Friday, June 28, 2013

Interview with a Homesteader

Being a homesteader was never on my list of top five things to accomplish when I was 25 years old. It really wasn't even in the top 10 until my son was born in 2005. When I look back and think about the transformation that is my life, I'm pleased and honored that I have been given the gift of looking after my family, the land, the animals and able to grow food.

Another gift has been my connection with the gals over at Farm Chit Chat - we're doing a Homesteader Highlight each week - in life I'm assured there is a main purpose: to help other individuals.

There's a kind of childish smile that begins when I contemplate the connection between myself and the term homesteader. Me? Really?  Yes, really.

Here is part of an interview that I completed last week:

Farm Chit Chat: Sheila Menendez started her blog, Hope Farm, as a means to connect with others and make known what her life on a small -timey farm is like.  She posts the good, the bad, and the ugly, not necessarily in that order.  Sometimes, she doesn't post as often as she would like to - this often means that they are busy working the farm, pulling weeds, or visiting with friends and family.  The blog and the ever-growing pile of laundry often come last  in a long line of priorities.  

Interviewing Sheila for the homesteader highlight, I was reminded of my grandparents.  Not that Sheila and her husband Ed are old.  Not by any means.  But their strengths and values remind me of a generation that had to live purposefully, with grateful hearts and enduring spirits.   Read on to learn more about this beautiful spirit.
 Farm Chit ChatHow did you get started in farming/homesteading?

 Sheila - I suppose I've always been connected animals my entire life – having always had horses and later, chickens. My husband grew up in upstate New York and he was involved in the FFA (President in his senior year of High School) and 4H as a youngster. In fact, his mom, Marie, started a 4H group and kept it organized for a good while. So, all that to say, there has always been some level of farming or homesteading in my blood – while I could certainly be considered a city-girl, growing up in the Inland Empire of Southern California – it’s something that can’t leak out; that desire to grow your own food, be a good steward of the land, and to excel at animal husbandry. We got started in 2005 – back in California – but really gained momentum in 2008, here in North Carolina.
Farm Chit ChatWhen did you begin? How?

Sheila- I always say there’s a story that leads to every story so let me start in the beginning. Prior to living in North Carolina, my husband and my then-toddler and myself lived in the mountains just south of Banning, California in an area called Twin Pines. We had a mini-homestead then with some Barbados sheep, chickens, and a couple of goats. But in October of 2006 the Esperanza fire ripped through the area taking over 30% of the homes and while ours did not burn, we lost our business and decided to make a major life change. We needed to live in a location where we could afford to live within our means, grow our own food, and raise our son to know what that was like. We prayed for guidance and I have often said that “God rolled out the red carpet right to this old farmhouse on a few acres.”

CLICK HERE to read the rest of the interview.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Dirty Lettuce

Lettuce is one of my favorite things to grow, besides Swiss chard, and it can be relatively easy to start from seed. What isn't easy is keeping it clean. And then we have the bolting lettuce that wants to produce seed instead of leaves when the heat gets turned up.

This spring we've had an unusually high amount of rainfall and whether in raised beds or not, the lettuce seems to be a magnet for the dirt that splashes up from the splat of the raindrops into the soil.

Food safety is high on our list of priorities here at Hope Farms and we take it seriously. We use a hand-washing station and sanitize our harvesting utensils and containers with a sanitizing solution as necessary. Of course, we're not preparing for surgery, so there will be no masks or scrubs donned while picking lettuce but we do follow a basic procedure. Although we are not "certified" by any institution or organization we do follow the basic outline of the GAP's, or Good Agricultural Practices.

Often, at the market, you might hear me say "wash the produce really well," and I mean that not because there are unpronounceable chemicals on them but that the produce is probably dirty. As in dirt. Actual tiny grains of dirt and sand, in which it grows and gleans the nutrients it provides to us.

In the research that I've done, it has become fairly clear that sometimes the potential contamination of a product can occur during washing it. So that pre-washed lettuce that we've all come to see in the grocery stores? Not-so-much on the safe side. In fact there have been many recalls on bagged lettuces and spinach. Here's a list: (a list? we need a list? is this normal?)

Scary, yes?

No, I'm not trying to scare anyone, but just bring the level of awareness up to the playing field. Think about all the times that we eat each and every day - feeding our children, parents, friends, neighbors, and more - do we actually stop to contemplate where the food has come from? No? Why not? If yes, then how did you get to that point of awareness?

Not all farmers work hard to put safety at the forefront of their operations. Not all farmers are transparent and allow you to come to their farms. Not all farmers care about their customers. I encourage you, the consumer, to start asking questions about how the farm operates, whether or not you can visit (and no, you can't just 'show up' that would be rude!) and about food safety practices. There are, just like in other types of businesses out there, individuals who are in business for financial gain only. Don't get me wrong, authentic farmers should make a fair living wage, too. Get to know your farmer. 

A little dirt on your lettuce might be a good thing. We are, above all, a family here at Hope Farms - we're just like you. We welcome questions, inquiries, and visits by appointment. We aren't perfect, but we hold to the standard that if we wouldn't put it on our table, we won't ask you to put it on yours. 

Have a great day y'all!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Swiss Chard, My New Friend.

Frequently, at the farmers' markets, I am asked about Swiss chard - "How do I cook this?" Having a somewhat elusive reputation - Swiss chard deserves some attention.

Belonging to the chenopod family makes Swiss chard kin to beets, spinach and quinoa. Often used in Mediterranean dishes, it is not only versatile, but nutrient dense as well. This article is a good resource touting the benefits of this terrific green.

Baby Swiss Chard

"Swiss chard is not only one of the most popular vegetables along the Mediterranean but it is one of the most nutritious vegetables around and ranks second only to spinach following our analysis of the total nutrient-richness of the World's Healthiest vegetables." 
"Recent research has shown that chard leaves contain at least 13 different polyphenol antioxidants, including kaempferol, the cardioprotective flavonoid that's also found in broccoli, kale, strawberries, and other foods."
"Like beets, chard is a unique source of phytonutrients called betalains. In the betalain family are found reddish-purple betacyanin pigments as well as yellowish betaxanthin pigments. Both types can be found in chard! In the reddish-purple stems of chard and the reddish-purple veins in the leaves, scientists have identified at least 9 betacyanin pigments, including betanin, isobetanin, betanidin, and isobetanidin. In the yellowish stems and veins, at least 19 betaxanthin pigments have been identified, including histamine—betaxanthin, alanineĆ¢ˆ'betaxanthin, tyramine-betaxanthin, and 3-methoxytyramine—betaxanthin. Many of the betalain pigments in chard have been shown to provide antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and detoxification support. The detox support provided by betalains includes support of some especially important Phase 2 detox steps involving glutathione. So you can see that in the case of chard, beauty is far from just skin deep!"
Wow! What a shining star, this green leaf we humbly call Swiss chard!  I'm humbly honored to be growing this super-fantastic nutrient-dense food that travels just a short ways, always chemical-free, to the farmers' markets near you.

And now let us continue with some nutritional facts:

  • 1 cup of Swiss chard has only 7 calories
  • Low in carbohydrates, it has only 1 gram (dietary fiber 1 g)
  • Zero cholesterol or fat
  • Sodium 77mg (3% of Daily Value)
  • Excellent source of vitamins A, C & K
  • Good source of potassium, fiber, iron and magnesium
When individuals ask me what it tastes like, I tell them it tastes like dirt. What I probably should say with a bit more tact is that it tastes "earthy." 

But why is Swiss chard called Swiss chard? Because it was discovered by a Swiss botanist and is a part of the Beta vulgaris family. Or, beets, as you might know. It sometimes goes by the names silverbeet, Roman kale, and strawberry spinach, as detailed in this article which also has a terrific recipe for a low-fat frittata. What a perfect combination; fresh-from-the-farm eggs and Swiss chard!

Of course, all good things in moderation, right? I did read in the aforementioned article that Swiss chard contains oxalates, which can potentially lower the body's absorption of calcium and can contribute to kidney stones - that's IF you are prone to kidney stones in the first place, though.  

More recipe links:

And there are hundreds more - just "Google" Swiss Chard Recipes and you'll have a plethora of ideas to explore. 

So, that sums up our new best friend, Swiss chard, I do hope you'll find some soon and try a recipe - and do let me know what you think about the taste of dirt earth!

Monday, June 24, 2013


There are days when I wonder, “What is the point?” and as I contemplate the question I toss around mathematical figures without any real answer.

I began harvesting at 7 am, packaged Swiss chard, kale, salad lettuces, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, and fresh-cut herbs by 8:40 am. Loaded cooler, readied vehicle and changed clothes – by 9 am I’m turning the key in the ignition of the old mini-van and am rolling west-bound toward the farmers’ market. Arrive and set up by 9:50 am. At 11:30 am I have counted the dollars that have come across my quilt-covered table and I can’t deny being a bit disappointed. Sixteen dollars and fifty cents grace the bottom of my change box.

With just over two hours to go, I chat with fellow vendors on either side and across from my table. There is abundance of squash, tomatoes, lettuce, blackberries, green beans, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes and some specialty items such as sprouted grain whole wheat breads baked in a wood fired brick-oven and pasture raised poultry and fresh-from-the-farm free-range eggs. It’s a delightful scene..

Everyone who’s ever grown a market-garden and attended farmers’ markets knows that they take time to grow. As this market is brand-new as of this past May, it would be wrong to have high expectations in regards to sales, but it would also be wrong to believe that it is sustainable to spend, by the time I arrive back home and unload the van, just over eight hours and have brought home (hopefully) twenty dollars. That breaks down to two dollars and fifty cents per hour, folks. Hardly a wage to behold – keeping in mind this does not take into account the fuel used to travel the 56 mile round-trip and the time, seeds, water and other tools used in preparation for the growth and harvest of the produce. And we all know that when beginning a business, especially in the agriculture world, one cannot even begin to look at recovering the cost of their time. Out the window it flies, whether we’re having fun or not.

My kale and Swiss chard seems to silently scream out, “Pick me – I’m GOOD and I’m NUTRITIOUS – I haven’t traveled 2000 miles nor have I been sprayed or dusted with any kind of chemical, EVER!” the passersby head to the tomatoes and jellies on the table next to me. Or, they stop at the table two stalls over for the great looking red and green cabbages. I don’t begrudge them their choices, nor do I feel ill will toward the fellow farmers. I want everyone to succeed.

Second in nutrition only to spinach, my Swiss chard is a sleeper, with few knowing the power of the vitamins, minerals, and protein wielded within (yes, protein). Although not one ounce of anything is ever wasted on our farm, even if the greens did go on a 56 mile round-trip, for if we can’t eat it right away, it goes to the pigs, chickens, cow, horse, goat, rabbit and the guinea pig. Sometimes my dogs look at me with forlorn eyes as though they think I might believe they could become vegetarians. Although Sam, my border collie, will dig an avocado skin out of the compost pile every single time I put one in there. The symbiosis is almost enough to make up for the lack of revenue. Almost.

“This area won’t support a farmers’ market,” they’d say. I refused to listen for almost three seasons. As stubborn as a mule, and able to argue with a post, I have been determined to direct market my fresh, local food to the very people with whom I share zip codes with. The first season, 2011, I sold my eggs. I quickly learned that Joel Salatin nailed the mindset when he talked about customers coming to the market with a $1.49 bottle of soda in their hand while complaining that three dollars per dozen for farm-fresh free-range eggs was “too darn much money!” The second season, my husband, in charge of going to market as my AmeriCorps VISTA duties required that I adhere to a strict “no moonlighting” policy, lasted only until the end of June. He became thoroughly disgusted when he could not give a tomato away let alone sell one. He quit. And my heart ached.  This year I resolved to farm full-time. I told my husband, “It’ll be different; I’ll grow other things that we won’t have to try to give away.” Here I sit with my Swiss chard. It’s the end of June. I’m a wee bit worried.

If I weren't in the midst of reading Forrest Pritchard’s book, Gaining Ground, I’d be even more than a wee bit worried. I’d probably cry. Never mind that I had to take a deep breath when 1:15 pm came and went while my cash box increased by just eleven dollars. This brings my grand total to $27.50 today. In the book, on page 188, the paragraph that resounded with me most began,

“Just like a farm, markets had to be tight and good enough, too. Each tent was like a little garden unto itself, with a farmer tending to its needs. Collectively, these gardens created a landscape, a market unto itself. But no matter how excellent the presentation, no matter how fresh the produce, regardless of how well these farmers watered and weeded, tilled, and toiled, the work was all meaningless if there were no customers to buy the food.” 

Don’t get me wrong, I've had good days. Days when I've sold out and left the market early because I had nothing left to sell except for a sprig of basil and two bunches of orange and chocolate mint and maybe a dozen eggs. I LOVE growing food and I LOVE going to market. There is something special about meeting the people who are going to take home MY food and turn it into a part of a meal that will nourish their bodies. Developing relationships with individuals and families is extremely important to me. I've come to know many market-goers by name and if I saw them somewhere else, I would stop to ask them how they are doing, and walk away smiling because it was food and a farmers’ market that allowed me to know them. I’m honored to grow food for those who want it.

As I drove home today after a debauched errand my heart sank lower than it has felt in weeks. Between the end of the market, which yielded not one additional penny, and driving home I had a chance to read more of Forrest’s book. I’m still a dreamer. This paragraph resounded with me heavily:

“All farms require a resident dreamer, someone to thumb through seed catalogs in the cold days of late January, imagining summer fields of squash and cucumbers, tomatoes and sunflowers. Fall harvests are the reward of winter dreams. Someone must decide where the next fence should be placed, or conceive of a clever new way to organize the market stand. On a farm, there’s no shortage of little dreams needing to be dreamed.”

I must credit my husband with being the dreamer-in-chief. There have been countless conversations – early morning, late night, and in between – about keeping our feet on the ground. I've been called a pessimist when I was simply being what I thought was a realist. “But what a about ‘you-fill-in-the-blank?’ I would ask. His answers would vary, but always firmly root in the fundamental soil of ‘If we don’t try it we’ll never know.’ He has stretched us, as a family, and caused me to question everything I have been taught and told. I suppose that is one of the driving motivations for turning to farming in the quest for making a living – question everything. Often I tell people that everything is an experiment – learning the hard way teaches me the best lessons. And sometimes the most financially stressful ones, too.

It is good that the farm has been officially and affectionately dubbed "small-timey" because I'm feeling rather small and vulnerable right now - like a seedling just transplanted before a big downpour. I'm either going to make it, or I'm not. My vote is for the former.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Can't Write. Too Nice Out. Must Garden.

Meanwhile, dear readers, have a go at these photos. Will write soon, I promise.

Local Food

Fresh Milk

Goat Hoof Work

Not a day goes by, Sis. I miss you.
April 1975 - 2012

Pasture Princess

Good Times.

Good Morning!

Good Afternoon.

Good Eggs.

From our family to yours - we hope you are enjoying your summer! Find us on Facebook and "Like" us - it's a proverbial adventure from morning until night.