To You and This Earth We Give Thanks. (Happy Holidays)

Most all of the leaves in the valley below Echo Mountain have let loose of their perch and collected in fiery piles that have quickly decayed into young soil.  Sun Dog Farm has been put mostly to rest as the weather has taken a turn for the frozen, with frosts as hard as 16 degrees.  Our cover crops have had a sudden guerrilla siege by foraging deer whose selection of lush summer edibles have all since gone dormant.  A quick visit to some Farmer friends down South has sent us out with t-posts and fishing line for a quick fix, and the purchase of a rifle and acquisition of a license are high on the horizon.  As we come to the close of our first growing season here in the valley, I feel the Earth’s movement towards a slower, more digestive, and introspective time, when we have a moment to reflect and gather from the lessons met throughout the year.  We have poured out our hearts here on this beautiful landscape and have been rewarded handsomely with the abundance germinated from a healthy relationship with the land and community.  To say this year was successful would be true, but it is but the successful beginning of something much larger than ourselves and will take many, many years to fulfill.  Our dedication to this piece of Earth is one out of the interest of our own well being, but in acknowledgement that our own well being relies entirely on the well being of our land.

This simple reality, that everything is connected and our responsibility to cherish the natural gifts of this world as if they are (and they are,) extensions of our own body, has begun to elude us as a culture.  The infiltration of virtual realities, technologically induced introversion and apathy, and the uprooting of our values for anything that can be traded for with money (with the acquisition of such never in question,) has laid waste to our watersheds, condemned numerous species to extinction, and ravaged the community centers of our human populations.  With screens in our eyes and “facts” at our fingertips, we feel unstoppable, comfortable, and limiting our imagination has become a  game whose addictive stimulation cages our peace of mind.  Our food, losing life and vitality with every unnecessary laboratory and feedlot, is not nourishing our bodies and spirits in ways that promote healthy personal exchanges and greater social communities.

Our war on the planet has no winners or victories, it can only provide for short sighted economic gains and help determine the outcome of political election.  We’ve spent the better part of our history convincing ourselves that we are separate, that sciences are separate, that our religious ideals and the creative natural forces within our ecosystems and solar system were separate phenomenon, things that simply occurred because they did.  Our current medical system works diligently to convince the paying customer that the organs in ones body are to be feared, that they are separate entities likely to fail.  We’ve lost touch with the life force that resides within us and therefore our scope has been shortened and our expectations have been limited.  How are we to connect with nature when we cannot even connect with ourselves?

When people ask me why I farm, I suppose I should say to cope.  Working 7 days a week to grow food and maintain a homestead is an incredibly difficult task that tends to ask too much of us on a regular basis.  The chores are physically demanding and the changing temperaments of the land and climate are very taxing on the mind.  After a long day we are tired and sore and after a long month our spirits are eggs in a frying pan.  And still, here I am, most every day of the year, pouring out more of myself into the land and being met with the richness of life.  My relationship with this piece of land gives me a purpose, gives me the tools I need to cope with a world that seems to be too far along towards an end I fear.  Accepting less plastic and possessions for a healthy, sustaining lifestyle leaves me the opportunity to do good by this world, to make peace with my fears in the fields and turn my doubt and insecurity into seeds sown and nurtured.  It is my greatest treasure to put my fingers into the soil and feel with my own hands that which sustains.  This joy can be found in any moment, even during the harshest conditions or when we have suffered difficult loss.  I carry these gifts of the spirit with me every day when I rise and I hope to return all of them to the farm before I lay down to sleep.

In the words of the great Wendell Berry:

“The change of mind I am talking about involves not just a change of knowledge, but also a change of attitude toward our essential ignorance, a change in our bearing in the face of mystery. The principle of ecology, if we will take it to heart, should keep us aware that our lives depend on other lives and upon processes and energies in an interlocking system that, though we can destroy it, we can neither fully understand nor fully control. And our great dangerousness is that, locked in our selfish and myopic economies, we have been willing to change or destroy far beyond our power to understand.

As we move into winter and the Holiday season of Thanks, I send to your heart of hearts, within this great struggle, this daring of symbiosis and survival, the solace and peace of a season spent in the fields among the honey bees and blooms.  I send you all the love I have collected from my growing calf and harvested from my babbling creek.  I share with you the urgency of a world in turmoil and the hope for that which sustains us all.  I encourage each of you to go outside and become a part of some beautiful and complex natural rhythm.  To nurture something whose roots extend beyond sight and whose territories are not limited by the bars of a cage or the asphalt of a city block.  I present to you my open and ever changing perspective that guides me to make small moves everyday towards the dynamic partnership between this common, shared existence and myself.

Peace be with all of you and Happy Holidays.  Thank you for sharing with us, here at Sun Dog Farm, a beautiful first season in the valley.

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Trailblazers of Sustainability: Women Farmers of the Southeast

Growing up a woman in America affords you many benefits not found in other countries. Opportunities abound and the likelihood of success is tightly linked to ambition and courage. If you do well enough in school, head off to college or an apprenticeship, and take achievements seriously enough, you can often get a well paid job that will provide for you and potentially a family. These days a woman can be a Doctor, Professor, Actor, Philosopher, Scientist, Astronaut, and many other jobs that were until somewhat recently reserved for men. This is not to say that the gender barrier has been broken and that there is no room for further improvement, but great strides have been made by brave women and men alike who have defended the feminine spirit for its beauty, power, and importance on this planet at the risk of endangering themselves, their reputations, and what History would one day have to say about them.

Even so, History (His-Story) has often been fuddled and repeated and generation after generation is asked to revisit issues when mass stereotypes prevail in the face of social progress. These reoccurring issues and stalemates, sexual abuse in the workplace, inequality in pay, complaints about public breastfeeding and other maternal misunderstandings, the religious subversion of women’s rights, and a long list of other seemingly ridiculous trends are enough to get any tough girl down. In a world built by the words and promises of good and bad men, divided and dominated by their whims and understandings, where a woman’s only hope of achieving power is to emulate masculinity, what is a good girl to do? Well, I think the answer is farm.

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Relinda Walker of Walker Organic Farm

While a Farmer may not be what every little girl in America pines to be when they grow up, a study done by the Organic Farming Research Foundation in 2005 found that 22% of all Organic Farms in the United States were operated by women. A similar study conducted by the Women on U.S. Farms Research Initiative at Pennsylvania State University found that women were generally less likely to employ chemical intense practices. Women were found to be more likely to utilize organic and sustainable methods for producing their crops. And where does this tendency towards more open-minded, nurturing and holistic practices come from, you ask? I’m afraid to say it comes, straight up, from being a woman.

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Rebecca Williams of Manyfold Farm

The Southeastern United States and the great State of Georgia in particular houses some of the most innovative and important women Farmers of our time. These champions of the fields may be as pretty as their flowers, but there is nothing frail or fragile about them. Pioneers in an industry that is just barely being recognized by our mainstream society, these women have come to do the dirty work just as well as their male counterparts and in many cases their products and professionalism serve as guiding lights for young women and men alike interested in a different, more holistic path towards success. They have come to face the adversity generated by our bent industrial food system and they’ve come to do it in what has for centuries in America been considered a man’s line of work.

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Lauren Cox of Le Tre Lune Farm

This is certainly not an attempt to downplay the importance of the strong men in our community out every week at the farmers market dishing out the best of their harvests. You go on, be the studs that you are and keep on giving our young men an example of how hard work is still alive and thriving, shaping and guiding us towards healthier bodies and a healthier planet. Many of the great farmer women of our time share their workload with an equally bad ass male partner, but no longer due to some legal or social requirement.

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Paula Guilbeau of Heirloom Gardens

The Women Farmers of the Southeast are trailblazers for a new and enlightened view of what is important in life. Born nurturers, these women are mothers and daughters, their spirits are naturally entangled in the affairs of the wild and they are here to show us not only what it means to be an empowered female, they are here to show us a different system of values. There is no time for a woman farmer to try and be like any man or fit any standard. They openly pour their love where they lay their seeds and the fruits that grow from that effort are the sweet tastes of social change in a world in need of more lovers, dreamers, and healers.

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Paige Witherington of Serenbe Farms

The most important thing a man or woman in Georgia can do today is to support these incredible figures of strength and ingenuity. To go and purchase their food and show their children that being a woman is a gift, not a sentence. By going to the farmers market or joining their CSA programs, you are playing an important role in acknowledging that women can be leaders, that their strength and courage can manifest beautiful, healthful change on this planet in a time of utmost need.

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Rachel Hennon Intern at Love is Love Farm at Gaia Gardens

When I see the incredible achievements of these talented women I am left inspired and encouraged. The world we live in today is wrought with challenges, but I see before me all the strength and ferocity necessary to tackle them. We are living in exciting times and it is time to acknowledge and appreciate what each of us can bring to the table. Whether your daughter wants to be a Congresswoman, a Princess, or a Farmer, she needs to know that she is an entity of great importance and value and she is supported in her pursuits. The more positive examples of woman leaders we cultivate in our communities, the better.

(For more information about any of the farmers featured, click on their images.)

Calling All Localvores: Why You Should Hug a Farmer.. Today.

This growing season has been an incredible test of the spirits and ambitions of the farmers scattered across the Southeastern United States.  The ample rain turning quickly into saturation and finally, over saturation, has limited our sunshine, brought about ideal conditions for parasites, fungi, and diseases, made certain crops flavorless, and even caused devastating floods which wash away weeks of hard labor, topsoil, and the dollar value of anything planted in the path of the surging water.  When crops sit in soil where their feet (roots) are always wet, they tend to weaken and rot at the level of the soil and below, their cell walls are filled and sometimes burst from the Turgor pressure of the excess water and the plants become overly lush, a condition that makes them easy to chew on if you are a sneaky little beetle  or invade  if you are a disease or fungus.  The consistent rainfall cuts down on the amount of time pollinators are able to do their jobs and can even kill off crucial soil biology necessary for the proper breakdown and dispersal of nutrients from the soil to the plant roots.

Excess rain also limits the amount of time a farmer is able to work their soil.  If using a tractor or a draft horse, a roto-tiller or your own brute strength, a farmer has a limited window between showers where the soil is of the proper consistency to till, spade, double dig, or disk.  If soil is worked when it is too wet, the soil structure is compromised and the result is a nasty hardpan that dries and does not allow for the proper percolation of rain during the next storm.  This means that the water washes across the top of the soil, which can perpetuate erosion and leave your plants high and dry during times when rain is less frequent, in soil that is slowly losing its nutrition.  You know what loves lots of rain though?  Weeds.

On top of all of these issues, the rain also presents a problem when the farmer is attempting to market these products they are tirelessly attempting to salvage and sell.  A rainy day at the local Farmers Market not only means hours of standing out in the rain, but it also means a lower turn out of market shoppers who, like the farmers, would rather not go out early in the morning or after a long day of work and get soaked or chilled.  A lower number of market shoppers means an even lower number of sales, which subtracted along with the subtractions of crop failures can begin to deduct quite a large amount of the gross income of the operation.  This loss of income makes it more difficult to cushion the following season, generating a cycle of loss which is difficult to catch up from.

While the pain of this season can be felt every time I look out the window and see those persistent little drops, this is all a part of the beauty and the beast of a local food system.  When you look at the situation from a very broad sense, the increase in rainfall has helped eliminate the threat of drought that has had its claws in the Southeast for a number of years.  As you get closer to the mechanisms of the local farms themselves, it is obvious that our foodway is hurting and it needs your help.  Obviously as a customer, volunteer, or advocate we couldn’t ask for you to slow the rains to the perfectly timed storms we all dream about at night (or can we??)  Being realistic, there is never a season without challenge and we wouldn’t want it that way.  What we can ask for is for your support during this time of great stress and uncertainty.

Ever had that funny feeling in your belly like you wanted to go out and work on the farm? (It’s okay, this is a safe space to admit it and others are doing it.)  July 2013 is the perfect time to act on those passionate feelings.  Get your boots out, get your rain gear on, and get yourself some mud on your brow.  Just go through your facebook feed and find that farm that seems to be feeling it the hardest and make the first move.  If you don’t have the time for hands-on aid, then maybe the most important thing you can do for your local foodway right now is to buy local food.  Go to the Farmers Market of your choice and buy what you need.  Buy what you need for the week.  Plan out your meals and bring a list with you.  Go to several farmers and lay your money down for some of the best food available to you.  Buy spontaneously.  Go to the Farmers Market with no idea what you want to cook and make it up as you go.  Tell your friends to go with you.  Guilt them into it.  Take your next hot date to the Farmers Market and spice things up with some locally grown hot peppers or some sexy heirloom tomatoes.

The beauty and the beast of the local foodway is a complex relationship whose integrity we are all responsible for.  It takes every single localvore and farmer to make this magic happen and during times of hardship, we all have to contribute the very best of ourselves to see it through.  The layers of this food community are all connected and we all have a role to play in its success.  While it is my role to push through these storms, meet the challenge and become better as a farmer for my sake, for the sake of the farm ecosystem, and for the sake of my reliable customers, it is the role of the customer to meet me with flexibility and support.  The rainstorms of 2013 have been the beast this year and those who come out every weekend to the market rain or shine to support those that grow their food; there are few things on this planet more beautiful than them.  See y’all at market.

When Food Becomes Medicine

It has been a cold and rainy Spring here at Sun Dog Farm and our leisurely mountain drives around Nottley Lake have been particularly beautiful.  The high water levels mirroring the breathtaking cloudy skies strewn across the horizon have given the lush mountain peaks an extra sense of majesty.  The trees have put on what are most nearly full leaves and the blooms of cultivated and naturalized plants have filled the air with their delicate scents and features.  Life is all a buzz, yet even this morning our neatly tucked little valley faced the damaging chills of a late Spring frost.  Another frost is predicted for tomorrow morning and possibly after that the threat will diminish and the bounty of foods gathering strength from the sun and other energies will safely pursue their purpose.  Even with the unpredictable weather patterns and bouts of heavy rain, life has found its course and navigated the extremes with grace.  We harvested the first of our cultivated crops and brought them to market on Saturday and I suspect that each week will grow in volume and diversity.  After just five months on the property, Sun Dog Farm is finally shaping up to be a productive venture and thriving farm organism.

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And here I am on a daily basis soaking in the beautiful expressions of this valley.  On a golden morning harvesting radishes, I was amazed to realize how much the farm is an extension of my own consciousness.  The cracks and crevices of my imagination burst forth the blue print for this dynamic landscape and my physical experience went about like a busy bee putting the pieces together.  While part of this process certainly seems to stem from the vision within my own consciousness, the farm is an organism unto itself.  There are moments as a farmer where you look about all of your work and feel a great sense of pride.  There are maybe just as many differing moments where you look about at all of the incredible life forces around you harnessing energies all on their own and you simply feel grateful.  I have come to realize that my role here on the farm varies, but it is certainly never “master” or the “boss.”  I have found that I am but one part of the farm organism, an entity just as important as any other, but not one that could work to the exclusion of any other of the farm’s necessary functioning systems and organs.

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The farm also serves as a perfect mirror of the self.  It always seems that when there are deep rooted, difficult issues within my own being to confront, the farm suffers an ailment that can only be cured through braving these tough emotions.  This process not only strengthens the vitality of the farm organism, but strengthens my own abilities and purposes on the farm and as a person living in a complex and physical realm.  Viewing the farm as a perfect mirror and as an extension of myself, myself an extension to it, is what I believe turns the vegetables from food into medicine.  This is not strictly speaking to how the farm is medicine for me, but how I can take what is grown in this precious ecosystem and share it with the vibrant food community as a nutrient dense edible with highly medicinal properties.

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When the farmer acknowledges that the farm is of their own creation, uniquely them, and filled to the brim with the love of those who work the land, the food grown under these conditions of holistic nurturing and care exhibit medicinal qualities.  The addage, “know your farmer,” truly expresses the importance of purchasing food from the very people who put the seeds in the ground.  When someone loves their land and crops enough to not only put their name on the label, but to put their face behind the table at the Farmers Market, it can be made quite clear that they are doing what they love and that love is what grew the products they are offering.  That love is what ensures that the crops receive the proper nutrition required to fulfill the needs of the plants and the people who eat them and that love carries over into the farm organism as a whole.  Love is as dynamic a force as a farm is an organism and the relationship between the two is the best source of medicine available today.

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The season of abundance is upon us and there is no better time to get out and buy your food, your simple medicine, from the farmers directly through Farmers Markets, CSA programs, and other venues dedicated to the good food movement.  Just as the farmer is but one part of the farm, the customer has as much a role to play in the success of the farm and the fulfillment of its purpose.  Every dollar spent on a farm based product is a dollar that filters back through the farm organism and replenishes the needs of the system.  This process ties us all together, and I would like all of our customers and supporters to know that they too are an integrated part of the Sun Dog Farm organism.  The vitality of the farm is inextricably linked to the vitality of the venture and we are so honored to be a part of such a culturally rich and dedicated food community of families, farmers markets, and chefs alike in the city of Atlanta.  Your support manifests the medicine from our fields and ensures that our love wanders only to those who wish to cherish it.

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Hippocrates – “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”

You Can Never Hold Back Spring

It is surprising how much the climate of the North Georgia Mountains reflects the climate I grew up with in the Northeastern US.  I often have to take a breath and calm my soul when I view all the incredible pictures of the progress of Spring from Atlanta and even further South in the Low Country.  Here we are in March, having battled days of snow, only the maple blossoms having dared to break, with nighttime temperatures in the teens, and yet there is a greenhouse full of beautiful life slowly leafing out with a persistence that is inspiring, but with a gate that lends my heart to anxiety.  We are officially located in growing zone 6 and we certainly feel it today in the valley with a temperature hovering at 37 degrees and a wind chill that encourages hot tea and lingered strolls through the greenhouse.

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It has been a whirlwind of activity here on the farm.  I can just barely remember what this abandoned property looked like before my machete cleared the bamboo and Elliot trimmed up the pastures with a chainsaw and bushhog.  We have filled two roll off dumpsters with the remains of what was, moldy memories telling us the story of what this farmhouse, the barns, and pastures used to hold.  The energy of that incredible story echoes through the valley on a daily basis and as we spade up the soil to plant, we can see how the direction of this farm has been fated long before we even stepped foot on the property.  While I sprinkled our first Biodynamic Preparations through the fields prepared for Spring, I felt more connected to the manifestations of energy all around me than ever before.  We have a purpose here.  Farming in this beautiful place has given us the responsibility to make it better, to treat the soil and atmosphere holistically, and to share what we grow with the community we love.

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Now that we have removed a lot of trash, reclaimed a lot of useful tools and treasures, and now that my Father and Uncle have restored running water to the farm, we feel that the Winter has finally run its course.  As we move into Spring, our efforts can be more centered on the pursuit of life.  This will include remodeling the interior of the house with fresh coats of paint, continued removal of moldy drywall, and eventually the most important and enjoyable part of the process, adding the touches that will make this farmhouse a home.  Life will carry on in the fields and wetlands, in the growing beds and bamboo jungles; arising wherever there are boundaries to create it and filling this beautiful landscape to the brim with the intertwined relationships of this incredible Universe.  My collection of Praying Mantis cocoons soon will hatch and with them all the other crawling, flying, humming, chirping, and calling creatures in this lonely valley, returning each to the hustle and bustle of yet another fruitful growing season.

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We are looking very forward to April when food will begin to grow and our farmers market will once again return us into the loving arms of the community that housed us back before we moved to the Coastal Marsh.  Sun Dog Farm will be selling at the Peachtree Road Farmers Market once again and we couldn’t be more pleased.  This market is unlike any we’ve seen before, being the largest producer only market in Atlanta, it is filled with all the food you need and crafts and artistry enough to feed your soul.  We will also be particiating in the birth of The Homestead Atlanta, a brave new school offering classes aimed at bringing us back to our roots.  Everything from herbal medicine to mushroom cultivation, blacksmithing to wool spinning; The Homestead will remind us how powerful we are, each of us individually, and that when given the right tools, we are capable of creating beautiful things that will make our lives and the lives of those we love better.  I will be teaching a class at The Homestead on April 27th called the Basics of Biodynamics and I invite you all to join me there.  This journey has already been a test to our spirits with all the ups and downs associated with reclaiming something lost.  We look forward to sharing what we have found and our efforts with all of you for another growing season.

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“It has been said that by working the soil it is possible to do in a few years what would take nature thousands of years to accomplish.

Intensive soil cultivation and the addition of proper soil amendments can aggregate sandy soil to give it more crumb or open heavy lime marls to give them more porosity.  In both instances, when the proper soil consistency is maintained, the soil is said to have ‘heart’.” — Dennis Klocek

Hey Georgia, We’re Home

The year 2013 has already been the most important for Elliot and I and that is saying a lot being 23 days in.  This year we have accepted the challenge of setting down roots in a place, ending our nomadic wanderings and committing ourselves to a region, a community, and most importantly, 12.5 acres of delicate ecosystem.  Our journey to this decision has been important, at no point during our travels through the state of Georgia would I have changed a detail.  Each new location our tired wings placed us was full to the brim with intelligent, inspiring, and loving people dedicated to their communities, the preservation of the region’s heritage, and the adaptability and evolution of their foodways.  While we have often times felt guilty about ducking into a food community only to see the bloom open slightly, and ducking out once again, it has been an honor to be a part of such incredible progress in the Southeast.  Our farmer friends, food advocates, and loyal customers have been our best teachers and we hope to carry all of their lessons with us as we build our homestead and dedicate our labors to the North Georgia Mountains.

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As 2013 begins, we have become proud residents of Blairsville, Georgia, a town nestled into the Southern most tips of the beautiful Appalachian Mountains.  The farm is located in a valley with a single mountain in view in the back growing space.  It has an incredible stream running its length, a pole barn, old homestead, milking barn, several other outbuildings, and rampant patches of bamboo.  The farm itself has been unoccupied  by humans for about 10 years and the wear and tear of life has made its mark on most of the buildings and growing spaces.  We have already dedicated numerous hours to the farms reclamation and this will be a project that lasts for several years.  Overall the farm has very good bones, the house is injured but sturdy, the outbuildings needing only roofs, patches and some tinkering, and the farm totes some of the most incredible soil I have ever seen.

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We have negotiated a lease purchase agreement with the former owners of the property, the Biodynamic growers and educators Hugh Lovel and Shabari Bird.  This farm was formerly known as the Union Agriculture Institute and was operated as a nonprofit.  The land was farmed for 30 years by Hugh Lovel himself and was the very place where his incredible knowledge and understanding of the relationship between the universe and plants bloomed.  Right here on our new land was the muse for the book A Biodynamic Farm and this very soil was sculpted with the most intentional, restorative methods in agriculture today.  The Union Agriculture Institute was the first Biodynamic Farm in Georgia and not only served as an educational farm for interns such as Farmer D of Farmer D Organics, but also a site for conferences, a CSA, early sales to Farmers Markets in Atlanta, and so much more.  Hugh Lovel, having left the daily operations of the farm, now spends most of the year in Australia with his wife Shabari, sharing their wealth of knowledge about what Hugh has termed, Quantum Agriculture, the most holistic and comprehensive view of farming generated from the idea that no form of influence to the growth of the plant, small or large, distant or immediate, can be excluded from its overall evaluation.  That every aspect of the crop’s reality creates an impact on its growth and therefore all relationships the plant has with the soil, soil biology, minerals, nutrients, atmosphere, cosmos, energy, etc. must be considered.

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This method of growing, as Biodynamics has always stressed, requires a considerable level of dedication to sustainable growing methods.  It reaches beyond organic growing and views the farm as a living, breathing organism.  Growing in this way imitates the elaborate and complex relationships replicated in any and all ecosystems on the planet.  Elliot and I have always been drawn to this farming mindset and we are beyond excited and honored to carry on the heritage of this incredible piece of land.  From building our own composts using the Biodynamic Preparations to considering the alignment of the cosmic bodies when we start and end life on our property, we can only hope to do our best and learn as we go, just as Hugh Lovel did when he first landed upon this beautiful valley.  This is an oppportunity for us not only to homestead, set roots, and grow, but to revitalize an inspired landmark nestled in the Georgia landscape.

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And Georgia, sweet Georgia, our love affair with you  has been tender and humid, often times difficult and complex, but always rewarding and it appears that we are in it for the long haul.  As we begin to turn over soil this spring, set seeds and pull weeds, we are reminded of what you have provided us.  The support systems you have unveiled and the communities you have housed.  This year especially will be one of great challenges and difficult decisions.  It will require from us a work ethic unlike any we have set forth to this day and it will break our limits and test our spirits.  We have already tasted some of this challenge and we are anxious and excited to see what we’ve got.  In the heat of it all, and I mean there will be heat, we know that Georgia, sweet Georgia, you have always been our home.

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A Not So Delicious Tyson Chicken Christmas Gift

November in the marsh seems to sneak away slowly, like the populations of roseate spoonbills, ibis, and warbles in September.  The trees have barely begun to lose their leaves and the temperatures remind me of a summer day in Vermont.  As we all flip to that last page in the calendar, the holiday season with its tradition and compassion, takes hold of my sleepy winter mind and brings warmth into my being. Though the marsh never truly clears out of creature inhabitants, the numbers of the local flora and fauna go from being so incredibly biodiverse that every moment churned with the quake and hum of life, to a quieter, more tranquil time whose year long inhabitants are more clearly highlighted.  The king fishers and bald eagles have taken over the hunting of the snaking waterways and the otters can be seen submerging in the rising tide or scurrying accross the land bridges.  A 6 foot resident gator has reclaimed a sunning spot on a dock in front of our home where turles spent the long summer days and attended the insect evening parties.  It has been about a month since I have spotted an armadillo, but evidence of their presence in the garden is still an occasional find.  A small group of 9 adolescent wood storks has taken refuge with a roosting group of herons, night herons, egrets, and comorants on the fishing ponds by the farm.  The citrus has been harvested, and enjoyed, the crops and weeds have slowed their pace, and our final market of the season will be this weekend.  As the season’s hopes, worries, accomplishments, and disasters seem to fade into my memories, the celebration of a new coming year has filled my spirit once more.

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And what an ending to this incredible year.  I have witnessed so many amazing individuals dedicated to small business, local economy, and the local and regional foodways of their communities.  The Forsyth Farmers Market was a season long display of the efforts and inspiration of a collection of artisans and farmers.  The elegant limbs of the live oaks and delicate tufts of spanish moss created a mirage of paradise in the blistering heat and a reason to bundle up and go outside on the coldest days of the year.  My correspondence with farmers from East Coast to West Coast has given me hope when the rain would not come and patience when the rain would not stop.  2012 was a year for all of us to be proud of, a step in the right direction for the empowerment of our food movement.  It takes a little bit of effort from each of us, and so many of the people I met this year have committed their lifestyles and everyday choices to the practices that protect our fellow human beings and the Earth we all share.  More incredible still are the individuals dedicating their free time to educating their friends, family, and communities about the benefits of eating a healthy diet and supporting those who produce the ingredients.

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Unfortunately the year did not end on a perfect or easy note for all of us who dwell in the sometimes challenging world of producing organic food.  Jeff Poppen, also known as the Barefoot Farmer, is a biodynamic farming educator and farm owner of Long Hungry Creek Farm in Boiling Springs, Tennessee.  His farm has been an organic, biodynamic farm for over 30 years and provides incredibly nutrient dense, holistically grown foods to over 200 csa members.  His growing methods reflect an elevated understanding of the systems at play within the complex ecosystems of his beautiful farm.  His exploration into Biodynamics has given him the advantage of using the natural world as the most significant tool for nurturing his diversified crops.  Experiences on his farm and knowledge he has shared has incubated the hatching of several farmers who have radiated out of Boiling Springs and set down roots in the surrounding communities.  The Barefoot Farmer has written two books, starred in the very popular and informative television series, Volunteer Gardener, written hundreds of articles about growing food in the Macon County Chronicle, and has made a lasting impact on the Tennessee landscape and Southern growing scene. Unfortunately for this seasoned farmer and educator, 2012 brought about a terrible cross examination of what we as small farmers and local farm supporters are up against.

Mostly complete in September of this year, two industrial chicken houses were built within 450 feet of Jeff Poppen’s home and precious acres of biodynamically maintained farmland.  The chicken houses were constructed without regard to the only source of water the farm has available to it and the County Legislature violated their laws prohibiting the building of chicken houses and other industrial food producing buildings within a restricted distance of public areas, residences, and businesses.  The construction of the houses was a bully move made by elected officials who have a limited understanding of the importance of nuturing local, small scale agriculture for the sake of the community.  The decision was one born out of fear for change and the intolerance that we can generally link with ignorance or indifference.  This farm boasted the title of the oldest organic farm in Tenneessee and as we close this year, Jeff Poppen is forced to give up his farm and relocate away from the toxic manufacture of caged livestock.  This devistating move on the part of Tyson Chicken subsidiaries is a haunting living portrait of the real and not so glamorous difference between organic and conventionally produced foods.

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This tragic step backwords from the forward moving ideals of agricultural change in Tennessee and the nation as a whole is a keen reminder of what is at stake in this modern world.  Moving into 2013, we should remember the triumphs and the hardships we have all faced and shared with one another, accepting and learning from both victories and defeats.  The holidays give us an excuse to try and reconnect to one another and show compassion for those in our lives and those we may only interact with indirectly, through our own rippling actions and the actions of others.  This time of year reminds us that we are all in this together and the more effort and positivity we put into this place we call home, the more we will be able to care for one another.  An abundant garden is grown where people not only come together to share in the meal,  but also the harvest, and that spirit must continue to spark new life into our foodways everywhere.  The Barefoot Farmer may have lost an iconic, celebration of a farm that served as a daily dose of inspiration and encouragement to all of us who choose to explore a better understanding of the complexities of this planet, but we shall not let him lose the support and appreciation of all of us who know the importance of his work in the Southeastern United States and his role in changing the national perspectives on growing food and living a healthful, mindful life.

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“For the first time in the 40 years I’ve lived here, I don’t know what I’m going to do. Agribusiness has been destroying agriculture in many places for many years and I am not alone in this predicament. Actually, we are all in it together.  I look forward to continue working for a just and sane agriculture, where people matter. I’ll probably move back after they’re gone.” – Jeff Poppen

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Conventional vs. Organic? Oh Come On, We Are Better Than This

It has been a slow trot towards cooler weather here on the farm and we’ve been wearing the art of the simple life on our brows and mud stained knees.  Our fall transplants have finally made their homes in the mucky, marsh soil and seeds are germinating in sporadic dotted rows.  Many of the summer time crops are coming to an end as the Okra expands and lengthens, shadowing the landscape around it with trunks as much as 4 and 5 inches thick.  In order to harvest from these Okra trees, we must bend the plant and take several steps to the side to reach the pods at the very top before releasing this dangerous catapult back into the air.  Sugar cane swishes this way and that in the sea breezes and our newest batch of noodle beans has begun to set their colorful, spaghetti like fruits.  Cucumbers, Summer Squash, Bush Beans, Flowers, and Field Peas are making a triumphant second go at it as delicious fall crops like Broccoli, Cauliflower, Kale, Radishes, Beets, Carrots, Chois, Lettuce, Turnips, Scallions, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage, Mustards, Collards, and a list of other delicious items we have been nostalgic for since the summer heat sizzled the Spring time crops away return in abundance.  It is still hot here on the farm, though we’ve experienced the occasional crisp morning and a few days that appeared to wander together into the lower temperatures as a reminder of what is to come.  We’ve been savoring the first tastes of Fall greens and our meal times are transforming from the exotic, delicate colors of Summer back once again to the deep, earth tones of cool weather and hardy crops.

I believe I was sitting at the kitchen table in my parent’s house in Pennsylvania on a short visit the day some news reporter with sculpted hair, a low neckline, and chicklet teeth boasted the claim, “Is Organic Food worth the extra cash?  A new study on Conventional versus Organic products may surprise you….”  She went on, of course, to very shallowly explain that this study conducted by the expert researchers working under the banner of  Annals of Internal Medicine discovered that the nutrient densities of Conventionally grown produce were as substantial as those found in Organically grown foods after doing a two-year study and focusing on a few indicators of health in human beings.  Following that viewing, the news story seemed to pop up everywhere in my life, every mainstream journalist with a soap box to stand on was spreading the controversy wildly, taking aim at Organic Agriculture as if it had tricked everyone,  as if one study completed by a few individuals was enough to overthrow the guilt associated with not giving a damn about anything but the couple bucks we figured we’d save from buying our summer squash from mexico.  The news story became a blanket we could throw over our shoulders, sheltering us once again from having to concern ourselves with the annoying task of stewarding our planet and taking extra measures to care for our bodies.

The worst part of the whole controversy wasn’t necessarily the argument itself.  Plenty of passionate, informed rebuttals exploded from the individuals who had educated themselves on the issues associated with the study.  Besides, in all honesty, making the assumption that pouring toxic chemicals over food you are going to consume and replacing the natural soil nutrient cycling, replicated in any ecosystem on planet Earth, with crude, concentrated elixirs of the most necessary nutrients is better than food grown utilizing natural forces with a focus on generating a holistic product born from a living soil is to make an assumption that commerce means more than health, life, and the planet on which we live.  Ever since our ancestors landed on the shores of North America, our nation has had access to an abundance of natural resources.  This gift errupted into a party that we’ve been having ever since, the richness of this beautiful nation providing for the economic, industrial, and societal growth we now hold so dear today.  We have come to love our comforts, our products, our way of life and to think that any of that has to change brings us remorse.  It isn’t necessarily all our fault, industry in America has produced enough money to control what we can and cannot do, what we can and cannot believe and this goes straight to our inability to contradict the motives of the products we now rely on.  We have been labeled unpatriotic when questioning the growth of industry into the last uncontaminated realms of our world and to help us cope with losing our voices, we’ve been handed computers that fit into our pockets and a constant stream of media to replace the need to use our minds.

So I say to the argument, Conventional versus Organic? Oh come on, we are better than this.  We are better than this and I have seen it.  The State of Georgia has a history of utilizing production methods that haven’t always had the land or its people in mind.  Though Georgia has, from time to time, held onto close minded nuances in the agricultural spectrum, life in the South is starting to bloom.  Farmers Markets have exploded and succeeded in all of the major cities from Atlanta to Savannah.  Beautiful, spirited people have dedicated their lives to farming sustainably in the South, preserving the best of the Southern heritage through the incredible foodways this agricultural state has maintained throughout the years.  Chefs, Farmers Market Managers, Farmers, Customers, Creatives, Food Purveyors, and enlightened souls from the Northern Mountains all the way down to the Swampy Deep South have all played a major role in dispelling the concept that Organic food is a luxury saved for the rich.  Organic food is a necessity designed for us all.  The impacts of growing food with thought to the health of the consumer and the health of the environment go far beyond any two-year study conducted by researchers with their own story to tell.  The sustainable food movement is created, supported, and endorsed by so many because it simply makes sense.  It makes sense to feed your children the best quality food available, it makes sense to protect the natural world where everything we need to survive is derived from, it makes sense to localize the economy and support most those whom you consider neighbors and friends.

We are better than this argument, better than this delusion and so many incredible individuals in Georgia are proving this everyday.  Under our uniting banner of Georgia Organics, we can continue to make the difference that is needed.  We can continue to bring healthy foods into the lives of fellow Georgians rich and poor, and through this act of compassion and love for our neighborhoods, families, and friends, we all will move closer towards a better future.  The biggest problem with the study was that it addressed the concerns of Organic versus Conventional products on a person to person basis.  The study did not take into account how Organic, sustainable methods provide for the preservation of our natural spaces, the preservation of our precious foodways, and the preservation of our communities founded on the fundamental morals of truth, beauty, and love.

A Romance with the Seasons

It is difficult for me to string together enough words to describe the epic beauty of this evening in the Marsh.  Rolling thunderstorms made their way from whispers in the breeze to hazy, persistant downpours all over the farm and dense waterways.  Flocks of immature white ibis, egrets, and the occasional spoonbill darted from their daily wading grounds to seek shelter in the trees and grasses.  The Marsh got quiet, quiet in a way that only the rain can command of the usual chorus of insects and amphibians that dominate the airwaves.  A slight breeze, the sound of rain hitting water, and a sky that couldn’t emotionally commit to being a storm or a sunset.  As the last rain drops fell, the tiny ripples from the drips were replaced by the tiny ripples of millions of insects, the chorus returned for the crescendo with one buzzing, croaking instrument sounding at a time, and the bruise colored clouds parted to reveal a sky on fire with the hues of an evening in paradise.  Perhaps I think this is paradise because we recently sowed a lot of seeds in the ground that desperately needed water.  Perhaps the alligator lazily swimming away from me thinks it is paradise as his tail cuts through the mirrored blaze.

We have enjoyed incredibly timed storms here in the Low Country this Summer.  We haven’t had to fire up the irrigation since May and it appears that this most recent set of showers, that which happened last evening and repeated itself this evening, have been enough to spare us once again.  It was only this week that our plants at the farm were showing their stress from lack of water and it was only this week that we discovered that our irrigation system happened to be on the fritz.  Fortunately, the rains came and we have a little more time to stress out about the prospect of The Dustbowl 2012 at Harvest Lake Farm.  During this time of notable stress, it has also been nice to acknowledge that we are finally over the Summer slump!  Every year, from one season to the next, it seems like a farmer’s day is spent day dreaming about the productivity of the following season.  This never being in the present moment is certainly a life long journey.

What this can mean for someone who farms in what feels like the Jungle is that you spend your days loving and hating the life giving, sometimes oppressive heat and humidity of the Summer months.  In the Winter and Spring you long for it because with it comes tomatoes, squash, okra, eggplant, peppers, and all the other gifts of the Sun.  Unfortunately this gift doesn’t stop there.  The Sun will happily give more and more of this gift until the heat and humidity finally oppress the very plants that were once so eager to reach for it.  The squash disappear, the beans give up, the tomatoes slowly droop and rot in a morbid, depressing display.  Soon all you have left are Eggplants, Okra, Peppers, and Peas and my goodness I love these things, but eating them everyday can be somewhat of a contributor to the whole “slump” feeling.  But wait!  There is light at the end of the tunnel.  There is hope at the end of the 30th eggplant dish you’ve served up.  At some point you get to start preparing for Fall.

And Fall!  What a time to obsessively look forward to.  Let’s face it, down here in the very bottom of the melting pot, (where many of us live everyday, melting,) the Fall is maybe one of the best times of the year to try and grow food.  All of your early summer favorites get a second shot and your Spring season is reborn and then extended into the mild Winter days.  The bugs reduce in seemingly size and numbers and the overall temperature of the farm allows for a much more comfortable, friendly operation.  Now remember, this is all being said by a farmer in the heat of the Summer.  If you ask me about Fall growing this Fall, I will likely tell you about how well that may be going but how much I am looking forward to Spring.

And so it goes.  It could be argued that this almost bipolar fascinationg with the changing of the seasons is just one more hurtle for someone trying to farm in this modern world to jump, but that can’t be it.  Everything a person who has commited themselves to the landscape achieves from day to day is some form of spiritual fulfillment I have never properly learned to explain.  Being in tune with the seasons is to be open to the ongoing romance of the planet.  Love is a beautiful, dangerous thing and this world has cycles of life, death, lust, and rebirth to prove it.  The changing of the seasons teaches us how to be constant and also how to change.  Each season contributes to a maddening love and unconsolable loss, everything on Earth being created from the death of something else.  The seasons teach us that there must exist a trade off, you must give to get and sometimes when this equillibrium is disturbed at the farm, we end up giving much more than we get.  Our modern society, that has been severed from seasonality, is currently getting a lot more than it gives within the energy cycles of the planet, but it can’t last forever.  At some point no amount of giving on our part will undo all the “getting” we’ve added up.

As I am aging, slowly and quickly all at once, I am finding that the health of our societies and the condition of our planet are two things that are too difficult for me to process.  From the newest NASA images of the Greenland ice sheet melt to the violent fiction of a man dressed in a bat suit becoming nonfiction violence in our growing world, it all seems like too much to swallow.  Meanwhile real, nonfiction bats in North America are declining in shocking numbers due to white nose syndrome; a potential loss of 6.7 Million individuals and the cause of this devastating illness is still mostly unknown.  The factory farmed humans locked inside all day, fed stimulants and stimulus can barely defend themselves against a governing body whose greed both concentrates and destroys them like logs in a woodburning stove.  We are pushing this world to the very limit for the success of so few that the dream of exponential anything seems like such a crass joke.

But what can you do when all you have is one life, one shot at romance with this unforgiving, beautiful Earth?  You court the seasons one by one, relearn the rhythm in the chaos and set some roots in the ground.  You look forward to kale while you eat your tomatoes and as the trees drop their leaves, you lovingly lay your ambitions in the field and come inside for a hot drink and a creative heart.  Not sure how all that goes down?  Don’t worry, neither was I.  I probably still don’t quite get it in a lot of ways and I doubt that the entirety of my life will enlighten me to all the great complexities of my relationship with this world.  All I know is that Fall is coming soon, it’s time to clean out the greenhouse, throw up the shade cloth and day dream about broccoli and beets.

A New Generation

Do you remember that time we stood in line

In front of those huge glass windows advertising cheap beer and wine

Waiting to pump our two door truck back into play

With a few dribbles of Dinosaur DNA

And we just stood in line, sweating the small stuff

Browsing the tabloids thinking what we’d be like

With all that cash

How much we would laugh and spend

And get everything in the world we can

And set it all in a pile in some pristine location

And life would be a permanent vacation

And nothing would make us feel more free

Than a heavy wallet for all of eternity?

Well I looked at you and you looked at me

And you laughed smiling kind of nervously

And we dropped our money on that sticky, lemonade floor

And turned and headed out that windex door

And that lady with the pepsi and the jingling car keys

Was the last human on Earth to see you or me

And we left our truck parked, sitting hungry

Propped up at the pump where it would stay rent free

We just kept walking and as we did

The lights on the houses turned on

And soon the noise from the highway was gone

And we were in some movie set neighborhood

Where we all wanted to grow up

Where kids squeel bike tires and no one is messed up

And there we were, you and me

Learning real estate geometry

That yard is the same, that makes three

But something about this set became too real

No kids in the yards

No toys on the hill

Just a strange flickering coming from inside

Where the kids all crowded around, all eyes tied

On a creature part man-part killer

Always ready

Both hands on the trigger

No time for mercy, and speaking of mercy

There they were, those kids

Eating sugar for breakfast and breakfast for dinner

In that fantasy where they’re always a winner

And yet what is it that they are losing?

Both hands on the controls, fingers to plastic, wires to black holes

Their hearts beat in time with the rhythm of the hunt

Their neighborhood shook, all houses on repeat

Well you and I, we couldn’t take defeat

We unplugged the wires, lead them out to the street

Each child grabbed a hand

And we walked away

From the development plans and chemical lawns

The paystub empire

And artificial food stands

We walked until we found

The end of the cloud of smells and sounds

A piece of clean land, the cleanest around

And grabbed each child, put their tired fingers in the dirt

Begged them to see with their own eyes

How a life lived inside is not a life alive

And it wasn’t easy, they resisted at first

Until one by one they set roots in the Earth

Their lives returned to a time

As if we had chosen rewind

When video games were just an invention floating above our minds

Waiting in line to fall into our laps

Like can openers, pop tarts, and the daily grind

And we grew vegetables and figured we were actually free

No more smoke stacks or heart attacks from the big City

Just a new generation

And you

And me.