Farm News

Radicle Role Models

a photo of seeds sprouting in the dirt

A seed is born with a small stem, a single tiny root, and a scrap of pale white foliage. This complete physical structure is tucked and folded within and upon itself. At germination, the seed’s cells are not dividing, but absorbing. Specialized cells imbibe water, triggering enzymes to awaken. Food stored in the thin, outer membrane is consumed. The plant takes its first breath. Pushing toward the universe, this tiny, tender root, this radicle, emerges; the tightly held boundaries of identity are no more.

The primal work of a seed is not creation but expansion.

**

It seems the work of farming and farms themselves offer up a world-class education aimed at breaking boundaries by expanding one’s sense of identity. Each season spent in this classroom, I carry home a bounty: inexpressible, unquantifiable, but undeniably real. I do not consciously sign up for school in early spring, and yet every winter dawns and I look at myself in the mirror with more kindness, more compassion, more happiness than the year before. One moment I know nothing of the breathtakingly complex agrarian family, but the next, I carry the knowledge inside me like a seed, ready to breathe of its own accord. I cannot explain all its many scientific terms, but I continue to touch regenerative forces, I witness collaborations, I can now leaf out the map of cycles. I know who is a cousin. I know we are all cousins. I know I belong.

**

My farm is my mentor. A creek, a haymow, a mouse nest, a meadow of alder. The consoling belly of a broad-minded sow. A sea of inky purple onions. A black sky, a hard rain, a field of rattling wheat. Singing frogs, singing soil, mothers and fathers and children. For every curiosity or confusion, for every impasse or revelation, there is somewhere, someone in the Household of Nature* I can push toward.

As our time together comes to a pause, I offer you my gratitude. Thank you for pushing not away, but toward connection. Because of your continued support, I have been given the gift and the privilege to have entered a second decade as a farmer. The longer I farm, the less I obsess over outcome and the more I allow myself to celebrate the mystifying process. My confidence and trust in the work itself is blossoming. I can promise you this: I remain full-hearted, an engaged agrarian and writer, a steward of land and of words.

My wish is that each of you, in your own way, have the opportunity to absorb what all radicle role models have to teach: we are born whole. Our first work is not to do, but to be. The primal experience is one of expansion. We are meant to swell with the power of our innate gifts. Let my farm be your mentor too. Every germinating seed emanates this truth: Be nothing but your divine self first. Reach toward the world, and trust that whatever creativity resides within you will grow. ~AJ

*Rudolf Steiner used the term ‘Household of Nature’ in his 1924 lectures on the Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture.

May you always
fall asleep with a dream
and wake up with a purpose.
~Unknown

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Creative Processing: Part III

a photo of a handmade quilt in blues and pinks

Part Three: A Farmer’s Quilt

This essay is the conclusion of a three part essay on creative processing. Read Part One and Part Two.

The quilts I love most contain fabric from worn out work shirts, outgrown kids clothes, and other such scraps that were once a part of every day life for my ancestors, the Jones family. Similarly, the farm blocks I love most are patchworks of joy. These quarter acre plots are full of raucous diversity, where marigolds and squash zigzag down one line while thin white garlic skins peek above horizontal stripes of russet colored wheat straw. From a distance, the wispy fronds of dill sing in the wind while brilliant snatches of glossy red peppers dance along the borders. In each bed, down each row, plant by plant, loving details emerge.

Blooming wildly are my stories of seeds saved and sowed and tended. So much work. So much patience. So much joy. Anyone who has ever been warmed by a handmade quilt can feel that it is more than just simple triangles or squares arranged—no translation is necessary.

Quilting and farming have something else in common. Both forms of expression require significant math, data collection, geometry, research and analysis. These are the same fundamental skill sets upon which all STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs are based, all lovely languages and ways of seeing which can greatly improve our work as farmers or quilters or human beings.

Each one of us has access to an enormous amount of information- billions of potential ‘triangles’ we could find and place in our quilt. Creative processors are able to choose, organize, and coalesce the precise information triangles that are right for their work. This is a very individualized activity requiring passion, practice and diligence. No two of us will find, choose, arrange and stitch together the exact triangles in the exact same way. Just as there are infinite personalities in the world, there are millions of ways of converting data into an advancement.

There are thousands of resources and hundreds of growing guides available for each of my crops. Without creativity- i.e. the confidence and respect for my individual way of expression, it would be overwhelming to develop my crop rotation. If I stick only to the facts and ignore the individual needs of my land, my self and my community, the inundation of data and ‘advice’ would be insurmountable. Thus, creative processing is a skill set I wish all new farmers could develop. If system thinking represents my infrastructure, creative processing is my lifeblood.

How we allow information to impact our work is greatly influenced by our personality and our experiences, so a critical part of creative processing involves discernment. Computers are processors. Humans are creative processors. Devoid of personal attention, of a single human’s hands touching and molding it, a quilt is simply a blanket. Farmers need to know how to work with information, but also about themselves, their land and their style of processing. This is the heart of it. The data informs you, and you transform the data.

**

My grandmother Florence Dobson Jones was an extraordinary quilter who described herself in her book, A Charm Quilt, as a “Scrapper and a Piecemaker.” I wish I were too. Maybe though, in my own way, I inherited her eye for patterns and colors, her penchant for finding the value in remnants she so creatively repurposed, and her sincere love for piecing, practicing and practicality. As I spread one of her charmed quilts over my bed, I noticed the precision and consistency of her hand work. She was such a professional!

photo of a quilted bag with a dog on it

And then I came across a little bag she made and laughed out loud. I realized how extraordinary it is that even though Granny was exceptionally talented, she never took herself too seriously to just sit down and play. She had made a ‘doggie bag’. Ha! It’s full of whimsy- no square is perfect, which is what makes it absolutely perfect.

I never thought of my Granny as a creative processor, but that’s exactly what she was—a fabric farmer bent on spreading comfort, joy, and nourishing love with her handcrafted, sincere way of transforming the world around her. Granny was open minded, engaged and avidly productive, pouring her unique self into every one of her creations. But she also allowed herself to be transformed by her projects and her community. She wasn’t after perfection, but connection. This is the essence of all creative processors’ lifelong work- creating meaningful, inimitable connections. Not one, not two, but hundreds, thousands. Handmade quilts are a physical embodiment of the integrity we gain through diversity. Granny’s quilts sure came in a diversity of colors, shapes and forms. I am betting that her idea of a quilter would too.

Which begs the question: What are your triangles, squares, needle and thread? What scraps are you willing to hand stitch into connection? Remember, no one else can sow your quilt; no one else is You. ~AJ

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Savoy Cabbage Slaw with Applesauce Vinaigrette

photo of savoy cabbage
Savoy Cabbage Slaw with Applesauce Vinaigrette
 
Ingredients
  • —FOR THE VINAIGRETTE—
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon applesauce
  • ⅓ cup olive oil
  • —FOR THE SALAD—
  • 4 cups savoy cabbage, sliced as thinly as possible
  • 1-2 medium beets*
  • 1 Granny Smith or tart apple
  • ½ lemon, juiced
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • ½ cup walnuts, toasted and chopped
  • Salt and black pepper to taste

Instructions
  1. Make vinaigrette: In a bowl, mix together mustard, salt, vinegar and applesauce. Slowly whisk in olive oil a little at a time until dressing emulsifies. Set aside.
  2. Make salad: Put cabbage in a large bowl. Using the shredding blade of a food processor or a box grater, shred the beet(s) until you have 1 cup. Set aside.
  3. Core apples and shred in food processor or with box grater until you have 2 cups. Put shredded apple into a bowl filled with lemon juice and 2 cups water, to prevent apple from browning.
  4. When ready to serve, gently squeeze water from apple, add to cabbage and toss slaw with vinaigrette. Add mustard seeds and toss again. Add the shredded beet and lightly toss. Sprinkle walnuts on top of slaw. Season with salt and pepper.

Notes
Adapted from a recipe by Chef Jeremy Fox

*Radishes can be used in lieu of beets.

 

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Creative Processing: Part II

photos of colorful produce, figs and onions

part two: The Winter Cover Crop

This essay is a continuation of last week’s musings on creative processing.

Eventually, the mixing and matching of fabrics and shapes subsides and the quilter heads for the scissors, needle and thread. It’s time for action. In late September, I head to my fields with seeds of various sizes, shapes and colors in tow. There, the remnants of summer crops and plant residues are in various stages of decay. What comes next? It’s time to sow winter cover crops.

My farm quilt is heavy because it is composed of multiple layers. If soil is the backing, then my winter cover crops are a thick batting. Cover crops are plants that protect the soil from rains, add or hold nutrients, loosen compacted soil, and improve the habitat for macro and micro-soil dwellers. These are crops planted for the express benefit of the soil; no part of the plant is harvested or sold. Eight months from now, no one will see them, but just as the feel of a quilt is largely determined by the thickness of the batting, the cover crops I now sow into my quilt will have a substantive effect on the yields and health of next year’s market crops.

How does one choose the right cover crop batting? I must think spatially to ensure relationships and adjacencies are mutually beneficial over time. Rye grain and hairy vetch lend body and structure, feeding the soil with large amounts of biomass. The rye binds soil nitrogen to keep it from leaching away and quickly colors the land with a dusty, spiraling green. (You can see it now, a soft fuzz of grass-like leaves germinating in the fields closest to the gravel lane.) Hairy vetch unfurls thick vines and compound pinnate leaves which climb the rye stalks rapidly and dot the spring fields with deep violet, tubular blossoms from which the bees drink heavily.

Instead of the traditional plain white batting, my batting is multi-colored and multi-textured. Visually, I am sowing a constantly changing tapestry of art. Practically, I am deciding what crops can or cannot come next.

For example, the three inch tall curling green rye of November will metamorphosis into five foot tall fibrous tan stalks by June. So while rye and her good friend vetch provide excellent soil protection and organic matter, they require additional time in the spring to break down such a significant amount of biomass. This is not a problem if I don’t need to transplant crops until late June. But what about my early spring lettuces and greens? Field peas are slower growing, but pull nitrogen right out of the sky to feed those hungry spring transplants. Oats act as a nurse crop. The bright green seedlings emerge quickly to cover the bare fall soil, thus blocking sunlight from germinating weeds. Then, in the hard frosts of late winter, the oats die back, giving slower growing peas space and sunlight to flourish. These partners both have a smaller growth habit and tender stems. Thus they are easily incorporated into the soil with only one pass of the disc. Once turned under, the plants release their nitrogen stores and provide a soft, rich seedbed for my earliest, slower growing crops.

So in one way, winter cover crops are the activity that puts our fields to rest for the closing year. In another way, their sowing represents a beginning- the first act we perform in the coming year’s farming cycle.

photo of new plants growing in a field

In one block, I’ve sowed oats and peas. All winter and spring, the peas will work their green magic by pulling nitrogen from the sky to sequester it in a network of roots that appear as bright pink polka-dots connected by gleaming white threads. Next spring, we’ll turn under the oats and peas and hand plant undulating hills of potatoes. Those plants we hope will grow lush and green, hiding their underground treasures in shades of purple, red and cream. In late summer, we’ll un-stich these hills by hand, then iron smooth the wrinkled ground in preparation for rye and vetch to grow all winter. The following spring, we’ll turn under the rye and vetch, hoping rye’s allelopathic properties will help suppress future weeds and vetch’s extensive biomass and blooms will feed our soil and our bees. Then the cycle will begin again: a new year’s quilt, but rotated. Never the same square twice. If potatoes occupied Block 4 this year, perhaps we’ll ‘stitch’ them into Block 5 next year. Can you see now, how my winter cover quilt is one hidden, but important element of this perpetual quilt of systems and cycles?

My winter cover crops are partially hand seeded, and partially sown by machine. My grandmother made handstiching look effortless, but she also relied on a treadle powered Singer. My machine is a little red hand-cranked broadcast seeder. Without the din of any engine, I can hear the pleasant tap-tap-tap the seeds make as they land on the receptive soil. I wonder, did the rhythmic motion of the foot pedal and the sounds of the Singer similarly delight my grandmother?

My footprints across the blocks, followed by the ridged steel of the cultipacker, act like a presser foot to ensure the soil stays taut against the newly sown seeds. Sufficient seed-to-soil contact is important for germination; we all need shelter and stability. It feels good, giving protection and cover back to the land that has fed us all season long. It feels right to be blanketing my earth, tucking her in with a heavy, handcrafted winter cover quilt.

Now, there is only one thing left to do: secure the layers together. Real quilters use a special frame and heavy thread. How will my seeds and soil become united? I leave this most important work of connecting layers to Nature. I imagine she’s partial to hand tying; raindrop by raindrop, she’ll call awake her seeds. These new living beings will then send their roots deep and wide, holding the soil and entwining each other with the comfort of a newfound integrity.

My work done, I wait eagerly to welcome home the lively, quilting rains. ~AJ

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Butternut Squash and Swiss Chard Lasagna

photo of three butternut squash
Butternut Squash and Swiss Chard Lasagna
 
Easily a side dish if you leave out the meat, and plenty flavorful even without the cheese.
Recipe by:
Recipe type: Recipe by Hillary Boynton and Mary G. Brackett

Ingredients
  • 1 large or 2 small butternut squash, peeled, seeded and sliced ⅛” thick
  • Sea salt and pepper
  • 3 tablespoons butter or fat of choice, cut into pieces
  • 1-2 large bunches of Swiss chard, chopped
  • 1-2 cups cooked ground sausage
  • 2-3 tablespoons dried thyme
  • 1½ – 2 cups grated cheddar (optional), divided
  • 1-2 cups chicken broth
  • ½ cup grated Parmesan (optional)

Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 350F. Grease a 9 by 13-inch baking dish. Layer a third of the squash slices on the bottom of the pan; season with salt, pepper and a little chopped butter. Top with half the chard, add a layer of one half of the sausage, a big pinch of thyme and more salt, pepper and butter. Add a third of the cheddar cheese. Top with half of the remaining squash, then all the remaining chard, salt, pepper, butter and thyme, and all the remaining sausage. Add half the remaining cheddar, then finish with the last of the squash.
  2. Carefully pour the broth over the dish. It’ll seem very full, but don’t worry, it cooks down. Cover tightly with foil and bake for an hour.
  3. Carefully remove from oven and take off foil. Top the lasagna with the remaining cheddar and the Parmesan. Broil until the cheese is melted and golden.

Notes
Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash

 

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The Best Roasted Potatoes Ever

photo of a bunch of yukon gold potatoes
The Best Roasted Potatoes Ever
 
Thanks to CSA member Beth for sharing this recipe idea with us.
Recipe by:

Ingredients
  • Kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 4 pounds russet or Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into large bite sized pieces*
  • 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, duck fat, or beef fat
  • Small handful picked rosemary leaves, finely chopped
  • 3 medium cloves garlic, minced
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Small handful fresh parsley leaves, minced

Instructions
  1. Adjust oven rack to center position and preheat oven to 450°F/230°C (or 400°F/200°C if using convection). Heat 2 quart water in a large pot over high heat until boiling. Add 2 tablespoon kosher salt, baking soda, and potatoes and stir. Return to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook until a knife meets little resistance when inserted into a potato chunk, about 10 minutes after returning to a boil.
  2. Meanwhile, combine olive oil, duck fat, or beef fat with rosemary, garlic, and a few grinds of black pepper in a small saucepan and heat over medium heat. Cook, stirring and shaking pan constantly, until garlic just begins to turn golden, about 3 minutes. Immediately strain oil through a fine-mesh strainer set in a large bowl. Set garlic/rosemary mixture aside and reserve separately.
  3. When potatoes are cooked, drain carefully and let them rest in the pot for about 30 seconds to allow excess moisture to evaporate. Transfer to bowl with infused oil, season to taste with a little more salt and pepper, and toss to coat, shaking bowl roughly, until a thick layer of mashed potato–like paste has built up on the potato chunks.
  4. Transfer potatoes to a large rimmed baking sheet and separate them, spreading them out evenly. Transfer to oven and roast, without moving, for 20 minutes. Using a thin, flexible metal spatula to release any stuck potatoes, shake pan and turn potatoes. Continue roasting until potatoes are deep brown and crisp all over, turning and shaking them a few times during cooking, 30 to 40 minutes longer.
  5. Transfer potatoes to a large bowl and add garlic/rosemary mixture and minced parsley. Toss to coat and season with more salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.

Notes
*German Butterball potatoes are a great choice for this recipe.

Recipe by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt: http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2016/12/print/the-best-roast-potatoes-ever-recipe.html

Photo by Hai Nguyen on Unsplash

 

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Creative Processing: Part I

a photo of purple, light green and dark green lettuces

PART ONE: Quilting My Fields

In preparation for the colder weather, this past week I pulled down the flannel sheets and bright heavy quilts from the top closet shelf and my thoughts turned to the accomplished quilters in my family. Alas, I wish I could say I was the next protégé. But I don’t own an iron, I don’t have an extensive supply of fabrics and my sewing skills are rudimentary at best. What I do have is a deep appreciation for the women in my family who practice this art. Their creative, organized minds and skilled, deft hands have brought tangible comfort to my life and a pragmatic beauty to my farmhouse.

Even though I am not a quilter, this is the time of year I fancy myself one. For October is when I begin to piece together next year’s crop plan— the farmer’s version of a quilt. I rely on a pattern inspired by soil, seeds and the seasons. My fabrics are the living system of edible plants that express endless colors and shapes, textures and structures. And the heavy duty thread I depend on to stitch everything together is creative processing, a skill set my family’s quilters artfully embody.

Creative Processors have the ability to collect, organize and uniquely connect many disparate ideas or “pieces” into cohesively beautiful and beneficial outcomes.

For quilting and farming, some of the inquiries are the same: what, how much, what size and where? Such questions are both a delight and a challenge because there are thousands of individual pieces to consider. From shades and hues to varieties and flavors- fabric stores and seed catalogs have more in common than you might think.

Sewing a quilt begins with identifying the size and layout of the quilt itself. Will the pattern be a double nine-patch? A thousand pyramids? A bowtie? Rising stars? My vegetable field is divided into blocks just shy of a quarter acre apiece. Each quarter acre is then subdivided into twelve beds of equal size. Some of my beds are entirely one crop, but frequently the beds contain several crops. I wonder what quilt pattern name would best describe these long rectangular strips- Stacked rectangles? Some form of Jolly bars? Maybe I could just make up a new name- something like ‘Log cabin lumber’!

Once the physical structure of the quilt is established, a quilter must undertake the work of collecting the specific fabrics for each individual block. Likewise, I begin by identifying every vegetable, fruit, herb and flower I want to grow and allocating the appropriate number of beds for each one.

Then the real fun begins. I’m not sure how quilters work through the process of arranging their fabrics and connecting them to certain geometric shapes. I use a sheet of paper that has an outline of my field with each individual block and bed identified. Then I grab a pencil with a good eraser because I am tasked with artfully finding a home for each of the nearly fifty crops, (and in the appropriate quantity), that I want to include in my farm quilt. It’s creatively fun, and seriously daunting: there are so many relationships to think of, so many ways to enliven the overall effect or to keep certain ‘fabrics’ from clashing. As I move and place each piece, I think in triplicate. What are the specific needs of this plant? For what period of time will it occupy a given space? And, what are the gifts this crop could bestow to the greater farm system? Layered over these three questions is a two-part question: Is it physically practical and logistically feasible? Labor, weather and soil conditions are crucial aspects I must always keep in mind.

Identifying unique plant life cycles and habits, researching mutually beneficial relationships and understanding the energy, nutrients and assets each element can contribute is work that I wholeheartedly love. It’s like one big puzzle over space and time: pulling together all these various parts, and working to leverage them into an even more powerful kaleidoscope-type arrangement. I love finding new ways to organize and connect each piece to improve the health of my soil and help my plants develop into a bigger, more vibrant and nourishing landscape.

Now, creative processing is one of the absolute joys of my profession, but it’s not just an organizational skill set. Next week, we’ll take up the scissors and thread, (or maybe the seed and cultipacker) and begin to hand-piece the first blocks of next year’s farm quilt. ~AJ

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Lentils and Beets with Salsa Verde

photo of a bunch of pink and purple beets with green leaves
Lentils and Beets with Salsa Verde
 
AJ says: The instructions for this recipe are lengthy, but don’t be put off. It’s actually quite simple. When prepared carefully as instructed, all the pieces flow nicely into each other to make the best lentils I’ve ever tasted. I never seem to have all the right mix of fresh herbs the recipe calls for, but I don’t let that stop me. I just use what I have on hand (our leaf celery is excellent in place of the parsley) and substitute dry herbs where needed. More than once, when I haven’t had the ingredients to prepare the salsa verde, I skip making it. The truth is, it doesn’t matter- these lentils and beets are outstandingly delicious on their own.
Recipe by:

Ingredients
  • —For the Beets—
  • 8 medium beets, quartered
  • 4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • olive oil
  • sea salt and black pepper
  • —For the Lentils—
  • 2 cups Puy lentils
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1 small tomato*
  • 1 bay leaf
  • a few springs fresh thyme
  • 4¼ cups vegetable stock
  • —For the Salsa Verde—
  • 2 tablespoons capers
  • 2 tablespoons cornichons
  • 1 bunch fresh mint
  • 1 bunch fresh parsley
  • 1 bunch fresh basil
  • olive oil
  • juice of ½ lemon

Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Put the quartered beets on a tray with the vinegar, a good plug of olive oil and a splash of water. Then season with salt and pepper and toss everything to coat. Cover with foil and roast in the oven for 1 hour until the beets are cooked through and the juices are neon pink.
  3. White the beets are roasting, make the lentils. Put them into pan with the unpeeled garlic, whole tomato and herbs. Add vegetable stock to just cover, place over medium heat, bring to a simmer, and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes, until they are cooked and the water has evaporated. If they are looking dry, add a little boiling water as needed.
  4. Next, make you salsa verde. On a big cutting board, chop the capers and cornichons until they are pretty fine, and then add the herbs and chop everything until you have a fine mass of green.
  5. Put the chopped greens in a bowl and add 3 tablespoons of olive oil and the lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper and taste, adjusting everything until it’s to your liking.
  6. Once the lentils are cooked, scoop out the tomato and garlic cloves and put aside to cool. Throw away the bay leaf and thyme sprigs. Once cool enough to handle, pop the tomato and garlic out of their skins and mash together. Add back to the pan of lentils and stir through. Taste, adjust the seasoning, add a generous glug of olive oil and a splash of red wine vinegar.
  7. Serve the lentils into dishes and top with the roasted beets, drizzling the bright pan juices over. Spoon on the salsa verde to finish.
  8. *I use a frozen whole tomato.

 

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A Meditation on Repetition

photo of fennel flower, green background with yellow tips

There is just a dab of weeding now. The last seedlings have been tucked into the earth. Fall on the farm can feel like a quiet, restful time. But the truth is that the waning daylight hours keep us on our toes. Now is the second season of spring-cleaning. Now is the moment we are bursting at the seams for clean crates and extra onion bags. The seeding house benches are swept of onion, garlic, and wheat debris to make way for winter squash, and storage space for equipment and hand tools. The walk in coolers have been mopped clean so crates of potatoes, boxes of grapes, and cider apples can line the walls inside. We work also feverously to “spring clean” the fields and seed our winter cover crops. Soon bean trellis and pepper stakes will disappear and a lush green blanket will rise up to cover the land.

Aside from the bouts of spring-cleaning, fall work is predominately harvesting work. This is when we come full circle, completing another round of give and take each time we go to the fields to gather up the ripe greens and roots, peppers and herbs, fruit and seeds. Clipping and bagging, twisting and crating, washing and grading – at our farm, harvest work is entirely hand work. Exactly the sort of work most people imagine farming entails and almost universally stereotyped as repetitively boring.

Because harvest work seems so simple, it’s easy to disregard it as uninteresting, of little value. Without purposely doing so, we thus classify those who do such work as unmotivated, unskilled societal laggards. This is a gross underestimation. What is simple or easy about picking strawberries for eight straight hours? Anyone who has spent fifteen minutes attempting it would not help but come to a new appreciation of the stamina, physical strength, and mental tenacity such work requires.

Alternatively one might easily fall prey to the impression that hand harvesting—berry by berry, or beet by beet—is a waste of human time. Isn’t that what machines are for? But this too is a misconception. Even today, even with a plethora of marvelous machines, no food crop—from beet root to parsley stalk, from cucumber to pumpkin to lentil—is grown without human hands intervening at some point. Industrial farming businesses exploit such hand labor mercilessly to provide “cheap” food, a practice I adamantly deplore.

In stark contrast, on my farm, handwork has a valued place. Here, the truth of harvesting-by-hand requires one to make a clear distinction between busy work and brain/body work. Busy work is meaningless, serving no purpose. But the alchemy of repetitive brain/body work has multiple benefits. Such work naturally supports the evolution of both worker and the work itself.

Good intentions have driven humans to avoid doing anything manual, repetitive or ‘by hand’. In many cases, this is a positive thing. But efficiency is a dangerous endgame, and there is much to lose when we do not have to be physically connected to the details of our life. Washing radishes or dishes root by root or plate by plate reconnects us to the truth of individuality. No two plates, no two radishes are identical; repetition is not the same as uniformity.

In addition, every good teacher knows the value of experiential learning. When our hands are at work, our minds think in different ways. A simple structure of motion or task often allows a certain freedom to emerge inside ourselves. It’s like having a restful, informative conversation without talking. And in fact, those who stick with such work, become more centered and certain of themselves and more patient too.

We too often think of repetitive work pejoratively- something to be avoided at all costs. But in the right context, repeated motions still errant thoughts, improve our physical nature and create a rich environment for ingenuity and inspiration. There is a light I can recognize in the eyes of life-long farmers who have seen their work, their animals, their land through thick and thin, though hard exhaustion and heavy abundance for more than half a century. I’m convinced that light is the inquisitive steadiness that comes from repeatedly showing up, engaging hands and head so the heart can speak its truth. Farm hand work is a form of meditation; even though it has not been acknowledged, farmers could easily be considered one of the oldest practitioners of this craft. In essence, handwork removes humans from center stage and asks us to dance with the world on its own terms.

Ironically, without the steadying presence of handwork I would become mired in the overwhelming needs that press upon me. I would not be nearly as successful or happy. I also would not have near the fortitude or perseverance to overcome things I don’t like or find difficult. Hand work allows me to rise above this immature mindset, to move past it, to keep going. I acknowledge the whiny thought and then dispatch it. “That’s nice,” I tell myself, “but I’m going to keep washing these beautiful carrots, one at a time anyway.” In this manner, repetition has instilled discipline in my life, and that discipline has opened up a world of freedom, a world of uncluttered possibilities.

Finally, whether hand cleaning storage onions one loose skin at a time, or mucking out sleeping quarters of the barn one square foot at a time, it is good to remember there is a powerful prospect for change in these seemingly mundane moments. Our hands provide action and satisfying results while our minds are free to ask, what if? In this way, such rhythmic, repetitive motions are sometimes exactly the reason we are able to create more freely, innovate more successfully.

Repetitio est mater studiorum.
Repetition is the mother of learning.

Successful farmers are what I term Resourceful Innovators. You may not know, but the history of agriculture is overflowing with ingenious agrarians. It was not a trained scientist, engineer or climatologist who first discovered the symbiotic relationship between manure and plant growth, developed a process for cleaning fruit tree pollen to substantially increase orchard yields, or captured the very first images to prove that no two snowflakes are alike. Few will recognize the names of these independent thinkers, but such farmers have contributed significantly to the quality of our life and our understanding of the larger universe we live in. This is why I believe working by hand, coupled with curiosity and the freedom of long hours spent in the company of soil, plants and animals is the third foundational skill new farmers need to develop. In the right context, within the environment of a diversified farm ‘workshop’, repetitive work is truly a gift which enables farmers to radiate their own bright light and become their own Resourceful Innovator.

There is something beautiful about the balance between movement and intellect. There is also something powerful about experiencing a sense of accomplishment in very small steps, one after another. Such continued diligence instills confidence that we do not need to achieve or be everything all at once. Sometimes persistent, incremental work is the best way to step outside our assumptions, climb past adversity, shift hearts and nourish ourselves.

Hand by hand. This is how the world is changed. ~AJ

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First Rain, On Wings of Grace

photo of small jars of seeds for saving with intermixed marigolds

The rain came Sunday, holy Sunday. I was in the high tunnel picking kale; it was the very last crop on the day’s list. How perfectly fitting that the weather held out- shining on our harvest even as it dropped from the sky.

I felt the seeping coolness on the back of my neck. With legs tucked beneath me, I stopped picking. I sat back on my heels, releasing the clippers from my hands. I closed my eyes and listened. Rain begs to be heard.

One moment I was heavy with summer, the weight of every crate and commitment saddling my back, my hands, my head. The next, I was exhaling the last nine months. Slow breath after slow breath, suddenly I let go of all my efforts and desires, all my experiences and expectations. I felt as light as the ginger-red maple leaves falling near the barn. I let go of my clutch on Summer’s tree, holding faith that the shushing tears of the sky would soften the ground of my landing. This first rain was pure falling away and coming home. Outwardly, I was so still. Inwardly, my spirit wide, I was gliding on a moment full of a promise not of more, but of less.

I have worked sedulously to craft a life that hones my senses and my sensitivities. I fail often, but temperamental and fumbling as my path has been, I keep practicing. Farming refines my spirit, continues to weather me towards the kind of grace I most admire. After a decade of first rains, I have become sublimely attune to the power and kindness that permeate such ephemeral moments.

The aroma of fall’s first carrot harvest. The first migrating Sandhill cranes. The first pot of soup. The first October storm outside and the crackling of the kindling freshly lit in the wood stove inside. The truth is that our days are filled with first moments – for every moment at hand holds the possibility of a first, if only we are wholehearted enough to reach for it while we can. I have always enjoyed these first moments, but now, now I have the patience and the perspective to live them.

On Sunday, I stopped to welcome the rain. I stopped so I could welcome the power and kindness of all first moments.

Then, I opened my eyes and caught sight of a honeybee resting curiously beside me. I drew close. Compassion welled up within me. My hands were dry and deeply stained with soil, having carried this farm across its own summer of harvest. But this was nothing—mine was a minor effort, a pittance. Here was a spirit who had given every gift she had, who had made the very most of every moment she had been given. Her wings were threadbare; to feed kith and kin, she had flown them ragged.

Reluctant to fly and undisturbed by my presence, I gathered that she was dying. She made her way onto a small round of soil, which I picked up. My intuition led and cautiously, my feet followed, up and out into that soft first rain.

I knelt and slowly rested the soil and the weary bee on Joy’s doorstep.* It was as simple as that. A tireless worker, tired. She walked off the crumb of earth and paused on the threshold to receive a warm familial welcome. I watched a sister, racing home to escape the wet weather, bumpily land and dust her with a speck of sunflower pollen.

It was only then, with ultimate grace, she carried her miraculous body into the hive; those torn wings tenderly, achingly, barely in motion, waving me thank you, waving me goodbye. ~AJ

*For those who may not know, Joy is the name of one of our beehives.

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