A couple of weeks ago, I was at the Organic Farming Conference and was truly inspired by the keynote speech delivered by Gary Gundersen of Mr. G’s Farm. I dare you to read it and resist the urge to start gardening right away.
NM Organic Farming Conference
February 20, 2016
I hope you all had a restful winter, and if you are like me, winter is a time to digest all that happened the previous season, and imagine new possibilities for the upcoming year. When the seed catalogs start coming in the mail in January, there is nothing more exciting than looking at the pictures, hoping one’s own crops turn out just like those perfect photographs. For a brief moment, we are like Gods looking down on our barren, frozen fields, thinking about our new creation. Before too long, reality sets in, the actual work begins, and it’s time to get dirty; dirtier than any Gods ever do.
After 25 years of farming, I never cease to be amazed by seeds and what they can turn into. You can explain how they transform, describe the process in detail, but it is always magical. I believe this magic of the seed is what hooked me over thirty years ago, and I never looked back.
I have to say right from the beginning that I think the word pioneer is a little too big of a word to describe anything I, or most of us may have accomplished in our years of farming. Consider that some kind of farming has been going on for 10000 years and longer. Animals were being domesticated, fruits were being cultivated, complex irrigation systems were being developed 8000 years ago. Crops were being rotated, and fertilizers like manure, fish, and compost were being used in many parts of the world that long ago. The wheelbarrow was invented 2000 years ago and wasn’t much different from the one we use today. 300 years have passed since Jethro Tull from England invented the first mechanical seeder. Now, that was some pioneering!
My point is that we are all involved in this ancient stream of experience, wisdom, knowledge, that has been going on for thousands of years. I’m using the same wheelbarrow the Chinese peasant used to use. When I look down at my shadow on a hot afternoon, and seeing myself hoeing, it’s the same motion Neolithic man and woman did way back then. And that feels pretty darn cool!
Sure, there have been discoveries, inventions, and innovations that have helped immensely and continues to this day at this beautiful conference. For me, it is all important to remember the long line of growers before me. It is a momentum that helps carry me along; and being connected to this momentum somehow makes it all worthwhile.
I read the other day that only 2% of the US population is involved in farming, and out of that 2%, less than 1% are using organic methods. So, in a sense, everyone here does have the pioneer spirit in them by virtue of the fact we are doing something that these days that is really very rare.
In the last ten years, the total number of farmers markets in America has grown phenomenally from 1700 to over 8000. More and more people don’t just want organic produce, they want local organic produce that hasn’t travelled the average 1300 miles that most produce travels. People are learning and tasting and feeling the difference between shipped and fresh picked produce, and to me, it is exciting to be a part of this new wave of awareness.
How did I get involved in this agriculture business? I grew up in suburban Chicago in the sixties where my first horticultural memories were, well, suburban. I grew my first radish on the side of my house where I used to light things on fire. For the longest time I associated the smell of flowers with funerals because I guess I got dragged to quite a few growing up; and a kid’s sense of smell is pretty keen. I mowed the grass, raked leaves, shoveled snow. I went on to college where I only lasted one year because I felt I wanted to do some “real work”, whatever that meant. I traveled, worked various jobs, including driving a truck all over Chicago delivering oxygen and wheelchairs.
City life was starting to wear on me though. In fact, I never swore so much in my whole life as I viewed humanity as largely a bunch of bad drivers! I did plant my first garden during this time and though it went to the weeds, flowers appeared above the weeds later that summer in an explosion of color. It was my first “flower power” moment.
Looking for a way out, a way forward, I stumbled on a one year program in biological horticulture at the University of California, in Santa Cruz. I packed my stuff and headed to California in 1980.
This program was an eye opener for me in more ways than one. It was my first experience living in community where we took turns cooking and cleaning. We lived in tipees and barns without electricity, and studied by the light of kerosene lanterns. It was my first exposure to such exotic devices as compost toilets, solar showers, and sweat lodges.
The horticulture program there was started in 1967 by a renowned English gardener named Alan Chadwick. He was expert in the Bio-Dynamic French Intensive method which consisted of raised beds, close planting, heavy manuring, and cold frames to achieve high quality yields. Chadwick, who was in his sixties when hired, went out and bought a fork and spade, and started digging by himself on a sunny, rocky, poison oak infused hillside that passing cars and bicyclists could see.
It’s been claimed to have been one of the first, if not the first organic garden on a university campus at the time. There were students actually dropping out of school or at least missing classes to volunteer and learn from this charismatic man. It was the first taste of manual labor for many of them, but more importantly, it was a demonstration of horticulture as the highly respected art and craft it truly is.
So, I received this training in the fundamentals of a system that continues to inform how my land is farmed today.
I did gardening and landscaping for a few years after that program, sometimes traveling by bus with fork and spade in hand to various jobs. I noticed an empty city lot in downtown Santa Cruz one day, and got permission from the owner to put in a community garden. With some help from my friends, we cleared, hand dug, and planted that lot to the delight of the neighborhood. There was no better feeling than to have people walking by, asking what we we were up to. Bursting with youthful enthusiasm, not knowing anything about bills, debt, taxes, we thought we were the cats meow. It so happens, my future wife, Natasya, would frequent the cafe across the street from this city lot turned garden, and that’s where we first met. I guess she was impressed too!
After getting married and a few more years of landscaping, Natasya and I moved to the island of Kauai in Hawaii, in 1989. Tired of hustling new jobs all the time and working in people’s backyards, it was time to grow food.
Farming in the tropics was an exciting new adventure. Lush, green, and fertile, we tried everything from vegetables, papaya, banana, sweet potato, taro root, all certified organic. Ginger root became our biggest cash crop, which was distributed to Whole Foods stores all over the country.
Kauai had its challenges like anywhere does: three types of fruit fly that make growing tomatoes, squash, melons, and cucumber very difficult to grow organically. There were rain events that brought 20 inches of rain in a two day period, and a category 5 hurricane that wiped us out for six months.
A farmer friend of mine, who was fed up with weather in Hawaii, moved to New Mexico. He returned less than a year later, and when I asked him why he was back so soon, he replied ” it was beautiful over there, but they have this thing …..it’s called……hail.”
We weren’t quite ready to live happily ever after as the seasons were calling. I wanted to feel the cold, see some bare trees. After twelve years in Hawaii, we moved to New Mexico with our seven year old daughter, Tess, in 2001. We found a house with two acres and have been there ever since.
Two acres was a much smaller scale than we farmed in Hawaii, where we managed ten acres with two tractors. Not being familiar with the climate, soil, and aware of the scarcity of water, finding our way with two acres seemed a good way to proceed. Rather than grow bigger we tried to grow better. We used drip tape and micro-sprinklers, pumped from a small pond, that helped conserve water. We applied the French-Intensive methods of raised beds, successive planting, heavy fertilizing, and used a walk behind tiller the first ten years here.
This same view can be applied to five, ten, or even twenty acres for that matter. For growers who are proficient at managing more people, larger acreage allows one to sell to more diverse outlets, more easily sell year round. In a way, one can spread one’s risk by having more land and different locations, but one can also have more to lose due to catastrophe or mis-management.
We have focused on farmers markets, and with ongoing gratefulness to our amazing customers, we have developed a loyal following due to our consistency and quality. Since we sell directly to the public, we make sure our produce is washed and well presented. In a certain sense, the produce sells itself, yet, we are always looking for ways to make our stand stand out; make people stop and notice. We are ready and willing to talk about ourselves and how to best use the various vegetables. The market is an interactive community experience, and if people didn’t want something a little more informative, a little more alive, they would just go to a store.
I don’t want you to get the picture that this vocation is a fairy tale. You know, the magic seeds; meeting my future wife in the garden. On the contrary, it should be more a cautionary tale. Many have a romantic notion about farming and though we solely need new, young blood, most have no idea how much hard work it is. Everyone here knows a little about the stress, the uncertainty, the risk that all one’s hard work can be wiped out in an instant.
We got hailed on three times one year, and I thought I was going to lose my mind. ” Why are the Gods punishing me? “, I asked. Once every other year or even once a year, psychologically and financially I can handle. I’ve since gotten in the habit of going out and covering our most valuable crops with row cover when the sky is threatening. It rarely hails when we do, but even if it is only a gesture, it makes my beer at the end of the day go down easier.
Then there is the matter of selling what one is successful at growing.This part of the equation , which some say is half the equation, can be more difficult than the growing part. Prices are too low; there is a glut in the market of what you have so carefully and lovingly grown, and you have to hustle to get one’s due. When you do have a good day at the farmers’ market, you still have to unfold all the crumpled one and five and ten dollar bills before you can even count your money.
All that said, my motto has been “perseverance furthers”. Through all the trials and tribulations, perseverance is absolutely, positively required. And even though it sounds like a lot of work and effort, there is that ancient stream of experience and wisdom that keeps on flowing that makes everything grow………including ourselves in the process.
It’s a momentum that we can all tap into. It’s a power that can kick our ass too, and when that happens, things can look pretty bleak. That’s when we pick ourselves up. As they used to say in those “flower power” days, we have to keep on trucking. Furthering with perseverance.
I was never much of a surfer like a lot of guys in Hawaii, but there is a good metaphor that applies to the farming life. Surfers paddle out into the big deep blue water, and wait for the right moment to really paddle and catch the wave when it comes. To me the wave and the power of the ocean is the same power us farmers work with. At times we wait until the soil is ready to work; we wait for the right moment to plant; and we wait to harvest our crops at their peak. Other times we work like crazy to catch the wave like when we thin beets or carrots just in time before the weeds take over. Then they are on their way and the power of the wave does the rest.
I talked to an old teacher of mine from the Santa Cruz horticulture program the other day. He farms twenty acres, is ten years older than me, and is still going strong. His nickname was “Tuna” because he was known for getting young people hooked on farming. On the phone we talked about some new varieties of seed he’s trying this year, and flowers in general. He mentioned sending some dahlia bulbs to try. I got off the phone, touched and grateful that after all these years, we both have a connection with each other and this art and craft we continue to practice.
Being part of this stream of experience and wisdom; this thing that is bigger than all of us that we can tap into; what more could we ask for?
I want to thank Joannie Quinn for inviting me here today and challenging me to grow.
I wish you all a prosperous growing season. MrG