Becoming a Farm Girl: Part Three

Note: This is the final post in a three part series to celebrate National Agriculture Day that will show my (non-traditional) journey to Agriculture. My hope with this story is to shed light on the many different faces of a “farmer” and how those who are not born into family farms can still learn, celebrate, find careers and purpose in this important industry.

Becoming a Farm Girl: Part One
Becoming a Farm Girl: Part Two

Adam and I had a blast together at the fraternity dance and continued to see each other.

It didn’t take me long to see that he was completely different from all of the other guys I had ever dated.

And, it wasn’t just because he drove a big, diesel truck you could hear coming down the road causing all the girls in my sorority to yell “Bye Claire!” before he would pick me up for a date.

He was a good friend. He made me a priority. He was motivated and intelligent. He was a leader on campus.

And, he had a job lined up after graduation… in Indianapolis.

At another one Adam's fraternity's formals as we approached graduation.

At another one Adam’s fraternity’s formals as we approached graduation.

The more I learned about him, the more I loved and I began to redefine my job search. By Valentine’s Day, I had a job offer of my own in Indianapolis.

Flash forward three years, Adam had returned to his small hometown to work with his dad at their family agriculture construction business and, after our May 2011 wedding, I joined him.

May 21, 2011.

May 21, 2011.

A hospitality job was hard to come by in the small town, so when a local school reached out because they were looking for a food and nutrition director, I took the job.

It was a great school, but it was by no means my “dream” job. I often felt confined by the rules and regulations in the world of school lunch and my culinary creativity was pretty stifled within the medium of chicken nuggets.

I spent a lot of time trying to make my day to day more stimulating.

After getting to know some of the students, I wanted to do more to make students feel engaged and excited about lunch. I began to look around at the many school lunch websites and blogs to see what other directors across the nation were doing to enhance their school lunch programs. One program that really caught my eye was Farm to School.

Farm to School is a program that connects school lunch programs to local farmers and provides education opportunities, such as school gardens and field trips. Programs were strong in states like California and Texas.

I loved the idea. After all that I had learned about farming and where food comes from in my college years and summer internship, I thought it was a great thing to teach kids, especially those who grew up like me. I wanted to teach them there is no stereotypical “farmer” and they can grow food too, be it in their own backyard or as a potential career down the road.

In late 2012 I reached out to the leaders to see what the program was doing in the state of Indiana. I learned that the program was in its early stages of getting off the ground. I asked if I could get involved and was met with an eager “yes.”

I was actually the first food service director involved in the Indiana group full of local growers, Extension officers, leaders in the Nutrition Services of the Department of Education and more. Because of this, I was asked to speak on a panel at the 2013 Horticulture Congress in Indianapolis to introduce local growers to the program and gauge interest.

I even made the cover of AgriNews... which really excited Adam!

I even made the cover of AgriNews… which really excited Adam!

The impact this day had on me was amazing. I think it may be the first time in my life that I truly felt inspired.

The panel went great, but what was so exhilarating to me was meeting all the people who grew food and were creating unique products with their food. Their products were fabulous. They had neat stories and passion.

Ironically, the congress was held the same week Adam and I had moved into our new home, set on a large piece of land. When I got home that evening, I told Adam about my great day. I told him that I wanted to learn to grow our own food and that we had to plant a garden.

It didn’t take much convincing: Adam, recalling his childhood dreams of being a farmer, was on board.

In order to get our first garden into the ground last summer we hit the library, talked to some family and friends, and watched a lot of YouTube videos. The amount of information we found was pretty amazing.

But, as the garden grew, we wanted to learn more. We wanted to do more in taking charge of growing food, not just for ourselves, but maybe even for others.

I built relationships with extension office leaders and learned about some free work shops they were hosting to educate the community. In the fall of 2013, I went to a hands-on workshop about composting and an info session about community gardens.

Also, thanks to some of those relationships and my eagerness, I was able to attend a weeklong produce safety training hosted by the USDA. There I learned so much. We received information about how produce is inspected, what certifications, insurance, and handling practices are needed at a farm in order to supply food for sale, how to create urban and community gardens and more.

During the training I also went to an actual farm that is a resource for inner city schools in Baltimore. It introduces students to gardens, food that they might not see at home, raising goats and chickens and teaches them culinary skills. Two young men I met and spoke with were preparing to be the first in their families to graduate high school and hoping to serve in the military… as chefs!

I still have a lot to learn, but these experiences are tools that could potentially help Adam and I create a new business venture down the road. Maybe we will help contribute to a CSA, a Farm to School program, or have a stand at a Farmer’s Market. I have since moved on from K-12 food service and in my new role I work closely with chefs. Maybe we create a company that supplies fresh, local produce directly to chefs. But, then again, maybe I go back to that younger demographic and help them learn how to grow their own food. Who knows!?

And speaking of Adam, he is also learning a lot and making moves to help feed others. He made a connection with a longtime farmer who is now serving as his mentor. Last fall, Adam asked if he could donate his time helping with the harvest. He was looking to learn more about the challenges and realities his clients face. He continued to ask questions and learn as much as he could about working a field of corn.

A Shot Adam took farming last fall.

A Shot Adam took farming last fall.

Thanks to his persistence and excitement, he will be going 50-50 with this farmer on forty acres of land this year. He is beyond excited to get into the field to continue to learn, to play a small part feeding the world, and to fulfill his childhood dream of being a farmer when he grew up.

Adam even asked the farmer, “Why are you letting me farm with you?”

His response “I’ve never met someone who shows so much passion and excitement for farming. It’s hard to find someone willing to work for free just to be involved.”

I know that we wouldn’t have had these opportunities and knowledge if we had not spoken up.

I am a firm believer that what you get out of life, be it opportunities or information, that you can’t work your butt off for, is what you have the guts to ask for.

I would not know what I know about growing food or how others grow food if I had not asked questions and asked to get involved.

I am the girl asking questions at the market. I want to know.

In order to create a successful garden, I reached out to old pros and asked questions.

Adam did the same.

It’s really hard to get into actual farming if you are not born into it.

He was interested. He wanted to learn. So, he asked.

If you want to know about how the produce you see at your farmers market is grown, ask the farmer.

If the farmer at the edge of town raises cattle and you want to know how he treats his cows or who he sells the beef to, ask. You might be surprised. A lot of family farmers sell to corporations like Tyson.

(However, another fun question to ask is if you can buy directly from him. There is nothing better than making a relationship where you can support someone in your local community and get fresh meat for your family.)

A farmer will likely be more than happy to answer any question and help give you a better understanding of their world. They are proud of what they do and they want to clear up any misconceptions that, unfortunately, strike the agriculture industry every day.

If you want to know how to start a garden, do what I did. Reach out to your extension offices, ask questions at the local nursery, or you could even ask me.

I am by no means an expert, but I do have a year of experience under my belt and if I don’t know the answer, at this point, I probably know someone who does.

And, like the farmers, I am proud of what I have learned and accomplished. Not to mention, nothing makes me happier to know that someone is inspired by this blog and wants to start a garden.

… Isn’t it funny?

If you had told me ten years ago that this would be my life and this is what makes me feel like I have a purpose, I wouldn’t have believed you.

Chickens? Dirt? Muck Boots? Puhleease.

I might have even laughed.

But, I have picked up a bit of wisdom since sixteen. And, yes, I still have a lot to learn about life, but one thing I know to be sure is that life takes us all down many different roads.

And if there is anything on those roads that makes you truly fulfilled and alive, you should listen to it.

As a young adult, I honestly have struggled trying to determine what to be when I grow up. I didn’t know what really drove me or what I was passionate about.

Until now.

I love the evenings when I am in the garden with Adam enjoying the sunset and a glass of wine while the hens are roaming nearby.

I can’t help but smile when I have a fabulous conversation with a farmer at the market about the food they grew.

I feel like I have a purpose when a friend texts me saying she wants to grow cilantro, but doesn’t know where to begin.

My heart is so happy when I see Adam thrilled about making his childhood farming dreams come true.

And, never in my life do I feel more completely “Claire” than when I am in my kitchen preparing an amazing meal with fresh ingredients straight from my backyard.

Fresh ingredients that I planted, tended to, and picked with my own hands.

… So, maybe I am a Farm Girl after all.

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Why Garden Weekends: Money

Okay, so… I had full intentions of doing “Why Garden Wednesday’s” all through the month of February to inspire you to start a backyard/balcony/windowsill garden this spring.

But, Wednesday came and went without a blog. I had been on the road for work, we had a major snow storm (again…), and I just wanted to spend sometime with this cute kid.

Sleep dude.

Sleepy dude.

Can you blame me?

Instead, welcome to “Why Garden Weekends!”

Spring is coming, even though it sure doesn’t seem like it in the Midwest, and every weekend in February I will be posting reasons on why YOU should start a garden.

So, without further adieu, Numero Uno, a reason top of mind for everyone: Money.

Last fall, I wrote as I reflected on the summer’s garden that gardening has definitely saved Adam and me a little cash. Thanks to the garden, I do not buy as a much at the grocery store and we are far less likely to go out to eat than we had been in the past. This is because we had so much food of our own to eat!

I have been seeking out garden workshops around Indiana to try to gain more knowledge and skill. At a program last September, put on by Purdue Extension, I picked up a flyer illustrating the benefits of gardening and the numbers listed for dollars saved. It’s impressive!

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Home gardening gives you a 1:25 cost benefit.

This means, if you were to spend $50 on seeds you could produce over $1,200 of food.

Here’s a break down of a few items from our garden explaining what we pay and what we could be paying if we were to purchase them at a store.

Organic, Pasture raised Eggs:

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Store Price: $3.50 per dozen

The chicks were $1 each and its $11 for feed every month. We get around 11 dozen eggs a month from our five hens. So, our eggs are about a $1.00 a dozen.

Organic Tomatoes:

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Store Price: $3.00 per pound

One tomato plant can give you around fifteen pounds of tomatoes. You could buy a tomato plant for about $2.50. We started our tomatoes from seeds and were able to get twenty plants of various varieties about six bucks. So, a pound of our backyard tomatoes were a whopping two cents.

Organic Zucchini:

I thought this was a funny picture from last summer.  Zucc's the size of wine bottles!

I thought this was a funny picture from last summer. Zucc’s the size of wine bottles!

Store Price: $3.00 per Pound

A packet of zucchini seeds is about $2.00. You could get about 10-15 zucchini plants per packet. Zucchini plants are like weeds. They just keep coming! We would get one zucchini from each plant about every day last summer. A typical plant will give you around nine pounds of zucchini each season.

We had six zucchini plants last summer making a pound of our zucchini about four cents.

Organic Cucumbers:

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Store Price: $2.00 per pound

A packet of cucumber seeds is about $1 and could give you thirty plants. We planted four cucumber plants and got about three pounds of cucumbers per week per plant when we were harvesting, making well over thirty pounds of cucumber for the season. Our cucumbers were less than three cents a pound.

Organic carrots:

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Store Price: $3.00 per pound

You have to sow carrot seeds directly into the ground. A packet of seeds is about $2.00 and you could yield at least thirty pounds of carrots from one packet.

We plan to plant many more carrot seeds next year. The taste of a backyard carrot versus a carrot from a bag of baby carrots in the store is amazingly different. It has so much more depth of flavor and at six cents a pound, why not?

When I start to add in our entire garden’s lettuce, broccoli plans, snap peas, strawberries, herbs, peppers, and more the savings really start to add up.

Money savings is one of the big reasons I enjoy sharing our garden stories. There are so many people in America struggling to feed their families, let alone feed their families well. Gardens help make this possible. The knowledge just needs to be shared. There are many groups around the nation such as Farm to School and Extension offices working to inform people the benefits of gardening and teach the skills needed.

Community and Urban Gardens are popping up in cities everywhere. And, SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan, participants can purchase seeds or plants from any SNAP retailer or Farmers Market. This is awesome because the participants can use the seeds to grow food that they normally couldn’t purchase… in large quantities, too!

Still not convinced a backyard garden is worth it? Tune is next weekend and we will talk about your health.