I recently had a discussion with a friend about the best way for young people to help out our farming community during the current drought crisis. The suggestion was to fundraise for farmers, but I don't agree. Don't get me wrong, money is very helpful, but I think the best way for a young mind (or any mind for that matter) to approach a problem (and yes, there is a problem) is education. If we can teach our children about where their food comes from, what is required to produce it, what kind of journey it undertook to reach their plate and what the alternative food systems look like, then we will eventually have a generation of informed (and hopefully more discerning) food consumers in the future. The fact that food has become little more than a commodity for large corporations to use as leverage in a ruthless war for market share is a disgrace. We need to reconnect young people to their food in order for them to understand that food is so much more than that.
Because the average urban dweller has no idea how much an item of food costs to produce they have no understanding of its true value. Because most people are clueless as to what is in season they have no idea how far their food has travelled. Because they don't know the producer personally they have little idea about how it was grown or the health of the soil from which it came. They don't know what was applied to the item post harvest, how long it was in cold storage or what chemicals were used to make it look big and red and shiny in the shop. They don't know that 40% of the food produced by those hardworking farmers was rejected because of perceived consumer sentiment regarding size and shape and they have no idea that the variety of fresh produce on offer is just a very small percentage of what could be available if supermarket logistics weren't the driving force behind product selection.
And why is it so? Because urbanisation has lead to a physical and cultural disconnection of people from their food supply and the demise of independent local markets means almost all of our fresh food is now funnelled through a commodity driven system where shareholder profits are the only real consideration. In most instances there is no longer a direct relationship between producer and consumer which means communication, and therefore understanding, have been lost.
If milk costs more than $1 per litre to produce during a drought then milk should not be available for $1 per litre in a drought, end of story. If you have to rape the soil in order to produce carrots for 99c per kilo then it shouldn't be done, period. If selling fresh blueberries for $2 a punnet means that the farmer can't afford to take an annual holiday with his family then what are we as a society saying about the value of that farmer's toil? In an ideal world the farmer's time would be every bit as valuable as the motor mechanic or the corporate executive that he feeds, after all they couldn't do these jobs if they had to stay at home and milk their own cow, raise their own livestock and grow their own fruit and vegetables.
The problem is that most of us seem to be stuck inside this broken food system. Going to the supermarket is easy and we don't have to think for ourselves. We've given away our food sovereignty because somewhere along the line we stopped valuing the cultural and social connection we previously had with our food. We don't really care if there are only three types of pumpkins and one kind of zucchini on offer as long as we can get them all year round. We don't care if farms have now become factories where mechanisation replaces human endeavour in an attempt to remain commercially viable, because we don't know anyone that works on a farm anyway. We don't really want to pay $34kg for bacon just because the pig got to live outdoors, because we've never met a pig and are not sure if they like sunshine anyway.
Woolworths are now offering free school excursions of the supermarket for pre and primary school aged children. These tours can only be conducted on site at a Woolworths and are not available in classrooms because Woolworths want to (and I quote) "put fresh fruit and vegetables in real life context for the students". I'm horrified to think that Woolworths are teaching our four year olds that food comes from a supermarket neatly stacked, waxed, pre-packed and uniformly sized.
We as farmers and producers need to reclaim some food sovereignty and start educating our children that healthy food comes from healthy soils. From farms where someone rises before dawn and works until the sun goes down. Where nature dictates the shape and size and season of the fruit and vegetables and where cute little lambs and calves grow up to be food for the table. Kids need to know the difference between whole and processed foods, need to learn to read product labels and understand how far their food has travelled. They should be having excursions to farms and community gardens, not supermarkets.
So seek out your local fresh food co-op, community supported agriculture scheme or community garden. Meet those that grow your food and understand what goes in to its production. Bring your kids along and tell them about the food you're buying and why. It's never too young to start.
The below blog posts are some excerpts from our "Harvest Update" newsletter which is distributed weekly via email. To subscribe to these updates simply email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and request to be added to the newsletter which also comes with farm updates, weekly photos and a link to the online shopfront. Happy reading! Kirsty
Sometimes I find it so difficult to write a weekly newsletter. To sit and undress my thoughts for the week, to turn over in my mind the highlights, challenges or philosophies that have been playing out on the farm and then put them into words without sounding too crazy or offending too many people. I have formed many opinions over the last four years of this amazing agricultural immersion and yet there are plenty of subjects upon which I remain ambivalent. One of those subjects is the slaughter of animals for human consumption.
I know that approximately 50% of my regular customers don't eat meat. More than a few come from families where at least part of the family is vegetarian. I know these things because I am in the privileged position to actually know my customers personally and I'm happy to listen to their opinions and philosophies. I get vegetarians. I respect their position on animal welfare and applaud their commitment to a deeply held conviction. Hell, I really love vegetables. Let's face it, I'm in the wrong game if I feel otherwise. But I do eat meat.
I eat meat because it's an easy and delicious source of protein that has been part of my life for the last 39 years. I've never seriously considered becoming vegetarian and after briefly studying human nutrition I understand how challenging it is to maintain optimum health without meat in your diet. But I must admit there are times when I question my right to eat another animal. There are times when I feel guilty, even sad, when I acknowledge that I am going to eat an animal that has entrusted me with its care for his entire life. Any farmer that can look an animal in the eye in the moments before death and see nothing but profit, probably shouldn't be raising livestock. And in my opinion, anyone not prepared to personally take the life of an animal shouldn't eat meat. Now having said that, I don't believe we should all have to kill every animal we eat, I certainly don't. But if you can't stand the thought of the animal dying for your own sustenance, then perhaps you shouldn't eat it.
We process our own chickens here on the farm. At times, I have been party to the slaughter of both sheep and cattle for on-farm consumption (though I don't have the skills and experience to quickly and safely dispatch either myself). None of these jobs are enjoyable, and they shouldn't be. If there's not pause for thought at a moment like this then I don't think you're really in touch with your superego, which is perhaps the defining element that separates us from other mammalian predators.
So is it right or wrong to kill another animal for food? I don't know. Right now, I'm OK with farmers who raise their animals in a low stress 'natural' environment, who make all reasonable efforts to maintain the health and comfort of their livestock and who take steps to ensure the end of their animals lives are as quick and painless as possible. And every night when I sit down to eat my dinner, I take a moment to thank the animal that gave its life for my meal. Out loud, with respect and a grateful heart.
So, yes, I'm not 100% comfortable with my self appointed superiority over the other animals that share this planet. One day I might become vegetarian. Right now I grow both meat and vegetables on my farm and offer both for sale on my shop.
I believe that the world will judge me not by my opinions, but by my actions. Accordingly, I try to ensure my actions always mirror my opinions and try not to judge others too harshly when they show the same conviction. I want my food to be local, seasonal, fresh, organic and raised with a conscious understanding of our place in the web of life, both animal and vegetable. So that is what I do.
The tree is up, the presents have been purchased, wrapped and placed underneath it, the weather is relentlessly hot, I have more zucchinis and cucumbers than I know what to do with, and I am completely exhausted - it must be Christmas time!!
Christmas or not, the veggies are booming and it's business as usual at Terrewah Farm. I'll be doing deliveries on Thursday 28th December and Thursday 4th January. I'll also be adding in Monday deliveries from 8th January all the way until the end of summer harvest, so you'll have twice the opportunities for fresh local produce. In the new year we're adding fresh farmhouse bread, Kombucha and, drum roll please.... local beef. 2018 is going to be big. But before I get too far ahead of myself (again) let's just focus on Christmas...
For someone like me, for whom Christmas bears no religious significance, the festive season is simply a chance to spend time with loved ones, to celebrate the year that was and to reflect on those things for which we are grateful.
I'm grateful for so many things. Clean air, clean water and clean food. I am grateful for the safe and peaceful country I just happened to be born into. That I had good parents and a decent education. That I love my job and that my job affords me an important connection with my community. I'm grateful for the privilege of living in the most beautiful place on earth, a place which renews my spirit every single day. I'm grateful for love and for being loved in return. And most of all, I'm grateful for the health that myself and my family enjoy. Not a day goes by that I don't realise how lucky we are just to be alive. To be here in this present moment without pain or suffering, and to hold a reasonable expectation of still being so tomorrow and the next day. What else could I possibly want?
So, although it isn't particularly helpful to the person who drew my name for Kris Kringle this year, I don't want anything. I don't need anything more than what I already have. So, for whatever present is carefully wrapped and placed under the Christmas tree with my name on it, I will be thankful. But for me, joy is not under the Christmas tree, nor is it in a champagne bottle or a Christmas cracker. It is in that quiet moment, when I stop what I am doing and look around at all that life has bestowed on me already, and give a silent thanks. I hope tomorrow is like that for you too.
Merry Christmas everyone!
"Sometimes you win. Sometimes you learn." That's been my motto for January, and it's amazing how differently you approach a challenge when you have that kind of mindset. We're in the middle of a land stewardship project right now and the lessons we have learned from the last four years are guiding our method.
Anyone that has been following our newsletters or visited the farm will know that we have a problem with wind. It blows things down, sucks moisture from the soil, stresses the livestock (and the farmers) and damages crops. So, in an effort to combat the relentless westerly wind we have been planting lots and lots of trees. Mostly exotics, fruit trees, bamboos and other evergreens that will hopefully also retard a fire, when it decides to come our way. Unfortunately though, not all of them have survived. Between drought conditions and hungry wildlife we have lost almost half the 200 or so trees we planted in 2017. Bummer. But we've learned a lot from this experience, and now we're doing things differently. We no longer rely on electric fencing that may or may not have shorted out on an acacia sapling or been knocked down overnight by a large kangaroo, or just stopped working for no apparent reason. Now we build permanent ring lock fencing and plant every tree in their little green jacket. There's also no more manual watering and hoping it will rain enough to keep moisture in our sandy soil for more than 5 days at a stretch. Now we lay drip line BEFORE any trees even get into the ground. It's a lot of extra work, especially for Andrew, who is our minister for infrastructure, but in the long run I wager it's worth the extra effort and cost.
We're splitting our front paddock up into quite small grazing cells, each divided off by a line of tagasaste trees running north south with vehicle access on the top side of the paddock. We're planting them close - on 1m centres, in order to encourage a thick bushy hedge like growth. These tagasaste trees are fast growing, deep rooted, evergreen, shrubby, tolerant of poor, sandy, acidic soils as well as drought and best of all they are legumes. So while they're providing shelter from the sun and the wind, they'll also be fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere and releasing it down into our pastures, providing a natural fertilizer and assisting in the establishment of a healthy perennial pasture for our animals. I challenge you to find a harder working tree!
In order to keep our windbreak bushy and promote the release of nitrogen nodules into the soil, we'll prune in early spring and late summer and feed trimmings to the stock. Tagasastes, which are also know as Tree Lucerne, are excellent stock fodder. The leaves and stems are highly palatable and readily digestible with a crude protein content comparable to good pasture forage. Both the cattle and sheep should enjoy it and if we happen to be late one spring with our pruning, then the bees will have a field day on the prolific nectar filled flowers. Everybody wins!
So I feel like I'm learning from my past mistakes and getting closer to my goal of regenerating this little piece of land I've taken responsibility for. There's a long way to go, but I feel we're heading in the right direction. We're replanting the lost trees with improved methods and renewed hope. Now we could just do with a little bit of rain...
Lately I've been thinking a lot about seed. It's the basis of what I do at Terrewah Farm and some would say the basis of human life as we know it. Obviously then it's something I care deeply about from both an ecological and economic point of view.
I made a conscious decision three years ago to only grow vegetables from seed and the flowers, herbs and vegetables in my garden are almost exclusively grown this way. I don't save my own seed, but most of what I grow are open pollinated, heirloom varieties that have been grown in Australia for decades and from which I could save and re-sow the seed if I was so inclined. Growing from seed is a lot more labour intensive but the resulting crops are better and there is a much wider variety of fruit and vegetables to choose from.
I've been reading this week that 94% of our known fruit and vegetable varieties have now become extinct worldwide. That's hugely alarming to a grower like me, but on reflection, I would say it is a decline intrinsically linked to societal change. Growing food is no longer a community endeavour meant to nourish a particular village. Food production is now a business and our markets are global. Our culture is no longer linked exclusively to food and ceremony and for most of us, agriculture is no longer our way of life. The number of farmers worldwide now represents something like 1% of the workforce. How can 1% of the population be expected to feed the world using 100% of the varieties traditionally grown and saved from previous crops?
I, like most modern farmers also don't have a handful of work-hardened children and an army of brothers and cousins devoted to working in the family fields. The kids now go to school, make their own choices and pursue amazing careers. And I'm happy that they do. The labourers in the field are now paid, and our standard of living means the cost of labour is very high, especially in Australia. Although seed is cheap, a grower can't afford to waste their time and labour dollars on seed that doesn't germinate, doesn't perform well or isn't in line with customer expectations. Even in my tiny little sphere of understanding I can see why modern farmers made the switch to hybrids and gave up their seed sovereignty. Consumers want food that tastes great, looks good and is reliably available. They don't care so much if a rather bland but ancient variety of corn is no longer available. And why should they? If it doesn't taste good, why eat it? If you don't eat it, why grow it?
Well, unfortunately this narrowing of the diet has led to a 94% reduction in the number of available seed varieties and means we have potentially 94% less resilience to future diseases or disasters that are as yet unknown. Perhaps that rather bland corn might be the only one of its species able to resist a particular corn fungus that is yet to evolve? It's a brave new world we are diving into without a great range of life jackets to choose from.
I'll be honest I grow hybrid corn, hybrid broccoli and hybrid turnips and I make no apologies for that. They are varieties I have been very happy with and will continue to grow. I tried organic, heirloom, open pollinated corn a couple of years ago and quite frankly, it tasted like crap. Not even the wombats ate it. Sadly, our taste buds have become accustomed to the small number of varieties that the supermarkets supply us with. I quickly learned that if I want to sell vegetables I need to service the tastebuds of my customers.
Unfortunately this year I have had terrible germination and wasted countless hours and hundreds of dollars on sowing and re-sowing seed that didn't perform. My suspicion is that some of the seed I got this year was not fresh, which makes me wonder if my seed supplier does not achieve a reasonable level of sales. Which leads me to wonder whether these old heirloom varieties will in fact even be available from him in years to come. If growers don't grow them, seed suppliers won't sell them and there goes our remaining 6% seed diversity. On the flipside, if I can't at least break even with OP seed I won't be around to buy the seed anyway. Lose - lose.
So what does all this mean for Terrewah Farm? It means I'm switching seed suppliers and looking for seed that performs well, tastes great and looks good. I will fiercely seek out good OP varieties, but ultimately a good crop of hybrid vegetables is better than a poor crop of OP ones. Sadly, economics wins. For those of you unsure of the difference between open pollinated, hybrid and genetically modified seeds, here is a brief explanation: https://www.smallfootprintfamily.com/hybrid-seeds-vs-gmos
And before anyone even asks, no, I will never grow genetically modified GMO crops at Terrewah Farm. Currently these seeds aren't available to growers like me, and to my knowledge, are not available anywhere for most of the fruit and vegetables we eat. At the moment, GMOs are mostly for corn, soybean, canola, wheat, cotton, yellow squash, Hawaiian papaya, White Russet potatoes, Arctic apples and alfalfa produced for stock feed. (source: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1PNUinjOpr5zfcJaiye8NmxmtTrf9Zw1T/view)
So now that I've finished ruminating on the future of our global seed bank, I'm off to plant some of the new seed that just arrived in the mail today. Hopefully these OP Blue Lake climbing beans will perform better than the same seeds from my previous supplier. Wish me luck.
It was lovely today to have a conversation with a like minded friend. We talked about energy and more and more I'm beginning to understand that energy is "what makes the world go around". It's not love and it's not money, it's energy in its many forms.
I talked about making the recent realisation that my market garden business was less about vegetables and more about energy. On a cellular level as well as a physical and emotional level, what I do and what I produce, as with most farmers, involves a significant input of energy. I know that attached to every vegetable in your weekly box is my time, my intent, my learning, my challenges, my victories. Toil and passion, given from me through my vegetables to you. That transfer of energy is the same when you have a really good massage, a great teacher, or read the work of an engaging writer. Those are the people whose energy is directed in the same place as their passion and intellect. The effect is tangible. I think that's one of life's great challenges, to find the one thing in which your thoughts, your actions and your passion are equally engaged. To me that's the ultimate integrity, and in my life that's farming. I hope that, even just sometimes, my energy is evident in the food I produce.
It was interesting then today to talk with my friend about the energy that is lost the further an object travels from its source. Now I know from school that energy is never created nor destroyed, it only changes form, but energy is certainly siphoned off from the core as it travels. It's the same with food. If I grow vegetables and sell them directly to you the transfer of energy is immediate, concise and reciprocated. I get lots of that energy back again in the form of feedback, happy smiling customers that I know are enjoying my work and who appreciate my efforts. If I sell my produce to a retailer I may get some feedback from them, but it's not quite the same. If I pay a distributor to ship my produce to the retailer who then sells it to the customer, well, you get the point. None of that energy comes back to me. That's one of the reasons I like to keep it local and the supply chain very short. I don't want to spend my energy on people I never meet, never know and never connect with. I feel sorry for those farmers whose energy is spent serving fickle export contracts and feeding hungry overdrafts instead of real people who say thank you and appreciate what you do.
In an effort to replenish my energy and to give the garden a rest during its transition from summer to winter, I will be taking a break from the middle of April for three weeks. There will be no deliveries during the April school holidays or for the first week in May. We're going to take a well earned family holiday, at least for some of that time. We'll go somewhere relaxing where we can read and walk and swim and take naps in the middle of the day, hopefully somewhere just like Kangaroo Valley, without the work. When we come back we will be ready for the winter harvest, ready to fill your baskets full of kale and broccoli and cabbage and pumpkins. We'll also be gearing up for a special event at the end of May, but more on that later.
This week I'm busy focusing on getting in the rest of the winter crops and gearing up for the 5th Annual South Coast Industry Dinner this Friday night where I'll be a guest panellist. If you haven't already purchased a ticket head to: https://www.eventbrite.com.au/e/5th-annual-south-coast-industry-dinner-tickets-42269289583 It's always a good night, and this year you get to heckle me. Just no rotten tomatoes please.
Well, all it took was a bold prediction from me that summer was over and BANG 40 degrees. I'm not taking responsibility for the wind though. That must have been someone else's stupid comment!
Despite the short sudden burst of hot weather, I stand by the assertion that my garden is starting to wind down from the summer craziness and more and more beds are being converted to winter crops. There will be a lull in production during April and May as we wait patiently for the first winter crops to become productive. It's a tricky time of year as a grower, especially on such a small scale as mine. I don't have beds in reserve, waiting to be planted out so I have to either wait for summer crops to finish, or sacrifice them early. Either way there is a bit of a hungry period when we have to rely on pumpkins, onions, potatoes and other storage crops to get us through. I resist the pressure to push summer crops into the cooler seasons and likewise to try and grow traditional winter crops year round, and here is why:
Seasonal eating for me is very important. During my brief study of human nutrition it was a maxim constantly reinforced. Our bodies have evolved over two hundred thousand years for seasonal eating. Nomadic peoples followed the ripening fruits and berries and the early agricultural societies developed regional cuisines based on what was available locally at any given time of year. I don't think it's an accident that the citrus season is in the height of winter when the common cold increases our need for vitamin C, or that food sensitivities are now commonplace to foods that were once only seasonally available. While variety is great, constant access to the same vegetables year round actually reduces diversity in our diet rather than increases it. The same demand for consistent year round supply is diminishing the variety in our seed stocks as producers struggle to find that one variety that will do well in all conditions and store well for weeks or even months after harvest. And the worst part for me is that the joy of eating is lost.
For those of you that have been following my newsletters for a long time, you will have heard all of this before, so hold tight, here it is again...
Seasonal eating for me is about the joy of longing, about the delicious anticipation of a food you haven't tasted in what seems like forever, and then getting it at the absolute climax of ripeness and taste. It's that tree ripened juicy peach, bursting with flavour that runs down your chin in summer. It's that sweet, crisp, dewy head of cabbage that almost tastes like a winter frost. I'll forgo the bland, climate controlled, cold stored, or well travelled food that's presented in the supermarket year round for the chance to eat the best fresh food less often. I'll do without my food being gassed, irradiated or covered in wax to prolong its shelf life and rather wait for the time when we can pick it from a local garden with all of the nutrients nature intended still intact.
With food I believe that absence really does make the heart grow fonder, but it's more than that. It's almost an act of defiance against society's impulsive, impatient, "need it now" mentality. We are so used to excessive overconsumption and year round access to everything, that it's almost an affront when our favourite item is out of stock on the supermarket shelves. We have lost the simple knowledge of what is in season where we live. But more alarmingly we as a species seem to have lost our ability to self regulate, with far reaching environmental effect.
Living in our custom built off-grid home for the past 15 months has been a very real experience. If the fog doesn't lift and the sun doesn't break through the clouds at this time of year, you don't get a hot shower. It's not cold enough to light our wood fired boiler which provides warmth and hot water during the winter months but it's not sunny enough for the solar hot water system to get things piping hot. So you simply learn to accept your tepid shower and get on with the day. I used to think I couldn't live without a hot shower, but actually, it makes me feel more connected to the earth and her intricacies. A cloudy day means a comfortable day working in the garden. A sunny blue sky means a hot shower and plenty of electric power. Learning to accept what you're offered and to embrace a diversity of experiences has been a very fulfilling lesson. And for me that experience is particularly relevant to food.
So my first challenge to you is to learn what food is in season and to teach that to your children and grandchildren. Embrace the season's bounty. Cook something new. And do without, once in a while. If you're not sure what's in season, check out the Terrewah Farm shop. All of our produce is grown locally, outside, with nothing more than shadecloth or mulch to mitigate the season's extremes.
My second challenge to you is to grow something I can't, either due to soil, time or space constraints. I'm looking for people prepared to grow fennel, celery, snow peas, brussel sprouts, baby turnips and leeks this season. I haven't got space in my beds this year but would like to be able to increase the variety on offer. The more we can offer within our own community, the less control those multinational supermarket chains will have over our food supply. If you're interested, or know someone who has a spare spot in their garden please let me know.
During the week I was given cause to reflect on why I do what I do. Certainly it's not for the money and neither is it familial obligation or lack of alternatives. I can honestly say that I do what I do because I love to grow food, or rather I love growing health because that is how I think about it. I have chosen this path over all other potential endeavours because it feels important to me. Really important. Certainly the most important job I have ever had, perhaps other than being a mother.
Growing up my family had a veggie patch and I suppose, through osmosis, I gained a basic appreciation from an early age. We always ate together as a family, at home around the dinner table. No fast food, no restaurant meals and no eating on the go. While no-one in the family ever had a talent for cooking, and we bought more veggies than we grew, I guess there was a collective respect for food and we learned the importance of a shared meal.
Fast forward a dozen years to the birth of my son, an experience that totally changed my perspective on life and food. No longer did I eat simply to avoid being hungry. Now I had a precious new life to nourish. I was charged with ushering the development of neural pathways, stewarding physical development and creating lifelong eating habits. I took it pretty seriously. I started studying nutrition, was introduced to permaculture and began thinking seriously about organics. In 2012, I completed an immersive Permaculture Design Certificate which totally changed my life. 12 months later I was here in Kangaroo Valley growing organic vegetables and learning to raise livestock.
I guess when you boil it all down to basic needs, food is pretty high on the list. In my mind, unless you're supplying oxygen or water, growing basic nutrient dense organic food is the most important job in the world. It's a job that almost any able bodied person can do, it's something many of us should do, but it's surprising how few of us are actually doing it. Why? Because farming the land without chemicals or machinery is hard, relentless work. It's a constant challenge and at the end of the day there's no money in it. You spend all day covered in dirt and shit, sometimes with nothing to show for it but callouses, back ache and sunburn. The hours are long and there are very few days off. It's one of the crappiest jobs in the world if you don't love it. Lucky I do.
I love it, not only because I know it is important, but because you do to. Because I'm not just growing fresh organic food to nourish my own family, but also to strengthen my community. I'm keeping the air, soil and water clean for the next generation. I'm rejuvenating a depleted landscape, creating diversity, promoting ecology. I'm enabling my friends and neighbours to nourish their families and create their own culture of food togetherness. I am promoting health, giving energy and fighting that cancer right along side you. I am teaching what I know, sharing what I have and doing what I love. Every day.
So while I'm often feeling tired and sometimes overwhelmed, I always feel lucky. Many people never find their calling, never get to do that thing that makes them whole. I'll take the callouses, the sunburn and the back ache. It's a small price for doing what you love.
Hi everyone, I hope your weekend was a relaxing one in this cool, clear, damp and rather spectacular weather. I spent a good chunk of this afternoon weeding. I like weeding, which is lucky really, because in a garden the size of mine there are a LOT of weeds. As well as making an immediate visual impact, raising my heart rate (I have big weeds) and creating lots of cut and carry fodder for my hungry livestock, it's also a very philosophical practice for me.
There is so much to learn from weeds. On the very basic level, weeds tell us a lot about our soil. Deep rooted dandelion, fleabane and mallow are pioneer plants taking up positions in poor, compacted soils, mining nutrients from deep below and cycling them up to where other less well endowed plants can also take advantage. Nettle indicates excessive nutrient, wood sorrel and fireweed an acidic environment. The list is endless.
On a deeper level, weeds teach me a lot about the world. For instance, the hardest weeds by far to deal with in a garden are the kind that pull out easily, but have rhizomes, bulbs or runners buried beneath the soil ready to take off again as soon as you turn your back. Like wood sorrel, onion weed and kikuyu. These are the plants that decide it's better to lose the battle and win the war, to give the illusion of defeat while rallying a wide network of friends and allies waiting in the wings. By contrast, the easiest weeds to conquer are those that are tough, rigid and stand alone. Hmmm.
There are also a few weeds that do well in my garden because I encourage them. My ageing father seems to think it is immoral, or at least unethical to charge people good money for 'weeds'. He shakes his head in absolute disbelief when someone orders sorrel which he still calls soursop and says is not even good enough for cattle fodder. He hates that I sometimes add purslane to my salad mix and ignores my protestations about its amazing health benefits, instead recounting the many hours he spent pulling it out of his own vegetable garden. No chance of him trying nettle tea I suppose.
The other thing I notice about weeds is that they reinforce my idea of diversity creating resilience. Lots of weeds are good. I mean, lots of different types of weeds in the one place. The biggest problem is when you get just one kind of weed that gets a foothold and takes over everything. That's the best indication that your soil is completely out of balance and there's a good chance anarchy will follow in the form of pest invasion or disease.
Communities of all kinds do well when there is great diversity. The weak sheltered by strong; Vigorous ones preparing the way for the slow; Pioneers and ground coverers; Those that attract and those that repel. In a natural ecosystem every 'weed' has a purpose, even if you don't know what it is. Individually, they pursue this purpose using very different means, but collectively their job is one and the same: Protect the earth and return her to balance, using whatever specialty you have. It's something we might do well to remember in our everyday lives.
Sometimes life is just too hectic. So many responsibilities and expectations. So many chores to do and projects to finish. So many people to please, pay or provide for. So many things to remember and so many zucchinis to pick. Then you add in Christmas. No wonder people go crazy this time of year.
I had thought that moving to the country and becoming a farmer would make our lives simpler, calmer and less hectic. Oh boy, was I wrong. I may have had plenty of responsibility before, but now I have lives that depend on me. Plants and animals that will die if I neglect them, and when things break, we have to fix them fast. (Of course I am using the royal we here, and I actually mean Andrew has to fix things, but for the purposes of my essay, lets suppose I do some fixing too). My point is, that I've come to realise that it doesn't matter what job you have or what your responsibilities are. Life is hectic if you allow it to be so.
There's a quote I read years ago that I always remember but am only now starting to understand: "There is no Zen at the top of the mountain except that which you carried there yourself". In other words, hecticity (yes it's a real word, I didn't just make it up) is purely a state of mind, as is serenity. Unfortunately, the state of my mind has been hectic for way too long.
So this year I decided to start changing my ways. For the last several months now John and I have begun each day in the garden with meditation. There are plenty of short guides you can download on your smartphone, so we listen to one of those and try and centre our thoughts for the day. And it usually helps.
Now, I'm not saying that things are always serene on the farm and that I don't still swear loudly when the pump breaks down yet again, but overall I'm beginning to realise a new perspective. I look at things more closely now and appreciate the beauty in the detail, which is rather handy in my line of work and can sometimes head off a disaster before it happens. But mostly I'm just trying to exist in the present moment and enjoy the simple practice of whatever it is I'm doing, instead of always thinking about all the jobs I have to get done, or projects I want to achieve in the future. There is a time for planning and analysis, but it's not healthy to be doing it every minute of the day.
This week I had an aha moment. Something that assured me I am progressing on my journey to connect with the present moment. I was sitting at the campfire after dinner chatting with Sophie - our Canadian farmhand, enjoying the stars, the sounds of wildlife and the crackle of the fire when I noticed something. Fireflies. Lots of them. Surely they must have been here on every summer evening and yet I had never noticed them before.
A couple of nights later I took the rest of my family out in the early evening to see the fireflies and they too were astounded. Jayden is always amazed by nature. He has absolutely no trouble being totally present at every minute of the day and sees the world with a sense of wonderment that only a child can. However it was my parents' reaction that struck me most.
My dear old Dad at the age of 82 has never seen a firefly. Likewise my mother. They couldn't believe their eyes. It was beautiful to watch their obvious excitement, and the realisation that my newly honed awareness of the world had brought them to this moment was priceless. They may easily have gone their entire lives without ever having had this experience. An experience that may have been happening around them, every summer night of their lives, without them ever knowing it. Wow.
I wonder what else I've been missing until now?