Good Food & Community Connection

Leona Palmer

Leona Palmer › Leona Palmer was a native of rural Wisconsin before becoming a time-tested New Yorker. After having ...

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Farming on the Road: Visiting August Farm in Independence Valley, Washington

Independence Valley, a quiet nook 40 minutes southeast of Olympia, Washington, hosts a growing community of ethical agriculture. Nestled in a sweet-smelling spot sits August Farm, run by Marianne Copene (a former vegan) and Liza Judge (a former vegetarian) who bring their uncompromising ethics to pastured heritage livestock production and their compassionate creativity to community development.

Marianne met Liza in Portland in 2002. The couple worked and lived on a communal homestead before finally making the jump to Washington, where Marianne enrolled at Evergreen College to study sustainable agriculture and fine art (she is also a ceramist). She recently discovered a forgotten 10-year-old letter in which she hoped to be farming and back in school in 10 years. She graduates in spring.

Marianne discusses how we as a society are precariously sandwiched between the privatization of plant DNA by corporations and “on the threshold of losing our elders” with their specialized knowledge of the varieties of livestock and produce they nurtured. She advocates genetic diversity, food security and the need to bridge connections between diverse facets of a community by simply starting conversations and nurturing peoples interest and awareness, whatever the level, in their food. “Your neighbors can be anyone.” Talk to them, she implies, we’re in this together.

This season is Marianne’s fifth and Liza’s fourth on Wobbly Cart Farming Collective, one the farms growing out of the former acreage of Betsie DeWreede’s Independence Valley Farm, which was at the forefront of organic farms wholesaling up and down the West coast in the 1980s. Begun eight years ago by a group of six, Wobbly Cart is committed to supporting, growing and marketing open-pollinated heirloom varieties. Two of the six original members remain directing a staff of seven, Joseph Gabiou (a former apprentice of DeWreede) and Asha McElfresh (who runs the greenhouses). The certified organic farm is nine acres divided among three locations, cultivated in a variety of hand-weeded and harvested heirloom crops that go to the ninety-share CSA, farmers’ markets, and wholesale accounts with restaurants and co-ops. The farm donates to a local food bank and accepts food stamps towards its CSA shares. After a long stretch of cultivation, rotation and cover cropping, most of the original lot will go into fallow next year, as the newest field—which offered higher yields this year—is further established. An NRCS grant has allowed them to begin plans on a forced-air, static composting facility.

Any small agricultural business balances between ethics, sustainability, and market demands. This means choosing your battles wisely. For the first time, in an effort to meet customer expectations and get a higher yield of produce, Wobbly Cart experimented with an organic hybrid broccoli this year. If a plant is not an “heirloom” variety, it is a “hybrid”—which comprises most of the food grown and eaten. “Heirlooms” are “open-pollinated” plant varieties that were bred over many generations to have specific characteristics and, over that time, genetically stabilized (but retained diversity) so that each seed reliably produces the same characteristics. Heirlooms have generally maintained a richer taste and color. “Hybrids” are plants that are a product of controlled cross-pollination between two parent lines for specialized characteristics; their seeds will not “breed true” (reproduce reliably) in the next generation. Hybrids are uniform and dependable in their yield, date of maturity, appearance, and can stand up to mechanized production. Organic seed that is hybrid is a product of organically grown parent lines. Hybrids are not the same as GMOs, which have been altered at a genetic level directly and intensively.

When hybrids were first bred by university agricultural departments in the mid-century (after the Dust Bowl and during the Cold War—when food security was an issue of national defense), it was open-sourced knowledge—even the seed itself was made available. The profit margin is huge for hybrid seed because it has to be bought annually, so bio-tech corporations and subsequent patents, copyrights, and intellectual property have made parent lines of hybrids proprietary to whoever introduced the variety. Although 10 years is the stated average to genetically stabilize seed character to the point where it can be sold (hybrid or open-pollinated), huge amounts of money and research go into new varieties of hybrids, while very little supports long-term plant breeding of genetically stable varieties. Without the continued investment in heirlooms, de-hybridizing other varieties, and seed-saving or exchanges, seed companies will soon control access to any available produce. Monsanto has actually patented DNA for some of the “land races”, wild ancestors of our produce traditionally foraged or wildcrafted which plant breeders look to for genetic traits of pest and disease resistance.

Sourcing seeds has become an important right, and some independent companies are worth supporting. Liza noted that Wobbly Cart supports Johnny’s, Fedco., Osborne and Wild Garden Seed companies. Seminis, the world’s largest seed company, is now owned by Monsanto and Seeds of Change, an organic company, was sold to Mars, Inc. of candy fame. So, when Marianne explained that domestic fennel is bred to be sweeter than European fennel, this seemed like an ominous foreshadowing. Brassicas, which thrive in the Washington climate, are the hardest to get heirloom. Currently Wobbly Cart grows the only open-pollinated variety of cauliflower. If people don’t grow and support the seed companies that sell it, there would be no open-pollinated cauliflower from which we could save seed. Which makes the question “why is your cauliflower so small” at the market stall a complicated one to answer.

It is possible to “de-hybridize” a hybrid and make it open-pollinating and seed-savable. This is part of Marianne’s passion. She has been interning for three years with John Navazio and Organic Seed Alliance, which advocates on-farm plant breeding for organic systems and the “stewardship of the genetic resources of agricultural seed.” Her project has been to create a sweet golden cherry tomato that is open-pollinating and suited to the Northwest climate—meaning that it germinates early in less sun and resists splitting in more rain. Starting with a large plot of plants and choosing ten plants each for four main desirable traits (color, size, taste and germination), she saves seed and replants until enough successions reproduce reliably (meaning the genetic lines have stabilized) that she can begin crossing the four lines down into one plant. This could take ten years, but by the end she would have an open-pollinated variety of cherry tomato whose seeds can be saved and is suited to this micro-climate. An new open-pollinated variety is born.

However, Marianne ultimately wants to be in the field and not the lab. August Farm is the perfect complement to Marianne‘s and Liza’s work at Wobbly Cart. An annual lease gives them access to 47 acres, 3-4 of which are in use for the raising of pastured livestock and poultry. The couple’s vegan ethics means they are constantly in the process of system revision and refinement to raise their animals in the most humane way possible. This is their fourth year raising slow-growing broiler chickens, the third raising Berkshire or Hampshire pigs, and the first year for Bourbon Red turkeys. They raise strictly heritage breeds (“Heritage” is to livestock what heirloom is to plant), locally bought when possible. The Bourbon Red originated in Kentucky and is on American Livestock Breed Conservancy’s Watch because of their rarity. Next year, they may bring sheep to the green pastures. The chickens are sold by CSA, the pigs and turkeys by pre-order. All the animals are fed certified-organic feed, with the pigs receiving donated whey from nearby Black Sheep Dairy and harvest surplus in the fall from organic farms.

When it comes time, USDA/State-certified mobile slaughtering and processing units visit the farm and the animals are killed on site. The chickens are staggered in monthly successions to accommodate those who live in shared housing or don’t have a chest freezer. For August Farm’s community of Portland, Oregon supporters, chickens must be processed in a USDA-approved processing facility in order to be transported across state lines. The pigs are butchered by Salmon Creek Meats, a local nitrate-free butcher shop. Liza personally butchers the pork the couple will keep for their personal use. Liza is a hearty advocate of this self-sufficient skill, which is fast becoming a lost art, and aligns with her ethics of participating directly with your food source.

The couple acknowledges that farming is a balance of failure and success, a constant navigation that requires respect, humility, sensitivity and surrendering to the trust in a system that knows how to take care of itself. Farming itself isn’t for everyone, Marianne notes, but there’s a way for everyone to take part in their agriculture and it’s imperative that they do. This sparks a concern about the exclusivity that organic foods can project and Marianne mentions a program of donation shares in Wobbly Cart’s CSA, in which regular members donate towards the full price of a share for someone in need. She hopes to begin a similar program at August Farm.

In the future, Marianne envisions a diverse market stand that may include flowers and eggs, and a thriving personal homestead that complements a full-time livestock operation with a community-nourishing space that hosts workshops, demonstrations and classes in art and agriculture; artist residencies; farm to table dinners; and a youth camp.

When Marianne talks of “weaving all these components into my practice”, she is describing a dynamic synthesis of art, heirlooms, heritage breeds and community building. “My ultimate goal is good food and community connection.” She means it.

How do you directly participate in your food sourcing?

Photo Credit: Leona Palmer