This week has me thinking a lot about time and the way I perceive it. So much of every day life feels like a sort of hypertime, everything is mediated and often in a way that’s designed to make us lose track of time. I’ve noticed that being at the farm has helped me to slow down my time and made it more possible to be present.
It’s also made it that much more apparent to me how our lives can be so divorced from the Earth and its rhythms. When I was living in New York, a friend pointed out to me that it was possible to go weeks, maybe even months without touching the Earth. You could go from your apartment to the street to the subway to another street to your office, and you’d never touch something that wasn’t manmade. Ever since this realization, I’ve gone out of my way to make sure I touch some piece of Earth, however small, every day.
At the farm, it’s crucial to use all of our senses to connect with the land to figure out when to plant, when to harvest, and how to take care of the crops in-between. It has been so healing and so heartening to be in a space where I get to be a physical body who uses all of her senses to help tend to something with value that can be separated from symbolic worth. It stands in contrast with our current society, where our work and our lives exist in a digital landscape and the primary sense we use is sight. And that sense of sight is utilized to produce as many things as possible, prioritizing an efficiency of quantity over quality.
In many ways, Sarvodaya feels like the gateway to another world. A world that imagines a different way to live and a more engaged relationship to our world and our planet. As the program continues, I’m curious to see what sort of changes I’ll start to notice in myself, not only in my body (which is currently soft and sad from years as an office body) but in my way of thinking too.
My team partner recently asked, “So, what do you do when you’re not here?” With NO hesitation I said, “Dream about being here!” At the risk of sounding lovesick and infatuated, I LOVE THIS PLACE and I miss it when I’m not here. The labor, although tough at times is so rewarding. For this reason, I feel useful but not used. And because I learn something every time I’m here, I’m eager to do more. It’s even hard to pull away at noon, so I usually keep working until a natural stopping point occurs. I’m living the dream. Mine, anyway.
I feel as though I have been initiated as a farmer, yet another reason I feel all warm and fuzzy inside. “Why,” you ask? Well, last week my fingertips began splitting. First, my right index, middle and ring finger developed small painful fissures. I thought, perhaps I had cut myself while preparing a meal. It wasn’t until later in the week when the same fingers on the left hand started cracking in the same way, that I thought differently. After doing some surface-level research, I learned that I have farmer’s hands. Well, that’s not really a condition but, I just made it one. The sweet pain of hardworking hands. Although I try to keep gloves on, sometimes they just come off. Apparently the soil and various amendments are drying to the skin and can cause this condition. While I appreciate this experience, I will be mindful of gloves and moisturizer.
My team partner Reshama and I, are like children in the nursery. Pun Intended. We are actually being trained in the plant nursery in this first rotation. I love it! The nursery is so full of budding new life and potential. One can’t help but to be excited in this environment. As a result, any given farm day we can be found sharing and laughing and learning from the great Farmer Rishi, of course!
Gilbert Gottfried was an ordinary gopher living in the land they call Pomona. Here it is not an easy life for a scavenging rodent; Gilbert had to scrounge around the bleak landscape of concrete and waste to find a meager sustenance, and competition with rats and other large birds and mammals made for a tough existence. One day (or rather night, as gophers are nocturnal), Gilbert was scurrying around the city, when he stumbled upon an impossible surprise: Sarvodaya Farm, an oasis in the concrete desert. Gilbert could not believe his eyes. Plants of every edible variety stood before him, stretching as far as the gopher eye could see; a veritable gopher paradise. “My troubles are over!” Gilbert thought to himself, “I shall live like a gopher king until the end of my days.” He did not know how right he was…
So Gilbert set out immediately to scope out a new home. Eventually after much thought, he decided on burrowing under one of the tomato beds. “These shall make a fine meal!” he thought. After a couple days, the construction of his burrow was well underway. One night, much to the consternation of Gilbert, the other resident gophers made their presence known. They were generally very friendly, welcoming Gilbert to the farm (although gophers are normally solitary, these found utility in forming communal relations in order to survive in the harsh Pomonan landscape). But Gilbert, hoping to have found a territory for himself, was not happy. He did not show his displeasure, however, and instead feigned a cordial demeanor. “I’ll just steal their food when they aren’t looking,” he thought to himself. After many introductions and welcomes, the resident gophers gave Gilbert a single warning: “This place is abundant and very habitable for the gopher kind, but do not get greedy. If you take too much from the land, the iron snake will enter your burrow and remove you from the earth.” Gilbert thought this was nonsense, believing that the other gophers simply were greedy and trying to scare him from having plenty of food. Gilbert pretended to heed the advice, said farewell, and went on his way.
A few days passed, and by this time Gilbert’s burrow was completely dug out. He had several corridors leading throughout the tomato bed, and even a couple venturing into neighboring ones. “The land of milk and honey!” Life was good, he thought. So good, in fact, that he decided to have a private celebration. “I will need to stock up on several tomato roots, and after I have collected a bountiful larder, I will feast on my good fortune.” On the first night, Gilbert ravaged a single tomato plant. Taking a small bite, he rejoiced in the delightfully swell taste of the roots. On the second night, Gilbert took another plant. At this point, he could have survived for days without further scavenging, but he could not stop himself from taking even more. On the last night, Gilbert took a third and final plant. “Hah! I now have collected the delicious roots of three tomatoes! And not once has a silly iron snake given me any trouble.” As Gilbert finally began to feast on his hoard in the safety of his main feeding den, he noticed a peculiar smell. “What’s that?” he querried, “It almost smells like…peanut butter?” Intrigued by the possibility of a novel food, Gilbert dropped his roots and followed the scent. Scurrying around for a few minutes, he tracked it to one of the longest corridors in his burrow. Facing him was a plate smeared with a fat helping of, as he guessed, peanut butter. “What luck! This will make a terrific desert!” In one swift movement, the thrilled gopher lunged forward and sunk his teeth into the scrumptious mass, and as soon as his little rodent brain was able to process the taste of the treat, two great iron fangs snapped together, embracing Gilbert’s throat and removing him, as the other gophers had warned, from the earth that he so willingly pillaged.
Among the Sarvodaya gophers, Gilbert’s fate is well remembered. As legend has it, his corpse was fed by the great giants to cats. His story is enshrined in the local culture as a warning to all, that gophers must live in balance and harmony with the land, lest they should face a cold, sudden death at the hands of the iron snake.
This week, I pruned and trellised tomatoes for the third time. On one of my very first days on the farm, I learned how to remove the lower branches that touch the ground and to select one strong shoot and trim the others, so the plant can put its energy into producing more tomatoes. So far, I have a (very imperfect) experiment going: my two tomato plants at home (which are unpruned) and the farm tomato plants. The farm is winning. In one of those first days, I also learned how to use string to wrap the plant loosely and provide it with support as it grew toward the trellis.
In that very first session, I was unsure of myself. Was this a branch or a shoot? How low is too low for a branch before I prune it? Was I wrapping this plant correctly? This last week, I found myself noticing on my own when the tomatoes needed more pruning and trellising, and leaping in with doing the task. It felt gratifying to be able to complete it on my own, and I also noticed that I was less clumsy in doing it: my body was beginning to have its own memory of the task.
As this sense of knowledge – in both mind and body – washed over me, it dawned on me that farm labor is skilled labor. So often, in the justification of the exploitation of migrant farm workers and physical laborers in general, the argument is offered that it is somehow justifiable to pay them so little because they are “unskilled” labor. But this is not true. They are skilled labor. Take it from anyone who has ever tried to garden or farm: even without factoring in efficiency and overall productivity, gardening and farming involves many tasks that mobilize an array of knowledge and embodied skill. I have a doctorate degree, but it still took me a few weeks to feel like I really understood how to prune and trellis tomatoes. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of tasks on the farm I still do not understand well enough to do independently – and at which my body is still clumsy. These are skills I am just beginning to learn. We need to stop justifying low wages and poor benefits for farm workers with the argument that they are unskilled. Aside from the questionable ethics of arguing that some workers deserve to live in poverty (for any reason), the argument is a false one. It takes skill to farm, and food is the foundation of human life. It’s time we recognize and value it!
I got sick and missed being on the farm this Friday. It’s only been three weeks since I started Urban Farmer Training at Sarvodaya and I feel the effects of my absence. I feel it in my body. The disconnectedness of not touching leaves of dinosaur kale or “baking” fresh potting soil in the nursery or greeting the chickens in the morning really got to me. It just took one day, and all this happens. The upside is that this is only one feeling that comes with being cut off from something. One of many, such as that feeling of being totally alive and happy when you’re cut off from something that doesn’t work. And then I thought of the tomatoes on the farm.
Manju told us that to help the tomato plants grow strong, you have to cut off those in-between “sucker” appendages. The ones in between two strong arms of the plant are those parts that actually suck away nutrients that could have led to the head of the plant, the main artery, if you will. I started to think about how cutting away distracting parts of the plant actually benefits the life of the main stem. It enhances the stem, reorganizes the nutrient supply chain, and delivers much needed vitamins and minerals needed to make that plant thrive from head to toe. As I cut off each “sucker”, I thought of all those times I held onto unfulfilling relationships, useless habits, and worthless possessions which I thought were so vital to my survival and happiness. Instead, they were actually the “suckers” in my otherwise thriving tomato plant self. And so they were the first to go, along with many other people, ideas and things that didn’t bring value to my main stem. Instead of profound loss, I felt uncharacteristically light and happy. How could this be?!
Well, the difference lies in what you cut away from. Even though it seems scary or crazy to cut off a relationship that you’ve hung onto for a long time, when it’s done, it’s surprising how quickly that wound heals and how little it hurts. Inversely, there are those days when missing out, sends a subtle, but real shock through your body that says, “Something’s not right!? You’re missing something you love! Go get it!” (It’s usually the subtle feelings that are the toughest to process). Problem is, you can’t predict how you will feel. You have to just cut that sucker off, trust you made the right move, and wait and see. It’s not so bad considering it’s just another ending (among many) and what started out sour and green will turn juicy and red.
I’ve so often been told that there is no way to feed the earth’s people through organic, small-scale horticulture. How would we feed 7 billion people (or more) without the bread basket states’ monocultures? The rice paddies in China? The plantations of Central and South America? Farming is so land intensive, and there isn’t enough land for everyone… right? On Sarvodaya Farms, I am beginning to see a vision for the future that bends these commonly assumed parameters, and that vision begins in the nursery.
Using a nursery, the farm can propagate plants under ideal conditions for the first half of their lives so that most plants spend minimal time in the vegetable beds, thereby maximizing the space available for close-to-mature crops. In doing these, they manage to support produce for dozens of families on only a half-acre. Planted seeds are carefully tended in the nursery, which provides diffuse sunlight, protection from excessive heat and cold, regular fertilizing with organic materials (using seaweed and fish), and frequent efficient watering (both by hand and by misters). This womb-like space keeps the plants as protected and nourished as possible, ensuring that more of them start growing and reach an age for transplantation. In this way, the garden beds are maximized for close-to-maturity crops – but there also is minimal loss of seeds, which reduces cost.
Rishi explained that no process is perfect, however. In propagating plants this way, the selective pressures that would usually operate on the plants, causing weaker plants to fail to come to maturity, are removed. Therefore, the mature plants that result may harbor genes that are suboptimal for surviving in harsher conditions. Rishi emphasized that there must be different selective pressures on plants you save for seed than those you eat. There is an elegance to such a system that is striking to me: we can imagine many home and community-based urban farms that use small spaces and individual or collective nurseries to maximize food production, while nearby, a larger community seed farm and seed bank could ensure the maintenance of the strongest, most resilient plants. Working on Sarvodaya Farms is more than providing me with knowledge and skills I didn’t have before. It’s providing me with a vision of the future that I hadn’t thought possible. We need to dream big through dreaming small, knowing that we could be much more self-sufficient in urban areas if we use our space carefully and efficiently, keeping in mind all the goals important to farm (and ecosystem) health.
Last week wrapped up the bulk of our orientation as new trainees at Sarvodaya. We got a rundown of the nursery, assisted in building a big, beautiful compost pile, and learned how to take care of the chickens and their grazing rotation in the orchard. The first position bestowed upon my team and I is field operation, and I am excited to take on this new responsibility. I feel like a real intern already!
Some days, when I am around friends and family who are less aware of the problems (and likely solutions) that I see in our world, I get down about the prospects of our culture remedying its errors. But I am always re-heartened by individuals who are showing us how we can live in harmony with the earth through creative example. One such individual, Ernst Gotsch, was the subject of a video that Traci shared with us last week (thanks again Traci!). He is actively involved in restoring Amazonian rainforest in Brazil, using dynamic agroforestry techniques to turn denuded mining and logging land into productive, healthy, and life-supporting food forests. This was one of the most inspiring regenerative agriculture projects that I have seen to date, and I hope that one day I will be a part of a similarly incredible endeavor to heal the earth. Ernst says that this type of agriculture can be applied anywhere on the planet…why not here?
Having such grand dreams for the future, however, mixed with an unfortunately American sense of rush and urgency, can make me feel impatient. I often feel as though I am not developing my knowledge quickly enough to “save the planet,” as it were. I must remind myself that I am still at the beginning of my journey, and that these things take time. Trees do not grow to full maturity in a season, and a lifetime of work, study, and dedication may be necessary to truly master the skills I am after. I must let go of my human limitations, and accept that not all is up to me. Perhaps that is a good thing, lol….In the meantime, however, working at Sarvodaya satisfies my thirst for meaningful action. At the farm, I am centered and grounded in place where the universe works through me to achieve its purpose. Here I belong. Already I am gaining confidence in my abilities and intutions. Every day, the plants grow inside me a new sense of connection, and I as well in them; I am sure of it!
Well, it’s now been 2 weeks and I am surviving, BARELY, but I am surviving! We’ll see what happens after taking care of the chickens, which I am afraid of, by the way! They just seem to KNOW and sense fear! I’ve been pecked before when I was a child, so I have some anxiety.
The composting worm bin has been doing great! My goal is to have a thriving one by graduation (this will be my legacy to the farm). I, myself started with a handful of worms at my house. Now I have 3 thriving bins that I am always in need of giving my worms away. They make GREAT gifts! 👍😀
I’ll keep y’all updated on my progress…at least that’s what I’m hoping for! Until next week…
I am so ready to rise at Sarvodaya’s Urban Farmer Training. I am just one of many Sarvodaya future farmer hopefuls willing to improve our communities and beyond through urban farming practices. I am so excited to make this 42 mile journey, three days a week for the next six months in order to be a student of an urban farmer family. For those who may not know, let’s explore what an urban farm is or can be and why it is important.
By definition, urban farming is the practice of growing, cultivating, processing and distributing food in an urban environment. This practice can also include animal husbandry aquaculture be keeping and more. I have been dreaming about my involvement in this practice for years because I realize the critical importance of becoming a food producer on a local level. For me the biggest and most important draw is food security. Have you ever paid attention to where your food comes from and what it takes to get it where you are? Have you given thought to how a labor strike or natural disaster anywhere in the world may affect or even disrupt service to your local markets? Considering these questions and answers perhaps you will have a new appreciation for the importance of an urban farm.
Urban farms like Sarvodaya are usually small lots more or less 1 to 3 acres dab smack in the middle of a residential, business or industrial area, schoolyards and rooftops. I have visited a few and what I love about them all is the incredible amount of diversity living in these densely packed farms. So many plant, fungus, animal, aquaculture, bug and insect species to delight the senses. And not to be overlooked, the diversity in people at each urban farm that I have seen has been inspiring and impactful. I have worked and studied along side various ages, races and nationalities, professions and socioeconomic backgrounds. As all of these different species of people converge from near and far to observe, study and learn Urban Farming and Agriculture I am hopeful that we will also learn how to work together so that ALL will be uplifted to help create and maintain food security for ALL!
There’s so much I’m learning on the farm, I can’t seem to keep up. The minute I hear something, I want to write it down and then while writing something else comes up that I want to make note of. Either I need to learn to remember things better or smoke will start to lift from the lead.
One of the most important lessons I learned this week was that if you don’t fill the bed with something to grow, weeds or other things will. I could take this to a philosophical place about how every thought and intention you have is like a seed in a bed. A rich, positive seed will bring positive results. Same goes for the opposite. But I’m not going to go down that road and instead just focus on planting good seeds into good soil. Soil is king, here at Sarvodaya, and that in and of itself changes my perception of growth. I used to think that the success of a plant was mostly due to the seeds intrinsic strenghth and whether it got enough sunlight and water. Soil was an afterthought, before Sarvodaya. I figured, it’s in the ground and so it will grow with sun, water, and then the seed will germinate and do it’s thing. I recall my elementary science classes where we germinated lemon seeds in plastic baggies and taped them onto the window. The limited soil in there, was just background, at the time. I mean, look, you could see the seed germinating in the bag! It’s not that I didn’t think soil was necessary, but just that it was simply a supporting role. The Stanley Tucci to my “Lovely Bones” seeds. I hadn’t remembered that moment until this week at the farm when it became more and more clear that plants didn’t make it if the soil was too dried out. With the earwig infestation in full force, I also noticed how their little bug homes aerated in very dry soil and were in close proximity to the plants. Dried out soil is not moist soil, and therefore it’s not carrying out its nutrient channeling duties.
My biggest takeaway this week is this: Soil is king. Soil is Wonder Woman! Soil makes the world go ’round. It always comes back to soil and its condition. And if we did want to get philosophical, I’d say, we can create anything on Earth, but if our minds are too dry, too wet, too thick, or too aerated, our physical space is just making weeds.