Dirt Eaters

Work, Food, and Communal Transformation

(from the frontlines of a hopeful revolution)

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...