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Peace Be in You

Inside the belly of Boise's most conscientious farm

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(L-R) Roya, volunteering at Peaceful Belly for three days, Josie Erskine and some kid. - FRANCIS DELAPENA
  • Francis Delapena
  • (L-R) Roya, volunteering at Peaceful Belly for three days, Josie Erskine and some kid.

Contrite about not having returned my call, a colleague recently explained his oversight with an old colloquialism. He said he had been running around like a chicken with his head cut off. I had just that morning toured Peaceful Belly Farm and heard Josie Erskine's tender descriptions of her various fowl and their respective quirks, so I winced. Had he seen an aproned and loving grandmother grab a squawking bird, hatchet its head on a tree stump, and hold it at arm's length as it continued to flail? Not a pretty memory, but the subsequent fried chicken suppers on a knoll over western Iowa farm country had mercifully supplanted that ugly vision.

Clay and Josie Erskine, with the enthusiastic assistance of their three-year-old daughter Daisy, tend orchards, grow vegetables, fatten chickens, and gather eggs on a four-acre plot at the corner of Hill Road and Castle Drive. During my visit, we clucked ever so tactfully about a woman who exclaimed surprise that commercial hamburger dills had begun their sourpuss lives as cucumbers. We discussed the respective attitudes of children brought up around growing things and those who haven't imagined that even a fast food meal was derived from agriculture. And we agreed that we don't eat things we can't pronounce.

In a recent Organic Gardening essay, Wendell Berry mourned the disconnect that has grown between "responsible eating" and passive consumption. He describes our condition as one of "cultural amnesia." Given that Idaho's population, more rural than many, is still about 67 percent urban, the forgetfulness is understandable. My generation was the first off the farm in my family, but we were a little slow. The 1910 census showed 46 percent of the population in urban life. By 1920, an additional 5 percent had moved to town, thereby transforming the majority status of country dwellers to that of a minority.

As a baby boomer brought up in town with frequent visits to the rural relatives, my diet history is a fair representation of our cultural culinary diversity. There were two vegetable gardens on my block: our small one, and the immensely rich and varied cornucopia on the corner. Mrs. Harsha was extremely old (probably about my age now), and tended her plot nearly all day every day from February through October. Iowa soil is black and folks there depend on rain for most of their irrigation, but she drug a hose as needed. She gave us rhubarb stalks that we dipped in grubby palms of either sugar or salt, but we still imagined her to be a witch.

We moved to Denver about the time McDonald's became ubiquitous, and I was an anomaly then, as now, for my disdain for grease-to-go, and my preference for fresh veggies such as those I had enjoyed at home. Even through my gypsy years, I usually tended a tomato in a pot or near my apartment building, and my discovery of the Hyde Park Co-op was a fine moment upon our arrival in Boise. But then, like so many in a world that comes at us from phones and computers and families and employers and screaming media, I became dependent upon someone else's willingness to till and toil.

There have been a few farmer's markets over Boise's past couple of decades, and recidivist farm girls like me have purchased quantities of tomatoes and peaches to can, blueberries and corn to freeze, and local honey for afternoon tea. Hopeful visits to the proliferation of produce stands have been disappointing ,as I've found a paucity of anything "organic" but a plenitude of edibles transported from afar. A conventional tomato travels 1,569 miles from farm to market. An average head of lettuce has earned 1,823 miles. And the typical American meal is prepared with ingredients from at least five foreign nations, possibly because over the past 50 years, 219 U.S. farms per day were closed or subsumed by larger enterprises.

The term "organic farming" dates to 1940, when a gentleman by the name of Lord Northbourne sang the praises of biodynamic methods as a "vision of the farm as a sustainable, ecologically stable, self-contained unit, biologically complete and balanced." Research into the harmful effects of pesticides and the antibiotics used in the production of mass meats may be "inconclusive," to borrow a phrase from the Bush bunch's rebuttals of global warming, but it seems safe to state that they're not beneficial to anyone but the producer's bank. The government's benign attention to these matters, with consumers' health surely taking precedence over Big Ag's expectations, may have standardized some terms, if not actual practices.

Josie Erskine defines "sustainable agriculture" as a practice that would enable her children and grandchildren to use the same land as she had, since its quality would not have been harmed by applications that decreased fertility or increased toxicity. She confesses to purloining bags of leaves from the North End for the compost that is applied yearly at a rate of one cubic yard per bed. Compost actually does "just happen," but it's a lot like the two generous servings derived from steaming a cubic foot bag of spinach: A great deal of time and material goes into the eventual reward of a small but valuable commodity.

My visit to the funky and picturesque operation occurred during a period of intense harvest, because the Capital City Public Market was to begin its 2006 season the next day. Spinach and other greens were clipped, washed and bagged. Tender baby turnips were pulled and bunched. Radishes of an exquisite color range glowed pearlescent on the draining trays at the outdoor kitchen center. Arugula flowers were snipped to adorn a brilliant assortment of lettuce salad greens, and the fragrance of spring scallions made me salivate vinaigrette. Nestled under the protective cover of straw and row cloth are the jewels of summer: tomatoes with poetic and lyrical names and stories. Josie told me about a seed which had been carried over the Trail of Tears. She pointed to the area down by the Farmer's Union Canal, from whence the farm's water is drawn, and spoke expectantly of the corn and squash that would be harvested over months to come. The smell of earth was pungent and aromatic, ripe with promise.

Agriculture of the type that creates crops like these is as attentive to the soil as to the produce it nourishes. Healthy soil is a living entity, made rich and workable by a diverse and fecund population of microbes. Boise's Edwards Greenhouses, for example, say they are committed to a new organics program not because Boiseans eat many ornamentals, but because plants grown in living soil do better. Leaving the soil alive and flourishing is the ethical and forward-thinking goal of an increasing number of growers.

There are several ways to nourish and improve soil, not the least of which is to avoid the application of various killing agents. In a safe and unthreatening habitat, earthworms and creatures the eye can't see eat organic matter, such as leaves, roots, shedded plant debris, and the excrement of others in the community. Their travels open up tight spaces, enhancing the gas exchange and water and nutrient movements so necessary to healthy plant development. Bring on the chickens.

Josie showed me a flock of baby chicks she had just purchased, and explained how they would earn their keep as "teenagers." At about four weeks, this bunch would be relocated to a moveable coop that Clay hitches to a tractor and drags incrementally through the growing fields. Surrounded by an electric fence, necessary to protect the flock from marauding predators, this prolific mobile ecosystem eats creatures that live in the soil and have nefarious plans to emerge at a later date and attack the orchard. They chow down on grass, too, so birds get fat on this omnivore smorgasbord. They will be marketed as whopping eight-pound roasters in late summer or early fall, Lord willin' and if the fence holds.

This, however, is not to be the fate of the favored member of this entourage. It seems that short-sighted people who purchase baby chicks and rabbits for their children grow weary of the soil nutrients that extrude from the back side of these adorable pets. Oh, what to do then? Drop them off somewhere. Anywhere. What? Yes, Josie says, her gentle pet rooster had been rescued from a windshield downtown.

She was similarly affectionate as she showed me the hen who had discovered in herself a trait that Josie believes has been nearly bred out of chickens: brooding. Unlike the brooding I do at 3 AM when I want to sleep, fowl mothers must sit down on fertile eggs and stay there until there's movement beneath them. Probably not certain why she was forgoing food and water, Mama Hen sat stubbornly until Josie acquired some fertile eggs to justify her selfless act. The blessed event was due on Good Friday.

Smitten with her feathered friends, I asked if she could identify with a story I had read about a family who couldn't eat chickens they had named. Josie said that she hadn't seen misgivings in even little Daisy, and that it seemed that a mutually respectful relationship developed among creatures raised with care and dedication and the humans who tended them.

Approximately 100 families stand to gain from this enlightened approach to the responsible eating Wendell Berry advocates. Community Supported Agriculture is a program that endows the growers with operating capital and consumers with a dependable supply of ethically grown food. The Erskines regret that the demand exceeds the supply. They feel profound disappointment when they must decline applications from individuals with health issues or young children whose small bodies make them most susceptible to the harmful effects of chemicals.

The Erskine family is involved with a group called Rural Roots. Boise Weekly readers may recall a write-up from February highlighting seminars, a keynote speaker, and tours focused on operations similar to Peaceful Belly's. These organizations can provide data on the beneficial impacts to local economies, environmental quality, community support, education, and other elements from food production conducted with attention to sustainability. Big Ag isn't entirely indifferent to these issues. Josie says she thought they had made the big time when the University of Idaho invited her colleagues to help commercial spud growers improve the marketability of their chemical dependent methods. I might have been struck dumb at that juncture.

Peaceful Belly, named during Josie's pregnancy as the U.S. commenced its invasion of Afghanistan, produces food to nourish the body with a spirit that nourishes the soul. They welcome the help of an occasional intern or volunteer, but their product is largely the fruit of the Erskines' labor, and may be purchased at the Capital City Market, the Boise Consumer Coop, and two local restaurants, Andrae's and Red Feather.

My kids are grown and gone, and I have nearly as much strength and energy as old Mrs. Harsha. I will grow some raspberries and squash, fight the squirrels for my eggplants, and train pole beans through the metal WWII tarmac base that serves as a fence on the south side. I will continue to buy only organic potatoes, and corn from whatever roadside pickup I spot before it's too late to make a U-turn on Highway 44. I will join the hundreds who think the downtown Capital City Market is the place to be on Saturday mornings. I will purchase tomato and pepper starts on Mother's Day weekend from Josie, Daisy, and Clay as I hum Guy Clark's old song: "Only two things money can't buy ... That's true love and homegrown tomatoes." Tomatoes birthed at Peaceful Belly are expressions of the truest love.

Contact Peaceful Belly Farms at 345-8003 or peacefulbelly@yahoo.com.