Woodentop Farm

If I write a book about my life, I dare say Woodentop Farm deserves an entire chapter. I spent two weeks there and it was quite an experience. It'd probably be the most interesting story, full of colorful characters and strange occurrences. Alas, I am not purely in search of another chapter, more interesting than the last, for my autobiography. I'm out to learn about farmers who are thoughtful in their practices and are contributing to the betterment of our food system. While Woodentop wasn't that, there were some beautiful moments and gorgeous animals, so I figured I'd share anyways.

Daily Life

In February I finally returned to life of the small farmer. I spent two weeks at Northdown Orchard, a vegetable farm in Basingstoke, England. I’ll introduce you to Northdown through a picture of “home life” to begin.

“I love that I spent an entire day outside under the open sky. I harvested and cleaned leeks, making them “look sexy” as Andy put it, and weighed veg for the boxes that will be distributed tomorrow. Now I’m sitting in the living room near the wood burning stove. This is right. I love the worn, unfinished wood floors of this farm house; the bookshelves that are crammed with books about everything related to farming you can imagine; the open kitchen cupboards exposing a mismatched collection of glassware, plates, and an assortment of canned goods; the clothes that hang over the fire to dry; and the simple fabric curtains draped loosely and easily by the windows. I love seeing the light shifting through the day, casting shadows across the kitchen and then smelling an easy fire, hints of pine and a whiff of yeast from the rising bread dough. This life is deeply satisfying. It’s not exactly clean but  it’s not dirty either. It’s neither tidy, nor disorganized. The air is hot while sitting next to the stove, warm when gathered around the table for a meal, and cool in my room before I snuggle into bed. You take off your shoes before coming into the house, but it’s not for fear of dirt. The house exudes a worn comfort. Cats are ignored when, but not exactly welcomed to sit on the counter or table. And to top it all, I was welcomed to Northdown with a feast of roasted lamb shoulder with squash, parsnips, sprouts, rutabaga, beets, potatoes and wine. Goodness, what could be better?”

Northdown Orchard

Here’s a peek into harvest day at Northdown Orchard. It was still winter when I was in Basingstoke, so the harvest wasn’t as abundant as it is during the warmer seasons, but look at what all can be grown when it’s cold!

Free Range

If you’re like me, you read food labels. You reach for items with words like “organic”, “free range”, “cage free”, and “all natural” but do you know what these words mean? Over the last month I’ve visited a number of various farms (poultry, beef, pork, veal, etc.) and I’m learning that when stamped on our food, these words do not line up with the images in our minds or even basic dictionary definitions.

So let’s think about “free range”. I picture chickens in a pasture or amongst trees while scratching the dirt, eating bugs and bits of green growth. Now that I think of it, that’s not just my imagination. The egg carton is actually printed with this idyllic picture. Do you know what “free range” actually means in the American food industry? According to the USDA’s Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms website, “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”

This does not mean that the birds have actually spent any time out of doors, ranging as they’d say, or that they have adequate space when they are inside. Here’s one image from an English free range barn. I have a feeling that it looks extremely different (worse?) in the United States.

So what do you do? As far as I can tell, the biggest way to find honesty in our food system is to buy from farmers and food producers that you’ve met. It may be today’s catchphrase, but “buying local” really is something. Because of the size of their production, small farmers may not have certified labels on their food, but chances are they’ll answer your questions honestly and maybe even let you come see the farm.

South Circle Farm

Not just anyone can take an abandoned city lot and turn it into a thriving farm.  I was about to say that Amy Matthews has a magical touch, but I know better.  She is an incredibly hard working and dedicated farmer, intent on making good food accessible to our city.  That’s what it takes.  The more I learn about farming, the more I see that doing it well is more about determination and sweat than dreamily walking through fields while waiting for rain.

South Circle Farm is new, just completing it’s second season.  I was introduced to them at the market- they always have a beautiful display of produce, and I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days with them this fall.  It was enlightening to hearing Amy’s story about farming in Indianapolis.  Despite the persistant work of people like her, the city still does not support ventures like South Circle Farm very well.  In fact, last time we spoke, she was afraid of losing the land (and years of manual labor) due to politics.  Indy NEEDS people like Amy- people investing their lives to improve our city.  Truth be told, there are better places to live- better climates, more supportive city governments and more progressive cultures.  I know it’s fun to shop at the market from time to time, but it takes more than that to truly support our local farmers.

Next time you’re at the market, ask the farmers what you can do to support them.