To start a story in the fall seems like odd placement, but to be present with a farm is to witness an ever active dance of interlocking cycles, where the beginnings and ends come together at junctures that are both expected and unexpected.
At Homeward Bounty Farm, there is a cycle in every day. We are tied to the cycles of the sun, as it is rising up from behind Mt. Shasta to the east, with golden rays heating the last days of summer, angles that will creep lower on the horizon with crisp mornings as fall begins, and setting down into the wilderness of twisted rivers and forests in the west. Then there are the cycles of individual crops, reflected in seasonal availability, such as field ripened fruits, roots, and leaves that Homeward Bounty Farm offers up at the Mount Shasta Farmers’ Market and for the farm run CSA program. These programs start in May and ending in October.
My own cycle of life brought me back to Siskiyou County, where I was born and raised. My parents were offered teaching jobs at the small rural school in Grenada in the early 80’s, and it’s at that same school where I went to kindergarten. As a teen, I never thought my life would bring me back home, especially after trotting from Portland to Arcata, to Germany, India, and Nova Scotia. You don’t always know the beginning of a cycle until you meet the end and, inevitably, the beginning of another journey. It’s here, in the shadow of the same mountain that my parents raised my sister and me, that my passport stilled and the story of Homeward Bounty Farm starts.
The path that led me home may have seemed unexpected, but after growing food and seeds in and for other communities, it germinated in me the knowledge that the most authentic journey would be in moving back home, to nourish the community that raised me. From my hands, I wanted to bring sustenance to the tables of my parents and the families whose hands and hearts once fed me. When I came home, home my dad wrote me a card stating, “Now your Homeward Bounty can begin.” I was raised with the Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme album, by Simon and Garfunkel, and in true Dad-fashion, the pun with the song “Homeward Bound” was not lost on me. In 2013 my folks and I invested in land, and Homeward Bounty Farm set roots. For the last five seasons I’ve been lucky enough to grow here on this land, where three of the forty acres have been put into crop production. Much has been grown since acquiring this land, beyond the crops in the field.
With each year soil is cultivated, the habitat for millions of farm employs microorganisms. Fruit trees, grapes, asparagus, and raspberries have been planted, buildings have become burn piles, others have gone up, the web of community spins ever outward, with support and love. This land has become a community farm and a home for my husband Jonathan and me, as well as our dog Dagmar, chickens, and farm cats. How quickly five years goes by. With the cycle of each year I learn more, listen deeper, glean a greater understanding of the principles of sustainability, take better notes, and become a student of cycles.
The cycles of the seasons are the monuments that farmers hang their sweat-stained hats on. Spring enjoys the attention of being the beginning, with the first blooms of saffron stigma crocuses, and awakened verdant cover crops grow in the field, along with over-wintered fall brassicas and newly seeded lettuce, spinach, and arugula. Summer loads us with an abundance of work in harvesting, distributing and preserving. Winter marks the end, with piles of agricultural books and seed catalogues, the catalyst to start a year renewed with inspiration and hope.
Our journey with you, dear reader, starts its cycle here, in the fall. Fall, when a lot of the farm is coming to an end, the commitment to another season has been met. It’s a time of year for reflecting, for assessing, for winnowing and threshing bins of seeds, for enjoying waking up with a sun that rises later and later with mornings that carry dew and vocal skies peppered with V’s of Canada geese. Each fall Homeward Bounty Farm hosts our annual CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) Harvest Dinner, where we put a long table in the field and come together to honor another season of abundance, growth, and community. This year we raise glasses of my father’s homebrew in celebration of the farm’s fifth season and I always read one of my favorite Wendell Berry poems, “The Summer Ends.“
By equinox, the fields have usually seen their first kiss of frost. The last of the squash blossoms have been harvested with care, for weekly distribution to Café Maddalena in Dunsmuir, where the blooms of summer are tenderly filled with truffled goat cheese and crisped in a fryer. The greenhouse has been organized and cleaned. Wooden handled tools have been thanked with a coat of protective linseed oil and drip tape has been rolled up out of the field.
Although closure dominates the fall, for some crops it’s their season to begin! The first plantings of 2018 find their way into methodically prepared beds in October, those of garlic and beneficial cover crops, when much else has been tilled into the soil to compost and return the nutrients leeched out. Crops are in turn being planted, ones that look forward to the cold months of winter, where they’ll find their needed vernalization—the required cold dormancy that some crops need in order to start the process of growing in the spring.
Fall is always a welcomed time of year. It’s the finish line of a season-long sprint, and a farmer can’t help but reflect on the successes and failures. 2017 was a curious year, odder than the average Siskiyou County season, which only stretches from 25-30 weeks, roughly from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Challenges began in the winter and spring, when the rain started and never seemed to let up to allow the soil to dry out enough to get the tractor working in the fields. Spring plantings of lettuce, root crops, and onions were delayed by a full month. It was a colder spring than the last few seasons and it took a while for crops to establish. With rains and eventually sun came an abundant weed army, in its appropriate green uniforms, flanking all angles of the crops relentlessly, until the giant farmer descended on them, wielding the hula-hoe of justice.
It seems appropriate that an area of such extreme beauty would bring with it extreme weather, and that is indeed what we always end up getting here in Grenada. May warmed up, only to have a four-day stretch in mid-June of freeze warnings. On June 10th, I lost an eighty-foot row of tomatoes when the wind lifted up the frost cloth covering them, exposing them to a 31 degree low. By the time summer came around it tightly wrapped the fields and farmer with 100+ degree heat and bugs, eating away at tender crops that in a normal season would have been much more mature and able to handle the pressure. And, in only our second year of organic certification by CCOF, I’m still working on methods that align with organic standards, as well as my personal philosophy of working with nature, instead of finding chemical or synthetic fixes to challenges that arise.
Hidden in the frustration that has defined this growing season were gems of success. The addition of sunflower microgreens in CSA member boxes and at the Mount Shasta Farmers’ Market was welcomed with delight; those little sprouts are truly addictive. I also feel that I’m getting a strong hold of understanding when it comes to the intricacies of growing crops in the protected environment of the high tunnel, which the farm was able to purchase through a season extension program offered up by NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service) in 2015. This structure is a blessing, where I can truly extend the season and protect crops from the ever-present Shasta Valley winds. I’m gleaning a better understanding of crop trellising techniques, with cucumbers and tomatoes, as well as intercropping beds for maximum yield. Heirloom tomatoes found their way into CSA boxes by mid-July this year, even though normally in Siskiyou County we’re lucky if we can enjoy these coveted fruits by the end of August.
The slower pace of fall also finds me in the barn, newly built by my husband, father, and extended farm family. It’s this time of year when seed crops are harvested from the field and cured on tarps, old sheets and in bins, waiting to be separated from their pods. Ever since farming sparked my interest, I was drawn in as much by the seeds as by the abundant harvests of cucumbers and sweet spring peas. From one seed, you can harvest many, and in that seed lies the genetic contents to grow a complicated plant species. To fall in love with a still and powerful seed is easy. My curiosity in seeds brought me to India in 2009 to work on Vandana Shiva’s seed farm, Navdanya, as well as to Nova Scotia, Canada, where I worked for a season at a small seed company, Hope Seeds. Now, I have the joy of growing seeds for Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Virginia, Siskiyou Seeds in Southern Oregon, and my own community with Homeward Bounty Seed packet sales. These connections, among others, were fostered at various Organic Seed Alliance events, an organization whose mission is to grow access and knowledge of organic seed cultivation and to provide education and advocacy to farmers, seed growers, and seed companies throughout the US.
As with the journey in growing field crops, with seeds I’m always learning. You become a student of the plant at different stages, seeing a head of lettuce bolt into hundreds of tiny yellow flowers, a cucumber become pale and swollen on the vine. The cycle of bringing crops from seed to seed is longer than that of a crop you would harvest for market, so the journey is intimate as they stand longer in the field, their flowers feeding the bees and other wild pollinators.
As I stand in the barn and winnow this year’s harvest of dense story-filled seeds from light fibrous chaff, this act of delicate and deliberate separation acts as a living metaphor for the fall, where I find myself putting the season through a sieve—the weight of lessons learned falling into the bucket to hold on to for seasons to come and the light noise of the moments inbetween blowing away. Growing crops from seed to seed represents the ultimate cycle; the story of a season contained in the minute germplasm of a seed. A story that parallels the growth of our own civilization. Together we grow each other, pass on, and cultivate our stories. The circuitous journey wraps around many autumns, when seed and farmer are finally drawn inside to wait out the cold and prepare for the start of a new season.
Kate O’Brien-Mann fills most of her days with the tasks of running a farming business. When she’s not in the fields, she finds time for hiking, music concerts, gatherings with friends and is training for her first marathon, along with her husband, the date of which is on their first wedding anniversary. This is the first of a four-part series in which she brings readers through four seasons on her farm in Grenada, in Siskiyou County. homewardbountyfarm.com