“Yup,” I replied. “I’ll be shoveling horse manure.”
“Oh,” he said, “Um, have fun.”
Oh but I did have fun, I did. Thanks to neighboring horsewoman Kristin DeKam, last Saturday was as good as Christmas on the farm as Diane and I loaded, trucked home, and unloaded two heaping truck-beds full of lovely dark manure topped with several beautiful bales of rotten hay. I’m especially grateful to Kristin for sharing her manure with us this year. Normally in early summer I build a big compost pile which I turn several times and add to throughout the season. Then in fall I insulate it with mulch and leave the straw, leaves, grass clippings and vegetable leavings to finish breaking down into fragrant, crumbly, dark brown compost over the winter. Uncovering the compost and working it into the soil is one of my favorite spring rituals.
Unfortunately, the big compost pile was one of the causalities of my trip to Europe this summer and I’ve been wondering where to find a good source of organic material for the permanently raised beds in what we’re calling our “front field.” Our intentions are to work this small section (which includes my former garden) entirely by hand, using no motorized equipment such as tractors or tillers that would compact the soil and disturb its structure. This means, however, that whatever organic material we incorporate either gets put on top as mulch or needs to be fairly well broken down before we apply it, since we won’t be using machines to mix it into the soil.
One of Kristin’s manure piles is already nearly decomposed and I’m eager to experiment with using redworms to compost the other, fresher manure inside our hoophouse this winter. But why worry about organic material at all? The soil in this field is nice and loamy; why not just sprinkle some fertilizer on in spring and call it good?
It’s true that we might not notice a huge difference in our crop yields next year if we took this approach. The soil in this area is healthy enough to nourish next year’s plants. But soil care is not a year-to-year enterprise. Depending on the history of a piece of ground and its ecological conditions, soil-building can take decades, even generations. When I first worked this ground 10 years ago, the soil looked vastly different than it does today. Part of a field that had been rotated for decades between alfalfa and corn crops, the dirt was tan-colored and clayey. I remember kicking ferociously at my shovel that first spring, chipping away at the ground a few inches at a time as I attempted to make a small bed for my tomatoes and sunflowers. If I toss my broadfork into the dark loose loam today it will sink in six inches under its own weight.
What caused the change? A decade of compost, mulch, and manure, along with a cultivation system that minimizes soil compaction from everything including the weight of human feet. Besides creating dirt that is a delight to tend, a steady supply of organic material helps the earth absorb water and nurtures beneficial organisms. As these organisms feed on the organic matter, they stimulate root growth and help plants take in the nutrients released during decomposition. But like all living beings, if we stop feeding these creatures, they die. And once their populations are depleted, it takes a while to build them back up. So as we tend our soil this fall, we’re laying the foundation for healthy soil and crops three, five, even ten years from now.
I’ve been involved in another kind of groundwork this past week as well. Approximately every five years, Congress must pass what is commonly known as the farm bill. Currently, the 2012 Food and Farm Bill is being drafted by the Senate Agriculture Committee. This enormous piece of legislation regulates a wide range of programs which cover such things as farm subsidies, agricultural exports, forest management, crop insurance, conservation programs, agricultural research, nutritional assistance, and school food programs.
It makes sense that in our current economy, Congress is looking to cut funding for many of these programs. I’m concerned, however, that our agricultural funds not be primarily used to support subsidies that benefit large agribusinesses, but also be allocated to such things as research into sustainable and organic farming practices. Since we small farmers don’t have the funds to hire our own research teams, we rely on each other and on places like Michigan State University for information to help us produce healthful food while protecting our shared natural resources. I feel grateful to live in a community that appreciates small farmers and good food enough to become involved in this issue. If you’d like more information on the farm bill, you can check out the Congressional Research Service’s What is the Farm Bill? or come to the Kalamazoo Community Farm Bill Discussion at the Kalamazoo Public Library at 4pm on November 10.
It’s also important to me that small farmers be able to compete fairly in today’s marketplace. In 1921 the Packers and Stockyards Act called for just such fairness in the livestock industry. However, some of the language in that act is vague or outdated. In 2008, the farm bill called for a clarification of these rules. Clarifications have been proposed, but they are not yet implemented and there are community groups currently working on this as well. For more information on this issue, you can visit http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/food/farm-bill-2012/fair-farm-rules/ or come to the Fair Farm Rules Rally being held this Thursday, November 3 at 4:10pm in Calder Plaza, Grand Rapids.
I’ll leave you with some words from Wendell Berry’s Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer:
If the crop of any one year was all, a man would have to cut his throat every time it hailed.
But the real products of any year’s work are the farmer’s mind and the cropland itself.
If he raises a good crop at the cost of belittling himself and diminishing the ground, he has gained nothing. He will have to begin over again the next spring, worse off than before.
Let him receive the season’s increment into his mind. Let him work it into the soil.
The finest growth that farmland can produce is a careful farmer.
Make the human race a better head. Make the world a better piece of ground.