Thursday, December 22, 2011

What's in your wheelbarrow?

It’s December. It is certainly the time of year for snow. But first, there are just a few more things to wrap up. It’s a proverbial slippery slope, certainly, for the list of last-minute tasks could be nearly endless. But yesterday’s work was non-negotiable.

I spent the early morning hours making space in our Clivus composting toilet. In other words, I was wheeling partially composted humanure out of the basement tank and into our humanure pile atop the upper field. You see, the toilets in our community building are not quite the standard plumbing. Rather than employing the customary waste of water for a net loss of available nutrients, we have installed a composting toilet system. A large tank is housed in our basement where human waste collects in a “direct deposit” system. Wood shavings are added with each use, and no water is squandered with a flush. Rather, a pump diverts liquids into a separate tank (which we drain and disseminate amongst our numerous compost piles). The solids/woodchips mix, meanwhile, sits in the tank where it is turned on a weekly basis to assist the active composting process.

All told, we have a sophisticated outhouse inside our home. And it works.

As the material within the tank composts, we extract it via shovel and wheelbarrow. A more substantial humanure pile is located in our upper field, the site of the final composting stages. Before winter – well, before the snow arrives – a partial emptying of the tank must be undertaken to ensure sufficient space within the reservoir for the coming months. Once snow has accumulated, moving humanure to another location becomes much more challenging. With the approach of winter seeming more imminent, the task at hand was gaining urgency.

Within the Clivus tank, material becomes well-compacted. Removing partially composted humanure requires a fair amount of shoveling, knocking, & raking material free of itself. Doing this, however, was merely a warm-up for the long walk that followed. Each wheelbarrow load had to be pushed through a few inches of new snow, on top of wet, slushy ground, past the North Orchard, down the road, behind the Red House, along the Medicine Trail, up the hill to the Upper, across the wettest field we have, until, at the wood line, I arrived at our humanure pile. Here each wheelbarrow load was shoveled out. The return trip was significantly easier, downhill with no cargo.

It is in this wood line pile that the humanure will finish composting. We are in no rush, and let it sit for months at a time between turnings. When soil is finally rendered, we will merely spread it about these upper fields. Used for periodic oxen grazing, our pastures are of poor quality. With time, this intermittent application will boost fertility.

After eleven loads, I cleaned my tools and returned the wheelbarrow to its parking space in the barn eaves. Vital nutrients were successfully sequestered for future application, and we’ll have space to accommodate everyone’s indoor bathroom needs for the coming months. The cycle will continue.

as published in North Country News

Thursday, December 8, 2011

winter's coming...

A Day Under Plastic

After a quiet night and deep sleep, I woke to snow on the corners of the Silo’s northern windows. Stomping out a path as I completed my morning chores, the thrill of early season snowflakes complemented the otherwise simple tasks at hand. Looking ahead to the days’ work, the to-do list was considerably altered thanks to the blanket of fresh snow. Dirt was suddenly inaccessible.

Except in one place: D Acres’ upper hoop house.

I’d been saving the weeding and mulching of these beds for just such an occasion. The plastic covering proffered dry, unfrozen soil, and housed plenty of weeds to pull. I loaded a collection of garden tools into the lightest wheelbarrow we have and began the uphill slog. The snow was heavy. Wet. Dense. I pulled the wheelbarrow behind me, sweating as I crested the hill to the upper fields.

Using my foot as a shovel, I freed the door and slithered inside. While it was certainly a grey day under the falling snowflakes, the interior of the hoop house was thoroughly immersed in shadow. The early snow must have slid from the plastic during the night, piling up along the building’s sides while the more recent snow continued to accumulate on the plastic covering. The faint suggestion of sunlight in the morning sky did little to penetrate the hoop house’s interior.

Furthermore, the once jungle-like verdure had been replaced with the skeletons of eggplants and tomato vines. A few clover flowers and a handful of late-season greens were the only vibrancy amongst beds of dead annuals and dying weeds. Still, it was dry and unfrozen. Garden fork in hand, I set about the task.

Which entailed a variety of jobs. First, tomato and eggplant plants – belonging to the nightshade family - were pulled from the ground, bundled up, and carried to a pit in the woods. Nightshades are toxic in quantity, thus we avoid feeding them to the animals. These plants are also prone to harboring diseases. Fear of the consequences keeps us from adding the foliage to compost piles. If the compost failed to reach adequately high temperatures, we could be facing a problematic situation.

Once the foliage was disposed up, the stakes and twine supporting the tomatoes was removed from the beds, and the task of weeding began.

In my mind, though, this was simply the backdrop, the setting of the stage for the real work to come. What happens next year? And the year after that? And on and on. It is a process that demands imagination for the future and creativity in the pursuit of abundance. The duty at hand is to design for the coming seasons, to plan for improved soil health, and to fill the hoop house once again with color, flavor, diversity, and fertility. With acuity and diligence, each season will be more productive and vigorous than it has been prior.

Thus today’s weeding is the foundation for plans that will be concocted during the depths of winter. And winter’s designs will lead to many meals to come.

as published in North Country News

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Living with the Dirt

The farm. That’s how I’ve been referring to it anyway. To the majority of my acquaintances, there is no way to live outside the walls of a city apartment or suburban home. Dirt is considered dirty, food comes from lit aisles lined with tile, and a tent is not a home, but something you put up once a summer for two days while sitting around a campfire. Well, I’ve been living in a tent for five months and as my stay at D Acres nears its end there is a lot to reflect upon.

Life in a tent has been rewarding—night after night spent in the woods, with only a thin layer of polyethylene separating me from the outside, hearing what nature has to offer. Temperatures permeate the small enclosure leaving only my sleeping bag to protect me from the cold. There are no walls of two-by-fours and sheetrock filled with insulation to keep me warm. No central air. No plumbing. I do not mind it, however. It’s life before electricity. Without so many commodities I learn to live outside of the everyday box. I feel a strong connection to the place I sleep.

The projects undertaken have been educational. Taking knowledge discovered in the classroom and applying it to a real world problem is invigorating. Going beyond formulas and derivations stimulates parts of my brain that don’t usually get such attention during the school year. Learning applicable skills, such as welding and metal fabrication, has given me opportunities outside of a computer and a desk.
Living and working in the same environment is also a different experience.

It is commonplace for an individual to have their “home” and their “workplace.” A separation exists. Conflicts at home could be forgotten at work and vice versa. It takes a sense of community to be able to make progress through such difficulties. I am very lucky to have experienced such a community. As compared to working for a large company, making a product that will pass to the hands of someone merely labeled “consumer”, I shake the hands of the people I design for. I know the people that my work impacts.

D Acres has been a wonderful experience. It has exceeded my expectations as an internship through its people, projects, and lifestyle. And although my life after the farm may not be a rural one, the lessons and know-how from living with the dirt will not be forgotten.

-Joey Kile

Sunday, November 27, 2011

On Becoming a Teamster

"And so we plough along, as the fly said to the ox."
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
It is strange the turns life sometimes takes. One year ago, I never would have imagined that I would become an apprentice teamster in the original sense of the word -- an ox team driver. And yet here I am learning how to work with a fine team of Jerseys who go by the names of August and Henri.

When I first got to D Acres a little more than six months ago I was completely intimidated by the oxen. As a city boy I have always been more comfortable riding the New York subway at 3 AM than being close to large animals. Horses made me nervous, let alone oxen. And these two large Jersey oxen who stood there silently watching me with their enormous brown eyes and long curved horns as I walked from my cabin in the woods past their house to the community building every day, well they just freaked me out. When I was first offered the chance to participate in the mysterious chore of "mucking out," I wasn't sure I could handle it. Katie, Matt and Dustin were the only interns properly trained to do the chore of daily morning and evening ox care and Dustin was going to be leaving, so a backup person was needed. I reluctantly agreed. I had already done some work with the oxen in the field over the summer, running chains during logging operations, and that had gone surprisingly well. They didn't stomp on my feet, gore me with their horns or even squash me in between the two of them as I retrieved the chain hanging from the big steel ring in the middle of their yoke and connected it up to another chain that I had looped around a log to be dragged out of the woods. Slowly I got comfortable enough with them to brush the flies off of their flanks that they couldn't reach with their long tails. I got the sense that they respected my efforts as I worked alongside of them dragging the heavy chains into the new pig pasture we were logging, as I struggled to heave the logs onto the wood pile we were building and as I freed logs that got stuck on stumps or roots. The strange set of commands that Beth issued as she drove them were mystifying and enchanting. Little did I know that I'd start to learn what "ha Henri!" and "gee August!" really meant and how to use them to communicate with these powerful but still gentle beasts. I am getting ahead of the story though.

The ox chore, the mysterious "mucking out" is really not that difficult as it turns out. The oxen spend nights in a small barn called the Ox Hovel and every morning someone leads them out to their pasture, shovels out their poop and soiled bedding and tosses it up onto the compost heap outside, piles the dry bedding that remains on the side to allow the floor to dry and walks around their pasture collecting the previous day's turds with a pitchfork. Then in the evening their bedding is spread back out on the floor, new woodchips are added to the rear of their stall to supplement the hay that makes up the bulk of their bedding, a new bale of hay is opened and arranged in the front of the stall with a cup of grain added for a snack along with whatever apples onions and squash we have collected from the supermarket's out of date food on the town run, their water bucket is emptied, cleaned and replenished with fresh water, they are let back in and they are clipped in to leads running from the front of the stall to their collars. It all sounds fairly straightforward, except for the fact that you need to be right next to them to lead them out in the morning and then clip them in at night, in a very confined space, not to mention the fact that they weigh more than half a ton, have large sharp horns and don't always want to do what you want them to do. A little deep breathing and a sense of humor is required. In spite of my initial hesitation though, I soon got more comfortable being up close to them, until, that is, August took to swiping at me with his large curled horns rather than let me lead him out of the barn one morning. It turns out that he wasn't really trying to hurt me, it's just that he didn't want to be rushed since he prefers to scratch his neck on the door frame on the way out. Now, I realize that if I grab a long skinny stick and tap him on the flank, he moves out of the barn a bit quicker. I tend not to rush him though, but instead scratch his neck on the other side.

Before I get to the next phase of my training, I should say a few words about what exactly an ox is, especially since I had no real idea until recently and some of my readers may be similarly clueless. Well an ox is just a (usually) castrated bull trained to work, most often in a team of two. And any breed of cow can be used for work from the Texas Longhorn to the huge Italian Chianina to familiar Holsteins and Jerseys to the feisty Devons and diminutive Dexters. They are amazingly smart and agile, something I had not known about cattle -- not surprising given the reputation of cows as dumb, herd-oriented animals incapable of thinking for themselves. Oxen were traditionally used in New England as draft animals since they can handle the harsh winters here far better than horses and are less picky eaters. They move fairly slowly, but are more powerful than horses so they are well suited for plowing heavy soils, and for pulling logs out of the woods. We use them here for the latter chore since we are trying to avoid the use of fossil fuel powered machinery as much as possible even though we need wood for fuel and building and we need land cleared for farming. They also do a great job converting hay into the compost we use to rebuild our impaired soils.

A few weeks ago when Beth asked me if I wanted to learn how to walk the oxen, once again, with some trepidation, I said, "Sure," although the idea of it made me quite nervous. Walking the oxen requires fitting each with a simple halter and leading them out of their barn into the wide world one at a time where they are tied to a fifty five gallon drum filled with concrete and then fitted with a heavy wooden yoke after which they are walked around the farm in tandem in search of fresh grass. There are far more things that can go wrong. The first part of my training was a test walk with Beth, who showed Matt and I what to do and gave us each a go at driving. Except for the fact that August, who is the lefthand ox of the team, the one the teamster walks next to and whose halter he or she holds on to, insisted on running me into boulders, bushes and apple trees as I attempted to tell the two of them where I wanted them to go, everything went pretty well. They sort of listened, but also made it clear that negotiations would be needed if we were going to be working together. I survived that and another training walk and then was assured that I was ready for a solo walk and it was duly scheduled in.

Due to an early season snowfall, my first solo walk with them was delayed by a week or so, but eventually I got to take them out. Even though Henri almost ran away as I led him out of the barn it went surprisingly well. I have continued to walk them on a regular basis and am feeling less and less nervous about walking them as I start to get a sense of the range of their various moods and learn their quirks and how to avoid having them run me through brambles, fences or rocks. It's been slow but steady progress for me as I work on building trust with them and learn how to guide them around to the best bits of grass left over from a productive growing season. It takes about an hour or so of walking them around until they are full of grass, clover and the few remaining apple drops and ready to head back home. During this time I have to remain alert and ready to get out of their way to avoid getting stepped on, or in their way to prevent them from ransacking the remaining vegetation in our gardens. But I also get plenty of time to watch them eat -- they are quite efficient at mowing the grass with their long tongues flicking out of their mouths and drawing bunches of grass in to their waiting teeth -- and ruminate myself on how they perceive the world, what they think of me, and the relations between me as a human and the animals us humans domesticated millenia ago. That topic is a huge one -- wildness and domestication in humans and other animals -- which I am still mulling over so it will have to wait for another time. But it is much on my mind every time August or Henri or both of them together lift their powerful heads up and lurch into action dragging me along as they seek out a tasty apple or sniff the wind for the smell of sweet grass. For now I assuage whatever guilt feelings I have about my occupying a position of dominance, whacking them across the nose with a stick to get them to back up (this doesn't really hurt them I am told since they are far tougher beasts than we), and leading them around by reminding myself what a good life they have here. Most of their days are spent hanging out and eating or snoozing under a tree, and they are well fed and cared for and seem not to mind the work we have them do. Like good card-carrying union members they are also familiar with the tactic of the sit-down strike, as in, when they are done working, they just stop and no amount of goading will make them do more. We relent and let them rest or lead them back home to their pasture.

Soon the snows will set in and their diet will shift entirely to hay and so they won't be walked as often. I'll continue to work with them as our logging operations move into a new area being cleared for more garden space, but I'll be back to running chains, rather than driving them in the more complex pulling operations required. I am looking forward to being out in the snow covered woods squeezing in between them to hook up loads and scratching their noses occasionally, appreciative of the hard work they do for us and their putting up with our demands.

~George Matthews

Friday, November 25, 2011

always on the lookout for more mulch...

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Colossal Chestnuts and another Pecan

There’s been some aggressive weeding of late. I found the tell-tale sign the other evening: come the end of the day, I went about my dutiful effort of hair brushing only to have the exercise yield a brush full of twigs and accompanying detritus.

Mind you, projects for the week have focused on “perennial triage.” That is to say, freeing trees and shrubs from encroaching weeds, invading vines, and the ever-dominant wild raspberry. Thorns, thickets, prickers, and spines require a careful approach, while bedstraw, vetch, grasses, wild strawberry, and rogue ferns necessitate an all-or-nothing tenacity. Somehow the dirt dirties more than just my hands.

The goal is multifarious. These perennial plantings are easily pushed down the priority list throughout the growing season, so taking the time to clear around them now, as the season winds to a close, is essential if they are to be given a stronger start come springtime. After weeding around each tree, a mulch or sheet mulch is applied for fertility and weed suppression.

Our sheet mulching method here at D Acres incorporates two primary materials. First is cardboard collected from area establishments, a means of up-cycling biodegradable material otherwise destined for a landfill. Second is a woody byproduct. Often woodchips are used, a resource we have readily available from our logging efforts. At the moment, I am making use of sawdust donated by a neighbor. Piled in a less than ideal spot, my goal has been to work through the material as quickly as possible. Another week of sheet mulching should easily accomplish the task. Of these two materials, cardboard is utilized for weed suppression, while the placement of organic matter serves to hold the cardboard in place while simultaneously providing a rich nutrient package that will slowly be released and returned to the soil.

We have found this to be a highly effective process. Effectiveness, of course, is predicated on knowing the location of the pertinent plantings to be cared for. It seems that each year I discover another tree that has previously eluded my observation. This year it was finding a pecan in our ox hovel hedgerow, a lilac bush in our upper field, a fourth roadside beach plum buried beneath goldenrod and sensitive ferns, a fourth sea buckthorn acting as a trellis for somehow-still-lush bedstraw, and a chestnut with the simple tag of “Colossal.”

“Colossal” could also describe the remarkable diversity and strength of our edible landscape. While the work of weeding and mulching will provide these perennial plantings with a power start next season, this work is also in preparation for a more distant future. These trees are tended to now with the hope of production for future decades and future generations. Perennials represent remarkable caloric potential, but time, patience, and persistence are required if that hope is to become a reality. This week has been about weeding for the future, for all of our futures.

as published in North Country News

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Occupy Wall Street in Theory and Practice

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.

~Yogi Berra

It's been a while since a crew from D Acres went to participate in and check out what was happening in Liberty Square, home base of Occupy Wall Street. It was a pretty inspiring experience and I've been meaning to write about it, but wrapping up the growing season, preparations for winter, and the first snows of the season have gotten in the way. But now that things have taken a dramatic turn, with the protesters having been evicted from Zuccotti Park, it's time to act. After much reflection on what's been going on down there, here's my take on it.

In theory of course, Occupy Wall Street has set itself an impossible task -- bring about a revolution of some unspecified type with unspecified goals by camping out in the symbolic epicenter of global capitalist finance and refusing to leave until everything has changed. This is absurd from a number of angles: the combined brute force of the NYPD with all the backups they need from the National Guard, not to mention the Department of Homeland Security, can easily be used to disperse and/or arrest all of the protesters -- a band of a few hundred disaffected youth with a couple of grannies for peace and old school anarchists along for the ride; besides, Wall Street is itself mostly of symbolic value, since most financial business is carried out online and many traders telecommute, so camping out there will only inconvenience the locals in an increasingly residential area of lower Manhattan; and besides, most of us are implicated in Wall Street's shenanigans through pension funds, the financing schemes of local and municipal governments, the mortgage racket, and more; and besides all of this, there is no visible leadership or set of coherent official demands being made by the occupiers. In theory, this is completely the wrong way to go about affecting any change in the real world and responding to the ongoing worldwide financial crisis. Honestly, when I went down to Wall Street during the third week of the protest, I wasn't expecting much.

Maybe I've spent too much time thinking about theory to realize that these reasons why this protest has to fail might be irrelevant. In theory, theory and practice are equivalent -- theory maps out what real options are available in situations like this and in an age of global commerce and finance a few protesters on the street are irrelevant to the workings of the system. It will grind on according to its own inner logic with all of the weight of the hefty institutions behind it, like the governments of the world's most powerful nations, not to mention large corporations and the organizations that represent their interests such as trade groups, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and so on. Theoretically, this protest was the same as every other protest that has taken place since the end of the Cold War -- some loud voices expressing opinions about the evils of capitalism, with some also mentioning environmental issues and political corruption, ending with a return to business as usual for those protesting and those inconvenienced by the protests immediately afterwards.

In practice, however, things have turned out a little differently. In practice there are the famous "people's mic" communication system, a kitchen serving free, donated food during most hours of the day and night to whoever stands in line, the people's library in one corner of the park, many teach-ins, seminars, and open discussions about theory and practice, a sanitation crew, a recycling center, a grey water system to handle dish water, a crew of trained medics looking after the health of the occupiers and visitors, a group of programmers and computer savvy people working to upload terabytes of video footage to the web, a security contingent helping to defuse potential conflicts within the group and between the occupiers, the police and the public, a direct action group organizing regular marches around the city. In short, in practice, a leaderless group of strangers got together and built a working small model of an alternative way of organizing society all without leaders and without a preconceived plan. This was what impressed me the most, and it clearly impressed many of the passersby and reporters with whom I talked. And, I think, this is what resonated with those dissatisfied with business as usual everywhere in the world who started occupying everywhere. In practice the contours of a different way of living are becoming visible even as representatives of business as usual in the banks and their governmental supporting institutions futilely attempt to revive the way of life that the protesters reject.

Now what does the practical side of Occupy Wall Street have to teach in terms of theory? Most of all it teaches us that the model of human interaction championed by Wall Street itself -- that we are all basically self-interested individuals who only interact with one another if it furthers our personal goals -- is far too limited. In fact, as anthropologists have been pointing out for years (most compellingly in recent years by David Graeber, whose phenomenal book "Debt: the first 5000 years" I've been reading lately), the mode of interaction that takes place in the market, where we temporarily get together for the sake of each pursuing his or her own self-interest is only one of many modes of interaction that humans engage in all the time. Of course this should be obvious, but it is too often overlooked in a world in which progress and the pursuit of happiness have become synonymous with interactions mediated by money. Instead of taking care of our neighbors kids, we pay for child care; instead of teaching each other we take on massive amounts of debt to pay for education; instead of producing and sharing our own food we pay for meals; instead of talking to each other about our difficulties we pay psychologists to lend us an ear. This is partly responsible for what economic growth there has been in the last 30 years or so -- growth that was paid for with the largest lending and borrowing spree in the history of money and has ended up with most of us tied to jobs we hate but that we keep just to maintain a supply of money. But, as the occupiers clearly demonstrated, a group of people could come together for a common, if still somewhat vague, purpose and help each other out without expecting anything in return nor requiring much money to thrive in one of the world's more expensive cities. Solidarity, a sense that we are all in it together, can be just as much a product of tough times as fighting to keep what you consider yours. While the people of Wall Street continue to award themselves huge bonuses at the expense of whoever has less financial power, the people at Occupy Wall Street support each other and build community.

This compelling protest movement also teaches us that we should be open to and welcoming of new and previously unimaginable alternatives as we confront an uncertain and potentially troubling future. Let's not be blinded by our theories of social organization. Watch carefully how things are really working there and start doing it on your own. Organize, do it yourself, practice consensus decision making, live without cash as much as possible, trade with your neighbors, help each other out.

Long live Occupy Wall Street!

~George Matthews

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Lunging for Leaves

The leaves have dropped from our largest heartnut tree. Behind the cob greenhouse, overlooking the top duck pond, the heartnut stands prominent in any easterly view from D Acres’ kitchen. Just the other morning, once the sun crested the trees and the shadows diminished, it was like a seeing an old friend in new clothing: it warranted a second take.

See, the leaves fall seemingly at once, like a bed losing its blanket or a dog shaking snow from its back. With the heartnut, there is no slow denouement of a season, no gradual turn from summer’s vitality to autumn’s beauty to November’s starkness. Rather, it is a clear and concise statement, an act of assurance: now is the moment, today is the change.

And so it was this year. Overnight, in fact, it happened. Just a few days prior, the butternuts performed the same act of decisiveness.

Now the heartnut and butternut leaves join the kaleidoscope of bold and colorful maple, birch, beech, ash and the occasional oak leaves covering the ground. A natural mulch, rich and multihued, the leaves will serve to protect the soil. Slowly decomposing back to soil and enriching the woods floor or garden edges where they fall, they are exemplars that lead us in our work to build soil fertility.

While leaves across the property are left intact, in situ, for this very reason, leaves along our roadside are a different matter. Fated to clog ditches & drainages, linger in culverts, and be tossed by ambitious snowplows, we sequester these leaves for higher purposes.

We start by hitching up the trailer and tossing in rakes and all available hands. Leaf raking is an all-day affair here, sometimes multiple days. Up and down the roadside we march, raking piles large enough to fulfill everyone’s inner child. But it’s not time for jumping just yet. One overflowing armful at a time, we pile the leaves into the trailer. Someone earns the enviable job of stomping down the growing heap, while those remaining squat, lunge, gather, and heave the piles into the trailer. A tremendous quantity can be packed within the slightly askew wooden sides.

From here the leaves are deposited into caged piles strategically close to our various garden zones. Leaves will be used as part of our fall mulch, mixed with straw to create a powerful nutrient package. Not only will this protect the garden beds through the coming seasons, this leaf mulch will also contribute to the ongoing process of increased soil fertility through the continual application of organic matter.

Most of the leaves gathered, however, are not destined for immediate use. Rather, the hustle of a couple of days will come to fruition after a year of patience. Let sit for twelve months, these leaves will be partially composted by next fall season, when they will once again be spread about, applied to garden beds across the farm.

Mirroring the process of humus creation within a woodland ecosystem, the input of leaves to our garden system is an essential means of building soil fertility. You, too, can do this: leaves do not belong in plastic bags, nor the back of trash truck, nor a backyard fire pit. Money may not fall from trees, but good soil can be found beneath them. Is that not more valuable?

as published in North Country News

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Occupy Together

“If someone asked me what I stand for…”

One of our interns turned to me in the midst of planting garlic.

“Well, I stand for me. For us. For our way of living.” He chuckled making his point, gesturing at the young apples, pears, and elderberries, the cover crop sprouting out of this summer’s potato beds, the pigs at the edge of the stone wall, the deep soil into which we were plunging cloves of garlic.

“How could someone argue against this?!”

We returned to our own thoughts, mired in the 95th out of the 150 total pounds of garlic we were planting. It was a simple, methodical task of sinking a short stick into the ground, submerging a garlic clove into the newly made nest, and blanketing it with more soil. As other crops near the end of their season, garlic is just beginning.

So while consumed in this act of starting something new as the lushness of summer dies back, we were also engaged in conversation of something new.

Wall Street.

Okay, Wall Street itself is old. The Occupation of Wall Street, however? NEW. Fresh. The beginning of a new momentum, a new season, a new solidarity. A new opportunity to say: wait, stop, no. Reality is clear – we are tied within an economic system that allows the top 1% to become richer & richer, with more power, protection, and privacy than other individuals. What about our 99%? Why should we tolerate greed and corruption? What about you? What about me? What about my sister? What about your brother? What about the children? In a system so broken with fraud and so fraught with inequalities, from where is hope to spring?

From the people. From saying enough is enough.

And it’s spreading. What started on September 17 in NYC has spread to Boston, San Francisco, DC, Philadelphia, Burlington, Baltimore, Portland, Los Angeles, Chicago, and 1,528 other cities across the nation. Occupy Manchester (NH) and Occupy Concord (NH) began October 15. Occupy Plymouth is ongoing: stand with your neighbors on the Plymouth Common. There is a place for your voice. Get inspired:

A D Acres resident, having spent some time at the Wall Street Occupation in early October, dons the following message on the back of her sweatshirt: Sow Seeds, Not Greed.

Surely each of us will have our own reason, our own perspective, our own purpose for wanting reform. Perhaps our reasoning is not yours. Probably, ours can align with yours.

Here at D Acres we stand for an alternate economy. An economy of community, of local goods, of handshakes and of shared meals. Our work continues to build networks of local farmers, community groups, and area residents, while simultaneously modeling and educating on viable subsistence farming practices. We employ a barter system when possible, and offer meals and education to the community for a nominal sliding-scale donation. Money is never required. We believe that the needs of our community must be – and can be – met within our community by our community members. The localization of our regional economy is the basis for economic justice and community empowerment. We’re doing it here at D Acres. Please join us.

as published in North Country News

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Resting Place for Potatoes

I have fingerlings under the sheets.

Hundreds of pounds, in fact, under many sheets and a few cardboard boxes. Fingerling potatoes, that is, which are currently drying and curing in a corner of the basement. Protected from the light, these fresh tubers lay underneath, well, old sheets and some fabric scraps. There are also some Kennebecs, Katahdins, and other baking potatoes under cardboard boxes, a small quantity of russets, and striking Purple Vikings and Purple Suns underneath the local updates of some expired newspapers.

This is our practiced, practical praxis for readying our freshly harvested ‘taters for winter storage. In the past couple of weeks we have forked, dug, shook, searched, prodded, nudged (aggressively), burrowed, mined, and quarried approximately 2500 pounds of potatoes from our newest field. All by hand, of course. It is a formidable quantity, an autumnal treasure hunt of many days and numerous work hours for a bounty that will feed us through the winter months.

In order to last late into the spring, these potatoes will be stored in our root cellar amongst cool temperatures and high humidity. First, though, they must be dried and their skins cured. Moist and damaged tubers are a set-up for rot, and a careless oversight can ruin a whole passel of work.

So we have potatoes lining the basement, potatoes cobbling the floor of the barn, potatoes filling the barn loft, and potatoes spread about the old tractor room. Wall to wall it’s a tight fit, but somehow just the right amount of space has been found.

Shielding these tubers from light is especially important – some time in the sun turns potatoes green in color and toxic to eat. A tragedy to avoid, most certainly. Even those stored in the dark corners of the barn are carefully covered …cardboard, newspaper, and sheets are all breathable materials that assist the drying process while thoroughly protecting the potatoes.

Shrouded in such simple sunblock, our potato harvest sits for two to three weeks. We’re not interested in rushing the process, and the wet weather isn’t suggesting otherwise. By next week, though, we’ll be in the thick of it. Sorting potatoes by type (broadly categorized as white baking potatoes, purples, reds, and fingerlings), we’ll also pull aside the small ones and any damaged ones that were overlooked in the initial triage. These get eaten first, as they are the least likely to keep well.

Everything else, the proverbial cream of the crop, is gently tumbled into our mouse-proof bins in the root cellar and labeled accordingly. There they will sit, 2500 pounds of delectable feasts and delicious dinners in the raw. We’ll eat hundreds of pounds of ‘taters through the winter months; we’ll sell them to friends, visitors, market-shoppers, and restaurants; we’ll share them at community food events and potlucks. If anything is left in spring, we’ll have seed potatoes ready to plant.

So there are grand plans for our many ‘taters. For the moment though, they are tucked in beneath retired bed sheets and curing on cardboard. The next phase of their journey from field to meal is about to begin.

as published in North Country News

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Special Projects

Drifting from the buzzing metropolitan area of Boston to the woods of New Hampshire does not happen in one step, not for me anyway. As a mechanical engineering student at Northeastern University, I have been attempting to find that specific niche in an otherwise unspecific major. Mechanical engineering covers anything from aeronautics to solar power to prosthetic limbs. Luckily for me, I was able to spend time in a lab, at a desk, and now at a farm through Northeastern’s co-op program. The drastically different environments that I have been exposed to allow me to better understand what it is and what it isn’t that I want to do with my degree.

During my stay at D Acres I have been focusing on “Special Projects.” These deviate slightly from the day-to-day activities usually seen on the farm. The first special project was an anaerobic digester. It differs from compost in that it works without oxygen. The breakdown of oxen and pig manure in a water environment releases methane gas that can then be used for cooking or heating purposes. The project specifications can be found at The research involved was fairly intensive. A number of different designs exist and it was difficult to find one that was suitable to the New Hampshire climate. The final design was a combination of a few, but on a much smaller scale. The small scale gas production will only be suitable for demonstration purposes. I felt the design was fairly successful and saw methane production within the first week. After that week, however, the temperatures cooled and gas production decreased. To fix this, compost was piled around the digester which has been successful in raising the temperatures so far.

The remainder of my stay has focused on bicycle power. This subject has been studied by many different people in many different places around the globe. Having an avid interest in bicycles I was very excited to tackle a bicycle-powered project. That was 4 weeks ago. Since then, I have built a power take-off for an apple crusher, a direct-driven washing machine, and finally a portable power station. Each bicycle set up is a different approach to the same thing—bicycle power. The documentation is available at The power take-off combined with the portable frame (sections of an old bed frame bolted to the rear wheel of the bicycle to raise it off the ground) of the power station leaves the bicycle fully intact and allows the user to ride to where it is needed and then hooked up to the machine it is going to run. Practically anything that is belt-driven can be run by one of the setups. The portable power station with flywheel is great for keeping machines running smoothly.

All of the projects have had points that were challenging, frustrating, and rewarding. The most challenging aspect is the availability of resources and machining equipment. At previous internships I worked in shops backed by multi-million dollar companies. Fabricating only required an order to be placed for all the parts needed with very few cost restrictions. Everything at D Acres has been built with parts available on site. Some parts have been found in the resource pile, others in the eaves of the barn, and most of the time parts are pulled from beneath piles of other parts. Although it is challenging to locate parts needed for projects, making use of old parts is a great practice. It keeps my brain constantly forming alterations to a previous design—making the design work for the parts available. The philosophy yields minimal cost and negligible waste. No gas is wasted in the shipping of parts and parts that had no function become productive pieces of the D Acres community.

The most rewarding part of my stay has been being able to see people actively use the equipment. Members of the community really enjoy being able to crush apples by pedaling bicycles, children and adults alike. It also eases the workload of people at farm. Crushing apples used to take at least twice as long when doing by hand and required exerting much more physical effort. Now, a five-gallon bucket of apples takes less than three minutes to crush.

In coming weeks I will be pursuing powering items in the kitchen and solar-powered cookers. The food processor is used on a regular basis and being able to figure out how to power it without electricity would be a large achievement. Having more efficient cookers, such as a parabolic oven, would reduce cooking times in the sunnier months. Research and design is still necessary at this juncture, but I look forward to the challenges ahead.

-Joey Kile

Thursday, September 29, 2011

There's a Baker amongst us

If you step out back on a late Friday afternoon, it is the hearty smell of wood smoke and fresh bread that wafts past your willing nose. The magic potion that is flour, water, and wild yeast is again unfolding. A weekly task – treat - that is relished by those of us living here at D Acres.

Homemade bread, it seems, is a member of that indefinable category shared with handwritten letters and quilts patched one stitch at a time: symbols of simplicity, beauty, fine workmanship, and nourishment. Good bread is good; great bread can feed and satisfy something well beyond an appetite alone.

I’m going to be bold for a moment and suggest that here at D Acres we entered that latter category of great bread. You see, we have a Baker amongst us. Scott arrived in May, and with a humble and simple expression of interest in baking bread, quickly took on the weekly task of stocking our pantry shelves with enough gluten goodness to fuel us through each week of work. It became clear rather quickly that we had quite the delicious situation on our hands. Now each week he’s performing some new test…currently it’s baguettes. We’re being teased with musings on croissants.

We’re so convinced that this bread is what everyone, everyone needs that we’re beginning a Bread CSA this fall. And it’s not too late to sign-up!

Here’s how the bread share program works. All bread is made using organic flour, natural fermentation, and is baked in D Acres’ wood-fired cob oven. Members pay up front for ten loaves of bread and receive them, one loaf per week, beginning October 13 and ending December 15. The cost of each share is $65 (you’re welcome to purchase more than one share…). The pick-up dates & location are yet to be finalized, but will be in downtown Plymouth for your convenience. Let us know if you have a preference!

Just to convince you further, here are the loaf options you’ll have to choose from throughout the season: French Country Bread, Whole Wheat Bread, Rye Bread, Semolina Bread, Multi-Grain Bread, and Baguettes.

Seriously. Whether you need to step up your peanut-butter-and-jelly experience, are raising the bar on family dinner, or simply ready for really good bread to hit New Hampshire…well, this is it.

Get in touch with us today to reserve your spot! 603-786-2366 or Just think, next month you could be reading this with a piece of D Acres toast in your hand…local food with your local news.

as published in North Country News

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Join our Bread CSA!

Most people are intimidated by the prospect of baking bread from scratch. I know I was. Like many, I learned much of what I know in the kitchen from my mother who, owing to a combination of lack of patience and one failed bread baking experiment when I was quite young, left bread production up to the local bakery or whomever it is that makes bread for grocery stores.

Earlier this year, however, finding myself without gainful employment for the first time in many years and with an unnerving amount of leisure time, I decided to cloister myself away in my tiny Brooklyn apartment and teach myself the art of artisanal bread baking.

After a few days in the library scribbling down copious notes and a few unsuccessful attempts at the very simple task of dissolving yeast in water, I was able to produce what appeared to be a loaf of bread.
Its outward appearance filled me with a sense of accomplishment and it was only when I cut it in half that I discovered that I still had a ways to go. While it was certainly more chewable and moist than a hockey puck, it was more or less the bread equivalent of the birthday present your daughter, son, niece or nephew gives you that is made out of construction paper, glue, glitter and pine cones – its nice and homemade and clearly a lot of work went into it but the quality of the thing leaves something to be desired.

Not to be deterred, I continued to turn these prairie sod-like loaves out, foisting them upon unfortunate friends with the confidence that, like driving without a map, if you just did it long enough, you would eventually get where you need to go. (Yes, I sometimes find it difficult to locate willing passengers.)

Then I had a bit of good fortune – last Christmas Eve I wandered into a bookstore with my sister and father and happened upon a giant coffee table sized book entitled Tartine Bread with what can only be described as the perfect loaf of bread on the front cover. It was dark brown and glistening – almost black with tiny air bubbles all throughout the crust and a white crumb underneath the looked…well, perfect. It was both a feat of bread baking and of photography. I purchased the book on the spot.

Happily, the book did, in fact, live up to its cover. The baking technique it suggests uses no industrial yeast at all opting instead for a wild fermentation process whereby water and flour are mixed together and left for three or four days to harness airborne yeast and become the “starter” for a loaf of bread.

When I first experimented with this method, I was a bit worried that assiduously monitoring a bowl of bacterial spores in my kitchen might have negative consequences for my social life but the possibility of achieving something close to the loaf on that front cover was too much to resist.

Now, I should say, for those of you with bread baking aspirations, that this bread baking technique requires not only three to four days of fermentation but the bread baking process itself takes about nine hours. The good news (or bad news depending on your personality type) is that the vast majority of this time is spent waiting, checking, gently poking, evaluating and trying to come up with something to do in the 30 minutes before you have to get back to the kitchen to re-check the loaf. But if you are interested in tackling a Russian novel or a graduate degree, this kind of bread baking might be a perfect part-time job for you.

As for me, I was, if recall, in the throws of unemployment and the throws of winter so I had…ahem, nothing but time. It made things a little easier.

But I will say this with all humility – following this book’s instructions resulted in, by far, the best bread I have ever tasted anywhere. I take no credit for this beyond being able to read and follow instructions. But it really was a miraculous thing.

The first time I took a loaf out of the oven, I just stared at it for about 5 minutes not quite believing that I had been responsible for creating this thing. It looked and smelled absolutely amazing. I immediately bundled up and jumped onto the subway to share this creation with my sister and her kids who lived a few blocks away.
After a few minutes, the subway car smelled like the best bakery I’d ever walked into and it is no easy task to make New York City subway cars smell anything other than dreadful.

Upon arrival at my sister’s house, we cut the loaf in half and dug in.
Suffice to say that everyone was very pleased and the non-bread elements of dinner were left untouched.

Following that first loaf, I spent every second or third day baking a different kind of bread – wheat bread, pumpkin seed and rosemary bread, olive bread with hazlenuts, walnut bread, raisin and cardamom bread etc. Each one was better than the last. The only problem was that I began to produce much more bread than my friends and family
could possibly consume. Had I stayed in New York, this could have
become a serious problem. Happily in April, I packed my things and moved to D Acres.

Upon arrival at this community, I quickly came to realize that most of the professional skills that I had acquired over the course of my working life were of very little use here – which absolutely delighted me. But this newly acquired bread-baking skill? Now there was a transferrable skill…sort of.

Baking 30 loaves of bread at once is a different universe entirely from baking two. My first experience at D Acres bread baking saw the employment of just about every single bowl and dish-cloth in the house – numbering in the hundreds, I think. And being unfamiliar with the general kitchen layout and having a tendency to forget a needed spoon or spatula or something resulted in having to rummage through the kitchen drawers with dough caked fingers which, in turn, left a residue that I believe had to be removed with a blow torch and sandpaper. Sigh.

But I am pleased to report that despite a few challenges here and there, reviews of the final product have been incredibly positive - so much so that we have started to sell the bread at the Plymouth farmers market and are starting a bread CSA in the fall. I would like to report that I’ve gotten cleaner and more contained in the kitchen…I would like to report that but just last week I received a inquiry as to just how did I get flour on the CEILING?! So I am still learning to bake in such a way that does not leave the kitchen looking as though it should be cleaned with a fire-hose.

But for those of you who are looking for (deep breath) organic, locally produced, artisanal, wood-fired, whole grain, naturally fermented bread, baked lovingly in a dedicated although somewhat er…free spirited way, let me know. Our bread CSA begins October 8th.
Here is the email:


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Recent Fun on the Farm...

A Tuesday with Marx

Theater and farming. Each employs a different stage, certainly, and each offers a day’s work comprised of disparate details. And yet I would contend that here upon the hill they are not always so separate. Theater can present a poignant commentary, a provoking portrayal of life’s themes and society’s recurring triumphs & travails. Theater elicits questions, raises doubts, and proffers new perspectives; it reaffirms our humanity. It is a statement come alive.

Farming, too, is a statement. In another form, we here at D Acres are also offering social commentary. Our farming acts grounded in subsistence agriculture and local economics are our philosophies writ through the sweat, dirt, and the beauty of a home-grown meal.

Granted, farming is not as entertaining to watch unless, perhaps, you have a lifetime to dedicate to the intricacies of one’s land. Which I strongly encourage. But that is not the point I wish to make herein.

Theater, is the point.

In particular, a theatrical performance this coming Tuesday, September 20 of Marx in Soho. Sponsored by D Acres is conjunction with Plymouth State University’s Early Childhood Studies Program and PSU’s History Department, the performance will be at Boyd Hall 144 (PSU Campus) at 7pm – free and open to all!

Written by the renowned historian Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, Marx in Soho is a passionate, funny and moving defense of Karl Marx’s life and political ideas. The play is an excellent introduction to Marx’s person, his family, his analysis of society, and his passion for radical change. The show also uses current news and events to show how his ideas still resonate, and to demand active and engaged citizenry. Zinn’s dialogue doesn’t preach, rather it is full of mischievous humor as Marx confronts institutionalized education, America’s rich ruling class, corporate mergers, prisons, the media, and more during the course of the play.

The performance is a one-hour, one-man show performed by Bob Weick. D Acres has hosted Weick twice previously to fine reviews and enthusiastic attendance. He has spent the last six years traveling throughout the country performing the show for colleges, universities, community groups, and civic organizations, having taken the stage over 200 times. Check out the show's website for more information and reviews:

I hope you are able to join us for this special performance! The intersection of farming ideals, theatrics, and social philosophies: Tuesday, September 20, 7pm at Boyd Hall 144. A Q&A with the actor will follow the performance. Marx is back!

as published in North Country News

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Looking Ahead

During the growing season, seeding salad greens is a weekly task. A mix of greens is a staple of our meal so long as the ground is free of snow: it is presumed that boxes of salad will crowd our fridge, that seed packets will accompany us about the work day, and that the simple act of seeding new blocks of Merlot, Tango, Lollo di Vino, Dark Lollo Rossa, & Revolution lettuces will be an automatic task consuming a portion of our time each week. For such a simple process, the rewards are tasty, healthful, and colorful.

Last week, however, saw a significant change in events.

Last week, you see, we began to seed into coldframes. Coldframes are a simple piece of garden technology. A wooden box with a pane of glass or sheet of plastic covering its top, angled into the sun, a coldframe works like a mini-greenhouse. It creates a microclimate that offers protection to fragile plants like, in this case, lettuce.

Now, sure, the nights are cooling off, but the summer heat is still hanging on to its banker’s hours. We’re not approaching frost weather quite yet. So for now, our coldframes are sitting wide open, the seeds not requiring additional heat beyond what the August sun continues to offer. But in planting these tiny lettuce seeds now, we’re looking ahead to when these greens will reach our plates. I can write with fair certainty that the leaves will have changed, “cool” will be replaced by “cold” in our daily descriptors, and frost will be upon us. Lettuce is no Herculean food – none of the above appeals to such plants in the least.

So with the use of coldframes, we can protect such plants and thereby extend our growing season. It’s a wonderful treat to have the flavors of summer linger into the autumnal months and, equally exciting, coldframes offer a simple, easy, do-it-yourself opportunity for you to do the same.

Salvage an old glass door at the dump, or make use of that old plastic sheeting in your garage. Building a coldframe doesn’t require fancy materials; nothing beyond the above, some wood, and screws to put it all together.

Keep it basic. And light. Because coldframes are useful for more than just fall lettuce, and once you build one (or two, or more), you’ll find you’ll want to move it around season to season, for a host of different garden purposes. For example, come this time of year, you’ll also want to think of fall broccoli plants…or perhaps you’ve got some top-notch swiss chard you’ll want to protect come the first frost. (Not to mention how essential coldframes are for getting an early start in the garden come springtime.)

Don’t wait, jump onto this project while it’s fresh in your mind. A little work now will earn you garden dividends for seasons to come. And your palate will reap the rewards in just a couple of months time.

as published by North Country News

Monday, August 29, 2011

Living on one's own terms

I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.

-Groucho Marx

a land ethics changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.

-Aldo Leopold

I've always identified myself as a Marxist, a Groucho Marxist that is, since I've always resisted joining clubs, especially those that wanted me to join them. It must be somehow built in to my character because long before I'd even heard of Groucho Marx, let alone was capable of thinking about the idea of living on my own terms, I refused to join the Cub Scouts because they wanted me to pledge allegiance to God, Country and Community. That, I thought, had little to do with learning how to tie knots, whittle and build campfires, and everything to do with submitting to rules that were made up by adults without asking me for my input. I was a difficult child, I guess. Over the years I have figured out how to rationalize and defend my resistance to joining clubs that wanted me as a member -- it is because living on my own terms, living autonomously, is simply incompatible with submitting to the arbitrary authority of others, especially those who claim to know what is really right for me. If I am autonomous, this literally means that I am a law unto myself, guided by my best lights, of course and respectful of all other autonomous agents out there. It was thus a short step from identifying myself as a Groucho Marxist to becoming the grouchy anarchist I've been accused of being.

Lately, however, and this brings me to the real subject of this blog entry, I've begun to rethink my commitment to the ideas of Groucho Marx. Living here at D Acres has made me start to question my assumption that living on my own terms is best done alone, detached from other people and from the complex web of interconnections that Aldo Leopold calls the land-community. In fact, it's starting to seem that the opposite is true, that, ironically, it is only by embracing community that it is really possible to live autonomously.

Where to begin? How about with the potatoes that we are beginning to harvest. There have been other blog postings by my comrades here on the potato crop so I won't go into too much detail about what we have been doing. The basic idea is that we clear a patch of forest, with the help of the oxen, then turn it over to the pigs who then spend a year or so rooting up the remaining vegetation. After we move the pigs out we use lots of people power to first lay out beds along the contours of the land, working around the remaining stumps; then we loosen and aerate the compacted soil with a broadfork, plant potatoes on the surface and cover them with enormous amounts of compost and hay. Over the course of the growing season we hand pick potato bugs daily in half of the field. Twice this summer we hilled up the plants with still more enormous amounts of compost and mulch hay. This year we planted about 1500 row feet of potatoes and expect to harvest somewhere between two and three thousand pounds of mature potato tubers. We'll store as many of these potatoes as possible in the root cellar for eating over the long New England winter when the gardens are covered in snow. What we don't eat ourselves we will cook for visitors at our regular food events or for overnight hostel guests, or sell to local restaurants.

So what do potatoes have to do with community, and its strange connection with living on one's own terms? Well, somewhat surprisingly, they have quite a bit to do with these more abstract topics and in a few different ways. Most obviously, they are a delicious and nutritious part of the meals we share with each other and with people who live nearby or visit us from further away. To live on one's own terms, first you have to eat. And living on one's own terms in this age of mass produced, heavily processed food of distant and often unknown origin, as more people are beginning to see, requires bringing food production back home. That to my mind is the point of the growing local food movement -- more autonomous eating: less dependence on global supply chains; less reliance on ethically objectionable practices like the use of virtual slave labor in the fields of Florida and California and Chile and China; less use of toxins with unknown and dubious effects on our bodies and the planet; less undemocratically won, heavily subsidized profits to giant agribusiness corporations; less hidden brutality towards the animals we eat; more healthy and tasty fresh food on the plate. Every year there are more local farmer's markets, more people buy seeds and plant gardens, more people preserve and store their own food for the time of year when the gardens and fields around them lay dormant. That's a club I am more than willing to join.

The way we approach food fosters both community building and living on one's own terms in a more immediate way, since here at D Acres we share many meals as well as the responsibility of cooking for each other and our guests. We share our midday and evening meals during the week which gives all of a welcome bit of time to socialize during an otherwise busy work week. Every day during the week one person prepares lunch, mostly from leftovers, and two people collaborate on dinner. Since there are currently ten of us living here, this means that for most of the week we get to enjoy together delicious meals prepared by our landmates and our mealtime responsibilities just involve helping out with the dishes. It sure beats having to do it all yourself, or fall back on industrially mass produced convenience food bought at a store with cash. So here community means independence and living on one's own terms.

Back to the potatoes -- growing them as we do, without reliance on fossil fuels for tilling the soil, or applying fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, pesticides (all made from natural gas, coal or petroleum), requires nothing but the coordinated efforts of the whole crew. Community once again. We all contribute our labor power to bring in loads of compost, fill buckets, run them out into the field, dump them on the seed potatoes or plants, pick bugs, add more compost and hay as needed and eventually harvest, clean, store and cook the fruits of our labor. To make things as efficient as possible nobody is wedded to any one role, and all of us switch out with each other throughout the days when we are doing a potato planting or hilling marathon. If someone's back is giving out from bending over the plants with full buckets of compost, they can "rest" with a round of shoveling. If there is a bottleneck in the system, like too many full buckets waiting to be run into the field, one of the bucket fillers will run some buckets out to those depositing the compost where it is needed. We all work hard, but also recognize our different levels of physical ability and conditioning. All of this requires enormous amounts of trust and commitment to a common cause. And these are based on our recognition that we are all doing this for the sake of living on our own terms. Groucho, and so many other people who have lived in the modern world of competitive, capitalist individualism, overlook how collective accomplishment bridges the gap between living on one's own terms and doing things with and for other people. The payoff for all and for each is in the promise of the best french fries imaginable, but it is also in the huge sense of accomplishment that comes from seeing the potato crop flourish in an area that was very recently rocky forest land without much in the way of food for us on offer. All of us recognize that we could not have done it alone.

Under the surface of the soil, making all of this possible, is another kind of community that until recently, I didn't pay much attention to. Although I've known for a while that good organic farming practices are based on the principle that one should feed the soil and not the plants, it was never quite clear to me what this meant in practical terms. It turns out that the soil in which we grow food is an amazingly complex and finely tuned biological community. Leopold's land-community extends beneath the surface in ways that scientists and farmers are only now really learning to appreciate. Conventional agriculture treats soil like an inert place in which to put plants while they grow, supplying them with externally generated "inputs" to insure that they get the nutrients they need and that they are not eaten by pests or out-competed by weeds. This is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy in that it is precisely by treating the soil this way, by the application of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and pesticides, as well as by driving heavy machinery back and forth over farmland that the soil becomes an inert, dead medium and thus plants require these inputs to survive. Before the conventional farmer showed up there were almost unbelievably many organisms living in the soil working in conjunction with plants to serve the needs of each and all. To quote from a book I've been reading lately,

an acre of good garden soil contains several pounds of small mammals; 133 pounds of protozoa; 900 pounds each of earthworms, arthropods and algae; 2000 pounds of bacteria; and 2400 pounds of fungi.

-Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis, Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web, revised edition, 2010, Timber Press

Our potato field is roughly an acre in size and with any luck will yield between two and three thousand pounds of potatoes. That almost equals the combined total of bugs and worms living in the soil, not counting other organisms too small to be seen by the naked eye which would more than quadruple the sheer mass of living things that call this field home. All of these organisms are not just lumped in the soil together like so many bags of fertilizer. Instead, they are organized in a complex set of relationships that, like our work crews, make the whole much more than the sum of its parts.

Consider first just the worms. 900 pounds of earthworms translates into roughly a million of them tirelessly but gently mixing the soil, creating tunnels lined with their nutrient rich castings for easy penetration of plant roots, shredding decaying organic matter thus making it more available to the microorganisms that break it down and recycle essential nutrients for plants and each other. Tilling the soil not only kills countless worms outright, but more crucially destroys all of the work they have done in creating their network of nutrient rich tunnels. Applying chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides disrupts the delicate chemical balances on which they depend for survival and flourishing, let alone outright poisoning them. Leopold was right in his characterization of the conventional modern approach to the land as involving the attempt to conquer it and force it in to submission. And the worms are just the beginning of the collateral damage.

To see how far the conquest of the soil extends under conventional practices consider what is going on in the quarter inch of soil surrounding a plant's roots. Plants secrete sugary liquids, exudates, from their roots which are used as food by certain kinds of bacteria and fungi. These microorganisms contain in their cellular structures many nutrients that the plants themselves need, but can't get on their own. Consequently the microorganisms feed on the sugars secreted by the plants and then in turn die or are eaten and digested by larger organisms like protozoa and nematodes (tiny round worms living in the soil). As a result the nutrients needed by the plant become available at just the rate that the plant can absorb them. In a finely tuned ecosystem like this there is no waste as materials circulate through the system driven by the energy of the sun that is captured by the leaves of the plants. As in any ecological system, this tiny community surrounding the plant's roots depends for its healthy functioning on a proper balance among its diverse components. Too many, or the wrong type of bacteria and fungi, a shortage of protozoa, or not enough root hairs secreting exudates, and the whole system gets out of whack; the plant's health then declines leaving it vulnerable to attack from pests that normally wouldn't do much damage. All of the "additives" applied by conventional agriculture, as well as the standard practices of turning and tilling the soil and driving tractors back and forth across fields to plant, cultivate and harvest disrupt this tiny ecosystem in subtle and not so subtle ways. Conventional agriculture attempts to conquer the soil community and make it work faster and more efficiently. But by destroying the complex ecosystems of the soil it ultimately undermines itself and forces farmers to apply more and more chemical inputs to make up for the declining health of the soil community. The application of externally generated inputs becomes a life support system for a barely surviving fragment of a complex community destroyed by the application of those inputs. Farming like that is certainly not living on one's own terms, however good it may be for the chemical industry.

Now we certainly have to disrupt things in order to convert one ecosystem to another, to take forests with their intact communities of soil organisms and turn them into annual garden beds and perennial planting zones. But we do this in a way that minimizes impact and works with the ecosystems of the soil. The key is of course compost, a living fertilizer and soil builder which comes pre-loaded with bacteria, fungi, protozoa and of course lots of earthworms. Applying plenty of compost to the soil encourages the spread of the organisms needed to sustain the plants we grow. It is not at all the same as applying water soluble chemical fertilizers to directly feed otherwise crippled plants. Instead it is a way of helping the plants we grow for food to live on their own terms by building the kind of community they need to thrive. Appreciating this is the first step in retiring from the role of conqueror and assuming the more modest roles of plain member and citizen of the community. Time to eat some fries with the great people who I live and work with here.

~~ George Matthews ~~

Friday, August 19, 2011

Rain dance, please

“Uh-oh, you got a cold?” she asked.

I stuffed the rag of a handkerchief pack into my back pocket and shook my head with a chuckle.

“Nah, just too much dirt in my nose.”

By which I mean to say: it’s dusty out here. Proboscises aside, it’s an unnerving feeling, to stick one’s hand into the earth, and be greeted with a puff of powder.

Here at D Acres, we think of ourselves as growing soil as much as we are growing food. Our dirt is alive. It offers the fertility and nutrients that create lush and abundant food crops. Yet of late, our soil has been lacking a touch of its vivacious nature, its spongy quality, its soft, dark composition, its pungent earthy aroma. Rather our dirt, quite simply, is thirsty. Parched. Arid. Dry, dry, dry.

At least up here on the hill, the sun has been hitting us hot this summer, and the rain clouds rarely live up to the portends of moisture in their dark underbellies.

The absence of precipitation, surely, is the best means of understanding its fundamental importance. Water is Life. And it is a simple antidote to droopy leaves, wilty plants, yellowed bushes, and desiccated berries. So we’ve been busy maximizing the efficiency of two aspects of our work: water sequestration, and water delivery. Thanks to our ponds, gutters, and holding tanks - coupled with pumps and hoses, pipes and tubes - beauty and bounty dominate the property.

Indeed, a fair portion of our time has been dedicated to irrigation. We are lucky to have our ponds, and wise to have our rain barrels. It may not rain often, but when it does, most every available roof has a gutter hung at its edge and a barrel, tank, or can on the corner. These efforts have made quite the difference – our dinner plates are the evidence.

Nevertheless, it’s a tenuous line. Despite the water we have caught from the sky and lifted from our ponds, the soil continues to be dusty. I’ll admit, we’ve tried reverse psychology on the weather gods: refusing to wear rain jackets even when the occasional shower does become a downpour; watering plants intensely as prospective clouds gather on the horizon; yes, even the impromptu rain dance jig has been attempted. Writing this, in fact, has conveniently coincided with an afternoon thunderstorm.

Plants are remarkable in their tenacity for living, and their ability to pull through a scarcity of resources. We are certainly grateful for the plenitude of abundance that continues to flourish on these acres. Yet in our gratitude we are also humble, willing to Work for Life. And this summer, that means Working for Water.

as published in North Country News

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Farm Day 2011!

It’s that time of year…D Acres 14th Annual Farm Day Celebration is just around the corner! We welcome you to join us for good food and good times on Saturday, August 13th. This isn’t just any ‘ole gathering here at the homestead: this is the event of the summer. A bountiful season is well underway and we’re excited to share the fruits (& vegetables) of our labor with you. Rain or shine – we’ve got our circus tent up and a pig roast waiting for you!

Farm Day routinely brings over 200 people to the farm, and we expect to well exceed that number here in 2011. Festivities begin at 4pm, with a farm tour, face-painting, kids weaving activities, and a variety of local organizations showcasing their efforts. And that’s just to get things started! Our famous pig roast dinner will kick off at 6pm, accompanied by a variety of home-grown and local delectables – potluck desserts are always welcome!

This year’s entertainment will be brought to you by the Sugar River Band. Music will begin during the dinner hour, then we’ll clear the tables and have a good old fashioned barn dance at 7:30pm. Don’t miss this one!

In addition to music and food, Farm Day is a great time to test your luck at prize winning
while supporting the farm. We will be raffling items donated by local businesses and community members – all proceeds will support the ongoing educational programming at D Acres. Prizes include a night’s stay at Indian Head Resort, boat rental vouchers, a geneology search, children’s books, artisanal goods by local artists, and a Mary Kay products.

Save the Date! Saturday, August 13, 4pm; dinner begins at 6pm. A $10 suggested donation will be greatly appreciated. Proceeds generated from this event will be used to fund educational programs and operational expenses for the farm. We hope to see you and your family at Farm Day 2011!

We are grateful to Venture Print and to Malone, Dirubbo, & Company, CPA for their generous sponsorship of Farm Day, as well as to the following individuals and establishments for contributions to the raffle: Diana Burdette, Nancy Conklin, Encore Bookstore, Indian Head Resort, Malone, Dirubbo, & Company C\PA, NH Audubon, Ronda Kilanowski, Danni Simon, Bev Walker, & Gary Walker.

See you then!

as published in North Country News

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Siege of the Scapes

Garlic Scapes. I’m not sure you quite understand me if I say we have a lot. A LOT. It is indeed quite the surfeit of scapes, a superfluity of flavor that now dominates our mealtimes.

Are you familiar with this adventuring curlicue of the renowned garlic plant? The scape is the strong yet tender shoot rising from a garlic plant, destined to become a flower. By cutting the scape before the flower can bud, the plant’s energy is redirected towards growing a large and healthy garlic bulb. The scapes, meanwhile, proffer a subtle garlic taste a month or two before the bulbs are to be harvested. What a treat!

Here at D Acres, however, the problem of abundance is upon us. You’ll reliably find garlic scapes in ‘bout every dish for the next month. From pizza toppings to stir-frys and sautées, from eggs, quiches, & frittatas to fritters & vegetable cakes; from salad dressing & pesto to marinades and so much more, culinary creativity is in high demand come this time of year.

Try as we might, our gullets can’t quite absorb such a glut of the good stuff. We therefore have our means of distributing such quantity through the cooler months. Garlic scape pesto is made by the gallon, while pickled garlic scapes have commandeered a whole section of basement real estate. Garlic scape puree now dominates a corner of the freezer, while brined and fermented recipes are being sought as I write this.

Also as I write this, scapes are being moved from field to fridge. Ours can only hold so much, though, and so I do propose: that we move them into your fridge. Yes, we need to move our succulent scapes. We need ya’ll to be curious. We need you to see that these are the very best things that you’ve been missing all along. You see, we hear this all the time, at dinners here or food fairs out and about:

“Can I buy this?”
“Do you sell this?”
“How much can I offer you?” and on and on.

So now the opportunity has arrived. D Acres Prized Pesto is available for sale here at the farm; Pickled Garlic Scapes can now be purchased here at D Acres as well as through Local Foods Plymouth ( - this is what you are waiting for. Really.

Need one more taste test to convince yourself? Join us this Thursday, July 21 for pickled garlic scapes, pesto, and fresh bread at the Plymouth Farmer’s Market 3-6pm. If that snuck up on you too quick, swing by downtown Plymouth next Thursday, July 28 at one of two locations: first, look for us in front of Peppercorn Natural Foods 1-3pm, then find us at the Farmer’s Market once again 3-6pm. This is sampling that you don’t want to miss!

We will also continue to sell fresh scapes (need I mention kale, collards, and chard?) until their season has passed. Check out our website for our pickling recipe, or pop on in to visit – you, too, can preserve some flavor for the coming months. Enjoy! We’d love to hear your garlic scape favorites.

as published in North Country News

Monday, July 11, 2011

Driving Dirt Uphill: In Partial Praise of Fossil Fuels

"A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself." Thomas Jefferson

So reads the sticker on the rear bumper of one of the farm trucks, not the one, unfortunately, that I am driving to town on the Saturday town run. I'm headed into town in the Ford pickup as part of a thrice weekly ritual. Every Monday, Thursday and Saturday someone gets to escape from the usual farm work and drive to town to collect the mail from the post office in Rumney, and then continuing on to Plymouth, to run errands, and most importantly, to collect ingredients for our perpetual project of soil rebuilding in the form of waste food and cardboard. This is precious organic matter we add to the compromised soils up here in the hills to help rebuild the complex ecosystem of a healthy soil.

The original rich forest soils were washed downhill and out to sea long ago, as a result of a couple of hundred years of poor management practices. Did the first white settlers here realize that they were in effect mining the immense wealth under their feet when they clear cut the forests, tilled the cleared ground, farmed the fields to exhaustion and then brought in sheep to finish off the last of the vegetation? At this point it is impossible to tell, but the legacy of these practices is all too evident in the thin, sandy soils dotted with large chunks of exposed granite covering these hills. In the years that have passed since the sheep pastures were abandoned, the land has slowly been recolonized by forests and new soil is beginning to accumulate as the exposed rock weathers and organic matter in the form of dead leaves, decaying plant matter and the occasional deposit of moose droppings or coyote scat pile up. Natural soil rebuilding happens very slowly, however, in the range of inches of precious, life-sustaining topsoil per decade at best. So if farming is to be feasible here without dependence on artificial fertilizers, we have little choice but to rebuild the soil by carrying tons of organic matter back up hill. We'd like to avoid the use of artificial fertilizers, and not just because "organic farm" sounds so sexy.

Yes, organic farming is often looked at as a niche market, a trendy idea for many mainstream Americans, but there are some pretty good reasons to adopt organic practices, like building soil rather than applying fertilizers. Conventional agriculture makes liberal use of artificial fertilizers, and treats the soil as little more than a place to put plants which are kept alive by the application of fertilizers (not to mention herbicides and pesticides) a practice fraught with problems. Even if the standard issue ammonium nitrate fertilizer does provide plants with needed nutrients in the short term, its use has far reaching negative effects both before and after it is used. Since it is water soluble and easily washed away, it tends to be over-applied with the excess not absorbed by plant roots entering streams, rivers, lakes and eventually the ocean. In all of which places it leads to the process of "eutrophication" -- the sudden flush of excess nutrients in a body of water following a storm causes algae to grow rapidily and then just as quickly to die off once the nutrients are depleted. As the dead algae rots, the water in which it has temporarily thrived is stripped of oxygen and all aquatic life suffocates. As a result of the use of artificial fertilizers throughout the immense Mississippi River basin, to take the most dramatic example of this problem, a dead zone devoid of aquatic life about the size of Texas appears in the Gulf of Mexico every year during the growing season and only partially recovers every winter. This is a pretty serious problem and one that organic farming practices don't create. Good on us organic farmers!

But even before it is sprayed onto fields, artificial fertilizer indirectly causes another form of damage to watersheds all over the country. This is because the primary feedstock for the production of ammonium nitrate fertilizer is natural gas, and natural gas is increasingly being extracted from shale deposits through a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." After the initial well bore is drilled into a bed of shale, it is pumped with high pressure chemical soups designed to fracture the "tight" shale rock containing natural gas, allowing the gas to bubble upwards to be collected at the surface. Unfortunately, fracturing the rock also allows both toxic fracking fluid and natural gas to enter water wells and to poison springs. We watched a film last week here at D Acres called "Gasland" which has some pretty stunning footage of people lighting their formerly drinkable tap water on fire. Everyone laughed, but it was still pretty depressing to see how damaging our efforts to scrape up the last natural gas under our soils can be.

Even if we just ignore these problems with using and producing artificial fertilizers, spraying them onto fields does nothing to restore the health of depleted soils. It only serves as a temporary solution to the problem of exhausted soils. Sometimes, like when I am digging a hole and hit rocks two inches under the surface of the soil, it is hard to imagine that the natural prairie and forest soils of North America were among the richest ecosystems on the planet. They have all but disappeared as a result of the last two centuries of careless use and abuse. If we have any hope of living in greater balance with such ecosystems on which all life depends and without relying entirely on a tightening supply of fossil fuels, we'll have to rebuild the soil fertility that previous generations have unknowingly squandered.

So we drive tons of waste food uphill, along with cardboard for sheet mulching, as well as mountains of horse manure, barrels of bird and rabbit poop and truckloads of hay from local farms. The waste food is fed to the pigs, who seem to love it when they get buckets of old cafeteria food dumped onto their heads. Nobody intends to dump it on their heads, but they just won't get out of the way, especially when cheese sauce is involved. The oxen prefer less sloppy meals, so they get old corn, squash and apples along with their hay. We use ungodly amounts of cardboard to suppress weeds on the edges of garden beds, where it slowly rots into the soil and keeps the weeds at bay for a little while at least. The manure we truck up here is mixed with soiled animal bedding in our compost piles and then applied directed to garden beds. It is hard work loading and unloading all of this material from the farm trucks, turning manure piles with a manure fork, stacking bales of hay into storage areas and carrying five gallon bucket loads of compost over rock walls into the fields where we grow crops. But it is worth every sore muscle and drop of sweat since we are rebuilding the soil's capacity to sustain the lives of worms, insects, fungi, microorganisms, and as a result, the plants and animals we eat. Healthy soils cycle nutrients effectively from plants to animals and fungi and back again thus enabling plants to effectively capture the solar energy that drives the entire system. We are using fossil fuels to rebuild our soils with the goal of freeing ourselves gradually from their use. Conventional farms, on the other hand use fossil fuels as a replacement for the lost functions of healthy soil in a never ending battle against the ill effects of their own poor soil management. And it is kind of fun loading the trucks with as much hay as possible -- so far the farm record is 128 bales on the Ford pickup and its trailer.

So, in spite of our use of hand tools for many jobs that fossil fuel powered machines might do for us, we still do admire these potent sources of energy. And they are pretty astounding substances when you think about where they came from. We sometimes forget that coal, oil and natural gas are essentially super-concentrated solar energy, millions of years worth of energy from the sun stored up in plant matter that was trapped under swamps and slow cooked in the earth's crust over many more millions of years. It is also astounding to think that we have spent just about half of these millions of years of solar energy savings over the last 250 years or so. No wonder modern life moves so quickly compared to the lives humans lived ever since we emerged from caves or trees or wherever we came from. The half of the fossil fuel legacy that is left, such as shale gas, deep water oil and the tar sands of places like Alberta, Canada is increasingly difficult, expensive and environmentally destructive to recover. So we may as well use what is left in projects like rebuilding the capacity of the land we live on to make effective use once again of the slower and steadier rhythms of the rising and setting sun as the seasons slowly roll by. Time to unload what other people call waste and feed it to the soil. Do the people who are giving us all of this good stuff for free really know its value? Shhh, don't tell them.

== George Matthews ==

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Sweating for Spuds

It was, of course, one of those hot and sunny days when you can’t unstick your clothes from your skin, and when clods of dirt turn to mud pies on your sweaty legs. Corners of shade were a treat worth hustling to get to, and jugs of water didn’t stay full for long. The bugs, in moderate and not-quite-vicious abundance, set the pace. Head down, with legs walking, arms lugging, and hands mounding compost all as rapidly as possible, the bugs couldn’t distract the focus.

Potatoes were earning my full attention this particular Thursday in June.

Here at D Acres, you see, potatoes are an integral component of our forest-to-garden conversion process. The work alluded to above, is the hilling of our special spuds. This happens once a month during the summer until the harvest is upon us. And let me tell you – the more hands the better.

This year we planted 295 pounds of potatoes; the task of hilling is not a quick one. With Josh, Regina, and I, plus our powerhouse of seven interns, it was a day and a half affair. Even promises of an end-of-the-day, oh-so-sweet, what-could-be-more-refreshing swimming hole trip couldn’t make it happen any faster. It’s a physical task, and there is no appropriate preparation for eight hours of carrying, emptying, and re-filling five gallon buckets other than buckling down and doing it. But we’ve made it through spring training, so to speak; our July hilling should be all the easier…

In my own mind, trudging between rows of green leaves and paths of clover, history offered a helpful perspective. Access to this particular pasture is limited, surrounded by a stone wall of yore. It is - wonderfully and inconveniently - in a fine state, necessitating the hauling of each compost-laden bucket up, and over, and down the sturdy stack of rocks: the compost could only be driven so close to one side, the potatoes only so close to the wall’s inner edge. So each bucket covered a path of history, a testament to the work that had once created this pasture, a reminder that it’s interim as forest and it’s present return to field is just one more cycle of history.

As we contribute our farming acts to this unfolding chain of land use, potatoes provide an agricultural re-initiation for the field. Potatoes, and their preference for growing in dirt mounds, make them an excellent first crop. To hill them, we shovel truckloads of home-grown compost into five gallon buckets, then mound this (and large quantities of mulch hay) around our blossoming plants. This process, while increasing the productivity of the potatoes simultaneously creates raised beds along the contours of the field. By the end of the season, we are rich in organic matter just where we need it most.

Step by step, plant by plant, bucket by bucket, we are returning richness to the soil. Each addition crosses the stone wall, a stoic witness to much change, and an ode, perhaps, to what once was and what may be once again.

as published in North Country News