Scritch, scritch, scritch. As a shovel to soil, axe to wood or chisel to stone–putting the rake to leaves is a timeless task of cosmic constancy. When I find myself taunted, twisted and oddly bound by the realm of infinite possibility in life, there is welcome peace in the simple, undeniable progress of a big leaf pile.
For so many reasons, this is good work: my feet are gentle on the ground, and my hands hold the tool–quiet, ancient–perfectly suited to this task. Scritch, scritch. There is room here for thought. It dances among my steady breath and between the shuttering leaves, all at once connected and irrelevant, meaningful and meaningless. With an undeserved degree of self-satisfaction, I am pleased by this paradox. I tell myself that there is wisdom in there somewhere, and then I pause, assume a familiar propped position, and begin to contemplate the purpose of this heady chore.
This is chestnut-tree detritus. Every autumn, descending in ligneous, spiny abandon, this fawn mat of organic matter blankets Digging Roots, our two-acre urban farm. If raked into huge piles and left undisturbed for a few years, the unfriendly mix of burrs and leaves would eventually mellow into a nutrient-rich leaf mold. If, on the other hand, it were left in place beneath the expansive arboreal reach, the very same thing would happen on a much longer timeline–as on a forest floor–and we would sacrifice valuable summer pasture, the ability to easily pluck chestnuts from the ground and perhaps the tolerance of our 12 neighbors, who are not keen on these suburban fence-lines becoming buried beneath wind-blown leaves. And so we rake.
Scritch, scritch. Resuming the satisfying rhythm, I cannot help but feel somewhat conflicted about this energy expenditure. Will I be here to utilize this leaf mold? Does it matter if I am? Does true stewardship require a sense of security?
My wife Sarah and I moved to this suburban lot roughly three years ago, ecstatic about the opportunity to develop our farming enterprise within an inspiringly vibrant social and professional community. We gladly accepted the responsibility of tending two close-in acres for what seemed very reasonable rent and the freedom to experiment with small-scale farming systems. If two acres proved an overwhelming task, we might have the social capital to rethink our long-term aspirations. Maybe I’d go back to school or take up a trade, or open a café. There are surely many ways to build a well-rounded, fulfilling livelihood.
But two acres isn’t too much for us. Quite the opposite–it isn’t enough, and we are yearning for more. The more we plan, the more we learn, the more we allow ourselves to reach for a full-time farming future, the more difficult it becomes to rake leased chestnut leaves on a sparkling Saturday afternoon. It’s impossible to pinpoint the exact moment in time when we became dissatisfied with our short-term arrangement. Slowly, subtly, we began to question the sanity in a system that does not encourage long-term decisions about our place.
Scritch, scritch, scritch. How do these monstrous piles of mined minerals, later to be deposited upon our vegetable beds, and eventually spread upon our dinner tables, fit into a month-to-month lease? How does the improvement of our pasture, later to be grazed by healthy chickens and lambs, further enhanced through dung and selective palates, and transformed into sustainable solar protein, fit into a month-to-month lease? Scritch, scritch. This labor, this tined effort is at least a four-year investment in soil fertility, self-sustenance and business security. As human participants in an all-encompassing cycle of life, death and return, the most efficient work is work that provides a service toward future fertility, diversity and resilience. Sarah and I are learning that the principle of working less, smarter, is easily applied within a system that maximizes the natural regeneration of our most valuable resources.
Our successful role as stewards seeking to survive, thrive and grow from the bountiful surplus of solar energy is completely dependent upon unwavering observation and well-timed participation. We need to see ourselves as part of the future of a place, and then perhaps we may be rewarded with the “interest” of life-long stewardship.
With this in mind, we hope to own land someday soon. Over two years ago and many leaf piles later, we started our farm search. It is an emotional trial far beyond anything we could have anticipated. We’ve researched hundreds of properties, and visited dozens and dozens more. Every candidate is cause for the difficult condition of detached projection–where we try to articulate the possibilities without fostering an unhealthy connection. Weekend after weekend, we’ve thrown ourselves into this arresting duet, frequently tumbling through a brief existential crisis when the chips don’t fall quite right. Many times we’ve returned home to wonder if this limbo is worth the trouble.
Neither of us was born into farming. There is no land to return to, and no native cultural knowledge to draw upon. Our approach is largely a scratch-and-sniff, pay-to-play, fake-it-’till-you-make-it type of operation. Given this pursuit, there is occasion to consider how wealth (specifically land) is transferred through time and space in our culture. We come from solid, middle-class families who have worked tirelessly to provide us with a plethora of options in life. In the first place, this safety net allows us to imagine a life as farmers at all. Our parents emerged during a time when small family farms were evaporating amidst the rapid commoditization of our food system, along with a depressing decline in rural agrarian communities. It was the ’50s, and canned food was cool. And now, as the privileged offspring of baby-boomers, we are bequeathed the resources to examine voluntary simplicity, endowed the good credit to gamble with debt, and gifted the ideological support to swim against the social fish ladder. Even so, given our relatively affluent backgrounds, strong educations and bull-headed determination, good farmland feels like an uncomfortable financial stretch.
Perhaps the single greatest irony for us is that farming itself does not initially pave a welcome path toward owning a family farm. The major reason we transplanted to Portland was to work to save money to buy land. Full-time farming, for the time being, was put on hold. The burning question is: If there is an entire generation of young, aspiring farmers chomping at the bit to realize their agricultural destiny, but they must first move to the city to gain the capital to afford the inception of that destiny, will a resettling of our rural communities happen soon enough to change the game? That the prevailing method of changing the paradigm is to capitalize on it first is a mind-boggling contradiction. Doesn’t such a model imply that we are fighting ourselves?
To put farmers on the land, and keep them there, we may need a cultural reckoning wherein the true definition of profit involves the sustained ability to productively harness the energy of the sun. And let that be enough. Unfortunately, we can’t pay a mortgage with sunshine, and in many cases, with many lenders, we aren’t even enabled to pay a mortgage with farming.
My question is: In the end, what is land really worth? Is it worth its utility? Beauty? Ecological richness? Potential for subdivision? We’ve found that this assessment is grossly arbitrary, depending on who holds the deed, and what predominates the surrounding land use. In addition, the fate of farmland no longer accessible through traditional financing structures is utterly dependent on the emotional constitution and financial expectations of the owner. Are they willing to carry the loan? Are they willing to sell below “market (development) value” so that a couple of modest means might be provided the opportunity to carry on true small-scale agriculture in that place?
One of my favorite Chinese proverbs states: “You cannot build a foundation upon the sand.” Long-term tenure is the bedrock of our future foundation. Without it, there is little incentive to prioritize regenerative agriculture over short-term gains. The management processes that flow from cautious observation are qualified only as we build life in our soil–this takes time, patience and a measure of success not easily captured through cut-and-dry cost-benefit economics. The soil, our greatest asset, appreciates in value with time and dedicated care–a task for which we, as humans, are well suited, and to which we cannot afford to tend without complete commitment to our future.
Conner Voss first joined Oregon Tilth as an AmeriCorps member and has served as the Organic Education Center’s garden coordinator since October 2008. He is currently establishing a farm. This essay originally appeared in In Good Tilth, a magazine devoted to the organic movement . IGT is project of Oregon Tilth, a non-profit advocating for biologically sound agriculture.