Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
I wonder: What is the average time a farmer spends reading?
“Average,” of course, is a highly interesting concept. It’s the mean in a vast landscape of data. You can measure it in a lot of different ways. You can even measure it to draw out the answer you want.
For me, a fairly educated and literate spade-wielding creature, the answer is a lot. The great small-farm reporter and philosophizer Gene Logsdon once wrote that he was a farmer who “likes to read too much.” He was a young Ohio man of letters, destined for the clergy. Gene found solace in the dairy barn and the gardens of the monastery before leaving the high-minded temple-building class only to return to the rank of digger and shepherd.
I suppose I’ve followed a similar path.
I ask the question due to a very specific set of circumstances. We agricultural people live and breathe in an annual cycle of birth and decay. We watch the land and the animals we live with change as the days tick by. We live in our bodies, yes, but also in our heads. The clothing of our workplaces changes rapidly with the seasons, and so do we.
I read for joy and inspiration. I read for guidance. I read for justification.
One of the farmers who understands this great tension is Eliot Coleman. Most HOMEGROWN readers probably know of Coleman. He is the rare farmer who can communicate a clear trajectory of what we’re trying to accomplish out here, as we work with the land.
Coleman’s most valuable contributions to my own farming operation are twofold:
1. Don’t overlook the fall and winter harvest seasons as you plan.
2. Use on-farm and locally available sources to build the long-term productivity of your soil and agricultural landscape.
This is on my mind today as I consider the great prospect of fall and winter production in my microclimate of West Missouri. I am currently harvesting lettuces and spinach and chard and kale and cilantro and arugula and radishes and beets and parsley. Carrots are still growing, as are mache and claytonia. Herbs are still thriving. And it’s November.
For produce growers who live in a place with wild temperature fluctuations throughout the so-called summer growing season, things can be tough. Rain comes and goes. Winds can be brutal. Bugs and pests can be plentiful.
But the autumnal months are very different. Bugs slip away, and physical working temperatures are much more pleasant. Rain comes more frequently. And plants that like the cooler weather can really thrive.
Now, I would like to have come up with this concept of the fall growing season on my own accord. I would like to believe I was smart enough to put it all together. But the truth is, I’m not. Eliot Coleman is, though, and he has passed along the wisdom he learned from the long history of produce growers in Southern Europe.
Take a look at a map. Missouri, where I live, actually shares the sunlight and latitude of central Spain. It’s the kind of interesting fact you’ll learn only by reading. Well, either by reading or, for the wealthy, by traveling to other parts of the globe to learn what growers do in similar climates.
I’m sure many of you are like me. You don’t live in the globally odd (and compelling) microclimate of Central California. You live in a place with greater variation. While we might have a real-time gasp of admiration for those lucky enough to hammer out a living there in the Central Valley, it is not realistic for us to up and move there. I wouldn’t want to, anyway.
Instead, we must find a way where we live. Don’t forget to adapt your diet to what’s available throughout the year. Feed your neighbors with what you can grow. It might mean you have to teach somebody how to eat arugula salad with a side of roasted beets. But the great thing is, in today’s world, the literary knowledge of how to do so is only a couple of clicks away. Good luck.
Bryce Oates is a farmer, father, writer, and conservationist in West Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multigenerational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: to wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.