney

Course Three (DiFranco’s):
Housemade Summer Squash Ravioli / braised pork, herbed butter citrus sauce

Dessert Course (The Inventing Room):
Mac Nut Brown Sugar Braised Pineapple Cake / local cherry nitro ice cream, exploding garden mint whipped cream, banana caramel

I can honestly say there wasn’t a single dish that didn’t make my mouth happy. What made me even happier, if that’s possible, was the conversation at my table. The first three courses were served family style, which, even if we hadn’t already been chatting up a storm (pun only sort of intended), would have pretty much forced us all to get to know each other.  Nothing like a big platter of braised pork to get the whole table buzzing! But really, although the food in front of us definitely created some conversation, it was the stories from the other folks at my table that really made my inner people junkie come out.

To my right was Liz, a shareholder in the CSA and also a member of the Community Advocacy Committee. We talked about urban homesteading, and her family’s long history of making the most of what’s available locally, be it here, or in her home state of Oregon. She was quick to correct me when I slipped up and call the Farm a “garden,” and rightly so.  A farm serves a community, just as the one at Mountair Park does, and every single member and volunteer at this farm beams when they talk about their involvement. Liz’s enthusiasm for homesteading, for utilizing what’s in season locally, and for helping anyone who wants to learn how to create meals worthy of all that beautiful produce, was infectious. Without a moment of hesitation I was ready to dig in and help her get the message out.

On my left was Emily, a teacher at Molholm Elementary (just a few blocks away from the farm), and her mom Kay. Emily told me she hadn’t ever really done much cooking, and was still learning how to cook with the goodies she gets in her CSA box. But, until she became a member at the farm she had never really been all that excited about trying. Now, if she gets a veggie she isn’t familiar with, she knows advice is just a phone call away. The staff and volunteers at Mountair Farm make themselves available for questions just like Emily’s, but also work proactively to organize classes and workshops to help their members stay connected to the farm and the food.

If you have access to a community farm, I can’t recommend enough that you find a way to get involved. Whether it’s by buying shares in the CSA, taking classes, volunteering, or any combination of those things, there’s absolutely nothing like being a part of something that is greater than the sum of its parts like a community farm can be. I’ve never met a farmer who wasn’t genuinely happy to share their knowledge, and there’s something kind of magical about being face to face with the person who grew your dinner (or lunch, or breakfast).  There’s nothing like putting your own hands in the dirt to help you learn about where your food comes from, and why it’s important to pay attention to how its grown and who’s growing it.

If you’re in the Denver area and you want to get in on this warm, fuzzy feeling, I recommend starting with the September On The Farm, Off the Hook Dinner. Ticket’s are $65, and even if all you’re going for is the food, it’s worth every penny, but I’ll bet you a dozen homemade biscuits and a jar of jam that you get way more out of the experience that just a happy belly. All the details are here. It’s the last one for the year, so don’t miss out!