Tips for Growing your Victory Garden

If you’ve been thinking about starting a Corona Victory Garden, I am writing to say, it isn’t too late in the season! No matter where you live or your climate, you can always plant seeds and enjoy the freshest produce you’ve ever tasted. No matter how much experience or space you have, you can grow a garden and your farmer is here to help you get started.

I started gardening like an adult with three roommates in 2011. Our landlord allowed us to garden in the front and back. Our motto was “food, not lawns!” The neighbors had mixed feelings until they started finding bags of produce on their porches.

The garden we grew (below) is, well, not the tidiest. You can do better than we did in that department. Or you can go wild with the rain barrels and the corn patch and sunflowers.

Before: Prepping the front yard garden with my roommates.
After: Our garden in full production.

I want to help you garden

A big part of what I want to do at the farm in 2020 is host gardening workshops and classes. I finally have enough experience to share with you all! I hosted a terrific class in early this year (before Coronavirus made it dangerous to do so) with 25 people in attendance, even on a snowy, cold day. I wish I could be hosting more classes right now during the peak of our camas bloom, but alas. Instead, I am hosting regular Zoom meetings, called “Garden Hour with Nella Mae,” where I answer your garden questions. Check out my calendar or Facebook page for the next Garden Hour as well as on-farm classes once it is safe to host them again. I am also trying to get your questions answered with this blog. Please let me know what topics you’d like to see.

Choosing Your Seeds

Check out my earlier blog post about reading a seed catalog. Even if you’re buying seeds off the rack at the hardware store, this will help you understand a lot of vocabulary.

Also, check out my resources page for handouts I’ve made for early/beginning gardening, irrigation, and more.

seed catalogs

Prepping your soil

I have had great luck turning over sod at rental houses (with permission mostly) and getting a productive garden in year one. There is a lot to say about prepping your soil, but the most important thing is to add organic matter (dry, fluffy compost) each season and to avoid compacting your soil by tilling or walking on it when it is wet.

My next blog post will be about prepping and amending garden soil, but for now, check out this article in Mother Earth News for some tips.

Tips for starting your garden

1. Start with the “tried & trues.”

If you’re new to gardening, don’t start with asparagus or blueberries. Start with the “tried & true” crops that are easy to grow and you can eat this season. (Asparagus and blueberries take a few years to produce a crop and have finicky soil requirements.) I suggest starting with these crops.

  • Roots- Radishes & beets
  • Greens- Spinach, lettuce & kale
  • Herbs- Cilantro & basil
  • Fruits- Tomatoes & cucumbers

I suggest buying tomato and basil plants to transplant into your garden because they are susceptible to frost. I suggest waiting until after June 15th in northeast Oregon to plant out these plants due to frost. Everything else you can “direct seed” into your soil now. You can also direct seed basil seed in June for continuous harvest.

Carrots can be tricky. They need careful monitoring and watering during germination. if you are careful with

2. It ain’t gotta be fancy!

Don’t think you need to buy expensive boxes or expensive seed or expensive tools. Start small with what you have and make improvements and changes year by year. Grab that old dresser marked “free” on the sidewalk and use the drawers to make planter boxes. Use the hoses and sprinklers you’ve got and add to your irrigation system as you go. It is better to see how things work first and buy things to match your needs.

At our rental house there was a broken hot tub when we moved in. We didn’t have a truck to haul it away, so we filled it with soil, made a glass lid and gardened in it when it was snowy. You might have a higher sense of decorum than I did in my early 20’s, but the point is, use what you have!

You can see the hot tub greenhouse at the bottom of the photo.

3. Grow what you actually eat.

There is something about the possibility that seeds embody that makes us loose our heads. Universally, we buy too much seed. We buy things we don’t actually eat because they are intriguing.  Just stick to five or 10 crops you actual eat on a weekly basis. This will also mean you actually save money on food.

Tomatoes from my 2011 garden.

4. Plant in succession

Beginning gardeners don’t realize that planting is an ongoing activity, not a one time thing. At the farm we plant on Wednesdays all season long. We plant greens every other week ensure a continuous supply and replant crops that we pulled out or that were not vigorous. The same week we pull broccoli, we’re putting new broccoli starts right back in. In planning your succession, choose varieties that are “early,” “main season,” “heat tolerant,” and “overwintering” to take you through the whole season and into next spring.

5. Weeding

Weeding never ends, but it is also seasonal. You will have more weeds in the early spring, so focus more weeding time then. Devout an hour or two a week, but if things get away from you, it is ok. You can recover.

My weeding philosophy is this: there will always be weeds; there will always be new species of weeds; take it one day at a time; enjoy the meditative process; get the roots; keep them from going to flower or seed; there is an ebb and flow to weeds–it isn’t static.

The weeds got away from us this year in a few lettuce beds, but we plugged away and spent some quality family time pulling them.

6. Watering

Different plants need different amounts of water. As a general rule, deep rooted plants like tomatoes and peppers need water less often for longer. Shallow rooted plants need water more often for less time. It is best to water in the morning or at night rather than the heat of the day. The hotter it is, the more water needed. Seeds need constant moist soil to get started.

7. Make your experiments small.

It is fun to try strange or new plants. Do it! Enjoy your experiments but focus on your main eating crops. Our rule on the farm is we only allow 10 percent of time and space to be spent on experiments. This year’s experiments include a row of fava beans, a row of bulbing fennel, a row of cress, and some new varieties of herbs including saltwort, cumin and leaf celery.

Best of luck!

Your grateful farmer,

Nella Mae

Screen Shot 2020-05-18 at 9.05.07 AM
The summer bounty in our garden in 2011.

Food is for eating & enjoying–not wasting

“The best thing we can do with food is to eat and enjoy it–not waste it.”

This is the message Tristram Stuart delivers in his TED Talk about food waste. His presentation and the fact that more people are at home cooking during the COVID outbreak put me to thinking a lot more about food waste lately. I want to share some stories and encourage everyone to appreciate food more by wasting less.


Lessons on Food Waste

Growing up on a farm, we wasted very little food. We had pigs, chickens, and compost to feed our waste. As a child, I slopped the animals. I watched my dad delight at the steam coming off the compost pile in the winter. Over the years through the people I’ve met and the places I’ve been, I’ve learned a lot more about how to enjoy and fully use food.

1. Ecuador: I remember watching my host mother, Margarita, crack and egg and wipe the whites out of the shell with her finger to get every last bit. I remember thinking how much sense that made–it shows respect for the value of the food and it is cleaner than dragging strings of egg white across your counter. But I wondered: why have I never seen someone do this before?

2. Other kitchens: After every meal preparation, my friend Rossi would gather up all the naked rosemary stalks, celery tops, potato peelings, bones, shrimp peelings and other things I would put in the compost or trash. He would zip it all into a bag and pop it in the freezer. During the weekend he would use these scraps to make stock. Only after squeezing every last nutrient and flavor molecule out of the scraps would he compost them. Again, I thought, why have I never seen this before?

3. Foods we look down on: When you travel outside your country, you see that in many places other folks eat with less waste. People in the US often look down on the food culture of other people, but as omnivores, our extreme squeamishness about some foods seems silly. In travel I’ve seen whole fish served with the head on–people eat the eyeball and cheek meat first because they are the most tender. Margarita cooked dishes with every kind of organ meat–tongue, pancreas, liver, heart–to show me I had prissy food assumptions. I have learned I like broiled beef tongue and pancreas stew. I learned from rancher friends Andrea and Tony Malmberg that “the heart is just another muscle” and barbecued it is amazing. (Unfortunately, I haven’t come to love liver yet, but I always save the beef livers from our beeves and find people who love liver. It is a real treat for them.)

4. Ashley’s Roadside Oranges: Last week local artist Ashley Barnes drove upon a pile of oranges that had fallen off a truck. Ashley is quite a cook and baker, so she collected them and took them home. Although they were past their prime, she peeled them, dried them and made orange powder for baking and cooking with. Where others saw trash, she saw an opportunity. I’m with Ashley. I am known to dodge traffic on Cabbage Hill for roadside potatoes and onions.



Why Food Waste Matters

Carbon emissions: When food goes into the garbage instead of nourishing you, animals, worms or compost, it “rots” anaerobically in the landfill. This means your wasted food produces methane gas which is among the worst of greenhouse gases–worse than CO2.

Land & Wildlife: When we reject imperfect food or waste it instead of eating it, more food has to be grown to feed us. We are deforesting the Amazon to grow soy and sugar cane. We are turning wild places into agricultural land and displacing plants and animals. This is not hyperbole–you can draw a line from food waste to food production–it is called supply and demand.

Wasted Effort: Our prim expectations for perfect looking food or our lack of imagination when it comes to using produce that is old or wilted is a problem. Think about the water, seed, effort, and time that made your food. Think about the farm workers bent over for long days picking your food. Think about animals who became our food. We can honor effort and life of our food by eating it and enjoying it rather than wasting it.

Our chili powder and roasted tomatoes are made from 100% ugly or unsold produce.

Tips to eat and enjoy more of your food

1. Embrace the imperfect foods

As a farmer bent over all day growing fresh, nutritious food I have a hard time with the expectation that it also look absolutely perfect. That’s not how plants grow! They don’t all ripen at the same size or shape. They sometimes look a little weird. My mom says, “use soft eyes” to appreciate and eat the uglier of the food. It is also better to assess food with your eyes than your hands–your handling creates damage that leads to more food waste at the market and grocery store.

2. Properly store your food

The fridge is dry and vegetables are alive! If they are a stock (celery) or have a way of taking up water (heads of lettuce, herbs), try storing them in a glass of water on the counter rather than in the fridge. Try mesh bags for things that usually get slimy. Otherwise, use your crisper–it is more humid and dryness is death to veggies.

The correct storage of living vegetables is key to reduce waste. This bag was not the right choice for greens!

3. Rescue sad veggies

If something goes limp, just cut off the root end and stick it in a glass of cool water to revive. For roots, fill a Tupperware with cool water and submerge. Stick it back in the fridge and they will perk up.

If they don’t refresh, well, that’s what stir fry is for.

4. Plan your meals

This is the best way to avoid needless trips to the store and food waste.

5. Triage your food before you start dinner

Maybe you’re planning on spaghetti, but before you start boiling water, triage your fridge. If you see broccoli going south, again, that’s what stir fry is for.

6. Use your scraps

Like Rossi, let’s save our scraps and make stock. Save your veg scraps, bones, and even shrimp peelings to make stocks and broths. Everything you cook is better cooked with stock. Here are some recipes for shrimp stock, beef stock, and vegetable stock. These are starting points so don’t buy anything. Use what you have.

7. Freeze ahead & after

Double your recipe and freeze quick meals. Are you tired of eating lentils? Freeze them and use later rather than overdosing on left overs. Most things freeze! Milk, rice, cheese, butter, whole bananas, soup, etc. Just leave head room for freezing expansion.


8. Preserve your food

Most food will preserve by pickling, canning, freezing or drying. Google it!

9. Make new products

My mom suggests searching for recipes for using avocado and peach skins for face masks and other skin products. (I’ll never forget the first time I saw a hippie in Eugene eat an avocado, flip the skin inside out, and rub his skin with it!)

10. Get chickens or worms

Most of our kitchen and farm food waste goes to making eggs. It is a magical thing. Worms are a good alternative if you can’t have hens. Order worms online or find the Red Wiggler Worm Ranch in Union to get started with a  worm bin.

Our chickens eating scraps

11. Compost

Not everyone can have chickens, plus they don’t eat citrus, avocado or onion peels. Try composting. Listen to this great podcast about how to get started in composting.

For more ideas on how to decrease your own food waste, here’s another enjoyable podcast.

Here’s to eating and enjoying our food more!

Your grateful farmer,

Nella Mae

Cleaning our cull Brussels sprouts.




I’m your farmer, and I care about you.

As I write this, disruptions from COVID-19 are rippling through all aspects of our lives. It is surreal, strange, and scary. I sat down to write to you to tell you a few things. I want to buoy you if you’re feeling scared or need help, and spur you on to help others. I care about you. We are here for you. We need you.


I am your farmer/neighbor/friend, and I care about you.

If you need help, if you need someone to talk to but you’re not sure who, please call or email me. I will figure out how to help. We’re all in this together, and I really care about you., 541-910-4098.

You are needed right now.

There are folks have lost jobs and wages; who can’t leave their houses to get what they need. I challenge everyone to adopt one neighbor or friend and integrate them into your thinking as you cope with this situation.

Who do you know without family near by? Who do you know with underlying health or mobility issues? Who do you know who works at a restaurant or other closed business?

Find out what this person may need, and keep checking in. Things are changing and it is hard to ask for help.

If we all adopt someone into our lives right now, we will build community resiliency for whatever is to come.  Building more connections now can help you and your neighbors in the future with problems big and small. And when the danger has passed, you will be more integrated and connected in your community. Think of all the potlucks, holiday cookies, and stories you’ll reap by sowing neighborliness now.


What we’re doing in Cove

On Friday a group of volunteers sent out a letter to everyone in our Cove zip code. The letter states support for our neighbors and offers a list of resources. Folks can sign up for help or to volunteer online, by phone, or by mailing the letter back to us at the farm. Volunteers will adopt neighbors who need support, and keep track of them as we ride this whole thing out.

Cove School District is offering free breakfast and lunch to anyone in Cove Monday through Friday starting March 30th. Meals are available for pick-up and home delivery.

Cove Ascension School took everything out of their pantry and kitchen and made a food pantry on the front porch of their office. It is open to everyone. The Cove Methodist Church is still running the food pantry on Tuesdays and the 4th Saturday of the month.

We opened Nella Mae’s Farmstand on March 27th (very early this year) to provide easier access to food. We have limited supplies of greens, but we also have plenty of eggs, bread, baked goods, coffee, tea and a box for people to share free supplies and food.

Let’s make this easier on each other.

In my last blog post, I gave many suggestions on how we can make things easier on each other. Check it out here.

I wanted to add one more suggestion:

Let’s make this easier on each other by practicing resiliency in our thoughts, deeds, and words. It may be easy to feel trapped in your home, barraged by bad news, thinking your neighbors don’t care about you. But mostly, your neighbors do care about you, regardless of your politics or your past rows. Your farmer cares about you too.

Instead of acting out a bleak Hollywood apocalypse movie, let’s take advantage of this forced slow down to make things better.

  • Let us mend some fences and build some bridges;
  • Let us reroute catastrophic thinking and start taking days one at a time;
  • Let us be impeccable in our on and off line language to perpetuate compassion and cooperation rather than fear and mistrust.
  • Let us keep our cool. We cannot all flip our lids at the same time–we have to take turns. (I might claim Tuesdays if you don’t mind. 🙂

We’re in this together.

My best to all of you.

Your farmer,

Nella Mae





Ordering grass-fed beef

Here at Nella Mae’s Farm, we offer grass-fed beef in the fall. Spring is the time to put down a deposit on your beef for fall.

beef promo

How it works: Customers purchase by the quarter, half or whole animal.  That means you get all the cuts from that quarter animal (steaks, burger, roast, soup bones, dog bones, and some organ meat if you want.) We arrange the on-farm slaughter and meat processing. After two weeks, we’ll let you know when your beef is ready to pick up in mid to late October.

Customers pay by the carcass weight. The finished product weight is 55-65 percent of the carcass weight. Customers also pay a slaughter fee and for the cut and wrap of the meat.

What you get: Actual quantities vary based on the size of the individual animal and cuts you request. Every butcher varies somewhat based on their style and processing facilities. You will make cut choices based on options provided by the local butcher. By rough example only, each quarter receives (on average):

  • Steaks cuts: 1-2 pkgs each New York, petite sirloin, rib steaks, flank steaks, eye of round, tri-tip, filet mignon, prime rib, chuck
  • Steak cuts: 2-3 pkg each T-Bone, top sirloin
  • Roast cuts: 1 pkg each tri-tip, sirloin tip, London broil
  • Pot roasts (arm, chuck, shoulder): 3-4
  • Rump roast: 1 pkg
  • Brisket: 1 pkg
  • Stew meat: 3-4 pkgs
  • Kabob meat: 3-4 pkgs
  • Short ribs: 2-4 pkgs
  • Ground beef: 20-25 lbs
  • Soup bones: 2-3 pkgs
  • Heart, liver, oxtail, tongue & dog bones upon request

A Quarter Beef ranges from 100-200 lbs hanging (carcass) weight, $5.00/lb, or about $475-$950 for the quarter. Slaughter fee is included, but you pay but you pay the per lb cut and wrap fee. You get 65-120 lbs of meat for your freezer.

A Half Beef ranges from 200-350 lbs hanging (carcass) weight, $4.90/lb, or $940-$1,650 for the half. Slaughter fee is included, but you pay the per lb cut and wrap fee. You get 130-230 lbs of meat for your freezer.

Butcher Shop: We use Hines Meat Co in La Grande as our butcher. Customers pay the cut & wrap fee which is currently $0.70/lb. You have a choice of vacuum packed or wrapped in brown paper, which is what I recommend.

How much freezer space do I need? A quarter beef requires approximately 3.5 cubic feet of freezer space or the majority of the space in the freezer of a standard kitchen refrigerator/freezer. A half will require a small chest freezer and should easily fit in a 7 cubic foot model.

 Deposit: A $100 non-refundable deposit is due for all first time customers.

Contact Nella Mae for questions or to sign up. 541-910-4098 or

Social Connection in the time of “Social Distancing”

person washing his hand
Photo by Burst on

I am concerned about the idea of “social distancing” during the current pandemic. Do we need distancing from germs? Absolutely! We must “flatten the curve” on COVID-19 and decrease the spread of disease, especially to vulnerable people. But if social distancing means completely withdrawing from your community, it will be detrimental to the health of our neighbors and small businesses.

If we want to halt the spread of the virus, we need to practice:

1. Hygiene; 

2. Consideration; and

3. Social care.

We need to wash our hands, be considerate of people with compromised immune systems, and check in on our friends, family & neighbors.

We need to wash our hands again, consider the impact on local economy and people, and support our local businesses.

How Social Connection Helps in an Epidemic

architectural design architecture brick wall bricks
Photo by Skitterphoto on

During a heat wave in Chicago in 1990’s, 739 people died. This was many more than expected by epidemiologists given the climate conditions. The sociologist Eric Klinenberg explained in this podcast that a lack of social connection is believed to be a major cause of high number of heat deaths.

The sad thing about a heat death is it’s so easily preventable if you’re with someone else who recognizes it. One of the most — maybe the most important risk factor for dying in the heat wave was living alone.”

If we are worried about public health, we should be doubling our efforts to check in on neighbors, especially the elderly and those living alone. You don’t have to be in the same room to check in on them. Call, email, text, Facebook–heck, drop a note in their mailbox! Make sure you are doing your part to keep your germs to yourself, but not your concern for the people around you.

  1. Ask your neighbors if they need groceries. It is better for healthier people to do the shopping than people who have underlying health conditions.
  2. Chat on the phone with neighbors. If you’re not sick, why not knock on the door and keep a few feet back. Make sure the people around you are ok! Alleviate loneliness and isolation.
  3. Ask for help! If you have a compromised immune system or are worried about going to public places, ask the people around you for help! We are in this together.
  4. Share! You want the people around you to have what they need to stay healthy because that keeps you healthy too. If you already panicked and bought all the toilet paper, give some away to people who might need it.
  5. Can you help with child care? K-12 school throughout Oregon was cancelled next week and many parents are scrambling. Maybe you can work at home, but not everyone can.
  6. Can you help with chores? If your neighbor is sick, maybe they need someone to feed their animals or shovel their walk or pick up their mail at the post office.
  7. Can you increase your donations? The folks most impacted by the disruption are people without a lot of resources or paid sick time. Consider giving to the Oregon Food Bank or the World Health Organization.

Pretending that you can get through a public health emergency by yourself is magical thinking. Focus not on walling yourself off, but thinking about ways to make things better for the community.

Social Distancing Hurts Small Businesses

You may not feel comfortable sitting in a restaurant or coffee shop, but you can still help keep small businesses afloat during this time of social distancing.

  1. Buy gift certificates! You can give them away or just enjoy them later. Gift certificates can give small businesses cash to keep going during the outbreak. Think about your normal spending for the week or month, and buy a gift certificate that reflects it.
  2. Order take out! Restaurants and food businesses are especially hard hit by these disruptions.
  3. Do business over the phone. If you were planning to order something from a local business, it will be especially helpful to follow through with that this month and help with cash flow.
  4. Support local organizations. Places like Art Center East have a razor thin margin of operation. It keeps afloat on income from classes, so if we aren’t going to those classes that income is lost. It is a perfectly reasonable decision to avoid a public class, but can you pitch in with a donation? Can you renew your membership?  (I just did!)
  5. Don’t forget other businesses like barber shops and salons, the movie theater and book stores. Again, order over the phone, buy gift certificates, or just drop off a tip to show appreciation for that barber or hairdresser that makes you look so good. 🙂

Thanks for taking care of your neighbors and community!

Your farmer,

Nella Mae




Water Attention

A month ago I was at a gathering of neighbors where we were talking about what the Grande Ronde Valley was like before the wetlands were drained and diked. My friend Bobby kept talking about “water attention.” I thought about “water attention” for weeks, and asked him to explain this new concept to me. He set me straight.

I said water retention, referring to the natural function of a stream including braids, meanders, log jams, eddies and pools. To store the water in the land throughout the year. It is good to have “water attention” too though! That is beautiful. I have spent a lot of time just listening to the water and she has a lot to tell us.”

In this time of extreme flooding in northeast Oregon, she does have a lot to tell us–she is forcing us to have water attention.

What is water attention?

The idea of water attention has been bouncing around in my brain long enough to be defined. To me, water attention is understanding how water moves on the landscape and in our lives. And not just how, but where and when; its quality and quantity; and how it has changed over time.


Flooding in 2011; My view from Mt. Harris.

Water attention is helpful in everything we do. I also think of this silly thing my dad always says me to when we’re doing a carpentry project: “Imagine you’re a leeetle drop of water.” That is to say, when we’re placing tar paper on a roof or sealing in a window, imagine how water moves.

Evidence we lack water attention

If we had water attention, we wouldn’t be surprised when the river returns to its old braids and channels, through our basements and yards, hopping roads and leaving culverts.

If we had water attention, we wouldn’t waste it; we wouldn’t expect it endlessly; we wouldn’t defile it.

We love water. We waste water.

If we had water attention, we would show appreciation and deference to water not just in waterfall or ocean form, but at flood stage, when creeks get muddy, when the aquifer bubbles up in unexpected places and we must move to high ground.

In every river valley, we build our homes on banks, in the floodplain, and atop former marshes expecting the river to conform to our needs. But our understanding of “river” is as narrow as the incised channels we have put her into. Water moves vertically and horizontally. “The floodplain is the river,” as my husband likes to say. It is also the shallow aquifer, the marsh, and every ditch called “Dry Creek.”

How does water move through the landscape? “Imagine you’re a little drop of water.”

As a farmer, I know the importance of water–in the right amount at the right time. Last year when the dike in lower Cove busted, many farmers were flooded for months and were never able to plant. Two years ago, we struggled to finish cattle when the lack of rain and snow dried up our pastures early. A few weeks ago homes and property and safety were threatened and inundated by the rise of the Umatilla River when the Blue Mountains picked up a remarkable 10 inches of water in a few days.

Every year we expect flooding in our upper terraces. We are lucky to have sub-irrigation; we just have to plan around it.

How should we respond? More dikes and flood insurance? Planned retreat from the floodplain, like they are starting in the Florida Keys? I don’t know, but we are living the consequences of the narrow view of the river and overconfidence in our ability to control water–a lack of water attention.

What if we practiced water attention?

Water attention for me starts with understanding how water moves around our homes and through the valley. Here are questions we should be able to answer about water on our landscape:

  • Where are the confluences of major creeks and rivers around me? Have I visited them?
  • What do creeks and rivers look like from high points? (This can help us understand where water is moving on the landscape.)
  • What is my water source? Shallow or deep aquifer? Where does city water come from?
  • How long ago was my drinking water rain or snow?
  • Where does my “waste” water go?
  • How does water change through the season around me? Where is is perennial or seasonal? When is it high or low?
  • How many bridges and culverts do I cross daily?
  • How does water affect plants I see here?
Why do we have camas on the farm? Water and cultivation by native people.

Water Use & Water Attention

In addition to the movement and source of water, I think we should bring attention to how we use it. So, as always, here are some tips we use at home and on the farm for conservation.

1. Use water as many times as you can.

When I was in college, I did a class project/experiment to live on 20 liters of water per day–the amount the UN budgets to each person in a refugee camp. What I learned from this experiment is that you have to use water more than once.

A small kitchen bucket can be the most useful way to conserve water. I rinse produce over a kitchen bucket so I can collect the water to wash dishes or fill the dog bowl. If you’re defrosting something in water, don’t pour the water out! Use it to water house plants or rinse off muddy boots.

2. Don’t lose excess water down the drain!

If you’re running the tap to get hot water, there should be a kitchen bucket under it to catch the excess water. Use that water to fill your tea kettle or fill your water bottle. You can even shower with a small bucket. Just collect the water before you start soaping up. Go water a tree or favorite plant with what you’ve collected.

3. Passively collect water

Besides kitchen and shower buckets, we can passively collect water with gutters, rain chains, and rain barrels. I designed our horse water tank to sit under a gutter with a rain chain. I don’t want the tank to overflow and create a muddy mess, so I have a drain at the top of the tank (like bath tubs have) that runs into PVC pipe and into our creek. It has worked for a decade and directs water away from our horse corral.

4. Use timers and timing to conserve.

I have never been able to remember to turn off a hose or sprinkler. I use timers on my phone and on the stove to remind me not to waste water. I also recommend inexpensive irrigation timers that work like Christmas light timers. Finally, in college, we had tiny hour glasses stuck to the wall of our dorm showers that helped us keep showers shorter.

5. Use low flow, targeted water systems

We use drip irrigation on our farm to conserve the water we use. Anyone watering a garden or flower bed can use drip irrigation. This year, I am offering a bunch of classes at the farm so folks can employ some of the techniques we use at home. We will have an irrigation design class in April. Check out the rest of the classes here.

Thanks for reading!

Sincerely your farmer,

Nella Mae Parks




Plastics Part 2: Less Plastic in our Lives

This is part 2 in my writing about reducing plastic. Part 1 explains what we’re doing on the farm. This post talks about reducing plastics in our lives.

In the last few blog posts, I have talked about my family’s coastal road trip and visit to the amazing Monterey Bay Aquarium. What really struck me was SEEING how microplastics move in ocean currents and the water column. It was at once beautiful, mesmerizing, and awful.

close up photo of plastic cup on sand
Photo by Catherine Sheila on

Plastics are everywhere.

Sea life is eating plastic at every level, often because algae, the basis of the ocean food web, grows on floating plastic.

There is so much plastic in the ocean, it has formed the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch“–a floating island of plastics larger than Mexico.

Plastics are found in 90 percent of sea salt we eat. This fact burned me.

Why am I focused on ocean plastics when I live 300 miles from the ocean? Well, plastics cause terrestrial problems, of course, but everything goes downstream. Our garbage and, unfortunately our recycling, ends up in the ocean. The products and clothes we use shed plastics that end up in our water ways and accumulate downstream. Since we hide away our landfills–they are remote, covered, bulldozed–the ocean is the easiest place to see the true impact of plastic, which is why I keep coming back to it.

What if plastic was more important to us?

I’ve been kicking this idea around in my head for a while–what if the answer is not to feel guilty about plastic but to value it more? Today plastic is cheap, safe, convenient, and shameful.  I’ll use or buy “unnecessary plastic items” when I’m tired or when my willpower is maxed for the day; when my kid wants a drink on a road trip and I don’t feel like having a long conversation.

What if we considered plastic a vital strategic resource to be use for the most critical reasons? What if we limited plastic use to health care and safety? What if it was as important as our stockpile of vaccines or the strategic oil reserve?

This idea might be a helpful way to think about your own purchases and plastic use. Is this plastic critical for health and safety? Or is is just convenient? Does this plastic purchase really match the value and impact?

assorted plastic bottles
Photo by mali maeder on

What to Avoid

First and foremost, we’ve got to stop using PET single use plastic. This plastic has no where to go but the ocean. Mostly, it can never be recycled. No PET means no more plastic water bottles, drink bottles, plastic bags, party cups, cup lids, and no more straws. Do you really need to stir milk into your coffee with a plastic stir stick that can kill ocean life and will outlast your time on earth? I argue you do not.

Of course there are folks with disabilities who need straws to drink. This is a strategic and critical use. Otherwise, find an alternative.

Skipping the straw will not solve the plastic problem, but it will start changing how we behave and what we use. That is what we need.

Two Reason (besides the environment) to Change Your Plastic Habits

1. You’re getting ripped off! Plastic containers are used to sell you things in volume. Shampoo and laundry detergent, for example, are mostly water! If you buy liquid forms of things you can buy as a concentrate or solid form, you are paying too much.

2. Recycling isn’t working. Even if you put plastic bottles in the recycling bin, the chance that they are actually recycled is low. The recycling system is breaking down. We have been sending our recycling waste to China for decades and now they don’t want it.

Tips for Reducing Plastic in Your Life

1. Be that weirdo!

Lots of things we can do to reduce plastic will make us look weird. OH WELL. What other people think of you is none of your business anyway.

If other folks start doing weird things I do, I won’t look so weird. So, join me! Bring a glass container to a restaurant for put left-overs. Ask for a real glass or fork when plastic is provided–most of the time people oblige me without hesitation. Offer to wash the dishes at community events so they can skip the plastic. Take bags with you to pick up trash on your walks or hikes. Keep pint mason jars and forks in your car to use at events or parties.

My plastic reduction kit.

2. Make avoidance a new habit.

Create habits for yourself and your family that mean you can avoid the plastic question all together. Give your kids the job of returning the re-usable grocery bags to the car. Buy a family of “to-go” mugs AND a thermos and pack it with you. Shop at second hand stores for the plastic things you need or want.

3. Break with tradition

Do we need balloons at birthday parties or can we just do with paper lanterns and crepe paper? Does your sandwich have to go in a baggie? Or can you put it in a piece of butcher paper or parchment or a waxed wrap?

Wax wrap we use to cover bowls.

5. Embrace the re-gift.

Re-gift things like excess kitchen wares and toys like Legos, GI Joes, and Barbies. They are usually abandoned, not worn out. ASK for re-gifts.

6. Make goals you can brag about.

My dear “weirdo” friend Sarah told me in October, “I haven’t drank from a plastic bottle in 10 years.” What?! Let’s give this woman a metal medal! I want to be like Sarah, and while she wasn’t bragging, I would. 🙂 What I’m really saying is, party without plastic.

7. Walk away.

Look for plastic free options, ask for plastic free options, then walk away. I almost never regret the thing I didn’t buy. You can always go back.

My husband’s new wool running shoes.

8. Buy Better Products

Here are my tips for products I appreciate or am going to try.


I’m avoiding plastic fabrics, and sticking with leather, cotton, wool, hemp and other plant-based fibers. I bought my husband a pair of wool running shoes for Christmas from All Birds and loves them. I’ve also checked out Astral hemp shoes and Rothys which are made from water bottles.


I believe in the power of vinegar, Bon Ami, and Boraxo soaps, which are old brands and widely available. There are lots of other products out there, but look for powders that come in cardboard, not plastic jugs. I’m excited to try these new laundry detergent strips. Also check out this site for numerous plastic-free, ecofriendly cleaning products.


We use Etee bags and wraps instead of baggies and cellophane. They are waxed cotton. Etee also has cleaning products.

Buy wooden and metal utensils, bowls, etc. instead of plastic. Use rags instead of paper towels.

Local products packaged in glass & metal.

Personal care:

To avoid the plastic bottles, try shampoo & conditioner bars, and just stick to bars of soap from the farmers market–we have a lot of local soap makers. There are so many options out there, you will find something you like.

Local company Growing Wise and many other companies are marketing deodorant in cardboard tubes. Growing Wise will also personalize what you need based on skin and needs at their Union, Oregon shop.

Other northeast Oregon companies that don’t use plastic include Wild Carrot, which markets their products in glass, and Dr. Lorraine’s Adventure Salves, which uses metal tins.

Things to Read & Watch

Is plastic unavoidable? Kinda. Can we significantly reduce our plastic use? Yes. Should we completely re-think how we use it? We must.

Thanks for reading!

Your grateful farmer,

Nella Mae


Plastics Part 1: Less Plastic on our Farm

January 1st 2020, the state of Oregon banned the ubiquitous single-use “t-shirt” bag at grocery and retail stores. I heard a limited amount of grumbling before the law went into effect, but mostly, I have been watching how this new law is quickly changing habits. Shoppers and store employees seem more adaptable and amenable than I expected.

A few years ago I would have to argue for the right to carry too much loose produce in my arms to my car. When I did remember my bags, I always got the side-eye. As the offending cloth grocery bag neared them on the conveyor belt, checkers always looked at me as if I had asked them to bag up avocados in my dirty underwear. (In fairness, maybe tote bags could have come in colors other than dirty white and I could have washed them a bit more.) But no more! The gold rush age of the reuseable bag is upon us. Now it is time for our farm to take more responsibility and more action to decrease plastic use.

photo of a woman standing on a pile of garbage near trees
Photo by Stijn Dijkstra on

Background: It’s not (all) your fault. It’s the system!

When you stop and think about it, why is it the individual’s responsibility to recycle bottles, packaging, bags, etc. that companies create? Why isn’t the responsibility of a company, a larger entity with more resources, expertise and employees than you, to manage waste they manufactured? Why do we think so much about littering and recycling? Because of a highly crafted marketing campaign to make you feel responsible for trash you didn’t create.

I learned about the history of “Don’t be a litter bug” campaign from the excellent podcast Throughline. It has made me question our own practices as a family and business.

photo of plastic bottles
Photo by Magda Ehlers on

In short, the podcast argues “trash,” in some ways, is a modern idea. People were so unaccustomed to throwing anything out, beverage companies had to actively teach customers that bottles were disposable. In 1953 the “Keep America Beautiful” PSA campaign funded by beverage companies teaching us not to litter–after earlier teaching us to do just that. This was all a way to avoid having to pay for the cost of dealing with trash they created, which is now the fault and responsibility of individual consumers. This is true until today–Keep America Beautiful is still at it, telling us trash is our fault, and you can even donate to help them spread the word!

How I’m Changing Things on the Farm

Just as beverage companies should deal with the zillions of single-use plastic bottles they sell, Nella Mae’s Farm should take responsibility for the plastic we use and sell to you. This is what we’re planning to do in 2020. I hope you’ll send me ideas and feedback about what else we can do.

1. We will provide paper bags for dry produce and limited compostable “plastic bags.” This means you’ll see lots more paper lunch bags out at our farmstand and our market booth for you to use. We have also been experimenting with BioBags produce bags this winter. BioBags seem to be the best solution on the market. They compost quickly (if properly composted) and are made of non-GMO corn.


2. We will take back your plastic and compostable produce bags. Unfortunately, the BioBag is permeable and was a big fail when it came to packaging. The greens get slimy and/or wilted within a day or two. We will still use plastic produce bags for salad mix, but we will take them back at market and the farmstand and get them properly recycled or composted. (Side note: I learned from a friend that works at a lumber company that Trex decking is really, truly made of recycled plastic bags!)

Arugula wilted after a few days in the BioBag.

3. Provide plastic free options. We will test out a self-serve salad mix bar at the market where you can bring your own bag (plastic or re-usable) to fill with salad and buy by the pound. We will test out selling salad mix in re-usable produce bags that you can bring back. Let’s see how it goes!

Putting greenhouse plastic on a friends’ greenhouse last year.

4. Reduce & reuse plastic use in our farming practices. It is really hard to avoid plastic irrigation parts and greenhouse covering. Plastic mulch is very helpful for suppressing weeds, but we can get by with a little weeding help from our friends.

We will re-use greenhouse plastic by making low-hoop coverings for outside growing and offer plastic for you gardeners to use. (Check out our upcoming classes where you can get some!)

We already reuse and patch old irrigation t-tape as many years as we can and then use it to trellis our tomatoes. We will offer free used t-tape to any gardener who wants it. You can probably use it in your garden because you need shorter sections than us, or use it to trellis too.

We are also buying new tools and products that are made from plants or metal–sisal twine, wooden handled-tools, and metal buckets instead of plastic. Our favorite re-use by far, though, has been the dog neck cone that we use as a funnel for pouring concrete into post holes. (Patent pending!)

5. Push for changes at the farmers market. I recently participated in a webinar on plastic at farmers markets by the Clean Fairfax Council. I learned that a single random farmer at a farmers market in Fairfax County, VA gave out 76 plastic bags in an hour during a Clean Fairfax survey. That is 10,000 bags from one vendor in a season! While farmers markets are not subject to Oregon’s single-use plastic bag ban, markets should get on board. This is a much easier sell now that shoppers are becoming accustomed to paper bags and bringing their own. I have sent a proposal to the La Grande Farmers Market to ban single use “t-shirt bags” and things we can do as a market to make things easier for vendors and shoppers.

You know what I’m going to do. Here’s what you can do.

I am always relying on customers, neighbors, friends, and family for farm support–this effort is no different. I need you!

1. Show support for banning plastic bags at the farmers market. Email me a letter expressing you support! I will share with the market, and your support will help vendors see that customers aren’t going to freak out. You can also volunteer to help us get reusable bags to shoppers. Clean Fairfax Council suggests creating a “take a bag, leave a bag” station at the market. I have also been talking to friends about having reusable bag sewing days at the market. Can you help out? Let me know!

2. Help other shoppers with our experiments. It takes a lot of time to show each individual shopper how to utilize our farmstand and market booth. Help spread the word! Tell friends and fellow shoppers, “hey, Nella Mae takes back compostable and plastic bags. Here’s where you put them.” If you see someone who looks confused about our new self-serve salad mix, help them out! If people are confused, they won’t buy and this experiment won’t work. (Please note, we will still have pre-bagged options, not just self-serve.)

If you’re really into this idea and have an hour on a Saturday, volunteer to be a guide at our market booth and help folks get the hang of things. It sounds silly, but it is really important for our business and the success of our plastic reduction efforts.

Plastic mulch helps young plants get established without weed pressure.

3. Help me weed! If you want some farm time, come help me weed! When we eliminate plastic weed mulch, that means more weeds to pull. After plants get established and shade the ground, it isn’t such a big deal, but until then, I could use some extra weeders!

Thanks for reading!

Your grateful farmer,

Nella Mae


Agriculture, Food & Justice

Today I am grateful for the contributions that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the struggle of freedom riders, freedom fighters, and freedom “foot soldiers” for a more just society for everybody in America.

Today I am thinking about the connections of food and agriculture with Dr. King’s work on civil rights and poverty.

Today I’m thinking about the intersections–those  between housing, health, and food deserts; between discrimination and land ownership; between slavery and agriculture; between the takeover of indigenous lands and farming.

As I consider the history of US agriculture on this day about justice, it feels heavy. I think about the broken promise of “40 acres and a mule” to formerly enslaved people. I think about the theft of land from indigenous people from coast to coast. I think about the modern discrimination in government lending to black, Latino, women, and other farmers. I think about the abuse and poverty of migrant farm workers through history. I think about the Japanese farmers in Oregon who were interned during World War II and never got their farms back. I think about the immoral dichotomy between the amount of food we grow in the US and the number of people who struggle with hunger and food insecurity.

man hand fruit cocoa
Photo by Pixabay on

I also think about all the many people who are growing and harvesting food in new and old ways to create a more just society. I am heartened by the First Foods movement, the local food movement, food justice movement, and the Slow Food movement. I am heartened by the growing interest in who grows it, where it comes from, and how it was grown or harvested.

Per usual with these blog posts, I have a list of things I think we can DO. Here’s what I think matters when it comes to food and agriculture to make things more just, equitable, and fair.

1. Eat food that is Good, Clean and Fair

Slow Food International suggests focusing on eating food that is “Good, Clean & Fair.” I like the simplicity. You can look for certifications like Equitable Food Initiative, which certifies  labor practices, food safety, and pest management. Equal Exchange and Rainforest Alliance are good certifications for tropical fruits and nuts, chocolate, tea, coffee, and even tourism. Shop local at from local growers and pay a price that supports a living wage for everyone on the farm.

There are also a few foods that our family has been avoiding because we have concerns about whether they are good, clean or fair. We generally avoid cashews, palm oil, imported soy, factory farmed meat and eggs, and now some seafood, as I wrote about in this blog post.

2. Food Deserts

A friend of mine knows a rancher who stops in just about every rural town to buy something at the grocery store. He says it is the best way to keep rural grocery stores open and food accessible. For folks in northeast Oregon, think about stopping at places like the Community Merchants in La Grande, Union Market, Elgin Foodtown, and  Ruby Peak and Dollar Stretcher in Enterprise. Don’t forget the local farmstands like Val’s Veggies, Liza Jane’s, Platz Family Farm or our farmstand in Cove.

Let’s make our farmers markets more welcoming and accessible to all vendors and shoppers. Be friendly, helpful, and inclusive of all vendors and shoppers. Support nutrition programs and volunteer at your market.

Let’s support the treaty rights of indigenous people to harvest first foods.

3. Farm Workers, Farmers & Ranchers

Let’s support local, state, and federal policies and programs that address injustice in food and agriculture. I have benefited from Department of Agriculture programs that to support local production as well as loans for beginning, minority, and female farmers.

Let’s support farms and ranches that have the highest standards treatment of workers such as the Equitable Food Initiative. Let’s have the highest standard ourselves for how we treat the people who grow and harvest our food.

Thank you for reading.

Happy MLK Day!

Nella Mae