Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Stubborn Realities

Orphan sprouts!
I'm the decider. This time of year, I must thin the plants. My maternal instinct pains me to waste even a single plant baby so I end up collecting them all in cups filled half with water. They line my kitchen counter, which is already tiny.

First, I try to replant them in a deep hole with a solid drink of water and wishes of luck on life anew. Or, I bring some to the Market to sell fresh - mostly Lemon basil, sage, cilantro and parsley right now. Finally, I strive to use them in cooking. Tonight, I baked a sweet potato and covered it in sea salt and chopped parsley. Then, I sauteed some garlic (from the store, mine's not ready yet) in olive oil with onion slivers, apple chunks and cubes of local sausage. At the last, I added scissored bits of garlic scapes.

Garlic scapes and parsley
Still, the act of choosing who will live and who faces an uncertain future feels slightly God-like. I am still not comfortable with the concept but have grown used to the power and the idea that's it's another teensy version of what real farmers (and ranchers, especially) must face. Culling the herd, as it were, so everyone has enough room to thrive and reach full potential, is a necessary evil.

The wide open skies of this region drive home this point. My mind has room to roam here, to play within itself, wander around and open new doors. There is surely something to the need for head space, else why would so many suburban home layouts include vaulted ceilings?

Through my windshield on the way to 'town'

At my usual running spot the other day, I chatted with a farm worker I usually see there. He was high up in his semi cab and delivered a warning: "If you see a red flag behind me, on the edge of the road, that means we're spraying for bugs. Pesticide," he said, dragging on his cigarette. "I'd find another spot to run that day, if I were you."



Two steps forward, one step back: A pal of mine runs a local farm here with her hubby and four kids. This year, they managed to get their Romaine lettuce into the local grocery chain store, Leever's. I was excited to purchase a head (before mine came in) knowing it had been grown just down the highway. I suggested to the cashier that they put a small sign up labeling the lettuce as "Locally Grown" and name the farm. He was baffled by this concept, no matter how many ways I tried to explain it.

"But all our produce is local."

"What? No! Most of it is from California and Mexico. I think people would prefer it if their produce didn't have to travel so far."

"I don't understand what you are talking about."

I tried again and his eyes glazed over. I left, highly frustrated, with him saying to me apathetically, "Sorry I ignored you."

The audacious heads
When I urged my pal to ask the manager to label it "Local", she had already done so and met the same resistance. "Yeah, I tried that. He said, 'I don't think people care about that. If anything, they would prefer their produce come from some other place.' Seems backwards but in his mind, there are no benefits in doing that."

It is hard to fathom this ancient mentality, especially in a grocery store literally surrounded by fields of wheat, corn, potatoes, soybeans, canola, pinto/navy beans and barley. You'd think being so close to the beginning of the food industry would bring insight to those selling it but alas, no. Perhaps I'd have to survive a winter here to grasp the persistent belief that only produce from warmer climates will do. With the price of gas, you'd think that idea would get tossed out at first chance.

Local potatoes in bloom

Bemusement. Finally, I've settled on a description for the look that I sometimes get here. So often, people's faces contain a notable mix of amusement and confusion when talking to me. Occasionally, it goes beyond that.

At a family funeral last week, my cousin (part of a hugely successful family farm operation) got a gander at my business card, read my made-up title: "Blogger/Farmer" and laughed a bit too hard. "Farmer?!? Oh, that's a GOOD one!" With watering eyes, he clutched his belly, looked at the card, then at me, then snorted another hearty guffaw.

Tractor Talk: The beau, Walter and Cousin Carol

Meanwhile, my cousin, Walter, age 94, likes to poke fun. "You still here?" he often says upon greeting me, and then chuckles to himself. I gracefully resist the urge to ask him the same.

My Cherry Belle radish haul
A few days ago, Brent and Wayne stopped in the lane on their way to hauling grain. Both had watched me carrying a wheelbarrow's worth of composted dirt toward the garden. By my estimations, it was 85 degrees with 1,000% humidity. They pulled up next to me, shaking their heads in wonder. I put down the 'barrow and slumped my head on the passenger side door jam, at the burly arm of Brent. "Wanna switch jobs?" I said, panting.

"Noooooope!" said Wayne.

"Not a chance," said Brent.

"Oh, that's right. You guys are off to make real money."

"Um, well…" said Brent.

"Oh, well, not exactly," said Wayne. Corn prices had been painfully low as of late.

"At last you guys got air conditioning," I offered.

"No air conditioning," said Wayne, "it's broke."

We chatted a bit more about the grueling heat and the relentless cruelty of bugs - mosquitoes, specifically. Then, they drove off, happy at least not to be me, doing everything by hand with no help, no spray and no machines. Why? they must wonder. What is the point? Everyone has a garden here but nobody - and I mean, NOBODY - would think of not using pesticides or herbicides on their plants. When the skies are filled with crop dusters (I can hear them buzzing right now overhead) and the roads are loaded with fertilizer tanks, the idea of turning one's back on modern-day 'progress' seems ludicrous.

The organic trenches
My beau often teases me. "Y'know, honey, just a couple squirts of RoundUp'll fix up that garden real quick. Lot easier than hoeing."

"No. No. And, just to be clear, NO!" I say. "You really think I came all this way just to cave in to chemical ease? That sod spot is pure! I'm not going to f**k it up after all this work."

"So if I came out to farm and sprayed it behind your back you would be mad?"

"You are CORRECT," I said, fuming at the idea. I glared at him. He stared back, smiling, and above all, bemused.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

CERES: The Goddess Rests With Me

During my first summer here, after lugging every bit of my earthly goods to the shed, I began to sift through a half-lifetime of souvenirs. Opening one cardboard box after another, I came upon a metal street sign, clearly stolen by someone, somewhere, long ago. I knew immediately the sign would hold a place of prominence here on the farm, the irony being too rich to ignore.

In the early 80s at Lakewood High School, I was a member of the sorority, CERES. We were a 'service club' meaning we were supposed to raise funds for those less fortunate than... no, wait, we just raised money for parties, for ourselves. Parties in Big Bear (winter), parties in Newport Beach (summer), parties in Palm Springs (spring)...just parties. We held car washes and bake sales, whatever we could do to keep our dance cards full. The rush period was horrific - entire scenes from "Mean Girls" and "Heathers" verbatim - and I'm certain I was grudgingly admitted based solely on the high desirability of my older brother, Rob, commonly known as "Hot Rob."

Shed living room
Once in, I learned many of the club's traditions - the CERES song ("We are the Ceres girls, red lips and bouncy curls..."), the colors (dark blue and light blue) and by god, we even had our own car honk (long-short-long) which came in handy when convoying to the next party. There were no other sororities at the school and I had never heard of any sorority in a high school, not then and not ever. Other than laughter, silliness and branded souvenirs (t-shirts, sweatshirts, mugs, jewelry, etc.), the club had no real point and I had only the vaguest idea about the club's name. It just never came up.

Fast forward 30+ years and I am standing in a North Dakota shed, my 46-year-old hands hold a sign reading CERES AVE. Only then, do I remember the uncanny significance in my present life: Ceres is the Goddess of Agriculture! (Technically, the Roman name for the Greek goddess, Demeter.) What are the odds?

Early in the 1970s, this sign was acquired by the club and a tradition was born. Starting with Judy Centers in 1971, a passing-the-torch concept continued for 13 years ... until it got to me. At the annual beach house - a tradition planned by all the sophomores and juniors as a 'send-off' to the seniors - a senior girl would select a junior girl (can't recall the criteria), paint her name and graduating year on the back of the Ceres Ave. sign and present it to her in some drawn out ceremony of sisterly love. In the summer of 1983, a lovely girl, Crystal Eble, choose me and I was honored.

A year later, I prepared to select a name and present the sign and was informed that there would be no beach house that year; the young 'uns simply didn't have their act together and the tradition was broken. And so, the Ceres Ave. sign remained with me. Occasionally, I felt some guilt over my possession but I also took great care to display the momento wherever I hung my hat.

In the end, I cannot imagine a more suitable resting place for the Goddess of Agriculture to rest than with a Ceres girl who became a farmer.

And also, I tip my hat to the women whose names now live in my shed:
  • Judy Centers - 1971
  • Laurie Crawford - 1972
  • Teesa Alorn - 1973
  • Diane Hess - 1974
  • Karen Judd - 1975
  • Bonnie Britton - 1976
  • Jeri Helwig - 1977
  • Patty McGarry - 1978
  • Karen Lee - 1978
  • Linda Walton - 1979
  • Tracy Billingsly - 1980
  • Susan Rainey - 1981 (Hot Rob's prom date)
  • Michael Ann Arce - 1982
  • Crystal Eble - 1983
I'll take good care of it, ladies.  HOOOOONK-honk-HOOOONK!