Farm News

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