As you probably know, farmers wear many hats. Not only do they grow produce and/or raise animals, they also typically plan, purchase, build, harvest, package, market, do sales, budget, bookkeep, communicate with customers… some jobs are enjoyable, some less-so, but they all need to get done.
Katie Kulla of Oakhill Organics has been running a 100 acre diversified farm in the Willamette Valley, along with her husband Casey, since 2006. Prior to becoming a farmer, Katie earned her masters in creative non-fiction from Western Washington University. At Oakhill Organics, Katie found a way to continue her love of writing through their farm blog. When she started the blog, ten years ago, farm blogs were far and few between. Even as young farmers, they “were at the front of a wave”. Katie recalls attending the OSU Small Farms Conference in their first year; there were about 150 total attendees, less than 10 of which were under the age of 40 (this year nearly 1000 farmers attended).
Of course there are many aspects of farming that Katie enjoys, but writing and maintaining the blog seems to be one of her favorites. She expressed this strongly in last week’s newsletter, which we’ve republished below. Enjoy Katie’s writing and a little glimpse into her life at Oakhill Organics.
Farming & Writing
from the Oakhill Organics blog, by Katie Kulla
In case you’ve wondered, this moment — RIGHT NOW — is a highlight of my week. The moment when I sit down with my laptop, upload a few photos from the week, and begin to turn our experiences into a little story or essay to share with our lovely community of eaters. I love the ritual of it — looking at Casey’s handwritten (ahem, scrawled) note of this week’s vegetables and pausing to ponder what tips folks might appreciate as they turn these freshly harvested items into their week’s meals.
At this point in my life, writing these weekly newsletters is the bulk of my regular writing experience. I’ve come to view it as a practice of the best sort — a dedicated routine that keeps me doing something I love but might otherwise let slip in the midst of life’s pressures and endless ‘to do’ lists.
As we pick up new CSA members each year, the genesis of our farm slips farther into the past, and many of the new crowd know Casey and me only as the 30-something-farmers-with-cute-kids we are today. But of course, we grew into these roles. Ten years ago this month, we were embarking on this adventure, leaving behind the life we’d had in Bellingham, Washington, where we had been students, teachers, and farm workers (as well as studio-apartment-dwellers, food-co-op-shoppers, and frequent-burrito-eaters).
Before we moved, we had the privilege of completing Master’s degrees, and mine was in creative nonfiction writing (Casey’s was in ecology). Having that degree under my belt doesn’t necessarily mean that I am a great writer, but it does mean that I once upon a time took my writing very seriously and spent a good amount of time getting better at it with the help of fabulous mentors! An experience for which I am grateful! In fact, my gratitude for that experience grows the more perspective I have. Those early years of adulthood were so packed with growth that it is really only now that I can begin to unpack all the lessons we were gifted in a few years of life.
Back then, the world seemed like our oyster, of course. I look back on who Casey and I were when we moved to Oregon, and I remember how the world seemed so open. We were scared, of course — terrified! We were seeking to settle down and commit to something — to a new way of life, to a new endeavor, to a new community — and it was thrilling to think of the potentials but also nerve-wracking to give up all the other possibilities we could have pursued at that point in our life. To commit to one thing requires giving up others — in our case: further graduate studies, other careers and places to live.
We haven’t spent much time dwelling on the “what ifs” since starting the farm. This life has been so consuming in its demands on our presence and attention, and it has been so fulfilling too. But, of course, who doesn’t sometimes wonder about all those other paths? Especially when there was true love and passion there too.
With starting the farm and having kids, writing has been something that I have definitely pushed to the back burner. I’ve chosen this worn out metaphor on purpose, because I think it’s very appropriate here. The back burner isn’t a place where things stop cooking — those pots aren’t removed from the stove and allowed to cool off completely, forgotten. The back burner is where we put soup that we want to let simmer for hours and hours before dinner so that their flavors will be improved as they only can through the slow work of time.
For a few years (mostly before we had kids, as if that isn’t so obvious), I did keep writing and publishing a little bit — mostly farming articles and essays. But, my primary writing in the last ten years has definitely been this newsletter, my 45 essays a year that get published with essentially no revision on our little blog, read by our immediate community. A satisfying practice to me, but certainly a different publishing road than the one I was trained for in graduate school.
In recent years, I started telling friends that I know no longer considered myself a “Writer,” and I really meant it. It wasn’t a defensive stance so much as a helpful way for me to let go of old ideas about what I “should” be writing and where or how I should publish. Letting go of that assigned role allowed me to better appreciate the very hard work and dedication others have put into prioritizing writing as their craft in ways I have chosen not to do. Letting go of that role also allowed me to whole heartedly embrace other ways of spending my time that have felt rejuvenating to my spirit as I try to balance the mother-farmer roles of my life with other creative pursuits. Specifically I found that singing with a women’s choir became a more important use of my free time than sitting alone in my office on my computer! For me, connecting in that way with a community of women was a better balance for the sometimes isolating parts of rural life.
But, in the meantime, that big pot of soup has been on the back burner, tended by me as I continue this still beloved weekly practice of writing the newsletter. I don’t exactly know what the destiny of that big pot of writerly soup will be, but I have faith that my patience will produce something delicious. Or, to borrow a metaphor I got from Oregon novelist Ursula LeGuin (who I believe picked it up from Gary Snyder?), the writing life can also be thought of as a compost pile — a big, beautiful compost pile that will eventually produce the fertility for a vibrant garden full of color and flavor. But first, it needs a lot of different materials (experiences) added and allowed to break down together over time. If I remember correctly, in sharing this metaphor, LeGuin was making a case for not expecting to write much of excellence before 40.
Incidentally, I heard LeGuin talk at the first ever McMinnville Terroir Writing Festival back in 2010. I listened to LeGuin while standing in the back, rocking a sleeping baby on my chest. Many years have gone by since then, and the festival is still going strong and will happen again this April (registration happening now!). I have only attended again once since that first year, but I love watching this festival from a distance and appreciating all the writers who dedicate their time to connecting and learning from each other (and producing fabulous poems, books, articles, and more for all of us to enjoy!).
And, perhaps to everyone’s culinary benefit (I hope anyway!), I did finally really truly get started on that Big Writing Project that has been simmering away for the better part of two years now. The cookbook is finally really in progress! I think I first mentioned this book at the end of 2014 as a possibility, but it has taken this long for me to really wrap my head around the details — the tone and scope of the project. If you’re wondering what it might be like, look no further than these newsletters. You’ll hear a lot of my voice in the cookbook, sharing my passion for cooking fresh veggies in simple ways, just as I’ve done almost every week for the last ten years!
We’ll see how much I can compel myself to sit alone with my computer (beyond this valued weekly occasion), but I feel excited about how it is going so far. Books are Big Things, even when they’re just CSA cookbooks written by a farmer! So, I know better than to make any guesses about finish dates or much more beyond announcing that I am excited to be writing it! It’s a book that I want to exist, which I think is one of the best motivators. And working on it is enjoyable — the second best motivator.
And, now it’s time for me to bring my weekly writing ritual to a close. After a mostly dry harvest day, the rain is pounding on the metal roof outside the window as the world grows darker and darker gray. Casey and the kids are downstairs finishing the day, cleaning up the living room, setting the table for dinner, looking at an atlas together (a favorite pastime around these parts). I am excited to join them and to taste the fruits of the day alongside family I cherish. Here we are in the life we chose a decade ago, in the house we built, eating food we’ve grown. And, lucky me, I get to write about it.
Your farmers, Katie & Casey Kulla
Stay up on Katie’s wonderful writing at the Oakhill Organics blog or dive into the archives, which includes 10 years and nearly 1000 posts describing their CSA offerings and journey over the years.