Chicken Friends and Mummy Berries
how a city boy reacts to a month of rural life
“You’re going to live on a farm?!? YOU?!?” This was my family’s incredulous reaction when we gathered at Christmastime and updated each other on our lives. I hadn’t realized how thoroughly I had cultivated my reputation as a soft city boy. You see, I had just announced that I was going to live (and volunteer) at Finnriver Farm and Cidery for the month of January. I wanted to experience life on a farm in cold, wet, and surprisingly snowy January. Farms are busy year-round, and I ended up finding plenty of inspiration from both the place and people.
Finnriver is an organic farm and cidery covering just over 30 acres on the Olympic Peninsula, co-owned by Keith and Crystie Kisler and Eric Jorgensen, and part of the Jefferson County Farmland and Trust preservation program. Located in Chimacum, about 10 miles south of Port Townsend, it’s not too far from Seattle, but far enough that you can easily become immersed in the quiet rhythms of farm life. For me, a lot of that rhythm was developed by spending time in the blueberry fields. I was set to work ridding the bushes of a particularly insidious fungus: mummy berries. These mummified berries hang around all winter long in hopes of releasing their spores in spring. Finnriver used a two-prong approach to rid them: First, they have ducks, fed on mummy berries since infancy to acquire a taste for them. The second prong is me, a soggy intern who enlivens the tedious task by listening to podcasts.
I also spent many hours in the barn bottling cider. Though noisy, it had the advantage of taking place underneath a roof. And though monotonous, it provided ample opportunity for teasing and conversation—a nice break from the podcasts. It was during these unglamorous duties that I got to better know Keith and Crystie, along with farmers Jeff Horwath and Janet Aubin, who run the day-to-day operations around the farm.
The second benefit of bottling was working up a powerful thirst for cider. I became particularly enamored with the dry hopped cider, which I would describe as an apple colliding with an IPA. Dry and refreshing, its floral finish is hoppy without being bitter. Clearly, Finnriver had come a long way from their first forays into cider, which consisted of five-gallon batches ranging from, as Keith described, “wonderfully complex” to “suited for vinegar-making.” As their cidermaking improved, commercial production was undertaken as a way to keep the farm alive and growing. As Crystie explained, “We thought it would be a wonderful tradition to help revive, and also create a way for us to invite diverse people onto the farm and share our vision for small-scale agriculture.”
There are now 18 beverages offered by Finnriver, some of which are so popular it’s a struggle to maintain the stock. In the midst of the snow, my favorite turned out to be the Spirited Apple Wine. A blend of Finnriver’s apple cider and custom-distilled apple brandy from Oregon’s Clear Creek Distillery, it has a port-like alcohol content but with a lightness belying its potency. This high proof was important because not only was it cold, windy and snowy, but also because I had a long walk to the bathroom. It was imperative that my evening beverage be both warming and fortifying with the least amount of liquid ingested. Putting on three layers of clothes plus boots, a hat, gloves, and a headlamp to use the bathroom at 3am is not pleasant. It’s also a bit spooky. I had paranoid feelings a bear was going maul me, or a pack of coyotes was going to drag me into the woods, all because of my full bladder.
In reality, evenings were uneventful. And when I say evenings I’m not talking about my normal Seattle routine of staying up well after midnight. On the farm, I returned to my cabin before dark, cooked a skillet meal of potatoes, eggs, carrots, kale, garlic, and onions, all sourced from within feet of my cabin. After reading or writing until I was too sleepy to carry on, I’d look over at the clock and see it was 7pm. Was I really contemplating going to sleep this early? Yes.
It wasn’t just the unaccustomed physical labor: I was also mentally tired from near constant worry that a mistake would have catastrophic results for this small farm. These fears—mostly irrational–grew daily, as I became more personally invested in Finnriver. I didn’t want to let everybody down by, say, incorrectly stacking the cider and having hundreds of bottles shatter.
My early nights were followed by early mornings, brought to me by a vocal flock of chickens that resided right next to my cabin, making sure I was up at sunrise. I came to enjoy feeding them, with their silly rush as I attempted to fill their troughs with breakfast. They were amusing to observe and I found myself lingering to enjoy their good-natured squabbles. Holding a chicken for the first time in my life was one of the highlights of my stay; they’re surprisingly soft, serene animals.
Collecting chicken eggs was also a pleasure. I had never seen such colorful eggs; the ones that were Tiffany blue were particularly astonishing. I also appreciated washing the seemingly infinite eggs with Jeff and Janet; it’s amazing how well you can get to know people over a month’s worth of egg washing. I was also lucky enough to spend time in the Kislers’ home with their two boys, River and Coulter. I’d join them for meals, usually consisting of a soup chock-full of ingredients from the farm, along with a side of family conversation and doses of the chaos that naturally arise from rambunctious young boys.
Is one month long enough to feel part of a place and part of a family? I think so, especially when you find yourself dreaming about the next chance to return to a farm you were fortunate to call home. And though I enjoy the company of my city neighbors, I like to think the chickens miss me.
Sidebar: All The Cider, None of the Work
Jameson Fink arrived in Seattle in 2005 and has worked in the wine business pretty much ever since. A 2012 Best Overall Wine Blog Nominee, you can keep up with his adventures at jamesonfink.com.