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Oct 8 2014

Will Sukkot Be the Same If We Leave the Farm?

By at 11:17 am


On Sunday afternoon, our family walked around the farm looking for a place to build our sukkah. I like to have a new location each year so we can have distinct memories of each Sukkot.

We chose a sandy spot near the barn on the top of a hill that we called the beach when we first moved in because it is the sandiest soil on the farm. It is a spot where you can grow Mediterranean herbs and not much else, where you can imagine a desert, imagine the land of Israel. Imagine a new home.

Sukkot is always one of our favorite Jewish holidays. We love building our sukkah right on the edge of our fields in the midst of the fall harvest. Sukkot is the perfect holiday for Jewish farmers like us, connecting us directly with farmers from long ago, celebrating the bounty and enjoying the first cool days. Read the rest of this entry →

Jul 23 2014

How Do I Teach My Suburban Kids to be Environmentally Conscious?

By at 4:20 pm


My husband is vegan, we’re raising our children as vegetarians, and we even started our own vegan cheese company. But I have a confession: I am still woefully ignorant on many food-related environmental issues.

Food labels, GMOs, and the intricacies of recycling and composting intimidate me, yet I want to make educating myself and my children about these issues a priority. I want eco-consciousness ingrained in them from an early age, much like I want them to enjoy physical activities and speak a second language. I know firsthand that it is much, much harder to change your lifestyle and habits later in life. A few years ago, I wagered with my husband that I could stay vegetarian for a summer and lost the bet halfway through when our friends invited us to the best steak house in New York. Actions speak louder than words, especially when you can’t talk with a mouthful of meat!

But the sad fact is, it’s hard for my children to learn eco-friendliness at home. We drive everywhere; we fill our garbage bin to overflowing every week; much of the food on our plates comes wrapped in packages and no longer resembles what it looked like when it first came into being; and we live in the suburbs, shielded from the natural rhythms of the earth. How am I supposed to help them make informed choices when I am not well informed myself? Read the rest of this entry →

Dec 30 2011

On the Farm: Seed Shopping

By at 1:12 pm

seeds in wooden spoonsMy daughter, who turned 2 this week, fell in love with an 8 by 10 piece of purple felt I bought for a craft project. She has been busy using it as a doll blanket, folding it like a napkin, and generally keeping it close. I didn’t plan it that way but I think she likes it more than any of her birthday and Hanukkah gifts combined and it cost 32 cents.

As farmers, Hanukkah coincides with the arrival of stacks of beautiful seed catalogs. And now that we have celebrated the eighth night, it is time to turn our attention to seed shopping and planning the next farm season. Searching through the seed catalogs, we are always looking for something like the purple felt–a new vegetable or flower variety that will surprise us and exceed all expectations.

There is always the hope that a certain seed variety will be this coming season’s most valuable player, producing abundantly while ignoring pests and humid weather.  Over the years we have found a few of these, like sungold tomatoes, okra, zinnias, and sunflowers which consistently thrive on our farm. But just like expensive toys, there are always varieties that fail to impress and are quickly tossed aside and forgotten.

So in the coming weeks, we will search for the seed equivalent of the 32 cent square of purple felt, an unexpected seed variety which will help make the 2012 farm season successful. I hope we find it.

May 17 2011

On The Farm: Big Shoes

By at 10:48 am

My 16-month-old girl loves shoes. She seems to love them indiscriminately – from giant mud caked farm boots, to rubber boots six sizes too big to her new butterfly sandals. She wants to wear them all. I think there is something universal about children wanting to try on all the shoes in the house and maybe that’s where expression that someone having some pretty big shoes to fill comes from.

This morning, she brought me her little pink sneakers. I put them on and she was satisfied for about two seconds. Then she toddled off and brought back her butterfly sandals. But when I tried to take off one of her sneakers to put on the sandals she was clearly annoyed. She does this little “eh, eh” noise to let the world know when she is not happy. I think it is sort of a pre-eye roll that says, “No Mom, you don’t get it!”  She is at that difficult age where she only has a handful of words but she obviously has a lot she wants to say.

She wants her sandal on her OTHER foot and she is running head first into the natural limit that she only has two feet.  This is hard for her (“eh, eh, eh!”). I am taking my time with this one, not enjoying it exactly but feeling privileged to witness the event. I count her feet and tell her that there are two.  But she seems to think I am making a poor excuse for not putting on all the shoes.  We take shoes on and off and on and off until she seems somewhat satisfied or at least ready to move on for now.

These are the types of mini-milestones that I love to watch. I know in different ways, hitting natural limits is a lifelong struggle. Haven’t we all occasionally wanted to be in two places at once or choose all of the above when you have to choose A, B or C. On the farm, natural limits abound. One field cannot be irrigated and relies on rain; another is so sandy that only certain herbs grow there. These limits can be frustrating but they also save us from having too many options and impossible choices.

It brings to mind the old Yiddish expression that “you can’t dance at two weddings with one tuchus“. And in time, she will learn this lesson in many different ways. In the mean time, we are spending a lot of time changing shoes.

May 6 2011

Local Strawberries & Cake: Happy (Jewish) Mothers Day

By at 1:22 pm

When I grew up my mother was kind of anti-mother’s day. She thought it was an overly commercialized holiday for buying cloying greeting cards and celebrating an old school non-feminist type of 50’s motherhood which did not reflect her. So we sort of ignored the day and sometimes even mocked it a tiny bit. But I have to say, now that I am a proud Mama, the idea is growing on me.

This year, Mother’s Day falls when Passover is still fresh in our minds. Passover sort of ends with a whimper, at least in my house we do not celebrate the last night. When we do go back to eating bread, it is without fanfare even though it could represent the end of our desert journey and settling into our new home. And Mother’s Day seems all about celebrating the home front, so this year our chametzy (non-Kosher for Passover) Mother’s Day cake could provide a kind of bookend to Passover.

This year, Mother’s Day also comes with the first strawberries and cut flowers on our farm. We will hold a mini-strawberry and flower sale for neighbors, but mostly feast on the first fruits at home. Until our CSA starts next week, we will enjoy an abundance of fresh strawberries and enough flowers to compete with a royal wedding … if we were to go out and cut them.

So, here is my reclaimed, Jewish Mother’s day suggestion! Try to find a local farm for the first local strawberries and flowers. Fill your vases and bowls with fresh flowers and fruit. And then enjoy the fresh strawberries with a very leavened and chametzy cake to celebrate motherhood, liberation, farms, spring and whatever is good in your life this season. Happy Mother’s Day!

Tanya Tolchin is a manager at Israeli Harvest,  a farmer at Jug Bay Market Garden, a writer, an environmentalist, and most importantly a mom.  She has a new blog:  On the Lettuce Edge.

Apr 18 2011

Back to the Land

By at 2:55 pm

It is April and my husband and I are pushing tiny onion bulbs into muddy soil, caring for trays and trays of tiny seedlings and gearing up for Passover. We run a small organic farm about 20 miles outside Washington, DC where we grow vegetables, strawberries, herbs, and flowers.  While few Jews choose to farm, we find that farming integrates more seamlessly into a Jewish life than we ever could have imagined.

When we build a Sukkah in our farm field, we intuitively understand both the physical need for a shady hut during harvest season and the emotional need to stop and enjoy meals even during the busiest season. On Passover, we can bring our own parsley and early asparagus to seder and on Hanukkah we still have some of our own potatoes and sweet potatoes for latkes.

Like most American Jews, my husband and I did not grow up farming. We met in college where we learned the ideas behind organic agriculture and very basic farming skills. After college we spent time in Israel on kibbutzim where Jewish life and farming go hand in hand.

Starting a farm from scratch was a pretty daunting prospect and it took us a while to gather our courage. We started looking around the Washington area so we could keep our day jobs while we tried farming. Within a year, we bought a former tobacco farm in commuting distance to Washington and almost immediately started tilling the soil and growing vegetables for a small local market. Fast forward 9 years, and we have a 4-year-old and a baby and are still farming.

Our farm has developed with us, we now market primarily through community supported agriculture or CSA. Since we deliver our CSA shares to Capitol Hill, we are lucky to be one of the few CSAs in the country with members that help set national agricultural policy while staffing Senate offices and the USDA.  And we are expanding into a new business called Israeli Harvest where we are supporting Israeli farmers by using the CSA model.

We are happy that our children are growing up with hands-on farming experience. Our 4-year-old knows how to plant, pull weeds, and will instruct guests how to stay on garden paths. And our baby can grab ripe blueberries and get them straight from the plant to her mouth.

On the downside, if we wanted to walk to a shul–any shul–for Shabbat services, we would need to set off by Wednesday. Last time I was in Israel and explained our family farm to kibbutz members, they asked, “But you farm all alone, just with your family?” In Israel, the family farm is not really a concept, people farm collectively, on Kibbutzim and Moshavim. They ask, “isn’t it lonely?” And yes sometimes it is, a little bit.

Luckily, much of Judaism is family based and Shabbat with homemade challah is a touchstone for our week. We are also blessed to serve as an informal retreat for many of our DC and Silver Spring friends who come for visits and sometimes spend the whole weekend. I guess the grass is always greener on the other side of the beltway:  they have Jewish schools, shuls, and delis nearby but worry that their kids don’t spend enough time outside. We have plenty of nature but worry about our kids growing up outside Jewish community.

In recent years, a young Jewish farming movement has sprouted up lead by organizations like Adamah, Jewish Farm School, and Kayam. There are groups of Jewish farmers who get together to talk about everything from Torah and farming to composting and raising Kosher meat. There are growing numbers of people who share our values and tons of potential to create something bigger together. Maybe some Kveller readers will want to pick up a trowel and join the fun.

Tanya Tolchin is a manager at Israeli Harvest,  a farmer at Jug Bay Market Garden, a writer, an environmentalist and most importantly a mom.  She has a new blog:  On the Lettuce Edge.


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