• Dan BotkinDan Botkin

  • Daniel Botkin of Laughing Dog Farm in Gill holds twin baby goats birthed at the farm recently with mom looking on. They are expecting at least two more kids to add to the seven already born to add to their herd of milking goats. March 5, 2012 Franz PAUL FRANZ

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

There’s always something incredibly primal about growing and gathering food to feed one’s family, neighborhood or community. Whether you’re a subsistence-level peasant, or a privileged backyard warrior; whether with a precision plow, carving long rows of geometrically perfect crops, or in a permaculture-inspired, mixed “food forest” motif, we growers (and our children) carry a life-long passion for food, soil, plants, animals, hand labor and for feeding others.

I’ve always loved gardening, horticulture and fresh food, but I started farming “for real” in ‘99 (after 20+ years teaching and counseling) when I thought the world might end, or at least change drastically due to the “Y2K” computer glitch. But the computers did fine in 2000, so we laughed off the patronizing post mortems, sold our generators, and assumed we’d just been a bit alarmist... However, just 20 months later, the world DID change forever with the horrific 9/11 attacks and all the fretting and preparing we’d done – the goats, the barn, the greenhouse, grains and seeds, suddenly seemed relevant, again. I’ve never looked back...

Without a clear business plan or end game, I’ve farmed a beautiful, five acre, hilltop plot, with my wife and various itinerant volunteers, interns, apprentices, and the like. Over the years we’ve filled every square foot with terraced beds, heirloom vegetables, fruit and nut trees, flowers, herbs, perennials, various greenhouses, and a small herd of delightful dairy goats.

And we’ve evolved a unique style of micro-farming inspired partly by the principles and practices of “low-end” permaculture, which we often call, “guerrilla gardening”. Permaculture embodies the practice of regenerative land stewardship that looks to support and complement Nature. Whereas conventional farming pits us in a mighty contest between Man and the elements, guerrilla gardening offers a more intuitive, opportunistic and zen-like approach based on encouraging and mimicking the pre-existing patterns and “habits” of Nature, (habits like composting, recycling and “natural” soil building...) and upon a series of informed interventions and creative improvisations, based upon ongoing experimentation, keen observation, tireless repetition... (and more than a little luck!)

I first heard about “guerrilla gardening” in the form of “seed bombs”, which some nervy UK activists took to heaving onto median strips and churchyards in the 80s, having apparently been denied permission to plant “legitimate” gardens on public fairways, etc. Such “seed balls” consist of viable seeds cemented in mud and tossed, like “life-giving” grenades, into likely habitats. Intended as an “insurgent” tactic to “green the common” with (edible, ornamental or otherwise) timed-release “volunteers”, this radical approach captures the imagination, but it’s overall efficacy is uncertain.

But “guerrilla gardening” is much more than just “seed bombs” or opportunistic food growing without “permission.” It also challenges us to completely “reframe” the moment to moment vagaries, anomalies, “accidents”, “super storms” and other random twists of fate, both in AND out of the garden. We’ve come to realize that, no matter how much you know, or plan or organize on the ground level, in gardening, like in life, there’s ALWAYS going to be unexpected detours, dilemmas, mitigating circumstances, and yes, failures, a plenty…

Guerrilla gardening teaches us that success and failure are not personal and that God does not hate the small farmer. To farm this way means unsentimentally accepting reality on its own terms, knowing that Nature invariably gets the last word. Hence, we must be both planful AND flexible, skilled AND detached; to risk big, AND to shift gears on the fly making “lemonade”, after midnight.

“Farming on the fringe” means starting right where we are... not in Lowes, not in Home Depot, not in a fantasy land, where we wished, or wanted, or had hoped to be... It means always looking out for the simpler, smarter, cheaper and more graceful way, even if it’s not as lucrative, sexy, or takes longer. And there ALWAYS is one! There’s always an easier way because we are surrounded by legions of powerful “allies”, “guides”, and other benevolent forces, everywhere, whether in a vast desert, a degraded farm, or a toxic, city lot. “The key is to begin to recognize, encourage and “harness” these “regenerative” forces, no matter how small, slow, or insignificant they may seem. In this way, powerful alliances are set in motion, deserts are greened, and we begin to break free from knee-jerk orthodoxy and the devastating addiction to fossil fuel…

Two bedrock principles of permaculture are the radical recycling of “waste”, and the continuous spreading of organic material to keep the soil covered. Hence, guerrilla gardeners are endlessly gathering rotted hay, bagged leaves, wood chips, and spent barn bedding to “top dress” their soil, layer after layer, season upon season. Compulsively covering your soil with “sheet mulch” sequesters carbon and builds long-term fertility through ongoing biological activity by microbes, worms and fungal mycelium. But, you don’t even need to know any soil science, (or even be present) in order to reap the enormous benefits of this insurgency of volunteers. Their miraculous work accrues quietly, incrementally, whether you’re working, sleeping, making bread, marching for social justice, or watching cat videos.

Guerrilla gardeners are, invariably, also rampant propagators, using aggressive timing and all manner of low-tech protection schemes to germinate and sustain diverse “libraries” of cold-hardy plants around the calendar, for nibbling, over-wintering, and/or transplanting later on.

All types of plants can be “kick-started” by hand propagation and proprietary cultivation in greenhouse conditions. Even typically direct-seeded crops like corn and beans can be effectively seeded, en masse, then hand separated and transplanted at the “perfect” moment into the field. Ambitious seed saving allows us guerrilla gardeners great liberties to risk planting boldly, “against the calendar”.

Farming, at any scale or style has the built-in quality of requiring its practitioners’ steady and unceasing engagement, no matter one’s mood, health, or daily caprice. This enforced diligence can be a profoundly steadying hand in a borderline world. Even if we ARE but random dust, floating in a vast, unredeemable Universe… the goats still need daily milking, the hoophouses still need endless venting, and the crops always need picking, processing (and eating!) For over two decades, our little farm has reliably offered us a calming, grounding, raison d’etre, eclipsing the daily drumbeat of calamity, the dread of terrorism, the disgust for corrupt politics, and an ever creeping ennui.

When I was a young man, I wanted to get the girl, score the winning goal, heal global conflict, and smash capitalism. Now at 60, I’m grateful not to have cancer, to survive the winter, and to find my reading glasses.

As a lifelong athlete facing down Father Time, I’ve been exploring the permaculture of minimalism. Come to find out, there is actually quite a lot you can accomplish... by doing LESS!

In the end we might come to realize that we humans are not always so vitally important that we must be forever touching everything, messing around, and trying to take control (and credit) for what’s mostly just Nature manifesting herself. It’s an important and humbling lesson, not necessarily limited to aging bodies, “farming on the fringe”...

Daniel Botkin is farm manager at Laughing Dog Farm in Gill.