I usually take a giant chill pill the months of January and February (ok, and maybe March too). I have never lived in a place without blizzards and tear-inducing wind chills. While that might be sad to folks who prefer equatorial breezes, I’ve generally enjoyed the cold times of the year as a season of rest and contemplation. I have gotten my usual dose of winter weather here in Vermont with several days bottoming out at 20 degrees below zero (F, not C), but the whole slow-down-sleep-more thing is taking a back burner.
Since arriving at Yestermorrow (see my first post here), I’ve jumped into a fervor of activity both in the kitchen at the school and in planning the garden I’ll be responsible for growing this summer. Reading is usually my favorite way to learn, but there are so many people in this valley who are awesome gardeners and farmers that it would be stupid to stay wormed into my books - so I've headed out to meet them. Robin, the first person I met with, introduced me to a book that has since been recommended to me over and over, The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible by Ed Smith. I read Eliot Coleman before I got to Yestermorrow but realized as I started to plan the garden that I needed something a bit more beginner-friendly. My favorite part of the Bible? It has pictures of all the bugs I hear about but couldn’t identify if I needed to. It’s the first time I’ve seen the bug matched with the name.
Another Robin I met grows all of the vegetables for her family for the entire year; her deep freeze was still packed with produce when she opened it for me in early February. Quayl was next on my list, and is an enormously generous woman who gardens for her family and her workplace. She helped to quell some of my failure fears by assuring me that even though some things will flop, seeds really do want to grow. I went up to an off-the-grid house in the mountains to talk with Buzz as he showed me around his living machine, the lemons and tomatoes growing in his greenhouse, and infected me with his energetic optimism. Incidentally, he also helped me redesign the compost system at Yestermorrow. Dave and Nancy invited me into their yurt on a bitterly cold night where they laid out the plans and maps from their garden for the past five years or so, and showed me how they have expanded it and improved it from when they started.
These are just a few of the smart, dedicated growers with whom I’ve met. It’s been hugely inspiring and also slightly bewildering. I have soaked up the tips and tricks and methods all of these successful growers have used and have seen that they are all…different. There is no one way; there are several. And while some people are pretty adamant that their way is best, I think it’s the patient adaptability of plants to thrive amidst the human puttering that is the most amazing piece of the whole picture.
Plans for the garden are just about in place; we’ll see how closely all of this planning aligns with reality once the ground gets soft. The first trial run of onion starts are showing their little green heads, and while it would be hard for me to be more excited about it, I know that this beginning is quite modest and the tiniest tip of a gigantic iceberg.
Case in point: in mid-February, I attended the annual winter conference of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. I think that the kids at the children’s conference knew more about gardening than I did. True, I was surrounded by a select group of the population, but it seems like people in Vermont pop out of the womb knowing about seed propagation, wildcrafting and effective chicken tractor designs. I was blown away by the concentrated amount of in-depth knowledge at the conference. One of the events I was most excited for was Eliot Coleman’s keynote address, but it ended up actually being quite underwhelming in comparison to some of the other sessions and speeches. I can’t rave forever, but here are the two things that really knocked my socks off:
Hardwick, VT. Haven’t heard of this teeny tiny town? I’d start paying attention (hey, New York Times and NPR have been). After all of the conference attendees sang “Tis a Gift to be Simple” together, energy ball Andrew Meyer took the stage to share how he and a group of fellow visionaries are working to build a local, healthy 21st century food system. The number of businesses and projects that have been created in this town of just over 3,000 people is impressive, especially since it has not been known even locally as much aside from “hardscrabble” for quite a while. The Eco-Industrial Park, High Mowing Seeds, Vermont Soy, Claire’s Restaurant, and Pete’s Greens are just a few. And this doesn’t count the non-food businesses that have been created from food byproducts, like Meyers’ Vermont Natural Coatings, which uses whey to create a safer wood finish.
The brainchild stitching all of this activity together is another Meyer creation, the nonprofit Center for an Agricultural Economy. As part of his presentation, he showed a pyramid in which “Industrial Agriculture” sat at the center, ringed on all sides by the words cheap energy, stable climate, and surplus water. These have powered industrial ag, he said, and are weakening if not crumbling with astonishing speed. But he didn’t linger here; he moved into his and his community’s work and never looked back. The new approach he envisions is powered by collaboration, partnerships and networks to reduce duplication, capitalize on resources and pool expertise. “The U.S. showed the world how to break a food system first. Now we need to lead in rebuilding healthy ones,” he said. Aside from the breath of fresh air his persona and enthusiasm gives, it was absolutely wonderful to hear a speech on reinventing the food system that focused almost entirely on practical, community-based solutions instead of the many “call for action” speeches I’ve heard that quickly devolve into a depressing sermon on how broken and hopeless things are.
Next: Essex Farm. I attended this session because of the title, I admit. It was called “Everything but Sushi: A Full-Diet, Year-Round CSA.” Note: Essex Farm is in upstate New York, not in the typical climate where it’s easy to grow food year-round. Intriguing, no? I had to see what these farmers, Kristin and Mark, had to say. Turns out full-diet and year-round are just two of their five tag lines, but we’ll start there. A share for a year is $2,800 per person, unless you’re under 13 and then it’s free. By full diet, they mean a diet that is interesting, nutritious, and complete for themselves and their customers. They produce pastured beef, poultry and pork, dairy, eggs, some fruits, grains, dried beans, corn, maple syrup, veggies and herbs (oh, and flowers). Year-round is self explanatory, but their rationale for doing such a thing was that the pace stays steadier throughout the year, rather than ramping up in spring to a full-scream summer and then a straggling fall for a winter rest period.
The other three tag lines are horse-powered, free choice, and a membership farm, instead of a CSA. Says Mark, the male half of the duo, “Calling yourself a CSA puts you in the movement and that puts us out of reach for the people we want to reach in our community. The word membership is self-explanatory and inclusive.” The free choice tag means that they don’t limit what members can take. People can come and pick what they want for the week, taking more if they need it. Some management is needed at pickup. Customers are pointed to items they can take extra of to put up for winter, and maple syrup is limited to a gallon per person per year.
For the first three years, they ran the farm by themselves. Seriously. They now have employees to help them do the work and are continuing to expand the food choices; with 500 acres of land, there’s a lot they can choose to delve into. Their dedication and grit was visceral and moving, but I think the philosophy that underscores their work was just as impressive. The bottom line for Kristin and Mark? Generosity and abundance. They love their model because they get their money up front for the year and can then be disassociated from the monetary value of what they grow and produce. When they have extra, Mark goes into the center of their small town and hands bags of food out to passerby. Sure, it’s good marketing, but judging from their enthusiasm it’s incredibly freeing for them. I can’t do their whole story justice. Kristin has written a snippet of it here, but I heard from her after the session that she has a book in the works.
Phew. For now, I’ll stick with my little herb garden and 4,300 square feet of vegetable garden. It’s still covered in snow and will be for a while, but dear ground, do I have plans for you.
Picture of Essex Farm courtesy of Kristin Kimball.