Aug 12, 2013

Another Blast From the Past - Doug Jones

Stumbled across this great little interview with Doug Jones, a farmer whose farm I worked on long ago (Birdsfoot Farm) and who was a really important inspiration for me; it's great to find out that he's still going strong!
Interview with Doug Jones

And here's a video of Doug Jones, farmer, in the flesh!
Video of Doug Jones on his farm

Sep 25, 2011

My Neighbor, My Community Farm

I live next door to the best neighbors anyone like me could hope for. My neighbors are not only organic farmers, they are pioneers in the local food movement. Mark Burnett and his partner Kathi have been involved in organic farming for many years. Mark, who calls himself "Vegetableman", was also involved in putting together the very first CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) efforts in the country. Kathi works at the best nursery in Napa. Together they run an organic farming effort that breaks the mold.

Here in the Napa Vally, land is incredibly precious and valuable. An acre of land on the productive valley floor sells in the millions - I'm not sure how many millions but it doesn't matter. Land that far out of reach for most of us normal people might as well be priced in the gazillions.

Mark and Kathi are a part of us normal people, who can't afford to buy prime agricultural land in Napa. Instead, they design gardens for interested growers all over the valley. Now, there is a network of growing plots all throughout the Napa Valley that are in food production. Some plots are right here in the city of Napa, and others are scattered around, up and down the valley. Some are at high elevations and some are on the valley floor. Mark manages them, and has been partnering with other farmers who are together forming a patchwork of organic food growing, tucked in here and there amongst all the grape vines.

Mark has been working for a long time on perfecting his techniques and methods, and he has a very successful system now that he employs and teaches. He's found specific varieties that do well in our climate and has set up gardens that produce a continuous stream of harvest. We are so blessed with our climate which allows us to grow all year, with just a little help during the cool wet winters. Our biggest challenge is really our dry summers. But Mark has worked out a system for that as well, finding ways to grow while at the same time minimizing the need to irrigate. He rotates everything through and uses companion planting, mulching, and many other techniques to keep his organic produce coming in, with minimal pests, diseases, or fussing. He's also got 400 fruit trees planted in his gardens throughout the valley. He is the only farmer in the area that I know who gets avocados from his trees here - normally, this only happens further south.

Mark and Kathi are looking for more partners. When you partner with them, they teach you their system and bring you into the fold, working with you and marketing your produce. They sell to the public in the same way that a CSA does - you pay your fee and get your box of produce every week. But they are calling it a CBA - Community Based Agriculture - because all of the food is grown locally.

I feel incredibly lucky and privileged to be Mark and Kathi's neighbor, because I get a front row seat to something that is so innovative and so dear to my heart.

You can find out more information about their system of farming here:

Jun 11, 2011

Blast from the Past

Wow, who wouda thunk it would be possible to find something so obscure, antiquated, and un-tech, on the innernyet? Sunday surfing, I bumped into info & images about Birdsfoot Farm, of all things.

This is an organic farm in upstate New York, actually an "intentional community" that began as a commune in the '70s but morphed into other things over the years, that I worked and lived on many years ago.

At the time, I was in college; my parents had ran out of money and didn't tell me - yes, I was privileged enough to be going to a private university that cost big bucks, and I was clueless enough to expect that of course I would just go... however, my rude awakening into reality happened while I was standing in line to register for classes - oops, parents didn't pay the bill. Oh well.

I remembered seeing a poster at my local food co-op advertising apprenticeships on some farms further north, so, being interested and having already worked on a farm before, I decided to check it out.

Myself and some other college students made the trip north together to take a tour of all the participating farms, and over the course of a week of visiting, the farms and the students selected each other. I chose Birdsfoot because it seemed the most diverse - there were about 5 of us who interned at Birdsfoot together, all of us taking leave from college.

The other farms were much smaller; they were mostly homesteads rather than farms. One was run by a family, a husband and wife with 2 kids, whose first house they had built together had burned down, and they lost a child in the fire. I will never forget them. They had another child and built another house, by themselves. They farmed with oxen, didn't bale their hay but pulled it into the barn in giant piles on a flat tarp sort of contraption, using the oxen. The dad was literally just like how I imagined Paul Bunyan; a mountain of a man, who could do anything, it seemed. He made all his own tools in his blacksmith shop. He did all the heavy work on their house; built the foundation, felled all the logs. Their house was beautiful, made from timber from their land, and every square inch of it was like a beautiful sculpture. It was small by any standards, but easy to keep warm in the harsh north country winters. They had a windmill and batteries to store energy. They raised oxen, and always had at least 3 teams - one seasoned and working, one in training, and one set of youngsters. I'll never forget the chance I got to try leading the seasoned team, walking along behind these beasts who worked so well together, yelling "haw" and "gee", watching them turn together, the one on the inside stepping slower, the outside one faster... and I'll never forget, home at Christmas and telling my suburban friends about all this, and they didn't believe me, they thought I was making it all up. It was a completely different world.

Another place was run by a woman, a NYC escapee, who made all the pots and pans, plates, cups, blankets, many of her clothes. She was a potter and a weaver, and had built her house with a friend. Like the others in the community, her house was small, efficient, beautifully built, cozy. I remember that she kept the "new yorker" magazine next to her composting toilet. That was the first composting toilet I had ever encountered, and I was pleasantly surprised that it didn't smell at all.

And there was a dairy farm run by a couple with one child who worked harder than any of the other farmers, who got up in the dark every day to milk, whose 12 year old son did his chores willingly and was so polite and intelligent and who beat me at chess.

And the family that was the most hard-core, who had no road or driveway to their house, who had no phone - everything had to be hiked in through the woods, and you had to go visit them in order to talk to them.

The landscape was a bit scrappy, having been farmed and logged for decades. Most heated their homes with firewood. Beautiful, graceful, gigantic, dead elms dotted the land between open fields. Gently rolling hills were covered with neat patchworks of planted fields, interspersed with scrubby lowlands and bits of left over forest. Some farms were junky and some houses were covered in tar paper. Some houses had windows that were glazed with clear plastic in the winter. The poorer of the Amish also made their homes in this country. They call it the "north country" and it has long, very cold winters, and a short growing season.

My adopted community was one of "back to the land" people who helped each other survive. They were part of a trend that had started back in the late '60s and early '70s, when "back to the land" people moved into northern New York State, where land was very cheap. Most were from elsewhere - the suburbs or cities - and had to learn everything the hard way. Some didn't last, but many stayed, and formed the community which is strong to this day, in the face of the vast majority of these experiments of the time having died out by now.

It was like nothing I've ever experienced before or since. Living this way involved hard physical work, and it was very intimate - everyone depended upon each other for everything - getting work done, being social, cooking meals, political activism, childcare, making music. We got together, all the farms, a few times - to help each other get the hay in during high summer, to help someone put up a house in one day, to have a social gathering with all ages, making our own music, and literally enjoying the fruits and veggies of our labor.

My most cherished memory; it was just after Thanksgiving and many had come out to help put up a house. I will never forget this. The farmer had already cut, milled, and assembled the timber framing, white pine from his own land. Giant stout posts and beams held together with notches and pegs, no nails. We hoisted these supports up and put in cross beams and joists and we framed windows and doorways, put it all up in a day and got the roof on, all farmers helping each other with a huge feast in the middle of the day, hard work in the cold and I was in heaven and I'll never forget it. It was just like in that movie "Witness", but without the funny hats. But it was better, because these were people that I knew and had worked along side, people from the farm community that helped each other. It was true community and it was amazing.

All of this was not only a life changing experience, but it turned out to be the best way for me to afford to eventually finish college, since I made literally no money to speak of while on the farm ($5 per week). I was able to go back and finish up with every kind of financial aid and loan and grant and work study program available, after declaring my financial independence from my parents.

At Birdsfoot Farm, the other college students that I interned with were much more politically aware than I was at the time, and the people who made Birdsfoot their home were very radical. I stayed for about a year, learned to do everything, and became very politicized. We read "The Nation" everyday and had long political discussions while out working in the fields, in the sun half naked, harvesting, planting, chopping wood in winter.

Doug Jones, one of the original founders of the farm, was a Harvard drop out, and was the driving force on the farm. He made it into the envy of farmers all over the area, because of it's soil, which was rich and fluffy and amazing. We only shoveled uphill. We only planted when it was raining. We fed plants with manure and manure tea. We composted everything, and did rotational and companion planting, into deep double-dug raised beds. Doug would travel during the draggy winter months to visit other organic farmers in the southern hemisphere, where it was warm, and bring back seeds to try out. He planted a collection of amaranth that was incredible; it flowered with giant seed heads in deep jewel tones of purple, magenta, and red, and shaped like heavy fuzzy convoluted brains and strange contorted tentacles. He grew mutant giant tomatoes from Mexico which were deeply folded and striped red and yellow, and just so many different types of plants and varieties that I had never seen before. Doug had created an underground tunnel for warming early spring plants, which had a wood stove at one end, and a chimney at the other. He kept the wood stove going constantly in the early spring, keeping seedlings above warm. He was the most serious farmer I had ever met.

Birdsfoot Farm doesn't even have a web site, and its the sort of place that may never have one, or email, or a fax machine... so it was a happy surprise to stumble upon these images... Now I'll have to dig through my old photos, scan and post them...

I'm so happy to have found anything at all about Birdsfoot on the internet and to find out that it still exists and is thriving. They're still farming organically, and they started a school.

Back then we were weirdos, but now organic is gourmet. I feel so thankful to have had the experience I did, although it makes me sad for what I see lacking in much of modern life. Its not only living out in the boonies and being so healthy and doing physical work rather than working out in a gym, and so many other things, that were a part of it. I think the most important part is the intimacy of being responsible for each other, literally, for survival. That is so lacking for most people these days.

Here is an audio interview as well...

ps. Apparently there is now a web site for Birdsfoot Farm!

Jun 9, 2011

Fruit Geek

Went to a grafting clinic on Saturday which was amazing! It was put together by the local chapter of the "California Rare Fruit Growers Society" and was hosted at a member's house outside of Sebastopol. About 30 people were there, mostly old farmers, and I was in heaven.

The host gave a talk and demonstrated a few different grafting techniques, and everyone introduced themselves - all either small farmers/growers and home gardeners - all seriously crazed fruit geeks. The host provided apple root stock and I had brought my own
root stock too, plus
my scions (fruit wood branches for grafting) that I had gotten at the previous month's scion exchange .

So I grafted everything and now have 6 apple, 2 pear, 1 peach, and I have more peach & pear scions so I need to get more stock for them. I plan to group them together in the same hole - this is a technique for people with a small amount of space - so it will sort of seem like 1 tree but with multiple trunks. They don't compete with each other too much if they're all on the same rootstock. I'll have fruit coming in throughout the year with the different varieties I've grafted. I was going to try doing multi-grafts onto one stock but didn't realize that I can't really do it that way with the stock that I bought online - when it arrived it has only one trunk so I can only make one graft per stock. But, if any of them don't make it I can always just put more scions on the branches of whatever tree survives and that way still end up with many varieties.
This is just a start - I have space for more trees so I'm thinking about cherries, kaffir lime, currant, weeping santa rosa plum (santa rosa plums are a staple for this area), and then we'll see what space I have left for more. In between the trees I plan to put in strawberries and maybe blueberries, if I can find good varieties that do well in this climate.

Anyhow, I walked the host's property with him as he went around cutting off scions from his trees,
so I've got some very special and rare varieties that are hard to find. I love this group of old farmers - they told some great stories about their fathers and grandfathers, about how they came to the land they have now, and what they've done with it. Farmers are geeks at heart!
This one old guy had been a machinist but now he's retired and a total fruit geek. He brought grafting knives he had made from applewood and machinist blades, etc. He made labels from cutting up soda cans, he was giving these out to everybody. All the old farmers were like this - wanting to show you how to graft and insisting that you take their
doodads and root stock for free.

I love old farmers.

Jan 26, 2010

Big Table Farm

This is the first farm to be documented for this project. I interviewed Clare Carver by phone and email, and hope to visit the farm sometime soon. It was a privilege to speak with Clare, and I thank her for generously taking the time out of her busy schedule to answer my questions.

The most important bit of information she wanted to share was that, in farming, there isn't one solution - it all depends upon your goals; what do you want to do, what is the purpose of your farm, what are your desires. And all else follows from there. There are many solutions, which grow out of the context of one's farm. This idea resonates with my own farming experience. And this is why I think farmers are truly some of our most unsung heroes and quiet geniuses. They possess rare gifts; visualizing, orchestrating, and seeing the big picture as well as the details.

Clare and her husband Brian moved from Napa, Ca, to Oregon, where they purchased a 70 acre homestead. On their farm they are practicing rotational grazing - "grass farming", as it is described by Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms. Rotational grazing is all about the grass, the pasture. Animals are moved onto the pasture and off again, in a continual dance that cycles health through the system. Animals eat, grass gets fertilized, soil is built. As Michael Pollan describes in "The Omnivore's Dilemma", this relationship between pasture and animals does not result in a zero sum game; rather, as the animals benefit, so does the soil, which increases it's health and fertility by being grazed. Even though so much is harvested off this land, the soil does not loose; instead, it gains.

At their farm, Clare and Brian raise layers, broilers, pigs, and more recently, steer. They are also planting a vineyard and grow a vegetable garden. Clare is learning to work their horses on the land. She tells me that it has taken these last three years to get up and running; to get pastures in shape, work out the fencing and animal moving, establish a garden and structures, and so on.

Can anyone start a farm? Yes, assuming you can afford some land. It will of course depend on your resources and what the market for land is like in the area in which you are looking. Clare says they used a Realtor to find their property, but that's only a small piece of the pie - the key is to know what you want to use the land for and then hire experts in that area to help you asses it's application. In the case of Big Table Farm, they wanted to plant vineyard, so they had a soil expert come out and do analysis on the hillside, and a vineyard consultant come out and talk about overall viability. They also had water guy come out and look at the low land for development into pasture for the animals. Her advice is to look at what's been planted there, how the land was used in the past, and how that translates to what you want. For instance, if you are interested in having animals, think about fencing; what type of fencing is there, will it work for what you want, and so on. Don't under estimate any infrastructure already in place on a piece of land. Find out if there irrigation, water rights, and so on. You need to know what you want for your farm BEFORE you look for the land.

Big Table Farm is situated in a progressive community in the Portland area where there are lots of organic eaters and organic farmers. It seems an ideal place with a ready market of appreciative customers, who are not only happy to pick out their own bird or a pig for their table, but to know the animal will be raised and readied in the most humane way possible. My greatest hope is that more people do what Big Table Farm is doing, so that we can keep moving away from industrial systems with its monocultures and poisons, and toward diversity and health for ourselves and our earth.

Here's a great video of Clare and Brian on their farm!

Big Table Farm, Oregon from Outstanding in the Field on Vimeo.

Jan 6, 2010


In this blog I will be documenting new farming trends across the country, beginning with my local area and progressing outward from there. I will also write about my own efforts towards living more sustainably and improving my wee bit of land.

It is my intention to eventually have my own small farm / homestead someday, however, since it's a bit late in the game for me, I realize that might not ever happen, so I'm doing all I can with what I have, while I dream.

I am immensely inspired by what is happening at farms such as Polyface and others. I come to this originally from a roundabout way, having read Wendell Berry's "The Unsettling of America" when I was 17 years old, when it blew my young mind. Since then I have lived and worked on a number of different farms and homesteads, so I will be writing about these experiences as well.

When I can, I will visit farms and homesteads and I will record what I find; places where people are experimenting and discovering new ways of doing things; applying old and new methods; living in close harmony with nature; restoring and healing the environment; sequestering carbon; raising plants and animals in healthy and respectful ways; orchestrating and mimicking the cycles of nature; reducing waste; and more.

I will write, photograph, and record these stories to share. And I hope to have the privilege of living my dream eventually, to find my own scratch of earth and create my own small paradise upon it.