The Body Farm

This spring and summer I have been jokingly calling our farm “the Body Farm.” I am referring to the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility called “The Body Farm.”  It is a research facility for studying human decomposition.

Every year brings it’s share of dead bodies at Small Wonder Farm, but we are way over our quota for the year.  We have had dead baby birds, adult birds, snakes, chipmunks, squirrels, moles, a young raccoon and a few chickens.  Yes, sometimes it can be quite gross–especially depending on the state of decomposition, but you get used to it.  One of the gifts of the farm is the lesson of death and decomposition.

This picture of Frida, from today, shows the latest corpse.  Most of the deaths are from natural causes.  Most of the moles, however, (like the one pictured below) are dug for and captured by the dogs who then play with them until they expire and then leave them all around the yard.  Frida, in particular, considers a corpse a real treasure.  Earlier this summer she made it in the door with one.  Luckily I saw her scoot past me with it.  This one she laid at my feet on the porch.  Her contribution to the family stew-pot for the day?  I doubt it.  She does not want to share.  She wants to gloat.  When it became clear to her that we were going to strip her of her prize, she turned her back to Paco and made it quite clear she was not going to give in easily.  Poor kid.  Sometimes co-habitating with humans really stinks. 

A Woman and her Sickle

Back in September, we celebrated my 40th birthday at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA.  I attended a workshop there about bio-intensive growing with heavy use of cover crops.  The speaker, Cindy Connor, was a woman I’d guess to be about 15 years older than I.  She recommended a Japanese sickle for cutting down cover crops.  The vendor she recommended, Purple Mountain Organics, had a booth at the fair so I bought a sickle.  When I did, it felt a bit strange to be buying such a serious looking weapon and putting it in my purse–like I should need a permit or at least fill out a mental health questionnaire or something.

This spring, I have been using my sickle a lot to chop down the cover crops I broadcast seeded last fall.  The first time my husband came into the garden and saw me with it, he offered to do the work for me.  In his defense, he was being sweet and also knows I have a 40 year history of clumsiness and haste–2 traits probably not best for the task. However, I made it clear that the sickle was mine and I would be the one using it.

I was out cutting down cover crops so that raised beds could be placed on top of the beds and filled with great soil from another great lady grower’s compost business, Soilmaker, when I almost hacked one of my garden’s resident garter snakes.  I was startled and she was spared.  

My sickle has become a liberating symbol of  power.  I love chopping up cover crops and weeds with it.  I know many great lady farmers that have a serious amount of years on me and they are going and growing strong.  They are inspirational to me and I plan to follow in their footsteps.  I am feeling great recently due to some dietary changes and I know the best is yet to come.  I have every intention of going into the future wielding sickles and axes as well as vegetables and flowers.  I was recounting my sickle adventures to a friend recently and she said I sounded like She-Ra.  Exactly.  She-Ra moments are amazing!

Perhaps every woman should get a sickle for her 40th birthday

Find the Kitchen, Change the World

The most empowering thing that a person can do right now in our culture is not just the farming, but discovering your own kitchen…We are a culture that has never spent more money on kitchen remodeling and gadgetry and been more lost about where it is.  —Joel Salatin

I love this quote and I love the idea that the world can change by making dinner.  Not everyone will or could grow their own food, but we can all care about where our food comes from.  Living in a capitalist society, money has the final word.  We can stop buying processed, toxin grown, corporate food and heal the planet, our bodies, and our economy along the way.  Pretty powerful.

We had soup for dinner last night and I was so thankful my daughter was eating home grown potatoes, kale, carrots, celery, onions, and local beef.  A simple and good meal that left her and I both satisfied.  I knew her body was being truly nourished and that I was serving her a real bowl of goodness.

The Mother Earth News Fair

So, the fair quickly became too hectic and physically overwhelming to keep an ongoing blog journal. There was so much to see, hear, and do, and I wanted to absorb as much as I could. We are now on our way home, 3 hours to go and here are my first reflections:

First of all, it was so nice to spend 3 days in a place surrounded by pretty like-minded individuals. I spoke with a few fellow fairgoers and could overhear conversations about ducks, making nut milks, and the like. These are my people. The only other time I really feel that way is at the farmer’s market when I get to see my farmer friends. Farmers are absolutely the most brilliant people I know. They are also the most spiritually grounded and happiest. I am convinced that a connection to the land is what is missing in many lives. If you are farming or involved in the sustainable food movement and aren’t getting the big picture and embracing the joy of life, you aren’t paying attention.

There were roughly 130 different sessions covering everything from cover crops, getting started with chickens, solar energy, herbal medicine, to the grim state we are in environmentally, disaster preparedness, GMO’s, and inspirational thinkers. Sessions ran back to back from 10 AM-7 PM Saturday and 10 AM-5PM Sunday.  There were 14 stages (some indoors, other outdoors)–all holding sessions every hour.  The fair is massive.  Around 9,000 attendees were at the 2010 PA fair.  One estimate this year I heard was 15,000.

I studied the program for days at home, cross checking the speakers to make sure I was not passing a ho-hum sounding description and missing a great speaker. I decided I was going to pass up classes focused on the negative–like the very possible (and already happening) disasters and whether humans will endure humankind. I chose to focus on seeing visionaries and learning some new skill sets.

I knew this was possibly my only chance to hear speakers like Joan Dye Gussow, Frances Moore Lappe, Ed Begley Jr, and the great Joel Salatin. I am so glad I went to every one. They were all wonderful in different ways. Gussow, the mother of the local food movement, talked about how she created the first college courses looking at the issues decades and decades ago and said she had to teach them because no one else was. She also related her recent gardening struggles with poor soil and how the humble sweet potato saved her. That was a had to be there moment. In her discussion of the soil building sweet potato, she talked about glomalin (the stuff that helps hold soil together, just discovered in 1996) and that there are billions of residents in every teaspoon of soil. There are more microbes in one teaspoon of soil than there are people on the earth. This soil fact, one that I was aware of, became a recurring theme over my weekend. If an instructor wanted a essay from me about the conference, the connecting thread would that below our feet is the key to life itself. Not only does a teaspoon of soil hold billions of living organisms, but millions of different ones, miles of fungal hyphae, and more.  We know very little about them and how they work interdependently.  Soil is alive.  As we kill it by dumping toxins on it, we are threatening our own existence.

I was most surprised by France’s Moore Lappe. She wrote Diet For A Small Planet, which was published exactly 40 years ago. I have of course heard of it, but have never read it. I went to her talk on reputation alone. It was clear from all the conference materials, that she was a big, big, deal. I think her presentation was the one that probably made the longest lasting impression. Her message was a positive one and hard to sum up here. She certainly recognized the reality of where we are, but she asked us to re-frame our thinking in an ecological mindset instead of a scarcity mindset. We already have all we need and all the solutions we just need to think as an ecosystem-interconnected and throbbing with life.  Here is a review of her latest book that helps explain better than I can:

EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want is one of those repercussive works that thinks outside the box. The same old arguments about sustainability and food politics aren’t recycled here. Instead, Lappe looks at the conceptual frameworks that lead to the same old arguments, the same old walls and the same old reasons not to try. Lappe’s ‘thought traps’ explore the ingrained beliefs that prevent people from thinking in a way that would move food policy (among other environmental policies) forward. Her ‘thought leaps’ are the restorative, rejuvenating jolts forward that the environmental movement needs. ‘EcoMind’ refuses to submit itself to barriers, and changes the environmental game with its forward-thinking perspectives.

The message that the solutions are already here were supported by Ed Begley Jr and Joel Salatin as well. 40% of ready to consume food globally each year spoils-much of it due to the fact that we store and ship it too long and too far. A local food community can be more efficient and responsible. 35 million acres in the US are currently lawns and could be gardens and edible landscaping. The sun is already making all the power we will ever need. It is washing over us every day….

Joel Salatin is such a great speaker and his message so unapologetically bold and true that you know when you hear him that you would vote him president, follow him into battle, and pee your pants rather than give up your seat. In fact, it was clear that his arrival was eminent when the stage he was speaking at began to fill up halfway through the speaker before him. My mom and I got seats about 25 minutes before he was to come on. By the time he got going, the entire (very large) tent was entirely full with many people standing and the grass area surrounding the tent was 5 people deep. People carried chairs from 3 tents away. If the sustainable food movement has a rock star, he is it. The audience, my mother, and I were all on the edge of our seats for the full hour. All sessions were 45 minutes and Mother Earth News was great about keeping speakers on schedule so that the whole thing didn’t start to break down. Salatin was the one exception. He used the full 60 minutes and Mother Earth News did not shut him down. He was at his most entertaining talking about those billions of soil organisms. Another had to be there moment. He assured us that the battles going on underground are far more thrilling and dramatic that any Spielberg battle scene.

I left with the conference feeling better about the outlook for life on earth than I usually do.  I am more resolved than ever to carry on my work.  For our time and place, what we are doing with our land and our restaurant is breaking ground.  Our mission of producing safe, very high quality food for ourselves and our clientele is important not only as far as nutrition and taste, but also as an example of what is possible.  This year we quadrupled the amount of food being grown for La Scala at our own farm and people are taking notice.

Even more importantly, the volunteer work I am doing at my daughter’s charter school is essential.  Last year, I met weekly with the three kindergarten classes.  This year the program has expanded to 6 classes to cover the first graders, some second graders, and the kindergarten kids.  My most vivid memory of my kindergarten year was of watching some bean seeds germinate.  I love every one of those kids and am more resolved than ever to help them grow into caring citizens of planet earth.  I spent every moment of the conference looking and listening for items to share with my students.  I believe, to my core, that the lessons I am teaching them are among the most important they will receive as they grow.  Not because I am some amazing teacher (not at all), but because I think that the topic is of the utmost importance.  I have been waiting years to get my mitts on these kids!

So there you have it.  There is my first post of reflections on the fair.  The vision and energy that I eagerly absorbed.


I am in a life or death (theirs, not mine) competition with tomato horn-worms.  Found one on the peppers on Saturday and 3 more today.  1 on a pepper plant and 2 on tomatoes.  It was IMMENSELY satisfying to toss them to the chickens and watch them dismember him in a frenzy.  A big juicy caterpillar like that is a real prize to the hens.  The first one there grabs it and runs, and a gang chases her.   The caterpillar is all gone in a minute or so as they pick it apart.  If this does not sound like sweet revenge to you, you have never been to battle with these guys.

I know there are many more out there.  My rivals for tomatoes are well-equipped for battle.  Evolution has made them look so much like a curled tomato leaf that they are nearly impossible to spot.  The best way is to look for the damage (almost always defoliation) and then search in that area.  Frass, the fancy word for bug poop,  is another tell-tale sign.  These guys are such voracious eaters that they form a lot of frass.  They are eating, and therefore, pooping machines.

There is an organic control for them (and all caterpillars) called BT.  I may resort to that, but we will see.

The lesson I mulled over in the garden today was rivalry.  The horn-worms and I are rivals and the chickens and the horn-worms are rivals. Unfortunately, if  I let the chickens in the garden, they would be much bigger rivals for the garden crops–eating nearly everything.  However, it sure is nice to turn those disgustingly plump caterpillars into a nice lunch for a hen.  Gardens are a matter of life and death.  Who eats who is the name of the game.

Horn-worm frass (poop)

Life and Livelihood

I have been picking a lot of raspberries over the past month or so.  It is tedious, slow, hot, and thorny work.  It’s not my favorite garden chore, but not my least either.  I’m not quick about it.  I look under every leaf and branch, where they like to hide.  I wade into the hedge a bit to make sure I get them all.  Of course, I have to wear long pants, long sleeves, and gloves.  The majority of the berries go into our freezer and some to our restaurant for cocktails and desserts.  One particularly hot morning spent picking, I was pondering why I was there.  The obvious reason is the berries–fresh, chemical free, and nutrient dense. Raspberries such as these are worth a lot and having picked so many of them, I never begrudge local farmers the prices they charge.  It’s a bargain.  I could buy them locally.  Since I run a restaurant, I could also order them for a song through wholesalers.

I was trying to explain to one of my nephews this past week that picking them is not cost effective, but it is not about cost.  I don’t think I did a very good job, so I will attempt a clearer explanation here.  I can buy them much more cheaply, so why all the hard work?  We make our livelihood from running a restaurant.  My husband is the Chef and I am the farmer (and reluctant accountant).  We both wear many hats in our myriad roles of running the business, but my favorite “hat” is my gardening one.  I could have an employee out here picking berries, but I think that misses the point.  I want to be the link between food and customer.  If we looked at the restaurant as purely a business, hours spent per week picking raspberries are probably not maximizing profit.  However, that is not the goal.  Sure, we need to make a living and we try to run an efficient business.  More importantly, we try to run a business we are proud of.  We both feel strongly that customers are taking notice to the difference between restaurants that cook real food from whole (often local) ingredients which are few and the vast majority that are just assembling factory made pre-prepared food.

In the end, I would be growing these berries anyway. They are a small wonder and that is what it is all about for me.  Growing, harvesting, and preparing nutritious and non-toxic food for our family is my passion.  The work that goes into them is what makes them so special.  It is about creating a life, not just a livelihood.  We are so incredibly lucky.  A chef and a farmer that get to work together and pursue their passions while creating a real life.  For both of us, the journey matters the most.  If I was not out there sweating and picking I would not be witness to the small wonders around me–like this golden tree frog pondering his next move in the strawberry patch.  I hope some restaurant customers enjoy a raspberry chocolate mint mojito or a panna cotta with Small Wonder Farm berries and really appreciate the work behind it.  Even if they aren’t aware of the work that goes into it, we are.

The Cruelest Month

Lest you think our life here on the farm is idyllic…..

T. S. Eliot declared April the cruelest month.  I disagree wholeheartedly.  March is the cruelest.  March is the month that is just too much for me.

In March, it is no longer winter, but certainly not yet spring.  It is a depressing chasm in between the frozen and the living.  There are just enough true spring moments to excite and panic the gardener with the promise of what is coming and the knowledge of the immense amount of work to be done.  Small Wonder Farm becomes a soggy debris field.  The blanket of white retreats and the melt and the rain turn the farm to mush.  Sometimes, it is the kind of mud that wants to keep your boot, and at other times it is a crusted, frozen moonscape of churned earth and composting plant matter.  The charms of winter are gone–no more pristine white blankets, no more crisp cold starry nights where you can hear your boot crunch in the snow, and no more feeling of time to spare.  The best of winter is in the long weekend feel of it when I can dig in to all the projects I can never get to in the height of growing season, make slowly simmered stews and cuddle Lily under a quilt.  In March, we have no more hoar-frost encrusted trees or any green vistas to rest our eyes on. The barn becomes a mucky, smelly disaster to be avoided if at all possible.

There are other reasons I dread March.  Taxes.  The slowest restaurant month.  Cabin fever at an all time high.  55 one day, 22 the next. During the cold, cold of winter we become sloppy–leaving softener salt on the porch, the generator there too in case we will need it.  Everything melts and I feel like we live in a junkyard.

I especially hate this March.  My Pepita is getting ready to leave us.  She has been going downhill for weeks now and we are within days of calling an end to it now.  I should not say we, it is I who will make the decision, I who will call the vet, and I who will hold her for the last time.  In my experience, men do not have the stomach for such things.  I really wanted her to have a last snooze under a warm sun.  She loves to sleep that way on her back–belly up to the warming rays, but I know that is not going to happen.  So,  I am spending as much of my weekend as I can holding her, thanking her, massaging her spent body, feeding her steak and carrots,. and letting her sleep on my lap.  I feel the heavy weight of knowing she spent 10 of her years devoted to me in every way.  I don’t feel worthy of that right now.  One of the greatest small wonders of this farm and this family is a homely little mutt named pumpkin seed who devoted herself to us with uncommon ferocity.

A MUCH younger Paco and Pepita. Circa 2002