Two years ago today – “below all the grey lives a neighborhood of color”

Two years ago this March I was living in Madrid, Spain. I had become a regular at the Adelfas Urban Community Garden where we would meet weekly to plant, water and chat in our tiny sliver of green below the RENFE railway lines.

Below all the grey lives a neighborhood of color.

In February of 2015 the city government of Madrid contracted out permits to expand the community garden spaces around the city, and the neighborhood association associated with Adelfas was granted a massive lot across the street from the railroad tracks (and from our older, smaller garden) to develop into a green space. (“We dug up a parking lot…and put up a paradise!”) By March 2015 we were up to our knees designing, measuring and shoveling in the new space. It was so incredibly exciting to see our efforts and dreams come to fruition and welcome all the neighbors who came down, asked questions and got their hands dirty.

March 2015 – building the new plots.

March 2015 – building the new plots.

I’ve since left Madrid, but the Adelfas Urban Community Garden is still going strong. To see more of the work being done there check out the blog:

I miss the garden, but I miss the people most of all – and our mid-day post-gardening chilled beers and potato chips under the membrillo tree. Big kisses and happy memories to Madrid and the beautiful Adelfas team.

Interview with a Chef

Nicky and I met in September while we were both working on a small organic farm in Castile y León, Spain. She has been cooking elaborate dishes since she was five years old and today works as a chef in Wales. On a sunny morning before lunch, she told me about seasonal produce of the UK, why food waste makes her fume, and how to cook a hedgehog.

Picking beans together

Picking beans together


The Farmer’s Grandchild: Let me start with a rather vague question: what is food to you?

Nicky Williams: It’s lovely [laughs]. It’s my passion, it’s been my life, it’s been something I’ve been very interested in since I was very young.

TFG: Can you tell me how you started cooking professionally?

NW: Professionally, I went to the Glastonbury Festival 17 years ago, working on a food stall there called Glender’s Blenders making smoothies and funky spicy chicken. And then I left there and started working in Totnes [England], and that was my first job in an Italian restaurant called Amalfi’s. And I was also picking grapes from a vineyard, and yea, that’s how I got into it professionally.

TFG: Did you cook when you were young?

NW: Yea, I was always helping mum in the kitchen. I used to do fish en papillote when I was five. My sister couldn’t make jelly, she used to burn water. My mum is a good cook. And all our food when we were growing up was pretty much home-cooked. Mum didn’t ever use to buy processed foods, it was all home-cooked: stews, or like roast dinners or boiled hams, or traditional stuff. Whereas a lot of my friends were [eating] fish fingers, beans and chips, turkey twizlers and crap, really.

TFG: So the way you were raised eating was different than your friends? Why do you think that was?

NW: My friends used to come to my house and go “Woah, you always have the best food!” and I would go to their houses and go “Oh my god, chicken nuggets!” just for something different. But if I had children, they wouldn’t be eating chicken nuggets [laughs].


TFG: Why do you like seafood?

NW: Being brought up on the coast, it’s just available. And when I lived and worked on the Isle of Man it was nice being able to phone the fishmongers in the morning to ask what they’d caught and knowing that what you were going to put on the specials board in the evening was caught fresh that day.

TFG: So, when a restaurant puts “catch of the day” it normally is the catch of the day?

NW: Yea, generally.

TFG: And do you as a chef like cooking the catch of the day? 

NW: Yea, love it.

TFG: Why’s that?

NW: Well, the fishmonger used to come in [to the restaurant] on the weekend. It was really nice watching him come in in the evening and knowing that he’d caught the fish and the queenies [scallops], that we’d cooked it, and that we were both as excited about it.


TFG: Do you think that when your mom was your age she got, prepared and ate her food similarly or differently than you do?

NW: Quite similarly. On a low budget. Again, back then, you didn’t have so many types of cuisine. It was more stereotypically British. Meats, veg, soups. You know, traditional food. But she was also doing it on a shoestring.

My mum used to go to the local butchers to buy our meat and she used to say to the butcher “Could we have some bones for the dog?” and the butcher would throw in a load of bones. And my gran went in there one day and the butcher said to my gran, “Oh you know, I saw your daughter the other day. She always comes in and I always give her bones for the dog.” And my gran said “She doesn’t have a dog…”

So what she was doing was taking the bones home, boiling them up and making soup for us. Because she was poor. And then after that she used to go in there and ask for bones for the dog, and the butcher then started giving her bones with loads and loads of meat on them because he knew she didn’t have a dog, it was for the kids [laughing]. It was quite sweet. So yea, I think we do have a same cooking style where we use everything that we can.

TFG: I know a little bit about your grandfather. What about him?

NW: He was Romani gypsy. And obviously their food was what they picked off the land at the farms where they stopped, where they settled for a little while. And my grandfather, the times he did manage to get to schools, it would be his job when he was really young, I mean under the age of ten, to set the rabbit snares to catch rabbits on the way home from school to take home to eat.

They also used to eat hedgehog. So they’d catch hedgehog, kill it, and then the way you cook hedgehog is you wrap it in clay and then you put it on the fire. When the clay cracks, it’s cooked. And then you crack the clay open, the spines come away with the clay and you’re left with a cooked hedgehog.

TFG: Is it good?

NW: It’s lovely. It’s very gamey. It’s a strong meat, there’s not much meat to it. They’d eat anything. Squirrel, rabbit, hedgehog. Whatever they could catch they’d eat it.


TFG: According to a report from 2011 from the Government Office For Science in London on the future of food and farming, some of the biggest issues regarding our current global food systems are firstly, hunger, malnutrition and overconsumption. And secondly, the fact that many of our food production systems are unsustainable. For you, what are some problems with the food system where you live that you are aware of?

NW: I challenged Tesco’s, which is a big supermarket in the UK. I went down there one day, it was about nine o’clock at night and they shut at eleven. So I went to the back of the store where they have the bakery section, where it’s all freshly baked on the premises. And there was one of the members of staff there with huge bin bags taking all the breads, the donuts, the pastries off the shelves and putting them into these bin bags, just to be thrown away.

So I went up to him and I said “Are you throwing all that away?” And he’s like “Yea, yea, yea.” So I said, “Can I take some, then, if you’re going to throw it, to save it being wasted.” “No we’re not allowed to, it’s company policy,” he said. “I’m not even allowed to take it home as a member of staff. We’re just not allowed to do it.” So I asked “Well, can I take some for the birds, I’ll throw some out for the birds, if it’s not good for human consumption.” “No, we’re not allowed to give it away”. Which I thought was absolutely ridiculous. So the next day I went down and spoke to the manager and said “Can I suggest to you that you bake less in the day, to save throwing all this food away?” And he said “No, we have to have the shelves full, because it looks better for the customer…”

It was ridiculous. So I got in touch with Tesco’s online and I complained to them and they’ve blocked me on Facebook. Any comment that I make on Facebook is now taken straight down. And it’s crazy. And they still do it to this day.

TFG: What about as your role as a chef – do you think there’s something you could do, or something you could be involved with regarding food waste? 

NW: I did try, when I was on the Isle of Man working on the Cherry Orchard, my favorite kitchen. At the end of the meals, the waitresses would go out and clear the plates and if there was any leftovers they would go into a bucket to be disposed of properly. And you know, people waste a lot of food, whether it’s just rinds of fat or bits of bread or bits of vegetables. And we’d end up at the end of the night with bucketloads of food that’d been left over.

So there was this guy up the road who had like a farm museum and he had a couple of pigs there as petting animals, so I suggested, “Why don’t you come down at the end of each evening and take these buckets for the pigs?” Makes sense, it’s not going to waste. But we weren’t allowed to do that because the laws on pig food are so tight, it has to be prepared in a sterile area, and you’re not allowed to feed them certain things. So we couldn’t even do that, we couldn’t even give it to the animals.


TFG: What is the role of restaurants in educating the public about the seasonality of foods? Do you think there is an issue with getting tomatoes in the middle of winter in England, for example, or is that OK?

NW: Well, no. There’s two issues, really. I mean, one is if you’re buying in from different countries then you’ve got your carbon footprint, which is not good, we’re all trying to keep that down. And the other reason I don’t like buying tomatoes in the middle of winter is because they taste like crap. They’re just forced. If they’re grown in the UK, they’re just force-grown, so they’re not ready to be tomatoes.

We’ve got so much going in the UK, seasonal-wise, you know in the autumn and winter you’ve got pumpkins, and you’ve got your brassicas, and you’ve got your broccoli and your cabbages. And it’s nice to eat those things in the winter, anyway, cause that’s sort of your bulky food, your comfort food. 

So yea, restaurants do have a bit of responsibility there because they can show people. You know, the menu will change every two to three months, so it’s what’s in season. So you are educating people, whereas someone might not really realize what’s around at that time of year, they go to a restaurant, look at a menu and “Oh, right, OK. That’s in season, that’s in season.” We’ve [in restaurants in the UK] got berries, we’ve got nuts. In the summer we’ve got salads, we’ve got strawberries, we’ve got whatever. So yea, I think restaurants do educate people.


TFG: Looking back on seven weeks as on this farm, what have been some memorable experiences, food related or otherwise?

NW: My nice memory is getting up when everybody is still in bed and going into the field and “doing the groceries.” I guess, like grocery shopping in the field! And going out with a basket and picking everything and having it from the field onto the plate in a space of three hours, that’s really nice. And also, because I [normally] live on my own and eating on your own is pretty boring, just having everybody sitting down together three times a day is probably one of the nicest things here.

After several months of work at La Veguilla, Nicky moved back to the UK and has recently and excitedly begun a new position as a chef in Wales. 

For more interviews, please visit the Interviews page. 

Teaching Gardening and Supporting Farmers: One Food Bank’s Work to End Hunger

If you live in Whatcom County (USA), it’s likely you’ve heard of The Bellingham Food Bank. You’ve probably heard of it because it is a leading sevice provider in the fight against hunger in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. I have been familiar with their work since my time studying, living and working in Bellingham from 2006 to 2012, before I moved to Spain. At different times during that span of years I volunteered with the food bank’s preparation and distribution tasks, did some client surveying work and assisted with fundraising.

Whatcom County - Map data (c) 2015 City of Kamloops Google

Whatcom County – Map data (c) 2015 City of Kamloops Google

Above all, I’ve always been impressed with the Bellingham Food Bank’s attention to client needs and preferences. For example, the distribution area was recently remodeled to create more of a shopping experience for those who visit; rather than waiting in line, clients may go to any section of the food bank once they enter. If you were to come as a client, you could skip the dairy and go straight to the produce section. If you were in a hurry, you wouldn’t be kept up by a person moving slowly in front of you.

Another example of the food bank working to meet clients half-way was the recent creation of a school-based food pantry. This food pantry was set up in a neighborhood whose residents found it difficult to reach the downtown food bank. So, rather than say “tough luck,” the food bank agreed to move itself one evening a week directly to the school gym.

As I am interested in the intersection between social services and agriculture, on my most recent trip to the U.S. in the fall fo 2015, I made a point to visit the Bellingham Food Bank to learn more about the great work it’s doing with local farmers, gardeners and related outreach and education. Following are brief summaries of what I discovered.

Garden Project

On a fall morning in October, I met with the project manager of the Garden Project, which aims to educate food bank clients on growing their own food. As seems to be a trend, I was offered some tea. Julia, the manager, sat on her exercise ball (yep, the BFB is as hip a place to work as any!) as she described the project’s goals and challenges.

Garden Project recipients and their first garden. Photo Credit: Garden Project

Garden Project recipients and their first garden. Photo Credit: Garden Project

The Garden Project centers around empowerment,” she explained. Garden Project volunteers build garden beds in the homes of those clients who apply and are eligible. The project provides workshops on planting, transplanting, composting and organic fertilizing, among other fundamentals of at-home organic vegetable gardening. If they so choose, clients are matched up with a volunteer garden mentor who provides as much or as little support as requested during the set-up and maintenance of each garden. Support lasts for two years, but, as Julia reassured me, if someone needs help past that point, there are always resources that can be shared. “We aim to support garden recipients as they want to be supported.”


Flowering Garden Project garden beds. Photo Credit: Garden Project

Flowering Garden Project garden beds. Photo Credit: Garden Project

Julia, by the way, did not grow up with a green thumb. With a background in social services, her gardening knowledge developed when she began volunteering with the WWOOF program in New Zealand and Hawaii. She then spent four years as a farm worker in the Pacific Northwest. Hearing her story inspired me to continue finding ways in which I can educate myself and others about healthy food, responsible agriculture and the fight against hunger.

Garden mentors at an inpatient substance abuse facility for teenage girls. Photo Credit: Garden Project

Garden mentors at an inpatient substance abuse facility for teenage girls. Photo Credit: Garden Project

Garden Project recipients and their pumpkins. Photo Credit: Garden Project

Garden Project recipients and their pumpkins. Photo Credit: Garden Project



Small Potatoes Gleaning Project

With it’s Garden Project, the Bellingham Food Bank actively advocates sustainable methods of food production. With it’s Small Potatoes Gleaning Project, the organization attacks the problem of food waste.

It is well-disseminated knowledge that much of the world’s food goes to waste, both at early and late stages of the food supply chain. Gleaning is a traditional practice which, in the face of this rising and unsettling trend, has had a recent resurgence. Max, the Agricultural Programs Coordinator at the Bellingham Food Bank, says gleaning “is for food that would otherwise go to waste or is grown specifically for donation (without hope of monetary compensation).”

A sign leads the way to this Everson, Washington glean on a rainy October morning. Here a small group of volunteers harvested cabbage and beets from a farmer participating a hybrid contract purchase with the Bellingham Food Bank.

A sign leads the way to this Everson, Washington glean on a rainy October morning. Here a small group of volunteers harvested cabbage and beets from a farmer participating a hybrid contract purchase with the Bellingham Food Bank.

One focus of the Small Potatoes Gleaning Project is to do just this. The project organizes gleans at farms around Whatcom County in a dual effort to minimize produce going to waste on fields while providing the freshest food possible to hungry Bellingham residents.

Another branch of the Small Potatoes Gleaning Project is dedicated to supporting local farmers in their business and growing capacities through contract purchasing (either wholesale or in hybrid models) while providing fresh food to the food bank. As Max explains, this arm of the project is thus dedicated to “financially supporting the farms in our area and building the supply chain for institutions like us [The Bellingham Food Bank] to be able to buy more local food in the future.”

As you can see, this particular food bank clearly realizes that ending hunger requires a multi-faceted approach.

For information regarding gleaning in France, find a review of the film “The Gleaners and I” here.

A Crucial Challenge

The Bellingham Food Bank is a genuinely welcoming place to volunteer, receive food and work. Walking along the bright hallways of the newly remodeled central building, it’s easy to imagine yourself in any regular office. But the work that goes on here is bigger than this space; organizations such as this one are part of a global struggle to provide equal access to responsibly grown food while supporting small farmers. Programs such as this, I believe, are part of the solution to fixing our crooked food systems.

Reconnecting with the food bank this past autumn and realizing that hunger is as prevalent as ever reminds me of a conversation I had around 2008. At that time I had been volunteering with the Bellingham Food Bank’s distribution and preparation teams and had begun learning more about the realities of hunger in our community. The conversation occurred when I visited a friend in Seattle and told her about my work with the food bank. Her older brother, by many accounts a successful and well-educated person, listened to me speak. When I finished, he skeptically asked me, “How can that be? Is there really hunger in the U.S.?” He did not want to believe me because within his world, there was no hunger; hunger was something that happened to other people in other places. Perhaps he simply needed to be reminded that hunger takes various shapes (Malnutrition, for example, is a form of hunger which can present itself in an over-fed body). If nothing else, this goes to show that much more education must take place about what hunger means and how it presents itself around the world.

I’ll always remember the director of the Bellingham Food Bank telling me years ago that this organization is a “bandaid agency.” What he meant was that ideally, food banks and food pantries wouldn’t have to exist. Ideally, hunger would be a quick fix. But it’s not.

Keep tackling this crucial challenge!

To read about more of the Bellingham Food Bank’s projects, such as Victory Gardens, please visit their website.

Visit the Farm and Project Profiles page for more people and programs dedicated to keeping our food systems sustainable, healthy and just.


One Month With a Small-Scale Organic Farmer

“We never have to leave because everyone comes here.” This was Lauro, one of the two farmer-carpenters with whom I lived this past September. He was speaking about the home and land he shares with his brother Alfredo just out of earshot of Nieva, a small village in Castilla y León, Spain.

La VeguillaLauro and Alfredo are brothers and have lived on this cattle barn-turned-carpentry workshop (slash kitchen slash bedroom) for the past 15 years. Their home is called La Veguilla, meaning a small meadow, and from the terrace you can see the church steeple in Nieva, where the brothers and their four other siblings grew up and where their parents still live. The two hectares of land provide them with a vegetable garden for commercialization and personal consumption, a chicken coop, a donkey named Paris (due to his uncanny resemblance to Paris Hilton), a rescued grey-hound with a previous life named Garabato (Scribble), a tree nursery and various carpentry workshops. At this moment they are extending the home to the north to include more workshop space and a sauna. In nearly every room there is a massage table, which Alfredo uses to help the friends and various clients who come through.

The two brothers essentially have a “puertas abiertas” (open doors) policy here. On any given day, friends of theirs come by to borrow tools, their parents come by for a chat and to pick figs, a winemaking friend drops off a bottle and shares some news, and clients come in to specify measurements for furniture they ordered. Sometimes people just stop for lunch. Many of their friends and project partners are people with whom they went to grade school who live in neighboring towns. Others, like the mosaicist, are newer friends.

The open doors are, as Lauro says, a convenience of their lifestyle: he doesn’t have to go out, because everyone else comes here. Alfredo adds, however, that much of the challenge (and the beauty) of creating this home has been finding a balance and harmony between all those who pass through and the amount of activity they bring with the brothers’ private lives and occasional need for solitude. 

Sometimes Lauro just wishes he had a BUSY sign to hang on the door.

The open doors also welcome many, many volunteers by way of the WWOOF program. Alfredo is positive that volunteers are a large part of what brings life to this place. Volunteers from the world over revive La Veguilla. Just during the month I spent there, I shared a roof with volunteers from China, Wales, Estonia and Australia.

So like many before me, I went to La Veguilla as a volunteer. My specific purpose, however (in addition to getting my hands in the dirt again) was to learn about the distribution of organic produce from the perspective of a small farmer in the vicinity of Madrid, my current home. In their invitation email, Alfredo and Lauro wrote “Come for a month and we’ll show you our vegetable box system.” From spring until the summer produce runs out, Lauro (the brother with a greener thumb) works nearly full time gardening and distributing produce boxes. The vegetable boxes (“las cajas”) are plastic crates filled to the brim with fruit and vegetables picked from the garden and then sold for between 10€ and 20€, depending on the contents, to friends and acquaintances as far as Segovia, a 30 minute car ride from the farm.

My first week there we included the following in each 20€ box: 2 kilos of potatoes, 1.5 kilos of green beans, about 4 tomatoes, 1 melon, 3 turnips, 1 big beet, 1 kohlrabi, 2 large green peppers, some chard, a bunch of basel and a bunch of parsley. 

Immediately inviting

Colorful and immediately inviting CSA boxes

On Fridays and Mondays we harvested produce and kept it cool in the storage building, where we would later add it to 20 to 25 boxes. We also prepared some boxes full of specific produce destined for herbolarios, which are small organic goods shops in Spain. On Tuesday morning, just before the truck took off, we picked the leafy goods – chard, kale, herbs – so they were as fresh as possible when they arrived to their destination. Lauro bought himself a white pick-up truck after his time in Alaska, inspired by its utility. Once we’d sorted the tetris puzzle of fitting and stacking all the boxes into the truck, we headed into town to deliver.

Preparing the delivery

Preparing the delivery

I wasn’t expecting anything in particular when Alfredo and Lauro first told me they’d show me their vegetable box “distribution system,” but it was quickly apparent that the processes they have are based on providing a quality product at a very relaxed pace. “I prefer quality over quantity,” Lauro would say when we harvested or packed the boxes. Or, “It’s better to do it slowly and well than in a rush” when we swept the storage room.

The relaxed pace of their approach was apparent on delivery days. Lauro knows who his regular customers are and would always prepare them boxes unless they’d called in advance to say “no.” Any extra boxes would go to friends he’d remember while we were driving into town or see walking on the sidewalk. For instance, one Tuesday while we waited for the light to change at an intersection in downtown Segovia, Lauro saw an old friend of his walking about 100 meters away. He honked the horn to get his friend’s attention, but to no avail. I asked him if he needed to speak to this friend. “No. I just want to sell him a box!”

Lauro does little marketing for his produce boxes. It’s all through word-of-mouth (or drive-by honkings). He says he doesn’t want to do explicit marketing because what he currently does is “enough.” I asked him what he meant by enough, if that meant it covered his costs. He laughed and replied that he hardly covers any costs with his boxes, after the food he buys for the volunteers and other outputs.

So, you may wonder, why does he do it?

I think it’s because gardening is worth it to him in and of itself. And he can (financially) afford to garden because he and Alfredo receive other income through their carpentry workshops and a tree nursery on the property.

Someone once asked Lauro when he was going to get rich. He looked at them and replied, seriously: “I am already rich.”

La vendimia - grape harvest

La vendimia – grape harvest

I agree with him, and this is why: the garden produces more than he and his brother can eat alone, they enjoy warm weather many months of the year, the chickens provide eggs nearly every day, their vigneron friends freely share bottles of top-notch wine from organic grapes, fruit trees in town provide figs for jam in the winter, the pine forest next door fills the air with bird songs, there’s an effortless cycle of reusing and recycling material and organic waste on their farm, the stars are bright at night, their friends are very good friends, their bodies are strong, the air is clean(er than the city), books line the walls, they know how to make their own furniture and they eat a high percentage of fresh, nutritious food day in and day out.

Additionally, due to the fact that their work space is also their living and leisure space, they avoid lengthy commutes and what Lauro might call “wasted time.” Perhaps that’s how they can afford a siesta most days! While others may seem to separate work and play, (or work and “life”?) as much as possible, at La Veguilla work and play have found a notable, but almost unnoticeable, flow. Lauro says he likes this because when he wakes up, his work is right there. Only someone who really values their life’s dedication would value the fact that it was always so physically close. All of this is not to say that their work isn’t cut out for them. Lauro and Alfredo always have something to do in and around the house.

Making rosemary cuttings

Making rosemary bush cuttings

They are accustomed to working many hours. “Our father sold our labor for income” Lauro once said, remembering the summers that he and his siblings worked on farms instead of going to the local pool as, it seemed, all the other kids did. He remembers picking weeds out of endless rows of beets and that when he started one row he couldn’t see the end of it. He and his siblings didn’t get any of that money directly, but it all came back to them somehow as it all was used for family expenses. “Kids in big families were kids who worked,” he remembers. While it was difficult work, it was still OK. “We always looked forward to school starting in the fall,” he laughed. Attending grade-school was much easier than working in the fields, it turns out.

Perhaps these many hours of harvest when he was under 15 years old are what led to his love of agriculture and gardening, and to his brother Alfredo’s appreciation of the outdoors. It could easily have gone the other way, though; these brothers could have joined the trend of younger generations leaving rural towns for the big cities. 

But, like I noted, there’s something about living on the edge of a small town, between pine forests and fields, where the pace is slow and the work is steady, that fits better with their goals, personalities and lifestyles. And even if the distribution system of their weekly summer vegetable boxes seems very (almost too) casual, it works for them.

I’d like to finish with a quote from Alfredo: “Every day, I appreciate the opportunity that life has given us to live in a place with such free movement and exchange of people and experiences. If we look at the history of the world and where we’re going, I can only hope that our space lasts a long time, and that this and other alternative ways of living become more widespread.”

Visit the Farm and Project Profiles page for more people and programs dedicated to keeping our food systems sustainable, healthy and just.


What is a farm business incubator?

Viva Farms
Skagit Valley, Washington State
Visited on the cloudy, rainless morning of Friday, November 6th, 2015

Part of me wishes I could wear rubber boots to work every day. Or at least half of the time, like Beth at Viva Farms. Beth started farming at this farm business incubator three seasons ago and has since taken on the role of Development and Communications Manager for the organization.

Viva Farms, which sits not ten miles from Puget Sound in the Skagit Valley of Washington State, was founded in 2009 as a response to the challenges new farmers face while starting their own farm businesses. In addition to leasing out quarter-acre to acre parcels, renting shared equipment and providing access to local markets, Viva Farms also offers farmers bilingual (Spanish and English) training on organic farming methods, planning for small businesses and marketing.

Included in their rent, each farmer receives room in the cold storage and spaces to grow seed starts in the greenhouse (which is now full of green and yellow squash). Access to tractors and water is also provided.

Included in their rent, each farmer receives room in the cold storage and spaces to grow seed starts in the greenhouse (which is now full of green and yellow squash). Access to tractors and water is also provided.

One way farmers can access the local market is by selling their produce at wholesale prices to Viva Farms directly. The produce is then sold at the organization’s vegetable stand on the south end of the lot or delivered to cooperative grocery stores or restaurants. Farmers are also encouraged, apparently, to find their own sales avenues, be it farmers’ markets or to grocery stores.

Beth’s grandfather was a dairy farmer so she is well accustomed to working outdoors. “But, thankfully, there aren’t any animals on this farm!” she joked as we trudged down the tire-treaded, wood-chipped road separating the 33 acres in half. The recent heavy rains have brought this road to a mushy state that, to Beth’s credit, does resemble cow manure. As we walked, Beth pointed out the parcels on our left and right, each of which is designated by a yellow-painted sign.

On her plot, Beth is growing perennial artichokes, some of which she sells to another farmer for their winter CSA boxes.

On her plot, Beth is growing perennial artichokes, some of which she sells to another farmer for their winter CSA boxes.

A yellow sign marks the start of this farmer's parcel.

A yellow sign marks the start of this farmer’s parcel.

A good number of the participants here used to be farm workers who then joined Viva Farms to become farm owners. Many have years of practical experience in agriculture but may lack the business skills to get a farm up and running. Others are young couples who work full-time jobs off the farm.

It's the start of winter, so Beth removes her drip-line hose from the source.

It’s the start of winter, so Beth removes her drip-line hose from the source.

I asked if those who have graduated from the program have been successful in starting their own businesses. “Yes!” was the answer I got from Rob, Viva Farm’s Operations and Incubator Director. “There are quite a few stories of success that have arisen from Viva Farms,” he explained. Several Viva Farms participants have moved on to become farm managers or work in farm support organizations. “Others have purchased or are leasing land off-site to grow their own businesses while they transition off of Viva,” Rob continued. In the six seasons this incubator program has existed, several participants have made the full transition and are now operating their own farms completely independently of Viva Farms.

However, while Viva Farms provides a variety of services to help farmers become independent and skilled business owners, there still remain the external barriers to farm ownership. Many of these barriers, Rob specifies, “are structural and based in adverse policies and market dynamics that favor large growers.”

One perhaps more manageable challenge Viva Farms is tackling at this time is that there currently is no maximum number of years a farmer can remain on the incubator farm. Seeing as how a great part of Viva Farm’s funding is based on the criteria that the organization help farmers become independent business owners, staff is working now to increase the number of those success stories. One solution could be rewriting the contracts to establish a maximum number of years farmers can lease from Viva Farms. Yearly rent increases could also be implemented to encourage farmers to search for opportunities to take their knowledge and experience to the next level.

The organization is also adjusting their entry requirements into the program, after realizing that the previous organic agriculture and business management training, offered in collaboration with WSU’s Cultivating Success course series was not adequately preparing the farmers for their “incubation” period. Starting next season, Viva Farms will provide trainees classroom-based education while providing practical activities on a training plot. This combination of hands-on and theoretical material will hopefully provide a more effective learning environment.

This overflowing plot is of one successful and hard-working farmer who has been with Viva Farms since the beginning.

This overflowing plot is of one successful and hard-working farmer who has been with Viva Farms since the beginning.

Beth points out another farmer's berry plot.

Beth points out another farmer’s berry plot.

Just as I was leaving, Rob returned from a delivery and his calico-colored dog Charlie playfully leapt at me. Their return broke the oddly quiet ambiance of my tour. Walking around the parcels while the farmers were out felt a bit like snooping into their private spaces. While the people who had spent the summer improving their farming and business skills were elsewhere the morning I visited, their efforts were visible. Seeing their kale plants growing tall and their flowers gone to seed, I looked forward to seeing this place in full bloom and with voices filling the air.

Visit the Farm and Project Profiles page for more people and programs dedicated to keeping our food systems sustainable, healthy and just.

What I’m Reading – In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

Image source:

Image source:

This past summer I read Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. If nothing else, check out the last section of the book which outlines Pollan’s food guidelines. He does not tell us what to eat or where to shop specifically, but rather provides what he believes are general rules to follow in order to consume and support “real” food.

My favorite guideline is to avoid foods that your grandmother (or great-grandmother, if you’re of a younger generation) wouldn’t recognize as food. This advice, of course, comes with it’s grain of salt. Your grandmother didn’t necessarily eat and cook what my grandmother did. Also, there are many real foods nowadays that she may not have recognized years ago simply because she wasn’t exposed to such a luxurious array of exotic fruits and foreign spices as we are today. I think the goal of this advice is to limit our consumption of highly processed foods with those unnecessarily long lists of ingredients. For example, would your grandmother recognize that box of Fruit Loops as a breakfast food?

Image Source: The New York Times

Image Source: The New York Times

Visit the page What I’m Reading and Watching for more books and movies that have taught me something new about our food systems. 

Striving For a Manageable Balance: Messy Gardens and Long Hours on the Homestead

June’s Homestead Farm
Skagit Valley, Washington
Visited mid-day on Saturday October 17th, 2015

June and I drank green tea as we looked out the living room window at the Skagit Valley flats. She, her husband and their youngest daughter moved to this farm of 18 acres shortly after she and I graduated from Western Washington University in 2010. Since then, she’s been taking care of the land a lot more than she expected to because her husband has been working long hours at a refinery nearby. After several seasons of unmanageable weeds, building projects left half-finished and too many tomatoes to handle, she recently, and perhaps only half-jokingly, gave him an ultimatum: she won’t weed until she gets more help at the farm.

The farm sits next to Highway 11, the same road that becomes Chuckanut Drive (the beautiful, forest-lined turns that wind along the cliffs and shores of Bellingham Bay and Samish Bay). The Skagit Valley, “may just sit below sea level,” noted June as we walked through her garden.

This area is renowend for it’s fertile soils. Among the highlights of the season have been bright tomatoes (“too many!”), orange pumkins and warty squash, strawberries and mint. I particularly enjoyed seeing a colorful variety of beans. We shelled a few to see the difference inside and uncovered pink, white, and black treasures. June has also planted Cherokee Beans because she is part Cherokee. These beans are a bit smaller and flatter than the regular black beans she has planted. Since she has only found one recipe for these beans online, she is still experimenting with how best to cook them.

When I asked if I could take photos of the gardens, June laughed and said the caption should read “This is what happens when you need more help in the garden.” Her husband, laughing, asked if I meant I wanted to take photos of the weed garden.

“This is what happens when you need more help in the garden.”

“This is what happens when you need more help in the garden.”

She’s also planted what she calls a “victory garden,” which are raised beds that sit two feet from her front door and provides carrots and salad greens for the kitchen. Across the yard are three turkeys that squawk at the passing cars. These are the turkeys that her vegan daugher was a bit uncertain about keeping, until June explained that if part of the family was going to eat meat, she preferred it to be meat that had lived humanely. And what better way to monitor that than raise it yourself. “Dont you think?” she asked me. I nodded in agreement.

Victory Garden

Victory Garden outside the kitchen window


In contrast, the neighbor’s cow barn to the north, which houses hundreds of cows indoors, reminds us that some farmed animals rarely enjoy daylight or outdoor grazing. The shit-pit adjacent to the cow barn will occasionally bring less than lovely smells southward. There is also the risk that runoff from the pit after heavy rains could contaminate surrounding water sources or the soil.

For June, part of the challenge of living among other farmers is the possibility that the farming practices of others will effect her own. The cow barn is one example. Another is the “round-up ready” corn that was previously planted in a neighboring field. We talked about the risks this could pose to the valley, such as its effect on the soil and potential cross-contamination of seeds. June remarked that there is also organic corn nearby, but that the transition from soils planted with GMO crops to organic could take a while.

June has a lot of projects she wants to complete. She’s a woman of inspiring ideas and big dreams. For example, she’d like to collaborate with the organization Growing Veterans to potentially lease out some of her acres to a veteran who is now farming. As I mentioned, she and I both studied together. Our field was human services, often in the world of non-profits. That she wants to share her land with a social service organization is a perfect fit.

As I left, she and her husband resumed their Saturday task of clearing out the studio adjacent to their house. Kitchen-ware, shelves, potted plants, wood scraps and jars full of pickles began to fill the back yard. The area they cleared would hopefully soon become the back porch from which a future tenant could enjoy the view of the valley and the mountains. They’ve also considered hosting WWOOF volunteers (an idea I absolutely support, so long it works for their lifestyle).


View of the Skagit Valley

It’s all a work in progress, June seemed to continuously remind me. As a response, I reminded her that it’s likely going to get messy before it looks all good.

Visit the Farm and Project Profiles page for more people and programs dedicated to keeping our food systems sustainable, healthy and just.