Monthly Archives: October 2013

More of the same here on the olive farm. Breakfast, pick olives, lunch, pick olives, dinner, bed by 8. That’s party time in Corinna-town. All that being said, picking olives isn’t exactly brain work, so Jen and I have been trying to find the best way to occupy our creative energy. We mostly do this by creating elaborate reality TV show style games for ourselves.

The rules of American Olive Pickers are quite complicated and are subject to immediate change, akin to Calvinball. Your score is based loosely around how many trees you harvest, how fast your bucket is filled, and of course, impressing the judges at home.

Today, Jen and I worked from 7:30 to 3:30. While we only completed two rows, one of those rows was the longest in the upper field, one bonus point. And we got nearly 10 full buckets, up an astonishing amount from yesterday’s 6 (4 points). We went over on our time to complete the row (minus 3 points), but played through the pain of a burst blood vessel. Overall score? 53.

But all this fun and games aside, I got to milk a goat. Milking a goat has been on my to-do list for quite some time.  I’m just knocking out life goals left and right on this trip.

The goats at the farm have a definite schedule that they like to keep. In fact, part of the reason why we get penalized on American Olive Pickers for going over time is that the goats start bleating precisely at 3 o’clock, which is dinner time. All the 7 of the goats and Dot the Sheep are waiting by the gate to their pasture. Jen brings in a slice of alfalfa hay and distributes it to the animals, which they all immediately begin consuming. Except Penelope. Penelope heads directly for milking stand. Today was a little hard on her, because I am not as familiar with her schedule, and was standing in her way. Once I was out of the way, she hopped right up on the platform, and patiently munched while Jen strapped her in, and showed me the ropes.

Embarrasingly my knowledge of milking technique comes from that Sex and the City episode where Samantha tries to seduce a shirtless farm boy. I have to tell you, there is nothing sexy about milking an animal. Once we were done with Penelope, Jen called for Pepper, who came trotting up and took her place at the stand. At this point all the other goats are gathered outside the milking pen, because the milk goats get oats. This is cause for jealousy and bottlenecking in the goat community.  When all was said in done, we got a little over a quart of milk from the two goats. Once the CSA the farm runs is up and running, the other 3 female goats will be old enough and will start being milked as an add-on share to the CSA.

It was a pretty memorable experience and totally foreign, even though I drink outlandish amounts of milk. It made me feel like I was accomplishing at least one of the goals of this trip, which is to become more connected to my food.

Which gets at a big point of view dilemma. For me, the connection comes in very practical ways. One of my biggest worries about coming on this trip and talking to sustainable farmers was that idealism would win out over practicality in a lot of places, that the conversation would be less about the ways and means of farming and more about a grand calling of the cosmos. In fact, many of the listings on the WWOOF network talk about reconnecting with spirituality and exploring the ephemeral aspect of nature and the earth. This is not something I take any issue with, but for my purposes, the spirituality and philosophy distracts from the overall point, and becomes less and less approachable. The overall point being to parse out what are the practical needs of reforming a destructive food system.

Because the fact of the matter is sustainability in agriculture is not a spiritual pursuit. More power to the people who find spiritual fulfillment in it, but this is a very tangible and pragmatic problem that needs to be addressed on concrete and accessible level because it affects everyone.

Jen and her family are warm, welcoming people, who believe in environmentalism and supporting their community while earning a living. All of which helps to make their agrarian efforts approachable and engaging on all levels. It makes me feel as though these practices are all things that could fit into my life, without having to fundamentally change my world view. And that, I think, is the crucial thing for people to realize. That even slight changes in consumer habits, or a moderate amount of awareness are possible and can affect positive change. And it doesn’t have to have one bit to do with your views on life, the universe and everything if you don’t want/need it to.

I can get why people need to feel a stronger connection to the earth and their animals to make some of these tasks seem more worthwhile, or create a philosophical ideal as motivation. The work is intense, sometimes boring, sometimes uncomfortable. But for me, it’s enough to realize that it’s something that needs to be done, and so, I will just enjoy the sun and warm breezes when I can, eat some healthy food, and occasionally squeeze some boobies.

Since I arrived last week, the farm has dropped from 4 WWOOFers to just me. To be fair, it is pretty tedious work, and for those people who aren’t from places like Minnesota, “75 and sunny” just isn’t sufficient motivation to do anything outside.

But since I only get about 5 days like that every year, and am still water-logged from Washington, I will take any excuse to bask in the warm weather. My new picking buddy is Jen, who along with her dad and daughters help run the olive oil business. Jen and I were the only ones in the fields today. Not only is there a shortage of WWOOFers day laborers are also in short supply this year. Jen theorizes that this might be due to conflict with some other harvest, as the olives are about 2 weeks early. There is also a new trend of day laborers returning to Mexico, which drastically cuts down the work force.

The olives are specific to oil, known for having high polyphenols, which help contribute to a bitter taste. (pro-tip: don’t eat these right off the tree). They are usually about the size of grapes, and range from pale green to cherry red to deep purple.

my mobile work station

my mobile work station

Once the five gallon buckets are filled, we pour them into a large basin that feeds directly into the mill. They finally got to fire up the mill today. The first batch of oil sent through the mill is used to flush out the system. This sacrificial batch is eventually made into soaps.

The olives are rinsed, and then lifted into a mill, where there are churned for about 40 minutes. From there they are sent to a centrifuge to help separate the oils from the pulp. The oil is then pumped into a holding tank where it racked for a week to a month, depending on the weather. When it is decanted, it is then bottled into dark glass bottles, and stored in a cool, dry place.

This is almost the exact opposite type of storage problems I have with honey. That being said, they do have some slick metal descanting tanks that would be perfect for honey house. Some handy dandy internet research shows that they even come with heated jackets.

The agricultural drama that is unfolding is that is a race against time to try to get the olives picked before a frost hits. With night time temperatures dropping rapidly, and Jen and I being the only pickers, it makes for some long days in the future. Today we started a few hours earlier, at 7, and went all the way to 4 until the imminent threat of rain and cold wind sent us in for the day.


The olive farm has a more regular schedule than Skipley did. I get up at about 7:30, putter around for a bit, admire the sunrise over the valley, eat breakfast, and am strapped into a 5 gallon bucket pulling olives off of the tree by 8:30. We work until about noon, break for lunch, then back into the fields until about 3. Picking olives is not hard work; I spend most of my time pretending I am a giraffe, gripping the willowy branches and pulling my fist down, so all of the olives are plucked along the way and drop neatly into my bucket.  It’s not exactly interesting work, but it gives you time to chat with your picking-buddy, and the weather and scenery are beautiful.

The farm has about 20,000 trees that need to be harvest. I feel like in the 2 days I have worked, I have maybe done 300. I think the term that was used was “Sisyphean.”  The owners have the west coast attitude I have come to expect, that part of me loves and the part of me that is my high strung mid-western work horse-like lifestyle cannot abide.  That part of me keeps screaming “WHY are you breaking for lunch? WHY are you stopping when there is still daylight! You have 20,000 trees that need to be picked!” I’ve been working very hard to ignore that voice.

Ignoring that voice is what led me to take a trip over to Yosemite during the weekend.  Yosemite Valley is about 2 hours from where I am staying, and was well worth the drive. The 35 mile drive from the park entrance to the actual Valley, with Visitor center takes about an hour, due to the winding roads and high elevation. It must be a pretty drive for a passenger but as a driver, I was somewhat distracted by families of deer, other drivers and sudden turns. But it’s all worth it when you get your first spectacular view of the valley. Coming from the west, people enter the valley, made all the more poignant by the mile tunnel you drive through that opens up onto one the most stunning views I have ever seen. Like with every National Park I’ve been too, it’s impossible not to be overcome with bullshitty amounts of feelings.

I am arriving in the office season, so the famous Yosemite Falls and Mirror Lake are all dry, but the granite cliffs are stunning all the same.  I think the fall colors on the trees makes up for the lack of water makes up for it.

I decided to book a tent cabin in Yosemite Valley at the Curry Village. This decision was motivated by the fact that the only available campsite was about 45 minutes north. Through the mountains. Oi. At the time I booked it, the hefty price tag seemed worth it to avoid the hour and half round trip to set up camp and come back to see what I wanted to see, plus adding 45 minutes on to my drive home. I was already planning on taking the scenic route home so as to visit Glacier Point, and the thought of that much more time in the car made me feel sick.

What I did not know, however, was how serious the threat of bears is. I had to sign multiple disclaimers about keeping food in my vehicle, as well as listen to many stern lectures about it from rangers. It doesn’t seem that bad, but I have roughly 3 months’ worth of food in my car. Oh, yes, and the tent cabin is about half a mile from any parking. Oi. According to the “Map My Run” app, I did 3 miles just in locking up my food. It really helped appease my guilt at eating an ice cream sandwich with lunch.  And I get to do it all again in the morning. Oi.

All of this lends Yosemite a different vibe than Glacier, and especially Roosevelt. The first two national parks had a very relaxed mood to them, and I am starting to appreciate what good luck I had at those parks. The feeling that I am getting here is that camping in Yosemite is a Big Deal. There is no eating in tent cabins, no using scented products such as shampoo or deodorant. Also have you heard of the Hantavirus?

Bears damage 100 cars a year, (that’s 2 a week), and I find myself wondering what my odds are, given how many cars are parks. On top of that, looking at the food storage lockers provided to each tent cabin, I am preetttttty sure my trailer is more secure, and is roughly the same design. But I love my trailer and it’s not my car, so I dutifully hauled all my food in. I wish this had been explained to me a little better when I asked at the Yosemite Lodge about accommodation. In addition to storing your food, there is no cooking in Curry Village. This means that the only food available is at one of the two restaurants, with impossibly long lines, even in the off-season.

Another warning about bears comes along the roadside. “Speeding Kills Bears”. In every park building the same video plays about bear-person relationships, which almost always amounts to the same message: “If you’re a dumb-dumb, a bear will die.” The main reason for keeping food out of vehicles, and no cooking is that bears come into populated areas and pose a threat to people. Once bears become disruptive, they become a threat and are shot. Speeding around hairpin curves leads to cars hitting bears. (Personally, I can’t believe anyone speeds on those mountain roads, as my anxiety level at 30 miles per hour was about through the roof. I can’t imagine anyone tricking themselves into believing that it is ok to go faster. But it turns out, people do, and bears die. Because they were being dumb-dumbs)

The most incredible view I experienced while there was the view from the Sentinel Dome. The Dome itself is a rounded piece of granite resting at just over 8,000 ft. While not the most impressive rock structure in the park, there is a view of the entire valley that is absolutely remarkable. The best part though is that is easily accessible for those (like me) who are not brave enough to tackle more rocky terrain without an accountabili-buddy to go for help when I inevitably fall and crack my head open.

It seems the real danger of hiking alone in these areas is it’s hard stick to what you set as your acceptable risk threshold. I tell myself very firmly that I will stick to mark trails, and be honest about my physical and mental limitations, including not only the strain of steep climbs, but also my anxiety about heights. All that is well and good, until you’ve made it to the top without a problem, and every step calls you further into the wilderness and further from the trail. It’s like some kind of National Park siren song. Only instead of beautiful ladies at the end, you get to tumble to your death in beautiful scenery.

Even though this whole adventure is about being able to roll without a plan, this is one occasion where some research ahead of time and little more planning could have saved me some headaches, and definitely some money.

In all honesty though, it’s hard to be upset in such a beautiful setting, and will definitely give me a better sense of what I am doing next time.



Oh, and in case anyone is wondering the wildlife count for Yosemite is as follows: 5 deer, 2 coyotes, a blue egret and bushy tailed red fox. No bears.

Well, I left Portland yesterday. It was really nice to get the chance to spend some time with my family, and have the opportunity to get dressed standing up. And more importantly, pee inside in the middle of the night. Plus, I needed a break from wall to wall dudes, as great as the dudes of Skipley Farm are.

I was already getting tired of being in the car after a few hours when this happened:

The Acorn and I finally reached the Pacific Coast.

The Acorn and I finally reached the Pacific Coast.

I did it! I made it as far west as I could go, the Pacific Ocean. No where to go but south. I imagine Lewis and Clark had a similar feeling of accomplishment.

I should explain a little about my route. I was headed to California to an olive farm not far from Yosemite. About 11 hours if I were to stick to the interstate, I-5. You may remember my resolve from Montana to stick to the interstate. Well, I didn’t remember, so I decided to take the scenic route down Highway 101, along the coast on the Redwood Highway.

But why, you might ask. Well, anyone who has more than 3 conversations with me knows about my obsession with the redwoods, which is why I decided to add 5 hours onto my drive.  It was at about mile 400 that I started to question my decision. But then this happened:

photo 1 (2)

I got the Redwood State and National Parks, located on the Northern California coast. I can’t quite articulate the experience. They’re just so old, and so alive, and so tall. I pulled over several times. Every now and then there was a sign with yellow letters telling you the name of the stand. I came across one that had fallen, and one that was I think the largest I had seen. I sat for a moment and cried.

After I left my crying stump, I remembered that I was getting dangerously close to my 600 mile/day limit. And then this happened:



So, that was cool. Luckily my dad learned me good, and I was able to get it fixed. But no less than 3 dudes stopped to try to help me. Though more than help with the tire, the directions they gave me were the truly helpful thing.

I had planned to cut across to I-5 from 101 by way of Highway 36. I was told this was a bad idea and that Highway 299 was the better, less curvy option. Boy, I am glad I took that advice. Considering how nerve-wracking the turns on 299 were, I think I would have been in tears on 36. Plus, I went over my 600 mile limit, and had to find a camp site somewhere in the Shasta National Forest. How the hell do people in their 45 foot campers do it?

That was the first night that I ever felt uncomfortable with where I was staying. There were no lights, and no host, and no other campers. I had to seriously think to myself if I was uncomfortable because of the darkness and isolation, or because I actually felt unsafe. Turns out, once I realized I could hear the highway traffic, I felt immensely better, and stuck it out.

I woke up early in the hopes of getting to the Olive Farm before noon, but as it turns out, driving a trailer in California is stupid, and you can only go 55 mph. I dutifully obeyed after the speeding ticket in Montana, and did not roll into Coarsegold until 5 o’clock.

I haven’t been here very long, but I am fairly sure this might be paradise. But more on that tomorrow. For now, here’s the view from my trailer.

Sunset on the Farm

Sunset on the Farm

I left Skipley Farm this week, and headed south to Portland to visit family. Skipley Farm was my first experience as a WWOOF-er as well as my first serious agrarian effort. It’s hard to collect my thoughts about the experience, because it is unlike anything I have ever done before.

I feel very overwhelmed about how much I learned, and I learned about how much I don’t know. Turns out, I don’t know shit about plants. My elementary school style knowledge of pollination and fruit production does not even begin to cover it, and it turns out some things that I thought of as basic tenets of biology are fundamentally flawed. For example, “cells carry two sets of chromosomes” was something that I held to be pretty true of MOST things, excepting haploid bees. Well, polyploidy is a thing, and becomes pretty important when breeding things like apples and potatoes. My limited understanding tells me that this is because triploid plants are typically sterile, and has effects on plants “coming true”, i.e. producing fruit of the same variety.

(To explain, an apple tree will not “come true” from the seeds it produces. You may have an apple tree with great apples. If you would like a tree that produces the same type of fruit, you will need to clone the tree, which involves taking a cutting and grafting it onto some root stock. Fertile seeds produced by an apple tree have unknown parentage, and will produce fruit with unknown characteristics. Which makes a lot of sense when you think about it. But it was very comforting when I got to Portland, and my cousin told me that he had recently discovered this fact as well. Hooray for other intelligent adults also didn’t realize that fact.)

My time at Skipley brought to light a whole host of issues facing modern agriculture that I wasn’t aware of. I will touch briefly on the few most important that are spinning around in my thoughts.

1. Recapturing waste resources.

Skipley Farm is a permaculture farm, meaning that it is layed out with the goal of maximizing useful connections on the farm, between the plants, between the animals, and between the people and community. A lot of what this means in practice is a concentrated effort to reclaim waste resources. For example, using burlap bags from a local coffee roaster to put around the blueberries, or finding hardwood scraps from a local furniture maker for wood burning furnaces. Or feeding excess produce to pigs, or adding spilled organic fertilizer to the compost pile, so nothing is wasted.

I think even just bearing in mind the concept of waste as a resource lends a certain elegance and pragmatism to any system, but especially agriculture. I am looking forward to learning about other systems and how they capitalize on their waste resources.

2. The value of perennial agriculture.

For thousands of years, agriculture has depended on annual crops, which are crops that are grown from seed every year, and harvested to seed every year. We plant corn seed, harvest, and ideally, use the seed from that year for next year’s crop.

This system demands huge amounts of resources be spent on tillage, which overtime degrades the soil and leads to altered water tables, erosion problems, and degraded soil quality. Add heavy uses of pesticides and other chemicals to this and it makes for a pretty heady problem. But as the Land Institute terms it, it is not a problem in agriculture, it is the problem with agriculture.

Many farmers and researchers who are concerned with sustainability are focusing on the need to develop perennial systems that help maintain ecosystems world wide.

3. Seed Access

Seed saving has always been a vital part of agriculture. But recently, as big companies like Monsanto, Dow and Syngenta are developing patented varieties, and targeting open pollinated varieties, reliable access to fertile, GMO-free varieties of food plants is becoming more and more difficult.

To get an idea of what the seed industry is heading towards, I recommend the following two articles:

Monsanto sued small farmers to protect seed patents, report says – The Guardian, Feb 2013

GMO Wheat Lawsuit: Farmers Sue Monsanto – The Huffington Post, June, 2013

The first discusses how Monsanto protects its patent on seeds, and the other discusses the damage done to farmers by cross pollination from patented crops. All of this goes to show the sticky situation that arises with a system of patented, protected varieties of seeds are grown and its far reaching impacts on the community.

These are the ideas that are floating around in my head while I spend some time in Portland, drinking with my family.