Category Archives: Essays and Reflections

The Quest for La Zucca: Italian Style

This past month, global delegates gathered for our bi-annual Slow Food International meeting in Turin, Italy.  We were brought together for a common goal, the pursuit, celebration, and the discovery of possibilities surrounding pure food.  With my love being all things pumpkin, I searched the halls of Terra Madre Salone Del Gusto with a keen eye for all things relating to la zucca. As I looked around, I participated in workshops, culinary classes, and symposiums relating to seed saving and issues involving biodiversity, and more.  I was reunited with farmers, seed savers, and chefs, who all spoke the global common language of food.

In September, festival plans are being made throughout the Piedmont region of Italy, as well in other areas of central Europe’s “pumpkin belt.”  Fernando and his associates at the food truck offered me a snack, and invited me to come to their region’s celebration at the end of October.  It turns out that Fernando will be making his regionally famous pumpkin strudel.  They pushed a plate of squash bloom fritters my way as a gift for a fellow pumpkin fan.

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A sort of solidarity exists for those who appreciate the humble vegetable in it’s many varied forms. My pumpkin dappled business card best illustrates my love of this vegetable upon introduction.  Immediately, the images of pumpkin break through any language barriers, and connect me with the people of these agricultural communities.

In the weeks ahead, I will be travelling from the North to the South of Italy in search of all aspects of squash, from culinary usage, to celebrations of biodiversity.  I hope you will follow along with me as, I search the country from top to bottom on the “pumpkin trail of Italy”

Three Cheers for the Media

I just want to write a note to bring attention to the efforts of editors across the country who made the decision to include a story about sustainable agriculture in their papers.  It may not seem like much to some of you, but it means a lot to we small farmers and heirloom seed preservationists/researchers who are trying to get our voices heard.  The idea?  That we have answers right in front of us.  Myself and many others have been trying our best to share old news that is also good news:  Heirlooms matter.  So it is all the better when editors get an opportunity to pick up an AP article about such things and run with it.  So farmer hat is off to the Editorial staff at the following publications:

SFGate of San Francisco, California

The Washington Times of D.C

Lancaster Farming of Ephrata, PA

The Star Advertiser of Honolulu, HI

MySA of San Antonio, TX

and of course the team at the West Hawaii Today of Kona, HI who put the ball in motion.

For running this article about my farming efforts in their publications.  Each and every action matters from seed to soil to getting the word out to others.  So thank you news teams for helping to share a bit of good news.

The Lima Bean Squash Taco with Homemade Kraut

I decided to cook up some of my heirloom Christmas lima beans and make a casserole.  With a lot of work to do in preparation for the National Heirloom Expo, I need my energy.  I had the food processor out with the shred blade on, as I was already making my pipinola (chayote) kraut.  I was also sitting on several pounds of zucchini from a farm trade that I made with our local CSA.  I decided to just keep shredding and make a taco seasoned dish that I could use throughout the week. Here is what I did:  I had cooked the Christmas lima beans on low overnight in the crockpot with water enough to cover, and 1/2 of a Sweet Onion. I was already planning on using the beans, so I thought that all I needed was some more vegetables.I shredded one half of a large Hawaiian Sweet Onion, One large Zucchini, one pipinola(chayote squash) 2 orange habanero peppers, and 5 pickled hot peppers.  I then poured the shredded veg into a bowl, and pulsed 2-3 cups of the now room temperature cooked lima beans.  I added them to the bowl, and added two packages of taco seasoning, a sprinkle of sea salt, and a cup of breadcrumbs.  I mixed it all together and pressed it into a 9×9 square pan, baking it at 350 degrees for an hour.

I’ve been making homemade kraut for several weeks now, as a means of capturing the harvests that come and go at both the farm and garden. The salty zing of the sea salt brine is welcomed after a hot day in the field.  I thought, why not?  Add it to the taco.  I am happy to learn that this one taco casserole makes two completely different dining experiences.  Fresh out of the oven, it is warm and comforting, with melted cheese and steamed rice for an evening meal, but the next day, it is bright and light as a chilled lunchtime taco with the ice cold kraut.

Since I am doing a lot of physical labor, I need a lot of food energy to get me through the day, so this homegrown, healthy taco had enough staying power to keep me going. Granted, my farmer portion was probably a bit larger than many would make.  Overall, it was a simple feast made out of farm and garden goods.  I will certainly make it again soon.

Try experimenting, I am sure carrots or pumpkin would be equally nice additions to the taco.  Just think in terms of a meat loaf minus the meat.  You can add two beaten eggs to the mix as well, or add chopped boiled eggs if you are a hungry one like me. As for the kraut, I have made a wide variety of them in my initial experimentation.  It is all based around what is in arms reach. I have a few chili peppers producing now, and I always keep fennel fronds near.  Though I am not a seaweed (limu) collector, I support those few that do here in Hawaii.  I have been using seaweed as the majority of the salt in the recipe, topping off jars with just a bit more salt for fermentation.  If you haven’t read it, you may enjoy my earlier post on my summer fermentation trials with pipinola (chayote)

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Aloha from Squash and Awe

Stories in the Rain

I’ve been waking when I should be going to bed. Restless with fatigue as I try to continue on through what seems like an endless list of “to dos.”  The dogs huddle in close trying to warm themselves after what feels like six straight days of soakings.  The drought has ended in floods.  My no-till patch is a bog of hops.  Sloppy mush coming up past my ankles and squash leaves bigger than dinner platters. My Hunter boots have given way with a leak where I put a pitchfork through them, and the top of my foot, six months ago. So now I have as much of the hops slurry on the inside of the boot as on the outside.  The rains fall heavy from dark grey clouds, continuing through the night, but ending every morning before returning again at mid day.  This unlikely deluge has changed Summer to Winter.  I’ve lost track of the names of the hurricanes turned tropical storms.  Each one crossing over the Hawaiian islands and loosing it’s bearings, a bit like me.  I may be sleeping when I should be relaxing, Then awake when it is time for bed.  I read a few pages here and there from a book I picked up from the sale rack while visiting UH Manoa’s campus.  It is a beautiful book that tells the story of another time in farming, a time that doesn’t have to be in the past.  I had high hopes of raiding the agriculture text books, but my visit coincided with the bookstore cleanup where students dumped armloads of books off and fled to their summer freedom.

Stacia Spragg-Braude writes in lyrical prose, describing the daily life of an extraordinary character who continues to farm against the odds.  The beautiful hardbound volume met me eye to eye and I new it would be my birthday present to myself.  (The book summary ) I was heading back to the Big Island, and as I often do, I fill my arms with books, hoping to find the words and wisdom to keep me going even in the darker moments.  As tonight’s rains pour off the roof in an audible cascade, I think about drought and how much I, like Evelyn in the book, thinks of water.  Here in the town where I hang my hat, there is a demarcation line of precipitation levels.  Wet side and dry side.  This year, and for several years prior, the weather, like that in much of the world has been just plain confusing.  The drought was here before the year 2001 when I first planted chili pepper plants and Florence fennel on a washed out hillside in Hamakua.  I learned how to care for banana trees, and would walk buckets of lilikoi (passion fruit) to the elderly neighbors who would know what to do with a bucket of fruit.

In the book, the author writes of how water remains on one’s mind a lot in the dry near arid farmland of Corrales, NM. I can relate.  I find myself starting conversations with, “We never got our Winter rains this year.”  I often get back a blank stare.  In this town, few people think in terms of scraping out a life from the soil.  The few vegetable growers that remain, many of which on small parcels, are being hit hard.  Not only is it an uphill battle to get any to buy local produce, when unusual weather hits, our inability to produce, in walking on water fashion, is considered a let down, or worse yet, failure.  Farming is 100% risk, but we hide that risk by taking the faces out of farming, and international produce brokers stuffing our state full of the vegetable version of fast food.  Chemically contaminated, harvested too young, low in nutrition, and on every plate. You don’t often get rewarded by doing it right.  Fast and cheap has lowered our standards.

So when deluge like conditions strike up country Hawaii, I have to take a moment to rethink all things.  When a five gallon bucket is half full overnight, it leads to a drastic change of strategy.  In the book, the farmers created their own irrigation system from the river.  Here, the creek overflows it’s banks on days like this, I watch it cascading by on it’s route to the ocean. Our farmland irrigation is borrowed from the much wetter parts of the island.  We are taking their bounty.  This creates a false view of water, where farmers can squirt irrigation every day, all day until their fields are filled with puddles.  Almost nobody bothers to improve the soil, so that it actually once again hold water.  Water just appears from somewhere else, and few are even grateful for it.  I remember having a talk about water conversation that fell on many deaf ears.  The farmers crinkled up their noses when I noted that our water reserves were hitting desperate times, and that we were warned to conserve. The general attitude is that they should water more, so that they “get their share” even if they don’t need the water.  They should take it, so someone else doesn’t get it.  I realized that day that I would never relate. I said my bit about building the soil, so to cut their water usage and benefit their plants.  I was laughed at and told that their soil was some of the best in the state.  Weeks later part of the USDA’s soil team visited us, and shook their heads in the same way I did.  For once, “big government AG” agreed with the rookie. The generation before me may be the only one that bred farmers that don’t think about soil health.  My Grandfather would roll over in his grave if he heard them speak.

I was raised in a community that was a lot more like the town of Corrales, or at least the communities that surrounded our farm were a bit like that New Mexico community.  Here, the plantations left a scar on everything that it touched.  Though we focus on the damage done to the land, equal damage was done in taking away the pull yourself up by the bootstraps way of thinking.  Here farmers are pitted against each other, and imported produce is king.  It is hard to stand tall as a community of farmers when someone is standing on your neck.  It has been this way for so long that many barely remember another way, though much of the shift toward the outside suppliers happened within the span of my lifetime on the planet.

The rains now stopped, and the dogs snore.  I find myself getting tired and mistyping the town of Corrales as Corvallis, a place where I WWOOFed in torrential rains in a strawberry patch, as hail fell into the Spring mud just over 3 years ago.  I remember rounding up the animals to shelter them from the hail, feeling grateful to maneuver a stubborn ram, three Nubian goats, and a huge and defiant horse into their shelter.  I was shaking with a healthy dose of fear and adrenaline as I got them all tucked into the open sided barn.  The hail stones stung on my face as the spooked horse stomped and eyed me in that big eyed way that horses do.  The horse had leveled a few in it’s day with one swift kick.  That afternoon, I saw a different side when I clearly put myself in harms way so to help him.  He knew, and kept his kicks to a minimum.  I returned to the farmhouse kicked off the boots, and shivered as I purged myself of raingear in the entryway.  The farm owner, who had inherited the farm, was tucked in with a cup of coffee, feet up in front of the fire.  She was confused at why the animals were brought in out of the hail.  I realized then, just weeks into my farming journey, that what is common sense to one, isn’t to another, and owning a farm doesn’t make you a farmer.  That bit needs to be earned.

Population Density and the Farm

People dream of farming on Hawaii Island, aka the Big Island, and they are inspired by all of the potential that it holds.  So these agriculturally minded people create interesting CSAs, they make farms, and aspire to be a farmer’s market vendor.  What most of us fail to consider is the weight of a low population density and how it will affect business.  Without growing the demand for such goods, we will soon be in trouble.  Why? A lot of space between populations means long delivery distances.  With only a few restaurants that buy local produce, that  means that you must have all of them on your team. As in 100%. And that is tough to do unless you are the only farmer around.  That sounds funny, but I have met people in other parts of the country who have a lot of customers because they deliver a great product, but equally important, they have a captive audience and no competition from other farmers or imported goods.  That is an amazing scenario, but not likely here in Hawaii. And we all know that we are not getting much income off our markups in the first place.  We have to produce the product too. I am not discussing “hobby farms” here, I mean to address the issue of farmers that have to survive off their farming.  A friend of mine just couldn’t relate.  I only half-jokingly noted that it is like a realtor having to build the house, go door to door trying to sell it, then get only a few dollars over cost, or even not cover the costs, then immediately do it all over again.  Like I said, it is only half-joking. Maybe that isn’t a perfect example, but farmers are in a really different situation than most people can relate to.

Though in the past three years, I have only stuck one toe into the pools of complexity that surround agriculture in Hawaii. I was more than a little discouraged to find out that almost no farmer that I know is making a living off farming.  They are considered part-timers because their spouse hold a ft job in an office, a non-profit, or a hotel. It is survival.  Right now, grant monies are being directed to new farmers, and as these programs churn out students of all ages and abilities, in our nation’s most expensive place to live, it is hard to tell these inspired new farmers that on top of all else, they need to enter into the difficult task of building new markets as well.

So let’s get back to population density.  On my May trip to Oahu, I saw a familiar face at a unfamiliar farmer’s market. There was the banner of one of my neighborhood farms.  Why on earth were they selling leafy produce on Oahu, several island away from their farm?  It wasn’t just them, there was another Hawaii island farmer there as well, he noted that, “We just don’t have the business that we need to survive.” So they fly to Oahu every Saturday?  Looks like it.  Another well-respected local farmer ships about 90% of his produce to Maui.  Same idea.  Maui has a population density that we do not, and they also have a much better chance of someone caring that their produce is sustainably produced. It is at best, daunting to consider those logistics for farm survival.  Air travel to another island is not cheap in Hawaii, nor is shipping food.  Leafy greens are light, but they require refrigeration.

So what are my suggestions?  One is that I think we need to make a more intensive effort of gardening on Hawaii Island.  Switch gears back to the backyard.  We have yards on the big island, and with some training in soil building and gardening, it is quite possible to grow quite a bit of your own food.  Another idea is to build the movement. One long time Hawaii island resident noted that the desire for local, sustainable food never really took off, in fact it may have been better in the 70’s.   My research indicates that they are right, in the 70’s over 80% of the island’s food was from Hawaii, much of it from this island.  So are we backsliding?  Maybe.  The increase in our island’s importation of foods combined with a locally grown following that isn’t increasing at the same rate.  It feels like it is growing, but from what I hear, local is on many peoples lips, but not on a large number of Hawaii island plates.  I know a lot of circles who buy a large percentage of local produce, but I also know the Costco set who proudly announce that they bought produce from Europe that morning.

Facing Uncertainty on the Farm

One of the topics that I must address is the challenge beginning farmers face in having to experience “newness” all of the time. Beginning farming, establishing markets, and trialling seeds surround you with a lot of change, just like what we all face when starting down any new path. Add in that we also have to deal very directly with working in an unpredictable work environment. Ever changing weather, climate, markets, all make for a shifting situation, in addition to learning to farm in difficult times. Too much change can be stressful, and it will keep us from being our best. Facing the unknown on a regular basis does have some upsides, especially if you remind yourself that it is a part of learning. There are many issues in agriculture that can get me rattled, but on a day to day basis, I find myself trusting the process, and embracing the many aspects that come with trying to move forward as a new farmer. Each time we try new things, we challenge ourselves to step free and clear of safe zones. You are leading, and moving forward with every experiment, even if your idea fails commercially. Pushing yourself into new directions is uncomfortable at times, especially because the financial risks can be great. We all know that risk taking can be stressful, but let’s step back for a moment and allow us to look at things holistically.

Yesterday, I was fretting and thinking that I should be planting more squash for our Nov-Mar high season. Instead, I was pouring 200 gallons of spent hops from our local brewery into the farm’s soil. Let’s look at this for a moment. Instead of fretting, I tried to stop and realize that the great haul of free soil building materials is a real gift. It is a gift that will nurture my plants all season long. By stopping and taking those opportunities, I have found that the healthier plants grow faster, resist disease, and often surpass the growth of plants that were planted earlier, but didn’t get the additional care that soil amendments added to their life.

It is normal to fret when looking at agricultural Calendars. Time ticks on regardless. The irony is that my friends in short season areas often have faster growing plants and more abundant harvests than we do in long season, but up and down weather that higher elevation Hawaii has. In Hawaii, one of the toughest questions to answer is “when do I plant?” I was getting plants in the ground in March, and they are not any bigger than the squash vines in May. Why? We had a strange weather pattern. The faith in continuing on, and soil building instead of worrying about timing helped me greatly. I now have healthy seedlings that are soaking up the benefits of my soil building, even though they were planted later. Late and healthy are better than “on time” and sickly. Too many are tempted to throw up their hands when things swerve off schedule, or when drought, pests, or weather sidelines us. All I can advise is don’t let yourself get too rattled.

In just the couple years that I have been farming, I have learned to throw in some radish, or mustard seeds when the cool weather stays too long. Why? You will have a happy take away to soften the blow. Yes, your heat loving commercial crop may be late, but often there isn’t a single thing you can do about it. You are not going to change the weather, worrying isn’t going to help you, so you may as well have some food in your stomach. I do it all the time. It keeps my farming fresh, and my ability to adapt becomes a comfort for me. Yes, I get disappointed as chefs want me to produce more, but the vines are not having it. The plants can hit the pause button, and that is how it is. The pressures of producing 24/7/365 is an absurd standard that no farm can do. Soil needs to rest, plants need to rest, as do farmers. We are more likely to let the soil and the plants rest before we do. I once had a talk with a distributor who believed that some farms produce everyday of the year, what she didn’t realize is that the produce that is coming into Hawaii is pooled together at warehouses. It isn’t from one farm. Nature doesn’t work like that.

Adaptability is hard, it takes practice, and I don’t always do it well. Before I lash out at the cloudy cold weather, the drought, the this, the that, I try to see it as and opportunity to do something else that needs some attention. Sometimes the one that needs attention is me, as the farmer. A strange stormy sky drove me indoors for one hour last week. High winds interrupted my flow. I decided to put my feet up and read a couple of farming articles. It was rejuvinating and I felt like that break actually put me forward. The skies cleared, and my mind thought about the words I had just read. I completed all of the work that needed to be done, and that break gave me an idea or two of things that I could do at the farm. It also reminded me of our shared experience. Farming isn’t always appreciated, and often it is made fun of by people who may not even realize that their words cut through you. Not all of us are surrounded by an immediate support team, so make sure to read the stories of others that are doing things similar to you.

I pick up memoirs of farmers, chefs, travelers and foodies. They are a great source of inspiration because their road isn’t easy either. If it was, it wouldn’t make for a very good book. Farming memoirs are popping up here and there, and they can be great to keep nearby. I happen to love William Woys Weaver’s book of vegetable essays 100 Vegetables and Where They Came From
It is the kind of book that inspires in snippets perfect for a short break. William Woys Weaver can make anything interesting. He is a historian, chef, educator, gardener, and seemingly, a pretty dynamic individual as a whole. Remind yourself that your actions matter, and celebrate your role in our food system.

Sometimes an injury drives me out of the field and garage completely. It can happen to us all. When I get hurt, be it a knot in my back, or a sprained hand, I try to take it as an opportunity to expand my photography, writing, research, or my kitchen trials. The injury can lead to inspiration. Like other unexpected events, we can react in many ways. Injuries make me very aware of plan B, especially since I am a one person farm. Everything is on my shoulders. Being injured may sidetrack us from our immediate plans, but it has made me make changes that were very positive. One change that came from one too many slips and twists was as simple as changing my shoes. One of my customers observed that I carry about with 40-50 lbs in my arms at most times. She was right. That can be 1/3 to nearly 1/2 of my body weight. When I twist an ankle, or turn on a slippery floor, the additional weight is felt, and it can cause injury. Making a simple change to wearing better shoes, even sporting running shoes, made my delivery days more enjoyable. The wider base for your foot, the arch support, and lightness all made for a better, safer day. I calculated that in one day I lifted and moved 1850 lbs so to set up a photoshoot for the Hana Hou Magazine photographer that was visiting the farm. It was just a few bushels of pumpkins, but they were lifted and carried back and forth as props. It adds up. With the change to better shoes, I found that I was working longer hours, but I was less tired.

I don’t really want to get injured, nor do I desire windstorms, but I also know that when you choose to garden or farm, you put yourself in a very physical job immersed in unpredictable conditions. Complaining about the weather is a bonding experience for many of us, but let’s remind ourselves that we can use those unpredictable times to push us in a new direction, to reinvent, rest, or seek inspiration. Let a scorcher of a day lead you to an ice cream cone once in a while. Open a book and rest your back. Your productivity may actually increase. We may help to motivate a new generation of farmers if we treat ourselves with the same care and respect with which we treat out soil, our produce, and our communities. So let’s farm by example, and do our best to roll with it.

Gardening Gratitude

I offered seeds in an innocent gesture prior to a class on positive communication. The woman who rejected the seeds assured me that neither the woman that I had inquired for, nor she personally had “time to garden.” It was growled at me. I kept the beautiful seeds tucked into my jeans pocket and wondered where have we gone wrong?

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Gardening is considered a hobby in much of the United States.  We all know that we are conditioned by cheap low end food that is low in nutrition and light on the budget thanks to government subsidies and mass importation.  You are often hard pressed to locate local produce at grocery stores in Hawaii. People here in Hawaii often pick fights with me noting that they cannot afford organic vegetables, nor can they afford to take time to even grow one potted plant, then they drive away in $50,000 cars or trucks.  I’ve begun to wonder if they are happiest being unhappy.

These fights go nowhere, as they are one sided. I often simply reference their ability to make more of their dinners from whole food, rather than buying so many “ready made” meals that cost a fortune.  But part of me questions what is below the surface of these confrontations over things as simple and pure as whole food and free seeds?  I’ve gotten hate mail, harassment, stolen crops, and worst of all intentional crop destruction. I just want to provide food without using chemicals.

I once had a large group out to the farm for an educational tour.  They were seed savers.  It surprised, and disappointed me that three would mention stealing seeds from the farm, worse yet, laugh about stealing when I asked them not to.  Why would they pose as ethical, sustainable farmers and then steal?  What is the world coming to? I had already taken the initiative to share my knowledge and to hand pollinate, harvest and dry seeds for this group. They knew I would give my seed work to them in the form of seeds that would make squash growing easy.  It took years to accomplish this, but the point was to get Hawaii replenished with these vines that once covered the islands. I also had to wonder, how many more did, and didn’t tell me?  It made me wonder about gratitude and greed.

Many flock to Hawaii and expect all to be as perfect as the weather. The problem that confuses many here, is even when “paradise” or kindness and generosity is served up in the form of open sharing of knowledge, free seeds, or beautiful food, it is still rejected, stolen, or mowed down.

Recently, my neighbor died of an overdose.  Though shocking, it changed my life wildly. You see, my neighbor stole from my garden nearly every day.  She stomped plants, and then complained that she would take even more if she could identify what “weird” things I was growing. She complained about the taste of the beans.  I couldn’t comment, because I never got any. This was the second time in Hawaii that I had a neighbor like this.  I’d like to say that I was ready for this, but you never really are.

I work hard to defend myself from the verbal attacks and online trolls, there is little to do to protect your plants in your absence.  No fence, nor confrontation could keep her out.  What confused me initially was the stealing.  I offered a bounty to neighbors every chance I got, in part just due to kindness, but also hoping to keep thieving neighbors to stop crushing the plants. The more I offered, the more that was stolen.

Soon after, the man down the street started stealing more from my garden. He was stoned every time I encountered him. One afternoon, I went over to visit him, and asked him why my vegetables were on his lanai.  Rare heirloom vegetables are easy to identify.  Another time I went to my dance class where a woman boasted about stealing my pipinola (chayote) through the fence. I told her that she was stealing the fresh food from the pet pig.  Her jaw dropped.  She never considered a charging 400 pound pig into the theft equation, Perhaps it was the shock that she was looking for, she smiled and bragged;  she wanted to make me react. I realize Hawaii has problems with untreated mental illness, as well as overwhelming drug and alcohol addiction, but it now seems like it is hitting record levels. If you don’t believe me, plant something in your garden and set up a camera, and see what happens.

Two of the chefs that I supplied, and one of the grocery stores, all admitted that they have bought avocados, mangoes, citrus, squash, and other crops from “unknown sellers” who were not known as food producers.  One of the chef’s was thrilled to be getting “free produce” from a man who only wanted to receive meals at the restaurant.  What was happening, was “tree clearing” or field clearing thieves who roll in after dark were stealing through their “gathering” and then delivering and selling of produce that wasn’t theirs.   The farm has had tracks in the lime field from unknown vehicles driven between the citrus trees that were now empty. My squash curing table was raided many times, my seed pumpkins were stolen off the front step.  Tomatoes off the vine.  None of these people were hungry.  Drugs were the most common thread.  Agriculture crime is now being prosecuted in Hawaii, and it is indeed a growing trend.  These family farmers don’t get a break: 90% of the food is imported, the 10% that is locally grown, is then vulnerable to thieves and vandals.

Gratitude is a hard one to teach.  Many learn empathy, and gratitude when they are young, as they do it naturally, they just don’t have a name for it.  Others due to their design, will never develop gratitude.  They can mimic it, but they mimic it so to use it as a tool to manipulate.  That’s not gratitude,  Hopefully, we learn to take care of our things, and to not always want more.  Greed kills gratitude. When looking at the culture surrounding us, one hears the opposite message:  that “more” will fill the void, and empower us.  It’s really just a distraction and often a parade of power, or overpowering another.  For those of you who read my earlier post about my delivering bananas to my neighbors, I did make an effort, and found out who my kind neighbors were.  On the other side of the coin, through watching my garden, I learned also who the thieves and vandals were too.

Can we teach grownups to be grateful, even if they were raised in homes where it wasn’t taught, or where they had to be greedy in order to survive?  Can we teach the lady at the office to open her hand and her heart and accept a gift of seeds? and if she can use them, to share them with a neighbor who would like a chance to share in the beauty and potential captured within a seed and a garden. Can we as individuals continue to give, even when the receiver is ungrateful, or even unkind? We must.  We simply must be better.

These are tough situations to face, but many gardeners already understand the gratitude that can come from their labors.  Watching a garden grow is humbling, and sharing the bounty is rewarding. People can steal, stomp or mow down your fields, but they cannot steal your knowledge or your stamina,  It’s heart wrenching to deal with these people who struggle with, or are devoid of personal ethics and compassion for others.  But gardeners are resilient, and their knowledge is like an iceberg:  85% is unseen, and unable to be stolen. As difficult as it is, what better place to face these tough social issues then in the garden where life, potential, and beauty surrounds.

Lessons in the Bananas

I decided to share this, though I am not proud of what I have done.  I got a speeding ticket that I deserved. Here is part of the essay that I wrote, perhaps in sharing, we all can learn from my mistakes.

I was the third car out of five in a pack that was cruising along. The two ahead of me were ahead of me because they passed me. Lots of cars passed me, at least 15 since Hilo. I started counting cars that overtake me as a habit when I drive my own little old car. Because it is so old and small, people will do anything to overtake it. I have been driving for 28 years, and I had a perfectly clean abstract until that day on the new Saddle Road. I have driven commercial vehicles, cargo vans in NYC, summer school kids in school busses, and every other situation you can imagine. But that day, I didn’t hit the brake fast enough, and I was cruising in the pack rather than slowing down considerably. Lesson learned. But it is also that clean abstract that makes me want answers. Answers I didn’t receive.

I was aware enough of the situation around me. I was braking, but obviously not hard enough. I had put my flashers on because a police car had pulled over the lead car in the hidden corner of the bend. My headlights were on for visibility, and I checked all my mirrors and found another police car approaching at high speed with emergency lights but no siren on. It was in the most dangerous area as we approach the military intersection, where there are yellow lines all around. I pulled over, to let him pass, and the police car tore by so to pull over the car ahead of me. I signaled, checked my blind spot, waited for the other two cars to pass, and began to pull out. The officer waved an angry arm out the window that I should stay put too. So that made 3 out of 5 cars pulled over. The officer walked back to the car and yelled at me before he even reached the vehicle. He was yelling that I was doing 67 mph and the car ahead of me, that passed me, was only doing 60 mph. He was mad, and I knew more than to disagree with him. I have been an educator long enough to recognize bullying techniques. Accuse someone of something extreme and make a fight, then switch mode and say that you were defending yourself. That is also a stress reaction when you are burned out.

I zipped it, though I wanted to tell him my side. To enter into an argument with someone that was already irate, was not a good idea. He continued to yell at me about how I was going 67 and the other car was going much slower. I remember thinking that if that were the case, I would be bullying that car off the road. I would have been on it’s bumper in no time. And equally important, If that was the case, that officer was probably doing 15mph faster than me in order to overtake me, making him travelling at 82mph, which would be quite dangerous in a 40 mph zone, and also it would have called out for a much greater braking distance than what actually occurred. It was pretty clear that I shouldn’t make note of my own calculations, or he may likely pull my license even though it was a first offence.

I think it should have been clear that I was not much of a fighter, and certainly no threat to the officer. I was quietly sobbing while he yelled. I was scared because it was like what you see on the news. He eventually gave up on me, maybe because I didn’t offer him the fight that he seemed to want. When I saw him approaching the car again, even though I had ticket already in hand, and all I could think was “God, now what?” It was clear that I was shaken, and upset and in no condition to drive at that moment, so I read my ticket as I regained composure. So what does he do? Command me to go, to drive, to basically clear out of there so he can have the space so that he can pull over multiple cars all afternoon. I just shook my head at him in my best “really? Give me a minute” look and eventually drove away. I had a lot of questions that would remain unanswered. If he was as concerned about road safety as he noted, why didn’t he use his siren? Why did he pull over multiple cars at once? Why didn’t he explain the shifting speed limit. Why would he command me to drive when I was clearly too upset to do so safely? Why would he accuse me of going faster than the car ahead of me?

As I drove back to work, I thought a lot about him, and I was mad as can be at him and his attitude. I counted cars again, with another 12 passing me, and one “rode my bumper” to the end of the highway so close that I could see the color of his eyes in my mirror. All I could think was, “is this working?” Is it inspiring road safety? What was my take away? Did I learn a good lesson? In some ways yes, I understand that I was speeding. But what was taken away was just as great: I lost faith in our local police. As I drove, all I could think of was how happy I was not to be like him. But as the days passed, and I reflected upon it, I thought that he too probably didn’t want to be like me. I was just as stressed out as he, trying to do too much and speeding so to try to cram more work into my life.

I decided to administer my own “sentence” if you will. I forced myself to take a day off, to rest, and to do good. As a farmer, there are no days off until you get injured. So this was really hard for me to do. What I did as punishment for my being a “stressed out speeder” was to take a 100 lb rack of bananas that I grew, and divide them up so that the whole neighborhood got a share. It may have made more sense to sell them to a restaurant and that would have paid the ticket, and just “be done with it,“ but that would not have offered what I ended up taking away that day. The real lesson was to go door to door and listen to my neighbors, because that was what I was really angry about. The police officer didn’t allow me a safe place to state my side, to educate me, or allow me to feel safe in questioning his judgment. I figured that other people needed to be listened to as well. So I spent a day giving my neighborhood that opportunity.

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What I learned was pretty humbling. I may have been mad at myself for speeding, and at the policeman for yelling at me, but my neighbors, who I was a stranger to, shared stories of long stored grief and pain. I talked to the elderly that were home in the middle of the day. We talked about the fears they have about aging, about kidney transplants, the haunting memories of the Korean War, and of loosing their husbands and wives through death. My entire neighborhood was hurting, and I had no idea. I was doing the same as so many others, just work yourself silly and zoom between tasks, and cram your life so full of obligations, that you forget the real lessons of life: to mourn, to forgive, to heal, and to listen. Be a good neighbor and think of others.

In summary, that is what a speeding ticket is about. We are putting ourselves above others at the risk of public safety. We think our lives are more important, or our obligations more necessary, so we push the speed up so to “live more” when really we may be missing life around us in more ways than one. Did I learn a lesson? Yes. Will I do my best not to do it again? Yes. Do I deserve to be punished? Yes.   But the biggest reward for me was learning that my own heart could be transformed, and to come to the realization that the policeman, who I was previously so mad at, probably needs someone to stop by his door with a bunch of bananas, and to be there to listen, just as badly as my neighbors did.

Finding My Voice

The National Heirloom Expo, The Squash Epicenter, The Squash Super Bowl.  I have called it many things in the past few months as I made preparations to attend for the first time.  My nervousness and excitement grew as my dreams and participation level also grew.  I had gotten myself into a beautiful mess of sorts as I responded to a critical email from Jere Gettle, president of Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, and founder of the National Heirloom Expo, with a very quick and decisive “YES!” to his question of if I would present a talk.  This may not seem like a lot to many, but in the weeks prior, as a first year farmer, I had gone from the idea of I should go to the event, to being a presentation speaker. It was slightly terrifying upon review of my situation.  It was a big step, but also something that seemed to manifest itself quite naturally.  It was one of those thoughts that flashes in your mind, then 48 hours later, the email came. I tried to calm my near panic with soothing thoughts of “it is meant to be,” and “this is what you are meant to do,”  but it wasn’t working. Regardless of all the reassuring thoughts, trying out my first ever Powerpoint at a National Expo seemed like a bad idea to most.

You see, it wasn’t simply a new Powerpoint, it was the Powerpoint that was rejected in my Hawaii agriculture class when my business plan was deemed “and unworkable business model.”  There was far too much do gooding and elder outreach to be a real farm.  I was doomed to failure as a farmer.  Here I was like a farming Phoenix rising from the smoldering compost of my fledgling farm with my failed Powerpoint. Though the image was nice, the reality was still troubling. I decided that the underdog farmer’s story is just as valid as any other story, and that what good is giving a speech if nobody can relate to you.  Everyone has snuffed the life out of a garden plant, or two, fumbled through absurdly steep learning curves, and had to practically force produce on people so to get them to trust your venture.  So I slid in slides and talking points and the framework told my story, the story of a tiny zero waste farm trying to make a go of it in the midst of a drought, fruit flies, and unexploded WWII ordinances.

For those that do not think in terms of slides or transitions, or talking points for that matter, I am with you. I decided to change my way of looking at the Powerpoint and reenvision it as a photographic safety net. I was not comfortable with my speaking, but quite comfortable with my photography.  I had roamed the globe, and crawled through muck to find the quiet angles of discovery. If I put in enough images I am sure they would shake the words out of me if I froze mid speech.  My Father was a natural storyteller, or as the Irish say, he had the gift of the gab.  He could inform, entertain, inspire, and more. I hoped to channel him during my talk.  Having over six generations of now passed farmers looking over me, I figured one of their farmer entity spirits may have had some time off and would be looking over me during my talk. What I have forgotten to mention is that I often become so terrified when I give a speech, that I have little if any memory of the event.  Perhaps a detail or two, like the woodgrain of the podium, or the ear rings worn my the person who “miked” me up because I have the voice of a mouse. I would be stunned as strangers would hug me post talk and marvel at the monkey story that I told.  My response was frequently, “oh no, I told a monkey story?” But from what I would hear time and time again,  it was a meaningful, well placed monkey story, so I had to just accept that my speaker mind went on autopilot and always saved the day.

I have taken my fear of speaking through many public speaking classes, and even took this fear internationally.  I stood before an inter island grouping of tribal elders, and daringly chose to work without a translator, so I babbled my thank you to them in many tribal dialects.  For once the monkey stories may have revelant, I may have told them, who knows, I went blank. So why did I keep doing this if it pained me so?  It seemed like a reasonable question to those who were concerned about an ulcer being in my future.  So why?  The answer is a simple one for me.  I love stories. I adore language, and the sharing of ideas.  I want to be transported and inspired to reach new places. But most importantly, I believe that those who love stories need to be storytellers themselves. Your own sharing will create a ripple effect so that the great art of the speech will not be lost.  Do and encourage others to do the same, one monkey story at a time.

10672244_10152701293169281_7761772200918282263_nAfter the Heirloom expo speech. photo by Keith Wyner

Ghost peppers: from seed to hot sauce

Ghost peppers don’t align themselves neatly with other vegetables.  They are one of the few veggies that you can simply name and people respond with fear.  I am not going to pretend that I am any different.  You might wonder why I decided to grow them, and nurture them even.  Why I would put so much love and energy into a plant whose fruits I was scared to even touch.  Well, it has a lot to do with my brother, the chili aficionado.  He lost most of his sense of taste due to an accident years ago, but like many others in similar situations, he can “taste” chili peppers.  So chili peppers quickly became his thing.

It seems to be a family affair, because years ago as I trekked through the volcanic regions of Sumatra, I earned my nickname of Sambal, or chili sauce in English.  I took the heat in more ways than one, as I insisted on eating local in every regard.  I love food, and travel led me to more and more dishes around the world.  Some of the Indonesian regional cuisine is so spiced that redness would appear as a creeping line that progressed up my neck until reaching my face.  It didn’t help that though I only have a slight natural touch of red in my hair, to the dark haired Indonesians, my hair was a chili top of sorts.  I was munching away on chili pepper sambal sauces, with tears running down my face, and my hair seemed to get redder in the process. One could say that I earned the respect of the community one chili pepper at a time.

On a subsequent trip to Indonesia, I climbed a remote volcano in pre-dawn darkness with a man who was traveling the globe in search of chili peppers. I will never forget his gregarious personality that lit up all that surrounded him.  I should note that years later, I often took an hour and 20 min subway ride in NYC in order to get Brooklyn’s best Jerk chicken.  I also once took a near daily schlep through dangerously off kilter Medan, Sumatra in order to eat the sambal sauce soaked eggs over rice that the bicycle taxi men ate for lunch.  I called them “fire eggs” and that says it all.  Over the years I have eaten a fair bit of cajun food, soul food, and the like, but rarely do I pick up a bottle of hot sauce.  I am more inclined to use fresh chopped chili peppers in a dish, or make a fresh salsa verde on the spot.  I like the handmade over the store bought.  Over the years when I asked many a restaurant server to bring me “their” sambal sauce, glowing faces would return with tiny bowl of pastes in colors to terrifying to be food.

So it is with all these people in my heart that I put on my mechanic’s safety glasses and make a seasonal series of chili sauces that would make any Indonesian, and also a certain family member, or volcano climbing chili explorer very proud.

fire sauce returning home to ghost peppers ghost ripening