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We’ve been finding things in the garden—old things.  A crowbar, antique marbles, bits of china and glass, barbed wire, links of a chain, parts of old farming contraptions I’ve never heard of or seen.  It’s hard telling how old these things actually are, and they surely differ in age among themselves. But finding fragments of long-ago dishes or scraping at a soil-clad object to discover its shape—these things stir a curiosity, which for me takes off like wildfire. I can’t point to the exact era or the people that surround these objects, and all I’m really doing is touching something someone else once touched or made, but still…a stirring. It’s nostalgia with origins I can’t quite place; I’ve only been here a short while and know less about the history of this town than I’d like to admit. Vicky told me that there was probably a homestead where the school garden now stands.  With North Powder’s rich ranching and potato-farming history, its nearness to railway and river, its pre-1930s icehouse that supplied refrigerator cars for the Pacific Fruit Express—it isn’t hard to imagine a homestead once stood here.

In these last few weeks I’ve been reflecting on stories and histories and the many things that precede and follow each human life.  In May my grandfather passed peacefully at 90-years-old, years rich in love, experience and family. My dad’s family, my Canadian side, is enormous—I have seven aunts and uncles and 18 first cousins. We’re up to 12 great-grandchildren. At the last family reunion my grandparents stood in front of all of us for a toast, in awe that the two of them were responsible for this room full of lives and hearts and stories.

In all of these reflections and findings, I’ve also been thinking about heirloom seeds and how they are the botanical expression of history, stories, culture, connection. Easily defined, heirloom seeds are open-pollinated varieties that were grown in a different era and have been saved by gardeners—some are over a hundred years old, some are younger. In and of themselves, these seeds contain a bounty of flavor, color, nutrients and, more abstractly, the many human hands and creatures that have kept seeding them throughout history. There is a movement to protect these seeds—conserve the biodiversity, knowledge and culture they bring—through efforts like Seed Savers Exchange and Navdanya, organizations that create seed banks and lead farmers in conservation training. Dr. Vandana Shiva, who founded Navdanya in 1991, is a pillar of knowledge, advocacy and action when it comes to seed sovereignty (take a couple moments to watch this video “Seeds” from the Lexicon of Sustainability; it features terms like seed swap and seed sovereignty and what they mean). The essence of seed sovereignty is much like other sovereignties we’ve come to know and define: the right of people and communities to define and control their own agriculture. On their page about seed sovereignty, the Anishinaabe Seed Project quotes Rowen White: “These seeds become symbols, reflections of the people’s own spiritual and aesthetic identity and that of the land that shapes them.”

In the garden we’ve planted several heirloom varieties with plans to collect the seed after harvest. But there is so much more happening than the seemingly simple acts of tying a paper bag over a broccoli flower or squishing the seeds out of a juicy tomato. As a community we are planting, harvesting and saving stories—some of which are only just beginning.


Daucus carota

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Did you know that there’s a carrot museum? Well, there is.  It may only exist virtually, but it’s definitely alive and frequently updated.  This month at North Powder Charter School, we chose carrots as our Harvest of the Month (see Oregon Harvest for Schools for umpteen activities and posters featuring Oregon-grown vegetables).  We’re just sowing our carrots in Oregon right now, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy Oregon-grown carrots in April! Check out Stahlbush Island Farms, a sustainable farm located in the Willamette valley, where among their many frozen products you can find a classic mix of Oregon-grown carrots, corn and peas. Farms like Stahlbush and companies like Willamette Valley Fruit Company help keep Oregon-grown produce and berries available year-round via frozen products. It’s also easy to freeze your own berries from an Oregon “U-Pick” farm like Draper Girls Country Farm in Parkdale (bonus: beautiful view of Mt. Hood as you pick!)

Back to our topic at hand: carrots. How did this flavorful root end up on tables all over the world? Well, I did my research and found that histories are often conflicting, so please keep this in mind as you read. Most sources say the carrot’s wild cousin, the umbel-flowered wild carrot Daucus carota, a.k.a. Queen Anne’s Lace, originated in Afghanistan (and perhaps in Europe as well).  Through selective breeding, we arrived at Daucus carota subsp. sativus (Latin for “cultivated,” denoting a domesticated species).  The varieties of carrots seem endless–from the golf ball-like ‘Parisian Market’ to the scarlet-cored ‘Chantenay.’ It’s said that the predominance of orange carrots stems from the late 16th century Dutch revolt against Spanish rule, during which Dutch carrot farmers grew mostly orange carrots to show support for the revolt’s leader, William of Orange. The revolution led to the formation of the Dutch Republic, which lasted until 1795, and to a flood of beta-Carotene-rich orange taproots.

In the school garden, we’ll be planting ‘Red Cored Chantenay’ (from High Mowing Organic Seeds) in raised beds; deep, sandy/loamy soil works best for carrots, but we can’t always have what we want!  Raised beds allow for a greater depth of cultivation–or loosening–of the upper layer of soil, which helps our beloved root crop push its way into a fully formed carrot.  Varieties like the Parisian Market are easier to grow in more clayey soils because of their small, round shape.  While you’re planting and harvesting your carrots this season, check out this resource from Oregon State University Extension for great tips.  And if you pull some brilliantly orange variety out of your garden this year, don’t forget to thank the Dutch.

Legends of Maize

It seems so simple.  A ripe ear of corn can go from plant to BBQ in just a couple of minutes.  We can season it in no time with salt and pepper, butter, or chili and lime.  “Corn on the cob” may seem as American as apple pie–but is it?  Geographically speaking, kind of (unlike the apple, which made its way here from Kazakhstan). Culturally, it gets way more complex and interesting.  As the weather warms up and we begin planting age-old staple crops such as corn, wheat, and beans, let’s visit the legends and culture behind what might seem to be the most basic of foods. In 2nd, 4th and 5th grades, we explored this very thing.

In the Andean region of South America, the Inca civilization flourished on an agriculture of nutrient-dense maize (corn).  Domesticated in Mesoamerica some 8,000 years ago, maize was grown by the Incas on a large scale, providing ample energy to build a mighty empire.  Maize was also easily transported for trade by indigenous llamas; more on them in a minute.  So why, at elevations over 10,000 feet, did maize do so well?  Two main factors facilitated the boom, according to Alex Chepstow-Lustry of the French Institute of Andean Studies in Lima, Peru (see this article).  The first: a warming period. The second: llama poop.  Chepstow-Lustry took mud cores from an Andean lake and found that high levels of maize pollen suddenly showed up 2,700 years ago. High levels of mite remains also appeared in the core–mites that feasted on animal dung.  The core reveals that the Inca used llama dung for the organic fertilizer needed to grow maize so prolifically. Thus, a civilization prospered.

But there is so much more to staple crops than the scientific conditions that propel them.  The Inca, like many indigenous cultures throughout the Americas, used maize for more than just sustenance. Spiritual offerings, legends, special fermented beverages used for ceremonies, the lore of maize origins–these things were very much attached to corn, this food that for many of us may initiate something as comparatively boring as BBQ cravings. In 5th grade we read a Penobscot legend called Corn Mother. The legend begins with Kloskurbeh, the All Maker, who lived on earth before there were people. One day his nephew appears, “born from the foam of the waves, foam quickened by the wind and warmed by the sun.” Another day, a woman appears, “born of the wonderful earth plant, and of the dew, and of warmth.” She and Kloskurbeh’s nephew marry and she becomes First Mother.  As the population of earth increases, there is a shortage of food to be hunted.  Bereaved at her children’s hunger, First Mother asks her husband to slay her, to have her sons drag her body over a patch of earth until her flesh covers the soil, and to bury her bones at the center of the clearing.  “Wait seven moons and then come back, and you will find my flesh there, flesh given out of love, and it will nourish and strengthen you forever and ever.” She also advises them to not eat all of the flesh (kernels), but to return some to the ground so that future generations will be nourished.

These and thousands of other culture stories (which are also often lessons) remind us that food is so much more than the thing that makes us biochemically tick.  Imagine that with every bite of food there is a whole world of ideologies and legends, a world of sacrifices and dead languages.  They are all there, even if we can’t taste them.


(Photo from http://www.pbs.org/kcet/when-worlds-collide/timeline/)



Mayors Day & Newspaper Pots!

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As often is the case in small towns with volunteer city officials, our North Powder mayor has a day job and wasn’t able to join us for Mayors Day of Recognition for National Service on April 1st. We do look forward to hanging out with her in the future, though!  As a representative of the mayor and city government, our city councilwoman Sue DeHause joined our 5th grade students for a fun afternoon of newspaper-pot-making and seed planting.

Through our FoodCorps and Farm to School program, our North Powder kids were learning about biodegradability way back in September.  I bet you $20 that every North Powder 4th and 5th grader can tell you what can and can’t go in a compost pile; most of them can pronounce and define “biodegradability,” too!  In keeping environmentally-friendly practices at the forefront of our garden program, we decided to try our hands at making newspaper pots.  I took a wonderful seed-starting class in Hood River at Grow Organics (check them out!) and bought a wooden newspaper pot maker for $15.  It makes a perfectly cylindrical pot from a strip of newspaper–and the wooden base allows you to create a sturdy bottom that doesn’t even need tape!  I couldn’t purchase 2o of them, so we also used 8 oz mason jars and tomato paste cans (sealed with a bit of tape that can just be pulled off before planting.) Kids love that these little plots can be plugged directly into the garden!

We planted two types of broccoli: DeCicco, an heirloom variety, and Besltar, a hybrid. We touched briefly on the differences between heirloom and hybrid plants. Students learned how seeds from hybrid plants carry genetics from both “parents,” meaning the seeds won’t produce the same characteristics as their host. Some gardeners think it’s fun to plant collected hybrid seeds–who knows what bizarre or wonderful new variety may appear?  But oftentimes these seeds may just produce undesirable flavors or be, well, “blah.”  My favorite question came from super enthusiastic 5th grader Dalton: “If the seed grows something all freaky and weird looking, can you still eat it??” There’s nothing quite like seeing kids pumped about plant genetics!

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The Ranch Obsession

I remember liking ranch dressing as a kid.  Really liking it.  But nothing compares to how ranch plays out in a school cafeteria.  Dunking pizza in it, drowning veggies in it–it really is an obsession.  We do work to monitor this in the cafeteria as best we can; I was even the “ranch cop” one day, which didn’t make me very popular with the middle and high school students.

This got me to thinking: what is it about ranch that hooks us and keeps us coming back for (way too much) more?  Its oil and dairy richness is enticing all its own, but it’s the combination of onion, garlic, parsley, pepper, and dill that makes it so delectable.  I started researching how to put these spices in a different “vehicle,” one not so laden with buttermilk and mayonnaise.  We came up with two winners: ranch hummus and healthy ranch dip.

First we tried ranch hummus, which was actually incredibly popular with high school students.  The Greek yogurt gives it that tart kick and creaminess that buttermilk does in regular ranch.  I was carrying it around to them during lunchtime in the cafeteria (wanting to somehow redeem myself from being ranch cop), and had them try it with plain tortilla chips.  I suddenly started saying, “It’s better than a ranch Dorito!”  This caught on and pretty soon it’s what one senior was telling another to get them to try it.  They agreed that it would be good to pair with veggies, but not so much with pizza (c’est la vie!).  Here’s the recipe:

Ranch Hummus
2 cans garbanzo beans
Half or whole ranch packet (try to find one that’s low sodium or make your own minus the dry buttermilk)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
6 tablespoons olive oil (can also use more water/yogurt and less oil)
4+ tablespoons plain Greek yogurt
1/4 cup water
Garlic powder to taste
Next was the healthy ranch dip, a recipe I found on an amazing website called www.foodhero.org. This website has dozens of healthy, nutritious and low cost recipes and it’s a go-to site for my cooking lessons.  The North Powder fifth graders tried this with snap peas and immediately fell in love. When they found out that this healthy alternative has only 20 calories per two tablespoons compared to the 120 calories for a serving of ranch dressing, they were stoked.  I think they might even dip their pizza in it.  I used fat-free cottage cheese and fat-free Greek yogurt. Mash with forks for chunky dip or whip up in a blender for more dressing-like consistency. Here’s the recipe:
1 cup low-fat  cottage cheese

1 cup low-fat plain  yogurt, depending on thickness desired
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1⁄4 teaspoon pepper
1⁄2 teaspoon garlic powder
1⁄2 teaspoon onion powder
2 sprigs of  parsley, chopped or 1 teaspoon dried parsley flakes

Project Localize

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Photo credit: Project Localize, Iowa edition

North Powder Charter School has been selected to participate in the pilot year of an exciting student-driven project called Project Localize.  Under the umbrella of The Lexicon of Sustainability, our Project Localize students will learn about existing words and terms within the lexicon (words like “locavore” or “composting”) while discovering the lexicon of their own local food and farming landscape.  We will be heading out into the field equipped with cameras and questions to interview local farmers, ranchers and producers about agricultural practices and methods. These interactions with community members will help students create a lexicon relevant to the area; with photos and text they will create information artworks that explain these agricultural practices and concepts in a highly visual and accessible way.  The artworks will be displayed in a pop-up show in the community so that students have the opportunity to share their hard work and create a dialogue with their neighbors and peers.  At the end of the project, one of the pilot schools will be chosen to participate in a trip to Washington D.C. to speak with lawmakers and the USDA about local food systems.

There is understandable controversy surrounding projects such as these, especially if your own family’s agricultural methods fall outside of someone else’s version of “how to do things;” I know from firsthand experience coming from conventional pear growers and then moving to Portland where some would immediately condemn any and all conventional agriculture.  But what we will come to discover is the overlap between these varied terms, practices and outcomes–especially through the lens of the local food movement.  Farmers steward the land in a multitude of ways, and it’s up to us to discover what that truly looks like by experiencing it firsthand.  I believe our rural eastern Oregon kids will be able to add a unique perspective to the lexicon and a new spin on the way we as a culture view sustainability.

Beef Education Month!

Second grader Kale created a cowboy today and said, "This is me because I like to help my grandpa on the farm!"

Second grader Kale drew a cowboy today and said, “This is me, because I like to help my grandpa on the farm!”

Nearly every morning I drive a stretch of the Grande Ronde Valley to school, past rolling scrubland and open grass fields speckled with cattle.  I’m new to the area, but observing these cattle through the last few months has been an eye-opening experience.  In the last two weeks I’ve seen one of the most adorable sites maybe ever: baby calves standing by their mothers, looking about at the world.  I’ve heard murmurs of “calving” in the hallways at school, and know we’ve entered yet another season in the lives of cattle ranching families.  What better time to celebrate Beef Education Month at North Powder Charter School!  Local ranchers, including some belonging to Oregon Cattlewomen and Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, have made this month’s activities possible.  Here are some of the events for this month:

Lunch with a rancher – local ranchers are joining our 3rd and 5th grade classes in their classrooms for Q&A!

Beef presentations – Wendy Bingham, Secretary of Oregon Cattlewomen, is leading beef education presentations in 1st, 4th and 6th grades. Students learn about life on a ranch (and share their own ranching experiences, too) and participate in creative cattle lessons that tie into Core Standards and nutritional information.

Local beef for lunch –  a couple of times this month we’re serving up some local beef at lunchtime!

Something I’ve learned about this month is cattle branding.  Many of our students live on ranches, so they know the ins and outs of branding and are a great resource for newbies like me.  With roots dating back to ancient Egypt, livestock branding has been used for a multitude of purposes–a highly spiritual practice for some ancient cultures and certainly a pragmatic practice for today’s Western cattle industry. Branding is used in open-grazing operations; if cattle get lost, get loose, or get stolen by “rustlers,” the unique brand signifies which ranch is home.  Despite some fairly strict parameters on size and design, you’ll find quite creative and meaningful brands out in the fields.  Check out this article for more interesting facts on cattle branding.

If you’re in eastern Oregon for any length of time, it’s impossible not to see one of the many ranches in the area.  Some ranches have been around for generations, some just a handful of years.  Either way, today these ranches are just as much a part of this landscape as the sagebrush or the big sky, and they hold a very real place in the hearts of North Powder families.