When I begin to think about a farm as a whole being, an organism, it’s not a big leap to begin relating to a farm as an individual, with characteristics and personality all its own. If you have visited a few farms, you know that each one is different, sometimes in distinct ways, and sometimes in some ineffable manner. It has been my experience that these small farming operations that are popping up more frequently in our country, and have fed humanity for most of history, are as individuated as the growers who run them, which is to say that each one is quite a character.
We are reflected in our farms, our homes and gardens, just as we are in our children (like it or not, for better or for worse). Our little place has its own funky charm, not tidy, but lovely in the evening light, and it cleans up well when we take the time with it. Just like us.
Over the years I’ve come to love the quirks and characteristics of our friends’ farms in this same way. We have watched each other alter the landscapes of our own lives. It is a personal and precious process.
We have other friends, not so near, whose processes we haven’t had the good fortune to witness so closely. This week, my family tagged along with the KY CRAFT initiative and finally made the trip to one of these places, outside of Berea, Kentucky, to visit our friend Susana Lein on her beautiful mountainside acreage.
I think it’s fair to say that all of us, Robin, Cher, and myself, have known Susana for nearly as long as we’ve known each other. She comes to the regional Biodynamic Celebration over at Long Hungry Creek Farm each and every year, and also shares her wisdom with the Southern Sustainable Agricultural Workgroup conference regularly. Kentucky is not a big state – people like us are bound to find each other. We were friends, long-time friends, and deep admirers of her work, but none of us had ever managed to visit Susana at home. We were in for a treat.
It is rare to see so much care, so very much love made visible, in a landscape as is present at Salamander Springs Farm. Susana has lived her principles and values, with all the strength of her (very strong) body and will, and the shape that those combined forces have taken is vital and beautiful.
Susana is one of the very few Permaculture practitioners I have known to apply permaculture practice in a market garden. She walks her talk, and shares it freely with her community, and anyone else who wants to know. Her hands move when she speaks, and her bright eyes tell you that she’s not just quoting permaculture scripture, she is speaking from the experience, the work, of her whole life. If her passion is evident in her speech, it is all the more obvious on her farm.
Her garden beds, even the 150 foot-long beds of corn and dry beans, have never been turned by a tractor. They are covered in organic matter, salvaged, donated and bartered for, at all times. We poked our curious fingers under the thick layers of mulch on that hot dry day and found moist black earth, teeming with life, loose to the touch. The ground fairly begged to be covered again.
And it wasn’t always like that. Susana brought out a shovel and showed us the condition of the grassy walking path between the verdant rows. I’ve rarely seen such poor, rocky clay. If I hadn’t borne witness to the thriving gardens surrounding that shallow shovel of dry stoney soil, I would feel nothing but pity for a grower trying to make a go of it on that hillside.
But she has made more than a go-of-it. She has made a life, with unshakable integrity. She carried no debt, lives simply and within her means, engages closed loop on-farm energy cycling, mimics nature (instead of fighting it), and involves the surrounding community with her work through barter economy, seasonal celebration and work days, as well as educational volunteer opportunities that attract international interest. And besides that, there’s just no arguing with the quality of this woman’s corn. Some of the stalks grow to 18 feet high by the end of the season. Have you ever seen corn grow 18 feet high? Me neither.
Of course, the corn was still relatively short during our trip, but it was still beautiful to see the lovingly tended rows, sunflowers adorning the edges, wooden stakes labeling each variation of bean climbing the shady places between the stalks.
Susana’s small but beautiful hand-made, solar-powered home, complete with a pounded earthen floor, rests below the trees and above the gardens. The farmwives in the group were very nearly teary-eyed at the clean sweetness of that home (not to mention the much-sought-after solar-powered chest freezer).
Every part of Salamander Springs Farm has been touched with care and intention by Susana, and it shows. Each and every one of us, from the newest intern to the most experienced homesteaders, were intermittently amazed, inspired, challenged, and awed by our time there.
Susana’s strong and gentle spirit, and the quality of her food, is admirable on its own. Experiencing the reflection of her integrity and basic goodness from the ground up, on the land she has loves, is phenomenal.
Thanks for sharing the day with us Susana! We can’t wait to come back again.