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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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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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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Network Collaborators

This is the time of year when harvesting seems to permeate all our waking hours. Some harvests, like potatoes and onions, continue for days or weeks, as we work by hand to collect, clean and store our entire annual crop from the coming fall rains or hungry voles. Other harvests take only a few hours, but must be done often. We kneel and search each cucumber plant every other day for months, and once a week we bend pepper plant by pepper plant to fill bucket after bucket.

On Saturday mornings we look forward to a different kind of harvest- a gathering in of community. During CSA pickup, we like best the burgeoning yields of stories and laughter, of appreciation and encouragement. When we find out all those meant-to–be-canned tomatoes didn’t get preserved because the tomato soup simply had-to-be devoured or that the butterhead lettuce was eaten plain because dressing wouldn’t have made it any better, it is truly a harvest which refills our energy reserves. There is nothing quite like seeing a teething baby gleefully gumming an AJF tomato, or a young boy happily clutching his ‘snack’ of cilantro. I don’t take lightly the importance of these few moments we spend in each other’s company.

Our time together represents a genuine and growing bounty of connections. Not only do I thrive on the encouragement, but I also learn something every week in the cultivation of our friendships. In this sense, our weekly CSA ‘harvest’ is a powerful way we can build that web of interconnections integral to all healthy systems.

Interconnections are the energy that drives systems thinkers to action. It’s these interconnections which engage one’s heart and hands. Cultivating such connections, what I call Network Collaboration, is #2 on my New Farmer Skill Sets list.

In my mind, Network Collaborators have two distinct proficiencies:

  1. The ability to develop an intricate “web” of meaningful community connections (The Network)
  2. The ability to utilize this network for mutually beneficial and evolving results (The Collaboration)

I don’t harvest food week after week after week simply because it needs harvesting. I plant and weed, tend and harvest because I feel a certain responsibility of connection to the systems of plants and land, to our water and soil. I harvest food even on the occasions I’m physically tired or mentally drained because I’m connected to you. I’m deeply connected to feeding you.

**

Last Saturday after another successful CSA pickup came to a close, Brad and I headed to the field for an entirely different sort of harvest with similar motivations. We were eager to spend some time with a plant family I intensely admire. Clover is of the genus Trifolium (Latin, tres “three” + folium “leaf”), which is one of about 300 species of plants in the Legume (pea) family. By evaluating the root structure of our crimson clover plants, we hoped to find out to what extent our field clovers are actually- in a systems-thinking way – feeding us.

I remember Clover as one of the first plants Mom introduced me to as a little kid. She spoke of Clover as highly of as she would a best friend, and boy is she right. Clover is the best kind of friend- a generous plant who is the epitome of a network collaborator. Clover works in partnership with soil dwelling members of the Rhizobium bacteria family to literally harvest nitrogen gas from the air and store it in visible nodules attached to the root system of each clover plant. This is important because nitrogen is a fundamental nutrient for all of our crops. So by counting numbers of nodules and observing their color, scientists (and curious, systems thinking farmers, especially those with soil health grants!) can assess the quantity of nitrogen being fixed (stored) in the soil. From the outside, these little nitrogen balls appear white.

But a deep red or bright pink interior indicates the Rhizobium – Clover network collaboration is active and healthy. When the clover dies, the nitrogen stored in the soil feeds the next crop and the root system itself adds essential organic matter back into the ground, which truly feeds our soil. Interestingly, when clover is grown alongside grasses or grains, the nitrogen fixed by the Rhizobium bacteria is available to neighbor crop, while the two plants are still growing.

The Clover-Rhizobium network collaboration is phenomenal. This symbiotic relationship produced excellent quantities of fertilizer for my crops, with no work on my part. Contrast this against the extraordinary energy intensive method humans have developed (The Haber-Bosch Process) to develop the plant soluble nitrogen fertilizer anhydrous ammonia. Some estimates indicate 5% of all natural gas is used solely to produce this chemical fertilizer, which in the process, creates significant amounts of pollution. (Such pollution is estimated at 3-5% of all global emissions.[1]) Imagine- all that waste while Clover and Rhizobium are capable of producing up to 500 pounds per acre of nitrogen: cleanly, quietly and freely.

It’s miraculous that Clover feeds our soil and our market crops, but Clover also feeds insects and animals at our farm. Clover is an important food source for our pollinators, blooming early in the spring when other sources of nectar are scarce. Freshly grazed or cut as hay, clover is a highly palatable source of nutrition for many animals including cows and pigs. Imagine this: animals grazing the aerial parts of the plant while at the same time, underground, Clover is “feeding” neighboring pasture grasses. What generosity!

There’s one more reason I love Trifolium. Clover, red clover in particular, is a nutritious and healing plant for humans. Red clover blossoms are rich in nitrogen, calcium and iron. Red clover blossoms are “one of the premier herbs used to help clean and detoxify the blood and are often found in formulas to treat skin problems such as eczema and psoriasis. Red clover is also an excellent expectorant for the lungs and is used to treat bronchitis and deep, persistent coughs.” [2]

Just like a farmer’s mental health, or building community through stories and encouragement, network collaboration is a sleeper skill set. Because it’s difficult to see, it’s hard for humans to quantify. And anything that is hard for us humans to quantify seems to be doubly hard for us to value. Fortunately, Nature provides ample examples to inspire us. Clover is truly a remarkable network collaborator who bridges many “languages” to create and sustain health across our entire farm system.

Connecting, sharing, actively cultivating new ways to utilize our natural gifts- this is not an easy, innate skill set for many of us. But we must be willing to keep on building networks- these cooperative labors of love- that oblige us to expose our true selves and share our gifts. Paul Solarz, a fifth grade teacher from Illinois, explains it simply. “Collaboration allows us to know more than we are capable of knowing by ourselves.” And in fact, collaboration allows us to do more that we are capable of knowing we can do!

In these continuously connected days of harvest, I remain inspired by my three-leaf friends of the field and my big hearted families who show up, week after week, to collect vegetables and share stories. Network collaborators are role models who teach us how much richer our collective lives are when we give what we can, and in the spirit of reciprocity, graciously accept what is offered. Systems hold all of us and network collaboration holds all of us together. ~AJ

[1] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fertilizer-plants-grow-thanks-to-cheap-natural-gas/

[2] Carpenter, Jeff & Melanie. The Organic Medicinal Herb Grower

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Tending Spirits

I woke this morning to a crimson sun and ash falling from the east. I set about my normal chore routine all the while feeling hazy inside and out. My eyes feel raw. I think of my farm animals. They can’t escape ‘indoors’ as all the health organizations advise. An irrational fear streaks across my mind before I regain my composure; the thought of having to evacuate my livestock nearly chokes off the air in my throat. I remind myself the forecast eventually calls for rain. I hope water comes soon to wash clean my white-grey dusted crops and my agitated spirit.

This is a day set apart from all my previous days of farming; I am hard pressed to navigate the eeriness. I sit down to write, but remain edgy in a way I can’t explain. Honestly, I’d rather just not talk about it.

**

When farmers congregate, they discuss many things: economics, plant physiology, crop rotations, husbandry, and yes, sometimes the weather. But beyond such tangible tools and evolving production methods lies a field each one of us is independently responsible for cultivating. This is a deeply personal section of land we rarely admit to owning—the terra firma of our mental health. It’s the plot of ground we have seeded to feelings and emotions we often don’t remember planting. It is not a proving ground on which we are eager to evaluate yields or discuss our management strategies with others. Instead, we tend to rush on by, especially when we find spiny weeds that chafe or a thicket of burrs that lodge in our heart. But even in neglect, this is hallowed ground. This is the small earth we flood with unshed tears, where we bury our fears and hide our deepest hope.

To some extent, I can understand a lack of personal introspection. The long-time farmers I know don’t much care for dwelling on loss, even privately, even when coming face to face with their own mortality. Churning in such a state is a route down the slippery slope into despair and worse yet, the stagnation of indecision. If I had to sum up the philosophy of my rural Indiana heritage, it would probably sound something like, “Sitting around doing nothing except wearing your thoughts thin—now that is a sure way to die.”

So in one way, I get it. Just like the profile of our soil, we don’t choose the mental predispositions we are tasked with tending. Why dwell on it? So what if I am edgy? My pigs still need fed and the chicken eggs collected. Toughen up! We can’t spend all our time being hypersensitive to hardship. But at the other end of the spectrum, ignoring the deeply astounding, powerful experiences we alone are intricately connected to—well, this is simply not a recipe for good health.

I know of no plant that can survive in thin soil watered with fear and nourished solely by despair. Just as we must learn the inherent characteristics of our soil before we can skillfully work it, so too we must be devoted to attending to the nuances of our own internal landscape. Being desensitized to death or unmoved by miracles is not a path to longevity of spirit. The stewardship of our mental wellbeing is every bit as important as the stewardship of our soil. Our lives and our livelihood depend on both.

Farmers may be known for tending that which is beneath our feet. But I would like us also to be known for tending spirits, for living and speaking wholeheartedly the truth of our experiences. This is much different than “wearing our own thoughts thin”; I refuse to be simply complacent or grossly ignorant of my misery or joy. I am choosing to both stay close to the acrid smog of fear and to speak up, even if my message is tinged with worry or edged with concern.

During these hazy, uncertain times, my hope is that each of us, farmer or not, will find the courage to visit the terra-firma of our mind and tend to the seedlings. Perhaps you’ll find a sapling of fear that requires a heavy pruning. Perhaps you’ll find a weeping plant of kindness, thirsty for a drink. Whatever you unearth, however vulnerable it may feel, know there is a steadiness, a power in consciously choosing connection over isolation. We are all community stewards. We can all tend spirits. ~AJ

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Systems Thinking: A Family of Good Children

photo of peppers on the plant and in a bucket

Bucket after bountiful bucket. Seven, eight, nine (!) from a single plant. Thick-walled, glossy skinned, lipstick red or glowing orange, yes– to us every one is a Gatherer’s Gold. The late August sun broils on high. Our backs talk loudly to us. I bruise my knee on a sharp piece of metal. No matter. Without pause, Brad and I kneel and bend to the real life version of Success. We pick and pick and pick.

photo of peppers in a row on the plantsIn December, when the work has fallen into a momentary pause, and the glossy catalogs are piled in a stack, we turn page after page after page. Our backs rested, our hands too clean, our eagerness growing into a strong and thick-willed desire, we read one varietal description after another, fueling the long-range dream of Gatherer’s Gold. Bucket after bountiful bucket.

An outstanding harvest, followed by a new crop of seed catalogs, perused in the Persephone months by a warm, crackling fire—now that is sure way to germinate a vigorous dose of Farmer’s Amnesia. Farmer’s Amnesia is a state of mind in which one remembers disproportionately the ease of a successful, abundant harvest. That microcosm which represents only the fair weather elements of agrarian life. Farmer’s Amnesia is a common affliction, powered by a diet of enticing full color photographs of produce and varietal descriptions soaking with saccharinely cloying phrases like, ‘highly ornamental plants with mouth-watering flavor’ or ‘gardener’s all time favorite’, ‘rich and aromatic’, or ‘sure to be a winner’.

Let me set the record straight. Not to disparage the wonder of mid-winter dreaming, but nothing in this profession—ever—is ‘sure to be a winner.’

Crop failure. The burden every farmer has at one time borne. Spoken in soft words, like a funeral procession for a dearly beloved. Pity. A quiet, wringing, heart ache– feeling low. Nothing to do, glossy eyes, empty hands. Thick-wooded feelings, a restless sadness. Bucket after bucket after empty, empty bucket.

Crop failure certainly motivates a farmer to become deft at reading between the lines of seed catalog descriptions. When the authors wax glowingly over the physical uniformity of a varietal, mentioning its ‘storability’ but not its flavor, that’s red flag. Or when they discuss how delicious the ‘cute’ fruit is but fail to include its average yields, I proceed with caution, knowing that most likely means a scant harvest of tiny things.

The problem with most seed catalogs is that they don’t tell the whole story, and the whole story is a disproportionally large part of what determines our success. The whole story includes the stewardship of generation after generation of seed. The whole story is the root of systems thinking.

**

So many seed varieties and have come and gone at my farm over the last ten years. But year after year, Gatherer’s Gold and Jolene’s remain. These are the names of the sweet pepper varieties within whose seeds are the story —the system—that I am steadfastly devoted to.

Willamette Valley farmers Frank and Karen Morton have been breeding exclusively open-pollinated seed varieties for organic farming systems for nearly forty years, and their seed stewardship efforts are second to none. No one likes parting with his or her money, but I can tell you this: the Wild Garden Seed Catalog is at the top of our winter reading stack, and it never feels wrong when I send my money on down to P.O. Box 1509, Philomath, Oregon. I know that whatever good I might do with it, The Mortons will surely find a way to leverage those funds in triplicate. There are very few color photographs in the Wild Garden Seed Catalog. It’s not thick or showy. But the philosophy with which they approach their work, and the honesty found within each variety description is a reassuring pleasure I can take to the bank.

And amidst erratic weather and pest issues, I need reassurance. The environmental pressures on my crops are never exactly the same, and from one year to the next they are also entirely unpredictable. Will there be a steady deluge all through June? A gusty windstorm in August? 100 degree heat in May? Every growing season presents its own unique challenges. For farmers like me, open pollinated seeds represent the best hope we have to overcome un-foreseen environmental challenges. This is because open pollinated seeds safeguard the largest pool of genetic diversity possible. A bigger toolbox can hold more tools, tools that my plants desperately need to fend off what may come. There’s no shortcut to achieving hale and hardy seeds. It takes time- years and years.

Every one of Wild Garden’s open pollinated seeds are cultivated for longevity- i.e. resilience and tenacity to overcome adverse growing conditions. Furthermore, Frank and Karen use the pages of their catalog to educate, not simply to sell seed.

“One Distinction between Hybrids and Open Pollinated (OP) Seeds: Breeding OPs involves ongoing improvement of the progeny. Breeding hybrids is a lot of work on perfecting parents in hopes of creating a single generation of perfect offspring. In the end, with OPs, you are left with a family of good children, rather than the memory of good parents. There are no heirloom hybrids.” ~ Wild Garden Seed Catalog

These are farmers truly devoted to the integrity of ecological and agrarian systems. Their varietals have been specifically adapted to both our region and to our semi-wild, diversified organic production system. Frank and Karen’s seeds haven’t been mollycoddled, spoon-fed refined fertilizers and grown in artificial, climate controlled (wind and weatherless) environments. These are robust, tough, healthy seeds ready to jump out of the ground and get to growing. These are seeds ready to take on the world – and that’s what I depend on to ensure you go home with healthy, well grown produce- bucket after bountiful bucket.

“[Frank] Morton’s proudest accomplishment is not any particular variety, but the acceptance of several of his genetically diverse gene pools into the garden seed trade. As he has written, “Exposing gardeners to the idea that the ‘genetically uncleansed’ can be exciting, beautiful, useful…is a small step toward accepting diversity as an asset.” He’ll feel doubly rewarded if some gardeners are moved to select their favorite forms from these gene pools so that “new varieties or landraces appear in diverse climates around the country as a result of this aesthetic impulse.”

Morton has moved beyond the preservation of heirlooms to the creation of composite populations formed by crossing several heirloom varieties. These may exhibit the same degree of vigor expressed by hybrids, but with a much broader base of genetic diversity. “Heirloom varieties are not the end of the line–they are the beginning of new lines.” — Source: Fedco Seeds

This week’s harvest of Sweet Italian Frying Peppers is a testament to Frank and Karen’s ongoing stewardship. Since the beginning of my farm, I have been sowing and harvesting Jolene’s and Gatherer’s Gold. Every year, I eagerly anticipate the new members of Frank and Karen’s ‘family of good children’. This Saturday, you’ll get the opportunity to take home two siblings: Early Perfect Italian and Karma.

Which is one more reason I am a fierce supporter of Wild Garden Seed. Karen and Frank see their work not in terms of perfection but as a process of continuous improvement. Their work is not stagnant or repetitive, but by necessity dynamic and evolving. Therein lies the challenge, and the joy, the hardship and the rewards. Karen and Frank continue to reflect and refine, just as I do here at the farm. This is not easy.

Being devoted to open pollinated seed is dedicating yourself to honoring a natural system that has functioned effectively for thousands of years, instead of shortsightedly circumventing it to make a quick buck. Seed stewardship is unglamorous work, requiring patience, and diligence and trust—year after year after year.

All in the hopes, but never the guarantee, of producing bucket after bucket of overflowing, absolutely gorgeous, intensely healthy food. The goal is not hyper-uniformity – but solid, reliable diversity. I want every pepper I harvest to be a little different, because that means a lot more tools in my toolbox.

So as you can see, the whole story, before back aches and bruised knees, includes the stewardship of generations of seeds, and generations of diversity. The whole story inspires in a way that’s more lasting than any case of Farmer’s Amnesia. The whole story motivates us to align our actions with our beliefs. That is to say, the whole story awakens us to the power of being a systems thinker.

Oh, and one more thing. The Mortons aren’t even most well known for their sweet pepper breeding, but instead for their brilliant and astounding assortment of lettuce varieties. Their allegiance to diversity isn’t just one crop deep, but also many plant families wide. Year in and year out, Wild Garden Seed’s sweet frying peppers, parsley, lettuces, greens, basil, beets, chard, celery, collards, fennel, cilantro, winter squash, spinach, onions, and kale have fed our CSA community. Frank and Karen’s dedication inspires and enlivens my dinner table, my work table and the table of my soul.

photo of flats of picked sweet red peppers

I revel in all of our bountiful harvests, but there is an unmatchable, indescribable pleasure I experience when I set out crates of ‘Gatherer’s Gold’ for my CSA Community to carry home. It feels like the coronation of the beautiful, fruitful, healthy system I deeply desire for our world. The Morton’s breeding work fuels our farm’s stewardship and stability; our farm’s success fuels the stability of the Morton’s breeding work. And you, dear CSA member, are an integral part of the equation. Your choices support this incrementally improving, dynamic, deeply community-minded system. Seeded, grown, nourished, and loved: all within a one hundred and twenty mile radius of your kitchen. Now that, that is a whole story which celebrates what is truly, unimaginably, possible. ~AJ

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Why Ever Would I Treat You the Same?

photo of bunches of ripe radishes

From the beginning, my agricultural ambitions were deeply earnest, even before anyone else was taking the idea of me learning to farm seriously. Even before I had made commitments to animals, plants or my community, I was a studious, determined and wholehearted researcher voracious for practical knowledge my own two hands could put to use. In many respects, this was not a conscientious choice. I didn’t know there was any other way of working toward a goal except hard and unrelentingly; I blame it on my parents.

In my family, once you made a commitment, you don’t stop until the job is truly done, and done well. You don’t give up because something is arduous or puzzling. This is a vastly different mindset than the old idiom about us Joneses. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I heard about “keeping up with the Joneses.” In fact, in my childhood, keeping up social appearances was never applauded. Our familial values had to do less with competition and more to do with personal growth. We weren’t to waste any time comparing ourselves to anyone but the face reflected back at us from the pond. As kids, our efforts were purely assessed by to the progress we’d made toward becoming more authentically our own inimitable selves.

When I complained about sibling inequality, my experienced and wise Mother would grin, hug me close and say mock-insulted, “Why of course! All of you are individuals, why ever would I treat you the same?”

When we embarked on a new challenge in which the outcome was far from certain, I remember telling each other: “Let them know a Jones was there.” Which really meant: work hard and with pride, give to the very best of your ability, and above all, remain true to yourself. This life ethic, instilled by generations of my family, is the genuine seed of my farming story. This is where I first learned that when it comes to the edging closer to the mastery of a craft, knowledge and heart are both indispensable and wholly indivisible. 


Early this year, I was asked to speak about the education of emerging farmers at a Food Summit. How was I to distill down the vast quantity of technical expertise and heart that new farmers will need to have? There are, of course, many resources to aid beginning farmers- educational programs, classic reference texts and extensive online resources.

But what about that elusive ability to connect subject matter expertise with trust? How does one balance market demand with exhaustion or contractual obligations with uncertainty? What does love have to do with botany or pest management with loss? Is it possible to authentically reconcile the pursuit of money with the stewardship of life?

Humans are not machines or plants. No matter the profession, we all infuse a horizon of emotion into our work. But in farming, this line is not a distant, abstract concept. This line is sharp and thin, as thin as the single blade of breath that separates the living from the dead. On behalf of many, it is we farmers who are tasked with wielding the knife.

Traditionally, such heady work required a lengthy education. Apprenticeships started from the time one was old enough to be entrusted with the egg basket or responsibly care for the bottle calf. But I was facing an audience of would-be first generation farmers. Without twenty years of on-hand farm experience, (age 0-20), how does one adequately prepare for the daunting work of stewarding so many beginnings and ends? What are the most important things an aspiring farmer needs to know?

These inquires are wholly unanswerable; such questions acutely typify a farmer’s central task. We can’t expect to ever find complete answers to our most crucial questions. Nevertheless, our work is to absolutely, doggedly, keep up the pursuit.

Over the coming weeks, I intend to share my conviction about the necessity of nurturing a new generation of agrarians as well as the knowledge and heart these fierce and courageous souls will need to cultivate. Now, I know that many of you have no green-thumb ambitions. Please understand: what I write is for you too. As stewards of land or self, we are part of an evolution; our job is to immerse ourselves in the work best suited to our individual and changing abilities—to revel not in perfection but in practice.

The sweet truth is that what I have to teach beginning farmers is actually what I hope all of us can learn: new tools and skillful encouragement for the journey toward becoming our own, inimitable selves. It’s time to roll up your sleeves. Systems Thinker, Network Collaborator, Creative Processor, Resourceful Innovator, Resilient Entrepreneur, Hardworking Learner. These are the varieties of seed I wish to teach you how to sow in the soil of your life. ~AJ

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Standing In the Heat of the Kitchen

photo of heirloom tomatoes on a blue farm crate

Our mornings bloom cloud-covered and cool, making this late summer heat illusive. But by 10 a.m. the mottled, smoky skies—which carry the message of northern wildfires—belie the swollen, rising temperature. Then gravid afternoons, heavy and inflamed, burst alive with a hazy fervor I must will myself to work in.

I find I need a certain amount of toughness and skill to successfully navigate this bright, dry, intensely robust season. It also helps to have had a lot of practice. (In fact, I count my blessings every year I get to ‘practice’ again.) The reality is, come the drying winds and triple digit temperatures, my physical work remains physical, and there isn’t much of anything I can do about it. This means I have to change tactics, and one of my most effective strategies is actually all mental. It has to do with how I prepare and plan for the physical work itself.

In Spring, the ideas flow effortlessly. With great enthusiasm, I can map out an easy twelve months at a stretch. I can think in big blocks of time and organize my days with albeit a ‘relative’ certainty. It’s like is hiking the bottomlands, close to water and shade, where the ground is flat, free of scree, and gentle on the knees.

But by late summer, I’m sun-scorched, feeling the weight of the fully loaded pack and staring upward at the boulder-strewn, switch-backing trail leading to the top of Mt. Winter-Fireside. There’s no turning back, and no alternate routes. The world narrows to the metaphorical mountain and me. This is when the mental training and rigor of a life lived close to the ground pays off.

photo of two children on a farm petting a cat

Two eager learners attend Mabel’s class on kindness and trust.

I begin now, to traverse each short section of my farm ‘trail’ with a discrete beginning and end, instead of the long master ”To-Do” list born of hopeful spring days. My summer self is like an wary wild critter – too easily spooked by the loud rustle of an unfolding long-range map. So instead, and quietly, I go back to the basics to keep from feeling overwhelmed. Each block of work time, I set an overly-reasonable short-term goal, and then, without pause, I tackle the trail of my work.

Step, by step, by step. I do not open the door of my psyche to any unhelpful voice wishing to linger or re-negotiate my choice. I move to action quickly, before my mind can trigger a landslide of “hot-tired-hard” excuses.

This time of year, I fold up my well-referenced ‘master plan.’ I trust my instincts and my experience to carry this farm and I exactly where we need to go. In the merry-go-round abundance of a diversified crop farm, the enigmatic summer harvest ‘schedule’ nearly demands this mode of work. Anyone who has ever had a successful garden can understand. August harvesting is nothing like the discreet, tidy task of crisp spring or budding summer where we ogle over the first green tomato or tiny wisp of bean, so grateful the magic of produce is literally coming to fruition.

August harvesting is a sprawling, ongoing flow of buckets and knives and hands moving, picking, carrying, up and down rows, eyes catch the possibility of ripeness, fingers evaluating weight and tenderness, then heft or rigidity acting as the final judge.

We bring down three bins from the field and load up four more. We finish one picking, stop to close a gate, and spy the tell-tale color of another blush of ripened fruit. Brad and I give thanks to our fields, our plants, our farm, and then we give thanks again, and yet again, for every harvest, for such health and wealth and unbelievable yielding of Life on our behalf.

My Life—my August Farm Life—pound by sun-ripened pound, adds up to a weary happiness I could not, would not trade. The bottomless pot of tomatoes cooks down into a heady, thick sauce on the stove; my horizon of planning becomes a purposeful practice in the art of reduction. Both yield a savory reward, but also require standing in, as Harry Truman use to say, “the heat of the kitchen.” ~AJ

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