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A Summer on the Farm 

Coming of age in the dirt

The garden begins in the northwest corner, which I consider the bottom. It starts right here, about two feet off the ground, in a full squat, eyes scanning for those soft, red strawberries planted out in three staggered lines. It nearly always starts with a taste of those ever-bearers. A reach under a leaf, a deep exhale there in that first row.

At the beginning of the summer of 2009, I was a 31-year-old boy. Those Quinault berries, not the sweetest or the juiciest variety, made me a man.

Also the bags of Johnny's Selected seed, the chicken shit, the hoes and flat shovels and wheelbarrows. The plastic irrigation tubing, bloodied fingers, sun and sweat, potato bugs and black widows and deer fencing.

Commitment to the dirt and to the little society that we formed working that dirt shoved me into the ranks of adulthood. That garden domesticated me, but not in the way you may think.

Not domesticated as in:

behold my ruddy backyard berry patch

in the raised redwood beds

beside the battered watering can

I mean domestic as in the human condition since the dawn of settled agriculture. Even though we supposedly settled out of the wilderness some 12,000 years ago, humans are born with pre-agricultural revolution instincts. I desperately clung to these youthful hunting and gathering ways into adulthood, moving west, shunning modernity (in my head). Until this summer. On the farm.

At least, I called it "my farm." Others in our little class considered it a big garden, or, generously, a victory garden. Here's what it looked like:

From that grounded point by the berries, our eyes, backs, necks soar to the tops of the desiccated corn stalks, settling quickly back down to kale and chard height, a deep, deep green and purple two or three feet above the strawberry air space. Beyond the erect brassicas, our gaze rises again to the industrial cucumber trellising and then slopes down over shaded peppers, past more greens, out to the potatoes tucked in their straw beds. Just a bit farther, almost 100 feet out, we reach a wall of tomatoes in every shade of fire and every heft of spherical.

Meanwhile, over in the southern bed, the corners of our eyes catch sunflowers towering over the others, leading us through bushy and highly productive tomatillos, stunted eggplants, and into the weedy squash and zucchini and melon spots. And then we are up against the tomatoes again, at the head of the plot, standing sentry over our bounty.

That is mostly how I remember the garden, though I must add something about the light. I stood, sat, stooped and dug in this place nearly every Monday evening from March until October, and always there was the light. The edges of our quarter-acre were hemmed in with the chaotic and deep shade of wild-growing Asian plumb trees, untrained grape vines and a tangle of uncultivated edge habitat. But that shade gave way to the late, low-angled light that hits the Foothills, bounces back across Hill Road, over our crew, around our little field, reflecting from plant to plant, heating the soil and our brows and backs.

It was that desert light that you only notice when it shines on something creative. The same light that shone the morning my youngest daughter was born. It is the atomic illumination of dirt, tools, work. It lights up the people next to you.

Nowadays, the light is different. The winter sun has subdued the life that teemed through that place, leaving it in a mowed-down stasis.

Our summer's life work is not gone, though the farm is now claimed by others. There are beets and carrots that we planted, still in the ground, waiting patiently for a tug on their stems. The strawberries appear dead, but will rise again in the spring, again staining our cheeks with their blood. The winter greens remain, full of vitamins. A cover crop of vetch and oats appears as a stubble where the spuds once waited.

Eight months ago, I had never heard of vetch. Now I know it as a legume, an effective nitrogen fixer and a hearty winter cover crop for the Southwest Idaho climate. I've never read about vetch, though I could easily Google it right now and list off its properties.

But I have hand sown vetch. A few times, now. We put in a few rows of vetch as our garden retracted this fall, walking the space that had been our potato patch and rhythmically tossing the seed, shooting for an even distribution. And then I planted some vetch and rye at my house, where I have taken out an insurance policy against forgetting this agrarian exercise by ripping up about 2,400 square feet of lawn.

I know something about cover crops from this class I took. Though it has no official name, so far as I can tell, the class was a farm internship modified for people who have other jobs besides farming, who are conscious about food choices, who were interested in gardening before the recession made it the next hot thing.

It was the idea of Josie and Clay Erskine, modest visionaries who run a popular organic farm in Boise. They are moving to a larger space up Dry Creek, in the Foothills, next spring, but since 2002, Peaceful Belly was headquartered in the interior of a still-undeveloped parcel bordered by a long block of houses along Hill Road and Castle Road.

In February, at the tail end of ski season, Josie dropped a hint to my wife, Tara, that they were thinking of offering a gardening class for the season. An eight-month-long gardening class.

I hated school--preferring the experiential learning of the hunter gatherer--and had vowed not to return. But I have always been drawn to Josie and Clay's farm and to their commitment to their food.

I still remember the diversity and bounty of their fields the first time I walked along the Farmers Union canal behind Peaceful Belly, many years ago. Josie grew and arranged the flowers for my wedding at Bogus Basin in 2003 and though I did not pay much attention to the flowers necessarily, we slowly got to know her family over the years. My older daughter's best clothes are her daughter's handmade and yard sale hand-me-downs.

I recall many a potluck at their house tasting some of the best and slowest slow food this side of Berkeley.

Josie promised a real-time gardening class that covered an entire growing season.

She made me fill out a brief application, which I answered with characteristic sarcasm; I was destined to become the class clown.

What do you want to grow?

A full complement of veggies, maybe some wheat, something to smoke ...

A few of my brief responses were more prescient than I could have known:

Why do you want to take this course?

I want to grow food for the family and get in touch with another primal side of my psyche.

I was accepted and, on March 14, a dozen of us gathered in Josie and Clay's cozy living room--they have a small organ, funky paint squares on the walls, copious house plants that look healthier than a house plant should. We went around the room and talked about why we wanted to take an eight-month farming class. Or gardening class. This is still a point of contention: Our operation was not commercial. We largely fed ourselves and friends and families with the food we raised, leaning toward the garden interpretation. But the scale felt farm-like to me. We grew more than enough food over the summer to feed a dozen families, and then some.

Some of our extra arugula and organic tomatoes went to homeless shelters and to low-income Idahoans.

The course was contemplated as an extension of Josie and Clay's CSA, or community supported agriculture, concept. Peaceful Belly delivers weekly boxes of produce to its subscribers throughout the growing season, as do a dozen other small farms in the Boise valley. We would pay the same as CSA subscribers, $400, but instead of picking up a box each week, we would do all the work and harvest the food. We'd fill our own boxes.

There are many gardening classes out there and plenty to read in this genre. And I had dabbled in gardening before.

As a kid, we had a fairly large garden behind the house that produced for a few years and then slowly dwindled as our lives became more and more hectic. My first summer in Idaho, I lived along the Salmon River with Tara, who still brags that she was a plant and soil science minor in college. After we realized that the garden had been overrun by marmots and that I could not shoot enough of them nor did I have the stomach to pit roast the ones I had shot, we started a second garden in a dozen white buckets so that we could a) keep an eye on it better and b) move it in at night when it seemed like it might freeze in July.

In Boise, we had a small, semi-successful garden, but like most people's, it became overrun with weeds and abandoned to the next renter.

That first summer along the river I learned a lesson that I'm only just now realizing. I started fly fishing on the Salmon and a few of its tributaries, but I did not have the patience to just fish. I wanted to catch something and eat it. I rarely fished more than half an hour, unless they were really biting.

Gardening was the same way. I wanted an outcome, but after so much weeding and so little eating, I'd give up.

Josie put it this way: "There is a difference between gardening for the soul and gardening for an outcome."

In other words, gardening as a hobby vs. gardening as a culture.

Josie and Clay would guarantee an outcome and I trusted them.

After our chat during that first class, we walked over to the plot, which was a quarter-acre behind a neighbor's house that he offered up in exchange for produce.

Clay had loosened up the field with a tractor, but it was just a big dirt square. We clutched a sketch of the plot divided up into two main beds, each with 20 rows, a path down the middle.

Over the next few weeks, we dug in the rows, laid irrigation pipe, fertilized the soil with compost and began to sow early spring crops in the ground and tomatoes and onions and peppers in the greenhouse.

The garden began to take shape. And though we were busy, our team of gardeners started to talk, to know one another. There were media people to gossip with; a French teacher who had lived in Israel, to help me recall the Hebrew names of vegetables; a guy who lives down the street from me and who was never late and always did extra homework. There were foodies, landscapers, teachers and artists in the group.

And always, Josie and Clay were beside us, guiding the garden to success.

For the first few classes, we followed a syllabus, but it was quickly discarded for a much more realistic curriculum: We needed to do the same stuff that Josie and Clay were doing on their "real" farm.

Josie and Clay's other philosophy, which still amazes me, was to be with us nearly every Monday night for class, hoeing and harvesting with us.

On a recent Saturday night, I asked Josie and Clay if they had bitten off more than they wanted to chew by committing to hang out with a bunch of amateurs once a week for eight months. They laughed it off. For them, hoeing our little plot was not work.

Indeed, Clay was peppered with questions each and every class. Questions about soil conditions, seeds, where to dig, how to store veggies. But between questions, our teachers worked alongside us, something their teachers had neglected.

When Josie and Clay interned on organic farms before striking out on their own, they were given jobs and sent off to do them.

"When the person that is giving you the task isn't by your side, humans get negative," Josie said.

My classmates all took on different roles in the garden, enthusiasm ebbed and flowed as the season stretched on, but no one ever got negative.

Mondays were not a good night for me to take a three-hour class.

Boise Weekly goes to press on Tuesdays, about midday, so Mondays mean I'm scrambling to put together the news section.

And yet nearly every Monday I escaped from the office at 5:45, biked home as fast as I could, grabbed my 4-year-old daughter Petra and hightailed it out Hill Road, either by bike or car.

I usually showed up in my reporter clothes, but the moment Petra and I stepped into that field, all the quotes and moral dilemmas and strife that come with making a newspaper disappeared. Petra ran off to the compost pile or the chicken coop to play farmer with the other kids. I got a quick briefing on what the plan for the day was, since I was usually late, and we all split up to accomplish our tasks.

Some would weed. Some seed. Some preferred to harvest. I liked to jump around to different tasks, helping different people and talking.

Some were busters. Robert Kosche, my neighbor, would bust out the entire class. Josie and Clay called me a spurt buster. I'd have a spurt of energy, get a lot done and then chill for a bit.

Petra, however, went hard the entire class. She was often the youngest of the small gang of farm kids, and during my chill periods, I'd try to catch a glimpse of her to make sure she wasn't in the canal or in the street.

She was always running. Running through the raspberries, gleaning a snack as she went. Running to the baby chicks, cuddling them in her arms. Running to check out our harvest and pick out our bunches of flowers as the sun set.

Once in a while, she'd help, insisting she didn't like cherry tomatoes, but agreeing to pick them for Mom, searching for the prizest cukes, eating strawberries straight off the plant.

Petra's pure joy on the farm kept me coming back as well.

The kid scene was one of the things that surprised Josie and Clay. During that first class we voted on kids and dogs. The class agreed that kids could come along if they didn't mess stuff up. Dogs were not welcome in the garden.

Besides Monday night class, we had homework every week, technically an hour of chores to be completed sometime during the week. I skipped homework some weeks. But when we went to do our homework, we'd linger, as would others.

Josie and Clay happened upon several class families picnicking in the garden, sipping brewskies as the sun set over our plot, doing extra homework.

At one point, around about the end of July, our homework turned to harvesting as much and as often as possible. The garden had become immensely productive all at once, and we were hauling home bags and bags of tomatoes, greens, enormous cucumbers, carrots, onions, potatoes. I would go home from class, put Petra to bed and stay up until midnight canning, making pickles, shelling, blanching and freezing peas.

Is that domestic enough? For the task I turned to Google, seeking out YouTube videos for proper canning. Josie did a demonstration one night at class, making some green salsa and canning it, but there was no time for a full lesson in food preservation; we were too focused on production.

I put away a couple dozen jars of tomato sauce and salsa, and I screwed up a mess of pickles, watching them turn all brown and foamy and mushy in the fridge before relenting and tossing them. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. As Josie reminded us, the food was just so much sunshine and water. And as she also reminded me, via a late-night Facebook clarification, it was OK to cry.

There is a side story to this farm summer. About the time the class began, I patched together a small chicken coop under the kids' slide in our back yard. I used old, purple doors and chicken wire. We rounded up some chicks, two that Vashti Summervill, a classmate, near-neighbor and talented musician and educator, had hatched, and two unsexed grab-bag Cochins from D&B Supply.

Petra and I raised them in a box in the garage and then, mid-summer, moved them to the back yard.

In many ways, the summer of 2009 was Back to the Land summer across the United States. We ran several articles about urban farming in Boise Weekly. Films and books and New York Times articles rehashed the evils of Big Ag. Hatcheries sold out of chicks.

Here we were, raising chickens in the back yard, skipping the co-op and farmers market for months at a time because we had plenty of veggies, hitting D&B every weekend.

For a moment, I panicked. Was I becoming an ideologue again, as I had been in my teen years, joining some new movement?

But the panic subsided as my wife, Tara, insisted she heard one of our chicks crowing. I would soon have the opportunity to purge that creeping agricultural domesticity through a chicken slaughter.

One Sunday afternoon, I came home early, isolated the little crowing Cochin, hung him upside down from a low branch and cut off his head. A friend watched, somewhat horrified yet intensely curious about the process. We dunked the bird in boiling water, plucked and gutted him, and I made soup.

We did have a feast that night, though the bird, not fully mature, was small and its meat tough. But I was not prepared for what I'd find the next morning.

My best theory is that a raccoon smelled the blood that I had spilled and came a hunting early that Monday morning. As I left for work before sunup, I went out to feed the chickens and saw the most gruesome scene I'd ever encountered.

The three remaining chickens were ripped to shreds in their cage. An animal had reached in and grabbed them, tearing the little birds limb from limb and scattering the parts around my back yard.

Our domestic scene had been shattered by a foray into the urban wilderness. I ripped apart the chicken run and tried to clean up all of the gore before my family got up. That night, Petra would shed some tears as we visited the coop and talked about what happened. We decided to take a break from chickens.

About that same time, my regular hunting buddies started their annual e-mail thread about the quickly approaching September bow season. All of a sudden, shooting my bow and sharpening my knives took precedence over my garden.

There was still plenty of work to be done at Hill and Castle and in my own back yard, but the elk in the Central Idaho mountains were also starting to herd up, and another primal instinct in me stirred.

I have been bow hunting for six years now and have never shot at an elk or deer. But every fall, I suit up and stomp around the hills, creeping up and down steep slopes, seeking meat. For some reason the hunt has not succumbed to the soul/outcome dialectic that fishing and gardening fall victim to.

I found it very difficult to go back to the farm after long weekends hunting. I skipped a few Monday classes, exhausted from the hunt and overwhelmed by work at the paper.

But when September passed and I realized our freezer remained full of only peas, I slowly returned to the settlement, harvesting and reclaiming garden beds in a race against the first frost.

Toward the end of the season, Josie and Clay started asking us about a second year class. I wanted to want more, but I knew that I could not commit to such a huge undertaking for another year. Robert, Vashti and I hatched another plan: We would rip up my entire side yard, a corner lot with plenty of space for three families to farm.

At first, Josie and Clay felt hurt that none of us wanted to continue with the gardening course. But when I rented a sod cutter one weekend and scraped all the perfect sod off my lawn, they realized they had been successful.

We have a ton of work to do in my yard, spreading mulch, tilling the soil, modifying the sprinkler system and figuring out how to split up the work and the produce.

There was no test at the end of Josie and Clay's farm class. But in the act of turning the street-facing lawn into a street-facing garden outside my house, we created our own final exam. Come next summer, we will have a strawberry patch to crawl through, a compost heap to jump off, flowers falling all over each other where the sidewalk should be.

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