Beginnings...part two

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Rainshadow Organics started small. Sarahlee’s parents gave her free reign on two acres, separate from the main twenty-five acre field where her father still put up a hay crop each year. She built a deer fence, a drip irrigation system, and one greenhouse. The thrift store provided her with a shovel, rake, and hula hoe, and the used seed starting trays came from a local nursery. She didn’t want to get too invested before planting her first seed. Would she even like farming? No matter how much the world needed farmers, she simply didn’t know much about vegetables and if she’d even like eating them. She supposed that growing them and eating them didn’t have to necessarily go hand in hand.

Sarahlee went wild with her first seeds. Her mother’s warnings about Central Oregon’s harsh climate were not unfounded, but food consisted of more than frost-sensitive beans, tomatoes, corn, and squash. She could raise grains, brassicas, roots, and alliums. Plus, there were heirloom varietals of those frost-sensitive classics that were bred for short cold climates.

As she flipped through page after page in the catalogues, Sarahlee realized just how many vegetables you never see at the grocery store. She had no idea there could be so many varietals of each vegetable, and in her excitement, she ordered almost one of every kind. Vegetables she recognized came in unfamiliar shapes and colors, not to mention the things she had never heard of. What the heck is kohlrabi? Tomatillos, ground cherries, chicories, Asian greens, celeriac, parsnips, rutabagas, mustard greens, or Romanescos? She bought it all anyway.

So much happened that first season. Prepping garden beds and troubleshooting irrigation led to witnessing the first seeds emerge, coming to fruition after a long, patient journey. She learned so much along the way, like how kohlrabi grows above ground and pumpkins are green before they turn orange. She couldn’t believe how good that first heirloom tomato tasted, and she couldn’t stop herself from nibbling on carrots straight from the ground as she harvested. Around that time, she met her husband and moved into the house she built, wooing him with a Green Zebra tomato and learning to cook for him. She dug her first potatoes and peeled back the first ears of corn, ate her first bunch of kale, and marveled in the world of eggplants that aren’t simply large and purple. Thirty families had signed up for the CSA to share the abundance with her, for which she was extremely grateful.

The work was hard. All that digging and weeding, not to mention the heat! But, it felt good to work hard, and she loved the clear direction of it all. There was joy of living and wonder of nature. Each day resulted in something edible, and it all tasted so good. She was transformed.

At the end of the first growing season, Sarahlee put the garden to bed. She spread compost for the next year, planted cover crops, and mulched. All the food had been eaten. The days grew shorter and the roads became slick. On one cold winter day, Sarahlee found herself at the Grocery Outlet looking for food. She could hardly remember what she ate before she became a farmer, but it was hard to go back now that she knew how much better everything could taste. Standing at the onion display, she felt a terrible sense of failure. A farmer with no onions going into winter. A farmer with no potatoes, squash, leeks, cabbage, carrots, beets, parsnips, celeriac, dry corn, shallots, herbs. A farmer with nothing growing at all, not one Asian green or kale or arugula. A farmer with nothing canned, no tomato sauce, salsa, pickles, broth, jam, apple sauce, hot sauce. A farmer with nothing fermented, no kraut or kimchi. A farmer with no meat in the freezer, no pork, turkey, chicken or beef. A failed farmer.

In that moment, Sarahlee decided to really raise all the food she ate. Everything from that point forward was the careful construction of her farm ecosystem. She vowed to grow enough in the summer to last all fall, winter, and spring, learning how to preserve what she could and dry or freeze the rest. She would build infrastructure to house that food while testing the hardiest greens during the bitterest winters to see what could grow in the off season. Right there at the onion display, her life’s work came into focus.

*          * *

As she sowed her seeds for the second season, she realized they had to do more than just grow vegetables. She couldn’t do it alone; she needed a great team to take the farm where it had the potential to go. Her husband, Ashanti, and parents, Chris and David, were on-board with creating a “full-diet” farm, one that provides everything a person needs to eat.  The vision was a wide assortment of produce, herbs, whole grains, eggs, dairy, and meat. Chris helped establish a beehive and Ashanti pushed for the integration of animals into the farm, starting with a few pigs, broiler chickens, and laying hens that would soon grow into a full-fledged flock. It seemed like there was twice as much food in the second season, and twice as many people interested in consuming it. The members of the CSA were the core of the farm’s financial stability, and their commitment to eat from their local farm held everything together. It bolstered Sarahlee in her journey to farm better, raise more food, and fill out their collective diet.

She hand delivered every box of food, talking with each member about what they would find inside and ideas for what to do with it. Having never been much a vegetable eater before, she made up so much as she went along. For every vegetable that she raised, she would take the ugliest one home and figure out a way to prepare it. Almost everything was new to her, but even the familiar things tasted completely different fresh out of the ground. It all started by taking a bite of the raw vegetable, contemplating its flavor as she chewed. Was it bitter? Sweet? Sour? Bland? Tender? She was determined to like even the vegetables she didn’t care for, because diversity in her diet must be just as important as diversity on the farm – every bit of food must have its own unique nutrients as well as flavor. It was all inherently good, and she couldn't stand to see any of it go to waste; she took too much pride in what came forth from the land.

During one of those deliveries, Sarahlee connected with Rebecca as she dropped off a load of veggies at Melvin’s Market. Rebecca cooked in the small kitchen at this local market, and turned out to be one of the farm’s biggest supporters.

“I LOVE your produce,” Rebecca exclaimed. “Can I come out to help at the farm one day?” Her excitement was contagious, and Sarahlee welcomed her any time.

Rebecca began by helping during harvest days, and it wasn’t long before she was seed buying, planting, and weeding. One day, Rebecca tagged along to the farmer’s market, and Sarahlee stood back in amazement as she watched Rebecca turn the buying experience into an adventure! She would identify the biggest, most mysterious, unwieldy vegetables and relentlessly find each one a home. There was something about her classy aesthetic and catching enthusiasm that made buying farm-raised food so much more approachable. While many market shoppers are excited to support the farm and receive fresh food in exchange, the reality of a load of awkward, unpackaged, relatively dirty veggies – with all their tops! – can often be overwhelming. After talking with Rebecca, customers seemed to overcome their objections, and they became more and more excited about wrangling wild veggies into their homes and meals.

As autumn approached, the second season was still bursting with abundance. Sarahlee would not be repeating the mistakes of her past and, along with her mother’s help, she began to tackle the crates of tomatoes, cucumbers, and cabbage. Chris had learned how to put food away from her mother and grandmother, and it was time to share that knowledge with Sarahlee. Making sauces, pickles, and ferments like sauerkraut not only allowed her to take what she had grown and fill her pantry for the long winter ahead, and she found herself explaining these newfound skills with her CSA members, too. The whole thing was so much easier and more rewarding than she had expected. As winter set in, delicious sauces and ferments rounded out her meals, and the meats Ashanti put in the freezer were honored for the animals from which they came.

As the seasons went on, Sarahlee began growing exotic foods like ginger and peanuts, lemons and limes. She managed to grow greens year round, which made a great addition to her meats and preserved food during the coldest parts of winter. She found the hardiest varieties which could grow unheated and unirrigated, cultivating them in plastic tunnels under fabric row cover. The Yukina Savoy and Siberian Kale were the first to grow, and wild arugula, purple mustard, mache, and spinach added to the mix to create a lovely winter medley. Coupled with the storage crops and the early arrival of carrots, beets, and radishes in the spring, she was able to eat almost entirely from the farm year-round. It was time to offer this food to the community in the form of a winter CSA, which was completely unheard of in Central Oregon. It was delivered monthly and included a big box of stored roots, hearty greens, freshly milled flour, and ten pounds of mixed meat cuts. She started with twenty members and quickly grew to fifty the following season.

Sarahlee spent a lot of time explaining the food to her members, educating them about how conventional food is grown and why it looks so pristine at the grocery store. She explained about chemicals and food waste while gently challenging them with the opportunity to do things differently. She encouraged people to change their aesthetic expectation and choose to eat ugly food, doing their part to trim off any funky bits. This food is still incredibly nutrient dense – in fact, food grown in hard winter conditions is literally denser in its defense against the cold – so why not integrate it into their meals?

She slowly let go of guiding in Chile and Costa Rica and dug in deeper to the farm, spending her winter days feeding pigs and cattle with her working dogs in tow. Winter became the perfect opportunity to clear a few juniper trees, making room for native grasses and flowers in all the wild sections of their land. She toiled over habitat for beneficial insects, birds, and bees. Cooking for friends and family became a priority and joy, no longer the inconvenience it once was. She prepared breakfasts of ham and eggs cozied up with potatoes and biscuits, and stews became her favorite way to throw together for lunch or dinner. Sarahlee and Ashanti were becoming the land with every bite, and sharing that food felt like a wonderfully intimate act.

She called it farming, but almost never referred to it as work. She most certainly did not count the hours she spent, which were never less than twelve hours a day even in the winter. Sometimes as much as 16 hours in summer. This life she never imagined for herself had become the passion that drives a person in every waking moment.

Not many people stopped by the farm in those days; it was mostly Sarahlee working with Rebecca’s help a couple days a week. Crouched in a row of greens, they were cutting a baby salad mix and plopping it into a harvest basket by the handful when their new neighbor, Wendy, came by to introduce herself. It didn’t take long for the three of them to find their common ground: good, clean food. Wendy had moved from California into a quiet, old farmhouse down the valley from Rainshadow, a nice change of pace from the hustle and bustle of the Bay Area. She had owned a catering company for 35 years, and her access to all kinds of ingredients from the Bay Area’s abundant farmer’s markets had left her concerned with what she would eat in Central Oregon.

Sarahlee and Rebecca invited her to dinner to show off examples of the bounty that a Central Oregon  farm could produce. Sarahlee produced a chicken, a bag of greens and a giant, warty squash that she had forgotten the name of but wanted to see what it tasted like.

“This is amazing!” Rebecca swooned.

“People are really missing out, you know,” Sarahlee remarked. “It’s so hard to get people to try anything this odd, big, and ugly! It’s a shame that people let stores make all the decisions about variety, size, look. They just want to eat green zucchinis, butternut squash, red tomatoes, big orange carrots, fat purple eggplants, yellow potatoes, and bell peppers. Even beets are a stretch.”

“We need to cook for them,” Rebecca said, matter of fact.

“If only people could come to the farm and eat this food in the garden, “ Wendy chimed in. “They would be blown away.”

“Yes! We’ll call it the Longtable!” Rebecca proclaimed.

And so, a plan was made: Set up a giant, long table in the garden and serve family-style food grown or raised at the farm. The next summer, Ashanti and Wendy’s husband, Tim, built a fifty-foot plank table made from a downed tree on the farm. Sarahlee met the guests with an extensive tour of the gardens and pastures full of pigs, chickens, and turkeys. She explained about biodynamics and seed saving, and how composting and crop rotation techniques allowed them to grow everything organically. The guests marveled in the opportunity to see the ingredients used in their dinner while they were still in the ground! Rebecca and Wendy prepared the farm’s freshest, ripest ingredients (ugly or not), and they never posted the menu ahead of time. They simply used their creativity and let the garden speak to them and shine through the meal.

The Longtable dinners filled people with inspiration, and the guests often signed up for a CSA share after eating this magical meal in the garden. Their resolve to eat from a farm was strengthened with each bite, motivating them to cook an equally enchanting meal at home. This is exactly what the farm needed: cooks. People who wanted to take authentic, organic ingredients and prepare wholesome meals for their families. That commitment allowed the farm to grow more, try new varieties, and invest in season extension and storage, adding more ingredients to the full-diet like dairy, honey, legumes, and new grains.

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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!