Moms usually ask for mommy alone time. Like getting a pedicure, or girls night out, or a warm bath. I’ve been really enjoying my ‘mommy away time’ . . . Mmmm, weeding! Since July, I’ve been spending a few hours every week at a local organic CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm, which is run by Joe and Carolyn, two young enthusiastic folks in their mid thirties. I look froward to my weeding day all week (ok, crazy!!) even when it involves tornadoes of mosquitoes, clouds of ragweed pollen and oppressive heat. Why, why you may ask. Why not sit in my cushiony air-conditioned office (ok, no couches, but still), pay $35 for the vegetables and just skip away. Because I like it and I think it is the right thing to do, to support our farmers. Carolyn and Joe are awesome, their stories are funny, I learn a ton, have great time getting my hands muddy, and bring home a bagful of all kinds of goodies. Like wrinkled crinkled crumpled cress. 🙂 Yes, that is the actual name, I learned.
Carolyn and Joe run a small 50-share CSA, rent a beautiful land plot in suburban Chicago, with the pond, geese, mulberry trees and bees, they reside on the land in a trailer, farm their land organically, by hand, try to salvage their sadly looking greenhouse, and they definitely are not doing this to get rich. I had been enjoying their vegetables and herbs just as much as I had been enjoying talking to Carolyn and Joe, and learning all about their adventures and about growing food. And they have stories to tell. Between the two of them, they have 15 years of farming experience, working on a variety of vegetable, seed, cheese and animal farms. This year we had a late cool spring and much rain, the weeds had been completely overwhelming and those folks did need some serious weeding help.
What I admire most about Carolyn and Joe is that they really do care, about the land, the plants, and the community. Every week, they write up this amazing 10-page long newsletter, which their share holders receive with the vegetable share. The newsletter in itself is a creation, it includes educational material and interesting facts about the vegetables they are growing, natural growing methods on the farm, detailed information on each crop in that week’s share, storage tips, and recipes.
And then there is the true sharing. Last week, the share included some apples, which they do not grow on the property, but secured through a share they get from their friends. A couple weeks ago, there was a beautiful story of the beets. Another organic farm, friends of Joe and Carolyn’s were flooded and lost much of their crop, including tomatoes. Carolyn and Joe, on the other hand has more than enough tomatoes this year, but their beets did not grow. So they did a barter: tomatoes for the beets. The beautiful baby beets traveled from one farm to another, and then to my table and eventually into our beet salad and borscht, no money exchanged in the whole beet voyage. I thought this completely money-free voyage of the beets from the people I do not even know, was pretty neat. Can’t ‘beat’ that!
Now we are weeding the fall crops, arugula, carrots, more radish, turnips, tons of greens. . . Carolyn gets so excited when she talks about plants. She pulls out weeds around the leeks, and says: now this guy can breathe easier! They must be so happy! By accident, she pulls out a seedling while weeding, she apologizes, says, oh so sorry guy, and she separates the roots from the leaves, saying it pains her too much to see the plant slowly wither away, like you would not let an injured animal suffer. She weeds for hours and hours every day, yet she notices every cricket, a bug, every bird call, and points out any unusual weed to me. Carolyn researches every bug and caterpillar she finds in the fields. She goes out late in the evening to pick the Holy Basil for the CSA, after the bees had gathered the nectar. Her connection to the land, the plants and the creatures is admirable. As we weed, she leaves all milkweed plants intact, for the monarchs.
Carolyn jumps some rows down to pick some baby arugula and brings us some leaves to taste. They grow an amazing number of varieties, a total of 230 vegetables and herbs each year. This, Carolyn says, assures that the losses of some crops, which will always happen due to weather or pests, will not affect their ability to still provide good shares. Four or five arugula varieties, about fifteen tomato varieties, five basil varieties, there are yellow and red radishes, and radishes that look like little watermelons, few different turnips, various peppers, and an endless list of greens. I cannot even keep up with all they grow. For the first time, I got to taste Papalo , which I really like, as well as Zlata radish, and Malabar spinach, tomatoes of incredible colors, shapes and flavors, and the best arugula ever. Nothing bland about this farm. Most vegetables they picked for their intense flavor, and I have to say they did well.
Carolyn and Joe’s dream is to start seed farming. In the past, Carolyn worked at seed farms in Canada and California. She quit her day job, and decided to travel to Canada to intern on a farm. Few years later, here she is, running a CSA farm in suburban Chicago. Her stories about her apprenticeship and work there and her love for plants had inspired me to watch some documentaries about plant life. Last week, I watched two excellent documentaries on seeds, Seeds of Time and Open Sesame: The Story of Seeds, if you are interested in the topics, I highly recommend. Seeds of Time is a story of agriculture pioneer Cary Fowler’s global journey of 30 years to save the eroding foundation of our food supply. It portrays a personal journey of one man and inner workings of the seed banks and interrelation of climate change and growing practices. There is some interesting footage on Vavilov seed collection in Russia.
Open Sesame is a great positive film, a primer on open pollinated plants, hybrids, and GMOs, seed history and seed exchange movement. We know the alarming statistics. 93% of the known fruit and vegetable varieties had gone extinct from 1903 to 1983. Since the early 1900s, lettuce varieties shrank from 497 to 36, corn – from 307 varieties to 12, heritage wheat, from thousands to nearly extinct. Since the 1970s, 20,000 of seed companies got swollen by a few conglomerates. 82% of seeds are corporate owned. Plant characteristics that existed since times before humans, are being patented and owned, e.g. redness in lettuce, heat tolerance in broccoli, etc. Every 30 minutes, a farmer in India commits suicide. Statistics and facts are harrowing. But Open Sesame is an inspirational film, it follows some seed enthusiasts who are working hard, like my friends Carolyn and Joe here, to reverse those trends. There is quite a bit of footage on the Seed Exchange in IA, on Seed School in AZ, some small organic seed start ups.
My favorite story in the movie is that of Horace Pippin, an African American painter. Mr. Pippin was a WWI veteran, and avid seed collector, and lived next door to William Weaver, who kept bees. Pippin would visit Weaver to get some bee stings to take away the pain from war injuries. To repay Weaver for all those lost bees, Horace Pippin would bring him some interesting vegetable seeds, including the rare fish pepper, for what would become the Roughwood Seed Collection, run by Weaver’s grandson, William Woys Weaver. For the first time, the fish pepper was advertised to the public on a grand scale when William Woys Weaver offered the seeds in the 1995 Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook. At that time, he was the only person with a fish pepper seed.
So I am thankful for the stories, the survival stories of fish peppers, the survival stories of Joe and Carolyn’s greenhouse levelled down to the ground under Chicago snow and later magically popping back up to life. The sharing stories, stories of exchanging seeds, beets, bees, tomatoes. The stories of persistence, be it scientist Cary Fowler battling cancer and travelling to climate conferences to convince the world leaders we need to preserve wild food diversity, or farmer Joe, battling allergies and weeds out in the fields trying to grow organic food and educate the community.
And last, but not least, some fun. Thanks to DM from Heart to Heart, I found this great song for the season by Greg Brown (I love the story too!), so go ahead and taste a little of the summer before it is gone!