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Home to Seed

by Arkansas Life | July 7, 2020 at 6:00 a.m.

THE OTHER MORNING, my 4-year-old daughter plucked a tiny tender tatsoi leaf from her breakfast bowl, examining it with bemused, slightly cross-eyed glee before munching it whole with an air of giggly triumphant pomp. As her mama, I know the fanfare over such a little flash of emerald was not just from finding a bite of crunchy sweet, but a reminder of our dear friends the Villines who make a beautiful living on the banks of the Buffalo River east of our home in downtown Bentonville. She’s balanced in their trees, hugged their animals, splashed in their spring, pressed seedlings into their rich soil, sung along to the strumming of instruments in their cozy kitchen. A single baby sprout from their market garden conjures up the lovely world in which it was grown. There’s a certain depth of delight I see in her eyes as she eats the food from our friends’ farm.

It’s been two years now since we moved from the San Francisco Bay Area, and we’re still reeling with happy wonder over all the bounty to be had in this region. Much of our greens and meat and dairy—even herbs and flowers, are now connected to faces, places and, most endearing, friendships we’ve begun since we chose Northwest Arkansas as home.


“Let’s drive,” my husband, Ian, declared with a knowing wink, “to let the kids feel the miles. And we’ll have a chance to let it all sink in slowly.” We decided not to blitz it, instead allocating just a couple hours of driving time each day to coincide with our toddler’s midday naps. We found ourselves doing laundry and dishes in a gurgling hot spring somewhere in Nevada, and by the time we left Colorado, we had stayed at an animal sanctuary, an off-grid homestead and a start-up ranch. When we got too dusty, we’d book a hotel stay until realizing we preferred the rustic wind-rippling of our rooftop tent to hermetically sealed windows. We slept under many skies, feeling perched in a sort of lofted zippered treehouse, and arrived two weeks later in Bentonville, Arkansas, just before the month of July as the day dipped into sunset stillness. Our first hours in town were spent at the Wednesday evening farmers market at the 8th Street Market. We were graciously gifted a cardboard box of nearly bursting sweet blackberries inside the farm-to-table Mexican restaurant Yeyo’s El Alma de Mexico. “Welcome from our family to yours. These were picked earlier today.”


We were flooded with so many similar instances of casual generosity. The air of kindness all around town caught us off guard in the best sense, and we dove into meeting new friends. For a while, we were unsure whether we had culturally landed in the South or the Midwest, teetering right on an invisible line. I was surprised to feel a sort of folksy, crunchy, laid-back natural vibe in pockets as we explored the area. Fayetteville felt uncannily like Berkeley to us, the city where Ian and I met and married. Soon, an acquaintance explained that in the 1960s, a wave of “back-to-the-landers” had settled from larger metropolitan cities such as Chicago and New York City all across the Ozarks, drawn to easier access to gorgeous raw land and the freedom to pursue life as they imagined it in a like-minded community. Ian and I glanced at each other and smiled, hearing this bit of history. Though we are not the original hippie settlers from a half century past, we did come for some of the same reasons—yearning for a slower, nature-steeped, family-celebrating pace of life that would allow us to live more in line with what we valued.

A few days later, summer in full swing, we meandered around the Saturday farmers market, and I underwent a complete re-education. In California, U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified organic stands are ubiquitous, common. As a dream job throughout college in Santa Barbara, and for a year afterward in Santa Monica, I sold everything from peonies and rhubarb pies to creamy quark and lush marzipan, sun-kissed piles of the best summer stone fruit I’ve ever tasted, working alongside the producers to sell their gorgeous wares to large eager crowds. But here, instead of clear certifications and a flurry of shorter transactions, I encountered a much slower pace—heartier handshakes, tables adorned with snapshots from pastures and fields, even utterly sincere invitations for us to “visit or drop by anytime.” We were happy to spot moringa bushels and ginger stalks and Thai chilis, more growers selling fresh Asian vegetables than we ever had access to back in the Bay Area, thanks to many Hmong farming families in the region. I was wowed to realize that the majority of the vendors were only traveling, on average, 30 minutes away compared to the upward of seven or eight hours I was accustomed to in California, where the markets were much more bustling and businesslike in their exchanges.

Despite the relaxed ease and friendliness, I was still a bit thrown off while browsing the stands. Some strawberries in cute cartons looked gleamingly good, but I eyed them with hesitance, as they are a notorious crop for high pesticide use and usually stay persistently perched at the top of “the dirty dozen” list. The term “local” only meant so much to me as a curious newcomer. At the Brightwater food truck, a sweet chef listened intently to my confusion and blurted out breezily, “Oh! You’re looking for Certified Naturally Grown!” I learned that CNG is hailed as a “grassroots alternative to Certified Organic” and is peer-approved, far less prohibitive in membership cost and requirements, and, in some cases, even holds higher health standards than the USDA equivalent.

One of the first memorable conversations I had at the market was with Jennifer of R Family Farm, and we somehow got on the topic of food as medicine. From behind her table she laughed aloud divulging, “I told my then boyfriend (now husband) that I’d only marry him if he chose absolutely any line of work beside chicken farming—which my dad did and I know firsthand how bad it was. And look at us now!” In a single generation, she and her husband diverged from conventional practices to sustainable and regenerative ones. Their pasture-raised meat is extremely popular and seemed to be practically flying out of their trailer’s massive deep freezers and into their customers’ waiting arms. As we spoke, Jennifer admitted that some rare passersby do scoff at their prices, which reflect a fair rate for meat raised right. Afterward, in a sort of hushed humility, she whispered, “I just don’t believe you can just eat whatever you want and say, Lord heal me.”


That fall, when the farmers market shuttered for a long offseason stretch and we saw persimmons and squash appear, we got a first brush with seasonal scarcity: All the abundance of the summer harvest tapered off, and there was a reassessing of what could be found fresh and close. Accustomed to the perpetual sun of the West Coast with its 365-day-a-year growing capacity, we were scrambling for wool mittens and boots in a hurry. 


By the time our first spring in Arkansas arrived, we had gotten ahold of a Baker Creek Seed Catalog. Armed with a huge stack of saved cardboard egg cartons, we began the process of growing heirloom food from colorful promising packets. The kids and I were hooked at the emergence of the very first sprouts pushing their way millimeter by millimeter under our giddy watch.

Not all survived, but the ones that did delighted us so much. Within a few months, there was an explosion of herbs and rows of ripening tomatoes in our care. Without any canning know-how, I had to agilely oven-roast and freeze jars instead. We gave dozens of homegrown wildflower bundles away in flurries, along with baskets of surplus peppers and greens. My children’s pudgy hands learned to prune and water and plant with delicate determination but, most of all, to wait and watch what weekly summer storms and compost and scorching heat could produce in our backyard allotment of earth—our beloved trial-and-error victory garden.


Many months passed, and now into our second fall, slower than a seed, my belly started swelling with our third child. Air, water, food, light—these four necessary elements are always on a mother’s mind—for herself and the little ones she leads. For me, this means windows flung open to the breeze, fetching live spring water, large pots stirred and left to simmer, bare faces turned toward the sun.

We’re only one family, but I sense a real invitation to support businesses we believe in and practices I want to see multiplied to contribute to more regenerative foodways. In every place, there is beauty and blight. Fake food. Food insecurity. Genetically modified franken-food. Food deserts. Many unnatural and engineered ickies that put profits over people. So when we hear about ventures like The Berry Farm in Centerton that lets their sheep munch on grasses beneath their blueberry bushes, where others might have reached for an herbicide, we are all there as patrons filling boxes to the brim, especially when 100 percent of their proceeds benefit a program that provides vocational training for orphaned children.

We want to be a part of heartening and hopeful initiatives. We’re grateful for Red Barn delivering blue eggs and edible flowers to our doorstep. Osage Creek Farms was willing to save suet from its grass-fed and finished herd, allowing me to render huge batches of healing tallow balm. Rosalba of Mama Z’s niximalizes her corn to create incredibly moist traditional masa in a range of lovely hues. I think about the happily pastured lambs at Hanna Ranch. The wildly delicious log-grown shiitake mushrooms from Kingston’s Sweden Creek Farms. The smokey wood-fired sourdough boules from Sylvan Artisan Bread. Joyful Valerie Esparza supplying us with creamy and decadent raw jersey cow’s milk in frosty, clinking half-gallon mason jars. The list could go on and on, of farmers and makers and passionate folk honed in on offering really pure, earth-honoring products. Many evenings, we look down at our plates, and they’ve become a map, a fresh mingling of the best ingredients we’ve been blessed to source. Sometimes it even becomes a game before grace is said as we nudge the kids to connect the people they know who are responsible for the ingredients they’re about to enjoy.


When we moved here, I think we were craving the connection that a small town like Bentonville affords. From the onset, yes, we prioritized filling our bellies well as we set down roots, but what we ended up discovering was just how intricately woven food and family could be. A big part of becoming “Arkansan” for us meant going beyond knowing “where our food was coming from” to knowing many of the hands and hearts responsible for it. Relationships are ready to flow every which way, and sustenance grown or raised right will very likely have a story, faces behind it, friendship awaiting. It’s never an anonymous exchange when quality is sought out—someone stands behind it proudly. There’s usually a lot of sweat and toil and glory in the goodness.

As I write, it’s been just a few days past two whole years since our move. Our kids are ruddy and flourishing, and we just welcomed another sweet baby into the world, currently cocooned inside. One day, I see her finding her own way to celebrate life like her brother and sister do. The older ones can catch themselves a crawdad. Slip in and out of a hammock with ease. Cycle fearless on flowy forest trails. Identify birds and trees and all manner of flowers beneath their bare feet. Dance and splash under a thunderstorming sky. They are kind, and fiery in their fighting, but know what forgiveness means. And especially, hallelujah—how to enjoy a raw turnip plucked straight from the ground, shined up, before being crunched, on the pant of their overalls. 


Spring

The Villineses are devoted to gorgeous land in the Boxley Valley, where for seven generations, their family has lived. With their hardworking sons, they tend a flock of Katahdin sheep and supply a flurry of incredibly flavored certified naturally grown vegetables to the region. At left, Genevieve waters a flat of heirloom tomato seedlings with the live gurgling spring water that flows past their home, while Joe (top right) prepares to plant kale.


Summer

This pile of perfectly ripe pawpaws was purchased at the Fayetteville Farmers Market. Cultivated by Guy Ames at his orchard and nursery in Elkins, this is America’s largest indigenous fruit and is listed on The Slow Food Foundation’s International Ark of Taste, “a living catalog of delicious and distinctive foods facing extinction.” Pawpaws taste so luscious and creamy, a custardy mix of mango, guava and pear. They are easy to bruise, and their extremely delicate qualities likely contribute to their accidental exclusion from modern industrial agriculture. I think “commercially unviable” might be the category. Much lore surrounds these beauties, and they were historically eaten freshly fallen on wild forest floors. It’s a part of creation meant to bring delight upon discovery—in shady, humid light-dappled groves. Author Andrew Moore writes, “People have always had folk knowledge of where that pawpaw-pickin’ place was. If you wanted it, you could just go to the woods. It didn’t have to be in the orchard, farm or nursery. Right now with the revival of local food traditions, it’s likely that we’ll start eating them again.” We saved and replanted over 100 seeds last year to be a tiny part of the fruit’s flourishing.


Fall

A huge part of getting “the lay of the land” and orienting ourselves was to find—no surprise—groceries. My husband, from the early get-go, was really intent on sourcing chicken for a sublimely simple Cantonese home-cooked dish from his childhood: steaming it bare with salt and then drizzling it with a sizzling oil sauce of minced ginger and green onions, an instant taste of home. Poultry from Across the Creek Farm first found at Ozark Natural Foods blew us away. He announced at the table, “You can tell this one really lived life.”

* * *

My daughter examines some foraged persimmons. Watercress, dandelion, lamb’s quarter, elderberry, redbud, coneflower, black walnut, plantain, violets, chives, wild ginger and mulberries—my vocabulary of Ozark edibles is slowly but excitedly expanding right alongside our children’s, and it’s been so fun to encounter and learn about some of these wonders within reach. The distinct seasons of Northwest Arkansas mean a year’s worth of shifting discoveries.


Winter

At the Rios farm, a duck is slaughtered for a winter feast at our home. Moments before, James Beard-nominated chef Rafael Rios had given the animal a gentle kiss and a thank you for its life and role in sustaining our bodies. Our daughter watched on in rapt solemnity as the duck was then plucked and butchered. I told my toddler son, “Yes, we eat animals, ones that were happy when they were alive and treated well. And we make sure to eat them all and not waste.” In an ancient honoring way, we save tallow for cooking and bones for broth. The very next evening huddled over delicious steaming bowls of fragrant rice, roasted meat and sauteed bok choy, both families were grateful again to be in one another’s homes.

* * *

I still remember the wild rush of moist, heady air the first time I stepped into the greenhouse at the Rios Family Farm, while outside, frosted radishes huddled in neat rows. Brothers Roman and Rafael Rios were incredibly welcoming to our family. We were waylaid by their hospitality when we realized we had unknowingly rented a home right down the road from their land in the town of Little Flock. Sharing many meals on their idyllic property, charring tortillas over an open fire pit, kicking a ball around in their fields at dusk, witnessing their calves and corn and well, everything, growing straight and true and strong, made visits to their restaurant, Yeyo’s, all the more intimate. We marveled how a couple of fertile acres could bring forth so much life—all under the tender devotion of a beautiful three-generation family.

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