News From the Farm | Week of January 27, 2014

There is a significant amount of sand hiding in the cuff of my pants, or rather there was. It is now a lone little dune on the floor of my yurt after I unfolded the cuff while unpacking my bags from the annual Eco-farm conference held every year in Pacific Grove. I was wearing these pants during a rain dance we did on the beach. At the end of the conference a number of us attendees gathered in front of the ocean to ask for rain. Please. Drought being the great equalizer, we dancers came from all different backgrounds; farmers, scientists, sustainable food advocates, farm educators, random passersby, and many others. Dance with us if you can, or sing, or just clap, but please focus on gentle penetrating rain, on the squishy feeling of mud between your toes, on the smell of wet soil, on jumping in a creek on a hot day, on full rivers that allow salmon to race upstream, on whatever brings to mind the feeling of moisture. Wet, juicy thoughts as we reminded ourselves throughout the dancing. 

The workshops available to the eager minds at this conference ranged in topics from irrigation basics to setting up a local food commons. There were discussions on dry farming, how to handle live stock in ways that keep them happy and stress free, and regenerative farming to encourage healthy salmon runs. It was an inspiring amount of information, but for me the most compelling part was the recognized need to farm from a more holistic approach, an undercurrent reminding us to learn and work with the ecology of the farm environment that we are working in to produce good food, and the often unintentional positive side effects that those healthy farm environments have on the larger community. 

I found myself in a number of workshops where the presenters discussed how to design a farming or ranching system that focuses on encouraging a healthy soil ecology. During a workshop titled “Permanent Agriculture,” a man named John Wick calmly explained to an extremely packed room, how we as farmers and ranchers could use the interplay between the plants and the soil microbes to sequester substantial amounts of carbon in the soil from the atmosphere, potentially enough carbon to mitigate climate change, with healthier pastures, increased water retention, and better grazing as a welcome side effect. It was a similar theme in the Climate Change and Agriculture workshop when Richard King gave an impassioned almost sermon-like presentation (Yes, I think there were even a few hallelujahs from the crowd.) on how to create these same carbon sinks in our soil through managed grazing of our rangelands.  Maybe I was unconsciously looking for this information, but who would have thought that workshops like Climate Change and Agriculture: Reports from the Front Lines, Permanent Agriculture, and Holistic Orchard Management were all going to talk about the Soil Food Web?

It seems we are getting ever closer to farming from an ecological stand point, where increased yields are a happy consequence of creating a robust and dynamic farm ecosystem. We are all working together to solve these larger problems, the farmers and the consumers. We are co-producers (to borrow a term from the Slow Food movement), and together, when we support this move towards ecological farming we are finding ways to solve larger medical, environmental, and social issues.

Reflecting on that rain dance, I realized that it was an unlikely but fitting way for me to wrap up the conference. So much of the information I was truly inspired by was, up until very recently, regarded as dubious at best, with no real science to back it up, but some people believed in it and kept working with these new systems until the science caught up with them. So, yes I may not understand how a rain dance would help usher in the moisture that we all need, but I am willing to lend it my energy, maybe someday the science on that will catch up to us. In the meantime, looking at that pile of sand on my floor, I decided to bring the dance back to Full Belly. I carefully swept it into a dustpan, walked out to the walnut orchard and sprinkled it for as long as it would last. All the while thinking wet, juicy thoughts.

— Erin Walkenshaw