Another Season Passes – But We Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop

Next week is the last CSA delivery of the season.

radishes

I can hardly believe it. It was just the other day we were setting up the bunker in the greenhouse for the first round of seeding, wasn’t it?

Time moves strangely always for me, but particularly so in the last eight months. Not sure where it all went or how we got here, where I’m wandering Philly before 7am and posting up at a coffee shop in Fairmount in all my winter gear before work at my old office.

ocf

OCF Coffee House – this pot of tea and breakfast sandwich made my whole week. Ya’ll don’t even know.

August-October passed in a straight-up blur. It was really hot for awhile, I remember that. I remember the weeds, of course. And I remember a fair number of markets chock full of awesome and adorable humans. But it was a crazy frenzy, interrupted by bouts with new friends, hilarious market antics and small animals.

Stubbz

Baby Stubbz was a big hit at market.

market kitten

Farm Fresh, Local Kitten!

melon faces

And then there was that time Steve hosted a coup at the Saturday market.

Both markets ended two weeks back, and last week I had my first Saturday off since May. It was so surreal and so very calm. I think I drove around a little aimlessly in New Tripoli just because I could.

Not that we aren’t without farm work. Not just yet. We are packing up the season – organizing, breaking down supplies, and thinking already about what we need to do better next year. We have over twenty pounds of garlic that went into the ground last week, and another seven to go before we’re through. We’ve been awaiting soil test results, thinking about what the future holds, and printing 2015 CSA pamphlets.

Not that I’m still soldiering on at that manic summer speed. I’m sleeping more. I’m really enjoying nights with Epsom salt baths and movies. I’m moving a little slower to cut the last of the CSA greens in the field. I still work at the health food store three days a week, and now I work 2-3 days in Philadelphia, archiving and helping with Toy Drive business in my old stomping grounds at The Support Center for Child Advocates. I’ve been starting to run again – which I don’t have the time or energy to keep up with in the thick of the season but which makes me happier than I ever really realize until I start doing it again after a period of stagnancy. I’ve been ordering books to read on Amazon. I’ve been lying around, occasionally, trying to learn how to do nothing.

Oh, and working on my house. Did I mention I got a house?

Like I said, it’s been a weird last few months.

My parents, who guide and support me in all things, believe in my endeavor enough to help financially back my soon-to-be home-ownership. The business did expand exponentially this year, and I still love farming, so we figured it made sense to look into buying rather than renting in the area. And when they showed me Little House a few months ago, I lost my mind.

I mean, look at it. It's the most adorable teeny house I've ever seen. And the trees are great. I've already spent an hour reading in one of them.

I mean, look at it. It’s the most adorable teeny house I’ve ever seen. And the trees on the other side of it are great. I’ve already spent an hour reading in one of them.

In the last few weeks since settlement, I’ve spent hours in Home Depot trying to navigate pex fittings and ceiling fans. Two of my oldest and dearest friends from home, Steve and Mike, have decided to invest their time and energy into getting this place in order for me. Electrical and plumbing work for food and beer? Yeah, I think I can manage that.

I truly have some incredible friends. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve this love from them and so many of the people close to my soul, but I am so, so grateful to have them.

The end of the season has been exciting for my family, too. Instead of getting bored about winter, Mom was gifted a puppy, and there is warm little ball of light in there house that makes her so happy. And Arya Stark is pretty adorable, even for a Jack Russell.

Strider is probably the least thrilled of the team to have Arya in our midst.

Strider is probably the least thrilled of the team to have Arya in our midst. But he loves her, too. 

But back to Crooked Row. I’ve learned so much again this year, I’m not sure where my brain is storing it all (or rather, I do – I can’t seem to find my car keys, like, ever, and I am constantly setting things down and forgetting where I put them). I had a really supportive and sweet CSA base this year, who didn’t complain when they got piles of summer squash for a few weeks straight or that my corn never grew to fruition. I’m doing an end-of-the-season survey next week to see what folks really thought of the season, and no matter what comes of it, I’ll learn more there, too, about what it is people are looking for in their local food sources.

tea

Near the end of the season I finally got my act together and started making tea blends. By the last market I had some on the table and folks were ecstatic. Though the blends still need some tweaking in terms of recipes, I ordered some more herbal books and want to take some more courses in this vein to create some really delicious and beneficial tea blends in the next season. And the dried herbs smell amazing. If you have any interest in these things, give me a shout at liz.m.wagner@gmail.com or any other way on the contact page. I’m trying to set up a tab for them on here in the next week or so.

logo design

As usual, there is an enormous list of folks to thank for this season. Many of you know who you are. My mom, dad, grandma, aunt, sis, friends and family for all the helping and guiding hands and motivational support. The Lehigh Valley for all the networking opportunities and support for the local food community. The Philly home base for being supportive customers and beautiful, sweet friends. And the kids of West Mt. Airy for being the most hilarious market pals/pseudo interns I could have hoped for. The Community Art Collective for providing summer activities and support and PR for the Wednesday market throughout the season. If you’re in Philly, check these folks out. They are doing some really cool things over in the Mt. Airy/Germantown area. The Food Trust and Farm to City for allowing me into such lovely markets all season and for hiring such magnificent managers.

carrot

 

broccoli

On Tuesday PA WAgN held an event at the farm featuring the beautiful, strong and amazing ladies of Green Heron Tools. Liz and Anne brought their lady-friendly tiller for the women to try out in the fields, and while Liz ran the tests, Anne taught us about ergonomics and the importance of understanding the differences in men and women’s bodies, particularly in terms of agricultural tools. We learned how to use our bodies and equipment more efficiently and safely to protect ourselves over time. It was such a fun event, and ladies came from all over to participate.

lexi tiller

Liz and Lexi, an urban farmer from Easton, running the tiller.

ladies ergonomics

Anne explains the importance of additional grips and posture while doing even the most basic of farm tasks to protect your body.

lexi and liz

This past summer I was also nominated to the Lehigh Valley’s Farmland Preservation Board, which is a really cool opportunity that both they and I are really jazzed about. We get to help farms get funded for preservation, which offers a financial incentive to owners to give up their developmental rights and preserve farmland as farmland forever in the area. More to come on this development as I learn more about the process, but it is surely a necessary function as farmland continues to disappear all over the state at a rapid rate.
board papers

This winter is set to be a phenomenal one. I have so many projects and mind – from the tea to that lot in North Philly to some oral history projects I’ve had on the back burner for months.

And I want to learn, and not just about farming. I want to see what people love about their crafts and watch passions grow. I want to know my friends and acquaintances better, and learn about people I see every day but never have a chance to talk to. If you’ve got a story, I’d love to hear it.

learning

If anyone is interested in next year’s CSA, drop me a line. I’ll be posting more on that in a month or so. But if you work in an office or somewhere where you think others would be interested in learning about farm share opportunities or the importance of local food, please let me know! I’d love to come in sometime and talk about this with you guys.

Thanks for everything, folks. If you’re in the Lehigh Valley or Philly and would like to go on some adventure or other, let me know. I’ll be bopping around trying to raise vibrations and spread that good field energy everywhere I go.

Yours in Love and Kale,

Farmer Liz

 

Because Every X-Men Needs an Origin Story or My Quarterly Identity Crisis

I remember the instant I sealed the deal on this future.

I was sitting in a car with my then boss, filled with the nervous conviction teenagers have during break-ups, when I told him I was leaving the city in a month and going to work on a vegetable farm in New York. “I’m not meant to save the world this way,” I said. “I want to feed people.”

Liz Wagner: Queen of Dramatics.

Weeks have gone by when I forget this end goal, this purpose, this reason I had for dropping a 180 on everything and everyone in my life and vanishing into a world of soil and green things. But whenever someone asks me my farm’s mission statement, or I’m faced with the sobering need to defend my new(ish) career choice, I remember why I wanted to do this in the first place.

I want to feed people. I want my friends and family and acquaintances to be able to eat delicious, healthy food and be able to see where it’s growing if they want to come for a visit. I want people to learn how to trellis peas and the best way to weed onions and what hardneck garlic feels and tastes like. I want to get green food to people who haven’t had a grocery store in their neighborhoods in years. I want chefs to expose their customers to new and unusual foods that will make them want to start eating differently or try their hand at growing their own foods.

With the food culture the way it is right now, it’s really easy to lose sight of your purpose in the wake of the social stigmas and villianization that is happening with farmers today. This is something I’ve been thinking about for years now but have never really been able to articulate until now.

I was sitting in a park in Northwest Philadelphia the other day where my newest market will be starting in a month or so. It’s a newly-renovated park with a brand new rec center, benches and trees. The center is run by two women, and I was meeting with two of the awesome women who lead The Food Trust to talk logistics and get to know each other. This amazing organization promotes food accessibility within neighborhoods and institutions, and does a lot of education on a now-national scale.

I sat on a bench reading a book, a collection of stories about new farmers, and the excitement I felt about this upcoming market and the anxiety I felt about being away from the farm all morning still couldn’t compare with the frustration I felt toward many of these new farmer/writers and the sentiments expressed in this anthology.

Don’t get me wrong – I think the program that spearheaded the book years ago is an amazing one, full of opportunities to share ideas, socialize and work with like-minded folks, and their hearts are a thousand percent in the right place. And a fair number of the stories do feature the hardworking, humble, financially-draining trials of folks looking to break into the farm world.

But over and over again there was the same sentiment – this sense that what these new farmers were doing was so novel, and so noble, and so much better than what you do with your life. There were younger, anti-establishment folks who wanted to fight the powers that be. There were folks coming from a white-collar background with years of savings and capital who wanted to set out to start “doing the right thing,” with subtle and not-so-subtle digs at the farmers who had been supplying their food throughout life up to that point.

I took a new farmers class through my extension office last year, and I met a number of people my age who had no hesitation in expressing similar opinions. The farmers renting the land and monocropping in the area were barbarians who gave no thought to what they were doing to the environment and blasted their crops with chemical fertilizers and pesticides just to turn a buck. What we were setting out to do was to fight these evil agricultural tyrants and return to the old world of good, clean food the way it was supposed to be. It’s easy to switch from the mindset of a challenging career and the want to grow food to a crusade, and pick up the swagger that comes with such thoughts. I’ve caught myself doing it from time to time, when I’ve forgotten why I’m really here, but thankfully someone or something has knocked me off that high horse before I’ve made too much of an ass of myself.

Every time someone does this, it’s like they’re scoring a goal into their own team’s net. Farming is farming is farming, and if you’re doing it feed people, or to feed the animals that feed people, or to power the vehicles that get us to places to feed people and your head and your heart are in the right place, you’re on the same team. If you’re trying to start a farm because you think it’s cool to work at a market or because you’ve seen Union Square and Headhouse and thought, “Yeah, I can do this and make fistfuls of money,” or because you want the cred, you’re in the wrong building. And if you think that just because you have this idea the government and crowd-funding and local groups should throw money at you to combat the evils of other food growers, you’re not even in the same complex.

All you’re doing is severing the already tense relationships between the commercial, traditional, conventional, small, sustainable, diversified and local farmers that work – literally, with the geography of our region – side by side in the fields every day.

Our PASA president cautioned against these farmer-on-farmer combative vibes in his address at this year’s conference. Though we can’t maintain a “separate but equal” mentality – not with chemical drift and industrial giant heavy-handedness as it is in marketing and government decisions – we can’t attack each other the way a lot of activist and small-farmer groups are.

Many farmers went to school to learn what they are doing, and continue to follow industry-promoted standards. Many are living hand-to-mouth  and following a path that was laid down for them before they were born. And many don’t have the resources, finances, time for educative reform or, really, time at all, to completely change an operation that is more mechanized, more organic and yielding more product than their counterparts, even if public opinion is swaying away from their practices.

I worked at a dairy this past year that cared adamantly about the quality of their milk and their animals, and many would consider them a commercial or conventional farm. They didn’t feed their calves soy-based milk replacement and would tend meticulously to a sick or injured animal. They cared passionately about their work – it was what they were educated to do and grew up doing. And these farmers talked to me all the time about how they felt they had to be on the defensive with these “new farmers” who came in and tried to tell them they were doing it wrong, and how they were insidious in their actions as supporters of Big Agricultural.

And I hated it. I hated feeling like I fall into that demographic of a young/new farmer who picks fights with their comrades. We’re all heading the same way. We’re all trying to feed people. But we all have different ways of getting to that end result. If science and evolution proves that what one of us is doing is harmful to the other, I want to believe we’ll work together and not in opposition to do what’s best for each party. There are so many combative and differing studies on everything – so many that each side ends up looking (and feeling) like the bad guy at some point. And at this point there’s people saying, “But what about the antibiotics, Liz? And what about the pesticides and the Round-Up Ready corn?” and “How can you say these things and practice what you do?”

To those people, I say, “Hey, look at my broccoli.”

My beautiful, giant – and completely worm-ridden – broccoli. We spent hours cleaning the worms out of the broccoli last season and still didn’t catch them all. I didn’t use a single chemical in my field last year, and that is what I saw. Yes, there are organically approved substances to use. But some of them are just very diluted forms of what conventional folks use. Yes, there are homeopathic and natural remedies that are somewhat effective. But can you imagine the expense and scope, and the time to commit to trial and error needed to use these methods on, say, the amount of broccoli a grocery store needs to supply an area of people? Because let’s be honest – I don’t see a near future (maybe distant, but not near), where the majority of folks are heading out to their local markets once or twice a week for all their needs.

And I can’t imagine cleaning out that many worms, for sure.

I know there’s a middle ground in there somewhere where lots of successful growers reside, but that’s not me, not yet. I didn’t go to school for this – my education if a few years clawing around in the soil – so I can’t pretend to be overly-knowledgeable – but I also can’t be cocky or judgmental in my approaches. There’s just no reason for it.

And not to say roles aren’t reversed, as well. Sometimes I walk into a store around here for cover crop or fish emulsion and am immediately not taken seriously by the staff because I’m the 25-year-old female asking what is the best winter cover to use in my area. Sure, that may be a stupid question to an old hand, but I’m happy and unashamed to admit I’m still new to this. A tattooed friend who comes to help me on occasion gets carded at my hardware store. I’ve had people laugh at me when I tell them what I do. People ask me how my garden is doing at least once a week. At market, people kept asking me who I worked for (until I made my tag-line “Lady-Run,” anyway). And a number of folks didn’t take me seriously until I survived and thrived my first solo year because so many idealists get into this venture without the real drive or plan you need to make it work.

I’m not sure where I fit into all this. I am the mutant of the agricultural world. My parents run an auto body shop. Their parents had family farms, but until we bought the land that I’m farming now, my hands didn’t dig further than our backyard garden. Until I was 22 I thought wholeheartedly that I would be a journalist, and then for another two years I thought I would run a social services program in a city. I got straight A’s in school and ran extra-curriculars. I hug my parents regularly.

I’m not a disgruntled chef, an anarchist, a tattoo-covered train-hopper looking for seasonal work , a girl caught up in the notion of working the land with her romantic partner, or someone who is trying to take down big ag singlehandedly or plunged into this adventure with a blind ideology, a soapbox (but look at me now! Hah!) or a wish to fall off the grid. I wanted to feed people. And this is the way I am choosing to do it.

Maybe I’m talking in circles. I’m sure I’m talking in circles. I think about this stuff for hours at a time in the greenhouse or weeding in the field and don’t draw any significant conclusions or resolutions from it. I’ve straddled this talk from farmers and customers on both sides of the line. Sometimes I just feel like a pretentious bitch. Sometimes I feel defeated. Or exhausted. Mostly just confused. But I keep reminding myself -. practice patience, practice empathy, and keep trying to feed people.

-Farmer Liz

Cue the AC/DC – We’re Back!

You see that down there?

HooooRAYYY!

HOOOORAYYY!

That’s some baby garlic coming up in the field. Yeah, I’m excited. And for those of you who’ve had the Keith Stewart Rocambole, I’m sure you are, too.

photo5

Hello, Starshine. We are so glad you could join us.

photo14

Copyright Sarah Merusi

photo15

Friend Sarah’s crazy fish lens captures the the mom/daughter planting excitement

The spinach is up. So is the kale, lettuce, beets, salad greens, assorted herbs and a plethora of other baby veg. The peppers are almost all up at this point, and every day my mom walks into the greenhouse and speaks softly and sweetly to the eggplants and tomatoes, coaxing them with promises of fun and parties if they hurry up and germinate (which I think Pennywise the Clown did too, right?)

tomato box

Tomato Kingdom

tomato country

And we seeded like 35 types of tomatoes, by the way.

In the field, the sorrel is chugging along, the perennial herbs are making their small and sturdy resurgence and the peas, radishes, beets and spinach I sowed last week should be up soon. Sometimes I find myself standing on the edge of the field wanting to seed and sun dance for them like the sisters in My Neighbor Totoro…but our field is just too close to the road. Too many people slow down to look at what weird things we are doing in the field on a day-to-day without drawing extra attention to ourselves.

And the garlic is up. THE GARLIC IS UP. Did I mention that? You can’t see this but I have paused in my writing to hug myself in excitement.

Two weeks back I took myself on a last grand adventure for the season. I headed out to Pittsburgh – one of my favorite drives and one of my favorite cities – to visit some dear friends, see Neutral Milk Hotel be great and spend hours in the Phipps Conservatory, a huge beautiful greenhouse building full of the most beautiful and exotic plants I’ve ever seen. It was a great way to kickoff a farm bound season in the beautiful LV.

phipps 006

015 - Copy

044 111

083

It’s a banana tree! In the middle of Pittsburgh!

024 - Copy

Oh look, a room full of airplants!

Not that there aren’t things to do in the beautiful Lehigh Valley. My friend Steve and I are slowly working our way through those delightful cases of our  Belgian tripel – and it was really satisfying to take a couple down to Philly and have the boys be surprised at how great it tasted (I am an okay baker, but the Keith boys know I am renowned for big ideas and bad delivery when it comes to cooking – see the twig debacles of 2012). The other day we transferred our maple coffee porter into glass for a couple weeks and added some bacon infused vodka – soooo we’ll see how that goes. But I’m excited nonetheless. I spent part of yesterday reading about herb-infused beers, and I can’t wait to give those a whirl this summer.

And this past weekend I had the pleasure of a lovely dinner with My Grandmother’s Table, a friend’s catering and dining experience company out of Allentown. A bag of sorrel for the dinner got me two seats at her small-party table at Ruby’s Floral Factory in Bethlehem for a night of food and fun that owner Dina Valentini Wanamaker modeled after her childhood Easter Table. I had a blast, made some new friends and she turned my bag of baby sorrel into a fantastic salad with Bulgarian Feta, watercress and garlic vinaigrette.

sorrel

The first field greens of the season. Makes my heart sing.

Add another five courses of pork marsala, chicken roulade with sage and mozz, and homemade raviolis, and you can imagine the evening we had. We’re working on a vegetarian festival meal for September, so stay tuned. We’re talking apps, herb-infused drinks and some amazing vegetable entrees, so get stoked.

sorrel and feta salad

Sorrel and feta salad. Yummm.

It’s been a season with a lot of potential already. It makes me nervous, but I can’t help but feel lucky and excited, too. My cousin got a small cafe in Coopersburg to give me a call about buying vegetables this season. The sous chef at Curious Goods at the Bake Oven Inn reached out a couple days ago on Facebook. My boys have their folks at the Alehouse interested in some after-market vegetables. Tonight The Support Center for Child Advocates is auctioning off a CSA half share for an amazing cause at its Annual Benefit. The guys at Philly Foodworks and I haven’t met in person yet, but we talk frequently and are thrilled to be working together this year.

And for the biggest announcement – The Food Trust has given me a Wednesday Market in the La Salle-ish neighborhood in Philly. I’ll be over at the intersection of Mt. Pleasant and Chew on the Germantown/Mt. Airy border! I can’t wait. After a year of playing the scrappy huckster, I feel almost shell-shocked that folks have reached out to me to learn more and get involved in procuring some vegetables. Coupled with the Farm to City East Falls market, I am looking forward to a full and busy season in the city.

Which, of course, means wayyyy more vegetables need to be up and growing than last year. It’s a little overwhelming to think about, especially with all the weather delays this season, but my dairy boss reminds me regularly that everyone is in the same boat and that you can’t control these things. Which makes me feel better most of the time, aha.

field field work

It can be scary to go out there and seed three or four times as much of a crop than I did last year, but I know it’s well worth it. Folks were so happy with what we had to offer last year, and with a little more experience hopefully there will be more of all the favorites. This is still a big experiment year – I am trying lots of different varieties of each vegetable to discern what works best in my soil and this area – but I hope all this research and studying pays off. People see my hauling this backpack of magazines and books around and ask me if I’m still a student – and while I know what they mean and assert that I’m not, I really am.

class

In other Farmstead news, my folks are more than halfway moved up to the new home. Glenn has dreams of an orchard like the one on his childhood farm, so we ordered a pile of fruit trees from our Willow Haven Farm neighbors and got them in the ground last week. I spent a couple minutes making a cute and readable map for my parents to keep track of these guys, since they technically aren’t part of Crooked Row Farm (until I start stealing fruit in a few years, maybe).

Farmstead Tree Map

Right now they look much less exciting than the photo image

Right now they look much less exciting than the photo image

We’re doing a lot of mulching and they are doing a lot of painting and sanding and cleaning to get the current house in order to sell. Hope these new buyers enjoy all the secret tomatoes that are sure to pop up all around the landscaping by summer.

Glenn is also trying out a new toy – a Bobcat, which is really a glorified golf cart with shocks that drives faster. Matthew came up to seed tomatoes and make me some herb shelves the other day, and we spent a fair bit of time whipping around on this puppy. Old man Strider dog also enjoys a good ride in it.

matthew herb shelf

So excited he made some market shelves!

bobcat

Matthew is excited.

And so our journey continues. I just spent the morning seeding a bunch of herbs, and now I’m off to help landscape for the house sale. Here are some plant babies in almost-real time:

Mizuna

Mizuna! Non nom nom.

Cotelydons

Itty bitties.

Baby RR

Red Russian Kallllleee!

Mesclun Round 1

Mesclun – coming to a salad bowl near you.

All the best!

photo3