Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Many hands make little work

As Sunday morning rolled around, I bid my friends Mark and Susan (and their kiddos) farewell and headed out after almost a full week in Burlington. About 10 miles into the journey south, Ollie and I found ourselves at the entrance to Shelburne Orchards just in time to catch the tail end of Mariah and Patrick's weekly crepe breakfast and local jam session. (Thank goodness for the intermission -- those headwinds were killing us! Or me, rather; Ollie's much tougher than I am.) Ollie leaned demurely against one of the apple trees and surveyed the orchard (that, incidentally, is in the process of transitioning to organic) while I scarfed a crepe, some fruit, and a few cups of lemonade. After picking up a lovely bottle of apple cider vinegar, we were off on the final 6 miles to catch the ferry to Essex, NY.

When I realized I would be passing through Essex, I had contacted Mark and Kristin, the managers of Essex Farm -- a CSA first mentioned to me by the good folks at Crashed Wagon and which had come up in conversation many times as I made my way across Vermont. Essex is an anomoly, the first farm I had ever heard of that had a year-round, full-diet CSA. Not only that, but members come by each week and take however much they feel they need of whatever is available (including produce, raw milk, eggs, yoghurt, stew beef, whole chickens, bacon, homemade soap, and more). Fortunately, Mark -- who, it turns out, had cycled around the country himself and worked on farms about a decade ago -- called me back and welcomed me into the farm fold for a couple of days. I arrived early Sunday afternoon just in time to help with the hay baling.

Now, let me just preface the next bit with an assurance that I am no slouch when it comes to physical work: I'm small but scrappy. Those bales weighed a ton. (Chad, who was driving the horses, helped me considerably by tossing the newly tied bales up onto the wagon; yet even stacking them once on the wagon was pretty tough.) I found out later that because they were still pretty wet and muddy the bales weighed about twice what they normally do. Which is to say: I slept well that night on the couch at Yellow House (the place in town that Mark rents out for the longer-term farmers). After an enormous ice cream cone, a glorious shower, and some dinner with the friendly group of young farmers, that is.

Monday morning started at 5am for the crew. (As I was not trained in milking, I lollygagged about the house until about a quarter past six.) After a group breakfast and discussion of tasks for the next few days, I headed out around 8:00 with Jesse, Racey, and Justin to harvest prickly zucchini, crunchy beans, and recalcitrant garlic. Already sore from hauling around crates of veggies by 11:00, I volunteered to help the culinarily talented Courtney in the kitchen with lunch (and a good thing, too, as it turned out to be a crowd of nearly 20 that afternoon). After lunch, I helped pick carrots for a few hours before moving over to tying up garlic for drying in the barn. As other farmers finished up their own tasks they wandered into the barn to help with the hundreds of clusters that Racey and I were tying up. What seemed like unending bushels quickly disappeared as more folks joined. As Courtney put it: many hands make little work. This spirit of shared labor captures the essence of the farm. That evening when we finished up, a bit after 6pm, I gobbled some of the lunch leftovers, took a much-needed shower, and pulled my exhausted self and sleeping bag to the upper level of the barn where I fell asleep amid the sweet scent of hay and drying garlic.

Aside from the obvious enthusiasm for their work, I was impressed with how the group as a whole -- ranging from folks just out of high school to those in their mid 30s -- got along. It is a mix of staff, seasonal workers, and volunteers, and Mark clearly relies on the energy, the particular knowledge, and varied experience each of his farmers brings to the table -- from metal working to drafthorse care to animal butchering. He seems to have a knack for open discussion and delegation, and a determination to solve old problems in new ways. Underpinning everything is a belief that a local, diversified farm can fully support the diet of a community. And Essex Farm is doing it, with 90 members this year supported by 300 acres (and plans for expansion to utilize all 500 acres). It was by far the most physically demanding farm work I've done thus far, but the farm was also one of the most inspiring. I hope to make it back to this vibrant place again, for a longer stint next time. (In particular, I look forward to trying more of the kim chee recipe that the farm is currently tinkering with.)

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The 0.8 mile high club

Have you ever pushed a fully loaded bike uphill for 0.8 miles? If you have, you can join the club. Those guys at the Old Spokes Home bike shop either have spotty memories of their passage around the "flat" western side of Lake George or they are laughing their heads off right about now. Good God. Maybe I should have clarified what I meant by "flat": not leading to near cardiac arrest. I'm looking forward to jumping in the lake later... just another 25 miles or so to tonight's campsite. Good thing I'm bulking up with a veggie burger and rootbeer float.
P.S.- Hey New York, Pennsylvania called. She says she wants her hills back.
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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Over hill, over dale, and around the Intervale

Monday was CSA (community supported agriculture) pickup day at the Intervale Community Farm -- the area's oldest (celebrating 20 years) and largest (with something like 500 shares, and a waiting list!) CSA. I arrived just after lunch to chat with Andy, Becky, and others for a bit before heading out to weed one of their outer fields. As we hand-weeded and thinned out a long row of beets, Aly filled me in a bit on the farm and how it fits into the larger Intervale scene of organic agriculture and education.

Around 3:00, we headed back to the CSA pickup area, just moments ahead of the first wave of eager local eaters. Had it not been so well organized, it would have been a scene of total chaos for the next 2 1/2 hours as a steady stream of people arrived to claim their weekly vittles -- collecting their veggie allotments, harvesting herbs and flowers, picking up any other items they'd requested, socializing. Whenever I could catch them for a free moment, Andy, Becky, or Aly would tell me a bit more about the food community they have helped to foster: regular community events, farming workshops (sometimes working alongside NOFA -- the Northeast Organic Farming Association), and partnerships with other local food producers (to round out CSA members' diets with minimally marked up dairy, eggs, bread, honey, and maple syrup). I meandered around until Mark and Susan showed up to pick up their share, then Susan gave me a lift to one of the local bike shops to pick up Ollie, who'd been getting some work done on her brakes in anticipation of our upcoming date with the Adirondack Mountains. (Eep.)

Wednesday morning began with lots of rain. (Par for the course, it seems, this biking in the rain....) It stopped just as Ollie and I got to the Association of Africans Living in Vermont (AALV) farm plot on the fringe of the Intervale, part of the innovative New Farms for New Americans project. There I met up with a group of resettled refugees from Burundi harvesting broccoli for the afternoon's North End Farmers' Market. Lots of smiling and gesturing ensued as we quickly realized a bit of a spoken language barrier breakdown (that is, once we made it past names and where we were from -- they beamed when I told them I lived in the same city as Obama). I played peek-a-boo with the kids, we mimed opinions on vegetable ripeness, and in general I think things went pretty well. My attempts at exchanging recipes seemed to puzzle them -- I learned later that broccoli is not a native food crop in Burundi, so perhaps it was unfamiliarity with cooking it that prompted the uncertain, polite smiles. They were kind and welcoming and proudly showed me their crops, and when we parted ways, Michel -- the man with whom I'd managed to communicate the most -- insisted that I take some of the broccoli with me. I'd asked so many questions about it, he probably thought I was a bit obsessed with broccoli. Okay, maybe I am a bit, and in the end I accepted the gift of the beautiful green bouquet. Few things are more humbling than being given food by a refugee.

The sun came out in the afternoon as Ollie and I arrived at Intervale's friendly Arethusa Collective Farm. We were just in time for carrot washing, but first Ben, Emily, and Ben's wife (a pox on my memory! I recall the entire conversation but have forgotten her name!) invited me to check out the property. Tom, the farm's founder, joined us as we cleaned and sorted carrots and the group engaged in an interesting discussion on the meaning of sustainability, farming as a political act, and the recent trends I've noticed ranging from the use of black plastic on organic farms to the pattern of well-educated young liberal arts majors flocking to farm life. They're a bright, friendly bunch who openly grapple with many of the issues I am trying to sort out for myself. (Only, of course, they're *living* the life I am only beginning to scratch the surface of.)

While no longer involved in a CSA, I learned, Arethusa remains committed to supplying farmers markets, restaurants, and City Market -- my all-time favorite grocery store in the region (and not just because of the bike helmet discount they offer, but it is a nice bonus) -- with healthy, tasty, chemical-free vegetables. At the end of the afternoon, I strapped a bag of gorgeous, freshly washed Arethusa carrots onto Ollie and we were off to Old Spokes Home (another local bike shop) to get the skinny on bike routes through the mountains of upstate New York....

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Friday, July 17, 2009

In vino veritas

This week marked my first time working at a vineyard, thanks to Gail and Ken who welcomed me into their home and invited me to help out at their winemaking operation at Shelburne Vineyard for a few days. I arrived Sunday afternoon and wandered about the property taking in the stunning views for a bit before the evening's art show and wine tasting, at which point I was put to work arranging plates of delectable local cheeses and chocolates for the event (and, you know, making sure the various wines were up to snuff... they were). I spent Monday and Tuesday working with Ken at his organic vineyard on the Shelburne Farm property, pruning and trellissing vines, and getting occasionally whacked in the face by a recalcitrant vignola branch (cheeky buggers, those vines). As we worked, Ken explained the different trellissing techniques, the origins and eccentricities of the grape varietals, and processes for making different types of wine.

Much like consumers are starting to ask about the origins of their meat and produce at their local markets, Ken confided, an increasing number of wine drinkers are asking about their grapes. They want to know how grapes are harvested (at Shelburne, they are literally handpicked), where the vines come from (some are of European origin, others are hybrids), and any chemicals involved in the grape production (minimal, even for the uncertified organic batches.) What makes wine "organic" surprised me: it's the grape which is certified organic, not the wine, since the winemaking process involves the inclusion of chemically-manufactured sulfites. Though there is a process that does not use these added sulfites as a preservative, my impression was that the resulting wines are subpar and thus unable to compete with traditional wines. Also, sulfites naturally occur in grapes, just at lower levels, so I'm considerably less phased than I might otherwise be. Don't get me wrong, I like my food -- and wine -- to be as minimally chemical-laden as possible, but I am hardly a purist. (One day, about two weeks ago, Ollie and I got really lost and when I stopped to ask for directions at a gas station I was overtaken by spontaneous hunger as I approached the counter and scarfed two hot dogs without even blinking. I'm pretty sure I chewed them, but I can't be sure. I vaguely recall slathering them with mustard and relish, but still: hardly organic or sustainably produced. Heck, hardly more than snouts and ears and sulfites, most likely. Anyway....)

As Tuesday was Bastille Day -- Vive la France! -- or maybe because they were trying to make some room for a restock in the fridge, after dinner on what was to be my final evening in the area, Ken, Gail, and I sampled a number of dessert wines (along with a slightly modified version of the chocolate torte recipe I am determined to perfect). As we sipped and chatted, I reflected on the pair, around my parents' ages, who have devoted much of the past 30 years to land stewardship (through their involvement with the Vermont Land Trust, participation in local and statewide environmental advisory groups, and their own land management practices), building their community (Gail in particular has worked with a number of environmental education and volunteer organizations around the state over the years), and enjoying life (in spite of what I learned could sometimes be a grueling workload). It's hard work that the couple seems to undertake with a sense of joy. The business breaks even, but they're hoping to make a profit, maybe even give themselves (instead of just their small staff) salaries in coming years.

Something that I've been thinking about, even before leaving DC, is how very few sustainable food operations appear to be financially self-sustaining -- nearly all rely on grants or holding second jobs or spouses working in a non-agricultural field subsidizing the operation. One of the things I am hoping to discover along this journey is how relatively small, responsibly run farms can not just barely survive but *thrive.* Doing the right thing shouldn't mean a life of constant struggle. Challenging work: yes. Physically demanding work: well, it is a farm, so in most cases that comes with the territory. But when I read about the plight of an increasing number of farmers in debt, who cannot afford their own piece of land, who can barely afford to feed themselves and their families let alone pay for private health insurance (see what happens when I get a little wine in me?), I get angry. Is it true that the majority of our government's agricultural dollars support -- even encourage -- irresponsible, large-scale farming practices while neglecting small, organic farms? It sure seems that way. I haven't seen "Food, Inc." yet, but my hunch is that it confirms some of my suspicions.

Speaking of hunches, I suspect that we're going to start seeing more wine coming out of New England. Vermont wines are not as well known as those from California or Oregon or even New York's lush Hudson Valley, at least not yet. But I heard through the grapevine that they're on the rise. And if they're anywhere near as consistently good as Shelburne's "Rhapsody," "Late Harvest," or "NuMondo," we're in for a treat.

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Getting on the wagon

I woke up Saturday morning raring to go after a night's rest in an unbelievably comfy bed. Luckily, Linda had planned a hike with a few friends up Turner Mountain so I had a chance to move around a bit and get the blood flowing while the ladies caught me up on the past few weeks of national and international news. Afterwards, we stopped by the bustling but decidedly not organic Four Corners farmstand down the road and I picked up a gigantic onion that I needed for the evening's meal prep -- an eggplant and tomato ragout over polenta. We made our way back to the house in West Newbury, VT and I got to work baking a chocolate torte for dessert. (The word on the street was that Linda is a bit of a chocoholic. The rumors are true.) While it was cooking, Stan and I wandered out into the yard in search of berries. It was still too early for blackberries, but we managed a few handfuls of raspberries. Sweet.

A bit later, Stan read me a blurb from a copy of the "Valley Food and Farm Guide" he had picked up in anticipation of my visit to the area. We hopped in the car (sorry Ollie, but at least it's a hybrid) and headed over to Crashed Wagon Farm to see if the write-up was too good to be true: a small, new CSA devoted to soil health, environmental stewardship, organic practices, and heirloom varieties. I was greeted in the field by Eileen, the co-manager of the operation, who cheerfully answered the plethora of questions I lobbed her way as we weeded a row of beets. She introduced me to the other manager, Nicholas, and a few of their friends who had come to help out, and gave me a pretty comprehensive tour of the farm. I could tell from the practices she described and the way she meticulously described each -- varied cover cropping, minimal spraying (of even organic sprays), a general distaste for black plastic, the pride in open-pollinating vegetable varieties and seed saving -- that she and her partner were committed to the land and preserving its diversity while supplying their local community with fresh, healthy food.

A word on black plastic: I don't understand why it is ubiquitous on organic farms. Using giant rolls of non-biodegradable and rarely reusable plastic seems antithetical to the spirit of sustainable farming. After doing quite a bit of hand weeding these past months -- far, far less than folks who farm day in and day out, I'll admit, but still a heck of a lot more than your average city slicker -- I can understand the desire to curb weed growth by any non-chemical means possible. (Back at Maggie's Organic farm, I recall the guys joking about their hands cramping into "asparagus claws" from the constant weeding of the asparagus patch.) Mulching with straw is preferable, most organic farmers agree, as it not only stifles weed growth but also slowly breaks down to further enrich the soil. (Newspaper -- with soy-based ink, which includes most of our nation's larger publications -- works well, too, I recalled from my work at the Master Peace Garden.) Straw is also, however, much more labor intensive to put down and harder to get enough of locally than black plastic. Hmmm. I am hardly in a position to wag a finger at the hard-working farmers who are devoting their lives and energy to growing our food as sustainably as they are able for using plastic to protect their tomato and pepper plants from an onslaught of weeds. But I do have a nagging feeling creep up whenever I come across the giant plastic ground covers, and I have noticed them often along my journey thus far.

Emboldened by her openness to my other queries, I asked Eileen about this issue, as I noted a couple rows of squash lined with plastic sheets. She explained that the plastic really does cut down on weeding significantly and there are some plants not damaged by the increased heat and moisture levels that the black plastic invariably creates. She loathed using the stuff, she admitted, and told me that the little bit of plastic that Crashed Wagon uses is all recycled -- from the plastic that construction companies use to wrap around drywall (I'd only seen the white side, who knew the other side was black?) to some gardening screen cloth that had been donated -- and reused whenever possible. Eileen seemed genuinely agitated by the thought of the hundreds of tons of black plastic that must wind up in landfills each year as a result of the collective farms' use of the weed suppressant. Using what you have and being thoughtful about it seems to be the mantra of the farm and small (15-share) CSA, run solely by Nicholas and Eileen, with the generosity of their landlords and the help of their friends. If they recycle a little bit of plastic to manage the weeds on a few rows, I'm at peace with that.

Stan swung back by the farm to pick me up and I left feeling hopeful that Crashed Wagon, which means to some day be able to support itself solely as a financially sustainable CSA, and other farms like it grow and spread across the country. These are the sorts of farmers we need to support: thoughtful, generous, local.

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Better to pay the grocer than the doctor

My rerouted trip further north along the coast gave me a chance to explore a bit of Portsmouth, NH and even Kittery, ME, as it was just over the bridge. (I know I said I wasn't going to Maine, but that's where I stayed for the evenings I was in the area.) My impromptu timing meant that I missed out on the activities of the vibrant Slow Food Seacoast network in the area, though I learned a good deal about it from my cheerful hostess and one of the group's founders, Michelle, over chickpea curry the first night and homemade pizza (with gorgeous local NH tomatoes) the second. The weather continued to be cold and rainy, but Ollie and I were not to be deterred. I spent Wednesday afternoon on a tour of the lovely Strawbery Banke Museum.

Now, as a child, I went to a LOT of museums all around the world. Usually, the museums were dark and dank, the tour guides droned on about this or that dead person and their taxidermied rodent collection or fine china, and I was counting the seconds until the tour was over so I could go outside and climb a tree. Not so at this place. Our fearless guide, John, led a fascinating tour of the gardens and pointed out the ways that the green spaces revealed so much of the cultural knowledge and history of the people who kept them. We could quite literally see through the content and configurations of the gardens -- vegetable, kitchen, or decorative in nature -- the way the community changed over time by observing what plants they valued, their aesthetic ideals. Of course, the opportunities to smell and taste various bits along the way made the tour even more appealing (what can I say, I'm a tactile learner), and I learned a bit more about some of the medicinal uses of plants.

John did an amazing job of reinforcing a belief held by so many for generations, one which we seem to have lost in modern times: it's better to pay the grocer than the doctor. (I'm not talking about our country's appalling lack of a sufficient public healthcare system with hundreds of thousands of Americans unable to get adequate medical attention -- that's a whole OTHER soapbox I reserve for another time, like when I get a little wine in me). I'm talking about utilizing the natural benefits of whole foods and herbs as preventive or curative "medicine" instead of the shocking array of pharmaceuticals that are so readily prescribed for every little belly ache or sneeze or headache. Of course there is a time and place for some of these, but consider how much more pleasant a steaming mug of fresh ginger tea with honey is than any number of pills or cough syrups with all sorts of side effects. (Okay, maybe ginger isn't a panacea, but it does seem to work for an upset stomach, menstrual cramps, fever, muscle aches, and sniffles, at least in my experience.)

Sorry, I got off topic there, and the anti-pharma rant is not John's axe but my own to grind. But I do think that so many of our contemporary ailments could be ameliorated by dietary changes and a less sedentary lifestyle. I'm not advocating that everyone ride their bicycles for 50 miles a day -- I mean, what kind of loony would do that? -- but a little time in the garden planting, weeding, mulching, composting, harvesting, and cooking your homegrown vittles. Yes, I *am* suggesting that. It's good for the heart and the soul. And wouldn't you know it, John just began hosting a workshop at SBM on starting your own victory garden using both old and modern gardening, composting, canning, and other techniques. Because, he reminded us, we have learned a lot about these things over the years -- some of the old ways of doing things are better, but let's not romanticize things to the point where we forget that many of the modern adaptations are good ones. Canning, for example, is much easier today, and we're less likely to get botulism, say. (I feel compelled to mention an exception to this: modern lawn mowers make it easier to keep enormous mowed yards while requiring comparatively little exercise riding around on them. Consider how using one of the old school push mowers would limit lawn sizes and save money on gym memberships. And what do you do with you lawn except look at it and perhaps play the occasional game of baci ball? At least a garden can feed you. In fact, at one point during WWII 50% of all produce consumed in our country was grown in backyard gardens.)

Dig up part of your lawn. Plant a garden. Tend it. You may scandalize the neighbors in your suburban neighborhood, but you'll probably happily outlive them, too.

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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

For whom the dinner bell tolls

Disclaimer: this post is not for the faint of heart.

During my first afternoon helping out at Green Meadows Farm, the farm manager (Andrew) had proposed that I stay for chicken processing day. I had intended from the outset of my journey toward a greater understanding of food on its way to my plate to participate in one of these events, I explained, but hadn't planned to investigate this piece this early on. I'd read about the whole process in some detail in The Omnivore's Dilemma -- a method considerably more humane than traditional slaughterhouses, but something which would nonetheless require a good bit of psychological preparation on my part beforehand. Also, I offered, I was planning to leave Monday morning, the day scheduled for slaughter. And... I balked. But Andrew ultimately convinced me to stay. And it wasn't just the friendly conversation and tasty food on Saturday afternoon (or, as Andrew jokingly referred to it, "the lobster payoff" technique, though the local lobsters were delicious). As I got to know the knowledgeable and friendly crew at the farm, I felt more comfortable with the idea. If I meant to really learn about what goes into sustainable food production -- all of what I eat, including animals if I am to continue consuming them -- then this farm, modeled closely on Joel Salatin's methodology and managed by thoughtful, compassionate folks was the place to face the prospect of taking full responsibility for my food (including taking its life).

I was still pretty anxious on Monday morning when I showed up for the chicken crew pre-brief. Perhaps in an effort to help me mentally prepare for the event, or perhaps to utilize my kitchen prowess, the farm manager asked me to sharpen and sanitize the knives. Good, I can do that. Sharpen knives. Yes, just like a regular run-of-the-mill day in the kitchen, no problemo. A bit later, over iced coffee and muffins -- not a bad idea in case I lost my usual appetite later -- Andrew talked the assembled team through each station, each role. There was the chicken wrangler (who chased the chickens around the yard and brought them to be processed), the killing cones (where chickens clucked their last cluck), the scalding tank (that loosened feathers of the expired birds), the defeathering machine (kind of like a kinky washing machine with water jets and lined with rubber fingers), the chopping block (where each defeathered bird lost her head and feet), and the evisceration table (after which the chicken is identical to what you buy at the market). Evisceration?! I opted to be on scalding and defeathering. Pretty innocuous, considering my other options.

The group of six -- half experienced, half newbies -- formed a circle and held hands as Andrew offered thanks to the animals for giving their lives to nourish us. Then we got started. I watched as Jim brought a bird to each of the four cones and pulled their heads down to cleanly, swiftly sever their throats. At least I knew the knives were razor sharp, so the animals didn't suffer. I got a little choked up watching Jim's steady but compassionate hands take each life and hold each bird's head so that it didn't flail and alarm the others while it lost consciousness and bled out. Once he gave me the sign that each bird was ready, I transferred it by its feet to the scalding tank. The scalding was harder than I had anticipated, as too short of a dunk time didn't adequately loosen the feathers but too long would melt the fat and begin to cook the bird. Had the full impact of the life-taking not been so omnipresent, the next step -- the defeathering process -- would have been downright comical. As it was, I did catch myself laughing when I once started to say something while switching the machine on and dripping chicken feathers flew into my mouth. Talk about centrifugal force. (Or is it centripital? I mix them up. Anyway: feathers everywhere.) Muddy, sopping feathers tasted pretty bad.

Near the end, after watching each of the other stations, I knew that I wouldn't be able to handle the killing cones, but I did want to try my hand at the task most akin to my cooking experience. Andrew had mentioned that my hands, relatively smaller than those of the rest of the crew, would be well suited for evisceration. Previously, the word "eviscerate" always conjured up images of velociraptors disemboweling their prey. This process hasn't really dispelled that association: to be honest, it was pretty gruesome, especially since the birds were still warm. Sarah talked me through the process of removing all of the internal organs and we practiced together. I did it, with only one major intestinal-slicing mishap, and found myself oddly proud of making it through without an emotional meltdown or nausea. Am I more callous than I thought? Could I do this every time I had the urge to eat poultry? Would I ever have the urge to eat poultry after this? I wondered.

As each crew member parted with thanks and a freshly processed, free-range organic chicken, I decided to make a curry dinner for my wonderful hostess and her grandson Ingmar who was visiting from Germany. Ingmar was an amazing assistant chef and merrily chatted away as I sipped a beer and assembled an impromptu chicken curry, chickpea curry, rice, and raita with fresh mint from the garden. (Aha, all of those spices stockpiled in my pannier came in handy!) It was a delicious end to an intense day learning about the meaning of life (and death) and I was elated to share it with my new friends. I don't know that I'll be eating a lot of chicken from here on out, but I now have a very real understanding of what it takes to bring it to my plate.

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Sunday, July 5, 2009

A town's trash becomes everyone's treasure

Ollie and I arrived on the doorstep of Green Meadows Farm -- historic home of the famous Patton family in northeastern MA, and the only certified organic farm in the area -- on Thursday evening, drenched, exhausted, and starving after an intense day of cycling from Boston. Mrs. Patton, one of the most gracious hostesses (and human beings) I have ever met, welcomed us into her home with open arms and a hot meal. The following morning after breakfast, Mrs. Patton introduced me to her neighbor, Peter, whose innate curiosity and thoughtful commitment to making the world a better place (globally -- through his work with the youth leadership program, Outward Bound International -- and locally, which I'll get into momentarily) have led him to develop a brilliant solution to the dual problems of soil depletion and waste production.

Peter and his wife Beatrice moved to Hamilton, MA in the mid 70s and acquired a piece of land on which Peter hoped to realize his dream of slowly revitalizing the soil. He was not a farmer by trade but an anthropologist and a teacher, yet he dove right into the project and today remains doggedly committed to his original vision of converting waste into compost and reviving the land. This man is perhaps the only individual I have ever met who gets more excited about compost than I do. (Shocking, I know.) His vision is to help as many people as possible grow food on their land and he has vowed to give away the black gold he produces at Brick Ends Farm to any farmer or home gardener in the area who asks for it, by the bucket or the truckload. Talk about giving back. Peter cheerfully showed me around his property: mountains of compost at various stages of decomposition, an area for aging horse manure ("thank you, Martha Stewart, for convincing horse owners to pay me to take their horse manure and then buy it back from me the next year for their flowers," he quipped), and the small First Light CSA which he hosts on his land. It was the largest composting operation I've ever seen, and it produced such high-quality stuff that Mike, who runs First Light, grows all of the food for the CSA (in its second year here) in straight compost, not even mixing it with soil -- something I had previously come to understand as a big no-no in the garden, though I vaguely recall the explanation for this being tied to the concentration of nitrogen in most compost being too strong for undiluted use on plants. (Soil scientists, help me out here.)

Peter, like most folks I've met here, is proud of his work while being modest about his successes. The following morning at breakfast, Mrs. Patton and I read a feature in the local paper about the unprecedented success of a pilot town composting program that Peter helped to initiate. The setup supplied 74 families in the town of Hamilton with food waste buckets which are collected by a truck and brought to Peter's farm one day a week. An analysis of the trial period proposed that 10 of the average family's 27 pounds of weekly trash were being redirected to compost through the program -- the waste management and financial implications of which did not escape the state's notice. The pilot was deemed a wild success and there is some talk of expanding the program (the pickup cost will run roughly less than a dollar per household per week) to include all homes in Hamilton and nearby Wenham. If the recent shift in weather to (finally!) clear and sunny didn't bring a big enough smile to my face, this program sure has.

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Thursday, July 2, 2009

Beets Not Bombs

The highlight of my time in the Boston area was on Tuesday morning when I had the pleasure of working with a group of middle schoolers involved in the City Sprouts summer program (an initiative of the Cambridge Public School system that encourages community gardening in schools). Louise had invited me to talk a bit about my project and do a culinary lesson with her group of young gardeners at Graham & Park School, so after a tour of their lush green space, we flipped on the hot plate and got cooking. About fifteen minutes later, with the help of three willing and able sous chefs, we sat down together at the garden's picnic table to enjoy my favorite broccoli (complete with nuts, raisins, red pepper flakes, and garlic, but lacking tomatoes, as these were not yet in season). They were so great, the rising 7th and 8th graders, and while we ate they regaled me with descriptions of their favorite recipes and tales of field trips around the city that they had taken with the City Sprouts program. Afterwards, Ollie and I rode back through the drizzle along the lovely Charles River to Brookline and I proceeded to cook up a storm for a group dinner with Caron and her roommates. I love when friends let me take over their kitchens, and contrary to her claims of unpreparedness Caron had lots of interesting goodies for me to work with, including a tin of anchovies and a bottle of red wine. Yum.

After a visit to a less-than-welcoming local farm (which will remain nameless to protect its identity) with Caron on Wednesday, I made my way to Jamaica Plains to grab a bite at Cafe Ula -- good food, cantankerous staff -- with my friend Michelle before heading to Bikes Not Bombs. I hadn't seen Michelle since our days in AmeriCorps, so I was elated when she decided to join me at the peacenik bike co-op for one of the weekly volunteer nights. We chatted away as we sorted and packed crates of handlebars, bike chains, and other bits in preparation for an upcoming shipment of hundreds of bicycles and spare parts to Ghana next weekend. Good stuff. We even flattened our first bike to get it ready for loading. (Check out Michelle wielding the wrench!)

Speaking of bikes, I needed to get Ollie looked at after 9 1/2 weeks of rain and an unfortunate series of city potholes began to elicit odd new sounds. Things were bustling at last night's BNB volunteer night, so I waited until this morning and made my way to the closest neighborhood bike shop. In this case, it was the Brighton Ave branch of the International Bicycle Center, where Marcus got Ollie unsqueaked and even reattached her tire pump holder (which I had temporarily macguyvered with a piece of sponge and some zip ties after the infamous ditch dive). Now, bike mechanics have a bit of a reputation for being surly, but such was certainly not the case here. We chatted about bike touring, I learned about wheel rim cleaning, and Erich wandered over at one point and chimed in, telling me about the city's locavore scene. Pity that I finally meet the friendly folks on my way out of the city.

Yes, once this morning's thunderstorms dwindled to mere pouring rain and sideways gales, Ollie and I hit road, heading north toward our next farm....

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