Sarah Gilbert is a freelance financial writer; she keeps chickens; and she’s a beginning urban farmer. She lives with her three small boys and husband in Portland, Oregon, and keeps her own blog, Cafe Mama.

Dreaming of Appalachia

A career change inspires a garden

March 7, 2008

One of the more seasoned managers in my group had announced, that morning, that she was leaving AOL. Now we were eating an expense-account dinner together at a strange restaurant in Loudon County, Virginia — made from four grand old homes, picked up off their foundations and mushed together — and I was discovering how much I loved her.

Though I’d often found myself on the other side of the debate with her over work stuff, I knew from our very first conversation that we were birds of a feather when it came to food. I “met” her over instant messaging a few weeks after I got my chickens. She and her partner had just been given a few chickens to keep on their upstate New York farm.

“Partner” is what women of a certain age are now adopting for what used to be called “boyfriend,” and I love how it evokes a relationship that spans the set of possible intimate connections, from finances to sex to your life’s work. And their life’s work had newly become this farm, deep in the northern Appalachian mountains.

They grow microgreens on certified organic farmland. One next-door neighbor runs an organic dairy, and my colleague takes a pitcher over some evenings when they’re milking the cows and fills up. She tells me of milk in the late spring, how sweet and rich it is, and as I am eating my prosaic but still quite delicious salad of ordinary indeterminate greens, Virginia ham, and blue cheese, I long for just a sip.

Lawns, not food, at AOL.

She tells me of her other neighbor, who harvests animals for meat in the most sustainable way, and it’s all I can do to stop myself from asking if she’ll adopt me (and my children and husband).

Microgreens is all they grow, year-round. They’re just beginning to learn about all the possibilities of their new way of life. She’ll be working only an hour away from the farm in her new job, and things will be starkly different from her current workday-long commute from Dulles, Virginia, to far upstate New York every weekend. Her eyes sparkle when she talks about how her greens taste, how they’re a variety of wonderful plants, sunflower and broccoli and interesting lettuces, how her market customers come back week after week, addicted.

I honor her choice and I dream. I finish my vastly inferior entrée (winter vegetable “tart” in nearly burnt, tasteless puff pastry; sautéed spinach that is chiefly commendable for being still green) and wonder about her discovered community. I long for something like that in my own urban homestead.

Start now, the world seems to whisper to me. Don’t wait! Reach out! Grab handfuls of sustainability, of goodness, of real food. Hold it tight!

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The next day I pick up my baby, Monroe, from the corporate daycare. He had a bad day, they say; he didn’t drink the formula I gave them. (I desperately wish I’d had time, between caring for three boys and actually breastfeeding one of them, to pump milk for him before my trip.) I thank them and, as I am waiting for a ride to the airport, slowly pour the formula out in the bark dust among the cheerless annual flowers planted there.

I look at the vast AOL campus and imagine something useful growing in this forbidding landscape, in the aseptic landscaping forms, in the endless and likely quite expensive grassy areas. They’ve recently aerated the lawn — at least, I think that’s what it’s called when they poke holes in the dirt with little metal tubes, leaving awkward stubs of dirt that resemble excrement. I am filled with the horror and poverty of it all.

All I can think about, as I am sitting in my airplane seat headed back to Portland, is spring and planting, little shoots of heirloom lettuces and broccoli rabe and bull’s blood beets and Italian silver-rib chard, all the seed packets I have that can become greens. I watch the airline food cart go by, selling little tiny packages of food that sometimes pretends to be good for you and sometimes does not. I wish I could set the whole airplane free of Gate Gourmet, one of the biggest airplane “catering” companies that daily loads chirpy boxes full of $5 “snacks” and “mini meals” for tens of thousands of passengers. Set them free!

Seeds and a garden plan. Ready to dig!

I am eating homemade granola, oatmeal bread, roasted beets, runny strong-smelling Ancient Heritage "Adelle" cheese, and a half-stick of buffalo pepperoni from Pine Mountain Ranch.

I feed nobby bits of bread to Monroe as the man in the seat across from me drinks something from the beverage cart that he has to pay for — a Bloody Mary, I think. I shudder. I let Monroe lick sheep’s milk cheese off my finger and think about how my colleague described the cheese made from milk in spring, when the cows are calving and it is sweet, so sweet, rich with what the little baby animals need.

Appalachia, meet Portland. A few days later a neighbor stops in our front yard and asks about our chickens. My husband eagerly gives her advice while I make a mental note to apply for a permit that will encompass not just our flock of chickens (I’m getting more chicks any day now) but also a little dairy goat. I plan to share my eggs and my milk with my neighbors; I hope that they, in turn, will give me gardening advice and help me weed and dig and harvest.

I have so much to learn. Start here. “Right now, dig in the dirt!” the universe tells me. And I take my shovel, my rubber boots, a handful of seed packets, and I do as the universe says.

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1. by Kelly on Mar 10, 2008 at 7:15 AM PDT

I identify so strongly with your post. I work as a copywriter for a big toy corporation and have a small urban homestead (with illegal chickens and dreamy dreams of a dairy goat or two). I look at that giant lawn and think of how many vegetables could be grown in that feed the employees! What a waste all over the world. But the only lawn I can change at this point is my own, and we’ll be reducing the grass by 1/3 acre for more vegetable gardens this spring. Next year even more. Until we have a permaculture-based edible yard.

I hope you’ll share your goat experiences!!

2. by Joanna on Mar 17, 2008 at 10:16 AM PDT

How wonderful that people are returning to the farm and the agrarian lifestyle, and realizing that farming is an intellectual endeavor just as working for a traditional company or firm! Even after getting my degree and working, I have found nothing more satisfying than volunteering on a farm, planting and harvesting fresh garlic and greens and selling them directly to families who will eat them for dinner that night. I am currently interning for the Eat Well Guide- – a national online directory of sustainable food sources that connects consumers to local food producers and distributors across the U.S. and Canada. If you haven’t heard of it, you should definitely check it out—it’s a great resource! I’m so glad to read that farming and natural food production is becoming a viable career choice because of the demand for delicious food, and I hope that those dreaming of farming in their future will continue to be supported by the beautiful community of consumers concerned with supporting sustainable agricultural production.

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