Now well into our second season on the vegetable grind, the members of Rising Sand are starting to explore questions regarding our current and future relationships to our land and business. As opportunities and inspiration arise from the land and attract various members to various callings, the realities of the diversified vegetable economic model, and the assumptions we held at the inception of this partnership, are coming under unique scrutiny. In this exploration I will share some of my opinions and reflections, which are by no means indicative of the collective consciousness of the group.
I recently began reading some lectures by Rudolf Steiner, the pioneer of the Biodynamic Farming Method. One of the first points he makes very clear is the following: “One cannot speak of Agriculture, not even of the social forms it should assume, unless one first possesses as a foundation a practical acquaintance with the farming job itself […] Unless one really knows what it means to grow mangolds, potatoes and corn … one cannot even speak of the general economic principles which are involved.”
I have found this to be true, through acquaintance and personal experience. At the inception of RSO nearly 2 years ago, I was more on the theoretical and academic side of agriculture, with some limited bouts of experience, but little lived knowledge of farming as a profession. Largely inexperienced as a group, we based our foundation on a simple model, and crafted some ideals which fit our molds of thinking at the time. The economic model we formed, and currently practice, is quite straightforward, and, I would argue, relatively extractive.
As co-owners of a broad and diverse 35 acres, we spend 99% of our time on 3 acres, which constitute our hoophouses and vegetable plots. Every week, we pour our thoughts, conversations, energy and time into these tilled rectangles; removing species which grow naturally in excess, and transplanting the space with non-native species in straight rows; trying our best to work against nature to form conditions amenable to these annual vegetable plants. We pour imported compost and seeds, drip-irrigation water, and a great deal of time into these small swaths of land; extract large quantities of matter and nutrients through the vegetables we harvest; add some hay as mulch when we can; rinse, and repeat.
Last season we did this; this season we started over – many times, as it were, through succession plantings of many shorter-season crops. Virtually all of our collective time and energy is swept up in this venture, and we make money to pay our loan, and a tiny bit extra for infrastructure development, if things work out right. This is a model we may be able to sustain fiscally for some period of time.
But what about that other 32 acres? And what, for that matter, about the 3 tilled acres? Though we are certainly diversified compared to conventional operations, the number of crops in rotation pales drastically in comparison to the natural, interwoven diversity of “weeds.” Plus, can we really say we are building the soil, or enhancing the land, by simply adding compost, removing vegetables, and quite drastically disturbing the soil on a regular basis, through compaction, some harrowing and tilling, and pulling of major “weed” root systems? Do not every one of these systems serve a function in the macro and micro landscapes?
In spite of all of this, the reality is that we are very much on the natural side of the scale compared even to most other organic farms. We don’t use plastic mulch; our equipment use is relatively low, and we use no pesticides or herbicides whatsoever – even those deemed organic. However, on the scale from extractive to regenerative, I’d place us well on the side of extractive at this point.
But our loan needs to be paid. For this, we sell veggies, and this keeps our heads above water as we tread forward. But certainly there is more that we could do, and these are the beginnings of the explorations. Logan is very interested in expanded animal husbandry, and has expressed a desire to spearhead those projects, including grazing rams. Polly wants to plant trees – lots of trees, of all kinds, including vast apple orchards. Kelly just wants food scraps and buckets – turning our city’s organic “waste” into nutrient-rich food for soil on our farm and others.
And me? I want to eat. As we leapfrog from erratic season to erratic season, I can’t help but wonder at the continued feasibility of the vegetable market as a primary means of income or sustenance. Last season, our spring was put off by a major April snowstorm; this season, the cold, rainy nature of the spring pushed our CSA back a week, and put some of our staple moneymaking crops at risk. What happens next year? How about 10 years after that?
The point I’ve been considering is that the time is now to begin to craft some resilient, diverse means for food production in the near to distant future. Some established fruit trees could go a long way to feeding us if the vegetables should fall short. Some interwoven food forest systems would likely stabilize soil and minimize rainfall and wind damage in the furious storms of the future, and hold that water for periods of drought. If all else fails, we could ideally turn to that greatest store of energy known to man: animal fat – produced off grassland which, if properly managed, could sustain a lot of readily available human food.
But these things take time and they take money. While I’m certain there are those more suited than I for this type of exploration, I can say with relative certainty that vegetable farming alone will not provide us with the time and capital required to establish such systems in any sort of short order. It may be time we explore the necessity of off-farm capital inputs – and a general makeover of our current economic model — for the current and future health of ourselves and our property.