Sunday, July 15, 2012

3 Months in, 3 to go!

That title suggests that there will be and end to this experience.  Yes, the official internship will only last three more months, but my involvement in the greater movement of small scale sustainable agriculture is only beginning!  Some recent reflections:

Farming is often accurately referred to as a merger of art and science. A scientific understanding of soil health and plant growth is vital to successful food raising, but there are too many nuances and unknowns for science to be the only source of direction. So there enters the need for a creativity best described as art. A perspective based on past mistakes and scientific explanations will provide a logical base for growing food, but sometimes we must go further than what logic points to as correct, and tap into a more creative, intuitive place.

Although we now have thousands of years of experience in agronomy that we reference and learn from, in my mind, bio-mimicry remains the best teacher for responsible soil and food management. By witnessing balanced systems that naturally occur without interruption, we might be able to absorb simple lessons that have been shelved because of our main focus on efficiency and high yields. Of course these are important things to focus on, but the result of leaving art out of the process is the destructive lab-science-based conventional farming that we see everywhere.  There are many ways in which this contrasts with naturally-occurring systems including mono-cropping, lack of biodiversity, planting in rows, dead soil, eroded soil.  Yes, conventional farming feeds the world, but for how long, and at what expense?

High school chemistry and an elementary biology course at college left me with a crumbly foundation on which to build when coming to agrarianism. It’s sometimes a blessing, though, to approach things as a novice. I hope I never become jaded, forgetting joyful epiphanies that I’ve been having:

  • Isn’t it amazing that there is a brain in a seed that knows where up and down are, senses warmth and moisture, and directs its parts to respond appropriately to these environmental factors? And that the genetics of a seed have been developed naturally and anthropogenically over thousands of years into a unique plant that we enjoy today?  And that some seeds will still germinate after hundreds of years of dormancy?  I even heard recently of a 2000-year-old date seed that germinated!
  • "Dead as dirt"?  Dirt is actually living soil, ideally full of water, air, minerals, and organic material, including billions of animals in a handful of the stuff.  So it's not just a medium used to support a plant, but the physical source of all that we are.  We are utterly dependent on soil health, but often only think of growing plants instead of fostering healthy soil.
  • There is no such thing as a weed or a pest - only unbalanced systems.  Might some plants choke others out, though?  Yes, and we can call that a weed, but "weeds" can cover the soil, holding in moisture while the plant we want to thrive establishes itself.  And if there were no "pests", what would the beneficial insects eat?  The idea has been shared with me that many gardeners get more excited about death in the garden than life.  Haven't we all been relieved after pulling out a "weed", or felt victorious by ridding our space of a slimy little creature?  A little backwards, maybe?     
I need to add a third element to the explanation of farming as being both science and art (as many have before) – spirituality. To gently interact with plants, to inhale the fragrance of the garden, to dig into life-giving soil, to be aware of the incomprehensible intricacies of creation, and to feel one’s place in a timeless, balanced system – is to experience the Spirit. It’s very easy to slip through unaware of these things, irreverently approaching the whole thing as a job or task. But it’s effortless to let these lessons of loftier perspective gracefully penetrate our beings, providing energy, balance, and hope.

Recent PHOTOS of the adventure!