It’s nighttime this time. I usually write in the morning, when my mind is rising and opening and unworked. It’s easier for me then. But like most things with the farm, this newsletter thing is a cooperative effort, and Walton (who puts these together into something lovely on a page) is now working a job that requires his presence on Wednesday mornings. So I have a new deadline. I’m tired now, and it’s as much a mental fatigue as physical, though there is that too. My sister got married this past Saturday at the farm, and we labored long and hard before, during and after, to make it beautiful through and through. We provided much of the food, arranged bouquets, boutonnieres, bridal bouquets, flowers for the tables, fences, aisles in the ceremony site up in the upper pasture, and much more, set up a stage for music, hung lights high and low, set up chairs and tables and all the while did our regular farming thing; bringing our food to markets and pickups and restaurants. And it was beautiful. The weather was perfect, so much of my family came from the northeast and the northwest to attend, and on Sunday, when the farm crew was tidying up in a haze from the revelry the night before, there was peace and satisfaction in our little nook of the world here.
But that’s what I usually write about. How sweet and nice it is to farm, and how much we enjoy our work, and appreciate you all, and what makes us tick. And I’ve been reading this book that one of our CSA folks that’s been with us the whole life of the farm gave to me to read (and then pass along to someone else:), and I realize that there’s an important piece that might be missing in my own writing about our farm. Because it’s what the other book is mostly made of. It is the struggle, the failures, the missteps, the botched attempts. It is the humiliations and heartaches that take place despite our best-placed efforts, our most pure intentions, our grandest ideas. It is the long road to something dreamed of, the matrimonial doldrums of tying oneself (and others) to land, the less awesome outcomes of a hopeless habit of gambling with nature.
So I thought I might sit with that for a moment and do my best not to sh*t sunshine for once, and instead to just dwell right there in the manure and attempt to recollect some flops, fiascos, snafus, derelictions, omissions and general inadequacies that would be happier left unremembered. We can of course start right at the beginning, when Zach McLean and I brought our newly-outfitted used BCS 725 walk-behind tractor with a rotary plow into virgin pasture and proceeded to plow an acre of grass in passes ten inches wide. To be sure, it was slow-going. Perhaps Rosie was right to tell us more or less that we were crazy and maybe full of ourselves to attempt to farm. Truthfully, we’d hardly fed anyone in gardening the little half-acre yard that we shared in Northeast Gainesville with single-minded obsession. I thought of it as a micro-farm; a proving grounds for something remarkable to come later. I had gone to volunteer at my patient friend Patrick’s on at LEAST eight or ten occasions, and felt fairly expert anytime something intended actually came to fruition in the garden in town. Looking back now, it feels an understatement to say that we knew little to nothing about what we were doing, and it feels that much more of a miracle that we began that first season with the faith of over thirty people to grow some food, by jove. Of course, that count includes my mother, who, if I recall correctly, was the very first person to write us a check for a CSA share at Swallowtail Farm. This is something I am both very proud of and maybe a little embarrassed of too. I just hope I can be as supportive of my folks when they need it as they’ve been of me when I have…
That first winter, it was cold. I had nothing to compare it too, of course, so it just seemed like that must be what winter is always like, but it was probably more disheartening than I care to admit to have cloth out on the fields for three weeks straight. We did the best we could, and it was a wild gig, waking up next door to one another in town, hopping into one or other of our cars, coffee or tea in hand, then executing a haphazard bus route to pick up often two or three half-sleeping volunteers before driving thirty minutes out to the farm to arrive still in time for the sunrise. We had a pole barn built for $8000, which seemed a boatload of money at the time, and Rick let us use his little Kioti utility tractor, which has about 16” of clearance, and we bought a two-bottom plow and a 5’ disc harrow, and we commenced to make the best of the situation. God knows how we managed to make it work, to actually grow something that year. I believe I’ve forgotten most of the details in a denial-shaped effort at self-preservation. In any case, it was a doozy, and even more unlikely in retrospect is that we somehow managed to double the size of our CSA membership during the course of that season. Perhaps the biggest miracle of all though is that many of the folks that were with us that season wrote us checks again when it came time for our second go-round. Yes, my mother was again among them, and no I’m not ashamed of that either.
Let’s take a hyperspeed leap through space and time to the summer before our 2012-13 season. Zach had moved out to California a month prior to the end of our second season to grow medical marijuana (smart kid), I had moved onto the farm and lived a frigid unheated winter in a yome (yurt + geodesic dome = yome) with my two children and Emily, and was for some reason still in incredibly high spirits. There’s a thin line between stubbornness and idiocy, and I suppose I enjoy toeing it. One decision that was clearly a winning example of the former and not the latter was the courting of Mariana Riehm during the off-season after learning from her that she would not be continuing her work at Rosie’s farm. I’ll always remember the night we had a farmer pow-wow, with Jordan Brown from The Family Garden, Anna Prizzia and Melissa Desa from Forage, Joe Durando and Trace Giornelli from Possum Hollow, and Cody Galligan from Siembra Farm at our house at the farm. Mariana had spent the day with us, and we had talked of many things, possibilities, aspirations. When everyone else came, it felt like some shark tank affair, as I quickly awoke to the reality that Mariana was being recruited by at least two of the other farms in attendance. “Come farm with us!” said all of our eyes to her that night. Somehow, someway, in the end she did! She came and farmed with us. And that season Emily and I envisioned a season-long series of Farm to Table dinners as a means to develop some infrastructural evolution for Swallowtail. And we took on apprentices for the first time. And it’s a wonderful memory now, but the confluence of these three developments that season made for an insane crash course in growth and community on so many different levels. We grew the CSA with the addition of several folks who came over from Rosie’s with Mariana, and soon found that we didn’t have the well or pump to provide enough water to grow the food we needed. We waded blindly through our palpable inexperience in managing full-time staff, and discovered that eternal truth of the profound necessity of good communication. We also discovered and rediscovered that other eternal truth that everything takes longer than planned. And that it’s nice to have projects happen, but half-finished projects function as obstacles, not improvements.
And here we are, the slow-approaching army now passing into the land of honeymoons and settling dust, and already knee-deep into the CSA season. The farm isn’t any larger than the thirty acres of land it has always been, but there are more bellies it is committed to, more compost to be made, more barn than in the beginning for sure. And I find myself with a wonderful partner and co-farmer in Emily, a phenomenal powerhouse of a grower in Mariana, a graceful and fearless crew leader in Amber, and an amazing crew of apprentices. And there I go again, with the sunshine. I’m sorry I cannot help it. It’s habit at this point. Anyway, we do experience what Kermit said to be true, it ain’t easy being green. But this is more often the case when attempting to deconstruct cultural norms, like food being artificially cheap because of subsidies, or explaining to folks that we don’t actually just tour people around the farm all weekend, because well, we want a small rest too, or realizing that we just plain didn’t know how to build a good chicken coop the first time we did it. But we did build it. And somehow, like the farm, it’s worked, and even if it’s meant that we just have to work a little harder on account of our stubbornnesses and our idiocies, we do somehow still see it all as some beautiful pursuit of meaning, of a life that gives back so much more than we are even able to put in, that offers a certain sweet grassy smell to us even while right there in the manure.
With an especially deep thank you to all those who helped birth the farm with their faith that first season, including Debi Skaff, who lent her book to me,