It wasn’t until Brittney and I started in January traveling to farms that I grasped the importance of the world we were entering. While I knew of farmers, I never really got to know one. Along the way this year, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a few that, not only have made an impact on my life, but are people I can now call friends. I’ve seen the painstaking effort these folks are taking to produce the best food they possibly can on a limited budget and on a small scale when our system is one that rewards the mega-producers. And to me, that’s paramount.
The contrasts between these two groups—industrial and small-scale—are striking. The food grown on large scales has been literally poisoning us, making us sick. Smaller farms are far less likely to use chemicals and thus their plants are hardier, even tastier. Often, local famers ship food across the street rather than across the continent. Less fossil fuels are used in the process. This locally produced food is fresher and contains more nutrients than something that’s been sitting for weeks on trucks or on shelves.
More and more, I’m understanding that our decisions at the register affect the future of our food culture. Buy processed foods and you’re supporting pesticide use or the degradation of our environment, while neglecting local farms and the massive potential of these smaller operations in our communities. Support your neighbors and you’re potentiating a more sustainable model of food production that benefits us all.
There couldn’t be any more important aspect to food than knowing where it comes from and how those animals—or plants, for that matter—spent their time on earth. And the only way to understand that is to know a farmer.
This blog originally appeared in Mother Earth News in May. To read it in its entirety, follow this link.
From the moment we bumped down Eric's dirt road to his collection of adobe buildings, we were captivated by the scenery -- sweeping mountain views only a stone's throw away from the crystal clear and trout-filled Gila River. The combination of the natural beauty and Eric's welcoming energy made us feel instantly at home.
"Do you guys want a tour," Eric asked as we stepped out of the van to meet him. He outstretched a greasy hand, stained from working on his decades-old tractor. Not only did we get our tour of his lush, cottonwood-strewn valley, but we gained insight into how he has etched out a living in one of the last bastions of rural America, hardly visited and only for the strong. Rains here don't start until the monsoon season in July and August, which are preceded by extreme heat the months before. Invasive weeds choke out the plants and rattlesnakes meander past rocks to bathe in the sun.
Each morning we woke up with the sun, drank coffee and wrote or read. Our leisurely pace was conducive for conversation and a hearty breakfast with Eric. Mornings in Gila were peaceful, save for the cockadoodle-dooing from the mustard-colored rooster, as he shouted frequently throughout the day. Don't let anyone fool you -- roosters crow at any hour.
Helping out a few hours each day wasn't rushed or necessarily pre-planned. The only rule that guided our days was the biodynamic calendar that we followed for planting. Some days were fruit, leaf or root, while others were black -- those were better suited for town trips or doing prep work to plant the following day. This method, called biodynamic farming, was created by Rudolf Steiner, and its ideas are based on cosmic energies influencing plant growth, having all of the resources you need for animals and plants grown on the property itself, and for it to be sustainable for the earth and the community in which it is located. Some of you may have heard of Waldorf schools for children -- well Steiner also had ideas about agriculture.
We helped get a few of Eric's greenhouses into shape by weeding, tilling, manuring and laying drip hoses. Planting a fruit-bearing plant on a fruit day and a leaf on a leaf day, weather it be from seed or from starters that had been growing before we arrived, we had bountiful and productive days. Visitors frequented the farm looking to plan any number of community projects with Eric. Some stopped by to see if any help was needed around the farm or to help harvest greens for market. Richard, one of Eric's friends, stopped by as we were planting turnips in one of the larger greenhouses. In the mid-1960s, he was a “digger” in San Fransisco, California. He, along with a lot of other environmentally-minded activists, farmed to feed themselves, as well as others in public spaces near Haight-Ashbury. This was against the ordinances and city's wishes, but it proved to be a pivotal moment in the counterculture movement that was flourishing in the Bay Area at that time. Richard rubbed elbows with Janice Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, a period of his life he said he "did a lot of living, man."
We got to spend time away from the farm for a few days at the local library where, with the help of grants, Eric created a budding micro-forest of shade trees, creating a cooler place for the people of Gila to enjoy for generations to come. We weeded the most prickly plants known to man, while we mulched nearly every tree within the project. We listened to blues, jazz and Motown while either being rained on or sweating profusely . We were doing good with good people: what more could one ask for?
We also dabbled in distilling herbs in vinegar, making kefir and kombucha, and cooking new dishes such as "kitchry," an Indian dish that's a mashup of rice and lentils, then stewed and spiced to make for a lovely dish. There was good conversation around every element of work and play we engaged in at Eric's place. The experience left both of us feeling enriched -- and three weeks almost seemed to not be enough. We're hoping the best for Eric and his market farm and homestead. We also expect deep down to visit Gila again someday.
Slightly-Sour Solar Cornbread
1 1/2 cup corn meal
1/2 cup flour
1 1/4 cup plain yogurt or buttermilk
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
Preheat pan with 1 tablespoon butter for 5-7 minutes
Mix yogurt and egg together before mixing with dry ingredients.
Cook at 375°F for 30 minutes.
Our first week in Gila, New Mexico has been as rich as the cared-for soil. We’ve learned an incredible amount about greenhouses, goats and how Eric, our host, farms in the desert Southwest.
With the coldest part of the winter (hopefully) under our belts, it was time to head West. We had a little lay-over in Nashville to celebrate Jonathan's life on this Earth as well as attend a few doctor and dentist appointments -- we do every day human things sometimes, too. We then headed South for a week with Jonathan's family just in time for coffee visits and Mardi Gras food -- no chasing chickens, though. We had a great time hanging out with Hunter on his houseboat, hiking, trying out acro yoga and making bread & butter pickles -- invite us over to stay a week and you will more than likely win this award. Of course, Jonathan had to re-supply his stash of Steen's cane syrup so he could make all of our guests along the way a gateau de syrop, which is a Cajun desert.
From Louisiana, heading west on I-10, we were privileged to stop at every Buc-ee's gas station that we were graced with as we headed to Austin. Landon and Michelle graciously hosted us for a few days. We watched many episodes of Drunk History on YouTube and ate taco after taco. Brittney spent many summers in Austin with her uncle, aunt and cousins, and we both got to spend the morning sharing stories and catching up on life with Magda, Megan, Ryan, and Ava.
South from Austin, we headed to Big Bend National Park. As we took in the landscape around us we both were filled with excitement and a sense of truly being out West. Big Bend was full of panoramic mesa views, steep canyon echo testing, and the first real threat of mountain lions -- we loved it! Unbeknownst to us, you can cross the U.S./Mexican border while in the park by either a whistling man in a boat for five dollars a head or get your shorts wet and cross the Rio Grande by foot. If you know us, you know which option we took. Donkey rides into the little town of Boquillas for goat tacos and a handmade road runner figurine really sealed this sweet deal.
From there we headed Northwest to Guadalupe Mountains National Park where we had been looking forward to hiking up the highest point in Texas, Guadalupe Peak. The hike was in gusty 20-30 mile per hour wind, but it was great fun and we could finally feel all of the trail running and hiking paying off. We ended up staying in the area for the next week hopping from Carlsbad Caverns National Park to playing racquetball at the community center in the new oil-boom-town of Carlsbad.
After stopping outside of Carlsbad at an odd-ball, one-hundred-foot waterfall in a complete desert, we headed straight West and straight up in elevation to the land of pines and aspens that greeted us with sweeping views of White Sands National Monument's awe-provoking gypsum dunes. After spending the evening in the dunes and watching the sun set over the Organ Mountains, we headed to Las Cruses for our first lesson in New Mexico's chili sauce. The options are red or green but there is no choice in hotness as they both come fireballs-exploding-in-your-mouth hot. Hiking the next day in the Organ Mountains continued the theme of explosives as nearly every five minutes you would hear a jet pass and a bomb going off on the other side of this narrow and jagged mountain ridge at White Sands Missile Range. The scenery was beautiful but it gave you some eerie feeling of being in a war zone.
With one week left before our next work/trade, we headed to the Gila National Forest to get a feel for the area we would be staying in for the month of March. Situated within the forrest were the Gila Cliff Dwellings, a masterpiece in craftsmanship built by the Mogollon people in the 1300's. It consisted of a maze-like system of family living quarters and sacred spaces all built into a large open cave. We spent our days making delicious meals, hiking, talking with a cowboy over blueberry pie, and seeing almost every animal to be seen in the region.
We will be at Eric's homestead to help him expand his market farm near Gila, New Mexico for the next three weeks and hope to have lots to share soon.
Our last week in January brought us back to Tennessee. Brittney's friend Tyler lives in the northeast corner of the state, not far from Tazwell, in a secluded hollow where they own and manage more than 300 acres. Our phones read No Service and the high cliffsides towered above each side of the road. It was the environment we were looking for after spending over a week in cities and on the road. As soon as we arrived, we were greeted as a part of the family by Tyler, his mother Peggy, brother Tanner and his father Henry. Not only did they build their wonderful home debt-free over the years, but they were even featured in Mother Earth News as a result of their ingenuity.
Tyler was quick to welcome our help - he had been essentially working by himself to prepare more than 40 trees to tap, high up on the nearby mountain that's always looming in view around their property. While he isn't selling the syrup yet, he's building an operation and learning as he goes in hopes to one day supply to the nearby communities. Tyler told us a few farmers laughed at him a couple of years ago when he said he'd tap maple trees and make syrup. Apparently, it's not a common practice in those parts. Not only is he indeed making syrup, but it's some of the best we've ever had. He's also tapping walnut trees to make syrup, a rarity we hadn't tried before.
When we weren't working to tap the trees, we were talking with Tyler about his plans for the future. His parents are leaving the land for him to work on, and he wants to stay there and cultivate the property in a sustainable way. His mind is constantly churning out ideas about what can be done to create a beautiful, working farm. For instance, he's rebuilding an old house - one of a few on the property - where he and a friend will live. Nearby, he has a few hundred blueberry plants with chickens and a natural spring that supplies water to the family. In the future, he hopes to not only grow organic, sustainable food, but to have nutrient dense produce to sell and for his family. We have confidence he'll get all of this done soon - he literally runs everywhere on the farm while he's working.
We heard stories about the good ole days along Four Mile Creek Road, such as the hog-skinning Mr. Parkie, the Hillbilly Hilton hunting camp on the mountain top, and the mysterious scoundrel who stole their puppy. Most of all, we'll cherish the conversations we had each day, which covered a variety of topics about life, the environment and farming. Mrs. Peggy couldn't be sweeter, and her motherly persona made the place feel like home. Mr. Henry was full of conversation and interested in hearing about where we're headed. And Tanner was full of jokes from the get-go. Jonathan brought a taste of Louisiana to Appalachia and cooked the family a gumbo - they have some roux leftover for their own variation on a Cajun dish.
The Burggraf's are a wonderful family, an experience we'll cherish for quite some time. We know we'll be back to Four Mile Creek Road to check back on Tyler's progress, as well as help him out with some future projects.
We had a last-minute free week since the flu had hit our host near Philidelphia and they had to cancel. So we headed North from Becki’s place to hike one of the most well-known sights along the Appalachian Trail, Mcaffee Knob near Roanoke, Virginia. A beautifully sunny day made the four-mile hike to the rocky edge seem like a cinch, the views were mountainous and vast. From there, you could see well into West Virginia.
That night it snowed — FINALLY! Jonathan has been jealous of Nashville’s snow fall and was keeping detailed mental notes on how it’s circumventing our route. We decided to brave the snow in Cogsworth, our Dodge Caravan (more on that later), to head out in the country to find Polyface Farms. Joel Salatin, the owner, continues a family tradition in not only growing great produce and livestock but also being a steward of the land by enacting practices to make it more sustainable. When we arrived there in Swoope, Virginia, like everyone else, they were taking a snow day.
We headed east to Washington D.C. and got to see many national monuments, a couple of Smithsonian museums, and the White House. Gina, a friend Brittney had made while working a summer camp for the deaf back in 2013, hosted us and we all got to catch up on each other’s lives, hike, and enjoy an evening at a friends dinner party.
We headed an hour north and explored and hiked around the historic town of Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Jonathan was especially excited about visiting as it is home to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the non-profit in charge of maintaining the trail. Harper’s Ferry is also a special place because it is at the confluence of the Potomac and Shanandoah Rivers. We hiked to a high point above town and could see the trains moving freight and the waters swirling.
We did not have any further plans, and we thought about going to West Virginia to hike but ended up going to Delaware because neither of us had been before. We didn’t know what to expect but saw a great deal of agriculture and swamp land. We played disc golf — one of the ways we get out of the van and run around— in Dover, the capital, and at a state park along the shore of the Atlantic Ocean. We were surprised by the beauty of Delaware’s coast, as well as Virginia Beach, where we ate fresh oysters and shrimp.
We had missed out on a hike back in Roan Mountain weeks before because of wildly cold weather, so we decided to go back on the way to East Tennessee. We got to the trailhead where every tree and blade of grass was frosted over. We hiked over three of the seven grassy balds along the Roan Highlands, which is another stellar section along the Appalachian Trail.
After all of the hikes and time in the van, we were more than ready to settle in at our next stay at a friends farm learning how to tap maple trees for syrup.
Cob structures are made with natural materials like clay, and are bound together, mostly, by straw or pine needles. This ancient technique has been around for thousands of years, with some of the earliest in Afghanistan and Egypt, dating back more than 4,000 years. Most of us in the US are familiar with Adobe, which means “mud brick” in Spanish. These structures were built by Native Americans and are common in New Mexico.
Becki has a small cob oven in her garden, which heats to around 900 degrees. Our last day working with her, we made a few pizzas while we shared our last few hours together. Ever had an authentic, wood-fired Italian pizza? These could’ve gave those a run for their money.
Cob is just one sustainable building technique we’re interested in learning about. It was great to see such a simple structure at work and visualize how we could implement something similar into our own farm.
Our second work trade brought us to Black Mountain, North Carolina, just a stones throw from Asheville (easily confused with our home base of Nashville). We worked with Becki, the owner of Becki’s Bounty, a small “farmette,” as she likes to say.
Her acre garden includes many permaculture and sustainable-minded projects, including beautifully curated, permanent raised beds, which she uses a rotation system that helps reinfuse the soil with nutrients. Other aspects are black soldier fly and classic slow-roast compost systems, small chicken flock, a rain catchment system for self-reliant watering using gravity. A south-facing greenhouse attached to the house passively heats one wing of the home, as well as is used to start seeds in the spring. She has implemented asthetically pleasing water features that not only capture run off rain water but also attract beneficial insects and pollinators.
Becki met us at the farm for an orientation to all of the aspects to her urban farm and the projects she was looking forward to completing during our stay, all the while in the throes of the flu. We spent the next few days following detailed notes that had been thoughtfully prayed down with Clorox to prevent us from catching whatever she had. We had fun getting our hands dirty and our muscles working, although they were NOT used to the labor intensive shoveling. We spent the evenings by the wood stove chatting with the masked Becki gathering bits of knowledge and the reasons behind what we were doing and seeing in the garden during the day.
Becki’s sickness finally waned and we had great conversation about love, life, and farming around local and self-sourced meals. Becki has her hands busy in a lot of different aspects of the community, like volunteering at the yoga studio that she so graciously shared with us, supplying eggs to a local intensive school for autism, and many education programs being taught at the farm on different topics to school children as well as seniors. We felt instantly at home in the garden and in Becki’s House. She communicated directly and effectively with detailed plans for the day as we drank our morning coffee - she was happy to answer any of our questions. We were the first work traders Becki had hosted at her place and we think it was a really opening experience for her to allow strangers to live with her for a week. We left Monday with farm notes in our pockets and a special place in our hearts for Becki and the town of Black Mountain.
Our first work trade in East Tennessee came with record low temps and interesting table talk. We left a bit early as the work was slow and headed to Asheville, NC , where we found outlets for our never-ending energy and our next work for next week. Stay tuned as we help out on an urban farm in Black Mountian, NC.