I am not a farmer (I’m barely a gardener), but there’s something about the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont’s mid-winter annual gathering that gets me excited each year.
At the 31st annual conference held a couple weekends ago, there were talks and workshops for organic farmers and gardeners (and those who appreciate the products of farm and garden) from expert to beginner. The abundantly diverse schedule addressed issues ranging from how Vermont farmers can proactively work with a changing climate to how to make naturally fermented foods and beverages. While topics like the former could depress you, the atmosphere is always overwhelmingly positive and bubbling with promise (yes, like those naturally fermented foods). I am always impressed by the creativity and energy with which attendees, both younger and older, approach the ongoing challenge and opportunity of growing and raising good, healthful food for their neighbors.
It’s all too easy to look at the complicated global food system we have built and wonder how a two-acre farm or 10-by-10 community garden plot can make a difference, or to be overwhelmed by all that we perceive is wrong with today’s system rather, than focus on what has been accomplished. But as legendary four-season organic farmer Eliot Coleman of Maine noted in a workshop, when he first decided to try organic farming after reading the work of back-to-the-land pioneers Helen and Scott Nearing, most people said, “Organic farming? That’s impossible.” Clearly, as 1,200 attendees to the conference knew, that has long been proven wrong.
Which isn’t to say that farming is an easy way to make a living, a refrain that also came up repeatedly throughout the weekend. However, speaker after speaker noted how rewarding they find the hard work: the joy that comes from watching seeds germinate, pulling sweet carrots from the earth, and turning worm-wriggling compost piles. “If indeed happiness can eaten, it is straight off the vine, salted with the sweat around my lips,” said Laura Brown-Lavoie, a young farmer-writer from Providence, R.I., who brought the house down with her Sunday morning talk, including two powerful poems.
Speaking on the theme of heirlooms — seeds as well as the valuables we might leave behind for our heirs — Brown-Lavoie noted that as a poet-farmer, she’s unlikely to leave much of monetary worth to her own heirs, but that she will leave other things of value. “Each [of us is] preserving a heritage on our farms in our own ways,” she said, “either through saving seed or rich soil or good practices, good tools and good stories.” She concluded with a poem, which included this image: “To my heirs, there are no jewels. But if one cold morning when I am gone you are in the garden after a frost and from the curled fist of a leaf of kale rolls a perfect pearl of ice to your palm, this is your heirloom.”
And her final words: “I bequeath you all my poems. Now go make yours.”
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