Thursday, May 31, 2012

Midwestern Food Fears

I'll miss sushi.
I have a healthy heap of fears facing me in this new project but one of the biggest is food. Mind you, concern over our food supply is one of the chief reasons for my experiment but I'm talking about what I'm going to eat in North Dakota. Truth is, there's a notable lack of healthy food options in and around the regions where our nation's food is grown.

Restaurants offer little more than iceberg lettuce, factory-raised meat, any form of potato and pie. Oh, and Walleye, the only fish variety one will find in these regions. This is distressing to a self-confessed food snob (I blame San Francisco and my early years as a food critic) who is trying to be vegetarian and on her most ambitious days, vegan.

(The glaring exception here is if you are lucky enough to receive an invitation for a home-cooked meal. Midwestern cooks are incredible, though hesitant to use spices. I'm hoping to score a few invites.) 

Remote rural grocery stores can be a shock to a person used to buying organic produce and local products. Though I avoid Whole Foods (for the cost, not the inventory), I buy fresh produce and/or staples several times a week - nothing processed. My market of choice here in Colorado is Sunflower; in California, Trader Joe's, of course!

This strict policy may induce eye rolling but the truth is, I am not opposed to processed foods (favorites include Pringles, Kraft Mac & Cheese, all breakfast cereals and my biggest vice, Diet Coke) but they are bad for my body and I try to resist; I'm not always successful. (I always lose control on road trips.)

I do, however, make my own ice cream, hummus, hollandaise sauce and vanilla extract and hope to add a few more items to the list very soon. I've attempted homemade yogurt and bread but both were failures. I'll give it another go once I get settled but I worry that the ingredients for these items will not be available and I'll have to turn to Amazon. (One way or another, the FedEx guy is going to be among my new friends.)

Olive oil, next to the lard, which actually better for you than margarine.
On my prep trip to NoDak in April, I visited the grocery store in nearby Walhalla to see if my staples were available and was relieved to see quite a few mandatory items, among them:
  • Garlic
  • Olive Oil
  • Garbanzo Beans - pricey though, $1.99 for 15 oz., compared to 99 cents here.
  • Wheat tortillas
  • Organic milk - I'm not drinking milk anymore but I found this encouraging. 
Encased in plastic, like everything else.
There was plenty of produce, all of it completely wrapped in plastic (even the bell peppers), likely to protect it from its long journey from Mexico or Guam. The produce will only be a challenge for me in the first month or two, until everyone's garden starts to produce. Brent tells me that the only time people lock their cars in NoDak is in summer: "Otherwise, people will put extra stuff from their garden in your car. I forgot to lock it last year and found a bunch of zukes and tomatoes in my truck." 

Such is a North Dakota reverse crime wave - people putting things in your car, instead of stealing it. 

Alas, no organic apples to be found, one of my favorite snacks and the #1 food on the Dirty Dozen list of foods with pesticide residue. Maybe I'll make a friend with an organic apple tree - this is my best hope.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What's a bad-ass anyway?

Occasionally, there are moments in life that stick in your mind - images that are seared onto your brain, words spoken that ring in your ear for months, years, decades.

I had such a moment not long ago when I first told my pal, Laura, about my SCRANCH plans. I'll never forget it, we were driving down Speer Blvd., here in Denver, and we had just come from putting down her beloved kitty, Lil. I'd come along with her for emotional support and once we were getting close to home, she turned and - like all good friends do - asked what was going on in my life.

Laura is someone I have known since 1998, back when we were co-receptionists in San Francisco at a crazy place called Macromedia (along with our other Charlie's Angel, Rachel). We experienced the full insanity of the dot com boom together and I was sitting next to her when I first heard about the Columbine shootings. So, it's ironic that all these years later, we should find ourselves living within five blocks of one another here in Colorado.

Me and Laura in front, Rachel in back - circa 1998.
After I gingerly and faux-boldly (I was still new at saying all this stuff out loud) explained my plan, it got quiet. Finally, she spoke with shocked admiration in her voice:

"Um, that's kind of bad-ass." 

To which I could only respond:

"Yeah, I guess. But that's really a pretty loooooooong hyphen between 'bad' and 'ass' - I have a LOT to figure out and learn. My muscles, for one, are going to have a serious wake-up call."

We laughed at this glaring truth and since then I have pondered what it really means to be a bad-ass. It's a term I like to use for people (especially women) I greatly admire, people who get important shit done but still have the tenderness to care for small things while retaining the ability to laugh loud and often. Hillary Clinton is bad-ass. Lady Gaga is bad-ass. Sandra Bullock is bad-ass. Madeline Albright is bad-ass. Chrissie Hynde is unquestionably a bad-ass. Same goes for PJ Harvey. These are people who, in their own specific style, reject fear and move forward to do great things. I aspire to these attributes and this plan is my own way of reaching higher than I think I can. 

The first person that comes to mind when I ponder this 'bad-ass" term is my friend and former college roommate, Laurianna. She's a firefighter and paramedic who lives in New Mexico and is the mother of two of my favorite boys, Wyatt and Jack, my godson. Besides being in top physical condition (really, it's pretty amazing - her triceps would make you cry), she (and her parents) have provided a stable sounding board, a non-judgmental place for me to explore religion and develop my own spirituality.

She's is a phenomenal mother, a loyal friend and one of the best gigglers that I know. She a damn good cook, a conscious citizen of Earth and is enthusiastic about life. In fact, I'm pretty sure there is no hyphen necessary when I call Laurianna a full-fledged BADASS.

Recently, when I watched over her kids while she ran the Bataan Memorial Death March, I said to Wyatt, "You know your mom's a bad-ass, right?" 

With a proud smile, he said, "Yeah, I know."  Talk about raising the bar for the future Mrs. Wyatt!

Me? My hyphen is certainly longer than I would like but the Universe is giving me (mostly) all green lights on this project so I've got to keep my eyes on that prairie prize. Yup, my bad-------------ass skills are going to take some work but I'll get there.

Recently, I met a woman in a bar who had read this blog and was under the impression that I had already moved to North Dakota. My apologies if I have not been clear: I am still in Denver, packing up all my things, tying up loose ends and preparing for my new old-style life in North Dakota.

After possiby fighting a hangover the morning after a rousing Hearthstone send-off on Friday night, ("A Barnyard Bash!"), we'll stuff all my worldly belongings into a 17-foot U-Haul truck on Saturday. Sunday morning, June 3, we hit the road and head straight north for two days. Tuesday, June 5 will be my first full day as a NoDak citizen.

I'm terrified, exhausted and nervous. I'm also excited, happy and somewhat impressed that I haven't backed out yet.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Plot Thickens

Yeah, so here it is, my thick plot.

In a night of inspiration, we drank wine and Kirk drew up the plans on the chalkboard. As previously mentioned, it's about 30'x75' and here's the truth: I don't even know what that means.

But I will know every inch of dirt soon enough. 

The little square is the plot size that I am currently accustomed.

Each of the eight sections is about 15'x18' and I'll grow things like Black Dakota Popcorn, Howden-Dakota Strain Pumpkin, Uncle David's Dakota Dessert Squash, eggplant, chilies, lettuce, spinach, garlic, Amish Paste Tomatoes, Cherokee Purple Tomatoes, Dakota Sport Tomato, Fargo Yellow Pear Tomato, Wisconsin 55 Tomato, Crimson Sprinter Tomato, radishes and Dakota Winter Onions. I've got a few different aspects of seed selection going:

  • What do I want to eat?
  • What will transport easier?
  • What has a longer shelf life?
  • What is currently not being over-grown in folks' backyards?
  • What is a proven success in that region?
  • What has a cute name? 

The land is located on the exact frickin' border of Gardening (Hardiness) Zones 3a and 3b, indicating that the average annual winter extremes are -35 and -30 degrees. Brrrrrr! (Remember, this is not the average temperature, it's the average EXTREME temperature.) 

I've learned that either global warming or more sophisticated technologies - depending on who is talking - have resulted in more of North Dakota landing in Zone 4, meaning a longer growing season but more vulnerability to Japanese beetles and earwigs. Yeesh.


I can only sit back and marvel at all that I have to get done before the potential moving day of June 2. Just for the sake of sheer terror, let's make a list:

Finish buying seeds: I have most of what I need from the nice folks at Prairie Road Organic Seeds but still need to grab the easier, feed myself stuff - spinach, tomatoes, herbs. 

Dan and Theresa Podoll of Prairie Road Organic Seeds outside Jamestown, ND - they made me tea and popped me some yummy Dakota Black Popcorn, one of my featured crops.
Secure Housing: Brent found 27-foot camper-trailer for sale in a nearby town, being sold by an elderly couple that he, of course, knows. He called for more info but it had been sold. Another friend's friend has something similar for sale too but it's in another state and I don't have time to fetch. Back to Square One - Craigslist and the power of the Universe. 

Truck Alignment: It's time.

Stock Funky Food Staples: raw almonds, natural peanut butter, tahini, Clif Bars and my biggest indulgement, fuzzy water.

Don't judge.
Empty Storage Space: Thankfully, it's not too big (8'x10') but I cannot WAIT to cease paying this most modern and ridiculous bill every month. The Quonset hut will be my new storage locker, saving me money and a small bit of pride. 

Change Banks: Because I am self-employed, my deposits must be done in person at either an ATM or a branch, no direct deposit. My current bank, Chase, has never even heard of NoDak so I need a nation-wide bank with a Grand Forks branch - the nearest bigger (American) town near me, about an hour's drive straight (what else?) south. This leads to the dreaded switching of all online payments over to the new account. Such details are the necessary evils of going off-grid in 2012.

Stuff Sift: Go through all my belongings and pack them. I think we can all agree that this is a certain kind of physical and emotional pain that comes from relocation. There will be lots of boxing and bending and wondering why I own so much.

Mail: For now, I'll switch to the local address of a friend and get a PO box set up in one of three nearby towns - Walhalla, Neche or Cavalier - haven't decided which one yet.

One of the co-founders of Green Heron, not sure which.

Buy Tools: There are quite a few hand tools already at the farm but Green Heron offers tools specifically designed for women. I met the company founders, Ann Adams and Liz Brensinger, at the MOSES conference. They got into the biz after searching for ergonomically designed tools for women and only finding mens' tools helpfully available in pink. Oh, brother! Anyhoo, I am dying for the HERS shovel. My 46-year-old body (the one that helpfully carries around my whacked brain) is going to need all the protection it can get.

There are a dozen other things nagging at me but my eyes are droopy it's all I can stomach for now. The List is a living, breathing thing - it will constantly evolve.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

We Broke Ground!

Okay, maybe not 'we' but Brent got out the big machines and officially made the garden more than just an idea, he made it into a big, black square. I've asked him to keep me updated via photo texts and he's been doing exactly that.

The best part? This all went down on Mother's Day. Ah, a dream was born!

"Step 1: Mow the grass down."

"Step 2: Breaking up the virgin sod."

"Start of garden spot"
Does it look big? Well, it is. Though we'd plotted it out for 30'x72', I think about 10' got added all around, which is fine. Just because it's there, doesn't mean I need to plant all of it I'll still be fighting quackgrass anyway.

In other related news, I spent a few hours at the Lakewood (California) AT&T store upgrading my phone to a iPhone 4, plus insurance, plus super industrial protective camo gear for the phone that makes me look like a deer hunter; I spent about $530, just one of many painful purchases I'll be making in the days ahead. My only hope is that, by not paying rent, I'll be able to address my finances later.

Anyway, they showed me how to activate my iPhone so it will be its own wi-fi hotspot when I'm out there on the farm, typing away on the camper trailer that I still have to find.

One step at a time....

Friday, May 11, 2012

Housing Setbacks

I've been camper-trailer shopping lately and it's financial/emotional roller coaster. This photo is of a 1982 used one I found on Craigslist for $3700. I like it well enough and the owner has taken great care of it but it is lacking a few modern cushies, like air conditioning and a microwave. NoDak gets majorly humid in the summer - much like New York - so this would be mandatory.

I'm looking forward to 'roughing it' but I also don't want to be found dead of heat stroke in a giant metal box, y'know?

Kirk and I took all of Wednesday to nail down a purchase and we ended up at a few big RV lots. My horizons were expanded - or should I say "popped out" - and my budget went from $6K to $17K a bit too fast. Those new trailers with the pop out beds are swank! I learned that sometime after 2000, air conditioners and microwaves became standard so it's probably best to get something from this century.

Eventually, I ended up putting $3K down on a used Jayco 2006 trailer that I scored for $10,500 -not a bad deal. However, the financing fell through this morning so I'm back to square one. Seems banks won't loan money to poor people (that's me) unless they buy something new, even though we're trying to save money (because we're poor) and buy something used. This ass-backwards philosophy is the cornerstone of the American economy.
In the end, this is as close as I've ever come to a home purchase, so even though it would be in storage half the year, the camper-trailer is going to have to be comfortable for me and house guests, like you. As I told Kirk, "I want to live my life, not hate my life."

I did think it was an odd coincidence that the nice guy who owned this older trailer was wearing a North Dakota t-shirt. Seems his buddies take a hunting trip there once a year. Despite the remaining challenge of my housing problem, I thought it a curiously good omen: 

Monday, May 07, 2012

My Empire of Dirt

Today, I sent off a couple soil samples from my "patch" of land that I plan to "farm." The quotes are necessary when you are surrounded by massive squares of industrialized farmland. It's really more like 'extreme gardening' than anything else.

About a pint of "black gold" in each bag.
Still, going from a 5'x5' square patch in our community garden to a 30'x72' patch is going to be, um, interesting. Flagging the garden space out last month, it struck me just how steep the learning curve will be. I may have to buy some climbing equipment at REI just to scale it properly.

Times like this, I stop and wonder, 'Just what makes me think I can do this, anyway?' Sheer naivete, I'm sure.

Flags in foreground mark the size I'm used to gardening. See those distant flags? They mark the space I'll be using this summer.
Selecting the patch played out like a Goldilocks story. Initially, Brent, the guy who now farms our land (and grew up there) and I had different ideas about what it would look like. I was going to start out farming about a MUCH bigger patch out at the Fife Place, down the road a bit. (This is a specific corner that everyone knows and the fact that nobody alive today can ever remember anyone named Fife actually farming the land is not important.) So, my vision originally included this:

I must have been crazy.

After a useful consult with my brother, Rob, I opted to move my operation back down to "the yard" - the land where everybody once lived, where barns and rotting buildings now reside, and the same place where I would be squatting. That way, I could wake up in my one-room palace and walk straight out into my green-brown office without leaving the property.

Such decisions cannot be made from a distance so this was the main reason for the recent road trip. Initially, Brent steered me to a side section of regularly farmed land that he had in mind.

"Has this land been growing treated seed or been sprayed in the last three years?" I asked.
"Um, yes," he said.
"Then it's not going to work." 
"Ah, okay. I see." 
"How about this space over here?" I said, walking him over to a giant green patch between a big red barn and the edge of the farmed land.

"Well, see now that's going to be a problem because this is where we drive the tractors through after coming in from the field. Also, it's awfully close to crops that are likely to be sprayed. You have to consider the wind."

He was right. I learned about buffer zones at the organic farming conference. Plus, I absolutely did not want to disrupt the normal day-to-day workings of the farm or be in the way at all. So, we kept looking around for a spot.

"How about over here, behind the grain bins?"  he offered. We surveyed a spot that was wild, uneven and spotty with grass and dirt. It looked unkempt, ragged and forgotten. It was perfect.

Brent, planting flags in my field of dreams.
From his childhood, Brent remembers the patch as being mostly cow pasture. Also, there is a section of the land where they would "bury the corn waste" - husks, failed seeds, stalks and such. To his knowledge, it has never been farmed and certainly has never been sprayed or touched by chemicals. Already, my garden patch was brimming with potential.

However, the patch is almost entirely covered in quackgrass, one of the more stubborn grasses in existence - my first known enemy. Other than cultivating (digging) the hell out of it over and over again, I don't know what else I can do since I will not be using any sprays or chemicals to combat the q-grass. I'm destined to learn a few things in that battle.

Meanwhile, I sent off two batches of the most gorgeous so-black-it's-almost-blue dirt you might ever see in your life. It looks not unlike the chopped up chocolate I use for making homemade Mint Chip ice cream:

I brought my precious soil home from North Dakota in two tupperware tubs. Whenever somebody came into the house, I'd offer, "Wanna smell my dirt?" I never waited for an actual answer, mind you, before exposing them to the wondrous aroma of fertile land. Yup, sexy, exciting times over here.

The turnaround time is pretty quick and I should get the results back in a week or so. Already, I know that it won't need much amending, like the sandy-clay soil here in Colorado. (Hence, my compost obsession.) But I want to have as much knowledge as possible before planting.

Oh yeah, I need to order more seeds too. 
And buy a camper trailer.
And pack up all my worldly goods and move.
And pick up a new speed habit, so I can get everything done...

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

The Launch of Second Chance Ranch

At 46, I’ve learned a few crucial things about myself. Evidently, I’m fond of thrusting my person into super scary scenarios, just to see if I can survive them, either physically or socially. And since I’m not yet dead or ostracized, this habit repeats itself.

Which brings us to the next Big Life Challenge - the creation of Second Chance Ranch, also known as SCRANCH.

After at least 15 years of dragging my heels and daring myself to take me seriously, I’m going to spend a summer living on my family’s land in North Dakota. (That’s North, not South. No, not the one with Mt. Rushmore, the one above it.) I will still be making my living online, as I do now, as a writer, editor and communications contractor. In late October, I will head to less wintry parts of the nation, get a well-earned massage and plot the 2013 crop.

The goal is to see if/how I can grow organic food while trying to understand the Big Ag all around me. I don’t expect to be wildly successful this first year, especially with such a late start, but I do expect to learn a lot while providing endless entertainment for the locals. I may try to sell food at the local Farmers Markets or in the western half of the state, which is going through a freakish population growth due to the oil boom. (Many hair-raising stories to come on that situation....)

Honestly, I’ll be happy if I can just feed myself this first year.

Truth is, there’s only so much you can learn from books, blogs and Michael Pollan articles, especially when reading them from the comfort of one’s urban couch. I want to understand the day-to-day, season-to-season challenges of the farmer, both organic and non. The only way to do that is be there in the thick of it and get really, really dirty. (On this recent trip, I learned the hands-on practice of automated cultivation and the windy politics of pesticide spraying - each one deserving of its own post.)

So, come June, I will pack up my worldly belongings (mostly photos, books, CDs and old concert t-shirts) and haul it all straight north. I’ll put everything in one of the many empty buildings we have and buy an affordable trailer in Grand Forks. There are a few houses on the property (including the house my mother grew up in) but they are quite unlivable, unless you are a raccoon.

To clarify my insanity, I’ll be leaving behind my wonderful best friend and partner, Kirk, our huge, luxurious home, my favorite animals - Boudreaux (cat) and Matisse (dog), numerous friends, our beloved Hearthstone cohousing community and the stunningly beautiful state of Colorado to live in a remote trailer to battle heat, dirt, bugs, pesticides and loneliness. It’s a no-brainer, right?

Lazy Apathetic Heather would not actively seek such discomforts but Crazy Impassioned Heather won the argument with a few key points:

Family: I’m related to gobs of people up there, all quite likable and supportive.
Food: I have deep concerns and need some real-world answers.
Land: Lookie here, I got some!
Animals: Horses would be back in my life, big time. Also, chickens, goats, dogs and barn cats.
Technology: This would be impossible without the Internet. Let us give thanks.
Mission: Everyone needs a legacy and this could be mine.
Creative Goals: I will blog the hell out of this, write a book, and ultimately build a recording studio and outdoor cinema spot.
Financial: Since I would not be paying for rent, storage spaces, street sweeping tickets, Wall Street Journal deliveries, massages or concert tickets, money might be saved.
Emotional: I have always felt a pull to this place for reasons I'm not yet able to articulate.

Fears? I have a massive, stinkin’ heap of those as well. And I’ll battle those bastards, one at a time.