Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Listening to the Lorax

One of the large beds being prepared for Fall
In one of his most powerful and popular books, Dr. Seuss tells the tale of the destruction of the Truffula tree forest, that ultimately led to the downfall of the entire region. By selfishly exploiting the environment, the short-sighted society had suffered a boom and bust. The once-greedy Onceler retells the history to a young boy amidst a torn landscape. He closes by handing over the last remaining Truffula seed, with the bidding to regrow the forest and do right by the land. Shawn and Josie of Truffula Seed Produce are trying to do exactly that.

Josie and Shawn from Truffula Seed

The young couple are in their first year at the market, selling produce and plants from the farm in New Windsor, Maryland. But prior to this, they had apprenticed at other local organic farms in order to learn the trade and the business. The farm itself is not theirs; they essentially rent land from Josie's parents and on a neighboring lot. It fascinates me that when most people their age are toiling in the downtown office looking for the next promotion, they are embarking on a path that will certainly not bring fortune. Recently, I had the opportunity to spend several hours with them touring the garden, learning a bit about them, their family, and the drivers behind this venture into sustainable agriculture. I imagine the wealth of that conversation will cover several entries. I thought I'd dig in.

Truffula Seed Produce is grown largely on Garden Gate Farm, the remnants of an old dairy farm purchased by Josie's parents about five years ago. It's not one of those giant tracks of open land with a farmhouse and outbuildings standing starkly against the landscape. There are a wealth of trees and a variety of plants. A few small cabins and the old farmhouse are home to three generations of Josie's family. Josie and Shawn take care of the fruit and vegetable garden, providing food for the extended family in a barter arrangement for rent. Her parents raise chickens and grow various other plants and trees for the family's use. The arrangement helps  the couple to provide organically, sustainably, grown produce to the community. They sell at three local farmer's markets in Westminster and Takoma Park, but do not have a CSA or farm stand.

Garden Gate Farm was purchased only a handful of years ago, so Shawn and Josie were not raised on farms and with a heritage of living off the land. Indeed, they grew up in the Maryland suburbs of D.C. So, how did they get from there to here? Like others involved in local living, the answer is complex and not entirely clear. They cite influences that led them to the point of pursuing a simpler lifestyle. Both attended a Quaker school as children and Shawn went on to a Quaker college. Josie's parents had dreams themselves that led to the eventual purchase of Garden Gate Farm, probably forty miles and a world apart from the communities that line the DC Beltway. Shawn served in the Peace Corps in Morocco, gaining an appreciation of the people, culture, and simple means. They have clearly read a lot, and thought a lot, about the environment and community living. They worked at local farms and found support to pursue sustainable agriculture.

Those are some seriously long beans!
Arriving at the farm, I pass a large summer garden on either side of me. Here they grow food for the market and some items just for the family. If I recall correctly, there are fourteen varieties of tomatoes, accompanied by various squash, beans, chard, potatoes, onions, herbs, melons, and a wide selection of other plants. There are some really interesting super long purple beans. Shawn explains that they don't lose their color when cooked and don't have a hard bit on each end, making them easy to prepare. They look like eggplant-colored spaghetti!

Behind the original farmhouse is a high tunnel they constructed this spring. Constructed of a series of giant metal arches, draped in heavy plastic, the high tunnel is essentially a green house. The extra warmth the tunnel brings allows them to move plants outdoors earlier and harvest hot weather items like tomatoes sooner. Having dealt with the wildness that defines tomato plants later in the season, I am intrigued by their clip system. Where I constantly prune, stake, and tie the plants that defy taming, theirs are clipped to strings that hang from the tunnel rafters. The specially designed clips and string allow them to save a lot of time and get a better harvest. But the tunnel also demonstrates the risks of their approach to farming:  dust beetles have destroyed all their eggplants.

The couple have chosen to farm not only organically, but without the use of approved organic products they feel are still bad for the environment or consumers. For fertilizer, they begin with 6 inches of leaf litter compost and do not amend during during the season. They also apply no pesticides or fungicides. As we hand pick squash bugs from the undersides of their Fall squash leaves, Shawn says, "this is how we control pests." Looking across the field, the amount of labor required is daunting to me.

We sat for awhile in their work room shelling dry beans. I had never seen dried beans in their shells, nor had I ever seen beans as beautiful as these. Each dry pod contained a handful of gorgeous multicolored beans. Shelling them in a circle while engaged in conversation made for easy work and shared experience. Josie has written a blog entry with loads of photos and wonderful details about their bean growing. You should read it!
Tiger's Eye, Jacob's cattle, and a bit of Calypso beans

While we sat on the floor emptying the beans from their pods, we talked a lot about their background, family, future, hopes, and economics. This is not a highly profitable venture, and it's fair to say that right now its not at all profitable. Like most small, particularly organic, farmers, they spend their lives largely working. They sell or consume all that they produce and cannot fully meet demand. But their hourly wage would not rise to that of the federal minimum. Like many other young farmers, they tell me, they are blessed by unique circumstances that allow them to run this business and live a simple lifestyle. They are grateful to consumers who are willing to pay a premium price at the market for the food they grow, and they appreciate that customers are deciding to spend more on food for a wide range of reasons. I'm sure that many customers, on the other hand, are just as grateful that someone else is willing to work, bent over in the hot Maryland sun, removing squash bugs by hand, and helping heed the message of the Lorax.
The modified washer drum allows for efficient spinning of lettuce
Well that's a sampling of what I was able to see and learn during my visit; more to come. In the meantime, this is where you can find them...

Farmers Market at the Westminster Antique Mall
Tuesday 4:00pm - 7:00pm
The Antique Mall on the corner of Rt. 27 and Hahn Rd.
Westminster, MD
Crossroads Farmers Market
Wednesday 3:00pm - 7:00pm
Holton Lane, just off of New Hampshire Ave., one block south of University Blvd.
Takoma Park, MD
Downtown Westminster Farmers Market
Saturday 8:00am - 12:00pm
Conway Parking Lot at the corner of MD 27 and Emerald Hill Lane
Westminster, MD

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