Fitzgerald: Dirt Farmer
Vegetable farmers are dirt farmers. How to grow soil, improve its nutrient content, encourage micro-organism communities, keep it weed-free, preserve its structure - these are the essential responsibilities of the small grower. And when you grow on a slope, as my partner Ryan and I do, we must be careful to not lose the precious resource of soil.
A few days before Tropical Storm Irene roared through Vermont, Ryan came across this passage from Wendell Berry: Soil is not usually lost in slabs or heaps of magnificent tonnage. It is lost a little at a time over millions of acres by careless acts of millions of people. It cannot be solved by heroic feats of gigantic technology, but only by millions of small acts and restraints.
If Mr. Berry had visited our farm during Irene,he would have had the rare opportunity to see soil being lost in heaps of magnificent tonnage. We watched in disbelief as the Mill River topped its banks and cut a new permanent riverbed through our fields, ripping away our crops, our equipment, our land, and our livelihood. Tens of thousands of tons of soil disappeared before our eyes. And yet, Wendell Berry is right: most soil is lost, almost invisibly, over decades, not hours. The experience of being Irene-d is a once-in-a-lifetime event, but any farmer, if not a careful steward of the land, will see their soil slowly disappear. The geography of the modern Middle East, for instance, demonstrates the dangers of learning this lesson the hard way.
Tillage agriculture arose 10,000 years ago in what's known as the Fertile Crescent, where the Tigris River meets the Euphrates in modern-day Iraq. Tillage is what you think of when you imagine American farming: inverting and exposing the soil to produce annual crops. The effect of exposing bare soil allows the farmerto plant seeds in that ground, but it also damages the soil structure and makes it possible for soil to wash or blow away in rain, wind, or flooding. The Dust Bowl that ravaged the Southern Plains during the 1930s had as much to do with tillage, mono-cropping, and careless growing practices as it had to do with drought. And today, the fertile crescent is not fertile at all, but a vast desert.
After Irene, with the help of countless friends, family and community members, we moved our farm to new land on higher ground, safely away from the Mill River. We're working to build and maintain healthy soil on our five cultivated acres: growing cover crops, spreading compost, maintaining permanent sod strips on our sloping ground, and strategically planting perennial trees and bushes to help hold the soil in place.
We're practicing, as Wendell Berry has it, those million small acts and restraints that will keep our fields, and livelihood, from slip sliding away - this year, next year, and for generations to come.