I may have mentioned before that one of my heroes is Ward Sinclair. Ward was a colleague--on the other side of the newsroom--at The Washington Post back in the 80s. He covered agriculture, but left the paper to buy a small farm in Warfordsburg, PA.
While Ward was busy farming, he also started writing a column in the Post's food section called "Truckpatch." The columns became a small book, and one of the chapters has remained with me ever since. It was called "A Farmer Can't Be Listliss," and in it Ward printed his "to do" list.
The list is too long to re-print here. It is mind boggling. There were fences to mend, cold frames to fix, equipment to paint, coolers to sanitize, greenhouse flats to scrub, irrigation parts to check, potting mix to procure--and on and on. Ward's "to do" list made a profound impression, and shaped my idea of what farming is about.
As I look around my own little urban farm here in the District of Columbia, I see that I am falling further and further behind on my "to do" list. Matters became pressing with the cooler weather, as that brought out a whole new wave of weeds in the vegetable beds. Suddenly my rutabagas and turnips were being overrun with chickweed. I spent the better part of a day on hands and knees digging out the chickweed, and still the job is not completely done.
Then came a weather forecast for temperatures dipping close to freezing. The basil patch, already long in the tooth, would have to be harvested immediately. Turning the basil into pesto and freezing it (shown in picture above) again took another day.
As I look around, I see so many other chores that need tending to. The lima beans were never completely harvested. The dried seed pods call for attention. The trellises for the beans and the cucumbers must be disassembled and returned to the garage. The annual flower bed needs to be cleaned out and turned. There's garlic to plant, bags of old leaves to be shredded and worked into the compost pile. The yard around the vegetable beds has not been mowed in a month (the electric mower broke).
Then a peach tree arrived. Earlier in the year I had planted a dwarf peach in the garden at my daughter's school and it never broke dormancy. I was told to expect a replacement in the fall. Here it was, and it needed to be planted. Which meant a trip to a secret location to fetch soil to fill a container.
I cannot mention the location of this stash of immaculate compost, lest the whole world pounce on it. It's in a place where the U.S. Park Service dumps its truckloads of wood chips, gleaned from its work in ou urban parks and woods. The chips eventually break down in huge piles of compost, leaving this treasure tucked away among the oak trees, just waiting for those few pennywise gardeners willing to spend a few extra calories to haul it away.
I rarely see anyone at the secret compost stash when I pull up with my plastic buckets and hand truck. But this day as I pushed my hand truck down the trail an elderly Russian-speaking couple came into view. They were busy digging into the side of a tall pile of compost, filling big white garden bags with a long-handled spade.
The man was hobbled in one leg and leaned on a cane. It was the woman--his wife, I guessed--who loaded the heavy bags into a rickety old wheel barrow and pushed it back up the trail toward the roadway. As I passed the man he smiled broadly and muttered a few words in Russian, of which I could just make out "xorosho, xorosho," good, good. And since I don't remember enough of my college Russian to ask what he thought was "good, good," I imagined he was perhaps happy to see someone else taking advantage of the compost hidden out here in the woods, or maybe he just liked the looks of the compost, or maybe he was already calculating the great benefit the compost was going to bring to his garden.
I started filling my buckets and trucking them back to my car. The second time I passed the man I smiled and said "xorosho," and he smiled and repeated "xorosho," as if we were sharing some secret. And it gave me great pleasure to know that while the rest of the world was scurrying about in their daily tasks--toiling away at their desks, stuck in meetings, battling traffic--there was still a place where a couple of gardeners could revel in secret compost and spend some time in the labor of shoveling it into bags and buckets as if it were a pirate's bounty.
This, it seems to me, is precisely where modern agriculture has broken down. We handed the business of working the soil over to huge machines, industrial economics, factory-made fertilizers and pesticides, assembly-line animal husbandry--all in the name of efficiency and convenience. What was lost in the deal was any personal involvement, any sense of human scale, in the working of the land.
How do we humans relate to a 1,000-acre filed of corn, a tank of anhydrous amonia? Of course we cannot. The choice of an industrial food system is a bargain with the devil, because we sacrafice part of our soul--the part that needs to be connected to the earth and the affirmation of life that springs from it. Our modern food system feeds us, but it does not sustain us.
There has been nothing invented to replace the feeling of digging in soil, or of feeding compost to the earth, or of watching life emerge where one has toiled. So I am not regretting my long to-do list. As long as it is there,--as long as there is work to be done--I am connected to my little piece of the planet, I am doing good. And that is xorosho.