Farm News

A Symphony of Collaboration

red poppy photo

A Symphony of Collaboration

Recently I wrote about the sound of swarming bees, which I later described as a phenomenal humming symphony. ‘Bees-on-the-move’ is just one example of the type of obscure live music that can bless a farm. Sometimes, my favorite agrarian concerts require a bit of imagination to hear.

When farm visitors first enter our high tunnel in early spring, a feeling of reverence envelops them. I liken it to walking into a concert hall, an old one-room schoolhouse, or a small chapel. It’s quiet, but it’s not soundless. Stories reverberate off the walls; there is music simply in the architecture of the place.

In one eighty-foot bed, slim bean vines spiral and twirl upward, flanked by lines of slender ballerina-like brilliant red beet stems, all seemingly en-pointe. In another bed, two rows of flat bluish-green kale leaves surround each stalk and arc outward like fireworks popping on-cue while willowy fennel fronds sweep up the middle of the bed—a tender anise-scented lace. Dark red and lime green rosette lettuces create the patchwork quilt of a comfortable lullaby that hugs the ground of a third bed. Above, angular multi-jointed pepper plants dressed in glossy green with purple trimmed nodes, rise rigidly like conductors with their stiff wands. Puffy, lavender colored Phacelia softens the hard corners of this room, a diminuendo edging to this boisterous performance.

It’s an odd juxtaposition: the space has all the energy of a sold-out concert, yet our human ears hear only distant birdsong or maybe a soft breeze. More often than not, my farm visitors sense this dichotomy. Often they stumble as they try to put into words this experience, saying: “It’s thrumming with life,” or “I can almost hear the plants growing.” It’s true. Packed in every particle of soil is life, multi-layered and pouring forth. Being in the presence of these miraculous plants in high states of inaudible growth can make a human feel as if they are outside the glass window, looking in.

I’ve come to believe such “thrumming” is the eloquent music of millions of soil, sky, and plant conversational exchanges. Think of it as an improvisational symphony of collaboration: interchanges of root, insect, leaf, macrobiotic and microbiotic soil life, all connecting for the benefit of Life itself. Each being from eggplant to earthworm, is driven to fulfill a mission by utilizing innate talents. Each being in essence is singing its gifts to the world.

Just think. If we could tune into the right radio frequency, would our ‘quiet’ early morning produce field sound as raucous as a New York city street on Friday night?

Just think. What if all humans could live up to their potential and work toward a mutually beneficial equilibrium as plants do? What would our symphony of collaboration sound like?

Each year, with eyes wide open toward the woeful march of development encroaching ever closer, I choose to settle into the rhythm and magic of many quiet, but not silent, green and lively lives. This is where I find refuge and inspiration. Like the mother swallow, or a swarm of bees, a plant knows itself in ways humans may not grasp. Each being has a mission, purpose, and potential that is not questioned. Each being takes what it needs, yes, but there is a sort of interminable giving. The scales of botany’s reciprocity are balanced. Plants can no doubt be self-serving – a blackberry isn’t sensitive to a fir seedling’s need for light. But even a blackberry does not play favorites. It shares it fruits freely: no living creature is turned away.

Whether in the high tunnel or out in my fields, when I stand in the presence of growing plants, I know I am surrounded by billions of generous beings, all united by their drive to express their unique gifts to the world. One universal melody carries the tune: the exquisite, common refrain we call photosynthesis. More than anything, I wish I could hear the song of photosynthesis. Take a breath. The oxygen you inhale? That’s the gift of plants and sunlight– the quintessential symphony of collaboration.


Photosynthesis can be represented using a chemical equation.

The overall balanced equation is:

6CO2 + 6H2O ——> C6H12O6 + 6O2
Sunlight energy

Where: CO2 = carbon dioxide
H2O = water
Light energy is required
C6H12O6 = glucose
O2 = oxygen


I hosted a group of Culinary Arts Instructors on a farm tour recently, and we stopped near a long bed of tall, purple-green plants. This was last year’s flower sprout crop, now abloom with humble-looking yellow petals. I asked everyone to stand among the waist high plants and fall silent. A previously unnoticed humming became audible. It was only then my guests became aware of the thousands of insects in our field. A thrumming passel of pollinators was actively foraging the ‘unimpressive’ yellow flowers. Suddenly, fascination filled the field too.

I broke the spell and pointed to the newly planted squash 30 feet away and the budding orchard 300 feet away. I explained the need for a healthy population of pollinators to ensure our crops are viable.

We feed the bees so the bees can feed us. In the complexity of our modern lives, the simple truth of how things work is right before our eyes, or rather, sometimes right before our ears. Yet, too often, we disconnect ourselves from the natural places where we can see it, hear it, and understand it directly, without interpretation, for ourselves.

Working farms are places full of such many points of connection to our natural world, and surprisingly also to our most sincere selves.* On a farm, one can watch, smell, taste, and feel working models of Life because they are everywhere, like role models and guides showing us ways we might walk more skillfully in the world. Listening may sometimes be a more difficult avenue for understanding, but stretching one’s auditory imagination can lead to extraordinary insights.

I grew up in a household in which it was understood that those of us living a life of privilege have an unspoken responsibility to work to better the lives and the environment of those around us. Our greatest power to transform untenable situations rests in knowing our gifts and knowing how to leverage them for the greater good. No two of us carry the same “genetic gift makeup.” No two of us can contribute exactly the same thing to the world, and no two of us need try.

Here at my farm, I keep working to reveal the invisible, often inaudible, gifts of life at our feet and fingertips. I keep working to translate these ordinary miracles, which support our very human existence, in the hopes of sparking very discernable human curiosity. Curiosity opens the door to gratitude and to the discovery of our own incomparable gifts. Cultivating a listening spirit is one way forward. ~AJ

*In this context, farmers become ecological system interpreters, stewards of reciprocity, and teachers of agricultural literacy. It is through the farm’s many ‘points of connection’ that I continue to discover the true nature of my work and of my gifts.

You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth. For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons, and to step out of life’s procession, that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite…

Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune. But I say to you that when you work you fulfill a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born, and in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life, and to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret…

Work is love made visible.

– Excerpts from “On Work” by Kahlil Gibran 

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Gifts: Part 2

purple iris photo

Gifts: Part 2

It is one thing to see a U-Haul truck parked in front of an empty house, but as most anyone knows, it is quite another thing to be the one unloading it. Staring up at our newly discovered bee swarm marked a similarly daunting challenge, and thanks to our friend Karen, I wasn’t just a passerby. No, I was about to be handed a moving box.

Before I began farming, serendipity didn’t much cross my mind. But there are no two ways about it: farms are magic. My agrarian journey continues to bloom with unexplainable, unbelievable synchronicities. The discovery of a bee swarm in the middle of a farm tour at the exact point in time in which we were talking about bee swarms is pretty notable. But at that very moment there also happened to be a graduate student from WSU working on a Carabidae (ground beetle) research project about twenty feet away in our high tunnel. Did I mention he was an entomologist? I mean, let’s be real. What are the chances of this?

Still chalking it up to luck? Hmm. Maybe. But Karen had brought an empty beehive to the farm just days prior, in hopes that if she heard about a bee swarm, she could relocate it to our farm. Pretty good timing, don’t you think? Apparently, our ordinary Tuesday was not meant for tours and transplanting. No, Tuesday was moving day.


“When a swarm of bees lands, the bees form a cluster around their queen. This is called festooning. The bees hang onto one another’s arms and legs like little acrobats. This cluster of bee bodies is an indescribable state of matter. It can wrap itself around branches, wires, or any other obstructions. If you were to stick your bare hand into it, you would feel hundreds of tiny prickings of bee feet, a surprising amount of heat, and the soft beating of wings. When you try to scoop bees from their swarm cluster, they are reluctant to be parted. Often little chains of bees will stretch from your hand to the cluster. When you attempt to catch a swarm this behavior is advantageous and will make it easier for you to transfer the bees from wherever they are into your swarm catching container of choice.” [1]


Karen and I did not put our bare hands into the festooning bees, partly because they were twelve feet up in the air over the edge of a steep drop-off, and mostly because we aren’t that brave. Instead, we set her empty beehive on the ground next to the swarm. With a bucket duct taped to a long pole, she gently jostled the swarm off the branch and lowered them into the open box, while I did my best to ease the bees off the edges of the box and set the top bars (inch wide strips of wood that make up the inner lid of the box) in place one by one.

While I was excited to help Karen relocate the swarm, I was not fully prepared for the instinctual desire to flee that gripped me when I heard the sound of the swarm being dislodged from the fir bough. Festooning bees are nearly silent. But once on the move, the ‘bee hum’ was instantaneous, full and fevered. This proved to be the most challenging part of the whole experience: overcoming my apprehension.

Many insects are shackled with cultural stigmas; such misguided beliefs stem from fear based ignorance. Believing that buzzing bees are synonymous with getting stung is equivalent to thinking the sound of a car engine means you are positively going to get hit by it. Understanding what motivates a honeybee to sting is one way to dismantle such arthropod illiteracy. Honeybees tend to sting when: they are attacked, (swatted at), trapped (tanged in your clothes or hair), or threatened (their house disturbed/honey stolen). But when bees leave their hive to start a new one, they are at their most docile. They have no honey to defend, their bellies are full of honey, and they are focused entirely on finding a new place to live.

I resolutely decided not to adopt a distrustful attitude. The bees weren’t defensive, so why ought I be? Slowly and carefully, I rooted myself to the ground adjacent to the hive. Goofily dressed in rubber gloves and Brad’s dry suit whitewater jacket, my face was totally exposed to the uprooted bees Karen was pouring into the hive. The bees were lining the inside of the hive and spilling out over the edges on all sides. Karen kept urging me to, “go ahead, start closing it up.” It looked impossible; there were so many bees!

I used to get so discouraged when facing seemingly impossible tasks, or jobs that appeared to be so difficult and that I lacked the skill to overcome. But all the same, I couldn’t very well just walk away or give up. Thankfully, farming has taught me to think incrementally.

When I am supremely frustrated or confused, I get myself out of my quandary by ceasing to try and solve the bigger problem all at once. Instead, I think in small pieces, asking myself, what is the next littlest thing that I must do? Then I go about figuring out how I can accomplish just that one, small step. Once I have a little success, I move onto the next minute goal; I am buoyed by each small achievement. Centimeter by centimeter, this is how I have worked my way through challenges that looked nigh impossible.

So I became determined both to stop hiding behind a baseless fear and to stop focusing on how I was going to carry the entire U-Haul truck stuffed to the gills. I tuned into my immediate experience, not my fearful expectations. I thought in terms of one box at a time. With just two hands, that’s all any of us can carry at once anyway. In the thick of challenging times, when we are consciously working to break down old barriers, when our path is lined with uncertainty, why overburden your mind and heart?

With the lightest touch I could muster, I stopped focusing on the impossibility of moving all those bees, all those bars. Just one bar, one bee at a time, I could do that. I hesitantly touched a bee and she gently crawled down into the hive. Then I touched another bee, with the same result. Suddenly the humming noise wasn’t scary at all; I understood the exuberant energy of the swarm. In fact, I felt incredibly lucky and happy to be at the center of the party! In a flash I went from overwhelmed to overjoyed. I fell in love with bees and with myself. I became awake to the change unfolding both before me and within me.

Bee by bee, I helped my new friends find their way home. Bee by bee, I dismantled my ignorance. Bee by bee, I uncovered yet another farm wellspring of joy.

It’s been two weeks now, and this new beehive is thrumming with activity. The hive is at the center of our farm, sheltered by the Gravenstein apple tree with a big patch of comfrey at its doorstep. Just the sight of it brimming with life brings me so much pleasure.

When a new family moves in, neighbors often bring over a housewarming present or a homemade pie. But bees don’t eat pie, and probably don’t need a set of kitchen towels. What can I do to make their house more like a home? I’ve decided their little place deserves a proper name. Serendipity sounds just right. I’m not sure when I’ll find the time to make the sign. I’m not sure whether to stencil it on a wood shingle or mount an inscribed metal placard on a stake that can blow in the breeze by their front porch. But even though I don’t yet know how I’ll accomplish it, I hold faith that in due time, providence and chance will work their magic.

Actually, there are two signs to be made. Our older beehive rightly merits a name too. That swarm miraculously arrived, totally unexpected on a warm spring day just two years ago. It’s a tiny settlement, a harbinger of mysterious intelligence and abundance, which alighted at my farm full of golden energy and pure power.

This home, I’m christening Joy.

[1] Hilary Kearney http://beekeepinglikeagirl.com/how-to-catch-a-swarm-of-bees/

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Gifts: Part 1

honeybee organic farm

Gifts: Part 1

Brad, a born naturalist, has stitched together the storyline of our barn swallows from observational scraps he has a knack for collecting. It’s not as if he sits out in camouflage among the trees, still for hours at a time. We are both farming steadily day in and day out, absorbed in the parallel work of tending plants and soil. But to my delight, bit by bit, he continues to offer up to me the gifts of his perceptive awareness.

I’ve passed by the same mud puddle a thousand times, but it is Brad that finds the copper breasted, blue winged swallow carrying straw to its wet edges. It’s Brad who is able to follow her quick, perky flight and find her chosen nesting site. It’s Brad who acknowledges the bird and her companion’s chittery morning greetings from the donkey fence. And it is Brad who filled her mud puddle with water when hot weather baked it dry. Ever aware, he knew with all certainty the mud nest construction was not yet finished.

Here on the cusp of summer, I watch my husband offer a helping hand to the wild among us. His actions startle me awake to the immense potential and invisible prosperity hidden in farms and humans.

Recently, The Naturalist really outdid himself. Brad and I were hosting a group of restaurant staff at the farm. We stopped to look out north over the unruly orchard grasses so we could show them our active beehive. I explained why we respect bees and consciously work to ensure an enriched habitat for our pollinating partners. I told the group how our bee colony was very small and had arrived by their own accord two years earlier.

When bees reach the physical capacity of their home, the colony divides itself and one group of bees leave to establish a new hive. This departing group of bees is called a swarm. They protect their queen by clustering tightly around her. To the uneducated eye, swarms may look frightening. In actuality, swarming bees are very docile. These are homeless beings, entirely focused on locating a new, safe place to establish themselves. They have no reason to sting, as they have no honey stash to defend.

We never saw our bees swarm into their new home. One day we simply noticed they had moved in. In fact, it is rare for us to witness a swarm. In all our years at the farm, Brad and I have only ever seen one. That was in 2012 and it was moving so incredibly fast we didn’t recognize what it was until it had disappeared into the woods.

“Bees reproduce new colonies by one of Nature’s most remarkable methods — they swarm. While common sense would imagine the new hive is made up of the newest bees, it’s just the opposite. The old bees leave their established location to the younger bees who inherit and take over the old hive.

A swarm is made up of the old Queen and the mature forager bees, about 2/3 of the colony. The swarming bees fly off together to seek a new home in a distant location where they setup house, thus adding another living community of bees to the area’s hive population. The younger bees are left behind to care for the next generation of bees and the new Queen who will hatch, mate and become the matriarch of the new hive who took over the old colony’s home.”

While I answered bee questions from the tour group, Brad moved quietly away, captivated by an entirely different conversation. Minuscule motions had caught his eye at the canyon edge, fifty feet north, and high up.

In that single moment, I observed two extraordinary things. A surprisingly silent swarm of honeybees, these angels of agriculture were clinging to the branch of a fir tree. All of us were looking, but it was Brad alone who could see. Effortlessly, he read aloud to us that wordless language of untamed creatures. A born naturalist, this fluency of perception is his gift.

With enough seasons under my belt now, I have no residual hesitations. I know my gift. I know my place. I know my work. I claimed my contribution to the world in the same way the bees set out from their cramped home to start again, or our little barn swallow built her nest. I recognize the alacrity in bee, bird and me: an intrepid leap into the unknown followed by many small actions, repeated with concentrated care. This brash undertaking of devalued, often invisible work, simply because it is ours to do. I can’t imagine my insect or avian friends having the doubts I carried for so long. But now, it matters not- that shell has broken. No longer a fledgling, I too, have my own version of wings.

* *

As I’ve written before, I’m daunted and discouraged at the ways Clark County is systematically dismantling the ecological integrity of our land. When I drive to the post office, or return books at the library, I pass by what many keep telling me is progress. The scenes haunt me. The callously scraped earth, each inch of topsoil that has taken up to one thousand years to form, is piled up like trash. The living, breathing, soil and the irreplaceable ecosystem it supported is being discarded in the interest of development. What other one thousand year old treasure would you actually pay someone to rid you of?

Clark County residents benefit from a wealth of natural and community resources most other regions of the country do not have the luxury of. We have rich topsoil, sufficient precipitation, access to excellent markets, even a unique climate exceptionally suited to vegetable seed production, (there are not more than a handful of these regions in the world). Plain and simple, we have an unmatched ability to create a regenerative food system. We could actually produce the food we need to feed our community, and not just for ten or twenty years, but in perpetuity. There are not many counties in the United States that could pursue such food security, even if they wanted to. Yet I look around and see self-inflicted scarcity at the end of every cul-de-sac. If I let my mind race, I envision a bleak future for my farm. It’s no wonder I never rush into town to pick up my mail.

Unlike my doubts as a young agrarian, these days, I don’t question if farming is a viable profession. Now, it is the decimation of all I hold dear that preoccupies me. Ignorance and greed are the obstacles I must work hardest to skillfully traverse. How do I navigate those troublesome thoughts about the rapidly disappearing farmland in Ridgefield, the fear and worry and sadness of such a profound loss? I question my responsibility. How does one make sense of any of this? What is my part of the equation? What can I do?

Sometimes I gently remind myself that I do not have to carry this mental burden. I have a choice. Other times, the farm demands I set it down. I return to the immediate work at hand, simply because there is so much of it. Often, I can’t belabor the broader picture because my trained hands are needed in the trenches. I have personal commitments to families, fields, and even a small forest. I plunge into the realities and necessities right before me. Water troughs need scrubbed clean and refilled. Tomatoes need staked. Grapes need pruned. Cedar trees need planted. Families need food. Bees need homes, safe from pesticides and the starvation that follows asphalt and a monoculture of turf grass.

I have a responsibility to my community to not simply lament, but to act; I pick up my posthole digger, my seedlings, my harvest crates willingly. I traverse my farm with visitors and together, we pollinate ideas one by one. In the face of discouraging scenarios, instinctually, I move to carry the smallest batches of mud and straw, again and again and again. I smooth and shape this small farm nest. I tend to each seed, each head of cabbage, each donkey hoof, each tomato vine with a precise attention born of heartache and hope.

Here is what I know. It is in the submitting to such delicate details that I discover the salve to my sorrow. In the context of the greater tragedy, I become painfully aware of the astonishing complexity and brilliance at my very fingertips. Watching a pig yawn, waking to the melody of a Swainson’s Thrush, bearing witness to harvest after harvest pulled from this good Earth, I wonder at how and how much longer these marvelous things can happen. Each one in turn, becomes equally more precious.

Everyday, I work with partners in the natural world that until dead, do not give up. With these partners as my mentors, I expand to embrace a broader perspective of individual responsibility. Concurrently, I take shelter behind an outcropping of grateful curiosity.

It’s no wonder I find reassurance in grass that keeps growing. Each spring, like old friends, Lambsquarter, Chickweed, Persian Speedwell and Pigweed grace the rows of onions and potatoes. What irony! I weed and I am thankful to see the weeds. For I fear a day when the weeds do not return, when herbicide drift might injure my annual crops, or kill my decade old grape vines.

These things I have learned: I am not a community organizer, an impassioned orator, a leader of people. These things I know: how to collaborate with seeds and soil, how to cultivate joy, how to treasure the splendid observational gems Brad gifts to me, how to give voice to the silent among us.

**

Picking peas, Brad shows me a newly hatched preying mantis. Then, on a farm walk he spots two lemon winged Swallowtails and a brilliant orange Monarch butterfly. These are the moments I think to myself: Of all people, I get to be here, doing this work, right now. The common? It is priceless.

Each small bit of mud and straw, placed where needed most, holds the fragile idea of a healthy, safe home together. Each set of legs, clinging to the partners surrounding it, protect the Queen of Life. Thousands of bees hold themselves together, upside down, on a high bough. A bird, weighing barely half an ounce, constructs her house on a sheer vertical plane with nothing but dried grass and wet soil, teaspoon by teaspoon. How are these things possible?

In the forthright light of the day, through the heaviness of rain, and long into thick, moonless nights, others travel into the constructs of human built worlds, into places of progress and development. But the bee, the swallow, the farmer– we stay here, at the intractable, liminal borderlands called farms. We stay, knowing our job is to safeguard the places where Life begins, steadies herself, then hungrily reaches out both for what she needs, and for what she alone can gift to the world.

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Profile: Hillsboro Silt Loam

photo of cilantro flowers

Hillsboro Silt Loam Is My Home

It is because of soil that I became a farmer. More precisely, it is because I loved a certain parcel of land and that land happened to lack a farmer. So with my family’s support, I bought the acreage that would become April Joy Farm. The buildings were aging, and the forest and cropland had been denuded by poor management and neglect. But even back then, I felt deliriously rich with the potential underneath my feet. From the very beginning, my motivation was to protect and restore the biodiversity of this special place. But how? I decided farming was a pragmatic way to both pay the bills and further my land stewardship aspirations.

It was in this roundabout way, I unknowingly entered into what has become one of the most important relationships of my life. Lucky for me, I hit the jackpot. That may sound melodramatic, but not a season goes by that I don’t kiss the ground at my feet.

I am one of the fortunate few to have deep, well-drained, highly resilient earth as a family member. A person can alter and change many things about a farm landscape, but like the genetics of a human being, soil is an inheritance.

Of course, this is the very important reason all farm consultants advise young farmers to seek out lands that are conducive to their goals prior to purchasing land. One crop may thrive in a certain soil type while another fails entirely. Soil tests must be taken. It is also recommended the land be visited multiple times of year to establish a baseline understanding of how weather, water and wildlife pass around and through a place.

But I had it all backwards. I wasn’t a farmer specializing in any particular crop or animal. I didn’t come to farming with preconceived ideas as to what I wanted to grow. And I didn’t find the land, the land found me. So in the same unplanned sort of way a wild, windborne seed finds the right soil with the right moisture at the right time of year, I found my way home.

photos soil and plants on april joy farm

“The place to start is where you are. Thousands of soil types have been named, classified and described. Knowing their names can tell you a lot about their general characteristics; but, like any living creature, each individual is unique. Find out what soils live in your area, how they are classified and described by soil scientists, and how that compares with what you observe about them yourself.

Soils worldwide have been classified into ten major orders.

# 3 Inceptisols: Young soils with limited horizon formation. May be very productive, as those formed from volcanic ash. Found in the Pacific Northwest, along the Amazon and Ganges Rivers, North Africa and eastern China.”[1]

With the eagerness and pleasure one finds in a new friendship, I set about to discover what my special place might be uniquely suited to creating. Thankfully, since I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about wanting to be a certain type of farmer, there was no need to force the land to produce any particular crops. Instead, my analytical nature lent itself to the joy of research and data collection. I was a sponge for agricultural information, because now I had a reason to know it. It seemed that no matter what textbook, journal or article on agriculture I picked up, everything hinged on soil quality. Quickly I realized that before I could learn to work with weather patterns, animals, or plants, I needed to learn about soil. In particular, I needed to understand the nuances of the unique soil at my feet. I was so ignorant back then; I didn’t even know her* name.

Odne, Cloquato, McBee. Riverwash, Gumboot, Cove. Cinebar, Cispus, Bear Prarie. Pilchuck, Sifton, Semiahmoo. Sara, Tisch, Kinney. Larchmount, Lauren, Gee.

 

The 1972 USDA Soil Survey of Clark County, Washington lists 39 soil series. Page 1 of the Introduction provided a beginners lesson, complete with vocabulary words.


How this Survey Was Made

Soil scientists made this survey to learn what kinds of soil are in Clark County, where they are located and how they can be used. They observed the steepness, length, and shape of slopes, the size and speed of streams, the kinds of native plants or crops, the kinds of rock, and many facts about the soils. They dug many holes to expose soil profiles. A profile is the sequence of natural layers, or horizons, in a soil; it extends from the surface down into the parent material that has not been changed much by leaching or by the action of plant roots.

The soil scientists made comparisons among the soil profiles they studied, and they compared these profiles with those in counties nearby and in places more distant. They classified and named the soil according to nationwide, uniform procedures. The soil series and the soil phase are categories of soil classification most used in a local survey.

Soils that have profiles almost alike make up a soil series. Except for different texture in the surface layer, all the soils of one series have major horizons that are similar in thickness, arrangement, and other important characteristics. Each soil series is named for a town or other geographic feature near the place where a soil of that series was first observed and mapped. Hockinson, for example is the name of a soil series. All the soils in the United States having the same series name are essentially alike in those characteristics that affect their behavior in the undisturbed landscape.


When I first read the pages of my Dad’s hand-me-down torn-edged copy of the Clark County Soil Survey, I was enthralled. I had no idea the soil of our region was so rich, diversified or deep (some soils are nearly rock free for over 300 feet into the ground). This was a revelation, given the many stories I’d heard from my family about the annual need to pick rocks (sometimes boulders) out of their Midwest fields. I raced ahead to find the black and white aerial photograph with soil map overlay that would tell me the name I wanted so eagerly to learn.


Hillsboro Silt Loam (HoA)

The Hillsboro series consist of deep, well-drained soils on terraces. These are medium-textured soils that developed in deposits of old Columbia River alluvium. Most areas are nearly level to gently sloping, but strongly sloping to very steep areas are along drainageways and streams.

Hillsboro soils are among the most productive terrace soils in the county; about 90 percent of the acreages is cultivated. These soils are used extensively for high income crops, such as pole beans, strawberries, sweet corn, cucumbers, and other truck crops, and for hay and pasture. They are also used for urban development. The soil is well drained, moderately permeable, and easily tilled. The available water capacity is very high. Fertility is moderately high.

Most of the acreage of this soil is cultivated or in urban fringe development. Nearly all the crops suited to this area are grown. Pears, caneberries, strawberries, pole beans, potatoes and walnuts are important truck crops. Alfalfa and red clover are important legumes for hay, and white clover is important for pasture.


That may not strike you as particularly meaningful, but when a farmer reads, “In places the profile is loam to a depth of about 36 inches, sandy loam to a depth of 48 inches and sand between 48 and 62 inches.” she gets up on the couch and starts jumping for joy. Deep, soft, well draining soil with a high capacity for self-generated fertility all located in a mild climate. That’s basically equivalent to winning the lottery.

Thus I began my relationship with the soil your vegetables are growing in.

I often here the statement “food connects us all.” Well, if you want to get particular about things, actually it’s soil that connects us all. Without soil, there would be no humans. The basic truth we as a society have forgotten is this: not only does soil support the plants that shelter, clothe, and feed us, but it also filters our drinking water. When New Mexico soil scientist Clay Robinson visits school kids to talk about soil, he jokes, “Without soil we’d be hungry, naked, and homeless. Also, breathless, because it’s the plants growing in soil that produce our oxygen.” So why is it that we associate being ‘soiled’ with being unclean, but yet the very thing we use to get clean (water) is itself cleaned by the soil we are so prejudice against?

When I read the 1972 Soil Survey of Clark County, I can see the transition between an old way of viewing the world, and a new one. Profiles, Names, Parent Materials, becomes comparisons and categorizing. Cloquato and Sara become “how it can be used.” It’s telling that on one hand, we fondly name our soils and use words that could easily be mistaken for describing humans, and on the other, we are big into comparisons and categorizing. It is also telling that farmers who have spent their lives committed to responsible land stewardship talk of particularly healthy and vibrant soil as being of good heart.

I did not have to read very far, or spend much time in my fields before my past ignorance of soil as an inert, inanimate object, a lifeless medium, rapidly dissipated. The more I learn of the inner workings of soil, the deeper my admiration grows, and the less I feel I truly know.

I’m perfectly content with this conundrum. Each season, my journey of learning continues, and each season, I make a concerted effort to pay back my soil for her generosity, flexibility, and patient, forgiving nature. Soil is accurately a ‘being’. Like us, soil lives and breathes; like us, soil can be energetic or depleted, even dead. The creational potential of my soil is the heart and soul of my work. I am here, doing what I do, because I fell in love with a certain parcel of Hillsboro Silt Loam. Though I may sell vegetables, I am not a produce farmer. Nope. I am soil farmer.

“… the Latin name for man, homo, derived from humus, the stuff of life in the soil.”
– Dr. Daniel Hillel

*Some of you might be rolling your eyes, put off that I’m personifying the soil of our crop fields, and nonetheless as a female(!). That’s fine. We can call HoA a he if you’d rather. But before you write me off as sentimental, just remember that the Soil Family is what made possible the breath you’re taking right now. I’m not married to the gender, I’m only adamant that we begin to show respect where respect is due. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer discusses our “deeply held assumptions about human exceptionalism, that we are somehow different and indeed better that the other species who surround us. Indigenous ways of understanding recognize the personhood of all beings as equally important, not in a hierarchy, but a circle.”

[1] Gershuny, Grace and Joe Smillie, The Soul of Soil.

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A Decade of Hope

Pak Choi bunch image

It’s quite something for me to be back at my early morning writing station, tapping out this note which kicks off a new decade of April Joy Farm community supported agriculture. In some ways I still feel very much like a beginning farmer, and in other ways, I surely do not. I continue to be delightfully fascinated by the everyday miracles of seeds and soil. But just as certain, my legs, shoulders, and mind are strong from climbing the uneven terrain of each and every past season. Thankfully, both my methods and mindset have been weathered and shaped in very profound ways which no doubt prepare me for the journey ahead.

Paralleling my farming journey is a national conversation around farmland, the ethics of seed production, how we as a country intend to feed future generations of Americans and who we trust to do so.

Across the states, new agricultural organizations such as the National Young Farmers Coalition and the Rogue Farm Corps are cropping up to support eager beginning farmers. Likewise, there are now farm incubator programs for college students, inmates, inner city youth, and veterans. One can even find undergraduate and graduate level degrees in the field of Organic Agriculture. These changes are good and necessary and as far as I’m concerned, can’t come too quickly. It sure felt lonelier when I was getting started.

In my own small way, I too have been mulling over what the NGF (Next Generation Farmer) will need in his/her toolbox to overcome the mounting challenges of growing food in resource depleted times. This year, woven in among a passel of musings I’ve planned, I’ll be sharing my thoughts about the kinds of bright, determined individuals we desperately need to undertake farming as a career. It’s good to hear Barbara Kingsolver highlight in Letters to a Young Farmer, the exact conviction I’ve carried in my heart from the beginning.

“However calloused your hands, however grimy the uniform, however your back may sometimes ache, you are a professional. Your vocation is creative, necessary, and intellectually demanding.”
—Barbara Kingsolver

I’ve always put it more bluntly: dirty hands are not indicative of a dumb mind. By sharing my experiences and exposing the biases I have personally faced, I hope to encourage others to reconsider the profession of farming and other ’blue-collar’ careers in the context of our modern times.

Meanwhile, what’s new at April Joy Farm? On the homefront Brad and I have undertaken a significant planning effort to develop a long-range vision for our farm. Why? The incredibly shortsighted and seemingly en masse development of Ridgefield’s agricultural lands is nothing short of tragic. A deep-seated ethic of community stewardship is driving us to search out potential partners who are willing to help preserve what we can.

Our elected officials have carelessly disregarded many of the pieces to the puzzle that would secure a viable long-range future for Clark County farmland. The acute lack of agricultural literacy in our general population is exacerbating the situation. It’s hard to fight for something you don’t understand. It’s hard to protect something when you can’t comprehend its value. The phrase “dirt-cheap” is a painful reminder of what we’ve already lost.

But we’re forging ahead—learning and changing to meet the needs of the times. Your farmers are recent graduates of Cornell University’s inaugural Climate Smart Farming Class. We now have in place an April Joy Farm Climate Change Adaptation & Mitigation Plan that identifies protecting and improving soil health as our most critical task. Thanks to Clark Conservation District, we are also en route to achieving Salmon Safe Certification and building a state of the art composting facility to produce the highest quality fertility right here at home, no off-farm inputs required.

We continue to look for ways to improve the stability and resiliency of our home and farming as a livelihood, not just for one decade, but for hundreds of decades.

To this end, we’re transitioning our farm system to a model of regenerative agriculture, a philosophy of farming in which we work to not simply maintain but actively improve the ecological integrity of our land and its ability to produce food. Regenerative agriculture places our work as farmers in a context much greater than just food production. The farm is viewed as a leverage point to restore ecological health to the larger world system. While this has always been our mindset, now we have a strategic plan to move forward. This commitment has required us to make hard choices, including the difficult decision to suspend our flourishing heritage pork program. On the bright side, we’ve doubled the size of our fruit orchards. Over time, we intend to incorporate many perennial food crops (including hazelnuts and kiwis), and skillfully integrate livestock back into our farm system.

So, life remains an irony. We keep taking significant steps to protect the soil at our feet, while mere miles away from us, this non-renewable resource far more precious than oil is being scraped away and dumped to make way for ‘progress’. That hurts. A lot. Regardless of the long term forecast, we intend to keep doing everything we can to care for our corner of the world, and we trust you are doing the same. I once read that wise people never undertake daunting work because they expect the results to be favorable, but simply because they know with all certainty a thing is worth doing.

“Every purchase you make constitutes an agricultural, social and political act that directly affects people, ecosystems and economies around the world.” —Regeneration International

Which is exactly why we deeply appreciate your conscientious food dollar vote. Rest assured your farmers are devoted to resiliency. As we trek forward, know without a doubt that I’m packing plenty of Joy along for the trip! If you want to watch inspiring, (not depressing, I promise) real life stories from the food movement, check out Sustainable and Unbroken Ground. Both short films are a testimony to the fact that Soil is Life and good people are everywhere.

Speaking of everywhere, that’s where our produce is! Yesterday Brad and I walked the fields to identify the choices for this inaugural week of the 2017 CSA season. I can hardly believe the beautiful, long list. I well up with gratitude each time I think of all the diversity ripe for the picking. Soil, how good you are to us. Photosynthesis, how I love thee. From radishes to rhubarb, snap peas to salad turnips, it is astounding. This generous bounty is especially meaningful considering a mere five weeks ago we were still in the dreary midst of one of the coldest, wettest spring weather patterns on record. Which brings me full circle. As we embark on the next decade of April Joy Farm, no doubt, we’ve many challenges to come. But our backs are strong and are minds are clear and our hearts still make room for hope. Ah hope. That must be what makes farmers, farmers. ~AJ

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This is Not Hard

Last Saturday morning I did something I’ve never done in 10 years of farming. I got caught transplanting in a downpour and had to stop. The whole time, I kept trying to remember when this had happened before, but the truth is, it really hadn’t! I looked at my soil soaked gloves and knees and boots. I looked at the five remaining flats of tightly packed lettuce leaves reaching hungrily for more space and light. I looked west at the darkening sky. I looked down at the soft, vulnerable earth.  I picked myself up out of the aisle and retreated from the field.

Our water year average precipitation thru April is 30.6 inches of rain. Thru the end of March, this year, we’ve received 44.6 inches of rain. So you might think that as I packed it in and set those lettuces flats back in the greenhouse to wait out the weather, I was grumbling and discouraged.

But you’d be wrong.

 

 

This is the year that has taught me that when it rains, I need be grateful it is not raining hard. And when it rains hard, I’m to be grateful it’s not windy too. When it is windy, I’m grateful it’s not gusting. When it is gusting, I’m grateful it doesn’t last long.

The day the windstorm picked up one of our little field poly houses and wracked it crooked, I saw pictures of a friend’s greenhouse in Montana that’d been leveled by — of all things– a heavy silage tarp that slammed into it compliments of a capital G gust of wind. That made me grateful my field house could be repaired.

This is the Spring I’ll remember with thanks giving. For all the rain, for all the erratic storms, for all the ways I’ve had to adjust or patiently regroup, I’m not perennially discouraged because you know what? This is not hard. None of “this” is hard. Challenging? Yes. Stressful? Yes. Unsettling? Yes. But not hard.

I’m safe, I’m loved, I’m well fed. My house is intact and I’ve a soft bed. Through each passing storm, power outage, and rain delay, I take account of my blessings. I walk the field, the barn, the seeding house, the high tunnel. Life is streaming forth everywhere I turn. Barns and greenhouses are intact, and the animals and plants relying on them are safe and dry. Robert Frost’s “A Prayer In Spring” starts, “Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today;/And give us not to think so far away/As the uncertain harvest; keep us here/All simply in the springing of the year.” 

The more I take less and less for granted, the more I’m reminded of my good fortune.

**

Thru one big storm in March, I nervously kept planting peppers in the seeding house. The rain and wind gusts were so loud I had a hard time concentrating. In a moment of anxiety, I unwisely began fixating about the poly “roof” above me. Two layers of 6 millimeter plastic is all that thinly separated this crashing, blowing, pelting rainstorm from me, the thousands of small, irreplaceable plants representing three months of work and thus my ability to fulfill my commitment to each of you.

I paced. I went to the door and peered out. I closed the door again and tried to reassure myself that every storm sounds louder under barn and greenhouse roofs.

Then, my saving grace came. I looked down at my hands. In a new light, I saw the power of a few small seeds I was holding. My heart steeled and softened at the same time. I remembered.

I remembered my purpose. I remembered I had no control over the storm or the durability of the plastic roof at this point. I was compelled to go straight back to my work. In that moment, my job was to keep on seeding new life, and in the process, rekindle the kind of never-say-die gutsy hope I most admire in other farmers.

Time and again, when I toe the edge of what seems an unsteady cliff, I look to Nature and suddenly find beneath myself a scrap of solid footing. Bridges I did not know could exist span out before me. Motivations, ideas, small acts of perseverance galvanize within me. In some unexplainable way, my work keeps me in conversation with teachers who do not speak Human and a powerful tenacity that does not need translation. I guess that’s one more layer of gratitude to add to my list.

Oh, and did I mention I have clean, hot, running water?

This is the Spring which is pushing my boundaries and testing my creative capacity for adaptation. This is the Spring which has stripped away the superfluous and forced me to question what and why and how and ask, what if?

This is the Spring that isn’t allowing me to settle for complacency.  Out of sheer necessity, I’m learning to dig deeper, think more powerfully, and experiment more courageously.  2017 is teaching me how to be a more patience, resilient land steward. The petty frivolousness has been washed away.  I’m less focused on the ancillary, ragged edges and more focused on the heart of my work.

This year, I will not be burdened with expectations of big successes.  I am determined to just keeping work toward little wins.

This is not hard.

It’s the mantra that keeps me centered, open and working every day to bring good food, grown with love out of our fields and into your kitchens. ~AJ

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Farming for Bees and Soil

Our CSA is split into two groups which pick up on alternate weeks. To keep things straight, we’ve named these ‘half share groups’ after two of our favorite plants. You might be surprised to learn our favorites aren’t actually crops we grow for sale, but plants we admire deeply for their contributions to the success of our farm ecosystem.

Clovers in general are an absolute necessity to sustaining healthy soils and thereby growing great vegetables.  We use Crimson Clover extensively in our fallow (un-planted) beds as a way to protect against erosion, increase the organic matter of the soil and to capture nitrogen, one of the most fundamental elements for producing food.  It is a fantastic fact that clover fixes atmospheric nitrogen. This means the plants are able to capture nitrogen from the air and collect it in nodules along their roots.  When the clover completes its life cycle, this nitrogen is released into the soil and available as food for our growing vegetables. Chemical based farming relies heavily on a petroleum and energy intensive processes to manufacture anhydrous ammonia which is then sprayed onto fields to supply nitrogen for crops. But clovers, like most all legumes, move nitrogen to the soil quietly, freely, and beautifully.  Clover is an ideal partner to the strategic and patient farmer, and not only because it fixes nitrogen.  Clovers are a much needed food source during spring for our pollinators.  Clover roots till deep into the soil and break up hard layers that would stunt our vegetables’ growth.  Clovers are also a nutrient dense source of food favored by our pigs.  That’s an impressive resume if you ask me!

 

Phacelia, pronounced [fuhsee-lee-uh], is also known as ‘Bees Friend.’  This complex and beautiful plant is a powerhouse, providing abundant nectar and pollen for a wide variety of pollinators and beneficiary insects, all while smelling decadently like honey.  Also spring blooming, phacelia seed was once difficult and expensive to source, so we have slowly built up a seed bank to expand the amount we grow each year. We’re grateful to see now it is available in good quantity from quality regional seed houses like Wild Garden Seed. Phacelia is tough and survives arid dry conditions.   It has tender stems and is easy to turn under, breaking down quickly to provide a clean seedbed for the next crop. We use phacelia in our brassica (cabbage family) beds because the predatory insects it attracts reduce aphid populations that prey on our fall crops.  Phacelia easily reseeds itself and has become a much welcomed addition to our spring high tunnel beds, turning unused corners into rich smelling, self-regenerating, and astoundingly beautiful insectaries.

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Cilantro Carrot Slaw

bin of red carrots
Cilantro Carrot Slaw
 
“This quick and easy slaw is an excellent way to showcase multi-colored carrots. Our testers loved it on fish tacos; its also great with grilled chicken and fish. You can also make this slaw recipe with beets, kohlrabi, or radishes instead of carrots. It’s also delicious with mint or parsley in addition to, or in place of cilantro.”
Recipe by:

Ingredients
  • 5 carrots
  • 2 stalks celery
  • ½ cup diced yellow onion
  • ½ cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1½ tablespoons olive oil
  • 1½ tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Instructions
  1. Shred the carrots and celery with a food processor or box grater. Toss with the remaining ingredients. Taste and adjust seasonings as desired.

Notes
~ Recipe by Dax Phillips

 

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Restorative Work

seeds sprouting in fall

I have a winter confession – a really unpopular one. I love the rain. I love the grey skies, I love the dim and quiet dampness of our Pacific Northwest climate. I love the intensity of an afternoon squall, the indescribable music of wet energy on the metal farmhouse roof. Furthermore, I love the sincerity of the landscape. In winter the trees and shrubs, hillsides and meadows all reveal their distinctive character. The past summer’s raucous vibrancy has been quieted. One falling leaf at a time, the opportunity for over-stimulation is quelled. All things are stripped of glamour; basic truths endure. Yes, it easy to thrive with sunshine, bright colors and constantly flourishing fields which propel me forward. But winter farm life, it turns out, has a way of fueling my life too.

In ‘dreary’ late November, I am buoyed forward by the happiness of a successful year. I have around me the riches of the season — sacks of onions, brightly hued winter squash, cans and cans of tomatoes, and moreover, the gratitude of all the families my work has touched. I am filled to the brim with thoughts of your kitchens, your dinner tables, and your meals that have been blessed by Good food, grown with love. These delightful remembrances and a secure winter storehouse intermingle with the physical tiredness of my body. I always feel as if I’ve reached the end of a nine month long wilderness hike. I’m healthy, I’m happy, and I’m also ready to sit down for a while and revel in success!

But it is not because my work ends that I look forward to the cold, dark days. It is because the nature of my work changes. This shift teaches me new skills, challenges me to pace myself, and offers me the chance to shed that often abused multi-tasking mentality.

After planning such intricate schedules and tending to the constantly changing needs of so many crops, I am thankful to switch gears. I am eager to undertake slow, simple, immediately gratifying tasks. Summer is a season of fully committed days, so it is a pleasure to have small, discrete rainy-day projects I can start and stop on my own schedule.

Flushing of water lines, organizing and storing supplies and sharpening and repairing tools gives me space to unwind, stretch out, and relax. I may be the only person in the world who looks forward to cleaning out an old barn. However, each tool I unearth, each rusty hinge I recycle, each corner of my farm where I get to spend a winter day adds to my delight. Slow, easy work is healing, helpful, cleansing. To notice, tend, and love in such small ways is an often overlooked, yet immensely meaningful contribution to the greater good. I know how these little tasks all set the stage for next year’s success. Restorative work is a luxury I most often enjoy in winter.

When the days grow short and dreary, we think that life outside our homes is dull. But life is still alive! Ecological mystery surrounds us—we only need shift our mindset. Austere can be fascinating. Stark can be beautiful. Winter does not need define us—we can define winter. A good raincoat, warm socks and the right attitude is the place to start.

The more I get outside, the more restorative work I take on with a measured, easy pace, the more I come to love the rain, the dampness, the uninhibited restful nature of winter. Simple, meaningful work, great food, time for contemplation and time for rest – these are the hallmarks of my winter days.

As Thanksgiving draws near, I give thanks for the recuperative power winter offers me. I remember that no matter the weather, there is always a lovely world outside. Just because it does not look as inviting as summer, does not mean it is not beautiful. The door is always open. I need only release my expectations, drop unhelpful comparisons and be willing to truly value the everyday miracles surrounding me.

Inevitably, at least once each winter, I’ll find myself caught in a prolonged deluge of rain. That’s when I give into the best of the season. I decide right then and there to fully celebrate the accomplishments, connections and joys of the passing year.  I close my eyes. I turn my face skyward. With a smile, I just let go. ~AJ

A lot of people are waiting for Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi to come back – but they are gone. We are it. It is up to us. It is up to you. ~ Marian Wright Edelman

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Almond Parsley Pesto

flat leaf parsley growing in the sunlight
Almond Parsley Pesto
 
Sunset Magazine notes: “An intriguing spin on the Italian classic basil-and-pine-nut pesto, this sauce complements all sorts of roasted or grilled vegetables and meats.”
Ingredients
  • ½ cup raw whole almonds
  • 2 medium garlic cloves, peeled
  • 2 cups coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley (leaves and tender stems)
  • 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon red chile flakes
  • ⅓ cup finely shredded parmesan cheese

Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 350°. Spread almonds in a single layer on a rimmed baking pan. Roast almonds until golden beneath the skin and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Cool to room temperature.
  2. In a food processor, finely chop garlic. Add almonds and whirl until coarsely chopped. Add parsley, olive oil, salt, and red chile flakes and whirl until parsley is finely chopped. Add parmesan cheese and pulse to combine.

Notes
Adapted from a recipe by Angela Brassinga featured in Sunset.

 

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