2005. Snow in March. While the fields and
trees sleep soundly beneath a fine crystal blanket, I notice
the compost piles steaming away, their tops quickly melting
any snowflake so unlucky to land there. These compost piles
are quiet volcanoes, a whole life inside them invisible to
us except for the soft, unending plume of rising vapor.
This off-season we worked on building long-term thinking
into the way we farm, and we’ve centered this effort
on compost, the critical life-blood of a sustainable farm
Last year—the first year of our CSA—was about
getting through each day as best we could. We would wake up
and ask “what do we need to do before sunset?”
This day-to-day farming style was a terrifying and sometimes
wonderful adventure, like backpacking through the Himalayas
with a tarp and a pocket knife. We had no elaborate garden
plan, and no on-farm compost to speak of; we just trudged
forward to the next mountain of activity. We started all kinds
of vegetable plants in the greenhouse, and when they were
screaming to be put into the ground we found a place in the
field…and scrounged pick-up truck loads of compost for
the plants from ancient piles of horse manure on other farms.
Short-term farming worked last year, but it almost killed
us. We spent half of our time and energy collecting and hauling
loads of compost which went straight into our garden beds,
and at the end of each day we were “compost-broke.”
And because we absolutely needed another batch of finished
compost the next day, we could never afford the time to set
up our own on-farm compost operation. I call this the “no-compost
trap.” It’s like credit card or financial debt,
but it’s fertility debt, owing your plants the compost
fertility you don’t have. This type of organic debt
forces you into a state of perpetual reaction, running from
crisis to crisis. You spend so much time and energy on one
problem (lack of compost, for example) that the weeds get
out of control. Then you are spending so much time on the
garden beds with the worst weed problems that the other beds
quickly catch up. And what about an irrigation system! You
had no time for that, so now you’re running from suffering
bed to suffering bed with a garden hose. We survived a year
of “crisis” farming because we stayed as small
as possible, which allowed us to get away with more chaos
than a larger farm operation would ever permit. The weather
also blessed us with a half-inch of rain every three to four
days, as if we had it on a timer. I doubt we will be that
At the end of our CSA season, in October, we recognized that
the main thing we needed to change was our farm thinking.
A good place to start was our thinking about compost. Instead
of hauling infinite pickup loads of finished compost to the
farm, we started setting up our own compost piles on the farm
(with garden roughage, leaves, and any other organic materials)
right away. We visited and called neighboring farms, encouraging
farmers to bring us their unwanted piles of animal manure
and bedding. Time and energy saved by not doing all that hauling
ourselves, we invested in long-term thinking about other elements
of the farm operation.
And here’s what happened: In the sections of good weather
during this off-season, we got about twenty dump-trailer loads
of animal bedding and manure delivered to the farm for free.
We organized much of it into windrows, combining this material
with organic matter from our farm. Now we have five large
compost piles: two almost finished, and more than enough for
the upcoming season.
It’s an upward spiral. A compost revolution. Having
built the foundation for a real farm fertility bank, we now
have more daily space for thinking and planning, which in
turn creates even more daily space for plain old farm fun.
I used to cringe when anyone mentioned “planning”.
Now I’m starting to understand that the more we embrace
“planning”, the more we will find ourselves “sledding”,
“swimming”, and even “sleeping”.