Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Writing and Growing

Over the past eight years, one of the reasons I kept resisting Miss Chef’s pleas to find another job was that I didn’t want to turn a pleasure into a chore.  When I was laid off this spring, I spent a month or two looking for another comfortable corporate position, where I could trade my time for a paycheck.  But now I am focusing on this freelance writing gig, learning to sell myself and juggle multiple deadlines.

A few days ago, I began to wonder if I had the dedication to see this through.  At least one afternoon I found myself saying “I don’t want to THINK about food, and I don’t want to WRITE anything!”  I was afraid I’d already hit the point where pushing myself to write had sucked all the fun out of it.  I never imagined I’d be tired of food!

Today, however, I felt like my mojo was coming back.  A few emails from an editor, a few new deadlines, and oh, did I mention there’s a cover story in my future….well, that has gotten me back in my rickety old office chair, typing away.  It feels a lot like my relationship with gardening.  At some point every year, I despair at the thought of forcing myself outside to dig up the bed, figure out a planting scheme and start the whole weed ‘n’ water cycle over.  And every year, without fail, something clicks and I’m running out the door in March, trowel in my gloved hands.

I just hope I can depend on my writing mojo to be so reliable.

On the other hand, this “I’m a food writer” thing has already made me a more interesting person.  Last week Miss Chef and I went to a “Make your own bi bam bap” party at a friend’s house.  The crowd was half chefs and foodies, a few writers, and the rest plain ol’ interesting folk.  The perfect combination of people I knew, some I’d met once or twice before, and fascinating strangers.

One of those fascinating strangers was the bi bam bap (bee bam bop), a Korean comfort food.  You put some rice in a bowl, load up from a selection of seasoned vegetable dishes, a little delicious stir-fried beef if you’re lucky, a fried egg and some gochujang sauce, which is sweet and tart and smoky and a bit spicy…

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Then you mix that whole mess up and stuff it in your face with chopsticks.

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And it’s delicious.  My experience would suggest that a glass or two of wine helps enormously with iffy chopstick skills, though it apparently doesn’t do much for your photography skills.

I was feeling good that week, having finished up a freelance writing course I took through our local community college.  The instructor was just what I needed—an experienced freelance writer with a ready if cynical sense of humor, lots of insight into the publishing world, and a very encouraging approach to editing our work.  I learned a lot about constructing stories, communicating with editors and pitching ideas, and I think my writing has improved.  (You might not notice a difference, because I probably will ignore lots of rules here.)  Most of all, it made me more confident about selling my work to some bigger magazines.

Last week was also the first time I had several deadlines for different editors.  Besides my usual weekly blog post, I had two longer stories due for Edible Charlotte, the local edition of a nationwide franchise.  Charlotte’s edition comes out quarterly, and I’ll have two pieces in the September issue.  One of them is a profile of Peter Reinhart, which will impress you no end if you happen to really be into baking.  If you aren’t, well, I’ll just say I leapt at the chance to interview a national figure in the food world.

I’m also moving into doing more print with the local independent paper I’ve been blogging for, including that cover story I mentioned above.  I’ve got the recipe one coming out this week or next, another farmer-centric one in September, and that cover story I mentioned above will be in October.  I won’t say more about that until I’ve got some interviews lined up, but it should be a lot of fun.  So much fun, I’ve already written a draft of the lede (see what I learned there?).

In the meantime, I’m still working a little at a farmers market, putting in some volunteer hours with Friendship Gardens, and of course trying to keep up with my own garden.  Yesterday, after a few weeks of benevolent negligence, I spent an hour or two staking and tying some overenthusiastic growers.

This is an “after” shot, still in the morning shade.

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Right in the middle, you can see the invasive colony of volunteer tomatoes.  The first ones grew up fast enough to cover the arrival of the next batch, and before you know it, I’ve got about ten unasked for tomato plants.  Most of them are cherry tomatoes, but one has surprised me with a couple of regular beefsteak-type fruits.

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That’s oregano in the planter in front, and a marigold on the right.  Once again, I’ve got marigolds overgrowing some of my vegetables, though not as badly as last year.  I did have to pull one up and tie it to a trellis though, which I’ve never heard of before.

By the time I’d finished all my chores, the sunlight was getting harsh, so the rest of these photos are a little hard to see.  But…my squash plant has (knock wood) yet to succumb to last year’s squash vine borers, and though it’s only given me a single (if gorgeous) squash, it continues to flower and grow. 

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I’m not sure if those two little guys in the back will mature or not, but I’ll take whatever it wants to give me.

My mortgage lifter tomato is still hanging on, still ripening. 

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They seem to take forever, but on the plus side, that second one means my $4 tomato might only cost me $2!

I planted cucumbers mostly to donate, and they are my most interesting crop right now.  They’ll be an inch long for a little bit, then grow to two or three inches, and the next thing you know, they’re these whopping big monsters ready to pick.  If I could get more than two at a time, they’d probably make awesome kosher-style pickles.

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Over on the patio, the beautiful planter Miss Chef and I built this spring has been a partial success.  The harsh lighting makes it hard to see, but there’s a cherry tomato plant in the back.

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I got a little overenthusiastic about adding lime, which the hot peppers in front don’t seem to appreciate.  The Sungold cherry tomato, however, is doing well.  Like last year, it’s grown long and lanky all the way to the top of its four-foot high stakes and doubled back down again.  Now it’s growing into the jasmine behind it.  You can see lots of ripe orange fruits on it (thus the name “sungold”), but the dang things keep splitting before I can harvest them.  Rosie’s enjoyed quite a few.

The one plant that’s really been happy here this year is that basil bush right in front of the tomato.  I took that photo a day or two after I’d harvested a ton to make pesto.  And below is the part I’d cut off.

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Yeah, imagine that plopped on top of the basil bush in the previous picture.  This is at least the third time we’ve gotten a sizeable harvest off of it.  This time I made 2 1/2 cups of pesto, and I expect I’ll be able to do it again in a couple of weeks.  What’s even better is that I’ve been able to keep the plant from flowering, so the stalks aren’t woody, and the leaves are big and tender.  I feel doubly lucky, since apparently there’s some kind of mildew decimating basil crops all over North Carolina.

Finishing up in the garden, I stooped down to pet McKenna, who’d been following my every move…

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…and I noticed that I could now see all the way down my rocky little path through the garden.

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I thought it was charming.  McKenna thought it was time to go inside for dinner already.

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Sunday, July 20, 2014

If I Say So Myself

Every day compulsion drives me outside to gaze upon my garden.

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A large part of its charm arises from the minute daily changes, whether it’s green beans one day closer to harvest, or a previously undiscovered cucumber suddenly revealed beneath the foliage.  Today I decided to pull out the last straggling radishes, and make a point to check for weeds.  That’s when I realized I’ve taken an enormous step in garden management.

Here’s a shot from last July’s garden.

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Yes, the squash plant has collapsed, but aside from that, the lemon balm has overgrown half the garden, and grass is invading everywhere.

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Whereas this year…

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This is the spot from which I just pulled the radishes, and where I’ll be putting something in for fall (not sure yet what…).  Here’s another picture near the middle of the bed.

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I can see one or two unwelcome sprouts, but mostly I see beans, carrots, tomatoes, herbs and marigolds (and a bonus McKenna).  I give a lot of credit to that layer of crushed leaves I mulched with, one of the big lessons I learned this year.  This picture also illustrates some of the head scratching that goes on in the garden.  The bean plant on this side of the path sprouted at least a week before the one behind the path.  Part of the problem was that the front one was overgrown by radishes, but not that much.

Perhaps these guys have something to do with it.

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These are about a half-dozen volunteer tomato plants that I let grow, thinking they were marigolds--the young leaves are similar, and I tried to spread the flowers throughout the bed.  Though these are mostly cherry tomatoes, I’m just as happy to have them, since my one beefsteak tomato plant looks like this.

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Skinny, gangly, with a single fruit.  This will be one of those classic $5 tomatoes we gardeners have all grown at some point.  Wrong place for tomatoes, I guess.

I’ve tentatively concluded that I’m more of a spring gardener.  My peas, broccoli and root crops do well every year.  I just pulled up most of the remaining carrots to donate to Friendship Gardens.  I got four pounds, not a bad haul.  And they were pretty, too.


I’ve donated almost 15 pounds of produce this year, from herbs and radishes to cucumbers and cherry tomatoes.

Now, besides keeping up with the weeds, I have been busy keeping up with deadlines, too.  My writing career is still more of a hobby, but it has been growing steadily.  I’ve had 10 stories published online with a local independent paper, one actually in print (which pays significantly better), and another coming out next month in a special dining section.  That one involved a visit with a photographer to a local farm.  As happens often, the space limits made me chop the experience down to just a few hundred words, so I wrote up a more complete story here, on my other blog.  (If you’re tired of reading about my garden, I strongly suggest you click on over for something much more interesting.) 

I’ve also just been assigned two stories in the local Edible magazine—which pays even better yet.  It’s nowhere near enough to even pay the mortgage, but I’m happy with this progress.  I have two or three more weeks of a journalism class, which will finish up with some pointers about how to pitch a story, after which I plan to start submitting to more publications.  I’ll be in a good position then, with so many published articles to point to.

In the meantime, I’ve got a very part-time, probably temporary job managing a donation station at a local market.  And of course, I’m filling lots of time with volunteer work for Friendship Gardens.  So although I’m mostly unemployed still, I am not bored or lonely.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

What I’ve Learned in the Garden This Year


Spring this year heralded the beginning of a surprisingly steep learning curve for me.  We’re only halfway through the main growing season, and yet it’s been such a different experience out there, I feel like I should get it down now.

The first lesson I’ve learned has actually taken a couple of years to sink in.  That is, prepare your garden bed in the fall.  In the late summer, when the bed was getting overgrown with grass, and the harvest was coming to a stuttering halt, I used to neglect my garden out of sheer guilt and leave it to its own devices all winter.  As a result, I’d start out my spring gardening season with such a weedy mess that I often considered quitting the hobby.  Then there was the magic year of the goat poop.  It didn’t take me too long to notice that cleaning and mulching the bed in the fall made for an easier, much more enjoyable planting season in the spring.

Which is closely related to lesson number two: take care of your dirt, and it will take care of you.  I’m a bit ashamed I ignored this for the first 3 or 4 years of gardening.  Even that first addition of goat poop didn’t solve all my problems, but after a second year of adding compost, I have much healthier plants and much prettier, disease- and pest-free harvests.

Along with that good soil, I’ve benefitted this year from a third happy lesson: a little mulch makes a big difference.  Last fall I got very serious about saving fall leaves.  Not only did I mulch the bed for overwintering, but I also stashed away three contractor bags’ worth of crushed, sweet smelling flakes of fall to use during the growing season.  I mulched once when I prepared and planted the bed, a second time after the seedlings had emerged, and again a few weeks ago when the hot, dry weather hit and I could see patches of naked dirt peeking through.  Nature does not like bare soil, and by keeping it covered, I’ve minimized the need to water.  I’ve also had a lot fewer weeds coming up from seeds blowing around the yard.

The newest lesson, and the one I bring up in every gardening conversation this year, is that of companion planting.  I completely changed my planting design, and I like how it’s worked.  I can’t be sure if the drop in pests on my broccoli, or my great crops of carrots and onions were a direct result, but I do know that I’m making better use of my limited space.  Last year I’d guess at least a third of my garden bed went unused after I pulled my spring crops.  This year almost all the gaps I see are being slowly filled by summer plants growing in.

I’m hoping the learning curve continues in the coming months, as I’m planning on trying out a fall garden for the first time.  Now that July is here, it’s time for me to start making decisions about what, when and where I want to plant.  I was going to start with just the planter Miss Chef and I built, but after receiving 50’ of row cover material for my birthday, I might expand my plans into the main bed.  Ambitious!

In conclusion, I’d like to present this year’s garden champion:


That’s a 14 oz onion bulb (397 g for my metric-minded friends), which was donated to Friendship Gardens.  Also, there’s a cat, just for “scale.”

In spite of my best intentions, my new writing “career” and course homework have been stealing time from this blog.  On the other hand, you can see what became of that time by reading my articles here, including my first one in print, an interview with a new local baker. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Excuse My French…

…but I’ve turned into a lazy little shit these days.

Maybe it’s the weather, but I tend to believe it’s my true nature showing through.  Give me essentially unlimited free time, and I will happy fill it with pointless, time-wasting distractions.  For quite a while, I kept myself busy with volunteering, twice-a-week delivery gigs with a local farm, meetings, gardening, errands, and of course lots of internet time.  All of this neatly kept me from serious job hunting.  “Hey, at least I’m bringing some money in,” I told myself as I cashed the small checks from my delivery job.

But, as I knew it would, that job has dried up, and the postponed guilt for wasting time is starting to sneak in.  Have I mentioned that job hunting is my least favorite activity in the world?  At least a visit to the dentist has a definite ending, and it doesn’t usually make you question your worth as a human being.  And, of course, you know where and when to do find your dentist, and you are (hopefully) not only expected, but welcomed.  Not like waving your virtual resume in a stranger’s face, saying “Could you please read this and appreciate how my odd job history has actually given me a unique set of skills I can use to help your business?  Hello?  Was my wording too passive?  Did I use the wrong salutation?  Or is it that my cover letter is trite and meaningless?  Did you even see my cover letter?  Hello?”

All of this is to say, I’ve really been enjoying my summer vacation a bit too much. And while I’ve spent most of today procrastinating on the activities I use to procrastinate with, I did get inspired this afternoon to take a few pictures.  For some reason, I was possessed with the urge to go outside in the ridiculous heat and humidity and wander around the garden in the hottest part of the day.  Surprisingly, it seems mostly unaffected by our weeks-long spell of 90+ degree weather.

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I did water yesterday morning, and I mulched well this spring, so the soil is retaining moisture pretty well.  Still, you can see on the the left where I pulled out a broccoli plant, the top is pretty dry.  I think it may be time to put down the rest of the crushed-leaf mulch I saved from last fall.

I’ve still got plenty of radishes in the ground, but they get so spicy in this heat that I’m letting them flower to attract pollinators.  Besides, they’re quite pretty, in a messy sort of way.

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The plentiful pollinators wouldn’t hold still long enough to get a decent picture.

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This cute little visitor did, though!

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Honestly, I don’t worry too much about pollinators this time of year, because the rose of sharon tree next to the garden is abuzz with insects while it’s in bloom.  The dramatic hibiscus-like flowers draw me in, too.

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There are other flowers that I find more passionately about, though…like this cheery little cucumber blossom.

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The brown-eyed susans are rocking their annual extravaganza, though my sad little mortgage lifter tomato on the right is mostly stem and sterile flowers.

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Not to fear, Miss Chef’s Cherokee purple is working on some pretty fruits…

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…and the first Sungold cherry tomatoes may well find their way onto a salad tonight!

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And, with that, it’s time to head inside, and let the plants do their whole baking-in-the-sun routine.  I’m gonna go suck in some air conditioning!

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Monday, June 9, 2014

Farms For Fun and Profit

Last week I spent two different days helping out in very different ways at two different farms.  In order to go in chronological order, I’ll have to defy my title and start with the “for profit” one, first.

At the market a couple of months ago, Mindy at Tega Hills Farm mentioned to Miss Chef that they were going to be looking for a new delivery driver soon.  Long story short, last week I helped out a couple of days, riding along and doing the running…and jumping, hopping, lifting, shifting, stepping, stumbling and fumbling.  Of course, none of this was conducive to taking any photos—I needed both hands to manage invoice, box or bag, pen and doors. 

However, on the morning of the second day, I did have a couple of minutes while we were packing to document a bit. Tega Hills specializes in lettuces, microgreens and edible flowers, and most of their crops are grown hydroponically, in greenhouses.

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In the front, you can see the dark square area that is uncovered water.  The white squares are foam boards with holes which receive small cups where seedlings are placed.  These boards float in a nutrient-rich solution which is circulated through a system that is undoubtedly confusing and simple all at the same time.  Me, I just enjoy seeing the pretty colors floating around in the water.

Here’s another shot, where you can see some of the younger plants near the back.

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I’m going to guess that these varieties are red oak and green oak lettuces, with a section of dark green kale on the right.

The microgreens, which are grown in soil in a separate greenhouse, are even more colorful.

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In case you’re wondering, microgreens are simply the seedlings of familiar edible plants, such as these tiny beets above.  Not only do they serve as colorful garnishes, but they impart a surprising amount of flavor, which is sometimes more subtle or less bitter than their full-grown counterparts.  Some of the more unusual microgreens they sell are celery, purple radish leaves, pea sprouts and my personal favorite, popcorn shoots.  Yes, they taste like corn!

I interviewed Mindy for my article on squash blossoms, and was excited to see the very vertical growing method they use for the zucchini and cucumbers—yes, they sell those vegetables, too.

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On the right, you can see the nylon netting used to support the cucumbers; to the left you can see just how long these rows are.  Can you imagine trying to get your kids to eat all that zucchini at home?

And in case you were wondering just how you would package up all those colorful heads of lettuce, here’s a picture from inside the cold room.

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For each order, the appropriate number of heads are put into giant plastic bags, which are tied shut and put in the open-top waxed cardboard boxes.  Each box costs about $2 and can hold about 25 heads (so that’s about $30 worth of boxes you see there).  The microgreens are put into small zip-top bags or small plastic tubs like take-out containers, then orders are put together in plastic “t-shirt” shopping bags.  Most deliveries involved one box or a small bag of microgreens, but some restaurants ordered two boxes plus microgreens.

So now lets think about what it takes to get that crunchy lettuce or tasty microgreen from the farm to your table.  First it has to be plucked from its watery bed, packed as above, and the box labeled with the name of the restaurant and the contents, so it can be matched against the invoice.  Then the boxes are stacked in the bed and cab of the pickup truck in order of delivery, so the first deliveries are on top, and the last deliveries are in the air-conditioned cab.  This takes some excellent knowledge of the route, which involves 30 to 40 stops.  There are also a couple of coolers in the bed, for the myriad bags of microgreens.

Once the truck is loaded up, off we head with a stack of invoices as our guide.  Most of the stops are simple.  As we drive, I check the next invoice and figure out if I need a box, a bag from the cooler, or both.  Once we arrive, I hop out of the cab, hustle to the back of the truck, pull the order, carry it inside, barge my way into the kitchen (“Hey there, I need someone to sign for a delivery!”), quickly verify with the chef/manager that the order is all there (“One purple radish, two mix, one popcorn, plus the lettuce”), have them sign their copy of the invoice, thank them and go.  Sometimes I’d forget the box, and have to go back in, but for the most part it was in, hello, sign, thanks, bye.

Many of the Uptown restaurants are vastly more complicated.  Many require finding on-street parking, which is particularly challenging when streets are blocked off as they were on Friday for Taste of Charlotte.  Also, those “Parking for Delivery Only” signs are really important.  Sometimes I had to haul boxes down a block, or through a parking garage because the usual parking spots weren’t available.

Then there are the deliveries to restaurants located in 30-story skyscrapers housing corporate headquarters for banks and other security-conscious companies. 



Here we have to stop before even entering the delivery dock, so security can check our IDs, and do a sweep of the truck, including having us pop the hood and using mirrors to check underneath the chassis.  Fortunately, the driver is Mindy’s husband Mark, who has been doing this for a decade, and knows many of the security personnel, as well as the routine.

Now, once we get back into the truck and park where we’re told, I have to go through another security checkpoint.  At the “dockmaster” window, I have to surrender my ID for a “Contractor” ID and sometimes keys or an electronic key card to operate the elevator.  My favorite is the delivery to a restaurant on the 27th floor of a building that has a single freight elevator for to serve all those floors.  There’s often a bit of “hurry up and wait” involved in this job.  I have to move as quickly as possible to try to get to all 40 stops before 5:00 dinner service starts, so standing in front of a slow-moving elevator can be a bit irritating.

And that is where I often I find myself thinking “All this for a few ounces of microgreens?”  Once all the harvesting, packing and delivery rigamarole is completed, the kitchens still have to rinse and prep the lettuce, and store and portion the microgreens before they finally hit the plate, where diners may say, “Oh, how lovely,” before stuffing it in their mouths and continuing their conversation about stock futures or The Voice.

Fortunately for my sanity, this is not going to be a long-term job, more of a fill-in and backup position for when they find themselves shorthanded.  Even if it would drive me nuts long-term, it is an interesting insight into a hidden part of the food-supply system, not to mention a cool way to get to see some of the city’s best restaurants and meet more chefs.

Now, let’s change gears a bit, as we move into the second half of today’s post: Farms for Fun.  Saturday was another work day at Friendship Garden’s urban farm project at a local high school, which I’ve posted about already here.  This weekend’s event was a huge effort of Wells Fargo, where over 50 volunteers came out to help rake, weed, mulch, dig, haul and put their hands to any other job the garden could offer.

I was assigned a team to mulch under the few orchard trees next to the raised-bed area.  Sadly, I didn’t think to take a “before” shot, but here are a couple of this incredibly hard-working group when they were nearly finished with this task.

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There was a huge stack of cardboard boxes, which had to be stripped of any tape or stickers that wouldn’t break down, then flattened and placed on the ground as weed stop before the mulch was barrowed over and spread.  Fortunately, although the high temperatures were forecast near 90, the sun was hidden most of the morning by a thin layer of clouds.

After this mulch job was done, the volunteers took their wheelbarrows down to the main field, which has been divided into three large beds.  One is already planted, but needed plenty of hands to help pull weeds.  The second one in back needed paths mulched before the planting rows were mounded up and compost dug in.

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Here’s a shot to my left, which gives you some idea of the scale of this project.

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You can see one quadrant of the first field, and the 100-foot long greenhouse in back.  The shipping container to the right serves as a storage shed for tools, seeds and equipment, and has had a solar panel installed to provide power for the aquaponics pumps in the greenhouse.  Amazing system, isn’t it?

Shortly after I took this picture, the sun came out, and I started flagging.  Those amazing volunteers, however, kept right on going, completing an enormous amount of work before leaving around 12:30.  There was even one woman who was still recovering from mono, but still came out and did what she could.

Last time I came out in April, the first field looked like this.

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Notice the other two fields hadn’t even been plowed under yet.  This past weekend, I took this parting shot, from a little farther away.

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You can see the scarecrow in both photos, which should help give some idea of how much progress has been made.

All in all, this weekend has made me realize one thing—growing food for mass consumption is hard work!  My little garden doesn’t seem like such a chore after all this.