Category Archives: reflection on the farm

Fall

The advent of our CSA deliveries has corresponded with my return to the classroom at UW.   This quarter I am again taking up my post within the Program on the Environment – UW’s interdisciplinary undergraduate environmental studies program.   This fall I am teaching Environment 100: Environmental Foundations.   Sometimes on the tractor I am planning for a lecture, and sometimes when I am working in my office reading for class I find myself thinking about new tools for soil conservation.  Nonetheless, I find synergy in the combination of tasks associated with these two jobs.

 

This past week we have been talking in class about humanity’s impact on the planet.   In general, we can summarize the impact humans have by considering that our environmental impact (I) is equal to our population size (P) times the resources we consume (C). It is a broad stroke for sure, but one curious thing is how food (and consequently farming) is intimately linked to I.   Farming both enables human population growth and contributes to our current resource consumption rates.

 

As growers at SkyRoot farm (our favorite term for what we do) we have an impact on the planet greater in some respects than we did before we grew food as a business.   Daily we struggle with the big questions associated with our farm – efficiency, sustainability (both environmental and personal) and restoration of ecological function.  We want both to grow our farm and use less fossil fuel.  We want to feed people and reduce the big I of our equation.   Running a farm while struggling with food production in the context of the big environmental issues of our time is part of what our farm is about. Ultimately, when more people engage in agriculture the consumption component of the equation can be reduced.    Instead of 1 farmer in 50 people, I hope someday that we will see the number closer to 1 in 10.   This shift could reduce the I in many ways – but perhaps the biggest is that small, ecologically managed farms can be more productive than their large monoculture counterparts (Alteri 2011).    Ecologically managed farms improve efficiency by reducing external inputs (fossil fuels, pesticides, fertilizers), building interdependent farm systems, and consequently increasing the per unit area productivity of the farm.  The shift to more farmers farming smaller areas more efficiently will be a significant piece of the next “green revolution.”

 

How does having more farmers impact consumption?  My own relationship with food and consumption has changed significantly in the last year.  Now I eat what I grow – which means, the fields, not the grocer determine my family’s diet.   We are engaged in farming as a life choice.  Instead of going to market we are harvesting and preserving food.  Instead of thinking only of the market efficiency of our farm, we think of our farm system.   We have animals on our farm that do not directly support the market goals or create marketable products.   We have animals because they help us build a farm that functions like an ecosystem.   We trade our farm products and time with our neighbors for things we don’t grow on the farm.  Operating outside the cash economy is refreshing – lettuce can become goat cheese and building fences can become fresh milk.     We consume less because we grow more, trade more, and have less time to respond to the constant hum of our buy more culture.

 

Should everyone be a farmer?   No!  We need you, the other 9 out of 10 people the lawyers, doctors, economists, plumbers, political scientists, teachers, engineers who care to make a commitment daily – just as we do on the farm –  to think about our contributions to the I of the equation and work to reduce its largese.

 

The developing organism

I like to think of the farm as an organism.   Thinking about the earth and its ecosystems as an organism was one of the first ways that ecologists approached an understanding of how the living and non-living parts of a system work.   Most ecologists no longer think of systems as organisms, but there is a part of me that wishes the organism philosophy of ecology was better represented in my graduate training.   For one thing I think it might have helped me as I work to apply ecosystem theory to our working farm!

How does our farm begin to function as an organism?    Well, the most honest answer is: it doesn’t – YET.    But as the chickens, bees, goats, worms, bacteria, plants, and fungus we are cultivating begin to work in concert to support our goal of farm production (measured best in terms of food production and soil improvements?)  then I think our farm will begin to function as an organism.

What will that mean?    One of our hopes is that as we improve in our approach to farming and the efficiencies with which we do things, our systems will (with care and nurture from us) move toward the goal of having our farm produce the things we need to keep our farm running.   Some folks call this a closed loop farm.

Some short term goals for the continued development of our closed loop farm system.

  • Improving our micro-livestock production (soldier flies and mealy worms for chickens)
  • Continuing to develop creative, but efficient and functional intercropping strategies
    • Current projects include:
      • radish and parsnips (working well)
      • potatoes and radish (a total disaster)
      • zuchinni and clover (functioning, but could be improved)
      • lettuce and tomatoes (yeah, coming along)
      • carrots and cauliflower (worked better before I accidently weeded all the carrots out!)
  • Increasing worm compost production
  • Building more mobile chicken coops to increase the variety of ways in which the chickens can be incorporated on the farm.

Already our farm is functioning as a system in some important ways.   Chickens and worms eat excess produce that comes home from market.   Goats are eating up the blackberry and clearing land for future projects.   Our neighbor is grazing horses on the pasture and in exchange we get composted horse manure.    Thus – facilitated by great compost from our neighbor’s horses  – the vegetable beds are being rotated in and out of production. The bees are pollinating the cucurbits, raspberries, and host of other fruits on the farm.   We have planted flowers on the farm edges to welcome a diversity of pollinators into the farm production space.

What are the long term goals?   Well, a big one is planning and planting an orchard that will mimic a functional forest ecosystem.   It isn’t a closed loop yet,but some elements of the system are beginning to feed back on themselves and over time we hope that these will continue to develop and flourish.   These are the hallmarks of a farm that functions as a healthy organism.

 

 

sowing the farm

Everyone needs a big brother.   My younger brother and I think we have got one of the best.    There is so much about starting this farm that involves the support of family both near and far from the farm.   For me, most of my family is pretty far away.    I miss them and I know I miss the mark they would make on the start of this project if they were here, but the fact that they aren’t means that they provide an important counterpoint for me in the balance of ideas and suggestions of how to move forward with what at times seems an overwhelming endeavor.

This evening I had the chance to talk to my big brother on the phone.   There is so much happening right now at the farm.  It isn’t a discouraging feeling, but it is a big feeling.  Here, at the start of this farm project and with so many visions for the future, at moments it can feel hard to know how or in what direction to proceed.  For instance as I pause in my grading to write this blog post I am thinking about:

  • our 27 growing chicks (where they will go how we will move them and where they will eventually live),
  • the mama Alder Rose and her two daughter goats who are arriving at the farm shortly after Easter and for whom we are yet to build a goat pen,
  • the greenhouse which is sitting in almost, but not quite done splendor,
  • the little starts – who are desperately waiting for a home to land,
  • the fence we have to choose, purchase and install…and those are the small things  – the big ones? – well I won’t go there this evening! 🙂

Tonight my brother told me a story of my father and our 1950’s era tractor that I had never heard before.  It made me laugh to think of my father (who I generally think of as cautious, wise, and capable of all but the most difficult miracles) learning, or put in another light, making mistakes….   The story reminded me that learning, no matter where it takes place, is a humbling activity.  I delight at the developing stories of our farm enterprise and the work of living with the land.   It is filling me with great joy even as I am humbled by the daily learning involved in the sowing of a farm.

My brother shared this poem with me:

You come to fetch me from my work to-night
When supper’s on the table, and we’ll see
If I can leave off burying the white
Soft petals fallen from the apple tree.
(Soft petals, yes, but not so barren quite,
Mingled with these, smooth bean and wrinkled pea;)
And go along with you ere you lose sight
Of what you came for and become like me,
Slave to a springtime passion for the earth.
How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed
On through the watching for that early birth
When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,
The sturdy seedling with arched body comes
Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.
-Robert Frost

Sarah has had a similar problem when calling me into dinner.   Only Annie has yet to discover the unending miracle of seed.