From Stillness To Madness

April means acceleration, when the farm runs from stillness to madness. We began the month in the greenhouse, sowing seeds and potting up seedlings, bringing the space from near emptiness to brimming fullness. We will end in the field: opening the soil, spreading amendments, and preparing to transplant the first of the season’s crops.

April is also a month to start tackling farm projects, a chance to build and clean and sort before work in the field rises to its fever pitch. Two larger projects for this spring are building raised beds for our cut flower operation and setting up a tool shed out in the field to save us from having to walk all the way back to the barn when we need some tool or other supplies. And we have dreams of transforming the barn’s old milk house into an on-farm store where we can sell flower arrangements and extra vegetables and other farm products. In such things, my reach always exceeds my grasp, so it remains to be seen how much of this we get done before summer arrives. But we should be able to do at least some of it.

Above all, this is the month when the soil thaws and dries. When the weather warms enough that it feels good to be outside. When the grayness of March breaks and I can enjoy the light and clear skies of spring. When the trees and fields fill with birdsong. When the daffodils begin to bloom, and the trees bud and leaf out. When our season of expectancy ends and we properly enter the season of rebirth and new life.

River of Blessing

Last week one of my greenhouse helpers, a long-time CSA member and faithful friend of the farm, shared with me the good news that she and her husband were expecting another child. I congratulated her, and later began mentally counting up all the babies that have been born into the CSA since we started it. Many more than a dozen, for sure. And if you include their older brothers and sisters, we could fill a standard school bus with all the children this farm has nourished over the past eight years.

Joel Salatin writes somewhere about the intimacy of the relationship between you and your farmer, how the farmer grows the stuff your body uses to make the stuff that makes up you. So I count it a privilege to have fed all those babies over the years, and in the years to come. It makes me smile to think of it. And it is a particular joy to welcome those children to the farm where they can see the place where that food is grown. To meet the chickens and look for kittens and taste the carrots pulled straight from the ground.

I think of one little girl who last season was fascinated by our ducks. Her heart’s desire was to be near them, so as soon as her family arrived, off she would go chasing after the ducks. She and the ducks had about the same running speed, so each week the same drama played out: the ducks waddling away from her, and she toddling after them, she never quite catching them, and they never quite eluding her. They ran like that all through the orchard, until her mother took her hand and led her out to the cherry tomato patch, where the little girl could eat her fill of the sun-warmed fruit, right off the vine.

I think of the little boy who when he visits likes nothing more than to clamber onto my old tractor and bounce up and down in the seat, making engine noises and calling out to his mother with delight—just like I did when I was his age. Then he wanders around the farm doing all manner of boy things: looking for bugs and worms, throwing rocks, throwing sticks, throwing clods of dirt and clumps of mud.

I think of the kids playing in the boxelder tree behind the greenhouse, its low-slung branches beckoning them to climb up into its leafy greenness. Or finding their way into the empty silo where they howl like wolves and delight in their noise echoing off its concrete walls. Or sitting around a bonfire on a cool summer evening learning to toast marshmallows and basking in the flickering flames.

Above all, I think of all that food flowing out of our field, moving from the soil, through the hands of the crew, into the cooler, onto the truck, and out to kitchens and tables, a river of blessing, nourishment, and delight. At least, that is my weekly prayer throughout the season, that this bounty nourishes body and soul, especially for all those new humans just opening their eyes to this big, beautiful world.

Mud Season

Put your hands into the mire.
They will learn the kinship
of the shaped and the unshapen,
the living and the dead.

–Wendell Berry, “Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer”

With winter’s ending and the start of the soil’s thawing, we now enter Michigan’s infamous fifth season: mud time.

Mud is something of a foe on the farm. We fight to keep it out of the house, or at least confined to the mud room. I try to stay out of the fields when it’s muddy, especially here in the spring. If I get too eager and drive the tractor into the field too soon, all I accomplish is compacting the soil, maybe even getting the tractor stuck. Mud days delay spring seeding and transplanting, and they make fall harvesting a hassle.

I especially remember one rainy fall when the final summer squash succession was planted in the wettest part of our field. We were sinking in the soil up to our ankles trying to harvest them. Then someone on the crew had the brilliant idea to use overgrown patty pan squash—some of them big around as dinner plates—as stepping stones. So there we were, out in the field, balanced on these cucurbits floating in a lake of mud. Worked like a charm.

My neighbors don’t have the luxury of keeping their equipment off wet ground at harvest time, and in a rainy fall they are compelled to slog through their fields, leaving deep ruts. The damage they do persists even into the following seasons, where you can clearly see the stunted corn struggling to grow on that deeply compacted soil.

It is said God formed the first man out of the soil, and we know that after death we return to that soil. “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” as the man says. This is the way of all living things. Walt Whitman even rhapsodized about it in an ode to compost. (“Behold this compost! Behold it well!” he exclaims. “Out of its hill rises the yellow maize-stalk, the lilacs bloom in the dooryards, the summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead.”) And within the soil itself, I read, this same drama unfolds on a microscopic level: creatures living and dying and so creating more soil, this living skin of our planet, our home.

This is the kinship Wendell Berry is invoking, I think. “Kinship” is an interesting word to use. It describes a family relationship, one where we are bound by ties of kinship—which is to say, bound by responsibilities: to other people, to other creatures, to the soil itself and all the life it shelters and sustains. So we find ourselves enmeshed in a network of creatures that we did not create and cannot control and upon which we depend for our very lives.

And for the record, I’ve never in poetical rhapsody sunk my hands into the mire to commune with this kinship. I have knocked the mire off my tractor tires, scraped it off my disc’s coulters, kicked it off my boots, swept it up indoors, sunk up to my ankles in it outdoors. The closest I come to doing this is when I scoop up a handful in the spring to check if it’s dry enough to work.

Which it will be soon.

Radically Hopeful

Doesn’t it feel like the past two years have been an unrelenting series of catastrophes? A global pandemic, climate-change-fueled natural disasters, domestic riots and insurrection, and now war in Europe. I find myself falling into the bad habit of wondering what the next unthinkably awful thing the near future has in store for us.

It all makes it hard to hope—even now, on spring’s doorstep.

Of course you can’t swing a rusty shovel on a farm without smacking against the cliche of spring as the season of new hope, but cliches arise because on some level they are, in fact, true. This month I began the work of the new season, the sowing of seeds, one of the most radically hopeful human activities I can think of.

And hope, whatever else it may be, is a kind of activity. Hope generates some sort of work in the world, or at least ought to. The least hopeful thing is to curl up in despair and do nothing.

So I strive to work this month in full expectation that the coming growing season has gifts in store for us, if we but attend. Perhaps not always the gifts we had wished for, but good gifts nonetheless. And part of the preparation here at the season’s beginning is preparing to receive those gifts.

The ground thaws. The sap rises. Birds return from their southern ranges. Soon the snowdrops and crocuses will thrust through the earth and stretch their blade-like leaves toward the sun. Amidst it, there is good work for us all to do. Time to get busy.

Rise Up Joyful

When I rise up
let me rise up joyful
like a bird.

–Wendell Berry, “Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer”

With March arriving, birds on the farm begin to rise. Many lived here all winter, of course, flocking to our feeders in the ice and snow. I keep a list of the ones I see: Nuthatches, titmice, chickadees, and slate-eyed juncos. Goldfinches and house finches. Hairy woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, common flickers. Bossy blue jays. Vibrant cardinals. Others don’t come to the feeders but fly around the farm nevertheless. Red-tailed hawks soaring above the frozen fields. The clutch of crows perched in the spruce trees croaking back and forth to each other each morning. The great horned owl hoot-hoot-hooting somewhere overhead in the cold, still night.

Just last week, I discovered an eastern screech owl had taken up residence in our barn’s loft sometime this winter. I noticed first that the floor was littered with these weird soft gray oblong masses: owl pellets, I realized. And where there are owl pellets, there must be an owl. So I searched up in the rafters, and there it was, perched high in the peak of the barn, eyeing me warily. I have been trying to attract owls to live on the farm for a while now, so I was happy to greet it.

These year-round residents are now joined by others. Last week, as I was beginning the greenhouse work, I saw the season’s first red-winged blackbird, right on cue. This morning I heard the eerie trumpeting of a sandhill crane and stepped outside just in time to see it drift low over the roof of the farmhouse and north toward the woods abutting the back of our property. We should be seeing robins soon, followed by bluebirds and orioles. And then my favorites, the tree swallows, which will fill the warm evening air, falling and rising above mid-summer fields.

Think Of It As a Quickening

We rise, we rise, we rise toward spring. Day by day, the light gains. Under its frozen crust, the world wakes. Winter may still have its icy hold on us, but if you look and listen carefully, spring stirs.

Recently I came across a phrase I think describes well this in-between time: that winter is pregnant with summer. Now is a season of expectancy, anticipation, and, above all, preparation.

Think of it as a quickening, if you like, when one feels the first kicks of new life. And it’s almost impossible to talk about new life without invoking seeds. In truth, much of my farming activity this time of year centers on my preparing to sow seeds.

First, in December, I review the farm’s seeding schedule, a long spreadsheet that throughout the season tells me what to sow, and when, and in what quantities. I base any revisions on my notes from the previous season’s experiences, adjusting quantities and timings as needed.

What kinds of evaluations am I making? Sometimes a variety doesn’t perform as well as I would like. For example, the Cherokee Purple tomato, while great tasting, is too prone to cracking in our fields, so I was happy to discover the Carbon tomato, which has performed much better for us. Sometimes new varieties become available that improve on the older ones. Broccoli, for some reason, seems prone to this churn, and each year I need to revise my schedule to reflect these new varieties.

Sometimes I am forced make substitutions because certain varieties are no longer available. This year, for whatever reason, I can’t seem to get the Provider bush bean through my usual sources, so I will be growing Strike, which, fortunately, is just as good. And sometimes I just decide to try something new and different, like how I got it in my head this year to grow a bunch of French heirloom vegetables, just for the fun of it.

Once the schedule is finalized, or nearly so, I place my seed order. In the past, I have aimed to do this task done sometime in January, but the demand for seeds has been so high during these pandemic years, I made sure it was done earlier, no later than mid-December, to avoid any shortages.

When the seeds arrive, I check the packing slips to make sure I have everything I ordered, then sort the seeds according to family and stow them in airtight containers to keep them safe until I need them later in the spring.

But I need more than seeds. I also need soil to sow them in, and pots and nursery flats to put the soil it, and these also are secured this time of year and stowed safely in the barn.

And I will need someplace to put all those sown pots and flats, as well as an orderly place to work, so I make sure that all in the greenhouse is ready, too. I clean it if it wasn’t cleaned in the fall, check to make sure the air circulation fans and louver vents and, most importantly, the heater are all working properly. I see to it that the propane tank is topped off, and I make sure all my greenhouse tools are in good order.

Then, when the page of the calendar turns to March, I will enter that greenhouse, fire up the heater, dial up John Coltrane’s Love Supreme on the iPod, say a prayer, and get down to work.

What Sets Us Apart

When I started growing vegetables over fifteen years ago, as a hired hand at Trillium Haven Farm, there were only a couple of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms in West Michigan. Since then, that model has so gained in popularity I have lost track of how many there are now. Knowing that there are plenty of CSAs to choose from, we are ever grateful for those of you who have chosen us. But given that many of these CSA farms grow the same vegetable varieties, order from the same seed suppliers, and even use the same brand of potting soil, you might be wondering what sets us apart.

In short: Blackbird Farms is a member-first CSA. Everything we do—every decision we make, every action we take—is focused on delivering the best possible CSA experience to our members.

What does this look like in practice?

First, and most simply, our members are known by name. It is a point of pride that I learn every new member’s name by the end of June, at the latest. And I make sure to be present at every pick-up and greet everyone by name. Not all CSA farmers can do this. Not all CSA farmers even want to do this. But I do, because I believe in reestablishing the connection between people and the place where their food is grown, and you can’t do that when everyone is anonymous.

Second, and similarly, our members are welcome on the farm. While some farmers are not eager to open up their places to “outsiders,” we go out of our way to create opportunities for our members to engage with our farm. Whether participating in the farm work on one of our Thursday evening field parties, attending one of our chamber music concerts in the barn loft, or enjoying an evening potluck and bonfire, we want to share with our members this beautiful place where we get to live and work.

Third, we always place our members before farmers markets (as well as wholesale accounts and restaurants). The danger of a farm having a significant market footprint or extensive restaurant or other wholesale accounts is that there is a profound temptation to siphon off the very best, highest quality, and most popular produce to those outlets, and then leave the CSA members with the leftovers. I have seen this happen with my own eyes at other farms. That will never happen here. We don’t even sell to restaurants, and nothing is sent to our modest farmers’ market stall that isn’t first made available to our members.

Finally, we follow the traditional CSA principle of “share the risk, share the abundance.” This means that, when deciding what goes in any week’s share, I simply tally up what is ready to harvest and then divide by the number of shares. That way, our members share in both the farm’s victories and vicissitudes. I understand that some CSA farms have moved away from this model toward one where the quantity of vegetables their members receive is pre-set, either by some sort of point system or through a prepaid debit card. While this model may be useful to some farmers and appeal to some members, we have decided not to go down this path. Members of such a CSA may have a reduced risk of a poor season, but they also do not get to enjoy the abundance of a good season. What’s more, I worry that such a model transforms members into merely consumers, loosening their personal connection to the farm. And, again, it is my conviction that personal connection is at the heart of what it means to belong to a CSA.

There are many great CSA farmers in West Michigan, and I count it a privilege to have them as my colleagues and friends. It is a good thing that the CSA movement has evolved into different and innovative expressions. And there is no single correct model to suit everyone—you should find a farm that fits who you are and what you believe. But if you crave not only delicious food but also a connection with the people who grow it and the place where it is grown, I invite you to try us out. As I never tire of saying, there is a place at the table waiting for you.