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!
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.
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!
Max here... Just today, Diego Footer from Permaculture Voices, and Curtis Stone from The Urban Farmer published a video discussing 10 farmers to pay attention to. I was stoked to see Ben Hartman on the list whose book "The Lean Farm" has totally revolutionized the way we see and organize our farm. Richard Perkins and Connor Crickmore are two more farmers we have enjoyed following and learning from, through Diego's podcast, and the recently published video "Gracie's Backyard." I need to look up the other farms to learn more about them, except one that really surprised me...
I was completely surprised to see our farm on that list! Thank you Diego and Curtis for the good word, and that motivates us to work even harder to create a farm and business worthy of the recommendation. If you watch the video, fast forward 31 minutes to hear them discuss our farm and webstore.
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.
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!