Our neighborhood

We spent a morning this weekend enjoying one of our favorite "neighborhood" hangouts: the river!

Lately, I’ve been composing an ongoing love letter to Grand Island in my head. We live in a truly unique place, and I am enjoying our life here more than ever before.

Aside from the quarry fight updates of yore, I haven’t really written much about the island itself or our life here beyond the farm. Our early years of living here were harder than I expected them to be, and much of the challenge didn’t feel appropriate to write about publicly.

The concept of “putting down roots” has been a recurring theme in my writing, both before and after the start of the farm. Long before we arrived on Grand Island, we longed for a farm home, a place to plant ourselves as well as our vegetables. Because it was important to me, I was good at “home.” Even though Casey and I moved way too many times in our early years, we were always able to settle into a new apartment easily. A few touches here and there, and the place would feel like a real home. Our friends would even comment, because the warm domesticity we achieved was a bit of an oasis amongst the dwellings of our young single friends.

So, it was a bit a rude surprise to find that finally, really putting down roots in a place would take more time and struggle than I expected. I pictured that we’d buy land and feel a rush of intense awesome warmth of belonging and love — sort of like how non-parents picture those first moments after the birth of a child.

But (perhaps much like parenthood), what we underestimated or couldn’t imagine would be the dual feeling of intense responsibility and all the completely unexpected challenges that would come from owning land and moving to a new place, already inhabited by other living, breathing, complicated people and farms.

Grand Island is perhaps an especially unique (and perhaps especially challenging) kind of farming community to join. It is, in every sense, an island. A neighbor told us early on (after we had unknowingly broken some) that there are “unwritten rules” on the island. Unfortunately, no one took our hand and carefully explained these unwritten rules to us upon our arrival, so we landed here fumbling all the way, trying to make sense out of agrarian island life based on our prior experiences of town and mountain life.

I have to laugh when I remember one of our many early mistakes: immediately upon signing the closing documents, we put up a campaign sign for the democratic gubernatorial candidate at the curb of our new land. Really? Did we really think that was a way to invite conversation with our new rural neighbors? Advertise that we were liberals!?!?! It didn’t further our cause much that we were also young, didn’t drive a pick-up, and were “organic.”

Looking back, I think people just didn’t know what to make of us. And likewise. It was a pretty classic case of “pride and prejudice.” Folks made a lot of assumptions in all directions and weren’t really willing to bridge the gaps created by those assumptions.

To be fair, we weren’t shunned completely. Our new next-door neighbors (also relative newcomers, although very popular in these parts) were extremely kind and welcoming. Our late neighbor Dick was retired, and I think he honestly enjoyed watching us fumble along with all our house and farm building projects. Casey and I were reflecting recently about how many times we’d be slaving away inefficiently at a project using the wrong tool and Dick would show up and dryly comment, “You know, Casey … there’s a better way to do that.” Then, he’d disappear and come back with the right tool for the job.

Other neighbors were kind too, in their own way. But, we didn’t always recognize offers of help or take useful hints, and we inadvertently stepped on toes here and there. And, we expected quick warmth and relationship in a place that has a very different (i.e. much slower) pace than town life. Now that we’ve owned land here for almost eight years, we understand that building relationships with the people and the place itself takes a long time. Important interactions might be months or years apart, but the relationship builds through proximity. We are still here, and so are our neighbors, and so is the land.

There were other challenges at first too — the expected ones, such as everything related to the farm and building a life, but also some unexpected emotional challenges. We learned about the looming threat of quarries (including the one we’ve been fighting all these years) during our first summer of living here. It was very hard for me to hear of these big scary future threats to our brand-new home. I think I believed that once we found the right place, we’d move there and it would somehow stay a constant place, like a picture that you just get to know in better detail. I forgot or didn’t understand that we were moving to a dynamic, every-changing, living place, where things would in fact change, sometimes in ways we wouldn’t prefer. It was similar to marrying Casey, thinking he was going to be a doctor or a pastor, and then having him announce soon after the wedding that actually he wanted to be a farmer. Ok, that turned out to be a good switch in the end, but it was the same shock of making a big commitment to something and finally realizing what commitment means: that you stand true even through changes.

So, here we are, almost eight years after putting up that Ted Kulongoski sign on our lawn (which, incidentally, was promptly run over by the garbage truck driver). Our own politics have shifted, and we’re less likely to put a sign than ever. But, we’ve also had those countless interactions with neighbors over the years. We’ve had time for some shallow positive relationships to sour and then turn positive again with more depth. We’ve learned some (perhaps not all) of the “unwritten rules” of the island. Dick unfortunately passed away. My parents moved next-door. Both our children were born here.

And, as a pleasant surprise, the quarry fight itself turned out to be one of the biggest blessings on our life here. It provided a reason and opportunity to work together with many of our neighbors, who otherwise are mostly a “stick-to-ones-own-business” type of people. Of course, even in this circumstance, we still don’t all agree on politics or tactics, etc. But we’ve had reason to come together for potlucks and communicate regularly about how much we all love living here. As different as we all are, we all have common ground: the island itself. We’ve all chosen to be here, and deep down there under the soil, our roots get all mixed up eventually.

A few weeks ago, we had reason again to reach out and talk with our neighbors, and I was struck by how much these relationships have grown and changed over the years, thanks to the quarry and many other shared experiences. A little bit of history has changed everything. Folks have seen us stumble, and we have dropped our pride, realizing now that in order to earn respect and warm feelings, we don’t need to be perfect and get everything right all the time. In fact, that’s impossible, and one can’t keep up pretenses with folks who live in such close physical proximity. Instead, we need to be real and open.

Which is why when we woke up to find five of our beef cows missing, we knew we had to tell our neighbors. We need their help in a real and immediate way. The cows were completely missing — nowhere on our land that we could see. The electric fence had been left off overnight, and so we had no idea how long before they had gotten out and how far they might have traveled. We live on an island, but it suddenly seemed like a really big island, with a ton of brushy places where cows could hide. Or, many other farms, where cows could do real damage.

I called up and texted all our nearest neighbors asking if they had seen anything. No one had, but two offered to help look and later reported back that they’d searched their land and hadn’t seen anything. I made a run up to the Grand Island Grocery and Deli at the top of the hill to check if folks there had seen anything. We generally spread the word, and kept searching, getting permission to walk onto other people’s land in the process.

Eventually, toward the end of the day, a pick-up truck pulled into our drive. “You missing some cows?” Sure, enough, they’d made it almost halfway across the island and were hanging out grazing the grass parking lot at Heiser’s pumpkin patch, leading to the first (albeit small) cattle drive on the island in decades. The cows were home by the end of the day, and I texted our neighbors and others called to check in. All’s well that ends well, and we chuckled with our neighbors at the ridiculousness of the whole thing, reminded again of how much has changed.

Long ago, Casey and I made up a very simple silly little song that we sing when we drive onto the island. We just repeat the words “the island, the island, the island” to a simple tune. Rusty has started singing it too, and now when I drive over the bridge and we sing that song, my heart just about bursts. As we return to our island home, what I feel now is simply joy — the complicated feelings of fear and worry and discomfort have faded and have been replaced by warmth and familiarity and stories.

This is a story that is still in progress. Our roots are here, but they continue to grow. Every day that we go play at the river or chat with a neighbor or weather a storm, we feel more a part of this amazing place where we get to farm, live, raise our children. Now I know what those roots feel like. They are harder earned and more profound than I expected. But, without a doubt, I love Grand Island and its places and people.

Enjoy this week’s vegetables.

Your farmers, Katie & Casey Kulla

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Have you wondered how the inaugural Full Diet CSA season is going? Check out this great recent blog post by one of our members!

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Meet this week’s vegetables:

  • Salad mix
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Kale
  • Chard
  • Carrots
  • Summer squash
  • Sweet onions
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