Though I've lived in this town through twelve summers now, I've only been a faithful farmers-market groupie for the past four or five. I'm not entirely sure why it took me so long to spend my Saturday mornings hiking downtown, hobnobbing with the farmers, and carrying home lots of fresh produce for the week and for the winter. (I'll attribute it to a few years of having my own sizable garden and, otherwise, to sheer laziness.)
Once I did start visiting the market, though, I started talking to the farmers who returned week after week. The first farmer with whom I made that friendly connection, talking about her fresh organic produce and swapping recipes, was Elee Barton, owner of Barton Organic Farm outside of Loudonville, Ohio (half an hour down the road).
From the beginning, Elee shared information about organic certification and talked eloquently about the stunning varieties of beans, greens, and other vegetables and fruits that she brought to market. Part of my enjoyment in talking with her came from the recognition of her kitchen skills -- she bakes very tasty cakes and pies that have inspired me more than once -- and the appreciation of how her kitchen work and her farm work both inform and enhance the other. If I had any questions about how to use some unusual vegetable, she could always tell me about the flavor and her favored cooking methods.
For the past year or more, I've wanted to visit and work with Elee on her farm so that I could get a better idea of what organic farming entails, and over the Labor Day weekend, I finally had my opportunity.
I drove back into the woods on a bumpy gravel path, surrounded by woods, weeds, and wildflowers as well as clear blue skies and the peaceful sounds of songbirds and insects. Though the Barton farm is certified organic over all 50 acres (including the woods), Elee only farms 3 of them, and since she works by herself, she's learned to work with nature and to accept a certain number of weeds in order to welcome the birds, bees, and insects that benefit her crops.
As she led me around the farm, she showed me the large berry field (rows and rows of raspberry canes), the sheds where the poultry nest (hens and ducks and geese), the herb garden interspersed with vivid zinnias and cosmos, and this year's failed corn crop. We spent a great deal of time wandering around the raised beds and cold frames where the bulk of her produce is grown: greens such as spinach, kale, lettuce, radicchio; broccoli; at least four varieties of beans; onions and garlic; asparagus; and the delicate edible flowers that go into her salad mixes.
Elee decided to explore organic certification in 1999 after selling her produce to local natural foods stores, and she found that her own practices aligned well enough with the rules for organics to earn her certification in 2000. While she admitted that organic farming is hard work because "nature always wins," she also emphasized that since this is how we all used to raise our food, it's not an impossible task.
In following those traditional farming methods, Elee has become a devoted seed saver. Over the years, she has kept a journal tracking her plantings and the results, as well as her decisions on which seeds to save and how that affects the next year's crop. Some of her findings may strike some as unconventional, but her experience with particular crops on this particular land has borne fruit. Having learned that some vegetables have multiple "sexes" (like spinach and other greens) and require the different sexes to intermingle to get the best produce, she has watched other vegetables over the years to track similar differences, using that recorded experience to guide her into picking the best seeds to save for the following year. She pointed out these differences with the broccoli, showing how some plants produced many small seed pods on long stems, while others spent more energy in showy flowers but few seeds.
Because of this interest in saving seeds, Elee has contracted with Seeds of Change over the past four years both to provide and to test seeds for organic gardeners and farmers. The extra work needed to gather the high-quality seeds required by the company isn't always worth it: she sowed the corn field twice (by hand) and still failed to get any crop but weeds due to the ups and downs of this summer's weather. Still, she holds fast to the trial-and-error method of saving seeds because it works for her, and she expressed interest in offering organic seeds to some of her fellow organic farmers in the area in future, keeping locally tested varieties in the region.
As I helped Elee harvest three varieties of bean seeds, the pods left dangling on the vine until withered and dry, I had the chance both to relive some of my own gardening memories and to sense a deep agreement with her firmly stated belief that "there's a purpose to everything" on this farm. The beans, laid out in neat beds, looked weedy at this point in the year, but one variety continued to produce fresh pods as the shade from the weeds gave them the extra protection they needed. The older bean plants, further down the row, drew the bulk of the fuzzy yellow bean beetles, and as we stripped the stalks of seed pods, Elee noted that she'd be able to take care of most of the infestation once she pulled the plants.
The other part of my visit was spent in the commercial kitchen that Elee's husband Virgil (who restores historic buildings for a living) built for her. Since she spends a good deal of time throughout the year catering weddings and other celebrations, she uses this large kitchen, equipped with the requisite triple sink, double refrigerator, large freezer, and ample work space. She's working on organic certification for this facility as well and figures she's about halfway there, so she has visions of being able to offer organic catering in the future. She talked, too, about the possibility of offering classes in food preservation in this space, a dream near and dear to my own heart as well. (What I could do with a kitchen like that...!)
My visit to the Barton farm did absolutely nothing to quell my secret dream to give over the rest of my life to organic farming, even with the frustrations Elee expressed over the farmers market and the task of trying to educate people about organic certification. "Don't you want to eat the healthiest food you can?" she asked, wondering how many times she would have to explain that. The conversation reminded me of my recent reading, "Fields of Plenty," in which farmer Michael Ableman visited other farmers across the country and found his own re-commitment to organic farming in the truest sense:
Figuring out how to feed people sustainably is a messy process of unraveling old ideas and experimenting with new ones. To conclude that, once chemicals are replaced with steer manure, the job is done misses the opportunity to explore a wider range of social, ecological, personal, and political possibilities tied to our food system and the way we eat.
A more sustainable food system is inevitably decentralized. It should take advantage of local knowledge and solve local problems, and it must be accessible, humane, ecologically responsible, and biologically and culturally diverse. That means rethinking how our society participates in the food system, where food is produced and by whom, and what scale it is grown on (p.220).
Having seen Elee's farm and how everything seems to have its place, working in tandem with the rest of the plants and animals found there, I feel more confident that we can find sustainable ways to produce food, especially if we look to our local experts whose work is based on a combination of tradition and hard-earned, well-recorded experience. They're the ones who are saving the seeds, literally and metaphorically, to grow our future... and I can't thank them enough.