Uncategorized Archive

Green Fundamentalists: I'm Talking to YOU

Monday, July 20th, 2009

Here's what really amazes me. The self satisfied complacency of those who have deemed themselves politically sound, and businessally ethical, and morally resoundingly liberally spot on. Now, I'm not going to sit here and say I'm queen of the internet world when it comes to morality. I do believe using pesticides is gross, and I do think supporting certain companies and large mega-chains who put small farmers out of business is not the best thing in the world. But come on, people. Just because you're liberal and have the Obama Progress poster on your wall, don't mean you're perfect. And just because you eat organic and use organic toilet paper, doesn't mean you have perfect food politics. What IS progress? What IS politics? These are the questions I want to put forth in the liberal world. Because now that we've got 60 senators and some pull in the white house…let's start looking at the root, at the cause, and at the "why". Transparency. And maybe a little self-reflexivity. No one likes a fundamentalist, green or not.

I think a dangerous place a good-hearted-good-politicked-well-educated-well-read-well-fed person can go…is one of self satisfaction. The inability to question even the best of intentions, is when society tends to get dictatorial. I've found this lately amongst those involved in the organic movement. And I never thought I'd be sitting here typing away calling hippies and foodies to take a look in the mirror. But here I am.

Anytime I write an article that asks a question to an organic company, all of a sudden we have ire and spitting fire. If I write a piece about the fact that some organic companies use feedlots, and some conventional small farms raise happy hens that graze for miles on fresh forage, commenters call me a plug for Monsanto. If I write a piece on how organic dairy farmers in Maine are boycotting companies like Horizon, Stonyfield Farm, and Hood for breaking their contracts, I get called Sarah Palin. I never realized that questioning organic was as bad as shooting wolves from a plane in Alaska, or spraying pesticides onto America's biggest crop fields and forcing small farmers into bankruptcy by messing with their seed saving techniques.

America calls itself the freest nation in the world, but weren't we a nation founded on slavery? And yeah, we've got a great Democracy, but don't we also incarcerate the most people of all industrialized nations in the history of the world? (The answer is yes.) Maybe we need a little self awareness about the fact that we overcriminalize people of color, and that our drug laws are horrific and favor the rich, and that our prisons are inhumane, and that we deify companies in the name of organic that may, in fact, be perpetuating practices that are detrimental in terms of animal and human rights. They MAY. Just because we like the certification sticker on our milk, we're going to stop asking questions of the distributor? Just because a company has a sweet-sounding mission, and a happy website with smiling children of all shapes and sizes and colors sippin' on milk from happy cows in what appears to the be green fields…doesn't mean it stands by that mission. This is not to say no one stands by their missions. But we may want to get hip to the fact that business can become simply business, no matter the mission. Self reflexivity is important, even if you're a liberal company.

Many blog-commenting critics of this kind of self reflexivity in the whole foods movement–or more simply, those who think it's perfect and wonderful–advise to just "look at the company's website". Apparently that's where I'm going to find self reflexivity, where I'll find out point blank who's funding these mega-businesses, and what those funders' politics are when it comes to labor rights. But companies have control over their websites. PR people are paid millions of dollars to make sure companies look good. Am I really to find the answers in advertising? If it were that easy, people like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser would be out of a job, for starters. Stuff is HIDDEN! Even amongst liberals.

Am I really to believe that because someone began their company with a mission to serve something good, that years later in the middle of a war and a recession, in an economy that marginalizes poor people, and a labor market that does the same, they these companies still serve that mission without any bending or swaying and without any special interest? Or is it the right thing to do to ask them simply: are you? How's it going? Because isn't money pretty sexy and alluring and complicated and tangled, even if you're a CEO dressed in hemp? If liberal, foodie, progressive, organic, locavore businesses are not held to the standards of reflexivity they are holding the rest of the world to, then there's something off.

The Raven: Mythical Creature, or Chicken Killer?

Monday, June 29th, 2009

Q: Is farming ever cut and dry?
A: Only when you're haying.

Apart from this dumb joke I made up, farming is not quite as simple as it sounds. I thought, for example, that raising my own meat would be easy. You know: just buy the little chicks, make sure they don't die, feed them scraps, collect eggs, kill them several months later, then freeze the meat and go on with life. But, so far…not so simple. This week, for one, we dealt with the possibility of losing our egg business altogether, and had an ethical dilemma about ravens.

In the style of Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm in Swoope, VA, we constructed (designed by Sam) an eggmobile for the month-old chicks. It took about 4 days to make, and is basically a sweet little cabin perched on top of a hay wagon. This way we can roll the chicken coop around the fields, the hens can graze on fresh forage, fertilize the soil with their nitrogen-rich poop, and follow around the cows to eat bugs out of their poop. There's a handy little ramp that leads into the beautiful coop, and a bed of hay, not to mention insulated windows that open from the inside. We named it The Guest House. And even though we could charge people by the night to stay in there–it's so rustic and lovely–alas, the little buggers refused to go inside.

It's possible we made a couple errors. For one, we raised the chicks in an incubator in the tractor shed, before the Guest House was built. It probably would have been a good idea to have incubated the chickies from birth in the Guest House, so they got used to it. And when we finally let them out one month later, to touch ground and eat earth for the first time, we didn't put them in the Guest House. We put them outside the Guest House. They slept underneath it, never went inside, and therefore never quite realized it was an awesome scenario they were missing out on. And then, they were attacked by wild animals.

Ravens. During the night, and during the day, the ravens came to eat these poor little creatures. It's a disgusting scenario: the ravens swoop down, stand on their feet, hold out their wings, and kind of swagger to and fro as they herd the powerless chicks into a corner of their mesh netting. Then, they poke out their eyes, cut off their heads, and eat them. In order to combat this wretchedness, we had two options.

1. Shoot the raven.

2. Make a scarecrow, and hope for the best.

Because we felt our egg business was threatened, and we felt bad for the chicks, Sam grabbed the .22 and stood guard while I was at work. But no luck. It was like a mini farm war. The gun popped (although not killing anything) in honor of the dead birds, many of which I buried in the manure pile by the cow shed. The ravens would circle, ca-cawing, one as look-out, the other as killer. It was a bad situation. Eventually, while I was at work, Sam decided to catch every chick and put them inside the house–and it took half a day to do so. So they're in there, at last. Safe, for now.

But I don't know how I feel about shooting ravens. For one, they're mythical animals. They are powerful beings that in ancient lore used to bear messages from the magical realm. They carry omens, and bring forth news of death. They're incredibly smart. And despite their ferocity…I respect them. But with that said–I also respect my chickens.

On Sunday, I went to Cedar Circle Farm's annual Strawberry Festival (which is Will Allen's beautiful farm in Thetford, VT). I picked fifty-seven dollars worth of strawberries that, when processed, packed into four gallon-sized freezer bags, with some left over for shortcake (that I consumed last night, rapidly and excessively) made by my friend Tali, who just left her position as a high-ranking pastry chef in New York to come here and farm. At the festival, Tali and I met up with some friends, one of whom (her boss) runs Fat Rooster Farm in South Royalton, VT. She's written a book on raising chickens, and I asked her what she thought about my raven situation. Apparently, it's a common thing (which I also gleaned from looking at online farmer forums, and my farmer listservs), and it happened to her as well–only the raven got every last one of her chicks…we only lost about six. She said, you either shoot them, or you train the chicks to go inside their house at night, and cover the top of their grazing area with chicken wire during the day until they get big enough to defend themselves. She, like me, can't imagine shooting the ravens. They're magical!

There is a shoot-on-sight argument for our egg business, though. How can we let those ravens get away with it? They're murdering our egg producers, and putting the chickens at risk. But, then again, how can we blame the ravens? They're acting according to instinct. And maybe it's our karma, because it's not natural for humans to be confining chicks in a fenced in yard, anyway (but conversely, if we didn't domesticate these animals, they'd die off). I'm no vegetarian by any means, but for some reason stepping to the ravens with a gun feels a bit…hypocritical. I'd rather deal with it diplomatically. So I can raise my happy chickens in peace, y'know…before I kill them.

Meanwhile, if a raven does get shot, I'll have a ceremony honoring its life. And hopefully his friends will be smart enough to not come back.

I Don't Want To Burn My Bra, But AAARGH!

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

This weekend I sat on the sidelines of the men's soccer game. It was a big deal, and many people were there, young and old–despite the fact that it's a pick-up league in a small town. I went sheepishly, in my dorky tie-dyed t-shirt and muck boots, to cheer my boyfriend on. I sat there, enjoying the grass under my bum, squinting my eyes up at the sun. But I'm not a natural cheerleader. Not only did I play soccer in college, my high school team was ranked third in the state of New York. But in this league, women aren't allowed to play in games (just in practice). Which is fine, I guess. I'm new to the community and am not about to question how people run things in the town. But in truth, I think it's antiquated they don't let women play in games (or even sit on the bench), and it's a big disappointment. After playing in their practices for the past few months, I felt like an equal on the field. Now I feel like someone should give me a good reason why women aren't allowed to play in a casual weekend league where they let men over 60 join in, but I'm too afraid to ask. I guess I'd rather sit on the sidelines and bite my nails, than risk being hated by everyone in the town.

There are some guys on the team who are tweaked out by the silliness of this casual weekend activity being so blatantly gendered–but besides them, most haven't said anything. Maybe they don't notice, and maybe they don't care. And I guess I don't blame them; there are some fights–especially in small towns–that aren't worth picking sides over, and this is probably one of them. I'm sure there are more important things happening in rural Vermont than segregated sporting events, but then again, after seeing how many fans showed up to the home game, maybe there isn't. There were wives and girlfriends watching the game, giving their hubbies water bottles, chatting with their friends on folding chairs. I don't know any of them, and honestly, I'd go and sit with them if they asked. But I'd also love to be playing in the damn game.

I am part of the generation of Superwomen–young women who are expected to be smart, attractive, engaged, one of the guys, sexy, relaxed, and impervious to issues that will make us seem 'soft' or 'over-sensitive'. We play sports while the girly girls talk about weddings, or puppies, or prom dates. We farm like dudes, but in order to not be considered sexless and undesirable, feel like we're supposed to look hot doing it. Hell, we were trained to think that, through media, and through the collective unconscious that media cements. And instead of letting myself ride the emotional waves of what it means to be a woman on a farm who also works eight-hour days in an office and commutes an hour each way, I feel like I should be steeled against the hardships of these new beginnings. But I'm terrible at hiding how I feel. My fears and delights, as of late, are so thinly veiled on the surface, I've become a walking meltdown.

Today at lunch I ate my leftovers at a picnic table with my coworker and his incredible girlfriend, who feels much like I do: semi-repressed because she's supposed to be tough. I was feeling glum. Super glum. Like her, I've been suppressing a lot of shit lately, mostly about how–as a woman, which I guess is how I'd identify myself–I'm supposed to fit into this tiny rural town in central Vermont. Besides soccer, I can't decide if I should be focusing on developing my hard labor skills like driving a tractor, or baking bread, making lavender salve, or learning to weave, or whatever. I've only been here for a little over six months, so I'm probably expecting too much from myself. But I feel pressure, man. I also feel invisible, at times.

In a rural town that values labor, land, thriftiness, and community, I wonder if there's any room for vulnerability. I'm imperfect, weird, messy, and inappropriate. I feel like if I make a wrong move at the soccer game (like ask someone why women aren't allowed to play, and say that I think it's dated and fucked up), I'll never make any friends. I should probably be spending the time I'm using to write this post to learn how to channel the energy from the pond to power my hydraulic sewing machine, and stitch a parachute to use as a roof for the house, or bake six thousand loaves of bread and start a business in the back of my car. Or join a book club (blech).

Farm Update: Chicks, Piglets, Morels, and More…

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

It's been nearly five months since I moved to rural Vermont from New York City–and my life has changed exponentially. Radically. Ridiculously. Healthily. Happily…so far. And I'm not trying to jinx anything. But I just celebrated my 24th birthday and I can't believe the gift I got, the very thing I wanted, and the very thing I thought it took a lifetime to find: an environment where I feel comfortable.

Everyone has their needs, and place is infinitely important to me–where you live, how you get to work, what landscape you pass through daily, the air you breathe, and what's in that air. I know a lot of people who love the city and thrive off 24-hour delis and cabs at 4am, but for me, it's Vermont. Maybe it's because I spent my childhood in a log cabin in southwestern Colorado, and playing outside. Maybe I can't handle the city, because I'm just not tough enough. Maybe I'm secretly a plug working for the Vermont state tourism unit. Move here! Buy a big house! Take over the farmland and push the locals out! Now that I've officially become part of the green blogging world (if you didn't know it existed, which most people probably don't, now you do…it's a party…) all of a sudden I've been called a Monsanto plug, and a proponent of high fructose corn syrup and diabetic babies, because I talked about the debate between organic and conventional farmers (is organic always better? Is diet the deciding factor in animal health…etc.) Also, I bite. And I go around and pull up crops of certified organic farmers and burn them behind my house while chanting, GMO, GMO, GMO. Fear me.

All jokes aside, this month has been a steady and rapid incline towards summer. When I arrived in central Vermont, the house was covered in snow and nothing around me was anything close to appearing alive. Life consisted of cross-country skiing, ice skating (once) and people telling me fairy tales of "farming" and "the garden," none of which seemed possible in the desolate winter land that is the upper valley. But aside from that, I read my books and I learned how to bake bread, and I straight up chilled. But not no more. No way. We put up a hammock this weekend by the pond, knowing full well no one's going to be relaxing in that thing for a long time…or at least not until it gets dark. Farming has come.

I've been staring at an empty garden bed for about a month now….so to see the peas come up and inch their way up the trellis is magical–I'm still amazed you put things in the ground and they grow. The onions have raced up! And the shallots look like sea creatures prickling out of the ground. We interplanted mesclun mix underneath the broccoli transplants, in the hopes the salad will spread as a ground cover and decrease weeds. Over memorial day weekend, we planted most of our seedlings, saving the tomatoes, squash, and some brassica plants until after the danger of frost. I'm pretty sure my basil is dead, however. Should have waited on that. We also hilled some potatoes…but most exciting are the morels in the area! Some from nearby foraged by family who came up to visit, and a couple from right outside the house. They're delicious cooked up in butter with ramps (also from around the house), and spread on toast or crackers.

And….the animals! We picked up the four piglets at Raycine Farm outside of Norwich, from a sweet farmer couple and their three Australian cattle dogs. We put them in dog crates filled with hay in the back of the pickup and took them home; they're so cute, and so curious. It's hard to believe we're raising them for food, but at the same time, feels totally natural. I can't believe how far I've come from the 25th floor of a midtown hi-rise building in midtown Manhattan. I'd be spending money in yuppy/hippy restaurants and wondering where my food was coming from as I shopped the urban co-ops. Now I'm growing my own, and feeding the animals who will one day feed me. The sense of community–between who lives in our house, the animals, and all the people who filter in and out, eating, helping weed, helping dig rows in the garden, holding the chicks–is huge in my life these days, for which I feel really grateful. And for the past two years, I've been wondering why community felt so fractured to me in the city. I think it's different when you're working with your hands, and then sitting down to eat together, and when the landscape is calming and beautiful, and materialism is less enticing (except Muck Boots, duh). I feel a sense of stability and control in my life, for the first time. I like letting the hens out before I feed myself. It sets a good pattern for the day.

And one morning last week, we got a call from the post office. The baby chicks arrived!!

Now they're living in a wooden incubator in the sugarhouse-in-progress, lined with sawdust and heated with lamps. They're so tiny and cute. Soon they will grow up to be rebellious pullets and meat birds (our laying hens, incidentally, now drink out of the dog's water dish).

So animal-wise we have three cows, four pigs, and 100 or so chickens (and a dog and cat). I'm going to be selling about 20 dozen eggs come fall to the co-op that shares a parking lot with Chelsea Green. Hopefully by then I'll have figured out how to keep the hens from escaping and terrorizing our neighbors.

I also helped with Sam's construction of an earth-sheltered tractor shed. We figured it out, and the whole thing is only costing like, 250 bucks! All the beams/logs for the roof he cut from the woods around the house, the cross beams are salvaged telephone poles (both from the power lines near the house, and donated form an old-time farmer neighbor). For the walls, he got old railroad ties from a guy in Hardwick (which are pressure-treated and massive) which we started stacking braced into the earth, filling dirt in for stability and to adhere it with the ground.

So from here on out, it's chores chores chores, fencing for the cows (and they're being pretty well rotated from pasture to pasture, which makes them less inclined to escape), watering the pigs and chickens, planting the rest of the garden, recovering from rich foraged foods, trying to get enough sleep, trying to keep perspective, keep informed of the farming world….and whatever comes next. I'll keep you posted!

Biking, Lobstering and Urban Gardening: in Boston!

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

It was with a heavy heart I left the farm for my birthday weekend, and I looked longingly through my rearview mirror as I left for work on Friday. How could I miss the few precious days of Vermont spring? My weekend. MY WEEKEND! I wanted to sit on the porch and read. I wanted to wake up and debate jumping in the pond (and then not jump in because it's still too cold.) I wanted to go to the drive-in, take a hike in the woods, and walk up to the little cabin and sit on that porch and read. I also kept expecting a surprise party where all my old friends from New York, secretly hiding in the garden shed, popped out and then started a dance party. I had big plans for my birthday. Big plans. But instead, we went to Boston.

I'll be honest, going to Boston ranks about negative one thousand on my list of fun places to go on your birthday. I'd rather stick my head in a pile of leaves, I think. What's in Boston? We went to visit awesome people, but still. I figured we'd spend time in outside malls with cobblestone streets, window-shopping and dodging kids with popsicles. I figured we'd have breakfast at Jamba Juice. I figured we'd go to cheesy movies and eat bad pasta in outdoor cafes, with people in ties referring to the good ole days at Harvard or something. I don't know. I couldn't decide which stereotype to latch onto in my mind, so I let them all merge. Not that I'm opposed to urban life, or Boston, or people who are from Boston (I have family in Boston!), just that four months ago, when I moved from New York City to rural Vermont, I realized I had been traumatized by the pace, the power, and the quest for urban success I felt had shaded my eyes from who I wanted to be (or something along those lines…) So I was wary of Boston. What I found, however, was so utterly delicious and unexpected, and I wound up being proven wrong on the day of my birth–and happily so.

(Before I continue, I should add a caveat: the people we visited aren't exceptionally urban city dwellers. So it could very well be that Boston is nowhere near what I experienced, in which case, don't tell me.)

We arrived on Friday evening, at our friends' house in Jamaica Plains. We sat on their stoop for a while, drinking local beer out of a jug, and cider they pressed, and hummus she made (danggg good.) They're both involved in the environmental preservation movement; she is about to go back into grad school and he works for The Nature Conservancy, and is in the beginning stages of starting an oyster farm somewhere in Rhode Island. After settling in on Friday night, putting on clean clothes (i.e., not covered in chicken manure and dirt) and walking through the quiet neighborhood streets at dusk, I didn't miss the farm at all. I felt relaxed, and on vacation. No chores. Yesssss.

The next morning, there was no jamba juice. We ate egg sandwiches on the porch (with eggs from our hens), and then Jules prepared his boat and filled it with lobster traps. Then he hitched "Muddy Waters"–the metal dinghy/speedboat that looks kind of like a giant tuna can–to the back of his civic and off to the water we went, in our rubber boots and raincoats. We parked on some sort of beach close by and set out into the Boston Harbor. I was terrified. I do not think I am a boat person. I thought I was going to die. It was a calm day but clouds loomed in the distance. I held on for dear life and figured I'd never live to see my 25th year. So be it. But despite my protesting, we kept on motoring way out into the harbor, and finally sputtered to a stop. Jules pulled out frozen whole fish to use as lobster bait. We slipped them into bait bags (little red, mesh sacks), attached the big, moldy looking trap to a buoy on a rope, and tossed it overboard, watching it sink. After we set six traps like these, we sat back and enjoyed the view. I couldn't believe it; it took us literally fifteen minutes to get to the beach from their house, and here we were in the middle of a huge harbor, almost out to sea, setting lobster traps and reeling in cod. I'd never even fished before, and Jules hooked an eighteen-incher with a fat mouth and whiskers, which he threw back (Massachusettes regulations say cod has to be 22 inches to keep.) We spent a long time out there with our fishing poles, drifting a ways and then motoring to another location in search of more bites. On the way back, Jules pulled into a small island used as a state park and summer camp, and we gathered up seaweed from the shore to use in their garden plot downtown, as mulch. Seaweed! Now I know what Eliot Coleman is talking about.

We got back to their house after getting caught in a small rainstorm, jumping (not really) massive waves, and interrupting a Boston College sailing tournament, and then I remembered we were in a city. City streets and window boxes brought me back to reality. Kind of. I made some BLTs and we put them in a bag for a picnic. And off we went to their community garden plot near Fenway Park, to spend the rest of the afternoon planting their garden and turning the soil (using the seaweed as mulch.) How did we get there? On bikes!! We rode around the neighborhood a bit, and then got onto the bike path, which was beautiful, and long. It took us practically all the way to their garden, save a couple of blocks careening through traffic. How cool, to get exercise in this way, with the wind whipping through your hair. I felt like a kid.

We got to the community garden, and I was completely blown away. There must have been several hundred plots, all completely different and equally lush, sandwiched up next to each other. Many of them were vegetable gardens, and I had this vision of twenty years from now, urban gardens in every city, in every neighborhood, and each family tending their own produce. It made me realize you don't have to move out of the city to have your own little farm, which is really comforting. The plots are thirty bucks a year! Which is so affordable. I can imagine stopping by after work every day and spending the whole afternoon chatting with other gardeners, sharing tips, and tasting each other's lettuces. It certainly is different from rural farming where you don't get off your own hill very often. There were young and old people out there, some of them even said they had been in their plots for over twenty years! And there was a Red Sox game that day, so every so often, gusts of cheers blew through the plots (Fenway Park is a block away.) We ate our BLTS at their picnic table, and then picked lavender stalks and brought them home to dry.

On the drive back to Vermont, we followed thunderclouds through rolling green hills, and I was glad to be on my way back. There's nothing like returning to a place you love. But oh my god, I wish I could bike everywhere. If only I didn't live an hour drive from my office, I would totally bike to work. Maybe one day I WILL bike to work. Since it's bike-to-work week, I will consider doing it soon. We have a shower in the office, so that might be possible. (Wouldn't it be cool if all offices had showers so people could run, walk, or bike to work all the time?) Next trip I take is going to be to a city where I can bike everywhere…like Berlin. Other ideas for urban places where biking is big?

Weekend of Foraging: City Slickers Come Visit and Get Amped For Ramps

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

After work on Friday, I stopped by a farm halfway between work and home. I knocked on the barn door with a half-gallon Mason jar and a couple bucks to see if the farmer would sell some of his raw milk to me. The farmer and his wife were happy to, they said, and gave me a tour of the farm, and afterward his son let me pet his barn kittens, rabbit, and a couple of calves. I washed out my jar and they showed me how to use the valve on the milk vat, how to keep it clean, and where to stash my $2.50 if he wasn't there (in that case, he told me to help myself.) Turns out, I'm one of only five customers he'll personally sell to right off the farm, because he wants to keep it small. He says he likes to know who's buying his goods, and wants to develop relationships with them; the rest of the milk he sends to larger organic milk companies. He did give me a small warning: I might get the runs. Since raw milk is a living organism, it takes people a little while to get used to it. He told me to increase my yogurt intake in the beginning, until my body can acclimate.

Speaking of the runs, we had tons of guests this weekend who came up from New York to escape the swine flu. And although we had big plans of putting the ping-pong table on the lawn, we had work to do in the garden first. Early in the morning, we tip-toed outside, figuring our friends would sleep in while we got started on the first planting of the season. We were wrong–a couple of them came out to work! We gave them extra rubber boots and gloves, they rolled up their jeans, got dirty, and helped us out big time. We dug out the walkways (in the style of Eliot Coleman, we planned ten planting beds at 30 inches wide, and nine walkways 12 inches wide), raked the raised beds, and set up trellises for the peas using iron stakes and chicken wire.

I planted two rows of peas, one on each side of the trellis, and a row of spinach in front. In the other two beds we did onions, shallots, leeks, and radishes. To prevent weeds, we took the advice of our neighbor (and master gardener) and put down newspaper in the walkways and topped them with hay and leaves. I was a bit wary: after all that work we're spreading hay that could turn to seed?! But word is that it works, cuts down on weeds in the long run, and so I'm suspending my disbelief and going with it.

Soon, more friends arrived, and it really started to feel like summer. In walked (among others) a pastry chef from the Union Square Café in NYC, an aspiring horticulturalist, an intern at Shelburne Farms in Burlington, a soon-to-be psychologist, and Gideon, a musician/shaman/child-nanny banjo playing performance artist, who set off for the cows and serenaded them with his banjo, mooing at them until they mooed back, and then lit the bonfire by shooting a flaming arrow into the burnpile. The hens, meanwhile, have taken over the house and forage for bugs on the deck.

The next day was packed with more foraging, this time by us. While some of the guests played whiffleball, I went out with a basket after catching sight of some fiddlehead ferns. While hiking up at Prospero's Island–a nearby off-the-grid commune recently bought out by Sam's cousin–we came across a ton of wild ramps, picked as much as we could carry, and for dinner sautéed them with olive oil and salt and threw them in spaghetti.

This week, I'll keep watching the indoor seedlings that continue to grow at a steady pace by the window, bake some bread to freeze, and take a thousand naps.

Beyond Organic

Monday, April 27th, 2009

I wake up at 6:30, exhausted from playing soccer the night before. It's hot out, already, unseasonably warm for spring, and in the 80s. This weekend was first day of weeding a bed under the house, where we're going to plant strawberries. We put up a fence for the piglets who are arriving mid-May, with the idea they'll root out some stumps Sam wants to get rid of for a pasture down the line. The cat, sleeping in the bedroom closet, spent the night hunting frogs; it's mating season and the night echoes with their croaks, and the pond filled with gooey clouds of frog eggs that will soon become tadpoles. I wonder if I could make Vermont caviar. Frog caviar? Gross. Maybe better left to nature and evolution than the plate. But I got production on the mind…

After breakfast (homemade bread, and eggs from our hens) Frida the dog comes with me to collect the morning eggs. Lately the average has been about four eggs in the morning, and four in the afternoon. The hens aren't at their most productive stage–we got them for 2 bucks a head from a local farmer, as they were beginning the petering out process–so I'm not selling as many as I'd like (to coworkers, mostly). But still, they're good hens. They roam around the land and pick at rocks and bugs. Yesterday the rooster ("Johnny Cash") was crowing a half mile from the hen house, practically! Talk about free range. These babies are rebels, wanderers, tough broads. And this morning there were six eggs, three of them I reached for from right underneath the layers. I'm surprised at how relaxed the hens are; they never peck me, they're never aggressive. I speak quietly to them, and Frida watches curiously. She's probably thinking the same thing I am: This is a far cry from the streets of New York where I'd be pissing in a gutter somewhere

And the main event of the day: one of the hens let me see her lay. What an amazing sight first thing on a Monday morning, to see an egg coming straight out a chicken. Imagine a human mouth saying "Wow" really slowly and spitting out an egg, and that's what it looks like. The egg dropped right into my hand, warm and sticky. It was only a little bit gross, and mostly fascinating. I'm learning a lot about chickens, through moments like these, and a lot of reading–Joel Salatin's Pastured Poultry Profits first and foremost. One thing I learned is since hens need extra minerals, you can feed them back their own eggshells instead of throwing them in the compost after breakfast. Salatin's advice is, however, to give their shells crushed up so the hens can't identify them as eggs, and–because they like them so much–become cannibalistic later on down the line. I witnessed this first hand; a couple mornings I've found broken eggs in my hens' roosts, with the yolk dripping out onto the hay. It could be due to thin shells breaking (a sign they need more minerals), but also it's not uncommon to have hens who develop a taste for eggs, if they happen upon the sweet yolk on a broken shell. Which came first, the chicken or the egg. Either way, I'm increasing their access to oyster shells (which we give them for extra nutrients) and I changed the hay in their nesting boxes–fresh with no yolk residue–to see if they can unlearn this behavior.

I'm loving farming eggs. In fact, we're thinking seriously of expanding. We're going to order 50 pullets (female chicks) and build an Eggmobile, a Salatin invention consisting of a hen house built on a hay wagon. All this means is the hen house is movable, facilitating free-range birds to peck around the land, but is moved every week so as not to create a "chicken yard", or earth destroyed by chicken manure. We've already got a hay wagon, salvaged wood, and wood Sam's logged from the property. I have a friend who works at a cafe next door to my office, and she's going to put my five pound plastic bucket in the kitchen of the café and collect scraps they would normally throw in the trash. I'll pick it up daily, and feed the hens those scraps, which will cut down on grain consumption (saving me money, as well as resulting in healthier hens and therefore healthier eggs.) I'm considering getting scraps form the local elementary school where my friend teaches. Something I just learned from Joel Salatin is that free range, scrap-eating hens raised on little grain produce eggs with substantially less cholesterol and saturated fat than grain-fed hens. This is obvious through noticeably brighter orange yolks, which my eggs already have. A good sign! Some doctors even subscribe these kinds of eggs to people trying to lower their cholesterol, because they're a detoxicant.

And so the question arises. Organic or non-organic? Oh, how I wish I had enough money to buy the organic grain, which is–hold on to your hats–twice as much as the non-organic grain. I am 100% against hormones, large-scale food production, caged livestock, and pesticides of any kind. So shouldn't I get organic grain? That's what I thought, but I'm broke so I did more research, just to be sure. What I found out surprised me. I went to the local feed store in Williamstown (about 10 miles from our house) and asked the owner what the difference was. Organic grain is better, obviously, grown with no pesticides of any kind, hence being twice as expensive. But notice how many eggs are called "All Natural, Cage-Free, Hormone Free, Antibiotic Free"? That's because those are farmers who either a) feed their hens food scraps along with grain–and you can't guarantee that every ingredient from the food scraps is certified organic–and/or b) use non-organic grain but less of it, because the hens are cage-free and get a lot of their food from the land itself. It should be noted that non-organic grain does not mean they have antibiotics and hormones. There are NO hormones or antibiotics used in the grain. It's just that the grain hasn't been certified organic.

In an ideal farming world, I would have free-range birds that eat food scraps (all of the scraps being organic) and minimal organic grain. This would make their eggs lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, and 100% organic as well. But in that same ideal world, I would want to use food salvaged from school cafeterias and restaurants that would normally go in the trash. That would save me money on feed, and would make good use of waste. I can't guarantee those venues use all organic food, however. So I'd have to choose where to get my scraps not based on convenience and proximity. I live in rural Vermont–an organic hippy restaurant is about 45 minutes away in Montpelier. So I'd have to use a lot of gas driving to those scraps, when I could easily get some at the school on my daily commute home. Purists might say: Doesn't matter! Organic is key! Drive the 80 miles to get organic food scraps; it's more important than cutting down on fuel! But then I'd be broker, and the farm would suffer. Then the cows wouldn't get organic hay, the pigs couldn't eat our compost since we wouldn't be able to afford all organic food, and I wouldn't have the energy or the time to let the birds be free-range, and maintain the land they inhabit. And all of a sudden…I'm not so sustainable.

Organic. What a strange concept, rife with miscommunication, elitism, and false marketing. For example, it's possible to have all organic eggs that come from caged hens who never run around outside or eat plants and bugs, and are therefore full of saturated fat. They are technically organic, which increases their marketability, but they could potentially be worse for you and worse for the birds, in the worst case scenario. For example, "Local" eggs can be from hens pumped full of hormones at a nearby farm, but because they're called "local" they sound exciting to the consumer/localvore. "Organic" eggs could be flown in from Kansas and therefore increasing carbon emissions in the air and bad for the environment and expensive to transport. "Local, Organic" eggs could be from caged, unhappy birds who eat a ton of fatty organic grain. You never know what you're getting in your eggs! It's a cool idea to be able to know your farmer, know their practice, and know the environment where the hens are living. Then you can decide: is it worth it to have hens (like mine) eating a minimal amount of non-organic grain, if it means they're running all over the land and being free, eating bugs, living a good life, creating highly nutritious and low-cholesterol eggs, and consuming the food waste of the elementary school and cafes nearby? Not to mention the farmers are saving money on the expensive organic grain to enable them to use work horses (which take more labor and food) for their budding maple sugaring operation instead of a dirty diesel tractor, and thereby increasing the sustainability and health of the land upon which their farm sits? I could go on and on…I'm thinking about growing our own grain, too. That might have to wait until next summer, but is a serious consideration.

So here's the plan. We order the new chicks this week. Establish our customers: friends, family, and the local co-ops (one of whom my office shares a parking lot, thereby cutting carbon-emissions and gas money out of the equation, the other which is on my way home.) Build the Eggmobile. Raise the chicks into free-range hens, their diet consisting of little grain, mostly bugs, grass, and whatever they peck out of cow manure (which they love, incidentally), and the food scraps from the local elementary school or the café next door to my office. Then, come fall, we'll start getting eggs and they'll keep on producing through the winter and next spring. We'll try and sell some to people in New York. Eggs aplenty! Meanwhile, we'll keep the hens we have now, and add a couple more to continue production until the summer ends.

Until then, it's keep on weeding, keep on feeding, and get ready for piglets and baby chicks.
I'll keep you posted!

Springtime in Rural Vermont: My New Life on the Land

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

It's been three months and six days since I moved from New York City to the middle of rural Vermont. I'm starting to feel like I actually live here, as opposed to visiting some kind of dual "myself" from another psychic realm. I still pinch my arm sometimes however, fearing I'm going to wake up and have to go back to work on the millionth floor in the middle of Hell's Kitchen in Manhattan, and have to eat one of those fake salads from the deli, where the boiled egg tastes like ham, the lettuce looks like wet newspaper strips and the parmesan is made of taxi hubcap shavings. I exaggerate, but still. Actually, I'm trying hard not to create a rural vs. urban binary. I don't want to be one of those people who believe that forcing everyone on earth to eat and grow organic food will solve the energy crisis and end world hunger. Honestly? I think the HBO show The Wire is about as close as you get to what the world really looks like–at least if you're talking about the class war, the drug war, the race war (but what else is there to talk about?)–and I eat boxed mac and cheese while watching it, and sometimes I drink Coke. I'm no purist. In fact, I visited New York this weekend with my boyfriend, and we stopped at McDonalds on the way back. We had just spent a weekend being inundated with both of our parents' vast knowledge of urban gardening and food politics (his father has a truly amazing urban garden, with every square inch planted, and my mother is writing a book about young farmers in each US state) and we thought a double cheeseburger meal would be good as a balancing mechanism for the localvore karma wheel or whatever. We pulled off the highway and went to the drive-thru. There was a sign saying "Sale on Bacon Cheeseburgers: $1.79." We ordered. We ate.

The burgers were kind of gross, honestly, with floppy pickles. Certainly not what we had remembered from our youth–the fries and soda after soccer game pit-stops. No indeed. We got mild stomachaches and prayed for forgiveness to the hippy god. We returned home to trays of little green plants, that had almost doubled over the weekend, and will become good wholesome veggies come summer. But not everyone can operate her own organic farm, grow Greek oregano, and drink sap from a tube protruding from a horse-drawn sugaring sled. Not that you have to have money to do those kinds of things (I don't have much, although money does help, for tools and machinery, and health care, and gas etc.)  But most people can only afford to eat at Micky D's or the equivalent, and while I love waking up and digging in the earth, I don't want to become someone who expects everyone to abide by the rules of Michael Pollanism. But I love gardening. I love farming. I pull eggs out from under a chicken, and sell them to my friends for less than they're sold in the supermarket. I eat organic, when possible. That doesn't mean I'm a good person. That doesn't mean I'm saving the world. But it does make me feel hopeful in my own daily life, which gives me energy to ask questions about the systemic failures of the US and its history of white supremacy and the warehousing of the poor and corporate food and the lack of health care.

Some new arrivals on the farm….laying hens! Ten of them, to be exact, all named Brown Betty, and one rooster named Johnny Cash. They are so productive already! For ten hens we get about 10 or 12 eggs a day. I think we got good hens, because when we were "picking them out" at the farm in Orange–which means chasing them around and grabbing the first feet you can–the farmer showed us a little trick. You can tell a good layer by how wide apart her pelvic bones are; three fingers wide is pretty good, because it means a big egg can come out. We got all three-fingered mommas, and by golly if the eggs aren't so big we can't close the carton lid. I'm serious. I need to invent bigger cartons.

About three weeks ago, Sam built some shelves that line up against the kitchen window. We started seeds in trays, and waiting to see if anything would grow. Now, the little plants are flourishing, and we woke up early this morning to transplant them into their own personal pots and compartments, to facilitate growth.

We measured the main garden bed outside, which is 34 feet wide and 50 feet long. I'm now wishing I paid more attention in geometry class, because I'm planning the garden out, row by row, using Eliot Coleman's seed spacing advice he lines out really clearly in Four Season Harvest.

The pumpkin plants are huge! Apparently they don't do all that well in transplanting-maybe because their roots are so long? But they look pretty good so far.

Frida ate a little plant and then threw up. Turns out, tomato plants are poisonous to dogs. Yikes.

The flowers are coming up! They survived a short snowfall we had last night. Daffodils, and then these little purple guys. Anyone know what kind they are?

Also, what can I use marjoram for?

Leaf Raking, Rock Heaving, and Baking (Oh My!)

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

I had a great time this weekend preparing for the planting season, and planning planning planning. First, we stacked wood, an ongoing process that has taken many hours this spring. Wood for the sugar house next year, wood for home heating next year (both the wood-heated furnace and the woodstove in the kitchen), and wood for whatever else, maybe to sell, maybe to trade. I tried out the splitter a couple times, and I'll probably do a lot more stacking as the spring continues. My favorite type of wood is what we call "Sweeties"–the small, thin branches that are smooth, gray and round, mainly from beech trees. It looks almost fake when you take in the sight of a Sweetie Pile.

I spent a full day raking up dead leaves from around the house–one of the most satisfying Saturday activities I've ever done. I think the leaves acted as a kind of mulch, keeping weeds from growing, because underneath the layer of leaves was fresh soil, and occasionally a cluster of stubby green flower stalks. I raked leaves into large piles and then scooped them up with outstretched arms into a handmade wooden garden cart. Once the cart was full, I wheeled the cart down to a corner of the still-bare garden bed (one of three surrounding the house), and emptied the leaves into a large pile, for later use. I guess we'll save it for layers in the compost pile, or mulch in the garden. It was hard work on my arms and my back, raking all day, and I cleared layer after layer of leaves in the spring sun. But it felt really good. I thought about what I would have been doing three months ago, when I lived in New York City, before moving to rural Vermont. Nothing that felt nearly as satisfying as sitting on the porch looking at the work I had done–fully by hand. And it's pretty cool not to use a leaf blower, not to waste fossil fuels, and to incorporate a kind of quietness to work, to the movement of my body, and to the soil and the flowers that I swear to you were growing even as I walked past. And what a sight it is to discover a stone wall that has been hidden!!

Then it was attacking a huge, dead Echinacea brush-pile, that was an ugly mass of hardened, reed-like sticks with little hairy heads. We took that thing to task with a big machete, a gift from a friend who is about to start an oyster farm in Rhode Island. And when all the hacking was through, we took a walk around the property. It's hard to describe the way Vermont feels at the beginning of spring. For months and months, all has been covered in a thick layer of white. Now, it's as if the whole landscape is slowly coming to life. The ice is shifting out from the center of lakes, rivers are running, moss is peeking out on rock faces, and worms are long and pink in the black dirt. I even came across a frog, wedged under a boulder.

Another "hard labor" project of the weekend was rock heaving. Scattered between the cow pasture (where the three lazy Angus plot their escape) and the woods, is a decent piece of land that is made un-usable because of a smattering of boulders and stones, that make tractor work and pasturing impossible. We've got our minds around making this into grassy pasture. So away I went–in my work jeans tucked into rubber boots, looking like Oliver Twist, kind of, dirt smeared on my face and all–and gathered the rocks, and heaved them into a circular area, cleaning up the pasture, and making a big rock pile. We used the tractor for the larger boulders we couldn't dig up with a rock-digger or a shovel. I'm so sore, I can't even tell you. But again, in the best way. Now, if we ever need to build a stone wall, there they are, waiting in a nicely symmetrical pile. Or we can have a cool bonfire area, with stone seats. Then I got some wire cutters and unwrapped some nasty babred wire that had been wrapped around a telephone pole by the house's previous owner (who is now our neighbor, and the town Cemetery Commissioner). I'd never used a wire cutter before, and there was a lot of rusty metal. But damned if I didn't unravel the whole thing, with some help from Ted, my noble housemate and teacher. I keep surprising myself, getting so into this kind of work. But I love it.

On Easter Sunday, I woke up late (which is 8:30am, and never happens) and raced downstairs. I had two lumps of dough that had been rising since the previous night in the fridge. The best recipe I've found yet (and to be honest, one of the two I've experimented with), which is Mark Bittman's Easy French Bread Recipe. I tweak it and refrigerate the dough overnight, which works really well.

Easiest and Best French Bread
1 pound bread flour (use King Arthur flour, which is a cool Vermont-based company that is actually employee-owned!!)
2 tsp salt
1 tsp RapidRise Yeast
1.5 cups of water (or a tiny bit less)

Place flour, yeast, salt, and water in a food processor, until the mixture has become a shaggy ball that pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Remove from mixer. Form the boule (round loaf) by shaping the dough into a ball, using as little flour as possible. Use your hands/fingers to work your way around the ball, tucking the dough down and inward into itself and stretching the top. When the top is smooth, pinch the bottom together to seal it and place in a towel-lined basket (with a bit of flour) seam-side up.
Allow to rise for 2-6 hours. Preheat oven to 450° 30-minute prior to baking.

So, I threw the dough in the oven (I put a little ceramic dish of water in there to evaporate into steam to make a good crusty bread) and it came out just in time for Easter omelets. I went to a Seder the night before, and had incredible lamb, and gefilte fish which, let's be honest, leaves a lot to be desired. Holidays are a good excuse to bake, but I think I'm going to save money on buying bread by baking three loaves every weekend, and freezing them for the week. I live with two other men who eat with two hands shoveling food in at once, so that's a lot of bread. Now I'm hooked! I want to plant grain in the garden, and so I'm voraciously devouring Small Scale Grain Raising by Gene Logsdon, and learning the ropes of growing my own. It's not as complicated as I would have thought! And hopefully one of these days we're going to build our own masonry bread oven.

I'm having the best time. I look at Frida all curled up in front of the wood stove at night, snoring like an old man, and I'm sure I feel as content as she does.

I can't wait until the laying hens arrive this week.

The Good Life is Rife With Politics

Monday, April 6th, 2009

This weekend was cold, rainy, and snowy. Not the most perfect weekend to begin springtime farm chores, but the urge was too great to resist! My Saturday task was raking up old, wet leaves from the front yard and store them in a handmade wood and wire basket for compost use. Raking is really satisfying. Not to mention I uncovered about forty bright green flower stalks, already about five inches tall, and ready to burst! I couldn't believe they were there, to be honest–it was snowy and cold–but there they were, brave and alert.

I taught myself how to bake bread, too. I've never actually done it for real (in my mind, cornbread or banana bread don't really count, since with those I don't use yeast). I made a French Boule (which wound up tasting almost like sourdough b/c I let it sit overnight), and a Sandwich White loaf, which turned out sweet (I added honey to the dough) and a tiny bit dense. Perfect for French toast, which we made this morning, using the maple syrup we gathered ourselves a couple weekends ago at Bob C's, which by the way is practically vaporizing out of the jar we eat it so much.

Life is syrupy sweet lately. The garden beds are exposed and looking plush and ready, we're splitting wood for next year's sugaring operation (got about a cord so far, and need three), and plotting a site for a horse trough hot tub (which is a horse trough balanced on boulders, over a fire). I can't help but think, however, that my situation is rare among Vermont youth. The "Good Life" as it were, is not that simple. It's rife with political, identity, and economic struggle. Actually, I've been in a kind of bubble since I moved here, trying to get settled, get a job, figure out a relationship, writing, the state of the world, etc. A comment on my blog kind of snapped me out of it this weekend. It was from a Vermont native, in response to my somewhat facetious question: "Where are all the other frazzled, maladjusted young people like myself?"

"They left." Says the commenter. They left.

It's on my mind: the dynamics of the rural existence. There are those who have to do it (taking over or helping out their family business), those who choose to do it (hippyish folk who flee the city, like the Back to the Landers, and I guess….me?), and those who reject it (because it's stifling, because it's socially inhibiting, because it's insular). There are a large number of Vermont kids who flee their hometown, but why? Because they can't find jobs, in many cases. Because maybe they're sick of country-house weekenders coming up and saying "don't sub-divide our beautiful valley!" even though they're around like two weeks a year. Because maybe they want more music, theatre, restaurants, jobs, ethnic/racial diversity, or who knows what else. There's a lot of political intricacies of searching for and leaving rural life, that I think I'm just beginning to unearth. I've ceratinly thought about it–I grew up in rural Colorado until I was eleven–but lately it's coming to a head.

On the one hand, getting closer to the land is getting closer to human existence, and on the other…it can be pretentious. How many people do you know wear Carhartts and think that's all it takes to be rugged? Read Michael Pollan and think they know about food? It's not unlike the city kids I know with paint splattered jeans, who don't paint. (Also, for the record, Michael Pollan and Alice Waters are not the only people out there writing about farming and food politics. Check out Eliot Coleman, Gene Logsdon, and Derrick Jensen, to name a few). But it's not just about image, of course. It's a question of work, too. Those who put it in, and those who hire it out. Those who get their hands dirty, and those who don't. And a question of time, perhaps. Those who have time to dabble, and those who work three jobs. Those who have kids, those who don't. And on and on and on…Which isn't to say that those with privilege are inherently lazier. Just that there is a larger possibility for choice.

"Don't get me wrong," says the commenter, "I miss my home state quite a bit sometimes. And if I was independently wealthy, or if I were qualified to get one of the few interesting jobs that pay well in the area, I'd want to live there. But it's a tough place to make a living, and it's only the few that make it."

Is it possible for people like me to not swoop in and suck dry the culture of the rural? How can people who feel a connection to "the land" return to it, or come for the first time, while not destroying it or remaking it in their own image? Is it a question of seniority: those who were here first get to make the rules? Is it a question of tradition: the rules that were are the rules that should continue to be? Is it a question of democracy: the rather vague notion that anyone can do anything if they want to, because they're free? Is it a question of money: those who have it make the law, and those who have less must follow it anyway?

What do you think?