The Conscious Gardener

The Conscious Gardener

Christy travels to the Ojai Valley to visit Courtney Guerra, a mother of two and avid farmer & gardener to learn about her transition into living naturally and how to make the folkloric and medicinal Pixie Shrub.

April 26, 2019

Courtney Guerra is a former professional athlete turned chef and farmer. After retiring from beach volleyball, she followed her passion into professional fine dining kitchens. While working for Michelin-starred The Restaurant at Meadowood, she was introduced to culinary farming and thus started her journey to becoming an urban farmer, educator, and wellness advocate. Courtney currently resides in Ojai with her husband, 2-year-old son, and new baby girl.  She manages several non-profit farm projects, including Upward Bound House (for homeless families) and Akasa Community Outreach (providing wellness curriculums and garden lessons to inner city children and teens).

“Breathing the fresh open air with my feet on the Earth and my hands harvesting fresh vegetables makes me want to be a farmer one day!”- Christy

What drew you into living naturally? And has connecting to nature changed you?

I already had a curiosity about wellness and optimal living through being a professional athlete. But became more interested in a holistic approach to my body and my living environment as I entered the next phase of my life, and that drew me deeper into living naturally. I’m now more conscious about the products I use in my home, I take a much more balanced view of my diet focusing less on calorie intake and grams of protein, and more on listening to my body’s feedback with things like moods, energy levels, and clarity of thought.

Growing up in the suburbs of Southern California, I always had some connection to nature. My parents were great about taking us camping, visiting National Parks, and spending summers at local beaches. But it wasn’t until my grandparents bought a farm just outside Eugene, Oregon that I really got my first introduction into farming. They had a small vegetable garden that we would play in, hiding behind the tall rows of tomatoes, exploring the earthworms in the rich soil, and eating fresh green beans right off the vine. I spent my summers on that farm growing up, but once I became a teenager and started playing volleyball competitively I lost that connection to their farm. I was reintroduced to farming while working for a fine dining restaurant and it was like I was coming home.

“Nature lives within all of us. It’s contained within each breath we take, within a new baby being born, it lives in the smile of an aging grandparent holding the wisdom of the past.”

What are some simple basics that one could do to get connected to nature?

Nature lives within all of us. It’s contained within each breath we take, within a new baby being born, it lives in the smile of an aging grandparent holding the wisdom of the past. If you can slow down and be still and listen, you will see nature, the oneness of her, in everything around you. Living in the present moment you will not only see a tree, you will see the sunlight that lives in the leaves, you will see the rain cloud that helped create the branches, you will understand the Earth that anchors its roots deep and strong. We are nature, you are nature. To connect with her you only need look within yourself. Also, go for a walk once in a while ;)

How has growing food affected your approach to cooking?

Seeing food at every stage of its evolution opened an entire world of creative possibilities with my cooking. Understanding the true essence of the food informs my process. It’s also nice to be able to harvest something at the stage you chose instead of being bound to what’s available to you in the market. It’s nice to have the option to wait until the perfect moment to pull something from the ground.

When did you first hear about “regenerative farming” and what aspects of that approach do you implement on your farm?

I really wasn’t introduced to the term ‘regenerative farming’ until about 2 years into my work. But without even knowing it I was already practicing aspects of its principles. I was taught by mentors to plant with the seasons, save seeds, compost, use natural methods for pest control, utilize animals to help with soil regeneration, and water with efficient irrigation methods. Wise growers shared with me the importance of soil health and being a good steward of the land. Most of these things feel intuitive to me, and ultimately produce the best results, albeit with a bit more effort.

Can you taste and feel the difference of the food you grow and the food you buy?

Nothing can compare to pulling something out of the ground, or straight off the plant, as far as flavor goes. The farther the food travels, the longer it’s been from the time of harvest to the time it hits your plate, the greater the effects on flavor and nutritional content. Soil health effects flavor and nutrient content as well. The healthier the soil the healthier the plant. The healthier the plant, the more it is able to express its truest essence...same goes for the human body as well ;)

We got to spend the late afternoon harvesting and processing Pixie Tangerines, and making the delicious and medicinal “drinking vinegar” known as a Shrub. This fabled beverage has been around since the 1600s here and dates back even further in Asia when they began to preserve various fruits in vinegars.

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April is “Ojai Pixie Month” due to its unique micro-climate that allows for optimal growing conditions for these petite and super sweet world renowned tangerines.

Has growing food changed your perspective on patience?

I think the universe gives you the lessons you need to learn and will keep giving you the opportunity to learn it until you do. I am an impatient person by nature so I find it fitting that I’ve chosen a profession that requires patience. If you think about it, you only get one chance a year to grow a tomato, so if I’m lucky I’ll get maybe 50 more chances to grow them. I’ve had to reframe how I look at my work, patiently awaiting the next season until I can make small tweaks and adjustments in search of the best way to produce the fruit.

Has gardening and farming helped your relationship with your husband?

Farming is not only my work, it’s my passion. And I feel that if you find the right partner they will support what you are passionate about. I met my husband while giving him a tour of my first urban farm in Venice. From that moment on he’s been with me every step of the way, championing my work, helping me dig irrigation lines, and he recently gifted me a vintage tractor for my birthday. He has a pretty unconventional career as well, so we kinda get each other in that way.

Has farming and gardening made you more aware of the natural cycles within the day and throughout the year?

Being in tune with the natural cycles of the day and the season are almost unavoidable byproducts of farming. But what farming has really made me aware of is the natural rhythms of life. Seeing nature’s lifecycle unfold and expressed through seed, sprout, blossom, and coming to bear fruit, only to turn into compost to feed the next season’s plantings have taught me innumerable lessons my own life.

Follow Courtney @FarmingForLove

Recipe

Ojai Pixie Shrub

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Ingredients

10 Ojai Pixie tangerines (you can substitute with any sweet citrus)
1 cup raw or turbinado organic sugar
1 cup organic champagne vinegar

Method

1 - Peel pixies, reserve the peels and juice the fruit until you get 1 cup of juice.
2 - In a mortar and pestle combine peels and sugar.
3 - Macerate peels and sugar, allowing the natural oils to be released from the peel.
4 - Set aside for 1 hour or up to 12 hours.
5 - Combine juice, peels and sugar, and vinegar in a large jar with a lid.
6 - Shake well, let the sugar dissolve.
7 - Refrigerate for 1 week to let the flavors marry. Serve 2tbsp over ice with sparkling water.

Customizing & Health benefits

Shrubs are incredibly healthy as it’s based in fermentation creating live probiotics, live enzymes and a host of nutrients depending on what you add to your recipe. They aid in digestion, lower blood sugar levels, balance ph, are packed with antioxidants, and in this recipe due to its abundance of citrus peels contain limone which has anti-inflammatory and stress relieving properties. This is a versatile tonic that can be made with other vinegars, any fruit, various sweeteners and spices to create just the right blend for what ails you!


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