Every Day is Earth Day on the Farm: Hand Grenades and Silent Fields

Matt and I worked on a number of farms over the years, both conventional and organic, but a farm I worked at for half a summer early in my career both has had the greatest lasting impact to me about the importance of working with nature as you farm, and been on my mind a lot this winter thanks to world events.

In 2000, I worked from July through September on a small community’s farm 300 kilometers southwest of Moscow in their potato and vegetable fields, teaching English to kids there, and practicing Russian. At the time, rural lands were in the process of being pulled out of collective farms and semi-privatized. Anyone who had worked on the collectives now could lease a four-acre parcel to do their own thing, and the group I lived with had started a pretty amazing community there. The big catch was that the collective farm had been something like 10,000 hectares (30 square miles!), there were limited traversable roads, and everyone lived in these centralized towns without many private vehicles.

I was in charge of exercising the community’s horse while it’s owner was away, and I would ride for hours through twilight (it didn’t get dark until 11 pm!) across these empty, birch-lined roads and rolling fields. It had an eerie melancholy that took me over a week to realize was due to its dead silence. No birds for the most part, no humming insects (okay, the lack of mosquitoes was pretty nice), just silent fields and whatever sound the wind made across them as they started the process of turning back to what they had been before. Every now and then you would come across a random tethered cow or a small field that was being worked and lush with giant vegetables, or one of the few people still hiking out to use the land they had access to, most often much older women with their five-foot scythe blade at their side, who would rhapsodize about Khrushchev and how things were so much better back then.

Snow buntings (our favorite winter bird and a rare sight) feeding on our winter wheat cover crop.

Snow buntings (our favorite winter bird and a rare sight) feeding on our winter wheat cover crop.

I was always fascinated by the vast scope of the Russian landscape and the turbulence of Russian history and politics, how they seemed like both an opposite and mirror image of our own county, and how they were able to mobilize on such a large scale to create these immense farms and their hidden giant chemical production cities deep in the taiga. What hit me when I lived there was true cost of such grand expansion—the giant apartment blocks starting to crumble at the edges, the deep lonely silence of insect-less fields, and the difficulty of citizens trying to regroup when the future they trained for in their collective farm roles was gone.

Coming back to the US, that summer lingered with me over the years, and I’ve been thinking about Russia a lot recently. We in North America, like our mirror image continent of Asia, have so many amazing natural resources and potential bounty that we can draw from them, but we have to use the land, air, and water well or we risk going hungry. Eastern Russia has some of the most amazing soils in the world, and while the potato harvest we brought in that year wasn’t considered great for them, it was the best yield on potatoes I’ve ever seen in my life.

Yet even surrounded by such a bounty of beautiful fields and rich soils, those months are the only time I’ve ever gone to bed clawingly hungry every night (I lost over 10 pounds a month there). We largely ate some form of buckwheat three times a day, topped with a thin sauce of vegetables or watered down milk. Once a week there was a half a herring in the dish, and for a special occasion, a piece of pork fat. After potato harvest began, it was the same, but substitute potatoes for the buckwheat. The hunger seemed to be a result of the breakdown of an immense political, economic, and cultural system that hadn’t yet regrouped into something new. (I’m pretty sure it’s a lot better there now.) Sometimes I wonder if mirror situations here in the US are what create the food deserts in some of our cities and rural areas where there might be plenty of food, but not necessarily affordable or healthy options.

Sunset over a boisterous wetland.

Sunset over a boisterous wetland.

I also gained an appreciation that to steward our earth well, we need to have specialists, but there is also a great benefit in having generalists thinking in a general, bigger picture matter on things. People from the collective farm in Russia had learned deeply about the one aspect of the farm operation they did, be it feeding cows or driving tractors or milking, but it was such detailed specialization that outside of the framework of the collective, no one (save those older women hiking the five miles out to their fields each day) seemed to have the generalist big picture knowledge that most small or family farmers here in the States rely on. Coming back to the US, I began work on a small family farm that had begun as a homestead, and their capacity to build, grow, or create literally almost anything was pretty impressive. From a couple decades out, we strive on our farm to find a balance between generalization and big picture farm planning with specializing in vegetable production, and staying up to date with the newest production systems and research.

There’s both a fragility and a resiliency in our natural systems, and we believe that we can work over time to fix most challenges that face us. In Russia, I was initially struck by the vast number of round potholes throughout the woods and along the roads. I thought it was some sort of glaciation phenomenon as it would be if it was here in the northern US, until one day my host mother told me that I should stay on the roads and fields as there were lots of ghosts around from the 100,000 people that had died in WWII in the region. That town was incredibly hard hit by bombs and war and every one of those potholes was an impact crater. Yet half a century later, it was heavily wooded and cultivated, with very few visible signs of the past devastation beyond the cratering. [On a tangent, while working on the potato combine where 8 of us rode on top, picking out rocks, rodents, and funky potatoes as they passed by, I found an odd little cylinder that looked like an old one-pint paint can. My neighbor, shouting over the tractor noise, grabbed it from me, shouting, “Bad! Bad!” As we were bouncing across the field heading home from lunch, packed all 8 in the farm’s little Lada, I noticed her holding it very carefully cupped in her hands as we went over bumps. It was a live grenade left from the war (we blew it up later), and made me realize how scary it must be for everyone farming or living in areas with active landmines and old bombs!]

Clean rainbow skies and air

Clean rainbow skies and air

There’s no price high enough to put on healthy air and soil and water, so we should do our best to keep them clean. In Russia, what got to me most in the end and stuck with me all these years, was that overwhelming silence. You take so much chatter from nature for granted, that it takes a while to realize that it’s all gone. Here on our farm, sometimes there’s an eerie moment when a hawk passes by or in the pause right before a thunderstorm hits and things go all dead or muffled for just a second, and it always makes you look up. Spring and summer here literally throb with insects and birds and mammals, all shouting at the top of their lungs “I’m so sexy!” and “Stay off my lawn!” to anything in earshot.

One of our biggest successes as farmers here at Hartwood so farm is building our farm’s amazing bio-diversity between the mix of crops, pastures, woods, wetlands, and hedgerows. Each year, new species move back in, some as awesome predators and some as annoying pests, trying our patience and nibbling our crops. We feel that over time, we can balance out the system so that the predator and the pests are in balance, rather than try to eradicate all of them into some dull silence.

We do have more work ahead of us to build a system that doesn’t end in silence. Most of our continuing challenges lie in the nature of vegetable production, which with tight planting schedules and yearlong growing can be harder on the soil than we want it to be, with all the cultivation and weeding. We focus on designing a system that replenishes our soil between crops through resting fields, using cover crops, and adding organic matter. You can see some of this even more in action this year through the very long walk you will take through our gauntlet of obnoxiously loud birds and bugs to get to this year’s fields, which are wedged up against the woods at the very back of the farm. We have finally been able to open up enough fields to let half of our growing area rest and replenish each year under a carpet of recuperative green manures. We’ve also been switching around our equipment to use gentler methods to work the soil, so we can rely less on roto-tilling and more on soil building vertical tillage.

And on a bigger picture, we hope to work with our community and our country’s leaders to protect the great soil, air, and water resources we’ve been blessed with in the US, so that they remain filled with happy and healthy and noisy populations of humans and animals. We are happy to be farming in a community where so many farmers, customers, and community members of all political stripes care about their land and health. On this Earth Day and hopefully many to come, we will be working to build a healthy farm system, where soils can lock in and hold nutrients to grow healthy, delicious plants, and where hopefully silence never falls on our fields (outside the rest of winter’s quiet). And I hope to get back to Russia one day and see all the changes that must have happened over the last 17 years. Nature abhors a vacuum, so I like to imagine the fields have refilled with life and sound of busy animals and insects living along side humans in a mix of wild and cultivated lands.

Happy Earth Day!