Sinking Your Soul Into the Land


The thing that wakes me up yelling in the middle of the night is land.

One time a few years ago, I figured out how many places I’d lived in that particular decade, and I came out with nineteen.  I planted gardens in most of those places (excluding the dorms and the downtown apartment above the mural), and I left them all behind.  I took a few plants with me if I could, but for the most part, I’ve left a string of gardens along the Northern tier from Vermont to Wisconsin to West River, South Dakota.

When I first started my CSA back in early 2005, I’d been leasing a reasonably large plot of land on the edge of town for a few years in a row.  After I’d gotten at least half of my members signed up, I got a phone call from the lessor saying he’d sold the land for development.  There’s a block of ugly apartment buildings on that land now where there used to be gardens.

I had to go in search of land to fulfill my obligation to my members and to fulfill my own need to have my hands in the soil.  I landed on a couple different plots–one a defunct organic greenhouse and food farm business where I worked for a couple seasons, and the other a small plot in a big garden that I now use all of, and have expanded.

But I’ve never owned the land I grow on (besides here at my little house in town), and though my partnership with the farm landowner is very strong, it’s still not mine, and it’s unlikely that it will ever be mine.

This puts up some barricades in terms of what I can physically do with the land, and it also puts up an emotional/spiritual barricade in terms of how much I can invest myself in the land.

And that is what wakes me up at night.

I sat up talking with my MOSES conference roomie (who also doesn’t own the land she farms) a couple nights in a row about schemes and plots for buying a little cafe, buying a good-sized farm.  We both acknowledged that we can’t do it alone.  We both know how hard farm work is, and we both know we’re up to the hard work, but we also know that it’s no pleasure to be alone, working yourself to death with no support system.

One of the points driven home at the conference, the thing I keep thinking about, is that the farm is an organism.  It’s not just the plants in the gardens, it’s the old shelterbelt that provides nesting for birds, cover for wildlife, and nesting areas for native pollinators.  It’s the grassy areas and the creek and all those little forgotten places that figure in to the whole system.

The farmer, too, is a part of that organism.  Late at night, when you’re talking to a fellow farmer, the philosophy comes to the surface, and you realize that you’re not alone in believing that for a small sustainable farmer, the goal is to sink your soul down into that soil–to become a part of the land you manage.

A guy on a huge-normous tractor on an industrial farm is probably not sinking his soul down into the soil (which is probably better for him because there’s probably a lot of chemical in that soil).  A small farmer who doesn’t own the land he or she manages might also feel a hesitancy to invest their soul into that land.  What happens if the land gets sold or the lease terminated?  You lose a part of yourself.

I think when I was a bit younger, I could handle that better–the leaving of a piece of land I’d managed.  It was like my gift to those who came after, and it was a good feeling to make it a little better, a little more fertile and colorful and welcoming.

But in my mid-thirties, I’m not sure how much more of that I can do–how much more I can give into a piece of land and not stay long-term to reap the rewards–to really feel at home.  When the daughter of my partner urges us to plant an orchard on the land so her daughter can pick fruit there, there’s a bit of resistance in me.

It’s not that I grudge her beautiful daughter the fruit, it’s that the fruit will in part be planted by my hands and my back, and managed by my care and vigilance, but it will not be my orchard, and it will not be for me, my son, or for his kids if he has them.

So my goal within the next five years or so is to find a farm I can call my own.  I’d like to have a farming partner (or at least an intern or two) to live and work with me on the farm, preferably one who is interested in doing a little livestock–chickens, maybe a few head of cattle or goats or sheep–that can help close the fertility loop.

On my way back from the MOSES conference, my riding buddy and I were talking about farm work, and he said, “I don’t know why the good Lord made farmers with only two hands when it’s pretty obvious we need three.”  I chuckled about that for a bit, but it keeps coming back to me.

I keep thinking that a farming partner is like that third hand–I’m not sure it’s possible to make farming a positive and sustainable life without one.  I keeping seeing a sign on the barn in my mind (what, you don’t have a barn in your mind?).

The sign says: “Third Hand Farm.”

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2 responses to this post.

  1. What about a farm/commune? Could there be room for another family (hint, hint)?
    This is exactly what Mark and I have been thinking of, and we can’t wait to get our hands on a piece of land that will allow room for 3 or 4 families, and shared growing space…

  2. Posted by flyingtomato on March 4, 2009 at 5:53 pm

    I’ve thought about that concept. You’d almost have to form a corporation (possibly non-profit?) to buy the land. There could be issues if one of the parties wanted to divest themselves–what if the remaining parties could not afford to buy them out? Still, the possibilities expand when the capital pool is larger. I think you’d need at least 35-50 acres or more for 3 or 4 families–especially if you had livestock (in order to have enough land to raise at least part of their winter feed plus pasture). Too, how to divvy up the income stream from the various endeavors on the farm and off the farm? Lots to think about there, but I do think it’s worth thinking about.

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