To share a farmer's gems
A transatlantic testament to restorative agriculture
"Never have so few fed so many," proclaims the side of a tractor-trailer docked at a neighborhood grocery store. Mass production, factory processing, global transport - these are the modern food ways. But this means our daily bread comes to us so well traveled that there is little sign it was ever of this earth.
Scott Chaskey's book, on the other hand, is so well rooted that one can almost shake the fine Amagansett silt from its binding. The author is the head farmer of the Peconic Land Trust's Quail Hill Farm on Long Island's South Fork. This farm, with its orchards, vegetable rows, and compost heaps, was set up as a CSA, which stands for community supported agriculture, an arrangement whereby farm members purchase shares in advance, share in the risk, and share in the harvest, often, as is the case here, helping with the pulling, the digging, and the gathering themselves. At Quail Hill Farm, some 50 crops - from Brussels sprouts to heirloom tomatoes - supply more than 200 families, several restaurants, a local school, and food pantries.
"Farming is about 20 percent agriculture and 80 percent mending something that has got busted," Chaskey quips, quoting E.B. White. But the repairs under discussion here aren't of the mechanical sort. What is
being made whole again is that intimate connection between earth and the human family. Chaskey, at least metaphorically speaking, would like all our food to come to the table with traces of soil and at least one fingerprint or two.
Before moving to Long Island, Chaskey and his wife, Megan, lived on the coast of Cornwall, England, on a hillside pasture above the town of Mousehole. At the time, he was - as he still is - a poet learning to "recognize the power inherent in nature and in words." And to communicate it.
The decades of reading and listening widely, the time spent with plow and pen, make this book much more than simply an account of a year and a spring on one organic farm. Here Old World wisdom gleaned from one peninsula infuses experience on a New World shore. Here, too, voices of American pioneers from Aldo Leopold to Walt Whitman weave through the argument like a trail in dewy grass.
To read these pages is to share in the discovery of gems - the clutch of bird eggs nestled among newly emerged rhubarb stalks, a flight of migrating monarch butterflies, the green stems of new garlic rising "like sail masts over the sea of mulch." With these encounters comes a wheelbarrow load of practical advice - the best ways to support tomato vines, how to hive a swarm of bees. But here, too, are Chaskey's thoughts on larger, less tractable issues, like his difficulties with the USDA's new National Organic Standards or the challenge of persuading other land trusts to partner with agriculture - a marriage that, on the face of it, would seem to offer excellent stewardship for both farmland and community.
These are topics that await resolution. But, as Chaskey concludes, "to cultivate is also to expand the boundaries of home, to enter into conversation with the ground of being, to prepare the seedbed for change."
Despite his years between earth and sky, Chaskey admits to nothing more than a determined apprenticeship. His maxim, borrowed from Lynn Miller, the editor of Small Farmer's Journal, is "Go slow, take care, and mix it up." In this fine testament to restorative agriculture, he has.
• Roger B. Swain, former host of PBS's 'Victory Garden,' is the science editor of Horticulture magazine, and author of 'Groundwork' and other books.