farm life

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.

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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!

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.

soup

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.