Today is some kind of special holiday. But for farmers, it’s hard to fathom what a “holiday” really is like. Here’s what our day looked like:

Let sheep out to “mow” lawns. Check chickens and collect eggs. Plant pepper seeds in flats in greenhouse. Say goodbye to guest in cottage. Strip bed, wash sheets. Check email. Play WWF while eating lunch. Finish newsletter. Water. Prune rest of apple trees, all of the Asian pear trees, start on roses (roses??!). Weed hoophouse, plant more lettuce mix. Put sheep back in pasture, feed hay to sheep and goats. Collect eggs, close chicken coop, put guard dog in pasture with sheep. Make farro and squash for dinner. Bag up more farro and flax for farmers market. Check email, play WWF again, type this. Happy Whatever Day This Is!

I woke up a worm today.

It’s Sunday, and I try not to work much on Sunday.  It’s not a religious statement – the newspaper is bigger on Sunday and so I take a longer morning with it.  Then we usually take off for somewhere – anywhere – to escape those far-off but incessant whispers all around the farm calling, “Hey there!  I need a new feed bin.  What about that faucet you were going to fix?  How about some hay over here! Can’t you put a better latch on that gate?  What’s with all this poop in the coop!”

Today I escaped to the hoophouse. It’s not Paris, or the beach, or even downtown Petaluma – all much better choices.  But it was where I could get to today.  (And it’s also where the snap peas are overgrowing the much too short trellis I made for them, but peas can’t whisper as loud as animals, so it was okay.)

A hoophouse is an unheated greenhouse.  Ours is pretty big.  There are metal “hoops” that are, oh, maybe 20 feet high with plastic stretched over them and the entire structure is 30 feet wide and 48 feet long.   It is a place I go in the middle of winter when I want a dose of summer.  A very humid summer.  With water dripping off a plastic sky.  (Okay, I really do have to pretend.)

ImageAnyway, I moved a flat of beet seedlings and there she was.  She was reddish and new looking – very moist and fresh.  She slowly unwound her body, then stretched and gave a little twitch of her backend (that’s how I knew she was a she).

She didn’t seem to mind being awakened.  But I did.  I know we’re supposed to love spring and the rebirth and awakening of our new selves, fresh and dewy with anticipation of adventures to come.  But it’s too soon for me.  I’m not ready.  I want to curl back up and go into someplace dark and warm and stay for a while longer.  I haven’t made enough cups of tea or learned to spin yet or finished clearing out my office files.  I want to take a fabulous candlelit bubble bath, like the women in those magazine ads, and this was the winter I was going to do it.

So I covered the little worm with the warm, moist soil and put the flat of seedlings back down.  And I slowly and quietly backed out of the hoophouse and closed the doors and walked back down to the house and started the bathwater.  A little while longer please.

This is a story that my family has heard many times, and my brother has encouraged me to write down.  So I did.  I also will attest here and now that I am not making a word of this up.  This really, really happened. 

The year was 1983.  I was living in upstate New York, completely against my will as a California native.  After a long, dragged-out divorce, my ex finally moved into his own apartment which I had to rent for him (so now you know at least one of the reasons for the divorce).  I was alone – at last – with my 3 ½ year old daughter, Jenn.

Our family tradition every year was to go out to a Christmas tree farm in the country, find the perfect tree, and haul it home.  It was a beautiful tradition, one that I was bound and determined to continue in my newly single state.

ImageTwo weeks before Christmas, it was a cold but clear morning as I bundled Jenn into her snowsuit.  Now, for you west-coasters, a snowsuit is de rigueur for the northeast.  It is a one-piece snow-proof thing inflated to bursting with insulation and hopefully a young child somewhere in its depths.  When donned and zipped up, the child’s cherubic face is all you can see as he or, in this case, she stands looking for all the world like a giant gingerbread cookie – legs apart, arms sticking straight out, unable to bend.  Add some boots and a scarf, and she is ready to go.

Go we did in my little Subaru sedan.  Over the hill, through the woods, to a Christmas tree farm not far from our house.  We were the only car there on this weekday morning, so the farmer gave us a tree saw and pointed across the field to where the trees were.  This also was a “low key” (read “cheap”) Christmas tree farm — no Santa’s helpers in cute hats, no sled to bring the tree back, no plastic netting to wrap it in and help put on top of your car. Nope. “The trees are over there,” and back in the house he went.

The field road was frozen, so the ride was slow and bumpy but the little Subaru made it.

As soon as we alighted from the car, Jenn announced she had to pee.  Jenn “announcing” things would shake the earth to its depths – “I HAVE TO GO POTTY!!!” she screamed, her words piercing the frozen air like icicles. 

Okay, among the many drawbacks to snowsuits is they are impossible to get off once on.  I unwrapped the scarf, pulled off the hood, unzipped the front, pulled down the suit, pulled down her pants, and proceeded to instruct my little girl in the fine art of peeing in the woods. 

Which she managed just fine.  All down the front of her snowsuit.  She was soaked, and it was just below freezing out.  So, back to the car we went.  I told her to wait in the car while I went to get our tree, put the saw on my shoulder, and headed down the hill to the trees.

I wasn’t alone.  Jenn’s screams had brought the farm dog around, who was jumping and barking alongside me as I looked for my tree.  (Forget the “perfect” tree – at this point, any tree remotely round and green would do.)  I could hear Jenn too.  She had rolled down the window in the car and was “announcing” that she was cold and wet and wanted to “go home NOW!”
I found an acceptable tree and started to saw it down.  This was not as easy as it had looked when my husband had done it in years past.  I sawed and sawed and sawed, finally realizing the farmer hadn’t sharpened the saw in years.

But, with a sharp kick, the tree came down.  I put the saw on my shoulder, grabbed the trunk of the tree, and started for the car.  I got about 5 feet and realized the tree was a whole lot heavier than it looked.  And bigger.  I couldn’t lift it, so had to drag it with two hands back up the hill to the car.

Sweating, struggling, swatting at the barking dog, serenaded by Jenn’s continuing wailing, I finally got back to the car.  There was Jenn, standing on the front seat, totally naked, with the window wide open, yelling at the top of her lungs.  I tried to put the tree on the roof of the Subaru, but it was too heavy to lift. So I stuffed it into the backseat.  It wouldn’t fit, of course, so I had to leave the back window open with the trunk of the tree between the front seats. 

I put my sweater on Jenn, started the car, put the heater on super high, threw the car into reverse, and ran over the farmer’s dog.  Actually, just its leg.  I jumped out, put the bleeding, yelping dog on the floor of the car next to the naked, screaming three-year-old, and gunned it back to the farmhouse.

Except the field had thawed.  I left the wailing dog/screaming kid-filled car in the mud and ran to the farmhouse to get help. 

The farmer was not surprised to hear I ran over his dog – “that dog is always getting underfoot” – but he was surprised to see the naked kid standing in the open window of the car.  “She always like that?” he asked politely.  While I tried to explain the snowsuit thing, he got behind the car and pushed it out of the mud.

Back at the farmhouse, we transferred the dog to his car to get it to the vet, I gave him money for the tree and my phone number for the vet bill, and Jenn and I headed home with our fresh-cut, farm-raised Christmas tree.

Back home, I gave Jenn a warm bath, put milk on for hot chocolate, took the fresh-baked cookies out of the jar, and went to get the tree out of the car. 

Except (and I know you KNEW this) I had put it in backwards.  You NEVER put a Christmas tree in trunk-first, silly, no matter how much easier it is that way.  I pulled, I pushed, I got the saw out and cut off lower limbs, I pulled some more, cut some more, and finally just pulled as hard as I could through the open side window it was sticking out of.  Limbs broke, needles went flying, bark shredded – by the time I got it out of the car, it was the ugliest tree I had ever seen.

I put it up, put the lights on, hung the ornaments, poured a very big brandy, and the following year went to a tree yard and had a good-looking guy put a perfect tree on top of my car for me.

Merry Christmas from our house to yours.

This may not be a popular post. I’m going to suggest that is just darn okay to add a few pounds to your waistline in winter. In fact, it’s a very natural thing — and has little to do with Aunt Jane’s pecan pie or Uncle Joe’s eggnog.

I am not a nutritionist, but I know that I unconsciously (and unfortunately!) want to add a layer of fat as the weather gets colder. Give me calories!

If you watch animals, many naturally gain weight in winter. For some, it’s because that is often when they are pregnant. For others, it’s part of the storing of fat to hibernate or survive long, snowy winters with little food. This was probably vital to survival for our ancestors too. Extra layers of adipose tissue on the body protect against the cold. It is then used as fuel in the late winter and early spring when food stocks would historically be very low due to the now melting frost.

At the same time, the lack of daylight caused by the shortening days during late fall and winter can bring on seasonal affect disorder (SAD)* or winter depression. A quick boost to energy levels and emotions comes from eating high carbohydrate foods like chips, cookies and cereals that give us a fast blood sugar ‘fix’.

But there’s an alternative!

If you’re paying attention to seasonal eating, you’ll notice how your body requests and responds to different foods in different temperatures: cool, crisp, juicy things in summer, and denser, meatier, sweeter things in winter. Sweet equals carbs equals calories. And endorphins. Which may be what allays seasonal affect disorder.

And what vegetables are loaded with “sweetness”? Kale, collards, chard and broccoli actually taste noticeably sweeter in winter than they do in spring and fall. Winter squash, as opposed to summer squash, is really sweet. Roasted beets, Brussels sprouts, potatoes and carrots all bring on the endorphins. If you’re interested in the biology, in warmer months, the energy absorbed by plants converts easily into fruit and seed production, giving us the juicy ripe food of summer. But shorter days and colder nights cause plants to stick with the basics of leaves and roots. Fortunately, when that energy concentrates in the leaves and roots in cold weather, it also converts starches to sugars, making winter vegetables sweet and tempting.

So, instead of reaching for the pastries or a pint of chocolate ice cream to chase the winter blues away, add more of the naturally sweet winter vegetables to your plate. Eating seasonally appropriate foods (and tolerating a slight weight gain in winter) might counter-balance cases of seasonal affect disorder.And don’t worry so much about the little weight gain. That’s natural too. And natural that you’ll lose it quickly when spring brings a renewed level of sunlight and activity. 

*Seasonal Affective Disorder, known as SAD, is a mood disorder affecting approximately 10 to 20 percent of the population in the United States. It is a type of depression that occurs during fall and winter as the exposure to sunlight is reduced. Sunlight not only assists in producing vitamin D in the body, a vitamin essential for calcium absorption, but it also assists in releasing endorphins, elevating mood, vitality and overall health.

I witnessed a pretty amazing thing this past week. We were vendors at the Heirloom Expo in Santa Rosa, sponsored by Baker Creek Seed (the “Seed Bank” in Petaluma). People from all over, from all walks of life, from all political, religious, and social persuasions, came together en masse to taste and talk about heirloom vegetables.

Alice Waters was there. Dr. Vandana Shiva was there. And so were hundreds of school kids, college sustainable agriculture students, moms pushing strollers, and old men who remembered (and wanted to share stories of) what a tomato used to taste like.

The message? Heirloom vegetables — those magic things that taste like their beautiful photos, that produce seed that you can save to plant the following year — are under attack. Monsanto, makers of RoundUp and other noxious pesticides, now owns almost 40% of all the vegetable seed in the US, and nearly 100% of all the corn, cotton and soybean seed in the world. In other words, they control our current food system.

The economic impact alone is staggering. Their genetically modified (therefore patentable) seed must be purchased by farmers year in and year out. And they just announced that they are raising the price of their corn seed 5 to 10%. No reason given.

If you care about the ability of farmers and backyard produce growers to plant a seed that is not genetically modified, that can be saved and planted again the following year without having to pay corporate royalties, that is a true representation of its parent in taste and flavor, and that can be sold to consumers as a pure, unadulterated food, then please learn what you can to help control this disaster. If a company can control a seed, they can control our food — it’s that simple.

Here is a list of seed companies that carry seed owned by Monsanto:
* Territorial Seeds
* Totally Tomato
* Vermont Bean Seed Co.
* Burpee
* Cook’s Garden
* Johnny’s Seeds
* Earl May Seed
* Gardens Alive
* Lindenberg Seeds
* Mountain Valley Seed
* Park Seed
* T&T Seeds
* Tomato Growers Supply
* Willhite Seed Co.
* Nichol’s
* Rupp
* Osborne
* Snow
* Stokes
* Jungs
* R.H. Shumway
* The Vermont Bean Seed Company
* Seeds for the World
* Seymour’s Selected Seeds
* Roots and Rhizomes
* McClure and Zimmerman Quality Bulb Brokers
* Spring Hill Nurseries
* Breck’s Bulbs
* Audubon Workshop
* Flower of the Month Club
* Wayside Gardens
* Park Bulbs
Park’s Countryside Garden

Farm Tales 
Deb WateringThis is the week of two momentous events: the summer solstice … and my birthday. (Thank you, thank you!) Yes, that’s me a few years ago, starting out my farming days with watering the concrete sidewalk at my Auntie Mabel’s house in Pasadena. I made mudpies too — that was my favorite. (Do kids even DO that anymore?)
Back to the other event. The solstice marks the winding down of the year, light-wise. I always find it a bit sad (if my birthday wasn’t the next day, I’d be sincerely depressed). Just as the weather heats up, the sky is big and bold, the flowers are a-bud, and the crops are growing like, well, weeds … we start turning down the sun. What’s with that?
Here’s what the HuffPost said about it last year:

Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year, the shortest night, and a tipping point: from here on out the days get shorter and the nights get longer. The solstice, sometimes called midsummer because by now farmers have long done their planting (Editor’s note: MOST farmers), is technically the first day of summer. It both ushers in the warmest season, and reminds that the season is short, slipping away day by day… Honoring the solstice can remind us just how precious each day and season is, because the truth of its passing away is also acknowledged. Gifts need to be appreciated, not taken for granted.

Okay, okay. But I am thinking about real estate in the southern hemisphere so I can have summer, and the summer solstice, twice a year. It’s only fair for someone who farms.

For years, young people have been leaving the farm. Today, the USDA estimates the average age of the American farmer is 57, with more than 25% over age 65. However, while the trend is too new to quantify, USA Today reports that there is an emerging movement in which young people, “most of whom come from cities and suburbs,” are taking up organic farming on small-acre farms throughout the country as an “honorable, important career choice.” Three factors have made these small organic farms possible: a rising consumer demand for organic and local produce, a huge increase in farmers markets nationwide, and the growing popularity of community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, says USA Today. The National Young Farmers’ Coalition is a new organization created by and for young and beginning farmers in the United States, and a soon to be released documentary, The Greenhorns, explores the lives of America’s young sustainable farming community. Also, an international volunteer organization, Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, since 1971 has been connecting young workers with organic farms all over the world, where they gain hands on experience in sustainable farming. The invested energy of youth is a promising bonus trend indeed for the future of sustainable food.


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