Farm update: February 24

Greetings! We are currently stuck in that awkward phase between winter and spring. Some days it’s all teasing warmth and perfect blue skies, and some days it’s bleak and grey with icy, biting winds. Most of our snow is gone, though we expect (and hope for) one or two more storms, at least. It’s a changeable season, but spring is definitely in the air and we’re starting to hear more songbirds and see new growth everywhere we look. Here are a few things we’ve been up to recently.

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A prairie falcon (Falco mexicanus) in one of our towering cottonwoods.

We still haven’t captured a photo of our shy Northern harrier, seen regularly hunting mice in our pasture on sunny afternoons, but N did snap this lovely photo of a prairie falcon. The prairie falcon is about the size of a peregrine falcon, but with a much different hunting style (low swooping over the ground, rather than rapid dives). Unfortunately for the songbirds we’ve been hearing, much of the prairie falcon’s winter diet is the Western meadowlark, but we hope this one will focus more on our ground squirrel population. As with all falcons, the female is substantially larger than the male.

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Not at all how baguettes should look.

We live in a very immediate culture, and we want everything now – especially learning a new skill. And we like to pretend that everything turns out perfect every single time, even though there is no possible way that’s true. I bake fresh bread three or four times a week – thousands of loaves over the past decade – and a couple of weeks ago this was the result. The problem? I wasn’t paying attention, and I left the dough to proof on top of the stove, near where the pre-heating oven vented steam. Some of the dough ended up partially baked in the bowl; I’m just lucky that my favorite proofing container didn’t melt. I know better, but mistakes still happen. The lesson here? Not everything you produce in the kitchen will be perfect. But learn from your mistakes and try again, because it’s the only way to achieve anything worthwhile. (Also, don’t multi-task. It is productivity’s mortal enemy.)

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There is no way seven nails were needed to secure this little piece.

We’re in the midst of renovating a little cottage where we’ll eventually offer our classes. The cottage sat unloved for many years, and (understatement alert) it needs a lot of work. N spent days removing terrifying carpet and the accompanying tack strips, and now we’re tackling painting and flooring. In order to install the floor correctly we need to remove, clean and paint all of the baseboards; like so many DIY projects, this has expanded exponentially. One reason for this can be seen above: in a tiny, two-inch by two-inch piece of baseboard, seven nails held it to the wall. (One would have done it, seriously.) Because we’re trying our best to salvage the usable baseboard rather than spend hundreds of dollars on new product, we attempt to remove it carefully, instead of the pointlessly destructive “sledgehammer renovation” favored on so many home-improvement shows. This takes a lot of time. We often wish that we’d seen this house constructed – were workers given a bonus for using far more material than needed? As always, we’re learning a great deal about how not to do things as we progress.

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Currently on display in the workshop.

Have you ever had a project that you didn’t quite have the courage to tackle? One that sat in the corner and nagged and mocked you, because really it shouldn’t be that difficult to complete? Such was the situation for me, when years ago N asked me to stitch these little flag patches onto some of his old boat crew shirts to show the countries we’d visited each season. Two had already been completed by an excellent professional sewing shop back in England, and I just had to finish the remaining two, then render all four sturdy enough to hang neatly on the wall. I procrastinated because I was nervous about starting; these shirts are literally irreplaceable (the boats don’t even exist any longer) and t-shirt fabric is notoriously difficult to work with. I finally completed the project, but not without maddening wrong turns and many torn-out stitches along the way. I’m proud I took the time to sew them correctly, even if it meant redoing my work again and again until I got it right.

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A classic Chevrolet Camaro (Americanus musclii maximus).

And though you may think that N only spends his time photographing food and birds and renovation projects, his heart remains with his first love: classic cars. Of late he’s been doing quite a bit of photography for a high-end custom restoration shop, and back when we lived on the Front Range he drove and photographed some truly incredible machines when he shot for a luxury dealership. See more of his spectacular auto work here.

Coming soon: it’s almost time to start seeds! Have a lovely week, friends, and thanks for being here.

 

The best books about food

Apparently this country is electing a president this year and probably electing some other people too, though over here at Quiet Farm we’re doing our damnedest to ignore the entire circus. One thing that still surprises (and infuriates!) me immensely in every single election cycle is that we never, ever discuss national food policy. Neither side even mentions it in passing, unless a hotdish fundraiser happens. We talk about defense, and education, and occasionally the climate crisis, and of course health care, and yet we never discuss the single issue that unites every one of us, regardless of party affiliation. We never talk about the fact that if we changed our food system, we’d naturally change our health care system for the better. And that changing our food system would be a huge step towards repairing our devastated planet. Changing our food system would also mean more military readiness, since we’re now too fat to fight. And our children would gain a better education if they had access to better nutrition for growing brains and bodies. We always ignore the food, when it’s the one issue we should talk about more than any other.

To that end, we present to you today an opinionated round-up of the best books on food, none of which are cookbooks. Some are loving historical treatises on how food and cooking and eating used to be, and those are both beautiful and heartbreaking to read, because we’ve lost that and it isn’t coming back. Others are manifestos on our broken food system, and what we can do to change it. And others are simply writings about food for pleasure and enjoyment, and those might make you a better cook simply by osmosis.

(A more expansive reading list on food politics, with some duplicates from this post, can be found here, if that’s the direction you yearn to go.)

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An Everlasting Meal, Tamar Adler

“Cooking is both simpler and more necessary than we imagine. It has in recent years come to seem a complication to juggle against other complications, instead of what it can be – a clear path through them.” An Everlasting Meal isn’t exactly a cookbook, although it does include some deliberately vague sort-of recipe-ish suggestions. What it does better than almost any other book on food, however, is teach you how to live fully in the kitchen, how to enjoy your time there, how to make your food your own. It teaches comfort and care and, as indicated in its subtitle, it teaches about cooking with economy and grace. Adler’s writing shimmers; my copy is filled with little sticky tabs to mark the most gorgeous phrases. We’ve now made the act of cooking so unreasonably difficult and pretentious and full of rules, and this lovely book reminds us that there’s no need for all that fuss. Just cook something simple, for yourself or for others, and enjoy it. That’s the whole secret.

A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway – truly the original bro! – is known more for his drinking and bullfighting and womanizing and fishing. But he loved food, too, and nowhere in his works is this better reflected than in A Moveable Feast, a bittersweet memoir of his time as a struggling young writer in Paris. Because I too learned to love food in Paris, this book holds a special place in my heart, so much so that I named my first company after it. I read not long ago that after the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, this book sold out of every bookstore in the city; I understand why. For a snapshot of a rich time and place that most of us never knew and will never see again, A Moveable Feast isn’t to be missed.

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Anything by M.F.K. Fisher and Elizabeth David

If you want to read about the true lost joys of eating and drinking, the thrill of finding the first wild strawberries at the farmers’ market, how to cook defiantly when pantries are bare, or the pleasure of gathering at the table for hours with wine and conversation and friends, you can do no better than M.F.K. Fisher and Elizabeth David. Fisher was American and David was English, so they bring remarkably different cultural backgrounds to the table, but their writing is luminous. Both women address the bleakness of the edible landscape during and after war; David’s writings about food and eating and cooking in sunny southern Europe after escaping the sorrowful grey dampness of post-war Britain practically sing with warmth and sunshine. Any of their works will suffice, but I recommend How to Cook a Wolf and An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. This is writing to take you out of our current situation, and that’s a blessing.

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The Third Plate, Dan Barber

Dan Barber is currently working harder than any other chef in America to change the way we grow and raise food. Though his restaurants (Blue Hill in NYC and Blue Hill at Stone Barns just outside the city) aren’t exactly egalitarian, his policy work and his commitment to reducing food waste are laudable. The Third Plate eloquently argues that in order to transform our food system we simply have to move away from our traditional, resource-intensive, CAFO-based “meat and potatoes” diet and find the place where good farming and good cooking intersect. Oh, and he started a seed company, too.

Anything by Julia Child

Read anything by Julia Child, and you’ll begin to understand the meaning of persistence. Child came to her fame relatively late in life – she only enrolled in culinary school in her late 30s – and she wanted more than anything for Americans to love good food and to love cooking. Julia Child transformed the American food scene more than any other person, and though her cookbooks are of course classics, her other writing deserves a careful look, too. My Life in France details the formative years she and her husband Paul spent in Europe, where Julia learned to cook at Le Cordon Bleu (my alma mater!), and you can see her passion for food and cooking grow exponentially every day. As Always, Julia, a book of heartfelt letters between friends, is also worth a read.

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Animal Vegetable Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver

I know of at least two other small farmers who began their farming journey by reading this book, and I’m sure there are many more. Kingsolver and her family relocate from Arizona to their family farm in Kentucky and chronicle a year of “food life.” In 2017 the book was re-released in a ten-year anniversary edition, and in the decade-plus since its publication its theme has become more relevant than ever. Ultimately this book is gentle and kind and yet still effectively conveys the important message that our individual decisions do matter, and that we can change the entrenched system if enough of us choose to act.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan

If you choose to read one single book about food, make it this one. No one else has done more to elucidate food policy in the U.S. than Pollan, and all of his books are worth reading. His book Cooked is another stellar choice that focuses more on the simple yet somehow immensely complicated act of cooking, which most of us have given up. I vote Pollan for president in 2024! You heard it here first.

It’s still winter out there, so grab a quilt and a mug of strong tea and a book and settle in by the fire. And if you have additional suggestions for our list, please share in the comments below. Happy reading, friends.

“I don’t know how things are going in your world but it’s cold and people’s nerves seem a little shot and sensitive. Go make a pot of something good and invite someone you like over. It beats yelling at the TV alone.” -Steve Sando, Rancho Gordo

Winter on the farm

In nautical terminology, “the doldrums” refer to an actual place – waters near the Equator where sailing ships were often stuck for days or weeks in windless seas. In common parlance, however, the doldrums mean “a state or period of stagnation, inactivity or depression.” And so here we are in deepest winter.

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Our dormant raised beds, slumbering under snow.

Although this winter hasn’t been nearly as snowy as last year, we’ve definitely descended into the grey gloom of February. We are so lucky here in Colorado to have blue sky days more often than not, but perhaps our reliance upon those blue skies means that the unrelenting greyness affects us more. We’re glad we opted not to settle in Oregon. (#sorrynotsorry, Oregon.)

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It’s like a real-life nature program.

Snowy ground means it’s much easier to see who (or what) might be creeping around our property under cover of darkness. Birds, rabbits, coyotes, deer, feral cats, foxes and more have all made their presence known; although neighbors have claimed that mountain lions are “common” here, we’ve still never seen any evidence.

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The hens don’t venture out when there is snow on the ground.

The aforementioned coyote and fox tracks are often spotted near the chicken house. After a vicious fox attack last summer, however, we fortified the run and thankfully haven’t lost any more birds. We remain ever vigilant; these predators are far craftier than they’re given credit for.

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Can we call this a shot of wild turkey?

To the north of Quiet Farm you’ll find a road called Wild Turkey Lane, and it’s aptly named. Wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) typically travel in flocks (unlike this solo adventurer above), and they’re pretty common in our area. Although the wild turkey is native to North America, they were introduced to Britain via Spanish trade routes and were therefore incorrectly associated with the country Turkey, hence the name. And urban legend claims that Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey as America’s national bird, rather than the bald eagle, but that tale seems to be mostly fluff.

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Our animal corral, awaiting goats or perhaps a milk cow?

There isn’t much that can be done outside in winter. We have only the chickens to care for right now, and they simply need fresh water, ample food and clean bedding. Raising livestock in winter is not for the faint-of-heart; no matter the weather, hay might need to be brought in, animals could need to be moved to winter pasture, and dairy goats or cows would still need to be milked regularly, unless they’d been dried off. Livestock is a full-on commitment that we’re not quite ready for just yet.

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A red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) in an abandoned apple orchard. 

One upside of winter is that birds are much easier to spot in bare trees! We have a strong and varied raptor population here; of late we’ve been watching both an adult female and a juvenile Northern harrier hawk (Circus cyaneus) hunting over our pastures in early afternoon, though we don’t have any photos yet. (The Harrier Jump-Jet, developed by British aeronautics company Hawker Siddeley in the 1960s, was named for this bird.) We definitely want to encourage raptors at our farm to keep our excessive rodent situation under control.

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Hopefully our nascent orchard will survive the winter.

Last spring we planted fifty fruit trees on our property, both native plum and Nanking cherry. We babied these trees with plenty of water and coddling all last year, and we’re very much hoping for new growth on the trees come spring.

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Cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) outside our kitchen.

At the moment, winter seems endless. But there are signs of life everywhere if we look hard enough – new grasses sprouting, the ground softening and thawing, the sunlight arriving earlier and earlier. And soon enough, it will be spring and the earth will come back to life and it will be time to plant again. We must remember to be fully present in the season we’re in, and not always wish for the future. It will come in good time.

How to make hummus

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It’s no secret that we here at Quiet Farm are big fans of the humble bean. We’ve discussed this before, of course; beans are high in protein and fiber, both of which help keep you full longer and keep your digestive tract functioning properly. If you’re looking to eat less meat, beans make a terrific whole-food alternative (unlike many of the processed soy patties now masquerading as meat). They’re cheap, easily available, store forever in the pantry, simple to cook and often local; it’s no wonder I make a pot of beans every three or four days.

Today, though, let’s talk hummus. There are a few foods that I firmly believe will always be better when you make them yourself – for me, that’s granola, yogurt and hummus. Of course you can easily buy all of these things at the grocery store, but hummus is surprisingly expensive for what it contains, and it will take you all of ten minutes to make a batch. You might find yourself making a batch once a week. And it’s so simple that hopefully you’ll read this entire post before realizing that I managed to avoid giving you a recipe…because hummus is more of a concept than a true recipe.

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Floor plan

Who remembers way, way back in April when we purchased beetle-kill planks for the master bedroom and closet? Not us. And who remembers back when building and installing custom bookshelves was the trickiest project we had taken on? Apparently we forgot about that, too. Let us say frankly that laying this pine flooring is by far the most infuriating, the most frustrating, the most demoralizing task we’ve ever tackled here at Quiet Farm. Oh, I know I say this about every project but I am not joking here.

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The planks are “curing.” (They’ve been abandoned in favor of other projects.)

The best thing about this flooring project is 1. it’s finished (mostly) and 2. we learned so, so much about flooring and our own tolerance for suffering. It’s such an honorable, martyr-ish, humble-brag thing to talk about how you renovated your entire antique farmhouse yourself, but this project was truly the closest we’ve come to calling in a professional to bail us out of the mess we’d created. But since you’re already here, friends – who doesn’t like to read about other people’s DIY trauma? – let’s share what we’ve learned.

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Best diet hack ever!

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It’s January, and in America at least, that means New Year’s resolutions. Gyms are packed. Whole Foods is packed. Juice bars are packed. “Revolutionary” diet books and “foolproof” programs and “guaranteed” supplements and exorbitantly expensive electronic bikes are winging their way to doorsteps across the country even as we speak. And for what, dear friends? Although “get healthy” and “lose weight” are by far the most common resolutions, numerous studies have shown that over 80% of all resolutions are abandoned somewhere in February, if not sooner. The problem isn’t the resolution itself – it’s the way most of us go about it.

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In this country, we are nothing if not dietary extremists. We go vegan or Paleo or gluten-free on impulse, or because we think everyone else is doing it. We blindly subscribe to the latest social media-fueled/celebrity-endorsed “health” trend. (Looking at you, celery juice.) We ignore moderation as a lifestyle entirely, and instead fixate on the newest, shiniest trick that promises to make us better, healthier and twenty pounds lighter. But why haven’t the fifty previous sparkly tricks worked? Because all of those glittering promises are built on quick fixes and short-term solutions, not on building a lifetime of habits. Let’s be honest – anyone can stick to pretty much anything for a week or two, maybe even a month or six weeks. Eat more salads? No problem. Cut back on alcohol? Easy. Go full-on keto? Tougher, but still manageable.

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Farm update: January 6

Hello there, and a very happy new year to you and yours. If you’re here for the first time, welcome! If you’re returning after our hiatus, thanks for coming back! We look forward to sharing a new year of food and farm adventures with you.

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Our updated Snow Management Plan in action!

Last winter – our first winter at Quiet Farm – our area received an unprecedented amount of snow. Our inaugural Snow Management Plan was…ineffective, shall we say; we had no tractor and no plow and no way of getting out of our quarter-mile driveway with a foot of snow on the ground. At one point, we resorted to begging a friend with a truck to flatten the snow by driving up and down our lane so we could at least leave the farm (thanks, Joe!). Needless to say, that was not a sustainable long-term solution.

This winter we haven’t had nearly as much snow, but we do have a plan – a detachable plow for our ATV. And so far, the ATV plow has worked like a champion. We’re even thinking of purchasing other implements for the ATV, so that we can use it like a mini-tractor, since we’ve been unsuccessful in finding a reasonably-priced midsize tractor to manage our pasture. Stay tuned.

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On hiatus

Over the next eight weeks (at least in the U.S.), we’ll careen wildly from one overwrought celebration to another. From a holiday where we decorate with fresh, healthy vegetables but celebrate with cheap processed candy (while leaving the vegetables to rot in the landfill) to a holiday where we throw away the equivalent of fourteen million turkeys to a holiday predicated entirely upon excessive spending, consumption, packaging and waste, the next two months are a difficult and challenging time of year for many people – including us.

And thus Finding Quiet Farm is on hiatus for the rest of 2019, though we’ll stay busy. We’re going to bundle up, hunker down and get to work on all sorts of interesting tasks, both indoors and out. We’ll be back in the new year with farm updates, lots of book recommendations, a detailed tutorial on making your own delicious meatless burgers and photos of all our projects. We’ll be quiet and productive and we’ll skip the holidays entirely, thanks very much.

Take good care of yourselves, friends, and cook something tasty and nourishing. We hope to see you back here in 2020.

Farm update: October 21

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The south lawn of our house makes a peaceful resting spot.

Is it autumn where you live? Is it crisp and cool with bright scarlet and gold leaves everywhere? Is it dark when you wake up in the morning? It is here, and we’re settling into this brief transition season before winter extends its icy grip. Much of our work these days involves cleaning, tidying, preserving, covering and generally setting things in place for the colder months. We try to take advantage of these bluebird fall days for as long as we can; once the snows come, we won’t be working outside much.

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Growing garlic takes forever, but it’s worth the wait.

Ninety of this season’s largest garlic cloves have been planted in a bed newly prepared with lots of rich compost. Last year’s garlic went into an existing cinderblock bed that was here when we moved in; a few weeks ago we broke that bed down and dispersed the soil into new trenches for garlic and asparagus. The cloves will slumber quietly here over the winter, and in the spring we’ll hopefully see green garlic peeking up through mulch and snow. Every year we’ll plant more and more garlic; we eat a lot of it, of course, but since garlic adapts to its unique environment, we want a generous quantity to save for planting.

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The water runs through a culvert underneath our driveway and out into our pasture. You can see our flume in the upper right.

We ran our irrigation water for the first time this season, and it went surprisingly well. Our pasture isn’t planted right now so the irrigation run was more of an experiment to see how the water would move through our gated pipe system. We own shares in a local creek that pulls water from reservoirs on the Grand Mesa; when we want to run water we order a certain amount for a certain period and that water is deducted from our account. This run was for two days (forty-eight hours straight!) and it requires a lot of hands-on management, mainly opening and closing gates manually in the big pipes. When we’re more comfortable with our irrigation we won’t need to babysit it as much, but we’re unleashing hundreds of thousands of gallons of water mere feet from our house, and we definitely want to pay close attention to where it’s going.

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Our tomato crop redeemed itself after a rocky start.

We harvested all of our vegetables prior to our recent hard freeze and brought in just over one hundred pounds of green, unripe tomatoes. In the past I’ve never had good luck ripening tomatoes indoors, but for whatever reason these are ripening quite well. They’re no longer good to eat fresh – the overnight temperatures dropped too low, so the tomatoes taste as though they’ve been refrigerated – but they’re perfect for sauces, soups and purees. A pantry stocked with canned homegrown tomatoes is a winter gift indeed.

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One of our little saplings, hopefully protected from winter weather (and deer). 

We’ve hustled recently to layer all of our fruit tree saplings with warm winter mulch. Some of our little trees look healthy and others are…struggling. We’re hopeful that the mulch blanket will keep the trees protected from our harsh winter weather, since their root systems are likely to still be quite delicate. One of our priority spring projects next year will be to put a drip irrigation system in the orchard so we can stop watering the trees by hand.

We’re back to work, friends. We wish you a good week.

 

Save our seeds

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Our first hard frost is forecast this week, so there is much to be done. In addition to lots of canning and preserving, autumn on a small homestead means saving seeds. We’ve talked about the importance of seed saving previously, and each season we’re working on expanding our seed bank. Never before has it been so important to save our own seeds and thereby take responsibility for our own food supply; as seed companies are again and again snapped up by massive agrochemical conglomerates, our control of our own seeds – our fundamental birthright, and the source of our food supply – becomes ever more tenuous.

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Most lettuces and other salad greens encase their seeds in little windblown puffballs.

As I wrote in our previous seed post, “Today, nearly three-quarters of all seeds planted in the U.S. – both unmodified and genetically engineered varieties – are privately owned and controlled by three large agrichemical corporations. Growing food is a basic human right, and we are quickly moving towards a future in which we will no longer own the source of our food. Lack of food leads to hunger, which leads to unrest, which leads to revolution, which leads to profitable wars benefitting those same corporations. Building our own seed banks, even if technically illegal, means we still have some say in our food supply. Seed saving is a small but powerful act of resistance.”

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