Seasonality and Community-Building in the 21st Century

This piece was originally featured in Farm Table Foundation’s newsletter, “The Beet.” For more information, visit http://www.farmtablefoundation.org

“Eating the way our grandparents ate,” is a phrase used often at Farm Table. It makes sense to eat what grows locally and abundantly, as well as take a portion of this bounty and put some away for leaner times. This act of attuning our diets and even activities to a yearly cycle is known as seasonality. Going even further, seasonality can be thought of as phenology (the cyclic seasonal natural phenomena), coupled with the annual sequence of domesticated local foods, and the seasonal holidays or traditions humans celebrate. While it is intrinsically practical to eat what is “in season,” eating according to natural cycles makes sense from more than just a pragmatic lens.

In the 21st century, in many parts of the world, we can get fresh (unpreserved) produce year-round, no matter what season it is. These modern conveniences may free us from the restrictions imposed by a rainy and dry season, say, or a cold and warm season, but they also loose us from the connection to our present location on the planet. With grocery store shelves stocked year-round with every manner of fresh vegetable, the necessity of obeying the seasons is lost.

Living a life devoid of seasonality tends to lack a natural rhythm. In the absence of a slower season followed by a busier season there are fewer pause points, fewer benchmarks to tie us to reoccurring annual events and the community that shares those same experiences. To have a vast buffet constantly available is paradoxically characterized by gluttony coupled with emptiness. Without natural limitations to respect, we can begin to feel terribly alone and must constantly reach for something to connect us; to make us feel a part of something larger. We lack the small celebrations, the simple pleasures, that keep us humble and bring a sense of contentment.

If people begin to live and eat seasonally, each annual passage through life takes on a familiar ebb and flow. There is something deeply satisfying and comforting having a framework within which to live and go about our business. One doesn’t need to believe in a religion to benefit from ritual. Thus: ramp season, spring violets, elderberries ripening. The return of robins, passing of swans, migration of monarchs. These cyclical reminders, looked for at the appropriate time, indeed mark the passage of time much more accurately than dates on a calendar.

This seasonal awareness invariably creates a sensory memory of a certain region. Thinking about a Wisconsin autumn may conjure falling leaves, ripening apples and pumpkins, or the anticipation of autumnal holidays or the first snowfall. What we perceive as seasonal occurrences in western Wisconsin define our experiences of this place. A September day in the southern hemisphere may inspire memories of seeding the first crops, days getting warmer and longer, and a completely different set of quintessentially seasonal foods.

Seasonality and how we inhabit this place is also deeply tied into the dominant culture of the place. We live in an area dominated by white descendants of western and northern European immigrants. These cultures make up the backbone of our farming styles, our holidays and traditions, what we grow, and how we cook. As we become more of a global society or start to listen to the people we displaced in order to reside here, however, we begin to open up to other food cultures. Embracing other cultures doesn’t mean that we have to lose our own traditions, but it does provide for opportunities to create new, more equitable, traditions.

Where then, the connection between seasonal living and community building? When one lives by the seasons, they become an inhabitant of that place. Others living nearby, also a part of that ecosystem, are naturally connected, even if by nothing more than shared geography. Even those not very attuned to seasonality know when their neighbors are picking apples, harvesting deer, making sauerkraut. Those that share the logic of the seasons know how to survive both times of abundance and times of lack. There is always a neighbor in need, whether dealing with a frozen fuel line after a cold snap, picking up tomato trellises after a windstorm, or trading for new chickens after a fox breaks into the coop. Those that share the same seasonal wisdom will have the compassion, the connection, and the knowledge to help; for these are the things that happen, in this place at this time.

Sal is the Purchasing Manager at Farm Table Foundation and co-hosts their weekly series of Victory Garden videos (available on Farm Table’s YouTube channel). Sal also runs Roosterhaven, a diversified produce, pork, and poultry farm near Deer Park, WI.

Waiting for Wednesday

Time always seems to move a little bit funny on the farm. Months feel like years, yet weeks can pass like days. And yet, looking forward it seems like it will take forever to get to Wednesday. I am really looking forward to Wednesday. It is Sunday right now, and we have two more nights of freezing temperatures before the weather begins to return to a seasonal norm. That’s two more nights of locking down the hoop house, covering the onions with makeshift row covers (aka sheets and curtains), and hoping that all the newly germinated plants can withstand the weather. Two more days of postponed planting and transplanting as we wait for conditions to be more gentle on delicate vegetation.

Wednesday cannot come soon enough. And once it does come, with day temps over 55 and nights over 45, the game is back on. With one week left until the typical last frost date for this area (May 20), we will be trying to get every cool season transplant in the ground and every warm season plant hardened off on the patio. We will be moving herbs and dividing perennials. Putting the finishing touches on the fencing, and laying down more mulch. Because May is a flurry of planting and waiting, watching the weather, and working furiously in warm windows. We know that May is for planning and planting, because when June gets here, the work really begins.

A Very Quarantine Fish Fry

About one month into lockdown and things are settling down a bit. The rest of the household is totally locked down, and I’m fortunate enough to be working my off-farm job remotely. Now we’ve got all that figured out, the farm prep is in full swing, and it’s time for a little indulgence.

Enter fried food.

We do not eat very much fried food, as one might expect from hippie locavore farmers. In addition to the nutritional aspect, deep frying in your own kitchen tends to be a bit messy… and smelly… and greasy.

But oh, does it ever taste good, especially when you’re emotionally down and need a little caloric pick-me-up.

And if I ever fail to mention how glorious it is to be functionally common-law married to a chef, there are moments that bring that fact screechingly to the forefront of my mind. Like on a day where afternoon is getting closer to evening. When everyone is a little peckish and hungry and unmotivated and then, out of the blue, one member offers to make fried fish for dinner.

Hallelujah.

For this wholesome meal, Joe whipped up a quick beer batter. To test out its effectiveness, thick onion rings were quickly cut, dipped, and tossed into the oil. They met with approval, so the next step was to make a quick tartar-esque sauce of sour cream, lemon juice, pickles, and some mystery spices. Following that, there wasn’t much left to do but fry up the walleye and serve over a bed of fresh spinach with a side of roasted carrot fries (potatoes being a distant memory this far in the year).

Bon Apetit!

The only annoying part of the process is what to do with all that frying oil (no matter what the air-fryer claims, there is only one way to really make fried food). Not to worry. We will strain our used oil and store it in a glass jar in the fridge, using in place of vegetable oil anywhere the slight fishy hint won’t be too bothersome. Such as roasting more hearty, well-seasoned vegetables. Or cooking meat. Or wherever, really; there are times to have high standards and times to avoid food waste. Just maybe avoid using it to cook pancakes.

Shout-out to Blackbrook Farm for the spinach, carrots, and onions, Bodin’s Fishery for the walleye, and Roosterhaven for the… pickles, I guess. In addition, local flour from Sunrise Mill, local beer from Summit Brewery, and local sour cream from Kalona.

Isn’t it nice when doing the right thing tastes so good?

End of Summer Frittata

All too suddenly we reach the season known as The End of Summer. With the pleasantly cool nights of full summer starting to dip lower and lower, we all know the inevitable is nigh. Soon the first frost of the year will blanket the early morning land, killing the most tender plants. Basil, peppers, okra, melons, beans; all cold-intolerant varieties that will be gone overnight once the right conditions conspire. Now we shake off tomato fatigue: as we try to fill our coolers and larders with all of the remaining goodness of summer, so we try to stuff our mouths and bellies with enough fresh produce to get us through until next summer.

This frittata is one of the endless variations of this quick and classic breakfast dish. For this version I sauteed up a thin eggplant and zucchini for a few minutes, then added 8 eggs whisked with a little water, cooking the mixture on medium-low heat just until it started to set around the edges. I added in a few dollops of cream cheese (though cheese curds, quark, or chevre would have been equally amazing) and popped it in oven until it was cooked through, about 20 more minutes. The finishing touches were artfully arranged fresh basil and heirloom roma tomato slices.

These ingredients have been on daily rotation for months, but somehow the nearness of the end encourages an extra moment of pause. The memories of dishes like this is what will sustain us through the cold months ahead.

Why Farm?

I just wanted to take a moment to clear up a slight misconception people might have about the small-scale sustainable farm life. Only recently have I begun to field questions from well-meaning friends and customers about the profitability of our first year farming. So, here it goes, just so everyone knows:

No, we did not make any money the first year. In fact, we invested quite a bit of money to build infrastructure and purchase equipment, which was not outpaced by our revenue.

No, small-scale organic farming is not an extremely profitable occupation. People can make a comfortable living doing it, but it is not the way to easy money.

Yes, we do plan on continuing to farm, and we do expect to turn a profit within five years, because otherwise this would be a fundamentally unsustainable venture, which isn’t what we do.

I’m sure our farmer friends reading this are either laughing or wryly shaking their heads, because they also get asked similar questions. I don’t mean to be dismissive of the honest interest of those asking these questions, but it does strike a humorous note. Farming is extremely difficult work. From the physical demands of the kind of work where your body is your main tool, to your product being determined by the capricious weather, to the unknowable factors of wildlife, diseases, and pest irruptions, there is no certainty about how the next year will turn out. Then there are the social components of finding outlets for your product, transporting and marketing your products, and trying to communicate the value of your product in a society that forces your fresh local sustainable produce to compete with foreign-grown, nutritionally devoid, flavorless items readily available at the nearest low-price leading corporate retail outlet.

Not to mention your product is extremely perishable, vulnerable to too much heat or cold, wind, humidity, over-handling, and in the best storage environment, may still have a shelf life of 7 days or less. No wonder less than 2% of the U.S. population are involved in agriculture (this includes everyone from market gardeners to 1000-acre California lettuce farms)! We all must be at least a little mad to be in this industry.

Then why do we do it? After all that, how can people eschew jobs in climate controlled buildings with consistent pay, benefits, and obvious times where they are not at work?

Well, we all have to eat, don’t we? For me it started with the desire to control what I was putting into my body, but also to have a hand (or two) in nurturing and growing what I was eating. My desire to live a life close to the land, reducing waste, minimizing my carbon footprint, smelling the summer air and hearing the sounds of nature, the feeling of hands in the very earth itself; combined to create an inexorable pull into agriculture. But I wanted more than to get home after work and happily immerse myself in the garden- besides, here in the Midwest, we get less than half a year for our growing season! I wanted to make my passion my livelihood.

For many of us small, sustainable farmers, it is a lifestyle, a purpose, maybe even a calling. We do it because we want to produce the very best food, in the best manner possible, and share it with our local communities. How many large producers personally give the heirloom tomato or pound of hand harvested green beans to the person who will soon be eating it? The human connection is inseparable from the actual growing and harvesting of the food. The food is not merely a product, another dollar of inventory on a far away shelf. What we cultivate is alive and unique. We interact with it, touch it, talk to it, and at times plead with it. It is something that is nurtured by caring, compassionate, and humanly flawed people who will share it with others that have their own stories, their own families they will nourish with this food.

So no, we didn’t make any profit last year. But this year we are going to pick up our seeds and our trowels and we are going to go out there and do it all again. Because that is who we are and that is what we do, and hopefully one day we will be able to financially sustain this practice, as it sustains us, body and soul.

A Transcendent Moment

I walked outside, and to this moment, I still don’t know what I was planning on doing. As soon as I got to the edge of the lawn I became captivated by the flock of migrating birds. Already, I had noticed the setting sun painting the undersides of clouds a remarkable tangerine red. I moved forward, my eyes dazzled with the color wheel opposites: red sky, deep green grass. And all somehow more dramatic for the general grey and barren trees and other skeleton plants this time of year. But this was all really about the birds.

I don’t think they were any sort of rare or endangered birds. I could tell right away by their wingspan to body ratio and shape and the crook between their heads and wings that they were gulls. Seagulls? Not around here, but maybe in a week or two they would taste the salt air again. So gulls they were, and a large flock. As this is not a common occurrence at the farm, I surmised they were migrating. I watched them fly east (I don’t usually see birds heading dead south, but mostly towards water or some other feature they understand and I don’t). As the main group drew further away from me, one or two at a time would fly after them and I would try to see where they were coming from. As I tried to focus on these stragglers to identify them (my human pattern-seeking and trained-biologist urge to compartmentalize), I was overwhelmed with their beauty.

Yes, these glorious scavengers, these trash-eating, parking lot connoisseurs were unaccountably beautiful to my eyes. The fading sunlight was dappling their undersides as rosy as the sky. They winged in perfect grace towards some destination, with a motivation our species is at least partially-if not mostly- ignorant to. The air temperature was brisk but not cold, the land and sky bright and colorful, the most profound shades reaching me through the gnarled branches of a burr oak tree. I stood and understood that in nature there is an infinite glory that we barely take the time to notice. At once, all of my senses were filled with wonder and awe. I drank it in with an insatiable thirst. To be a witness to and participant in such marvelous workings is both humbling and incredibly affirming.

I grasped what wisdom I could from this moment and tried to find peace and understanding. Moments like these are what make life meaningful. This is not a human-created artifice designed to lead my mind into a foregone conclusion. This is observation and enjoyment, plain and simple, and it doesn’t get any better than that. I did try to document the occasion, and despite the amazing power of the cellular telephone camera, the pictures cannot compare to the reality. In the 15 minutes it took me to activate the internet in order to express and share my experience; the color faded, the sun set further, and it will soon be time to shut the ducks in their home for the evening. When I venture outside, I will look forward to the next moment of inevitable beauty.

When Worlds Collide

I’ve been thinking a lot about the human/wildlife interface this week, maybe because of how many up-close-and personal encounters I’ve had. Some interactions are beneficial to the creature, like the Monarch butterfly I hatched and released, while others are fatal or near-fatal to the creature, like the young robin that hit a window.

Our growing human population puts increasing pressure on wild communities. We can choose to embrace our nature as a part of nature, or we can put ourselves at odds with the reality that has been evolving for millions of years. Learning to acknowledge our species as a part of natural systems is a practical, moral, and aesthetic endeavor.

Philosophy aside, I’ll actually share the most harrowing encounter I had this week. On Tuesday evening, we were sitting on the patio, sharing a relaxing moment before returning to the farm to do some succession plantings of peas. Suddenly a loud (and unfortunately familiar) thud came from the conservatory window, followed by a progressive crash through the pines beneath. I raced to investigate. It was difficult to see through the resinous branches, but I could hear something scraping in the needle mulch near the base of one of the plants. It took me a moment to position myself so that I could see a young robin feebly trying to extricate their wing from under a branch. I wasn’t sure what to do, should I interfere or just let “nature take its course”? I decided that some assistance from me would just begin to repair the damage I had done by putting up this house in bird country. In response to my frantic and ongoing commentary, Joe retrieved a small box. I gently removed the robin from the entangling limbs and placed them in the box. The bird was looking worse than ever. They were laying down, panting, eyes half open. I realized this bird was probably going to die. Would it be crueler to let death come slowly and with much suffering, or should I quicken it along? Acknowledging the surprising resilience of nature, I decided to let the bird choose.

We placed the bird box up off of the ground in the branches of the pine to keep them out of reach of curious (and serial-bird-killing) cats. I tried to work in the farm, but the agony of the robin’s plight kept me returning to see if their condition had changed. After about an hour, an exciting development arose as the bird hobbled upright. It was clear that neither of their legs were broken, however the panting and otherwise near-death appearance of the robin gave me little hope. Another hour passed, and night was falling. I moved the box to a more secure shelf under an overhang and went to do the nightly chores. When I returned, the robin was in the same position. My innate curiosity (and impatience) prompted me to interfere. I hear a lot about how I shouldn’t interfere with nature, and as a student of biology, I know I should stay out of it as much as possible. However, we interfered with this bird when we put a bank of windows up between some attractive Elm trees.

With that reasoning now fully justified, I slowly put my hand into the box and picked up the bird. Almost immediately, the robin held tightly to one of my fingers. I pulled my hand closer and looked at them. They looked around in a seemingly healthy manner. Just as I was wishing I had my phone to capture this special moment between me and my newest wild bird friend, they left. In one graceful and sudden motion, the bird launched themselves out of my hand and flew steadily and purposefully to the copse of trees on the other side of the test garden. Just like that, the saga came to a joyous conclusion.

The Third Flock of the Cuckoo Maren

We have one chicken that is incredibly dedicated to her biological imperative. Multiple times a year she disappears into the barn and tries to create a secret nest. The first year she did it, she would pop back and forth from the chicken yard so that we weren’t too confident anything was going on. That is, until one day when we observed her demented behavior in the chicken yard: wings flared, pecking any chicken that got close. Upon closer inspection, there was a single chick being protected by her wings. Fast forward about five months. She disappears again, but this time we knew what to look for. After a brief search, we found her, placidly sitting on her nest. We checked her every morning and night until one day she was up and looking hungry, along with two fluffy chicks.

When she disappeared again in late June, we were resigned to letting her do what she needed to do. After a short search, we found where she had set up shop. We checked on her during morning and evening chores, but otherwise just let her do her thing. After catching her in the chicken yard frantically eating and drinking last week, we decided to put a small dish of food and water near her for the final days.

Here she is in her well-hidden nest. Isn’t it amazing how she even managed to fence it in?

The chicks started hatching on Wednesday, and by noon on Thursday there were seven.

When it started storming on Thursday night, we had to get all of our new fluffy friends into a more protected location. Using a towel, a helper, and the ever-useful prodding stick, we were able to move all nine of the hatched chicks and the hen into their new brooding pen. The final three eggs, two of which were peeping, I carried through the rain and set them up in the incubator. They were only too excited to join the world outside of the shell.

The handy dandy countertop incubator: ready to help hatch anything at a moment’s notice

The next morning, we brought the incubated chicks back to see if mama would accept them. We carefully placed them near the door of the pen. They were peeping wildly, and she immediately took notice. Agitated, she clucked over to them with the other chicks trailing her. The two new chicks got caught up in the fluffy whirlwind, which then returned to the warmth and safety of their mother’s wings. It seemed that integration had gone smoothly.

After this ordeal, I’m hoping she waits at least another year before she decides to hatch again.

Chicken Salad Tacos

This picture is of the first meal I made after moving back to the farm- or rather while in process of moving back to the farm. Following a contentious and drawn-out divorce, my mother was left with 40 acres, a house essentially split into 2 apartments, and no active farming enterprises. Joe and I had been expanding our farming hobby into a small business- selling to a few repeat customers and one wholesale account, but lived in town. We cast ourselves into the chaos, and moved out of the sleepy town of Roberts and back to the farm I grew up on to become full-time farmers.

This is not exactly the 5-star meal to celebrate the beginning of our new adventure, but it was simple and comforting, and the first meal of our new life.

I tossed together some leftover stewing chicken with a little bit of mayo and some dried herbs. This chicken salad went on top of fresh-picked overwintered spinach, and in turn was topped with the first radishes of the season, thinly sliced, and a dash of sriracha. In the absence of bread, flour tortillas made a perfectly acceptable substitution.

We ate this late lunch standing out in the yard, about halfway through the move. We had planted a few early season crops in the old garden weeks before, but the bulk of the planting and mulching was still ahead of us. That and the uncertainty of our markets and future was weighing heavy on us that day. Despite everything, lunch did what wholesome food always does, and made the moment a little better. Taking in nourishment can settle nerves, elevate moods, and feed more than just the body.

Standing there in the bright sun with sauce dripping into the green grass, we were once again recipients of the grace of good food.

Spring Rains

On a farm, it’s often difficult to find the perfect balance. After our snowy April, May waltzed in with an overabundance of heat and humidity. The natural cycle is a cool and moist spring followed by gradually warming weather. This way the onions, leafy greens, peas, and cole crops (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts) can get a strong start. After more than two weeks of 90 degree highs, irrigating crops that should never need irrigating that early, and trying to get everything planted in miserable conditions, we were getting fairly desperate.

After just barely getting the tomatoes in, we scraped ourselves out of the farm and ate a late dinner. This was the first day with a chance of rain. 50% chance of rain, to be exact. It sounds promising, unless you consider that there is also a 50% chance of no rain. However, better than our previous week of 0% chance of rain. I stayed awake, hoping for a reprieve. 8pm came and went, bed would have been nice around that time. 9pm and I found myself reading some depressing news to pass the time. The air was calm and sticky with nearly unbearable humidity. It was past 10 and I found myself journaling some angst-ridden farmer rant. At about that time I heard it begin.

When you need rain desperately, the sound is so delicate you almost hold your breath, hoping that it doesn’t taper off. As the minutes passed, the gentle patter of water became comfortingly constant. At that point I went outside to feel the soft drops of rain on my skin.

Moments like those are where you find peace as a farmer.