7 August, 2016

I spent a day off up in Portland to see some good friends, Seth who worked with us at Persephone for many years, and Nicki who co-manages the Saturday Portland Farmers' Market at PSU.  We walked over to 1477 NE Alberta St. to check out the food cart called Desipdx, serving "Indian fare with local flair."  Deepak Saxena creates fabulous food art which is alive with flavor from this small but efficient kitchen.  Deepak is car-free (he rides his bicycle to and from the cart, various farmers' markets and other fine food purveyors).  Our food was served on real dishes (brightly colored green and orange for the Indian flag).  Biodegradable to-go containers are available.  While we were there a customer asked for a plastic bag to carry his food container away in, and Deepak politely explained that he did not have plastic bags.  I silently cheered him on.

By the time we arrived (almost 6 pm), many items on the menu had sold out, but there was still plenty to choose from.  Desipdx's menu has lots to offer folks of many different dietary styles and preferences.  There are many vegetarian dishes as well as vegan and gluten-free offerings.  We had a plate of chai chicken, a vegetable thali plate, a pickle plate, and an order of pakora waffles.  Everything was wonderful.  As a vegetable grower and home cook, I notice when chefs do vegetables well.  Each was given a chance to speak for itself and present its unique taste and texture, and each was very nicely flavored and seasoned.  Let's face it, some of the big players as far as seasoning and ingredients in Indian cooking just don't grow locally:  cardamom and coconut, for example.  But Deepak embraces local foods wholeheartedly, never hesitating to pickle celtuce, turnips, fennel, or coriander seeds, to roast beets for a vegetable medley, or to whip up a batch of kohlrabi raita (why did I never think of this?).  I took a photo of our dinner which truly did not do it justice.  Much better photographs are available on instagram @desipdx.  My favorite caption is, "When life gives you broccoli stems, throw them on the grill to soften and char a little and then make a chutney out of them."

We enjoyed our meal so much that we had to have a second thali vegetable plate, which we followed with a dessert called "carrot halwa."  Oh.  Goodness.  This is described as "carrots slow cooked with coconut milk for hours, lightly sweetened with coconut sugar, and flavored with cardamom.  What I tasted is everything that is wonderful about a carrot.  With just a little something more.  Really.  Nothing prevented the carrot from singing loud and proud.  Freedom of expression for carrots is a wonderful thing, and I was delighted to find it at this small food cart from which many vegetable and other culinary wonders emerge.  Please do give it a try.


27 March 2016

Strolling the farm at leisure is something I don't always remember to do, but there are always so many interesting and beautiful things transpiring, even if I don't look in any of the crop fields.Today I walked with a camera, taking pictures along the way.  This was my Dad's camera, and I have been using it since he died almost two years ago.  In using it I feel as if I can look at the farm through his eyes too, and share my daily life with him.  I am also looking through my mother's eyes, since she has been such a strong support and a close friend. 
I like the idea that I can share these photos with all of you who eat and enjoy our produce and support our farm.  Thanks everyone!

The farm is a balance between wildness and cultivation.  The crops benefit from the wild communities of life which border the fields (forest, riparian area, creek).

We grow a few fruit trees in a home orchard,  which don't get much attention from us.  We tend to favor the annuals with our time and energy, but we sure love eating any fruit that comes our way.  There are also lots of wild, flowering cherry trees to brighten our world.

We grow native flowering plants in hedgerows adjacent to crop fields, to attract, feed, and shelter pollinators, beneficial predator and parasite insects, and birds.  Other wildlife which favor undisturbed ground also use these corridors to travel between the butte and the river.

Willows growing along the creek bloom earlier than many plants, providing a prized early season source of nectar and pollen for beneficial insects.  Many big leaf and vine maples are blooming on the farm too.

In their fifth week of life, the "peepsters" are almost big enough and ready to go outside into a training yard.  Until they can go out among the lush grasses and clover, we give them greens like kale, which they are snapping up with much enthusiasm.

The balance between human and natural activity shows itself once more at the shop.  When we constructed this building, which serves as a storage area, carpentry and machine shop, and community kitchen, this pear tree was right in the way.  It yields some of the tastiest pears we've ever had, so it stayed.  We drive around it happily in anticipation of its lovely fruit, and in appreciation for its beautiful blossoms.

Pear blossoms at the shop.

17 March, 2016

Today Jeana and David, the owners of Hot Lips Pizza in Portland, came to visit Persephone Farm.  It was a treat to have these fine food friends come and share an afternoon with us.  A treat in more ways than one:  Jeana and David brought pizza, which our crew devoured on their afternoon break.  Yum!  One of the pies featured a squash base made from winter squash grown here, and one featured kale grown here as a topping.  

As we walked the fields, we soaked up some brilliant spring sunshine and grazed on delicacies such as kale rapini, mustard flowers, and young fennel leaves.  We talked about how Jeana and David purchased Hot Lips Pizza in the early '90s, and the challenges they faced entering this business.  How could they maintain the quality of the fine food the chain was known for, yet distinguish themselves in an increasingly-competitive field, while making Hot Lips a truly great place to work?
They decided that local, seasonal produce was one way, and to date they are the restaurant we know of that makes the most impressive effort to procure as many ingredients as possible from as close as possible.  This requires quite a juggling act, with many producers, and a lot of creativity on the menu.
They also learned about a philosophy called The Natural Step (http://www.thenaturalstep.org/), which helped them ask (and answer) questions about how to build a more sustainable business, such as:  How much energy does it take to make a pizza?  How many miles do these ingredients travel to our kitchen?  How healthy is our work environment?

Jeana and David hadn't planned on coordinating outfits, but as it turned out, they wore matching sweatshirts!

Jeana and David hadn't planned on coordinating outfits, but as it turned out, they wore matching sweatshirts!

It means a lot to us at Persephone to work with a restaurant that is concerned with these questions.  Hot Lips is not just a business for business' sake, but a creative endeavor where thoughtfulness, generosity and kindness abound.
Jeana and David also got to meet our crew which harvests and prepares their orders.  We talked about the upcoming challenges of increasing labor costs (new paid sick leave legislation and minimum wage hikes, and for Hot Lips, the Affordable Care Act).  All of us want to compensate our employees well and make it possible for them to take good care of their families.  All of us know we must balance these increased costs with greater efficiencies and some price hikes.  Creativity will continue to be at a premium.  With businesses like Hot Lips Pizza around, there will be no shortage of inspiration.

21 June 2015

Last night friends gathered here at the farm for another Summer Solstice Celebration.
We started with food, of course.
Home-grown carrots, broccoli, fennel, kohlrabi, and celtuce with dips ... favamole, sour cream and onion/dill, red and green salsas ...all containing our own vegetables and herbs.  Also lemonade with the last of our June-bearing strawberries.  Friends brought various slaws, salads, pastas, and crisps.  I made curried chicken pilaf from one of our stewing hens, cilantro root, and rice.  Steve's famous cheesecake made a late appearance, as did several home-brewed festive beverages.
Some games like kadima, takraw and frisbee erupted amongst anyone not-too-stuffed for such things, then a group of us hiked up the butte to a meadow studded with delicate wildflowers.  In the meadow some folks sang, some told stories or watched interesting cloud formations.
Then back down the hill for more food!  Conversation quieted as darkness fell and we watched the crescent moon, Jupiter, and Venus assert themselves from behind a cloudy mist.  Gradually we returned to our respective beds, whether in house or tent, to wrest as much sleep as possible from the shortest night.
This morning I began my Fathers' Day observance by remembering a man whose physical presence has been gone for almost a year.  On this day last year I called him on the telephone.  Cables and satellites are no longer needed to communicate with Dad.  Over breakfast I re-read condolence letters from students, colleagues, and friends of Dad's.  While feasting on Solstice leftovers I feasted on the things people value about my father.
This season's bounty and light, the kindness of friends, everything that tastes, sounds, and looks wonderful, these are all part of the same love that made my father (and me), and which still abounds in his absence.  What a privilege it is to be a part of this cycle.

SLAW 22 April 2015

Today we are harvesting the last of the overwintered kale, cabbage, and mustard rapini from one of our fields before turning over the crop residue to prepare the ground for a new year.
We could squeeze another week or two of market harvest from this field (though the plants are flowering in earnest and soon there will be no tender rapini buds left), but we need the ground for planting, and the best time for the transition, weather-wise, is now.  Ariana asked me today if I would be sad to see this field of brassicas go.  It's a good question.


In truth I often have mixed feelings about disturbing a field with a disc, disrupting the specific environment of plant, insect, and other beings which have assembled above ground and below.  Bacteria, fungus, earthworms and beetles carefully build the soil as beneficial insects and pollinators explore and work the flowers in the plant canopy.  Who says I (with my tractor and implement for shredding the plants and turning their residue underground) know better?
But the leeks, onions, and shallots which we plant here, and the communities which gather around them, will be just as important to the flow of life passing through this farm to your kitchen, as the kale flowers are now.  A farm is no more a static event than life is.
So with gratitude to this field and its inhabitants for their beauty and abundant sustenance, I welcome the new season.

Monday, 16 February, 2015

Perhaps you've wondered why I haven't written a new SLAW entry since July fourth of last year. 
The long, busy days of summer, the whirlwind of a vegetable-driven existence, are certainly one reason every farmer has trouble keeping in touch for a part of each year.
Another reason is more personal.  On the morning of July fourth, 2014, my father collapsed from a cranial hemorrhage.  He remained unconscious in the hospital until he died on July 16th.
I have puzzled over how much to say about this in a journal of farm life, but I see now that I cannot write about anything else until I say a bit about my father.
Neither of my parents, who were born and lived in Brooklyn, New York (Mom still does.), were farmers.  But somehow I am able to do what I do because of them.  In the past six months, I have been learning a lot about everything my father taught me.  When I am in the field harvesting the best food I can find, moving as efficiently as I can, enthused by the bright green grass, cool blue kale, and melodious bird and frog songs, while simultaneously pondering hiring decisions, production issues, supplies or repairs needed, recipes and marketing ideas, and personal dynamics on the farm, I stop and think, "That's my Dad."

Dad drives the electric tractor.

He knew how to work diligently and creatively, and how to love it, and he passed that love along to me.
Recently I have been thinking a lot about how much of my job here is to be a teacher.  In my more cynical moments I have been known to complain that many of the people who come to work here arrive unskilled, and have a difficult time learning. 
When I take personal responsibility, I realize that I can't do much about the fact that the skills involved in farming are no longer commonly held or taught.  The quality of physical and manual dexterity, alert and active observation, discipline and self-motivation, creative problem-solving-in-action, patience and perseverance found in every day farm life may not be present in a more specialized position further removed from the natural world.  Instant electronic communications have rendered certain kinds of planning and organization nearly obsolete. 
So I don't have much control over the shortage of trained professionals wanting to work on farms.  But I can affect what people learn once they come here.  After I stopped blaming others and expecting someone else to clean up the mess, I realized that it is time for me to improve my teaching.  Both of my parents were teachers; very good ones.  Why should I not make an effort commensurate with their legacy?
After my father's passing many of his students and friends sent beautiful letters of condolence, and I was fortunate to read a lot about what he meant to all of them.  In describing what he valued about Dad's teaching, one student wrote, "He met me where I was at."*  When I think about it, all of the best teachers in my life have generously and lovingly done the same for me.  Why should I hesitate to participate in the flow of this abundance?  Isn't this what life really is? 
As I begin another growing season I will continue exploring the ways in which I can treasure my inheritance.



* A tip o' the pen to Kale Good (Yes!  That IS his real name!) for this quote from an inspiring letter.

Friday, 4 July, 2014

HAIKU for YOU:

 

We Feed Each Other

in Celebration of Our

Interdependence

                                                                                                                                                     4 July 2014

 

Sunday, 22 June, 2014


    Yesterday friends and neighbors joined us on the farm to celebrate the summer solstice.  Fellow farmers, market customers, shopkeepers, professors, poets, guitarists, cyclists, students, parents, and children gathered to share a seasonal supper and enjoy the longest day.  A group of us hiked up the butte adjacent to the farm, pausing at times to admire the large trees and small scrub, to listen to bird calls, to gape at the most delicate orange lilies, and to inhale the scent of warm firs and cedars.
We stopped in a meadow filled with tall grass, oxeye daisies, and self-heal to enjoy the evening light filtering in through the trees.  Some people made and wore crowns of daisy chains.   One by one each person attempted to make a whistle from their thumbs and a blade of grass, and the meadow was soon filled with honks and shrieks (and the occasional hand fart from those of us who failed to create a whistle) of amazing and amusing variety.  A wild frisbee game involving eight people scattered across a hundred square feet erupted.  Mostly people sat and savored the evening in this beautiful place, either in conversation or in contemplative silence.
By the time we had hiked down and arrived back at the farm it was almost full dark.  Some folks hit the road and others set up camp for the night, singing and telling stories into the wee hours.  In the morning as I walked to various fields to check irrigation, I tiptoed by several sleepy encampments and smiled to think of our good fortune to know so many fine people who were able to join us and share our place and this evening of
LIGHT.


Thursday, 19 June, 2014


     Here at Persephone we are continually searching for hardy crops we can plant in the late summer and early fall (when our heavy clay soil is not too wet) which will survive and feed us and you over the winter and the following spring.  Several years ago our friend John from Gathering Together Farm suggested we try growing fava beans.  "You can plant them in the fall and get a crop you can bring to market in early June," he said.  And he's right; that's just what happened in 2012 and '13.  Then came the cold snap of December, 2013, with its single-digit temperatures, which killed the small fava plants we had seeded two months before.  What to do?  We had grown to love these beans, both as an early- summer taste treat and for the income they helped bring from June markets.  I asked fellow farmers if anyone had ever seeded favas in the propagation greenhouse in the winter, then transplanted them outdoors in the new year.  Several growers said they had, and were eager to share tips (one of the many wonderful things about the Oregon farming community).  I hesitated for a while longer, pondering what might be the perfect seeding date and variety, whether to seed in the greenhouse or directly into the soil....until our friend Casey from Oakhill Organics sent me a note which concluded with the words, "Go for it!"  Which was just the encouragement I needed to seed the large beans and transplant them some weeks later.  Mid-winter soil conditions defied machinery but we found a spot to plug the beans in by hand.
I watched the plants anxiously over the winter for signs of growth and development.  Could this really work?  Would I need to fertilize?  Would we ever see beans?  Slowly but surely the plants grew tall, then flowered.  One day on my weekly monitoring walk I noted with dismay that the oldest flowers were dying.  But wait!  There were tiny bean pods (and hope) in their place!
This morning we harvested the first favas of the year.  They arrive a few weeks later than usual, but they are such a bright and vibrant green that they nearly scream with good health.  The beans are still young and tender and the inner skins do not need to be removed.  I ate them fresh from the pods in the field and gave thanks for all the farmers who introduced us to favas, and helped us get a crop this year after all.  Then I thanked the bean vines which had been growing steadily through the winter, oblivious to my doubts. I imagine them saying,  "Who has time for that?!"
I don't know about you, but when I taste these bright green fruits of the earth I feel
ALIVE.   


Rob's Fabulous Favamole

3 1/2 lbs. Whole Favas
Shell and boil beans in salted water for 20 minutes
Blend or mash with:
1 1/2 Tablespoons lemon juice (or more, to taste)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cloves garlic or one garlic whistle, minced

Serve as a dip or spread.  Makes almost three cups.

Variations:  Try adding chopped cilantro, dill, or spinach!

Yum.

Friday, 6 June, 2014


    The first greens harvest day of a new season.  After checking in with the lettuce master (Madeline) and spinach masters (Karla and David) about today's plan, I began to cut and bundle cilantro.
I started with cilantro because the first planting germinated poorly and emerged in a spotty manner.  The plants that did emerge grew fine, but there wasn't as much available as usual.  A conservative harvest was needed:  careful selection of the largest plants so as to leave the slightly smaller ones behind for next week.  In a spotty harvest situation I am an excellent scrounger, and I am also good at saving things for later.  It is important to have a reasonably steady supply from week to week at market, and to avoid harvest gaps.
As my knife cut the first handful of cilantro and the unmistakable aroma of fresh green greeted my nose, I realized there was another reason I chose to start with cilantro:  it used to be one of Simon and Amado's specialties.
Simon and Amado came to work with us in September of 2006, after the nearby farm where they had been working could no longer employ them due to seasonal layoffs.  They proved themselves immediately by working very hard and thoughtfully, bringing a love of the land and farming with them from their home state of Oaxaca in Mexico.  They liked the work here well enough to return the following spring, and we soon found ourselves growing more over-wintered produce in part to provide winter work for them.  Over time we trained them in more specialized tasks and gave them additional supervisory responsibilities.  Amado did much of the primary and secondary tillage and ground prep as well as a lot of the mechanical cultivation.  Simon ran the transplanting crew and weeding crews. Both had many other specialties and talents, like pulling the best cilantro out of the field for markets and restaurants no matter what the harvest conditions.
Last season Simon and Amado let us know that they would need to return to their home and family farm in Oaxaca in December.  Ever considerate, they gave us five months notice.  We knew we were in for a big change, but perhaps we did not feel that change so dramatically until planting season, when we were without our two most-experienced tractor drivers and a transplanting crew lead.  Our remaining senior crew members have not hesitated to learn new tasks and have accepted new responsibilities with enthusiasm, and our newest crew members have been eager to learn everything we can throw their way (which is a lot), so all of that is going well.  Jeff and I have had to leave our office chairs and get into the fields and on to equipment much more than we have in recent years.  At first we fought these new demands on our time, which was not the most practical approach.  Since we've given in and accepted our new tasks life has been a lot more fun (duh!).  It's not a bad thing to reacquaint ourselves with the more basic systems and processes of the farm, and see more of the things we need to do better.  It's not a bad thing to leave the office chair and burst into the summer sunshine.  We have had to delay some of our most specialized tasks, some indefinitely, as we tend to more pressing matters, but that's okay for now.
I thought about all of these things as I cut this season's first cilantro.  I heard from Simon and Amado recently, and they and their families are healthy and doing well at home.  I think they would be proud of the way our farm team is working together this season.  I'm not sure if they would approve of the cilantro bundles I've been cutting for you this month, but I hope that in my work I do them
HONOR.


Sunday, 1 June, 2014

   A friend recently asked me how I live with uncertainty.  "I'm a farmer," I replied.

Perhaps this time of year feels more uncertain than others.  We've spent the winter designing and refining the crop plans and planting calendar so that we can now toss them in the air, as weather and soil conditions tell us what we will do instead.  Any winter repairs or unresolved questions lingering at this point can become nagging doubts which hold us back from jumping whole-heartedly into the new growing season.  Even after 28 years of raising vegetable crops to fruition, those crops' needs continue to elude us, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the propagation greenhouse where we raise starts to transplant, and in the fields where the early transplants and direct-seeded crops persist in establishing themselves despite early weeds, insect pests, and wildly variable weather.
     Shouldn't we know more than this by now?
There is a world of life here on the farm that knows more than we ever will.  The osprey return from their winter travels on April 13 nearly every year (this year they came a day early, on the 12th.).  The Swainson's thrush arrives sometime in the second half of May each year to sing that summer will, finally, arrive.  As new crops squeeze up through cold, wet soil, rows and rows of garlic planted last October stand tall, thriving and confident.
These plants have no unanswered questions.  They have everything they need to know.  The soil and microorganisms which feed these plants don't worry about what will happen next; they just grow.
There is so much to celebrate about this time of year.  How great is it that we can have a sandwich with grilled onions (kept in storage from last year's crop) on the same day we are cultivating this year's new onions?  What is not to love about pizza for dinner with cilantro pesto as base and roasted parsnips, dried cherry tomatoes, and corn (last year's, from the freezer) toppings?  How can we fail to admire the chard stalks which survived a hard winter and are now blooming right across the way from the new chard we've just begun harvesting?
When walking the fields at this uncertain time of year I am (again, still, and always) impressed by the determination, the fortitude, the elegance of these plants, and the unknowable complexity that supports them.  I get the feeling they really love what they do.  Which might be all the proof we need that we are also here to
ENJOY.