Dirt Eaters

Work, Food, and Communal Transformation

(from the frontlines of a hopeful revolution)

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.