farms and farming

Farm Morning

by Caroline

Henry James famously wrote that “summer afternoon” were the two most beautiful words in the English language, but to me, the words “farm breakfast” are equally sweet and evocative. They make me remember childhood Saturday mornings spent rereading Farmer Boy‘s descriptions of maple sugar pancake stacks, or my mom’s stories of summer mornings on her uncle’s dairy farm, where breakfast often included leftover peach or strawberry pie with soft whipped cream. “Farm breakfast” means fresh, abundant, filling.

When we were in Illinois last month, friends mentioned that a local farm puts on a regular Saturday breakfast; maybe we would be interested in going? Yes, we would! And so we made our way to Prairie Fruits Farm, where they raise goats and fruit, for a lovely breakfast of goat milk and goat cheese goodies: strata with chard, caramelized onions and goat cheese; walnut spice coffee cake; lemon cake; Mexican hot chocolate made with goat milk.

Somehow I failed to get any pictures of the food (or even the menu), but trust me when I say it was delicious, and afterwards we spent plenty of time outside thanking the goats:



Planting Potatoes

by Caroline

Last summer when we visited my parents, the boys experienced the treasure hunt of digging potatoes. This spring, to bring the process full circle (backwards!) they planted. Both boys have done a fair amount of seed planting, both at home and at school, and Eli’s recent picture demonstrates some understanding of the process:

But potatoes are different. They don’t grow from seeds. And since we don’t have the space nor the climate for potatoes here, I’m grateful that my kids could head out to the garden with my dad for a brief farm lesson in the dirt.

I was stuck inside on crutches on the day they planted, so I have no story to relate about the event, but my sympathetic husband took some lovely pictures (you can click on them to enlarge):


The 2A Farmer’s Market

by Caroline

The 2nd grade curriculum at my son’s school is built partly on the study of communities, so every month or so there is a field trip to a different part of the city, where the kids hear stories about the neighborhood and eat some snacks: fried chicken feet in Chinatown, tacos in the Mission, you get the idea. The Civic Center field trip was timed to hit the Farmer’s Market, and although Ben missed it because of a nasty case of strep throat, the kids had such a ball, tasting fresh produce and chatting with the farmers, that the 2nd grade teachers decided to put on a classroom farmer’s market the following week.

The kids were assigned a single fruit or vegetable, and worked with partners to create informational posters about their produce:

Ben was assigned the orange, and not only did it give us a nice excuse to talk with the orange farmer at our neighborhood market, but (at my dad’s suggestion) we checked out John McPhee’s lovely book on oranges and learned this:

“Botanically, [oranges] are spectacularly complicated. They can be completely unripe when they are a brilliant orange and deliciously ripe when they are as green as emeralds. An orange grown on one side of a tree is better than an orange grown on the other side. Citrus is so genetically perverse that oranges can grow from lime seeds. Most California lemons grow on orange roots. Most Florida oranges grow on lemon roots.”

Oranges are crazy! And they’re also delicious. The farmer’s market offered naval oranges, Valencia oranges, and Moro oranges, so we bought some of each for Ben to cut up and share with the students, parents, and school staff who came to the market. He even wore an orange shirt for the occasion.

Ben loved the project, as his enthusiastic classmates clearly did, too. And I loved seeing food and farming get such close attention in the classroom. Now all we have to do is find room at the school for a garden…

California out the window

by Caroline

Every Sunday morning, just two blocks from my house, our neighborhood farmer’s market lets me witness the seasonal cycles of California produce and other farm products. Valentine’s Day was the last day for satsumas, for instance, so I bought several pounds for our trip; the woman who sells me eggs explained she’d run out earlier than usual because “The ladies are slowing down.” Our farmer’s market, like many, is made up of small family farms: they bring their kids; they borrow change from the neighboring stand; they may run out of produce and close up early. California agriculture as seen from my farmer’s market every week is low-key and pretty casual.

The California agriculture I saw out the car window last week on our road trip is an enormous machine; it’s the California that feeds this country. One statistic I read says that the state grows “more than half the nation’s fruits, vegetables and nuts from less than 4% of the nation’s farmland.” Driving across that less than 4%, as we did on our drive east and south to Yosemite, and then south some more and west to Santa Barbara, is hugely educational and although I’ve done the drive before, doing it with the kids this time I paid even more attention than usual. I highly recommend loading up the car with the kids, snacks, and books and doing it yourself some day if you can.

This time of year, the orchards are just starting to bloom; we passed almonds, walnuts, peaches and other stone fruit (it’s hard to tell the difference between all the different trees from 70 mph). We saw orange groves that stretched out to the horizon, the trees heavy with big orange globes, and then, as we got closer to Santa Barbara, the spreading branches and shaggy leaves of avocados, their fruit hanging like so many heavy green rain drops. We passed farm stands advertising lobster tails and avocados at 10 for a dollar but because we were nearing the final miles of a six-hour drive and a stop would have made it hard to get the kids ever back into the car, I thought a little sadly of lobster tail burritos with guacamole, and we drove on.

In southern California I was lucky enough to visit two farmer’s markets: a small one in Montecito, and a much bigger one in Santa Barbara. I counted five different kinds of avocados (Pinkerton, Fuerte, Bacon, Hass, Zutano) and was amazed to see that it was already spring, from a produce perspective: the farmers offered snap peas, asparagus, strawberries and loads of tender herbs (at which point I finally remembered to take out my camera):

Then there was the small slice of California agriculture we saw out the window of our cousins’ home; they’re renting a place where the backyard is planted with a half dozen avocado trees. The New Yorker in me was amazed at the bounty (sadly none of it ripe):


The kids just loved playing with the great sticks and the dried-out pits that had fallen from the trees. Our cousins have a lemon tree, too, and this again, for someone who is tending one small potted lemon tree and finally got one planted in the ground this spring, amazed me; even the kids were notably impressed by the size of some of the fruits:

Driving from Santa Barbara back home, our car now fragrant with a grocery bag full of lemons, we crossed miles of grape vines, producing for both wine and table; acres of romaine and other lettuces; and plenty more fruit and nut orchards before the landscape gave way to the beautifully soft, uncultivated green hills of the South Bay. The farms represented at our neighborhood market aren’t visible from these big highways, but now that we’re home I can’t wait to see what they’re selling this week.

One City Garden

by Caroline

I grew up in a little town (it calls itself a village, and while I find the word a little precious, it fits) of big, pretty houses on smallish lawns. The yards weren’t fenced, and my neighborhood didn’t have sidewalks, which made it a pretty soft place for a kid to grow up running around with her friends, racing from one yard to the next as our game developed. Our yard was part of the action, too, until my dad realized that the front got a lot more direct sun than the backyard, and so that’s where the vegetable garden went. Screened by a pretty hedge of deep pink and white beach roses, the garden produced peas, beans, tomatoes, broccoli and lettuce, among other vegetables. My dad established another small garden next to the side door and encouraged a patch of blackberries at the end of the driveway. Volunteer squash and tomatoes sprang up from the compost pile and, as my siblings and I grew up and needed less yard to play in, Dad cultivated gradually larger swaths of the backyard, too.

Now my parents have retired to a big piece of property in rural Connecticut, where my dad has an enormous garden and orchard, and I’m the one with an urban garden. Now, this is not the kind of really urban gardening that Lisa wrote about last summer. We don’t have a front yard here in San Francisco, but we can at least do our planting in the ground, not a truck (though honestly, my kids would prefer a truck).

For now, while my children are young and require a lot of my attention for their cultivation, we’re keeping the garden small. (A friend, whose youngest child is the age of my oldest, has recently converted her entire backyard into an edible space; no lawn at all, just paths made and lined with herbs, blueberry bushes and fruit trees in sunny spots along the fences, vegetables — some in beds, some (like the artichokes) standing alone — sprouting up in every spare nook. I dream of such a yard, someday). We’re still learning what we can
produce here in our foggy neighborhood; we don’t get a lot of heat or sun, but we have a pretty long growing season; greens do very well, tomatoes do not. And whenever one of my kids has an urge to plant a seed, I encourage the impulse even if I know, as with yesterday’s apple seed, it’s not likely to bear edible fruit. Some times, it’s important simply to plant a seed.

future apple tree

future apple tree

strawberries and chard

strawberries and chard

lettuces, agretti, and zucchini

lettuces, agretti, and zucchini

can you spot the artichoke?

can you spot the artichoke?