Nine Acres of Intimacy
by Caroline McColloch of Piqua, OH
It’s an odd shaped field, long and narrow west to east, with two hundred feet of frontage along Spiker Road, a well-traveled county thoroughfare. The low concrete block horse barn with the slant roof faces its five windows to the west, looking across an acre of expanse to the road. My earliest memory of this field was playing hide and seek in the rows of corn. Later, it contained a runway for Dad’s Beechcraft Bonanza airplane, but still had corn and beans as the go-to crop on six perimeter acres for many years.
That’s what is depressing to me about the general landscape I live in. I realize we’ve built an industry around corn and soybeans, but dang it, spraying all these chemicals can’t be good no matter what the neighbors or Monsanto or the government says to the contrary. If a farmer’s choice is for making a chunk of money now at the cost of the future health of the land, then that’s not a good farmer in my book. Yet lots of people I care about are commodity grain farmers, so one has to be tolerant; what a dilemma. And not to get too political but don’t give me that “feed the world” crap. It has a hell of a lot more to do with profiteering for huge corporations than compassion. I’m not against exports, but we could be shipping them better food, or helping other countries to build their own local food systems.
Our dependence on natural resources is common sense to me. I cannot ignore how disconnected our culture is from sky and earth and water and soil in relation to our very bodies. And not just us—what about trees and pastures, flowers and birds, bugs and wildlife? It is a matter of ethics (and ecological necessity!) to seriously consider other living things besides ourselves. The concept of interdependence is unfortunately too invisible to too many of us.
I got a phone call in October 2015, and the time had come to say no to a third year of conventional row cropping. The farmer to whom I’d cash rented the cropland wasn’t exactly happy about this decision. It’s no exaggeration to say he exerted more than a little pressure to change my mind. One angle was trying to convince me that there is no other way to make a profit on this land. Well the fat lady ain’t singin’ yet, dude. I took it as a challenge, frankly. The whole conversation took about five minutes and what bothered me the most was his insistence that I decided on the spot.
Well I suppose I did make a quick decision, just not the one he wanted. But in reality, it really was not so quick, because I had been thinking about transitioning the field to pasture for grazing animals for some time, just hadn’t planned anything concrete yet. The taxing business of estate settlement and recovery after years of care giving had taken priority in the business of life. If I’m going to raise goats, finding people to buy them was the first thing I wanted to work on. But in retrospect, neatly sequential decision making isn’t quite realistic. Life is more complex, demanding concurrent decisions in many areas of the farming operation. We don’t have the luxury of focusing exclusively on one project until reaching some mythical state of completion before moving on; the juggler has many balls in the air: unsettling, but practical. So the situation was actually a good thing because it forced me to take the first step of commitment that day, even without a specifically defined course of action in place. “Life contains a particle of risk!” My decision was guided more by the things I value in life, than an actual business plan at that time.
Fortuitously, by January another local farmer stopped by out of the blue one day when I was cleaning out junk that had been piled next to “the hangar” (I will always call it that). He had heard through the neighborhood that I might be looking for a new operator. It was a beautiful afternoon and we had a nice visit, leaning on opposite sides of the pickup bed, discussing the merits of organic methods and other stuff. Though his family operation does very little of it, for a conventional farmer in these parts to even consider non-chemical agriculture was pleasantly surprising. It also felt like a good fit because I used to work with his mom through the conservation office and felt comfortable with his character and integrity. Now, that whole scenario was a great blessing, dropped into my lap. He is a needed person that I didn’t have to go looking for, with equipment and time to help manage the new hay and pasture field.
In February, I bought a meat herd share from the farmer in the next county who has started a pasture-based cattle/hog/poultry/lamb business. We had a longish conversation about planting conditions, species selection and the like. Then I worked with the family-owned seed company he recommended, over south of Columbus. By early April, six species of cover crops were sprouting. It was the first investment of planning, time, and money.
I felt thrilled to see the actual results of a series of decisions and actions I took over a period of months. Though the ragweed got the upper hand during mid-summer drought, and I had to mow the field twice and plant again in the fall; though I didn’t receive about twelve hundred dollars by allowing the field to grow corn or soy and though I don’t yet have a detailed plan on paper for next year, there are nevertheless good things happening: I am (re)building a soil ecosystem. Without that, you can’t have truly healthy forage for grazing animals.
I suppose I’m also investing in myself in the sense of honing these business skills (read: decision making). By investing in the fertility and structure of the soil that pays dividends years down the road, I am learning the modus operandi of farming. Without synthetic fertilizers which lack micronutrients, and herbicides that harm soil biota, organic matter develops as the cover crop dies off and decomposes, giving some real food to all those important bugs.
Organic matter is the essential and great soil foundation for all plant and animal life. Maybe I’m preaching to the choir, but some folks may just now be getting the memo. When grazing does start in a rotational system, my goats will have better mineralized soil and healthier plants to consume. It’s all pretty much invisible at this stage, but the future is promising.
Farming with a restorative agricultural business model is conservation—the ultimate practice of investing in the future, even beyond my life. Learning to use the land without destroying it is my most important goal and perhaps one of the best eulogies one could hope for.