embrace contradiction

If you’ve wondered where we are this week, I’ll tell you.  We’re busy.turnaround2

After months of seemingly endless wet and cool weather, the turnaround finally happened.  It’s been suddenly summer.  Very hot, and even dry.  The cover crops grew inches every day.  The greenhouse burst full.  Everything grew.  And so, it all had to be handled, right away.

This time of year engages every dimension of a grower’s life.  To be honest, it won’t slow until Autumn, but the initial throes are some of the most intense and thrilling.  Days take on a kaleidoscopic quality.  The whirl of sky, plants, compost, soil, water, children, animals, meals, sleep.  (Did I mention dishes, laundry, and sweeping the floor?  No?  oops.)  Round and round we go.

There’s no place like the open field to meet yourself, face to face, as the tilt-a-whirl spins.  Hopes. Dreams. Ambitions. Desires. Fears. Expectations. Joys. Losses.  They rise from the dust, play in the mind-field of the garden, and settle back down in the shade by the end of the day. Field time brings us into immediate contact with the personal bundle of contradictions inherent to human existence.  Just a few weeks ago, I was waxing lovely thoughts about leaving the earthworms alone under a thick layer of mulch.  Give the seasonal kaleidoscope a whirl and watch that one go by!turnaround3

Those plants that went into the mulch are growing just fine (some places a little weedier than I’d like, oh well).  But when the cover crops lay cut in a golden green carpet, and the best chance of rain we’ve seen in awhile looming in the forecast, I was overjoyed for my Fellow Man to ride through the gardens with our good neighbor’s tractor and spading machine, working the soil into long, smooth, amazingly loose seed beds.  Spaders work the soil deeply.  They bother the worms, I’m sure of it.  Overall, I have mixed feelings about them, but right now it feels just wonderful to see those cover crops be worked under so well, and so quickly.

The beautiful terrifying sight of open ground moved us to frenzied action, and now, with sore muscles and the best chance of rain upon us today, we are not finished by a long shot, but we have made a good start at least.turnaround1

I can’t pretend that it isn’t exhausting and sometimes stressful.  It is.  I think about this while I plant, while I push a wheel hoe, while I shovel another load of compost, while I sort tomato and pepper varieties from the greenhouse.  None of the small scale growers in our circle of friends are in this line of work for the money.  Do we have to make money to survive and make land payments?  Absolutely.  But friends, there are many more lucrative and less demanding ways to make money than growing good food.  Financial greed does not rule the heart of the small grower.  We’re in this for the life.  We’re in it for the pure glee of seeing a seed sprout and grow.  We love the satisfaction of healthy flocks and herds, healthy children, and the feel of sun and wind on our faces and ground beneath our feet.  It’s simple.  It’s a lot of work.  It’s exhausting.  And it’s wonderful.

May you be blessed with work that challenges, excites, and enlivens you, and wears you out a little too.turnaround5

a good home

Now and then you get a good reason to reflect on your choices, the big ones. This week, I’ve had the opportunity to think about all the reasons we’ve had for moving back to this beautiful piece of the country. There are many.good flowerMy parents, in their fresh, idealistic twenties, bought a piece of land in an adjacent county when they were pregnant with me. They wanted to live simply, in a small rural community, surrounded by the natural world and good people. If that sounds familiar, then you’re not alone.

Their dreams didn’t proceed according to plan exactly, but one part that seems to have worked out is that I came up into the love of this place, and a general appreciation for small towns and countryside. Of course, I also wanted out of here when I was a teenager. I wanted to explore, and I did. But it didn’t take much exploration to realize how good we have it here. I hiked miles and miles to see gorgeous vistas, and I’d seen just as nice from home. I bathed in clear pools in exotic places, that reminded me of the clear pools of home. We don’t have big mountains, or beach front worth mentioning, but other than that, the land is beautiful, rainfall regular enough, the air is nice, and the cost of living reasonable.

This is a place where I knew I could make it.monarch 2

And of course, then there’s the fact that my folks and friends are here.

Everyone wants a good place to raise their children, right? Safe enough, clean enough. But many many people all over the world raise their children in un-safe and un-clean environments because they have community. By ‘community’, let’s suppose I mean extended, strong-knit groups of family and friends that support one another as needed in their daily lives. This used to be completely normal. It is the foundation of civilization. But now, with the greater mobility of humanity, things have changed, sort of.

In the old days, community was tied to the land, and to whatever works that hands and bodies could do to keep everyone afloat. And the folks in the community could decide what to do in and with the land and the water around them, how to use their resources to support themselves. Since it is very important to have clean water to drink and healthy food to eat, no one would engage in an industry that would infringe on those basic factors, because it wouldn’t be good for the community at large, and the community at large was just as key to one’s quality of life as the water, air and soil.

So, ideally (and I know I am functioning on the realm of ideals here), a great many people on this earth used to live with the support of their family and friends in small communities with clean water, good food, and a fair amount of access to the great outdoors (seeing as that’s where clean water and good food come from).

I count myself extremely fortunate to be able to live here and raise my family. Many people are not in the position to make that leap for reasons cultural, physical, or economic. We are engaged in that sort of whole-community that I’m describing, as much as any modern Western family could hope. The busy-ness of our life includes our extended family on a day-to-day basis.  We grow most of our own food and have friends who help provide what we can’t grow. We have training lines of work that allow us to make enough income inside and outside of the farm. And we love it here. We love the beauty of this land and the slower pace and spatial freedom of rural life.monarch 3

That’s the beautiful part. That’s the love. This said, I’m disappointed in our larger community right now. A few years ago, a commercial chicken hatchery moved into our county. It set up shop in the industrial zone of our county seat. This is not a chicken house, exactly, since they don’t grow the broilers (the birds that are for sale in the meat section of the average grocery store), but they are a piece of the industrial chicken industry (you can learn about them, and even download their mobile app, here). It didn’t take long for another chicken factory to open up on a farm right next door to our friend and neighbor Jeff Poppen (a piece of Jeff’s story can be found here). Those houses, again, not broiler houses, but just a step removed, are just several hundred feet from what was Jeff’s back door. Their scale is staggering, and Jeff fought through the difficult situation as far as he could. In the end, he didn’t feel good about litigation because it wouldn’t come down on the corporation itself, but on his neighbor who had signed the contract with the corporation.

Now, a couple years down the road, more chicken houses are in the works in the neighborhood, just a couple miles north of our place as the crow flies.

A small community in the next county over has several chicken farms established, and it isn’t a pleasant place to drive through with the car windows down. I guess the smell wasn’t too bad at first, but it has grown over the years.  I can’t say much about other effects that the industry has had on the neighborhood because I don’t have much reason to go there.

In my opinion, a rotten stink of over-crowded poultry in the air is a pretty big detriment to quality of life. Right now, when I walk outside, I can take a deep breath and the air is good. Sometimes, it’s sweet. As I walk around the farm and woods throughout the seasons, I get all kinds of different smells. Falling leaves have a scent of their own. Winter has a clean and cold smell. And in the growing season there are wild roses and honeysuckle, and so many blooms to mingle in my senses. I don’t live here just because the air smells nice, but it is an integral part of the sensation of HOME for me.honeybee3

People say all kinds of things to help justify the stink. “Smells like money”, is one I keep hearing. But what is that money for if the land of your farm is polluted for generations to come, the well is contaminated, and you and your neighbor’s property values plummet? In my opinion, this movement toward industrial factory agriculture indicates a profound lack of creativity. There are a great many ways to make money, to feed people, and to steward a farm.

Here in our home, we have several small businesses. None of them on their own are enough to support us, but altogether, they make enough. It’s not hard to grow food here. Sure, there’s rocks and clay, but seeds sprout readily and the rain falls, and we have enough. We grow most of our own, and though it takes time and is some hard work, we sure don’t need a gym membership to keep ourselves fit. We’re not even close to wealthy, but we don’t take hand-outs, we have plenty of food, and our landscape is clean and beautiful. That means more to us than the promise of a big paycheck.

Farming is not generally profitable in our modern economy. Strange thing, really, since the only true profit happens in nature – have a bred cow and soon you will have two head of cattle – plant a singular tomato seed and before long you will have LOTS of tomatoes – no one else offers dividends like nature. With a little creativity, a little imagination, farms can stay beautiful and keep a family alive, too. My fellow farmwives and many of our other friends, are living examples of this reality. I doubt any of their neighbors have ever been bothered by unpleasant odors or a damaged vista from their livelihood.

I’m saddened that this small, beautiful, rural community has lost touch with the intrinsic value of clean air and water, and the blessing of decent land to work. I’m saddened that a farmer, land owner, and neighbor can, with the assistance of the corporate agriculture industry, make decisions that will degrade the land they steward, and their neighborhood, for years to come. I’m wondering where we took a wrong turn and ended up here, in this time, with these poor choices being played out. There is no singular answer to that line of wondering. I am sad, and I do my wondering, because I love it here. I don’t want to turn tail and flee. I don’t want to see bad feelings created between neighbors. We all want the same things. We want to be happy; we want a good home.monarch 1

There’s no doubt I’ll be mulling over issues of this nature for awhile. If you have any stories about rural communities dealing with the in-flux of industrial agriculture in creative and inspiring ways, I would love to hear them.

pressure treated

The day was bright and clear, but there was a feeling of expectancy and almost heaviness in the air. A good friend came down from Kentucky to lend a hand and share his gourmet daffodils. We made the most of a beautiful day.  In the top garden, we planted one hundred and fifty feet of peas, six hundred row feet of potatoes, and about two thousand onion plants. One (or maybe two) at a time. With our hands. By the time we turned our shoes homeward, the moisture in the air was thick and the cirrus clouds of the morning had grown into masses of dense gray water, a storm-in-the-making.planting onions

I never sleep as well as I’d like in thunderstorms, but at least I could rest easy knowing we had put in a good day before that solid rain. The pressure of impending rain pushed us into high action.

This time next week, Lulah will be finished with dress rehearsal and starting into the first nights of a five night run of performances, her first dramatic stage experience. As I’ve observed the past couple weeks, the group has felt the opening night drawing near, and the tension has sharpened.  The pressure is on. It’s not an easy process, necessarily, but anyone who has been part of a creative performance knows that strange magic way that chaos suddenly organizes itself into entertainment at the last minute. The pressure of the looming opening night helps to shake the collective creativity into form.

So, there is a dynamic element to pressure that really sparks advancement, creativity, and goodness. There’s a flip-side, too, of course.

During yoga class, it’s the pressure of an instructor’s presence or gaze, that can inspire us to do our best. But for some people, too much scrutiny causes us to freeze up or falter. There’s a threshold to how much pressure works before it begins to do more harm than good. Everyone’s tolerance is different, and subject to change. Too much pressure can make us physically ill, anxious, or depressed. But, sometimes it is by pushing our threshold that we really test our mettle, and gain new ground. Sometimes we don’t even know how strong we are until we’re under pressure. There’s a balance to keep here.ladybug larvae

It was in the 1950’s that then Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson told American farmers to “get big or get out”. His word became law, it seems. In 1950, we had more than five million farms, averaging in size about 200 acres. By the year 2000, the number of farms in the US was hovering just over 2 million, and the average farm size increased to over 400 acres. Hmmmmm.

I have many thoughts about American farm policy, past and present, and there’s neither time nor space in my mind right now to elaborate on those thoughts completely. What is clear to me is that the small family farm is and has been under a lot of pressure. It’s also pretty obvious that most of that pressure is destructive. It leads to poor stewardship, poor food, and poor farmers. It makes unreasonable debt-loads and terrible stress on people who grow food.  The people and soil of this whole continent suffer because of these policies.  It’s no good, and it ought to change, for everyone’s sake.peas

Never-the-less, I contend that there can be unintended undergrowth from extreme pressure as well. In terms of the small family farm, it looks like some homegrown goodness has leaked out the sides of that industrial-sized weight, sort of like seedlings that thrive in the broken cracks of pavement. When I look around at what I consider our “farming community” I see families on smaller pieces of land who are making it work. We work long and hard for not much financial remuneration. But we eat well, we live the values we believe, and we create local economy. Some of us barter and work in exchange with our neighbors and friends to meet the needs of our families and land. Some of us have taken the middle man out of the financial picture by securing loans with friends and families rather than contributing to the strangeness of the financial mainstream by taking on bank debt. We draw in and reach out to people around us, with our food and our families, and the beauty of our land and gardens to share in abundance.

For our family, as for many small growers, there are several streams of pressure to balance and coordinate. We recognized the need to change when too many various stressors came into play at once. Our bodies, our minds, and our gardens were being max-ed out, with no end in sight. We were not saddled with a heavy debt load, and we didn’t have more land to expand our operation. The decision to downsize what was already a very small vegetable business was our most harmonious alternative to the mainstream pressure to grow more and more food for more people. It has been a gut-wrenching decision at times. The CSA model is so good, and we believe in it, and enjoyed the connection with the people who shared our harvest. We still do. There are just less of them now, and we only feel compelled to be a full-service grocery store to ourselves.

Don’t think that I am going too easy on the situation of agricultural policy.  I am one to get scratched up while seeking rosebuds in the thorn bush.  Maybe this whole small farm/homesteading movement hasn’t been in response to the horrible politics of agri-culture-turned-agri-business over the past sixty-five years. I think what our community is doing, in some ways, echoes what family farms used to be, before corn became a commodity. And I do believe that what I see in so many people now – this hunger for a simpler, more humanly and naturally interconnected life, and beyond that, the fact that so many of us are taking the plunge into this lifestyle, is at least in part a response to the various inhumanities of the modern, industrial agro-economy.onions

Maybe Lulah will get a taste of this when she takes her first bow at the end of the opening night.  You don’t have to be planting potatoes to feel the shifting of the weight, balancing of the load, or the release of collected pressure from our lives.  When the first raindrops hit the roof, I was still counting onion seedlings in my head.  My body was tired and my fingernails still weren’t perfectly clean, but there was a sense of rightness and relief, a deep breath and a ready sense of invigoration for whatever the season brings.

Whether our pressures are tremendous and heavy, or just enough to make us exert ourselves, I believe that we can learn and grow and even thrive in the midst of those forces.  Perhaps we can even learn to balance that weight to our advantage, and use it to create the world we want to live in, starting here at home. One seed, one row, one child, one breath, one life at a time.levon in cover crop