Once I became involved in the local food movement, again I was inspired to garden. I tried tomatoes, which I basically drowned (and killed) with love. Proof again I don’t have a green thumb, but those who do have all of my support.
In a time when many people associate juicy plump red tomatoes with the supermarket produce section, there are countless farmers and gardeners growing gorgeous, imperfect (or perfect, depending on your point of view), delectable heirloom tomatoes in their own backyards, community spaces, or even abandoned lots in urban centers. Not even twenty years ago, many families had backyard garden beds that were chockfull of tomatoes, squashes, and peppers. Quite a few dedicated folks are dedicating to reconnecting Americans with their land and motivating folks to eat seasonally, eat locally, and to grow—with our own hands—the food we eat.
Here in the kickoff of growing season, I want to share some of the awesome stories of farmers and gardeners who were called to plant, grow, and harvest.
Maia and Jacob of After the Fall Farm in Montville, Maine share how farming became their fate in Arielle Greenberg and Rob Morris’ excerpt from the New Back-to-the-Land Project. Maia and Jacob’s lives illustrate how the earth not only bears food but also creates the bonds of community. In my opinion, the back-to-the-land movement is the seed of a true food revolution, and I love that Arielle and Rob are dedicated to this movement and have devoted their stellar talents to giving voice to something so powerful that it could transform America’s way of thinking about food.
Speaking of food revolutions, before Jamie Oliver came to America to improve school lunches, Chef Charlie Loomis was “digging up schoolyards and planting vegetables where weeds once thrived.” Clara Silverstein, author of A White House Garden Cookbook (Red Rock Press, forthcoming June 1) shows how knowing where food comes from creates much less picky eaters!
Community gardens also provide opportunities for folks to reacquaint themselves with the land. In fact, in an effort to learn more about gardening and contribute to my own community, I’ve pledged time this summer to a local community garden, and come fall I’ll teach a service-learning writing course in which students also will tend to and harvest the community garden, which wouldn’t be possible without Krista Elvey. She’s an inspiration. First because she’s an endlessly resourceful, driving force. Krista cares and she makes change happen. Second, she’s fearless. New to gardening—last year—she’s made a space where people, including herself, can learn gardening skills or hone their mastery. There’s no judgment, just a greater good. I’m really excited to develop my green thumb with Krista. (Lord, I hope I don’t kill more than I grow.) More so, I’m very honored to work with her.
It’s also an honor to include a piece by Lynn Gregor in this issue. She’s a brilliant gardener and devoted community member. And her essay highlights my all-time favorite veggie: Kale. Lynn’s got some great tips for growing kale and cooking it. After I read her piece for the first time my hankering for the “super green” led me to cook and eat two pounds in one afternoon. (I have a feeling if Jane Kenyon were alive she’d plant kale and help out with a community garden…)
I hope the tales from these farmers and gardeners inspire you to plant a few seeds this spring—be it in a garden bed or window box. Or, if you’re like me and kill more than you actually grow, I hope our May issue leads you to buy some fresh, seasonal produce from a local farmer who’s experienced enough to keep the produce alive and feed the lot of us whose thumbs are only green with envy.
Arielle Greenberg is the co-author, with Rachel Zucker, of Home/Birth: A Poemic (1913 Press, forthcoming 2011), and author of My Kafka Century (Action Books, 2005), Given (Verse, 2002) and the chapbooks Shake Her (Dusie Kollektiv, 2009) and Farther Down: Songs from the Allergy Trials (New Michigan, 2003). She is co-editor of three anthologies: with Rachel Zucker, Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama’s First 100 Days (Iowa, 2010) and Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections (Iowa, 2008); and with Lara Glenum, Gurlesque (Saturnalia, 2010). Twice featured in Best American Poetry and the recipient of a MacDowell Colony fellowship, she is the founder-moderator of the poet-moms listserv and is an Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago. Currently she is on sabbatical in Maine and is trying out Mark Bittman's Food Matters eating plan.
Excerpt from the New Back-to-the-Land Project: Maia and Jacob of After the Fall Farm, Montville, Maine by Arielle Greenberg and Rob Morris
There are a number of reasons Rob and I embarked on this project, reasons personal, political and scholarly. First, there is our deep connection to the Belfast community and area: we got married here, homebirthed two children here, and have long admired the region's mix of arts and culture, working class folks, independent shops, green values, friendliness and natural beauty. Belfast is a pretty unusual little town, and has been a hub for rural back-to-the-landers for two generations now, and being here helps us connect more deeply to the seasons and the land, and to live our values more fully than we feel we can in a big city. We have been inspired by getting to know young farmers and homesteaders here, and feel it's important to document how they are living and how they feel about their choices, both in order to preserve the living history of a dynamic and progressive contemporary subculture and because of the way the Waldo County phenomenon speaks to larger national concerns around farming, organics, local food, self-sufficiency and voluntary simplicity. Finally, Rob and I have long-standing interests in American cultures and countercultures, and this project is a way for us to pay homage to a place we love and to capture and celebrate a movement that inspires us.
We have almost finished conducting our interviews and I'm at work on the stories and a book proposal. The goal right now is a book with four chapters: one of stories from the previous back-to-the-land movement here, the one from the 60s and 70s; one of stories from homesteaders who are trying to be self-sufficient; one of stories of small farmers; and one of stories of folks who are engaged in various intentional living experiments aimed at greater sustainability. The working title is The Next Good Life: New, True Stories from a Hard-Won, Hand-built, Deeply-Rooted County.
Maia, age 28, and Jacob, age 29, both grew up in the affluent suburbs of New York City and graduated from Colby College. They now live and farm on thirty acres in Montville with their two year old daughter, Osa. They have been there for four years, and run a winter CSA (Community Supported Agriculture program) and sell food at markets and to restaurants.
Jacob: Radicalization at college was a gradual process for me. First I thought I’d be a lawyer like my dad. Then I thought, OK, maybe I’ll be an environmental lawyer. Then I thought, maybe I’ll work for an environmental non-profit. And then I was like, no, I’m just going to go work for a farm.
I graduated a year before Maia. I went and worked on this farm in New Hampshire, partially because it was closer to Colby and Maia: it was pretty cool, a permaculture demonstration site, and I helped build a barn, the first time I’d ever done any carpentry. I was there for a couple months, and I still had this ski bum attitude. That was my fantasy: I thought I’d go out West and be a ski bum, but I was getting disenchanted with the mountain resort culture, so I ended up working at the Sugarloaf ski area in Maine, again, to be closer to Maia, but also because I was involved in some activist campaigns around here. But I got the ski bum thing out of my system pretty quickly, too.
So then I went to this place in Oregon called Aprovecho that has an internship program in organic gardening, sustainable forestry and alternative building. It was a few months’ program. I did horse logging and learned to garden and did some natural building projects. That was in the spring while Maia was still in school. Maia and I decided we’d work on a farm together the following summer: she really wanted to do a farm apprenticeship, but I felt like I’d gotten that experience, so she got an apprenticeship in Washington State and I just lived there and got a job and saved some money and helped out a little on the farm. That was our first real growing season on a farm, spring to fall. And that’s when we decided that’s what we’re gonna do, and started dreaming about having our own farm someday.
Maia: Except that summer on the farm was also when we were, like, we will never farm for profit. We just wanted to grow food and not charge money for it.
Jacob: We decided to come back to Maine and dreamed up this project, getting really into the idea of growing and storing food for the winter to provide to people in the winter when there wasn’t such an abundance. We rented a house in Portland and found a farm right outside of Portland that was interested in letting us trade labor for a bunch of space to grow food. We started the Winter Cache Project: we grew food with as many people as possible, and we built a little root cellar in the city, and we distributed food all winter to the people who were involved. Kind of like a CSA but you needed to come help in some way to get a share.
Maia: The cool thing is that the farm it’s on, Pleasant Valley Acres, the main farmer there was a woman named Betty Weir who was 82 years old (she just passed away last year). That was a really cool relationship, being young people and working with an elder farmer. Betty helped start MOFGA [the Maine Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association]. She was this matriarch farmer. And it was awesome to see people from Portland come out and be so engaged with farming. It was all about teaching skills to be more sustainable and self-sufficient and moving away from other systems, so we did a lot of popular education around things like preserving food and building root cellars but also around hard political issues like agriculture and food policy and stuff like that.
That project was our baby. And it still exists: it’s going into its sixth year.
Jacob: We were living in the city but we were farmers. That was the first summer we really did a garden by ourselves. Betty gave us advice but she was already not very mobile and we did everything ourselves, and had an amazing year. Her soil is amazing and her farm is awesome. We had this pickup truck and we’d drive back and forth to the city with tons of huge vegetables—
Maia: --and, like, compost! It was such a weird scene at our house. We were also living with so many people, a big collective house—
Jacob: --with big gardens all over our yard. We wanted to be farming but we wanted to be living in the city and we kind of combined them and it was pretty crazy.
Maia: And pretty amazing. But after a couple years we burned out a little bit. We had so many people coming through, staying at our house, and there’d always be, like, twenty bicycles. It was a high-energy lifestyle: we were moving moving moving and creating, bringing in tons of food to the city. It was fairly utopic, but for us, for our mental health, it wasn’t a sustainable way to keep going.
Jacob: And I think we also were getting more and more inspired by farming and living off the land, and it was getting hard not to live where that was happening, to have to drive there and not sleep or wake up there. We were dreaming about having a place of our own, and we wanted it to be close to Portland so we could continue to provide food and support to people living in the city, but when we started looking for land, it is so expensive in that area that it was not possible for us.
Maia: We have friends who grew up in Midcoast Maine, but we had never heard of Montville before. We ended up here mostly because we were connected peripherally to this organization called FarmLink, a connector for people who want to sell their farms as working farms and people looking for farms. But most of the farms were unaffordable to us, big dairy farms. We were finding that we were either gonna buy a piece of woods, and it was going to take many years to create infrastructure, a living space or one greenhouse or whatever, or there were semi-affordable old farms that were pretty decrepit, with lead in the house and lots of renovation work to do. It’s so difficult to find affordable farms and land.
This piece of land just happened to show up in FarmLink and Uncle Henry’s [a popular Maine swap sheet], and it was an incredible mesh between the two extremes: old, set-up farm and woods. There were a couple cabins on the land, five hoop houses, a tractor that was two years old, all the farm equipment. This couple had been farming here for five years. When they came, it was all woods, and they cleared a lot of it. It was an extremely affordable piece of land for what it was. The barn, we’ve had to do, but there was enough already in place to come here and start living immediately and also farming immediately.
Jacob: We had been driving around up here looking for land, and we drove through Liberty and we thought, Woah, this is a cool town. There was a random piece of land up on a mountain that was for sale that was not good for farming but we thought, Oh, wouldn’t it be cool to live here. And that’s about two miles from this property. We still didn’t know about Montville, which turned out to be an awesome town, but we had decided we want to be here: close to the coast but in the hills, in Waldo Country. We were about two miles from here when we had that realization. And when we first came to see this place, we thought, Woah, this is where we just were two weeks ago when we thought about living here.
Maia: But we didn’t know then what we know now about the culture of Waldo County, and Montville as a town. It wasn’t like we knew, whereas some people know who are looking for land know about the subculture and the culture of this area. This was pretty much the only piece of land we looked at.
Jacob: Right when we pulled up here we were like, Woah. This is awesome.
Clara Silverstein is the Boston-based author of A White House Garden Cookbook (forthcoming from Red Rock Press), a collection of recipes inspired by the White House Garden, and The Boston Chef’s Table. She is also co-author of The New England Soup Factory Cookbook, a bestselling soup title on Amazon.com. A former food writer at the Boston Herald, she has also published articles in The Boston Globe, Runner’s World, and Prevention. Her poems and essays have been published in literary magazines including Blackbird, and she is also author of the school desegregation memoir, White Girl. She directs the Chautauqua Writers’ Center. Contact her through her web site.
Grimaces, stuck-out tongues, and groans don’t deter Charlie Loomis from piling school lunch plates with turnips, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, and other plantae kingdom freaks. Neither do excuses. He simply smiles and keeps stirring. Eventually, curiosity trumps revulsion, and kids flock to try what “Mr. Chef Charlie” has to offer.
Charlie, the executive chef at Greenlife Grocery in Chattanooga, Tenn. and Asheville, N.C., proselytizes for fresh vegetables with a trowel as well as a mixing spoon. He helped start school gardens at two Chattanooga schools, Normal Park Elementary, and St. Peter’s Episcopal, where he also masterminds healthy, vegetable-laden lunches. These and other green initiatives at St. Peter’s recently were recognized by Let’s Move, Michelle Obama’s initiative to fight childhood obesity.
I found Chef Charlie when I was researching A White House Garden Cookbook (Red Rock Press, forthcoming June 1). The book traces the first season of Michelle Obama’s White House Kitchen Garden, and gives children and families ideas for how to cook with locally grown vegetables. Charlie’s enthusiasm for the gnarliest of vegetables made him one of my favorite go-to chefs.
Charlie is part of a nationwide movement to dig up schoolyards and plant vegetables where weeds once thrived. Think of it as the ultimate in experiential education. When I was in elementary school, teachers talked about how plants grow by drawing pictures of leaves and roots on the blackboard, making slashes of chalk to represent rain. Now, many schools send children right outside to plant seeds, pull up weeds, and cook with what they grow. Sustainable food guru and chef Alice Waters was one of the pioneers in school gardening when she started the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, Calif. in 1995. The program connects organic gardening with the kitchen, and lessons in history and math. The non-profit National Gardening Association lists more than 2,000 schools in its school garden registry. California still leads the way in school gardening, probably because its climate makes planting possible when soil in most of the nation is still frozen into unyielding clumps.
Charlie believes that convincing kids to plant seeds and pull up weeds usually requires less subterfuge than convincing them to try their vegetables. “Kids don’t think gardening is boring because they love to play in the dirt. I was out weeding the other day and kids at recess wanted to watch. They were so excited,” says Loomis, the father of two boys ages 5 and 8, and a Labradoodle named Peter Jennings.
During the day, kids also come out to help in the school gardens. They connect activities like plotting the life cycle of a plant to their science lessons. Loomis helps them bring the lessons to their lunch plates. “It’s important to incorporate food in the curriculum – otherwise, the garden is just ornamental,” he says.
Through cafeteria demonstrations, he removes the yuck factor from all kinds of garden-grown foods. Take the cabbage. At first, he admits, the idea of getting kids to even consider trying this odorous crucifer intimidated him. Then he decided to use variety as a selling point. He brought in all kinds of cabbages, including white cabbage, red cabbage, Bok Choy, Napa, Savoy, and Brussels sprouts and stacked them on the table while he made a stir fry (recipe follows).
A little reverse psychology worked wonders. “One boy kept saying , ‘Ewww, I’m not eating that!’ So I told him to step out of the line.” The boy came back, all bravado, and announced that he wanted not one, but two servings. “He had his nose plugged between his fingers and had an awful look on his face. He really liked it, though, and continued to sling back shots of stir-fried cabbage. I could tell that this was a big step for him. The next thing I knew, he and his friends were daring each other to eat the raw cabbage demo. They ate the entire thing! All that was left were a few gnawed on cabbage cores,” says Loomis.
He also sometimes points reluctant eaters out to the garden, where they can see what they planted. “Kids really like to know where their food is coming from,” he says. If they grew the food, they are more likely to at least take a bite. From small seeds, large changes can take place.
Chef Charlie’s Cabbage Stir-Fry
½ head of white or green cabbage
1 medium carrot
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon tamari (Japanese-style soy sauce) or good-quality soy sauce
½ cup vegetable or chicken stock
1 teaspoon sugar, preferably organic cane
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon canola or safflower oil
½ tablespoon peeled and chopped ginger root
1 teaspoon chopped scallion, white part
½ teaspoon salt
1. Cut the cabbage into thin long strips. Peel the carrot. Cut it into matchstick-size pieces or grate it on the largest part of a box grater. Peel and finely chop the garlic.
2. In a bowl, combine the tamari, stock and sugar together.
3. In a large sauté pan, heat both oils over medium-high heat. Add the ginger, scallion, garlic, and salt. Gently shake the pan for about 3 seconds and then add the vegetables (if you used grated carrots, add these about halfway through the cooking time). Quickly toss the pan a few times to cover the vegetables in oil.
4. Add the tamari-stock mixture and turn the heat to high. Let the sauce simmer until it is reduced to a glaze, 5 to 8 minutes. Serve with brown rice and a little bit of hoisin (a type of Chinese sauce) if you have it.
Recipe from A White House Garden Cookbook (Red Rock Press, June, 2010),
Author Photography by Jordan Schnee
Krista Elvey is a 22-year-old college undergraduate graduating this December with a degree in Environmental Policy. After graduation she plans to attend grad school and work on building community focused off-the-grid homes. She has a passion for sustainability and exploring innovative techniques of being more environmentally friendly. She also loves to travel and experience new cultures and perspectives. She is currently a vegetarian, and working towards beginning a raw food diet this summer. She has oodles of cookbooks and enjoy exploring new vegan options.
American grocery stores are bursting with a wide variety of produce from all over the world. Living in a nation of convenience can easily blind us to the amount of labor and energy exhausted in providing such a variety of fruits and vegetables year-round. Few individuals seem to question or consider whether or not it is a wise idea to make oranges available in the midst of an Ohio winter. Consumer demand and the illusion of efficiency clouds the perception of buying produce. However, such convenience comes at a price. When people are collectively taught that food comes from a grocery store and not a tree, bush, or the earth, the appreciation of its’ origin is lost. With that also comes a great disconnect between man and nature.
One of my good friends who also happens to be an avid gardener recently told me about a boy who was working to harvest potatoes from her garden. The boy is in his early twenties and attending college. He expressed to her how amazing it is that potatoes grow in the ground, as this was something he was never taught. To some that may sound absurd, but this boy is no different than many Americans. Why is food cultivation no longer a part of our culture? Growing your own food is less expensive, healthier, more environmentally responsible, and certainly more rewarding than driving to the grocery store once or twice a week.
Let me point out that no one in my family is or has ever been a farmer, or maintained a garden for that matter. My interest in food cultivation has evolved from a passion for environmental responsibility and social justice. I am not a hippie (whatever that means) nor do I wear hemp clothing. I choose to garden because it makes sense to know where my food comes from. My relationship with gardening is outlined in the following.
Last fall I began exploring the concept of community gardening in relation to food security and wellness. Taking special notice to the heightened levels of diabetes in lower income individuals. I stumbled upon a great opportunity to go to the South Bronx on an immersion trip with the university, and there I was able to see the great potential urban gardens possess. Empty lots in New York are flourishing with flowers and produce of all sorts. All of which are free and inviting to anyone interested. These gardens have achieved remarkable feats in feeding the hungry and providing opportunities to know your neighbors. With that, I took up an AmeriCorps position coordinating the community gardens in my hometown.
Community gardens are an outlet for neighborhoods to come together and learn from one another. There is something very special about teaching self-sufficiency to others. I hold a firm belief that a main component to happiness is empowerment. This is, in my opinion, a major reason why Americans are statistically less happy than they were a few decades ago. It is interesting to consider that humans are the only species without one hundred percent employment. When you formulate a society where people don’t have the knowledge or tools needed to sustain themselves, life becomes a bit depressing. Community gardens help to reestablish meaning in a neighborhood and serve as a neutral ground. People come for the purpose of obtaining fresh, local produce for their families. There aren’t any negative political, social, or hierarchical situations involved. Just people, growing and learning with one another.
Isn’t that the fundamental principle of life? Often forgotten and reprioritized by deadlines and seemingly more important obligations. Humans have this innate propensity to overcomplicate everything. Ultimately, we are all people trying to fulfill our purpose. If we focus more on outlining common grounds, greater collaboration and understanding can be achieved. Community gardens to some may simply be places where plants grow, but I have chosen to exploit their potential. Maybe I am romanticizing the idea of man relating to one another and to the earth, but perhaps the message is grossly understated. Community gardening is not the answer to all our social problems, but it is definitely a step in the right direction. I love to garden because I believe that all people should have access to healthy produce. The solution doesn’t need to be complicated, and can be as simple as the willingness to get your hands a little dirty.
Lynn Gregor spent eight years organizing community gardens in Cleveland and working to bring fresh, local produce and market gardening into the inner-city. She and her husband co-edited the book, A Place to Grow: Voices and Images of Urban Gardeners, published in 1998 by The Pilgrim Press. They have presented numerous dramatic readings from the book and workshops on community gardening. Lynn has worked in many aspects of horticulture since her first job in a retail greenhouse, though her true passion lies in the dynamic interaction of people, plants and the environment. She has 2 young children and currently works part-time for the Countryside Conservancy, a local non-profit that works to support community-based food systems.
Can’t Say Enough About Kale by Lynn Gregor
Last year at this time I was delighted to find tiny kale seedlings sprouting in our garden. The delicate, purple tinged leaves of Red Russian Kale, numbered perhaps fifty, sixty, seventy - a small army of seedlings descending on our late April, May garden! The previous fall we had let just one or two plants go to seed and others ended up in our compost pile. I don’t monitor my pile to know if it heats up enough to kill seeds or disease, and sure enough, as we spread our black gold throughout our garden we also spread kale seeds.
As I’ve learned from nearly every gardener I’ve had the pleasure to meet and the privilege to work with, gardeners are generous because GARDENS are generous! We had enough Red Russian kale seedlings to share with our gardening friends, and to create a lovely, meandering row of them in our garden. I am the brains behind our garden and my husband, a writer, is the work horse of our garden. Though, in all fairness, he has some great ideas too and transplanted the seedlings to create this beautiful, meandering row of kale. He also cooks up a mean kale dish which I’ll get to later.
If you’ve never seen Red Russian Kale you should check it out, it is a beautiful plant. Its leaves are greenish-gray, with just a hint of blue in them and its stem and veins are tinged purple. Rain drops cling to the leaves and sparkle in the sun like diamonds. It grows about 2’ tall and 1-2’ wide and is tolerant of cool and hot weather alike. All kale is actually considered a “cool weather” crop – in USDA Zone 5 you can plant it outdoors quite early. I commonly harvest it after the first, second, or even third, snowfall (in northeast Ohio), though it can be harvested throughout the entire growing season. In my garden Red Russian Kale has never had any major pest or disease problem except for two insects. The green caterpillar of the cabbage worm looper, eating the leaves and making holes in them. This does not affect the quality of the leaf or the plant but does affect the appearance. My garden is small enough that I inspect the plants in the morning and hand pick the caterpillars (look under the leaves) and throw them in a bucket of soapy water which suffocates them. My two young children enjoy hunting for the caterpillars too! When the cooler weather of late summer and fall descends, aphids usually attack the growing tips by sucking the juices from the leaves and making them generally inedible for humans. You can rinse these aphids from the leaves with a steady stream of water but usually need to do that on a daily basis to manage the problem.
The young leaves are tasty in salads and larger leaves can be cooked in a number of ways. If you only want to grow kale as a salad green, harvest baby leaves and sow successive plantings during the year for a continuous harvest. True lovers of greens munch it straight out of the garden (be sure it’s clean or wash it)! Cooked or raw, its flavor is much milder than the traditional curly leaved kale, and has almost a sweet taste. Laurel Robertson, author of The New Laurel’s Kitchen cookbook, considers kale to be a super green. After eating it you will understand why – I know I feel energized and healthier. When preparing kale from my garden, I usually put the leaves in cold water in my sink and then wash them by rinsing them once or twice. Remove the leaves from the stem by pulling your fingers up the stem from bottom to top, the leaves will come off easily this way.
As I mentioned earlier, my husband cooks up a wonderful kale dish by first steaming, or cooking it in a small amount of water. He flavors it with garlic, lemon, brown rice vinegar, tamari, toasted sesame oil and sometimes sautéed onions or even walnuts. It is fairly quick and easy to eat this way or to chop it up and use it in stir fries. Other tasty recipes I am familiar with that feature kale include Greens and Garlic Soup from Anna Thomas’ The New Vegetarian Epicure and Tofu-Kale Pie from Cynthia Lair’s Feed the Whole Family. I have also recently tried making kale chips but need to alter the recipes a bit to suit my tastes (you can easily find recipes for this tasty, healthy snack on-line). You only need a small patch of kale to provide enough for your kitchen because each plant produces a good number of leaves if you give it enough room to grow to full size.