Fields Without Fences

oaks,mint,elderberry

I love my friend Minca. Now that we’re no longer college classmates, we cherish the rare opportunities to spend time with one another. A little over a year ago she happened to be in New Jersey and I insisted that she and I visit one of my favorite farms of all time, Fields Without Fences (FwF). The farm was started by Lindsay and Johann Rinkens in 2012 with the intention to develop an ecologically appropriate land management strategy for growing certified organic food and medicine. The farm’s story is much more involved, but that day I learned about a new development: 2014 would be the first year with paid apprentices. That’s all I needed to know. I was in.

My body, mind, and emotions were tested this summer in ways that I didn’t originally anticipate. My body is no worse for wear, but a summer of farm work, along with hiking, biking, and swimming around the Delaware river, has definitely tuned me up (thanks to stretching and chiropractors for mechanical help). There’s something I love about the feeling at the end of a productive day outdoors. My body loves to do what it evolved to: walk, bend, pick, pull, plant, scrape, shape, peel, pluck, dig, rake, make, and mark. This is the third full summer I’ve spent working on a farm and, though at times I’d like to deny it, it makes me really happy. Working in and with the elements undeniably agrees with my heart and bones. And farm work, strenuous and stressful as it may sometimes be, connects me with my ancestors—to my great grandparents who immigrated with family from Austria to farm in Minnesota and Nebraska five generations ago. Working on the farm is my heritage. And I’m glad I inherited their work ethic.
James&Katie in FieldLindsay and Johann have tremendous work ethics, and I appreciate how they turn tedious labor into strength-training exercises. Their attention to detail and proper technique made repetitive tasks multi-functional—weeding, seeding, transplanting and harvesting with good posture, sensitivity and body-awareness also increased our efficiency, making work as effortless as possible while building balanced body strength. That’s permaculture! I mean, it’s one thing to say all that, and another to actually do it. Especially on a farm where dozens of different species of herbs are sharing bed-space with fruiting ground-covers, berry bushes, fruit and nut tree saplings…not to mention the volunteers. Physically performing at a high level at a farm like theirs requires an equally high level of mental effort.

The mental edge I gained working for Lindsay and Johann is a reflection of the mental level at which they work, as well as the complexity of the polyculture systems that they’re establishing. As a farm that seeks to mimic the ecological architecture of regional native plant communities, they’re ahead of the curve. Being ahead of the curve also means not relying upon experts to tell you what to do, and relying heavily upon your own observations to make adjustments as the systems grow. As the season progressed Johann and Lindsay challenged us to start thinking and acting more like managers. They challengsoutheastfield_0728ed us to take responsibility for our learning curves and move beyond the introductory hand-holding. It wasn’t until they brought this up that I realized how much easier it was to just follow instructions and do what I was told. They challenged us to increase our productivity and make more of the “little” decisions for ourselves. Up to this point I had thought I was working hard. I thought I was slowly starting to get a feel for the systems dynamics. But midway through the season it was clear that I wasn’t challenging myself enough. That was a spicy pill to swallow; it’s always more fun to get a pat on the back than a kick in the ass. That’s when I learned what Field’s Without Fences is really about: The fields are our minds, and the fences are all the self-imposed limitations we put on what we believe is possible and what we think we’re capable of. The fences are all the excuses we make up to hide our true genius. We fence-in our creativity, and fence-out our power of will. I guess I thought I was just keeping the deer from eating my vegetables. But I had to face the reality of the situation. I needed to take the challenge personally and accept responsibility for my full capacities. That’s the mental edge that Lindsay and Johann put to work. I’m still working on it.

Now that the 2014 season has come and gone I can say, without a doubt, that living and working at FwF has permanently altered my outlook and ambitions. I like to rationalize my work as a farmer and analyze it’s impact on civilization and the biosphere. But I’ve come to learn that my propensity for abstraction is not as meaningful to me as what I actually do. As much as I love the mental stimulation of ecological and philosophical concepts, this season on the farm has strengthened my emotional bond with the ecosystems that I am a part of. Living and working at FwF helped me see the necessity of being in relationship with the ecosystems on and beyond the farm. And that requires commitment (gasp). My life is moved by thoughts and emotions, and my inner landscape is mostly comprised of feelings. Lately I’ve been asking myself, “How do I want my life to feel?” A big part of the feeling that I want in my life comes from being in relationship with the biosphere and it’s ecosystems. As a producer, I am reliant upon the web of relationships that make plants and animals healthy. So I must be in tune with the reality of life on the ground, which is work. Committing to working with the land in some way, shape, or form requires me to exercise will-power to do something….And stick with it! There’s no way out of it. Accepting that challenge makes me a field with fewer fences. I want my life to feel un-fenced . As I commit to farming, I commit to being un-fenced.

North field at the end of the summer, prepped for cover crop and tree plantings

The “Soil Food Web” Paradigm

Healthy soil is built and maintained by a universe of soil organisms. These organisms make up the soil food web and are the key to unlocking fertility in the soil. The soil food web forms the basis of a healthy farm ecosystem. Without them, farmers and gardeners are required to do the extra work of fertilization, pest/weed and disease control. It doesn’t need to be this way. Healthy soil and healthy plants can happen without our endless toil. But this all hinges on a sound understanding of “soil food web science.” Over time, healthy communities of life underground have been devastated as a result of annual tilling, compacted soil, mismanagement of organic matter, and relentless applications of chemical fertilizers and pesticides/herbicides/fungicides. Various farming practices such as no-till, cover cropping, and chemical-free organic farming are all effective ways to support the soil food web. Gardeners and landscapers can utilize similar strategies to promote the vitalizing force of the critters below. However, nothing has been demonstrated to be more effective and important than compost for establishing the vital, regenerative and chemical-free growing power of the soil food web.

From: USDA's "Soil Biology Primer"

From: USDA’s “Soil Biology Primer”

“Viewing the soil as a regenerative living system is one big kick in the pants for anyone who has been taught that NPK fertilization is more relevant than soil biology.” 
-Michael Phillips

“Soil food web” science includes the following components: Sun, water, air, plants and their roots, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, micro and macro-arthropods, earthworms etc, humus (decomposed organic matter) and the mineral components of soil – sand, silt, and clay, as well as humans and their management decisions. The web starts with and is governed by plants, who use the energy of the sun to make carbon chains (photosynthesis); much of these carbon compounds are used as root exudates to attract and develop beneficial microbial communities in and around their root system. Exudates are simple sugars, proteins, and carbohydrates released by plant roots to feed and stimulate populations of beneficial microorganism. They do not feed pathogens. (Lowenfels and Lewis 23-24). Understand that the energy going into roots is not only used to build root structure for stability and fertility; in general, about half of a plant’s energy that goes into its roots is released as exudates (Kourik 10). Why do they do this? Because the energy they give away comes back to them many times over.

The strange reality is that while humans garden plants, plants garden microorganisms. They do this because of the crucial role microbes play in the nutrient cycle. Whereas humans are fed by plants, plants are fed by microorganisms. Microbiologists have found that the number of microorganisms in the rhizosphere – a zone immediately around the roots, extending out about a couple of millimeters – is far greater than in the surrounding soil (Ingham, “Living Soil” 2011). What’s more, studies on foliar dynamics have revealed that living leaves produce exudates through their phyllosphere that attract microbes just as roots do through the rhizosphere (Lowenfels and Lewis 25). All this “life” competes for the exudates in the rhizosphere and phyllosphere. At first glance it would seem like the microbes are the ones being fed, but if you look a little deeper things get much more interesting.

“Soil organic matter is the storehouse for the energy and nutrients used by plants and other organisms. Bacteria, fungi, and other soil dwellers transform and release nutrients from organic matter.”
-Dr. Elaine Ingham

Soil life creates soil structure and produces soil nutrients. The activities of its members bind soil particles together into microaggregates as they create air and water pores. The chemical and biological activity in the thin layer of moisture around aggregates convert nutrients into soluble forms that roots can absorb via ion exchange. Unlike applications of fertilizer, soil nutrients in living soil releases slowly over time; they are available when plants need them. As compost, mulch and other organic matter is added to the soil, their nutrients become immobilized in dead bodies and subsequently mineralized (made available to plants) through digestion or decay. The proximity of microbial action in the rhizosphere is what makes mineralized nutrients far more bioavailable than soluble fertilizer forms.

“There must always be a perfect balance between the process of growth and decay. The consequences of this condition are a living soil, abundant crops of good quality, and livestock which possess the bloom of good health”
– Sir Albert Howard

An increasing number of farmers, gardeners and scientists alike are adopting this new paradigm of “living soil.” It’s not like adopting a child or even a family. When you adopt the living soil paradigm you adopt an entire community; in reality, this shift in understanding is an acknowledgment of an entirely new world. It is changing people’s entire relationship with the process of farming, gardening, and scientific study. The time has come to reform our notions of superiority in the web of life. Nature is not an inanimate resource bank awaiting our plunder. It is an ever-evolving dance of mutuality, collaboration, and adaptation. Time has come to see ourselves as part of this dance, not separate from it. Our roles as participants are many. The integrity and health of the niches that we occupy are largely the result of our attitudes and approaches to management.

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