Farming and Beyond: Sustaining Your Interest and Intellect Year after Year
Becky Maden is the Assistant Farm Manager at Intervale Community Farm (ICF), a thriving member-owned CSA farm in its 21st season of growing organic produce in Burlington, Vermont. Becky has worked on several diverse vegetable farms throughout the country and around the world. At ICF, Becky is either found in the greenhouse, on a tractor, or jogging between the two. She also writes the farm newsletter, Bottom Land News. In her time spent away from the farm, Becky loves to travel, write, bike, run, ski, and cook bounteous meals with glorious produce.
It’s been clear to me all along that farming will never be a boring occupation. There’s a constant drama of insects attacking crops, tractors breaking in the field, employees dating and breaking up and dating again, floods arriving mid-season, prices and markets fluctuating, and perpetually abnormal weather to contend with. How could we ever lose interest in this work? It provides us with an endless supply of dramatic stories; as our society has become less agrarian, we as farmers have the ability to endlessly amuse audiences of non-farmers with stories of the small fiascoes that are part of our average days. Even the smallest act – like the other day when I was driving the tractor to the gas station and a friend drove by, honking and waving with a wild, hilarious grin on her face – says it all. What we do, whether it’s plowing, hoeing, harvesting, or marketing, is no longer normal in our society. And therefore, it should always be interesting.
But in my deepest moments of honesty, my fundamental interest in farming has shifted from a primal desire to have my hands calloused and gritty by the act of growing food to an urge to fill my days in ways that engage my brain and my heart as well as my hands. This doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be farming, but it expands my notion of what it takes to thoughtfully farm in this strange little era of our human history.
One of the ways that has helped us maintain a broad perspective on our farm has been to partner with research projects. Sometimes we identify the topic that we’d like to have research done on like the pest Swede Midge, which UVM Assistant Professor of Insect Agroecology, Dr. Yolanda Chen, has spearheaded through a SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) partnership grant. You can read about this grant here. Often, though, we are approached by professors, students, or extension personnel to see if we are interested in hosting a research project. Over time, we’ve learned to be discriminating about which projects suit us because there is nearly always a level of inconvenience associated with a project on the farm. For instance, at one point last summer the Swede Midge research required the research assistant to set up a patchwork of 6’ x 10’ remay sheets on several beds of our broccoli. Cultivating the broccoli became a terribly time intensive chore, with more than your average degree of remay frustration. But since Swede Midge has wiped out up to 90% of some of our broccoli plantings, we are grateful to have a researcher interested in trying to understand the practical ways that organic growers like us could manage Swede Midge in future years.
Cooperating with projects offers us opportunities to expand our definition of farming in many ways. First of all, it’s a chance to learn some of the other angles of agriculture. If everyone were just growers and no one was working to advance the ways we grow food, we might still be dragging a one bottom plow with our own bodies. And although it’s easy to get cynical and think that all of the research funding goes to the big agriculture companies, when we do get the opportunity to learn from a professional researcher, it feels like a breath of fresh air. Last season, in addition to Dr. Chen’s work on Swede Midge, we were fortunate enough to participate in several ongoing research projects through two other SARE partnership grants: one was a study through the UVM Plant and Soil science department looking at using compost for disease suppression of pathogens (in particular, suppressing Alternaria on Brassicas) and another study looking at site specific soil tests for nutrient losses after flood events. Finally, we partnered with UVM Extension to try a reduced tillage system for our winter squash planting. All of these projects offered us a wonderful opportunity by working with keen academic researchers to deepen our knowledge of sustainable agriculture and ultimately, to become more intelligent farmers.
Although being a research partner isn’t as flashy as it sounds, the core importance of it is that it keeps us from becoming too insular in our farming practices. There are so many other ways to keep our brains engaged, even as our bodies age. Attending conferences, reading farm-related journals or blogs, participating in casual or organized gatherings with fellow agricultural professionals, and taking moments to scribble down my goals for the week helps the day-to-day grind of pulling weeds or watering the greenhouse feel like a spoke on the wheel of something moving with a lot of wonderful momentum.
We all have our tricks for not getting lost in the backbreaking, hair tearing, teeth grinding stress of the season: we play music, reach for indulgent foods that can keep us energized, chat with our co-workers, and try to find the niches of time to take a swim or read a non-farm article. But sometimes rather than searching for the escape from farming, digging deeper into it reminds me of how endlessly fascinating and deeply intriguing these acts of planting, watering, cultivating, harvesting, and marketing food really are.