Techqua Ikachi: Blending with the Land and Celebrating Life

From Green Mountain Girls Farm on this a rainy second week of June, here at the end of spring and the beginning of summer, I offer you good morning, good afternoon, good evening, and good night (or whatever time of day you happen to be reading this).  My name is Andrew and I’m the crop manager for the farm this year while Liva is enjoying her maternity leave.  To quote Bilbo Baggins from J.R.R Tolkien s book, The Hobbit, I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I look forward to continue getting to know all of you.  This week, I have the fortunate opportunity of sharing with you a peek behind the scenes at the farm from these past seven days.  Our new arrivals of last week are settling in nicely (the two-legged, fluffy yellow peeping kind; the four-legged oinking squealing kind; and last, but certainly not least, the two-legged, walking talking occasionally singing yodeling Amazon yelling swearing sweating smiling and laughing kind).  The GMG locomotive of 2013 is firmly on its tracks and taking on its final shape as it continues to roll out of the station (naturally with a couple lurches and squeaking of wheels) and begins to gather speed. This last week, our fervent, committed (and I daresay mostly successful) swarm of digging chervil (not unlike a chain-gang, road-crew of old, minus the penitentiary jump suits – the whole farm crew wielding shovels and forks in the hot sun, toiling side by side on the road edges, singing and joking and drawing the stares of passersby), reminded us that there are also many new arrivals on the farm that we did not plan for.  Now that the bulk of the first round of plantings is done (the potatoes are 6 inches high, the PYO peas are in full flower, and the hoop house tomatoes are shooting up by leaps and bounds!), we are shifting gears in the crop world and looking ahead to those farm activities that are more mindset and perpetual way of life for a farmer, and not just another set of tasks to get done or those last jobs to finish on Friday before the weekend.  I am referring of course to the management of weeds, pests, and diseases (that dark and scary trinity not only of the veggie grower but also of the herd manager who scouts for milkweed trying to seed amid the pasture’s lush grass and for parasites making a home in the stomachs of the goats).

Chervil team…on truckload 3…of at least 5

Here I must quote an old-time farmer in his 90s that everyone called Papa, a man that I knew in Alaska when I worked on an organic farm outside of Fairbanks.  Papa still farms with the help of a set of crutches and a Bobcat bucket loader that he hops in and out of with surprising nimbleness, the crutches serving at times like pogo sticks.  Papa once told me:  “They shouldn’t call it farming, they should call it weeding.”  Farmers may be maligned for stubborn contrariness, but they can always be counted on for keeping it short, blunt and to the point. A weed is technically any plant (even a volunteer tomato plant growing up in the hoop house where one of last year’s cherry tomatoes happened to fall) growing anywhere the farmer doesn’t want it to grow.  In the end, this refers to many of the plants growing in the totality of the soil that makes up the land of any farm.  When Papa in Alaska refers to ‘weeding’, however, he’s also talking about the bugs and the diseases that are always present on a farm but sometimes show up in certain places and in certain densities that the farmer would rather avoid. At Green Mountain Girls Farm this week, the battle has begun in earnest with the root maggots and the flea beetles, and I even found the first potato beetle on the roots of a volunteer potato, her carapace shiny and new as she prepared to emerge from the soil, mate, and seek out new potatoes on which to lay her eggs (tell her to stay away from the Upper Terrace field!).  The high stakes game of strategy has begun, and like chess players we are trying to move all of our pieces into play in anticipation of our opponent’s next moves.  The crop team scouts for pests and hoes the weeds, while the livestock team moves both the goats and chickens to mow the grass where many insect adversaries lurk (grasshoppers and leafhoppers make excellent chicken snacks). The biggest difference between our activities on the farm and a game of chess is that for us the end points are not defined by the narrow words ‘winning’ or ‘losing’, but more by the broad and somewhat ambiguous and lofty goals of harmony and balance.  I am reminded of Techqua Ikachi, the creed of the Hopi Traditionalists (described by Thomas Mails in The Hopi Survival Kit).  The English translation of this creed is “blending with the land and celebrating life”.   Extended to farming, Mother Nature regards bare patches of earth (even if left naked for only a few days or a week) and dense rows singularly planted with cucumbers (just to name one example) as violations of a certain sense of balance, and her response can be swift and devastating.  Witness an explosion of prostrate pigweed to blanket the bare earth and rapidly sow its thousand seeds, and a swarm of cucumber beetles to descend on the cucumber crop and reduce it to bare stems.  Being conscientious stewards of the earth and of the farm who love Mother Nature (despite her rapid intervention in our efforts to produce beautiful, delicious produce and uphold the agricultural traditions of the last 10,000 years), we choose NOT to respond with the swift and potentially devastating practices of spraying pesticides and herbicides. Instead our game of chess is one that aims at that Hopi creed, one that seeks balance:  covering our rows of cucumbers and squashes with protective netting, interplanting our crops with different kinds of flowers, and soaking our broccoli and cabbage starts in a solution of beneficial nematodes that will boost the biodiversity of our soils (and, yes, digging out thousands of invasive chervil plants trying to march from the roadside into the farm fields).  In the end, one might even say our approach is one of love, and with that in mind I’d like to conclude with a last and final quote, one from the poet and philosopher Khalil Gibran:

“You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth.. …And in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life, And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret. …And what is it to work with love? It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit. …Work is love made visible.”