Over the Fence Urban Farm

Cooperatively farming small patches of Earth in Columbus, OH


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Propagating with My Jewish Roots

 

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This past winter, Hadassah magazine ran an article titled, “My Daughter the Farmer.” If you have a Jewish mother, you won’t be surprised to learn my mom (lovingly) urged me to read it. When I did, I was drawn down a rabbit hole into the world of Jewish farmers and food educators. I had some idea of the Jewish environmental movement, particularly the concept of eco-kashrut, but the details were fuzzy. The article provided stories of individuals and links to organizations* bridging the gap between ancient Jewish wisdom about connecting with, dwelling in, and tending the earth and contemporary issues around sustainability and access.

As a result, I joined the Jewish Farmer Network on Facebook and began using Jewish hashtags on Instagram in order to connect with a new set of growers and community activists. In August I clicked on a link and applied for a scholarship to attend the Jewish Outdoor Food, Farming, and Environmental Education (JOFEE) Network Gathering. A few weeks ago I was notified that I received the award and made plans to travel to the retreat, in the woods north of Detroit.

I didn’t start farming with Jewish values in mind. I am actively wrestling with the distinction Adrienne Krone, a scholar of religious studies cited in the Hadassah article, makes “between Jewish farmers and farmers who happen to be Jewish.” But when I stop to think about it, being Jewish is a huge part of my identity as an Earthling, and the Jewish values I was raised with are always with me. Growing up kosher made me actively aware of what I eat from an early age. In some ways it seems natural that I became a vegetarian as an adolescent, a cook in my twenties, and a gardener in my thirties.

But through the farm, specifically as it relates to environmental stewardship and social engagement around issues of sustainability and self-reliance, I have come to new questions and new understandings of what it means to mean to be Jewish and new ways to engage Jewish thought and practice. The JOFEE gathering showed me that I had only scratched the surface. I met too many amazing people, was exposed to too many new ideas, and experienced too many ineffable things to describe them all here. This winter I’ll find more time to reflect and write about them. I hope to also – and wrote about this in my scholarship application – find ways to share them with my kehilah (my Jewish community) here in Columbus.

Thursday, I joined other JOFEE participants in Detroit on an urban farm tour. I was excited for this opportunity to check out a scene that I heard referenced many times in conversations with other urban farmers in Columbus. I joined the tour late but got to check out three sites – Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, Coriander Kitchen & Farm, and Keep Growing Detroit (clockwise from left below).

While my time at each site was brief, it was great to get my eyes on new land. It is truly astounding how much of this once densely populated city has been razed and how much vacant greenspace there is. I got a personal tour and some history while driving Keep Growing Detroit’s Eitan Sussman back to his car after the tour ended. Through our conversation I learned that while the Detroit community gardening and farm scene is thriving, it’s still hard for farmers to earn a living doing this work. In addition, Billy, the farm manager at Oakland Park shared that it’s hard to get fresh food into people’s kitchens even when it’s free.

I left Detroit and drove about an hour north to Tamarack Camp in Ortonville. Tamarack is a beautiful 1,500 acre Jewish sleepaway camp and retreat facility. I didn’t realize how much I needed a few days in the woods with spotty cell phone service. The night I arrived, the temperature dropped into the 40s for the first time this fall. Facing the brisk breeze, with not quite the right clothes, added to my sense of being on retreat. It forced me to pay attention to my body and the very air I was breathing in ways I might not have had it been a bit warmer.

The program provided many options for networking over communal prayer, study, and meals. The current political and environmental crises we face were ever-present, particularly last week’s United Nations intergovernmental report on climate change. It was comforting to be in communion with people who not only care deeply about this news, but are working, and encouraging others, to respond to the predictions.

While I can’t say I have figured out what it means to me to be a Jewish farmer, I came home ripe with things to think about and new intentions for of approaching my work on the land and in the community I tend alongside our plants and poultry.
     How can I make the earth under my feet the promised land? 
     What would it mean to create forms of restraint that feel delicious?
     What do I love about living on Earth?
     How can I feel and express gratitude throughout my days?
     How can we increase our grit and resiliency?
     How can we connect with the inter-breathing spiring of the world?
While few of our CSA members are Jewish, we can all use some healing and I hope to find ways to do that on and through the farm in the coming years.

NOTE: I’m grateful to all the folks here in CBus who helped hold down the fort and farm while I was gone. This post is dedicated to them and everyone else who continues to support my exploration of the edges and overlaps of Over the Fence and other aspects of my life.

* For others interested in exploring the topic, I suggest this comprehensive listing of Jewish Outdoor Food, Farming, and Environmental Education partners.


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Chickens Come & Chickens Go…

This month has been really, really busy with life in general, off-farm work obligations, Jewish holidays, an art exhibition, and a special farmgirl’s eighth birthday. On top of all that, we got new chicks!

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Here’s the backstory…

Animals all over our neighborhood relocated this summer as a result of extensive and ongoing road and sewer work. After spending the second half of the season watching seedlings get trampled to the ground, giant half eaten tomatoes left to rot, and corn eaten off the cob while it was still on the stalks 5 and 6 six above the ground, we bought a trail cam. The Spurgeon General caught a series of images that shed light on the nightly garden parties happening out back.

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Three raccoons torment a rat in a trap.

 

In addition to the raccoons, skunks, and opossums that were eating our crops, we had rats. Rats?! They nibbled on tomatoes on the vine and they dug tunnels under our chicken coop and shed. The tunnels were so prolific they shifted the flow of water around the chicken run causing rain to seep in, creating the first foul smells we had related to chickens in the three years since we started keeping them. It was time to (temporarily) clear the coop so we could rid the rats by taking away any food source and shelter the hens were providing.

We spent a lot of last winter talking about the next step for our hens. They were approaching three years old (the average age heritage birds’ egg production seriously slows down – from November 2017-March 2018 we got ZERO eggs) and we always said we wouldn’t keep chickens that weren’t laying. But what then?

We had a few choices – kill them and bury them, butcher and eat them, send them someplace to retire, or give them to a friend to do… whatever she pleased. I personally had no interest in eating them. On the small scale we farm, the hens were our pets as much as our farm animals. They ran to the back door for treats when I opened it and followed me around when I called them.

I’ve learned a bit about chickens these past years. Meat chickens are slaughtered anywhere between 21 and 170 days old (that’s 3 to 14 weeks). This is surprising for folks who regularly who eat a lot of poultry. Noone wants to think they are eating such young creatures, but we are… Our hens were over 3 years old. You do the math. They were old by meat eating standards so even if I wanted to cook our girls, they would only be good for stock or stew and I don’t care nearly enough about either to do the work it would take to clean them for that. And, again, I couldn’t imagine consuming them myself.

In the end, we felt fortunate that Stratford Ecological Center agreed to take them. They would retire on a “real” farm with a bunch of new chicken friends. Maybe…

When flocks of chickens mix, the pecking order is disrupted and has to be renegotiated. The one time I tried to add girls to our mix so difficult to watch – like mean girls in a school cafeteria, but with blood – that I vowed never to do it again.

Also, Stratford has roosters and I couldn’t help thinking in putting our girls in with them was like putting 50 year old women in a brothel. As expected, they were spotted and stalked from the moment they were introduced to their new home.

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Check out the beautiful white breasted cockerel – far side of the fence – scoping out our girls, near side, moments after they made their debut on the scene.

I was also reminded at drop off that they could be culled anytime, as early as this week. And still I left them there.

I have spoken with many friends and family about this scenario. Many of these folks are poultry eaters, few chicken keepers. I like to think they learned something through our conversations – about the chickens they eat and the hens that lay their eggs. Most thought I did the right thing taking them to the farm to retire. You gave them a chance to live a little longer, they contended. You didn’t kill them, they applauded. But at what cost? And at what quality of life?

I have long loved Stratford as a place children and families in Central Ohio can go to learn how food gets to their plates, and how a small group of people can preserve a piece of land in the midst of a real estate development boom. But the current space they have setup for their chickens pales in comparison to our backyard full of trees and flowerbeds to forage and take dust baths.

I’m grateful for the time I had with R2D2, Dot, and Golden Honey. I appreciate every egg they laid for us. And I’m sorry I didn’t have the strength to kill them quickly and peacefully, to be the cause of their “one bad day.”

 


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The Farm as Artistic Space

I have so many thoughts to try to organize on the subject of this post. More posts will be necessary. Consider this Part I.

Three years ago I wrote an article for the art education journal Artezein (see Art Education in my Backyard) about the farm as it relates to and benefits from my training and experience as an art educator. But that was just a piece of the puzzle; a snapshot of my thinking. A meditation on what I offer others through the work. Since then I have been given more time to the notion of the farm as my artistic practice.

This has been on my mind since I got started. As I attended meetings of urban farmers in Columbus, I felt a sense of imposter syndrome. What qualified me to be in a room with these people? What did I have to bring to the conversation? In those moments, I often recalled the work of Nikki S. Lee who has positioned herself as a member of various cultural groups in oder to learn more about them, to try own their clothes and see the world from their point of view, and to make amazing photographs along the way.

After five years, I’m more confident in what I’m doing, and in calling it something like long-term, socially-engaged, participatory, performative, eco art project exploring relational and green aesthetics, and small scale economic theory. My use of all this jargon is part of the performance, as I play the part of academic as well as artist and farmer.

Since this all got started I have hosted numerous tours on the farm including a few for elected officials (see On Site with Columbus City Council Member Elizabeth Brown and City Council Farm Tour), blogged extensively, and offered spoken words and images at Pecha Kucha (check out a recording embedded in this post if you haven’t seen it already!). In each, I flexed my creative muscles – in multimodal directions.

After reviewing an exhibition of mobile photography at the Columbus Museum of Art, I started thinking about all the images I posted on Instagram to share the moments of “fleeting beauty” I experience while in the field. Like the conceptual artists who inspired me to engage farming as a creative practice, those images serve as documentation of my work. They serve as a gateway for people not accustomed to thinking of soil and water as artistic media entrance into the farm as creative space, not merely an agricultural one.

And so, it is with great pleasure that I am celebrating an exhibition of my photos at Global Gallery in Clintonville this month. The show was sponsored by the Greater Columbus Arts Council and will be up through the end of the month. I’ll be there for a reception this Friday night from 6-8pm. Hope to see some folks come out to talk about “The Work.”

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July and August Review

This season has been rough. I was under a lot of stress in the spring in various other aspects of my life and like Tita’s emotion-infused cooking in Like Water for Chocolate, I believe it had an impact on the farm. The erratic weather (a week in the high 80s, rounds of 2-3 inches of rain over two days followed by 7 dry days…) and an influx of animal pests displaced by road and sewer constructions throughout our neighborhood didn’t help either. And so, it isn’t surprising that I haven’t posted much in this space. I didn’t feel like I had much to celebrate.

Thankfully my friends and loyal CSA supporters have assured me, repeatedly, that they’ll support our work when times are good and when they’re not so good. They understand that that’s what community supported agriculture means. When the harvest is good, it’s great, and when it’s ain’t, it ain’t.

I suppose you could say part of what members received in their share this season was emails from me outlining the challenges we faced, as we faced them. I like to think of this as the “get to know your farmer” bonus CSAs and farmers’ markets provide.

With all this going on,  I had no idea two months had gone by since I posted here! And, in retrospect, it wasn’t all bad. Here are some highlights.

The Clintonville Farmers’ Market Kids’ Garden Club continued their meetings, field trips (Franklinton Farms and Rock Dove Farm), and had two great sales at the farmers market. They raked in over $100 which we’ll split between their harvest party and a donation to a yet to be determined local nonprofit.

We grew popcorn for the first time this year – in the kids garden and on the farm. Visitors who stopped by for the Clintonville Midsummer Garden Tour were surprised to see it. Thanks to our early planting, it was way more than “knee high by the fourth of July!”

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Edible Columbus featured me in the Local Hero column. It was great to run into people throughout the summer who saw the article. Made me feel almost famous. And appreciated.

We have a bunch of events coming up in September including the Simply Living Sustainable Living and Garden Tour – an answer to the wish my friends and I had for such an event in the spring after visiting the mainstream H&G show at the fairgrounds (see Follow-up on The Columbus Dispatch Home and Garden Show).  We’ll also be celebrating the beauty of small scale agriculture at Global Gallery September 14th for a reception celebrating “In the Footsteps of a Farmer: Fleeting Beauty,” a photo exhibition sponsored by an Greater Columbus Arts Council Artists in the Community grant.

Thanks for sticking with us in the good times, and the not so good times.


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Kids Garden Club update: 6.27.18

The Clintonville Farmer’s Market Kids’ Garden Club returned to the farm last night after a week off site for a field trip to Chadwick Arboretum. The kids (and their parents) were amazed to see how much things had grown in two weeks!

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As you can see, we’re trying to grow a lot in a pretty small space, so the garden is a bit of a jungle at this point. It seemed appropriate to begin club with a reading of Strega Nona’s Harvest, a great picturebook about gardening with the moon and a plan to keep beds “orderly so it is easy to pick the vegetables.”

We broke into three groups and rotated between tasks – weed/seed/feeding in the garden, making soil blocks and planting winter squash seeds, and painting signs.

It was a productive meeting, and we’re all looking forward to our first sale at the market on July 7th! Come find us at the CFM booth on Dunedin.


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Kids on the Farm: Spring 2018

It’s just the start of the season and already we’ve had lots of young visitors at the farm! We’re proud to be a place in the community folks seek out to learn what urban farming looks, feels, and tastes like. Here are a few images of groups who visited us in May.

Cub Scout Pack 41, a member of whom lives down the block, came around as part of their Fur, Feathers, and Ferns merit badge adventure. They held their regular meeting around the fire pit, helped plant potatoes, and transplant basil and tomatoes.

For the second year, students from The Graham School came by to get some ideas for the garden at their school. They are researching and applying for grants to support their work and I told them about the seed donation we received this year from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. They set some of those seeds – three kinds of squash – in addition to helping with some light weeding, basil transplanting, and visiting with the chickens.

Finally, The Clintonville Farmers’ Market Kids Garden Club had its first official meeting of the season. The kids (and their parents) were excited to see what’s been growing since they came out in April to prep the beds as part of our Earth Week event.

If you have a group that’s interested in visiting the farm. Let us know!


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Scenes from the Field: 5.20.18

I returned this morning after being out of town for nearly a week to visit my parents. I was anxious about leaving the farm since we hadn’t had any significant rainfall in a long long while and the temperatures had been really high. Luckily, it rained almost everyday I was gone(!) and I returned to see everything refreshed and thriving. This afternoon, we had another great turnout with lots of CSA members and other curious volunteers showing up to help with chores.

While I was away The Spurgeon General started to install this year’s tomato trellises (there’s one in the very front of this photo – see the rebar) which allowed us to tie up the plants today.

You might be wondering where the tomatoes are in the second photo of Julian cutting twine. They’re hard to see because they’re hiding in the fava beans (photo below) which were planted as an early spring cover crop. The hope is that these will produce some beans and we’ll chop them down in the next few weeks.

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Nancy thinned beet seedlings, producing some very pretty little microgreens.

Brooke, Amie, and Claire attacked the weeds that made a home across our entrance threshold.

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And Andrew made a rare appearance to spray beneficial nemotodes all over the place.

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Things are looking brighter then a week ago. Let’s see what Mother Nature brings us next!