On Seeds, Literal and Metaphorical

Mat moving the first two varieties of garlic.

Some of my seed garlic hanging in the corncrib.

Last week brought one of my favorite tasks on the farm - the garlic harvest! Though garlic is only one of many crops that grows underground, for some reason it always seems so magical to me when you pull them out and see the nice big heads. I think this must have something to do with the fact that they’ve been in the ground since last October - they were planted a whole NINE months ago. They were in the ground when the windchill reached 26 below in January, and they still managed to poke their little green shoots through the straw mulch this spring. Anyways, last fall I amassed a small amount of sixteen more varieties of garlic apart from the four the Boersons grow. I started a spreadsheet to keep everything straight, and then I planted a whole 200-foot row in addition to the other six that made up the main garlic crop. So the afternoon before a whole crew was due to assemble to harvest the garlic, I grabbed a notebook, baling twine, tape, and a marker and set about pulling up my test plot. Making my way through the varieties, I counted how many germinated, how many were seed-worthy specimens, estimated the average number of cloves per head, etc. When they’ve hung in the corn crib long enough to have dried out, I’ll cut them down, weigh them, label them, and taste them. I’ve already decided that one variety didn’t perform well enough to grow again next year, and I’m on the fence about another. In October, I’ll take out my bagged and labeled seed garlic, pop all the cloves off the stem, then plant, mulch, and label my beds. A year from now, I’ll start the process again, and no doubt I’ll still find myself amazed to pull a fully formed head of garlic where last fall I left just a small clove. 

The as-yet-unnamed Mulefoot gilt.

Young Two-Spot in profile.

My seed garlic is not the only “seed” I’ve begun to stockpile in anticipation of my move to Hazel Hill Farm this fall. This other seed stock, however, is of the four-legged variety. Besides my vegetables, another component of next year’s farm landscape will be three sows and a boar. One of these sows is already a full-grown, proven mother who’ll be coming with me from the Boersons’ as part of my salary. She’s a Large Black Hog (LBH), a rare heritage breed that originated in England and is recognizable by its long body and big floppy ears. My second sow is still a gilt - the name for a female pig that has yet to farrow, or have a litter of pigs. She’s a Mulefoot hog, an even rarer breed, this one notable for its distinctive uncleft hooves. My third sow is TBD, but will be a Tamworth, because my boar is a Tamworth. When you say boar, a huge, fearsome pig with big tusks comes to mind, but mine is a newly-weaned pig pushing 50 lbs. He’s the stoutest fellow from a healthy litter of twelve, and has been named Two-Spot by young Shep, an imaginative but very literal namer, because of the two black spots on his rear end. With three different breeds of sow, this means that by replacing the boar every year or two, I’ll always have two different crosses and one purebred pair. So-called “hybrid vigor” means that the crossed pigs will be a bit stouter and grow a little faster than their pure counterparts, and having a pure line will mean I can grow my own replacement stock. Rotating boars between breeds means that I can constantly be improving my stock, a process aided by the fact that a pig has a relatively short gestation period (under 4 months) and can be safely bred at a relatively young age (around 8 or 9 months). 

My plan with the pigs is to sell both feeder pigs and a few whole and half hogs in the first few years as I rotate them through the overgrown pasture and scrubby forest. As I improve my infrastructure, my plan is to breed selectively for traits I want, improving my herd as I start to grow out more and more pigs to full size, offering pork shares perhaps as early as the second year. In the long term, my goal is permaculture prosciutto and other dry-cured meats, in which the pigs I have bred specific to my farm with eat only food grown on the farm, and will be cured on-farm, resulting in a hyper-local artisanal product with potential for shipping and sales to high-end meat and cheese counters across the midwest (Zingerman’s, we will meet again!). This is many years in the future, however, and in the meantime, my breeding stock is growing in leaps and bounds. 

Freshly plowed fields at Hazel Hill.

On the farm, too, things are shaping up. I’ve been making the 2-hour commute pretty often this summer, and the late summer and early fall will see more and more frequent visits as I continue to break sod, get my barns ready for animals, and try to complete as many building projects as possible before the ground freezes for good. Things are coming along nicely, and I’ve even gotten the paperwork ball rolling on things like organic certification and a low-interest microloan from the FSA (Farm Service Agency). These things too feel almost like seed stock for the new farm - a little piece of paper now that will enable big things later. Besides the Boersons and my own family, there have also been a few notable contributions to my “seed stock” that have bolstered both my confidence that I’m trying to do something worthwhile and that there are amazing people out there who believe I am onto something. A few weeks ago, an incredible family I know in the area called and asked if I would consider house-sitting during their vacation in exchange for a young Jersey heifer calf. Having already decided to keep her older sister, they couldn’t see into keeping a third cow, and was hoping she might be useful in my growing menagerie. It was a great call to get, and I would have fed their animals and watered their garden for much less! 

In a similar vein, a longtime family friend emailed a few months ago with another extraordinary gesture. She had been following my farming journey through the blog and had decided that she would like to contribute what was left of a memorial fund for her son to the farm. He would have really appreciated what I’m trying to do, she told me, and she thought it would be a fitting use of the funds. I was blown away by the gesture, and knew I had to come up with a fitting way to use the money so that it didn’t just disappear into the stream of cash it takes to start up a business. I decided to deem it the “Perennial Fund,” and use it to establish the perennial crops on the farm that would have taken a backseat to other faster-bearing investments. This way, an important facet of the farm would get a jump-start, and there would be a lasting and tangible way to honor this amazing young man on the farm. The rhubarb, asparagus, berries, and nut and fruit trees will yield for years to come, and might otherwise have been postponed or done halfway. If you’d like to contribute a few dollars to the Perennial Fund for Hazel Hill Farm, you can click the button below.


Acorn, bean, sunflower seed, popcorn kernel, apple seed.

Seed garlic, breeding stock, seed money. The imagery and symbolism of seeds has always captivated me - the sheer potential encapsulated in such a tiny package, the resilience, the stored energy, the connection with the past and the future, the portability and prerogative to exchange information. In these dog days of summer, when the sun bears down hard and the plants are bearing heavily, the emergence of the garlic makes me feel supported by the earth itself and  gestures like these make me feel supported by the community of people I have around me, near and far. I am working harder than I have ever worked before, and will only work harder still as Hazel Hill springs into being, but I go to sleep happy and exhausted and wake up energized and ready to do it all over again. Gathering my seeds, saving them, sowing them, giving thanks. 

On a Thursday Afternoon in Late June

It’s five-o’clock, and my last fieldwork colleague of the day is leaving the field, pushing a wheel hoe and dangling an empty water bottle from his pinky. It’s been a hot day, humid and sunny with an occasional cooling breeze. My legs and arms are covered in dirt, striped with lighter brown where sweat or water has pushed the dust aside. I pick up the notebook where this morning I had made myself a ridiculous list while slowly driving the length of the field in the golf cart (partially out of laziness, partially to avoid getting my shoes soaked in the dewy grass, and partially because it’s much easier to write when sitting down). This morning I flipped the half-sized spiral notebook on its side and scrawled headers along the top: HORSES, WHEEL, RAZOR, HAND, TILL. As I slowly bumped down the headland, I noted which beds needed which kind of attention, sometimes noting other tasks down in the corners (“pull bolted chi. cabb,” “HARVEST BROCCOLI TODAY!”). As the field crew swelled to three, then four, then shrank back down to two, we moved across the field, erasing weeds and crossing items off the list. The eggplants and peppers just needed a quick pass with a razor hoe, but the extra-wide lanes on either side of the tomato trellises needed some attention from the wheel hoe, and so on and so forth across the field. 

Scrawled list

Now, standing in the field looking down at the notebook, we have made a large dent in my list but I feel to desire to leave the field. The Brussels sprouts I just finished hoeing could really use some water, I think. After an early and epic cutworm plague this spring, we have recently transplanted a late but optimistic batch of seedlings into the gaps left by the decimation, and these small plants are looking a little wan. I’ll stay a little longer, I decide - long enough to irrigate the sprouts and cross another few items off my list. Besides, after a very sweaty day, the air is just starting to feel nice again, and I’m really on a roll. 

I walk a few rows further into the field to retrieve the irrigation rig where it was left after providing some moisture to speed the germination of some broadcasted and culti-packed oats, rape, and buckwheat. The rig is new this year, a collaborative effort. Danielle’s least favorite part of farming is dealing with hoses and row covers, which can be notoriously frustrating. I suggested that half the headache of hoses in the field might be solved by some sort of cart with a hand-cranked wheel sturdy enough to hold the 200’ of hose that we require, eliminating the untangling step from the hosework. Danielle mentioned this to Mat, who went out and bought one the very next day. I assembled it, grabbed a wobbler, and went out to the field ready to put it to good use. When Mat came out to see how it was working, he looked at it and decided it would be even more useful if you didn’t have to turn it off, walk into the field and pick up the wobbler when you wanted to move it. A few tweaks later, we had a working system: two wobblers separated by about 30 feet of hose (so their respective spray radii overlapped slightly), each affixed to a block of wood cut into a boat-like skid with stolen training wheels keeping the skids from tipping over. (Incidentally, robbing an outgrown bike of its training wheels inadvertently caused to teach himself Shep to ride a two-wheeler in one afternoon!)

I balance these two skids on the cart as I wheel it back over to the sprouts, dragging the heavy water-filled hose behind me in the grass. I count the rows I’d like to soak - it’s too bad the cauliflower will be just out of range, but the sprouts seem more important in this moment. I choose the appropriate pathway, position the cart so the hose unspools unobstructed, and start to walk the sprinklers towards the end of the bed. In my left hand, the sprinkler dangles in its skid, impotently gurgling with every heave. The hose passes over my shoulders, and I grasp it firmly in my right hand as I drag the second sprinkler in its skid the length of the row. It comes easily at first, but as I near the bottom of the bed, I lean into it to heft the heavy length of hose. Heading back up to the top, I turn the valve mounted on the cart and listen as water makes its way through what’s left of the coiled hose before rushing down the field and wobbling the sprinklers in a few awkward loops before settling into the familiar circular arc of gentle summer rain. I’m thirsty. My thermos is in the newly refurbished and red-painted garden cart a few yards away, but I know it’s empty again. If I walk in and refill it now, I decide, I can pull the wobblers up one length on the way back out. Perfect. 

I walk slowly towards the house, admiring the clean beds we have to show for our day’s work. The yard is deserted - the boys are at their grandmother’s this afternoon, Danielle is across the street doing some landscaping work at the landlord’s summer house (part of the arrangement that made starting this farm possible), and Mat is off in a farther field, checking on the condition of some hay that needs to be baled. Bella, a recent canine addition to the farm, comes to greet me, and we go together into the dark kitchen. I have taken my shoes off as always, though when I wear these old boat shoes I often think I’d be better of leaving them on, as my feet seem to carry more dirt in than the treadless soles might. I down the first ice-water refill without taking a breath - is this my fourth or fifth bottle-full today? Fifth, I suppose, as I fill up my sixth. 

L to R, lettuce, arugula, spinach, cabbage, beans, tomatoes

Out in the field, I stop at the hose, where the furthest sprouts seem sufficiently soaked. As I pull the hose in, grasping tightly and using the strength of my legs to walk it back, I think about non-specific old-timey sailors, heave-ho-ing thick ropes and coiling them on the deck of a ship - three-masted? Maybe they’re animated - this must be from The Little Mermaid, or maybe Peter Pan. They would be singing, either way. The beans, I’m going to hoe the beans. Earlier in the day and the field, Lindsay weeded our second planting of beans with a cobrahead - three rows? Four? I’m looking at five rows here, three rows with a nice thick germination, our third planting, and two sparse rows that remain from our previously lush and larger first planting that was damaged by a late frost. I select the razor hoe as my tool of choice for the younger, smaller plants. The grass and weeds are close to the bean plants, but easy to remove with some skilled maneuvering. I go down one side and up the other, sweeping under the bean canopy for hidden weeds. I pass through the outer reaches of the spray - refreshing! I don’t slow.

L to R, tomatillos, eggplants, peppers, tomatoes

I love using a razor hoe, especially when it’s the right tool for the job, In this case, it’s about 85% the right tool. When is it 100% the right tool? When forces converge to make my day: when the crop has been horse-cultivated, leaving on the area closest to the crop and between plants untouched but breaking the crust and clearing away weeds from the sides of the bed and the pathways; when the weeds themselves are small enough that just to move them is to kill them (what some call the white thread stage); when the soil is not so dry as to blow away but not so moist as to stick to the blade; when the plants are spaced so that the blade can pass between easily, but not so far as to require multiple swipes. This confluence of conditions makes me irrationally happy - I hold personal time trials (200 feet in 10 minutes is my prime condition average), I mention prime-hoeing-conditions so subtly (not) that Danielle relents as quickly as is feasible, letting me go off and hoe by myself. I confess to hoarding prime hoeing conditions, but I rationalize this irrational behavior by telling myself that for others it would only be another chore slightly less onerous while for me it is capable of inciting utter joy and satisfaction. 

Tonight, however, does not bring me prime hoeing. Perfectly pleasurable for the first three rows, but nothing quite so sublime as PHC (Prime Hoeing Conditions seems to require an acronym, all of the sudden). After three rows of young beans, the sprinklers moved up another few lengths, a few more podcasts listened to, I come to the oldest, crankiest beans. I take a few swigs of my still-ice-cold water (all hail vacuum-insulated thermoses!) and regard them somewhat askance. These are far from PHC, but they must be tackled. I return my hoe to the red cart and take up the cobrahead. I fall to my knees at the top of the bean row and fall to work. My newly arduous task does not diminish my mood. The air has cooled, and I fall into another comfortable groove. I’m making my way up the last row of beans and the sprinklers are dampening the very top of the sprout section when I hear a rumble of thunder in the distance and stop ignoring the occasional raindrops on the back of my neck and calves. Almost as if on cue, the mosquitos descend. I take this as a hint not to push my luck. 

I toss my tools into the cart and begin to wheel it back towards the house, shutting the valve on the irrigation rig as I pass. I come upon Danielle seeding some dry beans in section two, and I pause to chat. “You know, it was so nice out,” I say, “that I think on some days it would almost make sense for me to work 4-7 instead of right after lunch, especially when it’s this hot.” Danielle agrees, and we decide we’ll try that out next week on a day when it would make sense. We discuss tomorrow’s harvest - there are some kohlrabi ready for market, but not enough for the box, and we never did harvest that broccoli today. After a few weeks of lots of leafy greens at the market, it will be nice to show up with something a little more solid. The sprinkles start up again, and we hear Mat exclaim to himself from a field away, riding the baler, then the lower rumble of him talking to Henry, who’s just ridden his bike over to assess the situation. 

The right tools for the job.

I put away my tools, hang my sunhat from a hook that already holds my safety orange rainsuit, and collect my belongings into the woven plastic string bag from the Yucatan. I wash my hands in the utility sink, sprinkling my left hand with borax, then rubbing them vigorously together front and back to get some of the dirt off. As I exit the garage, the rain falls light and warm, and I raise an arm in goodbye to Danielle, still pushing the seeder. “BYE EMIWY!!” calls Shep, and I call back as I head over to my little red truck. Door open, throw bag, door close, key in, click belt, pump gas, clutch down, turn key, car roars (first try always), brake off, into reverse. Today, lights on, wiper once, twice. Eight o-clock. I creep down the drive in first gear, Mat waves as he hops from tractor to trailer to stack the hay. Henry sits on the wagon, out of the way, still weighing about as much as a bale of hay. I shift into second, and look to my right, making a mental note to check the potatoes tomorrow for beetles. Three black sows past the potatoes lumber vaguely towards their shelter, in no hurry to get out of the rain. 

I wind my way into town, turning left into the Piggly Wiggly on an impulse. I spend five minutes in the freezer aisle, trying to find vanilla ice cream without corn syrup in it. I am ultimately successful, and I carry my quarry out into the otherwise deserted parking lot, lingering in the warm sprinkle. I drive around the block, leaving my truck parked on the street outside my building, pointed toward the farm for an easier morning. I jangle through my ever-growing keyring - the outer door takes the one with the blocky letters. Nothing in my mailbox. The apartment key says TrueValue in a nice italic. I flip on the lights. The apartment is cool after the outlet timer I bought has kicked on the ancient window unit for an hour earlier in the evening. I’m glad I washed the dishes this morning. Ice cream in the freezer, crookedly resting on the vacuum-packed stew beef I never made into anything, long past stewing season. 

Hat off, on closet doorknob. Shirt off. This shirt was white once, one of many plain white tees. Then once summer it was dyed in an experiment with natural dyes in which everything eventually ended up a faded pink, a color I would not have chosen. Now, hundreds of washes later, it is soft, and today covered in dirt. I’ve ripped a small hole on the sharp metal corner of a hose clamp. Oops. The rest of my clothes follow it into the hamper. When I step into the warm shower, dirty water cascades off me and towards the drain. I marvel at how many people don’t have the daily satisfaction of going from so dirty to so (relatively) clean in so visible a manner. I try to remember when I last washed my hair, and consider how soon I’ll be hatless in public. I reach for the shampoo. Out of the shower, I towel off, pull on some soft cotton shorts and a tank, and smooth oil onto my face, neck, and arms. 

Dinner of champions

I put away enough clean dishes to uncover the smallest of my stainless steel bowls. No ice cream scoop, no big spoons. I hold the teaspoon at the base, scraping ice-cream nearest the edge, and I only bend the spoon a little. Replacing the carton in the freezer, I open the fridge and among the glass jars find the reason for the unplanned purchase: the half-filled half-pint jar of sweet strawberry sauce, the other jars of which remain on my counter days after I made and canned it in the first place. I pour some out onto my ice cream. Oh, what a color! I take a picture. I carry it over to my grandmother’s sewing table, piling up the clutter (sketchpad, farming magazines, receipts, paystub, photo booth strips from a recent wedding, antibiotic ointment, Gorilla Glue) to make room for my sweet, refreshing dinner and my computer. As I savor the combination, I read a few articles I’d saved at the library the other day about whether or not it’s really necessary to castrate pigs (verdict pending, stay tuned). I scrape the bowl, glancing at the clock. Nine, not quite bedtime. I start to minimize windows - (gmail inbox, “maple syrup urine disease” wikipedia page, untitled word doc with sample pork CSA options, untitled doc2 with possible pork breeding programs with different breed combinations, sticky note of books I’ve been meaning to read, another sticky of things to look up when I have wifi) and I’m down to a blank white text doc covering half of a little red chicken coop in the background. Maybe I’ll write a little bit before I go to bed, tired and happy. 

On Science, Progress, and Pigs

Tuesday’s episode of Fresh Air starts with the caveat “You probably don’t think about pigs a lot, but …” Au contraire, Dave Davies. I am constantly thinking about pigs. I realize this does not put me in the majority of people, or of NPR listeners, so I will echo Mr. Davies and say that even if you don’t think about pigs that much, you’ll be interested in his interview with Barry Estabrook. Estabrook speaks eloquently from an outsiders perspective on all aspects of the pork industry, and his new book, Pig Tales: an Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat, has been added to my never-ending book queue. Though I can’t yet speak on the merits of the book, the interview is a nice overview on what’s wrong with the pork industry for the uninitiated. I was glad to hear the interview especially because it seemed like timely counter-programming to something that’s been eating at me for a few weeks.

Photo: J.B. Spector/Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

At the end of April, I (bravely, some might say) decided to take my kids on a weekend trip down to Chicago (I’m at the tail end of a strange saga house-mothering five high schoolers from five different countries. You can ask me about this when I’ve had some time to recover.). The school bought us CityPasses, and we made the rounds of the various world-class museums in the city. On Sunday morning, we checked out of our hotel and piled back in the mini-van for a trip down Lake Shore Drive to the Museum of Science and Industry. For those who haven’t been, the MSI is, according to its website, the biggest science museum in the western hemisphere, boasting 1.4 million visitors in 2014, 340,000 of them kids on school field trips. Their stated mission: “to inspire the inventive genius in everyone by presenting captivating and compelling experiences that are real and educational.” For some reason, they also have a “vision,” which is: “to inspire and motivate children to achieve their full potential in science, technology, medicine and engineering.” Basically, they design most of their exhibits to appeal to school-aged children, with plenty of interactive displays and activities to engage kids with SCIENCE! Though there are some historic exhibits, like the history of transportation or the German U-boat, most of the museum is very much pointed towards Progress and The Future. The MSI has a long legacy in this regard: it was built in the crumbling Palace of Fine Arts from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, an event that showcased such innovations as the Ferris Wheel, Cracker Jacks, PBR, spray painting, and the automatic dishwasher. When the MSI opened in 1933 during Chicago’s next World’s Far: the Century of Progress, its was the first interactive museum in the country, and was founded by the chairman of Sears, Roebuck, & Co. and funded by some of the city’s biggest industrialists. This is all to say that the Museum of Science and Industry is aptly named, and has always been a way for some of the richest men in the country to educate the masses (and their children) on the amazing technological developments in science and industry, all in the name of Progress. 

Families check out a John Deere tractor

Back to my visit: I’d released my charges into the museum for a few hours with instructions on where and when to meet me again, and started looking at the map wondering what I should look at in the meantime. I’d been to the MSI a few times as a child, and once as a college student for a traveling Harry Potter exhibit (don’t judge), but it had been at least 15 years since I last explored the MSI. Looking over the map, one thing was the first to catch my eye: “Farm Tech.” Fresh from realizing that an exhibit about bugs and other underground plant and animal life at the Field Museum was funded by Monsanto, I did not exactly have high expectations for a farming exhibit at the MSI. After all, at a museum with “industry” right in the name, one can expect the focus of such an exhibit to be on the technology and promise of industrial agriculture. Indeed, as I rounded the corner toward the exhibit, the first thing to greet me was the shiny green and yellow of a John Deere tractor and combine. I’m not going to dwell on the details of every facet of the MSI’s very modern farm, but there’s an emphasis on corn and soy, high-tech farming practices like GPS-guided tractors and robotic milking, and a whole section that non-ironically informs you that “even when you don’t think you’re eating soy, you could be!” Given the top sponsorships by John Deere and Archer Daniels Midland (one of the country’s largest corn and soy processors, headquartered in Chicago), the focus of the exhibit was not surprising in the least. But I’m constantly thinking about pigs, so of course my attention was quickly drawn to the porcine portion of the display. 

It’s almost impossible for me to convey the combination of righteous indignation and resigned helplessness that cycled through my mind as I took in this part of the exhibit. It’s not so hard to follow the logic that leads to lionization of large machinery and conventional corn and soy in a context like the MSI. It was a little harder to stomach the spin that turned modern confinement pork into a wonder of technology and engineering. Here are some excerpts from the signage in the exhibit:

A young visitor looks at a fake sow in a farrowing stall.

  • “Pork farming today is experiencing phenomenal growth as it continues to meet worldwide consumer demand for one of the most popular meat products… U.S. pork producers are increasingly taking advantage of new state-of-the-art innovations designed to provide an environmentally efficient operation that ensures safe, high quality food for consumers."
  • Hog Heaven: Pork producers keep their breeding pigs in specially designed barns that protect the animals from illness, injuries and extreme weather conditions, while allowing fresh air and sunlight in. Sows receive nutritious diets of corn, soybeans and vitamins, have free access to fresh water and are cared for under the close supervision of veterinarians. The animals are kept safe from predators and protected from the aggression that often exists among sows housed in group pens. They are also spared from the competition for food that occurs when animals are kept in groups. Housed in individual stalls, sows are able to move back and forth, lie on their sides and fully extend their limbs."
  • “Today’s pigs aren’t porky anymore. Instead, they’re as lanky as marathon runners. Today’s pork farmer is delivering leaner, healthier pork: 16% leaner and 31% lower in fat than in 1980. The pig’s makeover is an impressive tale of farmers meeting demands for leaner, more healthful meat.”
  • Farrowing Stall: When a sow is ready to give birth it’s called farrowing. The only problem is, a sow weighs over 200 pounds and her newborn piglets only weigh about three pounds. How do you keep mommy from rolling over and making piglet pancakes? Modern hog farmers put sows in farrowing stalls: specially built enclosures that keep mamma hog snug in one place, but lets her little piglets poke their heads in for nursing. The stalls even have heat lamps to keep the baby hogs warm. It’s like a hog maternity room and nursery all rolled into one.”

The sow in the bottom right picture is not a model of porcine contentment.

If you’ve watched any number of popular documentaries about the modern food system, listened to that Fresh Air interview, or even just driven through Iowa, you know that these are rather generous characterizations of practices that are unpleasant at best and barbaric at worst. I’m not going to bother refuting these claims line by line - I’m going to assume you’re educated enough to pick up on at least some of the deep ironies in these descriptions. Included in the exhibit is a fake sow in a farrowing stall, which in itself may not be jarring for the casual visitor. Upon a closer look at the poster describing farrowing stalls, you will see that for some reason, they didn’t even look hard enough to find a picture of a confinement sow appearing comfortable in her stall! And though you might not be able to tell from the slant and the graphics, the exhibit was drastically updated relatively recently, in 2007!

Some of the many sponsors that made the Farm Tech exhibit possible.

Considering how tied the rest of the exhibit was to its major sponsors, I decided to try to uncover who might be responsible for the pig propaganda. I didn’t have to dig very far. Though the donor list in the museum itself is very long, the MSI’s website includes this message under the description of the Farm Tech exhibit: “We are pleased to acknowledge and to extend sincere appreciation to the many generous donors to the Farm Tech exhibit including ADM, Deere & Company, and Fair Oaks.” Some cursory internet sleuthing turned up Fair Oak Farms, a northwest Indiana educational tourist attraction where you can learn about where your food comes from. Fair Oak Farms is a monument to Modern farming, and it’s “Pig Adventure” is its newest experience designed to introduce families to how a modern pig is raised. They have 2,800 sows in a breed-to-weaning situation, meaning that the pigs are sold to other farms around the midwest to be raised for meat. When you think about large confinement pig operations, the first word that comes to mind is definitely not transparency, so this operation caught my attention.

Upon further internet investigation, I found a fewvirtual tours” of the Pig Adventure on a website called PigProgress.net. As you might be able to tell from the familiar use of the capital P “Progress,” this is a site devoted to fully modern pork producers. Again, this is a report filtered through that particular lens, and it shows. The lede? “In the US, awareness is growing that successful welfarist campaigns are related to people being poorly informed about pig farming.” If this whole things piques your own interest, I encourage you to click through the links above to read about the operation and look through a slideshow of the exhibit. Here’s what I’ve gleaned from these sources and the farm’s own website: visitors get in a bus at the main visitor center and are driven two miles to the pig operation, where they enter straight through a garage from the van (not stepping foot outdoors around the pig barn). They are then in an upper section of the barn, where they can look through windows down into the facility, divided into gilts (young unbred pigs), gestating sows, farrowing sows, and young piglets. They use modern feeding technology, in which a microchipped tag on the sow’s ear communicates with computers regulating feed, so each pig is fed an appropriate amount for their stage of development. When they are ready to be bred, they are artificially inseminated and held for 5-7 days to make sure they they’re pregnant. Three months, three weeks later, they are put in farrowing stalls, where they give birth and nurse their piglets for three weeks, at which point the pigs are weaned and sold and the sows (depending on their performance) are returned to the beginning of the cycle. Both the sows and the genetic material used in the insemination have been bred and selected for quick-growing, lean meat and very large litter sizes. Because of the scale of the operation, visitors are almost sure to see a litter being born, and staff regularly bring newborn pigs up to a window for a closer look. Virtually the whole process, except for castration, cutting eyeteeth, and docking tails, happens in full view of the public, in an attempt to provide a counter-example to the growing awareness of inhumane conditions documented in various surreptitiously-obtained videos. 

In some ways, I think this kind of model farm is great - it does provide a closer approximation of where your food comes from than nursery rhymes and picture books. The pigs on display are not subject to the acute cruelties that many animals across the country experience everyday, and visitors are protected from the environmental realities involved with pork production on this scale (see: the bus entering the facility before disembarking, thereby avoiding the majority of the stench emanating from such an operation). However, no amount of Science! Technology! Progress! can paper over the fact that these animals are being denied an animal existence. These sows will never set foot outside! They will never explore their environs for varied food sources, build a nest, protect their piglets. They can’t! If we released these very pigs tomorrow, they would be ill-prepared to survive out on pasture, designed as they are through generations of breeding and lifetimes of sub-therapeutic antibiotic use. The pig-ness has been bred out of these pigs, in the name of Progress. 

This isn’t supposed to be my own submission to the pig propaganda wars - I’m just taking you down the rabbit-hole I’ve been burrowing around in the last two weeks. It has led me to reflect on the disingenuous ways we invoke Progress! in this country, the information being fed to schoolchildren about our Modern! food industry, and the underlying inhumanity at even the most modern of farms. I’m not telling you how to eat or buy, but I can tell you about my current relationship with my own omnivorousness. After a high school and college stint of vegetarianism and a few years of near-indiscriminate omnivory, I’ve settled into the following pattern: I eat the meat and eggs I raise myself, I try to be careful about the dairy products I buy, and I try to avoid eating meat in restaurants unless I know where it comes from. Since the combination of the raw ingredients and restaurants available to me on a daily basis mean that cooking for myself is usually the best bet, I don’t see myself as making any kind of grand sacrifice. All I can ask of others is to educate themselves to the degree necessary to make their own decisions about what kind of food they want to eat and from where it should come. Listening to that Fresh Air interview is a start. Rest assured that though it may appear a bit disheartening at first, there are only going to be more alternative food sources in the coming years. Here’s an antidote to whatever rabbit-hole you’re about to enter, should you choose to go down that path:

Happy sows eat outdoors earlier this spring with their litters. 

On Naming the Farm

For the past two years, I’ve been referring to my “future farm” on this website as just that - an unnamed Future Farm, a great big “farm in the sky,” my “farm dreams.” The past few months, as I’ve gotten down to the nitty gritty of business planning and the realities of farm start-up, it has become increasingly apparent that it was time to name the farm. Certain milestones approach, forms await filling, and it was time to come up with something to fill in that blank. The sign at the end of the driveway says “Valley View Farm,” but there are already quite a few of those doing business in Wisconsin, and the name seems pretty forgettable. Similarly, there’s already an LLC registered in Wisconsin called “Just A Farm,” though they seem to have no web presence otherwise. The two most obvious options unavailable, it was back to the drawing board. I did some brainstorming, lots of googling, and at one point even sent out a survey to some friends with a list of possible names. They were mostly uninspired, especially when presented in a long list. There was liberal use of a thesaurus, lots of seed and root imagery, and bids for memorability that ended up just sounding a little…. off. My criteria for a good farm name, as I laid out in the survey, were that it must: sound nice out loud, be easy to spell, be memorable, not be too crop- or product- specific, be original, and have some je ne sais quoi.... It’s that last one that I was missing, and the feedback I got over and over again were that the name should be more personally meaningful, or place-specific. It wasn’t enough to just pick a good name, but there needed to be some kind of good story behind it. Back to the drawing board. I put the whole thing on the back burner, trusting my subconscious to come up with something eventually.

For once, my subconscious pulled through! I can’t tell you how or when it came to me, but suddenly I had the perfect name for my farm! It checked all the above boxes, and has some family significance to boot. My little hilltop farm will hereby be known as Hazel Hill Farm. On the surface, it sounds nice, and will eventually be accurate (no hazels yet, but there will be some tiny hazels planted soon enough). The name “Hazel,” however, has a greater significance in my family. Here’s an excerpt from the family history that my late grandmother wrote a few years ago about her side of the family:

"While Dan and I enjoyed being with Nell and Nora, the twins were privileged to stay with Hazel and Marie, mainly because their home was not childproof.  Hazel Bush, our mother’s spinster sister, whom we called Dade, and her life long companion Marie Flanigan lived in a beautiful apartment full of things young children shouldn‘t get into.  
Dade and Marie were an integral part of our life.  They had a Packard sedan which was put up on blocks for the winter, but taken out in the spring for an annual trip to Rhinelander.  Our mother was in a tizzy for days to get ready, not because Dade was so particular but Marie poked in every corner and then would suggest to mother, “Don’t you think, dear, that….. “ whatever she was criticizing.  Dan and I were almost afraid of her.
But we loved Aunt Dade.  Everyone did.  She had been a primary school teacher all her life, back in the days when there were 50 kids in a class.  She always was interested in what we were doing.  She had a stash of Hershey’s kisses in her pocket.   And passed them out all day. . . 
Her bedtime ritual was legend.  She would simultaneously smoke a cigarette, chew a stick of gum, drink a beer and say her rosary, all the while watching the ten o’clock news on the television.  The kids were enthralled."

This image of an eccentric old lady with her stockings rolled down, smoking, drinking, chewing gum, and praying all at once has become family lore. During a very memorable girls’ weekend in Las Vegas seven or eight years ago, my mother, my aunt Mary, and some of their female cousins began to refer to one another as “Hazel,” and their collective group of cousins as “the Hazels.” Mary contends that there’s not a shade of “we’re turning into eccentric old ladies” meaning to this collective nickname, but only time will tell on that account. Nobody’s rolling down any stockings these days, but I prefer to think of the Hazels as a family legacy of strong, independent, and slightly idiosyncratic women. This little Hazel will gladly position herself as the latest in a succession of teachers, logging camp cooks, immigrants, pioneers. I hope that though I haven’t inherited a propensity for rosaries and cigarettes, that I can call upon the strength, independence, and, yes, eccentricity of my foremothers as a modern-day pioneer, breaking sod and planting trees. So Hazel Hill Farm will not just be a hill that holds some hazel trees, but a hill full of Hazels both hereditary and honorary, rolling down our collective stockings after a hard day of work just like my great-great-aunt Dade. 

On Overwhelming Scope (and MOSES 2015)

Exhibit Hall at MOSES 2015

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to attend the 26th Annual MOSES Organic Farming Conference. It was my second trip to this specific conference. In 2013, it was during conversations with other young conference attendees that I decided to make this website/blog. I skipped last year’s conference in favor of a few others, which meant that my experience two years ago was thrown in greater relief this time around. Two years ago, I was a former WWOOFer about to start my first full-season apprenticeship. It was my first conference, and it couldn’t have been much more overwhelming. Over three thousand people gathered in one place with at least one basic principle in common, a dozen workshops to choose from every hour, a floor full of people who would love to give you piles of information, and a dining hall packed with tables of people having a thousand interesting conversations. From the moment I walked into the La Crosse Center, was certain I was missing something. Sure, this conversation over lunch is interesting, but I bet those people over there are even more awesome. I’m learning tons in this workshop, but could I be learning more in that other one? It sounds like that contra dance is really fun, but I’m too busy drinking beer and getting to know these young farmers. The sheer magnitude of the conference meant that every moment, no matter how completely engaged I was in what I was doing there was a little voice in the back of my head that suspected I might be missing something.

Contra Dance at MOSES 2015

This year’s conference was equally large and potentially overwhelming, but I experienced a drastic reduction in FOMO (fear of missing out) this time around. I think it was partially explained by the return visit and the other conferences I have under my belt, but that only explains away about half of the anxiety. I was talking about this with a friend at the conference, and our conversation brought up a key difference between MOSES 2013 me and MOSES 2015 me: my scope has narrowed considerably. In 2013, I was very new to farming, and everything was incredibly compelling. My experience working on farms so far had been exhilarating and (purposefully) diverse. My farm dreams were grand - I couldn’t imagine giving up any facet of them. So when presented with a list of workshop choices, it all seemed essential! I couldn’t imagine sacrificing the chance to learn about stone fruit production while someone else could be telling me how to farm without fossil fuels! I remain curious about the vast majority of topics covered at MOSES, but my reason for being there has shifted slightly since 2013. In the intervening years I have gotten closer to those “farm dreams” and they come into sharper focus the closer they get. While I still have some possibly outlandish long-term farming goals, my short-term plan is increasingly pared down to the bare bones. It’s not that I find any facet of that initial sprawling plan less intriguing, but practicality has dictated a more measured approach to starting a small business. So when I opened the schedule last weekend to plan my attack, I was able to limit myself to workshops that might be useful to me in the narrow scope of my near future without any dread creeping in that I was making horrible choices.  


I’ve spent the better part of the past week sifting (mentally and physically) through everything I’ve brought back from MOSES 2015. While I wasn’t necessarily as overwhelmed at the conference itself as I was two years ago, it remains equally exhausting and invigorating. Very rarely am I called upon to be completely engaged for such a sustained period, and it made for a physically and mentally exhausting few days. So when I took a moment to sit down after dinner on Friday night, it seemed inconceivable that I’d find myself shedding layers to swing and bounce around for three hours at the annual contra dance. As I sit down these days to get down to the nitty gritty of planning the course of my next year approaching my own farm start-up, I am alternatively exhausted and invigorated. I can’t wait to get down to it, and I can’t really imagine that it will be possible. Two years from now, I hope I’ll be reflecting on MOSES 2017 as a farmer having made it through her first season on her own, probably exhausted, probably invigorated, but always willing to dig deep for the energy for another turn around the dance floor. 

On Learning With and Learning From

I’m not sure if this is true wherever you are, but here in Wisconsin, it’s February. It’s a many-splendored month, full of snow and sleet and cold and flu and all things grey. It’s also the month of seed orders, day lengthening, and the pre-season farmer huddle. It takes a herculean feat of imagination to look out at the greyscale landscape at this moment and paint the rows green, but the seeds are in the mail and attention must be paid! Next season is still a nebulous haze of future colors and smells and sounds and tastes ready to be corralled into a mixed metaphorical bag of tables, calendars, charts, drawings, etc. Danielle and I have started to talk about what next year is going to look like at Boerson Farm, and these ongoing conversations have prompted me to reflect on the idea of the apprenticeship and the different ways one chooses how to learn a trade. We were discussing their decision to scale down their pork production over the next few years, and she made an off-hand comment about my being able to learn from their mistakes. Over the last year and going into the next season, I am constantly thankful that Mat and Danielle take the attitude that they have more to learn than they have to teach. That’s not to say I don’t have lots to learn from them - they’re both whip-smart, well-read, and wise beyond their years. They’ve got an extra ten years of life experience and seven years farming experience on me, but their attitude is always closer to the student than the teacher. So as I prepare for my last season as their girl Friday, I’ve been reflecting on what makes for a good learning experience, and how my time at the Boersons’ compares to other apprenticeships available to aspiring farmers. 

When I was looking into learning opportunities the first (and second) time, I noticed that there seemed to be two possible directions to take when choosing a farmer-mentor: someone who has been farming for years and has everything figured out or someone who is building up their farm and is still figuring things out. There are certainly more people in the latter camp than the former, but there are for sure a few established farmers who attract lots of young acolytes hoping to learn at the feet of masters. More often than not, these masters are published, oft-cited men who have a model to deliver. Almost across the board, apprentices are paid little for their labor, entering into a mutually-beneficial arrangement to learn what they can before striking out on their own. Many of these farmers understandably regard educating the next generation of farmers part of their commitment to sustainability, and take on the burden of training and retraining a rotating cast of enthusiastic young people and sending them on their way after a season or two of hard work. Others, seemingly fewer but no less committed, seek to attract and retain hard workers with the promise of a living wage, benefits, and the satisfaction of working hard with lofty principles. These farmers see their sustainability in a more specific sense. focusing on building a farm community that can sustain itself, not just ecologically but financially. As a few widely-circulated articles have recently pointed out, many successful farms are barely profitable and rely heavily on volunteer or un-/under-paid labor. Of course, these two approaches are not diametrically opposed, and fairness is possible in both scenarios. The issues come up, I think, when the two parties aren’t on the same page. In many conversations with mentors and mentees alike, I’ve come across examples of people feeling exploited in both positions - farmers who invest time and money training what they regard as long-term staff only to have them leave after two seasons to start their own enterprise, or apprentices who work very hard for very little money and end up feeling taken advantage of by a less-than-enriching experience. Circling back to my initial point, it seems that many of these “master farmers” have well-established and well-oiled apprenticeship programs, where they communicate their expectations clearly and attract applicants who sign up with the intention of working hard while learning from someone who knows what they’re doing.

So why didn’t I choose to go the “master” route? I did, after all, choose to attend what is arguably the most famous college in the world, which I don’t regret in the least but which could be seen in retrospect as not necessarily working towards my current goals. It might follow that I would choose to take the same approach in my current (re)education, seeking out equally shiny names in my chosen field. Truthfully, I did initially look into some of these “big name” farms, going so far as to interview at one before encountering an example of the difference in goals I referred to above. In hindsight, there are a few reasons I ended up where I did. First, I wanted to be closer geographically to Future Farm to prepare for my impending transition to start-up mode. While the greater Midwest certainly has some well-established sustainable farms and a few luminaries, the apprenticeship culture isn’t as developed as it is on both coasts, where most of these “masters” farm. The other main reason I didn’t go the “master” route is not a flattering one: I am not suited, personality-wise, to learning from any one person. I am genetically predisposed to be a know-it-all, and I haven’t necessarily worked very hard to curb this less-than-ideal tendency. I’m afraid I bristle at the notion that anyone could tell me the “right” way to do something, to be honest, and the idea of going to learn from someone who has perfected a system might be more than my fragile ego could bear. I’m sure I didn’t acknowledge this reasoning the last two winters during my search for farmer-mentors, but in hindsight this might have been the primary (if subconscious) reason I ended up at the Boersons. Over the past year, I have been included (for better or worse) in planning, decision-making, troubleshooting, brainstorming. I have felt like an integral part of something that, at the end of the day, is not mine. I have worked hard for very little money, but I have gained in other tangible and intangible ways and felt perhaps over-appreciated while doing it. I am consciously trying to become a better receiver of knowledge, but in the meantime I am so happy to be where I am: learning with the best, peering forward together from February to the promises of the season to come. 

On Good Intentions and Land Use

While home for the holidays this year, I was lucky enough to spend some time with my little sister, who I hadn’t seen in over a year. She lives out in Washington, and I have yet to make it out west to visit the area of the country she has called home for almost three years now. She’s a botanist, combating invasive species and restoring salmon habitat for the Quinault Indian Nation on the Olympic Peninsula. She’s spent her years since college working on native species conservation in various places, and she’s been trying to encourage the local conservation efforts to include more native plants in utilitarian roles. When we walk in the local forest preserve or drive by wooded lots, her trained eye sees which plants belong in the restored prairie, how drastically they are thinning oak stands, and how many invasive grasses went to seed last year. The rest of us just see brown stuff poking through the snow. Spending time outside with my favorite botanist makes me think about how differently the two of us might approach the same piece of land if given the chance. 

It reminded me of a book I read a few months ago, Steven Apfelbaum’s Nature’s Second Chance: Restoring the Ecology of Stone Prairie Farm. Apfelbaum is an ecologist who bought a farm in Wisconsin as a young man and spent the next few decades restoring it to a non-agricultural oasis of native plants and animal habitats. He touts his farm as an example of how a little hard work and ingenuity can take a piece of land out of the destructive treadmill of conventional annual agriculture while still supporting a family economically.  He grows food for his family on a small garden plot, sells native plant seeds harvested from his land, and the ecological consulting company he started back in the 70s when he moved to Brodhead has grown enough to employ dozens of people in five offices across the country. They provide ecological consultations to people and companies faced with land-use decisions, backed by highly educated scientists and dedicated to mitigating the harm caused by development and other changes to the landscape. His book, while interesting in its own right, seems to discount any need for agriculture at all. He rightly despairs at the chemical farming of his neighbors, but somehow seems to think that his quarter acre vegetable plot is the answer. I’m not one to begrudge anyone a garden, but restoring prairies and wetlands across the rolling hills of Wisconsin is not going to feed anyone but the birds.

On the other end of the same side of the spectrum (and about two hours northwest) lies another Wisconsin evangelist I’ve written about before, Mark Shepard. Just like my sister and I, these two men are united in their hatred of conventional chemical agriculture, but divided in how to address it. Shepard advocates going cold-turkey on monocultures of all kinds - beans, grains, fruit, vegetables, conventional and organic. In his estimation, the only responsible way to feed the world is through diversified perennial ecosystems using a permaculture model. Permaculturists, among other things, advocate for mixed plantings of edible and otherwise useful plants, minimizing soil disturbance while maximizing layers of food production. Permaculture in general, and Shepard’s Restoration Agriculture in particular often advocates using exotic edible plants. Shepard aims to recreate the oak savannas of the pre-historic midwest more by analogy than by strict restoration. The American Chestnut has all but succumbed to blight, so why not breed a new American chestnut using genetics from Asian varieties? Sounds perfectly reasonable. What worries me about permaculture (in my relatively uneducated view) is the fine line between “hardy perennial” and “wildly invasive species.” There is a long history of well-intentioned people introducing species for utilitarian reasons that end up becoming out of control invasives. My sister specifically mentioned reed canarygrass as an example of a plant used widely by the Department of Transportation and other government agencies to control erosion that is now choking out biodiversity in wetlands across the country. Permaculture is not definitionally dedicated to native species, but to mimicking natural systems to produce as much food, fuel, and fiber with the least disruption of the soil structure and the maximum use of water and other natural resources. Rather than preserving individually threatened species, permaculture seeks to preserve regenerative landscapes that feed people and the soil. At what cost? Why should we worry about saving native plants? If a plant is useful, who cares if it spreads rapidly? 

I’m not well-versed enough in either ecology or permaculture to answer these questions with much authority, but it seems to be that these two approaches don’t necessarily need to be opposing forces. Right now, practitioners of both approaches  to sustainability have so far to go against the destructive mainstream that no breath need be wasted on in-fighting. I think we can all agree that any loss to genetic diversity is a loss to us all. Similarly, even the most small-scale gardener will concede that care must be taken in planting the hardiest of perennials (e.g. nobody has a “little bit” of mint for long). Conservationists are doing us all a great service in preserving as much genetic diversity as possible, and as long as we food-growers don’t actively negate their work by irresponsible use of quick-spreading exotics, there is not reason that we can’t all work together to push back the destructive forces of large-scale chemical agriculture inch by inch and acre by acre. 

On Liminality in Food and Life

Last week, as I made caramels for the first time, I found myself bent almost double over the stove, eyes glued to the mercury in the candy thermometer, utterly concentrated on watching the blue line rise to exactly the right number. Too hot, and the caramels would turn out tooth-wrenchingly hard; not hot enough and they’d stick to the wrappers and be impossible to eat. Turn away for a minute, I was warned, and you might return to find a pan full of scorched sugar. The stakes are high. The sugar bubbles and browns, my brow furrows. I add the butter and cream, the mixture froths and boils, my stomach clenches. 135 . . .140 . . . 145 . . . I rock back on my heels, grope for the bunched kitchen towels from the counter, grasp the hot handles through uneven layers of cotton, hold firmly while the golden brown cascade spreads to fill the papered and oiled pan. I exhale the breath I didn’t know I was holding. I am grinning, absurdly proud of myself for performing this amazing feat of alchemy, skirting pitfalls galore to turn plain cream and butter and sugar into something perfect. Something you can cut into pieces, wrap into little squares of wax paper, and give away to mail carriers, co-workers, family, bring to holiday parties, tuck in a padded envelope and send to friends scattered around far coasts. 

Two days after I made my first (double) batch, I made my second, this time stirring in ground ginger, cinnamon, and garam masala for a warming gingerbread flavor. I’m addicted. This afternoon I’m going to the grocery store for supplies for a few more batches. It’s not that I can’t stop eating them. It’s that I can’t stop making them. There’s something arresting about making this simple candy that comes into being between raw and burnt. Caramels are the delicious incarnation of a liminal state. Thrilling, dangerous, delicious. Liminality (excuse the $10 word), in fact, seems to be the path to my heart/stomach. All of my favorite food are consumed somewhere on the path to rot and decay: stinky, gooey, moldy cheeses, dry-cured meats, fermented vegetables, wine and beer, etc. I could even make the case that in baking bread, you arrest the water+flour+yeast in the perfect moment on the way to yeast+goo+hooch. In fact, every time I cook using the Maillard reaction (the most delicious of all chemical reactions), I am looking for a perfectly liminal state. Post-raw, pre-burnt. The broiler is the ultimate weapon in this dance with destruction, a tool to be used as often but attentively as possible. 

Maybe I lean towards hyperbole in these descriptions of everyday kitchen procedures. I should be glad to get my thrills from courting disaster in the kitchen instead of on a motorcycle or jumping out of airplanes. On the other hand, it is hard to deny that in some ways I have been living in a prolonged liminal state for quite a few years now - always on my way, but never there. Becoming a responsible adult, becoming a farmer, keeping myself from swinging too close to the precarious cliffs of insolvency, uninsured ill health, or simple failure in my crazy endeavors. I’m forever looking forward, planning, dreaming, scheming. Sometimes, this translates to energy, momentum, and the general feeling that my own mundane life is somehow dangerous and exciting. And sometimes I’m just sitting in my kitchen, smiling to myself, wrapping caramels, going nowhere, just being.