28 Aug

The single most important aspect of farming sustainably is healthy soil, because good farmers don’t grow food, they grow soil.  The fertility of the soil directly dictates the fertility of the crops, their resistance to pests and disease, and, perhaps of most interest to us, the nutrient content of the food.  Healthy soil means healthy crops, which nourish healthy people and a healthy ecosystem. 

We tend to think of health as something that comes from medicine, doctors, and insurance companies, but it’s much simpler and easily attained; good health comes from good food.  In order to grow good food, you need good soil.  It’s that simple.  Conversely, bad health comes from bad food, grown in poor soil that requires nightmarish additives and processing, leading to modern day epidemics like obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, salmonella, E Coli outbreaks to name a few– and that’s only what it does to us.  Environmental casualties are just as staggering.    

Modern commercial agriculture relies heavily on the input of synthetic fertilizer as part of a linear production model.  The fertilizer is petroleum-based, so it must be extracted, processed, and brought to the farm over great distances, requiring tremendous inputs of energy.  If you dump petroleum-derived phosphorous, nitrogen, and potassium on your fields, yes, your crops will grow like crazy– for one season.  Each subsequent season will require a larger dose to produce the same results. 

 20th century agricultural scientists thought they could outsmart nature by providing plants with the elements they need, directly, in chemical form.  What they overlooked is that soil is more than chemistry; it’s biology.  Soil is alive with microbial activity.  Good soil is dense with nutrients and trace minerals that our bodies need to stay healthy.  But these nutrients need to be replaced after plants have subsumed them, or else soil loses its fertility.  Too often, in commercial agriculture, plants are given only the raw chemicals they need to grow large and blemish-free.  Like mutant body builders on steroids, the crops swell impressively, but they’re nutritionally hollow.  It’s all show, poor nutrition.

Products abound to compensate for this nutritional void: multivitamins, supplements, powdered blender drinks, breakfast cereal sprayed with vitamins A,B,C, and E,  but the bottom line is: there really isn’t any substitute for proper nutrition.  It is errant to think that just because a nutrient is on the label, it can be absorbed by our digestive systems.  Dietary supplements don’t deliver but a fraction of what they promise.  What’s on the label is what went into processing the pill, not what our bodies actually absorb.  I reiterate: Health isn’t derived from a bottle of pills, or a doctor, or your health plan.  Health comes from food, which comes from soil.  Let’s take a step back and look at where good soil comes from: Decomposition.

Composting mimics the natural decomposition process that perpetuates soil fertility.  A forest provides a good example of the natural cycle: In autumn, a tree sheds it leaves and they fall to the ground.  That leaf litter mixes with other organic matter on the forest floor, such as dead plants, twigs, and animal droppings. When organic matter is layered on the forest floor, decomposers like fungi, worms, insects, and bacteria get to work on it immediately. There is an entire galaxy of microbial activity in a teaspoon of healthy soil.  By spring, the new growth enjoys the nutritional bounty provided by fallen counterparts from the previous year.  And the cycle begins again.  Nothing is wasted.  Nothing needs to be added from anywhere else.  It is, in a word, perfect.

People are less than perfect, but we can mimic Mother Nature by paying close attention to how she does it.  Composting is just that: we employ the same decomposers and the same kinds of organic matter found in nature, but we put it where we want it, in quantities suiting our needs, on a schedule that works with our planting. 

There must be as many different ways to make compost as there are to make soup, and just like soup it will always work, to varying degrees of success.  The basic ingredients are brown matter (high in carbon), green matter (high in nitrogen), and some kind of starter.  Varieties of each abound.  Brown materials include (but are certainly not limited to) straw, dry leaves, and paper.  Green materials include grass clippings, weeds, and vegetable scraps.  The starter could be dry animal manure, which is the most common, but there are many others that work well.  Blood, bone meal, urine (yes, pee on the pile!), worm castings, finished compost, fertile topsoil, a dead squirrel hacked into pieces, all of these are viable.

Methods vary greatly.  You can use a container of sorts; it could be a bin, a three-sided box, straw bales arranged in a square, or simply a pile on the ground.  You can turn the pile once a week, once a month, once, or never.  You can monitor the temperature or just let it go.  You can add biodynamic preparations of yarrow, nettles, and valerian root, diluted in water and swirled in a vortex to call down the energy of the cosmos if you believe in that, or you can trust in cow shit.  Pretty much, if you put decomposable matter in a pile outside, it’s going to decompose. 

This season, I’ve composted on eight different farms, and they all use a different method for different reasons, but there are some important similarities.  The majority of the pile’s bulk is an even mix of brown and green, arranged on top of one another in alternating layers a few inches thick.  A thin layer of starter goes in between.  The pile needs moisture throughout, so it’s a good idea to spray it down as you build.  The pile needs to be at least three feet high.  Those are the basics.  Let nature do the rest, but observe what happens.  If after a few days there are any unpleasant odors, then it means the proportions are wrong.  A compost pile shouldn’t stink.  Bad smells usually mean not enough brown matter.  The pile should also heat up and shrink noticeably after a week or so.  If it doesn’t, then you need more green matter.  Compost is finished when the texture and color are consistent throughout; it should be dark, moist, and smell so good you want to eat it.

Benefits of Compost: (excerpted from the Washington State University extension publication Compost Fundamentals)
– Compost contains macro and micronutrients often absent in synthetic fertilizers.
– Compost releases nutrients slowly—over months or years, unlike synthetic fertilizers
– Compost buffers the soil, neutralizing both acid & alkaline soils, bringing pH levels to the optimum range for nutrient availability to plants.
– Compost helps bind clusters of soil particles, called aggregates, which provide good soil structure. Such soil is full of tiny air channels & pores that hold air, moisture and nutrients.
– Compost helps sandy soil retain water and nutrients.
– Compost loosens tightly bound particles in clay or silt soil so roots can spread, water drain & air penetrate.
– Compost alters soil structure, making it less likely to erode, and prevents soil spattering on plants—spreading disease.
– Compost can hold nutrients tight enough to prevent them from washing out, but loosely enough so plants can take them up as needed.
– Compost makes any soil easier to work.
– Compost brings and feeds diverse life in the soil. These bacteria, fungi, insects, worms and more support healthy plant growth.
– Compost bacteria break down organics into plant available nutrients. Some bacteria convert nitrogen from the air into a plant available nutrient.
– Compost enriched soils have lots of beneficial insects, worms and other organisms that burrow through soil keeping it well aerated.
– Compost suppresses diseases and harmful pests that could overrun poor, lifeless soil.
– Compost increases soil’s ability to retain water & decreases runoff. Runoff pollutes water by carrying soil, fertilizers and pesticides to nearby streams.
– Compost can reduce chemical pesticides since it contains beneficial microorganisms that may protect plants from diseases and pests.                                   -Only a 5% increase in organic material quadruples soils water holding capacity.

And the most important:
– Compost can reduce or eliminate use of synthetic fertilizers.

So don’t grow food with chemicals!  This should be OBVIOUS.


[For further reading, I recommend The Rodale Book of Composting.]



23 Aug

Somebody stole my shit.

Smash it and grab it, gotta feed that habit.

Somebody stole my shit.

Happens to everyone, so they say,

we accumulate shit and shit goes away,

makes space for more shit to misplace or replace,

to give a name,

to jumble and toss,

to prioritize or organize,

to sit on a shelf or give to somebody else,

to make me feel better about myself.

But it’s just stuff.

I didn’t lose a limb, or the lady I love,

I didn’t lose my faith in the human race,

‘cuz I never had much in the first place.

Gotta expect petty theft.

Smash it and grab it, gotta feed that habit.

Somebody stole my shit.

But I don’t resent the thief or thieves,

they didn’t set out to try and hurt me,

they’re just crying for help, down on their knees.

They are not respectable men.

Drugs get real bad when you can’t afford them.

Smash it.  Grab it.  Feed the habit.

My shit fed the cultural id.

I say cultural because it’s not an isolated incident.

Ain’t the appetite of one chickenshit tweaker,

it’s everyone’s problem–

past, present, and future.


California Blues

23 Aug

I knew from the beginning that there’d be risks to this thing. That was never a secret. I packed my bags and listened to my intuition. I hoped positive thinking would be enough to see my little boat safely across the vast ocean of America. Then, we pushed off from one shore and headed out in search of the other. At times, I did feel vulnerable. There are parts of this country that are bigger than the imagination can handle. The horizon stretches out into infinity for hour after hour on the road. Somehow, the currents and winds were kind to us. The odometer says we’ve trekked some 6,000 miles around this union. But irony is a fickle, mischievous creature, and after being in California (my final destination) for less than 24 hours, she came to pay us a visit. Pirates had found our little boat.

I wonder if it’s a universal law that there must be a calm before the storm. Ours was in the misty floor of the Redwood Forest. We parked at the opening of a trailhead and took a 6-mile hike to the beach, where we set up camp.  I’ll note that I slept exceptionally well that night, and was filled with serenity upon waking to the sound and smell of the ocean.

The hike back through the woods was magical. The subdued colors of brown, red, and grey through the morning mist were dream-like. The transcendental feeling was elevated by the old giant trees, which somehow personify wisdom in their age. We found faces in the trunks, inspiration in the canopy. The photos are beautiful.

A woman’s intuition is not to be underestimated, and mine was a bit on alert as we neared the hike’s conclusion. We bickered about how to get back to the car.

“I just want to get back as soon as possible.” I said with irritation.

As we neared the street, I anxiously looked through the trees to find the car’s silver color. Closer, I could hear traffic. Then, I saw the silver. Then, the window on the driver’s side. But something was terribly wrong. There was no green tint. No reflective panel. I looked straight into the cabin, to the vivid black of the center console. The window was gone, smashed to smithereens. The car, she was wide open. Naked. Vulnerable. And robbed.

I crossed the street and a wave of calm pulsed through my body. Does the brain release a large quantity of serotonin when it is put under immediate and intense stress? What defensive chemistry bubbles and fizzes within us when disaster strikes? Whatever it is, I could feel it. My body tingled a bit and I felt myself calmly say,

“Doug. The window is gone. Someone broke into the car.”

I looked inside and followed it with, “Our stuff is gone. Someone stole all of our stuff.”

One by one I confirmed my losses, and it felt like I was taking bullets. My wallet. Bang. My license. Boom. My debit card, passport, violin, computer, camera bag, batteries and charger, spare lens, memory card reader, yoga mat (because sometimes it’s fitting to add insult to injury for dramatic effect), Doug’s guitar, his journals. Zip, whoosh, bam, boom. Bang. Bang. Bang.

I looked over at him. The wave of chemical calm was subsiding.

“Can I have a hug?” I asked, “I’m about to be very upset…”

They had taken everything of value, everything that had taken months or even years of paychecks from odd jobs and table service to acquire. As I felt myself degrade into hysterics, I made the most painful realization of all. I had not yet looked for the most important item. My external hard drive, packed deeply into a corner of the trunk, has been the carrier vessel for every photograph I’ve taken over the past seven years. If lost, it would erase every project, every portraiture session, every event, and every artistic expression that has ever been captured with my eye. In short, the loss would be devastating. Miraculously, it was left behind. It is a substantially large piece of electronic equipment, something I was certain would be scooped up in the night with all the other electronics. They had somehow either missed it, or shed some mercy if they had understood what it was. For a moment, I could breathe. And, for the record, the camera (my friend Danny has referred to a photographer’s camera as his or her heart) was with us during the hike. It was still in safe hands. All was not lost.

“We need to get out of here right now,” I yelled, growing more hysterical by the second. “They’ve got my debit card! They may have done this hours ago! They may have charged my account to hell!” I gripped my useless cell phone, cringing at its ineptitude.  I suppose most cell phones lack service within the dense confines of a national park.

“Get in the car! GO! I need service NOW!” I screamed between loud sobs. Doug got into the driver’s seat, ignoring the glass shards under his butt and sped off down the road.

I couldn’t get service on that capricious piece of plastic for fifteen torturous minutes. In the deep recesses of my mind, I saw myself six months ago, patiently taking the train to work in the dead of winter. I remembered the calculations, the estimations of how much money I should save for California and my new life chapter. There I was on that train, day in and day out, working for my pay. This drove me to temporary insanity.

“Those bastards better not have taken all of my money! I need it to survive! I worked for it! It’s not theirs!” I bawled in agony.  I hit the phone on the dashboard. I faced the possibility of being bankrupt 3,000 miles away from home. Then I heard a familiar beep that signified that I’d received a voicemail message. Service was restored.

Anxiously, in a rage, I fumbled and pounded the digits that would connect me to a friendly Wachovia customer service representative. I had to redial twice, because I was seeing red, crimson, and deep-blood maroon. Then finally…

“Thank you,” The automated voice said, “Your available balance is…”

Bracing myself for the worst, I listened for the sentence to finish with something ridiculous like, “7 dollars and… 15 cents.”

But luck finally arrived. The balance was right where it was supposed to be. Silver lining. I cancelled the card, changed the account. What else could I do in that moment? Defeated and terribly downtrodden, it was time to continue on to the next farm.

Before we moved on, we filed a police report with Redwood National Park. We spoke with a ranger who took care of our case. He felt bad for us, considering we were from Pennsylvania. We were completely oblivious to the common knowledge that the Redwoods are notoriously located in the most drug-laden part of California. Eureka, the nearest town, has adopted the nickname “Eu-tweak-a.” We had seen public service announcements, billboards, and signs all over the west: Meth. Not even once. Now it was tangible, up close, and personal.  Our stuff had been exchanged to feed bad habits.

“Yeah, Humboldt County…” the park ranger said, “we’ve got the biggest trees… and the biggest assholes.”

Go figure.

Driving along highway 101, the temperature dropped a bit. Without thinking I grumbled, “Dude… can you put up the window?”

We looked at each other momentarily and began to laugh. What a mess.

The old smash and grab.



Ancient Lake Gardens is a farm located in the Mediterranean climate of Kelseyville, CA. The property includes a charming lakeside cabin, a vineyard, a permaculture garden, an orchard, and several residences. There are a few mountains, but mostly rolling hillsides with short vegetation and sun-baked yellow grasses. There are many rattlesnakes that reside in the hills, though I have yet to see one. The people here are gentle and calm. Most are avid practitioners of meditation and Buddhism. The mood here is Zen-like and serene.   

We came barreling into it in the middle of the night like a screaming child into a quiet room. It was too much to take in too fast. I found myself trying to ease into the peace of this place while making tedious calls to replace a window, report my passport as stolen, and answer big questions such as “can I get a new PA license from Cali?”

I’m sure stress was radiating from me, palpable and influential to others. The red tape and bureaucratic mess with my ID and banking issues were unavoidable. I felt guilty for the robbery, as though I could have avoided it. I felt it was a reflection of incompetence. I felt a loss for my violin. The costs to replace necessities (window, passport, and license) were adding up. I began to slip into a mild depression, and questioned whether or not I should even continue on to San Francisco.  It was a rough week.

The weekend arrived and the farmers, Mari and Grover, took the volunteers on a field trip. We visited three exemplary gardens and the Solar Living Institute. It was a lovely day. We went in two cars, one of which was a rented Ford Mustang Convertible. I got to live the dream of driving through wine country in a convertible.

On the way home, I rode alone with Mari, and the robbery came up in conversation. We were originally talking about fear. I expressed that from the very beginning, I had decided to take this trip based on an intuitive feeling that came from my heart. In regards to fear, I’ve rarely felt it when listening to that voice. Sure, I’ll feel nervous before a big change, but never enough to avoid making it. I believe that it is much scarier to ignore one’s inner voice, because it will always whisper where your path is supposed to go. When you ignore your inner voice, and disregard your path, the risk for making decisions that lead to unhappiness becomes much stronger. With this in mind, it hit me completely off guard that I was robbed blind. How could such a thing happen when I was doing exactly what my heart told me to do? Could my intuition be wrong? Am I leading myself astray?

Mari smiled and nodded along in agreement with my sentiments.

“Nicole, I couldn’t agree with you any more than I do” she said, “but please, let me tell you a story. There once was a girl that felt exactly as you do. She believed that as long as she followed her intuition, she had nothing to be afraid of. And to her surprise, her intuition led her to seek out a life surrounded by nature (she had always been a city girl). She was able to build this life, and it made her very happy. One day she was out walking in the woods, the idyllic setting to her vision. And a little tick came along and bit her. She wasn’t even aware of it until a few months later when terrible, painful symptoms came along. Her joints could barely move without sending shooting pains through her body. She had to use a wheelchair. And doctors told her that there wasn’t much they could do, and that she would have to live like this for the rest of her life. She was angry and confused and asked the same questions. How could this happen when I was doing what my intuition said to do? For years she resisted any kind of healing or change because of the anger and frustration. Then one day, she decided to let go. She decided to embrace the pain, the disease, and the debilitation. She even fell in love with it. She decided that she would learn how to heal it herself. And within a few years, through learning about medicinal herbs, natural healing, and meditation, the Lyme’s Disease was gone. Completely. With the healing, she also received the gift of knowing what her life’s work would be. She would set out to help others heal and learn. It was what she was meant to do, but she had to reach that realization through painful experience. The disease turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to her.”

Though I had a hunch, I said, “who was this girl?”

“It was me.” Mari confirmed.

You would never know that she had battled a serious and debilitating disease. Mari is healthy, energetic, and exudes youthfulness. She has an infectious positive outlook on life. Speaking with her allowed me to fully let go of the negativity I was harboring. Turns out, I really didn’t lose anything. Stuff comes and stuff goes. I knew this from the moment I saw the broken glass, though I couldn’t avoid the feelings of loss, anger, and frustration.



We were violated. We live in a culture that demands us to earn our possessions fair and square. If you want a computer, you best get a job and save your money. So when we play by the rules and stay within the lines, we tend to forget that shit still happens. When it does, is it really all that shocking? I think it’s best not to get too attached. We Americans will shed our material skins like snakes tenfold in a lifetime. We’ll upgrade, renovate, add to, and collect. Then, someday we’ll hope to make a few dollars back from a yard sale.

So, to the addicts who were able to maintain their habit for a few weeks via my Macintosh Powerbook G4, you are actually losing much more than I did. I hope you will someday listen to your own inner voices. I am afraid you’ve been ignoring them for quite some time.


15 Aug


Llama and goat pasture, garden, orchard


The Truly Educated Never Graduate.  This mantra sticks out from the other mantras posted on the walls of Myrtle Glen Farm in southwestern Oregon.  The place is a living monument to life as an ongoing education, and to learning how to do it yourself­– a lifestyle that permeates every farm we’ve visited.  When you learn how to do something yourself you learn a skill and you get to keep it, instead of paying to borrow someone else’s.  While commodities and services deteriorate over time, skills improve.

Farmer Dave at Myrtle Glen makes his own­: honey; plum wine; berry wine; apple cider; goat milk, cream, and cheese; preserves; sauces; tea blends, just to name a few. The house and surrounding gardens are adorned with stone walkways and patios, all of his own design and creation. Over the years, he’s learned how to build everything from a root cellar to a cob oven to a recording studio – again – just to name a few.

The pretext of work will change all aspects of that work.  That is, the motivation for doing the work, attention to detail, inquiry, perseverance, all the way to the satisfaction one feels after the work is complete, all are lower when the job is contracted, for money, in someone else’s interest.  But when you learn how to make or do something yourself, for yourself, things start to change drastically. The long term is suddenly a consideration. The word quality moves out of the realm of advertising and back into something tangible. Satisfaction goes through the roof. Failure is another outcome, of course, but failure forces us to re-think, experiment, and research, which inevitably leads to new discoveries that make failure nothing more than an amusing memory.

One project often leads to another, which might seem frustrating, yes, but that’s the way of skills, we have a natural inclination to make them sharper.  If you learn how to tile a wall in the bathroom, for example, then you’ll know a lot more about tiling your kitchen. This might get you thinking about outdoor walkways, retaining walls…a bath house, a sauna.  It might get you asking “What else can I tile?” Also, where to get the materials, how to make yours unique, and how to prevent the problems you had last time.  In this way, the improvements improve the person as well as the property.     

We’re taught from an early age to be good at one thing and do it our whole lives so that we may earn money to get the other things we need. Over-specialization has robbed Americans of valuable skills, skills that would make us less dependent and helpless, like basic construction, maintenance, and repair, growing a garden for fresh food, keeping chickens for eggs, a goat for milk, even learning about the edible and medicinal native plant species that grow in the wild. Farmers (and they’re certainly not the only ones) more often ask “What else can I produce?” instead of “What else can I buy?”; “How do I fix this?” instead of “Who do I call?”

So before you buy a product or pay for a service, think: “Could I make or do this myself?”  Intimidation vanishes with experience because everything becomes much easier once you know how to do it.  



Root cellar




Recording studio




Orchard up close

An Interview With Allison Rooney

8 Aug


Cloud Nine Farm




Allison Rooney is the diligent head farmer of Cloud Nine Farm, just outside of Wilsall, Montana. We had the great pleasure of working and learning alongside her for two weeks. She is a great teacher. With patience and clarity, Allison explained her methods, ideas, and goals. Every day I felt as though I could complete a new task on my own. Allison is a strong role model, and I would like to share some of her thoughts.

The house was a bit chaotic on our last day. There were three volunteers staying with the Rooneys, all leaving simultaneously. Bags were shuffling about. Foot steps moved a bit more heavily than usual across the floor. Move out day and laundry day coincided, so packs and piles cluttered the small family room. Amidst it all, six year old Wyatt held his loyal post as house guardian against invading aliens. The sounds of his imaginary laser guns were a faithful reminder that us earthlings were safe.  Nestled on the couch with needle and thread in hand, Allison calmly patched up Wyatt’s torn book bag. Perhaps it wasn’t the ideal serene scene for an interview, but for a half hour she graciously answered the following questions.

Q: When did you first realize that you wanted to be a farmer? Who or What inspired you?

A: I suppose when I was about 26 years old. That would have been in 2000.  Honestly, I’d have to say it’s kind of cheesy, but the magazine Mother Earth News inspired me. It’s about sustainability and self reliance. They would often have articles on gardening and small farming topics and I thought it was really interesting. My grandparents always had really big gardens and they grew lots of strawberries and blueberries and corn. They kept bees. They had us help them in the garden, and so I would say that was also a big source of inspiration for me.

Q: What was the most difficult part of launching a new farm?

A: The most difficult part was probably finding an affordable piece of land. That and getting people to take seriously or understand what it was that I was trying to do. It was a pretty foreign idea for people before organic farming was big in the media. I was trying to get started before the concept of local farmers, farmers’ markets, and eating chemical free food was popular. It was before that was in the mainstream. It took 5 years of figuring out how to do it, and how to make the money to afford a piece of land.

Q: What has been the most difficult part of maintaining a farm?

A: I think just building up the infrastructure on a bare piece of land. There are no structures, no water, no trees. That’s been the biggest part of keeping it going.

Cloud Nine Farm is located on former ranch land that was over-grazed. It is a dusty, arid piece of land that the Rooneys are trying (successfully) to revitalize.


Q: What is your favorite crop or plant family to grow?

A: Garlic. It’s an extremely hardy plant, and it’s low maintenance. It produces an amazing culinary and medicinal end product. I like the process of harvesting it, bundling it up, and hanging it to dry. Then later on, trimming the plant to get the finished head of garlic. It’s a neat fall harvest process.

Q: What is your favorite farming method?

A: I’d say the permaculture philosophy would be my favorite because they encourage you to mimic nature and take advantage of nature’s efficiencies. It reduces the burden of heavy labor.

Q: Do you have least favorite farming method or crop? Why?

A: Beans would be my least favorite crop because we never get any (she laughs). We never see a real bean harvest here. I’d love for them to grow if hail, frost, or bugs didn’t always batter them down. They’re tender, and they need really warm nights to do well. They need certain microbial associations in the soil to do well. That could take years to build up.  We always try to get a bean harvest, but we haven’t been successful yet.

Q: If you could farm anywhere in the world, where would you choose and why?

A: I think I would choose southern Oregon because of the climate, and the proximity to the ocean and the mountains. You can grow such a wide diversity of fruit trees and nut trees and bushes there.

Q: Do you feel that the local/organic movement is becoming more popular? What signs do you see that suggest this?

A: Well, I do feel that it’s becoming more popular. I see an increasing media presence about topics related to organic farming or local food systems. We have a lot more happening in Montana at the University level with the development of small scale farming degree programs. Infrastructure for colleges to buy local produce is being developed. There is a rising demand for organic food in school and hospital cafeterias. There’s an institutional demand, and there’s a huge consumer demand for farmer’s markets, restaurants, and CSAs/buying clubs.

Q: Could you explain what a buying club is?

A buying club is an underground farmer’s market. A group of diverse farmers, beef producers, cheese, wool, veggie, etc. gather privately and meet with the client base that they assemble over time on a regular basis. Basically, it’s word of mouth selling. 

Q: What advice would you give to someone that is interested in starting a farm/CSA?

A: Research farms in their area, or in the area they want to settle down in and get the chance to work on one of those farms for a long period of time. I’d say at least a season. I would encourage them to research land prices, and talk with existing growers about their business plans. Learn how much they are spending to get up their farms and businesses. The aspiring farmer can then have a clear picture of the actual costs required to start a small farm.

Q: Concerning the environment, what do you feel is the most pressing agricultural issue in the US ?

A: I’d say the proliferation of GMO crops, and the lack of protective regulations surrounding their use and release into the natural world.

Q: Concerning health, what do you feel is the most pressing food-related issue in the US?

A: I think it’s the lack of oversight and regulation of chemicals in industrial farming, and how they affect watersheds, human health, and the wider natural world in general, including all insects, fish, and animals. The chemical impact on health is not regulated. It’s not monitored in terms of residues, and how chemicals interact.

 Q: Any tips on dealing with the unexpected?    

A: You need to be very detached. You have to reach a level of detachment where you try not to get too emotional about the outcomes. It’s more about the process, making decisions in response to circumstances to the best of your ability. I would say not letting yourself be consumed by anger, or regret or frustration, because it zaps your vital energy and your ability to react to the unexpected.

Kamaria, Allison, Me, Doug, and Wyatt



Montana in Pictures

7 Aug

The trip is getting a little distracting. A constant flow of new experiences and new faces are luring me away from the computer screen and into the warm western sunshine. I’ve decided to post some photos from Montana for now, and add the stories/farm lessons in a few days. We just arrived in Oregon, and are still settling. It’s gorgeous out here, though… And we finally saw the pacific ocean. 

But that’s later… for now, here are some photos of mountainous Montana. 

The road to Cloud Nine Farm


Fellow wwoofers


Wilsall, MT




Me on Mt. Sacajawea




Kamaria on Sacajawea


I really couldn't believe my eyes.


At the top of Mt. Sacajawea


 I’d recommend WWOOF to anyone. You will learn a million things about the natural world, and additionally, you will have the opportunity to go out and explore it. The next entry will be farm-related. I swear.

My Gripe on the Sea of Corn (Reacting to Michael Pollan)

3 Aug

When I was a child, I lived within a 5 minute walk of a large cornfield. Every year, myself along with other kids in the neighborhood would wait for the stalks to grow to towering heights. The great green ocean would then serve as the ideal playground. Mischievously, we would knock the stalks down to form long pathways into the depths, making dead ends along the way. The maze would lead to larger clearings for those who could find them. We even gave these “rooms” names that I now wish I could remember, but probably forgot before the tractor cleared them away. This, along with tortilla chips, chowder, and summertime cobs was my frame of reference to corn.

A sea of corn is madness. This is a simple truth that I am discovering as I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Currently I am only on chapter 5 (there are twenty chapters), but I already feel compelled to write about what I’ve learned. In the first few chapters, Pollan spends a lot of time talking about corn.  Though seemingly harmless to many of us, Pollan eloquently and efficiently proves how many problems are rooted in the golden grain.

The most striking of these problems for me is the relentless dependency corn production has on fossil fuels and chemicals. Since yield is the number one concern to the corn farmer, he or she must use heavy machinery and synthetic fertilizer to effectively compete in the market. This proves to be devastating to the environment. From the Midwest, fertilizer seeps into the Mississippi River and travels to the Gulf of Mexico. There, it promotes overgrowth of algae, which chokes out other creatures and creates a dead zone called a hypoxic. It is bigger than the state of New Jersey (and growing). 

Why so much corn, anyway? According to the USDA website (, 80 million acres of US land are dedicated to producing the crop. Altogether, the annual yield is between 10-13 billion bushels. The majority of it certainly doesn’t end up in tortilla chips or chowder. In actuality, all of that land, all of the synthetic fertilizer, and all of the fossil fuels are mostly for the production of a cheap animal feed that the animals can barely eat.

Corn is the main dish for feedlot cattle. It is mixed with beef tallow and molasses before it is fed back to the cows (which raises a slew of other mind boggling questions, but I digress). Historically, cows evolved as grass eaters. Simply put, they cannot eat corn. It wreaks havoc on their bodies, rendering their excrement toxic. The noxious sludge then fills up poop lagoons (I saw one while driving through Illinois), causing further environmental damage. Full credit for cows’ corn tolerance goes to the modern antibiotic, without which there would be certain mass outbreaks of disease and death.

Pollan explains that no one wants to use feedlot manure as fertilizer because it is poisonous. From the perspective of an organic farmer, poop is precious, not poison. In organic farming, compost is a crucial element in maintaining healthy soil, and manure is one of the main ingredients. By using a delicate balance of manure, food waste or weeds, and straw, you could be the proud owner of soil that looks like brownie mix within a month. Compost maintains the fertility and viability of topsoil. According to The Rodale Book of Composting, edited by Deborah L. Martin and Grace Gershuny, 6 billion tons of topsoil erode away every year in the United States. The Corn Belt is able to maintain high production solely with the aid of synthetic fertilizers, which do nothing to rebuild the soil structure.  Although it seems unlikely, even the most fertile areas of this country will become deserts without topsoil to hold moisture.

Out here in Montana, Cloud Nine Farm has some of the best soil I’ve ever seen.  They have composting down to a science, which includes in its chemistry a large pile of poo. The poop comes from the animals, fertilizes the land, which then produces food for us. This simple cycle costs very little, creates no pollution, and yields beautiful crops. This is one of many examples of how simple, sound logic can address big issues.

The compost pile. Straw, manure, and food scraps=soil like chocolate cake.


I’m leaving off with an excerpt from The Omnivore’s Dilemma that struck a particularly wrenching chord with me, and inspired everything already stated. In regards to food-related issues, no one can put it better than Pollan:

“Raising animals on old-fashioned mixed farms such as the Naylors’ used to make simple biological sense: You can feed them the waste products of your crops, and you can feed their waste products to your crops. In fact, when animals live on farms the very idea of waste ceases to exist; what you have instead is a closed ecological loop-what in retrospect you might call a solution. One of the most striking things that animal feedlots do (to paraphrase Wendell Berry) is to take this elegant solution and divide it into two new problems: a fertility problem on the farm (which must be remedied with chemical fertilizers) and a pollution problem on the feedlot  (which seldom is remedied at all).

            This biological absurdity, characteristic of all CAFOs, is compounded in the cattle feedyard by a second absurdity. Here animals exquisitely adapted by natural selection to live on grass must be adapted by us-at considerable cost to their health, to the health of the land, and ultimately to the health of their eaters- to live on corn, for no other reason than it offers the cheapest calories around and because the great pile must be consumed. …The short, unhappy life of a corn-fed feedlot steer represents the ultimate triumph of industrial thinking over the logic of evolution.”