January 16th, 2013 § 10 Comments
It was a little after 5 o’clock yesterday evening and I was driving back to the farm from my Other Job in Seaside when it struck me: 10 years ago on January 14th Packy and I were settling down for our first night as Oregon Farmers. We didn’t know enough at that point to know that it would be quite a while before anything that we did on the property would resemble actual farming, but we were nothing if not optimistic.
As we settled in for a cold night on the north Oregon coast yesterday, I found myself thinking back to that first night at the old farmhouse on what wasn’t yet, but would soon become, Ostman Farm. We’d done the drive from San Rafael (yes, my fellow Oregonians, that is in California) in one day, starting out in two packed-to-the-gills vehicles at aroung 4 am and reaching Seaside somewhere just between 4 and 5 pm. The all-in-one-day approach was mainly because we were transporting our crazy, sadly no-longer-with-us cat Elsie, who was not very far away from being completely feral. Packy had her in his car, nestled in a huge dog carrier that we’d borrowed from a friend. The kitty tranquilizer that our vet had given us wore off about two hours into the journey, and Packy discovered that if he played the radio at all, Elise would yowl loudly in protest. For a guy who really likes his music and audio books, 12 hours stuck in a silent car with a whacked out cat was really not a fun trip. Packy barely let our tiny caravan stop for gas and restroom breaks as we sped up Interstate 5 with a fierce determination to arrive at our destination, keeping a close eye out for speed traps. We had fool’s luck with us that day, as we were blissfully ignorant that we might have wanted to be prepared for January’s often icy roads and possibly even snow. I’m pretty sure we had snow chains in the cars, at least. Pretty sure.
We arrived knowing intellectually that the house only had a wood stove for heat, but not really thinking about what that meant: arriving in mid-January to a house that had been unoccupied and unheated for some months, with no wood on hand to start a fire even. We huddled under every blanket we had brought with us that night, sleeping in hats and gloves while Elsie the Cat curled up beneath my knees–three tired creatures who had no idea what they were in for.
We knew no-one locally, save for the cousin of our friend Maria–Maria’s family owned the farm we had just moved to. We had only met him once before, when we came up here to take a look at the property. His main comment to me at the time was, “What do you mean, you’re going to start a farm? You can’t farm on the coast, nobody farms here.”
Fortunately, we didn’t let that stop us. We learned that not only could you farm on the north Oregon coast–the farming community was small, but it was there–but that there were a whole lot of people here who were excited and grateful to have more people willing to start farming again here because they wanted to buy locally grown food, plants, flowers, eggs and more.
I had never jumped off a cliff quite like the ‘let’s move to Oregon and start a farm’ one before in my life. I am amazed that Packy not only stuck with me, but was actually willing to marry me recently, even after the madness that has consumed much of our lives these last ten years. A long strange trip indeed.
In the past decade, so much has changed–in ourselves, in our surroundings, in how people think about where their food comes from, and in the national (and international) small farm movement. In the past ten years we learned how to farm, and how to run a farm business, which are not at all the same thing, although both are necessary for a farm’s survival.
I learned how to start seeds and have the plants not only survive, but thrive. I learned how to amend soil, and grow and harvest plants that would do well in the Oregon coast’s somewhat tricky growing season. I learned about the enormous, important difference between being a serious gardener and being a professional farmer.
Packy learned many skills he probably never thought he would want or need to know, like how to use a chainsaw, and how to set large piles of debris on fire, how to drive a tractor and how to build a greenhouse that (probably) won’t blow down. And although I say we “learned” these things, the truth is that this is an ongoing education, and each year we learn more about how to do what we are doing better. I’m sure I will be learning how to farm for the rest of my life.
Our cat family expanded:
and expanded again:
All of them have been great farm workers, keeping the rodent population on the farm under some kind of check in exchange for food, lodging and a steady supply of catnip. Especially Elsie, that little cat was a serious rat killer.
We finally got a small flock of chickens, which came with an unexpected rooster. None of us realized how much we liked Nigel the Rooster until the day he disappeared on a Very Big Adventure. I like to think of him enjoying a new life on the small chicken farm he is rumored to have ended up on, bossing around a large harem of girls. The remaining chickens are doing fine, and we look forward to expanding their numbers this spring. Farm fresh eggs are amazing to behold, and even better to eat.
We learned how to be successful farmers market vendors, which meant learning to grow and sell what people actually want to buy, and not just what I think they should want to buy because I want to grow it.
I learned what a local food system is, and where our farm fit within that system. 10 years ago I’d never even heard the words “Community Food System”, and now I am the president of the board of our local non-profit community food system organization, North Coast Food Web. Small farming has exploded in the last decade, and support for small and beginning farmers exists now in a way I could hardly have dreamed of in the early days of Ostman Farm. The OSU Small Farms program, Friends of Family Farmers, the Greenhorns, National Young Farmers Coalition, Growing for Market, and so many more… hell, just the internet itself as both a resource and a marketing tool for small farms has been transformative. We didn’t even have a website for the first four years we farmed, now it’s one of the first things a beginning farm sets up. I also don’t think I’d ever heard the words ‘Social Media’ before. How we communicate now–both farmer to customer and farmer to farmer–has been radically changed by social media. The internet, websites, blogging, smart phones, and all the applications and websites that go with them: twitter, facebook and all the photo ones that I can’t figure out yet, like tumblr and pinterest. Sheesh. Who can keep up, and keep farming?
During those first few years of farming, sometimes we would go to the Big City of Portland for the day, and make a trip to Powell’s Bookstore for a treat. I’d look for books about farming in their tiny Organic Farming section, which took up part of a shelf near Vegetable Growing, somewhere in the enormous Home and Garden section. Books about raising chickens and livestock were elsewhere in the very small Agriculture section, and neither section had much new on offer that could guide us in what we were trying to do. There were always the same few excellent how-to books for small farmers: Elliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower, John Jeavons’ How to Grow More Vegetables, and my new Northwest favorites, Steve Soloman’s Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades and Seattle Tilth’s Maritime Northwest Garden Guide. There was a smattering of “How I Left my Urban Life and Started a Farm in the Country” books, starting with the Nearings’ classic The Good Life and ending with books written by people who looked and sounded a bit more like us, but which were sadly lacking in practical advice and ‘How to Do It’ details. Now Powell’s has a whole wall of books about small farms, urban farms, sustainable farms, biodynamic farms, permaculture farms, meat farms, vegetable farms, urban homesteading, and sustainable food systems,and the ‘How I Left my Urban Life’ meme shows no sign of slowing down. We are part of a much bigger world now, and I am grateful for its support.
One day in 2009, after a whole lot of ridiculous difficulty, we finally bought a farm of our own. With the help of many wonderful, patient, kind and supportive new friends, we moved to what would become 46 North Farm, and we began again.
Much of the this past decade seems to have passed by in a blur of long, physical days, shifting seasons, and a lot of lessons learned–some of them bitter and difficult, but many more of them filled with at least some laughter, and the satisfaction of becoming good at your chosen work.
Many lessons I didn’t even realize I was learning until I found myself one day working at a chore with a quick, steady skill that would have been impossible for me to pull off during that first crazy year. Experience is one of the best teachers, and our experiences starting and operating both of our small farms here in Oregon have taught us both the value of hard work and of getting enough rest, of being able to laugh more than we cry, and of appreciating the community that has grown to surround and support us here.
We were fortunate to have wonderful families and friends-back-home cheering us on and encouraging us in our new adventure. They may have privately been shaking their heads and saying “What the hell are they thinking?” but no one ever said it to our faces, even when they probably should have. We have met many, many wonderful people here. We are lucky to call many of them friends and to know that some of them are part of our family now.
Our biological families and our Oregon families have met and approve of one another. Although I wish we lived closer to those that I miss in my daily life, I know that we are deeply connected, and when we do see each other, it is good.
One day ‘home’ became Oregon. I don’t know what year or month or day it was, it just crept up on us, like when all of a sudden you realize the landscape around you has changed, that all the trees have leafed out, winter is gone, and it’s actually, finally spring. I do remember driving back to the coast one afternoon, probably in late autumn. We’d been to California for a visit, and were on our way back to the farm from the Portland airport. There is a transitional place somewhere in the Coast Range where the air around you shifts, and you feel the trees exhaling thick, green, damp oxygen filled with the promise of the ocean. We looked at each other, and said, “God I’m so glad we’re almost home!” And there it was. After a lifetime of wandering, I knew I’d finally found the place I could put down roots, the place I could come home to.
Last night I sat next to the blazing wood stove in the farmhouse on 46 North Farm in Olney, nine miles outside of Astoria and what feels like a lifetime away from the cold, dark farmhouse in Seaside where a tired-but-still optimistic, impossibly younger version of me eventually fell into an exhausted, excited sleep 10 years ago. I sat typing, Eddie and Squeaky passed out next to the wood stove as close as they could get without actually lying on it, while Packy looked through the photographic history of our time here in Oregon, calling my attention to one photo after another, reminding me of the great adventure that this time in our lives together has been.
I love living and farming here on the Oregon coast. I love the excitement I’m feeling lately, planning the upcoming growing season and getting ready to start seeds again. I love the crazy, creative community of friends and friends of friends and people-we-know that surrounds us here. I love being near the ocean. I love the wildlife that surrounds us here. And, at the risk of confirming the worst fears of Kevin, one of our Olney neighbors whom we met on New Year’s Eve at the Big O Saloon (just a short walk around the corner from the farm), I love the trees here in Oregon. But this does not necessarily make me a granola-eating tree-hugger, at least not in the way I think he meant.
I know that to many folks here, I will never really be ‘local’, nor even a true Oregonian. I’ll never naturally say ‘crik’ instead of ‘creek’, and I don’t think I’ll ever learn to like lutefisk like many of our Scandinavian-descended neighbors. Thanks to our ongoing off-farm work–work that is helping us buy this farm–and thanks to our farm’s small-size and modest income, the USDA may never consider us ‘real’ farmers. I really don’t care what they think of us, or what they want to call us. Our community knows we are farmers, and the number of people waiting to buy some of our farm’s harvest this coming season–plant starts, produce, cut flowers, herbs and eggs–is strong and supportive and growing.
Just over a decade ago, I had the thought that I wanted to become a farmer. I had no idea at the time what that actually meant, it was just an idea to me: a seasonal life, growing and harvesting plants and living close to the earth. Now that I actually am a farmer–at least on some days–I realize exactly what that means, and I know that however crazy it sounded to me at the time, that the voice in my head saying, “I think I want to be a farmer” was right.
My father Ralph is a pretty wise man. As I was growing up, he always said to my siblings and me: ”Whatever work you choose to do, make sure it is work that you actually enjoy doing most of the time. You’re going to spend an awful lot of time working in your life, and it’s much better when you can work doing something you feel good about, or even better, doing something that you love.”
I love farming. I love farming with Packy,and Kelly, and Luke and Kati and Dan-the-Brushtamer and all of our many other wonderful farm friends:
I love farming in Olney, on the north coast of Oregon, surrounded by beauty and good community and maybe not quite enough sunshine, but sunshine enough.
It was cold last night. I went to bed hoping that the chickens were keeping each other warm, hoping that the dahlia tubers weren’t freezing too badly, hoping that the garlic would be ok. I put the kettle on and filled up my hot water bottle, something I would have dearly wished for on our first night in Oregon.
I went to sleep thinking “I’m so glad to be here, in this sturdy house on this good farm, in this good place, surrounded by people, animals and work that I love.”