Saturday, July 3, 2010

A way of life

Some folks seem destined for farming, though they may take many years and somewhat circuitous routes to get there....

As she flipped blueberry pancakes and waited for the breakfast tea to steep last weekend in her farmhouse kitchen in Sunshine, NC, Sara Jane spoke almost wistfully of her first encounters with gardening. When she was still quite young, I learned, her grandfather solicited her help for some of the work in his substantial vegetable garden in upstate New York. These early memories -- particularly their association with her grandfather, whom she still refers to as "my favorite person in the world" -- formed the seedbank from which later farming experiences would emerge. (At least that's my read on it.) Later, in high school, a friend suggested that she work on a farm in California over the summer, and she did. (In high school! See, mom and dad, you were worried about me venturing off on my own to work on farms when I'm in my 30s? What spunk!) She enjoyed the work, but it was still just a summer job. Then the Louisiana native attended college in Ohio, focusing on environmental studies and putting in some time at the newly-formed organic farm on Oberlin's campus. (Incidentally, it was here that she met her now-husband and fellow farmer, Jamie, who was studying music.) Still, food and farming weren't on her radar as a life pursuit. Then Hurricane Katrina happened and shook up everything.

With her hometown in shambles, Sara Jane began to reflect very intently on what her role in the larger scheme of things might be, how she might best be able to cultivate a better world, to help people overcome social inequities and heal an ever more polluted planet. After much deliberation she concluded that what she could do, and was determined to learn to do well, was grow healthy food. She traveled to Ireland and worked on organic farms there. She moved to Mississippi and farmed a piece of land for awhile, learning by trial and error and reading and listening to other farmers how to grow food in the small market garden she had built. She moved back to Ohio, reunited with Jamie, and took over management of Oberlin's farm. Her enthusiasm was (and still is) infectious enough to convince Jamie that they could start their own small farm. After months of searching, the couple came across the perfect 40+ acre plot of land not far from where Jamie grew up in western North Carolina and started their own biodynamic permaculture operation. And for a few days last week, they were gracious enough to let me work alongside as they harvested, cooked, and sold their wares at local farmers' markets.

It was not easy work, but aside from getting mauled by prickly blackberry bushes, the tasks were manageable and fulfilling. The shared labor and efficient (but not frantic) pace seemed natural. "You can probably lug that yourself," I recall Jamie smiling as I crouched to heft a crate of rainbow carrots to the washing station, "but it's easier if we share the load." So we did. (Not just trying to muscle through everything: what a concept!) Whether digging up carrots with Jamie, picking beans with Sara Jane, or feeding the pigs with their friend Kristen (Sara's high school friend from New Orleans who has been living and working with them for a few months), I found these young activist farmers to be open, curious, thoughtful, and joyful as they went about their daily work. Sure, it was hot, and there was much to be done, and maybe the sweet potato transplants were a few weeks behind schedule, but all the while I got the sense that they were content to be exactly where they are, doing what they are meant to be doing, their lives perfectly in tune with their beliefs. How apt that they named their place A Way of Life Farm.

It wasn't all work all the time. Mealtimes (and midday group snack breaks) offered opportunities to celebrate the farm's bounty while discussing political philosophies and agricultural policies. And on Sunday -- after morning chores, a load of laundry, and a flurry of cooking and cleaning -- a number of local farmers made their way to Sara Jane and Jamie's farm for a back porch potluck. Here was not only a mess of delicious food but a thoughtful and supportive community of growers: free-range chicken and egg farmers, organic veggie growers, pastured meat producers (including Christy and Michael and the boys from Underwood Family Farms, where I'd helped out a few days prior). As we enjoyed food and drink, and Jamie got a fire going for marshmallow roasting, conversations wandered from crop productivity to market trends to recipes. Here, I thought to myself, is the next generation of farmers. And I'm honored to have been accepted into their midst for even a brief time on my way through North Carolina.

I hope to make my way back to this farm some day. Not to partake of the lavender roasted carrots or the grilled pizzas or homemade mead, but to be a part of the community of passionate, thoughtful growers once again. (And, okay, maybe partly for more of those carrots.)

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

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