The life of a traveler is filled with uncertainty. It seems like only yesterday I was jobless, homeless and driving a broken car. Today, my car is still broken but I’m living in Nelson, New Zealand – a town that is as close to perfect as I have yet to find. Read More
We all have a story to tell and these pickers are no different. Each of them traveled thousands of miles to be in New Zealand and somehow we all ended up picking apples at the same orchard.
Who are these pickers? What’s their story?
For the past six weeks, we have been living and working on an apple orchard in Hastings, New Zealand. Our life is anything but glamourous. It’s half organized, half disaster and oftentimes a little too dirty for my liking. But it’s simple, and simple is good.
All of our material belongings fit into our 22 sq. ft. station wagon and we tend to spend most of the day outdoors. We see the moon as it’s rising over the apple trees, we feel the first hint of stormy weather when the wind picks up and we have one too many flies to keep us company. Read More
Apple picking is full of surprises. The backbreaking work was expected, but the life lessons I continue to learn are a welcome curiosity.
It feels like we have just signed on to be part of a reality show.
This is the true story of twelve strangers, from seven countries, picked to live and work on an orchard, to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real. Is this, The Real World New Zealand?
Okay, maybe there aren’t video cameras in the corner, recording our every move. And maybe, instead of living in a mansion, we all sleep in our cars, but it does sounds eerily similar, don’t you think? Read More
My mind doesn’t seem to have a great capacity for personal memories. I can easily recall numbers, facts and information I have read, but it’s a struggle to recall my own life experiences. For the sake of remembering this past year, I have been keeping track of the skills I have acquired while living on the road.
There are a few easy steps you can take to ensure you find a great WWOOF farm. Follow these 8 Tips for Finding a WWOOF Farm and you just might find yourself happy as a clam, even if you are cleaning chicken coops or illegally crossing borders. It’s all part of the experience, right?
Are you itching to experience something in life that makes you feel alive? Are you looking to make a major change – to avoid getting caught in the 9 to 5 lifestyle? You have the chance. I took a leap of faith last year, quit my job at a prestigious investment firm and began to explore an interest that has always been on the back of my mind: organic farming. Read More
Our last farm on this six-month journey across North America was Lockewood Acres. Nestled between San Franscisco and Sacramento, Lockewood Acres is a small organic farm home to goats, sheep, heritage chickens, fruits and vegetables. Read More
In my former life, Fridays were spent painfully watching the hours tick by until I was free for the weekend. These days, my work feels more like an adventure than a chore. Last Friday epitomized our current lifestyle: healthy, hard work. The weather was predicted to shift substantially over the weekend, and we knew that this may be our last day to hunt for mushrooms. We rode our bikes up the mountain until we reached a spot along the trail that felt secluded. Mushroom hunting is a popular activity in this part of the country and we had to search for an area that had not already been picked over. Read More
Working at Zig Zag Mountain Farm entails quite a bit of heavy lifting, but it also requires that each of us spend at least one day a week taking care of the indoor chores. Each morning AJ asks, “Who wants to be in the kitchen today?” and he is usually answered by all of us looking at one another with eyes that are just begging the person next to us to raise their hand and report for kitchen duty.
I am exhausted. Our first week at Zig Zag Mountain Farm has ended and it wore me out. The month long hiatus we took in Minnesota did nothing for my endurance. I am now sitting in the kitchen, with a blazing fire at my back, sipping tea and reminiscing about our latest road trip. We planned on camping each night on our way out West, just as we did this summer, but this time the weather did not cooperate. Bismarck, North Dakota was our first overnight stop and Chase had picked out a sentimental campsite for us, located along the Missouri River, the same river we camped on earlier this summer when we set out on the road. However, the tornado warnings and torrential rain prohibited us from any outdoor sleeping and we settled on the cheapest hotel.
I do not have a single good reason for why we slept in a hotel on night two, only that we arrived in Missoula around 9:00pm, hungry and tired. We could not imagine searching for a campsite and setting up in the frigid darkness. Finally, on night three, in the middle of wheat country Washington, we camped. Our drive to Palouse Falls State Park was slightly confusing. We knew that we were camping next to a rushing waterfall that drops a sudden 200 feet, but we imagined it would be set within a lush, wooded area, since we had been told that the state of Washington was full of rain. Yet, once we crossed into Washington, it felt like we were back in North Dakota – only flatter. Fields of wheat ran off in all directions for as far as I could see. The road looked like it had been only recently paved and was so narrow that we held our breath whenever another car would pass. It was the type of road just meant for a car commercial. We snaked between farms and never once saw any kind of forest or wetland. Within a couple of hours, the GPS told us that we would be approaching our destination in one mile. Confusing, there was no water in site. We set up camp and could hear rushing water, but we still couldn’t see this supposed waterfall. After walking a mere 100 feet, we set our eyes upon the beauty of Palouse Falls.
The falls are 198 feet in height and drop straight down into a 400 foot canyon. Tectonic forces and Ice Age floods over millions of years all contributed to the creation of such a spectacular sight. We climbed all around the waterfall for hours and never stopped being amazed. The canyon that contains the waterfall continues it’s winding ways for miles. The best view is from atop the falls, standing slightly behind the drop. I could feel the power in the water that raged over the rock and I could sense the force that it took to form such a creation. There was no doubt in my mind that the energy in this location was palpable. The air felt like it was waiting for a single spark to unleash it’s energy. Standing as close to the edge as I dared, I felt faint when I realized how much trust I was putting in Mother Earth. I was trusting that a cliff of rock and sand would hold my weight. I trusted that the ledge I was relying upon wouldn’t crumble and become part of the pile of fallen rock below. What is it about nature that allows me to trust without question, when I can barely trust my doctor to read an X-ray?
Our night was a cold one. The temperature dropped to 35 degrees, but we were toasty warm in our sleeping bags and sweaters. The next morning we took one last hike around the waterfall and started towards our final destination – Zig Zag Mountain Farm. Along the way we watched the countryside turn from fields to forests. We drove parallel to the lovely Columbia River from east to west, until we reached our turn toward Mount Hood. Our home for the next month is located at the base of one of the largest mountains on the west coast. They say everything here is larger because of all the rainf they receive each year, but it has yet to shed a drop since our arrival. Each day, we work surrounded by Fir trees that rise 100 feet above the ground. The leaves on the Maple trees are massive and each time they tumble to the ground I mistaken them for an approaching animal. They don’t just delicately drop to the ground like Minnesota leaves, it’s as though they are trying to let the whole world know that this is their last moment of life by making as much noise as possible.
Zig Zag Mountain Farm is different from the other farms we have visited this year. They offer a mountain retreat for workshops and classes throughout the summer. The farm manager, A.J., makes sure that the garden is producing and that the land is in pristine condition. Part of his taking care of the land this summer has been completing a massive forestry project. He and the other volunteers have worked to thin 33 acres of temperate forest to promote tree health and prevent forest fires. I hope you realize what an undertaking like this entails, but in the case that you do not, it means taking a thick forest and removing trees until there is on average 10 feet between each tree. This way enough light can filter through to the trees and keep them growing strong. The process began with sawing down all of the unwanted trees. Once these trees were scattered across the forest floor they had to be responsibly removed. The felled trees had to be limbed, bucked and stacked into organized piles. This meant climbing up and down the mountain, carrying insanely heavy pieces of trees and placing them into organized piles. These piles of wood could now be used for firewood, building materials and woodchips. Chase and I worked on the tail end of this project for the first week and I am proud to say that together we can lift most any fallen tree in the woods – once it has been bucked up of course. My muscles are still getting used to this lumberjack lifestyle, but luckily we have a wood-heated hot tub to ease my pain.
A lot can change in one generation. A family living below the poverty line in Northern Minnesota has the chance to change their destiny and become defined as middle class in a single lifetime. With hard work and the luck of being raised in America, my family accomplished this mighty feat. But, such a change is social status does not come without toil and the history of my family’s plight to live in Minnesota is one that begins in Norway.
My great-great maternal grandparents moved from Norway to the United States of America as children. My great-great grandmother Aletta Anderson traveled alone when she was only 16 to reach relatives already living in Minnesota. My great-great grandfather Sievert Anderson arrived with his mother as a newborn, in an attempt to escape a life of indentured servitude in Norway. In the late 19th century, Norway’s agricultural economy suffered and many families were forced into servitude as the only means of survival. Sievert’s mother became pregnant after she was raped by the farmer who owned her in Norway. With very little money, but a strong will, she managed to cross the Atlantic ocean with a newborn and begin a new life in America.
|Left: Aletta and Sievert with their 11 children. Right: Aletta and Sievert on their wedding day.|
After meeting and marrying in Minnesota, Aletta and Sievert raised 11 children on their farm in Pelican Rapids, Minnesota. My great aunt JoAnne remembers summers spent on her grandparent’s farm, flying airplanes off the sun porch and getting perms at the local salon with her sister, my grandma Betty. They always felt like their grandparents had really made it in life because they could afford to purchase their home from the Sears Roebuck catalog for $2,000.
|The Sears Roebuck home|
Visiting their grandparent’s house was a treat and they often stayed for weeks at a time, while their parents earned money cutting lumber. Betty and Joanne’s parents, Aaron and Agnes, raised five children in Pony Lake, MN. Their life was anything but easy, but always filled with joy. Aaron and Agnes’ relationship began in utter rebellion. Each came from a strict Lutheran family, where dancing was forbidden and men and women sat on separate sides of the church each Sunday. On Saturday nights, Aaron and Agnes would sneak away and meet at the local schoolhouse dance for a taboo night of spinning and slow dancing. When Agnes’ father, Sievert, was eventually introduced to Aaron he was appalled to see that Aaron’s family was eating fish. He thought, god forbid, they were Catholic. Once it was cleared up that they were simply eating fish, not a member of a different religion, Sievert blessed the union and allowed Agnes and Aaron to wed.
Aaron and Agnes Lewis raised a family of seven in a tar paper home that barely protected them from the harsh winters. The three boys would squeeze into one bed and the two girls slept in the bed with their parents. Winter mornings would welcome them with a snow covered floor. After Agnes washed the floors in the morning, the kids would have to be careful, because it would become an ice rink in a matter of minutes. The warmest place in the house all winter was sitting on the door to the open oven. Aaron would attempt to keep the family frost-free by filling the cracks in the walls with manure and newspaper, but the home never did seem to heat up until April.
|The Lewis family|
Once it began to warm up, it became Betty and Joanne’s favorite time of the year. They would accompany their parents to the local store and pick out the pig, cow, and horse feed with intense interest. Once the animals had emptied the sack, they would get to sew a new dress. Feed sacks came in a wide variety of patterns and were an economical alternative to buying fabric. Flour sacks were the next best thing to feed sacks, because they could be reused as dish towels and sheets. The labels affixed to the sacks were difficult to remove, but that didn’t stop women across the country from using a combination of lye, lard, bleach, and elbow grease to get their new fabric clean. Eventually, manufactures wised up to the resourceful American woman and made it easier for the labels to be removed. They even went as far as stamping the bags with stitching lines for dresses and towels. Manufactures knew ambitious women could persuade their husbands to buy the best looking patterns, so they would increase profits if they appealed to the American woman. A typical woman’s dress took three feed sacks; being able to boast that you were a two-feed sack girl was the equivalent of being a size two today. I am certain that Joanne and Betty’s ingenuity with their dress creations has factored into their lives today. They both have an uncanny ability of creating something from nothing and seamlessly blending into our every day life.
|Left: Two women in feed sack dresses, National Geographic, 1947. Right: Instructions from a chicken feed sack.|
As the five Lewis children grew into adults, there lives began to diverge from one another but they never forgot their roots. The three brothers still live in and around Pony Lake and have all found success in farming. Joanne and Betty’s paths came together when they each moved to Staples. Joanne and I traveled to Pony Lake in August to spend time with her brothers and hear the tales of their childhood. As adults, they can now recognize the poverty in which they raised, but never once did I hear a tale about the difficulty of their life. The times they remember are when they were laughing so hard as they watched Betty get her front tooth knocked out while boxing with her brother – even though the cost of a dentist meant she went without a tooth until she was in her late teens. Joanne remembers how she was the lucky child, because she got to eat every meal on her dad’s knee – it didn’t matter that they only owned six chairs in a family of seven.
Listening to such stories as a young adult who grew up complaining if the temperature in our home dipped below 72 degrees in the winter, I feel thankful and proud. Thankful my family persevered when life handed them hardships. Proud that they worked hard for happiness. I only hope I can continue the family tradition.
|The Lewis family|
Anyone who has known me for more than 24 hours knows that I don’t drink a lot of beer. To be more precise, I never drink beer. I tried it once in High School and never wanted to put such vile liquid in my mouth again. So I never did. Not once. I attended the University of Wisconsin without once placing a red solo cup of beer to my lips. Some may never believe such a statement, but if you know me at all you will know that it is the truth. This all changed when I got the chance to sit down with Mariann Van Den Elzen, “for a beer.”
We had met at the Farm Olympics a few weeks ago in Wilsall and I worked with her one Tuesday morning as we assembled the weekly CSA share. I asked her if I could meet with her and hear more about Market Day Foods, the company she co-owns and founded. She agreed and suggested we meet at a local bar in Bozeman to chat. Her schedule is hectic during the week but she fit me into her life and a great conversation ensued.
I met her at 5:00pm on Thursday at The Bozeman Brewery. I asked the bartender if they had any ciders on tap and she replied, “No. And I don’t think we ever will.” This wasn’t going well. She explained that the bar only serves six beers, all of which are brewed next door. I deeply gulped and swallowed my fear; I knew what I had to do. Mariann arrived and we each ordered a beer. I played it cool, I bet she doesn’t even know that I don’t drink beer until she reads this article.
Getting to know individuals who are making a living in the vast realm of sustainability is one of the main reasons I am on this yearlong farming adventure. I want to get an understanding of how people are turning their interests in sustainability into a career. Mariann has done this by creating a company that connects farmers to their communities in southwest Montana. She built relationships with farmers during her career as the farmer of Field Day Farms, which she ran and operated until this year, when she decided to focus full-time on Market Day Foods.
Market Day Foo is an online food distributor. Retail and wholesale customers have the ability to purchase fresh, Montana-produced, fairly price food from the comforts of their home or mobile device. A hungry customers simply logs onto the website and sees a wide selection of produce that is available for sale. They select what items they would like, pay online and pick up their groceries at the closest distribution site. For an additional fee, they are able to have it delivered to their front door. Market Day Foods’ customers represent families, individuals, restaurants, and companies from Bozeman and surrounding southwestern Montana communities.
Mariann has the formidable role of balancing the supply of each farm with the demand of each customer. Each farm grows a diverse variety of vegetables and each farmer must know how much they will be able to harvest for Market Day Foods customers. Mariann aggregates the expected harvests that the farmers have communicated to her and translates this into the online market. Once the list of available produce is posted on the website and customers have placed their orders, the real fun begins. Farmers now know exactly how much produce they must harvest for their Market Day Foods customers and they know it is a guaranteed sale. Unlike selling at a Farmer’s Market, where a farmer harvests as much as she thinks will sell, selling with Market Day Foods means that a farmer is only harvesting produce which is already purchased. Certainty is rare in organic farming, but Market Day Foods makes a portion of a farmer’s weekly sales absolute.
Once the orders are in, farmers deliver the harvested produce to Mariann’s refrigerated warehouse in Bozeman. Mariann and her team now organize the chaos and deliver the produce to designated locations throughout the surrounding communities for pick-up.
Market Day Foods epitomizes the idea of supporting a regional economy. They are connecting farmers to eaters, a relationship that has been increasingly disconnected since the growth of industrial food production. The food they are providing goes from field to plate within 12 – 24 hours; it is grown chemically-free, and encourages local farming families to keep growing food. Montana citizens are increasingly supporting their regional economy. Since being founded in 2010, Market Day Foods has tripled their sales each year. They currently have over 1,000 customers who have created an online account and purchased produce at least one time. In August they averaged 130 orders per week between their retail and wholesale customers. When blueberry season reached it’s peak this year, people went into a fruit frenzy. Market Day Foods sold 250 gallons of blueberries in six hours.
For all of the success that Market Day Foods has already had, they have dreams of expanding further. Mariann envisions the growth of a non-profit side of the business, which would educate new farmer’s about the importance of farm management and building efficiencies. She sees the waste in our current partiality of Grade A produce and would like to have an on-site processing facility that could turn those bruised tomatoes into sauces, which would mean Market Day Foods could purchase a wider variety of produce from farmers.
Mariann sees the wholesale side of the business growing exponentially, if she is able to expand into local hospitals, Yellowstone National Park, and school districts. She would love to one day have an Everyday Farmer’s Market store, which would be located in busy downtown Bozeman and always be supplied with local, seasonal produce. And if that wasn’t enough for a lifetime, Mariann also wants to start running a Veggie Truck through the growing suburbs of Bozeman, tempting children and parents with the idea of purchasing fresh, local vegetables.
A major part of a sustainable company is profitability. I believe that for a company to be sustainable, it must be environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable. Market Day Foods aims for a profit margin of 22.5% when selling the produce of local farmers. This compares to the average 30-35% profit margin of commercial distributors. Mariann will never reach the profit margins of commercial distributors because she is not working with the same type of farmer.
Commercial farmers tend to grow one major crop on hundreds or thousands of acres. Organic farmers tend to grow 20-50 varieties of crops on less than ten acres. The volume that commercial farmers reach allows for economies of scale, which lowers the cost of growing. Since organic growers do not rely on pesticides or fertilizers to reduce risk, they must diversify their crops. Diversifying their crops means they do not reach the same volume as commercial growers. I would prefer to know that my farmer is growing in a biologically diverse, sustainable manner, which is healthy for me and for the land.
I left our meeting feeling one step closer to finding a career in sustainability, even if it means drinking a few beers once in a while.
My hands are dry; the skin is cracked and hardening. Multiple layers of soil live beneath my fingernails. The muscles in my back ache from bending down each day, reaching to the Earth for weeds and produce. The skin on my arms and legs has never looked this brown. I am probably perpetually dehydrated from the sweltering, Montana sun. Yet, I have never been happier.
I wake up each morning to watch the sun rise over the mountains as I begin my work. I no longer watch the sun rise and fall from inside a tall, glass building. This time, I am part of the day. I feel the sun begin to warm up the air as I am finishing up the morning chicken chores. I take off a layer of clothing before I begin to weed a row of lettuce.
By mid-morning, the sun is scorching. It’s time to put on my floppy farm hat, which may not win any fashion awards, but does protect me from the sun. The winds blow steadily in Montana and I thank Mother Nature for them at this time each day. Sometimes, I am lucky and the wind blows clouds across the sun. Such seemingly small moments are only appreciated when you are outside, working in the elements. In my previous, cubicle-living, work environment I never noticed the clouds or the wind. I only cursed the sun when it created a glare on my computer screen and slowed my work pace.
Not a day passes when I am not thankful for the life changing decision I made to step off the rungs of the corporate ladder and climb into the rich soil of farming. Working outdoors gives me energy like I have never known. I am constantly weeding, harvesting, hoeing, or chasing chickens, but at the end of the day I still feel alive. I spend my evenings reading books, writing, cooking, or laughing with friends. I think this is what people would call a balanced lifestyle. And this is exactly why I changed careers.
I used to come home at the end of the day and feel like a zombie, like my brain had used every last bit of juice focusing during meetings and working on spreadsheets. It was all I could do to muster up the energy to eat dinner. I never want to return to such a state of living, because it wasn’t living, it was existing. My life had no balance because my life did not revolve around me. My life revolved around my clients, employees and superiors. I was living to make them happy. I am now focusing on living to make myself happy. Thus far, it is working. I have never been happier.
“Just living is not enough,” said the butterfly, “one must have sunshine, freedom and a little flower.” – Hans Christian Andersen
The Wild West has won our hearts again. Have you ever been to a rodeo? Okay, yes, if you have been out West, you probably performed your tourist duty and went to a rodeo. But, have you ever been to a ranch rodeo? You won’t see any bucking bronco riding at a ranch rodeo; this type of rodeo is not just about the show. A ranch rodeo focuses on the skills that ranchers use on a daily basis to manage their herds of cattle. Our last weekend in Montana fell on the same weekend as the annual Willsal Ranch Rodeo. The event brought folks in from all around the countryside and each person had a connection to one of the teams competing. The stakes were high and the competition fierce as the winning team in each event went home with over $2,000. Ten teams, made up of four individuals competed in six events. The fourth individual was required to be either a woman or a boy under the age of 15. Proud day for my gender. Luckily, each team decided that a woman was a better teammate than a child.