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!
Hi Folks, Max writing. As the weather finally begins to cool off here, our summer crops are winding down. Siobhan and Declan enjoyed picking some of the last tomatoes from the vines in front of our house, and we are saving the best ones to sell, and making tomato sauce out of the rest of them. We're also picking the last of our eggplant and basil, and it looks like the zucchini will hang on for a bit longer. We did a much later planting of zucchini -- it was a gamble, but it has stayed warm enough and it is paying off now!
One big change for us going into the fall is that for the first time, we are having a wholesale nursery 40 minutes down the road start our fall/winter crops for us. Up until now, we have grown all our own transplant starts ourselves, with varying levels of success. Even when all goes well, it is one more thing to do around the farm, and we are delighted to be paying the nursery $13 per flat of plants, and they show up to our farm in perfect condition. I no longer have to drive out to farm 2x per day including weekends (plants don't stop needing water on the weekend!) just to water the transplants. I simply supply the seeds to the nursery, and then leave them in the hands of professionals, who have the perfect greenhouse setup, and then I pick them up when they are ready. It's been a huge time saver for us, AND we now have increased yields because of high transplant quality.
About a month ago, we transplanted out romaine lettuce, butter lettuce, salanova lettuce for salad mix, spinach, kale, and green onions. We are now harvesting large amounts of all those crops! We are so excited to have fresh greens again, other than arugula, which grows quite well through our hot 100+ degree summers.
A couple weeks ago, Diego Footer from Permaculture Voices spent a whole day with us on our farm, and also driving around with me to all the other farms we partner with to offer produce in Ojai Farmstand. He got a lot of video footage, and just published the first in a series of videos about our farm. This first video is fun, because it tells the story of how we got started 4 years ago, and it didn't happen the way we might have thought! It all started by getting up one morning and driving down to "Rancho Del Pueblo" a 10 acre organic farm nearby that had some volunteer days, and I wanted to get my hands dirty, and gain some experience and connections. The rest is history -- watch Diego's video below to see it in person, filmed on site at Rancho Del Pueblo!
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!