Max here... The new year is a time naturally conducive to making changes in one’s life. 2019 is going to be a year our family will look back on as one of the biggest years of change, although the seeds were planted over a year ago in 2017.
This post is our official announcement that the Becher family and First Steps Farm is packing up, and moving to Northern New England. Specifically, Maine.
There is hardly a person we have talked to that is not shocked, and often somewhat confused by our decision to move to the opposite corner of the union. I’ve spent so much time and energy trying to explain this in conversation, that I decided to write it down. Naturally, upon hearing the news, people want to know why, and I don’t blame them. Sometimes I wish I knew why myself in a more demonstrable way, and was better at conveying our deep-seated, fully confident intuition in terms that someone else can actually understand. Hopefully this post will shed some light on what seems like a rash adventure at best, and irresponsible folly at worst.
The first thing I feel compelled to say is that I have been in this place before. I don’t mean Maine, or any physical place, but rather the place of having to explain something about my life choices that most people have a hard time understanding, and even see as foolish. My entire college term of 5 years, I constantly had to answer the question “You study what??” “I’m pursuing a Masters in Theology at an international Catholic institute.” “Whoa, that sounds cool I guess. So, what is that exactly?” … “Okaaay, let me try to sum it up for you.”
After graduating and getting married, people naturally want to know about your plans for the future. Can anyone have a conversation with a new college grad without broaching the subject of ‘what’s next?’ “Well, Deirdre and I want to start a family farm.” “Oh, cool. I knew someone who tried that once. They lasted a few years, but they realized pretty soon they’ve got a family to support, and there’s no money in farming.” … (OK, now that you’ve just written me off as a head-in-the-clouds unrealistic dreamer setting my family up for poverty, how shall we continue this conversation?)
Fast forward 7 years. We made the farm. We’ve been through our fair share of business start-up financial ‘excitement’, but we’ve supported our family in an area with high cost of living with no outside employment since 2014, and built a successful market garden and a separate successful produce delivery business. We made plenty of mistakes, learned tons, and this past year has ended up being our most successful, despite being burdened by some earlier debts, and being knocked down by the aftermath of last year’s wildfires. We had established a local reputation for head lettuce, sprouts and bagged greens at our local farmers market. We were honing in on the farming operations that were working for us (lettuce and cut greens primarily, and our local delivery service) and shedding the ones that didn’t make sense for our context (olives, chickens).
So why would we move? Why destroy all this momentum? Aren’t we just taking a giant step backwards? Why leave it all behind?
Well, it’s not quite that simple. Here’s my attempt at making sense out of this.
If you go back to our early friendship and dating years, our friendship was centered around a common dream. Deirdre and I had a vision for family life that intrigued us, which to certain extent has developed and matured over the years. Deirdre had caught various glimpses of this dream in her childhood travels; my exposure had been primarily through books, but also some firsthand experience. We dreamed of a family living simply, beautifully, close to God’s original temple (nature!), productive rather than consumptive, steeped in love, actively practicing faith, supported by a farm, keeping work close to family and home, committed to helping neighbors, practicing acts of charity, enjoying robust health through nutrition and natural healing arts, and participating in a vibrant culture of traditional arts (Phew!). And maybe most importantly of all: demonstrating that these values are intermingled and consistent with each other, rooted in our very nature as human beings, although different families will live them out in different ways.
Sometimes pursuing that dream feels like an uphill battle. We’ve certainly had that feeling before. But pursue it we have, and relentlessly. Sometimes when we get a bit discouraged, we sit down and list all the different things we have accomplished at one time or another that move us closer to our vision, and in fact are the living out of that vision in reality.
So, back to the move. The pitch for this big move is that it has simply been shown to us through much prayer, thought, conversation, experimentation and discernment that this is the next step God is asking us to take. This step is going to bring us closer to our vision. To put it most simply:
We have been called. We are following that call.
That being said, I think there is still a lot I can say to give specific reasons that played into our decision that this is truly the best step for us. I want people to realize though that there is not a single one of these reasons that is acting on its own. Only when you add them all up together, does it begin to make some sense.
#1 Cost of Land, Farms, Homes
I start with this one because economic realities are tangible and easy to measure. It’s a hard fact that agricultural land in Southern California is not only hard to come by, it comes with a high price tag, and lives under constant pressure of development. We found more than enough land here to rent (once people saw we could farm successfully, we had to start turning down offers for new land leases), and ag rent rates are good. That is how we started here, and I think renting is the best option hands down for a new farmer almost anywhere. But we don’t want to rent forever, we want to own our land. Buying farmland in SoCal can cost you anywhere from $1-3 million, with few exceptions. I fully believe I could build our farm and delivery business to the point where we could afford this if I made that my goal. But my land-buying money will go so much further in Maine, where farms for sale are more plentiful, and sell for between $200,000 and $800,000. You can’t even buy a house in town here for $200,000. There are many other rural areas around the country that boast the same, but as I said – none of these reasons stand alone. Please read on…
I mention this one second, because it is really the one that tips the balance toward Maine instead of any other area. Without this one, I don’t think we would be making the move. But the fact is that in our 2 visits to Maine in 2017 and 2018, we made a surprising number of friends that have been very welcoming and encouraging. We found ourselves staying up into the wee hours of the night, having conversations about life, family, dreams, faith and everything in between. Two families we met are farmers. Two of them homestead off-grid. The majority of them are self employed, and either live on the land, or are working toward that. One is a sustainability professor at a local college. One is a Catholic priest. Others all share our Catholic faith, and the conviction that the Church has an important role to play in re-grounding society’s roots in the soil and the land. Neither Deirdre nor I could imagine moving to an area where we didn’t know anybody. This makes Maine stand out for us, over other rural areas in the country where we have made no connections. Mainers have been very welcoming, and we are grateful.
Central to our dream has been living in a rural area. Our hearts come alive in rural areas. Most of America used to live in rural towns and farming communities, and now that is flipped toward urban living. Society needs both, but rural is where the roots are. And we need roots, if we are not going to topple. Southern California is so urbanized, it gets stifling. The few rural pockets that exist here are sandwiched by mega-cities and massive wilderness preserves which are off-limits to both residents are farmers alike. We started our family here out of desire to be close to our immediate families (we both grew up here, Deirdre all her childhood, and I since I was 6), but we always felt the urbanization, and were uneasy about it. Our original plan was to save like crazy, and hunker down in one of the few rural pockets left here, but as #1 above lays out, that is a much steeper climb here than elsewhere in the country.
#4 Early Dreams
Deirdre’s maternal grandparents are from New York and Boston, and she spent many happy summers outside Boston with family, and traveled extensively through New England and Eastern Canada in her touring band days. She fell in love with the area then, and wanted to live in New England throughout her teen years, until she married a guy from the next town over in CA (Me!) She is simply reviving that desire from her youth, so in a way this is nothing new. Many of her experiences of inspiration that fueled our common dream came from visiting farms and families in the Northeast.
#5 History and Roots
I have an absolute fascination with the concepts of roots, history and genealogy. When we study history, we study primarily the history of the countries and cultures that we have inherited, because by studying them, you learn something about yourself, and where you came from. All history happens in a certain place. It’s just a fact that most American history happened East of the Mississippi. That’s where our families and heritage came from. Early America was built during a 200 year period of colonial settlement along the East Coast, and won its independence in the same area. Westward expansion has been a defining characteristic of American history for the last 2 centuries, and has increased with shocking speed in just the last 100 years. Our immediate families were part of that trend, which even in the last 30 years brought our parents from their homes in the Midwest and Northeast to California. Now we stretch from Coast to Coast, but our distinctly American culture was born and incubated in the East. Although we do not seek to live like Luddites, much of our common dream involves slowing down the pace of modern progress long enough to look to the past and see what we might have lost along the way that is worth holding onto. We believe firmly that many essential cultural constructs have been weakened or even torn down in the modern age, and it is our mission to revive them. This culture has 400 years of history in the Northeast, and much less in California, and only here by extension. California was settled too fast to develop a rich, distinct culture of its own. So much of what we are trying to live out was once lived out in communities across the Northeast, and there is still a skeleton of that culture stamped into the landscape, and in the hearts and memories of the people who live there. What we are trying to do with our lives could be termed a true revival there, whereas in California it would be better described as innovation. I’m a big fan of innovation, but we feel called to go East and sprinkle innovation as seeds in a pre-cultivated bed of revival. Sound kind confusing? I know – it’s hard to put my finger on it. And it’s pretty personal too.
Farming in New England was based on smaller family farms for centuries; California agriculture has been primarily commercial from the beginning, and depended often on imported water, imported labor, and distant Eastern markets. It’s one reason why many California farms don’t have homes on them. That’s not the farm culture we want to live. California does not have the same history of small family farm communities dotting the landscape. It’s there to be sure, but more so in Northern CA, and much more so in New England.
I could go on and on about various cultural elements that have a stronger history and presence in New England, and I will touch on some of them below. The material point to make here is that we are intrigued to be relocating our family in the very area that produced much of the culture we are trying to live. We feel that we can gain more traction there creating a revival, than we could in CA with an innovation that originated elsewhere. I fully encourage Californians to transform their culture and infuse it with traditional arts, skills and values, but for our part we feel called to take our efforts East. This is one of the hardest ones to explain, but hey, I had to give it a shot. Take it or leave it, it's an evolving intuition.
#6 Contradance Culture
For years, Deirdre and I have danced and played for contradances, and find it one of the most enjoyable social activities, and one that has a mystical power to bring people together and strengthen the glue of society. Contradancing is a strong New England tradition, and is still very much alive there. We play frequently for our most local contradance group (45 minutes away in Santa Barbara), but it is attended primarily by an aging group of dancers that seems unable to attract younger generations. I’m not sure what’s going to happen to contradancing in SoCal, but it’s an uphill battle. This is one example of what I was talking about in point #5 above. It was such a joy to see Maine’s young people contradancing, and the sheer number of dances and groups in the area far surpasses what we have here. While we are immensely grateful for the weekly dance in Santa Barbara, the next closest dances are in Los Angeles, almost 2 hours away. When you combine the fact that Maine’s population is a tiny (about 1/20th) fraction of SoCal’s, and the fact that there is so much more contradancing in Maine, it reveals just how embedded contradance still is in their life and culture compared to SoCal. It has been wonderful to promote contradancing here, but there is a joy and relief that comes from realizing that we are going to live somewhere we don’t have to start from scratch almost every time.
Everything said about dance above can be said about the music we hold so dear as well. Irish music and the related music traditions of England and Scotland have been huge formative factors in the various Maritime, Cape Breton, New England and Contradance music traditions. The intermingled folk music traditions of the British Isles and Ireland found a new home and even a kind of revival through the development of folk music traditions from Maritime / Eastern Canada, throughout New England, and down into the American South. Boston, New York and Chicago are the three main cultural hubs for Irish-American music, and the surrounding areas of the country are more richly steeped in that type of music as a consequence. The majority of the musical and cultural events / festivals we would want to attend are in the Eastern 1/3 of the USA. We’ll be a lot closer to all of them. Not to mention the wealth of traditional and musical events in the immediate locale we are moving to. Unity, ME is home to multiple week-long fiddle camps, just 1 hour away. The highschool in the town we are moving to has a fiddle group at the public highschool, which boasts around 100 students! Local concert series feature regular performances by some of the best traditional Irish, Bluegrass and Cape Breton groups in the US / Canada. We are very excited to be “going home” musically. Folk music is a social tradition, and is hard to maintain in isolation.
#8 Small Farm Scene
Despite its relatively small population and short Northern growing season, Maine is home to some of the rockstar farmers, artisans and farm-related organizations in the modern small-farm revival underway in the US. The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) is one of the oldest, most established and most active organizations promoting small scale, family scale and organic farming in the country. They are headquartered in Unity, ME, and boast an impressive arsenal of resources for farmers, including the legendary Common Ground Fair, held annually each September. Common Ground is the biggest fair in the country that specifically celebrates the growing subculture of the greater organic farming and homestead movement. The Maine Farmland Trust works actively to preserve some of Maine’s most “at-risk” farmland threatened by thoughtless urban development, and gives active support to young farmers like us who are seeking land to farm. Legendary farmer/author/inventor Eliot Coleman resides and farms in Maine. My personal #1 market gardening mentor/author/farmer Jean-Martin Fortier farms only 4 miles to the Northwest near Montreal. Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Fedco Seeds, Taproot Magazine, Growing For Market Magazine, and the Greenhorns all claim Maine as home. High Mowing Seed Company operates in nearby Vermont. The list goes on and on. There is a real, vibrant subculture of small farming underway in the Northeast, and Maine stands out among the New England States. Not only has Maine seen a higher percentage of young Farmers start farms in recent years than other states, it was also the first state to pass a state-wide “Food Sovereignty” law. We are excited and privileged to participate in and contribute to this growing momentum for family farms, and the support networks to help them thrive.
#9 Long Term Extended Family Investment
This one is a bit hard to explain too. It’s related closely to reason #1 – cost of land. But I’m looking at it from a generational angle, rather than an immediate one. Part of our family vision involves more place-stability for extended families than is customary in our modern, mobile society. We want our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to be able to settle and start their homes near us if they choose. Ironically, this was one of the very reasons we chose to stay in CA in the first place – we wanted our children to be raised around multiple family generations, and to reverse the modern trend of children leaving their home and settling elsewhere. When I began to think long-term though, I realized the harsh reality of CA real estate, urbanization and access to farm-homes could make it hard for my children and grandchildren to find homes/farms here, and I certainly hope some of them consider farming. I realized that I might pour all my life’s energy and resources into stabilizing my family here, put serious roots down in CA, save to buy a 2 million property, only to see my children move away to find more affordable land elsewhere. I see more opportunity to develop a robust generational family farm culture in the more rural areas of the country, Maine being just one example.
I know, it’s ironic! Here we are leaving our own parents, in hopes that our kids don’t need to do the same thing. I don’t have a perfect answer to this one. But I didn’t personally choose to move to CA, and I didn’t choose to have it settled and developed in this way, and our parents couldn’t have known it would happen when they moved here in the 80s and 90s, and they didn’t know we wanted to be farmers. This isn’t the first time in history that folks decided to emigrate for economic reasons, and made a new start with fresh roots in a new land. My hope is that even if I personally don’t get to live where I was raised, and enjoy the pride that comes with an extended family structure and roots, that I can sow the seeds for my children’s children to enjoy this for themselves. I know, its a gamble, and a very long-term investment that I will only benefit from in part. But it’s a gamble either way, and my intuition is that Maine holds more long-term promise for us than California. It’s a little sad to admit that, but there is something of a pioneer in my veins that feels ready to take this on, and build for the future of my family. Who knows, maybe our parents (none of whom are CA natives) will leave CA themselves someday? Things happen so quickly in this State, it’s hard to know what’s coming.
#10 People Say It Can't Be Done
If you want to see me do something, tell me it can’t be done, and I will go find a way to do it. I know that can sound a little bold and reactionary, but there is really something to this. The more I experience well-intentioned people coming to tell me I shouldn’t do this because of colder weather (#1 objection from most people), shorter growing season, lower population, higher poverty, too many farms, too rural, too risky, too far, etc. the more it makes me want to demonstrate the possibility of things outside their vision. I’m aware of all the obstacles mentioned here, and they are real. But it doesn’t mean this can’t be done. If I can’t convince you of this, then just watch and see. If I’m wrong, I pray for the humility to admit it, learn from it, and move on. If I’m right, I hope the naysayers think twice before being skeptical.
Well, that’s a very summarized version of the conversations we’ve had that are leading us to move from our California home. No one of these reasons stand alone. I hope that laying this out helps to make it more understandable. There is certainly a kind of sadness we feel in leaving the place where we grew up, met, fell in love, got married, had kids, started our first farm… We are leaving behind family members and friends that will miss us as much as we will miss them. But when the Lord calls, we must answer. And we are truly excited and happy of what awaits us in Maine.
Over the coming days, I will be posting a little series of posts related to our move including:
Task #1 was to run an experimental 6-week webstore modeled off Ojai Farmstand based out of the Churches that hosted last year's festival. Task #2 was to help organize and attend the 2018 festival. Those two tasks are inextricably linked, but this post focuses on the second one: the festival.
I want to spend some time unpacking the meaning of this festival and the reasons behind it, particularly what motivated us to literally leave our farm behind and drive with our family from one corner of the country to the other in order to participate. Catholic Rural Life Festivals don't happen everyday, so the first question one might ask is: what is it?
That's a good question. Why Catholic? Why rural? what do they have to do with each other, and what is there to celebrate?
The roots of such a festival reach all the way back to the story of creation. Two passages from the book of Genesis serve as our starting point. Verse 1:31 reads: “God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good.” Verse 2:15 continues: “God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” Without getting bogged down in biblical analysis, it is clear from these verses that God's creation is truly good, and humanity’s roll is to steward and a care for that good.
Put most simply, that is what we are celebrating - the sheer goodness and beauty of creation. It's easy, especially in the modern world where we tend to live surrounded by our own recreations of God's world, to lose a sense of gratitude for the incredible gift of creation. The Catholic Rural Life Festival calls us back to our senses and helps us to look with new eyes at the simply glorious world we have been bestowed with.
Although cities have an essential role to play in society and culture, it is the outlying rural areas surrounding cities that keep them grounded in their roots. Just as a plant will die when cut off from its roots, so will cities and all people suffer and die to the extent that they cut themselves off from their natural roots in the countryside. As Catholics, we recognize not only the dependence of cities upon the countryside for their physical nourishment and survival, but also for their spiritual survival.
The Catholic Rural Life Festival is nothing other than an affirmation of Catholic principles and teachings which speak to the essential role of the countryside and rural culture as a whole for the good of the Church and all Society. It was with this in mind that Pope Pius XII would say in 1946 that “Great care must be taken to preserve for the nation the essential elements of what might be called genuine rural culture.” Almost 150 years earlier, his predecessor Pius VII affirmed the specific dignity of farmers and those who work closely with the land. “The farmers' calling is a sacred calling … because he collaborates with God in continuing the work of his creation.”
There is hardly a pope in the last 150 years that has not in one way or another addressed the integral importance of rural culture. I could mention quote after quote to this point, but I will mention only a few more from recent times. In 1981 Pope St. John Paul II wrote “It is necessary to proclaim and promote the dignity of work, of all work but especially of agricultural work, in which man so eloquently ‘subdues’ the earth he has received as a gift from God and affirms his 'dominion’ in the visible world. In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI said, “the rural family needs to regain its rightful place at the heart of the social order.” Most recently, Pope Francis promulgated an entire encyclical on the urgent need for all to work for the good of creation, which he terms “Our Common Home.”
The words of the Popes all come back to Genesis 1:31 and 2:15. Creation is simply good, and Mankind's original task is to care for it. At the Festival this weekend, we will be living this out in several concrete ways. We are coming together to celebrate the sheer goodness of the gift of creation. We are gathering in prayer to express our gratitude for that gift and to praise its Creator. We are working to bring back practical elements of rural culture that have a tendency to be lost in our modern world full of conveniences. We are affirming the vocation of farmers by supporting their work with multiple celebratory meals sourced from their own local farms. We will thank those farmers explicitly at the meal. We will join Fr. Paul Dumais in a blessing of the fields of a local dairy farm. We will celebrate with live folk music and a communal contra dance, both invaluable contributions and social underpinnings of local historic rural culture of New England. We will appreciate the artwork of a talented local artist who takes his inspiration both from his Catholic faith, and his rural lifestyle.
That's a lot to pack into one weekend. Finally, but definitely not least important, we are coming together to have a conversation about all these things, and their relationship with one another. These are things we need to be talking about, and asking ourselves what place they have in our lives, in the Church, and in society as a whole. That's the conversation we drove 3,000 miles to have. My guess is that most other attendees won't be traveling quite as far…
We hope you can make it! I'll have more to write about these topic going forward. We're looking forward to a great festival!
As I was doing some routine tasks this morning on my computer for the online farmer's market we run (Ojai Farmstand), my mind wandered a bit, and I started reflecting on some of the deeper goals I had over 4 years ago when I started the Farmstand out of the back of my pickup with #2 peppers and tomatoes I gleaned from the organic farm at Farmer and the Cook. We've come a long way since then, but the underlying passion that gets me up every morning, and compels me to work through all the challenges of developing a rogue method of local food distribution remains the same.
In a nutshell: the proliferation of small family-run local farms, and customer networks that support them directly.
That's the goal.
It's simple, in essence. It came from this vision of society that takes all the amazing agricultural technology and innovation of the last century, AND at the same time preserves a communal-based structure that defined the American Food System as recently as the 1930s. In A Revolution Down on the Farm Paul B. Conkin describes what it was like to grow up in the 30s in Rural East Tennessee. He uses his boyhood community as an example of what the typical American community looked like from a food / farm perspective. As recently as less than one hundred years ago, it was normal to be surrounded by many family farms of various sizes, and to buy or trade a large portion of your food from them, either directly on the farm, or by supporting local shopkeepers where farmers and their families sold extra butter, eggs, fruit etc...
I don't need to tell anyone this is not the norm any longer. I am truly grateful to have technological innovations that drastically reduce farm labor, and improve quality of life (electricity being one of the main ones!). But the task of my generation is to regain cultural structures and communal ties that have been lost in the process. We don't have to become Amish to do this. I believe simply switching our food consumption habits to local farms would win us a large part of what has been lost.
When you buy from a local farm run by a family, or local individual, there are obvious economic benefits for the community. That money stays local. But that is not the greatest benefit in locally (or farmer-direct) made transactions. Every transaction has the opportunity to build relationships between the seller / buyer, and if those are kept local and/or personal, that relationship has the chance of blossoming into something more than merely a transaction. Transactions which have a personal stamp on them tend to be more conducive to understanding, gratitude and mutual support, which is easy to lose in a modern economy that transacts less personally.
I'm not saying there aren't benefits to modern economies. But let's make some distinctions here. Some things really are better massed produced and shipped far away. If our automobiles were produced by local firms, they probably could not reach the economy of scale needed to make them affordable for the average consumer. But food is different.
Food does not need to be mass produced on the same level as other commodities, and for most of history, it wasn't. In fact, it can often be better quality when it is not! Bio-intensive planting methods like the ones we use on our farm help reach micro-economies of scale that still allow us to remain embedded in our local community. I actually know many of my customers personally, and have had the privilege of helping them in times of need, and they have also done the same for me.
Food is the best commodity to produce and distribute locally, because everyone needs it, and and the factory is lying under our feet. The machinery required to grow top-quality local food is simple in comparison to an automobile factory. Any aspiring entrepreneur can start and run a successful farm on a fairly low capital investment. And if there is one product we should cultivate gratitude for, I would argue that food is a fundamental one. After all, it is what becomes flesh of our flesh and bone of our bones 3 times a day!
So, when I started the farmstand, I said to myself: “I want to see local farms thrive. Everyone in my community eats food. Let's just make it easy for them to shift their food purchases from conventional grocery stores to local farms! At least for the fresh items like produce!”
I'm not selling a new product! Everybody buys food! All I need to do is explain to people why they want to shift their food purchases from one source to another. In reality, it's a little more complex than that, but it helps to keep the perspective simple. My prayer is that every eater thinks every time he/she sits down to eat, and realizes that they are shaping community and culture with their eating and buying habits.
“Changing the Food System” sounds like a daunting task, but connecting one eater at a time with the few local famers that are still trying to stick it out (or just trying to get started, in our case!) makes it attainable. We don't have to wait for everyone to do this! Every baby step taken toward eating from local farms moves us closer to the kind of cultural fabric that held American communities together through struggles like the great depression. And generally, it was the rural communities that fared the best during the depression, because they were able to provide themselves with food.
That's the vision that keeps me going, and motivates me to expand our Online Farmstand to more families and more homes. When customers buy from us, more than half of that money goes straight to local farms. Compared to the 10% of the American food dollar that normally goes back to the farmer, that is a big difference!
If you live in our area, and want to be part of this positive communal change, I invite you to take advantage of our week-long sign-up incentive through Feb 22nd at Ojai Farmstand. The more customers we can find, the more of an impact we can make together. Come be part of the local food community! Your body will thank you, and your community will thank you. If you live elsewhere, I encourage you to join up with the thousands of other motivated folks around the country trying to rebuild communal food systems in their own localities.
We can do this, one grateful bite at a time! Bon Appetit! Cheers!
Less than two weeks after I made our last post, life took a dramatic turn not only for us, but for everyone in our local community. Dec 4th was a fairly normal Monday. We did have to make a short trip up to the Olive Mill at Figueroa Farm in Santa Ynez to drop off some food grade 5-gallon buckets for storing oil from our newest harvest batch. We were supposed to send them up with the hauler, but we forget to give them to him before he left. We decided to make the trip as a family, and enjoy the time together in the car.
The day before, we had just finished up a 2nd Olive harvest day. We improved our picking process, and had a bigger group of people, and managed to bring in 1.5 tons instead of only a half ton! It was a great day (see photos below) and great fun, although quite exhausting! By the time Monday rolled around, we were beat! Hence the decision to just all ride up to Santa Ynez and hang out together as a family on the way up there. A 4 hour round trip mini vacation to the mill (oh boy!! Can I come?!)
Driving on the same mountainous 2-lane highway just days before, Deirdre and I commented on the dryness of the hillside brush and trees on both sides of the road. We usually get rain starting in November here, but not this year. It was bone dry. We half-jokingly, half-seriously talked about being ready at any moment to turn around and drive the other way if it were to catch on fire somehow.
If you go drive that same road today, you won't see any brush. Or trees. They all burned in what became California's biggest wildfire on record. And it started just above our little valley, right next to the small Catholic college that most of our olive harvest volunteers attend. Dubbed "The Thomas Fire" after "Thomas Aquinas College", the blaze started Monday Dec 4th, and burned 281,893 acres and 1,063 buildings over the next 39 days.
We were eating dinner around 6:30 when the girl that stayed with us came home and said there was a fire somewhere East of us and the sky was glowing. Sure enough, we walked outside, and could see the pulsing red glow in the sky. Worst of all, it was a windy night, with seasonal Santa Ana winds throwing tree branches and debris around everywhere. I knew this fire was going to spread, but had no idea of just how far.
There is something about natural disasters that has a way of consuming your attention, and pushing all routines to the side. The mindset one gets into in the presence of pending danger is all-encompassing. It looked from the initial glow that the fire could be quite close to our farm and orchard, so I wanted to drive up and see if they were in danger. I didn't want the kids to feel worried though, so I told Deirdre I was sneaking out briefly to run over and take a look. I drove a couple miles past the farm, and could see now that it was further away than I thought. It appeared to be in a Canyon on the other side of the hills, and that turned out to be correct, but it was moving fast.
When I say fast, I mean driven by 60-70 MPH wind gusts. A good friend of ours is a local fire chief who happened to be on duty when the fire broke out, and he told us later about that first night in the Canyon. The scene he described was complete chaos, with people trying to evacuate, the only road out getting jammed, winds spreading fire everywhere, and unfortunately one woman died trying to escape when her car crashed.
When I got home, I checked the local news and twitter to see what we could learn. All we could learn was that the fire was being fueled by incredible winds, and the outer edges of nearby Ventura were under urgent mandatory evacuation. We put the kids to bed, and continued to check the news on my phone. I should have plugged my phone in, because an hour later, the power went out. I drove quickly to the farm to get our generator.
While there, I could see that the road leading up to the Orchard (one of only 4 small roads leading out of our valley) had just been closed by the police only 1/4 mile up from the farm. I grabbed the generator and gas can, and looked around in the light of the headlights at the farm. For a brief minute I indulged in the sobering thought that it could all burn, and I might come back to bare, charred land with debris strewn around. In that regard, we ended up being luckier than many neighbors, but I had no way of knowing that at the time.
Back at the house, we tried to go back to bed, but I could not sleep, and the news kept on... spreading fast, spreading faster, Ventura get out!! The nearest road out had closed, so we decided to go spend the night at Deirdre's parents, who live right off another road that leads out of the other side of the Valley. We brought the kids over around 11:00 pm, and shared the generator with the grandparents so we could all charge our phones, since the power was out everywhere.
I slept a total of 2 hours that night. I was worried about the speed the fire was spreading, and was ready to wake everyone up and leave in a moment's notice. I did not want to be at the back of a long string of frantic cars trying escape a narrow valley on 2-lane highways. By 5 am, I read that 150 buildings in Ventura had already burned, including a hospital where Deirdre's Dad used to work.
By mid-morning, we decided to drive north and get our of harms way. Flames had become visible on the hills around us. We drove briefly home with the truck to get clothes and supplies, and the few irreplaceable items we would miss if the house burned. Leaving the house, I felt a strange feeling of detachment and freedom, realizing that it all might burn. As we drove out of town, there were cars everywhere, and lines at the gas station going out into the street and around the corner! Fortunately, we had a full tank of gas, and we hit the road.
It was a slow drive due to the number of cars trying to leave, and everybody was slowing down further to watch the flames. Most people were heading for Santa Barbara, but we decided to drive further. Deirdre has a sister in San Jose, so we thought we might as well drive the extra 3 hours to go see her and spend the night there. We ended up staying 6 days, following the firefighter's progress all the while. After that point, although the fire was still active near our home, the imminent danger seemed to have passed, and we badly needed to get back and tend to the farm, and begin the olive harvest with our hired harvest crew.
The day after we got back was the day the pickers were supposed to begin picking. There were still 18 tons of olives left in the orchard after the 2 we had picked with volunteers right before the fire. The road to the orchard was still closed, and I was worried we wouldn't be able to pick. This was Dec 12th, and we were running out of time before Christmas, and the first frost. We had already pushed the harvest back several times, and I didn't want to risk waiting any longer.
The roads cleared up just in time. It looked like a barren wasteland with trees burnt everywhere, and ruined homes on both sides of the road. The orchard got scorched on the outside edges, and we lost all the harvest equipment we had purchased and were storing up there. But most of the olives were fine, and for the next 10 days we oversaw the harvest. We also spent a couple hours a day venturing onto the farm to cleanup the awful mess of ashes and things strewn everywhere in the 70 MPH winds. The smoke over the valley was so dense we had to wear masks. We stayed with my parents about 30 minutes away where the smoke was not so thick, and did not actually return to our house until the 22nd.
After picking up the final batch of oil from the mill in Santa Ynez, we set to work airing out our smoky house, and getting ready for Christmas! It was still a beautiful holiday despite the recent events, and we certainly remembered to pray for those who had lost their homes, and were forced to celebrate elsewhere. We had nothing to complain about in comparison with those who lost their homes!
We are still feeling the aftermath of the fire today. Being away from the farm for a week, and then having the harvest occupy most of our attention for the next 10 days put us far behind our planting schedule, and weeds and gophers moved in. We are beginning to feel back to normal there, and the disaster really forced us to adopt a rigorous work schedule that we plan to continue indefinitely, with the goal of making the farm better than ever before. I'll save the details of our cool new routines for another post. Until then, take care, keep safe, and offer a prayer for those less fortunate than we were!
Here's a follow up to the post about our first olive harvest. 24 hours later, I was at the mill in Santa Ynez watching our olives get pressed. We started picking at 9:30 on Sunday, and at 9:30 the next morning the olives were milled. That means the longest ANY olive sat in that harvest bin was 24 hours, and most of them less! We've been learning that minimizing the time from harvest to mill is one of the most important factors in making a high quality oil.
To quote one of our customers who tried the oil for the first time this morning:
"WOW, your olive oil is amazing! I was in Italy a few weeks ago enjoying some delicious oils and yours is up there with the best. Really !"
Below are some pictures and a short video from the mill. The process was fascinating start to finish. After being washed, the olives are ground into a paste and turned over and over in the "malaxer," for about 30-45 minutes. Malaxing the paste help separate the oil from the pulp. From there, the pulp is sent into centrifuge, and spun at a very high rate to separate the oil from the pulp. At the end of the chute, out comes freshly cold pressed extra virgin olive oil!
Max here... I want to write about the dinner I cooked tonight.
Not because it was some fabulous recipe. I want to mention it because it came from a mentality shift I am going through. We have been so busy lately between the Olive Harvest, and getting lots of new plants in the ground. Then, a few weeks ago, our two kids got sick, and the cold hung on for several days before clearing up. Eventually I got it too -- no fun, especially when there's so much to get done. I can't call in sick and just tell the plants and weeds to stop growing for a few days.
My thought was "Why are we getting sick? Don't we lead a pretty healthy lifestyle and fresh diet?" Of course, I realize even the healthiest among us will get sick to some degree from time to time, but nonetheless it made me stop and rethink about what we've been eating lately. I didn't like what I saw.
Can the farmer be too busy to eat his own food? Sounds silly. But I realized we were sliding down that slope. Amidst all the to-do, we found we were eating more and more "quick foods." Not your typical "quick food." But things like more sandwiches made with Ezechiel bread, and a lot of eggs, since they cook up quickly. I'm not saying that those are bad things to eat, but we weren't eating according to our dietary goals inspired by Weston A. Price, and the Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions.
We have a freezer full of our very own chickens, but we weren't finding time to make stock and chicken. We do eat salads from our farm every day, but not as much kale, cilantro and parsley as we could be -- all green super foods that should be nourishing our bodies!
So today, I pulled one of those chickens out, and some extra chicken feet we had, and put it in the stock pot to simmer. I walked the farm to see what I could pick fresh for tonight's dinner. I took home Romaine Lettuce, Kale, Green Onions, Ripe Tomatoes, Parsley, Cilantro. Tonight we enjoyed a large salad dressed with our own new olive oil (blog post on that coming soon!!). We had rice cooked in nourishing chicken stock, with kale, cilantro, parsley, garlic and green onion. We added the chicken to the rice, and at last we felt like we were once again eating a traditional, nourishing, delicious meal. And we knew the story behind where it all came from.
And we're going to do it again tomorrow! Here's to picking up wherever you are, and doing one thing to put healthier, fresher food in our bodies, and connect with the story of that food and who grew it!
For those of you that want the "recipe", here it is:
Rice Cooked in Chicken Stock
2 cups rice (we use organic long grain brown)
4 cups chicken stock
Any amount of chicken meat (we use the meat from the carcass used to make stock)
4-6 cloves garlic
A little Butter
Several generous three-finger pinches of salt (we use Celtic Sea Salt.)
Saute the onions in butter until cooked, and salt them well. Add the garlic and cook another couple minutes. Add the rice, stock, salt and chicken, and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 1-2 hours until the rice has soaked up all the stock.
Once the rice is done, add freshly chopped green onion, cilantro and parsley and serve. Adding some lemon and butter or olive oil also helps. Add salt if needed.
Max and Deirdre writing together here...
It's 8:45 pm, and we just wrapped up hosting a dinner at our house for a small group of friends who came out for our very first harvest in our 5-acre leased olive orchard! It was a great day, and a great learning experience for all involved -- including us. We set out to pick one ton, but ended up getting a half ton by the end of the day.
We'll keep this post mostly photos, and few words for now, not only because it's late, and Max needs to be up tomorrow at 4:30 to drive the olives to the mill in Santa Ynez, but also because the photos speak for themselves! We'll be back soon with more details!
Another great video that Diego Footer filmed a few weeks back when he came up to our farm for the day. This one is my favorite -- it shows in detail exactly how we pack the 100+ custom orders that come in through our webstore each week at Ojai Farmstand. It's a process that has been 4 years in the making, and is being improved all the time. We are making small tweaks now, instead of major adjustments, but those tweaks can make a huge difference.
One brief example: until last week, we had to manually re-sort the boxes once they were packed, within a specific delivery route, to be able to order them such that the driver has them in the order they need to be delivered. This order is essential to efficient delivery. We now found a way to organize our labels report such that the labels are listed already in the correct order for the route. It was actually a suggestion of Diego when he was watching the whole process that got me thinking about a way to do this. It sounds simple, but we have to work within the parameters of the software we use for the store. We don't have the money or programming skills to design our own software tailored to our exact needs; we need to make do with programs that come close to what we want to do. Fortunately, after just a couple hours of trying different spreadsheets and reports, I found a way to order the labels in the right way. Thanks Diego!
That leads me to say the best thing about this video for ME is now thousands of people are seeing the process, and commenting on it on youtube. Already in just 2 days, there have been several very helpful and interesting comments / suggestions from people on things we could do to improve. I LOVE that! Everybody has a unique angle from which they see something different, and somebody across the country watching the video once can suggest something I never thought of, even though I have seen the process every single week for 4 years! A fresh set of eyes is priceless. I am so grateful to all who commented on the video, and I will reply to those comments, and even make a post here with some of the best ones.
Ben Hartman says in the Lean Farm that a good idea that goes unspoken is a form of waste. This is a very cool example of this, and Diego did us a great favor by opening up the process to all his viewers to see it and critique it. Keep it coming folks, and thanks for watching! Be sure to check out all the rest of Diego's amazing content both on youtube and his podcast.
Hi there! Deirdre here...
Recently I have become really excited about doing traditional crafts, particularly sewing, knitting, crocheting. I often find myself perusing the internet for photos and information on knitting, yarn sources, hand made clothing on etsy, super cute DIY home decor, etc. I started to feel frustrated that I was just dreaming of doing these and was never actually starting to just do them! (I could easily imagine myself still just looking at others' work in a year!!)
So about a week ago I actually went to the arts and crafts store and bought yarn, knitting needles, very basic sewing stuff, and some twine and cute mini clothes pins for a craft project I'd been wanting to do for ages. It felt so good to begin turning my dreams into fruition. Instead of sitting on the couch with my phone in the evening looking at others' stuff, I am sitting on the couch beginning to crochet! I am committing to crocheting for at least a few minutes every day. My goal is to be able to knit and crochet hats, headwarmers, and Christmas stockings. (In my family growing up, my mom knit a stocking for each one of the kids and I always wanted to do the same thing.)
As well as beginning to crochet, I also sewed felt hats for our flower fairy Halloween costumes and have been mending some clothes... very basic stuff but you have to start somewhere! My goal for sewing is to make basic baby clothes, headbands, and especially adorable baby bonnets (with Liberty of London calico).
I hope one day to be able to raise sheep for wool, learn how to spin, and do the whole process from wool to clothes but for now it feels so good to be beginning to connect with generations of other women for whom these were every day important tasks!
Max here... remember this post from back in March?
I don't think we've posted anything about the orchard since that original post, but we still have it, and have been working up there for the last 8 months. And now, we are exactly one week away from our first harvest!! We've been waiting for this moment for a long time!
This is a very different kind of farming than what we are used to, and the next 1-2 months are going to be extremely busy harvesting, hauling, milling, bottling labeling, and then pruning the whole orchard shortly after that! I've never had to deal with more than a truckload of produce at once, now we are going to be hauling tons (literally!) of olives from the orchard to the mill.
A combination of good luck and diligent care has won us a large crop this year, and almost all our 825 trees are loaded with olives. They are varying sizes, and a small number of trees are ripe now, with the majority ripening around Thanksgiving and early December. Our harvest next Sunday will harvest only the small portion that is ripe now, and we will be able to get a feel for the whole process, and press a small batch of oil before harvesting starts in earnest in about a month.
Needless to say, the concept of having gallons and gallons of prime cold-pressed, local extra virgin olive oil is exhilarating! But I guess we shouldn't count our bottles before their pressed... stay tuned, the anticipation is building!
About the Authors
Max and Deirdre Becher farm together on First Steps Farm in Southern California. They love farming, raising their kids, playing music, contradancing, cooking, and working together to create a vibrant culture of celebrating life. See it all unfold right here!