Week 9: July 27- August 2
Prairie Sun Farm with the Rasts!
After 88 miles of 101 degree heat and strong Idaho winds, it was an understatement to say we were happy to arrive at our destination: Prairie Sun Farm in Fairfield ID. There was no question about it, Carol Rast, (our co-host and female farmer), understood our priorities perfectly as she immediately directed us to the shower. “Careful” she said, “the water is really cold since it is coming up directly from the well.” Perfect! After a cold shower and a painless morph back into a human-being-hood, we joined Carol and Jeff for ice tea on the couch.
While Carol put the finishing touches on dinner, (Jeff is the breakfast cook of the house), we heard a bit of Jeff’s story. After receiving his masters in Plant Science, he was hired by the Idaho State extension office. “When I was in undergrad,” Jeff recalled, “I had a teacher tell me that any good business person could be a good farmer. Even then that really rubbed me the wrong way.” It wasn’t until he worked for a Swedish farmer with holistic management practices that Jeff understood the immeasurable complexity of farming responsibly. Juxtaposing the responsible farming practices he learned from his European mentor with the ones he observed as an extension officer transformed him into an advocate for organic and holistic farm principles. One Saturday Jeff’s views were printed in a local newspaper; that night his manager asked to meet with him the next morning. At 8:00am that Sunday he arrived to tell Jeff he had to keep quiet about his views on chemical application and GMO seed production. He informed Jeff that University of Idaho Extension Service largest fiscal sponsor (a chemical company) had threatened to stop funding if he continued publicizing his views about organic. Jeff informed his boss, "Sorry, but I have to sleep at night." Within a year, Jeff, previously on track for tenure, was asked to leave Idaho State Extension. “There is much, much more to being a good farmer than being a good business person.”
"Dinner is ready!" Carol called from the living room as she placed a plate of glowing yellow and red tomatoes on the table.
We had hardly landed at the Rast house but it was already certain we were up for an exceedingly eye-opening and educational stay.
A tomato is a special thing, and a tomato in Fairfield Idaho is an especially special thing! We happened to stay with the only tomato producer in Fairfield, which is an especially especially special thing! A good place to enjoy the first tomato of the season me thinks.
My new favorite food to harvest: Bleu potatoes!
Best farm job ever: cleaning delicious carrots in the shade
“Growing up I didn’t like farming,” Carol explained, “But it was something I thought everybody did. Like brushing your teeth. You might not like it, but you just do it.” She describes how since she was a child growing up with Missionary parents in Mexico, she has always grown food. When her two children were still young she fed them almost completely from a 30x30 foot vegetable patch in their backyard. As she gave more and more produce to her delighted neighbors, they encouraged her to expand her farming operation.
Since 1998, on 1.5 acres just outside of Fairfield, Carol’s duty to farm has turned into the practices that sustain her.
For Carol, farming in a way that actually improves the land while providing health to herself and others is a matter of faith and humility. “I like to be a small person,” she revealed to me as we harvested rainbow carrots in the north field, “Not take up too much space. I’m simple.” Of course, this desire of hers to “be small” does not mean skinny—rather, this comment belies her humility before the land and life that she sees as gifts from God.
When the Rast family moved to Fairfield in 1998 they sent a soil sample from their yard to a lab in Oregon that specialized in analyzing microbial life. Shockingly, there was hardly any microbial life in the soil whatsoever. Within three years they brought their dirt back to life. Today Carol Rast's land is more than twice as productive as the calculated projections for her area. Carol uses organic principles but finds that term rather meaningless; she prefers to think of herself as a steward of the land, helping to keep mother earth young.
Earthly Delights Farm, Boise, ID
Doing what she does also requires another kind of faith. Being a female organic farmer in a socially conservative (read: gender unequal) place means Carol is often confronted with the imposed limitations of her gender. For example, the man she orders compost from often ignores her orders when she places them herself, “but when I call on behalf of my husband, I say, ‘Hello I am calling on behalf of my husband Jeff Rast and he would like to order 24 tons of compost,’ and they have the order here in two or three days. If I call myself, it’ll be weeks or never come at all.” With her characteristic quiet strength, Carol takes this kind of discrimination in stride because she has found clever ways through obstacles.
Carol describes herself as “simple” but beyond the simplicity of her goodness, there is nothing simple about Carol—she is thoughtful, strong, and clever—particularly about her farming practices and the flourishing business she has built from her family’s culture of growing food and her faith in land stewardship.
A warm welcome to Boise!
Casey O'Leary is one of those people who has a lot of ideas—brilliant, imaginative, connective ideas. She is also one of those people who makes her ideas happen. Everything that surrounds Casey O’Leary and Earthly Delights Farm is dynamic and alive, imbued with her zest and the aliveness that awakens through new combinations.
For example, what is a human-powered urban farm? Leave it to Casey’s unique sort of brilliance to create a system so ideally suited to her ideals and to her practical situation. Human-powered means that Casey and the Earthly Delights interns do all the transportation, of themselves, produce, and water, by bicycle! It also means the farm operates with minimum machinery, relying mostly on hand-tools, small equipment, and the sweat of hand-tended fields. The favorite saying at Earthly Delights is, “Why do it the easy way when you can do it the hard way?!”
Casey's work involves reverence and love and inclusion. Her favorite part of the day? "Riding away from the farm with a giant bike cart full of food." Her primary passions on the farm are the summer intern program and the seeds.
She loves sharing with the interns, teaching them the practical and philosophical aspects of small-scale ag. An extrovert by nature, Casey also loves the fresh perspective the interns bring. She loves that she gets to see the farm through fresh eyes with every summer season.
Seed saving is Casey's other great delight on the farm. "The seed is a metaphor," she muses, "you plant one seed and you get one thousand. In the false scarcity of our world, I see that seeds bring this rampant growth and infinite abundance. Seeds remind me that there is no reason for there to be a shortage of food." Saving seed is part of Casey's contribution to ensuring food security. And, as she cares for the seeds, she is also "caretaking the pollenators, the soil, the land..." The growth of a seed implies the flourishing growth of the many systems that surround them.
Earthly Delights Farm is a full, living commitment to small-scale, physically, eco-logically, and emotionally balanced farming that increases the strength of the land and those who tend it.
Hand-pollinating four different squash varieties
Some succeed, some don't.... That successful squash will have a LOT of seeds to save!
Casey opens the female flower to reveal the pisten (in her right hand) and pollinates it with the male part of the flower, the stamen.
The day before, Casey and her interns had taped closed female flowers and marked male flowers. Today we picked male flowers, opened female flowers, and basically impregnated the female flowers with the right genes (being careful not to let any bugs in!) to keep the genetics pure for saving seed. Photo by Adriana B. White
Squashes have male and female flowers. Here, Casey searches for the right ones for our hand-pollination spree.
"Talk Dirt to Me" Radio Boise
Buckin' Bales at Canyon Bounty Farm, Nampa ID
Meadowlark Farm, Nampa ID
I remember speaking with Sister Therese Pavilonis of Villa Maria Farm in Pennsylvania about her decision to become a nun back in 1961. She had grown up near the Sisters of Villa Maria and so saw their joy, love, and attention to others; “I wanted to be like them,” she said matter-of-factly. This simple desire to be like those women is how I feel about Janie. I don’t know how I’ll get there and I know I can’t be too forceful about it, but I just want to be like Janie.
What is it I admire so greatly about Janie? Why is she an emblem of the person I’d like to become? As I think about what my life’s contribution to social change will look like, at times I have trouble envisioning where the big-picture understanding and individual-sized ability meet to create a graceful and engaged life. Fortunately, I can now look no farther than Janie Burns of Meadowlark Farm!
One aspect is her elegant union of small-picture day-to-day joy with big-picture concerns. Meadowlark Farm is a small operation where she treats her flock of a few hundred sheep with care. She moves them to fresh pasture every few weeks and works around the clock to make sure they’re okay. She says, “My favorite part of the day is 2am in winter when we’re lambing. I get up, put on every piece of clothing I own and I go out there to check on the sheep and see if we have any new ones. It’s so cold and so quiet and when I come back in I can never get back to sleep—but it’s like, ‘Ah! I’m awake!” It is clear that Janie takes enormous pleasure in raising her animals and keeping her productive farm in healthful balance.
Along with the productive element is a distinctive human element. Some of her customers are the same since the late 1980’s when she started her agricultural adventure as a vegetable farmer. This speaks to Janie’s dependability and her ability to maintain relationships with people and with place over a long period of time. She is the kind of person you simply want to be around, listen to, and learn from.
Janie’s social considerations also move beyond the interpersonal scale. She has done policy work on the state level as a founder of the Treasure Valley Food Coalition, a group that supports “a vibrant local food economy” by aggregating studies and reports that address the role of farming in the community, creating local food economies, and launching projects like 2013’s Tomato Independence Project to free us from the Tyranny of Tasteless Tomatoes! (Did you know the average American eats about 100 pounds of tomatoes per year?)
To launch the Treasure Valley Food Coalition Janie and her collaborators had to do some serious legwork garnering the support of big ag—especially the Idaho Potato Commission, one of the most powerful political lobbies in Idaho. Janie’s ethic of inclusiveness and her gentle demeanor allow her to create agricultural coexistence between small-scale and large-scale agricultures. While she has her distinct ethic of small is beautiful and “values layered on top of commerce,” she has a savvy understanding of the current agricultural landscape and so invites everyone to the table to collaborate because “we are all part of the agricultural fabric of Idaho.” Janie’s ability to be true to her ultimate visions while being practical, smart, and diplomatic enough to incorporate powers that do not share her vision is truly admirable.
Her perspective on our current industrial food system balances her localized work, such as her own Meadowlark Farm and the Treasure Valley Food Coalition, with a structural analysis that encompasses global aspects of international trade and economic policy. At a global level she asserts that ultimately certain foreign policies such as NAFTA of 1994 must be reconstructed if we are to create a truly just food system. She is also disappointed in the political leadership of our nation today, particularly how they are “unwilling to listen to the people, they only listen to their contributors.” This echoes Denise O’Brien’s (founder of Women Food and Agriculture Network and contender for Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture) opinion that campaign reform must happen because “nothing will change if corporations can buy Washington.”
At this point, however, our society is so deeply engrained in the current workings that “our imaginations fail to see how change could happen.” Fortunately we have imaginations like Janie’s.
What I admire about Janie is how she welcomes it all—her lambs, her polenta corn, cross-country cyclist guests, her loyal customers at the farmers market and their requests that keep her products ever-changing, her loved ones, her policy work, the glacial speed of social change, the problematic people and forces that impede her vision…. With graciousness, hilarity, and trust, Janie holds everything at once and moves fluidly between them all.
Whatever shall we do with the wool? Janie's sheep are for eating, so she gives wool away to any knitter who wants it. She is slowly changing the genetics of her flock away from wool to hair sheep.
Janie's multiple pastures are full of delectable alfalfa and red clover, a sheep's dream and a soil's favorite nitrogen fixer. Depending on the size of the pasture, she rotates her flock every few weeks to a month. Meadowlark Farm is officially animal welfare approved!
While they are the main attraction, sheep aren't the only stars here at Meadowlark Farm. Janie also raises turkeys and chickens and some vegetable crops, fruit trees, and grapes that she and her partner, Lori, enjoy. Wanting a more local meat processor, Janie started a nearby USDA approved chicken processing house where she brings her meat birds. She sells direct to customers at the farmers market and oh-so-generously shares her delectable products with friends and guests! Her Merguez lamb sausage, made with pomegranate juice and a host of other secret ingredients, still lingers on the tastebuds. In fact, Lake and I have decided that it is the only food that does not obey the law of diminishing returns....
"It is challenging to include everyone in the big tent of social change, even though we need everyone."
"I ask myself and others to do more than you're already doing. Are you doing enough? What can you do? Do it."
Canyon Bounty is the organic seed farm of Beth Rasgorshek, a good friend of Janie's. On Thursday we went over there to Beth's to pick up straw bales that Janie will use to do her lambing in the winter. The work took a few hours and we were blessed with a cool morning. Leaving Beth's with our second truck and trailer-load of straw Janie called to Beth, "You'll be getting lamb soon!" Here in Nampa, these two farmers are a family of reciprocity, support, and fun!
Caitrin gets owned by a straw bale while Lake coolly drives Beth's tractor. Many hands made light work!
We were fortunate to share two dinners with the Meadowlark Farm/Canyon Bounty family here in Nampa, and we were especially delighted to celebrate Janie's birthday! On the menu: Organic Girl mixed greens and Beth's own cucumbers with Beth's homemade pesto dressing; two pizzas, one mozzarella/Beth's nectarines/bacon/arugula and one mozzarella/Janie's spicy Merguez sausage/Beth's roasted red peppers/mushroom/and red sauce made with Merguez drippings and Beth's canned tomato puree. Dessert was Beth's homemade vanilla ice cream (Janie's favorite) and carrot cake that we somehow snuck out of the Boise Co-Op without Janie noticing! It was an epic feast. We love you!
This shows the many layers of Canyon Bounty Farm. In the foreground are the straw bales ready for buckin' onto Janie's truck. It is straw--not hay--because it is only the stalk of the wheat. Some time before, Beth combined the heads of the wheat to mill into organic whole red wheat flour. The next layer of green is a row of Moon and Stars heirloom melons. The row of orange are brilliant zinnia flowers. These are seed crops, which means Beth will carefully harvest the organic seeds to sell to nurseries and seed companies all over the US. Seed crops dominate Nampa's agriculture because the dry climate is ideal for growing seed. The next row of taller green is her neighbor's conventional corn crop.
Celebrating a Meaningful Life, Happy Birthday Janie!
Canyon Bounty Farm, Nampa ID
"Farming is meditative work. I am always trying to hold and be concious of the connectedness to past and future. You know my father farmed this land."
Why are you an organic farmer?
"I acknowledge that I belong to a larger community of people. People work in my fields and eat my food, I can't use chemicals."
If you are looking for Beth, just take a minute to listen for her vivacious laugh and you will be able to track her down in no time. Above she is pouring wheatberries into her mill to make into whole flour.
“ Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and the beautiful.”
E. F. Schumacher 1973
We gathered in Casey’s backyard for a smattering of delectable food and conversation with women who have been in the agricultural circuit from three to thirty years. A quarter past my fifth drive-by our potluck buffet, Janie Burns began to recall the experiences of a young cucumber farmer in the area who was confronted by the dirth of appropriate technology available to him.
He surmised that a clever way to expand his product range would be to sell his cucumbers as local Idaho pickles. As he began researching machines to slice and dice his delicious quooks, he found only two options available. The first, an industrial $300,000 slicer that would spew out a bazillion wedges a minute, or an average kitchen mandolin. In other words, for this farmer, there was nothing.
This prevailing circumstance has been visible on small farms since day one of our journey. It is clear that nothing can be achieved for small-scale food producers if dissemination of technology continues to be top-down, energy intensive, and chemically enhanced. There is a need for designers, farmers, and researchers to share an equal position at the table to ensure sustainable agricultural production does not remain disadvantaged. As it is, distribution infrastructure and processing facilities are generally created on the mega and extra-mega scale which exclude the possibility for local development through entrepreneurship that focuses on creating specialty and value added products or through the use of innovative marketing techniques to reconnect consumers and producers. The departure from local food economy and infrastructure is part of our very recent history; Janie Burns recalls eight flourmills in the Boise area while she was growing up despite their present state of extinction. The beneficial element of this recent transformation is that the local knowledge of what was remains in the community. And what more, is the fortitude and determination of those working to reestablish local food economy value chains.
Beth Rasgorshek and Janie Burns are determined to piece back together the local mill infrastructure for the Treasure Valley and Canyon County areas (These two are most definitely responsible for the name ‘Treasure Valley’ as they are mega-gems)! Beth, an organic seed and vegetable farmer in the Treasure Valley is privileged in that she owns a slew of cultivating equipment passed down by her father or scavenged in the surrounding area. Because of the 150 day growing season and dry desert climate, Beth’s area is very conducive for seed production and has been historically. She explained, “Seed crops have dominated the agricultural area here so the equipment is available for seed cleaning.” Although the technical knowledge of her father is a huge asset in repairing and maintaining old machines, it’s not everything Beth explained, “You need a lot of WD-40, sweat and tears to bring something back to life.” While tools that fit the scale and ethics of small-scale farmers are powerful resources, the availability of markets, input suppliers and research are other essential pieces of the puzzle.
The next step in re-localizing a flourmill for the area is to determine whether or not there is a great enough demand in Southwestern/Central Idaho to sustain a new mill. Currently, local bakeries are not asking for whole-grain, but perhaps a combination of bakeries and home bakers would compose a substantial market. But, if the whole grains grown in the Treasure Valley are intended to live out the remainder of their lives as loaves of bread, well then they better taste delicious, which raises yet another barrier.
“Food is my passion, everything I do around this farm is about food, even if it’s a seed. It’s all about taste!” exclaimed Beth. Which is why it is especially aggravating to her that the expertise in the land grant universities is not being utilized to look back at grain varietals to further understand how cross breeding will impact protein levels and flavor. The research that is being carried out in land grant universities tends to focus on conventional seed for industrial farms. The seed and research generated is unserviceable for a farmer like Beth however because conventional wheat-berry protein levels are dependent on excessive nitrogen inputs. While she can achieve high protein levels by planting in a freshly cover cropped bed, the nitrogen fixed in the soil from her alfalfa is precious and not best used for a wheat crop. “Organic farmers need a seed bread in their system, but the Ag research isn’t there.”
A redistribution of value along the food supply chain means a redistribution of collective responsibility for the total life cycle of our food. A local flourmill then becomes an emblematic symbol of community health, local knowledge, strategic partnerships, biological diversity and local sovereignty over food production systems. The roots of the appropriate technology movement are entangled with Schumacher’s vision of low-tech, low cost, and easy to repair and build machinery that would help elevate people out of poverty. Today, the availability of appropriate technology and local food value chains help to elevate communities from a corporate food chain bent on profit rather than health, nutrition, or flavor. To reestablish local networks of food production is to reclaim one’s land, body, community and culture from the echelons of corporate food.
Lindsay Schramm and Elisa Clark's radio show, Talk Dirt to Me spans the conversational gammit from self-reliance to gardening. They were kind enough to host us on their show and gave us the coolest shirts ever! We are proud to represent the North End Nursey and Talk Dirt to Me from Boise to San Francisco! Thank you both!
On the back of Beth's Organic Whole Wheat Flour labels is the following bit of wisdom that encapsulates her mindful sensibilities,
"From the moment you put a piece of bread in your mouth, you are part of the world. Who grew the wheat? Who made the bread? Where did it come from? You are in a relationship with all who brought it to the table.
We are least separate and most in common when we eat and drink." --Thomas Merton
Casey’s creativity and love of people also created Weed Dating! A play on “Speed Dating,” Weed Dating pairs people for three minutes to weed together and hopefully make a love connection! This is the kind of new, lively combination that flows out of Casey’s vibrant mind to manifest throughout Earthly Delights. These ideas epitomize the creative "edge" that farmers need to make their operations profitable nowadays. Casey's Weed Dating, intern program, land use strategy, and seed sales all help make Earthly Delights a sustainable, profitable, and wildly fun endeavor.
Earthly Delights is spread over multiple backyards in a Boise neighborhood. She has handshake agreements with the landowners that she will care for their land and grow organic seed and vegetable crops free of charge. As she does not own her farm’s land, a certain impermanent quality pervades the Farm. On one level this makes her uncomfortable and the actual productive spaces of Earthly Delights have changed over time, but on the other hand it speaks to her commitment to transformation: she is working within the bounds of what is available in the urban context.
Casey’s refreshing lightness of humor and playful spirit balances her deep philosophical thinking. Indeed, Casey is one of the only farmers we’ve visited for whom femininity enters explicitly into the nature, character, and practices of her farm. “This is beautiful work,” she tells us as we sit around the table at Earthly Delights, “I’ve been noting the ‘femininity’ of my farm model lately with fascination and a bit of shyness… We are always moving forward, but never straight. We are using our hands, not a machine. We are nurturing rather than dominating the land with lots of diversity on a small scale, full of flowers and pollinators. It’s also a feminine concept to resist the pressure to expand, to be okay with what you have.”