Garcia’s Gardens

One of the great things about freelancing is coming into contact with the coolest people: farmers.

A story assignment recently took me out to the eastern edge of Marion County to meet Daniel Garcia, proprietor of Garcia’s Gardens. This suburban Lawrence farm takes up most of the Garcia family’s back yard and is overlooked by their neighbors’ subdivision houses.

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This photo was taken in late fall, showing the crops that Daniel was going to protect through the winter.

“Do you ever wonder if people are looking out their windows at you while you farm?” I asked him when he took me on a midwinter tour of his grounds. We were looking under row covers at salad greens and “the babyest of baby spinach” as he put it.

“I hope so,” he quipped, “because nobody is ever outside, except for the occasional smoker.”

For someone who grew up working in his Mexican-born dad’s huge garden in northwest Indiana, and took a job picking strawberries at age 12, it’s hard to fathom why people would never show their faces outside. “Everybody’s always indoors. It’s weird,” he says with a shrug.

He says some of his neighbors think he’s crazy, but one older couple gets it. “When we first got our chickens,” he says, “they were like, ‘oh I used to tend my chickens and we used to have a big garden.’ I think they really like what I do.”

Chefs and customers like it too. In addition to direct customer sales, Daniel supplies restaurateurs who love his carrots, Asian greens, heirloom tomatoes, and green onions, just to name a few. Because of the size of his enterprise (he farms intensively on about half an acre) he can pay close attention to the quality of his produce.

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Daniel checking under the hood of his 1940s-era David Bradley two-wheeled tractor.

One of the interesting things about this particular farm is Daniel’s use of a walk-behind David Bradley tractor, which dates back to the 1940s. He says it works like a mechanical mule with tires, and runs on a three-horsepower engine like a lawnmower’s. Just about any farm implement that would be hooked up to a regular tractor has its matching implement for this one-axle machine. Using it to keep weeds at bay allows Daniel to avoid chemical herbicides, which he’s committed to doing.

When I asked him if he felt like he was helping to keep history alive by using the David Bradley, he said, “I think so, a little bit—I hope it’s not like a curse!” He’s one of many organic farmers using this type of tractor—and some use it even for planting seeds.

Daniel takes his produce to the Fishers Winter Market and also sells it through stores like the Good Earth. Spring through fall, he can be found at numerous outlets, including the Irvington Farmers Market, which is where I met him. I believe we bonded over kohlrabi or some such thing, and I was struck by the joy he radiated, standing there in his veggie booth. Here is a man who loves what he does, I thought.

Later I got to meet his sweet family and hang out with them and their dog Gonzo (Gonzo Garcia, love it!). I got to crunch a freshly pulled carrot, and even made off with some delectable chickweed, as I wrote about here.

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One of the best parts of working at home instead of in a corporation, as he did a few years ago, is more time with his daughters.

I know I’m not alone in appreciating the fact that people like Daniel are out there growing healthy food in innovative ways. Today I learned that Grist Magazine has honored another farmer I met “on the job,” Ben Hartman of Clay Bottom Farm. More on him in a later post!

Made of Sunshine

I first heard about Healthy Hoosier Oils when shopping at my food coop, Pogue’s Run Grocer. As a local food enthusiast, I was thrilled to find out that there was a new local alternative for culinary oils. I didn’t know much about how the product was made, but after I took home my first bottle of sunflower oil, I knew it was delicious. Seriously flavorful.

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Once you’ve tried it, you will crave its buttery flavor.

I ended up buying bottle after bottle of sunflower oil as we drizzled it on our salads all through spring and summer. And popcorn popped in the stuff is amazing. It’s great for stir-frying too. Then there’s canola oil, which has a more neutral flavor and a higher smoke point.

Eventually I suggested to my Farm Indiana editor that we do a story on the Boyer farm in Converse, Indiana. That’s where the seed crops are raised and turned into this fantastic staple of my dinner table.

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Sunflower fields forever.

Yes, this is the amazingly fortunate position I find myself in at this stage of my life: I get hooked on a particular foodstuff, and get to go visit with the folks responsible for it. I write a story about them and collect a (smallish) paycheck.

I met Craig Boyer, the 81-year-old patriarch of a family that manages to stay tightknit and geographically close in an age where that is rare. (All of his and wife Nancy’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren live within just a few miles of where the above photo was taken.)

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Craig Boyer with a section of the filtration system for the culinary oils.

The land has been in the Boyer family since 1848, farmed for six generations and counting. The culinary oil enterprise is fairly recent, and arose partly out of Craig’s health crisis. He had to semi-retire after a major cardiac event, and he was supposed to watch his diet. His sons Mark and John experimented with converting their biodiesel operation into culinary oil production, in part because of the market—but also because their dad loved his fried foods.

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Brady Bolen bottles and labels the freshly pressed oil.

I was pleased to hear that the oils are free of solvents and additives. I actually was a bit clueless about how conventional oils are extracted (through a nasty-sounding process involving hexane and high heat). Healthy Hoosier Oils go through a cold press.

The oil crops themselves grow in a minimally-tilled row-crop setup, in rotation with the corn, soybeans, and wheat that the Boyers also raise. “We use zero chemicals,” Mark told me, speaking of the canola and sunflowers. I asked about weed control: “It actually is relatively easy in that both canola and sunflowers eventually will canopy. When they canopy, they cover the ground and protect themselves from invasive weeds to a certain extent.”

Honeybees are key to the Boyers’ strategy too—they partner with a local beekeeper to make sure that honeybees are working their magic on the crops.

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Honey from Bastin Honey Bee Farm of Knightstown is sold onsite along with the oils.

 

I enjoyed my tour of the operation that July day, even the sweltering 1940s-era corn crib (repurposed to store the oil crops). Here’s the writeup for Farm Indiana, if you’d like to read more. Locally, you can find Healthy Hoosier Oils in Kroger stores, Pogue’s Run Grocer,  and other independent grocers.

 

Catching Abundance

One day early in June, I looked down at my salad plate and realized my good fortune.

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The abundant salad

I saw that an incredible number of friends and acquaintances had contributed to my meal. Here were lettuces I’d purchased as seedlings from a farmer friend. Serviceberries I’d picked from a neighbor’s tree. Roasted chickpeas given to me by another neighbor, and guacamole from yet another neighbor. I dressed it with a drizzle of superspecialyummo high-end olive oil that another neighbor-friend gave me, along with beet kraut from local fermenters Fermenti Artisan.

I mean, seriously now.

And that’s not even mentioning the contributions of all the nonhuman cocreators of my food, the bees and tiny bugs, the sunshine and rain and minerals and fungi and soil itself.

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Dan’s tree was loaded. Enough for birds and neighbors to enjoy, while still filling his freezer.

This time of year especially, the sheer plenitude just delights. That is, if we let it.

Nance Klehm of The Ground Rules calls it “catching abundance”—the idea that our job is to show up and appreciate, and make use of, what we are freely given.

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I picked these yesterday. Blackberries, red raspberries, wild black raspberries, mulberries, and a couple Alpine strawberries.

It can be food, but it can be other things too. Recently I’ve felt grateful for an abundance of ideas, an abundance of encouragement and support, an abundance of beauty, on and on.

One night, at bedtime, I saw the quarter moon reflected in my neighbor’s window. I let myself be awed.

Gratitude opens the door to awe and wonder, two emotions that promote loving-kindness, so essential in this jaded age. (This article posits that “chronic awe deprivation has had a hand in … making us more individualistic, more self-focused, more materialistic and less connected to others… We need to actively seek out awe-inspiring moments in our everyday lives.”)

Contacting this state then, which I also call spaciousness, is not just the icing on the cake. It may be the entire smorgasbord.

Saturday I took a space at a wellness expo, where I asked people where they encounter spaciousness, or what it means to them. Many generously contributed to my inquiry, as you can see.

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I invited people to contemplate spaciousness and add a thought to this board. I caught an abundance of responses!

A few of the answers:

  • Expansion ♥
  • In the green of nature
  • Simplicity
  • Freedom to be me!
  • Contentment ♥
  • Awareness
  • Love!
  • Open heart ♥
  • Unlimited
  • The stillness inside of myself

And my personal favorite, a drawing of a tree. (Yes! Thank you, Tree!)

I bow in gratitude to the people willing to scribble something for me, and to those willing to pause a bit longer and try out my uber-short meditation for grounding and expanding. What a privilege to encounter so many openhearted souls.

What about you? What is your experience of spaciousness,  or where do you encounter awe and wonder? Are you catching the abundance in your life?

To Pause and Give Thanks

Gratitude is not just a seasonal thing for me. I look to be aware of the blessings in my life all the time, the better to enjoy them. Lately I’ve been taking a few minutes before I eat a meal (when I remember to!) to celebrate all the contributors to my food.

I will look down at a humble bowl of oatmeal with raisins and almond butter and pause for a second. I will think (or say), Thank you! I love you I love you I love you! And then, if I feel like I have the wherewithal in this moment, I get focused and consider:

  • the farmers responsible for growing these oats, grapes, and almonds
  • the bees that pollinated them
  • the sun and rain
  • the worms and microscopic wee buggies that do so much unseen
  • the people involved in processing and transporting
  • the folks at my local food coop where I bought these foods.

Thank you, I love you!

What’s really fun is to look down at a meal and realize how many personal connections it embodies. I’ll think: Oh yum, I get to eat Amy’s spinach (from South Circle Farm) or Randy’s squash (from Stout’s Melody Acres). The celebration feels even more expansive when I know my farmer. And the food tastes better too.

Today’s lunchtime moment: thanking Earl (Blue River Natural Foods) and his pastured hens for the beautiful eggs, Laura (dear friend) for the tomatillos that went into my salsa verde, Matthew (Big City Farms) for the gorgeous carrots.

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Local eggs cooked cooked “over hard” and topped with homemade salsa verde, with dilly carrots and spicy sauerkraut on the side.

Also Joshua and the folks at Fermenti Artisan for the spicy Latin American kraut known as curtido. And…myself for the small part I played in planting and harvesting dill from Seven Steeples Farm, where I sometimes help out Mike, the farm manager.

Thank you, I love you!

No matter where the food comes from though, this mindful, grateful state brings texture to a meal. A good thing, to pause and give thanks.

Foraging on Two Wheels

Yesterday evening I joined Greg Monzel and friends in an activity combining two of my fave things to do: riding my bike and foraging for wild edibles.

It had been rainy all day and I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. Especially since—even though I love cycling—I had never mounted my bike on a car carrier to drive it somewhere. (The foray started at White Pine Wilderness Academy, which is not in my neighborhood.) I also had to go to my local bike shop and get lights mounted (another first: cycling after dark!)

It all turned out to be worth the effort: I got to hang with some excellent folks, experience the woods after dark, and taste some interesting things. I was not brave enough to munch on a pillbug, however. Save that for another day.

Below are some photos from the evening. Sadly I didn’t get any of us on two wheels. You’ll just have to take the dorky bike helmets as evidence that we really did cycle to our destination, before dismounting and exploring.

Greg showing ??

Greg showing us polymnia canadensis, or white flower leafcup, which has some medicinal uses

Greg is an herbalist with a passion for learning, which makes him incredibly knowledgeable about plant lore, uses, history, and science. Also, the muck boots were a really good idea. I may have to practice cycling while wearing mine.

Maria inspecting winged euonymus

Maria inspecting winged euonymus

The berries are not edible, but I believe there are some medicinal qualities to certain parts of this plant.

Mighty burr oak

Mighty burr oak

This was the first of several oaks we assessed for acorn availability and tastiness. I ate part of an acorn before realizing that it’s best to leach the tannins out first. Oops! Nice texture, though!

Greg with promising fungal find

Greg with promising fungal find: Could it be the medicinal turkey tail?

While we were standing here, Maria found a step-by-step turkey tail identifier on her smartphone. How’s that for appropriate use of technology? Unfortunately we still could not definitively ID this fungus.

A closer look: might be turkey tail, a mushroom known for its immunomodulating effect

A closer look: possibly turkey tail, a mushroom known for its immunomodulating effect

No one was brave enough to take a bunch home to make into a decoction. But I did learn that ALL mushrooms have beta-glucans in their cell walls, and this is one of the things that gives them immune-boosting properties. (Tip: Cook shrooms for a long time over low heat, with water—that’s the key to accessing the beta-glucans.)

Shaking the pawpaw tree

Shaking the pawpaw tree

We struck out on pawpaws, but I’m told the week before, there was quite a haul.

Wood nettle. Watch out: It bites!

Wood nettle. Watch out: It bites!

We may be gathering seeds of this plant in a week or two. Yum!

Did I mention that “Fall Foraging Forays—Bicycle Edition” is a whole series, and you can drop in on the rest of the sessions? Check out Greg’s website for details.

Fomenting the Ferment

Fermentation on Wheels rolled into town over the weekend. Tara Whitsitt has been driving her mobile fermentation lab cross country since October 2013. As soon as I heard she was coming to Indy, I knew I had to make it to one of her events.

Fermentation on Wheels, a 1986 International Harvester school bus converted to a mobile fermentation lab

Fermentation on Wheels, a 1986 International Harvester school bus converted to a mobile fermentation lab

Tara’s mission is to initiate more people into the wonderful world of fermented foods (like sourdough breads, kefir, sauerkraut, wine, and kombucha). So far her tricked-out bus has traveled over 12,000 miles to share the love.

Tara with pawpaw vinegar

Tara with pawpaw vinegar

Saturday she did a fermentation workshop, which I hear was fabulous. Sunday evening, Seven Steeples Urban Farm (see my earlier blog post about them here) hosted a potluck and culture exchange. That’s where we met Tara and her beautiful kitty.

Tara's cat Franklin is her traveling companion.

Tara’s cat Franklin is her traveling companion.

We had a terrific meal together that included loads of fermented drinks and veggies, some from the pros: Joshua Henson of Fermenti Artisan brought cultured ramps and daikon radishes, along with water kefir lemonade and a bunch of other delicious stuff. There was also a popular fermented drink called beer.

After we ate, it was time to check out the bus.

Inside the bus, where all kinds of groovy stuff ferments!

Inside the bus, where all kinds of groovy stuff ferments!

“I really want to spur the movement of getting back in the kitchen and doing things with our own hands instead of relying on other people to do it for us,” Tara told us.

All across the country, she’s been partnering with farmers and homesteaders to turn local harvests into something out-of-this-world delicious. People give her their home-canned peaches, for example, and bushels of chili peppers. She dried the chilis and used them in kim chee, and they are also a key ingredient in her peach-habanero mead.

Peach habanero wine-in-the-making

Peach habanero mead-in-the-making, with blackberry mead at left

We sampled kombucha, miso, and a mysterious drink of Tibetan origin called “jun.” (Instead of the black tea and sugar that make up kombucha, jun favors green tea and honey.)

We sniffed three types of sourdough starter, each with a different backstory. For example, the Alaskan sourdough came from a person in Portland whose great-grandmother had made it in the 1900s in Alaska. White flour and milk were the original ingredients, and that’s what Tara feeds it to this day. The starter is a key ingredient in creamy sourdough hotcakes favored by Alaskans.

No wonder she calls her starter cultures “heirloom” cultures: They’re completely different from something purchased online, typically made in laboratories.

Eating food from a starter passed down for generations is like wrapping your grandmother’s Afghan around you. Versus a Kmart coverlet. One is imbued with love and history. The other with factory threads and who-know-what labor injustice.

IMG_4728I wish I could say I had something terribly cool to swap with Tara, but she wasn’t all that keen on my dairy kefir grains (of unknown origin: a friend of a friend gave them to me). So, I purchased a rye starter that hails from Brooklyn. As we speak, I’ve got sourdough rye bread dough fermenting on the counter. I’m using Tara’s instructions and recipe: Fingers crossed!

The Miracle of Seeds

I’ve been thinking about how tenacious life is, encapsulated in a tiny seed. Some seeds I plant, but others sprout all on their own.

I’m probably the only person on my block who gives a cheer when she sees these coming up.

Lamb's quarters

Lamb’s quarters

These are lamb’s quarters, considered a weed, but deliberately planted two years ago in my garden. This is the second year they will have reseeded, and I can’t wait to taste them again when they get a little bigger. (They’re terrific fried crispy in my cast-iron skillet, with a couple eggs cracked over them. And incredibly energizing, as all edible weeds are.)

Here is part of another patch of self-sowing plants that are on their third (or fourth?) year of growing freely in my garden: arugula.

Arugula volunteers in leaf mulch

Arugula “volunteers” in leaf mulch

I wasn’t sure they would come up this year because I mulched so heavily last fall with shredded leaves. But lo: I pull away the top layer and find them rooted right in the leaf mold.

Miracles like these show up all the time, if we know to look.

“There is no way to re-enchant our lives in a disenchanted culture except by becoming renegades from that culture and planting the seeds for a new one.”

Thomas Moore, author and psychotherapist

Perhaps growing food for people in need would fall under this “renegade” notion? Here is a seedling started by a southern Indiana farmer and planted by a volunteer for the Hoosier Hills Food Bank.

Cabbage seedling planted by a volunteer at a food bank garden

Cabbage seedling planted by a volunteer at a food bank garden

And one more: Late last fall I blogged about starting Austrian winter peas and my happiness at their growth in cold weather. They are generally not grown for a pea harvest, but intended as a cover crop with benefits—pea shoots are sweet and tender.

They didn’t do much during the winter, but this spring they are the healthiest of plants in my garden. I have snipped them nearly every day as salad and smoothie additions, and they are growing as fast as I can cut!

Austrian winter peas in spring

Austrian winter peas in spring

With seeds on my mind, no wonder this statement in a new mother’s Facebook post snagged my attention:

“I did not know until I got pregnant that the first organ to develop is the heart. It’s as if a heart seed gets planted and from the heart grows the human.”

Laura Henderson, founder of Growing Places Indy

Miraculous.