“Farm dog Abel showing zero interest in helping me dig in this heat,” is how I captioned this photo on Twitter. I was there Monday to dig trenches between the planting rows in the garden, something I wanted to get done before the forecasted rain of the remaining weekdays. Except for Abel, I was completely alone on the farm for the first time and it felt odd to be in that vast space like that, as if a plague had left me desolate. Until then, I’d had help from others, most touchingly farm hand Ron who never seemed to think it crazy that I’d taken this project on without the infrastructure in place to do even small-scale farming. I labored several hours on this unseasonably warm April day to get it done and when I woke up the next morning, there was the world’s longest text on my phone from I wasn’t sure whom until I kept reading: ”…I am so fired up about the garden, something I’ve been wanting to do since I started out there…having the chance to pass on, teach others some of what I’ve learned over the years about growing beautiful, healthy organic food. It’s something I’m extremely passionate about and so look forward to getting back into it with people like you two…” And when I was done reading, I didn’t feel quite so sore. Or crazy.
On a break from the crop project we had a picnic of Curried Couscous Salad with Cauliflower, Carrots and Currants, a recipe I adapted from the LA Times, upping the spice and adding currants and toasted almonds. For the times when we need to stay at the farm before our house is built, I found a room for rent in the nearby town of Union, right next to Bill Gates’ considerably larger summer compound, and Phil and I stayed there Saturday night for the first time. Our little place, called “the Lighthouse,” because it sort of looks like one, is more like a luxury hexagonal tent with a door, just what we need and no more. Union is one of the most beautiful towns that no one has heard of, but we learned that on the Fourth of July weekend, the Gates’, the Nordstrom’s and the Skokomish Tribal Nation all put on fireworks displays, a loud and lavish show on the Hood Canal directly in front of our temporary simple shelter.
There are prettier pictures of the weekend: photos of wine and salad picnics by the water and flats of herbs ready for planting and cows chilling out in the fields, but none more emblematic of what this farm thing means to us than this of…well, shitloads of shit…being dumped on our experimental plot where we will see what grows best in this climate on this particular plot of Mason county. What makes this special is that we didn’t need to buy this; it came from our own cows in the west fields. It was just such a great feeling of natural integration, waste from one area, sheer gold in another.
On Sunday, we managed to plow the patch of ground where I’ll plant the vegetables, disturbing the hay that has been the sole crop for years. And then we drove through the river to get to our property, tucked in the far west corner of the farm. The cows hang out just over the river and it’s a pretty long walk from their barns to Lot 19, making you realize how vast the farm is, as big as Seward Park in Seattle, Phil discovered. Bigger than the sprawling Microsoft campus. As we walked towards our lot, we saw a herd of elk roaming there, seemingly unafraid of us, and not just unafraid, but defiant, so that we wondered if they might actually charge; we were after all, only two and unarmed. ”That would just make Alann’s day,” I joked, referring to one of the developers who’d been plagued with problems all weekend, “two of his buyers, flattened by elk. At least we already closed.” We contemplated running up the steep hill on the north side if they did run for us, thinking we’d surely be safe up there. Until we saw their next move.
Amongst the many things I’m learning from this new venture is that there are bees that don’t make honey but do make themselves useful by pollinating. They’re called Mason bees (no connection to the county the farm sits on) and they make their home in wood holes like those drilled by woodpeckers or in houses provided by people like LB, who hung this one on Saturday. The first time we met LB, she was holding a chainsaw whacking blackberry bushes before sitting down to a picnic of Manchego cheese, salad and wine, a memorably favorable first impression. And she seems to know everything about the natural world, which is useful right now with my vegetable project, because clearly I do not know shit. ”Determinate or Indeterminate?” she asked me when I told her I’d planted 7 varieties of tomato seed, forcing me to reveal that the extent of my knowledge on the subject is “cherry” or “big.” I know that if we were stranded on a desert island, I would want LB and her husband David there and I figured this out before we even met them, when we were touring the farm to consider buying a part of it and Alann showed us the cabin they’d built themselves incorporating old barn siding. It was impressive then, even unfinished, and more so now that they’re turning it’s roof into a living one, the first in a long list of ecology projects we have in mind for this land.
We were going to spend the weekend in Portland; we were feeling the weight of lingering grey skies and routine and wanted a break. But when the weather didn’t look any more promising either there or in Vancouver, I asked Phil if he’d like to go to the farm. ”We could get started on my vegetable garden,” I suggested brightly,” and I think that’s when he realized I was serious about this thing. I’d gotten support from the other owners to dig on the east side of the farm; I wouldn’t need to cross the (as yet non-existent) bridge to get to our property and the plot of land we decided on would be near the temporary housing of the developers Mali and Alann, close to people who might discourage roaming wildlife, and close to water, too. But water wasn’t in short supply on this Saturday in April; it rained constantly. All day long.
Still, if the weather is going to be crappy, might as well spend your day installing a tiller on the tractor, and, joined by farm hand Ron and fellow owner LB, we were in better spirits than we’d been in in ages, ending the day around the warmth of Mali and Alann’s dining table drinking wine and pondering much bigger things than a 50′ by 50′ experiment.
These are the tomato and herb varieties I planted from seed, some because I just like them and some for more rational reasons like the Stupice, which is supposed to do well in a cool, short season. (Photo credits at bottom)
But right now, they all look pretty much like this:
Except for the Parsley which has not sprouted at all. The Peacevine appears to be the most prolific and the Basil was first to appear, but a nursery worker told us not to bother with Basil in this area. So of course I will.
Photo credits: Green Zebra: www.seedlibrary.org; Stupice: loghouseplants.com; Red Pear: gastroapuntesuniversitarios.bogspot.com; Hillbilly: www.plant-world-seeds.com; Black Trifele: www.ezrasorganics.com; Jaune Flamme: www.reimerseeds.com; Peacevine: www.tradewindsfruit.com; Genovese Basil: myseedgarden.blogspot.com; Italian Parsley: www.rusticgardenbistro.com
A couple of days ago, the basil seeds popped open above the soil’s surface without any warning, but the tomatoes took longer, some of them just poking their heads up today, much more slowly and gracefully. They look like swans and I can hardly resist brushing the dirt away so that they’ll spring up to the light. There’s something magical about this to me, that these sprouts no bigger than my baby fingernail will grow into a six foot plant, heavy with my favorite summer fruit. That is, if tomatoes will grow on the Olympic Peninsula where our farm is. It seems cruel that they could germinate and grow their first real leaves and then just die. And now I feel responsible for them. It’s been a year of difficult adjustment since I left a job cooking for dozens of young guys, where I felt productive, if not always valued, and I do feel just slightly nutty when I check on my seeds every morning like I would check on my newborns years ago. ”Y’know, we could just buy some tomatoes,” Phil joked when I was going over the troublesome details described in the last post. But of course, this whole project isn’t really about tomatoes.
This is the impossible situation: we live two hours from our farm and haven’t begun to build a home there. And the bridge that will get us from the east side to our land on the west is not built yet, necessitating a hairy drive through the river. But I want tomatoes. This year. If we plant a garden, there’s no infrastructure yet for watering, so I’d be relying on the weather or hauling jugs up from the stream behind our property. And there’s no where for me to stay, although I could camp nearby. And there are roaming elk who might be as delighted as me by a plot of fresh organic produce just sitting there mirage-like in a vast field of hay. There are hundreds of varieties of tomatoes that the Safeway shopper never sees and there is nothing like the flavor of one you pick yourself on a late August morning. So there I was yesterday, making little troughs in seed starting trays and placing the tiny white dried gems half an inch apart, placing the trays on our condo bedroom window, waiting for them to sprout and need replanting, for which I have no concrete plan. I just want tomatoes.
I dreamed about what a dumb idea this was, how I’d have more luck convincing our notoriously uptight HOA to let me plant a garden on the roof, when I woke up to this email subject line from my usually rational and practical husband, written after he’d noticed the trays on the windowsill with their neat labels:
“I love your little Queen Anne starter farm.”
I was looking through my dad’s folder of handwritten recipes for the Coq au Vin he used to make, my choice for Valentine’s Day dinner, when I found another–Greek Pork Stew. It sounded like the perfect thing for a cold winter night and something that would freeze well for next week when I’m on a cheese-making course in Lynden and my husband is here; I thought it would be nice to have a few alternatives to his usual home-alone peanut butter toast. Until a few years ago, I thought pork was the worst of all meat–a pale, dry, tasteless lump. And then came exposure to farm-raised pigs and I understood; that crate-free life foraging in the sun and fresh air isn’t just more humane, it makes for pork that is rich, slightly red in color and full of fat and flavor.
Greek Pork Stew
1 1/2 lbs. pork shoulder, cubed
4 or 5 T olive oil
1/2 lb. small white onions, peeled and left whole
8 cloves garlic, sliced
1 28-oz can whole tomatoes, cut into pieces in the can with kitchen shears
1 1/2 cups red wine
2 bay leaves
zest of one lemon (remove strips with a vegetable peeler)
1 T chopped fresh rosemary
2 tsp. dried oregano
2 T chopped fresh basil
salt and pepper
Brown the pork in olive oil in a dutch oven, working in a couple of batches. Remove and set aside. Add the onions and garlic and cook gently, adding a little water to keep from burning, for about 5 minutes, covered. Remove cover, add back the pork and remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and place the lid on, but not tightly, so that some of the liquid can escape. Simmer for about 2 or 3 hours or until the pork is very tender. Remove pork and onions with a slotted spoon and set aside. Raise heat on stove and simmer liquid until thickened. Return pork and onions to pot and stir to heat through. Serve with roasted potatoes or with orzo.