The seasons of garlic

Days and days these past few weeks have been garlic filled, and I’ve had time to contemplate this crop. How it stays with us for the whole year, transforming itself to fit the seasons, and finally gifting us with a precious, pungent, paper-wrapped bouquet of flavour.

In the spring, green garlic was one of the first crops we harvested in the field to sell alongside our greenhouse greens and storage vegetables. A cross between a green onion and a leek and rich with quiet garlicky flavour, green garlic is the whole plant before the scape forms on top and the bulb forms below. The fall before, a bed of garlic bulbs had been left behind, making an unplanned-for spring treat. We harvested these beds for green garlic, and still had rows and rows (and rows and rows and rows) of garlic growing.

By June, this garlic was scaping, and we rushed to catch it. To ensure that the plant puts its energy into the precious bulb, a necessary step in growing garlic is to cut off the scape before it flowers. Form and function meet, for the scape itself is a delicacy, giving its gentle flavour to garlic scape pesto, pickled garlic scapes, barbecued garlic scapes, and everything else we cooked for the next several weeks.

At the end of July, the scapes had been scaped, the garlic had been growing through the heat and the drought, and a quick look showed us dried leaves, or papers, at the stems of the plants, an indication that the garlic bulbs are ready to be harvested. The whole farm team worked together in the field, … except me. Garlic harvest was a couple of days after the epic foot injury, and I did in fact spend a few hours serving as a tractor weight before the pain sent me back to the house and eventually back to the hospital for another x-ray, and most of you know the rest of that story (99% recovered now!) From inside the house, I enjoyed tales of garlic harvesting, a process that went a lot faster this year with the tractor-powered garlic digger than with hand digging. Fresh garlic needs to be handled gently; its tender flesh is easily bruised. The garlic was collected and hung up in both farm barns to cure. Some was sold as fresh garlic right away – one of my first tasks once I could walk to the shed was to clean the outer papers off the garlic for sale.

And now, the garlic has cured; the more pressing tasks like harvesting onions and winter squash are out of the way; and every moment we have is being spent processing garlic. First the garlic that we’ll store and sell over the fall and winter: we’re cutting it down from the barns, and cutting off each bulb, then trimming the bulb hairs and peeling off the outer papers – any dirt left on the bulb can hold moisture and make the garlic more vulnerable to spoiling. We grade the garlic by size, for there are tiny ones the diameter of a quarter, and extra extra larges, and we sort out the ones that are for “home” – not saleable but still eatable.

And yesterday and today, the seed garlic: Half a bed of garlic was left in the field an extra two weeks, so that for most plants the papers all around the bulb dried out, leaving only exposed cloves. These need no gentle cleaning and grading. Instead, a quick cut and pull apart of each clove. Tossed into a pile of potato sacks, this is a precious load, the progenitors of next year’s garlic crop.

In a couple more days, we’ll be out in the garlic fields again to plant the cloves that will spend the winter in the soil and emerge as green garlic, and then eventually send out scapes, and grow into those precious garlic bulbs that we’ll harvest next year, carrying with them a little bit of the story of this year.





Back in the field

This has been a week of rediscovering farm life, with fresh eyes, a still somewhat sore foot, and a reluctant acceptance of feelings sharp and raw.

The cooperative excitement of harvesting storage onions. The collaboration and excitement of setting up for an all-afternoon task. The rush of pulling perfect yellow and red onions, through thick pigweed that scratches our arms and legs. The celebration of four huge crates full of onions, poured out onto the barn floor to cure.

The quiet joy of picking beans. The sun shining down on us, the sweaters coming off, the bees buzzing. The moments when the row seemed to stretch out forever relieved by a bite of crispy juicy bean. Katie and Naomi sometimes quiet, sometimes chatting, and sometimes letting a little bit of song flow out of them.

Friday’s harvest in the rain. We were slowed by layers of rain gear, the deepening mud, the grey skies, and the calm beat of constant rain, and this slowness begot a kind of calmness of accepting the inevitability of the pace and the task, a just being in the moment, and surprisingly, relishing this cold wet moment, for itself, and doing what I didn’t think I could have done … not that I didn’t appreciate the moment when the harvest was done and we were sheltered in the shed for processing, and finally, eventually, the sun coming out and gracing us with a few hours of its soft warmth.

Weeding carrots, beets, onions, and the next successions of carrots and beets. Feeling my foot but pushing through it. The exhilaration of yanking lambsquarters taller than me. The clip of clippers. The joy of seeing a weed free bed, and the paradoxical excitement of starting a new one, and being confident that it will soon be weed free too! The dirt on my hands, that stays dirty no matter how hard I scrub. Total exhaustion, only slightly allayed by nine o’clock bedtimes and big breakfasts and dinners.

The ease and unease of milking, slowly feeling my body and mind transform from crimped anxiety – created by both a slow-moving foot and weeks away from the cows – that make it hard for me to move quickly out of the way of a kick, and maybe exaggerate my fear. Slowly finding myself, this morning, able to breathe a bit more deeply, try two-handed milking again, to relax into the cow beside me, and to feel her warmth and her cowness.

The frustration of not quite knowing or not quite remembering, the routines for harvesting, for recording data, what bins and tools we should take out for each task, … and the growing comfort and confidence as I do these tasks again and again. The frustration of physical pain not yet gone, of ambiguous feelings that announce themselves with tears at inconvenient moments, and the joy of just being. Back in the field.


Thank you, slowly

ImageEating my simple Sunday dinner of sautéed vegetables, I am savouring every bite of the sweet crisp cabbage, and luxuriating in the crunchy outside, melt in my mouth inside of our delicious summer squash, joined together with the tang of our fresh basil. Hungry, easily satisfied, eating slowly and enjoying my meal.

My foot is healing, and after four weeks, I have graduated from walking cast and crutches. While I’ll still be doing a lot of computer and indoor tasks for the next couple of weeks, I have been able to walk around the farm a bit more. But each walk, each step, is slow. I’ve found that my foot hurts if I put it down or pick it up too quickly. So my movements are slow and intentional. And what I’ve found is that I see something different, and feel something different when I move this slowly. My slow body is reflected in a slow mind, and I have time to know each step of where I am. I am in a different place than the one I’d be in if I were rushing from one task to the next.

I haven’t been out in the field for the harvests of summer squash, cucumbers, lettuce mix, beans, carrots, onions, and tomatoes that just keep rolling in, but I have been processing and prepping for market, eating sumptuous seconds, and hearing the other farmers go on about the crops that just don’t stop. With the exception of the disaster in the potatoes (more on that in a future post), we’ve weathered the drought pretty well, and better than many of our farm neighbours. Awareness, gratitude, and like my minor foot injury, a reminder of our vulnerability, our shakiness and insecurity – both frightening, and at the same time, reassuring: we are interwoven into the fabric of our diverse ecosystem, and it’s that that sustains us – beets in lieu of potatoes, rain just in time, and a farm culture that welcomes what I give, no matter how slowly I give it, and accepts me as I am. Thank you. 


Drought, drought, rain, … and a climate of spirituality

Transplanting fall cabbages in the rain!

The vagaries of weather are nothing new for farmers. But the more intense they become, the greater the challenges: financially, environmentally, physically, and emotionally and spiritually.

Here, we’ve been roasting under the sun for so long that we’ve lost all of our potato plants to a combination of drought and Colorado Potato Beetle (we’re hopeful that there are still potatoes underground, but they won’t be growing any bigger).

Our hay didn’t do very well to begin with, but the drought meant that we ran out of pasture for a couple of weeks and have had to dip into our winter hay stores. Now that the rain has come, the cows are happily back to eating their favourite food! But the trouble isn’t over: the rain has come and kept on coming, and Johann is worried that the spelt and other grains may sprout in the field: they’ll be okay for animal feed for pigs and chickens, but not saleable to our grain and flour customers.

The joy and resilience of a diversified farm, however, is that most of our vegetables are doing just fine – they certainly taste fantastic! Lately, the farmers, CSA members and market customers have all been enjoying loads of summer squashes (my favourite), broccoli (my other favourite), carrots, tomatoes, and cucumbers (that too), … and on Friday, we had our first meal of delicious sweet corn!

A recent study by James Hansen released by the U.S. National Academy of Science tells us that the heat waves in Ontario and the United States, like most extreme weather events of the past ten years, is almost certainly tied to climate change (see here and here). So now we can accurately say “caused by” in the same sentence with climate change and drought, … and we can expect more and more of the same over the coming years.

Maybe because I’ve had lots of time to think this week (while everyone else has been working in the rain, I’ve been warm and dry inside with my foot on a pillow, and a stack of books beside me), I’ve been very conscious of the spirituality of the climate crisis.

Spirituality – as cause, as victim, and maybe, as a response. Culturally, the dominant relationship with the natural world and with each other is one  of separation and exploitation, rather than interconnectedness and interdependence, and this has shaped the economy, and as a result, the environment.

And the environmental and climate crises themselves creates spiritual crises: for some city people it may be the absence of connection to the trees and the bugs (even if we don’t know what we’re missing), or the subconscious pain of eating factory-raised meat, or, for farmers like us, feeling powerless in the face of environmental destruction.

Yet, we know in our hearts the solutions to climate change. We know in our hearts how to live well, in relationship with nature and each other. Our spirituality has been the cause, the victim, and can eventually be the way to something better. The books beside me, from Pema Chodron’s Taking the Leap to Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle hint at a path. In fact, every book I read, it seems, has something to say about being present in the moment, feeling the feelings, however joyful and pleasant or painful or terrifying they are. Johann talks about accepting whatever comes. I breathe in and out and in and out. The rain falls. We keep breathing. And it’s only in not being swallowed up by the fear, in not falling victim to sprouted spelt or small potatoes, in feeling the pain and (forgive the triteness) making pigfeed and sprouted bread, that we might be able to create a better world in these uncertain times.

Peace and Hope: (Not) By Accident

ImageA week and a half ago, a heavy cement weight fell on my foot. Two x-rays and a bit of drama later, it seems a bone was fractured. I have a walking cast (although the name is rather misleading), a pair of crutches, antibiotics (!), and instructions to stay off my foot for at least a month…. all of which put farm work like weeding, harvesting, and moving irrigation rather out of reach!

As farm mentor Johann says (quoting Kung Fu Panda and many others before him), there are no accidents. This injury happened in the midst of (and was maybe even precipitated by) a difficult mental struggle with attachment to certain ideals of how I want things to be.

My personal anxieties exist within the context of a more global anxiety. One of the books I’ve been reading while lying on my bed with my foot elevated is Women, Food, and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything, in which author Geneen Roth writes that the environmental, economic, and social decay that surrounds us creates a climate of despair from which many people seek to escape through unhealthy patterns of eating and other destructive addictions and practices.

Alternatives can be found both by looking outward, like practical action to be part of the solution – from ecological farming to political activism – but also inward. From Geneen Roth to Pema Chodron (in Taking the Leap) to Thich Nhat Hanh (in Peace is Every Step) to Johann (“your number one job is to take care of yourself” – how many times have I heard that in the past two weeks?!), mindfulness is key.

Mindfulness that lets me fully experience the joy and wonder of harvesting peas: the warmth of the sun on my back; the sounds of the birds and the other farmers chatting behind me; the perfect almost bursting pressure of the ripe peas, the wrinkles of those that are a day too late, and the slender newness of those that aren’t yet ready; the twinge in my knees as I get up and down again and again down the row; the treat of a cool breeze.

Mindfulness that lets me fully experience the feelings evoked by a broken foot, by not working, and by needing so much help first from Maggie and Johann and the other farmers, and now from my parents with whom I’ve been staying for the past few days: dull pain; fear; “Sh**!; boredom; self-blame; guilt; wondering what I’m missing on the farm; dependence; interdependence; release and letting go; peace; anxiety; joy; frustration; security; insecurity; gratitude.

Mindfulness that lets me fully experience the realities of living in a time of climate chaos. Always present, but over the past few days, with more time to listen to the radio and read the news, I’ve been more conscious of the many ways in which the dominant extractive economy destroys our ecological and social wellbeing: fear and frustration as I hear again and again about the drought that has hit our farm and so many others across southwestern Ontario and in the U.S.; anxiety; anger; thankfulness that my time away from the farm affords time to look outward – to write and phone Environment Minister Peter Kent, and to share my thoughts with you; letting go, holding on, and letting go again.

The most recent book I’ve read is Locavore by Sarah Elton – after eyeing it on the bookshelf for a year, I finally gobbled it up yesterday. Elton documents in great detail the farmers, cooks, eaters, homemakers and activists across Canada who are – like us at Whole Circle Farm – changing the way we eat, and the way we relate to food, the natural world, and the extractive fossil fuel based centralized economy. I can’t escape my fear and anger, but knowing I am part of a growing culture of resistance and re-creation helps fuel my real hope.