Beginnings...part one

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Welcome to bricolage: your guide to learning how to improvise, use what you’ve got, and make do. We’re so excited to share our successes and aha! moments (along with the many failures and stumbling blocks) that helped us become creative, confident cooks. We’ve all had a journey to get here: some of us went to culinary school, becoming restaurant chefs or caterers, while others amongst us became organic farmers. We’re not all professionals, either: we’re home cooks, mothers, gardeners, and - above all - foodies. Regardless of our day jobs, we’re all cooking enthusiasts, excited about transforming ingredients into beautiful meals. In the end, it’s all about living (and eating) well.

We tried to go back to the beginning - where did this idea of bricolage really start? - and we found ourselves telling the story of how we found each other. After all, cooking is more than just making cold food hot: it’s about sharing stories, experiences, and a meal together. It wasn’t until we all came together that we really became inspired to do more with the ingredients than we had in the past.

And so, we’ll begin at the beginning: with Sarahlee on the river, reading a quote that would change her path in life and lead her to start a farm.


As the sun dropped suddenly behind a steep red rock cliff of the Colorado River canyon, Sarahlee pulled her straw hat and sunglasses from her head and stowed them in her sidebox. This was her favorite time of day on the river, when the blaring sun hushed and she could really see the intricacies of the canyon. Tamarisk and willow had a way of exhaling and filling the bleak aridity with its soft aroma. She shipped her oars under her knees and savored this quiet moment. The headwind had suddenly stopped, and she tapped into the subtle meander of the current.

She was somewhere upstream of Moab, collecting bug samples for an environmental non-profit with the mission of advancing the restoration of riparian lands. Cruising down the upper Colorado watershed and stopping every mile to collect samples was an enjoyable solitude and  break from her usual river work as a guide in the Grand Canyon.

Although being alone didn’t make her feel lonely, the sadness crept back in the stillness of this particular evening. Underlying her love of the river were familiar pangs of missing her family’s farm in Oregon. She was raised an only child on a high desert farm with hot summers, frigid winters, wildfires, and fast horses. Growing up on a farm taught her work ethic, how to be alone with herself, problem solving, and strength, both mental and physical, but she didn’t plan on using any of these skills as a farmer. In fact, she left the farm as soon as she could and set off around the globe. For several years, she ran rivers all over Africa, as well as North, Central and South America. While she longed for a life that included time in one place for a home, community, and maybe a garden, she also needed time for recreation and running free. Like so many of us, she was looking for a way to lead a bunch of parallel lives, wrestle them together, tie them up, and call them a successful whole.

The homesickness had sent her home to work with her father the winter prior, when they built a modest log home together. When spring rolled around and the rivers started to flow, Sarahlee couldn’t stay still, going back to what she knew. And yet, she found herself thinking of home more and more each day, wrestling with what it would really look like to move back there. What would she do? She had never considered farming, and she had little desire to raise hay and cattle. Working in town wasn’t a viable option because it was the land that had her heart. What she wanted was to spend time on that particular piece of ground and somehow make a life of it...but, how?

As the evening glow waned, she looked for a ledge where she could set up her tiny camp. She just needed enough space to set up a chair and play a couple songs on the guitar. With a clear mind, she’d dive back into a reading packet she planned to teach next semester to a bunch of environmental science students. She spied a promising spot downstream and loosened her bowline, easing gently into a micro-eddy. Quickly shipping her oars and leaping from the bow with the rope, she braced herself for the weight of the raft and then tied it off on a boulder. Settling in, she mixed a bit of hummus and tuna over spinach and sat down with her packet. She had read about mining and grazing on public lands, water law and riparian habitat, but tonight she opened up the packet to a piece by Michael Pollan from his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

The essay set off alarms in Sarahlee like a fire. It may seem silly that – even with a master’s in environmental science – she had never heard of food crisis and its environmental gravity. She read Pollan’s words without knowing that the food she ate was her biggest carbon footprint, or the difference between organic and conventional agriculture. She just ate simple, cheap food and thought very little of it until she came across this passage.

 

“Imagine if we had a food system that actually produced wholesome food. Imagine if it produced that food in a way that restored the land. Imagine if we could eat every meal knowing these few simple things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what it really cost. If that was the reality, then every meal would have the potential to be a perfect meal. We would not need to go hunting for our connection to our food and the web of life that produces it. We would no longer need any reminding that we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and that what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world. I don’t want to have to forage every meal. Most people don’t want to learn to garden or hunt. But we can change the way we make and get our food so that it becomes food again—something that feeds our bodies and our souls. Imagine it: Every meal would connect us to the joy of living and the wonder of nature. Every meal would be like saying grace.”

Michael Pollan

 

There it was: Elemental. Connected. Conscious. As she devoured this single essay, it rang true in a way that elicited her total buy-in. Her confusion about life and purpose stripped away, revealing how much she craved this kind of extreme intimacy with her meals; the what, the where, the how. Farming seemed to be the closest thing to the pulse, and boy did the world need farmers. Good, organic, diverse stewards. As luck would have it, she even had the opportunity: access to a farm with a father that wanted out of farming! She could provide her neighbors with better access to good, clean, locally-grown food, making a tangible difference in climate change by limiting the distance her product traveled to reach its eaters – only 30 miles instead of the 1,500 mile average that you’ll find at the grocery store. The environmentalist in her was buzzing.

Sarahlee leapt off the ledge onto the tube of her raft and rifled through her side box for some paper. She started a letter to her parents, transcribing her awakening. She was ready to take over the farm and planned to certify the land organic immediately to grow food – because organic was the only way to go, and if it was more difficult, she should start there and she’d never know the difference.. The essay had described a program called “community supported agriculture” (CSA), where people paid ahead for a share of the season’s produce, so she could deliver the food weekly to families in her nearby town. She wouldn’t even need much land; an acre or two could produce enough to feed several families. Since the whole thing was still seasonal, she could spend a solid chunk of time at the farm, making a modest living honing in her stewardship and growing skills while still getting to travel in the winter. She could finally take root in a way that she’d been desperately wanting for almost a decade.

The late evening wind threatened to snatch at her papers, so she stowed everything back in the raft and made her bed on the cooler. The current slipped by and rocked the boat as she lay on her back looking up at the small window of sky shaped by the dark vertical canyon cliffs. “I am a farmer,” she said out loud to herself. It sounded so good.

In the coming days, Sarahlee continued her float toward Moab on the thick brown waters of the Colorado River. As she gathered her entomological data, her mind was far away on the farm, jotting notes to her parents on scraps of paper as she went. She made plans about crops and soils and irrigation; sales, marketing, and distribution; lists of what she thought she might need to get started and a timeline. She used every piece of paper in the raft. By the time she arrived at the bridge in Moab, she was ready. Tying off the boat, she grabbed her bulky letter and hitched into town. Heart pounding, the letter fell from her fingers, disappearing into the abyss inside the large blue mailbox. She had no idea the magnitude of her decision and all the lives it would change.

Sarahlee still had work left to do, hitching back to her boat to continue downstream. The water in Cataract Canyon was big that July, and she had several days and some formidable rapids ahead of her before she could call home to see how the letter had settled with her parents. She was anxious. It seemed like a great idea, and she hoped they would be thrilled to have their only daughter coming home to the farm, but you never know! The days dragged on, and she wanted to know so much more about seeds and soil. She questioned every bit of food she had in the boat – was it organic? non-GMO? sustainable? – and re-read the essay several times. She closed her eyes pondered a name for her new farm, imagining the sentinels of her family’s land: juniper, ponderosa, sage; the Lawrence family; the Cascade Mountains; and, the rainshadow.

The farm lay out beyond the canyons and rim rocks shaped by water and glaciers on the very edge of the arid West. It felt like an open hand offered at the end of a long arm from the shoulders of the Cascade Mountains. Although most people think of Oregon as being a rainy place, the farm sees very little precipitation – sometimes as little as seven inches per year, most of which comes in the form of snow. The reason was the Rainshadow effect, where a topographic barrier causes prevailing winds to lose their moisture on the windward side of the mountains, casting a “shadow” of dryness behind them. Thinking of the farm from a distance, this seemed like the most defining element of Sarahlee’s home, and it could even be the biggest challenge. Grab ahold of that, she thought, Rainshadow Organics.

After taking off the river and the long drive to cell service, Sarahlee finally got ahold of her parents. “What do you think?” she asked.

“We would love to have you home at the farm,” her mom replied. “I have to tell you, though, I have lost my garden on the 4th of July many, many times. Central Oregon has one of the harshest climates I know. In the last hundred years, it’s frozen here at least once on every day of the year. That means we have zero frost-free days. This will be tough on a market gardener.”

Sarahlee thought about this for about a half a second before shaking her head. “I’m sure I can get something to grow,” she said. But, in the back of her mind, her mother had planted an important seed that would germinate over time about the need for diversity. It was true that Central Oregon had a notoriously difficult climate – both extremely hot and cold – and it was always dry. If she was going to commit to growing food for people, she would need to learn to grow a lot.

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Lindsay D. Mattison

Hi, I’m Lindsay D. Mattison, a former Chef turned freelance writer living in Durango, CO. I started a food blog, Zest and Tang, to share my passion for food and my love of seasonal, from-scratch cooking. I’m in the process of writing a cookbook with Rainshadow Organics in Bend, OR, and would love to chat about food and recipe writing opportunities!