Farm News

April Joy Farm: An Evolution

photo of farmer in her field

Lauren Ruhe, the first official April Joy Farm Apprentice.

The April Joy Farm Apprenticeship Program

April Joy Farm is officially the first Clark County farm approved by the Washington Department of Labor and Industries to train aspiring farmers. The goal of the April Joy Farmer Apprenticeship program is to develop successful, (and dare we say, joyful?) organic farmers for our community. Brad and I are deeply interested in supporting a new generation of land and food stewards by sharing our knowledge, networks and the passion we have for our profession. Our apprenticeship is a part-time, 18 month position that will provide a diversified learning experience through a broad exposure to many aspects of farm management. We are determined to help develop new agrarians who will be leaders and whose farms will serve as working, healthy models that connect land stewardship, ethical food production and the enrichment of community. Our Department of L&I Certificate authorizes us to host up to three interns per season. Budding farmers are welcome to contact April for more information or an apprenticeship application.

Meanwhile, we are especially pleased to introduce our first April Joy Farm Apprentice! Clark County native Lauren Ruhe has been gardening since she was a little kid. She writes, “I spent most of my childhood playing outside, as well as watching and helping my mother in her garden.” As an adult, Lauren is even more passionate about growing food. She is interested in pursuing farming as a career so she may contribute to the health and well being of both humans and our natural environment. “I am eager to take the next steps towards learning the skills necessary to have a successful farm, and I would love to take part in educating and providing organic produce for our community by establishing and maintaining my own organic farm.” Brad and I are beyond excited to welcome Lauren to the farm. We look forward teaching and growing—together.


Washington Soil Health Commission Grant

soil health committee logoApril Joy Farm and The Clark Conservation District have been awarded a three year grant from the Washington State Soil Health Committee to study soil health at our farm. This unique and collaborative effort will include renowned Washington State University soil scientist Dr. Lynne Carpenter-Boggs and the thirty-five students in her Organic Soil Management class. Together, we will work to understand how diversified farmers can both protect and improve soil health while reducing costly, unsustainable and potentially contaminated off-farm inputs. This fall, Dr. Carpenter-Boggs’s class will utilize real-life data from April Joy Farm to learn about the chemical, biological and physical characteristics of soil health. Then the students will be asked to provide nutrient management recommendations for three critical areas: cover crops, crop rotations and organic materials (compost, manure, and crop residues). The soil health baseline and recommendations will be compiled into an April Joy Farm Soil Health Roadmap. The farmers will have the opportunity to learn alongside the students, and thus develop their own ability to understand and document soil health changes over time.

In addition, by leveraging the work of a past WSU/AJF partnership, WSU will utilize their Organic Farming Footprints (OFoot) model to provide AJF an updated Carbon Footprint analysis. (AJF was one of five focus farms WSU researchers used to develop their model.) This is fantastic because it means we will be able to quantify the projected carbon emissions of each potential soil health management recommendation and thereby more strategically improve our land while reducing our farm’s overall carbon footprint.

In the subsequent years of the grant cycle, The Natural Resources Conservation Service, (NRCS) and Oregon Tilth will work with AJF, WSU, and the Clark Conservation District to develop a Soil Health Toolkit. The Toolkit will include a case study of our findings as well as practical recommendations for diversified organic farmers eager to better understand and improve the health of their working soils. This Toolkit will be utilized in conjunction with the USDA Nutrient Management Plan for Organic Systems, Western Implementation Guide. Across the state, we plan to share our findings and assist other farmers in the development of their own Soil Health Roadmaps.

We wish to extend a big thank you to CSA member and Clark Conservation District Manager Denise Smee for making this grant possible.

The funding from this grant will allow Brad and I the incredible opportunity to establish baseline soil health measurements, learn how to improve our management practices, “close the loop” by reducing off farm inputs, and help other diversified farmers who are eager to do the same. We can’t wait to set up our Farm Soil Lab and go back to school!


Salmon Safe Certification

“Salmon-Safe works with farmers to encourage the adoption of ecologically sustainable agricultural practices that protect water quality and wildlife habitat in West Coast salmon watersheds.

The Salmon-Safe farm certification program is focused on management practices in six primary areas: riparian area management, water use management, erosion and sediment control, integrated pest management and water quality protection, animal management, and biodiversity conservation. Our standards were developed over a two-year period with biologists, agronomists, and farmers, and have been tested in the field since the late 1990s at more than 700 farms in Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho, and British Columbia across a variety of crops.” ~Salmon Safe Certification

Thanks also to the Clark Conservation District, April Joy Farm is the first Salmon Safe Certified Farm in Clark County. Salmon are a keystone species of our region. By implementing sound management practices that improve habitat and water quality for salmon, we in essence are improving the quality of life and viability of thousands of other Pacific Northwest species.

As part of a Clark Conservation District grant, we will be installing a four bay ASP (aerated static pile) composting facility to more efficiently process our organic materials (manure, crop residues, produce scraps). The new composting facility will have a carefully designed water management plan that will sustainably manage all runoff thereby protecting the water quality of our creek and drainage swales that flow off the farm and into Whipple Creek. The composting facility will be an excellent addition to our farm, in more ways than one. We are looking forward to churning out batch after batch of rich, organic compost!

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Haircuts and Chaos: Happily at Play

photo of a chicken hunting and pecking

Even if I didn’t have a calendar handy, I could walk out into my fields and know that it is mid-July. A motley crew of plants (crops, volunteers, and weeds), are sprawling, climbing and tangling in an energetic race toward fall. The orchard grasses are tall, thin and wiry. The mature weeds are brittle, snapping off at nodes when pulled. This time of year, my fields look as if they haven’t had a decent haircut in months. Come to think of it, my bangs sure need trimmed too!

Ask any farmer about summer weed management and you’ll get an earful of advice. I think Becky Madden, an organic Vermont farmer, sums it up nicely: “For me, weed control – especially in July – is a lesson in achieving balance between intelligent effort and humble acceptance.”

Ah, humble acceptance. July is the month I confront my desire to have everything go back to being springtime orderly, precise and ‘according to plan.’ July is when I encourage myself to set down expectations of what a healthy, vibrant organic farm ‘should’ look like, and remember that diversity is the name of the game.

photo of pigweed in the field at april joy farmThe pigweed acting as a nursery to a recent ladybug hatch, the volunteer cluster of sunflowers capping the end-rows of chard and parsley, the false chamomile bunching out in bright yellow borders amongst the drying wheat, and the rattling dry vetch seed pods tangled in oats by the lettuces – these ‘experiments’ are not valued in human-centric sense of the word efficiency. But year after year, I become more appreciative that Nature continues to happily play in our produce fields.

So it is always in July is when I remind myself that my fields are like a highly productive artist’s work bench. Good invention, brilliant discoveries and beautiful connections come from being in the flow, not from restrictively clean desks where nothing is out of place for fear of messiness or ‘getting dirty.’ Diversity, unfurling in the full throttle of summer, plays a critical role in stabilizing the greater farm ecosystem. I don’t have to fully understand the how’s and why’s to respect the fact that it works.

Diversity, creativity and other forms of self-expression, like meaningful work, are inherently connected. I’m learning that such connections are an important aspect of the “organized” chaos inherent in vibrant, active, healthy systems. It reminds me of my awesome childhood, the fourth of five kids. Our house was always busy and rich with fun and funny happenings. Whether we were getting chased by Billy the goat, inventorying our dandelion family ‘collections,’ stirring up a batch of mud to hold together our creek dam, or riding bicycles barefoot around the gravel driveway, we were five messy, energetic, experimenting, always learning kids.

What I don’t remember about those long days spent mostly outdoors was if I needed a haircut. I laugh thinking of that- what a silly, irrelevant thing to worry over in the midst of the bursting-to-fruition-summertime-life.

What I do remember amidst the chaos and creek bank nettles and fresh plum eating and grass stains and homemade slip-n-slides is one thing: Throughout the course of our experiments, discoveries, and projects: I was happily at play.

And speaking of happy…

Not only are our fields full with connections, creativity and many things on the cusp of “fruition”, wonderfully, so is our farm business. Just as our farm crops grow and change every year, so does our ability to contribute to our community. Next week, I’m planning to share several “behind the scenes” happenings we at AJF are excited to be on the forefront of. These include: an AJF Farm Apprenticeship Program, a multi-year grant to study soil health and the achievement of another environmental certification. Like our tangling, climbing, interwoven field of plants, these projects are also connected in more ways than one. So, rest assured, between fantastic new farm opportunities and tending the bounty of summer produce, I will find a way to remain happy. July is the time I say to myself: forget the haircut, embrace the chaos, go outside and PLAY! ~AJ

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Deer Flies Do Not Lie

image of a fishing raft on a river in Montana

It’s early July. I am sitting in an expansive gold-brown grass valley full of fox dens, osprey nests and hardscrabble prairie life. North of Yellowstone, two hazy blue, somewhat parallel mountain ranges roll down and pool into flat benches and curvy foothills. One eastward, one westward, the wide valley sweeping low between them, these mountain ranges frame my experience with a silent serenity. A restful, arid, sun-starched breeze makes me want to stretch my lungs and hug the clean air inside my chest over and over. The presence of place here is undeniable, and yet impossibly elusive. I am unable to capture the dignity, the spacious freedom of such majesty, by camera or otherwise.

It’s late afternoon. I’ve spent the morning floating fifteen miles of an unbelievably complex and gorgeous river. Rivermusic is still shushing in my ears. Driving to the put-in, the bone-dry grass landscape rising miles toward waving foothills seemed a harsh and endless aberration. Just standing in all that open, unprotected space, under the hard, hot sun would be a tough line of work. It is not until I am safely nestled on the lap of the fluid, water ecosystem that the intense rangeland feels less daunting to me. The dry land, the wet river- these contrasting landscapes fit comfortably, unexplainably together.

Work, a wide, seemingly barren grassland full of parched hours and heavy steps. Rest, the quenching coolness of clear, green life. I have to think on this metaphor a moment, for it catches me off guard. From my shady perch, the grass meadows and fields look so still and at ease, but I think of the enormous effort it would take for me to cross on foot and the concept of Work blindingly drives the heat into each imagined step. And then I think of that crisp, bubbling bluegreen water like the punctuation mark of my morning. Decisive, ink clearly drawn, my refreshing river represents Rest. A partner paradox, for it is the river which never sits still, full of the energy and motion usually indicative of work.

Land, water. Brittle, fluid. Work flowing into rest; rest seeping into work. This highly-functioning ecological dance of dichotomy is exactly what I seek to replicate in my life.

But all my deep pondering comes into focus later, comes when Thinking Mind returns. Earlier, out on the river, the cold water freestone trail hastily lulled my brain into Mind at Ease. Mind at Ease is a moving meditation featuring caddis flies and red-winged blackbirds, a family of mergansers, the sight of a heron’s rookery, and the sweet comforting smell of hundred-year-old cottonwoods tickling their leafy fingers in the stream like giggling kids. Time still passes in clockwork fashion, but Mind at Ease abandons all clocks.

photo of montana wildflowers, river and mountainsOut on the river the edges of the valley blur and disappear. Imposing granite walls, knowing nothing of the timeworn marriage of creeks and soft banks, draw themselves determinedly down into the river’s bottom. I face this cleaving imagery from the raft: rock dropping sharply into water, leaving behind questions which waft into the hollow space inches above the waterline. Up from depths, on the nosetip of a trout, shadowy secrets rise laden with mystery. But all this flashes like the solitary golden eagle overhead. Mile after river mile, such latent energy is at once upon me, then gone again nearly before it is recognizable. What and why percolate inside me.

Out on the river, Mind at Ease detachedly allows such ruminations to bubble to the surface before swirling and sweeping them off into their own life. Mind at Ease is perfectly content to let questions embark on restful solo lives, untethered by the domesticity of working answers.

Out on the river, willows reverberate light off the hips of the bending riffles, where glassy, ebbing currents effortlessly deflect the machinations of Thinking Mind who wishes to worry. There is nothing I can do from so far afar. I sluff off expectation like a restrictive winter coat and absorb summertime as if it can be bottled. I become enough, as perfect and imperfect as I immediately am. It becomes quite enough- actually, it becomes everything, to simply float, to witness, to be still.

It gets better. Back from the river, I’ve had the most leisurely lunch imaginable, followed by a sweet little nap. The Peter Mayle paperback purchased for $0.50 at the local library sits beside me, tantalizing my fingertips to turn to page one and dive into the pleasure of a no-obligation, no-commitment evening. In the span of 756 miles, I no longer have irrigation sets to turn off, harvest orders to fill, beds to chisel plow. Stripped of farm life, who am I?

Farmers. The age-old description includes the following paraphrased characterizations: Hardworking to a fault. Up before sunrise. Tuesday, Sunday, holiday, sick days: on a farmer’s calendar, there is only one day: the Workday. Cows need milked, weeds grow round the clock, livestock knows nothing of daylight savings time, crops must be seeded and harvested on Nature’s schedule, not ours.

Yet here I am, sitting under the vast Montana skyline, brashly ignoring the playbook of agrarians everywhere, doing the one thing farmers are collectively known not to do: take a summer vacation.

The sequence of events that led to this cannot be wholly explained in one short essay. It took a devoted aunt, seven years, an injury, falling in love, a pragmatic epiphany, and the unending miracle of a generous, skilled farm family, but the deer flies biting me do not lie.

It is July. For a brief few days, I am a farmer at rest. ~AJ

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Shredded Carrot and Beet Salad

Shredded Carrot and Beet Salad
 
Ingredients
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon minced fresh ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 cup shredded carrot
  • 1 cup shredded red beet
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

Instructions
  1. Whisk the orange juice, lemon juice, olive oil, ginger, and salt together until thoroughly combined.
  2. Put the carrots in a mixing bowl, drizzle with half of the dressing, and toss until evenly coated.
  3. Place the carrots on one side of a shallow serving bowl.
  4. Put the beets in the mixing bowl, drizzle with the remaining dressing, and toss until evenly coated.
  5. Place the beets in the serving bowl next to the carrots for a beautiful contrast of red and orange.
  6. Top with the chopped mint before serving.

Notes
Recipe from The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen by Rebecca Katz with Mat Edelson

 

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Whipped Tahini Sauce

bunch of red chard
Whipped Tahini Sauce
 
Kate and Cara write: “Tahini, or sesame butter, is the most delicious way to reap the benefits of sesame’s deeply nourishing and moisturizing effects. This seed is an ojas-building tonic full of iron and protein. This sauce can be made to order- whip it right in the serving bowl with a fork and voila! The recipe makes a thick sauce for dipping roasted root vegetables. Anytime you need a rich topping for your grains or other vegetables, add a bit more water and process in a blender to make a creamy dressing.” AJF says: An all purpose sauce, satisfying and tasty. For minimal clean up, skip the mixing bowl and use a wide mouth pint mason jar to stir all the ingredients in. May not be as whipped, but makes for one less bowl to wash. My go-to when I want a hearty salad dressing for cabbage, chard or kale. Heavenly when paired with warm beets.
Ingredients
  • ½ cup tahini
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • juice of ½ lemon
  • ½ tsp sea salt

Instructions
  1. Put the tahini in a bowl large enough for you to whisk all the ingredients. (Rather than coating a measuring cup with messy sesame butter make an educated guess and spoon the tahini directly into the mixing bowl. A slightly interpretive measurement will not ruin your end product.) Add oil, lemon juice and salt. Whip briskly with a fork or whisk. There will be a moment when the oils begin to separate — keep whipping! The mixture will be come smooth. Add water, 2 tbsp at a time, if you’d prefer to pour the sauce rather than spoon it.

 

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A Journal of Joy

four blue robins eggs in a nest

Each day, I honor a simple writing practice. In the early morning, I sit down to unwind my yesterday and mindfully plan my today. One breath at a time, I listen for the thrumming in the symphony of my own life. Out of my heart and through my pen, I carry the tiniest beakful of spent straw and common mud onto the page before me.

Metaphorically, each day I venture away from my rote and trodden footpath, away from the raucous rushing river of ordinary time that keeps flying, flying, flying away too quickly. I pick up my pen, take a breath, and meander down a quiet side channel. I sit down on the proverbial rock at water’s edge. I cool my weary feet in stillness and gift myself the opportunity to look skyward.

Some days I write just a few lines. Some days, the page fills. The notes I jot down fall under three simple headings:

  • Yesterday’s Joy
  • Yesterday’s Gratitude
  • Yesterday’s Discovery

First and foremost, I make a concerted effort to remember the absolute brightest moments of my day. Then I reflect on who and what I can be immediately thankful for. Finally, I consider what my journey has taught me about my work or myself. My notes are never polished, comprehensive, or all-inclusive. I take care not dredge up distant memories; I limit myself to exactly the last twenty-four hours of my life. This is my method of cultivating mindfulness; a way to pause so I can catch up on some necessary mental housekeeping.

Occasionally, my thoughts are languid and still. I cradle my hot tea and wait patiently until the memories peek out from hidden places. Other times the recollections tumble out like a nest of wrestling fox kits. Within the covers of a non-descript grey notebook I record compelling ideas, specific phrases, descriptions of precious time spent with those I love or things I witnessed.

“Taught a very young gardener how to properly harvest her first ripe carrot today—elation, then understanding flooded her face. Speechless.”

Sometimes just a fragment of experience, a scribbled sketch, or a meaningful quote fill the pages of what I have come to call my Journal of Joy.

I start my day with this practice, because at dawn, my critical judgments, fears, and worries aren’t fully awake yet. Unshackled, I don’t try to solve or fix anything. I just revel in the gift of yesterday, knowing it is a stepping-stone into tomorrow.

Joy, Gratitude, Discovery. I freely remember the sparks of connection, of genuine resonance that I personally experienced. What tiny moment spoke to me, unleashed a wave of goodness, touched or inspired me? Over the last twenty-four hours, who was kind to me? Who made me laugh? What grace did I witness? What positive change did I help create? I’m not looking for life changing events, rather the tiniest flashes of pure connection, of complete authenticity.

There’s an old saying that we often forget exactly what was said to us, but we never forget how it made us feel. Once every day, I pause to glean such richness of feeling. I categorically collect my most powerful emotions, the often unspoken but highly potent energy swirling just underneath the surface of the pond of daily life. If I’ve had a setback, if I didn’t act with compassion, if I lost patience or failed to skillfully navigate an opportunity? These hurdles find a home in my notebook too. Joyful and difficult, I take time to acknowledge the facts and uncover the truth of the experience, to transform the emotion into a tangible discovery that will guide my actions moving forward.

My Journal of Joy is a way to rebalance the scales of perception. This is critical. The inky shadows of fear and loss must not override the self-sowing goodness taking root in all manner of obscure places. This writing practice is one way of carding the wool, of separating of the wheat from the chaff. It’s like sweeping the kitchen floor, or washing the sink after the dishes are done, a way to respect the fortune, grace and beauty right before our eyes.

My little Journal of Joy– it’s a small thing, taking up no more space or time in my life than a one-cup coffee break. Until recently, no one even knew about it. I rarely share my words or sketches, and yet it’s becoming the most valuable book of my life.

For one, this practice effectively slows down time for me. I relive the most moving moments of my daily life and thus can cherish them a second time. I’m no longer the kid who rips off the wrapping paper, stares at the Christmas toy for two seconds before moving on to the next one. That may be how I move through hectic days, but my Journal of Joy asks me as a matter of routine, to collect the gifts, one by one, smooth the crumpled wrapping paper and take stock of the bounty with which I am richly imbued. I give myself the opportunity to celebrate again the clever, funny, tender, rich or peace-filled moments I was fortunate enough to encounter in the last day of my life. What could be better medicine for the soul?

Secondly, this habit is a magnificent way to tend the inquisitive spirit. How can one bring more joy into their life if they don’t quite know what elements support it? By reminding myself of my joys, I incrementally begin to more deeply understand what supports my health and happiness. I learn the peculiarities and specifics of what fills my reservoir. Or rather, what experiences allow me to be in the flow, i.e. help me feel most effortlessly and completely my highest and best self?

Over time, patterns emerge, and I am able to see myself from a very different perspective, often with deeper, kinder affection. As the pages of my journal fill, I can clearly connect the types of experiences that light up my world. What exactly was I doing when Joy flitted down and chittered happily on my shoulder? I begin to clarify what specific situations enliven me, boost my enthusiasm, and enrich my life. Seemingly unconnected events are now easily correlated; I can recognize the commonality of vastly different experiences through the undercurrent of parallel actions, partners, or environment. Was I was teaching or tending or leading when Joy arrived? Possibly I was fixing or solving or fine-tuning. And who was I with? And where? This cross-reference reflection upon our many ‘yesterdays’ is a powerful form of internal evolution. Experience-by-experience, I am gathering the very clues that will lead me toward a jubilant independence. With joy in the lead, I step closer each day to becoming my best self.

Finally, my daily musings remind me of how vitally nourishing it is to allow yourself to love without explanation, justification or judgment. In a society confined by untenable, narrow ideals of perfection, the power of reassurance and the celebration of individuality must not be underestimated.

a cat, hiding in a tractor, gets a chin scratch from a farmers gloved hand

Imagine if one of your ancestors had likewise kept a Journal of Joy? Page by page, day by day: an honest testament of what one loved, of what one unabashedly cherished most, of what one wrestled with and discovered about the living of their unique life. A private record of unfiltered truth, small delights, and deeply personal vignettes, bestowed to the ones who are now walking the next mile of this unfolding human experience.

A Journal of Joy is not a once in a lifetime retrospective tool, but rather a real time offering, a testimony recorded as we lived it: one short day, one small joy at a time. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to recount when and where and how it felt to be completely alive?

Where and when Joy perks up her soft little ears in your own life is worth noticing. Our little barn swallow uses mud as the connecting link, an interchange that supports the weight of home and protects newborn life. Likewise, we can use joy as a hidden infrastructure to support the discovery of who we really are and to protect the newborn possibilities of our precious, irreplaceable gifts. No one else can do this work for us; the journey is ours alone.

There is one final reason I am devoted to my Journal of Joy. My allegiance to optimism does not mean I live in a Pollyianish dream world. I espouse a philosophy of joy precisely because for much of my life, I have wrestled with a sensitive, impatient, and judgmental nature. Once, I actually carried the family nickname of Bad Attitude.

So on the increasingly rare day I can’t quite tap into the cheerful faith and hopeful positivity I admire, I don’t write. Instead, I open my journal and allow myself to flip backwards through the past entries. Let me tell you this. It never, ever fails. Sparks of happiness fly up at me, from every, single page. ~ A

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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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