Sunlight pierced the mottled gray clouds and rested its warmth against my shoulder blades. My knees sunk in wet grass, I pulled a layer of leaf mulch away from the chicken-wire fence and raked my fingers through the cool, loose dirt beneath. As expected, I found several quackgrass runners trying to sneak under the fence and into the rich soil of the garden. I selected one and, digging my hand deeper into the earth, traced its trajectory under the fence, tugging gently until I felt it loosen. A foot inside the garden, a single grass-blade disappeared into the ground as I pulled the long runner free and tossed it onto the lawn.
We all have our spring rituals. Some people hit the golf course on the first warm weekend; others clean out the garage or wash windows and install screens. I pull quack. My windows could use some attention, for sure, but there’s something about pulling quack in springtime that clears my mind and feeds my soul. My head bent to the soil, I work almost meditatively, my attention in my fingertips feeling their way through the dirt. Pulling quack teaches me gentleness, even as I root out unwanted growth. Too vigorous a yank, the runner breaks and I’ve lost it—a piece of rhizome left in the ground to send out new shoots I’ll have to contend with later.
Though my eyes were on the ground as I worked through the late morning, my ears took in the life around me. A titmouse called (“peter, peter, peter”) from the tree line and the songs of red-winged black birds (“o-ka-lee-a”) echoed across the field. A cardinal sang; sparrows chipped and trilled; from the pond the voices of chorus frogs and peepers rose into the air. Finally, my stomach told me it was time to look up. Breaking my reverie, I stood and stretched. The clouds that had earlier blanketed the sky were clearing; patches of blue shone through.
Instead of heading to the kitchen, I grabbed a trowel and shears and started across the field, Bud running ahead of me, happy to stretch his legs after a lazy morning of rolling around in the backyard grass. As I approached the small patch of woods north of the field behind my house, I noticed flowers on the maple trees and indulged in a moment of worry over our unseasonably warm weather and what it might mean for the growing season to come. Pushing those thoughts aside, I ducked between the rusty wires of an abandoned fence and into the cool shade of the woods. Along the west side of a large fallen tree trunk, I found what I was looking for—ramps, their broad, tulip-shaped leaves shining vibrantly green against the mottled brown leaf-mold of the forest floor. My mouth watered.
I dug in my trowel and lifted a clump of narrow, white, pink-sheathed bulbs from the ground. Ramps are also known as ‘wild leeks’—they are of the onion family and have a particularly lovely leek-y flavor. On my way back toward the house, I spied another of my favorite spring delicacies—stinging nettles. Yes, stinging nettles, the ones that make your hands smart something awful when you accidently brush up against them while weeding. Fortunately, cooking transforms them from a potentially pain-inflicting plant into a nutritious vegetable. Grasping the leaves firmly between my fingers to avoid the stingers, I snipped a handful of the young shoots into my harvest basket.
As I sat down to my lunch of steamed nettles with olive oil and ramps sautéed with tempeh, wild rice, and summer squash I’d frozen from last year’s garden, I browsed through the transcript of a conversation that recently aired on NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show. The topic was organic agriculture and the question at hand whether organic growers are living up to consumers’ expectations and values as larger and larger corporations become involved. One of the guests, Elizabeth Rosenthal of The New York Times, published an article last December (“Organic Agriculture May Be Outgrowing Its Ideals”) which questions the importation of vast quantities of organic tomatoes into the US market from Mexico’s Baja peninsula. At issue is the fact that even though those tomatoes are grown according to USDA organic standards, the amount of water required to grow them in Baja’s desert environment is drying up local aquifers.
Which leads to the question—what do we want from organic agriculture, anyway? Do we simply want food that isn’t laced with toxic chemicals and/or antibiotics? Or do we also want it to be more nutritious, because the soil it takes its nutrients from is healthier? Do we care about global ecosystems, the health of far-off people and communities, the amount of fossil fuel pollution required to transport the food to us? Do we care whether we have successful farms operating in our neighborhoods or nearby? What about flavor and freshness? Are we willing to pay farmers more to grow and harvest crops that taste better than what currently passes for “fresh” produce in most grocery stores?
My guess is that there are a lot of different answers to the question of what we value in our food and food systems. And probably farmers have as many different reasons for growing organically as consumers do for purchasing organically grown products. I think it’s exciting that these questions have become so much a part of our national conversation that large corporations now see organically certified agriculture as a profitable enterprise. Though we value organic methods, we’re not organically certified at Harvest of Joy Farm LLC and our farming techniques aren’t dictated by organic legislation or market demand. Like most small farmers we know, we do this for love. If we can’t make a living growing food in a way that enriches rather than depletes the health of our customers, our community, and the ecosystem in which we live, then we don’t want to farm at all.
I don’t view this as idealism, but rather, fundamentally pragmatic. I am the fourth generation of my family to farm this land and have spent three quarters of my life here. During that time, a good portion of my diet has come directly from this soil in the form of wild and cultivated fruits and vegetables, milk, eggs, and meat. The water that flows through this ground also flows through my body and the oxygen that fuels the metabolism of my cells comes from the air that blows across these fields. So when I say that I am one with this land, I’m speaking biologically, not metaphorically. If its water is polluted, if chemicals contaminate its air or soil, then I drink, I eat, I breathe them in. If I misuse this soil and deplete its nutrients, then my body will be deficient in those nutrients as well.
A few years ago, at a farming conference, I watched in amazement as an elderly farmer, his gray hair tucked under a John Deere cap and flannel shirt belted neatly into dark blue jeans, choked up as he concluded a lecture on soil improvement techniques. “We’ve got to take better care of our soil, folks,” he said. “This is so important. I have a granddaughter . . .” Pausing to collect himself, he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, then apologized to the classroom full of fellow farmers. “I’m sorry,” he said, “But this is our children’s future we’re talking about here.”
I think it’s worth asking what motivates the people who produce our food. Are the executives who make agricultural decisions for the international corporations which sell organic products thinking about their grandchildren? Are they thinking about yours? Are they thinking about the future generations who will rely on the aquifers of the Baja peninsula? I don’t know, but I hope they are.
I rinsed my plate and donned my hat. Even as I mused upon the state of organic agriculture, quackgrass was stealthily stretching under my fence. Fifteen minutes with a sprayer full of herbicide would eliminate the problem, of course, but then I wouldn’t have to slow down and feel the soil that feeds me, to assess its warmth and wetness, to notice the worms, grubs, and insects that live within it, to pay attention to the birds whose seasonal cycles of departure and return remind me of my connections to far-away land I may never see. My weed-control methods may not be the most efficient, but if it means sustaining the life of this soil, I’ll take their wages of sunlight and birdsong over any corporate salary, even an organic one.