I wrote the following piece for the Garbanzo Gazette, which is a quarterly publication put out by the Whole Foods Co-op for its 12,000+ members. I’m sharing it here, because it contains the germ of a critical message I’m continually working on in life and in my upcoming book.
Here’s a 48-second video I filmed just 3 days ago, during winter’s last gasp, that makes a swell introduction:
A decade ago, when I became a Whole Foods Co-op member (WFC), I was trapped in cubicle-land. Years spent working as a virtual beast of burden resulted in nothing physically tangible. Also, my connection with the community felt tenuous.
Joining the WFC felt exotic. You all seemed so weird and interesting! The escape from a sterile, corporate, beige and gray existence, was a true breath of fresh air.
Along the way I lost my “secure” job, and bumbled along for quite some time, completely at a loss for how to express my weirdness in a way that might be of some value. In the midst of the darkest point of a midlife crisis, the December 2015 Garbanzo Gazette arrived in our mailbox.
While searching for some spark of interest, I turned to an inspiring story about Max Organics, a former producer, which essentially boiled down to, “Grow food. Ride bike.”
The profile about a 16-year-old urban farmer who creatively marketed his garlic at WFC landed on extremely fertile ground. I was mired in the deepest depression of my life while unemployed and at a loss for prospects, and enduring a week of rain during an absurdly mild December. After devouring the short story I got off the couch and drove to the Whole Foods Co-op for this special garlic.
The store was unfortunately sold out of Max’s hyperlocal option, so I obtained help from the produce manager, Nick Sarris, who cheerfully appeared at my request, and proceeded down a deep-dive of nerd-level, Portlandia-type questions about where the garlic came from, varietal options, etc. Little did I know that I’d soon develop a working relationship with this affable fellow.
After our conversation I returned home with singular purpose, and in an act of desperation submerged 14 individual cloves into cold, saturated black dirt. Pulling back a layer of rotting leaves to reveal my canvas, I came upon what Aristotle describes as, “The intestines of the earth,” an earthworm, which wriggled and writhed like a sea serpent brought up from the deep. Kneeling as a supplicant in the very depth of a midlife crisis, as the rain continued to pour down, I was planting hope. Somewhat akin to the effect of Jack’s magic beans, at roughly the same moment those tender green shoots emerged in March of 2016, I knew what I wanted to do with my life.
All 14 cloves had sprung up from the soil in a remarkable display of nature’s vigor and vitality in the face of this gardener’s paucity of knowledge and experience. Growing food really can be as simple as putting seeds into the soil and walking away, a valuable lesson in not overthinking a process that nature has largely perfected.
I had always equated farming with major acreage, tractors, and debt, none of which were available to me. We live in the city proper, and my wife has no desire to leave. Rather than grumble about the circumstances, I resolved to farm anyway.
As it turned out, an intransigent wife was key to our success, because we launched into the endeavor without incurring generational debt, while transforming lawns that other people didn’t need into growing space.
I started out with a wide array of crops, including chickens on pasture just outside of town. Desperation, such as when our only vehicle blew an engine AND transmission, prodded me to relentlessly follow the 80/20 rule, and focus on the 20% of crops that produced 80% of income. Thus, extremely difficult circumstances eliminated the luxury of settling for a slow grind toward poverty.
Three years at the Duluth Farmers Market helped hone exactly what I was capable of growing sustainably, and what the public was willing to pay for. We’ve since focused on WFC as our primary market, for the sake of additional family time, and so I may continue to write books. Oddly enough, though reluctant to write about myself, I’m a memoirist with a second book nearing completion.
Tiny Farm Duluth now focuses exclusively on microgreens. I’m beyond fortunate to grow these nutritional powerhouses in a south-facing grow room a mere 30 feet from where my wife creates beautiful paintings, and somewhat adjacent to my writing space. As such, we’ve found a way for our innate collection of weirdnesses to flower, and thus add value to the community in our own unique ways. This is a household economy that produces items of tangible value that are appreciated with the aid of all five senses.
Our kids are finishing out childhood while experiencing exactly what it is that keeps their family afloat. This was sorely lacking in career 1.0, so I’m grateful for depression, hard times, the Garbanzo Gazette, and of course, the Whole Foods Co-op’s shoppers and member/owners, for making this seemingly impossible existence possible.
Check out the link I provided to the original story I wrote about Max Organics and family. I probably wouldn’t have thought of reaching out to Max if the Co-op hadn’t been out of his garlic. I spent an afternoon at their beautiful home in early January, and went deep down the rabbit hole of their story, which even includes the founding of Duluth Trading Company, amazingly enough, as a kind of consolation prize in lieu of Duluth-grown garlic seed. (FYI, complex sentences like this last one with multiple commas are starting to make me crazy! When I wrote my own story in the Garbanzo Gazette I picked this out as a glaring weakness in my writing. Sigh…)
Long story short, the act of tracing out Max and family’s story changed my life. It never would have happened if the Co-op wasn’t out of his garlic, or if I hadn’t indulged the highly irregular, but overwhelming, desire to sink 14 cloves of garlic into the ground on a rainy day in December. Isn’t that crazy?????????????
So, indulge your weirdnesses! Do it today.