while it lasts

IMGP1509So. I can’t help but notice that the weeks are just flying by. Do you feel that way, too? Flying so fast I can hardly keep up and am simultaneously left with the feeling that I’m just not getting enough done each day. I am guilty of feeling guilty when my “productivity” falters. And the days have been remarkably gray. A grayness that kind of wraps me up and keeps me feeling subdued. The air temperatures that have come along with the grayness are somewhat cool for early June. (I hope this odd coolness keeps the lettuce from bolting before our weekend market…) And there has been good rain. Ahhhh, rain. Thank heavens for that because we were getting a little dry around these parts. So in addition to the rain, and lack of sunshine, and cooler temperatures, a sickness has been lurking about in my household. Mostly, it seems like just a cold but our littlest had a relapse into not feeling well, and with that came a pretty high fever and an episode of puking on the kitchen floor this morning. (I was thankful for ceramic tile.) She has had a couple of days of not doing much more than laying on the couch, and I can’t seem to focus on anything else other than her well-being. So I sit with her and stroke her hair. Or take her temperature from time to time. Or get her a drink. Whatever she needs. However, I will admit to indulging myself in some knitting while I sit on the couch with my girl’s sweaty brow on my lap. 

The sun will be blazing again very soon. Summer will be upon us. The tempo of the days will surely pick up again. And Olivia will, with all hopefulness, be back to her chipper little self in no time.  So, while it lasts, I’m going to stay put here at the house where my energy is most needed. I will let the gray day swallow me. I will let the time go by, like a little bird freed from the clutches of the cat. I will let the weeds grow in the garden one more day… it will be ok.IMGP1325

gentle but firm

Keep walking, though there’s no place to get to.

Don’t try to see through the distance.

That’s not for human beings.  Move within,

But don’t move the way fear makes you move.

~ from Rumi – Selected Poems

translated by Coleman Barks

gentle - tractorWe’re slowly beginning to work our garden in a new way, and I like it.

See – we often don’t cover crop the beds of crops that stay for a really long season and require a thick layer of mulch. And if we mulch well enough, the mulch stays, maybe not completely intact, but thick enough, all winter. Come Spring, there’s still mulch, and maybe a little henbit and patches of new growth coming through, and the ground is so soft. It’s a little colder than the open ground, but the softness is what interests me.

On these places, we are beginning to to put MORE mulch, and just plant right into that soft soil. We will walk on these beds as little as possible.

When I put a spade into these mulched beds, I see live worms, disturbed from their dark quiet places. Just the smallest disturbance sends them wriggling to the surface. When I see them it makes me glad. I think “Look at those worms that I didn’t kill.”

When we use heavier equipment on our soil, which we do sometimes, it’s hard on the little life underneath. We turned the ground for our pea row and as I planted the peas, I found the bodies of those worms that weren’t low enough in the ground to avoid the disturbance. There were survivors, too, but all had been battered by the machines that passed through their living space. And that’s really OK too. The worm population by and large is thriving around here and their bodies go back into the good earth, but it feels good to be moving in a direction that lets more of them live.

see the worms?

see the worms?

I want to be gentle to the soil, so that the soil will be soft.

It’s a choice, and also a privilege.

Before our (small and reasonably priced) land was paid off, we worked our land harder. We were growing for more people. We were under greater pressure, and that pressure in turn was applied to our soil. We still used the best practices we could, but we sometimes had to make hard choices.

Relieving the debt pressure relieved the growing pressure. Our income stream diversified, and we now have more room to choose different ways to grow. We can choose to be more gentle. We can take risks with our production in the direction of softness.

We took Lulah horseback riding last weekend. The riding ranch was a beautiful place (Grey Wolf Ranch). Before the ride began, we were engaged in a interactive demonstration of the owners’ philosophy of horsemanship. There was talk of the horse as a metaphor for life. There was talk of “gentle but firm” in terms of respect for self and others and the weighty concept of “control”. The idea being that it is necessary to fluctuate our use of gentleness and firmness in relation to whatever the situation at hand demands. We were given plenty to think about, and then we were taken on a beautiful ride through a green Tennessee valley.gentle - riding

I’ve been chewing on the conceptual framework of that horse ride throughout the busy week in the garden. That constant moving target of how gentle to be, or how firm, stuck in my head. It is obvious that we have to continually adapt to life’s situations, on a horse, on the land, in business, in general. Stagnation leads to sickness and death. Over-reaction wears us out and results the same. There are times when we need to work the garden deeper. There are times to use a machine to save our bodies. But the real deal is to recognize where we stand at any given moment.

Another important piece of this, seems to me, is actively understanding our motivations in each situation. Are we under the gun, under the sun, knowing a storm is on the way and having to hustle to get it all done? Are we under pressure to make a payment, start bringing produce to the market early, get an edge up in the face of growing competition? Are we afraid? Fear can be helpful in determining a present danger and taking steps to ameliorate it. Fear can also be terribly dangerous if it is not recognized and acted on appropriately. Fear out of context, nagging in our brains, running amok in our nervous system, can make us freeze (stagnate) or run (over-react), neither of which make for a healthy garden, business, family, or world.

Interestingly enough, greed works much the same way as fear. And those two – fear and greed – are the primarily players on the emotional side of the political and economic world. This is why so many of have chosen to opt out, as much as we can, from that world. We are not free of it, not by a long shot, but we choose, again and again, to move toward greater stability, fertility, health, beauty, LIFE.

Love your local growers this year. Support their work and eat the food they grow without fear. With each bite, we choose a step in a new direction, a step toward softer soil.gentle weeds

we won’t stop trying

Watch out folks, I’m flipping over this harvest basket and stepping up onto it.  I’m cranking up my personal truth machine.little birds

The little media firestorm in my brain began with a nice little post from Ben Hewitt, about how to keep your chin up in the hard and heavy seasonal work of the homestead.  His first advice was to just smile, which really does work, but demands some elaboration.  He did a nice job of it and it set something vibrating in my head, which is just as well right now, when the harvest is bubbling over, and fall planting still isn’t finished, the rain we prayed for never seems to end, and the galinsoga weeds are growing in like a wall to wall shag carpet with yellow flowers on all that open ground that is waiting for kale.  I wish kale grew as well as galinsoga, but that’s just my personal prejudice.

Anyhow, I was stringing together thoughts about keeping a good attitude when it feels like my back might break and my head explode when another article came to my attention.  This one is a UN report concluding that indeed, small farms can feed the world.  In fact, considering the larger economic picture, wealth and resource distribution, transportation costs, energy efficiency, and a slew of other factors, small farms are our best shot at feeding the world.  So, the UN is advising all nations to re-direct their agricultural policies toward the support of small producers, like us.

I love that.  It’s great to finally hear what I’ve always suspected was true being backed up by a team of over 60 international agricultural specialists.  For some reason, it almost makes me nervous.  It definitely makes the music in my head play a little louder.garden

It may have just been the next day that the New York Times printed a lovely Op-Ed piece, Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to be Farmers.  It’s about how nearly impossible it is to make a profitable living farming.  It’s a great read, and certainly rings true to what we’ve seen and experienced our our little agricultural community.  The high price of land plus the cost of doing business hardly adds up to even the most outrageous income you can imagine from peddling lettuce, or radishes.

Granted, most of us come into this line of work for the sake of making a LIFE, not making a living.  But we do still have to pay the bills.  And sometimes, even when the bills are very very small, it can feel like an uphill battle to pay them with cherry tomatoes, no matter how beautiful they are.cherry tomatoes

So, as I sorted another load of tomatoes, and sent the cantaloupes that didn’t make it over the chicken net, there was a three part harmony, in a somewhat minor key, playing in my head and I was thinking about sustainability.

Yes, I want our government, our WORLD, to support the work of small farmers.  Heck – we’ve all to eat, and the better everyone gets to eat, the better we all get along!

But, do I want an artificially infused small farm economy?  Not really.  Do I want a hyper-competitive market place where the really authentic high-quality small grower can only afford to sell to the mega-rich consumer?  Absolutely not.  As the NYT article points out, there’s already plenty of operations that rake in donations or make their money in other ways, and then practically give their food away.  I don’t blame them.  Personally, we have shifted our income-focus away from the farm, too.  But we are careful, in the little bit of food marketing that we still do, not to undermine the local market. The economic playing field is a pretty steep slope.

I guess the NYT piece went viral.  There was one last voice that chimed in to the growing chorus in my head – a high note.  The Huffington Post picked this one up, as a mild mannered rebuttal to the previous piece.  Let Your Children Grow Up to be Farmers doesn’t refute anything about the other piece, it just sheds light on the brighter side.  Yes, let your children be farmers, because we are strong and healthy and know how to work with our bodies and minds.  Because we breathe fresh air all day long and generally aren’t glued to an electronic umbilical cord.  We can solve problems, with our hands or our heads.   We tend to be smart, creative, well-rounded people, if still a bit quirky.

It’s a full four-part harmony now.  The song in my head is all about things that work, and for things to keep working, they have to keep changing.  Not un-impeded capitalist-economy-style growth, but organic change, like the strengthening of a muscle or the lengthening of hair.lulah tomatoes

For a healthy 26-year old, with little or no debt-load, working 80 plus hours each week more or less year round for $20,000 per year or so might be sustainable.  If all goes well, it might even be sustainable for 10, 15, even 20 years. But then what?  Human life, individually, is not in itself sustainable.  That’s part of why we love to have children, because we hope, we believe, that human life in general is sustainable.

Like most of us, I’m just looking for the balance.

I’m looking for a time when the good earth will no longer be a commodity, bought by the highest bidder and considered only for the purpose of extracting every penny of its inherent worth in fertility and timber, leaving the next buyer a striped down wasteland barely suitable for anything more than development (by that, I mean buildings).

I’d like to see smart, hardworking people be able to sustain their lives, their families, their land, without the undue stress load of debt.  They should be able to save for the family’s future, share their talents with the larger community, flourish and thrive throughout the whole course of their lives, as farmers.

And, I’d like to see a public that appreciates where its food comes from, and understands the value of the food coming from local farms – understands the value of farms in and of themselves.  That same public would value their own lives, their own time, and use their time to care for themselves, taking time to prepare food, savoring the culinary changes of the season.

I am such a dreamer.  This is what I get for maintaining an internet connection!

The hard facts are – I can’t make all the changes I can imagine to create a sustainable food culture in this world.  I can only start making my own life more sustainable.

The health, the resilience, the sustainability of our homestead is directly dependent on the health of its members.  All of them.  Shareholders, minors, seniors, four-legged, two-legged, no-legged, mammalian, reptile, avian, amphibian, bacterial, and fungal.  The closed loop composting, solar panels, mulching, cover cropping and rotational systems are all very important, but ultimately, it is our mental, emotional, and physical well-being that make a full sustaining harmony.  amphibian

This is why I remember to smile as I cinch down the last lid on the last batch of tomato sauce.  Sustainable aspirations make for a long, constantly evolving to-do list, starting, and ending, right here at home, in our own bodies, hearts, and minds.  We won’t ever get it all done.  But we won’t ever stop trying.