‘Farming on the fringe …’

  • Daniel Botkin—Daniel Botkin Daniel Botkin—Daniel Botkin

Published: 1/24/2019 7:48:33 PM

I have a small farm in Gill that’s been the source of great joy, healing and devotion, now 20 turns around the sun. My partner and I work constantly, but live idyllically, reveling in a continuous, home-grown, hilltop cornucopia, including our own veggies, fruit, chestnuts, goat cheese and heirloom tomatoes.

And we’ve practiced and refined a uniquely opportunistic, “low-till” style of raising this incredible food, which we sometimes laughingly call “guerrilla gardening” or “farming on the fringe,” based partly on the realization that not all successes are planned and that a rich bounty can often be gleaned (recycled) from Nature, just by observing, mimicking and incrementally cooperating with Her…

(Incidentally, this “collaborating with Nature” business, and “doing more and better by doing less” actually applies quite elegantly to many other human endeavors as well: guerrilla parenting, guerrilla cooking, guerrilla medicine, art, music and theatre!)

I first tagged our little operation “farming on the fringe” as a humorous nod to our thin experience, advancing age, and all the money we’d not yet made selling produce. After surviving 9/11 and the Bush years, I decided it more aptly referred to our living on the fringe of history, of coming “Earth Changes,” climate chaos, and the like.

The truth is, these crazy times notwithstanding, we have long been ridiculously, laughably over-our-heads, just one fanatical, foody geezer and his loyal wife (plus a smattering of WWOOFers, housemates, and other itinerant helpers), attempting to farm three-plus acres of mixed annuals, perennials, greenhouses, orchard and goats, all by hand. It’s been a wild and worthy adventure, yes, but this simple, glaring truth ultimately led us toward a leaner, humbler, more minimalist approach… to everything. The cavalry never materialized, so we stepped back from rules, schedules, and conventional wisdom, responding more to shifting circumstances, epiphanies and “magic moments”on the ground. Now in our 60s, we’re practicing farming by “small ball”: smarter, simpler, nimbler, not necessarily trying to bash “home runs” every day.

And I’m encouraged to report a widespread, fully engaged constituency of such backyard-scale, “small ball” food producers, far too serious to be labeled mere “gardeners”, but not really akin to what you would call “traditional farmers.” This wildly diverse, grassroots movement now includes small-scale apiarists, home fermenters, permaculture aficionados, green chefs, food forest designers, as well as urban and rooftop gardeners, wild crafters, herbalists, “carbon farmers,” mycologists, and innumerable other incarnations of enlightened, small-scale, community based, foody alchemy. No matter what you call it, this veritable army of under-the-radar, green practitioners offers real hope to our withering planet.

I’ve long appreciated the idea and practice of cross-cultural “literacy,”,that is, the ability to internalize and respectfully embody and use the knowledge, language and tools of our “adversaries” and complements.

For example, as a lifelong Yankees fan (from Dad’s knee), I also came around (after emigrating to Massachusetts in the early 80s) to simultaneously love and follow the Red Sox (based on situation, friends, year and standings, of course!) As a Jewish, suburban kid, I long ago strategically embraced the spirit and celebration of both Chanukah and Christmas. As a dedicated, continental hitch-hiker in the 70s and 80s, I learned to jibe comfortably with all classes of people: stock brokers, construction workers, right wingers and hippies, alike, as well as professionals, borderline personalities, gangsters, cops, and rednecks.

Operating for years perched on the cultural cusp between “backyard garden” and a “real farm” allowed this wannabe grower to thoroughly glean the best of both worlds. For example, we’ve long exploited traditional gardening “tricks” like hand pollination, seed saving, cloning, and natural pest control, (areas where conventional farming methods can be cumbersome, costly and toxic). But we have also learned to shamelessly utilize professional grade hoop houses, row covers, improved seed, and other potent tools of commercial agriculture. (Who says you can’t root for both the Sox and Yankees!)

Now, I’ll be the first to admit to an underlying privilege of not having to make an actual living from this tiny farm, which liberates us to experiment more, take bigger risks, and to hand grow (crops, animals, interns, etc,) that aren’t necessarily “profitable” in the traditional sense.

Having other income and living low permitted us to remain a “mission-driven” farm, freed from measuring every person, plant and project through the crucible of commerce.

Living crops (and animals) can teach us profound lessons, since they take nothing personally, harbor no grudges, and remain reliably, dispassionately themselves, responding faithfully to Earth’s rhythms without conceit, regret, anger or ennui. Nurturing and harvesting living sustenance also helps us refocus the mundane yet critical functions of our OWN biology: food, water, protection from the elements, and our sometimes tenuous, but always vital connection with the “herd.”

We live in a time where the permaculture and food movements have merged, joined forces and spawned thousands of diverse and brilliant “offspring,” further blurring the dubious divide between “real farmers” and the rest of us. But whether you are a “bona fide” farmer, a “backyard warrior,” food fanatic, or some unique hybrid thereof, nurturing green life and feeding others healthy food will always be a timely mission and potent antidote to the latest, soul-crushing news cycle.

Apologists for corporate agriculture reflexively impugn “organic” and “regenerative” solutions offered for the world’s thorniest (food, climate and energy) problems while rationalizing the continued necessity of their “extractive,” industrial model. But the sum effect of all of us energized amateurs goes far beyond bushels per acre or dollars per hour.

Enlightened horticulture (on any scale) also nourishes the soul AND the heart, while supporting a vibrant local community, on so many levels. For a growing legion of inspired micro-producers, the raison d’etre is no longer simply production and sales, but also long-term land stewardship, soil building and carbon sequestration, education, mentoring, community and legacy.’Cause, now, we’re all “farming on the fringe”… 

Danny Botkin teaches permaculture and manages Laughing Dog Farm, a diversified micro-farm in Gill.

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