Learning From The Best

IMG_3646

As we prepare to make the major gear shift into the growing season, we’re soaking up the last bits of the off-season here on the farm and out in the community.  Learning is a major element of the wintertime on the small farm, as there is more to know about growing plants than one could learn from scratch in a lifetime.   So we take out our books and look over our notes and go to conferences.

Last weekend was the CT-NOFA Winter Conference in Danbury where a good friend was presenting on his systems of no-till farming.  I have mentioned this practice before and our aspirations to incorporate it on our own farm.  Well, this neighbor is the man you want to learn from!  He and his wife have been experimenting and perfecting the practice for 10 years now, and he presented his methods in detail to an eager group of ~100 farmers.  We have heard this talk at least 3 times before, but every time there is more information to glean, more relevance to our experience.  And so we keep coming back.  The first step is to rewire one’s focus as a grower – making soil health and biological life the priority instead of the plants.  The idea being that if your soil is not alive with microbes, earth worms, and bacteria, your plant’s roots don’t have enough to eat, and can’t reach their full potential of health and productivity.  Makes sense, no?

Our culture thinks of dirt as dirty, and the unknown as scary, which can lead a farmer to focus on the pretty green plant above ground, rather than the health and relationships below the soil line.  I can clearly remember the moment of mental recalibration when I began to understand that the surface of the ground is not the end of the story: below our feet is a whole additional universe of life with which to coexist.  Back in our years of gardening, I can recall moments when I feared what I might find as I stuck my fingers deep into the soil to transplant a seedling – as if it were the ocean and a shark might be there to bite off my hand. I can tell you wholeheartedly that what I have seen and felt and learned about soil over the last 8 years has been some of the most empowering and exciting stuff I’ve ever come across, and never once has anything bitten me!

The curative power of mycelium, the cooperative community dynamics of microbes, the fortification of the soil by strong root systems… the first time you hear about these things it seems like magic!  The realization that it is soil science really doesn’t do much to take the miraculous edge off of it.  And the contagion of well-being is far-reaching: rich soils that are teeming with life create strong root systems that can fully access the nutrition a plant needs, enabling it to produce the most nutrient-dense vegetable harvestable from that plant.  This wholesome food is then eaten by humans and animals.  If the soil is degraded through mismanagement, the whole system is degraded, including our health.  Pretty epic stuff.  And so we walked out of this talk last weekend (for the 4th time) stunned and enthused to do better.

Thankfully farmers are keen to share their knowledge, breakthroughs and best practices with each other (what other business owners do you know that share trade secrets with their direct competition??).  And thankfully, these growing practices don’t take much money to implement, no real fancy machines or high-tech tools.  But they do require what can often be the hardest thing to come by: a willingness to challenge our own truths.