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.