Down in the Dirt
A farmer takes a hard look at America's favorite herbicide
Harvest Week 6, 1999 This my second day in bed.
I am pretty much immobile. Let me explain. Last year I rented a 35-acre piece of land adjacent to my farm, Angelic Organics. The parcel is a big chunk of the watershed in which our vegetables are grown. It nestles up against our organic acreage from the south and the east. I wanted to take the piece out of conventional production to cut chemical exposure to our vegetables. There was no long-term security in the rental agreement, but I figured there was a good chance that I would be able to renew the lease year after year and eventually harvest some organic crops off of it.
This was a big risk; it was an expensive prospect to rent the land, put it into cover crops, apply rock powders, and generally bring it into the realm of our management. I knew we couldnt get an organic crop off it for three years, by which time it might be rented back to a chemical-using farmer, or sold, and it wouldnt be profitable to take transitional crops off it. The only choice was to take nothing off it to build it up and hope that the piece remained in our operation. When I finally came to terms with the risk of never getting anything back from that land of losing the rent, the great expense and time of working the land to establish the cover crops, the cost of the rock powders, the effort of applying the Biodynamic sprays, the ordeal of mowing, I plunked down the $5,000 for rent.
One day last spring I smelled the rank odor of Roundup wafting across the fields. Then I heard an engine whining up beyond the woods. It was a spray rig, a Darth Vader-like machine, scampering back and forth on our recently rented land (these huge machines move surprisingly fast over the fields), killing whatever plant life happened to be in its path. Meagan (the growing manager), Bob (the office manager), and I jumped into the pickup and raced out to stop the Roundup rig.
Roundup is the drug of choice among American farmers. It is sprayed on millions of acres of farmland each spring. Monsanto, the maker of Roundup, throws tasty bones to farmers and the ecology-minded – Roundup conserves soil by eliminating tillage, reduces moisture loss, saves fuel, reduces compaction, supports earthworms. Roundup will save the planet, keep our farms in the family to pass on to the next generation, and keep the fish in our streams healthy and with just the right number of eyes.
It is true – Roundup causes some isolated results that are similar to the results organic farmers are striving for, such as good weed control, reduced soil erosion, lowered fuel consumption, and more earthworms. It is also true that Roundup behaves a bit like Agent Orange in its ability to destroy any plant life with which it comes into contact. In Vietnam this was called the scorched earth policy.
Roundup scorches the earth, except for the millions of acres of corn and soybeans that are genetically manipulated to withstand its destructive fury. Roundup Ready, the seed ads exclaim, conjuring in farmers’ heads visions of lush, weed-free fields.
By the time we reached the sprayer, it was too late. Pretty much the whole field had been sprayed. The previous farmer who had worked the land had never really been properly notified by the landowner that Angelic Organics had rented the land, so he was just farming it as usual.
There was really nothing I could do. I didn’t want to sue a neighbor. Besides, what could I prove I had lost?
The landowner refunded my $5,000.
Meanwhile, Angelic Organics and its customers were making a separate immense effort to acquire a 38-acre piece of land just north of the farmstead. This effort was fruitful – supporters of Angelic Organics purchased that land and leased it to the farm for fifteen years. The acquisition of that land greatly expanded the organic portion of our watershed, which heightened my desire to remove the agri-chemical presence to the south and the west, to create a sort of eco-sanctuary at Angelic Organics. I renewed my efforts to acquire the 35 acres of land that had slipped out of my grasp the previous spring.
I had been somewhat impulsive in attempting to rent the land. Now I had time to more thoroughly examine this undertaking. I had some serious concerns about it.
others add organic matter, or diminish weeds.
1) I had once owned this land, and the Soil Conservation Service and I had carved a gargantuan waterway in it about 25 years earlier – folly, really – a project that seemed to have emanated from an engineer’s sleight of hand, an elaborate earth-moving venture that made the land a puzzle to work, without offering up the compensatory benefit of reduced soil erosion. The waterway never should have been created, yet there it is, etching the land in tribute to the noble idea of soil conservation, wrongfully executed. Filling it in would not disturb the ecology of the basin, but it would be a great undertaking. Should I design a patchwork of oddly shaped, hard-to-farm vegetable fields around the waterway? Should I fill in the waterway, a process that would incur substantial expense but result in the right field layout?
2) Soil samples from the land indicated that its fertility was quite run-down. It would take a major effort to build it up to where it would support vegetable production. Did I really want to undertake this? And how to really build it up? Creating healthy soil is not the concrete science many want it to seem. There is much mystery in the process of land revitalization. Should I bring in thousands of tons of compost at enormous cost in time and money? Could I build it up through Biodynamic sprays, rock powders, and the establishment and mowing of cover crops?
3) Though 75 percent of the land probably laid well enough and had the right soil structure to support vegetables if it were properly built up, about 25 percent was rough red clay hills, a great challenge for successful vegetable production. Land that is primarily red clay has major structural challenges, which are hard to offset with even the most effective soil restoration programs. Should I pay high rent for these clay hills and then leave them fallow? Or try to rejuvenate them with deep-rooting clovers?
Life at Angelic Organics was finally beginning to settle down a tiny bit, after many years of 90-hour work weeks, financial dilemmas, employee dramas, struggling against building decay, and learning to farm all over again. Did I really want more land to worry about and manage, more infrastructure to create to handle the extra crops, more employees to hire, more machines to maintain? Would expansion enhance the farm organism, give the farm employees better pay and improved living conditions, provide more funds for upkeep of buildings? What would we do with the crops from this expansion? Expand our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program? Sell wholesale? What kind of marketing would we have to do to move the extra crops?
I finally decided to rent the land again, this time with the security of a multiyear lease. I offered the landlord a 20 percent premium over local land rents in exchange for tying it up in lease for five years. She agreed.
Once the landowner said yes I began to see more clearly the possibility that the land offered. Ideas and possibilities emerged – the opportunity to work more with cover crops, to restore damaged land, to build our harvest and postharvest infrastructure in a way that streamlined the CSA harvest and cleaning activities. The land was contiguous to ours, which meant we wouldn’t have to travel on dangerous public roads to bring in a harvest or divide our attention between two separate operations. Our irrigation system could be used on this piece of land with only a small investment. The extra cover crop acreage would justify acquiring the right mower. The added land base made it possible to spread the current CSA crops over more acreage, facilitating the employment of select cover crops that could strategically host beneficial insects. Our underused delivery truck could deliver vegetables several extra days a week.
I decided that instead of expanding our CSA, Angelic Organics would develop a specialty crop that would balance the sometimes maddening diversity inherent in raising small quantities of many crops.
Our specialty crop would be beets. Beets grow well on our soil. Our beets are delicious and have converted many beet haters into beet lovers. Beets are not prone to disease or insect pressures. The additional equipment we would acquire to raise, harvest, and pack beets could also be used on other root crops such as potatoes, carrots, rutabagas, and celeriac. I pictured long rows of red beets, golden beets, white beets; we would test the markets next year to see if this beet enterprise could be sustained.
I did a crash course in cover crops. One cover crop might add nitrogen to the soil; another might prevent erosion; another might add to the soil structure; others will penetrate hardpan, or add organic matter, or diminish certain weeds; some activate calcium; some tie up extra potassium. And most have other important benefits besides their main attribute. I decided to plant different cover crops in several plots. I ordered sorghum-sudan grass, Japanese millet, hairy vetch, purple turnips, crimson clover, yellow sweet clover, red clover, wheat, annual rye, and alfalfa.
When they arrived, the bags of cover crop seed occupied several pallets in our packing room. Looking at them, I imagined their roots going down into that depleted soil, of the sugars they would secrete, of the soil microbes delighting in their gifts. I envisioned the channels they would open into the earth, letting in oxygen, letting water percolate up and down. I arranged for a neighbor to plow the field as soon as I received the signed lease.
As our first harvest of the season approached, I was increasingly uneasy that our new land was not yet seeded.
A few weeks passed. I was anxious to get the cover crops seeded in time for the spring rains. I called the landowner to ask why I had not yet received the lease documents. She asked me to make a concession in the lease proposal. I agreed to her request. She also asked why a lease was necessary. She had never signed a lease before, and she had always kept her word in a contract.
“Imagine,” I said, “how much I will have tied up in this land by the time I take my first crop off of it – probably $15,000 a year, maybe $20,000, for three years, just in rent and building up the soil. That’s maybe $60,000 before I sell a thing from the land, and then building up the infrastructure, acquiring the necessary packing equipment, the washing and harvesting equipment, putting the marketing in place, opening up new distribution channels. That’s easily $100,000 I will put up before I get a dollar back from the land. I don’t have that kind of money to risk. I need the security of the lease. What if you changed your mind? What if you died and hadn’t made any provisions for me to keep working the land?”
“Well,” she said, “I never signed a lease before, but I can see why you need it. But I’ll tell you right now, if I say I’ll lease it to you, I will. And I’m not planning to sell that land for at least five to seven years. And if I say that I’m not going to sell it, I won’t. That’s the kind of person I am.”
The soil test called for the rock powders gypsum and high-calcium lime. I made arrangements for a semi to go down to Pontiac, Illinois, to get the lime and another semi to make the trip south to pick up the gypsum.
“You’d better wait, though, until I get the signed lease,” I told the truckers.
I ordered the Biodynamic preps for the 35 acres. Then I said, “Well, I don’t have the signed lease yet on the land, so why don’t we just hold off until I get that. I’ll put the order in for the other land we work, however.”
I scheduled the installation of an irrigation system. “I need to be able to get water to about 50 acres of vegetables per year,” I told the irrigation man. “Well, we’ll have about 100 under management, but 50 will be in cover crops any given year. So I’ll need a system that will handle 50 acres. Well, if I don’t get this lease, it’ll be quite a bit less. Why don’t we just hold off until this lease comes through, before we draw up the paperwork.”
I shopped for a mower.
“How big a mower do ya’ need?” the implement dealer asked.
“Well, probably 12 feet wide, a pretty good one, got a lot of cover crops I’m going to have to manage.”
As our first harvest of the season approached, I was increasingly uneasy that our new land was not yet seeded. I looked at the several pallets of cover crop seed in our packing room. A chipmunk was already rummaging through wheat in a bag. How would we ever get the land worked up and seeded, with 625 boxes to harvest and pack each week, in addition to all the weeding, seeding, transplanting, and trellising we still needed to be doing regularly? We had seeded the land our customers had purchased in time, but that was earlier in the spring. Now we were pretty much out of time. And would the lease even be signed? The landowner had agreed to the lease in April, and now it was June, and I still did not have it.
If I wasn't going to get the land, what would I do with these several hundred dollars worth of cover crop seeds? How would I store the bags to protect them from rodents? And what about the irrigation system I needed to install? What size should it be? And the mower? A couple of days before harvest started, a note arrived from the landowner revoking the lease offer. However, I could rent the land for this year, if I chose. And the land was for sale – at a price that was at least twice its appraised value.
I don't remember. I don't remember how I ascended from this journey, how I came back into my normal consciousness.
I was relieved that I had not already done all the work and spent all the money on the land. I felt a bit reassured that I’d listened to the little voice in the back of my head that reminded me “Just because someone makes you a promise, it doesn’t mean it’s so.”
But still, it was a blow. I sent a note declining the offer to rent or buy the land. A few days later, I heard the whine of the Roundup sprayer.
I drove out and flagged down the driver to make sure he wouldn’t spray our vegetable ground. The driver had an adequate map of the field layout, so I felt assured that he would confine his Roundup to the designated area.
As I walked back from his sprayer to my pickup, I looked down at the ground. In some other world, some other dimension, I “saw” a stalk of yellow sweet clover. It stood by itself, about three and a half feet tall. It was in bloom. Its small yellow blossoms gleamed in the sunlight. I admired its lush green foliage, then followed it down to its base, to where it soared from the earth. I was surprised that the earth did not stop my observation; somehow, I followed the imaginary sweet clover down into the ground. “Imaginary” is not quite the right term, since this sweet clover seemed more real than the Roundup on the ground, more real than the pickup truck at my side. I cascaded down the root structure of this sweet clover plant, into the ground below. I sort of tumbled down it, nuzzling its rootlets (a bit like snorkeling, I guess). I ricocheted down this web of life that the sweet clover had spun into the soil – deeper and deeper. (It is hard to clearly remember the subterranean experience. It was outside of my normal frame of reference, a bit like a dream that is so palpable while it is being dreamed, but then it quickly vaporizes from memory.)
I experienced a structure as I descended into the earth. It was geometric, a crystalline structure. Where the lines of this structure intersected, something like a light was shimmering. The soil under the sweet clover twinkled. The soil was pulsing with light, rejoicing in a sort of operatic celebration of life. I have no memory of hearing, or touching, or smelling. I only remember the visual part. And joy, I remember something like joy. Whether it was my joy, or the soil’s joy, or a shared joy, I really don’t know. But there was a great joy down there.
I don’t remember. I don’t remember how I ascended from this journey, how I came back into my normal consciousness. I suspect that in those moments of which I have no memory, something occurred that was too fantastic or too horrifying for cognition – those moments are a blank. I am sure I had a much richer experience of this journey than I am sharing here, but most of it is lost to my normal process of thinking and remembering.
The next thing I remember is getting into the pickup and heading the truck home through the Roundupped weeds. Driving back to the farm, I noticed a pain in my lower back. By the next morning, walking was pretty much impossible. When I tried to walk, the pain made me want to hurl myself down, to flatten against the earth. Perhaps the grass wanted to nuzzle my face, to whisper reminders of what I had forgotten in my subterranean journey. Maybe the soil wanted me close up to forgive me, to remind me that there will be another chance, someday, to try again. Or perhaps the earth just wanted to make sure I was confined to bed until this story was written.
As I finish sharing these words, I find I can walk again.
Lifelong farmer John Peterson runs Angelic Organics, one of the largest Community Supported Agriculture farms in the United States. John's essays have been featured in books and articles, including The Sun, Growing for Market, Biodynamic Magazine, Lilipoh, and Community Farm News.
His latest book, The Real Dirt on Vegetables, is available from Gibbs Smith, Publisher (282 pages, $24.95). John makes presentations about farming to groups and conferences worldwide, and has recently been on tour in support of the documentary film about his life, “The Real Dirt.” He lives in Illinois.
For details on the land acquisition, visit http://www.AngelicOrganics.com.