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Bounty + beauty: the art of Night Owl Farm

Posted on 09 March 2016 by Calvin

All Photos provided

As I look out the window at the colorless winter landscape, I find myself dreaming of spring and colors and weekly deliveries of fresh, seasonal vegetables.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a concept that has always appealed to me. I’m a bit of a lame gardener myself, yet I love veggies fresh from the ground, in rich abundance and variety. The anti-capitalist in me also likes the economic structure of democratizing investment costs at the start of the season and the shared risk. As a member of a CSA, I share the risk of both the rampant disasters that can befall attempts to tease food from a mercurial earth, as well as the generous bounty equally possible. In a single growing season, you can even have both.

For years I have sought out the right combination of inspiration, convenience and value from a CSA, and for a variety of reasons, we have shopped around and had occasion to try some the farms in our area. I’ve eagerly anticipated the ritual of each week’s box of surprises, and I’ve generally been pleased with the quality and breadth I’ve received. Fresh, seasonal, organic produce—what could be bad?

But I didn’t realize there could be even more. Until last year.

In 2015, we completed our first summer with Night Owl Farm, a joint venture of Midway artists Susan Andre and Rosie Kimball. They started their farming adventure in 2014, on a 20-acre tract of land near North Branch. Both were avid gardeners, and had organized community gardens, but neither had experience growing for a CSA in the past. With an abundance of enthusiasm, they jumped in. The first season, they experimented with a limited group of family and friends. This year, Night Owl Farm CSA officially launched, opening up the field to the broader public.

_MG_2685Photo left: Midway residents and artists Rosemary Kimball (l) and Susan Andre co-own Night Owl Farms near North Branch.

I signed up and quickly learned what happens when you have your food grown by artists: it becomes an exercise in transcendence. Most local CSAs deliver a standard cardboard box to their weekly customers, typically a 5/9 bushel. There are all kinds of reasons for this, like that it’s economical, and that you can stack the boxes in the truck and at the pickup site. Also, you can close them, which keeps everything inside, and protects delicate produce from getting squished. Makes sense. But also, the boxes are innately limited, in that when they’re full, they’re full, and if you need to close them to stack them, there’s no way to fit more inside. Plus, well, they’re just a box.

Artful Bounty 6768I have no problem with any of this. Only, this year, we got sprinkles, and now, those plain boxes look a little vanilla to me. Like when you get cupcakes, and some of them are undecorated, some have colored sprinkles on top. The undecorated one is good, delicious; you are so happy until you see the one with the sprinkles. Then you realize you could have more, something beautiful and special, as well as delicious. This is what Night Owl gives you.

Artful Bounty 5040Susan and Rosie eschew the traditional white cardboard box, in favor of a wicker basket. This might sound impractical, but each week’s basket is more than a random assortment of vegetables—it’s an installation! The basket is lined with a drape of colored fabric, and the veggies arranged in a visually thrilling display. And because it’s not a closed box, but an open basket, as the summer goes on and the harvest grows more copious, the basket fills to overflowing. There were a couple of times I could barely lift the thing (thank you, conveniently handled sturdy basket!), so packed it was with eggplant, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, and other assorted delicacies.

But that’s not all; there are little touches. Every week throughout the season, we also received a small bunch of flowers, stems carefully wrapped in a wet paper towel and rubber-banded into a plastic bag, to ensure they are fresh and beautiful when we get them home. All summer long, I had a vase of these flowers on the shelf over my kitchen sink, a little wink of color and happiness every time I rinsed a dish.

Artful Bounty 7142Also, instead of the more typical emailed list of the week’s items and recipes, Rosie and Susan insert a rectangle of parchment-colored printed cardstock. It’s like getting an invitation to a gala event each week! Or a menu at a fancy restaurant, with the lineup of the day elegantly listed on the front, each item an italicized showcase. On the back—which you might not notice, as I didn’t at first, so it feels like even more of a bonus—are two recipes. The ones that I have tried have been unique and awesome.

But wait, there’s more!! Night Owl partnered with one of its neighbors, who has chickens, and offered shares of fresh, pasture-raised eggs. Even the eggs are specially packaged, like a present, in a bag with a satin bow. There also were sweet surprises, like the bag of hand-harvested wild rice, or the bunch of tiny, wild apples.

When the final basket arrived, it was a masterful finale to what had been 16 weeks of pure,
understated delight. I set the basket on the kitchen table and had to call my family into the room, to behold the breathtaking beauty of this last offering. So gorgeous, the array of colors and textures and shapes, all tucked into its enormous wicker nest. I didn’t want to unpack it, even though of course I did, to savor the feel and taste of all this magnificence. This is the transcendent moment that Susan and Rosie give from their hearts: vegetables, and nature, and color, and form, and scent, and feel, and taste, and abundance, and love. The effect is exponentially more than the sum of its parts: exquisite. Make no mistake, this is art!

As if that weren’t enough sprinkles to send anyone into a sugar coma, there is yet a final gift. I didn’t discover it until this morning, when I noticed the baggie sitting on the table, containing a rolled up scroll of paper. I’d cast it aside in my orgiastic unpacking, thought it to be the request for feedback referred to in Night Owl’s final email. Picking it up, I thought, how odd, that they would print their evaluation questionnaire on such heavy paper. And tie it with a piece of sisal. Wow, they can make even a survey a beautiful thing. They’re artists!

I rolled off the tie, pulled the paper from the bag, and gasped. I actually gasped. I unrolled a full-size print of Susan Andre’s woodcut of the Night Owl ‘logo,’ a luscious, color-saturated image of an owl and a farm, signed by Susan. I’m not exaggerating to say it brought tears to my eyes.

Artful Bounty 7093I am so filled up by this experience. It is multi-sensory, it is joyful, it is the most lovely, astonishing representation of all that life can be. I thought I was signing up for a CSA, but Night Owl Farm is so much more. It is CSA, elevated. And I am grateful, for such unexpected grace.
Congratulations, Susan and Rosie, you have created a true masterpiece!

The Midway pickup location is 1689 Hubbard Ave. To find out more about Night Owl Farms CSA program, go to their website at http://nightowlfarm.com.

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