Waltham Fields Community Farm promotes local agriculture and food access through our farming operations and educational programs, using practices that are socially, ecologically, and economically sustainable. We encourage healthy relationships between people, their food supply, and the land from which it grows. Check out our website for more information.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Notes from the Field: Paying Attention

One of the biggest challenges of farming for me is paying attention to the quiet voices of the farm. There is an old saying that the farmers' footsteps are the best fertilizer, and it seems to me that this is both very true and very different to manifest, even when your footsteps cross and recross the farm fields many times a day.

In the heart of the growing season, when the beginning of harvest overlaps with the peak of planting and cultivating, it is easy to stop taking the time to be aware of what is happening in the fields on any level deeper than that of the task list. There is a substantial difference between knowing what needs to be done on the farm and the awareness of what is really going on out there. The way crops look in the field, for example, can tell you a great deal if you take the time to look them over carefully; their color, their shape, even the feel of their leaves, rubbed between your fingers, are all good indicators of their well-being. Similarly, the way soil opens up under a farm tool (or doesn't), or feels on the fingers, crumbles as you dig a root vegetable, or exposes hundreds of busy worms all down the length of the bed, can speak volumes about the overall health of your farm. Mysteries of plant and soil nourishment become evident; patterns emerge from what seemed to be chaos.

My agenda as a farmer at the height of the season -- get the broccoli planted, the tomatoes tied up, the tractor repaired, the pint containers restocked, the lettuce irrigated, the cucumbers fertilized -- may be very different than what the farm really needs at a given point in its seasonal evolution. Recognizing this is one thing, and it is a first step towards correcting the problem, but only a first step. A walk alone in the fields, where you silence your own clamoring voice, make yourself one big blank page and let the farm tell you its own story, can fundamentally change your perspective -- and your to-do list.

At this time of the year, the tasks that need to be accomplished are whittled down to a few, which can be accomplished in the waning hours between dawn and dusk. Now our heads are less full of the competing interests of 40 different crops, all of which always seem to be waiting for something in midsummer. It is easier in November to walk out to the field, kneel down in a two-hundred-foot bed of lettuce or carrots with a knife and a harvest crate, and let everything else go. Then the quiet voices of the farm make themselves loud and clear. As is so often the case, complete attention to one task opens your senses to all that is going on at the edges of that task. Soil, crops, hawks, voles, coyotes, even weeds -- all seem to come into new focus, some with a clear lesson for the farm, some simply present to be observed. The burnished colors of the autumn oaks seem to bring new depth to a well-known landscape.

There is another old saying, that familiarity breeds contempt. This might be true in some cases, but on the farm, it is the opposite. Familiarity in the farm fields breeds wisdom, patience, and contentment. Awareness and attention lead to knowledge, efficiency, good judgement, and gratitude. The challenge is not finding something to be thankful for; the challenge is taking the time, even in the busiest moments, to pay attention.

Enjoy the harvest,

Amanda, for Andy, Erinn, Dan, Larisa and Lauren