Fitzgerald: Dirt Farmer

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Vegetable farmers are dirt
farmers. How to grow soil, improve its nutrient content, encourage
micro-organism communities, keep it weed-free, preserve its structure –
these are the essential responsibilities of the small grower. And when
you grow on a slope, as my partner Ryan and I do, we must be careful to
not lose the precious resource of soil.

A few days before
Tropical Storm Irene roared through Vermont, Ryan came across this
passage from Wendell Berry: "Soil is not usually lost in slabs or heaps
of magnificent tonnage. It is lost a little at a time over millions of
acres by careless acts of millions of people. It cannot be solved by
heroic feats of gigantic technology, but only by millions of small acts
and restraints."

If Mr. Berry had visited our farm during Irene,
he would have had the rare opportunity to see soil being lost in "heaps
of magnificent tonnage." We watched in disbelief as the Mill River
topped its banks and cut a new permanent riverbed through our fields,
ripping away our crops, our equipment, our land, and our livelihood.
Tens of thousands of tons of soil disappeared before our eyes. And yet,
Wendell Berry is right: most soil is lost, almost invisibly, over
decades, not hours. The experience of being "Irene-d" is a
once-in-a-lifetime event, but any farmer, if not a careful steward of
the land, will see their soil slowly disappear. The geography of the
modern Middle East, for instance, demonstrates the dangers of learning
this lesson the hard way.

Tillage agriculture arose 10,000 years
ago in what’s known as "the Fertile Crescent," where the Tigris River
meets the Euphrates in modern-day Iraq. Tillage is what you think of
when you imagine American farming: inverting and exposing the soil to
produce annual crops. The effect of exposing bare soil allows the farmer
to plant seeds in that ground, but it also damages the soil structure
and makes it possible for soil to wash or blow away in rain, wind, or
flooding. The Dust Bowl that ravaged the Southern Plains during the
1930s had as much to do with tillage, mono-cropping, and careless
growing practices as it had to do with drought. And today, the fertile
crescent is not fertile at all, but a vast desert.

After Irene,
with the help of countless friends, family and community members, we
moved our farm to new land on higher ground, safely away from the Mill
River. We’re working to build and maintain healthy soil on our five
cultivated acres: growing cover crops, spreading compost, maintaining
permanent sod strips on our sloping ground, and strategically planting
perennial trees and bushes to help hold the soil in place.

practicing, as Wendell Berry has it, those "million small acts and
restraints" that will keep our fields, and livelihood, from slip sliding
away – this year, next year, and for generations to come.

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