Sunday, May 31, 2015

Animals, Vegetables, Miracles


What is a field made of?  Rocks, for one.  

But also: living things, waste that comes from living things, and formerly living things.


Lately I've been contemplating how everything is dependent on everything else.


As a vegetable farmer, it's my job to grow plants that nourish people.  Plants are a vital, supportive part of the food chain, converting the sun's energy into carbohydrates that animals need to grow and thrive.


But I've been thinking a lot about how plants need animals in order to grow and thrive.

Maybe it's because I'm working on a horse farm now, a vast ranch with 25 horses, 200 acres of hay and pasture, and... a lot of horse manure.  What was formerly considered "waste", mucked from the stalls and spread on the back trails to "get rid of it", is now being turned into vital nutrients for growing our vegetables through the miraculous process of composting!


And not only horse stuff is going in these piles!  We are receiving food scraps now from Community Composting, an awesome new organization in Rochester.  Their dump trucks pull in with stinking rotting vegetables and fruit, coffee grounds, and paper towels, and I layer this juicy elixir onto our piles and cover it liberally with all the horse stuff.


After a few weeks, I turn the piles with the tractor, and they are hot, steamy, sweet-smelling, and starting to turn into that black gold that gardeners know and love--  all through the action of billions of tiny bacteria, fungi, worms, and other decomposing organisms!  Last week when I turned the piles, early in the morning alone on the farm, and I swear the warm steam coming out of the center of these piles smelled something like oak-barrel aged wine.


A place like the EquiCenter is ideally suited for receiving tons of food waste from the city and neighboring areas.  All the right ingredients are here: lots of land, proper equipment, a close location, and plenty of animal manure!

We even received several loads this weekend from the carnival that's in town --  a local Rochester organization called Impact Earth is making sure the carnival produces "zero waste"!  So instead of the landfill, all the "waste" is getting recycled, and the biodegradable stuff is being brought over here to our manure piles!  These clam shells will take a few years to break down, but will add rich minerals to the soil for long-term fertility in our growing fields.

 

Now, composting, like growing vegetables, takes time, and we will probably not be able to use the compost we're making right now until next year, but at least we are capturing all these nutrients that were formerly considered "waste" products of animals and humans, and diverting them back into the cycle.  

Back into the fields to become living, growing, plants that will feed humans again.


And for other exciting news...

I am getting closer to owning my own land.  I walked the field yesterday, and came face to face with the lesson of animals being vital to a vegetable system.  The field I'm buying is very infertile.  It is 8 acres of almost beach sand.  Even now, after a warmer-than-usual spring, it is hardly growing weeds!


But there was one little round patch of green in this barren wasteland, so I walked over to it to inspect.


A deer had died here, probably last fall, and as its body has decomposed into the ground, the nutrients in it's blood, fur, flesh, and bones, acting as fertilizer for this very healthy patch of weeds.


It sadly has given up its life as a deer, but has now become green and healthy lambsquarter plants!

And so, death becomes life again, animal becomes plant.

Just like when we harvest and eat plants, they get to become us.


When I finally own my land and start living on it, I will bring in some animal elements right away.  Whether it's cows, horses, goats, ducks, pigs, chickens, worms, or humans, all will benefit this sandy soil with their "waste" and help create the fertility I'll need to grow vegetables and fruit.  I'm even thinking about (besides the disgusting factor) collecting roadkill--  why not?  The native Americans buried fish under their corn hills, why not bury that unfortunate raccoon under a pear tree?

When we learn to work with nature's systems instead of fight them, things might be easier for us.


The journey of American agriculture has lead us to compartmentalize things --  keep the animal operations separate from the plant operations.


But we need both.


 

And they need us.

 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Starting


We're turning a hay field into a vegetable farm on a non-profit horse ranch
In the past few weeks, we've:

1.  Borrowed a neighbor's plow


2.  Transported flats of plants that we've grown at the greenhouse


3. Prepared ground for planting (built a roller-marker for behind the tiller)



4.  Planted a quarter acre of lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, kale, onions, carrots, spinach, beets, herbs


5.  Set up a drip irrigation system


6.  Covered the brassica-family plants (cabbage, broccoli, kale) with row cover held down with lots of sandbags because it's a windy hill


 7.  Staked out a 3 acre deer fence and drilled holes with a rented bobcat and post-hole digger


8.  Received our donation of fencing material from a generous Home Depot grant


9.  Set post in ground with the help of strong Veterans and volunteers

 

10.  Put eight-foot-tall wire fencing up


11.  Put together a set of cultivating tools on my "new" antique Farmall Cub tractor ('53)


12.  Watched the world become filled with flowers and green things!

 


On your mark, get set, this summer is GO




Friday, April 24, 2015

Spring, the vital energy returns!


Winter succumbs her subtle beauty to the Spring,
with protest
 in the form of snowflakes.


Today, a week from May,
they lazily wandered through the greening landscape,
announcing their soft, pure, powerful presence of 
coziness and letting go

to the vibrating and insane pace of sap flow, insect emergence,
and frantic nest building.


We have been busy little seeders in the protected shell of the greenhouse.

And busy pruning blueberry bushes before the buds burst.


I have been so busy that I nearly forgot myself.

As things move from inside to outside in this transition,
I crawled out like an anxious awkward bug, unaware of all its appendages,
yet keeping its eyes on the prize and using age-old instinct
to navigate the challenges ahead.

I broke my toe on the stairs.  Twice, in the same darn place.

The body's wisdom
of slowing-down,
even with sacrifice,
for the greater balance of things.


My fruit trees arrived in the mail the same day I made an offer on a piece of land. 


I decided to start buying tractors and stuff again...


Spring, FINALLY.
Things that seemed dead asleep for ages and ages come crawling up in shades of vibrant green.
Miracles.  An eight-petaled bloom where snowflakes piled up three feet thick.


Then it happens, one evening, always when I'm not expecting it.
The urge to till the soil again.

To ask the gentle ground if she will bear us food
another year.

The silent sacrifice of earthworms to the plow,
the rich smell of warming soil,
what the steel and the diesel allow us...

Springtime creates strong instincts in animals, including human farmers.

To jump on the tractor and claim a piece of the land, in determined frenzy.


And now all those unromantic errands that go with farming,
like picking up new tractor tires from Waterloo,
clog up the never-ending TO-DO list.

 

While the dandelion's spring to-do list includes:
              1. LEAF
              2. BUD
              3. STEM
              4. FLOWER
              5. SEED
Among other tasks, such as vital mineral acquisition and transport up from the deep.


And, as human species with capable large brains, 
our To-Do list, this spring and beyond,

Maybe could include action on some long-term goals:

Like saving our toes, and our balance.
 Our barns, our farms, and our communities.
Our one precious planet.


James Hansen, top Climate Scientist, spoke a few days ago in Rochester, NY, 
and suggested his hope
for our future

Let's direct our vital energy this spring to what is truly important to us.
The time to wander like lazy snowflakes is over.


Bloom where you are planted, 
bloom strong, 
in the face of the frozen past and the uncertain future.




Sunday, April 5, 2015

Barn Razing



A barn builds community, as the community builds a barn.
Same applies for taking one down I would say.


Last week I went down to Groveland to lend a hand in the dismantling of a "small" barn which is ages old, and has been taken down and put back up who knows how many times.


This barn was taken down and put back up here by my friend Eli, who thought he was going to be farming in Groveland, and now finds himself moving to a well-established farm in Newark (Peacework Farm).  Funny how plans change.  I don't know anything about that!


Eli gifted the barn to Ruth to put up at Mud Creek Farm over in Victor, as long as she could... take it down and put it back up.  Of course, she is not going to do this by herself.  So about 15 of us pitched in for the day, in the ages old practice of coming together as a community so the job gets done and nobody gets hurt.


We dismantled the thing using a variety of techniques... a constructed A-frame & pulley system which I am still not actually sure how the thing worked... heavy-duty straps... ladders...supports...


...pounding out the wooden pegs that hold the whole thing together.


Lazy snowflakes fell silently and disappeared in the mud, and the blackbirds announced their territories around the pond.  I looked around and felt glad to have all these wonderful people in my community, young people who value things like old barns.


Finally the last wall remained.


We were going to take this wall down by the strength of our arms alone. 

Slowly, slowly, carefully, carefully.      Everyone ok?      Over there, over there!      Yeah, right there. 
Keep breathing.      Slowly.      Good.
 
A whole minute of extreme concentration, where every bird's syllable becomes crisp and clear, 
and you value things like 
the traction of boots and leather gloves, the muscles in everyone's arms, tall people.

 

Just to give you an idea of the weight of these beams, some of them took 10 people to lift.  
Serious oak, the kind they're not making anymore.

And we did it! 


Then we dismantled all the walls on the ground, pounding them apart where they fit together like lincoln-logs, each perfect little slot fitting neatly into the next beam.  How I admire those little hand-carved wooden pegs that miraculously hold a thing like a barn together. 

After the truck and trailer got stuck in the mud trying to get down to the barn, we decided we would have to haul them up the hill to the road.


We piled high the trailer that would take this barn to it's new home.


Nothing left here but a bit of clean-up, and the ghost of a dream that hardly started in this field.


Although he directed the day's progress with good spirit, I feel a bit of Eli's sadness in the going-away of his plans for this land.  At breaktime, we all marched through his piles of farm junk and timidly laid our claims.  A historic agrarian sight-- a bunch of dirt-covered people standing around in their boots, discussing the value of a grain drill.  Or a walk-in cooler if these folks are vegetable farmers.

Plans change.  Stuff gets swapped around.  I gave away all my farm junk for a trip around the universe of the heart.  It was worth it.  Now I get to buy stuff to farm with again.


There's always a chance to start anew, even after a disaster like winter.

And, I guess, nothing really ever stays the same, not even an ages old barn.

But what doesn't change is our will to grow, our will to be a part of something bigger, something lasting, to be part of a family of friends, to help things along when fifteen can do what one or two can't.