Sunday October 14, 2012
I suspect it’s no coincidence that our first week of Farm School coincides with the magical time of year when all the leaves are at their peak brilliance. After people have uprooted their lives, sold their homes, left careers and family members to live among strangers and learn how to farm, what better way to assure them of the rightness of their decision than by letting dig their first potatoes in fields fringed by an impossible canopy of warmth and amazement. On a walk through the woods where I now live, Forest Ecologist John O’Keefe, told us how the leaves turn their brilliant color:
There is a family of pigments called carotenoids and they’re responsible for the hallmark yellow and oranges of autumn. Apparently, carotenoids are always present in leaves but they’re visually overpowered for most of the year by the much more abundant, and very green, chlorophylls. As the days get shorter and the temperatures drop, nutrients withdraw to the branches and the chlorophylls die, which unmasks the carotenoids and the leaves’ true colors. But more on that in a minute.
Back to Farm School: In short, my first week has been amazing. It is hard to believe that I have only been here for nine days, considering we’ve already covered what feels like twenty years of information already. For instance, did you know you can fell a white ash tree and burn it the next day? That’s unique among trees – usually you have to split and cure the wood. Also, did you know that the alpha pig in a group will still be the boss if you take him away for twenty-five days, but if you take away a bottom-rung pig for three days, he’s instantly forgotten? And they do this without the help of their rather useless eyesight. Instead, these complex networks of dominance hierarchy are ruled by smell. Oh, did you know that Patience, our Jersey milk cow, will give in excess of five gallons of milk a day?! Bradley, one of the farm managers shot cream into his coffee straight from Patient’s teat during the first morning milking. For the first three nights, the facts, figures and just plain newness of it all sent me to bed with an aching head.
Geographically speaking, Farm School, is a long, rocky 180-acre strip that extends along a ridge top in north central Massachusetts. Most of our working and living happens on the 35 cleared acres, which host our barns, house, pasture and vegetable beds. In this ecosystem, crops, grasses and clover take energy from the sun and nutrients from the soil and store them in their leaves as sugars. Sheep, pigs, cows and chickens (and people) eat the plants and utilize the energy for themselves. The leftovers (poop, compost, spent plants) return nutrients back to the soil, and through the miracle of living dirt (and a process that no one fully understands) death turns back to life. It is Biology 101, and so essential to life on this planet yet it is alien our sanitized, modern day-to-day lives. For me and 14 other student-farmers, however, the health of this ecosystem will dictate the energy and flow of each of our days.
In fact, it already is: In one week, I have sown a field of winter rye, loaded pigs for slaughter, moved cattle to new pasture again and again, milked a cow, built a corral, braised pig jowls for the first time, weeded row after row of spinach and harvested potatoes, kale, turnips, mescaline greens, carrots, winter squash and peppers. The academic nature of the work (learning about the appropriate times to plant, how to identify disease, knowing what grasses makes for good pasture…) hasn’t been surprising. Nor has the sheer amount of physical work farming demands. But I had no idea how much skill it takes to do this very physical work.
On Sunday, I watched Tyson, our vegetable grower and mentor, weed and thin a row of carrots with astonishing grace and efficiency – equal parts Mikhail Baryshnikov and John Deere. Tyson compared this skill with learning to drive. At first you exhaust yourself just keeping the car in your lane, checking and rechecking blind spots and remembering who has the right of way. Eventually, driving becomes becomes part of our muscle memory and likewise Tyson assured us that with farming eventually the monumental effort falls away and you’re left with only essential action – and a very strong back.
And so I fumbled my way along, trying not to slice off a finger with my harvest knife while I checked and rechecked the two-finger gap between carrots and strained to tell weed from crop. And as I stood up to survey my progress and ease the growing ache in my back, I was humbled to realize that I was only a fraction of the way through a 400-foot row. That’s one row of carrots out of three rows in that bed. And there were three more beds in that field. And this was one field out of fifteen on the farm. Two more second’s thought brought my mind to the eggplants and peppers and animals who also demanded imminent attention and I started to panic a little.
How am I ever going to do this on my own?
A humbling moment, indeed. It’s clear to me that all the knowledge about soil science in the world won’t help me unless my body is also trained and capable of doing the work. But there’s something reassuringly second-nature to all that I’m learning and doing. I feel completely at home here, like I’ve been digging and weeding and milking and herding my entire life. I do feel parts of my city-self fading away, but it feels in harmony with the summer falling into winter: just like the orange and yellow leaves have been waiting all year to reveal themselves, I too feel like these colors have been waiting patiently inside me and are just now starting to show.
You can see the rest of the week’s photos, here.