To Find Your Path, Look Under Your Feet

I still remember a funny interaction that took place when I worked in the Thomas G. Carpenter Library at the University of North Florida. Because I was a student employee, when I would request books to be purchased by the library, they usually arrived. I ordered books like Food Not Lawns, Toolbox for Sustainable City Living, and The Urban Homestead; they were books about food, gardening, and permaculture. One time, my boss who processed the requests asked, “Is this your major?” I was confused, “What?” He searched his mind for an explanation to encompass all of the foodie-gardening books I was requesting. After a pause, I said, “I wish!”

Now, I’m glowing to declare that sustainable food systems is my major at Green Mountain College. The program has been impressive beyond belief, and there are more and more out there each year. Here’s a recent review of food systems programs in higher education from Civil Eats.

I waited five years after graduating from my undergraduate degree in nutrition to begin my master’s degree. I knew when I graduated from undergrad that if I were to go on to grad school, I wanted to specialize and not get another degree in general nutrition, which is what my major really was. Through those five years I learned so much. I worked for the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program and began to understand why it is people choose to have kids. I did my internship at Virginia State University, lived outside Florida for the first time, and became a dietitian and a barista who appreciated the quirky independent coffehouse. I quit my first job post-internship to become a wwoofer, one of the best experiences of my life so far, and I got plenty of mountain dirt under my nails that somehow worked its way into my heart. I told myself I was in the school of life. I went to herbal classes and completed a special yoga teacher training to learn about true preventive health. I sold some homegrown vegetables at a farmers’ market, moved to a new city, worked at WIC again, and finally got a job I could sink my teeth into as the farm to school liaison. I have endless gratitude for all those who helped me on my path.

As I’ve told my wonderful boss, my job as farm to school liaison has been a life changer. The opportunity gave me the confidence to finally begin my master’s program, which has shaped my life tremendously. I finally feel the purpose in my work that I felt in that drive to order all those books from my college library, an unquenchable desire to learn more and more about not only food and sustainability, but humans’ place in the world and “how we ought to live” (to quote Daniel Quinn). Somehow, being patient and authentic has allowed me to find a bite of sustenance on the path I’ve been walking for so long without knowing I was on it. Nature’s forms of efficiency are not usually straight lines, and the path of authenticity can be quite curvy.

river

This is just my story so far. As a wise person once told me, the way to move forward is one foot in front of the other. If the next step brings you closer to who you want to be, it’s the right one. And if it doesn’t, you can take a step back and you’ll probably learn even more about yourself in the process.

March 24th Clermont Farmers’ Market

The market on March 24th was certainly an eventful one! The day started off normal enough; although, we were worried about a rainy day due to the overcast skies. Our wwoofer, Liane, and I decided to go to the market together and leave the boys at home to work on farm activities. It seemed as soon as we had everything set up, looking good, and the delicious kale salad samples she made on the table… the winds started picking up.

Our usual array of kale: red Russian, curly, Ethiopian, and dinosaur (aka: Lacinato, Tuscan)

Our usual array of kale: red Russian, curly, Ethiopian, and dinosaur (aka: Lacinato, Tuscan); broccoli and broccoli greens at the far right.

And then picking up even more!! Finally, we were literally holding down the fort from blowing away. When we got a break in the gusts, we took down our tent. The winds continued. Our tray of kale samples flew to the ground and down the street, as did some fliers and business cards and kale leaves. Our neighboring vendors lost breakable items which the wind swept off their tables. Things were flying in all directions Dorothy-style and getting a little scary. Luckily, our friend, Greg, came by and suggested we move about a block down and across the street, where somehow the wind couldn’t reach as mightily. We did and were able to stay much more anchored down; although, our display was not as impressive with our single table and wind-whipped-looking vegetables.

Our swiss chard and let

On the positive side, we were glad to be able to supply our  steadfast customers with fresh-picked veggies, and I was SO immeasurably grateful to be well enough to attend market for the first time in two weeks! We were delighted to see our neighbors from Lake Catherine Blueberries at the market! Their farm is just under four miles down State Road 19 from ours! The blueberries they brought were just picked the day before, and absolutely delicious! I see a tradition of blueberry snacking at the markets in the making. I told Lake Catherine to definitely expect us for their U-pick this year… at least a few times.

Thank you to all of you who braved the wind yesterday to come out to the market! And if you didn’t make it out last week, you can always buy fresh from the farm at 18404 SR 19, Groveland, FL 34736. Right now, we have tons of red Russian kale, curly kale, dino kale, lettuce, bok choy and BAMBOO!

Abuzz on the Farm

It finally feels like Spring is in the air – and hopefully for good! We did lose a few baby tomato plants, despite my midnight run through the garden covering plants with towels and all my clothing! I guess there is always that risk of late frost when deciding to plant out early. Things have been very busy since we began attending the Clermont farmers’ markets two weeks ago, and we have been checking projects off of our list with the help of our first two wwoofers, Liane and Anthony. They have been working hard and motivating us to get out there every day. One of the most exciting projects has been building bamboo trellising for various climbing summer plants like beans, tomatoes and tomatillos.

Tim (on right) with wwoofers Liane and Anthony building the bamboo trellising.

Tim (on right) with wwoofers Liane and Anthony building the bamboo trellising.

You have room to grow up, baby Lima bean.

You have room to grow up, baby Lima bean.

Tim smiles after a hard day's work.

Tim smiles after a hard day’s work.

We’ve noticed a sure sign of Spring – pollinators! Tim and I dream of stewarding a hive of bees (hopefully soon), so seeing all of the wild bees and other winged creatures enjoying the flowers around the farm is truly heartwarming. I’ve noticed they like the sunny yellow bok choy flowers especially well.

Check out those pollen baskets!

Check out those pollen baskets!

With the buzz in the air and temperatures rising, it wouldn’t be Spring without… fresh eggs! Yes, our hens have begun laying! Well, at least one has. We’ve been getting about one egg a day from our four hens. Since January, we’ve been (kind of)  patiently awaiting their first egg. Tim found it the morning of our first Food Fermentation class, which delighted us! Hopefully the other hens will get the idea and begin laying as well. Thank you beautiful hens!

It's amazing how quickly we've fallen in love with these beautiful, interesting birds.

It’s amazing how quickly we’ve fallen in love with these beautiful, interesting birds.

We will be at the Clermont farmers’ market tomorrow for our third Sunday, and, as far as the weather goes, I’m hoping the third time’s the charm.  (Unfortunately, I was terribly sick yesterday and missed out on a beautiful day at the market. Sorry to let down all you kale lovers out there. Still recovering today, but with luck, we’ll be back next week.) If the weather is anything like today, it’ll be a beautiful day to be out there supplying our community with mindfully grown, consciously cared-for, freshly picked, delightfully nutritious kale!

Summer Reflections and Looking Ahead

After the long drive back from North Carolina to Central Florida, catching up with family and friends (some still yet to see), unpacking, resting, and taking care of overdue obligations, I catch my breath and think, “What now?”

Without much perspective yet, looking back on my adventures this summer, I am so glad I did everything I did with wwoofing, traveling and being a “wexer” (work exchanger) at the Southeast Women’s Herbal Conference. I feel I’ve learned so much, clarified my goals (somewhat), and appreciated even more what Mother Earth provides. I’ve rerouted my life, checked wwoofing off my bucket list, and while some things are still ambiguous at the moment (“What do I do now?”), I feel I’m headed in a more authentic direction.

Being a wwoofer for the summer has taught me so many practical skills and lifelong lessons, given me confidence in growing my own food, raised the bar on the meanings of “fresh food” and “sustainable” to me, shown me a diversity of lifestyle alternatives to mainstream society, and, among many other positive things, allowed me to spend a lot of much-needed time outdoors. My partner, Tim, met me up in Asheville for a wonderful two-week reunion. Four days of this time we spent hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

Hiking along the Tennessee-North Carolina border.

I’d like to share a couple photos of something I did get to make myself at Long Valley farm. After mentioning to the family that I was interested in food fermentation and had done two apprenticeships with fermentation author Sandor Katz in Tennessee, they asked me if I would like to make some sauerkraut. Of course I obliged! I spent a sunny autumn afternoon picking cabbage and carrots and used some already-harvested beets, garlic and cayenne to make this kraut-chi, a mixture of sauerkraut and kim-chi.

After chopping up the vegetables.

The finished kraut-chi!

The Southeast Women’s Herbal Conference was just as magical as it was at my first attendance last year. Again, I was able to secure a work-exchange position, this year as a teacher support person for the Intensive classes. This position meant I helped the teachers move their materials to the tent, set up, mic up, pass out papers and tasty samples, and anything else they might need an extra hand with. It was such a wonderful position to have! (Last year I did dishes and directed parking.) It was fun to get to interact with the teachers more and to help the Intensives run smoothly. I enjoyed each of the classes I attended and learned so much not only about herbal medicine and healing, but, like last year, felt such a sense of empowerment and sisterhood with the women there and everywhere.

The morning view of the conference grounds from my tent.

The big decision ahead for me involves graduate school. I’ve been accepted to attend Green Mountain College’s Master of Science in Sustainable Food Systems program. Green Mountain College, located in Poultney, VT, was ranked number one green school by the Sierra Club in 2010. The program is mostly online, so I would be able to continue living in Florida. On the pros side are: I’d love to study all that the program has to offer on sustainable agriculture and food policy and history, I’ve always wanted to go to grad school, and it will set me on a path more in line with my values. On the cons side… well there’s really only one con: the cost and its implications. Since I’d rather not take out a loan, this leaves me currently looking for a full time job. I plan on applying for a scholarship offered by Annie’s foods; however, the results aren’t announced until April of next year; my program begins in January. I still think it’s worth a shot. Unfortunately, I don’t think my program, since it’s distance learning, offers any graduate assistantships or teaching opportunities. If anyone reading has any ideas for garnering scholarships or paying for grad school, I’d be grateful to hear them!

It has been amazing readjusting to life in Florida. I’ve relished in seeing my loved ones more often, enjoyed feeling summer turn to fall for the second time this year, and, maybe most of all, loved getting back into the kitchen at the Beautiful Bamboo farm, where I am living with Tim. I’ll leave you today with a couple pictures of recent creations.

homemade pizza

West African groundnut stew

Long Valley Eco-Biotic Farm

Up in the mountains of western North Carolina, I am surrounded daily by beautiful views, amazing food, and a peaceful life. The farmers at Long Valley have practiced organic methods for 30+ years; however, the farm is not certified, so they call themselves “eco-biotic,” meaning “environment” and “pertaining to life.” Our days are busy and pass quickly; it is hard to imagine I’ve already been here a month because it seems both longer than that and that it has passed by rapidly.

Trevor and I walking up the hill from the barn. Photo credit: Tim Boas.

I am camping, enjoying the grounding qualities of sleeping outdoors on the Earth, listening to the nightly noises, and seeing the most beautiful night skies far from city lights. I saw the most magnificent shooting star of my life so far. The moon has been so bright; I am highly anticipating the full moon coming up on August 31st. I’ll be making a reishi tincture that evening (After further research, I found that tinctures are best started on the new moon and strained on the full moon; I’ll have to wait another couple weeks.) from a reishi mushroom I found at Finca Mycol back in Florida.

The family at the farm are warm and kind, fun and hardworking. They eat a late dinner after a long day’s work, so I had to make the difficult decision to begin forgoing sharing dinner with them to get to bed early and avoid eating too late at night, something I have learned to enjoy and felt the benefits of on farms so far. I have been spoiled by having many of my meals prepared for me by the woman of the farm. Her cooking is delicious and mostly consists of fresh farm produce, grown right outside the door. This is another reason I have been neglecting to update the blog: I haven’t been doing any recipe experimentation or any of my own cooking (besides my morning oats or cereal and a sandwich here and there). I do miss spending time in the kitchen and being the one preparing meals for others; however, it is a nice change to have food lovingly prepared by someone else for the family, of which they have made me feel a part.

Living so close to nature and putting my energy into nurturing the growth of wholesome food throughout my days has been deeply rewarding. It is bewildering to consider the notion that I’m finding I prefer sleeping and living outdoors to sleeping on a conventional bed. Wiggling out of my sleeping bag, stumbling out of my tent into the dewy air each early morning, with the knowledge I’ll be getting sun on my shoulders and soil under my nails, communing with nature throughout the day, is an indescribably comforting feeling. I wonder how this will affect my decisions about living situations when I return to “normal” life (post-wwoof). Should I rent a room in a house like I’d planned? Should I try to find a part time wwoof situation closer to home? This realization definitely strengthens my dream to one day live in a completely natural earth home, or perhaps a rustic cabin with an outdoor kitchen. My grandparents tell me I should have been born 150 years ago, but perhaps returning to a life more related to our own sustenance is the way of the future as well; perhaps it is timeless.

I have been reading the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn recently, and it has definitely made me think about things in life more deeply. If you haven’t read it, check it out at the library.

Long Valley has quite a diverse array of produce, and we are at the height of summer production with several types of beans, tomatoes, corn, basil, tomatillos, okra, potatoes, Concorde grapes, pears, summer squash, zucchini, cucumbers, winter squash coming in, and probably more I’ve missed.

Here I am washing royal burgundy beans in the branch waterfall. Photo credit: Alex Willard.

I spend my days helping with harvesting, weeding, mulching, and going to markets. We’ve also planted some fall crops: cruciferous veggie seedlings and onion seeds. The farm is tucked into the mountains and is so beautiful and quaint with its old barns and lovely flowers growing everywhere. I’m also amazed at the amount of medicinal wild plants growing around the farm: yarrow, red clover, jewel weed, wild carrot, plantain, and I’m sure many more I don’t know yet. I’m planning to make my first salve soon with plantain and yarrow, beeswax and sesame oil.

Dew on a red clover.

Being on the farm has been so inspiring, renewing, and fills my brain with buzzing dreams of my future garden and goals. While I am being mindful to treasure my days on the farm, I have also been dreaming about the many projects and the planting I’ll be doing when I get back to Florida. I am excited to become immersed into a new community in Orlando, while learning and teaching others, making new friends, watching things grow, and putting into action all the ideas upstairs. But before that, I still have another six weeks of sponge time, gathering the knowledge and wisdom coming at me on this beautiful farmstead.

Passing the gorgeous dahlias. Photo credit: Alex Willard.

Reflections on Simple Living & Squashy Blueberry Pancakes

It seems I am really adapting to woods life. This was made very evident the other day when we walked into the grocery store. The ambiance was such a contrast to what I am now used to, and I felt like I had wandered into a strange alien world: everything seemed so bright, white and clean, and there was a constant hum. People seemed very clean, ironed and tidy, and preoccupied with their shopping.

Living with less, I am for the most part content. The homestead I am at has no refrigerator, no oven, no air conditioning, simply an outdoor kitchen and a yome for the owner, a trailer with a porch for the wwoofers. I am constantly a little damp, dirty, smelly, and sun-kissed. I get tired when the sun goes down and wake up early with the birds and rooster. When I have my own homestead one day, I will be able to make some minor adjustments to make myself totally content. I think I could even get used to cooking over the open fire full time if I designed a barbeque-type hearth. I have been using the public libraries to update my blog, check email, etc. It will be  interesting to see just how off the grid I can get used to!

wild harvested blueberries

In the homestead garden, we have huge light green squash ripening. We’re not sure what kind it is, but it looks a lot like a Hubbard squash. It is delicious and the fruit is so huge that I decided to get creative with ways to eat it. With sweet potato pie in mind, I decided to try to make pancakes with the squash as the base. Keep in mind, I don’t have Internet at the farm, so I made this up completely; there might be a better recipe out there somewhere! First I chopped and cooked the squash in the awesome Lodge cast iron dutch oven over the fire so that it was nice and squishy and mashed with a potato masher. The next morning, I mixed some whole grain pancake batter, corn meal, one egg from our chickens, and cinnamon and folded in the wild harvested blueberries with the squished squash.

cooking over the open flame

They took a little while to cook through, but held together well and tasted delicious, a little sweeter than normal pancakes. We topped them with Vermont maple syrup. I definitely see more squash blueberry pancakes in my future – there’s still another half of our huge squash to eat up!

Me? Granola? No!

Journal Entry 6-24-2012:

Being out here, off the grid, I reflect upon a time in college when, because of all the DIY, sustainability and gardening books I ordered through inter-library loan, more than I could possibly read on top of my studies, my boss at the library asked if that was my major. I smiled and said, “I wish!” Not really sure how to pinpoint what that was, I knew that I had a strong interest in what I’ll now call self-sufficiency. Now, about three or four years later, I can declare any major I want in my self-guided, self-funded school of life. I believe I’d like to choose the “green path.” Wwoofing is proving to be a huge step in the right direction as I am perpetually meeting others with similar interests, goals and the tendency to practice what they preach. Upcoming classes: herbalism, herbal gardening, medicine-making, traveling light, mushroom identification, and probably so many more I cannot begin to anticipate.

Life skills I have learned so far through wwoofing:

  • how to run a farm stand and sell vegetables
  • yes to mulching, no to tilling
  • citrus and side veneer grafting, some plant propagation
  • need quantity and quality vegetables: need quantity to be less reliant on store-bought, to have excess for bartering, to make value-added products, to put up for the off season
  • how to make a bark bag, corn tortillas, effective cooking fire, canned tomatoes
  • some wild edible mushroom identification, wild blueberry and blackberry identification
  • goat care and milking and how to build a milking station
  • chicken care and why to build a mobile coop

stir that granola!

Looking at the life skills learned list, I realize how awesome wwoofing has been for my school of life! There are probably so many things I’ve learned which are not on the list, and just having these experiences is invaluable to me. It has been very interesting to practice my cooking technique over an open fire! The homestead I am at now relies solely on wood fires for cooking. The rudimentary temperature control and weather definitely make it more of a challenge! Above I am stirring some goji granola over our camp fire during the tropical storm Debby!

We had to stir it pretty constantly so that it wouldn’t burn. It turned out delicious, much like oven-baked granola: crispy and golden-brown with a hint of smokey flavor!

Sounds Like Adventure

Journal Entry 5-30-2012:

As I sit by my campfire alone in the fields, though I am sweaty, dirty and plagued by stinging insects, I feel so grateful. A deep sense of satisfaction and a sleepiness after a long day’s work fill me up. The crackle of the fire and birds’ day-end songs are music to my too-long-silent ears. It took quite a few nights for me to adjust to the wild nightly sounds of the outdoors and sleep soundly. Hard day’s work don’t hurt either. Coming out here has caused me to confront and conquer many of my fears: more aloneness, creepy crawlies, new people and situations. Although, truthfully, many of those fears were transferred to me by others.

coconut on top

Above you see sauteed fresh farm food! We wwoofers joke that all our dishes taste the same: random sauteed seasonal veggies, soy sauce, garlic, onion, and probably some Sriracha. It’s all delicious though! I sprinkled some coconut on top of this one with some Thai basil from our garden for a little Eastern flavor. The fresh vegetables are so delicious, a different animal than what you can find in the store. They are picked literally minutes before consumption by me!

Gratefulness

Journal Entry 06-01-2012:

As I sit at the farm table munching on homegrown homemade veggies alone, I look over the landscape after a hard rain, listen to the bugs and frogs, see a cardinal atop a tree. After a short time of being out of the city, all my fears are replaced by gratitude. “I can’t believe I made it here. I am so lucky!” is all I keep thinking. “Here” being free, in Nature, work I love, debt free, few obligations or possessions to worry about. I keep reminding myself not to think about someday this or that, but that this is IT! Experience is the ultimate way to learn and I am so grateful I’m finally here. I feel as though I’ve discovered a treat in this way of living; like, why don’t more people live like this, away from so many of the stresses of the usual modern-day life?

Above you see a very delicious homemade meal! The potatoes were given to me by a neighbor farmer after I helped them with the farmers’ market last Sunday. I learned from him the reasons it is important to always buy organic potatoes. Potatoes are, after all, one of the dirty dozen. In short, throughout the process of growing potatoes conventionally, they are repeatedly sprayed with various toxic herbicides and pesticides. Check out this Organic Nation site to learn more about it.

I’ve come to notice that farmers, at least the ones that I have met, are very generous people. They are proud of and want to share what they have grown. Unlike so many jobs today where workers see no physical result of their labor, farming provides almost minute-by-minute validation or challenge: new growth here, insect bites there, a huge magenta carrot pulled from damp soil, or the whole row of tomato trellising has fallen over. Unlike in many modern careers where the stresses are intangible, digital, or corporate, farmers experience directly with their subject matter, solving problems as they arise, planning on a more long-term basis, learning more season after season, year after year. I’ve noticed farmers are involved in their community’s politics, know their neighbors, and help each other.

This is why it hurts me when people come by our farm stand and complain to me, basically a volunteer, that our prices are too high. I want to tell them – this is the real cost of food! I can’t claim to know all the ins and outs of our food system, but government subsidies, importation from countries who don’t pay employees a living wage (include the USA in that) falsely represent the cost of food. And the biggest hidden cost of conventional food to goes to Mother Earth. By abusing our planet, corporations can produce food for lower costs, but this practice will ultimately destroy us.

I feel so lucky to be able to participate in this whirlwind of experience. I knew previously many of the reasons to buy and eat organic, but now having worked on at least one organic farm, I can say from that experience that organic is worth it and local is very worth it.

Finding Freedom

Hello! I’m back in civilization for the weekend after three total weeks and two weeks straight on the farm. I wanted to catch my mom before she leaves to go to Hawaii for a month. (Maybe that’s where I get my travel itch?) Next week I am going back for my final week at this farm near New Smyrna, FL. Then I’m on to Gainesville, I believe.

Have you ever noticed that it seems life sometimes hides little clues, coincidences, signs for you to find, showing you that you are following the right path through this crazy world? I don’t think I’m the most perceptive to these hints, though I am trying to be on the lookout. However, when I arrived at the farm, I took note of a very clear indication that I was on the right track. Right next to the wwoofers’ trailer and outdoor kitchen, there lived the most magnificent mulberry tree I’ve ever seen. Under its looming branches was the perfect camping spot right next to a hammock. I was told I’d missed the mulberries by a couple weeks, so I take this to mean I should have begun wwoofing sooner!

my camp under an enormous mulberry tree

I can’t express how much of a good decision choosing to wwoof was! I am completely at peace with the choices I made to quit my job three months ago, drastically minimize my belongings, cut my ties and leave Richmond, VA to wwoof around the Southeast. I am learning so much about organic farming, selling at farmers’ markets, and the work it takes to run a farm; however, I am learning much more intrinsic lessons as well. The sense of freedom I experience on the farm is completely addicting and extremely validating. It reminds me of some Broadways lyrics I used to ponder as a student and still do: “I thought about the word freedom and what it really meant for me. Because you see, sometimes I don’t feel so free when I’m stuck here in the city.”

organic sunflowers for sale!

Much of the self-led learning I’ve pursued in my adult life has been surrounding defining and discovering ways to achieve freedom. Looking back, I don’t think this was a purposeful choice, but the pieces seem to revolve around this general theme. You might be thinking, “What do you mean? We live in America!” No. I am talking about real freedom. While it is different for everyone (and I recommend everyone put some serious time into thinking about what freedom means to them), real freedom to me feels like separation from much which is mainstream today: unfulfilling work, superfluous bills, shopping habits, too much stuff, debt, unhealthy relationships and anything else that ties us down. I’m not an expert, but a fellow adventurer in this arena; I can only share what I have noticed and experienced myself. Considering what freedom means to me is an ongoing project in my life. Right now it revolves around minimal possessions, lack of a formal job, flexible “work,” friendships and relationships consciously chosen for their positive influence on my life, an ever-evolving knowledge and practice in self-sufficiency, lots of time spent outdoors, zero debt, and the bare minimum of bills (for me right now that’s car insurance and cell phone, more on that later).

basket of fresh picked veggies!

Beginning wwoofing has proved to be a huge step in my pursuit of freedom. This lifestyle has forced me to minimize materials things to be more mobile; take “work” that I want to learn about, provides flexibility, and is deeply fulfilling; granted me plenty of outdoor time; granted me time to do the things I love: reading, practicing yoga, having good conversations, spending time in Nature, cooking delicious fresh meals, meeting new and interesting people; and allowed me to travel. Besides all of these personal factors, organic farming is a cause I am deeply passionate about for the future of people and our planet, so it is truly fulfilling on that level as well. I missed the farm shortly after arriving back at my parents’ house.

Over the next few days, I’d like to share some journal entries I wrote while on the farm as well as some reflections. They’re nothing new or unique, but might give you a sense of the elation I feel out in the woods. When I told my mom about what I’ve been up to she said, “You went camping too much as a kid.” Maybe so, but maybe all that camping is what taught me to “Love Your Mother.”