Mise en Place

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The winter rains set the stage for bountiful wild harvests this spring. 

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Sage, lemonade berry, and pineapple flowers

I stirred the lemonade berry in water and sprinkled sage flowers on top. The pineapple flowers made a nice topping on vanilla ice cream for a tropical and herbaceous flavor. Yum yum yum!

Before becoming a farmer, I was much more interested in harvesting from nature’s provisions. This fascination was incited during a walk with my mom when I was 5 years old. As we passed by a neighbor’s house, my mom stopped next to their front hedge. It looked like any old hedge, and only upon closer examination did I notice its green and red leaves, and clusters of tiny fuchsia-colored, apple-shaped berries. My mom plucked a few, wiped them, and handed one to me. “Watch out for the seed in the middle,” as she demonstrated biting into the fruit. The audible crunch from such a small fruit and pink juice on my mom’s lips made this berry every more mesmerizing. I slowly sliced off a piece with my front teeth to take note of minute developments of this curious encounter. Tangy, sweet, bright, yet followed by a slight astringency, this berry was not only delicious but MIND BLOWING. I suddenly realized that my surroundings are more complicated, more delicious than I thought, and I just needed to pay attention. Move aside, Willy Wonka, the whole world is edible!

From that point on, I viewed the world in a dichotomy: Food / Not Food. The obvious food items are in grocery stores, but then there’s everything else — flowers, leaves, berries, and delicate forms that don’t make it into formal establishments. I wanted to try everything, to  and figure out how to do it in a way that didn’t cause pain or death.

Well, the last part of that goal was added after a summer of living off of purely what the Sierra Nevada offers. I was 20 years old and at the height of militant environmental activism. I wanted to shed off industrial comforts, eat from nature, drink from streams, and live with minimal resources. I brought a knife, pot, tarp, rope, flashlight, Nalgene bottle, flint, and a Western Sierra Guide to Edible Plants. I was going to hike and forage through the mountains.

The feeling of being in the mountains
Is a dream of self-negation
To see the world without us
How it churns and blossoms
Without anyone looking on

The lakes in the deep back country are still, blue almost black, and engulf you in an otherworldly abyss when you dive in from the granite boulders above. Surfing on continuous thickets of manzanita bushes feels like walking in a world with weaker gravity, every step giving you a bounce. Berries and roots tasted dense with flavors and burst in flavor as though they were building up all these complexities for a moment to explode in your mouth. I fell in love with spring Douglas fir tips that taste like tropical makrut lime and the Sierras had a baby. Camas roots brought a sweetness to my diet of otherwise vegetal flavors. It seemed miraculous to me that these plants could find a perfect confluence of conditions to survive. It is a miracle, but one that slowly unfolds over time, life cycles, adaptations. Plants have come, gone, crossed with the intervention of geology, animals, humans. Some of my favorite things to eat weren’t endemic, but introduced by waves of different groups of people. Take that pineapple flower up top for example. It’s from South Africa when laborers were brought over during the Gold Rush. The mustard is an introduced annual. And so I came to understand the landscape as an interplay of nature and humans, or rather that we are one. My escape to nature turned out to be a lesson in human history.

I related to the plants as something from out of place but also adaptable and fitting, as humans have done. I hiked and harvested for weeks, enjoying new vistas, smelling new profiles, and tasted flavors wholly new to me. I felt my senses and thoughts fully engaged, but also my energy dwindling. My diet, while diverse, was not enough in quantity. I spent more and more time meditating so I could pass through times of hunger and would eat loads of miner’s lettuce. Then, I began to behave the way animals did: raid the camp sites. Sunday afternoons were smorgasborgs when campers emptied their bear tins and cabinets. They threw away many half-eaten protein and energy dense bars and camping specialty items that lasted me until the next set of weekend campers came. Feasting time!

It was in these moments of examining edibility of cucumbers and carrots that I came to appreciate human intervention in food production, aka farming. I understood why people traded the diversity of wild, yet rarer finds for a secure bounty of a narrower selection of foods. But along the way we’ve traded complex, sustainable ecosystems for controlled, homogeneous landscapes to grow a few foods owned by a few companies. It doesn’t need to be a trade off. We can still forage and feast. As stewards who are part of nature we can keep our diversity of food in a diversity of hands across a diversity of landscapes, be it in our forests, farms, or neighbors’ yards. 

Happy spring, happy harvesting!

Cooperatives at Risk

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A rainy day affords me time to catch up on bills, bookkeeping, and news articles and not just headlines. I noticed a pattern of responses to various items in the White House budget, so I figured I may as well read the budget itself. Closing off one section is a simple bullet point:

Reduces duplicative and underperforming programs by eliminating discretionary activities of the
Rural Business and Cooperative Service, a savings of $95 million from the 2017 annualized CR
level.
This is concerning for three reasons:
  1. Rural cooperatives are the foundation and remain integral to the US agricultural economy.
  2. Cooperatives provide services and job opportunities in remote areas and among marginalized populations.
  3. The Rural Cooperative Service houses the only federal grant for people of color, the Socially Disadvantaged Groups Grant.

Let’s take a look at our history. African and African-American slaves who built American agriculture cooperatively pooled money to buy each others’ freedom. With the abolition of slavery, former slaves created cooperatives to own farm land, access credit, and engage in a democratic process to create livelihoods for themselves with lasting impacts until today. The Grange movement in the late 1800s mobilized rural Americans, mostly farmers, to create cooperatives that aggregated food and supplies, while distributing profits equitably. This model enabled people to acquire needs and sell goods, and created the foundation for rural and farming economies. As the need for electricity, banking, and housing increased in rural areas, where developers and investors did not see reason to invest, people formed cooperatives to meet these demands. Cooperatives permeated many aspects of rural life to meet necessary services.

The formation of cooperatives to meet needs in rural America translated into serving the rest of the country. We enjoy the rural cooperative efforts of TreeTop and Organic Valley when we enjoy a glass of apple juice or milk. In California, our Sunkist and Sunmaid cooperatives provide people with a taste of our sunshine in orange juice and raisins. Co-op farmers provide more than 190,000 jobs and annual wages of $8 billion.

These jobs that uphold rural lives and businesses that affect all of us are under threat in the White House budget. The Rural Business and Cooperative Services programs provide assistance to beginning and existing cooperatives, from writing incorporation documents, understanding tax and financial management, and navigating group decision-making. This kind of support enables people to create jobs, gain financing, and secure housing.

In my case, I gained affordable housing in the Bay Area during school thanks to cooperative housing. This meant I could eat and sleep somewhere secure and comfortable while also gaining an incredibly valuable world-class education. As a grain farmer, cooperative ownership of necessary harvesting and cleaning equipment enables me to get grain to market. Not only me, but my fellow co-operators, so we can collectively bolster regional food supply.

Us small scale grain farmers a minority in the agricultural system. Cooperatives are a means for minorities to gain strength in numbers to address common needs, pursue shared dreams. Take the Hi Desert Jujube Cooperative.

Amidst the stretch of the sandy hard-pan flatlands of California’s high desert, star-shaped flowers of lemondrop yellow can be seen annually. These aren’t part of the widely anticipated wildflower super bloom, but it’s a moment awaited by the farmers who read these flowers for signs of their harvest. These are the jujube farmers. The arid conditions lead to exceptionally sweet and flavorful jujubes with a crisp crunch when ripe, and give way to a subtle smoky and raisin flavor when sun-dried and transformed into a marshmallow-like texture.

Jujubes are enjoyed and cherished in many cultures from the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. They may not be part of the Anglo-American mainstream, but are in high demand. Beginning about fifteen years ago, farmers of Korean descent began growing them in Lucerne Valley, California. At first there were a few farmers, then more came and learned to plant, nurture, and harvest these fruits. They shared growing practices, introduced each other to customers, and eventually turned their cooperation into an official agricultural cooperative business. Through this cooperative, farmers have increased their market power, skill base, and farm viability and collectively produce on nearly 1,000 acres to serve an ever increasing market demand.

Being rural and selling fruit that mainstream markets and their associated distributors and brokers are unfamiliar with necessitates cooperation. Collaboration among farmers helped them create solutions to shared problems, and cooperatives provided a structure to anchor their connection.

I get to work with many cooperatives across the state. One of the businesses I’m very excited about is Yolo Eco-Clean Cooperative, which is a group of Latinas who run a home and business cleaning business. They make all their own products from scratch for the sake of personal, client, and environmental health. They determine their schedules so they can be with their children, they decide about wages and business investment, and this is a job they have full ownership of. Isn’t that what we all want — self-determination and time with those we love?

The White House budget is being negotiated and must be approved by April 28th, 2017 for this fiscal year. We ask Congress and readers who will contact their representatives to keep in mind that cooperatives employ over 2.1 million people in the US, and xx in California. They generated over $220 billion in revenue in 2015. Cooperatives create rural jobs and sustain a vibrant food economy. Let’s cooperate to keep them.

Spring Planting

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I am not a spring planter. There’s too much risk involved: can you get into the field when it’s dry enough, but will it be wet enough for seed to germinate? Will there be enough rain at the right time afterwards for the plants to grow? The advantages for spring wheat, though, is that you can fit a cover crop in the same field beforehand and mechanically rid of weeds and the cover crop before planting. Depending on where you are, winter planting may also water log seeds or foster diseases in the roots and plants. Diseased crop or no crop? Take your pick.

This back and forth of whether to winter or spring plant has gone on for centuries. The passage above comes from a book written in the 1940s. Same story.

What’s tricky for California farmers seeking winter and spring wheat is that those names don’t really apply to us. You know that an East Coast winter is very different from a West Coast winter. Winter wheat refers to an East Coast-style winter. The wheat needs cold in order to germinate well, and we don’t get that cold on the California coast. It means we should probably winter plant spring wheat.

But here I am trying to plant spring wheat in April…without irrigation. I’m planting in Petaluma where it rains through April and has experienced slightly more predictable weather timing than other places I’ve farmed. Note that I said timing and not intensity. This year’s been pretty intense rain wise, with houses shifted from their foundation. I hope it’s saved some of that for April!

Right now it’s all about field prep. Getting everything mowed and ready at the right time. Again, you want to be able to get into the field when it’s dry enough, seed when the ground is still moist enough, and do this before a good rain to help with soil contact and settling. This may in some ways be like being pregnant. You know generally when to expect, but the exact timing is unexpected and no matter how much preparation went in you still end up scrambling.

 

 

Heart and Grain

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The National Young Farmers Coalition helps elucidate the state of US agriculture by inviting young farmers to share their personal stories of what it’s like to engage in this aging industry. What does it mean for a 10,000 year old practice to age? How can a process that sustains all humans age? The average age of the American farmer is 58, and most people are being replaced by new technology. The human element is aging. If we want to keep jobs, transparency, accountability, and environmental stewardship, we need young farmers.

Today kicks off the 7th NYFC blog series: Heart and Grain. Three young grain farmers from across the country will broadcast their wins and woes through monthly blog posts on different topics. The first set of posts are up, so you can get to know these farmers in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and, well, the last isn’t such a stranger to you: me! I’m very excited to participate as a way to contribute to this body of knowledge about grain growing, to (hopefully) inspire young farmers to grow grain, and to learn from the others. SO EX CI TED!

The first video focus is on Meadowlark Farm’s Halee and John Wepking and how they’re introducing ecologically-mindful practices to a farm partnership in Wisconsin. You can read about them and watch their video by clicking on their photo.

Halee and John Wepking