Shanti Sellz moved back to Iowa in 2012 to start her own farm, Muddy Miss, located in Hills, and she is now in her third full growing season. In 2013 she partnered with Pete Flynn and Jessica Stutsman of Dirty Face Creek Farm and together they offer an extensive variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs, fibers and flowers, focusing mostly on unique heirloom varieties. Muddy Miss sells at both Iowa City farmer’s markets on Wednesday and Saturday, as well as to area restaurants and grocery stores.
In addition to Muddy Miss, Sellz runs Green Share CSA with two other certified organic farms, Mogo Farms and Long Creek Acres (The CSA is full for 2014).
With the support of her partners, Shanti contributes to what she calls a “true local food system” where access to good food is “the right of everyone in a community, not just a privilege of the wealthy.”
Little Village: When and why did you become a farmer?
Shanti Sellz: I have been kind of of obsessed with growing food since I was a little girl. My mom always had huge, incredible gardens and I grew up eating a lot fresh food. When I was in high school I worked at Friendly Farms here in Iowa City and got my first experiences in organic production agriculture. Throughout my 20s I traveled and worked on a number of organic farms out west and in South America. I got my bachelor’s degree in Agriculture and Public Health and ran a youth agriculture and food justice program through the Community Food Bank in Tucson, AZ.
What crop do you get most excited for and why?
It totally depends on what time it is in the season. Right now I am super excited about Hakurei Salad Turnips. They are the most tender, juicy and perfectly formed vegetable I have ever grown, and when they are at their peak they are so pretty and absolutely delicious.
During the hot months I am always excited about heirloom tomatoes. I farmed in the desert southwest for a long time, and while you can grow a pretty good assortment of tomatoes even in that dry heat, there is nothing like the Iowa climate for producing the giant, sweet, thin-skinned fruits that I love. Some of my favorite varieties are Kellogg’s Breakfast, Brandywine, Mortgage Lifter, Cherokee Purple and Ananis Noire.
What is your favorite dish to cook/eat and what is your best farm-to-table meal?
My favorite dishes are usually pretty simple and generally involved whatever is coming out of the gardens in excess. I have encountered the notion that us farmers eat glorious, elaborate, foodie meals every day with our abundance of produce, but honestly most days I’m eating some cheese and crackers over the sink between projects. We do eat a ton of greens, and I have yet to take for granted how delicious and beautiful our pasture-raised eggs are. My best farm-to-table meals are when I realize that literally everything we are eating for that meal came from our farm. It actually happens a lot.
Do you remember your first experiences of planting?
My first memory of farm planting was at Friendly Farms — we were planting lettuce starts I think. Bob [Braverman] (the farmer) pulled a guide line across the bed for us to plant on. I got into my groove and was moving at a pretty good pace, but then looked back at my “row” and realized I had disregarded the guide line completely and my row looked more like a zig-zag than a line. Not a big deal in a small garden, but on a larger scale straight lines make cultivation and plant care a lot easier. I went back and replanted my row.
What has been your greatest challenge as a small farmer? And what has been your greatest reward?
I am getting better the more I do this work, but self-care can be a hard one. There is always more to do than the time allows, and there are days I hardly eat or don’t drink enough water and nights that I fall asleep at one in the morning on top of all of my covers with my boots still on (try to keep this one to a minimum).
There are of course the constant challenges of weather, pests, weeds and wind. As an organic farmer there are not always quick, easy solutions to [these challenges], and sometimes you have to let nature win. That’s why we plant such a diversity of crops, so even if an entire crop were to fail, there are plenty of other plants thriving and producing incredible food.
Overall our culture still demands unlimited access to cheap food that means importing grapes from Chile in the middle of winter and meat and dairy that can only be produced in factory-like confinements. I do believe the shift away from this is inevitable, and the business of food will never go out of style. But in the meantime, as a small farmer it can be difficult to make a living while competing with cheap fillers and agricultural byproducts rather than real food.
There are so many rewards as a farmer: Knowing that the product of my labor and time is good, clean, ethically-raised food that is feeding the community that I love is huge. Being part of an expanding and vibrant local and sustainable food system that supports the health of the soil, water, plants and wildlife as well as people is amazing. Although my back doesn’t always agree, feeling sore, tired and hungry at the end of a long, productive day is actually pretty great and the food coming out of the fields is absolutely beautiful. Working for myself and outside, meeting and getting to work with so many inspiring and kick-ass farmers and food activists, watching tiny seeds turn into food, and goats, sheep and chickens in lush, green pastures. This is the very short list.
Do you have any notable animal stories from your farm?
This spring one of our 20 laying hens went broody (she instinctually started sitting on eggs). I’ve had this happen many times before, but usually the eggs get abandoned without results. Well this lady, we call her Broody Judy, sat on her eggs for three weeks straight and defended her nest with vengeance (I have a couple of scars to prove it). One morning we went out to collect eggs and Judy had 7 baby chicks in her nest. It has been so fun to watch her with her children, she is such a good mama, takes them all over the garden and has taught them to scratch for bugs and eat greens.
What do you make time for when you’re not farming?
Eating meals and spending time with the people I love; pond swimming; traveling in the off-season; oh, and sleeping.
Any final thoughts for the farmer’s market consumer?
As it stands now, accessing local food is not a convenient luxury. Going to the farmer’s market is fun, but it also means that as the consumer, you are making a very conscious choice to buy food that is grown right where you live directly from the people who grow it. Sure, it all tastes incredible and looks beautiful on your table, but know also that by coming to the market you are keeping folks like us in business and contributing to real change in our food system.