Farm News

2015 CSA Week 24

piglets grazing

Farm Tour Conversations, Part II

Dear CSA Family,

The second conversation that always occurs on our farm tours is one that nobody, (not even this farmer), could have guessed. By this point, we’ve showed our guests the seeding houses, the solar arrays, and the vineyard. We’ve made our way eastward through the heart of the vegetable fields. Now we’re standing at the hog fence looking over a group of sociable pigs, all of whom are turning on the charm. Our young pigs are regular hams; they will do a lot of running, playing, wrestling and ear flopping if they think there’s an apple or a big leafy green snack in it for them.

Raising animals for meat is not something I take lightly.

Because of my strong beliefs about livestock animal welfare, I am eager to instill in others a respect and an appreciation for these intelligent, phenomenal creatures. Subsequently I tend to get serious when the tour group reaches the pigs. I used to have a really heartfelt little speech I’d launch into. But every time, it literally flopped. Why? I’d basically get out-pigged. I could talk about the colonization of Mars or the mating habits of skunks. I could yodel or do cartwheels and no one would even bother to glance my way. It is worthless to wax philosophically about our commitment to soil health or dazzle the crowd with fascinating facts about heritage swine breeds. Inevitably, without fail, the pigs are in charge of this conversation. These porcine tour guides, in grunts and with bright eyes, in how they relish a good juicy melon or show off their custom-made wallows, with curious warm snouts or double curled tails, teach our visitors everything they need to know about the kind of life a pig deserves. Every time, they hog (tongue) tie the Farmer! I have no choice but to clam up, take a deep breath and rest my arms over the fence rail.

I simply witness this special spectacle of humans meeting pigs, some for the first time in their lives. This conversation is actually many conversations, and what I think are the best kinds of conversations: those that lead to wonderful, powerful questions that shift our beliefs. Now I consider myself a decent tour guide, but our pigs get the job done in a way I never could. This is my absolute favorite part of the tour.

After folks have finished their inevitable walking-heads-down-social-media-pig-picture-posting phase, we’re usually cresting a little knoll by the elderly Concord grape vines. To the northeast is a scrubby looking low swale, and further north still, partially hidden by a forested canyon, is our 6-acre hayfield. Nearly four winters ago in our low swale, Brad and I planted about 600 native shrubs and trees. The plants were all very small and if it were not for the blue protective tubes around each sapling, you’d have to look hard to see anything had changed. Honestly, the low swale still looked empty. There was no instant hedgerow, no brilliant showy display of fall colors, no immediate habitat or shelter for wild animals and pollinators. Certainly there was no quick food source for songbirds. But if you knew what to look for, you’d find a surprising amount of diversity: Oregon White Oak and Ninebark. Red Osier Dogwood and Willow. Snowberry and Crabapple. Douglas Spirea and Elderberry. Oceanspray and Twinberry.

Even now, the young saplings are still getting established, so up top, they aren’t a dense thicket or strikingly colored stand of shrubbery. But over four years, there is noticeable growth. The trees are taller than I am, and the shrubs are bushing out, after surviving the deer that rub their antlers against bark branches. The summer leaves get denser every year. I envision that underneath the sod the plants’ roots are spreading thick and wide and deep. This root system and its symbiotic relationship with the soil and water table is already functioning. Miraculously, runoff laced with contaminants our neighbors spray and apply to their lawns is filtered and cleansed simply by passing through our land. Over time, our restoration efforts will pay off further. But it will take time.

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This is the nature of plants, to first establish a good anchor, root and feeding system below ground, to make unseen connections within their community so as to support the development of strong top growth. (Just like upstanding community based businesses!) I try to explain all this to our tour group. I emphasize that it takes healthy, balanced land, not a monoculture, to grow great food. Our canyon and our low swale are just as critical to limiting the pest and disease pressure in our food crops as is the health of the soil the vegetables are grown in. Usually, our tour group isn’t much impressed. There’s not a lot of flashy action occurring here. However, most folks take notice when I mention that these uncultivated areas are critical reasons why we consistently produce 21 tons of food annually by planting less than 1 acre in vegetables.

Then, I point to our treeless 6-acre hayfield. I think it is something about the openness, or maybe the uniform appearance of that field, which triggers a certain kind of question from my audience. Folks liven up. All of sudden the group is transported to the future. Energetically, someone will say, “So are you going to expand out into the front field? You could double your production!” or “It’s nice you have so much acreage. You can keep getting bigger!” It’s symbolic that this inquiry happens when we’re standing with our backs to this year’s vegetable fields, our faces scanning the open land of a potential future.

This is when I stop dead in my tracks. I want every person to clearly hear my answer. I can’t ever get quite as much respect as the pigs do, but I give it my best shot. Here is how the conversation winds around us:

“What would be our motivation to plant more acreage?”
“Well, to grow more, and thus sell more.”
“What would be the point of that?”
“Well, to make more money!”
“What would be the point of that?”
“To have a better life!”

Hmmm. If I have been a skilled and careful farmer/tour guide, if I have gently explained the way so many of our practices sift and stir together complementarily, if my energy has properly radiated the joy and intention-filled, purposeful way of farm life, all I have to say is, “What makes for a better life?”

***

On our farm, I start each winter imagining what I would most like the next year to be like. Of course I think nuts and bolts about money, but never to the exclusion of my daily happiness. I think about stability. I think about physical health. I think about learning and growth. I think about fun.

My goal each year is to grow more deeply into who I am meant to become. This means healthier, more resilient, and more generous. I use the resources at hand, money included, to this end. But I never focus on how much money I could earn.

I ask instead, what is quality of life I seek? Subsequently, what is the minimum amount of money I need earn this year in order for me to have the necessary components of my version of a good life? I am not particularly obsessed with earning one cent more, because in doing so, I must trade too much of my freedom to play, to create, to care for my community, to be with my family and my farm. I am simply not willing to give up my most precious resource: time.

The business definition of “success” is an easy trap to fall into.

You grow one crop and it pays, so next year you want to grow more of the same crop, so it will pay more. What you did last year worked, so why not just do more of it this year? But a living, breathing farm is not a factory floor. I am not the same person I was last year, so why would I want to grow, raise, sell, or do exactly the same things in exactly the same way, just more of ‘em?

Finally, I tell the farm guests: we are making a beautiful living harvesting crops on 1 acre. Our livestock need the hay from our front field for winter forage. The blue heron and the hawks need that acreage as hunting ground just as the field mice and rabbits need land for their burrows. The farmers need the hay field to maintain healthy habitat for any number of beneficial species that will keep vegetable pests in check. In essence, our 6 acre field is already IN production, as is our low swale. Besides, I say, there is so much we have yet to learn to improve the care of soil we are currently cultivating.

Visitors never quite know how to respond to my enthusiastically contrarian beliefs. Fortunately, the farm provides enough to notice and enjoy so our short walk back to their cars is graciously silent. Now we’ve made a tight little circle around the farm. When we reach the place we started, it always feels like I’ve returned, but this time to a new beginning.

***

The past few years, our tours have brought a variety of community members face to face with one version of a working farm. My quiet hope is that some part of the story of this farm has resonated with each visitor. Maybe it happened through awareness regarding the language we choose to keep. Maybe it is through thoughtful consideration of the welfare of our livestock animals. Maybe the yearning for an intentional life has been sparked. I cannot know how any of these farm conversations will carry forward. But I do know how right it is to sing the praises of this land and life I so deeply cherish.

Your Farmer,
April

Today you are YOU, that is truer than true.
There is no one alive who is Youer than You.
-Dr. Seuss