Farmers at the 14th Annual Northwest Vegetable Farmer to Farmer Exchange
Farmers at the 14th Annual Northwest Vegetable Farmer to Farmer Exchange

In January I somehow came across a Facebook post from Steve House, a well known Alpinist and Patagonia climbing ambassador.


I have to admit I was nervous about mentoring young, technically capable climbers and alpinists when I started in 2012. What could I teach them if they already know how to swing an axe, cross a glacier, and rig a rappel?

I learned that experience in the mountains is a way of seeing. A way of knowing. And gaining that experience is painstakingly slow UNLESS someone shares their intuition, their judgement with you.

A seasoned climber looks at a route, and sees solutions, options, obstacles, present dangers and so much more. The novice looks at the same mountain and sees the route itself, but maybe little more.


Perfect, and it came at a time when I was questioning my value as a consultant and a mentor.

January and February brought back to back to back events putting me on both sides of this equation. One of my long time mentors has been Michael Ableman, and in January he invited me to participate as one of the younger farmers in the second version of a meeting of Agrarian Elders. The initial event in 2014 was a discussion between elders of the organic farming movement, farmers who have been pushing the movement forward for forty or more years. At the second version roughly half the elders returned, bringing a younger farmer each, and I was fortunate enough to be one of those who had the opportunity to literally sit at the feet of the elders and listen for a week.

The following week I returned to Portland and was invited to talk to an introductory design class at Portland State University that a friend of mine was teaching. She promptly introduced me as one of her mentors and a leader in the local farming community, something I wasn’t expecting at all, but made sense in the context as I was at least 20 years older than everyone in that class, and a few years older than my friend, who I’ve known for more than a decade now. It was a surreal reversal.

The next week I headed down to Breitenbush Hot Springs for an annual retreat with farmer friends from around the Northwest. Spring training camp for farmers as Robelee Evans, farmer, baseball fanatic, and one of the organizers and instigators behind the event described it. I’ve been a part of that group for 13 years, one year shy of the start. Partially because I was one of the youngest farmers when I started coming, and I didn’t start coming until the second year, I’ve always kind of though of myself as one of the younger, newer farmers in the bunch. This year I had the strong realization that my role there is changing, and I’m now a bit more solidly in the middle, with many farmers I look up to still there, but also many farmers who are relative novices.

I’m starting to embrace my status as a more seasoned farmer, but I still have many mentors with many more seasons under their belts and I listen intently to their intuitions and judgements and I try to understand them in the context of what I’m seeing and experiencing myself on the farm, and in my life.

I’ll try to make time to post a little more regularly this year, perhaps monthly, perhaps a bit more. I’m also working on setting up sites to offer a little more insight into the gatherings at Esalen and Breitenbush. The topics discussed there and resources shared are important and I think we all want to make them more accessible to the larger public.

Covering Ground

Beds covered with clear greenhouse plastic to speed early season germination

I was listening to an interview with Jean-Martin Fortier on The Ruminant podcast earlier today where he was talking about his use of tarps. I’m not a big fan of plastic, both from an environmental and an aesthetic standpoint. Jean-Martin is a little flippant about it, but I think he’s right when he says we just need to get over our aversion to plastic as market gardeners. I’ve had similar discussions with Tom Denison in the past and Tom’s insightful and experienced attitude is that the reality is that the amount of plastic used for covering ground is actually pretty small due to the very thin films and even the tarp thicknesses that are used and that even though it’s not ideal, it does make the soil texture underneath pretty amazing, it suppresses weeds reducing needs for further disturbance of the soil (and the resulting diesel and/or labor), and the plants respond well to it, increasing yield per space.

I don’t use much plastic, but Jean-Martin’s discussion of how he uses tarps is inspiring and also reminds me of a technique that I used to use when I was growing on a smaller scale than I am now, although it could be used on a larger scale too.

In the early spring here in the Northwest, the soil can be slow to dry out and to warm up, even though the temperatures are close to appropriate for planting pretty much through the entire winter. What I would do is to cover a bed with clear plastic (leftover greenhouse plastic scraps) to warm it up and to protect it from the rain, drying it out a little bit. Then I would prep the bed and seed it and put the clear plastic on. The trick was to take the plastic off just before the seed germinated so that I didn’t fry the seedlings, usually this was just a few days. This works well when it’s raining and overcast but you want to get early seeds in. If the weather is sunny and dry it’s not so necessary but the plastic can keep the moisture higher in the bed.

IMG_0973 - 2010-03-11 at 08-16-05
A day after removing the plastic from the beds the seeds have germinated. You can see in this photo how much drier the surface is where the beds were covered versus where they weren’t covered at the far end of the beds but there is still obviously moisture where the seedlings are.

It’s a little funny that I’m trying to keep the moisture of rain off of the seed, but in our climate here in the NW we have so much moisture in a typical spring that it’s better to moderate that moisture with the plastic, and it also helps to protect the seed from rotting or getting washed out of the soil. It’s also funny that the plastic, in dry conditions, has the opposite effect, and it keeps the moisture higher in the soil, essentially holding in humidity and improving germination that way.

I think I originally got the idea from Tom Denison who was probably telling me about doing something like that with early potatoes. I used it for mustards and other salad greens and definitely had much better stands early in the year when trialing it against uncovered ground or even ground covered with floating row cover.

Now I’m thinking more about how I can use JM’s tarping techiques effectively in our Pacific NW climate and also about the possibility of going back to using some of the clear plastic on some of our early salad seedings. The goal here would be to offset the plastic’s environmental impact by reducing our tractor useage, and increasing our yield per bed (which is essentially also reducing our tractor useage).

Terra Madre 2014 and Updates

Terra Madre
Looking out over a small portion of the non Italian section of the completely overwhelming Salone del Gusto, Torino, 2015

Last Wednesday evening I got back from a two week trip to Italy which was amazing and completely overwhelming. The Italy trip started with the marathon event that is Terra Madre, now integrated into the enormous Slow Food show the Salone del Gusto. From there I traveled to Tuscany and then Chioggia, visiting farms and seeing a lot of the country side between. My final stop was Verona where I fell into bed sick, but managed to recover enough to have a nice visit with my friend Gio who works for the fascinating food company NaturaSì, now part of Ecor. Coming back, I stepped straight back into harvest and deliveries on the farm and then a presented a workshop on equipment at Tilth Producers 40th annual conference with my friend Chris Jagger from Blue Fox Farm in southern Oregon. It’s been a whirlwind and I wish I had a week just to process it all, get my notes straight and fill this blog and my websites with stories and information I gleaned while I was there.

I will be talking about my experience at Terra Madre at Slow Food Portland’s upcoming Terra Madre Talks event on the afternoon of December 7, and maybe showing a few slides. I’ll certainly be slowly working on getting some of the stories and photos posted on this website over time. Recently a lot of my internet content uploading has been through my instagram feed, simple photos and extended comments/conversations with other growers there (of course it’s mixed in with a bit of other stuff too).

One last note before I get back to writing agricultural plans for other folks and trying to figure out the plan for vegetable expansion at Our Table, where I’ve been growing for the past two years – Don’t forget that the amazing and dynamic Michael Ableman and I are teaching our Growing for Family, Neighborhood and Market workshop at the stunningly beautiful seaside, hot springs retreat, Esalen, December 12-14. Please sign up, please let everyone you know know to sign up. We want to see you all there and spend the weekend talking vegetables and soaking in hot water while overlooking the ocean!

Remembering Andy and a repost

Andy and Dan
Andy teaching Dan Gross to drive the tractor at Hidden Villa

I apprenticed on a small farm that was run by a farmer who, at that time had been farming for almost as long as I had been living. The farm was an amazing place, a small CSA run by this amazing, generous, eternally positive guy, Andy.  It was in the middle of a 1600 acre ranch run by an educational non-profit, and provided some of the backdrop for the farm and wilderness programs there.

Andy knew everyone there, knew seemingly everything about that property, and lived in a little house on the creek at the upper end of the ranch with his wife Carolyn and his two young sons Forrest and Ray.  I spent most of my time working on the farm, but what I remember most are the people there, especially Andy.  It feels like most of the time I spent with Andy was driving up and down the ranch with him in a Clubcar Carryall II, stopping at the milk house to top off his huge mug of coffee with the cream skimmed off the top of the big milk jugs, and then proceeding to spill half of that coffee on the bumpy dirt road that ran the length of the ranch.  The entire time Andy told me stories, mostly farming stories, often the same ones he had told me earlier in the week.

I spent a year there and I was anxious to do the next thing when I left, though sorry to leave many good friends behind.  I made sure to come back for visits whenever possible, although those visits got farther apart as the years wore on.  Andy was great about keeping in touch and keeping me updated on the happenings at the ranch, and with the family.  For a few years we’d meet up at the Eco Farm conference every year and room together which was an opportunity to catch up.  The farming connection continued but over time I came to visit more to just see Andy, Carolyn, Forrest and Ray, hear about their trips in the Sierra and what was new on the ranch.

Forrest ended up going to school in Washington and then moving to Portland so Andy would come through every so often and when I got lucky he’d stop for a quick visit.  On his last swing through town we were lucky enough to have him bring Carolyn, and Forrest and Forrest’s girlfriend Holly over for dinner.

On Wednesday evening another farmer friend and mentor Michael Ableman, and his son Benjamin, came for a visit on their way down to California.  When we got home from a dinner out Tanya checked the messages and there was one from Carolyn telling me that Andy had passed away on Tuesday.

I’ve been thinking about Andy a lot ever since.  I’ve also been thinking about all of the other good friends I made, especially the ones I’ve managed to keep in touch with.  I also thought about this blog post I wrote back in 2008, coincidentally with both Michael and Andy mentioned.  My good friend Dan Gross, who I also met at Hidden Villa said of Andy,

Andy taught me even more about how to talk to people than he did about farming, even though he taught me so much about farming. While I was at Hidden Villa I always felt bad to ask Andy a question because he spent an hour answering it to me.  I felt like I was wasting his valuable time when he took all that time to answer me.  Now, as I get older, I strive to listen and engage friends and family as Andy did to me. 

Andy absolutely set an example I’ve tried to emulate.  I’ll miss him every time I think about him, but I’m so happy that I got the chance to work with him, to learn farming from him and so much on top of that.

The following post was about Michael’s farm, but it could just as well have been about Andy’s…

Michaels Farm

Michael’s Farm – Tuesday, May 6, 2008

    My first “formal” farming apprenticeship was ten years ago, 1998.  I went to work for Andy Scott at Hidden Villa in Los Altos Hills, California, and spent a year absorbing stories, asking questions, and working hard.  It was one of the best years of my life.

A few years later I was at the Ecological Farming Conference, talking with Andy and Jim Nelson from Camp Joy Gardens, a small farm I’ve always really admired.  One of us, I don’t remember who, started talking about how great it would be to apprentice on someone else’s farm for a season, just to step back and do the physical work and not worry about all of the details of planning and selling and so on.  Everyone agreed, it would be great.  I just remember standing there with two farmers who had both been farming for practically as long as I’d been living, both so accomplished and both still engaged in learning more.

It was probably that same year that I met Michael Ableman.  He was hosting a monthly discussion series on agricultural topics at Fairview Gardens and I was farming about an hour North.  I had been really inspired by his book,From the Good Earth, when a friend at Hidden Villa showed it to me, and subsequently his book On Good Land about his experiences at Fairview.

Michael Disking

We’ve run into each other a handful of times since that summer, always with an invitation to come up and visit.  Finally this spring I made the time to go visit for a month, help out around the farm, and exchange farming ideas with another farmer who has been at this a couple of decades longer than myself.  The result was one of the best months of my life, a chance to temporarily shed all the accumulated layers of responsibility that have built up over the years since my first apprenticeship, and to just focus on learning from someone else’s farm

Snow on branches

It ended up being incredibly cold and wet most of the month.  There was snow when I arrived in at the beginning of April, and then it snowed and melted, and snowed again.  I didn’t mind though, I just enjoyed getting the opportunity to be an apprentice again, to watch and learn from an incredibly accomplished farmer.

In the month I was there we planted an orchard, fixed tillers and tractors, put together new equipment, skidded logs, seeded, covered and uncovered, mapped fields, put down a plan for the whole season on paper, and then changed it all again.  We baked bread, ate lots of spinach and carrots, watched Benjamin race down the road on his bike, again and again.  We counted and recounted, even when there wasn’t any reason to count.  We moved rocks, lots of rocks, we dug holes and filled holes, Such a diversity of work in one month.  Such is farming.

So here’s a big thank you to Michael, Anne, Jeanne Marie, Benjamin and Aaron and to all the farmers who have come before me, and after me, and that have been so generous with their time and knowledge.  There is such an amazing community of farmers out there and it is truly one of the best parts of farming, that and the scenery.


repost – rye, vetch and fava

Continuing with reposts from the original blog, here’s one I made just before leaving Sauvie Island Organics and starting Slow Hand Farm.  It’s all still true and it connects with something I was reading last night in Fukuoka’s “One Straw Revolution.”  In his chapter “Toward a Do-Nothing Farming” Fukuoka says, ” The usual way to go about developing a method is to ask “How about trying this?” or “How about trying that?” bringing in a variety of techniques one upon the other.”  When I talk about farming bringing me a little understanding of how we got where we are today, it’s that layering that I’m talking about.

Fukuoka goes on to explain his approach, which is to ask “How about not doing this? How about not doing that?… Human being with their tampering do something wrong, leave the damage unprepared, and when the adverse results accumulate, work with all of their might to correct them.  When their corrective actions appear to be successful, they come to view these measures as splendid accomplishments.”

rye, vetch and fava

rye, vetch and fava – November 21, 2007

    It’s kind of nice to just sit here and write a little.  I’ve had a lot of ideas lately about farming, food, what I want to do.  I guess that’s where thinking about the next step will get you.  With an imminent departure from the farm, that’s kind of where I’m at right now.  Most of my spare time is going to putting together numbers, trying to make crop plans work, trying to write a business plan that makes sense – oh, and trying to find a little paying work as well for the near future.  What a lesson in business though.

Farming has been an incredible teacher for me.  I feel like I’ve gone through a course in the evolution of civilization that brings me a little understanding of how we got where we are today.  Maybe this was all obvious to most of you by the time you made it out of school but I feel like I’m just starting to understand.

After spending the summer putting together little structures around the farm, the incredible details of architecture and the evolution of buildings makes a lot more sense.  After spending years producing vegetables on a small scale and looking at improving efficiencies, large scale agriculture, even the decisions that lead to conventional agriculture makes more sense.  Trying to put together a business plan for a new farm enterprise makes business, the world of finance, and lawyers make a lot more sense to me.

It all makes more sense how we’ve gotten here, but it doesn’t make me feel like this was necessarily the best path.  It’s the place we’re at, so I’ll take it as it is, but there sure are a lot of improvements that could be made.  I see decisions that have been made, and reasons why they were made, but I also see the problems that have come out of those decisions and conditions and pitfalls that were ignored along the way.

My life is probably just like that, maybe everyones is but like I said, I’m just figuring these things out now.  I’m trying to make the best decisions, predict the future by looking at the present and past and seeing what worked.  With a little luck this rye, vetch and fava that has come up beautifully on the farm will, make it through the winter and  provide the fertility for next season’s crop.