When I rose one spring morning for my daily field walk, I was devastated to see that slugs had wreaked havoc on my tomatillo and tomato plants. Yet another “failure” in a long litany of pest and soil problems on our new plot. I was ready to throw in the towel. Enough of this no-till, pesticide-free, heirloom seed-only farming!—I was ready to go out and buy some poison to take care of those slugs once and for all!
I didn't buy the poison, but these uncertainties and worries are real. I was able to reground myself, connecting to the intention of holding this latest farming endeavor as an experiment. We won't get as many tomatillos this year. But there is no such thing as failure when we experiment—only endless opportunities for learning, for readjusting, for trying again. As we explore farming without fossil fuels and with using only heirloom seeds, for example, we are called over and over again to lean into this truth.
I am the daughter of farmers, many generations of farmers, and it seems that it is in my bones to carry on in this work, gifted to me by my ancestors. I've tried only planting a small garden for our own household, but every year I add a little more—so perhaps it was only a matter of time before I started farming again!
This ancestral tugging in me has birthed Red Oak Community House's latest endeavor: Red Oak Farm, an urban microfarm with me as its primary farmer. We are making use of marginalized land by growing on raised beds in vacant lots leased from the city. Most of the produce will be made available through the subscription format of Community Supported Agriculture, or “CSA,” with any surplus being sold to local restaurants and at our road side farm stand. And of course we'll eat plenty, preserve plenty and share plenty around.
For years I've dreamed about what it might look like to have a patchwork urban farm in south central Elkhart, growing fresh, healthy food on vacant lots, by and for our friends and neighbors. I've long imagined the abundant possibilities such a venture could one day include:
- cooperative small farming businesses, creating shared ownership and jobs with fair wages
- instead of vacant lots mowed weekly by the city, co-creating shared green spaces
- exploring educational programing for all ages around gardening, nutrition, cooking, and sustainability.
So while this is Red Oak Farm's first year, many neighbors have already been working at related efforts for years or generations. These connections make me realize that what we call an experiment has already long begun. And our own efforts—if they are to be successful—will be over many years, or even generations as well.
The organic farming movement has made great strides towards finding ways to cultivate food more sustainably. However, given the realities of climate change and the unjust impacts on the most marginalized of human bodies and ecosystems, many typical organic practices simply don't go far enough. We recognize that most small, organic farmers are also simply trying to earn a living in the face of a domination system that is not kind to them. In addition we also see the need to go above and beyond the requirements of organic certification, challenging many of the underlying assumptions still embedded in the organic farming industry.
And remembering why we are choosing these particular commitments feels especially important when we are feeling defeated by slugs or a cold snap!
On Fossil Fuels in Farming
I have spent countless hours on my knees these last weeks, bowing to the Earth as she teaches me about clay soil. I have made the choice to move away from the use of fossil fuels (using tractors, tillers), and toward hand-cultivation. I grieve at our dependency on fossil fuels, the impact this has on the climate, and the way our oil-hungry tentacles have wormed their way into the pockets, economies, tar sands, and politics of far too many bioregions on our precious, finite planet.
And so I dig raised beds by hand, employ my trusty digging fork to open the subsoil for root penetration, forgo the speed and ease of mechanized cultivation, and depend more on my human helpers to get the work done. I feel this choice in my body: many hours of shoveling, hoeing, kneeling, feel different than a quick pass with the rototiller. My back aches and my finger nails won't be clean again until November. But I feel alive.
And I also am left wondering. Will it be possible to compete with other organic farmers and their slick little tractors —let alone conventional farmers and their host of petroleum-based helpers? In a world where the real cost of food is hidden by subsidies, it's hard enough to get people to pay a price that allows farmers to make a living wage. Many of the consumers themselves don't earn a living wage. But I worry at the challenge of valuing my own labor when everything takes just a little bit longer done by hand. Who can afford to pay what this food is worth? Is it mostly the upper crust, the folks who own the factories where so many of my friends and neighbors work long hours and still struggle to make ends meet? This reality is painful and complicated to hold. And yet I am also convinced, as evidenced by the die-off of the family farm, that the current system is not working for farmers either. So we experiment, with the knowledge that we must find some alternative!
Our dependency on fossil fuels is also connected to the question of seeds. There are many complex geopolitical reasons we could point towards to explain the war in Iraq, not least of them being the foreign interest in preserving access to oil. In addition, I'm deepening my understanding of the way in which armed conflict also impacts seed sovereignty in a region. According to Dr. Dahlia Wasfi, the war in Iraq destroyed the region's seed banks, which held genetic stock representing thousands of years of seed-saving. Now a country struggling to rebuild its infrastructure at every level is also left with an absence of seed—not only threatening the livelihood of farmers, but the food security of the entire nation.
In the post-invasion period of crisis, the United States government ordered bans on seed-saving and seed-sharing. Instead, farmers have been forced to depend on Cargill and Monsanto, who have conveniently swooped in with their hybridized and GMO seed stock. These patterns show the ways in which fossil fuel, seed-saving, and food sovereignty are all connected, even to a small project like Red Oak Farm.
These concerns for food sovereignty align with another element of our experiment, the commitment to using only heirloom, open-pollinated seed. Here, too, we come up against a question of what the market can bear: will these heirloom varieties keep up with the performance of their hybridized cousins? Will CSA members accept change in color, texture, uniformity? I'd like to think that the unique beauty and exceptional flavor and nutrition of these ancient varieties will win people over, that the plants will show the resiliency of generations of careful seed selection —but this, too, is all part of the mix of unknowns!
And when certain pieces of the experiment might feel like they are failing (Moons and Stars Watermelon and Sugar Baby Watermelon seeds both fail to germinate?!?), other pieces come through:
- the women living at the group home next door have decided to start their own little garden plot, so we spend a lot of time chatting across the sidewalk while we work
- Mrs Willy, neighbor to the other side of the lot, greets me nearly daily with news from the neighborhood, lets me taste her BBQ hot off the grill, and gave me some of her favorite butter bean seeds to try
- when a class of 1st graders from the elementary school down the street came for a visit, I suddenly had 18 energetic new farm advocates, all ready to save their food scraps for their classroom worm farm, and to bring their worm castings to Red Oak Farm!
In the midst of all this, there is also the experiment in how to listen to my body, and explore what it means to lean into trusting the abundance of mother nature. Can I release control even when this might mean loosing a tomatillo crop to slugs, a bed of carrots to squirrels, or a night of sleep to worries about the erratic temperatures that come with global climate weirding (and how this impacts our experimentally-wood-heated greenhouse)? In other words, I want to explore the tension around farming that in some ways increases one's connection to earth/nature, while in other ways seems to position a farmer at odds with nature. It's hard not to resent the aphids, the hail storms, the droughts when they threaten one's livelihood. I don't have answers here, just deepening wonderings, felt more and more in my own body.
All of this reminds me that this experiment is not only about vegetable production. We are also seeking to rebuild resiliency in the form of interconnected relationships and neighborhoods, through reconnection to land and food, the source of our nourishment, and to share all of these skills as we lean into a community vision that helps us step out of dependence on capitalism and domination and into a way of life that works for all beings. So there might be less tomatillos this year, but when you come to visit, hopefully you'll see more lovely ladybugs and healthy honey bees doing their good work in a garden free of poisons. It's a long and unknown road, but I'm convinced we have no other choice but to be in the experiment together for the long haul.