Farm News

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.

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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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