April – October, 2002
The drought has been intense this summer, despite a rainy spring. The potato harvest has been small, most of the winter squash plants died early, and there has been an ever-increasing feeling of underlying stress and worry among those of us who live here on the farm. The stream that runs across the driveway has gone completely dry. Ron told me that this has never happened before in the thirteen years that he and Polly have been on the farm. We have been concerned about where to move the cows next, with the draught having slowed grass growth almost to a standstill. There has been discussion over the need to buy a new pump to take water from the big pond, since the two irrigation ponds have been dangerously low at a time when irrigation has been so crucial to the crops’ survival. Ron’s lawn was mostly dead, my watermelons were very stunted, and the one acre swimming pond appears to be down almost two feet.
This being the situation, when the sky opened up a couple weeks ago and dropped an inch and a quarter of rain on us in an hour and a half, it was a very emotional experience. Ben and I were picking tomatoes in the drizzle that preceded the storm when the rain accelerated. There came a moment when we knew that it was about to come pouring down, so we rushed to finish picking our last row, and did so just as the rain began coming down in sheets. We ran to the truck with our boxes of tomatoes and got in to take them back to the barn. But as we turned around I told Ben to let me out. The rain was almost unbelievable after the summer of relentless dry heat. So I walked slowly back to the barn, delighting in every drop, feeling my heart fill with gratitude. Polly said that she almost cried when it started coming down so hard. That was one of the defining experiences of my summer. I felt, and continue to feel, a strong sense of connection to this place.
Today is September 2, and it is the first sunny day for a week. About eight days ago we had rain again, for the second time in August. The draught is by no means over, but our little bit of rain looks like it may have been enough to prevent us from having to buy a new pump. The water is flowing across the driveway again (for now), the upper irrigation pond is almost full, and the general stress level on the farm seems much lower. The outlook for the rest of the season is good, because this last rain was followed by a solid week of constant overcast. Much of the time, a slow mist was falling or the farm was shrouded in dense fog. The weather cooled down a lot and seemed to me to be the first hint of the coming autumn. This week has been a period of general recuperation and rest for the land, which has seemed to have been under so much stress this summer. This sleepy, mushroom-sprouting weather has affected me as well. These last couple of days I have gone into a thoughtful, retrospective mood, thinking a lot about my stay here at Seven Springs Farm.
Last night in my bed, and this morning at the pond before work, I sat and thought back over the experiences I have had here this spring and summer. I remember during the first week transplanting in the greenhouse, planting broccoli seedlings in the cold early spring weather, and watching the sunset every night down at the pond. From the beginning, I have been aware that I am learning constantly, although seldom on a very conscious level. As those days passed into weeks and months, and I picked up more skills and more knowledge of how to run an organic farming operation, I needed fewer explanations and less assistance in performing garden tasks. In the past couple of months, Polly, the head gardener, has gone out of town a few times, leaving us (Ann, a part-time gardener; the other apprentice, either Melissa or Ben; and I) in charge. Just a week or so ago Polly left for a full week when Ann was on vacation, leaving Ben, the new apprentice, and I in charge of the CSA gardens. What is amazing is that I have developed enough confidence through hands-on experience this year that I felt pretty comfortable covering for Polly. This general sense of confidence and comfort in the garden is probably the gift for which I am most grateful. This growing season has brought me from being a tentative, unconfident, often incompetent gardener to a comfortable, mostly competent, and more experienced gardener. I am thoroughly amazed at how much I have learned in my time here. I feel that the apprenticeship has prepared me enough to where I can begin doing some of my own organic/sustainable farming next season.
In addition to hundreds of memories, and a heap of practical knowledge and experience (from food preserving to seed saving to construction to tool maintenance to plant identification), I have gained many ideas and inspirations for potential avenues towards a cleaner and more earth-friendly form of agriculture. I knew when I came here that it was a step in my pursuit of a more natural, integrated, biodiverse form of agriculture, but I had few concrete ideas of how to go about it. But Polly and Mark (a part-time worker who runs distribution and writes the garden plan) have implemented in the CSA gardens many different strategies for maintaining and replenishing the soil, controlling pests without highly toxic chemical biocides, and conserving soil water. I have learned similar strategies from working with Ron in his personal gardens. Many of these strategies are delightfully simple alternatives to conventional “solutions”. Mulching, crop rotation, cover cropping, no-till, biodynamic preparations, composting, and “biological islands” (planting certain kinds of flowers in small sections of the gardens to attract beneficial insects that prey on pests) are some of the techniques used here that have been the most inspirational and thought-provoking to me in my search for a more natural and sustainable food production system.
As they say, sustainability is a goal to which you can always get closer rather than an actual destination. I have seen and come to more fully understand that this is true. While Seven Springs Farm is one of the most progressive and earth-friendly farming ventures I have ever seen, and Community Supported Agriculture is the best commercial farming setup with which I am familiar, I have been witness to the continued drive for learning and improvement here. One of the areas into which we have been delving most deeply this season is pest control by integrating more biodiversity into the agroecosystem. We had Dr. Richard McDonald, an expert entomologist, out for a consultation, teaching us ways that we can reduce pest problems with natural predators rather than sprays. He even came out and did a field day here on the farm in July. All of us working on the farm attended and were very interested. This drive for continued self-improvement has made an impression on me.
Along the same lines, I have been in the position to observe and learn from the problems that still arise. For example, while we are very conscientious about soil conservation and take a variety of measures to reduce erosion, when hard rains have come this year, erosion rills still show up in some of the gardens and in other spots on the farm. Some of my most central learning has been from these problems that still linger. Similarly, I have learned a lot from slowly realizing the practices that I would do more of or less of in my own operation. Whereas before I came here I simply didn’t know enough about the ins and outs of agriculture to realistically begin forming concrete ideas and plans for the style of farming that I wish to pursue. As I became more and more familiar with the reasons behind the way we do certain things, I developed a more distinct idea of what things I found exciting and felt drawn towards and what things I was less interested in. Over the summer I have begun to envision a farming system with heavy emphasis on no-till, polycultures, mulching, pest control primarily through biodiversity, integration of crops into gardens that better suit their needs, etc. Many of these ideas came from what we do here, and the others came from my personal preferences—all of them were filtered through my observations of what is successful here. My personal aversions to dealing with money very much and towards machinery have defined some of the mental evolution of my ideas, plans, and future experiments.
One important thing that I have begun to understand, to which Seven Springs Farm is a shining testament, is that what many will tell you is impossible can actually be realized. I don’t mean that in a sappy or sentimental way. What I mean is that your standards of what is acceptable, your personal beliefs, and your worldview govern the things that you do. Your reality is filtered through these things. For example, when the “organic” food movement began, the conventional camp said that it would be impossible to successfully grow food organically (although before the 40’s or 50’s, that’s essentially what everyone had done for millenia). But those that felt strongly enough that it was immoral and intolerable to spray persistent toxins simply did not do so, and along the way they developed their own, more sustainable and earth-friendly methods. If certain actions aren’t consided real possibilities, then one simply won’t do them. It is my opinion that we must continue to strive towards that goal of sustainability, going beyond the modern organic standards to improve on its shortcomings. If there are some of us that believe that we should do all that we can to eliminate unnatural erosion, foreign sprays, excessive tilling, and the like, then we will find our own ways of farming. I have seen that persistent evolution here at Seven Springs even in this one season, and it is an inspiration. I am deeply excited about what the future may hold. And deeply grateful for my experience here in Check, Virginia.
As my departure from this beautiful place, my home for almost half of a year, approaches, I have mixed emotions. A large part of me feels sad about having to leave and apprehensive about having to readjust, even temporarily, from the comforting community feel of this place to the generally impersonal city life. It will be very difficult. But there is another part of me that feels content and ready. It is similar to the contentment that one feels upon completion of a meaningful and inspiring chapter of a book. This growing season at Seven Springs has been one of the most beautiful and important chapters in the book of my life.