Dear readers,

I wanted to share with you a recent journal entry that I wrote while traveling in Uruguay during our two months off between AMS Phase I and Phase II. I hope that it sheds some light on what we’re trying to do in the greater alternative food movement and how it relates to trends that are occurring not just in the United States, but all around the globe.

I hope you enjoy it!

 

Photo Credit: Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Creative Commons

December 1st, 2014

My First Foreign Fast Food Experience

This morning I went to a McDonalds McCafé To-Go at a bus terminal in Montevideo, Uruguay. It was such a reminder of how Fast Food can totally degrade the way we eat and the way we treat others. I have to say, although the food purchase went against every bone in my morally conscious body, I wanted to try a foreign McDonald’s more out of curiosity than anything else. I should have known better.

The whole experience was stressful, disappointing, and frankly a bit depressing. And, of course, fast.

Everyone in line around me was cranky. I realized I was standing about two feet from the actual line to buy food (I was in the pick-up line) and when I told the lady standing right next to me what had happened, she motioned me with a scowl to the back of the line. Of course – when we expect “fast food,” we don’t have time for the typical, polite courtesies of ser humanos, human beings. We don’t even have time to sit down, take a breath, and eat the food we have just purchased. Or, if we do, we eat it with a newspaper, magazine, smartphone, or some other kind of distraction mechanism in hand.

When I got to the counter, things got worse. This poor guy manning the drink orders was running around, stressed, trying to go as fast as he could to satisfy the customers’ desire for rapid fire service. Another girl was “painting” the medialunas (a kind of pastry) with some sort of sweet, sugary spread at lightening speed.

After I ordered, it seemed that something was amiss. One part of this factory’s machine was running a little slow. As I waited patiently for my “pan del campo,” a sort of English Muffin type of bread, customers around me got more antsy. They started to scowl at the workers behind the counter.

Fast Food leaves no time for empathy or understanding.

In all the rush, the queso and marmelada was left out of the bag of food. When I went back to ask for it, the same guy serving the drinks gave me a tense look, a mixture of anxiety, fear, and frustration in his eyes.

This is what the fast food industry fosters: anxiety, fear, and frustration…for the animals who are raised to make the food, the workers who are no doubt underpaid and mistreated to grow, harvest, and process the food, the restaurant workers who serve the food, and the clientele who eats the food.

Out of beautiful, compassionate and humble human beings, fast food transforms us into unfeeling, consumptive robots, or worse, bad-tempered, impatient, and anxious versions of ourselves. You are what you eat has never been demonstrated so clearly to me.

My trip around South America for the past month has been so wonderful and so full of beautiful, divinely empathetic people. Traveling has reminded me of our shared humanity and of the beauty of communication through various languages. I have been floored by the overwhelming warmth and generosity of fellow travelers and of the Latin American friends who I have visited. Particularly when it comes to sharing food, I have been met with an attitude of “what’s mine is yours.”

That is why my experience this morning carried with it a special potency. Experiencing fast food in a different country reminded me how much the U.S. continues to export its harmful practices to other nations around the world. Whether it’s our chemically intensive and ecologically fatal methods of cultivating land, our inhumane industrial ways of raising animals for food, or our ignorant and unsustainable consumption practices, the symptoms of the U.S.’s broken conventional food system seem to spread like a cancer around the world.

Many people I have met traveling around Argentina have told me that feedlots are on the rise in Argentina. As it is, when I was traveling around the north of Argentina by bus, it was impossible to miss the hectares and hectares of “soja,” or soy, being grown here. Since the early 1990s it seems that many of Argentina’s traditional cattle ranchers, the country’s famous “gauchos,” have switched over from cattle ranching to growing monocultures of soy, grain, or corn.

When we become ignorant of or unfeeling towards the ways in which our food reaches our plates, or, as was the case for me this morning, our to-go bags, we miss out on the very stuff that makes life complete and helps shape our view of ourselves in the world.

The sacrifices, hard work, and generosity that goes into feeding the human population should instill in each and every one of us a sense of humility and interdependence. Instead, in the rush of making the sacred act of eating as efficient and rapid as possible, the fast food culture breeds selfishness and numbness towards those who make it possible for us to eat.

My experience this morning reminded me of what the greater alternative food movement that we’re a part of is trying to accomplish – trying to help people understand the meaning and importance of food and community. Trying to help others find out for themselves how much food contributes to health and well-being and, as I experienced this morning, how dull and anxiety-ridden our lives become when we forget about or undervalue the food we put into our mouths.

Today my thoughts are with the countless friends, family members, and strangers that I have shared such meaningful, slow meals with. Today I think of how fulfilling it is to plant, nurture, harvest, prepare, and share food together.

Food is the stuff of life. It is what sustains poets, scholars, doctors, and lovers alike. Let us give it the time and attention that it deserves.

 

It’s incredible how quickly 6 months go, especially in retrospect. Having been off the mountain for less than two weeks I am still wide-eyed in grocery stories. I still stare a little too long and people-watch a little too hard. I find myself reflecting on what just happened without enough distance to fully appreciate all of the growth I just participated in an entire season of growing food, living and working with 8 once-strangers, and learning from some truly wise souls. I want to share some of this with you and as a visual thinker, my words alone cannot do justice. Instead, I’ve compiled photos (below) that capture things that I loved about my time on the mountain.

Waking up to misty sunrises.

Waking up to misty sunrises.

Prepping extravagant, farm fresh cooking.

Prepping extravagant, farm fresh cooking.

Nibbling on greens in the garden.

Nibbling on greens in the garden.

Befriending all sorts of creatures, both familiar and...

Befriending all sorts of creatures, both familiar and…

...unfamiliar :)

…unfamiliar :)

Sipping hot tea (or coffee) to the smell of a wood stove fire and breakfast in the making.

Sipping hot tea (or coffee) to the smell of a wood stove fire and breakfast in the making.

Eating meals like this.

Eating meals like this.

Gleaning wisdom from the bright minds of Highland County, including these talented potato planters.

Gleaning wisdom from the bright minds of Highland County, including these talented potato planters. *

Learning  through hands-on workshops.

Learning through hands-on workshops.

Foraging!

Foraging!

Benefiting from the knowledge of my peers...

Benefiting from the knowledge of my peers…

Keeping bees and catching swarms.

Keeping bees and catching swarms.

Basking in the beauty of the mountain.

Basking in the beauty of the mountain.

Harvesting veggies....

Harvesting veggies….

Visiting neighboring gardeners, medicine makers, and sustainable innovators.

Visiting neighboring gardeners, medicine makers, and sustainable innovators.

 

Harvesting honey for the first time in AMS history!

Harvesting honey for the first time in AMS history!

Participating in the local farmers market at the Highland Center.

Participating in the local farmers’ market at the Highland Center. **

Touring local farms and learning about their methods.

Touring local farms and learning about their methods.

Preserving, pickling, and fermenting for next year's fellows.

Preserving, pickling, and fermenting for next year’s fellows.

Gathering with the broader AMS family.

Gathering with the broader AMS family.

...and more veggies! Building a mindset of plenty.

…and more veggies! Building a mindset of plenty.

Building on the work of prior cohorts.

Building on the work of prior cohorts. (and basking in summer’s warmth)

Presenting on our permacultural design work.

Presenting on our permacultural design work.

Completing independent research projects.

Completing independent research projects.

Witnessing fall.

Witnessing fall from the farm.

Spending time with some wonderful souls.

Spending time with wonderful people.

Prepping for next year's AMS fellows!

Prepping for next year’s AMS fellows! ***

Thank you, AMS!

 

Photo credits:

* Paul K.

** Aaron B.

*** Sam T.

 

We are done with Phase 1. We are almost ready to go to our respective Phase 2 placements where we will hopefully have a positive impact in our new communities. And hopefully we will be positively impacted by the upcoming experiences. It is just bizarre to think that we have been here for six months. Six months ago we didn’t know each other, we didn’t have to share a room unless we chose to, and we didn’t cook for anyone else unless it was a special treat. Six months ago, most of us didn’t know how to safely preserve foods. Most of us didn’t know how to cultivate mushrooms. We didn’t all necessarily know the difference between a self-pollinator and a perfect flower.

Aside from how much we’ve learned from Paul, Kayla, and the many wonderful workshop presenters, we’ve also learned so much from each other. At the risk of being a bit wordy, I’m going to tell you a bit about all of our wonderful talents in reverse alphabetical order.

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Thea is a wonderfully kind and giving person. Not only is she skilled with a computer and design concepts, but her willingness to share those skills and the patience she has for all of our different learning styles is inspiring.

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Shannon is so creative and calm even when the entire group is about to explode with nervous energy or anxiety. She is always ready to listen to a problem or offer calming advice when necessary.

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Sam has the voice of an angel. Her easygoing nature balances the sometimes more serious of us. Her love of music and interest in sharing it has initiated more than a few dancing sing-a-longs.

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Nick at 6’6”, not only can reach everything on the tallest shelf, but also challenges all of us to carefully consider the decisions made for the garden and how those decisions will impact the long term health of the farm.

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Kelly brings an always-interesting combination of organization and free spiritedness. When at times she is the only person able to focus on a project, she also brings a refreshing air of silliness.

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Kaz has brought an interesting perspective to our many conversations, both on the clock and off. He often gets us to think outside of the box we were comfortably nestled in.

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Emily’s laugh and work ethic are contagious. She often takes on maybe too much, but certainly inspires me to work harder and be more selfless with my own time.

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Aaron is extremely giving of his things. He has inspired me to be less selfish with my own belongings, whether it is food, drink, or a less perishable item. He also is quite a patient teacher, sharing his knowledge of soils and bread making.

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To say the least, I have learned a lot from everyone here. They all have their special talents, large and small.

 
The leaves may be gone, but we are never lacking in spectacular colors up here on Allegheny Mountain thanks to the sunrise.

The leaves may be gone, but we are never lacking in spectacular colors up here on Allegheny Mountain thanks to the sunrise.

Phase One is a time for many things. It is a time for learning how to grow food sustainably using ecologically sound practices. It is a time for becoming aware of the many forces at play in our food system. It is a time for developing the kind of friendships that stay with you for life. It is a time for showing love and appreciation for others through cooking. All of these things have enriched my experience up here in ways that I can’t even begin to describe. For that I am ever grateful. But there is one thing that Phase One provides the time for that, I’ll admit, I hadn’t even thought of prior to coming here. Phase One gives you the time and the space to really get to know yourself.

Now I’m not talking about a kind of surface-level getting to know yourself – what your favorite food is or what you like to do on Saturday nights – although those are wonderful things too. I’m talking about a deeper understanding of what it is that motivates you, what values you carry through life, and who it is that you are striving to become. Those are the sorts of things that remind us why we do the things we do and help us to move through the world in a way that aligns with our core values.

Throughout the last six months, the staff and mentors at AMS have encouraged us to reflect deeply and act intentionally with long-term visions in mind. Within our cohort, we have helped each other to do the same. As part of our season-long permaculture design course with Trevor Piersol, we were asked to spend weeks closely observing and interpreting the site for the food forest that we were tasked with designing. This “observation and interpretation” process is also known as site “assessment and analysis” or, more informally, “oogling and contemplating.” The comprehensive process of really getting to know the site we would be designing allowed us to come up with designs that followed our long-term goals and larger missions. In the same way – whether intentionally or not – Phase One has given us the time to oogle and contemplate the various things going on inside ourselves and act upon what we find.

Just as it is important to understand how the winds coming across a mountain affect the growth and fruitfulness of an orchard tree, it is important to understand how the conflicts and issues arising throughout life affect the self. The winds blow just as fiercely through the chambers of the heart, sometimes stirring up passion for change, sometimes stirring up inner frustrations or insecurities. In this way, just as we have learned to deeply observe and reflect upon the rhythms of a place, so must we know the rhythms of our own hearts.

Once we recognize those rhythms in ourselves, we can figure out what it is about ourselves that we wish to cultivate further and what things about us (habits, insecurities, doubts, etc.) that we wish to work on or change to become more graceful human beings. All it takes to become exactly who it is that you want to become is self-reflection, patience, and an openness to others. Mind you, if you’re doing it right, you will never finish getting to know yourself.

As Kahlil Gibran writes in the section of The Prophet on self-knowledge,
“And a man said, Speak to us of Self-Knowledge.
And he answered, saying:
Your hearts know in silence the secrets of the days and of the nights.
But your ears thirst for the sound of your heart’s knowledge.
You would know in words that which you would have always known in thought.
You would touch with your fingers the naked body of your dreams.

And it is well you should.
The hidden well-spring of your soul must needs rise and run murmuring to the sea;
And the treasure of your infinite depths would be revealed to your eyes.
But let there be no scales to weigh your unknown treasure;
And seek not the depths of your knowledge with staff or sounding line.
For self is a sea boundless and measureless.

Say not, “I have found the truth,” but rather, “I have found a truth.”
Say not, “I have found the path of the soul.”
Say rather, “I have met the soul walking upon my path.”
For the soul walks upon all paths.
The soul walks not upon a line, neither does it grow like a reed.
The soul unfolds itself, like a lotus of countless petals.”

The soul unfolds itself, like a lotus of countless petals. Be open to each of those petals and to each of those truths, both the ones you come to within yourself and the ones you learn from others.

Lastly, change comes from within. As we’ve reflected on here at AMS, the energy and attitude you bring to an interaction or an action often has a ripple effect on everyone around you – whether that’s a nine-person cohort or an entire food movement. Being aware of yourself helps you to recognize what energy you bring and the potential it carries. As Ghandi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” That means in both minute and vast ways. If you change your everyday interactions to reflect love and empathy, loving and empathetic people will no doubt surround you. If we all strive to change our farming, purchasing, and eating habits to reflect our core values, we will have a food system that no longer puts profit or corporate agendas above human, animal, or environmental health but rather sustains the health of our communities and our planet. This change comes from awareness. Awareness begins with the self.

 

Perhaps today isn’t the best to be writing a blog.  My mind seems a bit foggy and unfocused.  Amidst many other things, I am at once filled with gratitude, nostalgia, and at the other excitement and uncertainty.  Perhaps it is the time of year or the coming end of my time with City Schoolyard Garden, but I cannot keep my mind from looking back or looking forward.

It is a funny thing to feel as though I am sometimes fighting past memories and future desires to stay in the present day, focus on the current task, or be thankful for where I am.  Certainly these are all things I’d like and try to do, for I am very thankful for where I find myself.  I am quite lucky to be surrounded by the learning, beauty, kindness, and earnestness that is present in my work with City Schoolyard Garden. Simply recounting a typical week, I cannot help but crack a smile.  Indeed, I continue to jump between elementary school gardens and the CSG office. I am out near one City Schoolyard Garden to direct heavy machinery, near another to kick-off the construction of a garden shed, help out with the construction of another, kick-off a mosaic in the garden. Then again, in some gardens I simply help maintain, work with students in, or work with a myriad of parents, volunteers, and, those parent volunteers who run the gardens.  I am working with and learning from such wonderful people — experienced gardeners, naturalists, teachers, co-workers, students, creators, builders, artists, thinkers, and educators.

Working in the school gardens in Charlottesville is quite lovely.

Working in the City Schoolyard Gardens of Charlottesville is quite lovely.

I’ve heard it from others and (if you can’t tell from the rambles above) I feel it myself — fall seems to be a season of looking back, reflection, and giving thanks.  And, though I’m always hard on myself for dwelling in the past, I’d like to keep looking back and a bit further at that to commemorate and give thanks for the opportunities I’ve had and the people I’ve learned from on the AMS farm and Bear Mountain.

It will be one year ago Friday that our cohort celebrated our last day in the village. I remember waking up that morning. It was cold and the trees were already naked.  I remember wanting to take pictures, but, somehow, every photo I took just didn’t do it.  I couldn’t capture the the cool, moist air that I walked through, or the true goldenness of the light, or the spirit that was so strong and present up there.  That last morning, I also remember my strong desire to get to the Beta House or the Lodge to find some warmth.  In some ways, I was ready to leave the mountain and return to the coziness of a house, my family, and the sun and foliage of the more eastern parts of Virginia. But, I had a lot to take with me, a lot to pack up. Not so much clothes or trinkets, but things I’m realizing I am still unpacking today.  These are all of the things, little and big, that I have learned from my cohort, my fellow fellows.  It was Susanna who helped me realize this again last week and I’ve been thinking about it since — even though we no longer live together, my everyday is filled with Mandy, Kate, Emily, Sus, Paul, Ian, Ben, and Roger.

My fellow fellows

A memory from last summer.

Sometimes I think it is a symptom of the “the world is my oyster” thinking, or a defect in my own ability to sit still, process, or stay content, or maybe, again, it is just the natural course of things that I’ve tended to jump from one program, school of study, internship, or fellowship to the next.  At times, in a seemingly radical departure, other times not.  This kind of jumping and skipping has brought many people in and out of my life. All of whom I am grateful for, but with many of them, I’ve lost touch.  Really, I suppose, this is just part of life. Though I hope I’ll never lose touch with our cohort, I know life will take us in new and different directions as it’s already taken Roger back to Canada, and we may not talk or see each other for long stretches of time. This is hard to think about.  I cannot help but think it is my fault. Perhaps I let people slip away because it is easier than trying so hard to eventually loose them anyhow.  But again, perhaps this is just life in the modern age.  If this is the case, I will allow myself to be comforted by my memories and (unless I allow it to get out of hand), I welcome an occasional past-ward dwelling as a way of keeping my friends around me as we all move on to new places and new things.

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Indeed, it’s true that every time I get out a cast iron skillet, butter, or buy a bottle of olive oil, my mind is filled with thoughts of Roger.  Whenever I smell kimchi, certainly if it happens to be before 9 am, I think about Paul.  Every time I visit a friend, I think about Ian and how he comes bearing gifts. When work seems tedious, I think about Ben and the way he matches it with laughter or how Emily matches it with focus and passion. When I have friends over, I channel Mandy’s hospitality and when I have the opportunity to walk through the forest I think about how Susanna would capture its beauty in word or drawing. Sometimes when the moon is just right, I think about how Kate would sense its history and probably do a nice dance.

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It’s pretty cool — to see how the things I do or think are such a culmination of all the people I’ve met, grown with, played with, and learned with throughout life.  The world is turning with the wonder and delight of interaction with cool cat friends and family, and for this I am quite certainly grateful.

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Since early June, we have each been researching topics for our capstone projects. Last week we presented our projects at The Highland Center in Monterey. After so much hard work, it was great to get such awesome feedback. More importantly, we started some really important conversations about food among the community members.

I personally wrote a book called “A Young Farmers Guide to Sustainable Farm Management.” I explored expenses and revenues from vegetable gardening, laying hens and dairy goats. I found that all of these ventures resulted in net loss or very low net income. Ultimately, my book did not describe a very bright future for small farms. However, many of the audience members still had very positive ideas for ways to make it work. I am very excited to have my own farm one day and it was encouraging to hear that most people in the audience thought it would be a possibility. Here are just a few of the suggestions they gave me:

There are farmer cooperatives who work together to share equipment, tools and other resources. Many pieces of equipment, like the walk behind tractor I discussed in my project, are very expensive for a small-scale farmer who may only be using them three times a year. Instead, you can split the cost among several other farmers.

In my project, I assumed that I would be buying about 2-3 acres of land for about $150,000, but given the amount of debt this creates, one person in the audience had a suggestion to lease land instead. There are long term leases that go up to 99 years, so it’s almost like owning the land. Costs of leasing are variable, but I did find a document published by Virginia Extension stating that in Highland County the highest land rental rate per acre per year for cropland is $50.

For the theoretical CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in my project, I assumed that it might be possible to get 60 CSA members to sign up. One audience member pointed out that in Highland County it would be very difficult to get this many members. If my goal is to a get a lot of customers who are willing to pay a high price for veggies, I need to start a farm closer to a big city. Or talk to Highland County community members and see how many people might want to buy a share of veggies and how much they would be willing to pay.

Another good idea was to research potential customers and see what types of produce and other farm products they might be willing to buy. I can grow as much wonderful food as I want, but if I have no one to sell it to then I might as well not even grow it.

The suggestion I liked the most, which came from our very own Phase II Fellow, Roger Woo, was to go through my calculations again, but do them backwards. Instead of growing an arbitrary amount of vegetables on an arbitrary amount of land and just hope to break even, figure out how much money I can make per square foot of garden space with a particular vegetable. So for a conservative calculation with carrots, I can assume that carrots are planted three inches apart. This means that per square foot I can grow, about 9 carrots. Say each of my garden beds is 100 ft by 2.5 ft for a total of 250 square feet of garden space, then I could potentially get up to 2250 carrots for one garden bed. Take off 20% for defective carrots and then I have 1800 carrots. Say I can sell a bunch of 8 carrots for $3. That would give me 225 bunches for a total possible revenue of $675. Then say I have 20 beds total all of which make a similar revenue. My garden revenue could be a total of $13,500. Assuming lots of extra path space, this total garden space would cover 10,000 square feet which is only about a quarter of an acre. I originally listed costs for a one acre garden, but I think now it would be better to determine what revenue I would require to make a profit from the garden before deciding on garden acreage.

It was so cool to hear everyone’s suggestions and feel their support. It was also amazing to think about the amount of information I could compile if I talked to a lot more community members, as well as farmers. Our country needs to do something to make it easier for young people to start small farms and I think that discussing the financial viability is a big start. Farming is always going to be something that is mentally and physically taxing. If we can support each other through programs like AMS and building community in other ways, I think it will be possible for more small scale farms to be successful in the very near future.

Living up on the mountain at AMS, it is easy to forget how we can have an impact on the local community. I am hoping that one day my own farm will also have an impact on the local community. I hope that growing good food and inviting community members to be part of growing their own food will bring people together. Food is something that everyone understands. Food is comforting. Food is natural. Food is the greatest gift you can give and receive. I am so happy to be attending AMS, where food can always be the center of attention. In our society today, we have lost sight of the fact that we should place a high importance on what we eat.

Thank you to everyone who attended our presentations and please check out the links to what we have done on the AMS website. You might be inspired to start your own project and hopefully for those of you thinking of attending AMS next year, you will also be provided with a little inspiration.

I would also like to say that I am very pleased to have the position of Garden Manager next year at AMS. I have learned so much as a Phase I Fellow this year and I cannot wait to see the fellows next year learn and grow as a group. AMS is improving and growing every year. It is very exciting to be a part of this wonderful organization.

 

Every week, we get a nice, big, two pound brick of local butter as part of our ration for cooking. The other day, or more accurately a month ago, Kayla brought to the kitchen seven bricks of butter and said “This is the butter for the rest of the fellowship.” Thunder and lightning struck behind her as she stood in the doorway with the bricks. I was shocked to see how little time we had left, when measured in delicious, creamy butter.

And now what feels like a few days later, I open the freezer door to find….only three butters left!

How could this be? Has this place created some sort of time warp? Three weeks, three butters, three wishes for more time.

More time, but what would we do with it and what have we done with it in the first place?

Excuse me, while I recap with a rambling list of accomplishments for just a moment because I can’t contain my admiration for my fellow fellows anymore:

  • We’ve cooked mouth-watering, should be award-winning meals almost every day; not one fluke!
  • We’ve grown enough food to feed our bottomless bellies and to store enough to feed next years fellows for months.
  • We’ve designed a food forest.DSCN3328
  • We’ve bathed 17 skittish chickens to rid them of lice.
  • We’ve invented recipes I’ve never dreamed of.
  • We’ve harvested over 100 pounds of our own bee’s honey
  •  and over 3500 pounds of produceDSCN3464
  •  We’ve shared our ideas and excitement with the community at the Farmer’s Market and at the Highland Center, and they like them, I think.
  •  We’ve broken new land to expand and grow more food next year.
  •  We’ve overcome a village plague together.
  •  We’ve made our own medicine.
  •  We’ve done hours, days, weeks of individual research, experimenting, pondering, writing, building, to bring together 7 amazing projects to share with the community.
  •  We’ve come to a decision about the way to make group decisions.
  •  We’ve laughed until we peed our pants… or maybe that was just me.
  •  We’ve comforted each other from horrifying nightmares about flying spider tick moths.DSCN3275
  •  We’ve sung songs and made beautiful music.
  •  We’ve stopped and listened to that beautiful music coursing out of each one of us, and just noticed the bigger song we’ve been creating this whole time.

I’ve grown from infatuation with a beautiful place and infinite idealistic possibilities, to real love for what it means to carry them out, to pursue them steadily.

One of the biggest things I’ve learned recently is that big, intentional change is a slow and continuous process. All efforts, from tiny to huge, are important when they have a great amount of heart and purpose behind them. We all have big plans to change the world and can sometimes get caught up in not seeing the results of our passionate endeavors manifested immediately before our eyes.

One of our managers, Kayla told us a story this past week about her weekend away from the mountain, where she happened to bump into a girl she met a year ago. A year ago, Kayla and this girl chatted and she told her about all of the things she’d been doing at AMS and her goals for gardening, education, and why, etc.  A year later when Kayla saw this girl again, she said that after that interaction she was inspired to start growing her own food, and she did.

With all of the political forks and spoons poking at our food system, and the twisted noodling knowledge of what exactly it is everyone can do to take back our leadership, the best thing to start with is a mindset. If you can change a mindset by your actions or words, your influence becomes much bigger than any one incident in any one moment, much bigger than just growing really spectacular food for that season, or cooking a meal that everyone drools over for that one night. It becomes a ripple in a giant pond, the spark to a world on fire with possibility.

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My task with this blog post is to describe a typical day here at AMS. A typical day… does that exist? To simplify, let’s start with… last Monday.

A new week starts, and my fellows and I meet at 8am for our weekly check-in. My cohort and I have spent the last few days (collectively) relaxing on the mountain, hiking at nearby Seneca rocks, visiting family for a sister’s wedding, showing another sister around the mountain, and sharing beers and maple fudge with an uncle. We meet to refocus. First comes the check-in.

Our check-in is a chance to share with the group how we are feeling, physically and emotionally. Did we have a wonderful, relaxing weekend? Do we feel fully recharged? Are we worried about things that are happening at home? Are we anxious about the blog post we are a month late in submitting? Our emotional and physical states are the framework with which we interact with the world. As our group interacts in close proximity and with unavoidable regularity, this exercise helps us gauge our interactions for the day and understand how are friends are feeling. While it took some time allowing ourselves to be vulnerable with one another initially, this practice has helped us connect and understand each other. It’s been invaluable.

Then we shift our focus forward. What’s on our horizon? What workshops do we have to prepare for this week? How much time do we have in the garden? What are our goals? These questions help us focus our life  on the ground and set the foundation for the most fundamental perspective we have here at AMS, that is, our roles as farmers.

Our growing season is coming to a close on the mountain and there is a lot that we would like to get done. The next couple of weeks will be filled with lessons taught by our competent managers on topics related to cover cropping, seed saving and food preservation. Then we practice, we put beds to sleep and store seeds and food for the bundle of fellows that will be moving into the mountain next year. With all of our effort in uncertainty come questions that we can only wait find answers to. Will our cover crop be strong enough to survive the first hard frosts? How long will we be able to continue harvesting tomatoes? When will our broody hen be successful in hatching new chicks? We do our best to allow these things to happen, and step back and see what answers the sun, the mountain, the soil and the rain, provide.

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After a morning in the garden, an afternoon downpour provides a break from the tasks in the garden and allows us to focus on working on the projects we will be presenting to the community this fall. For me, this signifies a shift from practical farm learning to a more theoretical perspective on farming in general. My research focuses on alternative measures for pest management through garden design. When first beginning research along these lines, I thought this would entail planting specific plants that deter our voracious pests and maybe some plants for pollinating insects. The more I read, however, the more my idea of pest management was challenged for an idea of creating a system within a growing space that provides for its own needs. That means attracting predatory insects into your garden by incorporating water and nectar sources into your garden and designing to have those amenities available year round. That also means giving those insects shelter in which they can stay alive during the winter months. For this approach, a person wants a garden that looks like a thriving ecosystem that will keep populations of things in check. By having a diverse and abundant ecosystem, a person builds resilience into their system. This system perspective is important to keep when farming, as the big picture directs the small.

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That night, the clouds depart just in time for our astronomy workshop with guest astronomers Scott Duresky and Ed White. Our perspective shifts to the universal this time, and our minds are blown. Throughout the night, we discussed the potential for extra terrestrial life outside of our solar system, relative distances in space (if our planet was the size of a microscopic ash particle on the end of a spent cigarette, the Milky Way galaxy would be as wide as the continent of North America… woah), and went out under the stars to gaze at galaxies and hear stories the Greeks and Romans used to make sense of it all. It’s only Monday night and our view has shifted from the ground to that of the heavens.

As the week progresses, our cohort is represented at meetings discussing the natural gas pipeline that is proposed to move through our county, at a fundraiser dinner in town, and as volunteers for the county fair. We are as much members of our small but vibrant community as we are farmers and residents of our mountain. We wear many hats and with those, come new perspectives.

Life up here on the mountain is sometimes trying. We’ve all had hard days, we’ve all felt sick, we’ve felt stir crazy. I think that has to be natural when you live in a small isolated community. The thing that consistently draws me back, though, is what great clarity a shift in perspective can afford.

I can’t speak of your experience, but for me, anxiety and restlessness are often brought on when I fail to widen my vision. Worries about little details seem gargantuan when one is focused solely on those details. Retaining motivation to push for positive change can seem overwhelming when one lives in thinking about the problems our society faces as a whole instead of focusing on realistic change in your community. To be successful, a gardener has to work with the whole garden in mind. They have to hold onto their theoretical, researched knowledge and balance that with experience gained in the dirt. They also have to think about other gardens down and upstream, about local rules and, large, overarching government regulations. Without all of these perspectives, part of the experience is missing.

Ok… we started this blog with Monday. Is there a typical day at AMS? Not really, but when you throw all of the days together, you get something like the awesome collage of ideas and perspectives that I‘ve tried to describe for you here. Every cohort will be different, so will every group’s dynamic and so will every year on Bear Mountain. What’s typical of a day at AMS? The challenge of balancing multiple perspectives and the gift of clarity that comes when it all falls into place.

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Goodnight, Allegheny Mountain School

 
Kelly and Sam let some visual creativity flavor dinner last week.

Kelly and Sam let some visual creativity flavor dinner last week.

The weather today is soupy. Fog suppresses activity in the village with dense mist, while the wind threatens to get nasty this afternoon. Can you believe it? Yesterday the temperature was in the 70’s and I put on sunscreen, yet we prepared for a hard frost this weekend. We will probably be making soup for dinner.

Mmmm …..Soup for dinner.….home-baked bread would go well with that soup, and Aaron is in the kitchen today, which means bread is surely on the menu. Aaron is one of our more skilled bread-bakers up on the mountain, but although he is skilled, that doesn’t mean he is the only bread-baker. The atmosphere here at AMS is one of support and encouraged experimentation. At this point, all of us have dabbled in the art of kneading, proofing, and baking. Sometimes it is a success, and sometimes it is flavored with “Burnt.” Yup, that’s a flavor. Flavors both real and abstract fall into the metaphorical pot, here at AMS. There is “garlic” and “fennel” but also “growth” and “flexibility.” Because our Fellowship is not your average farm apprenticeship, these flavors tend to melt together like a long-simmering soup. Farm soup.

The flavoring of our farm soup started with “burnt” and has progressed into something more enticing, shaped by both the delicate and strong flavors we have added to it. For example, there is “nooch.” In reference to nutritional yeast, “nooch” is a delicate flavor we have all embraced as a necessity to most any meal. And then there’s “garlic.” Not a new flavor, but one enjoyed over and over again on the mountain. Which reminds me of a story connecting bread, nooch, and garlic….

You see, two weeks ago I was in charge of making our bread ration for the week. Aaron had sent me one of his favorite recipes, and I was trying to follow it; perhaps I have a tad more of my mother’s cooking genes in me than I thought because although I intended to follow the recipe exactly, I ended up changing it completely (my mother does this quite often). When I first messed up on the bread, I threw my hand to my forehead and thought ‘oh no! I just wasted soooo much flour! Can I fix this?’ Emily Sullivan assured me I could. I am not new to bread making so I put my thinking cap on and figured out a solution. Ten minutes of kneading and many extra cups of flour later, I had made three beautiful loaves of bread, and a delicious focaccia full of garlic, cherry tomatoes, basil, salt, nooch and oregano which disappeared in less than half an hour. “Flexibility.” That’s a flavor. One which I employed to make this bread turn out with fantastic flair. And it all turned out so well, that the community asked me to make the focaccia for the upcoming open house! Again, it was a success. Flexibility is a strong flavor we all must handle delicately. When someone uses the ingredients you were hoping to use, another dash of flexibility gets thrown into our farm soup. When workshop times have to be re-arranged and we start at 9am instead of 8 (oh, darn), flexibility is added yet again. Last week as village manager, my farm soup was always being stirred with the flexible flavor, especially with spotty weather. But like the silky smooth soup which slides down your cold, tired throat at the end of the brisk autumn day, my farm soup satiates me.Cooking with some flavor

On the mountain we are fond of creating wild culinary experimentations that you could never recreate in a thousand years, and our farm soup has reflected our culinary journey. We have one month left to put the finishing dashes of spice in before we are ready to serve up. In that time, Kayla, Ellen, Laurie and others intend to add their own touch to our farm soup in order to prepare us for Phase II. The most recent flavor came through a day not on the farm, but at the Highland Center. “Management:” Defined as a complex flavor, layered into soup at just the right moment. 😉 (Like Miso!) Our workshop with Betty Mitchell and Ellen Butchart on Non-Profit Management was filled with advice for our Phase II work, perfectly timed for our transition. We discussed our individual positions for next year, rolling through our responsibilities and what that will mean for us professionally. The talk extended into grant-writing, and appropriate communication. Budgets were touched on, and how to conduct ourselves while wearing so many new hats. The management flavor made us (well, me at least) feel a little more prepared to serve up: Serve the community, serve each other, serve the rest of our lives some healthy farm soup.

The focus on wholesome, well-rounded education is how we get so many of our interesting flavors. From Shannon’s pumpkin sauce designed to coat black bean burgers, to pesto yogurt cheese, to the songs Nick and Sam write with their guitars; from the perseverance it takes to bath 40 chickens, to the essential flavor of “burnt” in dried cherry tomatoes. We flavor our farm soup with experiences, teachings, and failures until we realize our soup has become so rich and layered, that you could never recreate it again. 2014 Cohort of Fellows, I am quite fond of your soup. Keep stirrin’ that pot!

 

 

 

Last week we joined a vibrant group of local seniors for a luncheon organized by the lovely folks from Valley Program for Aging Services and hosted by the Highland Center. Following the meal, each of us nine fellows stood to introduce ourselves and share our favorite things about life here.

My brain was a flurry for a moment—many things came to mind. But then there was obvious pause on something that I’ve been so pleased to partake in—keeping honeybees. For me, little beats the thrill of suiting up, peeking into a colony and observing the thousands of tiny creatures move about the hive. Before I came to AMS, I’d been fascinated by keeping honeybees but never had the opportunity to do so. In the past 4 months, I’ve developed a reputation for my infatuation with our (now seven colonies of) bees and it all started in a workshop led here on the mountain by Local Bee Expert, Nicole Balenger.

Workshops are a mainstay in our education here. This year we’ve been graced by seasoned star-gazers, communication sages, herbal heralds, canning connoisseurs, fermentation fiends, stone-stacking savants, mushrooming champions (or champignons), and one aforementioned-badass-dirt-bike-riding beekeeper, to name a few. They’ve joined us for as little as three hours to as long as three days and guided us in the practice of their craft.

What I love about this set-up is we are continuously learning, and learning through practice. None of the workshop leaders have forgone walks for talks. They have all given us chances to actively participate in building our understandings and personally connect with the topics.

A great example of this is our most recent workshop with Zach Foster, who has led all four AMS cohorts in stone building workshops over the years. It was an overcast Monday morning when Zach met us to start the workshop. He jumped right in to his plan for the two-days and it became evident that despite the rain we would not be sitting inside, struggling through any post-meal lecturing, or blankly watching 2 hour power-points. Instead we talked about the uses for stone constructions and then toured the farm stopping at various rock constructions to discuss their strengths and faults, as well as their overall “classiness”. By the time we’d surveyed the existing work on the property and convened to assess where we’d be focusing, lunch was served and the rain had cleared. We spent the afternoon practicing various forms of stone construction like paving, pitching, and wall-building.

In the entrance to our staple crop area we "pitched" stones such that their long axis was oriented vertically adding to the strength and ability to bare heavy loads.

In the entrance to our staple crop area we “pitched” stones such that their long axis was oriented vertically adding to the strength and ability to bare heavy loads.

Emily and Shannon backfilling a terrace wall we built during the workshop.

Emily and Shannon backfilling a terrace wall we built during the workshop.

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The group gathering to review each site including this “paving” project outside of our upper garden.

At the end of our second day we looked over all of the work we’d completed.  Two days of moving big rocks, and I was left with a new appreciation of stone, and my body’s ability too move it, and the strength of my eight lovely peers. Zach closed out the workshop with a reflection on how we might apply the techniques we learned in our roles off the mountain and manage or teach similar workshops, inviting us to look at ourselves as leaders instead of participants.

This workshop embodies the benefits of our learning by doing lifestyle—challenging us mentally and physically, exercising cooperation, valuing nature and natural materials, and pausing for reflection on how we can pass on the understanding we’ve gained.

In addition, I cannot appreciate enough how deeply empathetic so many of the leaders of our workshops are to our needs (often having ones that align), and therefore able to connect with us quickly and build trust. A number of our workshops are lead by former AMS fellows, who have gone on to professionally pursue the topics they’ve come back to teach, or instructors who’ve returned year after year, which aids in the effortlessness with which their leaders assimilate and relevancy of their lessons.

And that’s just workshops. Every day that we’re in the garden, our hands in soil. We are learning to farm by doing it. I hope to create learning opportunities like this as I work, in the coming year and beyond, as a champion of healthy food, resilient communities, and environmental stewardship. As I do so, I’m positive that I will model some of the wonderful leaders I’ve met here. Thank you all for sharing your passions with us!

Read more about some of our workshop leaders featured here.

 
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