Archive for July, 2009

July 25, 2009


>We start early, before the temperature begins to creep up and everything – the harvest and those who pick it – starts to fade in the midday sun. Vancouver Island is at a high latitude, so the sun comes up around 5 AM and doesn’t go down until about 9 in the evening. Luckily, the light doesn’t keep me from sleeping all the way till 7, when I wake up to CBC (the Canadian version of BBC) on the radio and stiffly move myself out of bed. The going is slow because I started learning to ride horses on Wednesday. It feels like somebody’s taken a rake to the muscles of my inner legs. (As far as my progress in riding goes, my instructor summed it up nicely after the first lesson: “You did good today,” he said. “You showed up.”)
Aftermath of my extracurricular activities aside, harvest day is probably my favorite time around the farm. So I stretch carefully, shower, and head up to the campground office to make myself some breakfast. Because the office is open from 8 in the morning till 9 at night, we hardly do anything at the house but sleep (and write!). I savor my berries and yogurt as I sit with Ann and Andrea, who are already laying out the game plan for market this week. Market is on Saturday, and instead of hauling our produce all the way into Port Alberni, we simply hold it here, where we have a somewhat captive customer base (campers) and the space to make it an event. We hold a pancake breakfast and hayride; the kids play with the goats while their parents take a stroll by the river.
But that will all take place tomorrow. The produce is the main act, and it’s still waiting in the garden for us to retrieve it. We finish our coffee, gather up some buckets, and head down the hill, border collies herding us along.
Crystal is already in the garden and Connie arrives shortly after. We are an all-girl vegetable-picking machine. Andrea heads to the potato patch – she loves digging around in the dirt. I grab scissors and start on the kale and swiss chard. Connie hits up the greenhouse for cucumbers and tomatoes, and Crystal pulls the netting off the long rows of carrots. Half an hour later, I’m still lost in the brilliant red stems of the chard, feeling slightly overwhelmed and mentally full. Every time I pick vegetables my mind moves immediately to washing, chopping and cooking them, in any way I know how and a few I don’t think are possible (chard muffins?). After thirty or so chard plants, I get the dizzying feeling of there simply being too much food here for any one person to eat. I guess that’s the only way I can part with it come morning. As I fill my last bucket with greens and throw up my hands, Crystal comes walking down the row, a bright orange, freshly washed, perfect carrot in her outstretched hand.
“Second breakfast?” Indeed.

It’s getting late in the summer, and the garden is in full production mode now. This is only the Collins’ second year growing produce for a local market, but there is certainly no lack of variety. By the end of the morning we have the truck loaded up with greens, potatoes, turnips, beets, carrots, squash, cucumbers, cabbage, broccoli, tomatoes, eggplants, lettuce, peas, rhubarb, strawberries and flowers. We unload in the office – which also houses a small commercial kitchen – and start washing and bagging. The unfortunate side of the local market is nobody seems to want to buy anything that’s not in a bag. If we do leave it in baskets or buckets, they’ll bag it themselves before they buy it.
I excuse myself from this somewhat depressing process to start making lunch. I have a little challenge going with myself to use the most vegetables in one meal as possible. With a little storebought ginger and soy sauce, I squeeze seven into a giant stir fry (record: eight veggies). We take a bit of a break and eat outside on the deck in the last bit of shade. It’s getting hot – the thermometer reads 30 Celsius. Up until a week or so ago this meant nothing to me, and it actually made the heat easier to bear. What you don’t know can’t hurt you. In India, nobody ever really knew what temperature it was, so there was no complaining. Well, my mother was kind enough to email me a handy conversion chart and I now know that when it’s 30, it’s not just below freezing but in fact 86 in the clunky old Fahrenheit system. And when it’s 30 at noon and just getting started, it’s going to be a hot day.
Back inside, it’s time to switch the A/C on. With the freezers, refrigerators and oven going all day, it can get hotter inside than outside without the aid of this wonderful little invention. Feeling more comfortable now, I start on the bread and spend the afternoon registering campers with floury hands. Breads are my experimental addition to the farmers’ market, and so far, it’s been a mild success. The best part is, we keep the ugly loaves and whatever doesn’t sell. Contrary to popular belief, breadmaking isn’t actually that difficult or time consuming. You just have to be able to hang around the kitchen for a few hours, so campground management actually is a good side activity.
Campers are an interesting lot. They fall into three main categories: those who are on vacation and so are determined not to fuss about anything so that they can have a good time; those who are on vacation and so are determined to be completely picky about everything so that they can have a good time; and teenagers who come from town to throw parties at the campground. Any afternoon will produce any combination of these types. I had the good fortune to be eating dinner while some partying teenagers came and rented a couple sites. We’re all pretty tired of the loud music, piles of trash and general obnoxiousness that comes along with these customers, but Ann and Bob were ready this time. They raised three kids and can be pretty scary. Sitting in the corner, absorbed in my bread and cucumber salad, I even felt a little shaky in my boots as the two of them loom over the group of would-be rabble-rousers.
“Now, you’re not going to have a large group of people down there, are you?” Ann asks, though it’s more of a statement than a question. The kids are wide-eyed and innocent.
“Oh, no.” Having been in their shoes more than once only a few years ago, I know that deceptive tone all too well. I can almost see the thought bubbles resting above their heads, and they don’t contain words but pictures of beer and thumping stereos. Bob sees them too and walks over to the counter.
“No music down there,” he tells them.
“None at all?” they whine.
“Absolutely not. You don’t want us to come down there at three in the morning to tell you to shut it off, got it?” A mafia contract killer could not have sounded more threatening. They’ve got it. They shuffle out. Yet another crisis averted – we hope.

I finish eating and walk down to the house to read a bit. Before bed, I help Bob move the “chicken tractor”. This ingenious little pen, which holds all our meat birds, is open at the bottom so the chickens can scratch at the grass. It gets moved once or twice a day, so they can fertilize a new patch of soil while getting some fresh grubs to eat – a win-win situation.
After the moving is done, Bob heads out to the pasture to move irrigation pipes. I walk up the hill, worn out and not sure where my farming mentors get the energy to work the 15-hour or more days that they do (Ann is still up at the office). As I pass the barn, I hear a friendly but demanding “meiow!” It’s Buster, the friendly black-and-white barn cat. He proves irresistible. Instead of going inside, I sit with him on an old picnic table that overlooks the farm. From here, we can see the garden, the pasture with the horses and cows grazing, the forest beyond and Mount Arrowsmith towering above it all. It’s a view that takes my breath away still after almost a month living here. I watch the sun turn the mountainside pink and gold, the cool evening air taking away some of my fatigue. Buster relaxes on my lap, his purr rumbling against my fingers. It’s one of those perfect moments that seem to arise so easily in this place. Despite all the work that goes into planting, watering, weeding and harvesting produce, I still can’t help but find it miraculous that so many good things come out of the simple inputs of soil, manure, seeds and water. As long as that formula continues to work, we’ll never go hungry here. And that’s a pretty good feeling.

July 10, 2009

>First impressions of the farm

It took about six hours to reach Port Alberni (the town on Vancouver Island closest to Collins Farm) from Seattle. Shortly after crossing the border, I arrived at the ferry terminal just south of the city of Vancouver (just for the sake of confusion, apparently, the city of Vancouver is not actually on Vancouver Island). I missed the midafternoon ferry so waited around for the evening one, entertaining myself at the food court/mini mall/casino placed on the dock just in case passengers don’t feel broke enough after paying the $60 fare to get a car across the water. The ferry trip took about two hours, gliding comfortably across the grey water under a grey sky. It started raining shortly after we departed, but when I arrived at the other side and drove off the ferry, things started to clear up. I shot the above photo just off the highway on my way to Port Alberni. My car and I felt like we were in some sort of ad.

The view off of my new front porch at the Collins’ farmhouse. In the background you can see the faint outline of Mount Arrowsmith, the highest peak on the island. Just below that are three huge cottonwood trees, rumored to be the largest in the region. Most of the farm acerage is either forest or campsite, but the fields visible in this photo provide fodder for cattle, donkeys and horses (five thoroughbred Canadians and one Belgian mare). The Collins ran a dairy operation for many years but changes in the laws that used to protect dairy farmers ran them out of business. Diversification is their current survival strategy: The garden beds are planted in carrots, cabbage, squash, corn, peas, radishes, kale, chard, artichokes, flowers and a few other veggies. In the middle we have strawberries and potatoes in large number. The foreground? I’ll give you a hint: get ready for a deluge of blackberry recipes.

Here comes Jessie, the Belgian draft horse. She’s 18 hands with hooves the size of dinner plates, but don’t let her size fool you – she’s a big softie who loves a belly scratch.

The two Canadian stallions, Paris and Ripley. Listen closely, you can just hear it… “Eh?”

This is the Arrowvale Campground office and cafe. We mostly serve up coffee, pie and ice cream, but the kitchen has become my fresh produce laboratory and personal bakery. The cafe is also the location of our Saturday pancake breakfasts in conjunction with the farmers’ market we host. The rest of the week, it’s sort of a farmhand break room and second home for Bob, Ann and me.

The view to the north, off the deck of the office. The river is just below.

On Canada Day, Crystal (another girl who helps out on the farm part-time) and I went to town to see the parade. Canada day falls on July 1 and is Canada’s equivalent of the US’ Independence Day. The parade featured dozens of horses, even more 4X4 trucks, some old tractors and logging equipment, and a ton of cute kids. After that, we watched them cut a gigantic cake in the form of the Canadian flag, ate some overpriced Chinese food at the “International” festival, and retreated back to the countryside where we decided we’re better off.

The Stamp river, which flows into the valley’s main river, the Somass. It floods regularly and rarely runs low; salmon migrate up and downriver each season to the delight of fishermen and bears. We pump irrigation water straight out of the river, no water right required. It’s a very different picture from Oregon and the rest of the American West, where, as Twain famously said, “whiskey’s for drinkin’ and water’s for fightin’ over.”

Crystal washes vegetables for market on Saturday. We sell the fresh produce outside the office, where farmers from across the river also sell eggs, herbs and vegetables. There’s also a Saturday farmers’ market in Port Alberni, which we view as a good sign – enough people are forgoing Safeway’s offerings to be able to support two markets in the coummunity.

Some people get crop circles, we get alien carrots.

Full moon from earlier this week over the farm. Andrea, our full-time garden manager and my personal farming mentor has been interested lately in planting and harvesting by the moon. According to this school of thought, the moon influences plant life cycles just like it pulls the tides in and out. It all has to do with water and gravitational forces. Anyway, since the moon is full, we seeded new carrots today (root vegetables, which grow best when the moon is waning). I’ll be sure to post an update on our celestial gardening. Speaking of the moon, it’s probably up now and time for me to hit the hay.

July 9, 2009

>When Pigs Swim

>We crash through the thick forest in a single-file line: Andrea, Ann, Carmen and me. Carmen, the border collie, is sniffing out the bushes. Ann and I are shaking buckets of grain and calling in what we hope is a beckoning tone: “Heeere, piggy piggy piggies! Good piggies!”
Despite this effort, no soft oinking noises can be heard in the shrubbery. Ann suggests we make our way down to the river bank to look for tracks. The thought hadn’t yet occurred to me or Andrea, another woman who works on the Collins’ farm. We’re having a hard time comprehending how the pigs got themselves lost over here in the first place. Three weeks ago, they bolted from their pen at the Collins’ farm, which is just across the river. Granted, it’s not a huge river, but they’re not very big pigs, either. Still in disbelief that they actually swam over here, I gaze up into the tall branches of the cottonwoods surrounding us. You never know where a highly mobile pig might hide.

This Tuesday-afternoon swine hunt takes place on my second day as apprentice at Ann and Bob Collins’ farm on Vancouver Island. Because agriculture hasn’t been profitable here for many years, Ann and Bob also run a campground that provides extra income from tourists willing to pay to pitch a tent or park an RV on the farm’s non-agricultural land. What that means for me is that a typical day might have me running the register, preparing food, cleaning the two campground cottages, pulling weeds, feeding animals and of course harvesting the organic bounty. Pig hunting, on the other hand, was not in the job description. I considered it a bonus activity.

The two pigs came to the farm about three weeks ago, before I arrived. They were only in their pen a couple of days before they got spooked by the donkeys and took off through their electric fence. The last anybody saw of them, they were tearing through the woods toward the river. Thinking they couldn’t have gotten too far, Ann and Bob called all the neighbors (excepting those across the river), but nobody had seen them. Ann figured they were dead; Bob, a fiction writer, imagined them building a raft and setting off for an adventure, Huck Finn style.
Then, Monday night as I was washing up the dinner dishes, the phone rang. I picked up. It was Georgina, across the river, asking when somebody was going to come pick up the pigs that had been hanging around with her cows the past two days. I told her we would let her know and hung up, scratching my head.
When Bob and Ann returned, I told them about the call. They were thrilled. “Can pigs swim?” I asked. “Sure,” Bob said. I still wasn’t sure if I believed him. “We’ll go pig hunting tomorrow,” he added. Proof was on the way.

The next morning, we loaded up the buckets of grain in the back of the truck, attached a trailer to haul the pigs in, and drove through town and to the other side of the river. Bob stayed with the truck while Ann, Andrea (who once lived on this side of the river), Carmen the border collie and I started to comb the forest. As we looked, we discussed whether we should have brought a lasso or if it was even possible to catch a pig on the run. But Ann was confident: The pigs had to be hungry after their long adventure. Luring them into the trailer with a bucket of grain would be a piece of cake. We just had to find them first.
The river bank held no tracks. Using our tracking skills, we deduced that they had been borrowing through the forest underbrush, but not even Carmen, a professional animal herder, could sniff them out. I began to feel a little silly and hung back with Ann at the water’s edge, pulling thorns out of my shoes and trying to think like a pig. Then we heard Andrea yelling. She’d found the fugitive pigs!
We broke out into a trot and met up with her at the cattle pen. For some reason we hadn’t thought to check there, but there they were, darting around under the bellies of the cows, who were going crazy at the sight of the grain in our buckets. The four or so cows began leaping about, long strings of drool coming from their mouths. Finally, the little hairy black pigs got over their fear of us and slipped under the fence, heading nose-first for the grain buckets. We let them have a sample and then started heading back to the road, continuing to shake the buckets. The pigs followed, their minds no longer on escape but on food. Ann led them straight into the trailer and shut the door. Carmen and I brought up the rear, she more disappointed than I that we hadn’t actually needed to chase or herd anybody.

It didn’t strike me until later that what the Collins are trying to do here – preserve the farming community and build a market for local foods – is quite similar to catching pigs. I’m not comparing people to chubby livestock, but I have noticed over the years that food is a strong motivator for the human type of animal. Screaming kid at the grocery store? He just wants a candy bar. Squabbling family at the holidays? A tray of cookies does the trick. Angry drunken party getting out of control? Order a pizza. The same principle applies to getting people excited about things in a more positive way. Talk to them about agricultural subsidies, the Farm Bill or food miles traveled and their eyes will glaze over, but put that glaze on a fresh fruit tart or a roast ham and the whole issue becomes a lot more relevant. As Alice Waters said, “food is the one central thing about human experience that can open up both our senses and our conscience to our place in the world.” A person who experiences the freshness and flavor of a locally produced vegetable might not go out right away and plant a garden, but they might think a bit differently about food from then on.
Unlike Eugene, Oregon, Port Alberni, BC hasn’t quite been hit yet by the local foods craze. I see this as a good thing: There’s a lot of room for community education. This weekend, I showed a few campers – one mom and three little girls – around the farm after one of the little girls begged to see the horses. After stopping in at the barn, we walked around the pasture, garden and chicken coop. I’ll never forget the look of amazement in the girls’ eyes as they examined the three fresh eggs, one of them pale green, waiting in the laying box. I let them keep the green egg, object of much fascination, on promises that they would come back for market day the following weekend.
Most food in Port Alberni is purchased through major grocery chains, and most of the farmers have disappeared from the valley, unable to support their businesses. I don’t have illusions about seeing this trend turn around while I’m here, but I think one-on-one interactions that farm visitors get can help spark some sort of change. We don’t need to catch people, we just need to show them the better option. After all, if the bucket of grain is tasty enough, even wayward, river-swimming pigs can be led back home.

July 7, 2009

>Penne with Kale and Lentils

>Today we are a food blog.
One of my projects over the past week has been figuring out new ways to use the abundance of kale the Collins Farm garden has provided us with. This recipe was adapted from one I found on (awesome site), but I changed it enough to warrant calling it my own. My plan is to come up with a few more kale tricks before the farmer’s market on Saturday so I can hand recipes out to puzzled customers who seem to regard kale as some sort of alien lettuce.
So, with on further ado, I present:

Penne Pasta with Kale and Lentils

Kale is a highly nutritious and sweet-tasting green that is complimented well by the earthy taste of lentils, which add protein and fibre to this dish. The cheese is optional but gives it a bit of delicious creaminess. Add fresh garden herbs like oregano, basil or parsley for your own twist.

1 lb (fresh!) kale, cut into strips
2 lbs penne pasta, or any other short pasta (regular or multigrain)
1 cup lentils (any type)
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped (use more as you desire, of course)
4 T olive oil
3 oz (85 g) parmesan or other hard cheese like asiago, grated
Salt and pepper
Red pepper flakes (optional, for added spice)

Cook lentils in 2 cups water for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, steam kale for 7-8 minutes, or until tender. Set kale aside and keep the water boiling. Add the pasta to the boiling water, stir, and cook until al dente (10-12 minutes). Drain and return pasta to the pot. Sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil until onions are translucent. Add to pasta along with the lentils, kale and grated cheese. Stir and season to taste.

July 6, 2009

>The Amazing Shape-Shifting Blog! Plus, the next chapter.

>Blogs are funny things. I haven’t actually kept up with many since the whole craze started, but my limited observation of them tells me that, unlike with books or even magazines, it’s okay to change tone, intent, format and content entirely from post to post. Some are updated hourly; some – like mine – tend toward neglect. Still, it’s a project I enjoy, even if my purposes are not entirely clear.
With that in mind, I’m going to ask this blog to take yet another leap, and I hope this old faithful multimedia horse can keep up. What started as a class project two years ago turned into a venue for my rants, then a travelogue when I went to India. I believe the next stage in its evolution (or perhaps devolution) will be some sort of combination of its previous functions. I’ve changed locations again, and I’m feeling rant-y. I also have quite a few stories to relay. There are many pictures and recipes to post, and I’ve started trying to write more creative stuff which I may be brave enough to share. Now that I’m no longer required to think like a journalist (just the facts, please!) I’m trying to approach writing in a new way. Adding a dose of fun, hopefully, with less concern over word counts and marketability.
All of this re-evaluation tells me that this blog may start to have an even more confused identity than it already has. It’s taking a form of its own, one that I haven’t really pinned down.

I suppose this was to be expected with the recent changes that have come about in my own life. I’m no longer a college student. I participated in two graduation ceremonies (running, with tassels flapping in one hand an high heels clutched in the other, from one ceremony to the other, thanks to some bad scheduling on the UO’s part). I’m now qualified to serve up a double dose of BS (that’s Bachelor of Science, thank you): Environmental Studies and Journalism. I packed up my four years of accumulated junk and put the into my newly acquired automobile. I said goodbye to beloved friends, apartment, and bicycle. And I let out a big WHOOOHOOO!! as I crossed the border into British Columbia.

At the same time, I had no idea what to expect once I got here. I knew very little about my next stage in life as I zoomed up the I5, only that I was ready to get out of the city and try something new. A few months earlier, realizing that I wasn’t ready to launch a “career” straight away, and also that I had absolutely no reason to (no heavy debt, no dependents, no desire to own a yacht in ten years), I decided to look into other options. I thought about what I like to do (other than write, which I can do anywhere): eat, cook, garden, educate people about where food comes from. It didn’t take me long to start looking for farms.
WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) is one organization that has gained attention along with the whole organics movement. SOIL (Stewards of Irreplaceable Land) Apprenticeships operates under a similar structure, but lists farms only in Canada. After spending a couple of weeks on both websites, I had my choices narrowed down to a few farms in the Pacific Northwest. I sent out emails and applications. I kept my fingers crossed.

When Ann Collins called me from Vancouver Island, BC, what she described sounded perfect. She told me that she and her husband had been farming for 30 years on a fertile piece of land by a river in the Alberni Valley. They grew vegetables and kept goats, chickens and horses. Securing the local food supply was their priority. As an apprentice, I would get to help out with all aspects of their farming operation, plus cook to my heart’s content and spend my free time on the river or in the abundant forests surrounding the farm. Worried that I was drooling into the telephone, I told Ann I’d think about it. I then spent the next week or so trying to come up with a reason I shouldn’t just go for it. I failed. I sent them an email and said to expect me post-graduation.

So here I am, typing in my bedroom at the farm house, my laptop resting on a handmade quilt. There’s dirt permanently under my fingernails and I’m completely blowing my new early bedtime in order to finally update my poor blog.
Pictures and more tidbits from the farming life to arrive shortly. In the meantime, check out the farm website. (Who would have thought those two words would ever go together? Ah, the digital age.) The short update is this: So far, I’m having the time of my life.