The Farmer Within   22 comments

Tomorrow morning, I’m taking a road trip up to Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound to visit the first farm I worked on. I started working there back in the summer of 2009 and have been farming in some capacity or another ever since, though with a couple winter breaks. It’s a bit amazing to think that I’m going into my fourth season of farming, and amazing yet to think of how much I still have left to learn—how very little, to be blunt, that I know. I should have been farming for the last twenty years, not just the last three.

But while I started farming later than I wish, I’m immensely happy to have found such a satisfying way of life. It’s humbling to think of how much farming has changed my life and how different a path I now find myself on. It’s also humbling to think of how happy I am in comparison to a former life lived not farming, lost amid a panoply of questions about how best to live my life. While I’m far from having figured everything out and I still am living a life that’s far from settled, I don’t doubt for a moment that I’m on the right track. I know the general path I need to follow, even if I have no idea the curves that path will take.

One of those curves has taken place over the last few months. As I transferred from a focus on vegetable farming to animal husbandry, I started to wonder if perhaps animals were more where my farming passion lay. While I always enjoyed vegetable farming, the pace of it, to be perfectly honest, never seemed to fit me quite right. The pace of animal husbandry—at least in my experience so far, which is admittedly limited—seemed to be a better match. My initial intimidation at working with animals lessened considerably and now navigating my way around sheep, cows, pigs, chickens and other animals feels almost like second nature. There are still moments of surprise, moments of disquiet, moments of disgust, moments of uncertain consideration, but there are still more moments of joy, amusement, beauty, contemplation and connection. I like working with animals.

Something happened about a week ago, however, that suddenly pushed me back into the realm of growing vegetables. A 90′ by 40′ plot of sod was tilled up for me to make a large garden out of. It happened unexpectedly, while I was futzing around in the hoop house in which I had planted a bed of tomatoes a little over a week ago. A family member of the owners of the farm I’m living at showed up with his tractor to plow a plot that he has there and then offered to till up the area I was looking to put in a garden. I happily accepted his offer, being not too eager to try to rip up all that sod by hand—which I had actually just started to do so I could get some potatoes in the ground. With his tractor, a very long job happened very fast, and it wasn’t long before I had a glorious rectangle of fresh dirt staring back at me.

Looking at that soil, the last three years of vegetable farming came roaring back and my inner farmer decided to reassert himself with a vengeance. I stared at that fresh plot, knowing that while the land was not mine, this plot was mine to use as I please, as I saw fit. I imagined rows of veggies growing, of the abundance of late summer and early fall harvests, and of the sweat and labor of working up beds and weeding and harvesting. I imagined the ownership of it, the physical labor of it, the payoff of fresh vegetables, the magic of watching plants grow at my personal, humble bequest. (Though on the plants’ terms—always.) I felt a surge of joy and excitement and possibility that simply overwhelmed me.

I hadn’t expected that, to say the least. I’ve been excited about gardening, but I didn’t expect anything so powerful.

In that moment, I understood the beauty of the Homestead Act. I understood the importance of ownership. And I realized that, damn, I was a farmer. I’m not saying I’m destined to grow vegetables for the rest of my life, though that’s certainly one of the possible paths I could take. I’m not saying I don’t want to raise animals, because I think I do, at least on a small and personal scale if nothing else. I’m not saying I’ll have my own farm, as I have no idea if I ever will own land. But what I realized while staring at that fresh soil and the possibilities it evoked was that farming, over the last three years, had crept under my skin and burrowed deep into my being, had laid down its roots and overtaken me. I was lost to it, even if I hadn’t fully realized. The joy in me spoke to that reality.

Looking at that plot, putting my hands in the dirt, flipping through possibilities in my mind and imagining the glorious results, anticipating putting rakes in that dirt, incorporating fertilizer, working up a sweat—I longed for all of it. I wanted to do it all, right then, at that very moment, even though it was impossible. Even though it was already evening and I had other tasks to get done, I wanted nothing more than to lose myself in that plot of earth. And that instantly rejuvenated me. It lifted me back to a place I had tumbled away from.

There’s a reason this blog has been mostly dead the last three weeks. I fell into a funk of my own making, spurred on by bad habits. I’m going to write about that soon, and I originally meant to write about it today. But I still am figuring out that post. For the moment, though, just know that I had slipped into a state of bad habits, lack of motivation and distraction, and as such I was failing to accomplish some of my goals. But seeing that tilled earth somehow brought me out of that funk. The soil rebirthed me. It brought me back to the life I need to be living.

I’ve since planted sixty row feet of potatoes, some lettuce and chard and kale, and another row of tomatoes in the hoop house. It’s not much, and far more will come, but I’m still getting together seed and supplies, not having really been prepared to garden. My road trip up to Whidbey will take me through Portland on the way back this weekend, where I’ll pick up more supplies. And when I get back, the gardening will continue. But also, this blog will be back on track. Granted, June is going to be the start of what is looking like a very busy season for me. I’ll be working two or three farmers markets, plus doing farm work and taking care of my own garden. Throw in socializing and outdoor activities in the nice summer weather and there may be limited time for blogging. But I intend to keep this site going through the season and am feeling reinvigorated as to what I’ll be writing. The How To Be Poor series of posts fell off, but it’s about to come back. Encounters and The Household Economy will continue, as well, along with stand alone posts. I have plenty to say.

Expect a new How To Be Poor post soon. I’ll write about the distractions and bad habits that took hold of me, explaining my absence, and then explore how that dovetails with voluntary poverty and living a life within constrained resources. As has been the case of late, I’ll be talking also about patterns and cycles, with further words on the plot of earth that helped bring me back into my life and push me full bore into the summer season.

It’s going to be a busy couple of months, but with dirt under my finger nails, the emergence of the farmer within, new experiences, fresh vegetables and the ever-entertaining animals, I think this will be a fantastic summer. With luck—not to mention focus and discipline—I’ll be able to share a good amount of it with you guys.


22 responses to “The Farmer Within

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  1. I’ve known those same emotions and drives. You are definitely on the right path.

  2. Oh, My, God!! Whidbey Island!! What happy memories that name evokes! Me, Summer of 1964, I’m ten years old, riding the ferry back to our farm east of Seattle, blue water sparkling all around, all around, blue sky (no clouds, how rare for western WA!), sun blazing, and somewhere on the ferry, a transistor radio is blaring “And we’ll have Fun, Fun, Fun now that Daddy took her T-bird away!”. And I’m standing right next to MY Dad, he’s so happy, I’m so happy, a moment caught as if in amber for me, forever. Thank you, dear Joel, for bringing back such a happy memory for me!
    And don’t be hard on yourself, we all succumb to bad habits sometimes, the trick is to get back in line, which you seem to have accomplished! I’m looking forward to your future posts. Remember to be happy, sometimes, Joel!

    Heather E. Caparoso
    • It’s proved quite wonderful being back here, Heather. I’m glad I was able to remind you of some good memories. It’s funny, I’ve run into a number of people who are familiar with Whidbey. And, hard as it may be to believe, I actually am happy much of the time! I don’t know that I do a very good job of bringing that through in this blog. I’ll have to work on that.

  3. Hey Joel – good to have you back! Methot for bit that you’d taken a slip off one of those cliffs you showed us in your last entry.

    The Farmer within…. A friend recently informed me of a local community garden that raises produce specifically for distribution through a food bank – said they were looking for volunteers. Turned out it’s in my neighborhood. Less than a half mile away. So I walked over, talked to the lady in charge and am now in charge of the composting!! (Although I get to plant stuff and weed as well)
    I’m in heaven – makin’ worm-filled soil! Plus I get a free workout a few times a week and – best bonus of all – a small share of the veggies and I’m meeting a bunch of like-minded people!

    What could be better?

    • That’s fantastic, Martin! Sounds like a great set up. I’ve found myself shoveling some good, worm-filled compost before and I always find it quite the joy to see all those little guys wriggling around in the black soil. Such a heartening sight. If you’re meeting like-minded people and getting some veggies, I don’t know that there’s much better than that.

  4. On animals. Last week I helped some friends “process” a small flock of chickens. A first for me, who’s just moved out to the “country” in February. Well … I didn’t faint, puke or close my eyes. Guess I did ok. I’m invited back, next year. Basically, I saved steps and was another pair of hands. Grabbed chickens to take to “the guys” and hauled carcasses and innards to “the ladies” for trimming and cooling down. Emptied buckets and iced things down. We did 20 some on Monday and 30 some on Wednesday. I came home with plenty of chicken for my freezer, some canned, some frozen corn and sausage. And a Farm Store gimme cap.

    There were part of the laying flock (all four of them) wandering around. There were three that were supposed to be Leghorns, but there was a mix up at the feed store and my friends got something more exotic. Brown, black and bronze, with the nicest back pattern. Didn’t know what they were. I got lucky on the Net. They’re Barnevelders. A Dutch breed. Just being around them makes me want to get three of my own, next year.

    I stopped at the nursery, today. Now, to get the stuff in the ground. After fighting the blackberries, sod, grass and slugs. While walking, chewing gum and whistling at the same time.

    Funks, bad habits and distractions. “Here! Here! Sometimes it just seems all so overwhelming and there’s so much to do. And, I am soooo unlearned. Some days, I just want to stay in bed and pull the covers over my head. But I have that Farm Store hat to live up to. I’ll be a learnin’ by the doin’

    • I looked up some pictures of the Barnevelders, Lew, and I have to say that they’re beautiful birds. It makes me want to get a few, as well! Congratulations on helping out with the slaughter and remaining upright and in full possession of your senses throughout. I still haven’t had the experience of helping out with a chicken slaughter, but that may yet happen this fall. I missed last year’s processing because I was working a farmers market.

      I hope your stuff got in the ground and is well on its way to establishing itself. It sounds like I’m going to be able to bring a few starts home from the island here, so those’ll be going in the ground soon enough. I’m quite blessed in having a number of farmer friends who have happily offered me up some spare starts so that I can get my garden up to speed.

      • A couple of posts ago, we were talking about eggs, the seasons and recipes. I found my old “Joy of Cooking.” There is a wealth of information on eggs, but nothing really about the effects of seasonality. It did say, however, that really fresh eggs should not be used for boiling. They should be three days or older. Boiled fresh eggs may be greenish and hard to peel. Also, using very fresh eggs in cakes may cause the cake to fall. Who knew?

        As a previous bookseller and library worker, I’d recommend the older version. Sure, the newer one has lots of nutritional information, but the older version seems to have more … closer to the land items. It doesn’t assume you know a lot about cooking. The only drawback that I’ve found is that occasionally the recipes refer to one another. You’ll be plowing through a recipe and run across something like “Then add Italian dressing, recipe on page 490…” But, that’s what the red ribbons are for that are attached to the binding. Or, long strips of paper when the cross references really get out of hand.

        If the house were on fire, the cookbooks I’d grab would be my old “Joy of Cooking,” my Betty Crocker ring-bound cookbook from the 60s (most often requested cookbook … those puppies are going for $20 plus), and my old version of “Laurel’s Cookbook.”

        • An old copy of The Joy of Cooking has been on my wish list for awhile now. One of these days, I’ll get one. Just seems a treasure trove of wisdom and information.

          Interesting bit on the eggs. I’ll keep it in mind—older ones for boiling and baking.

  5. It is probably one of the tragedies of our times that the “farmer within” has been beaten out of so many people, or not allowed to take root in a receptive soul to begin with. I often wonder if much of the angst that fills so many people comes from the fact that they have been convinced by the world around them, and convinced themselves, that their good-paying job as director of marketing, or account manager, or whatever masks a truer, deeper longing for the land.

    The funk of bad habits and distractions is a tough one to get out of, and one I perpetually struggle with.

    • Excellent, Rade, I SO agree with you. I’m 58 years old, and I still feel that way. I spin, knit, weave, bake all my own bread, make soap, etc., and I still long for a piece of land to call my own. I wish my Dad hadn’t sold that farm, back when we moved to Hawai’i. I enjoy Joel’s posts and all the comments.
      Many Blessings, and Peace, on all here.

      Heather E. Caparoso
    • Thanks for the comment, Rade. I agree that it’s a tragedy of our times. It’s amazing to me the underlying prejudice of our society against farmers and people who work with their hands. I’m lucky enough to run in communities that don’t as often fall into that trap, but it’s amazing how many people seem to consider such work below that of managers and white collar workers. I can’t imagine being stuck inside day in and day out in order to make a living. (Well, I can imagine it, as I’ve done it, but I can hardly imagine putting up with it at this point in my life. No thank you.)

      I do think a good percentage of the population has an inner longing for some kind of connection to the land and to other creatures. It’s amazing how effectively our society and culture severs people from an understanding and recognition of that longing. One day I’m going to write a post about this, but I wonder if that’s not part of why we fetishize romantic love in our culture and media—that it’s an attempt to find a significant connection that will take the place of the myriad of connections to other living beings we would have if we lived lives more tied to the land and our local ecosystems.

      Anyway, I’m very vulnerable to bad habits. It’s a perpetual struggle for me, as well, and I suspect for many people. All we can do is try to be aware and keep on redirecting our energy toward productive and fulfilling work.

  6. Hi Joel,

    Good timing on your part. Sometimes those canny farmers just know what needs to be done and get on and do it. They don’t ask, they just provide the opportunity. It’s up to you to take that opportunity and it is a mark of respect to do so. I’ve had a bit of help here over the years and I’m always grateful for it. It is kind of like social currency.

    The non-farming types that I offer help to, never seem to accept it. Haven’t quite got my head around this yet, although I’m reading an account of Ligurian peasants, one of whom travelled to Australia and said we had a poor culture. Part of his many rants was that we never appreciated things that we had not paid for (a good example was of the many wild artichokes going to waste in fields around my area). Can’t say I’d argue with him either.

    Sixty feet of potatoes! Chard is a real giver and kale is great too. I struggle with cabbages hearting here because of the cabbage moth population (of course it is very possible that I’m doing something very wrong with them), but kale allows the small wrens, finches and robins to get in amongst the leaves more easily, plus the green caterpillars from their larvae are great chook food. You can even make a good coleslaw with kale, but it’s not one for the traditionalists!

    It is interesting, but I found here that the potatoes I planted in late winter yielded far better than the second crop which was planted in late summer. It was at least 5x better and there was no sign of predation or disease either. Really weird.

    Hey! It snowed here on Thursday too. The flurries were drifting down (melted before they hit the ground here though). Higher up in the range (another 300m or about 1,000ft where it is about 3 degrees celsuis cooler) the snow built up on the ground. Mind you, it was all gone about two hours later. Still fun though and great to see.

    I’m slowly losing the solar PV winter battle here though and am writing this by the light of a single 15w lamp next to the laptop. The batteries are about 53% full now and going south. I’ve sold off one of my two petrol generators and used the money to buy two more PV panels but are waiting for some dry weather to put them up on the roof.

    As to your funk, well you don’t have to blog about it. Sometimes I follow the rule, “if in doubt, do nothing”. Still at the same time I’m interested to hear about your experiences as bad habits are hard to shake and can creep up on you without noticing. So there you go, don’t ask the elves for advice as they will say both yes and no!

    Hi Martin,

    Thanks for the tip about the Lost country. I checked out the photos and it was some amazing scenery. Awesome stuff.



    • Well, a lot has changed over the years, of course, but it’s still a pretty awesome area – and most folks aren’t really aware of it, so it’s still pretty empty.

    • Oh, cabbage moth. Well familiar with that little bugger—they’ve been present at all the farms I’ve worked on, and in numerous quantity. Especially here in the Northwest, we tend to grow a lot of brassicas as they do quite well, so there’s always plenty of food around for them.

      Interesting on your potato yields. I really would have liked to get in my potatoes earlier, but I just wasn’t on the ball to get the garden going early. I did get a small patch in elsewhere maybe six weeks ago, and those are doing quite good. I’ll have to hill them up here soon. I’m hoping to get a nice yield from all these potatoes to the point that I’ll have a good stock for the winter. I’m also keeping my fingers crossed on being able to do much the same with the winter squash.

      I’ve found I quite enjoy hanging around with farmers. You’re right—there’s always plenty of opportunity to get things done when you’re with them and, well, that seems to engender a certain generosity of spirit. At least, it often does for me. I like offering up help when others need it and that help tends to be returned. It’s an excellent way of strengthening community—not just in social bonds, but in infrastructure and physical accomplishment, as well.

      I am going to write about the bad habits, as I think there’s something of value to be said there. And while it feels a bit embarrassing in some regards, I’m not too worried about fessing up. It’s nothing too terrible, anyway. I was aiming to have that post up tonight, but I helped put up a fence and hauled a bunch of heavy wood today and I find myself crashing now. I think it will have to wait until tomorrow, though tomorrow’s looking pretty busy with gardening, working here on the farm, and socializing in the evening. We’ll see how it goes.

  7. Hi Lew,

    Much respect to you for your journey and your involvement in the processing of the chooks. Well done, it’s not easy at all.

    A mate of mine has a small flock of Barnevelders and swears by them as they are a good all round meat and egg bird. Very regal plumage too. A very good purchase.

    About the eggs. The change in taste is because of the seasonality of their feed. Of course if they just eat commercial layer pellets then you’ll have a consistent if bland tasting egg, but if they get out in the garden and have a forage then they will eat all sorts of things at different seasons. Chooks raised on pellets seem to be really desperate for greens and I’ve noticed they love comfrey and dandelions. They should also have a bit of crushed sea shell (we use oyster grit here) in their diets too. The shells are hard in home grown eggs if they are getting enough calcium in their diet. If you can accidentally put your finger through their shell, then they are deficient. Commercial eggs are soft, although just hard enough to travel, our lot here can get dropped and not break. Also home grown eggs are also harder to peel for some reason, although I’m not sure why?

    Hope you guys have a gentle Summer too, I’m jealous although winter here is pretty mild. You lot would laugh at me if I complained.



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  9. I just came across your blog today as I was looking for agricultural jobs/internships on Whidbey Island. I am really enjoying your blog and want to read all that you have posted. I am a student in Sustainable Living here in Fairfield at Maharishi University of Management, an older student, mid forties age, with one and a half years to finish this degree. Well, I miss my Dad and my sister who live on Whidbey, in Freeland, and really want to relocate out there where the climate is nice year around. I just discovered my love of farming, working here in the greenhouses on campus, I have come alive with joy and the feeling of being connected with nature; and the exciting thing is that I could make this my lifes work and make a living at it to some degree. I am drawn to the training offered at Greenbank Farm, looks like just what I am looking for, and which isn’t offered at my school. Maybe I should just forget about the degree, and jump right in to a training program like this. Can you give me your opinion on Greenbank Farms program and learning experience? I am flexible as to location, though really want to come back to the northwest and settle. Hope to hear from you soon. Just in case, my email is : Peace, Chandi

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