Farmer John’s Column

By September 13, 2018VABF News

I can still remember the smells of my first garden back home in small town Indiana. I walked into the garden, saltshaker in hand. I was heading to the big boy tomatoes. My bare feet remember the feel of the soft rich soil. My whole being remembers the first bites of fresh tomato.

It didn’t stop there. Next, I went to the sweet corn and ate two or three of those raw. One last stop in the carrot section, and that was a meal. The grit on the carrots was simply a condiment. I was a boy who lived outdoors as much as possible, in creeks, in trees or in old barns a few miles away. That was how I started to value the land, its bounty and my part in sustaining them.

That was my family garden then. I’ve had a garden or a farm ever since, except for a couple of years living out of a backpack, but that last bit is another story.

This is about my route to farming. It is a little circuitous.

I learned about organic gardening and healthy eating from my Grandpa, who lived to be just shy of 100. It came naturally with my love for him.

And my mother and grandmother were awesome cooks. I will never forget the late afternoons at the picnic table snapping beans, washing beets and shucking corn.

One of my favorite vegetables is still red beets boiled, peeled and then sautéed in butter and soy sauce. You say you don’t like beets? I challenge you to try this method. It was kind of an everyday celebration of food. This cooking also was part of family life during World War II, eating out of their Victory Garden.

My next influence came from studying energy-efficient building and solar heat at a summer program during my training as a carpenter. I decided to take an extra class on natural gardening and farming. In retrospect, I must have subconsciously been planning the move to farming from building. It certainly wasn’t in my career path at the time.

During my two years as a kind of wandervogel, I stumbled into an opportunity to study at a horticulture program. I was hired to build a forcing house, which speeds the development of plants, for the school. When we finished, I struck a deal to build whatever they needed for free and attend the lectures in exchange. That was a great barter for an eager young man.

The teacher was Alan Chadwick, an English master horticulturist and, in my mind, a genius. He could lecture uninterrupted and with no notes for 30 to 40 minutes on any plant, vegetable, herb, fruit or tree. It would include all the cultural requirements, ancient lore as well as harvest and use details. I found an old picture of me at a lecture with my mouth hanging open and a fly on my tongue. I’m partly kidding. You can’t see the fly.

I moved on from there knowing how to build seed flats, tool racks, chicken coops and green-houses. Of course, the garden lectures stayed in my mind for years to come. I moved to Virginia Beach ready to build solar houses.

After the 1980 election, solar business failed due to a change of policies. In the run-up to that time, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz, a fan of big agriculture, helped many farmers to the bankruptcy door. Politics matter because they result in policy. That put me off of farming.

I became a pretty good carpenter and raised a family on that. It was satisfying to be a good craftsman, but it didn’t satisfy my interest in sustainability.

Somewhere in there a dream was born of starting a farm and compost business. I attended a conference put on by the Virginia Association of Biological Farming in Charlottesville, still a very good resource and conference.

I met George Leidig of Autrusa Enterprises there. He sold compost turners and spading machines. More, importantly he hosted workshops on the Controlled Microbial Composting system of composting.

During the first weeklong workshop, I lit up like a Christmas tree, and I had a farm within a year. I was now living closer to my ideals. This is when I first learned of the intricate, marvelous complexity of soil microbiology. Soil is so much more than a substrate for a few inputs, such as fertilizer.

The Leubkes family, who presented the classes, were pioneers on the subject and have won awards in Europe for their work. We may have caught up with them here in theory, at least in some circles, but not in practice. I am working on that.

All the while, I also learned about the connection of how food is grown and nutrition. I looked into all kinds of diets, too, although in an admittedly less intensive manner than I approach farming and garden work. I still love to eat good fresh food, although a good donut or burger from just about anywhere will satisfy on occasion.

I have farmed organically for 22 years, and I promote these ideas in my consulting work and speaking engagements, as well as the columns I write here about soil health and sustainable practices.

The influences which form my views include maximum health and wellness to all, hard work ethic from small town Indiana, soil science from the latest research, the pure joy of good eating and the beauty of a well-tended farm rich in practices that celebrate biodiversity.

From the first fresh salted tomato to the present, I still love the soil, the landscape and what we as farmers coax from them.