Wednesday, August 26, 2009

I told you I would!

There's a first time for everything. After more than two weeks of living at the farmhouse, I finally did something resembling FARMING today!

This last an hour or two, and then degenerated into a contest to see who could throw an over-ripe zucchini the farthest. For more pictures and narrative, see the ATFP blog.

After all that was over -- another first. While preparing a refreshing cucumber-cantelope-yogurt-mint-honey-dill beverage, I snuck a sliver of cucumber, and realized it was still warm from growing and being in the sun.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

green moment

One thing that I love about my new home and housemates (and come to think of it, pretty much everyone I've lived with in the last three years, but hey, I've heard there are people who don't live like this) is our collective efforts to live a bit greener/lighter/more sustainably. Part of our vision for this farmhouse is for it and how we live in it to encourage other people to make some green lifestyle changes of their own. To this end, we've been making a lot of signs lately...

We have a sign about recycling:

We have a sign about composting:

We have a sign telling you what vegetable scraps to save so I can make soup stock with them before composting them:

We have a chore wheel (nothing particularly eco-friendly about it, I just made it this evening and thought it was cute):

And then there's this one:

This afternoon I overheard a funny interaction around this particular instruction. Julie, the ATFP collective spiritual director, and her family have been around the house a bunch in the last few days getting the house ready for the first Sunday evening worship service. On the way to the bathroom, Julie's four-year-old daughter anxiously asked, "Is there going to be pee in the potty already? I don't want to go!"

Thinking about it, "if it's yellow let it mellow..." is really quite a paradigm shift for anyone recently potty trained. Conserving resources means re-thinking some of the cleanliness rules of childhood for me too...fewer showers, anyone?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

so I thought I'd be spending a year in D.C....

[Note: This post is identical to one I just did on the Abundant Table Farm Project blog which is where you can meet my four wonderful housemates/sisters/friends, and where we plan to document our farming adventure!]

While I won’t start the story of what brought me to the Abundant Table centuries ago, it does begin on the other side of the world. After growing up in Nairobi, Kenya and three years at Wheaton College outside of Chicago I chose to spend six months doing interning in Phnom Penh, Cambodia as part of my major in International Relations. Though the focus of my work was on land rights and non-violent resistance to forced evictions, I found situations closer to home captured my attention as I began to understand the dynamics of the Cambodian community I lived in. My host family were garment factory workers in a poorer neighborhood sandwiched between two sweatshops. Systems of production and consumption and the infrastructure that supports them that had been largely invisible to me growing up in more affluent neighborhoods became very obvious. I started to think much more about where things came from (did I really want to eat the morning glory picked in the contaminated marsh behind our neighborhood?) and where they went (what would I throw away when I knew the trash bag was tied up and thrown in the pond in the center of the community?) My new neighbors and I dealt daily with the consequences of not only these local systems, but also a supply chain that stretched thousands of miles – back to my neighborhood in Chicago and countless other U.S. communities. The factories that the women I lived with worked in were producing clothing for stores in the U.S. like Gap and Old Navy where I had once shopped.

While the factories did provide jobs with relatively decent conditions and brought economic growth, it came at a significant price. The chemicals emitted from the factory behind my house were eating through our metal roof, and many of my friends and neighbors began experiencing unemployment as soon as the U.S. recession again. As I returned to the U.S. for my final semester at Wheaton, awareness of the unsustainable relationships between producer communities such as the one Cambodia and consumers in my Chicago suburb guided the lifestyle choices I hoped to make after graduation, but had little impact on my post-graduation job search initially. Trying to eat locally/seasonally, fostering face-to-face relationships between producers and consumers, living mindfully of my environmental impact, and being a part of a spiritual community committed to social justice were things I hoped to fit around work in research or advocacy in Washington, D.C. When the Abundant Table Farm Project description came my way, I was caught off-guard by the opportunity to take 11 months to focus on those themes. At first, spending a year working on an organic farm/CSA in southern California was so different from what I expected to be doing that I couldn’t even bring myself to read the entire internship description. It sounded too good to be true, a possibility that would distract me from my job search. Obviously my self-restraint was less than absolute – I did allow myself to open that email again, and five or six months later, I’m enjoying the beginning of many good things, starting my post-college life on the opposite side of the country than I expected to be and in an occupation I never would have predicted for myself, yet somehow in just the right place.

Friday, August 14, 2009

the vegetannual

Last December as I lay waiting for my legs to return to their usual color and my hair to fall out (thank you, dengue fever), I broke up long hours reading Harry Potter and watching West Wing with forays into Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver (a singularly frustrating read in Chicago in the dead of winter). Kingsolver documents a year of her family's experience eating locally - only food that had been grown and produced either on their own farm or within 100 miles. One of the recurring images in the book is the vegetannual, "an imaginary plant that bears over the course of one growing season a cornucopia of all the different vegetable products we can harvest".

I remember thinking that this would only be an enjoyable experience year-round if one happened to live in southern California, where most things can grow most of the time, and the seasonal restrictions in more temperate climates would not apply. And sure enough - here is the list of what is currently being planted on a corner of the 10 organic acres I'll start working on next week: yellow, green and burgundy beans; ruby, romaine and butter lettuce; arugula, spinach, basil, cilantro and parsley; cucumbers; 8 ball, geode and crookneck squash; gold, red and candy striped beets; fennel, zucchini and edible flowers. A lot of the conventional farms around here are currently planting strawberries.

All this is a testament to two things:

1. The gorgeous Mediterranean climate. Most days (all year, or so I've heard) temperatures are in the 60s and 70s, kept in check by the ocean. It actually reminds me of Nairobi - eucalyptus, jacaranda and mimosa trees, bougainvillea, hibiscus plants...A local told me yesterday that this is God's country, and I believe it.

2. Some of the most fertile soil in the world. According to the farmer (Paul), whose family has worked on this land for just over a century, the soil is sandy loam, a combination of sand, silt and clay that traps organic material while allowing water to run through. This area wasn't always the best agricultural land - it was once too salty and alkaline to grow anything but sugar beets, but artificial drainage has pulled the water table down and made the Oxnard plain ideal for farming.

So much for the vegetannual...

first thoughts on the farm

I know that I have successfully moved to California now that not only my own mail, but also my father's have followed me to the little mailbox on an obscure rural road by an avocado orchard. Since arriving at the Abundant Table Farm Project I have (among other things):

- Biked to and along the pacific coast highway to try and find the beach and meet the Pacific Ocean. It's unfortunately farther away than I had been told. There is the small matter of a US Navy base between the farm and the beach (they, however provide lots of low flying aircraft and strange pulsating lights for our entertainment). I did eventually get to the beach.

- Experienced my first farming "injury"...a bee sting in the avocado orchard, which turned into Katerina's first opportunity to use her extensive first aid training. Remedy: flick stinger out with a credit card, thus the middle finger of my left hand was saved.

- Cooked zucchini at most meals. We have more than our household of 5 can handle, and we don't even start farming until next week.

- Received the strong impression that this is internship is not a particularly realistic introduction to life in the real world of adulthood. The five of us interns have received ample quantities of hugs, affirming words, and homemade soaps and have been practically tripping over people wanting to give us food, furniture, and office supplies. The house has a hammock, an awesome little dog, and we were told today by our landlord that if, like the previous tenants, we feel inclined to ride our skateboards through the glass doors, we may do so!

All in all, good things to come!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

join the farm

Now that I have successfully thwarted the efforts of the laws of physics to limit the amount that will fit in a carry-on suitcase, I have nothing to do but be excited about the next 11 months. Okay, that and cry through my breakfast. (This always happens when I say goodbye to my family, and is made all the more dignified by the fact that I am the only one in my family who ever cries in public).

But in celebration of the exciting things ahead - a little bit of what I'll be up to:
  • living and working on an organic farm in southern California with four other interns as part of the Abundant Table Farm Project
  • enjoying the produce we grow and helping start a CSA ( so other people can too
  • learning about "environmental sustainability; organic, small scale agriculture vs. industrial agribusiness; community health and access to unprocessed foods, especially as it relates to disadvantaged communities; immigration and labor issues"
  • recovering from four Chicago winters by living a bike ride from the Pacific ocean, right off of Highway 1...I hear it might be kind of nice out there
On my list of things to get done before heading out was to take this picture, the equivalent of the "back to school" shot:

For the story of the stylish headgear, see an earlier post. Impressive corn featured here is on my uncle's dairy farm (and, as my cousin said, "there's nothing organic about it!").

And yes, the hat is in my suitcase.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

"you a real white girl?" and other tales

To paraphrase (or quote?) my mother, I'm excited about being able to 'live forward' again soon. The last eight months have been about processing and finishing -- recovering from dengue, processing HNGR, finishing college, wrapping up my jobs, sorting through and packing up both my belongings and family memories, saying goodbye to Chicago (in the summer! not a good idea...better to wait to the depths of February), saying goodbye to friends, and soon family too. I'm excited to know I will be living in one place for the (seemingly) long span of 11 months, and to start living forward again, to dig in to stay.

The last week has been particularly transitory. I've spent at least a night in each of five states (and will make that six in a week and a half on Monday). Still, it's been a rich time. In no particular order, I have enjoyed:

1. Dirt bike lessons from my brother. I promise I was riding just like in the video after 5 minutes. Oh, and the bike is for sale.

2. Finding and playing two pieces of music composed by my grandfather who died long before I was born
3. Packing made somewhat bearable by listening to the wonderful documentary series Five Farms. They followed five American farm families (dairy farmers in the Northeast, an African-American hog farmer, a Hopi farmer, an organic farm in California (!) and a farm in Iowa) for a year and produced 5 hour-long shows, each with a specific theme, corresponding roughly to some point in the growing season. The shows are about both agriculture and the people themselves and their stories (think Ira Glass on a farm minus a bit of the sass).

4. Packing made even more bearable by friends who brought me homemade spinach and Parmesan pizza and wine, or showed up to meet up one last time in Chicago.

5. Taking the scenic route from North Carolina to Pennsylvania via a camping trip in Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia, planned entirely by my brother. Non-essential items like plates and pancake syrup, of course, didn't make it. We ate these with our hands, along with ripe-to-bursting white farmstand peaches.

The camping was great except for being awakened repeatedly in the night by the rummaging of an unknown small animal around our tent. The next morning we discovered not one, but four acorns 'buried' under our tent.

6. More than my fair share of Bush's baked beans. My meat-and-potatoes Mennonite family doesn't always know what to do with a vegetarian, but they try!

7. Hearing stories from both sides of my extended family.

8. And finally...One afternoon my brother and I were perusing the Goodwill fashions when I heard three women talking in Cambodian in the aisle next to me. I got up my courage (I haven't spoken Khmer to any native speakers in person since the end of November) and greeted them in Cambodian. One spoke a bit of English and her first response was "you a real white girl?" They proceeded to ask me (in Khmer) if I had a husband yet.

Ah, yes...

Friday, August 7, 2009

the lot

The news that I'm going to be spending the next 11 months working on an organic farm has elicited a range of responses from the adults in my life. Of late the tone has been a mix of amusement and incredulity. I'm at a family reunion of sorts, and of the assembled 10 aunts and uncles, I know that at least seven grew up on farms (though only two chose to farm themselves). Of the many stories they've told from their childhoods in Lancaster County, the following was one of the most interesting.

Among the more conservative Mennonite congregations, being a pastor or some other part of the church leadership was not something one aspired to or discerned a particular calling for. When a new pastor (or bishop, or deacon) was needed, nominations would be gathered (3 from each member) for who from the congregation would be chosen as the pastor on a Wednesday. Any candidate with at least 3 nominations would be examined by the elders for character and leadership capacity, and the following weekend the church would be assembled for "the lot". In my grandfather's case, two men from the congregation proceeded past this vetting process. Two brand-new Bibles (there was some discussion as to whether these actually had metal clamps to seal them shut) were taken by the elders to the back of the church, and a piece of paper was slipped underneath the front cover of one Bible, after which both were closed. Someone else who had not seen which Bible contained the slip of paper stood the two Bibles on the pulpit in front of the congregation, and the candidates, in descending order of age, chose one of the Bibles (usually, but not always proceeding in order from right to left). They then waited for the bishop to come and open the Bibles to see which of the two God had chosen, by means of the lot, to be the pastor.

When my grandfather was chosen by the lot to lead his small church, the changes for the family included switching cash crops from tobacco to tomatoes and moving the radio to the attic (where it could only be turned on for the World Series).