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!
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.
Hey Folks, Max and Deirdre writing together here...
A few weeks ago, we took an amazing trip with the whole family to Maine. Back in March, our good friend and band member Margaret asked us if our band Hidden Fifth wanted to play a concert as part of a Catholic Rural Life Festival being organized by Fr. Paul Dumais of St. Joseph's Catholic Parish in Farmington, Maine. Although we hadn't played a full theater show in 4 years, we were up for the challenge, and said yes! Boy, are we glad we did!
The Festival spanned 4 days of amazing events from Sept 14-17. Fr. Paul described the event as a "Conversation on Nature and Grace" bringing together Catholics to both reflect on the ramifications of our faith on rural living, and to celebrate that life fully. One good way to describe it was a combination of a spiritual retreat, and a grand celebration of rural values such as food, farms and folk music and dancing. The festival combined common prayer, classes on homesteading skills, lost culinary arts, common meals, talks, presentations, contra dancing, and our concert.
Upon arrival, we were hosted at the beautiful Morrill Farm B&B in Sumner, ME. The B&B is on a working farm with dairy, pastured broilers, and a beautiful farmhouse and barn from the 1700s! The Family has also built their own private chapel on the property, and part of the festivities for the weekend took place there, including a procession through the fields, and blessing of the fields and barn. We got an extended tour the first morning, and were enthralled by the beauty of the farm, and the hospitality of our hosts.
We played our concert on Friday night for festival attendees and the show was open to the public. It was a fabulous evening of music and dance, and we don't know whether we or the audience had a better time that evening! We definitely want to play a show in Maine again! The venue was a beautiful old Church converted to a concert venue.
Saturday night we attended a 5-course farm-to-table dinner featuring food from 14 local farms! The parish provided free babysitting for the kids, who got to eat wood-fired pizza cooked on-site, homemade french fries and homemade ice cream from a local dairy farm. We thoroughly enjoyed being able to eat our meal without chasing kids around, and the nice ladies helping out commented that Declan really knows how to eat a lot of pizza! Since we don't generally feed him pizza at home, we guess he figured he had better stock up! We have no doubt that Siobhan took advantage of the quantity of pizza too, and the fact that Mom and Dad weren't in the room to curtail consumption.
The dinner was followed by a contradance, and we danced every single dance. Deirdre started out by wearing Declan on her back, and then when he fell asleep (we had some late nights that trip!), we put him down on a lambskin in the hall, and kept on dancing! Siobhan danced almost every dance, and did a great job for a 4 year old dancing at 10 pm!
We were also excited to meet 4 staff members from the national non-profit Catholic Rural Life. We have been members of CRL for the last year, and it was exciting to talk to them about our farm, and new website www.youngchristianfarmers.com. They gave some great talks over the course of the festival.
It's hard to convey just how amazing of a trip this was for us. All of our life's passions came crashing together at this event. Folk Music + Farming + Faith + Community + Contra Dancing + Local Food + Beautiful Rural Nature + Traditional Skills + Stimulating Intellectual Conversations. We could not even soak up all the goodness that was happening there in the four days that we had. It inspired us to live out our values to the fullest, and we were so honored to take part in, and even contribute to the festivities. We could go on and on and on, but we'll let some of the photos speak for themselves.
We were inspired to reflect deeply on how our faith compels us to work hard to restore the rural family to the American cultural landscape. We encourage all our Catholic brothers and sisters to work for the same goal, which Pope Benedict considered an important need for our times. "The rural family needs to regain its rightful place at the heart of the social order." Even if we don't all live in rural areas, we all as eaters depend on rural families to provide us with our most basic life's necessities, so we are all in this together, and we all benefit greatly from a robust culture of rural living. One concrete way to do this is to become a member of Catholic Rural Life, which needs members like us to support them in their important work of ministering to these rural communities and building them up.
Hi Folks, Max here. It's great to be sitting down to write again, it's been a while since I felt like I have time for this. The girls are napping on this warm summer Saturday afternoon, and Declan for the moment is keeping himself entertained to give me a moment for writing.
The last several months have been packed with farming, and they certainly have not been without their challenges. I was struck recently with the thought that in our enthusiasm to start this blog, we have focused mostly on the glamour, and haven't talked much about the challenges. I am a very positive-thinking type of person, and I certainly don't like giving off a negative vibe, and I think that was one of the factors that we haven't mentioned the hard times up to this point. But I has some thoughts recently that I want to share with you which lead me to open up a little bit about the challenges as well the fun stuff.
1. First of all, challenges don't have to be negative. It's all about how you choose to see them. This is something our good friend and wisdom-guru Brian Johnson has helped us to see in the last 6 months. Brian makes his living by publishing amazing material that helps people live the best version of themselves, and his advice is stunningly helpful. Two of his insights in particular have been life changing for us: "win or learn" and "anti-fragile" or "the obstacle is the way."
Basically, Brian doesn't ever lose in life, and we don't have to either. He wins or he learns. What many people see as a "loss" Brian sees as valuable data. When things take a turn for the worse, we can take that experience and learn from it for the better. That's how I want to see life! I'm not gonna be a loser!
"Anti-Fragile" means that we aren't just tough, we go one step further. We take obstacles and challenges, and actually turn them into opportunities! When something doesn't go our way, we don't despair. We find a way to take that unexpected circumstance into an opportunity to make us a better person. If approach set-backs with that mentality, something which we thought was an obstacle can turn out to be the means by which we grow closer to our goal.
2. Second, I am a regular listener to Diego Footer's great podcast "Permaculture Voices." Over the last several years, Diego has complied an incredible amount of information in his shows for aspiring and practicing eco-farmers. Two things I appreciate about his show are the fact that he repeatedly emphasizes the need for permaculture-based farms to run themselves as businesses, and he also has no fear talking to farmers about the hard sides of farming, whether that be grueling work, hard start-ups, crop failures, family struggles etc... A regular listener of Diego's show certainly knows that farming is not all romance, and that is really the truth.
So, both those thoughts gave me the desire to share both the challenges and the good times, because we won't be painting an accurate picture of "First Steps Farm Life" if we didn't. We wouldn't want readers of this blog to think that starting this farm is easy. We want people to know it is entirely possible, and we want to encourage others to do it too, but you better know what you are getting into first. Diego does a great job at that. I think we all know, or at least have heard of somebody who started to farm, and couldn't make it work, and gave up. I want to minimize those stories, and having the full picture of farming before starting your own farm can really help.
There are lots of challenges we could talk about, but the one I want to talk about now is fairly unique to our situation. I know that by writing this down, it will help clarify it in my own mind, and help me find ways to turn it to our benefit. In one word, that challenge is "commute."
Let me explain. We don't live on our farm, we live in a two-bedroom, 540 square ft duplex, in the middle of our town. We live on a residential street, with neighbors on all sides, and every day we drive 2.3 miles down the road, to a rural property outside town where we rent 1 acre for the farm. It takes about 5 minutes one way. Not a big deal, right? Well, it has a few consequences that present a challenge to our farm life.
1. First all, we don't get to live on our farm. Emotionally, this may be the most difficult and disappointing for us. Both Deirdre and I have this insatiable craving in our souls for rural living. We want to fully live the farm experience, day and night. We wanted to raise our children on the farm as a way of life, and have that be their home environment. Our home is of such immense importance to us, and we value so much making our home a beautiful, enriching place to live. We want to be able to throw that love and energy into our farm, but when home and farm are two different localities, we find ourselves torn.
Do we spend our precious time, money and energy into building a front-yard garden that will enhance our home, or do we invest those resources into productive beds on the farm, that will return a greater profit to make us financially stable? If home and farm were in the same place, this would not be an issue. Are farm would BE our front yard garden, and we would have the double incentive of knowing that we are making a profit, and beautifying our living environment at the same time!
2. Moving beyond the emotional pull, there are some very practical ramifications too. One is that we have to pay rent for our farm land, AND we have to rent an expensive urban home at the same time. That's a lot of money. We would be willing to live in a trailer on our property to save money while we get started, and that would have saved us tens of thousands over the first 3 years. Too bad it isn't legal, and our landlords like to stick by the rules! We are left with the bill.
A few months after starting the farm, we quickly realized that our 1 car was not enough. We had to buy a 2nd car, because while I commute 2 miles away to go farm, Deirdre needed to be able to get around too, including to go teach her Irish dance class once a week. We tried to do without for the first few months, but after wasting tons of gas and productive time dropping each other off, and picking each other up, and biking with a load uphill in the dark at the end of a hard day on the farm, we had to get the 2nd car. We found a great used van for $2600, but man, we didn't exactly have that lying around to spare! Now we have the cost of registering and maintaining both vehicles.
3. Another expense, whether we bought the 2nd car or not, is the commute itself. We usually end up driving back and forth 2-4 times round trip per day. That's 10-20 miles and 20-40 minutes per day, burning gas, and using our own productive time just to get there and back. Sometimes the trip out at the end of the day is just 5 minutes to turn the the swamp cooler off in the greenhouse, or switch a new line of sprinklers on. But that 5 minute chore turns into a 15 minute chore when you don't live on site!
4. That brings us to #4, which is that sometimes we just don't go out and do that 15 minute chore. At the end of an exhausting day, with cranky kids at 9:00 pm, getting in the truck and driving out to check the greenhouse does not sound like fun. There have been plenty of days that we decided to just leave things the way they were, and then we come out the next day to to wilted plants that badly needed a shower the night before.
5. #5 is kids. If Deirdre and I were just a couple, this aspect of farming would not be nearly such a challenge. It's not too hard to jump in the truck and drive out to the farm with another adult. But once you make a decision that you want to this as a family, and you want your kids to grow up around the farm, then logistics get more complicated. The hat, water bottle and sandwich I would have grabbed for myself turns into baby carriers, stroller, diaper bag, 4 water bottles, snacks, books, baby dolls, and the kitchen sink. A 5-minute prep becomes a 30-minute packing routine. By the time you make it out to the car and get it loaded up, somebody has to go to the bathroom, or is crying because the car-seat buckle is too hot. The bottom line is that it takes a LOT more time to get out there with the family!
6. You can't have two sets of everything. With all the constant hauling stuff back and forth between home and farm, something often gets left behind in the wrong place. I use my tools at home and at the farm, and all too often, I forget that I left that wrench behind, and need to hop in the car to go get it.
That gives you an idea of what "commute" means in our context. Most commuters probably don't load their family into the car and take them to the office each morning. I admit, this challenge is definitely a unique set of circumstances!
On the flip side, here are some positives, and also ways we deal with it.
1. We came to this farming dream without any home or land to our name. By being flexible and willing to consider the commute, we were able to get started without owning anything.
2. If we lose our ag lease, at least we don't lose our home!
3. We get the advantages of living in the city, like parks, easy shopping and community, and have a private rural spot outside of town!
4. We live only 2 blocks away from our downtown weekly farmers market. Being able to run the kids home mid-morning for a snack and bathroom break is a huge advantage over growers that have to drive to get there.
5. Sometimes getting away from the house and kids lets me focus on farm work without family distractions.
There are several ways to cope with this handicap and make it more workable.
1. Most importantly, better planning ahead of time. Know what you need, pack it up first. Plan what needs to be done, and get it done all at once, so you don't need to drive out again later because you forgot.
2. We bought a timer for our sprinklers which we can set to turn on and off at a certain time. We still need to open up the right lines manually, but at least we don't need to drive out to turn them on AND off every time.
3. Some days I just bring my lunch out with me, and don't come home until the end of the day. That is hard, because I miss my family, and one of the main reasons I am farming is to spend more time with them. But some days, it just has to happen, and it helps cut down on gas and time, and lets me focus with no distractions.
4. For the future, there are more things we could automate and get hooked up to timers. That is a goal for the future.
So, that's our commute! Finally, we know that if we can succesfully handle the management challenge of a farm-at-distance, we will be all the more equipped to set up a productive, profitable hometsead farm in the future. Remembering that we are building a skill-set now that will stay with us wherever we go is the encouragement that keeps us going when the going gets tough.
One final note: although this is a challenge, it is a necessary one for us if we wanted to start farming in our current situation. I would not want others to be scared away by this challenge, and if a distant farm is the only way for you to start farming, then go for it! Take this advice to know ahead of time what you will be dealing with, and take these as suggestions for ways to make it doable.
That's all for now folks. Until next time...
Hi Folks. Here we are, making our first post! It's a little hard to know where to begin, but let's jump in. A couple years ago, we started a blog to document the development of our small farm, "First Steps Farm." We realized that rather than simply writing about the farm operations, we wanted to write about the whole lifestyle we are creating around the farm and for our family. So, this blog is called "First Steps Farm Life."
This blog is basically a journal for us to post all our little steps along the path to a beautiful life and culture for our family. The idea of "Creating Conscious Culture" is a common theme throughout, and we explain what we mean by this in more detail here.
Although the explanation on the "Conscious Culture" page can sound a bit heavy and heady, we actually intend this blog to be a source of lightness, fun, beauty, inspiration, excitement, positive energy etc... It is not intended to be a dogmatic platform, even if we do occasionally step up on the box to voice an opinion. We just want to share what we are doing to create a beautiful culture in our own home and community, and since a good thing always becomes better when shared, we want to share it with all who are interested. If it is truly beautiful, beauty speaks for itself, and we know that others will see it, appreciate it, and want to take part in it. But we also realize beauty has as many faces as there are people in the world, and although we certainly don't accept an "anything goes" mentality, we make it a goal to stay open to infinite beautiful variations, many of which we can't even imagine.
We will be posting on a variety of topics, all areas of intense love and interest to us. You can expect to see posts on the following topics:
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!