Fellowship

I’m helping to organize a really great event.  It’s the Fellowship of the Preparation Maker’s Conference.  The Fellowship is a dedicated small group of Biodynamic Practitioners.  Each year they gather in a different region and explore a facet of biodynamic agriculture (a multi-faceted field, to be sure).  But this group is so much more than a handful of sustainable ag geeks.  That’s why I agreed to help throw this event in our neighborhood.

February 9-11, if it’s your sort of thing, please come.  Here’s a link to some more info.

This is a piece I wrote about the experience my Fellow Man and I had attending last year’s conference in Kincardine, Ontario.  Maybe it will help persuade you to come to this year’s event.  Or you might just like to take the ride vicariously.  Either way, enjoy.

kincardine

When we crossed the Canadian border into Sarnia, the sky was light, and there were sparkles of snow in the air. The effect was tropical, to my southern eyes. We don’t get partly cloudy snow down in our part of the world. I was enchanted. My Canadian husband was less impressed and directed us to a store to pick up some anti-freeze windshield wiper fluid. It was a cold weekend, and we were poorly prepared, but the snow that day, and into the night, was magical.

I knew when we walked in the door, nearly at the end of Friday’s opening day session of the annual Fellowship of the Preparation Makers Conference, that we were in a good place. The conference was held in a historic community meeting hall. It was a singular spacious room, with a small kitchen curtained off in the back and chairs circled up in concentric rings. In the middle sat Hugh Courtney, pendulum in hand, holding onto a sizeable apple young apple tree in a pot. I have always considered Hugh a true “mensch” – a worthy and reliable member of humanity. I appreciate how he answers questions without assuming over-arching authority – he is simply sharing what he has learned. He has influenced many of the people who have influenced me, and has shown a steadfastness in his dedication to the work of his life that is uncommon in our day. It was a pleasure to see him in this context – in a room of listeners, really absorbing the information he has to share – his life’s work, laid out for any who care to try.

Hugh’s presence is an important piece of the Fellowship of the Prepmaker’s work. Their stated mission, to insure that there are sufficient biodynamic preparations available across the continent to meet the needs of all who want to use them, emerged from the recognition of Hugh Courtney’s work at the Josephine Porter Institute for Applied Biodynamics, which largely fulfilled that demand for many years. As it is, the Fellowship is a collection of deeply dedicated biodynamic practitioners, intent on exploring their craft in its blood and bones, as well as its heart and soul.

After a satisfying dinner and some mingling in the warmth of strangers who were surely about to become friends, we lined up the chairs again and set out to listen to Reverend Jonah Evans, of Toronto. I’ve never heard a sermon like that before, and I would travel to hear it again. Jonah is an engaging speaker, and he challenged all of us in the room to engage our own inner world in terms of the work we do on our farms. He asked us to explore the resonant parallels between the activity of preparation making and the activity of the human soul. Consider the qualities the fresh manure gains from spending the winter underground in a horn, in deep darkness. What do we gain from passing through periods of darkness, uncertainty, hardship, ourselves? Certainly, under the right circumstances, the passage through darkness increases the creative capacity of soul, and soil. On both counts, it is a journey whose worth becomes apparent upon returning to the light. (I could spend this whole article ruminating on Rev. Jonah’s message that night. Please just take the opportunity to hear him whenever it presents itself.) Laying my travel-weary head down that night, I thought Hugh Courtney and Brother Jonah set our foots on the path for the weekend to come.

Saturday morning, snow-covered and bone chillingly cold, we met the day together in song. It was reassuring for a new-comer to the Prepmaker’s Fellowship (like me) to feel that we were maintaining the strong soul-connection that was set up the night before. The rest of the morning was spent hearing perspectives from biodynamic farmers in different places. Chris Boettcher gave a carefully prepared talk about the feedback loops of farming fertility, from animal, to plant, to cosmos, and ultimately, in human farming activity. Jeff Poppen followed with a comical account of his personal and professional transformation through biodynamics. The juxtaposition of those two interesting speakers gave us plenty to think and chat about over lunch.

After lunch, we were called to open up to our own perspectives and our capacity for perception. Pat Frazier led us on a choose-your-own perceptive/creative journey which prepared us for the meat of the weekend: horn manure evaluation at the Hack Farm.

The cold crisp day didn’t stop most of us from jumping on a hay wagon for the short ride to the farm. We un-earthed some horns and passed them around. Some of the horns were new, and others had been used before. Hugh Courtney spoke of the differences he had perceived in working with old and new horns in the past. It was an interesting exploration, but I have to admit that I was distracted by the flat expansive fields (the kind you don’t see much in middle Tennessee) and the black earth (another rarity in our parts) that Uli says goes about a foot and a half deep. As part of the afternoon tour, we entered one of the Hack Farm outbuildings, where Wali Via prepared us to encounter Horn Manure in a different way. On a long table, there were 12 samples of Horn Manure. Each was on a plate with a number on it. There were no other indications about each one. We were each given a pencil and paper and asked to circle the table and quietly mingle our senses with the samples, scoring our first impressions, and second impressions, and any other impressions as well. Some of us pulled out pendulums. Others squeezed the samples, and smelled them. I was amazed at how different 12 samples of manure packed into cow horns and buried in the ground could be. One was black, another reddish brown. Many were sandy and nearly dry. A few were moist, and one nearly spongy wet. Wali pointed out to us later that this exercise boiled down to experiencing 12 years of biodynamic work all at once, as so many of us only get to handle our own horn manure, year after year. It was a powerful exercise, and most of the remainder of our time together was spent discussing our impressions.

The crowd around the coffee and tea station was thick when we returned to the meeting hall. As we warmed up, so did the discussion. With Wali guiding us, we shared our impressions and in turned learned the ‘biographies’ of the preparations we had met at the Hack Farm. It became clear in short order that the exploration of our experiences and what they mean coupled with the stories of the preps could have gone on all night. Thankfully, our mindful hosts turned our attention to some other information and prepared us for some fun.

Following another beautiful meal, we took a stroll through the garden inside, led by Gabi Boettcher as she played Beethoven Sonata No. 8 Op. 13 (Pathetique) for us. Her son followed her with a trumpet piece. And then, we were visited by a theatrical presentation of rhyming little troll who danced on a table and played a ukelele for our pleasure. This display of the local farming families’ artistic abilities would have been a superb ending to the day, but they weren’t done with us yet. Our chairs were stacked in the corners of the room and we partnered up for a rollicking round of social dancing (which is fun whether you can dance or not). When we sufficiently warm from the dance, a line of chairs returned to the center of the room, an accordion was pulled from the closet, and the group played the most competitive game of musical chairs I have ever witnessed. Emerging flush-faced into the dark, cold night, I was reminded that winters are long in Canada, and by necessity, these folks have mastered a number of ways to strengthen their community and enjoy themselves in the off-season. What a treat!

Sunday morning, our curiosity was piqued and we were ready to continue our discussion of the horn manure samples. It was interesting to note that though our impressions of the samples differed greatly, there were some parallels that emerged. Many of the same people had a negative impression of several preparations, while many others would have a positive impression about the same group of preps. Personally, I was not able to rate any of the samples poorly, but I was more attracted to certain individuals than others. Hearing different people from the group voicing their experience with each sample was a great lesson in differences, understanding, and the potential power of this kind of perceptive study in a group setting. We came away with a lot of information, and maybe as many questions as answers. In other words, a great success.

Circling the chairs one more time, we set about to close the weekend with a final sharing circle and ceremony. Pat opened the sharing circle and asked us to bring forth our questions as well as our impressions. The pouring forth that followed was lovely, and served to open our hearts for the closing ceremony, led by Wali.

I want to tell you about the closing ceremony, but I’m not going to. It’s too good to share in print. If you want to know, the best way is to show up and become a part of it. This is what I will say – it was a privilege to pour out intentions and dreams into the shared vessel of this event. It was a privilege to share in the great celebration of all creation that is at the heart of biodynamics, and at the heart of the Fellowship of the Preparation Makers.

kincardine 2

pitching in

since the moment i launched my own crowd funding campaign that fateful day in October last year, through each of the 31 long days of the campaign, i hoped and waited for the opportunity to somehow contribute to someone else’s fundraising effort. as i drank coffee long into those autumn nights and worked tirelessly mobilizing my community,  i thought how delightful it would be to pitch in for someone else.

flo

at last i received the call to assist.  in the last couple of weeks i received not one, not two, but three announcements from dear farmer friends launching their unique crowd funding campaigns.

having just made my donations to each effort, i set down to write this post. the purpose here is two fold.  first, to ask you to check out each of these campaigns. i won’t write too much here, because i really want you to click on these links and read the tales of 3 amazing farm families. one young and getting started, one well seasoned , and one in such a moment of heart break, i can’t even think of it.

rocks

my second purpose is to ponder this recurring thought with you all. why does any hard working farmer need to spend 31 days on their computers and devices rounding up cash? surely, they are working hard enough day in day out to deserve the benefit of a reasonable amount of disposable income.

i see a problem in our food system that leaves small scale sustainable farmers in a constant state of financial insecurity. we are rich in so many ways, ways too numerous to name. often, sadly, we are lacking the funds for even the smallest infrastructure development. we are so shy on savings that when an emergency arises, whew, don’t ask. the financial reality of farmers today is often a bit discouraging.  i ask you now to check out these campaigns. make a donation today.  support them. i know from my own experience that even the smallest contribution will get these fine folks one step closer to goal. then,  i ask you to support your local farmers. spend your food dollars at the farmers market, join a CSA, purchase locally made and processed EVERYTHING! spring is here and seasonal markets are opening for the year. start the routine now. fresh greens will soon appear. make a commitment to changing your diet, your local food system and stabilizing your region’s farmers. the movement is growing. awareness is greater than ever, but still there are small farmers struggling to make ends meet.

creek

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.