Adopting farm life and finding a fresh start

The writer Robyn Wilson takes soul-nourishing lessons from nature. Cover photo by Luis Velez.

It’s 7 a.m. as I sit with a cup of coffee, watching the sun rise over the misty pond between the oak trees at Farmer Will’s organic farm. It’s the beginning of a beautiful day.

This is a far cry from the life I led before. I lived in a constant state of hustle. Go here, be there. Five places at one time. No rest in sight. Now I sit here, reflecting on the goodness and the lessons that life on the farm has offered.

Let me go back to the beginning.

Back in 2011, I moved from Los Angeles with my partner at the time to start a business in his Central Florida home. We based it on a single idea that you can have or accomplish anything you want if you’re willing to take a risk, do the work, and push yourself beyond your limits. We set out on the road with $300 in our pockets and every bit of optimism in our hearts.

Within two weeks of our arrival in Lakeland, we built a beignet and chicory coffee pop-up café with materials salvaged anywhere from roadsides to thrift shops. We made our beignets and all the toppings that adorned them from scratch and with love. From fresh brown butter caramel to lemony custards topped with pie crust crumbles, we overlooked no detail.

We called the café The Poor Porker and immediately began selling our goods at the farmers market. Word of our little café spread far and wide. Customers stood in line for hours, waiting to try the beignets for themselves. For the most part, they didn’t mind the wait. True community was fostered and built in that beignet line.

Our humble beignets were soon gracing the pages of Food and Wine magazine, and we were called one of the top artisanal restaurants in the United States. The farmers market stand went from pop-up to a brick-and-mortar with investors and 20 employees.

But, just as it always does, what goes up must come down. Financial losses and disagreements with business partners eventually forced me to sell my stake in the business I loved. The world seemed to be crashing down around me.

I met Will Crum, also known as Farmer Will, on a cool October day in 2018 when he brought me a sweet little bunch of French breakfast radishes from his six-acre organic farm on the south side of Lakeland. Will focuses on growing quality heirloom crops for the best flavor and nutritional value, not mass production. We became fast friends, connecting on similar views of community, food, farming and sustainability.

Robyn Wilson poses at Will Crum’s organic farm in Lakeland, with “Farmer Will” in the background. Photo by Luis Velez.

Months later, when my business went kaput, it became abundantly clear that a big dose of nature and change of pace would do me good. Will offered his farm as a place to regain my strength and rejuvenate after the heartbreaking loss of my business. Gratefully, I obliged, and thus began a life-changing year on an organic farm.

I learned big lessons quickly. During my first couple of weeks on the farm, I watched Will plant an entire field of heirloom Crenshaw melons, rumored to be one of the best-tasting in existence. I’d never eaten one and counted down the days until I would be able to taste for myself.

I watched the little sprouts peek through the soil and eventually saw those sprouts turn into massive vines that covered the entire field. Soon after that, yellow flowers turned into tiny melons that grew a little bigger every day, and I watched them with anticipation.

When harvest time drew near, we were hit with a heat wave and days of no rain. In a matter of days, the brilliant green vines shriveled, and the soon-to-be-harvested melons rotted from the inside out.

My heart ached. I was attached to those tiny sprouts that peeked through the soil and to the gorgeous vines and baby melons that we watered by hand every day.

Farmer Will, on the other hand, was entirely unfazed. Let it go, he told me. These melons will feed the soil and all the future crops that grow here. This death is equally important as new life. I watched as he jumped onto his old blue tractor, tilled those vines into the soil and started all over again.

Will Crum’s tractor. Photo by Luis Velez.

The field that was once filled with melon vines went on to house the most delicious cocozelle squash. After that, the rarest “Florida Favorite” watermelons. All of this beautiful food fed by crops that came before.

The end of every crops feeds future crops to come.

I couldn’t help but think about my hectic life before the farm and the beautiful business that I’d started, loved, and watched grow, only to see it whither and die before achieving a plentiful harvest.

Let it go, I told myself. These lessons will nourish projects to come.

And so I continued, day after day, taking the time to stop and smell the flowers, to admire the honeybees, and to take afternoon naps under the massive oak trees. To harvest baskets full of vegetables that would turn into beautiful meals. To fill my soul a little bit every day and patiently allow nature and the farm to heal and refuel me. To find strength in the stillness and never take the cycles of life for granted.

When news of the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, Will and I conjured a plan to grow, harvest, cook and deliver nourishment to people in our community. We called it the Farm Family Meal Program and offered a new menu every week.

We wanted our food to be accessible to everyone, so we offered the meals on a pay-what-you-can-basis. We simply asked that if you have a little extra, give a little extra, and if you don’t, give what you can. Surplus funds would go towards meals for families who needed an extra helping hand. For the first months of quarantine, we delivered hundreds of meals to our community members.

Once again, I think back to the times before my life on the farm. I think back on my attachments to my business and my obsession with work. I think about my spinning wheels.

Without time, kindness to myself and kindness to the earth, I wouldn’t have had the capacity to give back to my community when it needed me. I owe it to Farmer Will and his sweet organic farm on the south side of Lakeland. I owe it to my failures. I owe it to letting go.

Toasted Farro Salad

Robyn Wilson
Course Appetizer, Salad, Side Dish

Ingredients
  

Toasted Farro

  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 tbsp gochugaru
  • 2 cups farro
  • 3 cloves garlic smashed
  • 4 cups water

Salad

  • 2 cups toasted farro cooled
  • 2 ears sweet corn shucked
  • 1 cup grape tomatoes halved
  • 1 English cucumber diced
  • 1/2 bunch Italian parsley minced
  • 1/2 bunch cilantro minced
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 3 tbsp white wine vinegar
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • black pepper to taste

Instructions
 

  • To make the toasted farro, in a heavy Dutch oven over medium-high heat, add olive oil and gochugaru, and farro, then garlic. Sauté until nice and fragrant — about 5 minutes. Add water and bring to a boil, then simmer.
  • Cook until the farro is soft but still has some bite. Be very careful not to overcook. Drain, then spread onto a sheet pan to cool.
  • To make the salad, mix all ingredients together in a large mixing bowl. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Notes

Robyn’s Farm Family Meal Program during the first 10 weeks of the pandemic quarantine led to the creation of her cookbook, Farm Dinners: Meals from the Quarantine. The cookbook is available by messaging Robyn on Instagram, @mz.bearcat. The books are $30, which includes shipping.
Keyword farro, salad
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