Each season offers many metaphors for our lives. Spring brings out the metaphors of new life; we can plant the seeds of our intentions and dreams and see them germinate- if we tend them well! Spring storms may come through and tear down old branches that were not pruned in late winter, making way for the new. The light is returning, the birds are returning, that sweet smell of the waking Earth is returning.
Spring on the farm is so wonderful because I get to work with the Earthly realities that are so true and potent that they become our healing metaphors. One of the things I am celebrating most this spring is the germination of seeds I have been planting for years- seeds of community. The last two springs prior to this one were filled with a good deal more anxiety as the pace of work began to accelerate and I contemplated the work to be done without the help of other hands and strong backs (I will take this moment to express gratitude for the help I did receive even in those lonely times- the support and belief of friends and family is powerful help indeed!). The fear in my belly was that I was inadequate to tend this land alone, my prayers were long and involved imaginations of many hands and hearts. In this, the third year of my stewardship here, I am so happy to celebrate the arrival of those hands and hearts. My next door neighbor has fallen in love with the goats and is now milking once a week, taking home milk to make cheese and manure for her garden. The neighbor next to her has stepped in to care for the orchard which I and others have neglected over the years. He is following his passion to make cider.
A dear friend and farming colleague encouraged me this winter to start an internship program on the farm similar to the one she has been doing for the last several years. The timing was right and the seeds planted must have been well tended because with a minimal amount of putting the word out the interested people began to find me. Now, twice a week I am shoulder to shoulder with seven new friends. Their hands are working hard, but it is the connections they are making with each other, the land, and the effort that is the most sustaining. It’s sharing stories and ideas, and laughing that inspires me. There’s a magical element that shows up when two or more gather. We have so much fun we hardly notice how much work gets done. When they all leave and I look over the farm I see an exponential amount of progress compared with what I can do on my own. Like everything in the spring this is new- to the interns and to me. Newness always evolves, and there will come a time (in about 2 months) when the work demands more of our bodies, we will have more blisters and sunburns, and we know more about each other. But that time comes with its unique beauty too.
The work we are doing now of planting seeds began in February and continues and increases in March and April. We are preparing soil in trays, carefully dropping the seeds, and covering them with peat moss. Then we spray the trays gently with water, cover them with clear plastic and wait for germination. When the seeds germinate we remove the plastic and place the trays under lights. This year my seed room is already busting at the seams and it’s not even April yet! Am I planting too many seeds? It is possible. I have been taught by my teacher Suzanne Lewis that we must only plant a seed that we are willing and able to tend. I am definitely planting more seeds than will become productive plants in my fields, but I am doing so with a plan to sell the abundance. Should there be plants that go unplanted and unsold my covenant with them is that they will return to the Earth here. The soil needs all the organic matter it can get. True, the organic matter from this small number of seedlings won’t amount to much, but it is the practice of returning life to the Earth that is important. And there are seeds that are planted with exactly that in mind- cover crops- and the organic matter that they return to the soil is very significant.
Soil is the focus of my learning and farming practices this year. The metaphors with soil are rich and endless. There are farmers (few yet heroic!) that see their main task as tending the soil, and that whatever crop comes from that soil is almost secondary. What these farmers know is that if the soil is healthy and vibrant the plants will be more resistant to pests and disease, therefore requiring less inputs and effort to mitigate such problems. The healthy life in the soil becomes healthy life in the plants, and literally transfers more nutrients to whoever eats those plants- insect, animal or human- or soil! The metaphor here is a foundational one for me that I will be learning from my whole life: walk your heart path and the relations will take care of themselves. On the farm and in the rest of life the relations and the plants will always need and deserve tending, but with healthy and well tended soil from which to grow they will thrive.
Some of the ways we are and will be building and tending soil here are mulching, cover cropping, adding manure, compost, and compost tea, phasing out rototilling (and all tractor work), inoculating with mycelium, grazing animals, working with weeds, and making biochar. There is a great deal to be said about all of these practices, but here I will give you just a glimpse of each one.
Adding mulch and compost is literally feeding the soil. Mulch is like “roughage”, and compost provides the nutrients.
Cover cropping can offer many good things. It keeps the life cycles going, depending on the cover crop chosen it can fix nitrogen, bring up minerals from deep down, break up hard-pan, prevent erosion, and retain soil moisture.
Mycelium (a network of fungal cells sometimes resulting in mushrooms- the “fruit” of mycelium) is something I am just beginning to learn about (and indeed there is much about this amazing life form that humans don’t yet know), but what I am learning is that it is essential to soil life, it could actually be described as the sentience of the soil. It connects different plants with its runners, moving nutrients to where they are needed, it is the great decomposer, unlocking nutrients and making them available.
Grazing animals in a good rotation adds manure, keeps weeds down, and manages pasture.
Working with weeds is also a very new idea to me, one that I am excited to learn more about. The general idea is that the weeds that are present can tell you a lot about the health and needs of the soil. I have a field that has a strong button weed presence. I know that the soil is mineral deficient there and that button weed sends down a large tap root that will bring minerals up, so I am leaving it to its work.
Biochar is essentially charcoal that we can make with “waste” generated here on the farm. It has been found in Amazonian soils left from farming done thousands of years ago. It is not a soil nutrient but rather a substance that makes nutrients more available, reduces nutrient leaching and water run-off, and generally enhances soil life.
Finally, moving to a no-till system will benefit all these other efforts. Tilling breaks and kills mycelium, kills earthworms and other helpful critters, pulverizes soil structure, and creates hard-pan. As we come up with other ways of dealing with weeds and creating seed beds we will be tilling less and less and eventually retire Earnest the tractor for good. I am, however, grateful for all the work I’ve been able to accomplish with the tractor in the absence of other people and better practices.
As I write the rain is falling, keeping me inside for now, giving me this opportunity to reflect on spring and the farm and its community. We are so fortunate for the opportunity to work with Earth in these ways that nourish our bodies and spirits. And my gratitude for how fun it can be is endless!