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“Magic in the Dirt”: Small farms inspire, instruct

By Julia Turshen © The New York Times Co.

It’s the first harvest season of an unparalleled year. We visited three small farms, where we found people cultivating far more than food. Despite quarantines and lockdowns and disruptions, they are nurturing networks. It’s both inspiring and instructive to see how we can grow together when we grow together.

SOUL FIRE FARM, Grafton, N.Y. Feeding a community, one box of tomatoes at a time.

Arriving at Soul Fire Farm’s gravel road means slowing down, literally. On the property, in addition to stacks and stacks of crates, buckets and shovels, there are also cardboard boxes to pack food for community groups, each one labeled in marker: Church. Refugee center.

Leah Penniman, author of “Farming While Black” and co-director of Soul Fire Farm, is a former public school science teacher and aerial trapeze artist who started farming with her partner and children out of necessity. When they lived in Albany, the family — and their neighbors — were unable to get fresh food. They lived in what some call a food desert — but what food-justice activist Karen Washington (who sits on Soul Fire Farm’s board of directors) would call a food apartheid. She says the unavailability of fresh food is not by natural occurrence, the way a desert appears in a landscape, but by the cumulative effects of systemic racism that affects some communities. Penniman and her team now tend to crops on the 80 acres they own, feeding her family and neighbors as well as the wider community. And they train others.

Penniman says she views the land not as a commodity, but as a deity. What about the pests who eat her beautiful greens? “The vole’s job is to eat all of this lettuce,” she says, “and my job as the farmer is to have the vole not eat the lettuce.” She’s also talking about how we all coexist. An understanding of balance. Embracing the places we overlap instead of using those lines to further divide us. When stay-at-home orders began, Penniman had been on a book tour. Everything has been disrupted. “Some people are asking, ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ right now,” she says. Does she have an answer? “Oh, you know, something about love and service.”

As we talk, Penniman stays in motion, snipping the fronds from fennel bulbs, leaving the roots in the soil. She’ll get two harvests from the plants: The fronds can be dried and used for tea, chopped for salads, or made into pesto. The bulbs, which will be ready in a week or two when they are larger, are best roasted. Both the fennel and its harvester are patient and generous. There’s so much in the air: The fragrance of herbs drying in the sun, the scent of freshly sawed wood, the damp mushroom smell of the forest where the pigs live, pig grunts, and the hum of constant human communication.

Though geographically and culturally distinct, Soul Fire Farm has much in common with Spirit Farm, an Indigenous regenerative farm in Gallup, N.M., and Detroit Hives, which places beehives in vacant lots. Each small organization, centered on food, exists not merely for itself, but for the greater good. All have been doing this work for years, and it has primed them to respond to the current moment. They have honed a coveted skill: reacting to unpredictability with patience, adaptability, resilience and a remarkable amount of hope.

SPIRIT FARM, Navajo Nation (New Mexico) “To be connected is to walk in beauty.”

Driving into the Navajo Nation, big sandstone bluffs are followed by rolling hills with lots of sage and juniper. A paved road turns into a dirt road and then there’s the small compound, with pens for animals (pigs, chickens and Navajo-Churros, a type of indigenous sheep), and several structures, including a large octagonal building where workshops are held. Spirit Farm is a demonstration farm — its purpose is to educate.

James and Joyce Skeet both worked in the corporate world and kept seeing the disconnects between health care and health. The Skeets kept saying, “We got to do something different.” In 2014, they co-founded Spirit Farm. Joyce Skeet now tells me she has learned “not to dominate the Earth, but to be one with the Earth.” James Skeet says he once watched someone cry as they realized they were eating a plate of food consisting only of things grown right on the farm. He explains that this everyday connection to the land and what it offers, the feeling of being tethered to one another, is “hózhó,” the Navajo word that describes living in a holistic way. When you live in it, he says, you walk in beauty.

It seems James Skeet is always looking for the connective tissue that creates community, even within the soil. He speaks lyrically about compost and how it makes everything it weaves itself into more nourished. He says that when he started farming, the soil was dead. The compost regenerated it — brought life into it. From depletion to density. Harriet Yazzie, a board member of Spirit Farm, visits regularly. “I have to keep my hands busy and keep myself occupied,” she says. “It’s always a welcome feeling. It’s so peaceful.” Yazzie says she talks to the plants all the time. “A lot of it is just thanking them.”

When he discusses the soil and the compost and the microbes, James Skeet’s voice sounds like a smile — especially when he talks about the “chemistry of these little bugs who make magic in the dirt.” He says that the fruits and vegetables he grows in nutrientdense soil taste sweeter.

DETROIT HIVES, Michigan.

The purpose and passion of keeping bees.

Timothy Paule and his partner, Nicole Lindsey, are nurturing a different kind of sweetness: honey. Before starting Detroit Hives, Paule had a cold that would not go away. Frustrated, he researched the medicinal properties of honey. As he and Lindsey learned about bees, they simultaneously looked around at all the empty space in their native city. They connected the dots. Now they have 45 hives across Detroit.

Lindsey was once terrified of bees. “Education transformed that fear into love,” she says. That love really shines, right down to how they painted their bee hives. One has the Greek letters from the fraternity that Paule belonged to; another has the Nike swoosh, as if it were a shoe box. When she puts on her beekeeping suit, Lindsey says she feels “like Superwoman.” When young Black girls see her wearing it, she says, “I imagine it just widens their minds. They can do something different that they never even thought of.”

When Paule speaks about beekeeping, it’s reminiscent of Skeet talking about compost, or Penniman and the voles. There’s a passion, an understanding, a compassionate insight. “You can mess up the ecological balance if you don’t appreciate everything,” Paule says. “By caring for bees,” he adds, “you see purpose in all living things.” He points out that pollinators pollinate most of our food — without them, we would lose so much. Lindsey and Paule sometimes just drive by the hives to see how they’re doing. She talks to the bees, just like Yazzie talks to the plants in New Mexico. Penniman also says she can hear her ancestors guiding her when she’s in the fields at Soul Fire Farm.

Lindsey points out that the bees have a lot to teach us about building community. “The queen bee can’t even clean herself without the sweat equity of the worker bees. They need each other.”

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