When Matthew and I were on our journey in college at the University of Virginia, we never imagined that we would be farmers. We were set to be college professors, enlightening young minds to the diversity of our human planet via the tools of anthropology. However, a few events occurred that changed our course.
First, was our fieldwork in the Upper Amazon of Brazil (2006-2007). We learned how to eat as whole as possible, by devouring fresh jungle fruits, Amazonian fish, and make beans and rice the proper way. We ate fresh cut, grassfed beef from the butcher around the corner, and hot fresh bread every morning from the bakery, right next to the butcher shop. We were raising our two young daughters by providing them the most nutritious foods we could, really felt good and right. We learned to stop in the middle of the day, and take long breaks and naps, vital for young families to do together.
Second, when we moved back to the states, the girls were 2 & 4 by this time, we read a book together, Omnivore's Dilemma, written by Michael Pollen. Pollen writes about Polyface Farm in Swope, VA and its owner Joel Salatin. Pollen writes, Salatin is a "libertarian farmer who runs Polyface Farms in Virginia, ...Calling his farm “beyond organic,” he has created a self-sustaining system with practically zero negative ecological consequences. Preaching a fiery anti-government stance and a strong skepticism of all industrial, large-scale farms—even organic ones—Salatin is dedicated to his animals, his farm, his methods, and his community, refusing to compromise on his principles". Salatin talks about the value of working with the natural world instead of against it. When we read that Salatin's farm was about 40 minutes from our kitchen, we loaded up the kids and went our for a visit. The girls were beyond tickled to be able to meander in the chicken house, or pet the pigs. We spoke with Joel on a number of occasions, and his sincerity, simplicity, and knowledge of the land, blew our minds. We left there with our first farm to table meal in the trunk.
Third, while Matthew was writing up his dissertation, we were offered a chance to move back to Northern California, where we met and fell in love and were married. We jumped at the chance to come home. We were offered a Quonset hut to fix up and squat in while Matthew finished up writing. Our girls were still small enough, 4 & 6, that a huge move like this wouldn't be too much of a struggle, so we packed up the mini-van and headed back west. We were offered a plot of land to garden AND boy did we ever. It was addictive, learning a whole new discipline, the discipline of plants, and food, and organic methods.
Fourth, with a PhD in hand, Matthew faced the daunting task of getting a job. We had been watching his cohort moving around the country from post-doc to post-doc positions, and frankly, I was dreading having to move our girls in and out of schools, homes, towns... plus, the soil! How could I ever leave the soil for the city? Since, I had a telecommuted job that provided insurance, we didn't have to jump at any job. The pull of the land was strong, so we decided to keep farming, keep taking mid-day naps together, keep reading about nature together, and keep thriving in a small rural community.
Which brings us to our current farm, and the struggles of farming life! We had saved enough money by Matthew picking up side editing/writing jobs, that we purchased our 30-acre property. We are not afraid of experimenting, in fact our hop yard is in-itself an experiment! We have used burnt heartwood of cedar to stretch our trellis, and have the hops grow as hedges, instead of high up on poles, how conventional hops farm grow. Sometimes our experiments work, and sometimes they don't. This year we tried a couple new things, thick mulching during the winter, and cutting back the first hop bines later than normal. Usually, we cut back until April, waiting for the stronger bines to come up, but this year we cut back on May 1st. We started to notice that our hops were not as vigorous, nor were they climbing like years previous. Then we noticed that some weren't coming up at all.... while investigating, we noticed that gophers had gone to town on our rhizomes, and the thick mulch provided the perfect camouflage for them. Its heartbreaking, but without taking chances in organic farming, you never find the right methods for your specific soil, climate, and crops. Makes me wish for the ease of city living, where my struggle was getting to the grocery store with toddlers. But then, I reflect on the joy of picking and tasting strawberries, or the perfect artichoke, or watching with joy as the girls, now 13 & 14.5, pull potatoes out of the soil. Maybe Salatin was right when he said there "ought to be [a] stewardship mandate, to create Edens wherever we go. That’s why humans are here. Our responsibility is to extend forgiveness into the landscape.” Today, I'm extending forgiveness to all farmers that take leaps to experiment and fail, because it truly is through our experimenting, our wins, and our failures, that we really learn.
The Hop Yard
We are trying an experimental way to growing hops, the side trellis design. We retrieved old heart wood pine trunks that had been burned out by a fire in 2005, from a friends property, and drove those into the ground at an incline. We planted our plants closer than traditional hop yards, due to the short trellising feature of creating hedges of hops. We will see how this works out. All of the studies that we have read, which aren't many, seem to tell a story of moderate success growing hops in this fashion. We will keep you posted here on how well this works.