The Furrow

On Monday, Polly and I furrowed. That’s it. I got there early, straightened out some tarps blown by Sunday’s brutal blasting wind, and then we just furrowed. Hands and knees all day, crawling bed by bed and opening up tiny slots in the thick beds of mulch, where our onions will be planted. Bed by bed; two rows per bed, spaced 16” apart.

Brief respite from hands-and-knees was offered by the opportunity to run a diamond hoe through the furrows after completion, to loosen the soil beneath, but for the most part it was the crawl, and the tedious furrow.

Don’t get me wrong; we had an enjoyable enough day. It was sunny, our conversations were vast and wide-ranging, and we made light of the seeming ridiculousness of our process, and its necessary slowness. When I left around 6, all we had to show was two plots’ worth of furrowing completion.

Next door, the neighbor roared by with his manure-spreader, tearing through his fields and flinging shit, and the other neighbor passed slowly a couple times pulling his TMR feed mixer. Visible was their movement; visible was the even smattering of shit in the field; visible was the emptying of the mixer. Our progress was neither visible, nor seemingly significant in any way. We just opened up tiny furrows in plots of straw: inch by inch; foot by foot; line by line; bed by bed.

I generally gravitate towards visible feats of accomplishment, but in this case, had to slow myself to the pace of the furrow, which we clocked at about 35 minutes per bed. Odd and unfortunate though it may seem, the furrow is part of a delicate and technical system we’ve been working out for onions for the past number of years. Once a plot is broadforked, to loosen up and aerate the deeper soil, it is mulched heavily with hay. It’s important to loosen and spread the hay thoroughly, for the sake of the eventual furrow.

When onion planting time comes, we run a line down the middle of the bed, and meticulously furrow two parallel lines down all the way to the level of the soil. Upon completion of the two furrows per bed, we run a diamond hoe through, to loosen the soil beneath and kill any remaining weeds. Then, we bucket-dog compost into the fields, and carefully fill each furrow with compost. The onions then get planted into the compost, one-by-one, and irrigated. 8 beds per plot; 2 rows per bed; 100′ beds; and 5 total plots, spaced roughly 4” apart on average, means multiple thousands of onions, all hand-planted into these furrows.

If this seems ridiculously time-consuming and tedious, it’s worth reiterating that this is the absolutely most efficient way we’ve found to carry out this procedure. If done properly, once planted, the onions will face very little meaningful weed pressure, given the heavy mulch, and, if anything, require one quick run-through to clip larger, perennial weeds. They are basically set up to grow, maintenance free, until harvest time. In the past, we’ve tried mulching after-the-fact, but placing straw around 2,000 some odd tiny onions, spaced 3-6” apart, is neither feasible nor effective.

So, the furrow it is. Two full days of tedious, hands-and-knees labor. We are aware that transplanting machines exist. We are aware that weeding machines exist. We are aware that black plastic and landscape fabric exists as well. We’re also aware, however, of all of the life and protection garnered beneath our sheets of heavy mulch as it breaks down, and the intricate and complex structure of life and death beneath the undisturbed soil. It’s why we’ll probably never expand much beyond the scale at which we operate now. Any increase in scale means more mechanization, more compaction, more plastic, and less attention. This is the scale at which we feel comfortable and empowered to farm in the way we deem most responsible, and these are the systems we are developing.

But you still get a little loopy after a day on the furrow. Our conversations degraded into meaningless one-liners, all containing the word “furrow,” and we started to gravitate a bit more favorably towards the calling of a day. The next day I woke up to a subtle soreness in my hands and shoulders. It intensified as the day went on, and my legs slipped slowly into a steady burn, somewhere in my mid-thighs on the back side. Muscles I’ve never before acknowledged made themselves known to my conscious mind, through the medium of the furrow. The furrow burn kicked in slowly, over the following two days. Never did I imagine that I’d say or think the word “furrow” so many times in a two-day span. The furrow giveth, and the furrow taketh away.