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Organic Outliers: Showcasing Innovative Small-Scale Farming Models

June 26, 2024

Table of Contents

Organic Outliers: Showcasing Innovative Small-Scale Farming Models

The Fabric of Community

Sometimes last winter my friends, neighbors, and initial farm employers were clearing out some old files in their basement and came across a copy of the original application I’d mailed in to work for them on their farm here when I was nineteen, my first farm job—really my first real job at all. In response to a question on what interested me about the farm job, I wrote that I would not be “simply another employee of some retail chain.” It always saddens me to see the sort of “old way of life” disappearing. Farming is a fundamental institution—what people have done for thousands of years. It is not just a job that takes up free time; it will be my life for three months.

Although I knew next to nothing when I wrote it, there’s nothing in there that isn’t still true. Recently, a new neighbor was telling me about the temporary tutoring work he’s been doing, and in conversation, I asked what sort of job he’s looking to find more permanently—or whether, like his farm neighbors, he would hope to carve out a life with less distinction between job and the things one does with their days. And in posing that question, it became clear to me how far removed from my own life the concept is of maintaining that dichotomy of a career separate from non-work life, although I do plenty of work on all sorts of projects every day. They’re all simply projects I’m working on, with some being more critical than others.

That “old way of life” I imagined in that old job application isn’t farming itself exactly, but what arises in a world where many people have projects going on that need doing—profitable and non-profitable activities all mixed up together—the sum total of which happening to yield enough money to live on. And where people are tied to place and therefore to neighbors. The local plumber who’s in his 40s was in my basement once, and we were talking about Lovettsville history. He said that of his high school class, about half of his classmates had stayed in the area after graduation. His father, also a plumber and also in my basement, pointed to himself and said, “For me, ninety-five percent.” What that old way of life of generational history and overlapping livelihoods generates is a different kind of community, a different kind of neighborliness, a different kind of friendship—there are not “work friends” or “professional connections” which largely evaporate when people change jobs or careers, but community and neighborly connections that arise as people live their lives in close proximity, doing what matters to them personally, and interfacing with each other through the course of their daily activities.

And even when people change projects or switch jobs, they still all live in the same community. That connection of necessity—of needing to visit the members of one’s local community in order to get something done on one’s personally relevant work—creates and sustains a relationship different from a work friendship or a purely social relationship, one that, although less personal, can become stronger than one where people only see each other out of intentional action. And when these interconnections reach a critical mass, a different social fabric arises.

This year, I rented the greenhouse of the retired farmers directly to the south—neighbors who I like and often chat with through the fenceline. We’ve known each other for over a decade and are friends, dedicated to supporting each other’s farming, although as much as we’d like to see each other socially, we rarely do. But this year, in the course of going over to water my transplants each morning, I saw them more days than not, and in passing, we inevitably registered the briefest observation or complaint, talked about some happening, or asked some question we’d never think to call each other for on purpose. Now that the greenhouse season is over, we’re no longer brought into contact by my transplants and my neighbors’ morning gardening, and we see each other less.

Eight or ten years ago—I remember this because I remember when it changed—people talked on the phone to ask even a quick question if you can believe it, because there was no other way. A call to sell some lettuce or to buy some tomatoes might last only a minute, maybe two, but there were several times a week, without even thinking about it, in the course of accomplishing our work, we would hear something of the news of the day in each other’s lives and thereby maintain our relationship through such frequent and mutually-necessary interaction. By now, texting has solidified as the norm—straight to the point, no need to answer the phone and spend 60 or even 90 seconds talking to one another, no need to hear another’s voice or to chat without intention. This new mode is admittedly more efficient, but I do feel the loss of that connection that arises when people are forced by the necessity of their work to cross paths, not for social reasons, but simply in the course of living their daily livelihood.

I’ve mentioned here before how I enjoy building and repairing the old farm equipment I use on the farm. During the evenings for the past month or two, I’ve been fixing up my farm shop—organizing tools and sorting out an overwhelming volume of auction lots haphazardly stacked, much of which came from Bill Moore, the welder’s sale last year, which had been, until recently, sitting as it came home, including his enormous 1000lb drill press from 100 years ago or more, a $40 bid sitting awkwardly in the middle of things where the tractor set it down. A farm shop well organized and ready for work is just on the horizon, in time for the winter season.

It’s true, I am looking forward to enjoying time spent practicing out-of-date mechanical skills learned from old books—a sufficient reason to be sure. But in no small part, I’m also setting up the place with a mind that I might come to make repairs now and then for others. In the practiced assessment and hand-work of making a repair, there’s a joy entirely different from the work of creating a tomato. And in fact, there’s not all that many things that break on my own farm, so it would be interesting to have access to a body of repair work greater than I can generate here on my own. But moreover, to be able to send neighbors away with something that was previously broken but now allows them to do something that they want to do in their daily lives—that activity brings people into contact with each other in that old way of life, keeping relationships strong through the interactions that happen to occur because we’re living in reliance on one another.

Last week, I invited a neighbor from down the road to come see the progress I’d made on the shop—a friend I like, though we rarely talk, because we’re both busy. But of course, the shop capability was interesting enough that they made a point to come over to see it. We talked at length about drills and vises and ended up with a social visit to boot, where we never would have gotten together on purpose. We farm-types certainly are intermingled with each other, but we’re also often busy, often sequestered off on our own projects, too caught up in our own activity to think of a visit except by necessity. In a world moving on from such “inefficiencies,” it’s possible I might be able to create some of those necessities with old-school metal and mechanical ability.

The New Normal

September is no time for this! In earlier years of the CSA, I remember the weather being a fairly common topic of the weekly newsletters, but it doesn’t end up coming up that often anymore. I think that’s because the weekly weather used to have a critical direct effect on the weekly work list—in particular, rain and the week’s rain forecast, which determined tillage timing and interrupted transplanting schedules with soggy fields.

As the years went on, as we were exposed to more extreme weather situations and as the weather patterns seemed to become more unusual and weather forecasts less reliable, I made incremental changes to farm systems, crop plans, and decision-making principles so that farm operations became more resilient to these events. And so, at this point, run-of-the-mill weekly weather barely affects our ability to get plants in the ground on time and has relatively little impact on the work list.

It’s also the case that with the longer periods of dryness between large rains these days, there just isn’t rain often enough to get in the way of all that much. And so the weather—that perennial farmer-favorite topic—rarely shows up in the weekly newsletter anymore. Because I know what to do about weather, which is to say the various rainstorms, dry weeks, hot days, frosty nights, etc. that all require certain decision-making and work-list decisions to shepherd the farm to best effect.

The bigger factor now, and what I do NOT yet know quite what to do about, is the climate—which is to say the typical and expected weather patterns over time—and the major events a shifting climate can bring once a year, which still can determine the season’s success.

Sometimes it feels like I’m just primed to see unexpected events as a product of shifting climate where there, in fact, has always been surprising weather and no year exactly like the last. But for us to have experienced all within the span of nine months: a shock of 5 degrees for 12 straight hours last Christmas, then unseasonably warm conditions for the entire rest of the winter with barely a flake of snow (leading to a good percentage of the onion seedlings being eaten by onion maggots, their typical mid-spring timeline so accelerated by the warm winter that their emergence coincided with our ideal and unusually-early onion planting day of March 31st), and then biblical levels of potato beetles, weeks without rain followed by spring deluges of several inches turning the ground from too dry to till directly to too wet to till, and a parched summer with rain forecasts evaporating week by week—and days of wildfire smoke, a curiosity a couple years ago from west coast fires but by now an accepted possibility, smoke visibly hanging in the air with no escape, in a feeling reminiscent of the pandemic era except in reverse, where indoors is the safe, un-masked location and masks are worn in the dangerous outdoor air. And now the hottest week of the year arrives in September, a month that hasn’t topped 97 degrees in my lifetime at Dulles, and here we have three days in a row hotter than that.

And of course, overall, this is the hottest year on record, which really has stopped being news—most years nowadays are the hottest on record. Wells haven’t run dry, and nothing’s on fire, but that just seems like more unusual events than there used to be in a year. And it’s only September.

We’re doing all right with the weather this week; we know what to do this week when it’s hot—the same as we do in July—and we’re prepared to meet the challenges as the intensity of weather dials up, and it comes to be more likely now to have major deluges followed by long periods of dryness rather than reasonable amounts of rain at regular intervals. And then there is the increased and real risk of intense and unavoidable hailstorms that may in any given year track across the farm, for which there is no preparation—as happened in 2020 and will happen again.

But in the big picture, it’s not clear what the future brings with the newly variable climate, year-to-year—an unknown challenge. We’ve experienced new possibilities of climate-related pest appearance not before imagined, and so we’ll learn to cover the onions with netting and introduce an organic spray for potato beetles, while changing the mix of potato varieties and planting density to have the best result in case of early death. Someday, to our great surprise, it will have been dry not for a few weeks but for a few months or more, and we’ll wonder if or when drought can become so extreme that our well runs dry. Now knowing wildfire smoke can arrive without warning, we will be ready with masks and air-quality protocol for hot-weather outdoor work, but there will likely be a summer when we see smoke-filled air not for a couple days but for weeks on end, as already happens in other parts of the country. Not to mention the ways that a changing climate affects the larger infrastructure we rely on, like the electrical grid, which suffers under demand during extreme weather and has gone down in other parts of the country. We already get our electricity from solar panels; do we invest in off-grid capability before or after experiencing an extended outage?

In the earlier years of the farm, the moment-to-moment implementation of the farm consumed my decision-making and efforts at improvement—working out what to do for situations that might arise weekly or monthly. In years to come, now it seems like that planning turns more and more long-term, making subtle changes to increase resilience as once-outlier events become more and more possible. The process for meeting future challenges is really the same one as has allowed the farm to come to where it is today in the first place. I mean, farming was never a straightforward, uncomplicated enterprise—it’s just that what’s to come may involve new and unexpected challenges, different from the ones my neighbors here and I have all faced for years.

The Essence of CSA

What IS the CSA, anyway? You can read a lot of words on the website about what the CSA is, and my impression is that’s a fairly accurate description. Still, everyone has to sign up in advance based on that description and before they really know what they’re signing up for. Rarely—and honestly, less often than I would expect—someone interested in joining the CSA asks about a sample share or a trial week. I always consider it, and I always refuse. Not because it wouldn’t be possible, but because I don’t think one week can ever say all that much about what the CSA is.

If anything, basing one’s impression of the CSA on one isolated week would give a less accurate view of what to expect. Each week is different from the last, shifting slowly but surely through the season. I’m even disinclined to let people join the CSA partway through, even when there’s space at the site, because in some way, I feel like someone joining only for the second half of the season—tomatoes, peppers, winter squash—misses the context of what came before: zucchini, cucumbers, onions, and the change and growth over the course of the entire season. They might very well miss understanding the defining feature of the season, whatever it might be.

The CSA is more than the sum of its parts, more than just one blue bag which could be sampled in a trial week and then repeated 16 weeks in a row. But in the bigger picture, is one whole CSA season even enough to know what the CSA is? At this point, going on ten years running the CSA, the planting schedule and crop list is fairly nailed down, with only minor adjustments each year. For example, more tomatoes this year and hopefully a longer, less-intense melon season. And yet, somehow, each season always develops its own character, unpredictably different from the year before.

Some years, it feels like a potato year or a squash year or a tomato year. Years ago, there was even a “beet year,” which I was sure not to repeat once learning people’s feelings on the matter. The funny thing is, these feelings about what the season was like—too many beets, not enough tomatoes, etc.—are real, but they are just our impression, and often, when I go back and look at actual numbers, the seasons are to my surprise much more similar than they are different. The reality of what happened doesn’t determine our impression of what the season was like.

Some years into developing my farm, I heard from my neighbors, for whom I’d worked and learned to farm in the first place, that even they had “winners and losers” every year—and they’d been doing this for decades. That’s just the way of it. Their farm always had enough overall and approximately the same total quantity of vegetables each year, just not in the same proportions. I find that to be true for me too. I used to be concerned when a crop didn’t seem to be working out, as if any given thing should work each year, simply because it’s worked in the past. And I didn’t notice as much when certain things happened to be exceptional, because—well, maybe they should be like that every year. It took me a long time to get a sense of what a “typical” year is, and now I know that ALL of this is normal. We can’t plan for what WILL happen in a given season, only for what is most LIKELY to happen and, given enough seasons, will happen on average in time.

And so, if someone were to join the CSA for just one season, does that tell them what the CSA is? They would certainly see a variety of different shares throughout the season, as you are this year, but it would be an error to assume each year is a repetition of the last. Sometimes, I even worry about that—that as the farm plans become more similar year-to-year, the CSA might get “boring” for returning folks. And then I remember that my plans don’t actually have the effect on the farm that I think they do, and so even if the plans are the same year to year, the farm never is.

To really get a sense of what the CSA is, I’d say one needs to experience not just one week or one month or even one whole season. As with farming, doing it for only a few years teaches a whole lot while still leaving one unprepared for year four, and it takes many more years than that to have experienced a breadth of situations to where everything that happens feels possible, normal, and with a ready answer for what to do about it. Similarly for the CSA, I’d say maybe 5 seasons is about right to REALLY know what the CSA is like—to understand the context for what might happen in any given year and to feel that all the variation and surprises are well within the range of normal expectation, given the experience of the prior years.

Last week, you heard about how every year of the CSA is in some way different from the last. Some of you might have noticed by now that last year was a “Potato Year,” and this year most definitely is not. I have been parceling out potatoes a little bit at a time and only when necessary, not wanting to exhaust the supply before they become a critical item for fall shares. You see, although I did everything I was supposed to for the

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