By Clarissa Wei
I went to farm camp for a week.
It all started with a hike somewhere in Los Angeles, where I met a girl. This girl liked food. And I thought “Perfect, I love food.”
We became friends over that very fact alone, bonded, and had many dinner parties. She was a fantastic cook and would whip up gorgeous tarts, perfectly braised chicken, and homemade ice cream. Once, I arrived to a platter of bright, multi-colored vegetables and a ramekin of garlic aioli.
“Whoa. What did you do to these vegetables?” I said in between bites. “They taste marvelous.”
“Got them from the farmers market and here’s a tip I learned from farm camp: you blanch them quickly and then shock them in cold water so they don’t lose their vibrancy.”
And then she told me about her summers at Quillisascut Farm, where she spent mornings feeding goats and afternoons cooking off the abundance of the land. It was away from the urban sprawl, phones could barely get signal, and it taught her about the value of eating real food and how to cook all of it. Enticed by utopia, I booked my ticket the evening of our conversation and early last week, I found myself in a rental car, driving up a rocky, narrow road to a small wooden sign that read “Farm Camp.”
Quillisascut is a haven — an extraordinary place in ordinary circumstances. The 36-acre farm was built from the ground up by Rick and Lora Lea Misterly, who moved to the hills of northeastern Washington in 1981 with four goats. Together they started a life and raised a family, animals, and then soon, a burgeoning cheese business. Today they are a farm school, where they teach lessons of sustainability and farming to anyone eager enough to listen and spend the time.
It’s one of those places that’s difficult to describe. But once you’ve been to Quillisascut, things begin to make sense.
“Oh this is how potatoes grow.”
“Chickens are killed this way.”
“We can produce so much of our food ourselves.”
“There are so many wild edible plants around us.”
“We depend so much on Earth and its inherent magic and biology to survive.”
And when you leave, well, everyday life feels off.
“Why are there so many chemicals in this piece of bread? In this cut of meat?”
“We waste so much in urban living.”
“Why are our cities so sterile, so devoid of any real life and connection and nature?”
“Why do we depend on supermarkets for food?”
I tell people I went to farm school for a week and how it, in many ways, changed how I saw different facets of life. They’ll raise their eyebrows and nod in skeptical affirmation. “That’s lovely,” they’ll say.
I don’t think they get it.
You needed to be there.
You needed to be there, when the goat farmer killed the young goat and we stood around its bloody carcass, hung upside down, as morning raindrops fell to the ground and mixed with its blood. It felt like a funeral. As we watched Rick tactfully skin the carcass, we all stood there, silently respecting the process and the life that was taken to feed us. But more importantly — to teach us.
You needed to be there, when the vegetable man talked about his vegetable garden as his pride and joy. You needed to be there to feel how excited he was to show us the deep hue of green on the kale leaves. And how, to him, the baby spinach shoots were more than just spinach shoots. They represented vitality and hope and a future for him, his wife, and his newborn son Theodore.
You needed to be there to witness the peach grower and how he knew the name and personality of every single tree in his orchard, when he planted them, and their individual history. You needed to be there to bite into the fruit — fresh off the branches, completely pesticide-free.
You needed to be there to feel the love Lora Lea had for her goats and see how she tenderly washed their udders and milked them, calling them by name and retreating into her workshop to create beautiful rinds of cheese to sustain her and her family.
You needed to be there to hear how giddy the beekeeper got when he handled the backyard hive. And when he saw a baby bee, trying to push herself out of a cell for the very first time, you needed to be there to see him cheer her on, nudging nearby worker bees to give the baby space to breathe and emerge into life in the colony.
You needed to be there to watch the chefs fashion jams, stews, breads, pasta, sauces, and infusions from the abundance of the land. You needed to be there to taste the feast and realize, “Wow, how rich life can be with just land, water, and seed.”
You needed to be there to feel the power of community as we all sat on the front porch, shelling walnuts, or picking grapes, staring at stars, or that one day we tediously separated a wagonload of spiny arugula leaves from their branches. You needed to be there at the dining table, to really experience how wonderful eating and drinking together with strangers can be without the interruption of technology.
And finally, you needed to be there to see.
To see how simple and beautiful living off the land can be. To see how little we actually know about our food and how dependent we are on gigantic agricultural corporations and generic brands. To see how small we are in the grand scheme of things and how much we need to take care of and nourish our land. To see how out of touch we are in our daily lives with nature and people and how we need to build more communities and connect with other human beings in genuine, heartfelt ways.
And to see — the true meaning of sustainability.