Ten Thousand Small Beauties

After a relatively mild December and January, here at the farm we now have a proper Michigan winter—deep drifts all around and the world frozen to an apparent standstill. But I promise you, underneath all that ice and snow spring is stirring.

One reliable harbinger: In less than a week I will be in the greenhouse sowing the season’s first seeds.

All the primary pieces of the puzzle for this spring are in place: the greenhouse propane tank topped off last fall, the totes of potting soil delivered early this winter and safely stowed in the barn, the seeds ordered the first week of December and all arrived by mid-January, the greenhouse clean and ready to go and well-stocked with pots and nursery flats and plant tags.

This will be my fifteenth season farming, my fifteenth time entering this long solar cycle that is the agricultural year. I remember my first season on the crew at Trillium Haven being impressed by the complexity of running a farm, by the sheer immensity of all the things to know. I remember being glad I was just the hired hand and not the farmer in charge of keeping the whole show upright and ambulatory. And here I am now, fourteen years later, responsible for exactly that.

After all that time, I find much of the job is second nature to me now. I know deep down what needs to happen when, what things look like when they’re going right, and what to watch for to keep things from going wrong. I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising.

But what does surprise me is how I can still be surprised. How, out of the corner of my eye, I can catch a glimpse of glory that stops me in my tracks.

Like when the garlic first thrusts through its protective winter mulch of straw in early spring, thin green fingers of new life fulfilling the promise made late last fall when we pressed the seed cloves into the cooling soil. Or when the heat of late summer lays heavy on the evening, the drone of cicadas filling the air and the sunflowers and zinnias in full riot bobbing in the breeze. Or when stars on a moonless midwinter night spangle in the cast net of bare tree branches, all silent but for the crunch of snow under my boots as I walk. Or when any other of the ten thousand small beauties make themselves known to me in the circuit of my day.

What a world we have been given, and what a privilege we have to care for it.

Rising Toward Spring

Today’s sky is blue and cold as a block of ice, but bright and sunny—which is welcome this time of year. The birds seem to welcome it, too, all the finches and nuthatches and chickadees flitting back and forth in the sunshine from the feeder to the low branches of the nearby trees.

The light is gaining now for certain. From the solstice’s darkness, we have gained over an hour of daylight, adding minutes each day and accelerating all the while. Winter is far from over, to be sure, but the world is rising toward spring, even beneath the snow. Each day the farm’s slack coils tighten, getting ready to spring come May.

As we should expect. Today we stand at the late-winter cross-quarter day, the midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox and an inflection point in the farming year.

Now is when I shake off my bear-like sleepiness and begin to feel the year’s ascent. When I take the dreams of midwinter and shape them into actual plans and drawings, numbers and maps, spreadsheets and lists. I make ready to welcome the new season, as one welcomes an old friend.

I cherish this deep rhythm of the farming year, how the season begins in dormancy, then kindles, grows, and yields abundance, then becomes exhausted, dies down, and returns to dormancy. I love how the nature and intensity of work changes along with those movements, and how it all is tuned to the music of the earth and synchronized to the cycle of the sun. It is all a great gift, which we begin to receive this day.

Working the Margins

There is something deeply relaxing about watching a flock of foraging hens. Over the winter, I keep ours in a bright, airy coop with plenty of bedding to scratch around in, which keeps them happy enough. But once the snow melts and the weather warms I can tell they itch to get outside. So I accommodate them. I keep a section of semi-permanent electronet fencing set up around the coop, and on warm days I let them roam free.

This taste of freedom keeps them satisfied for a time, but as spring progresses they exhaust the possibilities of that little plot and start eyeing other parts of the property. Not long after, they remember they can fly (after a fashion and for short jaunts only), and soon they are hopping the fence and foraging all over the farm.

When that happens, I have noticed how the hens are drawn to margins. Around the foundations of the outbuildings. Along the edges of the compost pile. Maddeningly, through the wood chip mulch on the perennial beds. Quite often, where the brushy edge of the woods meets the yard. And also in the woods, where they happily scratch away through the pine needles and fallen leaves.

In Gene Logsdon’s final (and excellent) book, Letter to a Young Farmer, he wrote, “Perhaps our old cultural motto of ‘root, hog, or die’ will be replaced by ‘scratch, hen, and live.’” Here his topic is the past half-century’s model of conventional farming. “Get big, or get out,” was the advice, so farmers mortgaged their farms to the hilt, bought up their neighbors’ land, and expanded their operations. Which meant many other farmers had to “get out” to make way for a few to “get big.” In other words: “Root, hog, or die.”

As you might be able to tell, Mr. Logsdon didn’t think much of this new way of farming. Instead, he contrarily advised, “Stay small, and stay in.” This is a philosophy for the kind of farm he favored (and the kind of farm we run here), what he called the garden farm: smaller acreages farmed intensively and producing a wide variety of products sold directly to consumers. Farmers working the margins, working the angles, full of side hustles and crosswise thinking, all done literally in the shadow of the behemoth conventional farms. Farmers who find a different way forward, who stay small, and stay in.

Or as Mr. Logsdon exhorts, “Scratch, hen, and live.”

The Grace of the World

Early last summer I witnessed something until then I had only read about: A tree swallow playing with a downy white feather it had found for its nest. As I watched, the swallow would toss the feather from its beak into the air, then loop back to catch it as it drifted down, then toss it, then catch it, again and again.

I later read that some bird experts suggest this behavior is a mating display, but in this case there was no mate around to impress. It seemed to me for all the world that the swallow behaved this way simply for the sheer pleasure of it. It certainly gave me pleasure to see it.

There’s a danger in imposing human emotions and attributes on the natural world—literary critics call it the pathetic fallacy. But even Cornell University’s online bird guide agrees that sparrows “seem to play” in this way. Who am I to argue?

When my mind is uneasy in unsettled times, I am grateful for moments, like this one with the playful swallow, that invite me to cast my gaze outward. Despite it all, there is a great, good, green world out there, spinning right along. The generous earth yields its harvest. All the world’s creatures live their lives of wild domesticity. Nature delights in itself. And as for me?

“…I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

You Reap What You Sow

If there’s an iron law in farming, it’s this: You reap what you sow.

Amid all farming’s guidelines, suggestions, best practices, rules of thumb, ballpark figures, and back-of-the envelope calculations, this one thing holds true always and everywhere. You reap what you sow.

And yesterday, as I watched with horror and revulsion as the riot unfolded in our Capitol, I thought—and not for the first time this past year—You reap what you sow.

For quite a while in this nation, the president and his enablers have been sowing poisonous seeds, and now we all reap this bitter harvest.

I won’t lie: I am tempted to despair. These noxious weeds are now so deeply rooted that clearing them will be a long, hard job. It seems likely to take years. But the problem didn’t develop overnight, and it won’t be fixed overnight.

But here’s the good news, the thing that keeps me from despair: You reap what you sow.

We farmers and growers and gardeners know some things about the hard work of sowing and reaping. Seeds must be nurtured and plants cared for and tended to all season long before we receive a harvest. Perennial flowers can take a couple of years to establish before they grace the garden with their beauty. Fruiting shrubs take longer. Trees, a lifetime.

We farmers and growers and gardeners also know some things about what it takes to bring an abused field back into good tilth. How to transform a neglected garden into a place of heart-rending beauty. How to meet fecklessness and carelessness and vandalism with determined and loving care.

We farmers and growers and gardeners know how to take the long view. We know how to do the work now that will yield a good harvest in months and years and even decades to come. We know that you reap what you sow.

So, my friends, grieve if you will, rage if you must, but only for a moment. Above all, despair not. We may be in the frozen and forlorn heart of winter, but spring is coming, and with it good work to do. Let’s get ready to do that work. Let’s get ready to plant some good seeds.

The Hidden Promise In Dormancy’s Heart

The ground has now frozen, cold and hard as iron. As recently as a couple of weeks ago that wasn’t so. Those days I worked outside nearly in shirtsleeves, clearing out and mulching the farm’s perennial beds, and grateful for the unseasonably mild weather. But winter is here now for sure, and the farm has gone dormant for the season.

I suppose we often equate dormancy with barrenness. And in Michigan, in the clutches of winter, it’s easy to look around and think, “barren, frozen wasteland.” But that’s not so. To be dormant is to be stilled yet full of life. Waiting. Preparing.

For example: This fall when I harvested the last of the crops from the field, I made sure not to leave it bare. Instead, I sowed a crop of winter wheat, and now little green shoots cover the ground. And though winter wheat does go dormant in the cold, it does not die, and when the air and soil warm even a little, it will start growing again. The roots of that cover crop will protect the soil over the winter, and so will protect all the microscopic life that teems in that soil. So while right now the field may appear barren, in truth it is full of life, paused for the season but ready to burst out come spring.

Doesn’t that sound familiar? I’ve tried not to go on at length about the pandemic in these newsletters this past year, because all of us already hear so much about it everywhere else. But this promise hidden in dormancy’s heart is too good a balm to be left unspoken—especially in the face of what we are told could be a grievous winter. Our lives have been dormant for so long, and we are all so tired of waiting, and while light does lie on the horizon, we find we must wait longer yet.

But spring will come. This dormancy will end. Life will burst though the thawing soil with new green growth. And won’t that be wonderful.

The World Drawing Inward

One warm evening last week I worked until dusk, which comes so early now, then wandered about the farm a little. It’s a habit I pick up from time to time, especially in the spring and fall. I did it partly to admire the work I had done that day but mostly just to soak in the autumn silence. No birdsong. No tree frogs calling to one another. No crickets thrumming in the twilight. Not even the breeze rustling the fallen leaves. Only a vesper stillness and the dark indigo sky fired salmon and pink at the western horizon with a thin, bright slice of the new crescent moon. As I stood there, I felt the world drawing inward, readying itself for winter.

I’m readying for winter, too. The farm is just about put to bed for the season—the fields cleared out and sown to a protective cover crop, the hens nestled in their winter coop, the greenhouses tidy and ready to be fired up again come March. The farm’s dormant season has arrived.

Which does not mean an inactive season. There will be plenty to do this winter, dreaming and planning and plotting. I have to draft budgets, set planting schedules, order seeds and supplies—a whole constellation of preparatory tasks that need tending to.

But first, before all that, we are given a moment to be thankful. And one thing that was driven home to me this season is how grateful I am to be a farmer, and for this farm, and how so very grateful I am for everyone who has helped this farm along these past seven years—thank you, all.