The winter blues are chomping at my face with its icy bite, but I get by daydreaming about being wrist-deep in fluffy soil, worms, and lettuce leaves. I’ve been reading up on gardening and farming, and by chance I saw that the famous farmer Joel Salatin was speaking in New Hampshire in the dead middle of winter. Turns out this organization called the Northeast Organic Farmers Association was having their annual winter conference and they rounded the high preacher of the pasture up. I thumbed through the schedule and was amazed at the in-depth talks about all things food production, from grazing strategies to fermenting vegetables to business planning to carbon management in soil. What a perfect opportunity to get out of the house and warm up with the restless farmer population of New England.

I arrived at the public middle school where the conference was being held. Of course, every car in the parking lot was covered in bumper stickers: NO FARMS NO FOOD, NO GOATS NO GLORY, LIVE FREE AND FARM, BERNIE! – there was even one that said LIBERTARIAN. My ANTIWAR.COM sticker was here to join the party. One truck had torn up floor mats where mud flaps should have been. Someone was walking his herding dog before heading in, himself. When I got to the registration desk, they plucked my name tag out of a sliced up pipe insulation tube. Inside my program was a packet of broccoli seeds. Looks like I’m growing broccoli this year.

The Market Gardener – Permanent Raised Bed Systems

I immediately got into my first session, all about implementing permanent raised bed gardens. I snagged the last tiny little kid desk-chair in the room, beating a crowd of stragglers who had to stand around the classroom. I could barely fit into the chair-desk thing – and when I tried to get out later, I almost knocked it and my neighbor over – but once I was in there, I was snug. It was an amusing sight to look around and see big farmer dudes and other not so middle school-sized people in these stupid little contraptions.

The talk was presented by Stacey Cooper who manages the Shaker Village organic garden. She began the presentation by showing us the well-loved book The Market Gardener, by Jean-Martin Fortier, a Quebecois farmer who implements these raised bed strategies to grow productively on a small amount of land.

In order to set this system up, you basically just plot out your garden space, with allotments for 30” wide rows of raised beds and 18” aisles in between. There are various tools in Fortier’s book, but primarily a backyard gardener can get away with just a broadfork, a tine rake, and a shovel. Loosen all the soil up with a broadfork, rake out the garbage (weeds, rocks, grass, etc.), then dig out the aisles and toss the dirt up into the rows. You can mix in compost and amendments as needed and rake off the top of the rows so they are flat. Now you have the template for permanent raised beds.

In the raised beds, the soil is less compact, which allows more room for the roots (and root crops) to grow and move around. It also helps the microbes do their thing, which creates healthier soil. The loose soil also retains water better than packed down soil, which tends to puddle and run off, taking all the nutrients with it. It’s important to use plastic mulch or cover crops to keep the unused portions of the beds covered, so that the soil nutrients stay where they are. Growing cover crop in the aisles also helps keep the soil healthy, and it’s an easy place to grow free compost — “green manure.” Eventually, a self-sustaining system is in place and you’re off and running. The best thing about all of this? No tractors, and the human labor is pretty minimal once everything is set up.

I was so excited that I sat there at my tiny stupid desk-thing and began plotting out my garden. I should be able to fit three 30” rows into the space I was planning for my garden, each row around ten feet long. Most of what I want to grow can be spaced at 4”, 6”, or 12”, which means I can plant six rows, five rows, or three rows in the bed – and I don’t even have to use the entire row. Now I’m thinking I might just make the rows five feet long, so I don’t go overboard. I can always add more. But if I practice succession planting, things could get wild… Soaker hose or drip irrigation will be easy to set up, and plastic mulch over the entire thing, with holes punched out where I stick the seeds. I can decide later if I’d like to build some small row covers. I guess it depends on how the weather looks come May. Whoa… it can be that simple to have a garden.

a personal commitment to conservation” – Planning For The Future of Farmland

My head was spinning as I wandered into the next session, which was a screening of a short film called The Barber Farm Project followed by a discussion on “the practical, financial, and emotional considerations families face when planning for the future of farmland.”

In the last few decades, many farms have gone fallow and the children and grandchildren of farmers have chosen to sell the land to developers rather than continue farming it. Filmmaker Gretchen Siegchrist described growing up on a farm in rural Vermont this way, as we see a photo of her grungy 90’s self: “It was idyllic, but by the time I was a teenager I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there.” Years later, she was home and documenting her family’s life on the farm in Jericho, Vermont. Cut to a scene from modern times and her 90-year-old grandmother is hacking giant cabbages out of the garden with a huge knife, pulling a ballcap down over her eyes to keep the sun away.

We learn that the farming economy is so small out there that want-ads in the paper for hay-cutting jobs received zero responses, a frightening thing for aging farmers. When faced with the reality that none of your children want to farm the land – and that they prefer the financial gains from selling that land – it can become an easy decision to sell it to developers. Cut to scenes of famland carved out and peppered with McMansions. Laissez-fairies may applaud the market decisions at play here, but perhaps there is a deeper issue at root. I see it all the time in New Hampshire: people leave Massachusetts to escape the big city nonsense, the laws and taxes and regulations, the sprawl, but then they establish it all over again when they settle. Because moving three hours away from the closest business district has consequences if you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.

The grandmother faced a challenge when she learned that her daughter (the filmmaker’s mother) and her husband wanted to conserve the land, while the rest of her children leaned toward selling. Now there’s a conflict. They researched how to convert the land to a land trust, but never came to any conclusions. After screening an earlier version of this film at a festival, the farm was pleased to receive an offer from a local farmer to rent some of the land and grow his produce there. Finally the farm was functional again! This “personal commitment to conservation” was a powerful message in the film, that individuals can achieve important things with determination. Eventually the grandmother decided to parcel out some of the land to developers and have the rest conserved – now there is a shiny sign on the barn with big, black letters VERMONT LAND TRUST. This guarantees the land cannot be developed. Currently the filmmaker’s father grows food on the land and donates it to local food banks, which is pretty cool.

After the film, a discussion opened up in the room whether or not land trusts were “beneficial to the public,” since they use public tax dollars to protect private property. It’s an excellent thought experiment for contemplating the things seen versus things unseen. Perhaps development is the better market choice, but it can also be argued that by protecting the land from development, less people will move there, and demand for public services will remain low. Plus, as I mentioned, preservation of natural landscape and ecology has its perks when compared to the inevitable sprawl that comes with developments.

One disturbing fact that came up in the session is that the average age of the farmer in America is around 58 years old. All I could think about the entire time was, what happens to the land when no one wants to farm it? It was argued that by protecting it from development, it guarantees the land is there for when a farmer finally is able to show up. I can’t say I support the idea of land trusts as a principled libertarian, because it takes property rights away from the landowner and essentially gives it to the state. However, in today’s bridge-burning world where corporate interests often precede the reality of a finite earth, I don’t think it’s the worst thing governments can do. The film is fascinating because it leaves the question open as to what the best strategy is. Perhaps a combination of land trusts and individual actions is the best strategy right now.

A lot of heavy stuff to start the day. I walked around the Market and snagged a free copy of a cool magazine called Taproot, I saw a guy walk by with a newly purchased vermiculture starter kit like it was Christmas morning, Joel Salatin was signing books, someone was playing music, lunch was getting served. I sat at the PEANUT-FREE TABLE in the cafeteria and took in the scene, tables filled with farmers and families, young and old, some well-dressed, some grizzled old hippies in torn flannels. Then out of the blue, a little girl sits right across from me and unwraps a tiny bunny from a bright-yellow blanket and begins brushing it and mumbling incoherently at it. She never even notices me, so I just leave her be. Moments later, she wraps it up again and dilly-dallies away. She’s only wearing socks, I realize, which is pretty cool.

growing food and growing . . . kids” – Bringing It Home

I wandered into a science classroom where Ben Hewitt was holding court with a crowd that was mostly my age (under 35) on starting a homestead and unschooling your children. Hewitt dropped out of high school and bought land cheap in rural Vermont in the late 90’s with his wife. Together, they built their homestead out of pocket, a little bit at a time. He’s made money through freelance writing, publishing books, speaking engagements, offering workshops on the farm, and a small excavation business. “We practice civil disobedience when it comes to selling food off our farm,” he said as he began the slideshow to accompany his presentation. “We keep it pretty low key.”

They’ve spent the last twenty years on the homestead, have since sold it, and are starting over on a smaller property. You could say their business plan is “creating bucolic homesteads.” Sounds like a great life, though it comes with 80-90 hour workweeks. “It was a really fun experiment, but I don’t know if I could do it again,” he joked, as he flipped through beautiful photos of the operations on his land and some of its products.

One jar of cream had everyone wide-eyed. For a life that lacks the rich man’s wages, it’s easy to live like ’em. “Let’s put it this way. We only drink cream.” And it’s basically free. The cows eat grass. The sun and rain make the grass grow. Someone just has to get the cream. I actually heard people whimper as a picture of homemade butter showed up on the screen. “Oh, that’s butter,” he told us. “We make a lot a lot a lot a lot of butter. . . . That is friggin’ power food!” He promised not to get too political, but most people in the room already agreed: real food and hard work make healthy people. And while Big Ag offers little nutrition, Big Pharma offers just enough synthetic chemicals to keep its victims alive to buy more.

The slideshow began showing more and more photos of his two young sons – both unschooled – doing all sorts of crazy things like butchering pigs with big knives and big grins or bending nails into boards from the tops of ladders. The discussion turned to home education. In public schools, they “make learning happen,” which means that kids study for tests and forget everything after. With unschooling, Hewitt said he tries to “make room for learning to happen.” His kids have learned what they’ve wanted to, mostly when they want to. He tells this story in his book Home Grown, which was published a few years ago. His sons are now approaching their teens and seem to be doing just fine. The oldest is into music and Hewitt can imagine him moving to a city and adopting that sort of lifestyle. The youngest still has a lot of interest working on the homestead.

Both boys feel no need to fit in with the so-called normal kids. Hewitt related a story in which his son asked him, “Are we really that weird or is it just our perception of things?” He’s really glad his kids are so self-aware and asking such questions in the first place. We live in a time when the average kid spends over fifty hours a week in front of a screen, and just now his son is thinking about making a facebook page to keep in touch with his friends.

The big critique of homeschooling (etc.) is that children won’t be socialized enough. This came up in the talk, as well. Hewitt insisted that there’s been plenty of socialization for his oldest, who is a huge extrovert. Both boys have numerous relationships with people of all ages, both friends and mentors, and his oldest has even entered a self-directed learning program to stay busy. However, the reason that the stereotype of awkward homeschool kids exists is, well, a lot of them are awkward. It’s an easy fix, though. Just get the kids out there and do stuff.

Someone asked Hewitt for advice on what he should do with his fifty acre lot, which is currently nothing but trees. Hewitt had three words: “Just get started.” It’s a lot of work, but it’s fun. Oh, and if you have pigs, keep them out of the garden.

the most important farm in the world and the farm of the future” – Folks, This Ain’t Normal

Joel Salatin was introduced by a professor of Sustainable Agriculture from UNH, who recounted the many times Salatin has visited New Hampshire, which has been a lot. (He didn’t mention PorcFest XI, but I’ll forgive him.) Salatin has been a leader in the decentralized, sustainable food movement for years, as a farmer developing and promoting proven ideas. He covers the field, from the nitty gritty how-to right up to the big picture of farming and its role in America. Before his keynote, he had given numerous presentations, from raising poultry, to raising cattle, to marketing on the farm to accepting and working with interns. And now he was going to speak about the ideas presented in his book Folks, This Ain’t Normal.

What is normal for Salatin is large, enthusiastic crowds. The room filled mighty quick when he was introduced, and when he took the microphone, the crowd went nuts. Known as the high preacher of the pasture, he was performing for his choir now.

Salatin began by suggesting humans have short memories. We’ve done things a certain way for millennia and then, out of the blue, we got blindsided with progress. Supermarkets are “normal,” now. Uber is everywhere and expected on every corner. This is well and good, but with all this progress and industry comes its problems. He had never even heard the phrase “food allergy” as a kid. “You couldn’t go to the store and buy a boneless, skinless breast. If you wanted chicken, you bought a chicken!” Salatin joked that today half his customers don’t even know that chickens have bones. Within the first few minutes of his talk he suggested that the TV should be used for deer rifle practice and that video games perform a great disservice to us when they give us a new life every time we lose one – try that in real life, sometime. He held his hands up close together to show on the imaginary timeline that spread from wall to wall how long these new technologies and choices have existed for humans. The “common sense mentality,” appreciation, and gratitude we’ve had for just about ever, from hard work and being forced to react with reality – what has been “normal” since day one – has been replaced rather quickly with a sense of entitlement.

Since the boneless, skinless chicken breast is the perfect symbol of modern life, he related how chicken used to be more expensive than beef. Grains were the reason why. People ate the grains; they weren’t wasted on the chickens. Bread has a special place in the cultural heart of humans for a reason. “People weren’t eating triscuits by the handful,” Salatin joked. Grains weren’t easy to grow. When tractors and other equipment helped make grain easier to grow, someone decided it was time to stuff his chickens full of grain by the trailerful. Today, we have the formula for growing animals in place: grain plus petroleum plus mechanization (plus antibiotics) = “profoundly abnormal.”

Salatin tied it back to the sense of entitlement. It used to be hard work, but now it’s just a thing we do. And it’s expected to continue. The cost of this newfound convenience is that “if we can invent things we can’t physically, emotionally, spiritually metabolize, then we spend the next few generations trying to remediate” the consequences. Those consequences are sick people, sick animals, a sick environment, a disconnect from our food and from each other. Fun fact! 30% of all food in the United States is eaten in automobiles. Families don’t eat together anymore (mine sure didn’t).

“Leftovers” is a curse word now. Salatin called it the “badge of honor” to have leftovers. It means you know what you’re doing. Perhaps a campaign is in order – LEFTOVERS ARE SEXY – to resurrect the “beautiful functionality of leftovers.” One hundred years ago, everyone had a larder, and that’s where all the food was. Today, grocery stores have maybe three days worth of food on hand. To get food at the supermarket, it takes international trade agreements and union workers not being on strike, product tracking, refrigeration, ships crossing oceans on time! It’s all very fragile (and he didn’t hardly mentioned that the entire thing relies on oil and government subsidies of corn, wheat, and soy).

I recalled the bright fluorescents of the grocery store reflecting off all the wax-covered vegetable lookalikes for sale as Salatin shared his experience visiting the Powhatan village in Williamsburg, Virginia. It was a complete emotional and spiritual package accompanying the sight of all of your food hanging in your teepee right above your head every night as you went to sleep. “That’s a great spiritual state to be in, folks. That’s what normal was for a long time.” He let that image hang for a moment before replacing it with the typical American fridge: condiments and a few cans of spaghettios – and that reliance on the grocery store.

Yes, it’s a wonderful thing to have technology, he agreed, but it is just a tool, not a means to the end. A few things Salatin thanks technology for? “Stainless steel is very cool.” And chainsaws. No farmer can imagine a life without it. A resounding sigh of agreement floated out from the crowd. We need to use technology to make human lives better, not destroy them. Big Ag and Big Pharma, hand in hand, offer us nutrition-less food, then prescribe us the drugs to fix the inevitable problems. Nutrition used to be the fix. “We have outlawed many of the foods that our ancestors grew up on!” Salatin said, in reference to common issues today like raids on local farms that sell raw milk. Today we have the “luxury to sit around and pass legislation” to criminalize food. Heck, even the food pyramid didn’t come around until the 1970s – and with it came all that diabetes and obesity we have today.

The first step toward making things a little better? Just get into your kitchen and do something. We need to honor the “cultural patterns . . . that held up civilization,” such as the sustainable farming techniques he promotes that people have been using for as long as agriculture has been around. There used to be farms on every corner; today it’s the convenience store. The more people act (and think) responsibly, the more things will change.

Salatin’s talk left a lot of people inspired and ready to get begin another season of growing food. As the crowds leaked out of the building, there wasn’t much time to think or act, just weave toward the exit. But that long table of books for sale was a pleasure to skip by. Oh man, I wanted to buy and read every single one. But I’ll need that money for a broadfork! Winter’s icy bite will end eventually, and I can get outside and try my hand at it, myself.