Waxing Poetic (farm blog)
our last bursts of color before the greens of fall
Do you ever have days where your mind just draws a blank? I don’t mean stupidly (though I have those days too), but comfortably: days when you just can’t find anything to fret about. Perhaps it’s some sort of resignation, but it feels more akin to acceptance. Where things are just set in motion and you refuse to worry about them anymore. I’m having one of those days, well, weeks, maybe even months. I am aware, somewhere in my conscience, that there is still some scrambling around left to do, still some large projects looming, but I can’t resist the ease of cool evenings, open windows, and the front porch. It’s an alluring lullaby, the end of August. More and more fields trade in their feverish reproductive fervor for a simple cover with no expectation other than to hold onto the soil over the winter and hold onto hope for the spring. Even the buckwheat with its whirring metropolis of insects scrambling to store enough sugar for the winter season sounds like a sigh.
A Mexican bean beetle larvae parasitized by a pediobus wasp-the wasp larvae will hatch out from inside the bean beetle larvae (cool huh?)
Usually, the first question we get about organic agriculture is “what do you do about the bugs?” Organic is a whole system approach to producing food that focuses on balancing the ecosystem in and around our fields and building healthy soils for healthy plants. This mostly works for prevention of pest outbreaks. But sometimes, we press a figurative thumb on that scale. Sometimes, we stack the deck a bit. Because sometimes the bad bugs just don’t seem to have received the memo! Like the Mexican bean beetle, for example. Balanced, they are not, my friends. They’re just plumb out of control. Evil minded critters seem to have their sights set on taking over the world of beans. If we do nothing, they will defoliate our entire crop of beans. Lucky for us though, they have a nemesis: a tiny little wasp that parasitizes the bean beetle larvae. And wouldn’t you know it, there are whole companies out there that raise these wasps and will sell them to us! So this year, instead of simply hoping against hope that it won’t be a bad Mexican bean beetle year, instead of just not planting beans at all, we stacked the deck. And we swear it’s not cheating. They are, after all, Mexican bean beetles and this is not Mexico. So if anyone is cheating…
Kicking off August with a little fun break at McRitchie winery
We went and visited some farms on the high country farm tour this past weekend. August is an interesting time for a farm tour. August is an interesting month (“interesting” being an ambiguous word). It’s a time of year when the sun seeks an angry vengeance against us (let's all knock on wood together now for this cool week we've got planned). It’s a time when all the hope of spring has been used up and replaced with dust and weeds and not a little heartbreak. It’s a time when you find yourself constantly scrambling and scrapping half finished tasks, cutting your losses and moving on. It’s a time when, as a farmer, you really shouldn’t count up your crop losses, but still you do. It must be the mood lighting. August. Did you know that it’s an adjective too? As in “inspiring reverence or admiration.” As in, “it’s an august farmer who survives August.” But we do. Somewhere deep in our hearts, we know relief is not far away. As the fall crops begins to poke up their little green heads, we can look at the beautiful big picture of what we do for a living, wipe the sweat from our brow, and plug away at those perpetual to do lists with a little more vigor in our step.
Mother Nature can inflict her wrath on even the best farmers (These are the Haygrove tomato umbrellas at Peregrine Farm in Alamance County)
I used to teach disaster preparedness courses for the American Red Cross. I rarely followed my own advice. If I had been prone to follow my own advice, I probably wouldn’t have chosen farming for a career. We truly are at the mercy of Mother Nature. Remember back in 2009 (or have you blocked that memory too), all the crazy rain and flooding? It was that year in combination with the slightly less watery, but still good ole’ southeastern damp 2010 year, and the virtual loss of a tomato crop two years in a row that prompted the purchase of our “tomato umbrella.” That was no small decision (thank goodness for bank loans!). But since we erected that structure, I have to admit I’ve felt a little bullet-proof. Like Icharus, I challenged the gods and thought myself to have won at least a small battle (you see, we can grow beautiful tasty actually fungicide-free organic tomatoes in the southeast!). Lest I get too arrogant though: it was with a heavy dose of my own human powerlessness that we returned a borrowed tool to our mentor farmers (Alex and Betsy Hitt of Peregrine Farm in Alamance County) this weekend. A tool they will need to replace their own tomato umbrella that Mother Nature took out in a brief flash of unpredicted fury. We return to our farm, perhaps a little less realistic about our relationship with Mother Nature, and with the words of our friend Ken running through our heads, “Isn’t that what farming is: waiting around for the next disaster?” Indeed.
He (or she) who said “If you love what you do, you never have to work a day in your life” was most definitely not a farmer. Have you ever looked up the definition of work? It’s really quite eye-opening. Excepting the articles, I suppose, it has to be one of the most used words in the English language. And most of its many uses apply to the farm in one way or another. Work on, work out, work off, work over. Mostly, we just work…hard. My father once famously said of the farm, “everywhere I look I see work!” Behind the scenes, off the grid (metaphorically speaking, that is), out of sight, out of mind. Day after day, we toil away here in Millers Creek, which may as well be Belarus, and we might as well be Belarusian snake milkers (you do what? Where? Huh?), for all the understanding we engender from the uninitiated (which, of course, does not mean ya’ll reading this since you are obviously very in tune with what happens here). In that vein, I have to propose a national holiday. No, no..don’t get all panicky on me, I don’t mean that we, the farmers, are going to take a day off. I mean that I propose that this Wednesday be national “give your farmer a round of applause day”. Maybe if everyone did it, we could even hear it way out here in Millers Creek! I promise if you do that, we’ll quit patting ourselves on the back and get back to work.
Tumbling Shoals Farm 2012 farmily
Today’s giddiness harkens back to childhood: those times you brought home your creations from school or summer camp to show off proudly to mom. I found a slight skip in my step as I got to lead our visiting mentor farmers, Cathy Jones and Michael Perry of Perry-Winkle Farm in Chapel Hill, around the farm showing off our, well…weeds really. But also how we’ve taken their ideas and implemented them here on our farm. Just like the picture you drew of mom and dad under that bright yellow sun so proudly displayed on the fridge. See, Cathy and Michael and folks like them are a lot of the reason we decided to choose farming as a career. Having made a go of it themselves, and succeeded, was both instruction and inspiration to us “wannabe farmers”. And still is. We still call them for advice, and likely always will. Knowing we can never repay them for all the free knowledge they’ve given us, we can only hope to pay it forward with some of the young aspiring farmers who pass through the Tumbling Shoals Farmily. And then we’ll get to go let them show off their own implementation of our ideas or techniques on their farms.
I sat for a while yesterday just watching the bees work the flowers. Such diligence! Efficiently, they move from flower to flower, gathering food while unwittingly completing nature’s work of pollination too. I wish I were that productive when I ate. The more flowers, the more bees needed. You are that productive when you eat. I mean, the more produce you eat, the more we grow, and the more we grow, the more help we need to get all that work done. I can see them down there now—flitting from task to task with the due diligence of bees, an integral cog in the transmission of food from farm to fork.
The contrast between weed circus on the left, and digging for treasure (Mitch and Emily digging taters)
My brother always told me I was good at discovering the beautiful in what most wouldn’t perceive that way. I’m channeling that skill in our potato field. On the surface, it looks like a weed circus (better than a flea circus?)—a veritable forest of pigweed just waiting to dig deep into your unsuspecting fingers. Underneath, however, lies a treasure trove, but you have to dig for it. You have to reach right into the dirty heart of the matter and pull out these little nuggets of beauty. But there’s something about hunting for treasure that has inspired humans for centuries. The discovery of some secret value buried right there beneath our feet. It’s around us all the time-this buried treasure of life. Little nuggets of beauty all covered with the soil and debris of everyday living that only require a little digging on our parts. Take the heat wave, for example. Sure, it’s suddenly news-worthy hot, but with the heat comes the disappearance of ticks! Did you know that? A little treasure with the tyranny. They invented a machine to dig potatoes, I wonder when they’ll invent a machine to dig up life’s little treasures (oh wait, it might be called “Google”).
“All things begin in order so shall they end, so shall they begin again…” It’s a perfect somersault, a protractor’s circle, the Ouroboros, and also, the cycle of kale. Just as we are harvesting the last of the greens (and scrambling to make one last batch of kale chips), we are again seeding them in the greenhouse for the fall. It feels like a metaphoric rendition of an awesome yoga pose—stretching ourselves back to our beginning. I guess the cyclical nature of farming never ceases to amaze me, or, it seems, to surprise me. You’d think after several years of this whole snake-eating-its-own-tail thing, I’d cease noticing it, but here I am again, awestruck by the fulfillment of circular farm lives. Constant renewal, even as it ends.
This is what organic farming often looks like to us: a lot of hard working people!
Have you ever heard the NPR show “This I believe”? It’s where people of all stripes and colors read their essays about what they believe. Just to give you fair warning: I’m about to do that, though I promise not to be as long winded as some of those essays (is it still long winded if I’m typing it?):
I believe that what we do-grow food organically-is beautiful and just and right. Believing this does not make me believe that other methods are wrong. In fact, I believe that growing food for people is beautiful and just and right. Growing food for people organically is right for us. I believe knowing the people I’m feeding breeds integrity in what I do, and that this is the best case scenario between grower and eater. But I recognize that this is not always possible. I mean, can we all really know personally the grower of our wheat for flour, or our corn for tortillas? This is where organic certification comes in. With much labeling voluntary or even illegal, and with no “teeth” to them whatsoever, organic certification is the only thing a consumer has to go on while standing in front of a grocery shelf. At least I can be reasonably assured that I am not eating any genetically engineered crops, and that it wasn’t sprayed or fertilized with any synthetic chemicals. Is it a perfect system? No way. Is big agri-business always going to be beating at the door with their water hoses trying to dilute the regulations? Absolutely. This is why I believe in small growers’ (that is not a short joke) full participation in the system. Because if all of us walk away, there will be no one to stand up to the big guys and keep the “teeth” in organic. But if we stay involved, attempts to water down won’t go unnoticed, and together we can protect the integrity of the word “organic.”