Schticks, Stones and Wheel Hoes

One thing about farming is that it gives you ample silence, and time to think. Concurrently, it offers plenty of problems, questions, and ideas about which to think. Thursday, I ran the wheel hoe up and down path after path; bed after bed; plot after plot. The hot sun beat down upon me as I trekked – back, forth, back, forth; scraping weeds and grasses from the top, and chopping their roots beneath the surface, often one at a time. Meanwhile, the neighbor ran his huge tractor and implement over his steep north-sloping field, doing who-knows-what, and a humongous sprayer barreled down the highway, carrying who-knows-what noxious chemical to who-knows-where. And I walked barefoot behind a wheel hoe, scraping and scuffing plants from a tiny stretch of soil between two garden beds.

I thought about how we farm, and how it impacts the lifecycle below the soil. Lately, inspired by conversations with David, our hired guy, and Chris Trump’s natural farming videos, I’ve been digging into books about the ecosystem of soil, biology, and fungi. In light of all this, I wondered whether my activities actually made sense. I watched the farmer up the hill and wondered whether his activities made sense. Doubtlessly, were he to become aware of my activities, he’d think I every bit as nuts as I think he.

There’s no shortage, after all, of ways to farm. Having been a milk hauler for quite a few years now, I’ve interacted with all manner of nut jobs and bullshitters on the route – from the grazers to the concentrated feeders; the 3-times-a-day milkers to the maybe-2; the robots to the parlors to the good old fashioned stanchion barns. Everybody’s got their mantras, their values, their beliefs, and their schticks. But nobody’s got any secrets. Ask any farmer what he’s been doing and why, and he’ll tell ya. Chances are he won’t stop. He won’t just tell you about his secret sauce; he’ll give you the recipe, and even a demonstration, if you’ve got the time. Ask him right, and he’ll open his financial books and show you in black and red how his management method makes sense. But there is something new he’s trying just now…

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See, at our core, we’re all seekers, and willing sharers of that which we’ve found. We’re proud of our knowledge, practices and mantras. For me, though, the longer I farm, the more certain my assumption that the questions will always outpace any answers. So, behind my wheel hoe, I questioned. If “weeds” fill ecological niches, mining otherwise unavailable nutrients from the unreachable depths of the soil, why am I spending so much energy pulling them out? Why did I plant 3 plots’ worth of cover crops, to crowd out that which is necessary here? Why did I mow said cover crop? Should we plow them in, or figure out a way to let the soil build from the root matter, and leave the fungal and biological life and cycles intact?

What about this wheel hoe? Why am I mowing out edible and delicious lamb’s quarter, which grows perfectly right here, and making way for lines of lettuce heads we’ve imposed into this environment? Would this system thrive better were I not here? The answer to that, I believe, is most certainly yes.

By continuously harrowing, plowing, hoeing, and otherwise uncovering soil, we keep our fields at the lowest level of ecological maturity. If undisturbed, grasses would mend and structure the soil, dandelion and yellow dock would mine nutrients, and eventually box elders would probably grow. In the shade of the box elders, larger trees would take hold, and eventually, an ecology would form – ripe with biodiversity and all matter of microscopic and macroscopic life. Our fields, however, are kept at a place where they require constant irrigation, intervention and maintenance, as necessitated by our current systems. We are, after all, running a business, of which land and labor are our inputs. People want the food that they want, we need to move a certain quantity of said food to make ends meet, and these foods all require highly specific conditions of low competition and high sun. And we grow lots of food this way, in relatively little space. Our yields are great; we make the loan payment each year, and we serve a host of mostly-satisfied CSA members. It’s a wonderful practice, and, on the whole, we love it.

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I can’t help but wonder, however, what would happen if we were to shift: maybe not all the way to uninterrupted forest establishment, but to some middle ground where we allow and facilitate more natural systems, take a bit of stress off of annual yields, and shift our focus instead to soil and microbial life primarily. Sure, my wheel hoe isn’t impacting the landscape in the same fashion as my neighbor’s tractor, but it’s something. Could there be a different way, where more of nature’s cycles are employed to lessen the necessity of our workload and intervention, leading to a healthier and more resilient local environment for soil and crops? I don’t know. I haven’t yet pieced together that part of my schtick. Probably, I never will.

After finishing up on Thursday, I put my tools away and hopped in the car. As I backed up, I saw Ed approaching my driver’s side window.

“You know those worms I was about to order for the compost pile? I wasn’t able to. Here, check this out.” He handed me his credit card. “See the three numbers on the back? They’re not there. I guess I can’t order anything online.” He shrugged and laughed good naturedly, ambling off to whatever might catch his attention next. And that, for all of our musing, searching and schticking, is the real bottom line wisdom of farming. You just do what you can, and don’t what you can’t.

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