My original intent for this blog was to introduce both our farm and my new memoir/cookbook: Basics with a Twist: Life & Food at Brickyard Farms. With the book’s arrival being approximately 3 weeks away, I thought it was time to share an excerpt. The book itself came out of the desire to share some of my journey from living a conventional urban life to a life I never envisioned. At times deeply personal, it is the story of how I came to find my life’s passion and purpose. Containing over 80 recipes using ingredients we grow, it gives a snapshot of what it takes to get food to the table.
You wouldn’t even know we were back here, quietly farming the land. Truck farms seem to be a thing of the past. Most people think big is the only way to make it in farming, but we are used to running contrary to conventional opinion. Still, I couldn’t be more surprised to find myself here in the small village of Cloverdale, living a rural life. Although totally unlikely, it is indeed perfect.
I had always been a city girl. I was raised in the suburbs and had accumulated the necessary props and entrapments to feel successful, since without them I felt invisible. Mistakes in my family were not easily tolerated. I wanted to grow up to be someone interesting, yet feared I had no depth. Along the way, I had also accumulated failed relationships, lousy self-esteem, and a deeply engrained unhappiness with life. I was raised with the expectation of being a wife and mother. How could I explain that neither one was something I envisioned for myself? I resented this expectation being my only option. I wanted a life ‘outside the box’. I wanted to live life with humor, commitment and purpose. I yearned for a life that felt authentic. Yet how exactly does one go about finding the life I envisioned? I decided initially to invest in myself. I needed to understand who I really was, not the one who lived through others. After much soul-searching and a considerable amount of therapy, I came to realize that I had repeatedly made choices in the effort to please someone else. If I wasn’t a problem to anyone else, maybe, just maybe, I would be loved. Being a pleaser and living through the expectations of others, created distance from something I deeply feared and had come to understand about myself. Once facing that fear, I took the first truly honest step I could under these circumstances. I ended my eighteen year marriage and with the support of my dearest friends started building a life of my own. This included coming out as a lesbian.
In deciding whether or not to move to the country, much less be in a new relationship, I asked myself a simple question: is this what is best for me? The decision I made was completely out of my previous character, but completely authentic for whom I was becoming. I chose to live in the small village of Cloverdale, Michigan on a self-sustaining farm with my new partner Valerie.
We farm five and one half acres, which seems small until you are planting, weeding or harvesting the vegetables. Although we aren’t getting any younger, the work keeps us fit. When I first came to the farm it was unthinkable for me to lift anything beyond 20 pounds, comfortably. Now, I load 50 pound grain bags for our chickens without strain. Muscles have developed where I never knew they existed.
Brickyard Farms originally started in 2001 with Valerie Lane and her partner Cate Burke. The name was taken from its location on the site of the old Cloverdale Brickyard along the abandoned Chicago, Kalamazoo and Saginaw railroad bed. Val developed the idea of creating a self-sustaining farm, while Cate created handmade artisan soaps and lotions. They quietly worked at their individual ideas while taking care of Val’s mother who was failing from diabetic complications. During this period of time they began selling unique and unfamiliar heirloom produce and artisan soaps at the Fulton Street Farmers Market, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Tragedy struck in November of 2006 after Cate broke her leg while handling the straw bales that cover the garlic crop. She developed a blood clot and died unexpectedly at the age of 46. The following two years Val called on friends and family to get through planting and harvesting. She learned how to make soap for the first time as Cate had left meticulous notes of her progress and discoveries. I began helping out on a regular basis, doing what I could. During this time our relationship deepened and we decided to join forces to continue making Brickyard Farms a viable enterprise.
Moving to a rural environment proved the catalyst for shedding many things I had thought were important. I was always one who was very particular about my appearance. If I left the house for any reason, I had my hair styled and my makeup on. I would never consider wearing sleeveless shirts, and preferred air-conditioning to sweating outside. Now my hair is natural silver, I hardly ever wear makeup, and my arms are a deep, nutty brown.
When I lived in the city, I was either working, shopping, dining or visiting friends. Stimulation on all levels was a constant. In the neighborhood where I lived, I was often barraged by the neighbor’s stereo, police sirens and other noises. If I was bored, I could come up with various distractions by getting into my car and driving somewhere, usually the mall. If I wanted to connect with nature, I scheduled a vacation. I took note of her, connected with her, returned to the city, only to lose that connection. I rarely took the time to reflect or enjoy the changing of the seasons. They came and went without much appreciation; I was simply too busy.
In my new life in the country, nature is more noticeable. I live side by side with her. I seek out the silence nature offers and start noticing endless surprises I had often walked by before. Bird song has taken the place of sirens and wind chimes the place of stereos. I am noticeably calmer. Along with being self-employed, my daily choices seems less frantic or designed for distraction. Time itself takes on a whole new dimension. Now when I walk out the back door, I notice the moist scent of the earth, the wind in the trees and the wideness of the sky.
What a revelation to walk out our back door, and into the fields to harvest quality food for dinner. I learned what it takes to get food to the consumer. The cycle of seed, to plant, to harvest brought me closer to the land. This in turn, brought me closer to myself. As the seasons pass I too am changed, by the farm, the land and life in this small community.
Sipping my morning coffee by the fields, I am fascinated by the weather. I have stopped wearing a watch and lose track of the days of the week. I turn down invitations for activities in the city. My focus has become our farm and its care.
Life in the country turns out to be anything but boring. It feels right to be part of something as fundamental as growing food for ourselves, and others. In the fall of my life I am grateful to have landed here.
“The act of putting to your mouth what the earth has grown is perhaps your most direct interaction with the earth.” –Francis Moore Lappe