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Lettuce, Think About It

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Lettuce, Think About It

Last night I sat down to write a blog post. I started with lettuce in mind and instead ended up writing about how much I love North Dakota winters. I’m not crazy, really. I’ve just been working with a lot of really great people lately. You see, I’ve been working with the local foods people.

When I work with folks who grow vegetables or raise pastured livestock, I find myself empowered. There is just something that is catching.

Albeit, my passions include food and nature, but there is more to it than that. These small producers are like poetry in motion. They are the change they want to see in the world.

Food people are good people. And the more I experience their unwavering optimism and unrivaled tenacity, the more I am in awe.

I secretly (or maybe openly) want to be like them. In ways, maybe I already am. Maybe that is why I feel their optimism the way I do.

So maybe it makes sense that I sit down to write about growing food and end up writing about what a wonderful place I have come to call home, even if it is crazy cold.

Here in North Dakota we just broke through a viscous cold snap, delivered straight from the arctic tundra.

It’s the first week in January. And what is my Facebook feed buzzing about? Discussions of seeds, garden planning, greenhouses, and new opportunities.

It makes me know that life is good. Truly.

It lets me know that all things are possible.

It gives me courage. When I purchase lettuce from the store that is less than mediocre, I know there is something I can do.

I can grow!

I can grow lettuce!

You see, this is really the point that I come full circle.

I grew up watching my grandparents garden, but did not have much practical know-how when I began gardening. I had a bit of a rocky start.

I planted my first garden in the summer of 2008, but I was no longer living in the Midwest. I was on the high plains of Wyoming, at an altitude of 7,165 feet. The summer was short. The air was dry. The nights were chilly.

I started out by planting snow peas, radishes, tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, spinach, kohlrabi, and lettuce.

The dog ate 75% of the peas. The radishes were woody. Early in September the frost came and we enjoyed a harvest dinner of fried green tomatoes and sauteed baby squash. The eggplants were infested with aphids (I shudder, just thinking about that experience). The spinach went to seed by early July.  And it turned out that I really don’t care from kohlrabi.

That pretty much leaves the lettuce. Oh, my sweet precious lettuce!

I planted at least twelve different varieties in a partially shady area next to the neighbor’s garage. I grew green leaf, red leaf, some varieties were pale green and others were purple. Some had leaves shaped like oaks. They were anything but plain old lettuce. They were beautiful.

We harvested frequently and planted new seeds often. I’d go out at dusk to water and sing to them. (Okay, I didn’t quite have the courage to sing… I hummed to them.) I cried the night we got hit with a hailstorm. And I had a full blown anxiety attack when a crew repaired the neighbor’s garage roof. I picked shingles and roofing nails out of my lettuce garden for months to come.

While I melted down, the lettuce rebounded.

They certainly provided us with a summer of delicious salads. But there was something more to it.

They gave me hope. They assured me that I could grow something. They brought me joy. Pure and simple. I loved seeing them.

And somehow I forgot that?

I did not grow lettuce last year. I don’t know why.

I made room for spinach and kale and chard, but I neglected my wonderful old standby.

Then one chilly North Dakota evening, I curled up on the couch with a blanket and some of my favorite light reading material: the seed catalogs.

My absolute favorite to look at is the Seed Savers Exchange. Catalog_FREE_2014_1This catalog offers heirloom varieties of seeds. As they were passed down from generation to generation, the seeds became attached to family stories. There are unique varieties of tomatoes, squash, peppers, onions, potatoes, and even lettuce.

So I was browsing through the catalog, trying to be quite sensible about what the garden might look like this year. Then, I came to lettuce.

Aunt Mae's Bibb Lettuce

Aunt Mae’s Bibb Lettuce

I was physically stunned. I ooh-ed and aah-ed over the variety.

Rossa di Trento

Rossa di Trento

I adored the colors and imagined the textures.

Pablo, oh, Pablo

Pablo, oh, Pablo

I tried to regain my composure.

Yugoslavian Red

Yugoslavian Red

How could we ever eat all the lettuce I wanted to grow?

Forellenschluss

Forellenschluss

Maybe I need a support group or something…

Baquieu

Baquieu

Obsessed Gardeners Anonymous?

Wait, maybe I do have a support group…

Something clicked. In October I began taking a class called Farm Beginning through FARRMS. A non-profit within the state that “Grows Farmers,” so to speak. 

In the class, we learn about holistic management, food safety, and business planning. We learn how to pull our crazy ideas together and get moving on our dreams.

So maybe I don’t need professional help regarding my obsession with lettuce.

Winter Density Lettuce

Winter Density Lettuce

What I need is a business plan and a greenhouse!

I’m going to grow lettuce! We don’t have to eat it all ourselves!

I could sell it at the farmers market. I could supply a local restaurant.

Maybe I could even sell it to the grocery store and solve the problem of less than mediocre lettuce in the winter once and for all!

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Why Local Foods?

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Why Local Foods?

My love for food is strong. My love for food has deep roots. These roots dig deep into the soil of my grandparents’ garden, along side the garlic, dill, carrots, beans, potatoes, rhubarb, raspberries, and grapes. This love turns my fingernails brown with soil and my knees green with grass each summer. The closer I am to my food, the better it tastes.

Tomatoes from our garden this summer!

Tomatoes from our garden this summer!

My love for food became a gateway for my love of agriculture. It took years for this affair to develop. I had to learn and experience preparing whole and nutritious foods to begin seeking out whole and nutritious ingredients. At the time, I was living in Wyoming and did my best to visit farmers markets and food coops. My husband and I got to know the local butcher and local ranchers. In time, life changed and we moved. We moved to a small North Dakota town. My quest began again, and continues to this day.

I was at an advantage this time though. I worked for an organization that was developing its focus in community agriculture. I began seeking out others who could be professional resources and personal allies. I would spend my Saturday afternoons looking through the local foods directory, planning an exploratory Sunday drive through the central portion of North Dakota. We would bring home loads of beets, cabbages, tomatoes, and cucumbers with beautiful dreams of pickles, salsas, and sauerkrauts too.

Variety of veggies from the garden, ready for pickling.

Variety of veggies from the garden, ready for pickling.

Suddenly my perceptions changed. No longer was the term agriculture exclusive to expansive fields of corn and soybeans. Agriculture meant something that was much more connected to me.  Agriculture became something I was a part of.

I am engaged in a local food movement and I continue to build meaningful connections throughout the state. This is the reason I look forward to the 2013 Farmers Market & Local Foods Conference each year. Being at the conference today, I was delighted to see familiar faces and meet new ones. In fact, I have a whole list of new names of people whom I will share a bit about in my next post. For now, I just have to reflect on the overall importance of the experience to me. I loved being among others who have the same passions and interests that I have. I got to hear the stories of others who are engaged consumers and producers in the local foods movement. And it’s not just farm stories that are exchanged. In fact, these days farmers aren’t just middle-aged men in coveralls on their John Deere tractor. In fact, farmers aren’t just farmers.

They are known as growers and producers. They raise a flock of chickens for meat and eggs. They grow a diversity of fruits and vegetables to sell at the farmers market. They grow herbs. They are families. They are men. They are women. They are our youth. They are skilled and passionate people who do their work because they love it.