Urban and Not-so-Urban Farming

Today as i read back through my blogs I realize that my personal ongoing theme in life is moving on and forward motion.  I express this through my thoughts in my writing, my actions (running, walking, traveling) and my constant pursuit of education.  I am working toward more space, maybe slower forward locomotion.  I can’t ever stop the ongoing motion in my mind, though.  I keep myself company.  

But this is not the piece I’d planned on writing in this blog today.  Today, I am visiting on a farm where my daughter is working.  It’s a religious retreat center with a small, just starting out, working, sustainable farm.  They have a lot of acreage, most of which is leased to local, conventional farmers.  So the place is surrounded with conventional farm rowcrops.  They also have summer camp here.  There is a beautiful chapel, if you’re into that kind of thing, a house, where my daughter lives, a gorgeous barn that has been converted to housing for camp staff, a couple of little house trailers for the next set of farm interns, a conference center, a beat up tennis court, an old, in ground swimming pool, a small greenhouse and a couple of sheds for the farm implements.

This morning I walked around the grounds.  I took my camera phone, and a novel.  I sneaked up on my daughter working in the field, sowing seeds with a walk behind manual sower.  She was working hard.  It made me feel proud, and I took a picture of her working, before she noticed I was there.  She gave me a ride back to the barn in a Ranger pickup, which she has learned to drive in her time here.  She took her implements from the bed and put them away, then gave me the short tour of the farm area.  She shows me the tractor she knows how to operate, it’s a small Kubota, like the one I used to use to pull the manure spreader over the hunt field when I worked at the stables 30 years ago. She showed me where the chickens lived before they were all killed by an animal, shortly before she came.  She said the director of the center wouldn’t let them eat any of the eggs, anyway.  The eggs I had at breakfast were powdered.  I said they needed a goat or two, she could train them to pull the seeder. They have no animals on the property, except two cats, whom she says stay at her house, “Because they know they are not supposed to interact with the guests”.  They have no beehives.  She said the people at the center don’t want animals because they smell.  That they don’t really appreciate the farm, and think it’s a waste of space and money, and smells bad.  I wonder at this, their commitment to sustainable agriculture, their commitment to their God, and their Jesus and his feelings on animals, and growth, and stewardship.  She has also told me that the real focus is keeping the lawn in front of the chapel in peak condition. 

I leave her to her work and take a walk around the property. It is all planted in fescue, the lawn grass of the upper midwest.  Paths are mowed.  There is little native vegetation and nearly no trees.  I walk around the lake.  It is suffering a huge algal bloom, typical of lakes in the path of agricultural chemical runoff.  Too much nitrogen.  Probably no fish.  Very few frogs, I’ve heard some peepers in the evening, and hear the telltale plops of bullfrogs hitting the water as I pass. There is a family of Canada geese, who have liberally covered the path around the lake in goose poop, but no other waterfowl.  There are two duckblinds on the edges of the lake, which look absurd, with camo netting, and painted black camo-ish, against the green field of alfalfa behind, with nothing to hide it.  There are bird houses placed around the edges of the pond, they’re filled with swallows and purple martins.  I listen to the babies peeping inside, and watch the parents skimming the water surface and through the field, bringing bugs back to the babies.

I find the source of the water entering the lake, and it’s coming from between two agricultural fields. I see the pump from which they irrigate the farm fields.  So, sadly, they are using the same agricultural chemicals as the surrounding conventional farms. I feel badly for my daughter’s boss, who is the person in charge of the farm, but has very little experience being a farm manager, and very little support from the higher ups of the diocese, who are her bosses.  

As I’m walking, I’m thinking of all the things I would do if I was in charge of this farm. I’d start with neutralizing the lake, stocking it, and putting some natural water plants around it, like cattails, lilies, and willows, to prevent more bank erosion, get rid of the musk thistles, and to provide some habitat for something other than Canadian geese.  I’d plow under the fields and fallow them for a year or two, or grow some red alfalfa and mustard and plow it under as green manure. I’d put in an orchard, apples, peaches, pears and cherries.  I’d put in some trees, oaks, walnuts, and sugarbush full of maples.  Id’ get a bunch of chicken tractors, or a bunch of electric netting and put many chickens on the fallowed fields to peck and scratch, and poop, lay eggs and weed.  I’d put 5 beehives on the place, for starters, to pollinate and produce honey, and I’d put an acre or two in native prairie plants to feed the bees.  I’d get some sheep and some goats, for fleece, milk, weeding, and draft.  So many dreams.  

I think about all my big ideas, and how much research I’ve actually done on this, and how I will probably never get a chance to put any of them into practice.  And how I need to start making closure with this fact.  Now that I’m nearly half a century old, and I’ve not done the things I needed to do to get to the place I wanted to be, and how much I really do appreciate the place I am, and what I do have.  It’s a hard row to hoe, planting the seeds of giving up dreams.

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