“Shake the Hand that Feeds You” is one of the great lines that has percolated from the slow food movement to playfully condense a litany of books and films on the foibles of industrialized food production into a simple yet profound course of action. Not only does it skillfully dance around agribusiness’ dangling promises of “organic” and “natural,” but it releases the whole idea of food and eating from the fangs of dogmatic label and ingredient worship into the vastly more mysterious, creative and fulfilling realm of our shared and common humanity. While yakking it up with your local farmer doesn’t necessarily translate into extra vitamins or fibers in your vegetables, the knowledge and wisdom you glean from the exchange are eminently more rich in the kind of soul nutrients that just don’t survive long journeys in plastic bags from distant farms.
Last month I had the great honor and pleasure not only of shaking the farmer’s hand, but be served a most delicious dinner by said hand(s). This is the story of one farm that didn’t exist ten years ago and is now feeding a lot of happy customers in the Seattle area.
Rewind 5 years…
I met Luke through our mutual friend, Johnny. Johnny and Luke had grown up together in Orinda, a Bay Area suburb not exactly known as an agricultural mecca, then lost touch a bit when Luke became a self-professed football-playing jock. They reconnected after they both, independently of each other, completed Peace Corps stints in Africa a few years later. When I met Luke, he had just returned from Mali, inspired by the way people over there lived off the land, and as I would find out later, he was determined against all odds to defy his suburban heritage and get his hands dirty, really dirty. Moreover, he was going to do all this together with Sarah, his totally and utterly rad beaming earth goddess partner he’d met in Mali. They moved to Seattle and I didn’t hear from them for a while.
Johnny and I play in a band called Chemystry Set. In April of 2004, as part of a Northwest tour, we played in Seattle, psyched to reconnect with Sarah and Luke. They were living in Seattle, but had been cultivating a piece of land in an open field near Duvall, 45 minutes east of the city, for a couple of years. Acquiring the right kind of land is often the biggest challenge for aspiring young farmers with no traditional family and land connections: You can either take out a big loan to buy or lease land, which is very risky, considering that farm subsidies in our current economic system heavily favor big farms over small ones. According to the most recent Structure and Finances of U.S. Farms report put out by the USDA in 2007, “The average operating profit margin and average rates of return on assets and equity are negative for small farms, but positive for large-scale and non-family farms.” The other, less daunting option is to find someone who owns open land and prefers tubers over McMansions, which is not that uncommon in today’s economic, social, and environmental climate, and it is how Luke & Sarah got their vegetable farm going. “I give you land, and you give me vegetables, many vegetables!” Venture capitalism, 17th century style.
The day after our gig we went for a visit to Oxbow Farm, named after the U-shaped bend in adjacent Snoqualmie River. There it was, a dirt road leading to a little container tool shed and a white van right next to about a 1/2 acre plot of dirt. Not much by any conventional standards, but for Sarah and Luke all on their own this was going to be a summer of hard and backbreaking work. It was way past time to get the potatoes in the ground, so what a godsend to have a whole rock band show up on the farm! Of course, we made ourselves useful:
Fast forward 5 years
We sat on the curb, eating delicious veggie quesadillas we got at the stand next door, and took in the busy-bee vibe of the market. I knew that something had changed at Oxbow when Sarah and their adorable daughter Pearl came to meet us, ready for a post-market beverage at the nearby brew house. When I asked Luke if he needed help cleaning up and breaking down the stand he gave me a sheepish look and replied in a casual tone: “Nah, it’s all taken care of, I’ve got my people.” Next thing we know, a van pulls up and two of his employees jump out to close down for the day.
After a couple of beers we discussed dinner possibilities. There are obviously plenty of great restaurants in Seattle, but it was Luke’s insouciant offer to cook up some pasta with fresh farm veggies back at the homestead that drew the loudest cheers. Gee, tough choice — when was the last time you had your food grown, prepared and served by the same person?
An hour later we arrived at their new farm house, a beautiful European-style country home less than a mile from the farm. We were greeted by a motley crew of residents…
Luke whipped up a divine meal! Thing is, it was real simple, just some pasta and canned tomato sauce with fresh collard greens. Somehow I’d had the image in my head of farmers as picky chefs, spending hours upon hours of careful vegetable selection, delicately grazing through handpicked greens and massive spice racks, just to do justice to the great miracles sprouting out of his sacred soil.
“I have no time or patience for fancy cuisine,” Luke said as if he was reading my mind. “In fact, most days I’m so tired after a day in the field that I forget to bring any vegetables home.” As he was tossing the collards into a sizzling frying pan, he turned to us. “I’ll tell you the secret to a great tasting meal: bacon grease!”
To this day I’m telling myself that Luke’s pasta tasted so completely out of this world because we were on the road, our senses wide-open and extra sensitive to even the smallest delights that life on Earth has to offer. But then I think about how much mediocre spaghetti and ravioli I’ve had all around the world and I’m convinced that Luke’s bacon-grease pasta is pure genius.
The next morning we were treated to the ultimate in farm fare, scrambled eggs. Woken up by the sounds of our sheepish friends right under our window, Deb and I wandered downstairs where Luke was cracking the eggs we had helped to extract from the chicken coop the night before.
And yes, it wouldn’t have been a farmer’s breakfast without a generous helping of bacon, but I swear to god, I wanted to suck those puppies down raw, that’s how delectable they looked and tasted. This wasn’t just farmer’s mojo, this was the sheer unadulterated sensation of fresh local food fondling the most remote and neglected taste nerves in my post-industrialized oral caverns unaccustomed to such richness and nuance in flavor. Yum!
Sarah had left at the crack of dawn to tend to a gigantic sunflower backdrop she’d been hired to grow for an upcoming wedding (take note, all you lovebirds!), so after dropping off little Pearl at her aunt’s house, Luke took Deb and me down to the farm. I couldn’t wait to see the soil I had dropped sweat and potatoes into five years earlier.
I recognized the little dirt road from my last visit, though the super hip new logo on the welcome sign was a first hint at things to come. When we came around the bend we were greeted by a two-story building that housed a huge storage barn and equipment garage as well as an office and kitchen on the second floor. My jaw dropped just a little — holy cow, Luke, you’re a friggin’ mogul, dude! Before further inspecting the heir to the old container we decided to walk out into the field. Or rather “fields,” I should say. The old patch where Chemystry Set had been goofin’ around five years earlier was still there, but it looked like a backyard compared to the new plot they were cultivating downstream.
Somewhere on the other side of the field we saw a bunch of people. Luke said, “let’s go over there and say hi to the crew,” so we walked along an unseeded row to get across. Stomping through the dirt I was thinking to myself that Luke had finally gotten his own private football field, or better yet, several of them…
When we got to the other side we were greeted by the crew. These folks weren’t kidding around, a far cry from a bunch of slacker musician tourists!
It was Memorial Day and they were trying to get the weeds out and the lettuce seedlings in the ground. One by one, row by row…
After a brief chat, these guys were itchin’ to get back to work, including Luke, who had tons of catching-up work to do, from ordering equipment and seeds to responding to emails from his CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) customers to fixing up his fancy new hand-me-down weed-wacking tractor. Yes, this one:
It was also time for Deb and I to head back south. While it would have been fun to stick our hands in the dirt we had told our friends in Portland we would meet them for a late lunch. Considering the caliber of crew that was out there we probably would have just slowed things down anyway.
I felt well-fed in so many ways: there was for one the supreme physical satisfaction of having had our bellies filled with simple goodness from nearby earthly treasures. There was also the profound joy of not only shaking, but bonding with the hands and spirits that were feeding us. But lastly, and perhaps most significantly, our visit gave me hope for humanity and the planet that is so generously hosting us.
Seeing a place like Oxbow grow so much in just five years proves that there is a huge demand for fresh locally grown food, and that despite farm policies that are heavily stacked in favor of big commercial agricultural practices it is possible for resourceful and dedicated small farmers to survive and thrive. Each new family farm that pops up against all odds puts another crack in our collective perception that food needs to be shiny, spotless and genetically modified. Small seeds will eventually turn into trees too, if we water them.
Here’s to true heroes…
and future heroines…