Thoughts for Pollinator Week from a Natural Organic Farmer

banner2Nestled between a drumlin and the Ganargua (Mud) Creek, Peacework Organic Farm is the oldest Community Supported Agriculture project in upstate NY, in our 26th year in 2014. Once the Humbert family dairy farm, the 148 acres of high quality land that we steward is the property of the Genesee Land Trust (GLT), which leases 109 acres to Peacework. Eight years ago, members of the Peacework CSA contributed the money to the land trust to buy this farm when owner Doug Kraai died from cancer. Doug had devoted his life to preserving this land, planting trees, improving wetlands and providing a refuge for a herd of bison at a time when they were an endangered species. GLT has dedicated 38 acres of the wildflower rich woodlands and stream banks as a nature preserve in Doug’s memory.

The three of us who are the Peacework farmers were attracted to this land because of Doug and his passion for nature. He did not use any toxic materials and went out of his way to encourage wildlife, mowing the hay late to allow ground nesting birds to hatch their young. The long term health of the surrounding ecology always seemed to Doug of greater value than a few more bales of hay. As vegetable farmers, we too shun toxic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. We use organic practices – cover crops, rotations and compost. We only spray the few acceptable organic pesticides as a last resort. Instead, we rely for our crop insurance on growing a great diversity of crops – 248 varieties of 70 crops. Whatever the weather, it will good for some crop or another. We train our customers to expect a different mix of veggies in their shares every year, and we look to our allies, the beneficial insects, bats, birds and amphibians, for help with pest control. I think of us as descendants in the long line of farmers of forty centuries, peasant farmers who have paid close attention to our surroundings, learning as much as we can and struggling to appease the sometimes cruel gods of Nature.

When we first moved to this land in 1998, there was one patch of 3 – 4 acres of hay ground where milkweed grew in abundance. It was a sort of peninsula of grasses surrounded on three sides by trees that was hard for Doug’s big mowers to reach. In late July, hundreds of monarch butterflies came there and we watched in amazement as they divided into couples to mate while flying through the air. Sadly, each year brought fewer and fewer of these wild lovers. The past five years, I have not seen any. The milkweed still comes up, ready to offer nourishment should they ever return. The bats too seem to be fewer in number.

Two of our CSA members have become beekeepers and maintain 3 hives of honey bees in one of our fields. The bees contribute to the farm’s fertility, pollinating our crops. An assortment of wild bees, bumblebees, moths and other creatures assist the honeybees in this vital work. I have been trying to recruit one of the homeschoolers to take the farm as their science lab and do an inventory of the critters who make their homes here. Unfortunately, no takers so far. To help buttress the campaign to raise money to buy this farm, the land trust did an inventory of wild plants and found an impressive list of unusual and rare cultivars.

My partner Ammie and I met through the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA). We were both members in Massachusetts and served on the organic certification committee, helping to write the standards that define what organic means in practice. My farming has been “certified” organic since 1985. While Ammie actually studied soil science in college, NOFA was one of my main schools of agriculture. By attending NOFA conferences and farm tours, I learned much of what I know as an organic farmer. Over the past 42 years, that has been NOFA’s greatest achievement – providing a community where farmers, gardeners and homesteaders share with one another what we learn about raising crops and livestock and living lightly on the land. Since others freely gave so much to me, it has seemed really important to continue in that spirit. For many years, our farm trained two or three interns or apprentices instead of hiring skilled farm labor. We did our best to include our trainees in everything we did from planning and seed selection to clean up at the end of the season, as well as our ever expanding experience in living on much less cash than middle class Americans. We have also given countless tours of our farm to groups of every description from second graders through Cornell graduate students.

One of my favorite activities as a farmer has been observing my farm. When I listed that as an essential farm task, a professional education designer who was guiding a group of us in writing a curriculum for small-scale sustainable farms, questioned adding daily observation to our jobs list. The other farmers all agreed with me, so we kept it in. Walking round and round the same piece of land, day after day, year after year, you see things that other people miss – the subtle change of greens each day that spring progresses, the appearance of insects and birds you never read about in guide books, the many many wild creatures who live their lives on the land we claim as ours.

When you try to make your living as a natural organic farmer, you put yourself in the situation that once was common to most of humanity. Modern living hides the reality of our total interdependence with the health of our natural surroundings. I live my life in hope that enough people will understand this truth and act upon it soon enough to overcome the forces of short-sighted greed and corruption, the unbridled cancerous growth of capitalism that currently dominates business and government.

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