If you had to guess, what would you say is the most critical ingredient in farm success? Fertility? Appropriate tractor use? Pest control? Irrigation?
This is a trick question, because the answer probably falls into a slightly different category of “input.” In our experience, the most critical ingredient is being present. Paying attention. Walking the land. Engaging the brain and the body with the complexity of it all. Without being present, all the other inputs are pointless, because we wouldn’t even know how to best apply them. It is the understanding (gained through the senses over time) that matters most of all.
We’ve noticed a trend lately as we go on our family weekend field walks. It never fails that we come across something needing immediate attention — an irrigation sprinkler that has popped off or a door that has fallen open on the chicken wagon. On a farm with so many components, unexpected blips are inevitable. Being present to catch them is critical.
Just this weekend, Casey went out with the kids to move the fencing for our Dorper sheep, who are in the midst of lambing. Sure enough, as he approached the fence he saw a ewe lying on the ground with some legs hanging out. She appeared to be in pain but not making any progress, so Casey (with Dottie on his back still) approached her and made sure it was indeed a breech baby. He calmed the ewe a bit and waited for another contraction. As she pushed, he simply held on to the feet, providing some traction. A few pushes later, the lamb was out and the new mama was licking it off. Being present
This is not a new phenomenon on our farm. We’ve witnessed the importance of being present again and again over the years. Even our first year, when we were just farming vegetables and flowers on one acre of land, the more time we spent on the farm, the smoother the farm ran. It isn’t just about doing the work; it’s about understanding what is going on and being able to redirect mistakes immediately or even preemptively. It’s about watching all the plantings — even ones that aren’t seemingly in need of weeding or harvesting — to see if there are pests in the spinach or if the lettuce is heading up quicker than we expected or if the broccoli needs another round of irrigation.
We’ve found that just doing the work of the farm isn’t sufficient. Managing the farm as a whole requires us to be present at times when we are not focused on the next task. Always being “task oriented” creates a sort of tunnel vision that doesn’t allow one to take in everything If weeds are on the mind, then it’s easy to miss pests or wilting lettuce. Which is why we have always valued field walks of all kinds. Sometimes it’s just a matter of keeping all the senses on alert while walking to and from the field for another task, but Casey takes intentional field walks as well, updating his mental map of the farm as he goes.
Throughout our time as farmers, we’ve had moments when the work just seems to pile up and we find ourselves completely daunted by what to do next. We’ve found that the reality of these panic moments isn’t that there’s too much work; it’s usually that we don’t have enough information. Crazy as it may sound, these are the best moments to not work at all but to instead stop and assess the farm. Take a walk.
The other benefit of being present and walking on the farm is that it almost always provides a morale boost. In moments when we feel overwhelmed, we’ve often been too focused on the farm’s needs or mistakes or momentary failures. Walking the farm expands our perspective to include the current successes too — oh, look at how the orchard trees are growing; this is a truly beautiful planting of broccoli; these lambs are growing robustly; etc.
In the end, our work on the farm is a relationship. We are in a relationship with the farm and all its creatures, and like any relationship it requires an investment of time to maintain and enjoy.
I was interviewed last week for a sociological project about “farm success,” and one of the questions was how our farm business positively and/or negatively affects our lifestyle. Certainly, the downside of being present on the farm is that it is hard to create distance from stressful work. It is easy to always feel like we are working and not have enough fun or play as a family. We may set out to just take a walk and end up watching as Casey moves irrigation pipe or fixes some fences.
But, the positives continue to vastly outweigh the negatives. Just yesterday I was making a bed upstairs in our house and I stood up and looked out the window. “Wow,” I thought, as I gazed out over our home farm: rows of greens, many of them now flowering after over-wintering and bolting; a flock of sheep in the midst of lambing; vibrant green grass all around … “I live here.” What a joy to be immersed in this beauty and all this life. As when Casey went out to move a fence and found himself pulling a lamb (new life!), my mundane household moment was transformed into something truly profound.
Just walking this ground feels like a blessing, and we strive to be a blessing to everything growing here. These are the gifts of being present on the farm.
Enjoy this week’s vegetables!
Your farmers, Katie & Casey Kulla
~ ~ ~
Meet this week’s vegetables:
- Collard greens
- Asian greens
- Bok choy
- Celery root