Category Archives: Reflections

April Snow

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It’s been a long, cold spring around here. It’s so hard not to compare this year to last year: last year the trees were flowering this time of year, last year we had already planted peas, kale and lettuce in our fields. Everything was so much farther along. The crocuses had bloomed by the middle of March, the Nanking Cherry by the end of March, and by the first week of April the frogs were singing. Here it is, almost the end of April, and the crocuses still have not bloomed and the frogs have not sung.

My mother-in-law has been keeping weather record for over twenty years, and she says it’s been over a decade since we’ve had a spring this cold. Last weekend when we walked around we found the ground was still frozen in places. Our fields are lying wet and bedraggled, waiting for the ground to dry out enough for us to work in last year’s stubble and begin planting this year’s crops. Our garlic has just poked up out of the ground, much later than last year. And it just keeps snowing.

This erratic weather has reminded us once again of how little we actually have control over, as farmers. Last year we learned the hard lessons of drought and severe insect pressure. This year it looks like it might be a whole different curriculum, with the cold and wet being the issues we’re most worried about now. Although that could change any day. As my mother-in-law assured me, someday it will stop raining, and about ten days later we’ll start worrying about drought again.

In the mean time, we’re trying to have a sense of humor about the situation. Our greenhouse is so full of little plants waiting for somewhere to go, there’s hardly any room to walk. We finally were forced to boot our onions outside to start “hardening off” or adapting to life outside the protected environment of the greenhouse. Of course, the next night it snowed. We shook our heads and told our onions, “sorry, folks, but it’s a cold cruel world out here.” The onions just sat there, shivering. We’ve reassured them that if they just hang in there, this weekend it’s supposed to be sunny and warm–really warm. Spring-like warm, we hope.

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Our poor shivering onions

The slow spring isn’t all bad, though. It’s given us a chance to focus a lot on our new job as parents, and to enjoy these precious days. Elijah is growing fast and is a very active, very happy, very social little fellow.

Elijah hanging out on top of the potting soil on a sunny day--even when it's only 40 degrees out, if the sun is shining, it's HOT in the greenhouse!

Elijah hanging out on top of the potting soil on a sunny day–
even when it’s only 40 degrees out,if the sun is shining it’s HOT in the greenhouse!

 

The slow spring has also given us a chance to catch up on some of the planning work we didn’t do in January and February, when being new parents was all we could do.

And, as farmers will always say, we do need the moisture. If it would just spread itself evenly over the entire season with enough dry days in between to get some work done, that would be even better, but we’re not complaining. Much.

Elijah hanging out in the greenhouse on a colder day

Elijah hanging out in the greenhouse on a colder day

Galine Eggplant

Galine Eggplant

Our early hoophouse tomatoes, ready to be planted as soon as it warms up!

Our early hoophouse tomatoes ready to be planted as soon as it warms up

Striped German heirloom tomato (this one will be planted out in the field)

Striped German heirloom tomato–this one will be planted out in the field

Winterbor Kale

Winterbor Kale

Geoffrey with Elijah

Elijah helping Geoffrey with a plumbing project and showing off his standing up skills

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Another Year of Change

Farmers, like other folks, often use the New Year as an opportunity for reflection and self-examination. We ask ourselves again: Are we crazy to be farming? Can we really survive another summer of working that hard? Isn’t there anything else we could do to find fulfillment? It’s pretty much our last chance to ask these big questions: by the end of January, we need to have our planting schedule worked out and our seed orders done, and before February is over, it will be time to start a fire in the greenhouse stove and seed the herbs and onions. If we were going to quit, now would be the time to do it, before the year rolls over and starts gathering momentum to steamroll us under another hectic growing season.

Yet even as we ask ourselves whether we want to keep farming at all, we’re also asking other questions. What will the weather be like this year? Should we plant the onions earlier? How many varieties of potatoes should we grow? What can we do about the squash bugs? There is an unending stream of little decisions to make, and we go right on making them—because deep down, we’ve already decided we will keep on farming. What else would we do? Farming is our life.

So, as we look back on 2012, we are looking ahead to another season of long days, hard work, and the satisfaction that only comes with nurturing growing things. We don’t expect our second year to be any easier than our first, but we do hope it is different. We hope we learned enough from our mistakes in 2012 to make different mistakes in 2013, so we can go on learning.

Of course, this year would be different even if we hadn’t learned anything from last year. Our baby will make sure of that, starting as soon as he or she is born (sometime this month). Children have always been an integral part of our farming vision, but as we’ve discovered with other aspects of that vision, reality is infinitely more complex and challenging than anything we can imagine. We have been warned by various farming mentors that farming with an infant demands numerous adjustments—and farming with a toddler changes everything. Then again, what is farming if not a constant dance with change? The weather changes from day to day, the seasons change and change again, and the plants and animals our livelihood depends on never stop growing, dying, and beginning again. Life is what we farmers work with, and life always changes. If we are smart, we change with it.

Among all the other changes, hopefully this year we will manage to post to this blog more regularly! In the meantime, we wish you a New Year full of growth, change, and different mistakes. Thanks for reading.

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Farming In a Drier Future

Over the weekend, I found time to read an article in the July issue of Harper’s Magazine called “Broken Heartland: The Looming Collapse of Agriculture on the Great Plains,” by Wil S. Hylton. Hylton paints a sobering picture. As farming has become increasingly consolidated and mechanized, the population of rural communities on the Great Plains (which accounts for a fifth of the land in the lower forty-eight states) has declined steadily for the past eighty years, ever since the Great Depression. Six thousand towns have disappeared entirely in Kansas alone. Meanwhile, researchers at Texas Technical University, with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have found that the Ogallala Aquifer—which lies beneath 100 million acres in eight states and provides irrigation water for much of the farming on the Plains—is being drawn down at the rate of five to six feet per year in some places, and will be essentially depleted by 2030. In the words of the lead researcher, “there will be very little irrigated agriculture on the high plains twenty years from now.”

In spite of all this, I came away from the article feeling hopeful. Why? Because I saw nothing in the article to justify its dire subtitle. Clearly, agriculture as it has been practiced on the Plains for the last few decades is not sustainable and cannot continue. I would argue that that’s true most places in the world, if not all places. Farming will have to change, and farmers will have to learn and adapt—as they always have, sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly. This does not mean that agriculture is on the brink of collapse, on the Great Plains or anywhere else.

Hylton writes about a future imagined and championed by academics Frank and Deborah Popper, where Plains residents embrace “smart decline,” allowing their region to empty out and eventually become a huge national park known as “The Buffalo Commons.” To me, this is an interesting thought exercise, but not a compelling vision for the future. Far more compelling are two (mutually compatible) possibilities also highlighted in the article: a return to large-scale cattle grazing, and the development of perennial grain crops.

Since European settlement began, the Great Plains has been cattle country. Cattle are a natural fit with the ecosystem, roughly taking the place of bison as the dominant large grazing ruminant. However, with the rise in corn-fed, feedlot beef over the past sixty years or so, open range-land filled with drought-tolerant native plants has been replaced with thousands of acres of irrigated monocultures. As the land has suffered, so have the cows, becoming sicker and sicker on a diet totally unsuited to their digestive systems. (The health consequences for people have been just as bad.) If we reduced our meat consumption moderately, put the cows back out on pasture where they belong, and used Holistic Management and rotational grazing techniques, the Plains could sustainably preserve its traditional identity as cattle-country and the main source of meat for the rest of the country for decades to come, with or without the Ogallala Aquifer.

Any landowner with a little capital could begin raising grass-fed beef today: the information, resources, and, increasingly, the markets are all out there. Perennial grain is a more distant possibility, but it’s getting closer every year. Since 1976, Wes Jackson and his colleagues at The Land Institute have been working to breed perennial versions of wheat, as well as other grain, legume and oilseed crops. Perennials have deep roots, which gives them access to water and nutrients annuals can’t reach. And if new seeds did not have to be sown each year, there would be no need for annual tillage, eliminating most agricultural erosion. This long-term breeding project is now closer than ever to commercially viable results. When it is complete, agriculture on the Great Plains could look a whole lot more like native prairie: a deep-rooted perennial polyculture that builds rather than depletes topsoil.

For my part, I’m grateful to be farming here in the Upper Midwest. We do share some challenges with the Plains. The “get big or get out” mindset continues to dominate, and it forces a whole lot of small farms to “get out” every year. Jobs outside of farming are scarce too, and most young people leave the area after high school. Our county has a lower population now than it did in 1900, although it is growing again after a long decline. But at least both rainfall and groundwater are relatively abundant, and the aquifers, so far, seem able to replenish themselves as fast as we use them. This is an easy climate to farm in—but I believe farmers are smart and adaptable enough to keep on farming for years to come even in much more difficult climates.

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Biodiversity on the Farm

We went through our seed order and our planting schedule the other day and counted up the crops. Turns out we’ll be growing about 50 different crops this season, and 150 different varieties of those crops. Quite a contrast with conventional farmers, here in Pepin County and all over the Corn Belt, who often grow only three crops (corn, soybeans, and alfalfa), and may or may not grow more than one variety of any of those crops. We started farming because we love food, and commodity corn and soy are even lower than alfalfa hay on the list of things we like to eat, so it’s not too surprising we’re not growing those three crops. Even as vegetable farmers, though, we could make a good living specializing in six or eight crops. So why do we want to grow fifty? Aren’t we just making a whole lot more work for ourselves?

Well, sure. We are. But when we sat down this winter to decide what to grow, we didn’t discuss which vegetables would be most profitable. We talked about what vegetables we like to eat, and we wrote them down. Of the fifty crops we’re growing, about forty-seven are things we eat on a regular basis. (And the other three? Well, there’s always something new and interesting in the seed catalogs.)

So the main reason we’re growing such a diverse range of crops is that we eat a diverse range of food, and we want to share that diversity with our members. However, diversity has benefits on the farm too. Nature abhors a monoculture (or anything approaching a monoculture) just as much as a vacuum: if we only grew a handful of crops, it would only be a few years until our farm was overrun with the pests and diseases that affect those crops. Or in Martha’s words, “If we grew nothing but salad mix, we’d have nothing but slugs.” By planting lots of things, and mixing them up and moving them around every year, we can stay one step ahead of pests and diseases by constantly interupting their lifecycles.

I’ve explained the 50 crops. What about the 150 varieties? On average, we’re planting three varieties of everything we grow–but averages can be misleading. What’s really going on is that we’re growing one variety of most things; three or four varieties of some things; and ten or more varieties of a few things. How do we decide how many varieties to plant? First, by how many varieties there are: certain crops only come in a few versions. (How many seed catalogs do you know of that devote a four page spread to bok choy?)  Second, by how different the varieties are from each other. We’re pretty sure one variety of collard greens looks and tastes a lot like another, so we picked the kind we think will do best on our soil, and that’s what we’re growing. Tomatoes, on the other hand, come in dozens of shapes, sizes, and colors, not to mention flavors (though you wouldn’t know it from the round, red, bland tomatoes in most grocery stores)—so we’re growing twenty-four varieties. Third and finally, our decisions are skewed by how much we enjoy each crop. Let me be clear, we like every vegetable we grow, but everyone has favorites. Both of us (especially Martha) are crazy for winter squash, so we’re growing thirteen varieties (plus a pie pumpkin, which is really a winter squash by any other name). That doesn’t mean we expect our customers to eat their weight in squash; we’re only planting a little of each kind, and we’ll eat most of it ourselves. But we do want our customers to experience the amazing diversity of flavors in the squash family.

And that’s only the diversity among the crops we grow—I haven’t even talked about the plants and animals that live in the woods, wetlands and meadows on the farm, or the microbes, fungi, and earthworms in our soil. Some of those species cause trouble for us, of course—sometimes we wish there were less deer and woodchucks living in our forest, and less quack grass growing in our fields. But we’d rather be surrounded by a forest full of deer than a thousand acres of GMO corn, and we’d rather spend our time pulling weeds than spraying them with toxic chemicals. Here at Avodah Farm, biodiversity isn’t just a buzz-word, and it isn’t just an idea. It’s something we can see and taste, and it tastes good, and we foster it because we love it, not just because it’s good for yields or helps with pest control.

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Reflections from Koinonia Farm

January is a good time for reflection on the farm. The holidays are over, you’ve recovered enough from summer that you can bear to think about what happened, but you haven’t yet gone mad waiting for spring to come. It’s a time when you can step back and regroup, maybe give yourself a break from the farm and rest up for a while before diving into planning and the seed order.

This year, Geoffrey and I are taking that reflection time in Georgia, on Koinonia Farm. This is the last part in a series of travels that last winter and spring took us to Israel, Italy and England seeking the connections between religion, agriculture and community. During that time we committed to farm on the land that’s been in Geoffrey’s family for forty years, and developed a permaculture plan to help us follow through with that commitment. It was a deeply educational trip, and it left us with a staggering sense of how lucky we were to have the resources we have, and how important and beautiful a land-based culture can be. Being in rural Europe really makes you appreciate how long it takes to really settle the land and live in relationship with it.

That struggle for careful relationship is clear here at Koinonia as well. I won’t go into the long and harried history of this “demonstration plot of the kingdom of heaven,” but needless to say, it hasn’t been easy for them as they have lived out a commitment to racial equality in the deep south. But under the leadership of Clarence Jordan, this community has put down deep roots on the land. Literally: they planted over ninety acres of pecan trees, investing in perennials in spite of the uncertainty of their future. As the story goes:

[One] rainy, cold Christmas Day, Clarence Jordan was asked skeptically why he was planting pecan trees that would take 25 years to produce a cash crop. He replied, “I’m planting them for the people that are coming after me.”

That commitment has insured the continuing viability of the farm through good times and bad times. Now Koinonia focuses on hospitality and “feeding the hungry in body, mind and spirit.” They are in the process of learning more about permaculture and have already put a number of permacultural systems and ideas into place on their campus and farm land.

And so, as we begin our new year here, I find myself reflecting on how history and commitment are necessary ingredients for religion, agriculture and community. These are things that have to transcend the turning of the seasons or even the efforts of one lifetime to come to full fruition.  An agricultural system that only provides for one year of harvests will degrade its soil over a lifetime, and will lead to disaster over the course of generations. Communities without history or commitment easily fall apart when they encounter difficulties, either internal or external. And religion without history or commitment has little to offer.

It’s hard to plan for the long-term, but we’re giving it our best. This will be our first season farming our land, but as we pin down the details for this 2012 season we are already trying to look ahead to what we want to harvest twenty-five years from now, and what we want to leave in place for “the people who are coming after us.” Perhaps if we plan for it now, and commit to seeing these plans through, we can create a world with a saner, more just food system. Here’s to sustainability and abundance, now and yet to come.

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A Begining

Welcome to Avodah Farmers. This is where Martha & Geoffrey, the farmers of Avodah Farm, will share our thoughts on all things related to the farm: food, work, prayer, right livelihood,  community, and so much more. We hope you enjoy our reflections.

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