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It wasn’t my deer.

The second morning of deer season was cold and snowy. While the other members of my hunting party headed north, I decided I was going to head south into the dense timber, and see if I could find any deer bedded down in the snow. My friends and I have hunted this small pocket of public land for the past few years and we are starting to understand more of its character. The land sits at an elevation of 8500 feet above sea level and contains a few ridgelines and shallow valleys that run from east to west. Most of the north-facing slopes have lodgepole pines that have been decimated by the Mountain pine beetle. The hillsides are blanketed with fallen, dead trees. Hiking through these hills is slow because the fallen timber is difficult to cross over. Being able to maneuver quietly is the biggest challenge because brittle branches and pinecones litter the ground. This past summer, my hunting companions and I cut a narrow “sneak” trail through the fallen logs. This trail would allow us to creep slowly and quietly over a ridge and give us access to an area that would normally be too difficult to get to quietly and out of sight. That morning I worked my way up through the sneak and tucked myself into a small grouping of young pine trees. From this vantage point, I could see up the next ridge to the southwest as well as look to the east where there was a large aspen grove that is a common feeding spot for the residential deer herd. I took off my pack and planned to settle myself from the hike in. Even though I was moving slowly, the wind and snow made my movement difficult. My heartrate was beating faster than I’d like and I wanted to give myself time to calm down. The wind had been blowing heavy all morning and just as I was getting settled, large snowflakes started to drift in. In a matter of minutes the sky was covered in a think flurry of snow. Visibility dropped to 200 yards. Even though the wind continued to blow, there was a deadening silence that fell on the woods like only a snowstorm can bring. I sat in the stillness of the falling snow, gazing across the narrow patch of visible land.

I noticed movement to my east and saw a doe about 150 yards away. She was moving slowly through the fallen timbers and making her way towards the aspen grove. Because of the dense brush and the direction she was moving, I knew that I wasn’t going to have a clear shot from where I was sitting. I slid my pack on my back and moved out of the trees I was using as cover. The wind and the snow dampen a lot of sound. I knew that I would be able to move much closer without being heard, but I also knew that I would have to move slowly and deliberately. As the doe moved through the trees, she would graze on the exposed grasses and young pine needles, and I would be able to take a few steps the next spot where I would pause undetected. In these moments, the predator/prey dynamic grew stronger. I would move slowly while her head was down grazing, or looking in another direction. I would move quietly to covered areas that would shield my presence from her. When hunting, it is not enough to maintain attention on the animal you are stalking; you must always be aware of what else is around you. It was strange for a doe to be moving thought the woods alone, so I was constantly looking around to see if another doe was traveling with this one. If my movements were too quick I could agitate a nearby squirrel that would chatter out a warning signal to the other animals in the area. I was moving closer to the deer in hopes to find a line of sight that was clear of any. There were many times when I had a clear shot, but the deer was not in the right spot for me to take an ethical shot. I had snuck within 60 yards of the doe, and had found a position that would give me several clear shots depending on how the doe moved through the trees. And I waited. The doe continued her pattern of eating a little and then taking a few steps to the next spot to eat. As a few minutes passed she started to move into one of the clear lines-of-sight that I had available to me. With each step she took, I had a better chance of an ethical, clean shot.

I mounted my rifle up to my shoulder and viewed through my scope to line up my shot. The deer, still unaware of my presence, looked around casually. I was still, my heart rate calm, and the crosshairs in my scope were positioned perfectly. But then I heard these words in my head: “This is not your deer.” I paused, but still positioned to take the shot. “Where was this voice coming from?” I thought while still looking through my scope. “Stephen, this is not your deer.” I heard my name spoken; I couldn’t ignore it the second time. These few seconds felt like minutes. I lowered my rifle and let out a quite sigh. “That was not my deer,” I said to myself. I sat and watch the doe continue to eat and move throughout the fallen timber and aspen grove until she was out of sight.

I leaned back against a tree and thought about what I had just done. I had given up a shot on a doe that would be food for my family. “Wasn’t this the whole reason I was up in these mountains in the first place?” “What kind of hunter am I if I am not shooting at the animal that I am hunting?” “What did I just do?” These thoughts raced through my head with accusation. I wasn’t up here just to “shoot an animal,” and I also wasn’t up in these woods to just camp and hike, so why did I let this doe go without taking a shot? This hunting trip was about me reconnecting myself into the ancient and primal relationship humans have with our environment. The day before the hunting season opened, I set up a small altar to honor the land we would be hunting on. I built it with a few items that I brought from home as an offering, and placed it in a small, inconspicuous spot. I said a prayer of gratitude for the land and asked for the blessing of a deer to shoot. I wanted to respect the spirits of that land that have watched over it for millennia. I wanted to be in relationship with that wooded mountainside.

I sat still, slowly being covered with the falling snow, and wrestling with what just happened. I could have ignored that voice, shot the deer, had food for my family, and from the perspective of most, I would be seen as a “good hunter.” I could have buried that subtle voice and convinced myself that I didn’t hear it. But I did hear it. I believe the voice I heard was the spirit of the land letting me know that I was in relationship with it. I had started my hunt by making an offering and asking for the blessing of a deer to shoot. Here was a voice speaking an answer back to me. If I had shot that doe, I would have been turning my back on the very reason I was up in those wooded mountains that day.

I don’t know why that wasn’t my deer. I’m not sure if the spirit was telling me that there was a different deer for me this year, or if none of the deer on this land were for me. I guess I will have to trust that the next time I shoulder my rifle, I will still be connected to the land and I will know. By listening for and responding to the spirit of the land, I found peace with my primal human nature: Relationship with the land.

 

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This past week Denver.Eater asked “How Denver’s Restaurant Industry Would Change the World Through Food.” They asked food editors, the governor, chefs, sommeliers, restaurateurs, coffee roasters, and restaurant critics. I enjoyed reading the answers and shared many of the sentiments. It was no surprise to me that there were no farmers listed with these other “restaurant industry” folks. I see this all the time across the national conversation about food; it’s not unique to Denver, but why aren’t we asking farmers and ranchers these questions? Hell, why aren’t we asking dishwashers, prep cooks, or the countless other invisible positions that complete the restaurant industry? Maybe it’s because these aren’t positions of power and we assume that the people at the top of the chain will have a better answer than the folks who are in the trenches every day. Maybe “How Dishwashers Would Change the World through Food” wouldn’t provide the necessary click-bait. But if we really cared about this question then maybe we should be asking everyone along the chain.

So here’s my answer to the question, “how would I change the world through food” even though no one asked me.

I think education is the foundation to lasting change and if we are going to instill systemic change we need to reeducate ourselves about what food is. Food, at it’s most basic level should nourish us. It should provide the necessary vitamins,  minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, etc. for our existence. There are certainly “foods” that we consume that don’t meet this need and I think we’ve lost the ability to discern between foods that nourish and foods that don’t. My goal as a farmer is to grow the highest quality food I can. But the quality I’m striving for isn’t simply the physical appearance, it’s the nutritional quality of the produce. Nationally we have dropped the concept of nutrition from our language of food except for that often cringe-worthy term “health food.” We have documented science that shows that most of our nation’s produce has lower nutritional content than it did 60 years ago. This is largely due to our farming practices that focus on yield (pounds and bushels) and not nutrition. There is no incentive in the market to grow a healthier carrot because we have erroneously convinced ourselves that a carrot is a carrot is a carrot. But a carrot’s nutritional content will differ based on where and how it’s grown. Imagine if you had the information to choose which carrot to buy based on the nutritional content of those specific carrots. Would you ever choose a carrot that was less healthy for you? Our food system incentivizes  growing cheap food with no regard to the health of the consumer. We can blame this on the “food system,” but we are all participating in this. Until we as eaters start to show that we care about the health of the food that we are eating there wont be change.

So how am I changing the world through food? I’m starting with my community and the 60 CSA members that pick up produce for 20 weeks of the year from the farm. I’m taking opportunities to explain why and how growing nutrient-dense food is our priority. I’m might not change the world, but I am working to educate my community on why food is important and that it’s their job to do the same.

What’s in a Name?

When gearing up to start Clear Creek Organics, my wife and I spent a great deal of time trying to figure out what to name the farm. We knew the importance of the farm’s name as a first impression to future customers, so we made lists and asked for input from other people. Should we have a name that is playful that reflects our own personalities? Should we simply name the farm after our last name and call it the __ Family Farm. What words did we want to use to convey what we are doing? Farm? Acres? Organic? Family? We hope to work with a few high end restaurants, so should the name be one that would look good on a fancy menu? We went round in circles for what seemed like months trying to come up with the perfect name for the farm.

During one of our “let’s try to come up with the farm name” conversations, Lauren was calling out names, hoping that one would stick. We were walking along a greenbelt trail that journeys along the banks of Clear Creek. At one point she said, “What about Clear Creek?” We live a block from the trail, and we can walk a few miles along it to come within blocks of the farm. Also, the irrigation ditch that will water the fields at the farm is drawn from Clear Creek. I was recognizing more and more how significant this creek is for us. The concept of “place” has become increasingly important to me over the last decade as I’ve been influenced by the writing of Wendell Berry. Berry writes, “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.” And a more lengthy quote, but one that gets the the heart of the idea of community being rooted in a particular place:

“Community, then, is an indispensable term in any discussion of the connection between people and land. A healthy community is a form that includes all the local things that are connected by the larger, ultimately mysterious form of the Creation. In speaking of community, then, we are speaking of a complex connection not only among human beings or between humans and their homeland but also between human economy and nature, between forest or prairie and field or orchard, and between troublesome creatures and pleasant ones. All neighbors are included.”

As we walked along the Clear Creek trail, the notion of “place” in my mind, I felt drawn to the idea of a name that centers around the place in which we live.

I was drawn to the name Clear Creek Organics after that. Adding the word “Organics” gave a distinction to what we are doing. My entry into agriculture was through organic production. The first farm I worked for was a certified organic farm. Organic production is what I know and believe in. The basics of organic production are restoring biodiversity, utilizing biological controls for pests and weeds, avoiding GMOs and the use of biosolids, and improving the soil. Some folks don’t like the fact that the USDA controls the use of the word by deciding the rules for who is “certified organic” and who is not. I like the fact that the word Organic has a specific meaning and that it’s a great way for people to recognize our farming practices as it lines up with their beliefs. We are hoping to be certified through the Colorado Department of Agriculture this year.

Our farm’s name holds a lot of significance for me. I hope you find significance in it, too.

Off Season?

With the temps below freezing and snow on the ground it’s easy to assume that the winter season is an “off season” for a farmer, but that’s not quite the case. For most farmers the winter season far from the 2 month hibernation that we wish it could be. The to-do list can often be just as long as it is during the summer season. And for us, starting Clear Creek Organics adds another list of things to accomplish.

It’s true that we don’t have weeding or harvesting that commands our attention. But the winter season is all about planning. And while we aren’t in the field physically, we are there mentally. In a just over a month we will be starting seeds in the greenhouse. By mid March, peas and root crops will go in the ground. June 3 is our first CSA pick up. That might sound like 6 months away to you, but to a farmer it’s right around the corner.

They way I plan out a farm season begins at the end. I start with the crops I hope to have available each week throughout the season. From there I count backwards, based on the vegetable, to determine when that crop needs to go in the ground. If it’s a crop that will be transplanted, like tomatoes, I need to account for the 6-8 weeks it will be in the greenhouse. But some crops, like the tomatoes, need support to grow, so I need to make sure to order tomato stakes and twine to trellis them. All the beds need irrigation, so I better make sure to add that to my shopping list.

I’ve also been working on tearing down a building on the farm to make way for a Home Occupation Kitchen. This will give us a legal space to process food and host farm dinners. Tomorrow I’m going to start putting the greenhouse up so that we can start seeding out transplants in a few weeks. Oh yeah, I need to build a small shed for some dairy goats. And I start teaching the spring semester of Urban Farm Management in two weeks. Yikes!

Off season? Hardly. But all the busyness of the winter months points to the food that my family will be able to provide for yours. And that is a beautiful thing.

This morning I found a great blog post, written by a farmer in the UP of Michigan, that resonated with thoughts I’ve been having about the price disparity between local food systems and institutional food systems. Find the full post here. Head over to the Wintergreen Farm blog and leave a comment for her.

“But for all the excitement about local food and enthusiasm for farming, there is another wave that small farmers cannot help but notice: the wave of consumers gritting their teeth and quietly asking their farmers to bring down the price. We charge two dollars for 12 stems of kale and in our community (an especially low income area) that is considered exorbitantly expensive. What is that about? Why have Americans come to expect high quality food for unreasonably low prices, and what – if anything – can the current crop of small farmers do about it?”

 

Check out the footnote, “Added fats and oils and added sugars are added to foods during processing or preparation.” Reducing processed foods in a person’s diet would drastically impact this portion.

A little deviation from my typical content.

Well worth an hour of your time.

Thoughts?