Thursday, August 29, 2013

Farmus Interruptus

Wednesday night gang - Monkey's Uncle and Friends
It's that time of year when I abandon my garden (painful, painful) and head to the beautiful city of Denver, Colorado to co-produce a fundraising project I started six years ago. Every summer, my comedy husband, Steve Loukas, and I put on a comedy improv festival to benefit Smile Train, the amazing folks who do cleft repair surgery on poor kids all over the world. Having experienced facial disfigurement (and the resulting 25 surgeries) for the first 21 years of my life, I have made this my personal charity of choice.

As I type this, we are four shows in to the festival and have three more to go. We enjoyed some unprecedented media coverage this year including my 17-minute radio interview with host Wayne Yaffee - it broadcast the weekend of 8/17 and 8/18 on four stations - KOSI, KALC, KQMT and KEZW. Also, we made the Denver Post (print and online) as well as snippet on 5280's website. Huzzah!

Just this morning, I received some incredibly good news. My dear friend, Valerie Liberty, works for an insanely cool company, Balsamiq, and through them has made a sizable donation ($3800!) to our fundraising campaign. If you go their site, she's the gorgeous mama in orange. (Doesn't that look like a fun place to work?)

Mind you, Val is not only the mother of my very favorite farm intern, Eleni, she is now my biggest donor. When I called today to make sure she really meant all this and there were no numerical typos, she said: "I've decided it's the Year of Heather!" and then went on to tell me about how proud she was to be my friend.

Incredible. I am still stunned and wondering how I can properly thank Val and Balsamiq in meaningful way. Perhaps I'll send them some garlic.

Sunday night crew: Gay v. Str8t
Being yanked out of the rural farm life and plopped in a city, hanging out with snappy comedians every night, well, it's quite the cultural shift. My witticisms are slower but my driving is faster. I worry about the ravenous corn fungii that I'd found (again!) on my popcorn just before I left and I simultaneously worry about filling theater seats each night and if the funds raised will be worth all the effort. Straddling two worlds, never fully in either, I wonder if my reality will always be spread so thin.

My life is always a mixture of extremes, lots of bittersweet moments and mixed emotions. Being here in Colorado makes me homesick for, among other things:
  • Hearthstone, the co-housing community where I once lived, it remains my Colorado home until they file an official restraining order
  • Mexican food, the REAL stuff - no ketchup on the table
  • Sunflower/Sprouts/Whole Foods - healthy food selections in large amounts! Swoon!
  • The beautiful Rocky Mountains - nice to see land go up, just for a change, plus, they give off gobs of powerful spiritual energy
  • The smell of weed at nearly every stoplight - breathe deep!
  • Colorado citizens: The people that live here are noticeably friendly, optimistic, progressive, healthy, spiritual, intellectual and good looking. They've got a rugged glow that comes from thriving outdoors, every season. My Colorado crush runs deep.
As does my North Dakota crush so, yes, I'm already starting to miss my farm life, the people there and the wide open skies. Not the bugs though, I don't miss them at all.

Monday night jokesters: Rodents Out of the Basement
Staying in the Hearthstone home of friends, I am sleeping in their daughter's bedroom. At night, when I shut out the light, the ceiling lights up with glow-in-the-dark stars and I can't help but compare them to the incredible panoramic night sky view on the farm. With zero light pollution, the Universe is all mine. Sometimes, I lay in the grass late at night and ponder my great fortune and the joyful liberation of my own insignificance. Divine.

Tuesday night: Junk Drawer
The other day, I met a friend downtown for lunch and spent 20 minutes looking for street parking before I caved and paid $7 for a lot spot. Having done my time in LA and San Francisco, I am all-too-familiar with Parking Anxiety, a chunk of reality for so many urban dwellers. My life in NoDak does not include this category - nor does it include locking anything - houses or vehicles.  There is an entire layer of urban concerns that is peeled off me every summer, and put back on again in the winter. On the farm, the only real anxiety I have is what type of mood Mama Nature might be in that week; her foul moods tend to destroy things, like farms and lives.

Sunset at Second Chance Ranch
Being here in Denver, I get to re-connect with friends who keep track of me online, and they give me such lovely encouragement. "I love your photos from the farm! You are doing such great work up there!" and so on. Feedback like this means so much; it all goes into the boiler room that burns the energy that keeps me going forward. When someone tells me they look at my farm photos while they sit in their office and dream about having their own farm, my heart swells with the possibilities, for I want them to have their own farm too. Making people think about the potentials of beyond-normal living has got to be one of the key points of my life. 

Otherwise, I'm just a girl with a lot of zip codes and no roots and I aim to be so much more than that. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

First SCRANCH Intern: Eleni's Visit

Eleni harvesting shallots
This past week was a big one for me on so many levels and top of that list was the welcoming of Eleni Liberty Jacobson, my very first SCRANCH intern. Though she is safely back home in the Bay Area, I am still stunned and unbelievably flattered by her desire to visit my wee farm so very far from everything she knows about America.

Her very own grain bin perch!
Just two months shy of 19, Eleni is wise beyond her years. Blessed with an insatiable curiosity and mad articulation skills, she is obviously the product of a loving home that appreciates and encourages intelligent conversation and sharp wit. In discussions about food and farming, love and life, I kept thinking she was much older but then I'd remember, 'Oh wait, that's ME.'

Kick-ass Parental Units, Jake and Val
This is the part where I brag about her parents - my dear friend, Val (she of last summer's Skype ukulele jam sessions) and her father, Jake (also goes by David), a fellow writer and sports lover; both are exceptional beings, among my favorites. When I stay at their home during my NorCal visit, it's like going to an Emotional Spa where my soul gets a scrub down to a healthy glow.

In the surrey
Honestly, I was anxious about Eleni's visit. Not nervous really, but I was a bit worried about the quality of her time here. Sure, there's plenty of work to do but this was my big chance to shape the mind of a bright young woman on all things food, farm and North Dakota, I didn't want to blow it. Most of all, I didn't want Eleni to be bored.

In the end, I need not have worried so much. Eleni is an easygoing soul, polite and thoughtful, respectful and sunny. Early in her visit, I wrung my hands over a lunch at Applebee's (a reluctant decision made of time and convenience) when she made the accommodating comment, "It's okay. I'm here to be here."  (I love this philosophy so much, I may need a t-shirt for it.) And, as a child of the Bay Area, she had never, ever visited an Applebee's, something that my friend, Wayne, found impossible. 

Digging up the garlic
(Mind you, Eleni's wise statement was made before she saw 'Oriental Chicken Salad' on the Applebee's menu. "What?!?" she said, incredulous. "They still use the word 'Oriental'??" I had to stop and explain that we were both, in fact, California-raised Bay Area snobs, politically-correct to the nth degree and there was nothing to be done about it. Poor thing, she was as shocked as I was. )

With Wood Chip Marge
Point being, Eleni is a born traveler - she knows how to keep her knees bent, her mind nimble and her expectations adjusted. Whining just isn't part of her behavioral make-up. Every request I made of her was met with enthusiasm, every place I took her brought delight and every person she met was visibly charmed. If you ever get a chance to hire this sharp young lady, I recommend that you do so, immediately.

Some highlights:

Girls on Ice -We tagged along with Wayne to see his granddaughters play at their hockey camp in Minnesota. Eleni was only in the car 10 minutes before we dragged her to another state, much to her surprise. It was fun to watch young girls skate around like the pros. Eleni and I both agreed that we would be terrible at this.

Nora takes a shot
Fargo VA Medical Center - Accompanying Wayne, Eleni and I were fascinated by the facility which was like a military museum inside a hospital. Also, the tax-free, super-discounted gift shop.

Private Jacobson, reporting for duty
Fargo Air Museum - We visited on a whim and what a delight! We weren't 5 minutes in the door when a former soldier had Eleni suited up for duty. We also got inside a B-17, which was incredible, and Eleni bought a souvenir sweatshirt, which she wore all week. She talked a lot about her late grandpa, a former tail gunner named Dick Liberty, which was pretty darn cool.

With the tail gunner
Props to Eleni!
Corn Smut - First order of farm biz, I had her harvest the corn smut so could fry 'er up!

Mmmm! Down home fungii burritos!
Solar Oven - We 'cooked' up some squash and taters but alas, it was a chilly, cloudy week so the experiment took 2-3 days. We're overdue for some warm weather this week so I'll give it another go.

Shallot and Garlic Harvest - I had Eleni pull up some shallots and we took turns harvesting the first of the garlic. It was nice to have someone there when I saw the first bulb - I squealed and kissed it. When I last saw Eleni, she was waving at me from the other side of airport security, and still holding two long souvenir garlic stalks/bulbs.

The first of my babies!
A proud mama
SCRANCH Bonfire - Boy, was this a good idea! Brent worked the burger grill while Wayne roasted hot dogs and we burned wood from the bush. I made a couple of salads plus some homemade vanilla bean ice cream (with raspberries picked by Wayne) - a feast! Then, we toasted marshmallows and looked at the stars - the night sky is so vibrant here without any light pollution. It was a beautiful night to remember.

Farmer's Market - Every Thursday, I stress out over this tiny event so it was great to have Eleni's help. Customer-wise, there was a strong turnout and I sold out the remainder of my lettuce in the first five minutes. I sold out my green beans and peas too. Also, Eleni got to meet my cousins, Walter and Eileen Millar.

Walter, Eleni and Eileen
Pizza and Debate - After market, we visited Wayne's house just across from the park where we hold the market. There, we dined on sausage-and-tomato pizza (a new favorite) and debated politics and what's to be done about the quality (or lack of) education in this country. Fun stuff.

Professor Brent - Mornings, I am stuck at a computer, making a living, so Brent was kind enough to kidnap Eleni not once, but twice, and show her around the region. She'd always come back bubbling about all the machines and crops she saw, plus all the farm schwag Brent had given her. I'm so glad she got to pick his brain, which contains endless farming knowledge - a rich resource and another perspective on the industrial ag issue.

Lettuce Slaughter - Sadly, my lettuce has bolted (gone to seed) and the leaves are too bitter to sell. Wah! The remaining heads (too many to think about) needed to be dug up, ripped apart and left for compost. I didn't have the heart to do it - Eleni to the rescue! She pulled this off one morning at 6:30 a.m. while, um, snoozed.

A salad crime scene
Driving Lessons - As I said, Brent showed her the beauty of large machines. Her last day on the farm, Brent had her driving an 4-wheeler and a 1950 frontloader tractor we refer to simply as "the bucket", as in Brent telling me, "Why would you need a wheelbarrow and/or ladder when we have the bucket?"

She's a natural!
My favorite shot of Eleni

Pembina State Museum - This was a quick visit but their excellent explanation of local geology (we're at the former bottom of Lake Agassiz, an immense body of glacial water) and the local M├ętis culture (when French fur traders married Native American women). Plus, I wanted her to see the Victory Gardens posters for herself.

Amazing Grains - Eleni's presence was a good omen for me. On the day she arrived, I made my first store front deal with Amazing Grains, an organic co-op in Grand Forks. I sold 'em over 3 pounds of shallots - it was so very exciting to see them on the shelf!

Then, on drive down to Fargo for her flight home, Eleni put together 12 bundles of my Lemon basil to sell in the same store. Again, it is a thrill to see my Scranch label on the shelf and be part of the 'eat local' movement in a very real way. (Ironically, the produce manager, Rex, said to me, "This is great! Now we don't have to order this from California" which means I'm competing against my home state.)

HoDo - On her final night in NoDak, I treated my wonderful intern to a fine meal at HoDo, a swanky restaurant in downtown Fargo that specializes in local, organic ingredients. (They've even got an herb garden on the roof.) Their menu states:

We thank the artisans, farmers, ranchers, beekeepers and other uncommon souls from the Red River Valley and beyond who enhance our table and the food we offer.

After spending quality time this week with Eleni - another uncommon soul - I feel blessed by her support and friendship. More importantly, I feel buoyed by her interest in the health of the world and the future of food.

And I am still giggling at her offer, "You want more interns? I can send you my friends." Oh man, I could build an army of bright-eyed young folks who just might be able to turn this ship around before it hits that chemical-laden iceberg. I feel re-energized by Eleni's interest in this issue, like maybe I'm on the right track.

I asked her if the trip met her expectations. "It exceeded them, "she said. "Honestly, I thought I'd just be weeding in the garden 8 hrs. every day, being sweaty and dirty, but you had me doing so many different things!" 

Whew! This was a relief to hear. I can't believe she thought that I'd have her travel 1,900 miles just for slave labor. Holy cow. No wonder no one else visits!

Eleni's first farm sunset
"I'm coming back, you know?" she said, and the itinerary for Eleni's next visit is already done. But I gotta tell ya, in the meantime, I'm sure going to miss hearing, "Anything else, Miss Clisby?"

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Edible Enemies and Market Milestones

Corn smut, harvested
Remember the corn smut I discovered on one of my ornamental corn plants? As threatened, I went ahead and cooked up a fine huitlacoche burrito - a somewhat frightening but ultimately delicious new lesson in fungi cuisine. Sure, it looked hairy, scary and not suitable for consumption but the interwebs and Facebook friends assured me I had won some strange fungi lottery. (One bit of advice: "Jack up the price and sell it to foodies!")

Corn Smut Burrito - YUM!
I kept reminding myself the black stuff was not dirt but spores and threw 'em down on a pan of olive oil, garlic, onion, zucchini and lo! Total tastiness. The flavor invoked a corn-flavored mushroom, rich and earthy. Delicious. Of course, the cilantro-egg, cheese and hot sauce didn't hurt either.

Today, I found more smut on the same plant and was not the slightest bit upset, already plotting my next smutty meal. But a few hours ago, I received a phone call from a close friend, Bellina, who grew on a Kansas farm and offered her counsel. Evidently, the smut party is over and I need to nip these spores pronto before they spread to my Dakota Black popcorn which is NOT my wish. "Remove the stalk and burn it far, far from the other plants," advised my farmer friend.

Looks like our planned Wednesday cookout will now be renamed the 1st Annual Corn Smut Bonfire Celebration, 'cause I'm always up for a rebranding.


Tomorrow, I'll be heading down to Fargo to pick up Eleni Liberty Jacobson, SCRANCH'S first intern - so exciting! She is the daughter of my dear friends, Val and Jake, and for reasons still unclear, asked her parents to ship her northward in my general direction.

Eleni, Val, Jake and Cooper
When looking into flights into Fargo for the visit, her mother commented, "Day-um! They should call it 'Far-From'..." a corny joke which I have been quoting and stealing ever since.

Val, pampering me
'Cause here's the thing, folks often say, text or FB comment to me, "Would love to visit!" but nobody - with the exception of the super-sturdy-and-slightly-crazy Kirk - ever makes the trek. Why? Because as previously mentioned, it's FAR. My family doesn't even get here and have only the faintest idea what I'm up to, really. (Mom did visit last year but that may have been obligatory.)

Nevertheless, the Universe is gifting me with a bright, lovely young woman for a 5-day span and I truly hope she finds some value in the experience. If nothing else, I will feed her well while presenting ideas and scenery previously unknown. Plus, we're sure to laugh lots as I need me a dose of California Woman Energy. 

But I'm pretty sure, either way, it's going to be a trip Eleni will never forget. 


Sadly, we are experiencing a cold spell lately - quite unusual for August. Last year at this time, it was sweltering and my air conditioner got worked. Right now, I'm wearing wool socks. This is worrying for farmers and gardeners alike. Most crops need heat to ripen - corn, beans, sugar beets - and the threat of frost is ever-present. (Couple of years back, this region had a frost every single month of the year.)

DAY OFF: Pembina Gorge, about 15 mi. west of farm
Just today, Brent told me about one night not long ago, when a frost dipped down mid-summer and nipped 65% of his beans before it went back to the usual heat. "All it takes is one cold night and that's it, you're screwed for beans...." he said, shaking his head.

As for me, I've got at least 25 tomato plants that are craving heat so I hope the temps rise again soon.

I haven't given up on getting my SCRANCH produce into local stores. As much as I love the local Farmers Market, it's just not enough. So, while fetching Eleni down south (when you live on Canadian border, everything is "down south"), I'll be meeting again with Rex, the produce dude from Amazing Grains, and hopefully, selling him some shallots, basil, Lemon basil and cilantro.

Harvesting shallots
He'll pay me $3 per lb. for shallots but as I discovered today while shallot harvesting, it takes quite a few of them to make up a pound.

Unless there is something wonky going on with the scale, which is possible, I don't have near enough shallots. Anyway, since I sell these for at least $2 ea. (sometimes more, if they are big), it may - once again - not economically viable. I will probably do it anyway with a portion of my shallots, if only for the thrill of hitting that public marketplace milestone.

More importantly, it's another real-world lesson in that age-old question: How does an organic farmer make it all worth it? Really? And I'm not even certified organic, which another nasty bureaucratic ball of wax entirely...


And just to keep ya'll updated on my bug wounds, here's a recent double-doozy. First, the left eyelid swelled up, making me feel like a beaten boxer....

....and a week later, the right eyelid got it's own wound, because skeeters are democratic beasts, y'know?

Unattractive, yes, I realize that. Most people are striving to look their best online even as I flaunt my gruesome wounds, but, JAY-ZUS, look at that! Greedy little fuckers. They are my nemesis, especially when trapped in my bedroom at night with all their high-pitched stalking. Lordy, the deadly whacking and swearing that goes on; I'm sure they can hear me in Canada.

Anyway, it's just too gross not to share, ego be damned. 

You're welcome.