The Dirt that Forms Us
A Love Story
This week, I’m so excited to feature a guest post from my dear friend Grace Kelley (). I met Grace a few years into our time living in Denver. I’d drive out to visit her in Fort Collins and then south to Elizabeth when she and her family relocated to the hilly Colorado countryside. She’d make delicious meals with ingredients her family had grown, pour homemade meade her mom made, point out the singing of hot broth hitting a risotto pan. We’d work together in the kitchen, sit on the front porch and chat about our very different lives, our mutual love of good food and writing. I miss her dearly, but I’m so grateful for her friendship and beautiful ability to weave together this story exploring rootedness, heritage, and coming home to ourselves.
I used to be so mad at my Dad for leaving the farm behind and taking me with him.
When I was a young child, and could imagine nothing more lovely that being surrounded by animals (especially horses) and spending every day in some sort of blissful, feral child dance with the outdoors—I just couldn’t understand why he left, to go to Bible college where he met (and married) my mom—and that two short years after they had me, they’d abandon the Carolinas all together for a new life in Colorado.
Perhaps I was too young to understand that not all farms had horses. (And my Grandaddy raised cattle, and sweet potatoes mainly among other things—he never had a horse.) But on those long drives home from Christmases spent in North Carolina, I used to imagine what my life would have been like if we had stayed near my paternal grandparents and worked the farm together.
Though I never imagined a life where I scooped up dirt to smell it, or commented constantly about the weather like my livelihood depends upon it, or came down with an infectious love of vegetables that would turn me into a farm stand evangelist long before I had any dirt to call my own—somehow I think I always knew that I was meant for a life spent closely connected with the ground beneath my feet.
Farming is in my blood after all.
My Paw Paw (great-grandaddy) was not a nice man. But he did start the farm in North Carolina, and raised my Grandaddy in the careful ways of laying sweet-potatoes just so, so as not to damage the tender skins of what they called the “porter-ricker” sweet potatoes. Amidst the desperate pain of domestic violence and alcoholism, my grandaddy still found a solace in growing things, and held on to the land that was our family’s farm long after the small house where he’d been born was torn down. When my Daddy helped him sell the land just before the end, knowing it was already his inheritance, my Daddy told his daddy what he planned to use the money for, and my Grandaddy just smiled. A prodigal came home.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before all this happened, I was a child in the backseat of a white conversion van headed west at highway speeds, wondering why I couldn’t have grown up on a farm.
It’s fair to say that at that time, it was mostly all romantic notion and very little actual desire. But the day my parents planted our backyard garden at our house in Colorado, and I was tasked with babysitting my snot-nosed baby sister on a blanket under a tree instead of putting those fat dried pieces of sweet corn in holes—I remember being angry. It wasn’t that I didn’t love that snot-nosed baby sister. But there was something magical happening in the dirt just beyond the blanket’s edge—some sort of incredible alchemy was about to take place, and I desperately wanted to be a part of it.
As I grew, there were more opportunities to help in the family garden of course, which was quite large, until my mother grew sick of the mud coming in the house in winter and ordered sod to cover most of it, scaling back her gardening endeavors to a few nicely built raised beds out by the derelict green house. That same green house was a sanctuary for me in my preteen days. It was where I hung my Orlando Bloom poster, and where I planted sunflower seeds in pots and almost got them to grow well enough to display for my science fair project—but the heat came, and tragedy struck when I realized that this greenhouse had no way of ventilating or regulating temperature, and so, it would never have made a good home for the collection of plants I had hoped to grow there. In the end, it was only a good home for a sun-bleached Legolas poster, and a handful of hungry spiders.
But I would try again, don’t you worry. This love story with the dirt was only just beginning.
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When I ran away to college in Fort Collins with my high school sweet heart, I began to understand why my father would leave it all behind. Not that I wasn’t still in love with the idea of farm life as a romantic notion, but I too had spent all the savings I had once said would go to buy a horse, on adventurous snowboarding dates with the man I now call my husband. Love does that to you. It meant no disrespect to his own upbringing that my father left North Carolina behind to be the man who had to hide his accent in order to not be perceived as a “hick” in the professional world of insurance in Colorado in the 90’s. For my mother, who had grown up largely overseas as a missionary kid in the Philippines, Colorado was the only state-side home she had known—along with housing the majority of her own immediate family members. As a young woman I began understanding that he packed us all up and brought us west, because my Mother was longing for home.
And maybe you’ll think it sounds silly, but once I fell in love with that Colorado native boy myself, I knew why we couldn’t have stayed at that farm in North Carolina—because if we had done that, Willy and I never would have met. My childish anger turned to nebulous steam in the light of that love. It’s funny how that happens.
In my early married life, I didn’t think about dirt much except for how soft and squishy the dirt was in Wisconsin compared to the dry earth of Colorado. After we had both graduated, and had a baby in our beloved town in the northern climes of Colorado, we spent our fourth anniversary drinking cheap wine on the couch in our Waukesha apartment. We had been relocated to the Milwaukee area for Willy’s work. It was temporary we knew—only for a year they had told us. But my what can change in a year.
Perhaps the desire to grow things to feed other people was one of those long dormant seeds lying small and quiet in my heart, just waiting, waiting for a deluge from Wisconsin summer rain. Or perhaps it needed the long, cold, dark of a Milwaukee winter—because that was the year that I fell in love with three things: farm stands, cooking, and seeds.
Summers in Wisconsin are a beautiful thing. Nearly every weekend there is some festival or other going on, and the good beer never stops flowing. That year was a tough one for our little family financially, and as we were also beginning to realize the impact that food was having on our health, for better or for worse. So in that season I was searching for ways to find good quality food, for a price that felt workable. It may seem funny to say it now, but this is when I discovered the Waukesha Farmers Market.
It’s strange to think of a place you’ve never been as a homecoming in some way, but I think that’s what that farmers market in Wisconsin became for me. It was a place full of bustling life—artists, makers, musicians, chefs, farmers and so many more. I learned so much from my various interactions with vendors. I tried new things like goat meat, and learned what sort of winter made for a good maple syrup harvest. I tasted salsas and pickles, and tried vegetables that were familiar to me, but wholly different in their freshness.
“This is a non-woody asparagus—harvested just this morning. You don’t even have to snap the ends.” The dark haired woman was telling me as I eyed the gorgeously green bunches. I looked at her with wonder, “Really? I didn’t know that was a thing!” She gave a knowing nod, and I bought two bunches of the freshest asparagus I’d ever tasted and sautéed them for dinner. I had never tasted anything so delicious.
There are not many things you can do for free in this world, and though I spent plenty of money at that farmers market those two summers we made our home in Wisconsin, I knew that I didn’t have to spend a dime in order to participate in the life that was flowing so freely there beneath the riverwalk. It quickly became our Saturday morning tradition. In my endlessly lonely days in a new city with no friends, the market was something to look forward to—a point of connection.
But it was through that long winter, that I really I fell in love with cooking.
There is nothing like a brutally cold winter to make you want to turn on the stove. My days were so empty, and lonely and we didn’t have money for me to go places other than the library or the grocery store—so I decided to learn to cook. Really cook.
My mother was an excellent cook growing up, but my kitchen helper jobs had always been more on the periphery of what she was doing. Sure, I could peel potatoes and dice onions with the best of them, but I didn’t really know how to make the perfect dish. I wasn’t yet confident enough to cook instinctually. I had always been more comfortable within the confines of my favorite recipe for chocolate chips cookies. The truth is that the exactness of baking appealed to me—the predictability and the science.
But nothing in my life was predictable anymore, except the aching loneliness, and the bitter cold.
So that year, on those long, dark afternoons with my baby girl, we tried new recipes. New recipe, after new recipe, after new recipe—different cooking techniques, and genres from all over the world. I watched cooking shows with rapt attention and took notes. I borrowed beautiful cookbooks from the library. I even bought a few with my saved up pennies; my favorite from that year being Charles Phan’s Vietnamese Home Cooking. (Highly recommend if you like Vietnamese food!) I challenged myself to use unfamiliar ingredients from the store. Root vegetables and winter squashes were more affordable in winter, I learned. I began paying attention to the way seasonal shifts affected pricing, and freshness. I learned to bake homemade bread and make my own apple sauce to save money. I cooked my very first turkey when our neighbor got one as a Christmas gift from his work and he didn’t know what to do with it. One random weekend, I stirred chopped fresh herbs into butter and slid it under the skin of that turkey, and hours later we had a feast.
The warmth of that kitchen on those dark Wisconsin days saved my sanity, and I came out of that season more in love with food, and with feeding people than I imagined possible. Around the same time I started googling “When does spring come in Wisconsin?,” I also began reading seed catalogues and dreaming of a garden of my own.
Now, when folks come and buy vegetables from me at our farm stand in Black Forest, Colorado, I tell them: I really just do all this because I love to eat. And it’s true. I’m an unapologetic foodie, and so much of that was a seed that germinated in that dark winter in Wisconsin. But that wasn’t the only place that informed my love for the dirt and all the veggies that grow from it.
From the soil of those positive experiences with growers and ranchers at the market, I decided I wanted to learn to grow my own herbs and vegetables. But I was pregnant with our second, and we were planning our return to Colorado that following summer, so I did what any sane, plant-obsessed person would do in the middle of a Wisconsin winter: I planted a tray full of seeds.
And maybe it’s already obvious to you, though it was not to me at that time, but that first tray of seeds was destined to be a complete and total failure. I was living in a dark apartment, without a single south facing window, but in my mind I was going to start these seeds, drive them halfway across the country and then plant them in the raised beds Willy was planning to build me at our new rental home upon our return to Fort Collins.
It was a desperate attempt fueled by a wild hope for something green, and growing, and delicious—and I don’t regret it for a moment. Those seeds started something beautiful in me, that has been incredibly fruitful—even though they themselves, were not.
The reality was that both summers we lived in that rental house, my garden was a disaster. The raised beds Willy built me were beautiful, but even the seeds I sowed directly, never matured beyond the seedling stage. I think there was something wrong with the dirt. Or maybe it wasn’t enough sun on those edges of the house. But those first three years that I dreamed of gardens of fresh vegetables, would be a dream deferred in all ways but one: I had made friends with a farmer.
Farmer Bob and his wife Debi, are everything you want in a local grower. Kind, caring, passionate about their piece of earth, relentlessly committed to non-toxic practices, and to only serving their customers the most delicious fruits and vegetables possible. We found the Millers and their little farm On the Vine at the corner of Horsetooth and Shields almost by accident when we asked our photographer friend Haley to find us a pumpkin patch. Bob was so generous and kind to let us take photos with our newest addition in his field, even though we didn’t buy a single pumpkin. That was my very first time being at this little patch of heaven in the middle of the city.
The following year we signed ourselves up for their CSA program, and each week I found myself again at this farm, picking up the choicest fruits and vegetables, many of which I had never seen in a store, and some of which I had never even heard of.
Things like kohlrabi, garlic scapes, broccoli raab, and spring garlic. Bags upon bags of mixed greens so tender and fresh I found myself eating vegetables for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And of course I’ll never forget the cantaloupe that converted me when I thought I hated cantaloupe. Turns out, I just needed a good farm fresh cantaloupe and not your typical grocery store chunks in a fruit salad.
The next year they quit doing their CSA and just started selling all their produce directly from their farm stand, and every time we’d drive by the farm my toddlers would proclaim their desire from the backseat.
“See Bob! Bob! Bob! See Gus! Gus! Gus!” (Gus was their faithful farm dog.)
Weekly trips to the farm became routine. And when he was able, Bob never failed to give the kids a ride on the golf kart or the tractor, or to show them how to squish a bean beetle with a hammer, or to feed them the tiniest, reddest, most delicious strawberries you could imagine.
In 2017, we moved out of that rental house and bought our first home—complete with a lovely garden in raised beds already started by the woman who had lived there before us. (We even inherited a patch of asparagus!) And the soil was GOOD, and the plants I had been attempting at the old place, somehow magically thrived here, and I began to garden in earnest. But the farm was still a part of our daily life—being such a rookie gardener as I was, there was always something delicious that Bob and Debi had that had either epically failed in my own garden, or that I simply hadn’t had enough space to plant. I was learning so much from them—and I was about to learn even more.
In 2019 I asked Bob if he’d like a little help with his social media in exchange for vegetables. He and Debi both jumped at the chance, and I found myself even more connected to the ins and outs of farm life as I took weekly photos, educated customers about farming through social media posts, and generally had a chance to taste everything delicious the farm had to offer in order to put together recipes for the weekly newsletter. It was the sweetest deal. I ate more peaches that summer than was probably good for my health. And with the increased time spent at the farm, both my husband and my dreams for the future began to look a little less like the hubbub of city life, and a little bit more like time spent in the dirt.
The seed of the dream was planted, but we had no idea when it would begin to bear fruit, if it ever would. We talked and we dreamed for years before it finally happened.
Fast forward to 2021. Between a growing desire for a bed of earth to tend, and some very difficult seasons in our lives that we never could have anticipated, we found ourselves begging God for a new season. We thought it might be the farm; but we had no idea how the door would open to get us there. To own a plot of land in Fort Collins in the current real estate market would have required us to be millionaires. And with a secure job, and our crew of kiddos recently expanded from three to five with the addition of our twins, we had no idea how this dream could ever become a reality.
Then, when the twins were two weeks old, my mom sent us a house, just ten minutes away from their property in Elizabeth. (Remember, the one that my Daddy bought with the money from the farm sale in North Carolina?) It was beautiful, and in our budget—and though we probably should not have been considered of sound enough mind to ask the bank for a loan, we saw this new home and knew somewhere deep in our guts that this was the invitation that we had been waiting for: a new season was on our horizon.
Six weeks after our twins were born, we moved to the Elizabeth area with the intention of starting our very own market garden farm at my parents property the following year. Our first test garden in 2022 was characterized by more weeds than we could handle, a steep learning curve, and more pickles than we could possibly hope to ever eat. It was hard, and it was fun. I weeded, and breastfed, and set up a tent to shade my tiny brood from the summer sun. We ate good.
And this year? This year, the fruit is that much sweeter, because now is our first chance to share it with other people. (And isn’t that always how it is?)
As I am writing this, we are smack dab in the middle of our market season, selling vegetables to patrons from a big white tent in the middle of an evergreen forest every Saturday from 9-1. The radishes are as red as rubies, the hakurei turnips tender and sweet, and the spring garlic has everyone (especially me) terribly excited.
We are planted in a new place, and though the journey to this place felt like it took forever, I can see now that the seeds are everywhere.
As I look back over the past decade of my life, I find them even as I do now: in the cracks of my car, and the pockets of my coveralls—these seeds of a love that was planted in my heart, perhaps from the very beginning. And this dirt? Well, it might not be the same as the Carolina loam my father grew up tending, or the Fort Collins dirt where I loved my first garden—but it’s good dirt. And it too has become a part of our formation.
This soil, these seeds, and the fruits they now bear—are all a result of the creative work that God has done in us over all these years: a work that he invites us to actively participate in. Through every scrape and stumble along the way, and every long Wisconsin night. Every moment of achingly deep loneliness, and every fear of failure. Every moment where the brown thumb took over the green, and every hail storm. Every raccoon theft, and every early frost. Every seed planted in hope—even when that hope felt like barely more than a shriveled up pea, has reaped us a harvest of incredible joy—for what we planted, and what was given to us is an extravagant gift.
All of it, the sacred beauty of a life well formed by the dirt.
All of it, a love story.