Saturday, September 20, 2014

How We Eat the Climate

If I had been farming this year, I might not have had the chance to stay quite as up-to-date with all the stuff going on in the world news right now.  I might not know that scientists say we are hinging on the edge of ecological disaster, that the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere rose faster this year than they have for the past 30 years, and that if we continue burning fossil fuels like we are now, we cross a few tipping points that set the good earth on a sure path of destruction.  The UN scientists are using words like "cataclysmic consequences."

I might not have heard that the ice caps really are melting, and the oceans really are rising.  Faster than we thought.

I would certainly not have heard it direct from the mouth of another woman farmer on the other side of the globe, whose family for generations has cultivated a dry, terraced, olive grove in the Mediterranean, planted in medieval times.  Her biggest worry?  Climate change.  It wasn’t a very dry summer for her trees.  More on this later.

If I had been farming this year, I might not have skills of dealing with the overwhelming despair I feel when I hear these things.  I might not have learned how to meditate, how to be gentle with myself, how to generate joy, happiness, and compassion to help take care of my other, more difficult, feelings.  More on this later too.

I would have experienced the climate in a much more intimate way:  every day in the muddy fields.

I met up with Ruth to get a download on how the season went -- she gave me a two-page list of all the challenges she faced, from learning the particularities of new fields to too much rain.  I stopped by the farm in early September, to find everyone bundled up in sweatshirts and wool hats.  Usually we'd have been sweating out in the fields, picking tomatoes frantically in their peak of production.

While I secretly rejoice in choosing this season to take a year off farming, my heart goes out to Ruth and all the other farmers in the region who had to deal with some "extreme weather events" and a very un-summery summer.  

To begin with, the coldest winter in 20 years was very very slow to let up, and the ground stayed frozen well into April.  This delayed everything on the farm.  Pushing back the plowing dates means pushing back the planting dates, which in turn pushes back harvest dates.  It also means losing critical time in the spring to deal with weeds.

This summer we also had twice the average rainfall expected for the region!  Wet fields mean no chance to get a cultivating tractor in, so the weeds get tall enough that you have to pull them out by hand:  on the scale of more than five acres, this is a nightmare!  What Ruth might not have been aware of as well is that the weeds could be growing even better due to the higher carbon dioxide in the air.

Several articles alerted me to the dire situation of incredibly soggy Western NY fields (Read them here: D & C and TWC News), and a few weeks ago the Attorney General of the State declared that all this extra rain is in fact a symptom of climate change.  The press release states "the need to focus on greater resiliency planning and response measures for our infrastructure, neighborhoods and landscape in order to promote a safer and more sustainable New York."  I assume that farms fall into all three categories, as their presence in our region's infrastructure and physical landscape provides neighborhoods with food security, if done well.  

Resiliency planning is built into the basic organic farming model.  CSA farmers plant hundreds of different varieties of vegetables, so that when extreme weather hits, usually something will do well, even if other crops fail.  Diversity is really the key when you are gambling with such uncertainty.  Farmers practicing sustainable growing also create more resilient soil, through practices like cover cropping, adding compost, and avoiding chemicals which destroy the living soil ecosystem.  The healthier the soil is, the better it can withstand drought and flooding.

The extra moisture this summer also brought more disease into the fields -- tomatoes were decimated again by Late Blight, the serious fungus that brought about the Irish Potato Famine, and the poor basil got Downy Mildew, a relatively new disease occurance.  Fungi LOVE wet weather.  And they hate sunshine-- on a good sunny day, UV rays will destroy the fungal spores and slow the spread of the disease.  Not like we had too many sunny days this summer...

Farmers make a living from working with natural systems-- soil, water, seeds -- and all of these systems are dependent on the ever-changing and unpredictable weather, which, as we know, is becoming more and more unpredictable.

Remember last spring?  We also had too much rain, early on in the season.  Luckily, it warmed up enough for us later in the summer.  This year, Ruth had less of a break.  She educated me on "growing degree days," which is a fancy farmer word for calculating the rate that plants grow based on the ambient temperature they experience.  And, yep, it was a cold summer.  The growing degree days were even down 25% from the average this season in some areas, delaying the ability of the crop to mature for harvest!

The climate scientists also talk about more heat waves and droughts, and in the five years that I've farmed in the area, I have experienced these firsthand as well.  Working in the heat is not fun.  Neither is breathing in dust blowing off your fields after five weeks of no rain.  These occupational hazards are probably some of the big reasons the reasons people give up farming.  Oh, yeah, and it doesn't make any money.  But if we all stopped farming, who would grow the food? 

We'll have to figure it out somehow, and adapt our growing techniques and choice of crops to the changes happening.  The EPA is even going so far to suggest that by the end of the century, "Large portions of the region may become unsuitable for growing some fruit varieties and some crops, such as apples, blueberries, grain, and soybeans.”  It's obvious we are facing a whole new world out there.  

Farmers are the first to feel the effects of climate change, because they work outside every day, and their whole livelihood depends on the weather.  But as consumers, if we look deeply, we can see that three times a day, we eat the climate.

(Insert David Bowie song)
“Turn and face the strange Ch-ch-changes, Don't want to be a richer man, Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes,
Turn and face the strange Ch-ch-changes, Just gonna have to be a different man"

As a modern humans in today's society, we could live our whole lives indoors, in our climate-controlled houses and cars, giving us an illusion of protection from the changes happening outside our windows.  When we step outside, we have no control over things like the temperature, whether the lights are on or not, and what falls from the sky.

This is why so many farmers are moving indoors themselves to grow their crops -- hoop-houses, high tunnels, low tunnels, greenhouses, hydroponics…  I understand all the logic behind it.  Controlled environments are easier, more comfortable, more predictable.  And for a farmer's bottom line, it can make all the difference.  But I believe this is a step in the wrong direction.
I want to live in a world where I can be outside.  I want to feel the sun on my skin, the breeze in my hair, see a hawk circling over a field.  I want to walk the weedy edges in my boots and see jack rabbits bolt to the woods.  I want to look up into the clouds to feel the first raindrops on my face, and stick my hands down into the rich moist loam to say “thank you” for the nourishment of another season.  I want to see the determined bees and hummingbirds take their nourishment from flowers, while they simultaneously ensure the flowers’ continuation, and provide me with such joy.  

I want to ensure the continuation of the things that nourish me.

Step outside for a break after reading this.  What does the climate feel like to you right now?  How do things smell, how does the air feel on your skin?  Can you hear birds or crickets?  Look up into a tree.  An old tree has seen a lot of seasons in its time, maybe more than you have.  What will it see in the coming years, and will it be ready?

Are you ready? 

Supporting local farmers who are using sustainable growing practices, who are committed to taking care of the soil, who are looking for more ways to be resilient in the face of climate change, is one of the things we can do to ensure a hopeful future.  It's going to be a wild ride, but together we can build a more resilient community and learn to adapt to the crazy changes together.

(And I almost forgot: Stay tuned for stories about my adventures with an olive farmer in the Mediterranean, and my discovery of a Zen Buddhist monastery in the Catskills, in a future blog entry!  It's good to be back.)

Sunday, September 29, 2013

A bittersweet goodbye

“To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.”

-Mary Oliver


I am leaving Mud Creek Farm CSA.  I am choosing to be with my partner, who lives four hours away in the Hudson Valley.

For several years now we've been doing the long-distance thing, taking Amtrak back and forth every few weeks across the state. It gets old! I am very much in love with this man. So I've decided to make the move to his town, and I truly believe that I'm leaving Mud Creek Farm in very capable hands. It will continue on without me, the Community Supported Agriculture spirit quite alive in the dedication of the members and the eager new farmers. 

This was the hardest decision I've ever made. The farm has been my everything for the past five years. I had found my calling, followed my passion, sweat and toiled-- and the community had embraced it, resulting in a hugely successful operation. Mud Creek Farm has been in almost every local publication, on TV, radio, etc. We were voted “Favorite Farm of the Finger Lakes” in Edible Magazine this year.

I have never been so satisfied by my job. So much gratitude from CSA members! What a feeling to be feeding hundreds of families, many of whom I know well after years of nourishing them. I've seen babies grow from pregnant mamas into curious kids, wandering around looking wide-eyed at flowers and bugs and tomatoes. I've seen people stumble awkwardly onto the farm in early spring, and then leave strong and glowing with health at the end of the summer, raving about kale and potato soup.

Playing the role of “Farmer Erin” had become my primary identity, and I embraced it and loved it. What an amazing gift to be able to do something I enjoy that people appreciate so much. I truly feel that farming is in my blood, that growing food is something I need to do.

As I grew the CSA from 80 members to 400, I needed helpers. The first few years we relied solely on volunteers, then I hired full-time interns, young folks who wanted to learn how to farm. This year I hired an assistant manager, Ruth, and a greenhouse manager, Jonny. The crew was absolutely amazing this summer. I left for two weeks in August, and they hardly missed a beat. 

When I asked the crew mid-summer if anyone wanted to return next season to work for Mud Creek Farm, three of them said YES! Ruth, Jonny, and Josh. As I anticipated my absence next year, I started thinking about what a great team they would make. 

Ruth has 5+ farming experience under her belt, and her strengths lay in field operations, tractors, and spirit. She worked for Peacework Farm, one of the very first CSAs in the area. She was raised on an organic farm in Vermont, and her dad runs a winter-storage vegetable operation. She is an incredible person. It's kind of nice, too, that the business will stay woman-run.  She's ready for it.

Jonny managed his own small CSA last year, and has leadership and organizational skills, and a great attention to detail. He will be managing the greenhouse transplant production, and harvest/washing of produce. His dedication to CSA member satisfaction will ensure that the quality of the produce and the experience remains the same great Mud Creek style!

Josh grew up with a hammer in his hand. He knows how to work hard, has 8+ years experience in construction, and he's decided farming is his true path now. He learns quickly, and because of his focus and determination, he's become quite skilled at tractor cultivation. We're very lucky to have him.

All three of these guys have an amazing work ethic and devotion to the CSA's mission. As much as it saddens me that I don't get to work with them anymore, they are totally capable of running the farm without me. They have more than earned my confidence, and proven again and again that they have what it takes.

I've spent the summer training them in on every detail of the operation, working closely with them sometimes, and sometimes just letting them learn lessons on their own. I've tried to be the best mentor I could be, guiding them into their own confidence on tasks. Next year I will be a phone call away if they need anything. But I feel like they are ready to take it and run with it.

One challenge is that this shift in management coincides with moving the farm location to new land.  (See the last blog post for details)  Sure, it will be a lot of work to break in new fields, move sheds, water lines, fences, etc. But this might give them a chance to claim the project as their own, clean-slate. To put their hearts into the physical building-up of the farm, like I did. They have a more ideal land situation than I ever had-- a 5-year lease with long-term potential, and they might even get a pond and a pole barn, things I only dreamed of!

Sure, the farm's going to change. The farmers' unique strengths and personalities affect everything about a farm. But while Mud Creek's farmers are in charge of all the planning, growing, and harvesting, the real heart of the CSA organism is the members. Not only do they support the farm financially, but they become a real type of community, one with its own strengths and personalities.

It is my hope that the members of Mud Creek Farm CSA continue to be the active and supportive heart of the farm that they have been for these past five years.

Ruth, Jonny, and Josh are all committed to keeping the mission of Mud Creek Farm alive – to provide the highest quality vegetables to CSA members, produced as sustainably as possible. 

They will carry on nourishing people in the community, both physically through delicious healthy produce, and soulfully, through a positive and hands-on experience of nature, sustainability, and abundance.  


And I will get to venture into the unknown, this time without a 5-year business plan. 

I will really value the friendships I've made with CSA members over the years, and I'll miss so many people!  I hope to sustain these connections, even from afar.  I will try to keep up the blog.  Come visit me when you're in the eastern part of the state!  I hope to visit the "new" Mud Creek Farm often, of course, too.

But during this sabbatical from farming I'll get to explore other sides of me, besides being "Farmer Erin".  I know that growing food will always be a part of my life, but now I get to round out my experience a bit, adding new roles of family, domesticity, music, activism, maybe even writing a book... Who knows?

 The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

On this harvest moon...

September... the peak of summer's bounty.

The full moon closest to the autumn equinox is known as the "Harvest Moon" because its light has traditionally helped farmers gather their abundant harvest into the night.

There is that sad moment you know that summer is slipping into fall.  That tragically beautiful hour that you feel winter's chill creep in sometime in the early evening one night, and the next morning you realize that all the plants in the field feel it too.  The grand race to ripen before the cruel frost replaces summer's kind warmth.  Even the grasshoppers, the butterflies, and the mourning doves know it.  Even the fungus on the squash leaves, the disease on the tomatoes.  Everything alive quickens its pace, soaking up every ounce of a sunny day, holding on through the chilly nights, the inevitable slowing toward winter.  Last chance, its now or never.  And now: it's tomatoes!


We pick as fast as possible.  The bins of food we harvest get heavier and heavier.  September makes my back ache. 

We strategize.  We pick almost every day now.

We haul loaded wagons of veggies in the from the fields.


We wash in tubs of cold water that make our fingers numb.

The Native Americans have called this time the "Corn Moon" as well, so I guess it's appropriate that we had such a great run of sweet corn this month!  We were able to give a solid two weeks of delicious organic ears of sweet corn to our CSA members, and even have a little "bonus" pick this week too.  So tasty!  I like to snack on it raw in the fields of course.


 As I cultivated the fall lettuce, carrots, and beets, I had an almost bittersweet feeling that it was the last time we'd be doing it this season!  Oh, how I do love when the soil is at the right moisture, and it just crumbles and flows through the cultivators.  Like the satisfaction of brushing your hair, or maybe a big Zen garden, full of carrots and sunlight and life.

The bittersweet feeling of fall is that much more poignant right now because we are leaving these fields.  Five years of growing vegetables and flowers and cover crops on this soil.  Five summers of plowing, planting, weeding, irrigating, and harvesting.  We will mourn for the loss of this place and be grateful for the years we spent there.  But saying goodbye to things is natural, just like the frost takes the summer crops back every year, and the snow blankets the land, clearing the slate for next year.

But the green and the warmth always comes back in the spring!

And we've found a new place to farm!  Just five minutes up the hill.  A very special place.

We will be right down the road from Ganondagon, the historic site of a flourishing Native American community.  I believe this is a really good sign, because the Native Americans cultivated lots of corn and other crops to sustain themselves, possibly in the very fields we will be working!  We are also right around the corner from The Apple Farm, a great U-Pick family operation, stop by for hot cider and donuts this fall!  Our new landlord has been a CSA member for years, and is really wonderful!  What amazing luck.

The soil on our new fields is a rich silt loam, with small rolling hills throughout.  It is more quiet and surrounded by more farms than developments.  It will take a lot of work to move the farm, and we hope to get a lot done this fall.  Can't wait to get started.

A new beginning.  We will be asking for help!