Dirt Eaters

Work, Food, and Communal Transformation

(from the frontlines of a hopeful revolution)

Abundance

Farming doesn’t teach you anything.

No, in farming, as any experienced farmer will testify, you do a bunch of stuff, and then a bunch of stuff happens. Some of it good, some of it bad.

What you make of all that is up to you.

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Summer is over now. I know that because the nights have a chill in them again, because the dark hours outnumber the light ones. I know that because the melons and zucchini and winter squash and potatoes have all been harvested, some of them long since distributed to CSA members, others waiting their turn as they cure in the greenhouse, their fields now growing cover crop. I know that because the mania of June-September is subsiding, and a more reflective mode is starting to edge into our brains, as we think about the future and what lessons to take from this season. I know that because I have a calendar, and it is almost friggin’ October.

I know that because we had a ceremony and a big party, and now my year at The Farm School is done. I know that because I’m typing this in North Carolina, having started the next phase of my life.

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How do you recap a summer? How do you encapsulate a year of your life, one that literally changed the fabric of your person, the trajectory of your future?

I’ve been stuck on those questions recently, as we collectively and exhaustively sprinted toward graduation; as Ellie and I towed our little Honda Civic with a loaded moving truck out of Massachusetts, through the mountains of Pennsylvania, through the cramped alleys of DC, through the coastal pine forests of Virginia, and into our new home of Durham, NC; as I weeded lettuce and cleared fence line and dug sweet potatoes in my first week of work in this new climate.

It’s been a whirlwind of transition, a smorgasbord of conflicting emotions, and it’ll probably take months to really get perspective on what it all meant, on what it all means.

But, for some reason, I keep coming back to two crops: tomatoes and winter squash.

In farming, you pour endless amounts of work into endeavors that have no guaranteed return. In life, you pour endless amounts of work into… well, you get it. Stuff is unpredictable, stuff is uncontrollable, best laid plans go to waste, all the studying in the world won’t make you know everything, won’t let you know the future.

And yet, if you let that truth get you down, if you fall prey to cynicism or despair, if you stop having ambitions and dreams and working your butt off for something that might never happen, well then, at least you’ll have your guaranteed results.

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Through little fault of our own, our tomatoes failed. I wish that I had gotten the experience of harvesting and selling tomatoes, of seeing them through to the end of the season. I wish, for our Head Vegetable Grower Tyson’s sake if nothing else, that we’d gotten the financial reward from the great tomato season that we were expecting, the season that we’d factored into our projections. But, weirdly, I’m thankful for the experience of watching those tomato plants die, for the emotional stomach punch that came every time I walked by that field.

This is a brutal business unlike many others, nakedly exposed to the effects of market and natural forces well beyond our control. Those tomatoes and the blight that took them down taught me that, they toughened me up.

It’s probably stupid to try and become a small-scale farmer, just like it’s probably stupid to try and grow tomatoes on a rocky ridge top in central Massachusetts. Yet we tried and are trying and will continue to try as long as we can, because we have dreams of fulfilling and physical work, because we have dreams of sustainable local economies and regional foodsheds.

I don’t know where the future’ll take me, but I know that I have many dreams, and that they’ll almost certainly not all come true. But I’m not afraid of that anymore. The only thing that I’m afraid of now is failing to bust my butt everyday for the rest of my life to make those dreams come true. That’s what The Farm School taught me.

That, and that the real joy lies in that daily work.

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That said, there’s a lot of joy in success, too.

It was always illogical how much personal pride I had at stake with our winter squash crop, but let me tell ya, I really really wanted that crop to be huge. For one, there hadn’t been a good winter squash crop on that farm in many years, and it felt like a challenge. For two, I love to eat winter squash, and it seems other folks do too. For three, there’s no feeling of wealth quite like that that comes from storage vegetables, from knowing that, if nothing else, you’ll at least make it through the winter.

So when it looked like we had caused too much transplant shock back in the spring, and that the crop would fail before it even got started, I was devastated. When the plants bounced back and leafed out to create a beautiful green canopy across the whole field, I was elated. And when the cool, wet summer helped the powdery mildew fungus take hold and start to kill delicata and the acorn and the butternut, I was anxious. But, there was nothing to do but wait and see if the plants could hold on long enough to produce mature, ripe fruit. We all held our breath and crossed our fingers and checked on the field every day.

Once winter squash plants get big enough, you can’t even enter the field because you’ll cause too much damage. Once the fruit’s ready, however, once you make the call, you go in there like gangbusters.

We clipped every good squash and put them in windrows. We put boxes in trucks and trailers, and drove through the field with one person standing in the back of the truck, catching all of the squash that everyone else threw at him, a goofy grin on his face and a schoolboy-in-the-playground focus in his eye as he loaded them into boxes. We laughed, we sweated, we tried not to all throw squash at the same time. It was a game, a blast, a celebration of sorts.

We drove to the greenhouse, and spread all of the squash out to cure. We stepped back and took in a view unlike any seen at The Farm School in many years: five tons of winter squash. We were in awe at what we’d done, what those plants had done.

Let me tell ya, pride ain’t always bad.

When you wake up every morning and bust your butt, when you work both smart and hard, when you surround yourself with people that do the same, amazing things happen. Dreams and ambitions become reality. Not always, but sometimes. And that’s something.

That’s what The Farm School taught me, too.

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For all of us student farmers, The Farm School was a place to build skills and dream long-term dreams while investing in a short-term place. Now that it’s over, I’m sure we’re all looking at those dreams, living them a little bit, deciding which ones feel right, which ones are really the ones to pursue.

I know that I am.

It’s heavy, it’s beautiful, it’s scary, it’s exciting. More than anything else, it’s real. I’m remembering that I’m entering a new professional field, just as I enter my thirties. I’m realizing that I have approximately a million dreams, and that of course I can’t pursue them all. Ellie and I will be welcoming a new member to our young family next spring, which is another dream come true, and which focuses my energy on building a fulfilling career for that kid’s father (me) while also making enough money (value) to support and raise that family. There are choices to make, and there’s work to do.

The feeling I got when standing and looking at that greenhouse full of squash, the feeling that The Farm School gave me more than any other, was one of abundance. There’s so much goodness in this world, so much wealth, so much beauty, and it’s important to remember and celebrate that fact.

But it’s also invaluable to remember how much of that abundance is created: by dreaming dreams, by fighting off any fear of failure, and by working hard each and every day.

It ain’t easy, but it is fun. In any case, it’s up to you.

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For the rest of the pictures from the last days of the Maggie's Farm 2013-2014 season, click here...

Learn to Care

Here are a few words that I wrote to thank Tyson Neukirch, the Head Vegetable Grower at The Farm School. I read these aloud at the Maggie's Farm Graduation Ceremony on Saturday, September 13th. 

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Today we’re graduating from a program called Learn to Farm, and it’s impossible to quantify how much I’ve learned about farming this year from our head vegetable grower, Tyson Neukirch. Considering that in a few days I’m going to start doing this for real, for a profit, to make a living, considering that I’m going to try to support a family by growing vegetables for sale, I’ll likely never be able to thank him enough. But, it’s worth a try: Tyson, from all of us, thank you.

For better or worse, Tyson cares. A lot. Tyson puts his whole being - mind, body, and soul - into this program. I’ve learned from watching him that to farm well, you have to care. Because it is endlessly hard work, because there are always tempting shortcuts, because your present self is forever at war with your future self, because there are infinite decisions to make, and to make the right ones over and over and over again requires a lot. It requires curiosity, it requires creativity, it requires caring deeply. Tyson has all of that in spades.

You also have to care because making a living by growing food “the right way” is statistically improbable. Literally, most farms and farmers don’t make money. And yet we’re going to try, because we have ambitions, because we have dreams, because we want to live out our values.

Tyson nurtured all of that in us. He works harder than anyone I’ve ever met, and yet manages to stay present and engaged in each of our lives, manages to care deeply about us as students and as people. As a former teacher myself, I can attest that that is endlessly hard work as well, and yet Tyson clearly cares as much about teaching as about farming. They’re both integral parts of his person, and it shows in every interaction. No matter how stressed, no matter how exhausted, he always makes space for us to learn and grow, he always prioritizes our development, our future. He was always cheerful and gracious and kind with us, no matter what else was going on.

And then he went back to work.

Farmers don’t control much, but Tyson showed us that every day, every moment, we control our attitude. We control how we approach this world we’ve inherited, this work we’ve chosen. We’re doing all of the things. We’re living the dream.

Thanks again, Tyson. It’s been an honor.

All of the Things

I expected to be physically exhausted.

An all-day brassica transplant session, with Mount Monadnock in the distance.

An all-day brassica transplant session, with Mount Monadnock in the distance.

I expected summertime to be work, pure and simple. I expected to be covered in dirt and mud and who-knows-what-else until 9:00pm when I’m finally able to hop in the shower, right before collapsing into bed. I expected my back to hurt, my knees to hurt, my legs to ache. I expected to get bored of seeing the sunrise. I expected to feel tired to the bone.

But I did not expect to be emotionally exhausted. I did not anticipate the emotional roller coaster that is veggie farming. That one caught me by surprise.

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A few Fridays ago, we had a day. Everything happens everyday, so most days blend together in our memory, but this one stood out. The variety of tasks, the range of emotions, the highs and the lows, all of it left me floored. It made me think: “Really, this is what I want to do?”

It made me think: “Really, this is what I want to do.”

The day was going to be a symbolic day no matter what. We were harvesting garlic, the first crop that our group planted together, way back in November. It lived through the cold and long winter, through the dry June and the sopping wet July. It didn’t look perfect, but all things considered, it looked pretty darn beautiful. This is as good a garlic stand as you can grow organically in the northeast. We were proud, we were excited.

After harvesting garlic, you have to cure it, to let it dry so that it stores all fall and winter. That meant we had another symbolic task on our hands: turning the greenhouse into a curing house. It was still July, but we’ve played our cards, and it was already time to think about the colder months to come. Summer was in full swing, and summer was over.

The transitions are unrelenting.

We move the last remaining baby plants over into a smaller hoop house, break down the tables, lug cinderblocks, sweep and tidy everything, and re-build the tables in a different configuration to allow for optimal drying. Garlic would come first, but then shallots, and then onions, and then several tons of winter squash.

After lunch, everyone meets at the garlic field, along with the tractor and the hay wagon. We are told these heads of garlic are to be treated as if they were eggs, fragile and easily susceptible to bruising, to breaking. We’re told that the ground is still a bit too wet, so we’re going to use the digging fork to loosen it up before pulling the garlic out. We’re told to keep varieties separate, to fork then pull then bunch then carry over to the hay wagon. We’re told that this field represents $10,000 worth of product. We’re told we grow damn good garlic.

We get to work, tired at the end of a long week, but focused and happy. Thousands of plants are made into bunches in the field. Bunches are gathered and laid out on the hay wagon in a beautiful display. The harvest feels great.

And then we’re told that our tomatoes have late blight, and that they’re all going to die.

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It’s hard to adequately describe how much work and money we put into our tomato crop. We seed tomatoes into trays with 512 tiny cells, then prick them out a few weeks later and replant them into trays with much larger cells. We transplant them by hand into a trench, which is slow, grinding, physically challenging work. We sidedress them with compost, carrying bucket after full bucket down each row, all to feed these hungry, nutrient-needy creatures. We hill the plants as they grow, so that they establish a strong root system. We place and pound one thousand wooden stakes into the ground, and string up seven miles of trellising twine.

It’s brutal, but if your tomato crop succeeds, it’s worth it, both financially and emotionally. Tomatoes are incredible, and the people love them. We love them.

The early days of Tomato City, before the rains came.

The early days of Tomato City, before the rains came.

It’s also hard to adequately describe how amazing our tomato field looked on June 30th. It had been warm and dry, conditions that tomatoes love. The plants were strong, they were upright, they had established and were growing well. We were in a constant trellising race to keep up with them, to make sure they wouldn’t fall over, but so far so good. Every variety was healthy, and even the few plants that had been munched on by a groundhog had miraculously regrown leaves and were jamming along as well. Tyson, our head vegetable grower, said that while they could all die tomorrow, this was the best he’d ever had a tomato stand at this point in the growing season. Tomato City was a happy place to be.

But when the calendar turned to July, the rains came, and they didn’t stop. Over thirteen inches of rain fell in the first fourteen days of the month. Intense storms slammed our fields, pummeling the ground with water and punishing the plants with wind. One thunderstorm cell and its 60+ MPH gusts felled trees, almost blew away the greenhouse (at least that’s how it felt as I stood there in it), knocked out the power, and flattened all the tomato plants. We spent hours picking them all up again, but putting all that energy into getting back upright delayed their growth. And the soil was beyond saturated, never getting the chance to dry out.

On July 18th, we started to identify many different fungal and bacterial diseases in our tomato field, most coming up the plant from the soggy soil. The unrelenting humidity created the perfect conditions for pathogen growth, and a few storm systems coming up the coast from the south (where year-round and chemically-intensive tomato production fosters ever-stronger diseases) undoubtedly brought spores along with them. We saw bacterial leaf-spot, we saw early blight, we flipped through page after page of diseased plant pictures, figuring out what was going on.

The crop was hurting, as we estimated over 80% of the plants had something on them, even if they weren’t in absolute danger yet. In two weeks, our most lucrative planting had gone from beautiful and strong to being in deep, deep trouble.

So when we got confirmation one week later that our plants had late blight, we weren’t shocked. We had already started to let go of the tomatoes, to understand that it wasn’t going to be a great harvest. But still, it was devastating.

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Late blight is so named because, for an organic grower on the East Coast, it ends every tomato season. It lives in warmer climates, constantly evolving in the face of heavy fungicide use by conventional growers. There’s a few things an organic grower can do to combat it, but they’re all partial measures. It’s another piece of evidence that the fungal kingdom wins at evolution. It comes up the coast, but you never know when, and you can’t really control it. Last year it came to Massachusetts in October, at the end of the harvest window. This year it came in July, at the beginning.

Growing organic tomatoes in this region is a race against time, trying to get as much fruit before late blight inevitably shows up and kills everything. It’s the grim reaper.

As we were harvesting garlic, I watched Tyson talk on his cell phone with our extension agent from UMass, and I watched his head drop. As he made an announcement to the whole group, I watched him suppress his sadness for losing the tomatoes, and focus on his fear for the potatoes. Because tomatoes and potatoes are in the same family, and this strand of late blight attacks them both.

Suddenly, the tomatoes were done, and the potatoes were at risk. Within a week, we’d mow in once-beautiful stands of potatoes to prevent the fungus from spreading from the leaves down the stem into the tubers. We’d barely sell a single tomato. We’d still have many potatoes, but it wouldn’t quite be what it could’ve been.

This potato field was just gorgeous, as healthy and happy as could be.

This potato field was just gorgeous, as healthy and happy as could be.

Within two weeks, these two wonderful plantings, representing so much potential food and so much potential revenue, would wither and die before our very eyes.

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Maintaining emotional stability in the face of all this is an unbelievable challenge. And, it seems, a fundamental part of the job. Because if you don’t care, you won’t put in the work, you won’t put in the thought and intention necessary to produce something beautiful and bountiful. And it’s when you care that you open the door to hurt and sadness.

And it’s when you try do something crazy like make a living growing organic produce in the northeast that you open the door to stress and anxiety and fear.

So you ride the roller coaster, you keep working, feeling the downs but not letting yourself stay there. Because there’s still so much food, so much bounty, because hard work does pay off in the end.

We finished the garlic harvest, filling up half of the once-and-future-greenhouse with a beautiful crop. Since then, we’ve brought in over two tons of storage onions, plus several bushels of shallots. Our red kabocha squash and acorn squash will be next, followed by butternuts and delicatas and pumpkins. It’s incredible, really.

Here come the winter squash.

Here come the winter squash.

Some things live, some things die, and you just keep working. That’s life on a diversified farm.

This week, a few of us lobbied for the chance to go into the stricken tomato field and get whatever harvest lay out there. Ripe fruit hung on the vines, for sure, but it had the fungus in it, or on it, and there was no way we could send any to market.

Nonetheless, it was important emotionally for us to go out there, to eat some glorious ripe tomatoes, to see how compromised everything truly was, and to let it go. Because soon we’re going to do the painstaking work of dismantling all of the tomato infrastructure we put up, in hopes of getting some sort of marketable crop off of that field. And it’ll be much easier to do that with a clear heart, fully processing the highs and lows, ready to move on.

We brought back several bins full of tomatoes, enough for everyone to gorge on until the fruit goes bad, enough for everyone to have tomato sandwiches and tomatoes on their salads and fresh salsa. We had enough to put some by for the winter, to make canned salsa and tomato sauce and whole canned tomatoes and tomato juice.

To be able to give some tomatoes to the next class of beginning farmers, for them to eat in January along with all the pickles and beets and dilly beans already put up, in what turned out to be an epically crappy tomato season, feels pretty darn special.

It’s good to remember that it’s worth it. That growing food, that doing so organically, sustainably, on a diversified and small-scale, is worth it. That putting food by, that homesteading and being just a little more self-reliant, is worth it. That getting good food to good people, to their kids and their families, all while honoring the earth and its unknowably complicated and intertwined systems, is worth it.

And it is.

So we wake up early tomorrow, to do all of the things all over again.

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To see as much of the summer at Maggie's Farm that I've been able to document, click here...

Serenity Prayer

Pesticides, man. I totally get it now.

I mean, I got it before. They’re horrible and destructive and full of unintended consequences, but still, I understood. You’re trying to make a living, you’re trying to grow food for your family, for your customers, for the world. Food production is inherently intertwined with natural systems, and natural systems are unpredictable, uncontrollable. There’s a very sympathetic logic where injecting a bit of control into the process makes a lot of sense.

But damn, that intellectual understanding doesn’t hold a candle to the emotional devastation that comes with watching a crop wither and die, with watching whole fields fail.

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We’ve been on the grind for a while now, the fullest of full days pushing our bodies to the limit. There are sixteen hours of sunshine each day, and we’re working for most of them. Harvesting, transplanting, seeding, tilling, washing up, cultivating, and prepping fields, all from sunup to sundown. Hour after hour of crawling on your knees through rocky fields, doing lunges up and down 300-foot beds, burning up on a tractor. Stuff some granola and/or a big salad in there somewhere, fall asleep, and wake up to do it again. It is exhausting, it is punishing, it is exhilarating, it is surprisingly fun, it is the dream we all signed up for.

The sun rises at 5:00am on our season's first big harvest day.

The sun rises at 5:00am on our season's first big harvest day.

Three months ago Massachusetts was still frozen and snow-covered. I remember a particularly spirit-crushing blizzard in mid-March, in fact. But now it is pushing ninety degrees, sticky and humid, and we’re all covered in some combination of bug spray, fish emulsion, mud, sunscreen, and sweat. Seasons are incredible things.

Just as suddenly as summer has come, we know it’ll leave just the same, so time is of the essence. The photosynthetic potential of this land will never be higher than right now, and the growth-inducing heat won’t last forever. The growing season just about everywhere is ephemeral, but in the northeast it feels particularly fleeting. Right now, this moment, is what we’ve been preparing for, why we spent January planning in front of spreadsheets, why we were in the greenhouse seeding brassicas and alliums back in March. This is our shot.

So we focus on that grind. We push through mental and physical fatigue, through doubt and confusion, through bug bites and achy backs. We just try to put together a good hour of work, then a good morning, then a good day, then a good week. We just try to stack those good hours/days/weeks on top of each other, in the hope that a beautiful, bountiful farm will emerge.

And, wouldn’t you know it, a beautiful and bountiful farm emerged. Rather, we made it.

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We’re two weeks into harvesting for the three farmers markets we attend, and next week is our first CSA harvest and distribution. The salad greens coming out of our fields are phenomenal, the best I’ve ever tasted, from arugula to mizuna to green wave and ruby streaks mustard. Our red russian kale tastes like candy (in a good way), our boc choi is so so so tender, and our chard is almost fluorescent in color. Still growing in the fields, our onions and leeks look strong, our lettuces make up a vibrant rainbow, our garlic is producing beautiful scapes and surely even more beautiful cloves, our potatoes and tomatoes are really starting to jam. Abundance is at our fingertips.

The lettuces, each one hand-transplanted, make this field particularly beautiful.

The lettuces, each one hand-transplanted, make this field particularly beautiful.

With summer fully upon us, we’ve most recently been putting in all those summer crops, those plants that just soak up the heat. Those aforementioned potatoes and tomatoes, yes, being planted in their back-breaking furrows. But other solanaceous crops too, like peppers and eggplants. And endless rows of plants from the cucurbit family, from zucchini to butternut squash to cucumbers to watermelons.

These are the classic summer crops, the ones we (and our CSA members) spend all winter and spring dreaming of. They’re delicious, nutritious, they’re what the people clamor for, etc., etc.

And they’re super-hard for us to produce.

We haven’t a good winter squash or melon harvest on this farm in years. Our soils are rocky, slow to dry down and warm up, and full of weed seeds ready to overwhelm our young plants. We don’t have irrigation to feed these water-lovers. Our summers get hot, yes, but it still ain’t the south, whose climate these plants prefer, and the hot hot heat doesn’t last very long. There are a lot of obstacles.

So we started all our cucurbits in the greenhouse, which is unusual because their seed is super-vigorous, and because they’re seriously prone to transplant shock. But it was worth it to give them a head start on the weeds. We laid down a few miles of black plastic mulch, which is nobody’s romantic idea of organic farming, to suppress those weeds and heat up the soil. We amended the soil with compost and organic fertilizer, giving these heavy feeders the extra nutrition they crave.

We have A LOT invested in these crops. Money, yes, in expenses for all those inputs, and in revenue from farmers markets and satisfied CSA members who re-up next season. But also at stake is pride, emotional stability, and a sense that all of our hard work, the sweat and sore muscles and tired knees, that it was worth it.

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It seems to me that a lot of folks go into farming because they’re interested in becoming their own boss. Which is silly, because it turns out that, in this profession, the plants are the boss. Or rather, the soil biology is the boss. Or rather, the sky, with its unpredictable amounts of rain and sun, is the boss. Or rather, the whole of these unknowable and infinitely complex natural systems upon which we rely, and through which we try to eek out a little food to sustain our fragile species, is the boss.

We’re just waking up early, taking orders.

We don’t get to set our own schedule. We get to make plans, and watch as they’re ripped to shreds by forces outside of our control. And then we get to respond.

One week ago, our farm was looking great, and I was showing my family around, showing them the fruits of all our labor. Walking by the tomatoes, I noticed that several plants had been stripped clean by some critter. Caterpillar? Stray calf? With some investigation, we found a groundhog home in the brush next to the field. After some eighty plants were destroyed, we dropped a smokebomb down the hole. Problem solved.

Little did we know that we were just beginning a week of warfare.

Investigating our growing pest and disease issues with Katie, an expert from the UMass Ag Extension Agency.

Investigating our growing pest and disease issues with Katie, an expert from the UMass Ag Extension Agency.

On Wednesday, we discovered that our bumping strawberry beds, just starting to put out bushels of glorious fruit, were infected with grey mold. This fungal disease had seized on a perfect climatic storm for its growth, spreading to all seven of our strawberry varieties. We can salvage a lot for home consumption, for jam, for the freezer, sure. But people love strawberries, and they would’ve been quite the hit with our CSA members. It’s a blow.

On Thursday, we discovered these tiny arthropods called Symphylans in several of our fields, affecting many of our cucurbits. They thrive off of all the things we want in our soil, from good moisture to high organic matter to warm temperatures. They eat the roots of young plants, causing them to be stunted and wilty and to never grow. Each individual lives for 2-3 years, making them quite hard to get rid of. This is only their second known occurrence in Massachusetts, as they’re usually a West Coast soil pest. In short, it could be devastating to those plantings, and an impediment for years to come.

On Friday, we discovered what may be a soil pathogen affecting our peppers and eggplants, we discovered a cucumber beetle problem in our summer squash that exploded overnight, and we discovered levels of potato leaf-hopper that require immediate action.

All of us were broken hearted. We just looked at each other, dumbfounded, overwhelmed, sad and frustrated and angry at who knows what. We had worked so hard, we had invested so much, we had so much at stake. I wanted to kill all the bad guys right then and there, all the bad bugs, all the bad fungi, all the bad bacteria, by whatever means necessary. Anything to save our plants.

Like I said, I get the whole pesticide (and herbicide and fungicide) thing now. I really do.

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It is hard to think of something in someone’s life, some job or situation, that Reinhold Neibuhr’s Serenity Prayer wouldn’t speak to. But man, it has been ever present for me on the farm this week.

I get the impetus for gaining control over natural systems to help secure a predictable food supply, but so much damage has been done in the belief that such control is actually possible. As I’ve written before, we are but bit players out here in the real world. Despite the devastation of this week, we aren’t about to start spraying anything and everything out there on our fields. We know that the best pest control is healthy soil biology and healthy plants. We know that the best weed control is intelligent management. We know that to feed this generation and the next and the one after that, we need to work with these natural systems, not against them.

And we know that sometimes there are things that are just outside of our control.

We don’t control the groundhog or the grey mold or the cucumber beetle or the symphylans. Just like we don’t control the rain or the sunshine or the humic compounds or the nitrogen-fixing bacteria on legume roots.

The nest of a barn swallow that we removed from our veggie wash-up area, only to find the mother building another one within hours.

The nest of a barn swallow that we removed from our veggie wash-up area, only to find the mother building another one within hours.

We do control how much we try to learn about all of these things, about how they work, about how to emphasize health over disease in the farm ecosystem. We do control what time we get up, when we start working, how fast and effectively we work, and when we stop. We do control our intention, and we do control our attitude.

We want resilience from our plants, just like we want resilience from our kids, just like we want resilience from ourselves. This is a week for tapping into that resilience.

Tomorrow’s another day. We’ll wake up with joy and energy, we’ll put some more plants in the ground, we’ll keep doing everything we can to build toward health. We’ll keep growing amazing food. We’ll accept the things we can’t change, and we’ll change that which we can. 

And all along, we’ll keep on the grind.

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To see the few pictures I took this month in between transplanting TENS OF THOUSANDS OF PLANTS, click here...

Feel the Weight

Recently, I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night thinking about plants.

Okay, not exactly the middle of the night, just a little earlier than usual. Say, 5:15 or so.

But still, I’d wake up suddenly, worried about the bok choi or the lettuce or the eggplants or the leeks or the kale or the peppers or the tomatoes oh god hopefully not the tomatoes if they go we’re really screwed.

[Deep breath.]

I’d scramble down the ladder from my loft and check the three weather sites I have bookmarked, wondering what the low got to overnight and how much the sun is forecast to shine during the day. I’d close my eyes and rack my brain to make sure that I closed the vent to the greenhouse and put remay over the flats in the hoop house. I’d hope that I had watered enough so that the plant roots didn’t dry out and die back, but not so much that algae had started to grow on the soil surface.

I was in charge of the greenhouse these past few weeks, and it was the best.

Hundreds of pepper plants mean summer's really truly on its way.

Hundreds of pepper plants mean summer's really truly on its way.

In retrospect, I was mostly worried because this was my first rodeo, because I was reacting instead of predicting, because my botany knowledge is miniscule. Plants are resilient, and plants want to grow, and they’re able to withstand the occasional amatuer-hour performance of a novice greenhouse manager.

But a good chunk of that worry was in fact justified, because I was also in charge of tens of thousands of plants and hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential revenue. I was, briefly, in charge of how the summer turns out, in charge of the future. If I messed up, it mattered. Big time.

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As a student/apprentice/beginning farmer, I often feel like I’m missing big chunks of the larger picture. That larger picture takes a while to reveal itself, I suppose, and the farm ecosystem operates on cycles that last months/years/decades. As we’re learning about agro-forestry and barn construction and lambing first aid and pasture biology and integrated pest management and everything else that we need to know, as we’re practicing and observing all of these things in action, it is easy to feel overwhelmed, or to glaze over and just focus on putting the screw in this board or planting this onion transplant at the right depth. And there’s value in that micro-focus.

On occasion, however, I realize that I’m starting to put together enough observations, enough data points, to actually make predictions. They’re mostly wrong, of course, but I’m less overwhelmed, and another piece of the larger picture comes into focus.

My first few days in charge of the greenhouse were terrifying. Plants need water, yes, I got that. But when and how and how much? What do you do on a cold, rainy day? How about a warm, sunny day? If I open the greenhouse at 6:15am, how will it look when I come back to check it at 9:30am? How will it change between that check and lunchtime? What about the alliums (onions, shallots, leeks) versus the brassicas (kale, cabbage, bok choi) versus the solanaceae (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant) versus the lettuce versus the fennel versus everything else? How do all of their needs differ? What about the newly seeded plants versus those that are huge and thirsty and need to go into actual soil on Monday, or Thursday, or the week after next, or whenever our soggy fields finally warm up and dry down?

[Deep breath.]

The learning curve is steep, and I’m still climbing.

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The best part of that learning curve, it turns out, is that to climb it you mostly just need to watch plants do their magical thing. Watch as the cotyledons push aside wet soil and emerge, watch as the first true leaves unfold, watch as the roots expand to encompass the entire soil plug, watch as the stems straighten out after being knocked over, watch as each variety’s distinctive colors develop, watch as the leaves bounce back after being allowed to get too dry, watch as the plant practically doubles in size on a sunny day.

Examining a beet transplant for moisture level reveals something extraordinary.

Examining a beet transplant for moisture level reveals something extraordinary.

It is hard for me to overstate how fascinating this all is. Plants continue to amaze, to blow me away. Surprisingly, I find that I anthropomorphize plants more than I do animals because, while I can maybe sorta imagine the behavior calculus of a sheep or a cow or even a chicken, plants exist on such a different plane, their consciousness is so alien from mine, that translation is necessary.

And yet, we’re both organisms on this planet, hanging out in the same greenhouse, in fact, and we’ve somehow developed partnerships over the centuries that are mutually beneficial. I’ll take care of you, and you’ll take care of me. If I can learn to listen to the tomato and pepper plant, to the kale and broccoli plant, to the beet and chard plant, I’ll have a tasty meal pretty darn soon. More than that, I’ll be able to feed other people, other families, and make this magical work space my office for the foreseeable future.

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These last two weeks we took 30,000 allium plants and 15,000 brassica plants out of the greenhouse and put them in the ground. It was back-breaking, leg-burning, glorious work. It was hours of carrying trays of plants from the greenhouse to the hardening-off hoop house to the hay wagon to the truck bed to the field bed. It was your face covered in dirt from when a black fly landed on your cheek right after you transplanted an onion. It was smelling like a coastal Maine seafood market from all the fish emulsion that sloshed onto you while pouring the nutrition boost on the leeks. It was focusing so much on hydrating the plants that you forgot to hydrate yourself, becoming grumpy and loopy and hungry and giddy all at the same time. It was jokes and pride and high-fives at the end of the day. It was getting up and doing it again tomorrow.

Transporting thousands of onion and leek transplants to one of our satellite fields.

Transporting thousands of onion and leek transplants to one of our satellite fields.

Growing food for yourself is ambitious. Growing food for hundreds of other people is outrageous. Making a living from growing food IN NEW ENGLAND ON A ROCK-FILLED RIDGETOP for hundreds of other people might be downright crazy. But it’s fun, and can be done.

The Farm School, like any good educator, shelters us. We’re free to explore, to make mistakes, to dip our toes into different agricultural (and life) waters. But they also, like any good employer, rely on us, on our learning and growth, on us rising to the challenge when necessary. As the season continues to ramp up, rising to that challenge is very much necessary, and we all know it.

Getting to be in charge of the greenhouse for a few weeks felt like an incredible gift, and a fabulous burden. Everyone was relying on me - my teachers, my fellow students, our CSA members - even if they didn’t know it, even if they don’t know me. The plants, too, were relying on me, under my care, wanting to release all of their potential, wanting to produce ridiculous amounts of food for us, if only I made the conditions right.

No wonder I had trouble sleeping through the night.

But gradually, I started to sleep a little better, to trust that I maybe sorta knew what I was doing. Which is good news, because if I can learn to live with this weight, what joyous and magical living that’ll be.

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To see pictures of a surprise snowstorm, of hours in the greenhouse, of finally getting in the fields, and of MORE BABY ANIMALS, click here...

The Pleasure Equation

“This whole idea that’s being put forth, that if you don’t buy locally, farmers will go out of business, makes people think they’re saving our farm by buying our milk. We want people to buy our milk because it’s good milk. I hate the ‘buy locally’ thing. Try local foods, and if they’re not better, then buy from California. I’d like to challenge the farmers of Vermont to make things that are world class, and for people to support that. I don’t want people to buy my stuff out of charity or out of some belief system. It’s the pleasure equation instead of the guilt equation.” - Amy Ransom, Strafford Organic Creamery

“You can say what you want about capitalism, but economics is just a great way of keeping score. If you’re a competitor in anything, you want to know whether you’re playing up to your potential.” - Eliot Coleman, Four Season Farm

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Every farm workshop, farm conference, or farm visit invariably becomes a business workshop, a business conference, a business visit. It’s not always super-obvious, sometimes you have to read between the lines, but capitalism is there, on everyone’s mind. Pay attention long enough, and any farming talk becomes money talk.

For most of my life on the far-left-hippie part of the political spectrum - where I still reside, mind you - this would’ve been disorienting, disheartening, discouraging. But not now. No, now I love it, I relish it, I crave the business talk as a breath of fresh air.

Yes, let’s have dreams and ideals and revolutionary aspirations. Yes, let’s make some damn money at the same time.

Yes, maybe those are all actually the same thing.

You see, my thoughts on what capitalism is, on what money itself is, have changed in a pretty dramatic way. But we’ll get back to that.

I started off this post with two quotes from well-known successful farmers profiled in Michael Ableman’s wonderful book Fields of Plenty, because that book - on the surface, a dreamy romanticization of the bucolic ideal if there ever was one - becomes, over and over again, a business book. It is full of stories of farms and farmers and how they make it.

Turns out, growing great food ain’t enough. You gotta know how to finance it, how to market it, how to efficiently produce it, how to balance the books with it.

Otherwise, the dreamy dreams don’t happen.

The newly opened Farm Store at Sawkill Farm in Red Hook, NY.

The newly opened Farm Store at Sawkill Farm in Red Hook, NY.

Two weeks ago, the business course that’s built into the Farm School curriculum culminated with us presenting our business plans to our classmates, teachers, and our business consultant/guru Ray Belanger. Every student in the program worked his/her butt off, visioning and brainstorming and researching and drafting and honing for the weeks that led up to presentation day. By its very nature, a business plan often feels like a life plan, like a profoundly existential document, which increased both the stress and the meaning of the exercise. You could feel it in the farmhouse, where late night study sessions made our dining room seem like a college library on exam week. We were getting the chance to put a dream of ours onto paper, to show it to everyone, and to prove to them that it can work. It was exciting and terrifying at the same time.

On presentation day, there were rabbit farms and pig farms and urban farms and wool farms and fish farms and medicinal herb farms and communal farms. There were dreams galore. Personally, I presented my vision for a Whole Diet CSA in North Carolina, one of approximately 836 different agricultural dreams I’ve had this year. There was feedback and affirmation and ideas for how to move forward. It was celebratory and wonderful.

Each of us had, to varying extents, wrestled with the question of how to make this thing we’d thought up actually work. Some had even started building out Profit & Loss spreadsheets, Cash Flow documents, telling a romantic story through hard numbers. But none of us actually know how to make these things happen. They’re still dreams, after all. You can’t simulate reality.

But it is good to practice.

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Two days after making those presentations, we visited Roxbury Farm in the Hudson Valley of New York State, one of the most successful and visionary farms in the region, if not the whole country. Jean-Paul Courtens and Jody Bolluyt are rock-star farmers, lauded for their systems and their openness and their sheer prowess at growing vegetables. It was a blast and an honor to see their farm and hang out in their presence, gleaning as much wisdom as possible.

There was a lot to take away, but what struck me most was the sense that radical visions and success in a capitalistic market are not only compatible, but maybe the most logical and necessary of bedfellows. Dreamy dreams are great and all, but as Eliot Coleman said, it is good to keep score and see if that vision, and your execution of that vision, is living up to its potential. The Locavore movement and changing consumer value systems are great and all, but as Amy Ransom implied, for any success to be sustainable it must be rooted in the delivery of a great product that truly improves a customer’s quality of life, not guilt or charity.

Jean-Paul Courtens chats with us about how cows improve the soil fertility at Roxbury Farm.

Jean-Paul Courtens chats with us about how cows improve the soil fertility at Roxbury Farm.

Jean-Paul and Jody talked a lot about Roxbury’s ideals, about being rooted in Biodynamic principles, about diversity and fertility cycling and honoring the farm ecosystem as a singular living organism. Then they talked about scale and investing in harvesting and packing technology, about debt and financing and market saturation, about building their brand and paying a living wage.

The poetic and the prosaic were intertwined at Roxbury, contradicting and complimenting each other at the same time, stretching our brains to envision what is possible, and how to make it so.

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Spring has finally come to central Massachusetts, making our work in the greenhouse feel less like a fanciful delusion, imbuing it with a dose of urgency. Here in the next week we’re going to (finally, knock on wood) be able to get onto our fields, plowing and disking and bed-shaping, getting them ready to grow food for hundreds of families to eat throughout the summer and fall.

The model of The Farm School is, like most businesses, unique. It is not fully non-profit, it is not fully for-profit. Its main product may well be an experience, for kids and adults alike, that is by nature quite difficult to quantify. And yet it also grows and sells several tons of food, all of which is very much quantifiable. The Farm School Vegetable CSA expects, and is expected to, make a profit.

As our greenhouse production ramps up, as we move from seeding onions and greens to seeding peppers and tomatoes, as we start to transplant those seedlings into the ground, that profit motive becomes clearer. We’re still learning, yes, but we’re also working. Our quality matters, our intelligence matters, our attention to detail matters, our pace and efficiency and stamina all matter too.

There are a million poetic reasons why I’m excited about spring finally being here - honestly, I counted yesterday - but the prosaic reasons maybe excite me even more so. Spring, if you haven’t noticed, is when things come back to life, when they start growing again. For us aspiring farmers, the growing season is upon us, the time when our dreams and visions get put to the test, when our businesses succeed or fail.

Sweet pepper seedlings get planted out in trays with 512 cells to boost germination rates.

Sweet pepper seedlings get planted out in trays with 512 cells to boost germination rates.

We’ve still got a bit of a cushion around us, being students, but it everyday feels a bit more real. We’re about to find out if we can put out a world-class product, if we can add to our customers’ quality of life, if we can increase their sense of pleasure and joy. We’re about to start keeping score.

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A decade ago, I thought capitalism and money were the root of all (or, at least, a lot) of the evil in the world. They distorted relationships, disconnected us from each other and the natural world, promoted selfishness and greed, undercut the social fabric. And yeah, I do kinda sorta still believe that. But it’s complicated, and it’s nuanced. Because what is capitalism, really? And what, at its root, is money?

Saying this skims over a great deal - like the distortionary power of oligarchy and monopoly and wealth stratification, like the violent power of state policy and prejudice and institutionalized inequality - but at some level, I believe that we get the economy we deserve.

Capitalism is, simplistically, a decentralized system of producing value, and money is our collective way of measuring and demarcating value. Production responds (imperfectly and inconsistently) to the value signals sent by those with money. It ain't a perfect analogy, but spending a dollar is akin to placing a vote, validating and affirming and supporting the production methods behind whatever product it is that we just bought.

One of the many things that gives me hope about the food movement that’s been rising these last 25 years is that it believes in financial sustainability alongside everything else. It doesn’t want to - and knows that it can’t - rely on grants or earmarks or charity or goodwill. It is a decentralized movement that wants to produce something of value, something that will increase the quality of life, that will increase the happiness, of its customers. It wants to create something that individual people and families value so much that they part with their hard-earned (and increasingly scarce) money. It wants to rely on, and encourage, broader changing notions of what we value, of what is valuable.

It wants to show that another world is possible, basically.

As you may have guessed, I’m all about that. I can’t wait to grab a digging fork and a seedling tray, to drive the tractor all day long, to spend hours in the washing and packing barn, to get sweaty and dirty and exhausted, in service of that goal. To produce value, to manifest values.

See? I knew that the idealist, radical, 19-year-old me was still in there somewhere. Now he just eats a lot better.

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To see pictures of lambing and pruning and seeding and the (for real this time) beginning of spring, click here...

Time Travel

I haven’t written for a while, and now I’m going to start by talking about butterflies. Bear with me.

During some February travels, I found myself listening to the recent Radiolab episode, “Black Box.” Exploring those places where the beginning and the end are clear, but the middle is a mystery, the final story of the episode looked at the metamorphosis of butterflies. A caterpillar enters a chrysalis, and emerges from it a butterfly, but in the middle seems to dissolve into a sort of transformative goo. (Seriously, it's gross. Cut open a chrysalis and a substance the consistency of snot comes out.) That goo, neither caterpillar nor butterfly, has inspired mystics and baffled scientists for centuries. But, increasingly, we’re discovering that the caterpillar doesn't just dissolve. No, some parts of the caterpillar survive the goo, including tiny specks of its brain. And if you dissect a caterpillar before it begins metamorphosis, you’ll actually find the microscopic, translucent beginnings of its adult parts, including the wings, all of which survive the goo as well.

There's still plenty for mystics to work with here, of course. A complicated truth often makes for a better analogy.

The reporter ended the story by marveling at the conceptual switch this revelation has when used as metaphor. When we think of our future selves, we generally think about what parts of current me will carry forward, will still be around in 40 years. But, she says, “It’s not just what of me carries forward into the future. It’s what of my future self is in me right now.”

I can’t stop thinking about that.

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As we’re enduring the final weeks of an exceptional winter up here in New England, we’re laboring til exhaustion, creating cordwood that’ll heat us (and other people) next winter, or maybe even the winter after that. We’re felling and bucking and splitting and tossing and stacking for hours on end. All so that we (or, more likely, someone else that we don’t know) can take a hot shower in, like, January 2016.

As we harvest our own heat, we’re also opening up our veggie fields. Its hard to imagine, given that they’ve been blanketed by snow for almost four months now, but these fields are the future home of lettuces and carrots and kales and tomatoes, and we’re taking down trees so that more sunlight falls upon the seedlings that we’re starting to plant in the greenhouse.

Oh yeah, the greenhouse.

We’re in there now too, having transformed it from winter woodworking studio into springtime growing center. We moved out several tons of timber frame posts and beams, hosed it down and cleaned it up as best we could, built tables and soil containers, chipped apart and mixed 500-pound bags of frozen compost, and - before we knew it - began seeding 30,000 allium plants. Barely a week later, little green shoots are coming up, future storage onions and sweet red onions and shallots and scallions all announcing their arrival.

Did I mention that it is still bitterly cold outside, with over a foot of snow on the ground? Stepping into that greenhouse feels like stepping into the future.

As we put those seeds into soil, two months before the land outside will be even workable, I can’t help but marvel at the combination of planning and potential. At some level, onions already exist in those seeds, and it is simply our human job (through planning and hard, hard work) to make sure they come to fruition. But everything the onion needs to grow is there, every instinct to have its roots go down with gravity and its shoot go against it, to seek out and cultivate the nutrients it needs, to wait for certain temperature and moisture cues to initiate particular aspects of its development. The amount of intelligence in those tiny spheres that stick to my thumb as I struggle to seed them is mind-boggling. They hold the future.

Just like the butterfly and the cordwood and the onion seed, I’m beginning to see more clearly the parts of me that’ll make up my future self. Not in any specifics, of course, and maybe that’s appropriate. But rather in the daily practices of creativity, vision, humility, patience, ambition, pragmatism, and work ethic. I’m seeing the things inside of me that’ll make me a successful farmer, that’ll make me a happy and fulfilled human. I just need to nurture them, to help them grow how they want to.

I know how to grow an onion, I know how to grow myself. Nothing left to it but to do it, I suppose. Game on.

This has been a winter of transition, of optimism, of looking forward to new things and new directions. It has been a winter of questioning, of reflection. Maybe all winters are that.

It’s been good, is what I’m saying, and I’m ready for it to be over. It’s time to make the future happen.

Back to the greenhouse.

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To see the rest of my pictures from the end of winter and beginning of spring, click here...


Fear and Excitement are the Same Thing

A farm dies every year, or so they say. In January in New England, it seems like the main activity is making sure the farmers don't die as well. It's that cold.

We chop wood and fix the furnace and put on 97 layers and massage our frozen fingers and toes and sprint from building to building. If we're successful in not dying ourselves, we try to also make sure that animals don't die.

Fingers crossed, but so far, so good.

Once we've succeeded in that primary task, in keeping our physical selves alive, we go to work on the mental/emotional/spiritual side. Winter can be brutal. Dark, cold, and monochromatic, the abundance and freedom of summer feels worlds away. The future is abstract, the future is impossible to imagine.

And yet, imagine we do. Optimism, after all, seems a prerequisite for happiness, for action.

So, once the wood's been split and our toes have been warmed, we spend January imagining the future. We pour over seed catalogs, dive into crop planning spreadsheets, pick apart enterprise budgets, go to conferences, listen to other farmers' stories. We glean inspiration, get ideas, sketch out some plans, and then act. We start making the future happen.

I don't know why, exactly, but during this January the future has been overwhelming. It's like, "Wait a minute, I have to make decisions? I have to pick some things over other things? I have to act and create? I can't just chop wood forever?"

Educational experiences begin as a process of opening, of unveiling all the possibilities that the world offers. It is breathtaking, it is liberating. It is the definition of excitement.

But at some point, you have to plant that excitement, you have to ground it in something tangible, in something real. You have to choose.

That's what January's been for me, a realization of that necessity. Listening to Ben Shute of Hearty Roots Farm, to Julie and Jack of Many Hands Farm, to Garrett and Melissa of The Good Life Farm, the importance of commitment hits home. To create something worthwhile, you have to pick.

And then you have to work your butt off for a decade or two.

So what'll that be for me? I have a thousand ideas, which was exciting in November, and has been terrifying recently. Will I be in North Carolina or Vermont or Oregon or Kentucky? Will I grow veggies or raise pigs or milk cows or sow grains? Will I start my own thing or partner with someone or work for someone else? Will I specialize or diversify? Will I fail or succeed?

Last weekend, our group went to the Northeast Organic Farmers Association of New York's annual winter conference, listening to speakers and taking part in workshops and networking with other young farmers. It was fabulous, and it pushed my fear to the edge. There are so many worthwhile, amazing things to do, and they all take a lifetime. There are so many people I look up to, so many farmers and entrepreneurs that I admire, and there's one quality that they all share: they picked. They made a decision, and they stuck with it, through thick and thin.

Coming out of that conference, as winter mercilessly pushes on, I can feel that fear turning back into excitement, bit by bit. There's freedom in options, but there's freedom in decisions, too.

I don't know which ones are the right ones, but maybe thats the wrong way to think about it. The world is full of great possibilities. Maybe they're all the right decisions.

As long as you pick.

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To check out January's pictures, click here...

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Small and Stupid

Out in New Mexico, at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, there are two ways to get to the caves. One feels pretty standard and unremarkable: you walk into the visitors center, buy a ticket, and hop in an elevator for the long ride down. The other was so incredible, so memorable, that it still shapes my view of the world eight years later. Called the Natural Entrance, it’s a large hole in the ground where you, simply put, walk into the Earth’s crust. Starting out in the Chihuahuan Desert, you wind your way down steep cave walls, past millions of roosting bats and 200,000 ton boulders, until you’re 750 feet underground, in a dark and cool room that was previously an ancient coral reef. You feel like the smallest, most insignificant speck on this massive planet.

I gotta say, I absolutely loved that feeling, and ever since my trip to those caves, I seek it out constantly.

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“Every century we get smaller,” writes Martin Amis in his 1995 novel, The Information. His main character tells the tale of humankind’s gradual dethronement from the center of the universe. First Copernicus, then Darwin, then ever more research showing that we don’t hold monopolies on intelligence, or agriculture, or tool-making, or even language. It seems that we aren’t - contrary to what our brains often tell us - all that different from other animals, or even from plants.

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I found that quote referenced in a recent New Yorker issue that lay on my parents’ staircase when I arrived for all the holiday-ness. It was by Michael Pollan, and it was on plant intelligence. It had basically zilch to do with farming, but it thrust me back into the mind space I occupied while reading about botany a few weeks ago, a mind space of sheer wonder and awe.

In preparation for his botany class, Tyson, our head vegetable grower, had assigned us the better part of Botany for Gardeners. As I opened that book, I expected a long and practical slog through important plant information, full of new vocab and lingo, of italicized scientific terms, of mitosis diagrams. I got all that, for sure. But I also got something completely unexpected: a sense of mystery, of incredulous amazement at all that makes up the non-human world.

It seems to me that the more we humans research, the deeper we delve, the more clear our ignorance and insignificance becomes. The more we know, the more we don’t know.

For example, we’ve figured out that plants react in real time to their environment, that they produce hormones in response to gravity and sunlight, that they produce pheromones to communicate with other organisms, that they cultivate specific colonies of fungi around their roots, that they utilize animals to spread their seed and protect them from attack.

But, wait, what?! HOW do they do all those things? We’ve put names to a lot of what happens, but at some fundamental level, we’re still in the dark ages. It’s magic. At least, it is to me.

I had the same reaction as I read bits of Bert Holldobler and E.O. Wilson’s magnificent work on social insects, The Superorganism. We had a class on bees right before break, and I find them to be incredible and impenetrable, an object of study where my individual-centric worldview really gets in the way. I wanted to know more, to see if I can wrap my mind around them and how they work, if for nothing else than to be a better steward.

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So I read about the development of Eusociality, of the intricate division of labor in insect colonies, of the voluntary suppression of reproductive instincts, of the periodic release of different hormones in bees to change their physiology as they acquire different tasks through their lifetime, of how leaf-cutter ants cultivate and harvest a particular species of fungi, of how stunning hive architecture is created one decision at a time, of how colonies of seemingly infinite complexity arise when thousands of individuals follow simple rules.

I think I learned a bit more about bees, I think I’ll be a bit of a better beekeeper. But mostly, when I finished reading, I just closed the book and shook my head. What a world.

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I’m still trying to figure out the role of wonder and awe in farming. While it seems crucial to living a spiritually-fulfilled life, yes, will it help me fill out my CSA subscribers list? That’s less clear.

But farming may just be a profession where humility pays off, where reckoning with how small and stupid we are on a daily basis will lead to better crops, healthier animals, and even a more successful business. It seems to me that a lot of agricultural errors of the last 150 years have come about through arrogance and overconfidence, through a human-centric view of the universe, through ignorance of our own ignorance. By realizing how little we know, how much we rely on complex systems that we barely understand, how many intricate dramas are playing out below our radar, maybe we become better farmers. Maybe we try to collaborate with, instead of dominate, non-human systems. Maybe we design farms that imitate what has supported abundant life for thousands, or millions, of years. Maybe our minds are more focused, and we pay closer attention to the countless details hidden in our soils, our pastures, our forests.

Maybe, maybe, maybe. It’ll still be a hard-as-heck, financially-fraught profession. But at the very least, it’ll make working with plants and animals that much more fun. They make me feel dumb, which means I'll never be bored.

Settling In

I’ve got writer’s block.

I’ve had it for a while, actually. If you’re someone who periodically checks my blog to see what wacky farm adventures I’ve gotten myself into this time, you’ve surely noticed. I’ve started this particular blog post seven times, changing the title, never getting anywhere. I’ve even stared at this paragraph now for five minutes. Yeesh.

I don’t know what to say, and I’m trying to figure out why exactly that is.

I want to blame Winter, the diminishing light of late November and December, but that can’t be the case, because I’ve been smiling too much. Our work days have been shortened - due to not being able to see the cows after 4:30pm - but my days have felt even more full. Every evening there’s a collaborative cooking extravaganza, or a food fermentation/preservation project, or Bikram Yoga in the shop extension, or communal movie watching, or just dozens of disparate conversations, jokes and references and connections building by the hour.

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Basically, I haven’t wanted to lock myself in my room and stare at my computer. There are too many people here that I truly and genuinely like. There are too many fun and exciting and endlessly fascinating things to think about and do. We’re becoming an actual community, and I’m infinitely happier when I’m out there involved in that community life as much as possible.

There’s more, though. Something has changed for me in the past month, something about this place and these people and this thing that I’m doing.

When I first arrived in October, I was simultaneously both past- and future-oriented. I was thinking about the life and the people that I’d left behind, and I was thinking about the life and the people that I’d have once I finished. I approached the day-to-day program, and the people that shared it with me, in a utilitarian fashion: how would it help me get from where I was to where I’m going.

If I had to take a guess, I’d say that the turning point was the week of animal death, the week when we processed chickens and turkeys and saw a cow killed at the slaughterhouse. My relationship to this experience, and to this group of people, flipped. I became present-oriented. I couldn’t not be. I cared about every moment, and every person. I was going through intense experiences, I was becoming a different person, I was walking a path with an uncertain destiny. And so was everyone else. We were doing it together.

How fabulous.

My affection for this group, for each and every member of it, has only grown in the month since. We’ve had some rocky community meetings, some tense moments. We’ve had countless classes - okay, you’re right, I can count them - on Botany and Animal Health and Bee-Keeping and Soil Science and Butchery and Field Mapping and More. We’ve bucked trees and split logs and cleaned barns and moved hay. We’ve had Secret Elf gifting madness and Holiday Parties and Dance Parties and Birthday Parties. We’ve gone sledding and skiing and built snowmen and had snowball fights. We’ve had fun.

I think I’ve settled in, I think maybe we all have, just as Winter is doing the same.

How perfect.

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Here in Central Massachusetts we’ve had the coldest, snowiest December in decades. On Tuesday, we awoke to 10 inches of snow and a -8 degree reading on the thermometer. By the end of the day, we had 18 inches of snow. We live in a monochromatic world, nothing but shades of white.

It’s a far cry from the boisterous colors of October. Which is to say, we’ve been here for a long time. Three months (and one season) down, nine months (and three seasons) to go.

Everyone has packed up, the farmhouse has gone quiet, as we embark on a two week break. Our first real break since showing up and enduring those awkward first few days that feel a lifetime ago.

Surprisingly, to me at least, I think we’re all going to really miss each other. I know that I will. We’re going to go see friends and families and try desperately to explain what exactly it is that we’re doing up here. We’ll probably all fail miserably, and that’s okay. We’ll get some space, and then we’ll come back in 2014, rejuvenated and ready to go, ready to start (gasp!) thinking about the growing season.

Settled in, a bit more tight-knit and experienced, not yet worried about what’ll happen at the end of the ride, and just enjoying it while it lasts.

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To see the rest of the past two week's pictures, click here...

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Homecoming

Wendell Berry finished his talk, and the room rose to release a flood of deeply-held applause. Alongside his daughter Mary, the famous writer and ethicist had spoken for over 90 minutes. He had meandered from boyhood fishing stories to land-grant universities to living on the margins of a bad economy to the qualities of a good farmer. He sounded like my grandfathers, pausing and listening and dropping lines of wisdom seemingly out of nowhere.

Years before, he had inspired many of us to devote our lives to sustainable agriculture, to thrift, to local economies. Now, he had swept us off our feet.

We were all hungry, 300 of us sitting in the gorgeous main hall at Stone Barns, ready for dinner at the end of a long conference day, a dinner now an hour late. But we were full of so much love for all that brought us together, brought us to that exact moment, that we didn’t quite notice. Led by two farmer-musicians from Maine, Edith and Bennett, we belted out a worksong, “Thousands or More,” filling the rafters with appreciation, and at least a bit of harmony.

And then we ate dinner. And then we moved the tables aside and had a contra dance.

Safe to say, it was an inspiring week.

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I got the chance to go to the National Young Farmers Conference, and there was so much to take away that I don’t know where to start. I went to workshops on raising pigs and leasing land and rotational grazing. I got tips on how to set up electric fencing systems, how to build fertility in my soils, and how to creatively finance my operation through social media. I met fabulous young farmers from Wisconsin and Maine and Pennsylvania and Tennessee. I wrote down 30,785 pages of notes, and have 54,084 new topics (all numbers approximate) that I want to research and study in depth.

But most of all, I took away a feeling of arrival, of belonging, of home. It was weird, it was wonderful.

I don’t know if I can explain it.

I’ll try though, and Wendell Berry will help. In his talk, he said, speaking of our education system, “We only have one major, and it is called Upward Mobility. We need another one: Homecoming.”

Dag.

Ever since I was made aware that injustice and inequality exist in this world, I’ve been uncomfortable with Upward Mobility. It felt selfish, it felt cynical, it felt empty, it felt wrong. But it proved impossible to avoid. For one, material comforts are nice, and financial security is an increasingly precious commodity. For another, even my justice-themed education pushed me toward careers of ambition, of prestige, of accomplishment.

For yet another, I think all that’s okay.

So I accepted it as the way of the world, that you build a good life while doing what you need to do. I still think that’s true, but something was missing.

That something was a feeling of home, a place to invest in, a place to commit to. If it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, if it’s brutal and ruthless, if we have to fight for what we believe in and protect those we love, then home is necessary. Home is the antidote.

Home is where we have a community of support and solidarity, where we embrace the imperfections of those around us, where we accept the limits the world places on us, where we revere the small and seemingly insignificant. Home is what we work our butts off to improve and revive and prolong. Home is what we love, in all the complicated meanings of that word.

Of course, I don’t know where I’ll be in one year, or five, or twenty. I’m the product of a transient society, of a globalized generation. I don’t have a home, not really.

But sitting in that conference hall, watching the contra dance, chatting with an unending stream of good people, learning over and over again that I don’t know anything at all, I realized that I had found my home. I realized that these are the things I want to work on, these are the people I want to surround myself with, forever. I felt a newness, a clarity, a freedom.

Like I said, it was weird.

Of course, the conference ended and I said goodbye to those good folks and I drove through terrible traffic and rain and snow back to the good folks at Maggie’s Farm. Back to chores and classes and community living, back to chopping wood and feeding animals and planning next year’s crops. Back to the grinding process of transforming myself.

But I know now, that this is right. This work, this life, this community of people, is home. I knew that before, I think, but knowing new things, new life-changing things, comes in steps. It’s a process all its own, I suppose.

All I’m saying is: It was a good conference. Let me know if you want to see any of my notes.

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To see the rest of this week's pictures, which weren't numerous because I was busy taking notes, click on the "Photos" link at the top of the page.

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Don't Look Away

This week at Maggie’s Farm, we looked.

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As we edge toward both Thanksgiving and winter, our crew of learners and aspiring farmers had what amounted to Animal Death Week. The vegetable harvest is over, the pastures are frozen, feed prices are about to go up, our customers are excited to put a delicious roast in the middle of the table. An unavoidable part of raising livestock was upon us.

We loaded animals into trailers and drove them off to be killed. We watched animals be killed. We learned how to kill animals ourselves. We killed animals ourselves.

There were tears, there were hugs, there were difficult conversations and lots of soul-searching. There was bravery and compassion and empathy. There was reckoning with what it means to be a farmer, to be an omnivore, to be a human.

It was pretty intense and emotional. But it was also pretty great. It felt real, it felt meaningful, it felt life-changing. It was the best week I’ve had here, without a doubt.

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It feels obvious and uncontroversial (and cliche, but whatever) to say that our industrialized, globalized economy runs on ignorance. For so many products that we buy everyday, the company’s business model is predicated on obscuring how those things are made. For so many consumers, yours truly included, it is easier to not think about it, to not look. Even if we know, we don’t let ourselves really “know” all the time. It’s exhausting, and what’s the point? There are seven billion of us, and we’re busy, after all.

This is true for many things, of course. It’s true for fuel, for clothing, for smartphones.

But it feels more elemental, more basic, when it comes to meat. By not seeing how meat comes to be, it feels like we’re not only missing something important, but that we’ve lost something at the core of our collective being that we need to recapture.

I don’t know what that is, exactly. Reverence, maybe. Gratitude, probably.

Eating meat is cooked into our social and physiological beings. Even if some folks are happily and healthily vegetarians (or vegans) these days, meat eating is more than mere preference. The proteins and fats of a smartly-raised animal nourishes our body in ways nothing else really can. The bounty and allure of a cooked animal on a table (or in a backyard) encourages us to sit down together and converse and build human connection.

Meat is awesome. I love the taste, the way it makes me feel, the ceremony often involved.

But there’s a moment when a live creature - one with impulses and desires not impossible for a human mind to comprehend - is transformed into the building blocks of a civilized human meal, into meat. It’s a wild moment, a powerful moment, one that is rarely witnessed these days.

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I'm a firm believer that if more people saw on a regular basis how most animals are raised and slaughtered in this country, meat production would change overnight. It is so inhumane, so callous, so absolutely horrible, that we could not let it be. Most feedlots are located far from human population centers, however, and most slaughterhouses are fortresses of secrecy. So it continues on, out of sight and out of mind.

But while raising livestock in a different way often matches (or exceeds) the romanticized ideal of farming - a joyous variety of pasture rotation and veggie scrap feeding and egg collection - the ethical and humane slaughter of those animals is anything but that. It feels cruel, it feels gruesome and gross, it feels like a violation of the nurturing instinct we’ve used to take care of these animals, to give them healthy and happy lives.

It ain’t easy, and it ain’t pretty. It’s real. We’re killing an animal, so that we can eat it.

That’s where the gratitude and reverence come in. That’s why it’s important to look. Not so that we can take down an evil system (though that’d be nice). But rather, so that we can fully appreciate the miraculous systems - photosynthesis, ruminants, domestication, etc. - upon which we rely. So that we can better give thanks when the time comes, and have our hearts and minds grow larger along the way.

But yeah, it ain’t easy.

On Tuesday morning, we culled our old laying hens, their egg production tapering off. The mood was somber, as many of us hadn’t done anything like this before. We grabbed them from their coop, placed them upside down in a cone, put the knife to their neck, and cut. We tossed the head in the bucket, stepped back to watch the bird’s nervous system freak out, and waited for them to stop bleeding. We carried them to the scalding pot, loosened their feathers, then put them in the plucker. We took their naked, headless bodies - now looking distinctly like meat - to the table set up by the barn, where we cut off their feet, and pulled out their guts, heart, lungs, liver, kidney, gall bladder, gizzard, and any unformed eggs.

And then we made stock, and chicken nachos.

On Sunday morning, we killed and processed forty turkeys for Thanksgiving. This was a job, not a somber ritual. It was serious, it was hard, but there was laughter and conversation and bluegrass in the background. I ended up working at the killing cones most of the time, because I wanted to push past my discomfort, and because I didn’t seem to mind as much as some other folks.

I grabbed turkeys from the trailer, and quickly discovered that they are much bigger birds. I was whacked in the face by their wings and scratched on the hand by their talons, before improving my technique. I sharpened knives. I cut their heads off at the neck. I held their thrashing legs so that they wouldn’t flop out of the cone and spray blood everywhere, a consequence we learned of pretty early on. I carried their bodies into our thrown-together hoop house, where a team of folks was protected from the wind as they turned those bodies into something you’d recognize in a grocery store, or at a farmers market.

And then I went back to the trailer, and got another one.

Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.

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To see the rest of this week’s pictures, some of which are a bit graphic, but all of which are (I think) tasteful and beautiful, click here...

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The Law of Total Probability

This was a week of horror stories. Hang out with Chainsaw Bill long enough, and you’ll hear ‘em all.

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[Warning: I’m about to describe some gruesome injuries, just as they were described to me.]

There was that time a logger missed his mark, walked straight back (instead of at a 45-degree angle) from the the falling tree as it hit another tree and bent under the pressure. The hinge he left in the wood then turned into a torpedo, firing out the back of the cut at 60 feet/second, amputating his leg at the knee before he knew it.

Oof. Did ya wince? Me too. Chainsaw Bill was just getting started.

There was that other time when a co-worker of Chainsaw Bill made his wedge and then cut from the back (instead of doing a plunge cut) on a tree that was far too large. As soon as you cut from the back, the tree starts to fall, and if you can’t cut through the whole trunk fast enough, the pressure causes the tree to “Barber Shop”, splitting down the middle in an ear-shattering instant. The tree basically exploded, hurling countless six-foot long javelins of oak 150 feet into the air, to come down wherever they may. Chainsaw Bill ran behind the biggest tree he could find, curled into a ball, and prayed.

Everyone turned out okay that time, somehow. But not so for a friend of Chainsaw Bill, who also had a tree “Barber Shop” on him while executing a back cut, and who was crushed as he ran away by a three-ton piece of that tree’s trunk when it blew.

Then there’s the time when a logger did everything right, made the perfect cut, walked away, and turned to watch the tree come down just where he wanted. But he stopped under a dead tree that he didn’t identify beforehand, and the impact from the falling tree caused the dead tree above him to snap in half, 40 feet and four tons of American Birch crashing down directly on top of him.

And I haven’t yet mentioned the hundreds of stories involving the saw blade, when that one lapse in focus leads to a nasty gash (or worse) on your foot or thigh. Nor have I mentioned that all chainsaws have a “kickback corner,” the part of the saw blade that’ll KICKBACK INTO YOUR FACE (or, if lucky, your shoulder) should you catch it unsuspectingly on the wood.

Okay, I’m done. Chainsaw Bill wasn’t, but I have to move on to discuss the fact that these stories were told while we were learning to cut down trees with chainsaws.

Terrifying.

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According to professional loggers, for every 100 mistakes that are made, there are ten injuries, and one death. In some ways, it’s just a matter of time. There are endless ways to get hurt, endless ways to die. As I gripped the chainsaw and pulled the starter cord, it certainly felt like that.

I guess you could say that there’s a strong incentive to focus.

But, in what feels like sheer lunacy, anyone can go to their local Home Depot or Lowe’s and buy a chainsaw. That is, without any sort of training, you can go buy a hand-held machine that rotates a 3-foot long saw blade at 60 mph, and then go cut down the 100 year-old oak in your backyard.

You, humble reader, can go do this right now.

Chainsaw Bill’s horror stories were designed to engender in us the appropriate level of fear and respect for this dangerous thing we were doing. In truth, he was one of the nicest humans I’ve ever met, jolly and jovial, happy that he gets another day to live and work in the woods.

But he carried himself with a seriousness, an intention, that was impossible not to notice. Every movement was focused and thought-out. He’s seen too many hard-working friends and colleagues die, and had too many horrific near-misses of his own, to not bow down before the Law of Total Probability that governs his line of work, and to not spend every moment obsessed with holding off the inevitable for another day.

It was impossible not to admire, to hope to emulate.

Chainsaw Bill considers himself a farmer of the forest. He knows that here on the east coast of North America, we grow trees better than we grow just about anything else. He knows that you can heat your home with oil from Kuwait or fracked gas from Ohio, or you can heat it with the forest ecosystem in which you live. He wants more people to be self-sufficient, to know how to do hard and dangerous things safely, to appreciate and make good use of the abundance that is all around.

And so, when my turn came to cut down a tree, I focused in a way that felt quite rare.

I was terrified, yes, but he’d given us the tools we needed to transform that fear into effective action. We made our cut plan. We picked our target. We identified any potential hazards, any hanging dead limbs or nearby dead trees. We identified the lean of the tree so that we’d know how it would fall. We estimated the necessary width and length of the hinge, that crucial sliver of wood that you leave intact in order to control the fall of the tree. We mapped out an escape route. Everyone backed up.

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I pulled the cord, and turned off the chain brake. I leaned my left shoulder into the tree, facing my target, and cut at 70 degrees until eight inches of my saw had disappeared. I cut out the wedge, going horizontal to meet at the bottom of the first cut. I walked around the tree to the side from which I would escape. I made my plunge cut, angling the saw so that my attack corner, not my kickback corner, would touch the wood first. I edged up to the hinge, leaving less than one inch of wood to hold the 10 tons of tree above it. I looked up, looked around, got the go-ahead from Chainsaw Bill, and started moving the chainsaw back through the trunk. When the saw exited the wood, I heard a pop, knew the tree was going, stood up straight, put on the chain brake, and walked away (at a 45 degree angle, of course). Through my thick headphones, I heard a big thump behind me. Through the ground, I felt it.

I turned around, and there was an 80-foot tall Red Oak on the ground, exactly where I aimed it.

Wild.

I exhaled for what felt like the first time in two minutes. My heartbeat took a good ten more minutes to calm down. We moved on to the turns of other people in the group, to other necessary chainsaw skills like limbing and bucking, and eventually, to chores and the weekend. We said goodbye to Chainsaw Bill and went to go feed the sheep.

But that feeling stuck with me. The feeling of intentionally, methodically, doing something incredibly dangerous.

Terrifying, yes. But also awesome. As long as you focus.

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To see the rest of this week's pictures, click here...

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Slow Down, Listen, Get to Work

 I began this week struggling with my addiction. Now, I don’t know if a clinical psychologist would label my relationship with media an addiction, but it certainly feels that way. A compulsion, maybe, would be more accurate. Either way, it occupies a significant portion of my brain space, and it doesn’t feel healthy. Not in the slightest.

For the past two years, I’ve had jobs that required a decent amount of time in front of a computer. A common plight for the modern American worker, I suppose. Emails and spreadsheets and dashboards and data entry galore. Because some of those e-tasks can feel mundane or lacking in urgency, and because a whole world of information was at my fingertips, I would occasionally let my discipline slip and open a tab or two (or twelve) in the internet browser. Suddenly, my brain was flooded with the latest news analysis, sports commentary, friend network update, or pop culture critique.

I was entertained. I was happy.

But not for long, of course. That feeling was fleeting. It was a distraction of empty entertainment calories that made me feel guilty for not focusing on my job, hollow for not contributing anything of worth to the world.

So much of modern media is designed to fuel that addiction, however, and I wasn’t strong enough to fight it. Any moment of boredom, or difficulty, or quiet, and I went back. I fed that urge to know what people were saying online, what the latest big thing was, to maybe even add my own witty comment, to play the game.

I let myself develop unhealthy mental patterns, and I knew it, and I hated it. I wasn’t present with people, I wasn’t present with my job, I wasn’t doing the hard work to challenge myself and grow. I was stagnating.

I thought, I hoped, that changing careers and diving into the unending work of farming would solve this problem. I would fill my brain with all sorts of worthwhile things, and the frivolity would get pushed out. I would grow, learning and creating things, feeling meaning and purpose once again.

But it ain’t that easy. Mental patterns have a way of sticking, of perpetuating themselves. Addictions and compulsions have a way of calling to you in a moment of weakness, of luring you back in. Of tormenting you.

Even though I was surrounded by stimulating challenges and amazing opportunities, even though I was waking up at 5:45am every morning and working long 12-hour days, the frivolities remained, the distractions persisted. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t in control of my own brain, that the desire for those empty entertainment calories was overwhelming my circuitry.

I was not changing like I hoped. I realized that my addiction wouldn’t go away on its own, that I had to beat it myself.

So, after a sleepless night, I got up even earlier than normal on Monday morning, sat in my dark room, and resolved to do just that.

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Working with living things, with living systems, is unendingly challenging. I’m beginning to believe that it is also unendingly rewarding.

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On Thursday and Friday, along with a few other students, I went up to Fair Winds Farm in Brattleboro, VT, to participate in a two-day draft horse workshop with Jay and Janet Bailey. We practiced being driven around blindfolded, with two strings slung over our shoulders, nothing to guide us but subtle tugs and one-word cues. We learned the proper hand position for driving a team of horses - holding tension, taking it in, and letting it back out, all in what amounted to a graceful dance - with our lines clipped around a barn post. We walked the massive Suffolk horses - Charlie, Robin, Phoebe, and Jess - out of their stalls, put on their harnesses and bridals, and drove them down to the yard. We practiced our verbal and tactile commands by weaving them around obstacles, by dragging a log around the greenhouse, by hitching them to wagons and driving them through the woods and across the fields. 

It was actually quite easy, and yet also somehow maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

These horses are intelligent creatures that’ve been clearly well-trained. They turn their ears to listen for your command, they look you in the eye to watch for your cue. They know when it is time for work, and they focus on the task at hand. They very much want to do what you want them to do.

And yet, they also have personalities, they also have occasional difficulty suppressing instincts or yearnings. They will test you without warning, refuse to listen, resist the turn you need them to make. They will feel for your inattention, your loss of focus, your distraction, and take full advantage.

To work with horses, we found out, you have to slow down your mind, be fully present, and listen to everything they say. Otherwise, communication is impossible.

It is an extreme test of patience, of focus, of discipline. Every false step or hesitation communicates something to you, every gentle tug or release of the shoulders communicates something back to them. You think everything’s going great, so you start thinking passively about dinner or the movie you’re going to see or the friend you need to call, and then the horses have turned the cart around before you could react.

Jay and Janet have been running their farm with horse-power for 34 years, and they will tell you that the learning, the listening, the focus never ends. It is a lifetime of effort. It is simply part of the work.

I always hesitate to say what “we need”, but it seems to me that we need to work more often with living creatures, with living systems.

I could argue that we need to do this because we rely upon them, that we are a part of living systems, and that all human efforts to dominate or circumnavigate living things will ultimately result in failure. Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not, maybe it’s impossible to tell. But either way, that’s not where my time with draft horses took me this week.

Instead, I thought endlessly about the spiritual and intellectual benefits of this work. When working with living things, we are engaged in a partnership, in an exchange. It might not be equal - though I don’t know how that would ever be measured - but it is a partnership nonetheless. We do not control everything that happens; we are but actors within a larger play. There are a lot of other things going on.

Working with living things requires us to slow down, to purge ourselves of distraction, to focus on the task at hand, and to listen. It is difficult, and it requires every part of us.

How incredible.

At lunch on Friday, sitting around their dining room table, the Baileys were talking about their recently-entered partnership with a younger farming couple, about how they balance mentorship with letting go, when Jay brought the topic back to horses. “Working with horses helps. For me, working with the horses is like meditation,” he said. “It makes me focus on something other than myself, attend myself to the needs of another being.”

I can easily imagine myself working with horses, but I don’t know if it’ll ever happen. What I do know is that I never want to stop working with other living things, be it soil or vegetables or sheep or cows or my children or my friends or my partner. They may be hard or complicated or quirky or imperfect, but that's the stuff with which incredible things are built. They are more than worth the trouble.

And through them, through that work, maybe I can build myself, too.

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To see the rest of this week's pictures, click here... 

 

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Intensity and Perception

 “Gentle to the touch, exquisite to contemplate, tractable in creative hands, stronger by weight than iron, wood was, as William Penn had said, ‘a substance with a soul’.” - Eric Sloane in A Reverence for Wood

Things I discovered this week: 1) I really enjoy woodworking, and 2) woodworking is really, really hard.

When our resident woodworker/stonemason/wisdom-dispenser Josh Buell laid out on the table the plans for the timber frame structure, my brain exploded. In a good way.

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There were angles and measurements and intricate joint designs. There were new vocabulary words like mortise and tenon and gable and top-plate and girding sill. There were massive, impossibly heavy pieces of milled white pine arranged on saw horses around the greenhouse, awaiting the pencil and chisel. A three-dimensional imagination was mandatory. It was a blast.

My brain understood the concepts, processed the new information, and was ready to put the plan into action. So when Nick and I walked over to the 16-foot long 8”x10” behemoth that we were going to turn into one of the building’s top plates, my brain was couldn’t wait to get going.

My hands, on the other hand, had no idea what they were in for.

A defining feature, it seems to me, of the “information economy” is that brain work is valued more than hand work. Analysis and diagnosis and problem solving and articulation are all prized skills. I like those skills, too. I like building and honing and using them on a daily basis. In fact, the varied mental tasks involved in farming - pasture rotation and vegetable botany and expense spreadsheets - were a big draw for me toward this career.

It’s beyond the scope of this little blog post to try breaking down why working with your hands is now just part of a niche market, why artisanal craftsmanship can be quickly pigeonholed into an “elitist luxury” corner. Probably has something to do with industrialization and efficiency and economic growth, I’d wager.

But really, what stood out to me this week, as I gripped a chisel and clumsily tried to chip out a precise mortise for the post to fit into, were the imperfections of the wood and the imperfections of my hands. Those imperfections, in the material and the tool, imbued the task with a patience and focus and attention to detail that transformed construction into art. Those imperfections make timber framing.

In our Intro to Timber Framing workshop on Tuesday, Josh used the term “vernacular architecture” to refer to any building method that uses local builders, local materials, and local traditions. In these New England woods, timber framing is certainly that. It was a style brought over by the English and the Dutch - although timber framing traditions are found in many places, including East Asia and Ancient Egypt - one they developed to make best use of scraggly lumber produced by the second-growth forests that predominated in northern Europe. The design was such that it would produce a strong and stable building using sub-optimal wood.

The results are durable, unique structures. In this stretch of central Massachusetts, many homes and barns are, upon further inspection, resting upon two- or three-century old frames. Chestnut and oak and pine beams hang over countless kitchens, shield countless tool sheds from the weather.

All made by hand, with intensity and perception, one hand saw or one chisel at a time.

For me at least, it flips predominant notions of efficiency and productivity on their heads, showing that our time frames are too short and our calculated costs too narrow. If we use patience and skill and attention to all the imperfections of the world, we may take longer, but we’ll make things that last longer, too.

Makes sense in theory, right? Well, I’ve gone back to my comfort zone here, the land of abstract thought and analysis. A big part of this year for me is moving beyond that realm and developing actionable physical skills for making something tangible. I’m plenty good at wrapping my mind around something. I need to wrap my hands around it as well.

The timber frame does have to be built, after all.

At first, my hands couldn’t cash checks that my brain was writing. I knew that end had to be squared off, but my saw was unsteady and slanted. I knew the brace mortise had to start 28½ inches from the edge of the post mortise, but apparently my hand flinched and I was off by an eighth. I knew the three-foot long scarf joint had to include a 60-degree cut at each end, measuring 2⅜ inches, but no matter how many times I re-drew the lines they never matched. I knew the mortises required a perfectly squared-off ½ inch notch, but that 90 degree angle proved maddeningly elusive.

It was frustrating and exhausting. Power saws and drills and screws were lusted for early and often. My hands didn’t know what they were doing. They needed help.

But, as happens, they got better. I got better. We all did, and after just a few days you could start to see parts of the structure come into place. A structure that’ll hopefully last for a long, long time.

I led off with that quote from Eric Sloan’s book, and the embedded quote by William Penn, as a bridge to what I wrote last week. Trees are marvelous organisms, and the wood they produce is an incredible material, a boon to humankind. Like all living things, they’re also imperfect, full of knots and curves and inconveniently located weaknesses.

If we give them the attention and reverence and skill those imperfections demand, incredible things can be made. Slowly but surely.

I really enjoy woodworking.

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To see the rest of this week’s pictures, click here...

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One with the Trees

Last week, I hugged a tree. Now, I’ve done this before - both as a joke and because I'm a hippie who actually finds it quite soothing - but this time was different. I was hugging this tree so that I could tie the ribbon that would mark it to be cut down.

Growing up, I slowly developed a love and appreciation of the natural world. I camped in it, I found peace and clarity in it, I engaged in activism to help protect it. In my adult years, I’ve taken that relationship deeper, marveling in the intricate wonders of bird songs and edible plants and fungi.

In many ways, natural spaces have felt like a home, like places to which I’m returning even if I’d never been there before. They’re where I find my greatest sense of beauty, awe, and divinity. They’re awesome.

And they’re almost always marked by the lack of a human presence.

This is confusing, because I really like humans, too.

I’ve been thinking about this contradiction a lot recently, as we’ve been diving into the world of wood here at Maggie's Farm. We’ve been listening to lectures on forest ecology, walking through the forest to read the natural history and ID different tree species, cutting down and dragging out logs of Eastern White Pine, working all day at the sawmill to make sixteen-foot long 8’ x 8’ beams for our timber frame project, using our nascent carpentry skills to build a pair of picnic tables.

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I’m trying to talk on this blog about transformations, right? Well, holy moly, there are countless transformations that are performed with wood, and they're fun and challenging and profoundly practical. But that wood, I’ve been reminded repeatedly, has to come from somewhere.

As a human, I like using things. I like books and computers and heat and lights at night. I like tables and chairs and a roof over my head. I even like traveling really fast from place to place. I especially like eating and drinking and dance parties.

All of those things, in one way or another, come from nature. I know this. All too often, they’re produced in ways that I abstractly disagree with, by polluting the water or clear-cutting the forest or blasting the tops off of mountains or washing away the topsoil or spewing carbon into the air. I know this, too.

All too often, I ignore (or decide not to see) those production methods. It’s too inconvenient or complicated or conflicted to hold in my head at all times. I like things, and the world is messed up. I try my best, but it is what it is.

Walking in the woods, though, with two rolls of tape to mark trees that will stay and trees that will come down, I had no choice but to see. I was a human, a product and a part of the natural world, completely intertwined, and I had to figure out how to value all these things at once.

In the future, in my dreamy dreams, I hope to have farmland with a substantial chunk of forest on it. The ecological benefits to the farm are large, and the aesthetic benefits to me (and my family) maybe even larger. But as with the rest of my farm, I want to be able to work with natural systems to sustainably get what I need, be it fuel or lumber or money, keeping all of us healthy.

And that’ll mean cutting down some trees. So I better become okay with it. And I better learn how to do it well.

On Friday, we hung out with a state forester who reviews cutting plans and monitors logging companies and advises landowners on how to do it all in a way that’ll protect the land for future generations of all species. We looked at trees that may have good lumber value now, those that’ll have better lumber value in 20 years, those that are crowding out trees with more potential, and those that are crucial for biodiversity and animal habitat. We talked about trees as a cash crop, how we might “thin” them out as if they were carrots. We talked about trees as beautiful, majestic organisms that we want to share with our children and grandchildren.

And then we made some hard choices.

As we walked out of the woods, a giant diesel machine carrying two huge trees made it’s way by us on the logging road that has been cut into The Farm School’s property. It was jarring, and a bit scary. It felt destructive and violent, the opposite feelings I usually get from a forest.

I don’t know enough yet to evaluate whether this was the right thing to do, whether this logging was being done well. I know the folks here are ethical and thoughtful when making decisions about the land, I trust them to hold it all at the same time.

But it’s confusing when things become less abstract. You gotta get down in the muck.

That afternoon we built picnic tables to be put in the new "Biergarten" by the main farmhouse, hopefully to be enjoyed and appreciated for years. Over the next few weeks, we’ll start taking all of the posts and planks that we've milled and slowly build a 16' x 25' timber frame structure. It is starting to consistently get below freezing at night, so all the wood stacked by our boiler will soon be turned into heat for our drafty house. 

I've felt the human-nature division fall away before, but this is something new. I'm an actor, a beneficiary, a steward, all at once. 

Trees are incredible organisms that are worthy of our reverence. I know this. But what if that reverence didn't mean that we had to take a purely hands-off approach to the forest ecosystem?

What if the greatest way to honor the forest is to rely upon it? What if we acted everyday with the realization that we need it to stay healthy and vibrant and productive for the centuries yet to come?

The decisions that come along with such an approach might be a little muckier, but maybe that's where selfishness and altruism come together. Maybe we need the muck.

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To see the rest of this week's pictures, click here... 

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The Raw Life

 First things first, hats off to the countless generations of humans who milked by hand. This stuff is hard.

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There were many things I thought about this week while milking our Jersey cow, Goldie. I thought of the magic of grass turning sunlight into fiber, and of this large mammal turning that grass into a miracle food. I thought about the ridiculousness of this activity, about how people have obtained this taken-for-granted substance for centuries. I thought about when Goldie was next going to kick the bucket over, or slap my face with her tail. I thought about the blessing and the curse of fossil fuels, the blessing and the curse of pasteurization. I thought about how much milk was on my hands and pants and shoes, and how much was actually in the bucket. I thought about if I was going to finish in time to make it to breakfast.

Do a repetitive, manual task for forty minutes, twice a day, for seven straight days, and you’ll find your mind wandering as well.

But mostly, I thought about how much my hands hurt.

Raw milk is a much-debated topic these days. The post-pasteurization folks view it as a silver bullet, infusing us with its rich microbial activity, preventing everything from allergies to asthma to autism. The FDA views it as a pathogen-rich public safety hazard, sending in SWAT teams in the middle of the night to raid small-scale raw dairy operations.

What do I think? Well, there probably aren’t any silver bullets to our varied health crises, even if I do believe there are many beneficial bacteria in properly handled raw milk. And the FDA and other bacteriophobes are way off base with their core assumptions about how to keep the public safe, destroying small businesses and infringing upon consumer freedom in the process.

But mostly, I think raw milk is the most gloriously decadent food, and drinking it makes me rejoice at being alive.

I loved waking up at 5:30am every morning, grabbing coffee, putting on my jacket and boots, and walking out to the field knowing that an animal was waiting on me. I loved the intimacy of scooting up next to her broad flank, nustling my forehead in at the end of her ribcage, and methodically going to work. I loved taking extreme caution with the milk in the pail, knowing that I was going to drink this perfect breeding ground for bacteria, that I was going to have to vouch for it to the rest of the community. I loved feeling like if I treated Goldie well, she treated me well in return.

It felt like a sacred and ancient exchange. I’ve felt pretty close to my food before, but never quite this close.

This is what we humans have been doing for a long time. In the 18th-Century timber framed barn here at Maggie’s Farm, above the stanchion where we milk Goldie, you can see evidence of the record-keeping done by German immigrants in their dairy 200 years ago. In the pre-dawn hours, it is haunting.

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 I couldn’t help but imagine them sitting exactly where I was, doing the exact same thing: hunched over, hands clenched, milk filling a pail. I couldn’t help but think how much I envied the men and women who came before me, and how much I pitied them. I could help but wonder about all the ways we were similar, and all the ways we were different.

It seems that we’ve lost a great deal through the industrialization of our food system, but it’d be foolish to not recognize how much we’ve gained as well. As my hands started cramping, I became extremely thankful for fossil fuels, for generators and vacuum pumps. Hand milking is magical, yes, but also draining, unrelenting, and time consuming.

To have a little extra help frees up so much for me, for my society, to do other great things. Novels and films and music, the opening of worlds. I value all of that deeply, and it’s hard to imagine much of it existing or being accessible to a plebeian like me without the technologies and energy sources that are all too easy to demonize from afar.

But we’ve gone too far, for sure. We don’t know where milk comes from, not really. I sure didn’t. And in losing that knowledge, we lose an important piece of our collective history. We wage war on the specter of unseen microbes that we don’t understand. We argue and flail around in search of what will make us healthy, with no anchor to hold us down.

The raw milk debate will surely rage on, with most commentators most of the time missing the whole point. I have my hunches about where the science on bacteria and health will end up, but in all honesty I don’t know. We’ll have to wait for conclusive answers on that front.

What I do know is that anything that brings us closer to the food and processes that sustain us, anything that lifts the veil on what food is and where it comes from, anything that produces joy and awe at what the world can provide, is a good thing. Raw milk does that. In fact, to be done correctly and safely, it requires a level of connection, and intimacy, and trust, that all seems rare in this world.

As I walked Goldie back out to her pasture once we finished milking, my mind always wandered back to the grass we were walking on, the grass Goldie kept stubbornly stopping to eat. Somehow, someway, through millennia of evolution and centuries of human enterprise, there was this large creature that subsisted on the grass that grew freely under the sun, producing gallons of delicious growth juice for us to drink.

Cheers to that. Bottoms up.

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To see the rest of my pictures from this week, which may or may not have included things not related to Goldie or milking, click here...

 

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By the People, For the People

It been but two weeks since leaving the technocratic dreamscape of Washington DC, and already I'm a full-fledged member of the Tea Party.

Okay, not quite. But man, I get it. The shutdown is dumb and destructive, but those Libertarians weren't wrong about everything.

I was going to write this week about how the rhythms of work transform the mind, how they stress and strengthen a community. Maybe I would write about our forest walk and the saw mill, about turning the bounty of a healthy forest into simple and durable structures. Maybe I would write about the ridiculous trip we took with our new dairy cow, Goldie, from one end of the property to the other, and the magic drudgery that is hand-milking. Maybe I would write about a morning of intimate interaction with the pigs and sheep. Maybe I would write about harvesting carrots and cabbage and beets and turnips, about putting a farm to sleep at the end of the season.

Maybe I'll write about all of those things still. But my week's intellectual journey was derailed when I learned that my small farm dreams may die before ever being born. And the misguided good intentions (if we're being charitable) of new food safety regulations are squarely to blame.

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In a previous life I thought I wanted to work in public policy, maybe even food and agricultural policy. I saw the power of government to directly impact lives and businesses, to create space for some things to flourish, to make it impossible or impractical for other things to survive. What those things were depended on us the citizens, on our collective values, and on the intelligence and integrity of government professionals. I believed in the abstract wisdom of the citizenry, and I wanted to add one more (hopefully) intelligent and (mostly) ethical person to the policy mix.

It didn't end up being the right work for me, but this week I'm reminded of how grateful I am that it is the right work for other good people. I'm reminded of how reliant I am on them, how interwoven I am into this society of ours.

There's a lot of great writing out there on the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and the dangers it poses to the viability of small farmers and sustainable agriculture. I've been devouring the summaries and analyses put out by Brian Snyder (Executive Director of Pennsylvania Alliance of Sustainable Agriculture), the National Young Farmers Coalition, the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. I can't and won't try to do them justice here, but I will post some links at the bottom, and if you care about where your food comes from, they’re each worth reading in full.

But I will say that - at a time when interest in local and sustainable agriculture is growing rapidly, when a revolution is taking hold in how we view nutrition and the role of bacteria in the health of all things, and when more than ever young people are returning to the countryside to work the land and try to earn an ethical living - the proposed rules put out by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under FSMA are truly shocking.

Signed into law in January 2011, FSMA gave the FDA broad powers to design new rules and regulations to prevent food safety problems. Earlier this year, the FDA released 3,500+ pages documenting those proposed rules. The period for public comment has been twice extended, with the final deadline now being November 15. Once the draft is made final, we will collectively have to live with the consequences. And all indications are that those consequences will be huge for small-scale and sustainable agriculture, for young and beginning farmers in particular.

The FDA’s own economic impact survey estimated that the average farm with annual revenues of less than $250,000 will lose over half of their (modest) net income each year to stay in compliance with FSMA. It should be noted that 96% of farms run by beginning farmers (those with less than 10 years of experience) gross less than $250,000 per year. So, that’s me and all my new friends here at the Farm School.

The FDA itself says that “the rate of entry of very small and small [farm] businesses will decrease.” Yeah, I’d say so. I assume that the FDA’s estimates are conservative. I am terrified.

These rules touch every aspect of growing and harvesting crops. (They only focus on produce, as livestock production is regulated by the USDA, who wrote new slaughterhouse regulations during the 1990s that resulted in many small processors going out of business, significantly hampering the local and ethical meat industry to the benefit of larger factory-farm style operations.) They mandate specific worker hygiene and training regimens, expensive weekly groundwater tests, and manure/compost application schedules, among other things.

They have the potential to make many food hubs - a new business model, near and dear to my heart, that has the ability to transform the local food marketplace by allowing small farmers to achieve the benefits of scale while retaining the benefits of being small and diversified - shut down, and prevent new ones from opening. Firms with less than 20 employees produce just 4% of the food sold in the US, but those firms would bear 73% of the cost of implementing FSMA’s new rules.

Again, this is according to the FDA’s own study.

Former USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, a champion of local food and the author of the “Know your Farmer, Know your Food” campaign, stated in a recent speech that the FSMA rules have the potential to “destroy some operations.”

These rules disproportionately impact the sector of the food economy that is the least responsible for imperiling the food system. They appear to be ignorant of how small and diverse farms actually work. They are often based on discredited or outdated science. They contradict the government’s own organic program. They could halt innovation and reduce access to fresh and healthy food. They are frequently confusing and vague, and give far too much power to government regulators. They fly in the face of the everyday decisions made by a growing number of consumers (and citizens) who buy from small and local producers. They imperil the future of our food supply by discouraging young people from entering the profession. They say nothing about genetically engineered crops, pesticide use, or antibiotic resistance.

Like many in my generation, I think, the Iraq War made me profoundly disillusioned. Those in power were going to do what they were going to do. Protests, chants, marches, signs, letter-writing campaigns: none of it mattered. I might as well try build something I can believe in, to create something worthwhile, instead of fighting losing battles.

But I can’t just move to the countryside, immerse myself in physical labor, and ignore all the rest. Larger forces have a way of showing up on your doorstep, no matter what. Sometimes, you’ve got no choice, you have to fight.

I’m going to fight.

This is my future we’re talking about. Rather, this is our future. Public comment remains open for another month, until November 15. If you care about local and sustainable agriculture, please do something, anything, to help stop these rules from becoming the law of the land.

It is our government, after all. Let’s do whatever we can to make sure it reflects our values.

Let’s fight. Share your voice.

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Resources:

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To see pictures from what we actually did at Maggie's farm this week, click here...

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Sunset, Sunrise

 You know that moment when an abstract thought, a plan, a far-off decision, turns into reality?

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Oof, what a moment.

This past Sunday was one of those moments. I had quit my job. I had moved out of my apartment. I had put all of my things into boxes and bags. I had said goodbye to my friends. I had dropped off my cat at a neighbor’s house. I had watched my fiancee leave to live and work in India for nine months. I had volunteered at several farms, anxious to get going. I had committed to living, learning, and working at The Farm School for the year. I had committed to myself to pursue agriculture as a profession, to change my life.

And yet, I couldn’t leave. I didn’t want to. I just sat on my stoop in the DC neighborhood of Mt. Pleasant, watching the sun set across Rock Creek Park, again, as I’d done many times. I was sad. And I was scared.

Time keeps moving, and periods in your life end. Even though I’m still pretty young, I think I’ve learned that much so far. Moments never last forever, so better to appreciate them, then let them go, always creating new ones along the way.

But here I was about to leave a city that I had made my home. A city where I had become an adult, where I had built lasting and meaningful friendships. A city where I had fallen in love, where I had worked and fought like hell to protect and restore and deepen that love. A city where I had biked and danced and taught young people. A city where I had countless memories, where my life had happened.

So I was sad to turn the page on this chapter, to let this place go. I was on the verge of tears all day long.

And I was scared that I was making a silly decision, a naive and immature one, that I wouldn’t be able to cut it as a farmer, that this stress was all for naught. I was scared that I was leaving an actual good life in the present, for a fictitious one in the future. I was worried that I would fail.

The funny thing about abstract decisions, of course, is that they become real, whether or not you’re ready for them to do so. I had set in motion this life change for a million different reasons, even if those reasons weren’t readily apparent to me as I sat on that lovely DC stoop, and there was nothing left to do but take a deep breath, and start the next chapter.

So I went inside, set my alarm for super-early, and fell asleep. Then I woke up, shoved everything in my tiny two-door Civic, and drove through a silent city, heading north.

 

 

 

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This year will surely prove to be lots of things, but I’m already confident it’ll be an extended investigation into the hypothesis that sunrises are in fact as beautiful as sunsets. Not even one week in, and I already have several data points. And conclusions certainly can’t be made quite yet, but all signs are pointing toward: yes, sunrises are beautiful.

It turns out that, if you have a lot to do during daylight hours and not that much to do once the sun goes down, getting up early ain’t all that hard. And there’s a lot to do.

After finally leaving DC, I went to the Adirondacks in northeast New York where my friend Nate started Reber Rock Farm earlier this year. From there, I wound my way around Lake Champlain and through the Green Mountains in Vermont to see my friends Kara and Ryan and their incredible Evening Song Farm.

The nice thing about visiting your friends’ farms in early October is that there’s no time for emotion. No, there’s work to be done. There’s bacon to be smoked and sliced and packaged, braces to be put up on a new barn, there are cows and turkeys and goats to be moved, potatoes to be dug out, beets to be washed, and on and on and on.

Bone tired and semi-delirious at 9:30pm on Wednesday night, Kara and I ended up talking about going to summer camp as young people, a transformative experience for both of us. We were talking about having the realization while hiking up a mountain that we could do amazing things that felt impossible at the outset. Just keeping taking steps, one at a time, and you’d reach the top.

That realization had stuck with her, proving immensely valuable when starting her farm, and even more so when re-starting it two years later after a natural disaster wiped out everything.

And remembering that truth - that big accomplishments are but collections of thousands of tiny ones - gave me great peace. And I went to sleep, excited to wake up early again, to work hard and learn as much as possible, to enjoy every step along the way.

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There’s a lot of uncertainty in this world, but the sun does always come up the next day. That much we can all count on. It has been good to be reminded of that truth as well this week.

Since watching the sun set on that DC stoop one week ago, I’ve watched the sun rise several times over New England mountains, each time feeling hope about the future and all of its potential. I’ve also watched the sun rise over this experience, this year of living in community, of working and learning and changing myself alongside others doing the same.

On Thursday afternoon I finally met the teachers and fellow students with whom I’ll spend these next twelve months. The two-and-a-half days that have since followed contained all of the nervous anticipation you’d expect at the start of something like this. We’ve all given up a lot to be here, we’ve all come for different reasons, we’re all not quite sure what it’ll be or where it’ll take us. And we’re all feeling each other out, excited and cautious at the same time.

It’s fabulous. The amazing thing about beginnings is how quickly they fade away. The amazing thing about communities is how quickly they bond, how quickly barriers disappear.

Yesterday, the sixteen of us student farmers spent several hours in the kitchen, learning how to cook raw farm ingredients for large groups, since we’ll be cooking each other breakfast and lunch on rotation throughout the year. As we mashed cabbage and chopped garlic and trimmed pork jowls, we laughed and chatted and picked each others’ brains. It’s early still, but this disparate group of individuals is already on its way to becoming a group, a collective that’ll support and push and grow together.

Here at the start of new things, it’s nice to be reminded that ever more sunrises await.

 

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I know that I mixed metaphors all over the place in this post - chapters and mountains and sunrises, yeesh! - but I trust you’ll forgive my sloppy writing while I search for meaning within all this change and newness. Thanks for that! And thanks also for feedback, comments, ideas, conversations starters. Anything, really. I love hearing what you think!

If you want to see the rest of the pictures from this week, click here...

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Toward a Unified Theory of Everything

“This law is true for soil, plant, animal, and man: the health of these four is one connected chain.” - Sir Albert Howard

I liked being a classroom teacher. It was hard as heck, exhausting and stressful, but it was never boring. I got to spend every day with a bunch of young people, yelling at them, laughing with them, watching them grow. Every now and then, some amazing connection would be made, some speck of learning and maturation would happen, and my heart would just melt. It was a feeling unlike any I’ve ever had.

Two years ago, I stopped being a classroom teacher. I decided that it wasn’t for me.

While I wasn’t a great teacher, I was kinda sorta maybe good, and I was certainly getting better. But I looked at the teachers around me, the truly great ones, and I realized that they were dedicated in a way I’d never be. They believed fully in the work, in the cause of public education. It was their vocation, their life’s work.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the work and the cause, too. I’ve seen enough lives transformed by quality education (or the lack thereof) that I understand it’s power and impact. We need creative and passionate people in the classroom, we need to pay them more and we need to honor their professionalism.

But unlike those great teachers around me, it wasn’t my thing. My Last Child in the Woods leanings were being frustrated by test-centric education policy. I wanted to focus more on social-emotional learning than multiplication tables or five-paragraph essays. I didn’t love it as much as I needed to, and my tank was being drawn down faster than it filled back up.

One of my character flaws - as I’m sure you’ll find out if you keep reading this blog - is that I need to understand the ultimate purpose behind the work that I’m doing, I need to understand where it leads and what it misses. This is often paralyzing, because - as you’ve probably noticed - there ain’t no perfect work in this world. But eventually, as I grew a bit wiser and more mature myself, I became okay with that fact. The world needs good people with integrity in every field, doing every job. The world needs people treating other people with respect and dignity, no matter what they happen to get paid to do.

That character flaw remained, however, and slowly but surely I realized that it was leading me toward a career in food, toward a career in sustainable and restorative agriculture.

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It was 19 months ago that I first traveled up to Athol, MA, to visit The Farm School. I had heard about the place from a friend, and I couldn’t stop going back to the website, immediately falling into dreamland. They offered me admission to their program, but I didn’t take it. I worked another year-and-a-half for a special education program with DC Public Schools, and I kept living a life in Washington, DC that I absolutely loved.

It was seven months ago that I finally decided to go, to take the plunge into a routine of cow chores and weeding, to let The Farm School help me get started on that journey.

I gotta admit, you guys, that it’s been a long 19 months. Weirdly, the past seven have been even longer.

I made a decision to change my life, to change my work, to change where I live, to change my social circles, to change just about everything. And then I’ve had to wait. Tying up loose ends, making my peace with a place, saying goodbyes, and handling all the logistics of a move have certainly taken up plenty of time. But mostly, it’s felt like a lot of waiting, like I’ve been stuck in a holding pattern.

So I’ve read books, lots of ‘em, trying to find that unifying theory of everything that I apparently need in order to work my butt off.

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It has been a great summer reading list, from Sandor Katz’s Art of Fermentation to Michael Pollan’s Cooked to Daphne Miller’s Farmacology to a collection of Wendell Berry essays to Rebecca Thistlethwaite’s Farms with a Future. A bunch of good things to chew on, for sure.

But maybe the most impactful book I read, the one that really paints for me a big picture that makes sense, is the one I just finished, Cows Save the Planet, by Judith Schwartz.

There’s a million reasons why I’m choosing this line of work, but as I (somewhat jokingly) began my first blog post with, climate change might be Reason #1. More accurately, climate change as a symbol for how our civilization, which I (mostly) love, has become out of whack with the natural limits and systems that sustain it.

So you can imagine how giddy I would feel after reading the following quote in that book, from Ian Mitchell-Innes, a South African rancher and trainer in Holistic Land Management:

“If we improve 50 percent of the world’s agricultural land, we could sequester enough carbon in the soil to bring atmospheric carbon dioxide back to pre-industrial levels in five years.”

Okay, okay, maybe a little optimistic and unproven. But still, you guys!

This passage, from the author herself, is a bit more measured, but nonetheless extremely hopeful in its conclusion:

“Since 1850, twice as much atmospheric carbon dioxide has derived from farming practices as from the burning of fossil fuels (the roles crossed around 1970). In the past 150 years, between 50 and 80 percent of organic carbon in the topsoil has gone airborne. The antidote to this rapid oxidation is regenerative agriculture: working the land with the goal of building topsoil, encouraging the growth of deep-rooted plants, and increasing biodiversity. This turns the conventional approach to farming upside down: rather than focusing on growing crops, the intention is to grow the soil. But ‘carbon farmers’ contend that as you build carbon levels, the rest - land productivity, plant diversity and resilience amid changing conditions - will follow.”

Whoa.

Carbon can be sequestered, water can be saved, biodiversity can be increased, all while being able to grow more (and more nutritious) food? I don’t know about other folks, but that feels pretty revolutionary to me.

You can maybe see here why I want to do restorative, not just sustainable, agriculture.

As I’ve tiptoed slowly toward a career in growing food for a living, I’ve been thinking a lot about soil for very practical, prosaic reasons. It seems pretty clear to me that the better the soil, the more productive and resilient the land, the healthier the plants and animals. From a business perspective, knowing I’ll never be able to compete purely on price, making sure my soil is microbe- and nutrient-rich will be a no-brainer. I’ve been antsy to learn the nitty gritty, to figure out the hows, to practice it every day, to become an expert.

But the bigger picture possibilities - healing that upon which we all rely, basically, and maybe even combatting climate change - makes me all the more committed to this work.

There’ll be days when I’m worn down, when I’m stressed, when I’m scared, when I’m uncertain of my ability to make a living. There’ll be day-to-day tasks that I hate, that I find boring or tedious. There’ll be a big adjustment period, but I’m confident that the good days and the joyful tasks will win out. I’m well aware that - probably in all walks of life, certainly in farming - attitude is everything.

But believing in the importance of what you do strikes me as priceless, as something that can carry you through the hard times. I know it’ll be necessary for me and the sometimes-inconvenient ways in which my brain works. And I’m really starting to believe in the importance of restorative agriculture, starting with that powerful stuff right underneath our feet.

It’s maybe even something worth dedicating a life to, you might say.