Hundreds of years ago the colonizers spread across America and put down roots, both literally and figuratively. Agriculture was their life: crucial to their survival but also demanding nothing short of total participation.
I have been contemplating this topic for nearly a week. It manifested during the days following this post. I began to realize the amount of work – labor, effort and sheer strength – required to produce an acre of food; it was astounding. Fertilizing with compost, tilling, weed management and pest control had the potential to impose upon each second of a farmer’s life. In colonial times, I’m certain it did. Even with families of six to eight children the work was perpetually incomplete. Over time, the advent of agricultural technology helped eliminate the need for so many physical bodies by replacing them with mechanical ones instead. My purpose of coming to Pepperfield was to learn where food came from, but after this last week it has evolved slightly. My understanding of food is one of a conventional sense where, even organic, products are mass-produced with massive tractors and combines. Each task completed in mere seconds by robotic behemoths rather than the the hands of a person. My real purpose had more depth than that; sure I came to see where food comes from, but the honest truth is that how we grow food at Pepperfield is not really the way. We have simplified processes and sacrificed time to create something that transcends conventional agriculture. But we too make sacrifices and compromises, although very different.
Farming in the time of the settlers involved many more hands. Each tasked with completing a fragment of the puzzle to create a larger, beautiful picture. Horse and plows tore through the Earth to loosen the soil before manure – collected from the farm itself – was placed on the land by hand. It was then turned into the soil with a spading fork by a person. Rows were furrowed and trenches were dug with hand tools, not machinery, before seeds were sown piece by piece with delicate care. The ground was moved over the seeds to give them a new home and a potential for life. Water used for irrigation was pumped from wells by cranks that required a human’s touch. Once everything was in place the same eyes and hands watched and waited vigilantly to combat both weeds and pests. No Round-Up, no electric fencing, just dedication and a desire to survive.
At Pepperfield we form a team, albeit smaller than our pioneering counterparts, to reach the same goals. Our horse – aptly named Troybuilt – is a bright red roto-tiller that turns the task of preparing ground from a day’s work to a few short hours. Our three goats and dozen chickens produce our manure for compost and fertilization but we still haul in more from a neighboring farm. Again our red horse turns this “black gold” back into the Earth where it sits as a vein of nitrogen and other essential nutrients. With shocking authenticity to the settlers, we still furrow our rows with hoes and dig seed trenches by hand. We walk the rows hand sowing seeds with the same delicate care that these heirlooms received so many years ago. The trenches are filled and seeds are covered in the same manner before being watered. This time though, our electric pump draws the water from the well through hundreds of feet of hoses strung across the garden. Electric fences are set, organic pesticides of various powdered plant matter are dusted on crops and we too watch almost as diligently as our colonial counterparts for the first sign of life, weeds or seedlings; each strip is carefully purged of weeds as they surface by hand or hoe.
The modern systems eliminate the need for many children or a team of farmers. Tractors pulling massive disks can loosen acres of soil in mere minutes. Petro-fertilizers are spread far over the required amounts as yield insurance; a faster, simpler and cheaper process that allows the step turning fertilizer into the Earth to be skipped entirely. Seeding apparatuses are dragged behind the same tractors planting hundreds, if not thousands, of seeds in a single pass, no furrowing required. Irrigation is made simpler by rolling sprinklers that create a cascade of water down onto these seeds. As they spring to life, petro-chemicals are sprayed – although not always if the GMO seeds have genes that repel potential pests – and weeding is managed much to the same effect.
Over the last 8 weeks, I have grown, just like the plants, at Pepperfield. My understanding of agricultural systems increases each day and I am beginning to identify the various input substitutions that are made on many different levels. Each day brings new surprises and thoughts to contemplate. The environment promotes this physical and mental expansion and offers living examples of natural processes. At Pepperfield we practice food production as close to its original roots as possible, still considering needs to maintain an efficient but low impact system. I believe that it is one of the reasons I enjoy Pepperfield so much. It isn’t preaching or practicing unrealistic methods to achieve a goal. But rather managing tools and techniques to create a wholesome product. These practices promote a key element for a prosperous future, in farming or life: Learn the complexity of a system and manage and manipulate it with compromises and sacrifice to reach a personally satisfying result.