Agriculture

My Life as a Farmhand

I had a conversation recently with a good friend about relationships, and about how, be they platonic, familial, or romantic, the best way to go into them is asking, “What can I give?” vs. “What do I want?” You guys, I’m in a relationship with this farm, and that very bit of wisdom is what’s driving my experience here. Life as a farmhand has been a quite the gut check.

My job here is to steward things growing from the earth so they can feed people. If you think for one minute that means I’m in any way in charge– Mother Nature has some news for you. Come to this work looking for her to stroke your ego and make you feel important, and I’ve got a sense that you’ll walk away aching and disappointed. Join her cycle, ready to follow her lead, and, well, life as a farmhand becomes a whole different thing altogether.

Life as a farmhand is straightforward, and satisfying. The goalpost is constantly moving, but somehow, you don’t mind. Pull the weeds. Trim the vines.

The farm manager points, you go and do it. Cover the squash. There’s a beetle that likes to attack young squash plants. In their infancy, the beetles appetites are dangerous and destructive, and so we cover the plants with screening  that allows in sun and water, but somehow, keeps out the beetles. Killing the beetle is counterproductive, because later, after the plants get bigger and start to flower, that same beetle becomes a key pollinator–a vital part of the process. So, we temporarily deny them their favorite meal, only to reward them with full access later, when they have a job to do.

Life as a farmhand is delicious. With access to so much food, just steps outside your front door, there’s no end to what a curious and creative set of hands can create. If this farm isn’t growing it, chances are, the one just up the road will be. Farmer’s markets and roadside stands are full of first of the season this and end of the season that, and bumper crops of so much beautiful produce, it’s hard to know where to start. Admittedly, you may be too tired most days to vary the post-work meal routine very much. (For the first week or so, until my body got used to this new rhythm, the best I could do was some variation of black beans and whatever extra greens we’d brought in from harvest day, cooked together and eaten out of the same heavy, white bowl, with the same spoon, every afternoon.) Soon, though, you realize that the extra effort of really thinking it through rewards you with a sweet combination of satiety, pride, and restoration that becomes the answer to the question, “How will I get up and do it all again tomorrow?”

You think I’m speaking in hyperbole, but I don’t think I am. Those of you who’ve experienced the pleasure of eating what you’ve grown will get it, I believe.

Life as a farmhand is not romantic. If that’s the picture I’ve painted for you thus far, let me use this opportunity to correct that.

Life as a farmhand is dirty. There’s no escaping that. Everything you touch will be, is, or was once rooted to the earth. In order to tend to it, you have to be right there with it, touching the soil as you touch the plant. There are tools you will use, for sure, but as in cooking, also in farming– your best tools are your hands. From pulling out those tiny weeds by hand that want to snuggle right up to your plants, to sorting the rocks and uglies out of beans, to picking and washing fresh greens, to thinning the thick, ropy grape vines that grow what feels like a foot a week up in the vineyards, your hands are what get the work done. When you come back in from a day’s work, there’s dirt under your nails, in the hair not covered by a hat, and most certainly, on your clothes. Some days, your shower feels less like bathing and more like excavation.

Life as a farmhand is hard. I’ll admit, I’m not the smartest about my choice of clothing. I wear short sleeves, which, despite the use of sunscreen, leaves my arms to the mercy of the burn/tan/peel cycle the likes of which would probably cause any dermatologist to shiver in horror. I’m learning (after nearly passing out from dehydration one afternoon) that there’s no such thing as too much water while doing fieldwork. I’m learning that taking the extra ten minutes in the morning to run through a few simple stretches can mean the difference between counting the minutes and wishing I was dead around 9am, into my third hour of weeding… or being able to get into a rhythm that makes the time fly and the sound of Juan, the farm manager, whistling along to his Mexican radio station be the thing that lets my body and soul work together to get the job done. I’ve discovered the importance of a hat– for keeping the sun off my face, to catch the sweat coming from the top of my head, and to pull off and fan myself if the breeze isn’t breezy enough for my liking.

Life as a farmhand is good. I’m enjoying it so much more than I ever thought I would, and now that I’ve had this taste of it, I feel like my soul will constantly be tapping me on the shoulder, reminding me of this work.

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!

“…anyway, that’s my goat story.”

This post is one of a series of posts I’m sharing about Sacramento IFBC 2016. In exchange for a discounted ticket, I agreed to share my own personal experience about IFBC on my blog. This post, and the next one to follow, are about an excursion trip to a sheep farm just outside of Sacramento prior to the conference opening.

As many of us do in life, Ryan Mahoney plays a lot of roles. He’s a loving and attentive father, as evidenced by the concern he shows every time his seven year old daughter starts wandering around our moving tour bus as it bumps along the rocky, rural, Solano County, California farm roads. He’s a 5th generation lamb rancher, which is why he’s the guy leading a bunch of food bloggers around his family’s Brown Road Ranch in Rio Vista. Because his animals are grass fed, he’s a grass farmer, too.  And, at least today, it would seem the roles he was born to play are those of advocate and story teller.

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Each year, along with three days of tech, writing, and discovery sessions, the International Food Bloggers Conference provides its attendees the opportunity to attend additional excursions prior to the conference open. These trips could be anything from a visit to a flagship cooking equipment store, as in years past, to, as it was this year, a tour of one of the Sacramento area’s many farms and ranches that help make it America’s Farm to Fork Capital. Our tour, offered by the American Lamb Board, would take us through Solano and Yolo counties. First stop, Ryan’s family ranch.

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Almost as soon as we get off the bus, after a few brief introductions, Mahoney dives right into some deep waters. Perhaps recognizing that right now he’s not just representing the California lamb industry but rather all California farmers and ranchers, he explains just one of the reasons why small farms across his state are operating at a perpetual disadvantage–Federal farming regulations aren’t scaled to the size of the farm. Big, industrial operations and smaller, family owned ones like the Mahoney’s are obligated to follow the same rules.

“Smaller farms get hurt the worst…because they’re not equipped to just go hire out some person to do all their compliance work and their paperwork, whereas, the bigger guys, they’re able to. And so, you actually have a weird scenario where the economic pressures and the social pressures are forcing the smaller farms to go out of business.”

It’s not just paperwork and regulations that make running sheep a tough business. Wildly fluctuating market prices, an ever-shrinking talent pool of help qualified to work with sheep, and the animals themselves make this the kind of work not everyone is cut out for, or even wants to do. Mahoney himself didn’t start out life planning to be a rancher.

“When I was 12 years old, my grandpa put me on a thousand acre ranch. He gave me a shovel and bottle of water and he told me to cut all the stickers. And, so, I started, and was excited when he showed up at noon. I was thinking I was gonna get a relief, and he gave me a hamburger from Food Farm and a soda pop and then he turned around and drove away. And so, it was me and a guy who didn’t speak any English named Pancho, and he taught me to ask ‘Que hora es,’ which is ‘What time is it?’ in Spanish. We cut almost all the stickers on the hill. After that, I decided I didn’t want to work in agriculture because why would you wanna work that hard?”

But, life has a funny way of pulling you right back to the place you started. After high school, he headed off to St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, where he pursued a degree in Religious Studies. Then, he was presented with a choice.

“Between my junior and senior year, my grandpa and my mom sat me down and basically gave me a job offer, and I looked at it, and I pretended like I had a big stack full of job offers, because, you know, Religious Studies majors, we get job offers all the time. And so, I said ‘I’ll take this back and think about it,’ and I went home and thought about it and realized, ‘Well, I’m gonna compare this to nothing, so I better try it.'”

Today, Ryan, along with other members of the Mahoney tribe, run about 1,500 head of cows, which are bred with Japanese Wagyu to create American Kobe stock that will be sold to Snake River Farms in Idaho, and of course, the sheep–5000 mother ewes, most of which will give birth to twins. The sheep are sold through a variety of market channels, but they all require the same amount of work, and for not a lot of return. And then… there’s the water issue.

According to the California Water Science Center, California is now in its fifth year of what they define as “severe drought.” The state is still under water savings measures, and with yearly snowpack run off estimates coming in below average, some have questioned the amount of water being used by the state’s agriculture industry. While he recognizes the pressure California farming puts on the water system, from the farmer’s perspective, some of the information being given to the general public is a bit misleading.

“The first one, the easiest one, is whenever you read a newspaper report that talks about water and measures it in gallons is a really disingenuous report because water, as a whole, is measured in acre feet. One acre feet is 350,000 gallons. It takes four acre feet to keep the grass green. It takes five acre feet to grow a field of alfalfa for a year. It takes two acre feet to grow a crop of tomatoes, per acre. When you’re talking about using water to grow food, it’s not water that gets wasted.”

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that by the year 2050, world food production will need to increase by 70% to meet global food demand. With so much of California’s agricultural product leaving the state, farmers like Ryan definitely feel the weight of, literally, feeding the world.

“It’s really important that we don’t forget that food feeds the world and really California agriculture…there’s a large percentage that’s exported out, so California really does a lot to feed the world. To ignore that when you’re looking at a water budget, it really hurts a lot of people without intentionally hurting them.”

Our visit wasn’t all serious faces, though.

I know, I know. You’re wondering, “But what about the FOOD, Jordan?” Yes, of course we got some cooking tips from Ryan. Who better to ask than the guy who grows the sheep? We also visited a local brewery to hear about beer styles that pair well with lamb. We’ll dig into the “meat” (I’m so sorry, I couldn’t help that) of that particular matter in the next post.

Also, I mentioned the Mahoney family’s involvement in sheep and cattle ranching, but there used to be another animal in the mix–goats. I say “used to be” because Ryan refuses to run them anymore. Why? They are apparently troublemakers, or, in his words, “…just little boogers!” He shared the story of his brief brush with goat farming, which they tried because of a feeling they needed to diversify as much as possible. One year, he decided that if they were going to run goats, he was going to do everything possible to raise really great ones. He had an irrigated clover pasture set aside just for the goats, along with brand new fences, new gates, and good water. But unlike the cows and sheep, which pretty much stay exactly where you want them to, goats tend to have minds of their own. And, well, I’ll let Ryan tell you the rest…