It has almost been one month since I denounced the corporate world for a life tending to the land. All of my friends have been supportive of this decision, but only a couple truly understand. To be honest it has been an annoyance of mine to pour my heart out regarding my new ambitions in life to only receive the tame and unsure response of, “That’s great! Congrats.” It reminds me of that Wonder Years episode when Kevin writes a novella in Winnie’s yearbook, proclaiming his undying devotion to her, and all she writes is,”Have a neat summer!”
Maybe it’s expecting too much from others who have not experienced the same epiphany that life is too short to be anything but happy. Or that success can be defined as achieving happiness, as opposed maximizing money, power, and prestige - which is a fine goal to have, but surely not the only one to aspire to. As the old adage says, different strokes for different folks. I have never understood anything more. I used to be on the other side, but I guess people change and as my mom says, “It’s fate!” I am on a deviant path now and it has been nothing short of amazing.
Aside from my daily farming activities, which I will blog more on later this week, I have taken on a part-time position as a food tour guide in Chicago’s Chinatown. And it is honestly the most out-of-this-world uber-fantastic job I have ever had - second only to working at Eleven Madison Park the summer between my junior and senior year in college. All the other tour guides are also people involved in fine-tuning a “craft”, whether it is being a chef, writer, photographer, etc.
It has been incredible to meet such a diverse group of people. Never in my life have I met a more passionate and confident bunch, pursuing careers so different from what would traditionally be defined as ‘prestigious’. They live in a world defined by their own ambitions without regard for what anyone else says and I truly admire that. It has been an inspiration, and also liberating, to converse with like-minded peeps.
And so, in honor of my admiration, I present you with my blossoming transplanted red bokchoy. It is starting to resemble a full-sized bokchoy and the colors are gorgeous. Now let’s hope the Chicago weather snaps out of it and jumps back to 70+. My plants need more HEAT, ya heard?!
Oh, and my french breakfast radishes are almost primed for plucking. They’re growing out of the ground!
Finally, we can’t leave out my cash cow! The lettuce seedlings are starting to grow into full heads. OWW OWWWW!
— Masanobu Fukuoka
American citizens are now ready to believe without question that it is entirely good, a grand accomplishment, that each American farmer now ‘feeds himself and 56 others.’
They are willing to hear that ‘96% of America’s manpower is freed from food production’ — without asking what it may have been ‘freed’ for, or how many as a consequence have been ‘freed’ from employment of any kind.
The climate of opinion is now such that a recent assistant secretary of agriculture could condemn the principle of crop rotation without even an acknowledgment of the probable costs in soil depletion and erosion…without acknowledging the human — and, indeed, the agricultural — penalties."
Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America
Like a little kid flipping through the Toys R’ Us catalog, I spent the past 2 weeks perusing a vibrant selection of vegetable seeds on the Johnny’s Seeds website. After adding every vegetable - in every imaginable color - into my virtual shopping cart, I finally narrowed down my choices to ONLY 8 varieties. And I am super excited to get them all started!
For a whopping $39.60 I will now be the overseer (read: HBIC) to thousands of plants-to-be. I can’t wait to take pictures of their growth over time.
Without further ado, here is my spring/summer line-up:
- Italian Large Leaf Basil
- Red Choi (that’s red bokchoy; $8 for 6,000 seeds)
- Cherokee Purple Heirloom Tomatoes
- Monica Tomatoes (great for sauces)
- Touchstone Gold Beets
- Red Ace Beets
- Sienna Shelling Peas
- D’Avignon Radishes (the long French kind)
Oh, happiness is a colorful bouquet of farm-fresh veggies. Hmmm… I might be onto something here.. :)
This picture was taken on January 7, 2012 - only ONE WEEK after I planted the mesclun greens seeds. Mind you, this growth happened despite lack of proper insulation and during one of the heaviest snow days Chicago has had this winter.
The keys to this extraordinary growth:
1. above freezing temperatures in a green house environment
2. additional warmth and nutrition provided by a top layer of compost
3. watering weekly with a seaweed extract and water solution; 1 cap-full of extract for every 1 gallon of water
Those three steps produce some pretty magical results. In addition to mesclun greens I am also planting brussel sprouts (a personal favorite) and swiss chard. Not sure when I will start seeing real results with the brussel sprouts, but I definitely think they should be ready for next winter.
Getting back to the land and making things grow is a truly gratifying experience and I can’t wait to do more!
Living in California filled me with romantic notions of leaving behind the cube monkey life to self subsist on a small, podunk farm. It’s hard to believe an east coast city girl, who spent most of her life cringing at the mere thought of camping, could grow up to pine after a life on a farm. But I think I can relate this personal change back to two key experiences: befriending the daughter of an Alaskan fisherman and working at a farmers’ market.
Andrew Molera State Park (Big Sur, CA)
Unlike most whirlwind friendships, Tiffany and I did not become fast friends when we first met. We were in the same beginner rock climbing class in Sunnyvale - she was in Silicon Valley because of a boyfriend, who heartlessly dumped her the day before she relocated from Idaho for him, and I was there for work, and there - at the climbing gym - because of a former boyfriend who I was with for all the wrong reasons. It took a couple of classes before we began to talk, and a breakup with the aforementioned boyfriend to begin our friendship.
We embarked on a culinary adventure filled with weekly potlucks, late night runs to Trader Joe’s, random visits to food festivals in San Francisco and long Sunday strolls nibbling goodies through the Campbell farmers’ market. Tiffany cultivated the spirit of enjoying the simple pleasures of human interaction over homecooked meals and urban renewal hikes through local parks filled with rustic, verdant aesthetics worthy of cinematographic cameos.
Her small-town upbringing filled with Ball-brand mason jars with preserved summer fruit, fresh-hunted venison chops, homemade smoked salmon cheek and majestic views of Alaskan icebergs, left me envious of her life so connected to nature. And from this friendship my first inklings of farm lust were borne.
OFF TO THE MARKET!
Menos Farms Organic Produce (Newport Beach Farmers' Market)
Right around when our friendship fizzled, for reasons still unbeknown to me, I took a job in Southern California. I was up and out of NorCal within 2 weeks and found myself miserably lonely in Newport Beach. The only human interaction I had outside of work was with my now-fiance, when he visited from Chicago. During his first visit, we stumbled upon a cutesy farmers’ market in Lido Marina Village with produce and artisanal food vendors neatly lined across a tucked, cobblestone street. I marched up to the information booth and declared to the man sitting at the desk that I wanted to volunteer. He gave me his card and after a few e-mail exchanges I found a new so-called family in Orange County.
I spent my year in the OC looking forward to my Saturdays, interacting with local farmers from Riverside and Fresno, learning about what it means to be organic, understanding the difficulties of being small farmer in America, and developing a culinary appreciation, and palate, for fresh picked, locally grown produce. After a year of cultivating relationships with vendors and discussing random topics with local foodies, food truck operators and urban farming enthusiasts, I said my goodbyes and moved to Chicago in late August of this year.
City Hall Green Roof (Chicago, IL) Photo Credit: www.weedmanusa.com
It took a while to find my groove in Chicago; reconnecting with old college classmates, locating the best neighborhood grocery stores, navigating around on the EL. Three months later, my farm lust pangs returned. I began to furiously search for urban agriculture initiatives in the city and stumbled upon Urban Habitat Chicago, whose executive director I incidentally e-mailed back in August (before I moved) regarding volunteer jobs. I know it’s easy to grow in the sun-rich state of California, but my curiosity grew around how farming happens in the long, Midwest winters.
I got a partial (though likely misguided) answer yesterday during my inaugural weekend as an urban agriculture volunteer: cold frames, hearty greens, composting to increase the temperature of soil in order to preserve the seedlings underground… A slew of biological gardening terms flew all around me - an embarrassingly few of which I could recall from my daily two-periods of biology freshman year of high school. But, we all have to start somewhere.
And although at the moment I am only a pseudo-wannabe urban agriculturalist, my weekend as a farm hand has put a paradigm shift into first gear. From harvesting swiss chard and transplanting baby spinach to shoveling compost & sod into a wheel barrow, I’m already starting to feel more connected to where my food comes from, and a greater appreciation for how my food is grown. I’m already more cognizant of my own disregard for the farmer(s) who labored for months to grow the broccoli I so nonchalantly toss in the trash.
So here’s to the beginning of this east coast city girl’s foray into the urban farming world. It won’t be quite the charming, small-town experience that Tiffany grew up with, but it will be a journey through the exciting microcosm of guerrilla farming in Chicago that, hopefully, will lead to a more connected life with nature.