Thursday, March 26, 2015

Winter Pastimes

It's been over five months since I've written a blog entry!  I feel as if I've been in hibernation, but looking back over my photo record of the winter, I realize that I've been all over:

1. Land Searching!
2. Big Picture Learning & Practicing
3. Civic Duty in DC
4. Visits to Faraway Friends

This land search deal has lasted for 6 years, as my patient real estate agent knows well.  However, since I sold my farm business and moved out of town, and then through life's unexpected twists and turns, moved BACK to Rochester, the search has intensified.  I know I want to farm, I know where I want to farm, I know how to farm, and I know that I don't want to farm on leased land anymore.

I've been looking high and low, far and wide, for the right place to plant my roots for the rest of this lifetime.  Land-searching in the wintertime lets me flex my creative-visioning muscles, dreaming up colorful abundance in monotone landscapes that often look more like the surface of the moon than an organic fruit or vegetable farm.  But I enjoy walking through fields, and I enjoy dreaming and planning.  Here is a sampling of the landscapes I've seen this winter, some candidates for my lifelong stewardship:

And oh, the soil maps!  I may have the glacially-formed landscape of all arable topsoil less than 30 miles south of Rochester memorized by the time I'm finished with this search.

And the barns.  I have always been in love with these pastoral dinosaurs.  Unfortunately, many of them are falling down because we have collectively turned our backs on these relics that were once so central to our thriving rural communities and economies.  Now we often just store junk until the whole thing collapses.

But, other than prancing around in collapsing barns and across tundras of blowing snow, I've filled my time with learning, in its various forms-- from gatherings to farm visits.  Also, practicing meditation, at Blue Cliff Monastery as well as on my own.

I was blessed to be invited to a lovely meeting of the Permaculture Institute of the Northeast (PINE) at the Omega Center in Rhinebeck.  These committed folks are thinking really long-term:  how we will be growing our food in a not only organic and sustainable way, but absolutely regenerative, restorative, and resilient!  We brainstormed, networked, shared experiences and project ideas.  I am excited to learn more and more about how agriculture can change and adapt beautifully to a changing climate.

I spent a few days with Sean Dembrosky in Trumansburg, who is becoming a serious expert at extreme backyard food production-- he is experimenting with locally-adapted fruit and nut tree varieties, shittake mushrooms, and bio-char production.  We stayed up tending neat pit-fires of recently felled pine trees, then poured water on them when they were all red-hot as hell.  What remains is not ash but a dark stable form of carbon which can stay in the soil for thousands of years, adding fertility to garden beds for the long-term.  This is a practice that indigenous people used for many years in the tropics, but we are just starting to learn now, and it could be an important tool for our atmospheric-carbon problem.


I have been hanging out with my favorite farmer-mentor, Elizabeth Henderson.  She and I both live in the city of Rochester now, so we like to get out to farms on field-trips and stuff: 

This is our field-trip to see Doug Mason's hundreds of acres of produce, and high-tech warehouse:

I swear we are not a Carhart ad.  And yes, those are robots x-raying and sorting apples for size, color, and defects.

Another field trip:  I couldn't pass up a visit with my favorite kids in the world, Felix and Zola, who just moved to Cooperstown with their omelette-providing buddies.

And it was a good fall for gathering wild mushrooms!  My housemate Emily and I found a 50-pound Chicken-of-the-Woods while walking the dog along the Genesee River, eating it for many meals for several weeks, and freezing some for the winter months.  And these Maitake were abundant and delicious in a woods which will remain anonymous!


I got to tour the apple orchards of Ontario and Williamson, up by the lake where the weather is moderate for fruit growing and the landscape almost looks like Napa Valley.  New apple production is all on a trellis system like grape vines, except 10 feet tall!  "Trees" are planted as dense as two feet apart and pruned aggressively.  I understand the practical reasons for this change in techniques, and appreciate the skill and beauty that goes into it all.  But I still have questions about the long-term resilience of a system like this, which currently is dependent on a lot of chemical sprays.

Winter is also for dancing -- I learned that a local grange hall hosts a monthly Cajun Zydeco band, a sign out in front claiming that it is the largest grange in the USA!  It is a beautiful building, and as I get down on that lovely wood floor, I feel connected to all my ancestral booty-shakin' agrarian folks.

Oh, also berry pies.  I like to perfect my pie crust practice in the winter.  We all need more butter in our lives when the temperatures go below freezing.  These were made from wild grapes!

Can't say enough about Blue Cliff Monastery, in the Catskills, and the life-changing lessons I've experienced there.   Sitting on a cushion in silence, I learn again and again that peace and happiness are not something to be sought after but are actually present and accessible at all moments when we just wake up to the fact that we are alive right now!


I got the wonderful chance to lobby in DC as an organic farmer concerned with the fact that so much of our food in the US comes from genetically modified crops which were designed by the big-ag industry to tolerate vast spraying of herbicides.  I was joined by a dozen other organic farmers from around the country, as well as top scientists researching these herbicides and "super-weed" resistance, which requires farmers to spray more and more chemicals in order to kill weeds, a toxic treadmill which poisons our land, our water, and our bodies, and only benefits the companies selling the chemicals.


An important report just came out from the World Health Organization that the world's most popular herbicide, glyphosate (Round-Up), probably causes cancer.  Over 80 million acres in the US are sprayed with this stuff each year, so this is a bid deal.

I have been disappointed by all the US mainstream press coverage on this report, which across the board seems to defend Monsanto's claim that this science, done by French researchers working for the International Agency for Research on Cancer, is faulty and not to be listened to.  I hope that people can read between the lines to see that of course a gigantic multinational company like Monsanto, and others in the industry, will spend millions to try to convince us that its toxic chemical business is safe!  They have a lot at stake!  But so do we...

In DC I got to see it from the inside, hear it direct from the mouths of our legislators:  the agribusiness industry has lobbyists in there all the time, telling them about studies that their (paid by Monsanto) scientists have come up with to prove that the chemicals are absolutely safe.  The Senate and House staffers asked us to show them science which proves the hazards of glyphosate-saturated GMO crop production -- they honestly do want a clear and true view.  We left them with a few facts, a few stories, (I may have shed a few tears), but really, we do lack a lot of solid scientific evidence.  That's because there's no money to fund these kinds of studies.  It seems like science is no longer a noble effort for truth; results you are looking for can be easily bought.

The two scientists I spent the day with in the Senate confirmed this story:  the research they are doing at Penn State and Washington State University (which highlight the potential hazards of escalating herbicide use, and dire warnings about cancer and birth defects) is consistently squelched, accused, questioned, and called "junk science" by the industry.  These are intelligent men with PhD's, with genuine concern for people's health and the future health of our land and our planet.  They have volunteered their time, like me, to fly to DC to try to help our law-makers understand the situation we are in.

Monsanto's lobbyists are probably not volunteering.  What an eye-opener for me to understand how things function in this country.  Big corporations have money to be able to basically make laws as friendly to their purposes as possible.  Their purposes being: making more money.  They may claim to be feeding the world through technology-enhanced crops, but I'm sorry, the world can feed itself in a much better way.  It's just that no one is making much money as a small organic farmer growing for their local community.  So our ability to change laws is limited.

But we try!  Below, my new friends Matthew Raiford, 6th-generation veteran-farmer from Georgia, and Kara Boyd, president of the Association of American Indian Farmers!  I feel so honored to be a part of this hopeful effort.  I truly believe that our hearts are stronger, in the long run, than the dollars that are currently turning the wheels of our "democracy." 

After this intense civic effort, I turned west-ward, to my heart's longing for sun, green, ocean, and old friends in California.  Goodbye, winter storm warnings, hello Half-Moon Bay.  Everyone needs a little splurge once in a while.

Now it's March, back to a shades-of-grey landscape, invisibly lined with the hopefulness of flowing sap, buds preparing themselves for another season's growth, farmers preparing themselves for long days of work.

I am taking soil samples through a foot of snow.  I am as eager as those buds.  I am a seed almost bursting with its desire to put roots into the ground.  

I am turning my new hatchback into a truck again, filling it with rusty farm equipment and a fine layer of dirt.  (My old hatchback didn't make it through the winter.)

And I am dreaming of summer, of blueberries, and of a bright future of good hard work powered by the heart.

No comments: