Publix GreenWise Market Magazine- September 2008
Farmer for a Day
While digging up the dirt on organic produce, this writer discovered the TLC involved every step of the way.
Eleanor Perenyi’s classic 1981 collection of gardening essays, Green Thoughts, includes the story of a 7-year-old visitor to her garden who asked the author to identify something he saw scattered atop her compost pile. When she told him they were pea pods, the child responded with a blank look. After a moment Perenyi realized that “although he knew perfectly well what peas were, he had supposed they came out of a cardboard box, frozen.”
I thought about this story one October morning as I knelt, knees cushioned by the soft mulch, pulling weeds from a bed of Purple Haze carrots at Noah Valley Farm. I was volunteering my labor at the organic farm, not because I thought peas came in a box, frozen, but because I wanted to get better acquainted with what I eat and how my food makes the journey from seed to plant to table.
And so I weeded carrots, helped stretch shade cloth over mushroom logs, burned brush and pulled up drip-irrigation tubes from tomato beds—all before lunch. It sounds like hard work, and I suppose at times it was. But the pace was relaxed and the work was enjoyably enlightening
Down on the farm
Noah Valley is a small operation near Jacksonville, Alabama, roughly halfway between Birmingham and Atlanta. The owner, Simon Bevis, raises an impressive array of organic vegetables, including arugula, radicchio, peppers, onions, eggplant, leeks and beets. He also has eggs, and I have personally met the clucking ladies who produce them. But as far as I’m concerned, the stars of Noah Valley’s show are the mushrooms. Oak and sweet gum logs, stacked and inoculated with mushroom spores, produce shiitake and oyster mushrooms so beautiful and delicious that I considered eating nothing else. In fact, I might have been tempted had the mushrooms not been so delicious when cooked with greens and fresh eggs.
My status on the farm was that of a WWOOFer, which has nothing to do with canine impersonation. WWOOF is the acronym for an organization called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and WWOOFers volunteer as farmhands for anywhere from a few days to a few months in exchange for room and board and the chance to learn more about organic farming. Many farms provide bunkhouse accommodations, but Simon has several spare rooms in the farmhouse. And forget the fact that I wasn’t paid. I would have shelled out big bucks just to eat the food he provided!
WWOOF began in the United Kingdom in 1971 and has spread to 86 countries, including the United States. Ryan “Leo” Goldsmith, founding board member and current administrator of WWOOF-USA, says one of the goals is to “create a global community conscious of ecological farming practices.” Becoming a WWOOF volunteer, he says, is also “a great way to see parts of our country that are not often toured, to do work that is frequently overlooked by consumers and to connect with others who are like-minded.”
During my stay at Noah Valley I didn’t wear a watch and didn’t even see a clock in the farmhouse, so I rarely knew what time it was. We stopped for lunch when we got to a stopping place. We planted onion sets in the early evening as darkness began to gather. Even later in the evening Simon went out to plant a cover crop of clover in one of the beds that would lie fallow during the winter.
While he doesn’t depend on volunteers to keep his operation going, Simon says the help makes things easier, even when it comes from an inept newbie who has to be reminded not to step in the raised beds and who keeps wandering off to gaze at the pond. But the greater value of volunteers, it seems, is in the big picture.
“The market for organic produce is huge,” Simon says. “There are just not enough organic vegetable producers in the state.” He would like to see more young people involved in organic farming, learning its skills and satisfactions and stepping in to fill the need. That’s one reason he takes on apprentices and short-timers. Organic farming methods such as crop rotation, cover crops, compost and biological controls aren’t typically taught in agriculture schools. If they’re going to survive, these methods need to be handed down in the same traditional way the food is grown.
And so I found myself raking dead tomato vines from the tomato beds alongside Julie Haddad, a Boston native majoring in environmental studies at Oberlin College. Julie was down for a few months to apprentice with Simon and learn the ins and outs of organic farming in the South. As the two of us worked up a sweat, I discovered I had relaxed into the job and was no longer worrying about doing something stupid that would destroy the next crop and bankrupt the farm (a thought that weighed heavily on my mind for much of my visit). Julie hummed softly beside me as we worked. Balder, one of the dogs, snoozed one row over, and a hawk circled lazily overhead. The smell of the basil that had been interplanted with the tomatoes was just short of intoxicatin
To market, to market
The next day, as I crouched beside the barn, rinsing the dirt off radishes destined
for customers, I mentally reviewed my time spent at Noah Valley. I had walked
the fields where the crops were grown. I had played with the dogs, petted the
chickens, fretted over the spacing of the onion sets and scanned the sky hoping
for rain. Later, I sat in the greenhouse with Simon, enjoying the first rain
we'd had in weeks. I'd learned to make delicious farmer's cheese laced with
thyme and pepper and traveled to the hardware store in nearby Gadsden to get
gloves for Julie after Balder ate her pair. Along the way, I harvested beets
and okra and radishes.
I knew this was food raised with care and even love. As we drove to deliver
our produce to the distributor (notice how quickly Simon's produce became "our"
produce), I felt very good about what we were doing. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin,
perhaps the original foodie, once famously observed: "Tell me what you eat,
and I will tell you what you are." Let me amend that observation: "Tell me what
you eat, and I will tell you what's important to you." In my days at Noah Valley,
I learned that organic food is very important to me indeed.
LEARN MORE: Visit WWOOF-USA online at wwoofusa.org
to find out more about volunteer opportunities.
Ready for Prime Time?
Organic produce is the largest-growing sector of the food industry. According
to the Organic Trade Association, the demand for organic foods has been increasing
by an average of about 18 percent each year for the past decade. Consumers buy
organic for many reasons, including taste, environmental health and personal
Some question whether organic farming is as efficient as conventional farming,
but a recent study from the University of Michigan (Renewable Agriculture and
Food Systems, June 2007) suggests that even if crop yields aren't quite as good,
organic methods are more than adequate to produce enough food for the world's
population without increasing the amount of land under cultivation.