the food we grow is art

food is artWhen one of your dearest friends tells you to read a book, you read it, right? Big Magic, the latest by Elizabeth Gilbert. I requested it on inter-library loan and dug in.

The book immediately began to bug me. The writing is divided into two to three page chunks, each titled on its own, sort of like blog posts. I’ve noticed that there are lots of books coming out like this. And I have a personal aversion to it. I feel a loss of continuity and depth in the format. Of course, it is still possible to get a lot done in a few pages of wonderful literature (Wendell Berry’s essays come to mind), but it’s sort of rare. And I understand that people are busy and lots of people only have time for a few pages in a sitting, so it’s handy to have those few pages encapsulate an idea. I usually only read a few pages at a time before my eyes shut at night. But I still really appreciate some meatier material to sink my mind into. The irony of my criticism is not lost on me. I do write on a blog, where 500 words-at-a-time is the most “readable” format, which makes for better “ratings”, more “likes” and “shares.” But it doesn’t change how I feel. Here lately, my Fellow Man has been reading an exposition on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The introduction is 60 pages long. Reading that book is like climbing a mountain. If you’ve ever read any of Rudolf Steiner’s essays, or the Bible, or pretty much any sacred or scholarly work, you know what I mean. It’s not easy, but there are moments of awesome clarity and depth and the experience is incredibly rewarding. I love that quality in a book.

Since I figured out what was bothering me, I decided not to let it get in my way. After all, the book is about creativity. There’s bound to be something to love. Isn’t there almost always something to love?

Elizabeth Gilbert throws the gates of creative living wide in this book, and welcomes everyone in. I thought I was reading the book because she is a writer writing about writing, and I love writing, but coming from that angle made the bees in my bonnet buzz.

The section on making a living quieted them. Liz talks about her need to write as a creative impulse, whether or not she gets paid. Like most artists, she waited tables, washed dishes, walked dogs, and did whatever needed to be done to make a living while she wrote. Even when she began to be successful, she didn’t stop doing other work. It is a common situation among artists, and others.

This hit a nerve for me. In this process of ceasing to grow food for money, I have felt, at times, like a sell-out to the real deal of the new farming movement. Like I’m no longer a legitimate “farm wife”.  And of course my farm-wife friends have had nothing to do with this, I feel it in myself as we chat, that my attention is not as deeply drawn into the hustle of the season as it has been in the past. But, this feeling has more to do with the fact that I’ve spent more than half my life with the intention to live on the land – growing food in the deep woods with my family. For more than half of my life, THIS has been my dream. And in that dream, I rarely considered the economic viability of the farm. No one was talking about CSAs when I was 18, but it was just assumed that there would be a way to make a living on a farm. It’s been a way of life for most of human history, right?

Not necessarily. A way of life is not necessarily a way to make a living. A way to “make a living” is not always the same as a vocation, or a way to make a is art dandelion

What I find in my community of farming friends are various and beautiful ways to make a life. We make a living too, one way or another, using what is before us to create what we need, and more. And we are extremists in the realm of creative living, as we are working with the hearts and bones of biological creation itself. Where else is creativity more obvious than the garden, where one small seed creates pounds upon pounds of tomatoes, or watermelons, or hot peppers, or endless okra, any of which can be eaten OR saved to create a whole garden’s worth of MORE SEED?

Agriculture, or rather agri-business, today is not an art. It is a science and a business, more or less akin to mining. Those of us who refuse to coat our soil with black plastic and use GPS on our tractors are doing something completely different. We cannot subtract the larger economy from our lives and works, but by adding the concept of stewardship, we change the equation, and I believe, we become artists. Many of my friends probably wish they could make a better living by growing food the way we do, but they do not compromise the integrity of their land for the sake of money. There are some compromises that are just too great. They will do what they believe they should – what those of us out here are deeply compelled to do – which is to live as creative stewards of their land.

My fellow man and I limited the size of our business based on the carrying capacity of our land. The longer we work here, the more we learn about this place and what it can handle. It needs us to go easy. It’s not a land that handles over-ambitious production with ease. We are incredibly fortunate to have other marketable skills to pay the bills that refuse to be bartered with garlic. But even if all our financial needs were being completely met by off-farm income, we would not stop growing food, and talking about food, and sharing food, and nourishing our land so that it can nourish life on earth.   We love it like a marriage, like a good meal, like a piece of art.

Regardless of their position within the larger economy, small farms today work on a deep level of dedicated human creativity. When I realized that my realm of creative living isn’t limited to writing, but in fact is based on the activity of land stewardship, I could rest easier in my assessment of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book. However, I want to make an addendum to her explorations. What we learn as creative growers, working in the soil with our hands and the weather on our backs, is that most of the magic in the world is not big at all. It is infinitesimally small, but absolutely pervasive. That small magic going on under our feet and all around us is the foundation of human civilization and life at large. Maybe, the “Big Magic” is our ability to open our senses to that all-encompassing living world around us, and actively cooperate with it.

All food used to be grown by farming artists. Once upon a time the vocation of farming was considered just as respectable as a calling to preach, teach, practice law, or write poetry (your opinion of each of those jobs notwithstanding). And not all farmers derived all of their income solely from the farm. It was never unusual for a farmer to hire out different services as her/his talent and the success of the season dictated. For that matter, I believe quite a few lawyers made their way through their years of study while making a living on the family farm. To go much further into this discussion we have to tackle subjects such as the values of our collective society, and wealth distribution. That’s stuff for another post. Nonetheless, it is interesting to consider that farming artists (meaning those who maintained an artful and respectful balance relationship to the land they worked) used to hold their own much more comfortably in this world, and that our food system was all the more lovely for it.

I have always shrunk away from the term “artisanal food” because it sounds high-end, and I strongly believe that EVERYONE should eat well, not just rich folks. But here I am now, fully convinced that food is art. Everyday art – living art -necessary art. It’s worth contemplating the quality of the food grown by agribusiness verses the food grown in creative stewardship. It’s worth contemplating the kind of world where all people could be fed that kind of food again, and where the vocation of farming indicates a particularly beautiful quality of life.

I believe in that quality of life, that WAY of life, the way a painter believes in color, and a writer believes in words. I believe we all have an art inside of us, somewhere. If you haven’t found yours yet, eating this food, the stuff that is also art, might just is art egg


we do it anyway

Did you notice our new “donate” button? It’s there – on the right of the home page, just under the place where you can click to have our posts delivered to you by email. Several people have suggested that we put such such a button up, but it has taken us awhile to get around to making that happen.economy 2

The three of us make our living by the combined efforts of our bodies and brains, with major contributions from the weather and the living earth, of course. And there is no doubt in my mind that each of us loves living like this. That first ripe cantaloupe is worth it’s weight in gold. We are wealthy beyond our wildest dreams. There are members of royalty who could only dream of eating like we do, each day. The work we do, and the food we eat, contributes to invaluable good health and vitality. Heck – why on earth would we need money?

To pay the bills, that’s why.

here it is.  the gold.

here it is. the gold.

Gone are the days when you can trade eggs for dry goods at the country store, or be given a milk cow as a child and use your collected earnings from her excesses to buy a farm. Land, the source of ALL livelihood, has become a commodity. People make money off of land, the earth (now known as Real Estate) by pure speculation, without reference to location, fertility, ecology or surrounding human community. I believe that this is one of several major contributing influences to the collective madness of our times. Another by-product of that madness is that our civilization at large does not value the laboring of the human body and human intelligence in reference to the land.

But we do it anyway.

We find the people who do value our labors and the wonderful food that pours out of the land. Without that support, we could not live on the land and pay the bills. We could not afford to engage our bodies and minds in this craft. Each of us really loves what we do. We’re grateful to be able to do it.  And we believe that by forging these relationships between grower and eater, land and community, we are creating an economy that serves us all ~ family, vegetable, creek water, and microbe alike.  It’s an economy where everyone thrives.

Each of us farmwives is a good many years away from the experience of making money by way of a purely cerebral, or creative act. It seems like a foreign concept in our little farm worlds. But we’re broadening our horizons. It’s seasons like this that drive the message home. Now we’ve got one farmwife scooting on her butt to sweep the floor while she’s seven months pregnant, and another counting losses and mending fences during tomato season. There is no separation between our livelihoods and our LIVING. There’s no clocking in and out of work here. Our families, our farms, our homes, our economies are all one big, living, breathing package.economy 3

Sharing the ride with you, readers, is a joy, just like the first tomato. We love those good tomatoes, and we also share them in exchange for financial support. Just so, the donate button is our gesture of letting this creative space, where we open the windows of our lives to the world, support us as well.

There’s no demand. No expectation. If you have the means, and like what we do, then we are grateful for your support. If you like what we do, but do not have the means to donate, we are still grateful for you. Together, let’s create the economy the way we want it to be. Just like that.economy

three cheers for the dung beetle


this photo was taken last year in the garden... sorry it's not very crisp

this photo was taken last year in the garden… sorry it’s not very crisp

Bugtussle, Kentucky… the place I call home, not even a tiny little dot on most maps. Bugtussle is the name of our community but there really isn’t anything here anymore except for the fine rural folks that inhabit this place. The Bugtussle General Store sits empty. The Bugtussle Bar-B-Q has not emitted the smell of sweet hickory smoke in years.

From the stories we have heard, Bugtussle was named after the dung beetle “tussling” a ball of dung around. We have also heard that, “back in the day”, fine summer evenings were spent relaxing, maybe drinking a beer or two, and watching the dung beetles actively doing their good work. Sounds like fine family entertainment, if you ask me!!!

notice the tubes of soil the beetle removed in creating it's tunnel...

notice the tubes of soil the beetle removed in creating it’s tunnel…

Nowadays, with each passing year, the pastoral landscape is being replaced with large-scale industrial annual agriculture. We see more and more annual agriculture creeping into this community with each growing season. Most perennial grasslands have been turned. The ruminants have been replaced with corn, soybeans, and lots of tobacco. And let me just say here, the world isn’t going to be saved by industrial annual agriculture. It just isn’t possible. Growing more food to feed the increasing numbers of humans on this planet by turning and working the soil on the big scale, whether using conventional or organic farming practices, is very depleting and not at all sustainable. As soon as that soil gets turned and exposed to the elements, carbon goes into the atmosphere and soil organic matter is lost. Simple as that. Mulching is an excellent way to protect these precious soils, but for those of us that use lots of mulch (and I don’t mean black plastic sheeting, to me that doesn’t qualify as mulch), we know just how labor intensive and just how much mulch it takes to keep the soil adequately protected. Lots. I don’t ever expect to see large-scale permaculture farms come into vogue, even though it sure would be lovely. 

Something else is vanishing with all of the annual agriculture and use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides: the dung beetle. IMGP0849

When Eric and I moved to this farm, nearly fifteen years ago now, we adopted the mighty dung beetle as our farm mascot and thus began calling our farm “Bugtussle Farm”. (We were actually “Bugtussle Organic Farm” at first, but when the government took over the certifying process, we stopped getting certified and therefore had to stop using the term “organic”. It didn’t really matter, though. We knew our customers personally. They were our certifiers!) So with our mascot as our guide, we set to our work of increasing the fertility of a very depleted farm. At first we started with a handful of chickens and a small portable coop. Then one coop became three and the chicken numbers increased as well. Then a few goats entered the picture. Then some sheep and a milk cow. Then more sheep. And more sheep. And more cattle. As all of those critters multiplied and proliferated, so did the amount of fertility on our little farm. All the while, we have been rotating those animals on our pastures. We rarely saw dung beetles, but on the occasion that we did, it was a fascinating sight to see. One time, when Ira was a wee thing, we were working up in the garden and he was seized with the urge to poop. I took him out into the pasture to do his business and before he even finished two tiny flying dung beetles landed and set to work. We were thrilled.

In 2008, we bought the adjacent farm… adding a second mortgage and a whole new project of turning yet another depleted farm into a place of fertility. For the first few years of this endeavor, I certainly questioned our sanity…

But years pass. Gradually, gradually change happens. And something good is happening on our farm now. We have been feeling it for awhile, but now we are beginning to see it with our very own eyes. It is as if our cup, slowly filling up from all of our hard work and sweat and blood and tears, is finally reaching fullness and is just starting to overflow the edges…IMGP0854

What we have been seeing is an insane amount of dung beetle action in our pastures! One day, within twelve hours after the animals being in a paddock, Eric and I were walking around and saw every single cow pie showed the signs of tunneling dung beetles. Within twenty-four hours some of the smaller sheep deposits were completely gone… all that poop was completely relocated down under the soil to feed the dung beetle larvae when it hatched! Something else so fabulous happens when the dung beetle clean-up crew moves in so quickly: the fly-cycle is disrupted. Flies need something like three days for their eggs to hatch, feed on the poop, and then bury themselves to pupate into the next generation of nuisance. I like to think that this year, with the dung beetles so very active, we will see a decrease in the fly population. I sure do hope so because I can’t stand flies!

The dung beetles are doing us a wonderful service. All of that rich organic matter is being recycled down into the soil, not only increasing the fertility of our soils but also allowing more moisture to be held in the soil and not just washing away downstream. That quick turnover of the nutrient cycle is the quickest way to creating a rich and fertile farm. And it’s happening here in Bugtussle. 

there's a very shy dung beetle down in that hole. It wasn't feeling very photogenic...

there’s a very shy dung beetle down in that hole. It wasn’t feeling very photogenic…

So three cheers for the dung beetles that work so tirelessly and ceaselessly to help make this farm a fertile place. Time to get out the lawn chair, crack open a cold one, and settle in for some good old-fashioned family entertainment.IMG_7539