Alumni Profile: Andrea (Lieberg) Bemis '02Oftentimes we’re told to dream big, especially during commencement speeches or in encouraging pep talks throughout high school. But what if you’re not sure what your dream is or how big it could possibly be?
Suffering from intense anxiety as a freshman at Central Catholic, cookbook author and farmer Andrea (Lieberg) Bemis ’02 quickly found solace in the office of guidance counselor Chuck Blickle who helped calm her worries, fears, and nerves, while bolstering her confidence and assuring her not everyone is on the same path in life. In no way a cliché for Bemis, she held onto these words as she exited the doors of 24th and Stark and followed the common trail after high school, only to realize that college was not the road for her.
“Academia was never my strong suit, and Central was a fine fit for me, but I went to college for a year and dropped out,” Bemis said. “It was not for me. Chuck always was somebody that encouraged me to not necessarily follow the traditional path—even though Central is a college prep school—he was really encouraging, saying, ‘A traditional college is probably not the best fit for you…you’re so good at all these other things.’”
In the spirit of “Once a Ram, always a Ram,” Blickle and Bemis remained in touch, and he helped guide her through the years following her closed door on university life.
“I credit Chuck for so much,” she said. “I remember talking to him after dropping out and he said, ‘You’re not a quitter, that just wasn’t for you, and it’s okay—there are so many other options out there.’”
Bemis set to work exploring her options and eventually enrolled in beauty school at the Aveda Institute. This might come as a surprise if you know about Bemis’ story and current life as a farmer, but Bemis said it helped unlock a strong desire in her to be doing physical labor.
“I liked it because I have dyslexia, and it’s so nice to learn when you’re doing hands-on work,” she said. “So it was really nice to be in a classroom where everything was practical, and we were learning with our hands.”
After three or four years of administering facials, Bemis realized it wasn’t the best fit for her, though the job allowed her to move around and live in different cities, which she enjoyed. After working in a spa in Bend for a year, she said she got burnt out on this career route and started working at a running store. She and her then-boyfriend-now-husband Taylor loved living in Central Oregon because of the outdoor lifestyle, but they were approaching their late-20s and searching for something more fulfilling.
“Bend is great—we love the outdoors—we’re able to run, bike, ski, hike…do all this awesome stuff, and we were just living to have fun.”
Out on a hike one summer day, a eureka! moment came about through a most unlikely scenario: while eating a blueberry. (Not just any berry, however, this batch hailed from her husband’s family’s East Coast organic farm.) In that instant, Bemis said, “I was like, ‘These are the best thing I’ve ever eaten…I want a different life.’”
What Bemis didn’t know was that Taylor had been fantasizing about returning to his family’s farm, but didn’t think she would go for it. Growing up, he had no interest in farming, but as he gained perspective and more life experience, he began to think it might be a good fit for him, too.
“We called his dad that night to see if there would be positions for us if we wanted to learn how to farm, and he said, ‘Of course,’” Bemis said. “We literally were on this hike, ate some blueberries, and packed our bags two weeks later.
“We’re also very aware—and I tell people this—that we were very, very fortunate that we had a place to go and farm. We didn’t have to buy land right away. We had family that could take us in while we got settled. We were in a unique and fortunate situation that I’m really grateful for.”
The couple worked the large-scale farming operation for three years, and during this time, Bemis began blogging to share her stories with her family back home. She wanted her dad to be proud of her toughness: out working the fields and lugging around hundreds of pounds of potatoes. And she wanted her mom to see the recipes she was whipping up at the end of the day, crediting the fresh crops for her creativity and finding inspiration while working the land.
Neither a writer nor a cook, Bemis improved in both arenas through her dedication and consistent efforts.
“I have not always been a writer, and [as previously mentioned] I’m actually dyslexic, so writing has always been a challenge. In my head I can write, but as soon as it’s pen to paper or typing it out, my words can get a little flustered; but starting a blog is what really challenged me in a really good way to keep writing and to get a little more efficient with it.
“Learning to cook was a means of connecting to all the vegetables we were growing,” she said. “[…] When I first started experimenting, I always joke my creations come to me mid-heat stroke on an August day in the fields. […] My creativity comes from being outside and around all the ingredients, but for the most part, my cooking is pretty basic—still very flavorful but nothing too crazy.”
After a few years of laborious work on the farm, the couple decided to take their experience and savings and move back to Oregon to give farming a go on their own terms, on a much smaller scale. They were incredibly thorough about each step of the process, knowing they needed a patch of land in an area close enough to a big city so they had somewhere to market their produce.
“It’s really scary to invest in land with Mother Nature as your boss—it’s kind of the stupidest thing to trust in her,” Bemis said. “We were pretty thoughtful about that process because the stakes are too high.”
After leasing land in the Columbia Gorge for a year to test the waters and ensure they could actually grow produce in this area, they purchased their current property, Tumbleweed Farm, on the Northeast flank of Mt. Hood and went all-in on their dream. The Bemises started selling their crops as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes, which is their main source of income as farmers. Bemis continued to blog and create recipes as an outlet after arduous days on the farm, and her readership grew well beyond her family and friends. She has a faithful following of fans devoted to hearing her farm diary entries and anxiously awaiting inspiration on how to use in-season produce in interesting ways.
In 2014, when new farming challenges presented themselves almost daily (think crop devastation, destruction by way of deer, and figuring out proper irrigation, among countless other worries), a literary agent approached Bemis because of her blog and asked her if she’d be interested in writing a memoir-style cookbook, telling her farm stories and cataloging seasonal recipes for curious home cooks. For about a year-and-a-half, Bemis worked on a book proposal featuring new recipes not already on her site. In addition to her stories and innovative recipes, Bemis also provided all of the photography for the book.
Dishing Up the Dirt: Simple Recipes for Cooking Through the Seasons hit bookstore shelves and landed in the kitchens of Bemis’ followers last year, and Bemis continues to write, photograph, and invent new recipes on her website, dishingupthedirt.com. Although adding “published author” to her resume is quite an accomplishment, Bemis is quick to remind people she’s a farmer first, and her dreams revolve around plants and not pages.
“I get the most satisfaction when somebody says my recipes or my cookbook encouraged them to join a CSA. I don’t care if it’s my CSA—I’m just stoked that they’re supporting a small farmer somewhere else in the country. If I can keep creating recipes using vegetables that grow easily in a lot of parts of the country and get people excited to cook with them that would make me very happy.”
So would this farmer change anything about her years as an apprehensive adolescent?
“In high school, specifically, I struggled so much with anxiety that I think that if I would have been outside and doing physical labor and tangible things like growing vegetables I would have been a little less anxious.”
And what would she say to those who are dreaming big—whether or not they know their path to true purpose?
“Find your people! Find your village—whether you want to get into farming or you want to get into design work—find those people and learn from them. I think that no matter what it is—if you want to change the course of what you’re doing if it doesn’t feel right, do a little research and find people who are doing what you want to do and go search for them, ask questions. See if you can intern or work for people who are doing what you’re interested in.”
For Andrea Bemis, there is a reason Central Catholics’s guidance counselor extraordinaire, Chuck Blickle, is one of a handful of people she thanked in the acknowledgements of her cookbook. He was one of her first “people,” encouraging her and helping her to find that dream that ended up down a dirt road in the opposite direction of the predictable path.
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