Summer’s Embers

September 1, 2013

I’ve been so busy farming and studying herbalism through my course with the Gaia School of Healing that I’ve fallen behind on posting. My juices are brewing though, I assure you. I’ve been reading a lot about shamanism, connecting with plants, and Earth-based healing. I can’t wait to share once I feel that I’ve learned enough to start teaching. Until then, here is a newsletter I wrote for our shareholders at Newton Community Farm. Much love and gratitude.

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August always feels like a month of change to me, like a swelling, a meeting of two worlds, that of ripeness and of slowing. I learned through my studies of ecology that the edges of ecosystems are brimming with life and productivity. Where the forest meets the plain, woodland species and prairie creatures coexist, along with the special plants and animals that survive only at that union. The changing of the seasons is a rich meeting place as well.  The transition from summer to fall asks us to be thankful, and revel in the blessings and bounty of the slow growing crops that got their start when the days were longer and are now offering their fruits.  Tomatoes and eggplants have been coming in nicely, and the peppers are near. Watching the late peppers finally form and start to size up has helped me remember the miracle of a crop growing to fullness, a wonderful appreciation that can be hard to hold on to during these days of lugging heavy buckets of cucumbers from the field to the barn.

The bountiful harvest of August comes with the realization that summer’s end is drawing near. Right about now the most sensitive leaves let go of their green, allowing their home trees to settle into shorter days.  The milder temperatures and darker mornings ease us into change. Help us welcome it in as we undergo construction on our historic barn. You’ll notice this week that we have cleared out almost everything in preparation for a new floor, among other improvements. After this week we’ll be setting up the share under a tent to let the work crew work. In a lot of ways the construction represents the spirit of the season. It has been busy and hectic getting everything sorted and moved, much like getting all of your vegetables harvested and washed for distribution. But at the same time, we are making room, clearing out, and settling down, bracing ourselves for fall.

Thank you for your support and patience and for sharing this season with us.

It is August That Brings

By Douglass Decandia
(found in The New Farmers Almanac by the Greenhorns)

it is August that brings the communion of Summer and Autumn.
these are the days of sweat and sweaters, of cool morning and warm noon.
the fruit has been set and the Will to ripen strong upon the plant and in the belly of the collector.
the field grows in deep color as the forest becomes a pallet for the earth’s brush.
seeds fall from broken pods and roots grow stronger as Summer calms and the Wild Ones fill upon her bounty.
These are the days when our body begins to slow and the cool airs clean the chambers of our mind.

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Taken in the hall of minerals at the American Museum of Natural History in DC.

It has been many moons since my last post. With each moon, I have grown. As the quarters pass I fill with joy, humility, and introspection. I have come to appreciate the significance of the new moon, which offers time to envision futures, and revisit past goals.  The dark sky of the moonless night begs for peaceful sleep. Too often we envision sleeping, eating, and bathing as chores, rather than the magic of life, which keeps our bodies vital.  Most people walk around deprived of sleep, leaving them sleep walking through life, lacking the rest that is integral to bodily health, mental productivity, and emotional connectedness. In our fast-paced world it is easy to miss the profound workings of the subconscious, which nestle in our dreams. Our ancestors teach us that dreams offer insight that can help heal our world.  We have some wondering to do before we can begin to trust the intuition of dreaming again. What is the deeper meaning of insomnia? Why are dreams hard to remember? What can we discover through dream journaling? What is the social significance of lucid dreaming?

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My drive is to connect more with my core being and how I can offer peace to the world; some of this lies in my slumber. Sacred rituals and talismans of sleep have homes in many cultures, and more so now, in mine. I made this dream pillow by hand and filled it with herbs that rock one to sleep: mugwort, St. John’s wort, lavender, osha root, kava kava, passion flower, motherwort, wormwood, and valerian. The pouch is for crystals which lead us to the dream world: fluorite, quartz, amethyst, and herkimer diamond. I sense that the more I connect with the plants and stones in the pillow, the more my dreams and sleep will open to me.

I’d love to hear about other ways of encouraging regenerative sleep, especially through connection with the Earth.

Moon Over Matter

October 1, 2012

Last night’s harvest moon peeked out from clouds only briefly.  Though its neon glow was mostly masked, its energy was thought-provoking.

Werewolves and other mythical creatures highlight the social significance of the full moon.  Scientists often use werewolves as a scapegoat, dismissing their importance as fiction.   Scientific American, Live Science, and I’m sure others, have debunked the connection between weird behavior and the full moon (Rebuttal). Even without the confidence of scientific studies, common sense says that the moon must play some role in our lives. The moon has profound affect on the Earth; it generates huge swells of water and light that influence plant growth and animal mating and migration around the globe.

The same forces that cause tides also affect the flow of water through soil and plants. Seeds germinate better during a full moon.  When the plant comes to maturity, water flows up high into the plant under a full moon and carries nutrients, making leaves the best to harvest when the moon is big and waxing. Biodynamic farming and Native American plant medicine will help me explore the connection of the moon to plant life in more depth.  My feeling though, is that the moon’s power is beyond our conception.  It affects us in ways that we cannot know. We can only revere its wonder and wisdom.

I’m working for more spirituality in farming and in life. I’m looking to the sky. Where do you find inspiration?

Natural and sustainable farming is often described by what it is not; it is the opposite of the single cropped systems of industrial agriculture.  However, industrial agriculture has some good ideas—high input and high yields. Of course, the inputs of industrial agriculture are fossil fuel based, are often applied in excess, causing environmental destruction through runoff.  These inputs fit into the reductionist science of NPK: focusing on the major nutrients required by plants and ignoring the trace minerals necessary for proper plant development, to withstand pests and disease, and to produce nutritious vegetables.  However, this heavy fertilization scheme does support the common sense idea that you have to put a lot in to get a lot out.  Certainly, organic farming should be high yielding, too!

There is a romantic idea of the organic farm, a closed loop system, in which outside fertility is unnecessary.  What a dream!–a dream not impossible to achieve, though difficult, time-consuming, and mostly impractical.  Plants need rock phosphate, sea minerals, biological communities on their leaves and roots, limestone, and more. Good luck finding farmland with all of that! Of course there are a lot of inputs that can be made more easily on the farm: compost and compost tea, mulch… However, like I’ve mentioned before, most organic/sustainable vegetable operations would rather buy in fertilizer (in addition to making compost), so it can be checked off the list. Many organic farms even operate under the NPK principle.  Their fertilizers come from organic sources rather than from a lab, but probably still do not make up a complete diet for plants.

There is a group of sustainable farmers focused on nutrient dense cropping—including micronutrients into the fertility plan to promote optimal plant health. These fertility plans include the more common good farming practices of cover cropping, building soil organic matter, and promoting soil biology.  In addition to a soil-based focus, the nutrient density theory hones in on the plants themselves.  The basic concept is to give the plant everything it needs for peak photosynthesis and health.  A plant that is able to produce complete complex carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, is relatively unsusceptible to pests and disease compared to its nutrient-deprived counterparts.  The primitive stomachs of bugs are unable to digest the robust compounds of healthy plants.

It turns out that healthy plants need even more than macro- and micronutrients; they need minerals made available to them by microorganisms that inhabit the soil. In order to provide plants with these minerals, the soil biology must be fed.  Only healthy plants with high photosynthetic capacity can supply the microorganisms with food.  The nutrient density philosophy calls for jump starting this system by increasing photosynthesis.  The leaf is a great place to start! Foliar feeding is a process of spraying or misting leaves with a nutrient solution diluted to homeopathic concentrations in water and compost tea.  Plants absorb nutrients through their leaves much more efficiently than through their roots.  Foliar feeding thus jump-starts photosynthesis, increasing sugar concentrations within the plant and also increasing root exudation, in which plants leak sugars into the soil.  Soil microbes then eat this up and provide the plants with health-giving minerals in return.

Nutrient density farmers are out their spraying leaves or offering nutrients through their irrigation systems weekly, or if pests rear their heads, daily. This may seem time-consuming and it is.  I attended a workshop about foliar feeding given by the spiritual, yet practical Derek Christianson.  His take on time is to both delineate X amount of hours/week to the task, working it into the weekly schedule and to re-conceptualize the time. Instead of fighting the fire (pests) by spraying pesticides, build the fire within the plant by foliar feeding.  Offer the plant nutrients through a positive approach rather than the negative approach of pest control.

I’d been interested in nutrient density since I was introduced to biodynamics and its unconventional approach to soil amending and spiritual farming.  The theory made sense to me from a scientific point of view, and stirred my interest in biology and chemistry.  As I watched Christianson stir up a foliar spray during the workshop, creating a vortex with his arm as he energized the water molecules with nutrients and human energy, I felt the excitement of a science joined by spirit, an unabashedly subjective, holistic, and practical science, much like Steiner envisioned.

Julie Rawson, executive director of NOFA/MA and my new mentor through the organization’s program, has been sharing her success with foliar feeding and nutrient density in our bi-weekly calls.  She explained that the finicky and mysterious science of farming is impossible to master, but foliar feeding and a plant health focus offer promising results. When the Colorado potato beetles came by, she foliar fed her patch daily, and now has a thriving, virtually larvae free crop.  Her fruit trees on the other hand, have yet to respond to her foliar plan, encouraging her to keep tweaking.

I’m also interested in the science beyond specific crops: How does the nutritional content of vegetables from foliar fed plants differ from those produced by strictly NPK fed crops? How do yields compare? If it’s high input, it should be high output too!

I recently re-discovered a memoir on my bookshelf.  I was drawn to Gathering: A Memoir of a Seed Saver mostly because of the author’s roots. Diane Ott Whealy grew up in rural Iowa, and relates fond memories of its countryside and culture. The agrarian history of thriftiness and neighborliness is nostalgic and enchanting.  In Whealy’s childhood, as in many areas of the United States during that time, large gardens and livestock were maintained as a matter of necessity. Saving seed was commonplace and economical. The practice of saving seed exemplifies the more humble sense of economy felt during that time.

In The Unsettling of America Wendell Berry argues that modern economic thought is reflected in today’s homes. Whereas in Ott-Whealy and Berry’s youth the home was a place of production as well as consumption, the standard American home is only a site of consumption.  Consumption engages the economy of money, but disregards the economies of land and energy.  Homesteading communities engage in these more tactile economies every day, as they live with the results of their practices, gathering those seeds, promoting connectedness of process and product, use with replenishing.

A home-based agricultural economy trusts in and heeds the economy of the land.  Place matters to this economy. Weather and soil type and community all make a difference. This is especially true in seed saving, as varieties are shaped through selection to thrive in specific regions and climates. The modern American home instead has no response or ties to place.  It is only a symbol of status and leisure.

If Berry’s discussion of appropriate economy didn’t get me thinking about E.F. Schumacher, certainly this quote would have, “….as a society, we have abandoned any interest in the survival of anything small”.  When asked by a friend the best political action to fuel revolutionary economics, Schumacher said, “…my suggestion would be to plant a tree”.  Certainly, investing in your home as a site of production, saving seeds in your backyard, and rethinking economies is incredibly important, especially to personal well being.  But is seed saving sufficient politics?  I had a nagging question the whole time I was reading Ott Whealy’s memoir: What about commercial agriculture?

A bit about Gathering.  Ms. Ott Whealy founded the Seed Savers Exchange, the biggest heirloom seed collector in the country, with her husband in 1975. (In their basement! At one point they housed 4,000 bottles of over, 1,200 varieties of beans!).  The organization has since grown into a diverse network of over 13,000 members who grow, save, and exchange thousands of endangered seed varieties every year.  Seed saving preserves biodiversity, reinvigorates memories and cuisines, carries on family traditions and rural culture, promotes food sovereignty, and works towards “closing the loop”.  The values, sentimentality, and community around the practice are also very powerful, but I’ll leave that to Ott Whealy’s passion and humor.  SSE produces an annual yearbook with information about all the growers and their varieties, which are available for trade.  They also sell seed online, maintain a hugely diverse demonstration farm, and host community-building campouts.

As passionate as SSE is about saving seed, Ott Whealy admits the lack of political drive within the organization. It is certainly political in Berry’s sense of home economics that I discussed above, and to Schumacher as well, but Gathering did not bring up how seed saving can help change the way food is grown in this country in a big way. SSE does compile a directory of commercial seed companies that offer non-hybrid varieties.  The catalogue is called the Garden Seed Inventory and is no doubt a great resource for gardeners and perhaps commercial growers as well. However, saving seed and choosing heirloom varieties becomes harder at a larger scale

Saving seed on a commercial vegetable farm is next-to-impossible, if not hugely impractical. Twice the staff and twice the land area would be required. Many plants are easily cross-pollinated and varieties have to be covered when flowering or planted acres apart from one another.  If covered, the plants must be hand-pollinated.  The fruits have to be harvested at a specific time and allowed to cure or dry, the seeds extracted and properly stored.  Labeling is, of course, crucial.

Farming and selling vegetables is hard enough in and of itself. I can’t imagine also worrying about growing our own seed.  There would be a lot of risk involved. What if the seeds don’t store well or the beets mold in the root cellar over the winter? (Beets are biennials, meaning they flower every other year. To harvest seed you must pull them, keep them happy through the cold months and replant them out in the spring.) Saving (and finding new seed varieties) is a huge job, as Ott Whealy will tell you.

The varieties we grow are constantly changing depending on pest pressures, customer preferences, and convenience.  We want hybrids as well as open-pollinated crops because folks like big beef tomatoes and we like tomatoes that are late blight resistant.  We use pelleted lettuce seed so our eyeballs don’t explode. Sometimes we buy non-organic seeds because the trusted and tasty varieties are not always available organically. We also keep an eye on the price tag.  Heirloom and organic seeds can add up fast on a large scale.

Despite the impracticalities of seed saving, I’m sure many commercial, locally-focused, sustainable vegetable farms buy into the idealism of saving seed. We live by the humbling economy of the land.  We are intimately connected to place.  We are the queens of thrift.  How can we hold on to and promote seed saving without participating? This type of question comes up a lot in the food movement:  How to promote, re-invigorate, and protect the more appropriate practices of the past, while also reshaping them to accommodate today’s economy, the farm economy, and customer preferences. How can commercial operations be true to ideals of the past and thrive in today’s world?