Thanks to any and all of my faithful readers (mom) I've had during the past year. From now on, this blog will be a documentation of my experience at Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Vermont plus anything else I come up with. Enjoy!
What can I say. My summer was a great story. I dropped everything, drove 1000 miles east, traded a studio apartment for a one room cabin, a refrigerator for a cooler with ice, clean(ish) tap water for rainwater, plumbing for a hole in the ground, and temperature control for full-fledged environmental volatility. I can make the living situation at the farm sound vicious and character-defining but in the end, though it was certainly a challenge, it was nothing more than honest. We knew exactly where our water came from: the giant water tank behind the kitchen. (We knew exactly where the mosquitoes came from: the giant water tank behind the kitchen.) All bug bites aside, the true value of life on the farm came in the form of appreciation. Appreciation for the fruits of our labor, the power of the sun, the power of shade, lessons learned, the skills acquired, weather nuances, the farmers' patience. Although each day started and ended with sore muscles and exhaustion, they also came sprinkled with new experience and appreciation. There were days of monotony of course but if the weeding just wasn't doing it for you, the company would have plenty of stories to tell to keep things interesting.
Hugging the cabin goodbye
Six months can sound short or long depending on what you're doing. This year, six months felt shorter than a carrot. Shorter than a swim in the pond. It was cold, it was warm, it was hot, it was warm, it was cold, and in the meantime 30 different crops aged from infancy to old age and dea...compost. A lot can happen in that time and a lot can be achieved. The skills and knowledge I learned are innumerable. Pruning, seeding, transplanting, weeding, watering, hoeing, fixing, tinkering, canning, welding, harvesting, chainsawing, stick-shifting, pest-controlling, haying, concrete-mixing and pouring, cinder block stacking, mortaring, roof building, arboring, blueberrying. I'm not even using real verbs anymore. Those are just the things I can put a name to. How do you define an experience that had no real start or end? Everyday experiences, like knowing when the big blue clouds are actually going to rain or if they're just for show or watching and understanding a crop's life cycle. Those are lessons that are observed not taught, and are sometimes the most valuable.
Of course, I don't know everything about farming, that takes a little bit longer than six months. But I did get a sense for the work, the lifestyle, the sacrifice, and the reward. None of which is easy but all of which is satisfying. I can truthfully say, that farming is something I want to have in my life, not necessarily as a career but as a fact of life. I'm back home now but I'm not moving on just yet. I can always get back to the farm through a taste of one of the wonderful sweet potatoes or canned peaches that came with me all the way from Virginia (probably not considered local anymore). I can also try to play mandolin like the folks on the street at the Floyd Friday Night Jamboree or attempt to dance the flatfoot way. I have to say, though, it's pretty hard to make Kansas look like the Appalachian Mountains. Nevertheless, it's an experience that will stay with me and one day I'll bring it all back around.
Thanks to any and all of my faithful readers (mom) I've had during the past year. From now on, this blog will be a documentation of my experience at Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Vermont plus anything else I come up with. Enjoy!
Just two days before we left on October 28th, we were able to get the roof trusses on the cabin. It was a fast process, surprisingly, but we did have to tinker a bit to get everything square. We're not masons, thus the building was off, thus we had to employ some tricks. Nevertheless, we got it to work and here's what it looked like:
To see more photos from the entire process go here.
We’ve made it! It’s mid-October, that ambiguous time we always said we’d depart. We’re still here though and plan to stay another two weeks. The weather has been very good to us. In these areas, frost can hit as early as September. We’ve yet to get that low, though there have been some long-underwear inducing type days in the past few weeks. Despite the relative warmth (highs in the 60s/low 70s), fall is settling upon these sweeping hills leaving red, yellow, and orange in its tracks. It’s as if the world gets more beautiful when it’s dying. The leaves that grew bright green are now, in their last days, putting up their last stand of individuality, trying to be as sophisticated and beautiful as leafly possible. And then they fall like snow.
We’ve drained and rolled up the garden hoses, dismantled and removed the tomato fencing, and haven’t weeded a bed of anything for nearly a month. Now as the Stamen Winesaps and Granny Smiths are maturing into adulthood, we find ourselves surrounded by the farmers’ fall. It’s about mowing down the plants that once demanded picking every three days, cover-cropping the beds for winter, chopping down trees for firewood, and letting go, with some relief, of the living organisms that were so anticipated and rejoiced just months before. Winter isn’t just a colder version of the rest of the year. It’s a break, a time built into the revolutions of the Earth for death to wait for rebirth and for farmers to regain strength from the summer. We work and work for six months, bodies aching, hands callused, muscles tight, but, ultimately we know there is a giant gift waiting for us, or better yet, a cake (deserved after all those vegetables.)
As our train reaches the station, I, as an apprentice, both anticipate and loathe the day we leave. It will be the end of the hard things like doing dishes with icy water in the frigid nights and getting up at 7 AM every Saturday morning for work. But it will also mean leaving breezy, warm afternoons, local produce 50 feet from the kitchen, the gorgeous view from the shower, and the peace of mind from a lack of cell phone reception. I’m pretty sure this farm would be teeming with former apprentices were it not for the frozen, un-insulated living situation and cut-off of pay. I call this the (un-certified) organic way of skimming off unyielding apprentices. Much like the way frost kills off the summer crops.
For now we are getting everything we can in our last day here. We’re devoting more and more of our time to the cabin project which is progressing nicely as well as continuing distribution of the fall crops. We only have two more Jamborees before we leave! That means there is much flatfooting in the immediate future. And ice cream and blue grass. I’ll just say it now: Floyd, VA you have done me well.
Here's a look at two projects we have been involved in over the past several weeks, one quick and delicious and one lengthy and heavy. But which is which? I'll leave that for you to decide. Cider Making and Cabin Building, GO!
How to Make Apple Cider
How to Build a Cinder Block Cabin
Check back later for cabin building updates!
Overlook along the way
This was written over a week ago but I have not had time to type it up until now. Sorry about the delay but enjoy anyway!
A vacation can be many things. It can be a respite from a busy life, diversion from a boring life, actual life between the practical things, or just a product of curiosity. The short trip Josh and I took last week was some of those things to start with, like a time to rest and see a new city, but on the drive home I realized it was a time to think. Just clear my head and think. I realized that I hadn't really been thinking or at least didn't have the energy to. When trying to untangle the possibilities of my future, I'd only get so far because I didn't have time to let thoughts come and go. That's the beauty of long car rides and good music. When I think about the future now, I have a clear idea, a vision. This is weird to me. Usually I have a vision of the next step without much of an idea at all about the goal. It seems to be the other way around right now. The next step is fuzzy- should I do another apprenticeship? do a design/build internship? go to school (unlikely right now), stay here, go back to the midwest? Farming or gardening is in my future, though small scale and coupled with another job if possible. Perhaps design and natural building too but I'd like to know if I really enjoy and excel in those things. And then there's how to do all this. So many questions, such a long time to answer them.
But back to the trip. We started out early Thursday morning driving south. Around Galax, VA we made our way onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. This road which was built as part of the New Deal, winds along the Blue Ridge Mountains at 45 mph and with just 2 lanes and no commercial businesses. We took this road, stopping at a few overlooks (and meeting some hilarious old people, twice), all the way to Grandfather Mountain outside of Asheville, NC. There we walked across the "Mile High Swinging Bridge", then escaped the squealing teenagers and hiked the actual mountain. While we didn't go that far horizontally, it was nearly up hill the entire way. Toward the end we were climbing steep, wooden ladders placed on huge boulders. It was simply incredible to sit on the edge of a cliff and look out onto the lumpy mountains and squiggly rivers, and see far off where we started climbing. Naturally, as I often do, I became hungry at an inconvenient time (as in, at the top of a mountain) but we made it back in time to eat bread, cheese, and peanut butter. Always a glorious choice.
After that adventure, we made our way to Hot Springs, NC to visit and stay with a farm we talked to when deciding where to go in January. They were very hospitable and it was interesting to see their operation and compare and contrast with our farm. They use multiple hoop houses, keep pigs, goats, horses, and chickens, and sell through a CSA and Farmer's Markets. They have had problems with wild dogs and bobcats and once had goats escape and become feral in the forest. They invited us to visit another farm through a program they have in the area where interns visit a different farm each month. This one was just east of Asheville and was a much larger operation with 8 acres in production. The man was basically a mechanical genius and could make or fix anything they needed. If it didn't exist, he invented it. I'm beginning to realize that kind of person is essential and necessary on a farm, meaning, I'm going to need a lot more skills. At the end of the tour there was a potluck dinner (a farmer thing). It's good to see how things can be done differently and still be successful. Does this make me an agrotourist?
We spent two nights in Asheville, Couchsurfing with a mime and readjusting to city life. People everywhere? That I don't know or recognize? What's this? While there, we ate at good restaurants, went to the Black Mountain College museum, and hung out at a street festival. The festival had some great music and some great ice cream. I enjoyed both thoroughly. Asheville is an interesting city, very liberal, very dog-obsessed, very hippie/hipster/yuppie, very alive, very conscious, and very figured out. Can't say I'd want to live there, I guess because of that last adjective. It's almost too easy. Bust that's just a visitor's perspective. I just want to end up somewhere to which I can be of use. Asheville is a great place though up in the mountains.
Lastly, we took a day and night at Highlander Folk School outside of Knoxville, TN. This organization played a big role in integration and the Civil Rights Movement and has since continued to advocate for cultural exchange and understanding. We went for a small event called Homecoming complete with cider, hay rides, and square dancing. We ended up camping out in their orchard and waking up to fog in the distant mountains and a long drive ahead of us. We finally made it back around 3pm, just in time to get groceries and unpack for it was back to work the next day.
Doesn't sound like a calm thinking type of trip but the change was needed. It was completely worth it and highly recommended!
Things here have been pretty interesting lately. Although we must laboriously take in the morning fog, distant mountains, overloaded fruit trees, and starry night skies, we are finally able to look past all that lavish beauty and see the other strange things that are happening around the farm. So far we've seen mating Luna moths (as seen in previous post), a tomato hornworm with parasitic wasp eggs in its back (yes, this happens), a self-grafting tree, a wild Puffball mushroom, a snake skin hanging from our kitchen rafters, a praying mantis, a wasp attacking a cicada, exceptionally weird mud dauber wasps that collect spiders in their mud houses and parasitize them with their eggs, and a bee hive in the base of a tree. Here are just a few pictures. Hopefully I can take more. But not of the spiders. Terrible.
We've officially been here for 4 whole months and still have 3 to go. This week we've had the opportunity to truly measure the change in lifestyle that we've experienced over the past four months by becoming temporary commuters from a housesitting job. Just for fun I will measure this experience in increments of deliciousness (by my standards). So for example, something exploding in the house would be measured as "mystery organ meat." Ease of use of kitchen would be say, "blueberry pie". You get the idea.
Scary Lunch Lady
This house sitting job means living in a real, live house- running potable water, electricity with usable outlets, rooms connected to each other (barefoot capabilities!), laundry machines, a shower right off the bedroom, internet in the next room, and an actual bed! This is magical. (It became clear how long we'd been living in our little apprentice world when Josh and I lost each other within minutes of moving into this one story, mostly open floor plan abode.) And yet, this kind of life is what I've had for 23 years and 1 month prior to this experience. Appreciation is an important thing and I've been able to find plenty for both life on the farm and life at this house. For a week this is a great way to rejuvenate, stay dry from the sporadic rain, and get things back to normal. That gets an appreciation score of moose tracks ice cream in a sugar cone. If you've had it you know that means very high.
One unique thing about this temporary job is the morning routine. In addition to feeding ourselves, we have a coop full of chicks to feed, three hens, 1 rooster, 4 ducks, and 5 rabbits. We also fill up water on demand and collect eggs. There are two cats that like to eat, disappear, eat, and rub their faces on Josh (who's allergic). We've managed to keep everything alive and well so far and to keep our shins peck-free from the angry rooster. I've heard it said before that chickens just aren't smart and it only took 5 days to see that in action. The other night the chicks, who are usually in their coop by nightfall, decided they were all going to huddle right up against the coop door and not go inside for the life of them. We checked for anything that could have come in and given their erratic behavior some legitimacy, like a snake, but there was nothing. We ended up nudging them with our toes and stomping behind them to corral them toward the door. Somewhat annoying, mostly confusing. Using the appreciation scale of deliciousness, I give this a plain zucchini rating. Not bad, not great, but more "why?"
The animals are hilarious though and it's good to know how to take care of them. The ducks are skiddish and will quack louder the closer you get to them. They also travel in a small pack, often turning left and right and left again for no apparent reason. They haven't escaped yet but if they do it will be a good show trying to catch them and put them back in the pen. The rabbits are adorable and soft and fairly timid. The chicks have minds of their own as elaborated before and the chickens seem to have an nontraditional hierarchy with a strong matriarch and a rooster with a phony, tough-guy front. The hen can cluck him away on demand. I appreciate these nuances like I like a grilled cheese tomato soup combo.
Rated X: Mating Luna Moths
Despite all of this I still miss the little apprentice plot up on the hill with its sunsets, fog, occasional deer, the fire pit fun area, the glorious outdoor shower, and the chance to feel the fresh air at all times. I don't know how I'll ever reintegrate back into the world of walls and refrigeration. I guess it will take some cooler weather and some spoiled milk to convince me.
In other news, Josh and I are in charge of designing, planning, and building a new apprentice cabin! The old pop-up camper will be put up for sale and we're going to fill the space with a tiny cinder block rectangle big enough for a bed and a few shelves, possibly a sink, and a wood stove if we can pull it off. The cinder blocks are laying around in a heap next to the camper so we now need to figure out the cost of a cement footing and floor slab, mortar, interior and exterior coating, and anything else that comes up. Luckily, we're rich in materials like windows, doors, wood boards, and roofing. We'll be working on this for the rest of the time we're here in between normal farm tasks
PS We've had good watermelons from our garden!
An Amazing Sunset
There's no denying it. We're in the thick of summer. Everywhere there is evidence of a long lost spring and a true, very present summer. The days are long, the sky is a consistent pale blue, and a three-week drought has set itself down at our table. No longer do we worry about our laundry being re-moistened by a sudden or constant rain. Instead we worry that the plants, trapped in hard, cracking soil will bit the dust before we get a chance to water them. Already, we've had to start pumping water from the large pond into the irrigation pond just to keep it from drying up. Working outside also brings the challenges of dealing with the oppressive heat and although heat waves in the mountains are laughable to the Midwest, you can't deny the discomfort of weeding, hoeing, digging, or anything in 93 degree weather. Never have I appreciated a cool breeze like the ones we get here.
Summer is definitely here and the plants let us know. The fantastic and ephemeral Catalpa flower has bloomed and wilted and the sunflowers and dahlias have grown up to our chests and bloomed glorious flowers. Even the bugs let us know. Whereas before, my knowledge of insect seasons consisted of: lots of bugs in summer, not so many in winter, I now know that they come and go, sometimes within a month. Thank god the junebugs have finally subsided so we can cook in a little bit of peace. Of course, now there's the fleet of mosquitoes that buzz lightly near your ear and taking blood samples back to their labs for testing. Moths are in full swing, forcing me to admit to the advantages of spider webs. But it's the lightening bugs that really steal the show, briefly mirroring the overwhelming stars overhead with their unnamed constellations. All of these things are the ingredients for sumer but in the end it's the vegetables that write it out for us. After all, this is a farm.
The greens are out and I can't say I miss them. Carrots, beets, and chard are flourishing and the broccoli is reigning in an abundant crop. Lettuce continues as always and zucchinis and cucumbers are working up to a steady production. The real prize, the tomatoes, are getting very close with just a few cherry tomatoes so far. Small green peppers are making an appearance too. Oh and dear goodness, the fruit share continues to bless us with unbelievable deliciousness- blackberries, blueberries, peaches, and nectarines.
We've harvested so much garlic that my wrist is sore and there is more to come. Both barns are filled with hanging garlic that brushes over our heads and gives off the aroma of one massive stir fry.
Yes, it's summer, what the farmers anticipate in the slow winter months, fret over during the spring, and celebrate in the fall. And although we don't have the heat waves of the Northeast or the humidity of the South, we have a million other ways to know that we're in the season of sunshine and sunflowers. Never have I known these few months like I do now. Nor have I appreciated bug spray and a jump in the pond after a long day at work.
In life there are things that are hard and there are things that are free . And many times those go together. It seems like if you want quality in any form you either work for it yourself or you pay someone else to. If you needed a tree cut down, say, you could get a saw, some friends, and figure out how to keep it from falling on your house (maybe quality doesn't apply here). Or, you could write a check to your local arbor folk and say, "Hm, tree work is easy!" Well, this is the case most of the time. We can't do everything (though some on this farm certainly try). However, there are things we can work for that are cheap and completely worth the work. And, being on a farm full of fruit trees, jam making is one of them.
It was hard to believe the day when our boss told us our assignment was to pick cherries. Gladly. So after picking two baskets-full we headed inside his house for a jam canning demonstration. The pace with him is always on overdrive so within minutes we were washing the cherries and sending them through an antique pitter clamped to the table. Once that was done we were putting those 8 cups of cherries and a bit of calcium water into a large saucepan. Although the pot with the cherries was huge, it was dwarfed by the dinosaur pot next to it which was taking its sweet time coming to a boil. Once the cherries came to a boil we added a mixture of sugar and pectin bit by bit until it was completely dissolved and brought the whole thing back to a boil. By this time the T-Rex pot with the jars inside was boiling and we let them sit for a while. The lids were placed in a pan of recently boiling water with the burner off. Then we were ready for the real action. Six hands, three feet of counter top space, eight hot jars, and a lot of shuffling back and forth. While one person was pouring jam into the jars, another was wiping the edges and putting on the lids. The last person was taking the filled jars and putting them back in the hot water. Those boiled for 13 minutes and there we had it- eight jars of sour cherry jam. And a lot of dishes to wash- but hey, what are interns for?
Last night we decided to make some of our own. Just as frantic, though less organized (and sans pitter) we managed 4 half pint jars and 3 quarter-pint jars (there must be a conversion for that). And...a lot of dishes once again. We need our own interns. The jam is delicious though and quite stunningly red. Beautiful stuff that came from right down the hill.
Josh (I cut his hair)
So with a much effort but little cash we managed to make something that's maybe $4 a jar in the store. Not bad. Can't complain about another PB&J. Now we just need those peanut plants to start producing, then it's definitely Peanut Butter Jelly Time!
Here's a quick look at a series of events leading to a busted water bottle. It's funny really. Plus, the bottle was free so things could be worse.
I apprenticed on a farm in southwest Virginia from April-October 2010. This blog contains all the anecdotes and observations from that adventure.
See more of my photos here