Archive for the ‘Urban Farmwife’ Category

Hand Work

HarrietA series brought to you by Harriet Fasenfest, author of A Householder’s Guide to the Universe and a Portland area local. Harriet will be writing regularly about the farmwife movement and responding to readers’ own experiences and questions. If you’d like a question answered on a future blog post, send your letter to the email address at the bottom of this essay.

So here it is, the season of our madness. Stone fruits, green beans, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes and the earliest of apples and grapes. I assume you have you been dashing madly between the garden and kitchen and like me thinking This Is NO JOKE, no joke at all. Sometimes I wonder about the logic of it all but that moment passes in a flash because I am a lifer. I have opened Pandora’s box on a world less than equitable and this matter of householding or farmwifery eases my heart while, at the same time, offers a meditation on the nature of hand work.

IMG_1727Somewhere between my endless tasks I realize there is only so much work my hands can do in a day. In that way hand work is limiting and likely matched, in scale and rhythm, to the limits of the natural world. It occurs to me that there is a certain right relationship with nature to this and I wondered, as I picked, washed, stemmed and dried my grapes for raisins, whether every step away from hand work brought consequence not only to the planet but to the spirit of our lives.

There is a story we tell ourselves about progress, that we are better for our inventions. But from hand to tool, from wheel to horse, from steam to coal to oil to, now, and most egregiously, tar sands, the “hand” that turns the crank has gotten meaner over time. The consequences are in the air, water, seas and soil just as they are in our homes and families. Whether hand work will repair any of it is unclear but I has occurred to me as vital to the conversation about home economies.

I have long mused on the notion of a home economy and this matter of hand work has offered a new perspective. Consider it an ethic but hand work suggests a life of moderation. Once the screed response to those annoying kids ( as in “I have only two hands!!!!!”) it has taken on a new spin. The limits of hand work puts efficiency into the sacred context of limits, offers gratitude in place of greed, thrift in place of excess and moderation in its right relationship with nature and thereby ourselves.

IMG_1740Of course I’m being extremely idealist to suggest we can return to a world of hand work alone but it is yet true that nature functions without machines. Yes, humans are distinguished among animals by their capacity to make tools and I am not one to live without them during this busy season. I mean there is romance and then there is logic and even I do not make raisins by drying grapes out in the sun (Oregon summers are not sunny or hot enough during grape harvest). Still, taking the time to harvest my grapes by hand, to pull them from their stems, to set them in the dehydrator and hand select those which are dry from those still moist offers a meditation not only on the sacred but the profane.

You see, I am not really brave enough to calculate the cost of my raisins when compared to those at the grocery store. To do so would compare apples to oranges or the life I lead to the one industry has tried to take from me, from us, from farming and farmwifery. In my wonkier moments I will speak of pattern languages and how nature’s economy runs on a separate track, a wholly distinguishable track that holds no common language with the world of bottom lines. But that is only when I am pushed into it, when someone challenges this life as being impractical. More often I need not defend my life or the value it holds for my heart because I have opened Pandora’s box to a world less than equitable and this matter of hand work has put me (and my raisins) in right relationship with the world. At least its a decent working meditation.

IMG_1750And so my lovelies, rejoice in all your hand work even though it is NO JOKE, no darn joke at all!

Harriet Fasenfest

Urban Farmwife

Please send your letters, comments, and questions for Harriet to info@homesteadsupplyco.com, including farmwife in the subject line. We look forward to hearing from you!

And So I Cook

HarrietA series brought to you by Harriet Fasenfest, author of A Householder’s Guide to the Universe and a Portland area local. Harriet will be writing regularly about the farmwife movement and responding to readers’ own experiences and questions. If you’d like a question answered on a future blog post, send your letter to the email address at the bottom of this essay.

Okay August, it’s on. I’m on, you’re on, we’re all on — the bounty, the harvest and full court preserving.  With July behind us we are well underway.  Jam pots have been filled and freezers packed with berries.  Yes, July gave us pause but nothing like what stands before us.  August, my friends, is where the rubber meets the road as stone fruits, beans, squash, cucumbers, pepper and tomatoes fall in mad succession. This is our proving ground, the time farmwives earn their cred, the time the reasons for the season make themselves known.

I’ve already mentioned some of the reasons, let us call it the farmwife initiative.  But other reasons exist – tasty ones, frugal ones, smart, farm-wife cooking ones.  This matter of cooking is, at the end of the day, what food preservation is all about, but I do not hear enough of it.  Not in the manner that befits the cause and that concerns me a bit.  Because without cooking food preservation floats perilously in the modern world of trending and trends do pass.  Before long jars of pickles and jam will saddle up between knitted hats and macrame plant holders (if you’re that old) to gather dust and mock our fleeting fascinations. I do not want to scold, but form without full-bodied function is our culture’s folly and the death knell of many a movement.  Which is why I am up in arms touting cooking – day in and day out cooking, solid simple everyday cooking, cooking from our (own) stores, cooking from the food we have put up in volume and farmer direct, cooking as the motive and logic behind this movement because without that important piece our movement is open to what may come.

I’ve thought long and hard about what may come and I don’t think I’m far off.  You see, without our deep and continued support small-scale farmers will need to look evermore to the market place for their survival.  To a certain degree they already do but in the long term the marketplace (with its long established operational systems) will demand an ever greater participation in a system that belies the heart of this movement.  The culprit (if I’m to call it that) is something called economies of scale and without going into it’s operational raison d’être, (if only because other posts will cover it) I will simply tell you that small farmers ain’t got it and likely don’t want it. What they have in it’s stead, however, is the proverbial swimming-up-stream scale because being small in an economy pegged to big is way more than an ideological stance — it is a challenge of unparalleled proportions.  Hourly wage???  Don’t ask.  So why do they do it?  Well, because they’ve looked at the land and the soil and the environment and figured out that of all the many things they could do in this life farming, honest small scale farming, might be the most ethical.  At least that’s how I figure it and I sorta agree.  Which is why I love them and love imagining I am a part of that life but not without understand my responsibility in the matter.

You see, to allow them to shoulder the weight of some pastoral mystique without standing shoulder to shoulder in the effort is blatantly unfair, and so I cook.  To leave them alone to deal with the cost of land today, the cost of start up, the learning curve, the merciless hours, the back breaking work is unfair, and so I cook.  To imagine they can sustain all the hand work and trips loading and unloading at farmer’s markets or management of weeds or watching produce gone to seed or chores left undone or a house left to disrepair is unfair, and so I cook.  To assume that it is fair that they cannot pay for help or take a weekend off is unfair, and so I cook.  I cook because I’m afraid what will happen if I don’t.   Because if I don’t then I cannot blame them for looking elsewhere.   Soon they will be open to whatever port in a storm is available to them.  Soon specialization will creep back into the lexicon.  Soon (and this is beginning to happen) they will be approached by big business (the brokers and big chain supermarkets) telling them to quit all that silly small farm diversity stuff and grow an exclusive main crop at guaranteed prices before season’s end which will mean, as it has meant before, pennies on the dollar.

Soon competition will increase and payments decrease.  Soon get big or get out will repeat its rationalizing mantra.  Soon farmers will see their crop shipped or trucked hither and thon or mixed with the produce of other farms to end up as private-label, value-added stuffs marketed as “organic on a budget” which will, at first glance, appear fair but on closer consideration will reveal the principles of economies of scale and efficiency systems and vertical integration come full circle. Soon it will be production, distribution and consumption as usual if only with a brand new organic and local party hat and frankly, who could blame them?  I mean you try being a broke ass hard working small scale farmer for a couple of years and then talk.  So I get it, see it, and fear it.   We is why I yammer on so much about farm direct purchasing and farmwifery, food preservation and now cooking.  It is why, if you haven’t figured it out, I say we farmwives are important, no, VITAL, bookends to this movement and that we have to show up, put up, be counted and cook.  If not do not be surprised when the revolution is packaged and sold on your grocer’s shelf.

But what’s that you say?????  You’re too busy to cook.  I know that rationale and I will not jump into that briar patch except to say busyness is not particular to our generation but rather, as a generation, particularly based on the presupposition of leisure.  And leisure, as it has been handed down to the people (particularly during the growing season) is the rationale of efficiency systems, cum industry, cum economies of scale, cum marketing, cum chicken Mc nuggets or, at the other end of the spectrum, fancy hand-crafted foods that speak the language of a movement many times removed from the economies of small scale farming.   Leisure, as it turns out, is based on a certain lie and either costs too much or too little and, dependent on class, is feeding a people either filler or hype.

Yes, yes, we are busy or perhaps only seduced by the easy flow of food stuffs brimming from street carts to grocery stores (in fact Heat-and-Eat family meals is one of the quickest growing segments in grocery sales) or because we imagine cooking a mystery.  My sense is we’ve made too much of cooking or maybe just fancy cooking.  But farmwife cooking ain’t fancy, it’s real!

Perhaps one day I’ll get around to writing a cookbook that shows just how simple it can be.  Then again, there are plenty of books out there that can give you the basics and as I’ve written before, all you really need is one “how to cook everything” cookbook and you’re set.  The Joy of Cooking is still my go-to favorite, but the point is you don’t need to complicate things.  Really, all you need is a willingness and commitment to cook your meals.

I guess I’m lucky.  I hail from a generation whose parents still cooked.   Utility was the point, frugality was the reality.   There were no recipes, in fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen my mother look at a cookbook.  What she had was a repertoire.  Most nights there were baked potatoes set on the dinner table, and no one ever decried the repetition.  They were easy to make, affordable and tasty; a virtual farmwife trifecta. Vegetables were simply steamed with a little meat roasted or broiled to the side.  Dessert was simple.  Applesauce or fruit compote – that mystery of stewed dried fruits reconstituted with a bit of lemon peel and cinnamon.  A miracle of thrifty innovation.

Beside my mother I have sat at the table of older farmwives.  Women I have met since moving to Oregon and from whom I’ve learned both the simplest and most profound style of cooking.   Biscuits or cornbread cooked in the flash of an eye and repeated infinitum.  A jar of pickles brought out at every meal or that here-to-fore odd but soon to be revived (if I have anything to do with it) mixture of frozen mixed vegetables cooked in a flash.   Sausage, steaks, ground beef or chicken defrosted and simply cooked (if you go that way) keeps it easy along with a bit of mashed potatoes.  Canned fruit sauces (apple, pear, plum, whatever), served to the side of many a pork chop or for dessert or in baking – miles and miles of baking in muffins and cake – is simply utility unbound.

Yes, this is August, the season of our madness.  As you continue with your bad selves let me encourage you to think seriously about how you cook, what you cook, how much you cook and, most importantly, why you cook.  Choose items to preserve or store that will go the distance.  Put on your farmwife hat and think utility more than fancies.  And on that note I offer you mom’s recipe for stewed fruit.  Couldn’t be any easier.

Dried FruitSonja’s Ever So Delicious Stewed Fruit

In a pan put an assortment of dried fruit (the fruit you dried over the season)

Suggestions: – Prunes, apples, apricots and pears

Add a stick of cinnamon and a few slices of lemon peel

Add water to cover

Bring to the boil

Turn off heat, cool

Put in a jar and let the fruit sit overnight to make it’s own syrup

Eat as is or served with yogurt or cottage cheese or on pancakes or, or, or.

Will stay good in fridge till a very long time!

Harriet Fasenfest

Urban Farmwife

Please send your letters, comments, and questions for Harriet to info@homesteadsupplyco.com, including farmwife in the subject line. We look forward to hearing from you! 

Greetings from the Urban Farmwife

A new series brought to you by Harriet Fasenfest, author of A Householder’s Guide to the Universe and a Portland area local. Harriet will be writing regularly about the farmwife movement and responding to readers’ own experiences and questions. If you’d like a question answered on a future blog post, send your letter to the email address at the bottom of this essay.

HHarrietowdy all and welcome to what I hope becomes a healthy conversation between friends.   I’m so excited to be a part of this movement which, since the publication of A Householder’s Guide to the Universe, has not only grown by leaps and bounds but taken on many names. For some the term urban homesteading fits, for others it is radical homemaking. My own term “householding” has expanded to include urban farmwifery; a phrase as apt to my life as it might be controversial.

I’m not sure exactly when the term came to mind but at some point in my evolution I considered the phrase “farmwife” as distinct to the larger notion of farming itself.   You see, for a number of reasons I had stopped “farming” much of my own food. I credit age (and a weakening back) as part of the reason but I also felt ever more inclined to support a young farming movement. With so many of the next generation looking to farming in response to socio-economic and environmental concerns and, too, as a way to make a living, I felt obliged to support them. Which does not mean I have given up growing food all together (I’m definitely a lifer) but just those things I need in quantities my backyard space could not supply.

As some of you might know, I’m a serious preserver. Yep, if it grows I want to can, dry, freeze or store it for winter use. Which is why the householding or preserving CSA model worked so well for me. Instead of the normal weekly or bi-monthly CSA shares, I receive large one-time installments in quantities that work for my preserving needs. You know — ten pounds of green beans or cucumbers for pickling, 100 pounds of tomatoes for canning. The model works well for me and likely would for others with limited space (preserving shares are getting more popular so speak to your farmer) but while I was not quite as busy in the garden growing food I was just as busy in the canning kitchen, even busier.

You see, the closer I worked with farmers the more I realized how little time they had to put up their own stores or, for that matter, cook meals during the busy growing season. I realized what was missing in their lives was the farmwife; that here-to-fore unheralded partner in a farm system. Now don’t get upset at me. I’m not speaking gender here but skill sets. We cannot really speak of farm “husbandry” without recognizing the role and value of farm “wifery” at least I doubt any farmer would deny it. In fact over the years I have had more than one farmer “propose” marriage to me and not because of love.  Of course I’m being cheeky here but men and women (together and separately) have begged me to marry them if only in recognition of what my role in their lives meant.

To come home after a full day in the field to a hot meal or, in the morning, to a breakfast of eggs and biscuits is no small thing. To be able to reach for (after spending countless hours growing food for others), your own canned tomatoes or pickles in winter is a joy but this is not always what farmers can do. No, more likely they are so busy out in the field that they miss the opportunity to do this. Which is why, how and when I realized that I was a freak’n farmwife. Sure I lived in the city and was divorced (another story) but I was wifering myself all over the place and loving it.

I was the one in the farmhouse cooking up meals and calling farmhands to lunch (and darn if I did not ring that triangle thingy). I was the one cleaning out the fridge (you know the one that looks like a poltergeist came to call?) from the endless “we’ll get to this later” food stuff in waiting.   I was the one making meals and freezing them for later or canning up whatever else those poor besotted lovers of the soil wanted me to do. I was, in essence, an angel, a farmwife angel.

If I have taken on this role it is not simply because I like to cook or preserve or, maybe, just like being a friend, but because they, the farmers, need us. Not just to cook meals or can up stores but to support them in the type of direct purchasing they need. Which is another part of this farmwifery thing. We are the bookends to an economic system. Just as they grow the food we must use it, cook with it, put it up in quantities that get us through the year. We must give them an ever greater share of our incomes because they need us to. We cannot compare the food they grow to the stuff we can buy at the store. Economies of scale (small scale) will mean big prices and we need to be at peace with this. But we can mitigate the costs by staying outside the box. That’s another fine and fabulous thing farmwives can do.

Every year we haul out the old jars (or buy new ones to start our supply) to do what we have been doing for generations before, that is, rural wisdoms got turned into big supply chains. Every year we step outside the packaging and distribution chains most foods must rely on. Every year we learn more about the seasons and what it really takes to grow good food — the victories and the gains and we share that with our farmers. They need us and we, by golly, need them. Which is why I say we farmwives are bedfellows and bookends to the farming movement. Both of us are trying to create a new model, a new economy, the home economy (which I mention only as a tease for future letters.) We are the new dynamic duos – farmer (urban or rural) to farmwife (urban or rural). Oh heck yes. Yep, I am a radical urban farmwife and darn proud of it.

So that’s how it happened. That’s how this householder became a farmwife and why I encourage you to try the name on yourself. Remember, this is not specific to gender. And just like farming itself, farmwifery has been dumbed down and co-opted by industry. Frankly to be so excited about the young farming movement and say nothing of farmwifery is it’s own sort of gender bias and I’ll not have it. Nope, let’s just say I’m old enough, ornry enough and, well, smart enough to know better.

So tell me your name, send me your letters — what you do, what you think about and how you are moving this movement forward. I promise to read them all and respond as time and space permits on our blog. Let’s start coming together to teach each other, support each other and keep this movement going and growing. Rural and urban, farmer and farmwives and everyone and anyone in-between and by any other name. Oh yeah!

Harriet Fasenfest

Urban Farmwife

Please send your letters, comments, and questions for Harriet to info@homesteadsupplyco.com, including farmwife in the subject line. We look forward to hearing from you!