Reflections on farming from a potential young farmer

posted November 17, 2008

old-tennessee-map2For a fun, inspirational read, here’s an email that greenhorns’ friend Rebekah Guss sent out after visiting some new Tennessee Farmers…

The Postmodern Organic

Late February. The perfect time for an island getaway. So I crossed the river of Deliverance fame, wove through the mountains of North Georgia, and descended into the hills of southern Tennessee to visit a few friends starting a farm on an island in a river. We loaded up the skiff and crossed the chop of the Tennessee towards the wall of trees and vines a short distance away.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. How do you weave an organic quilt from a grassy old pasture on a spit of accreted river bottom? In their month of residence they set up an airstream trailer (a much cozier version of the Into the Wild bus), built a greenhouse (with a wood stove!) & hoop house & outhouse (2 varieties), rotationally graze sheep and chickens, acquired a tractor, a few dogs and more than a few CSA members. And in the process managed to become the talk of the town (wander the aisles of the local natural grocery and you’re bound to hear about a friend of a friend of a cousin who lives on this feral island in the city and do they know how to throw a party‚Ķ). Did I mention they do this without running water or electricity and somehow we’re eating local pork chops sizzled on the wood stove?

I staked my tent. It looked forlorn, a row of one in a field and was glad for the rise given the soggy hydrology. By 4am I was deliberating whether it was better to lie completely flat on the Thermarest or curl up in the fetal position to avoid the searing thunder shaking the ground. It poured and poured. I sprinted for the airstream when it felt like my little tent was about to be carried across the rivulets, over the bank, and into the river.

In between greenhouse work we explored the Native American village site (visible as a bright green grassy mound), examined the work of the beavers, and crossed a patch of inland flood plain forest (think swamp). There’s enough history and legend on this island to produce a TV mini-series. There’s also the possibility of finding a pottery shard or arrowhead in a field, seeing a flock of wild turkeys and herd of whitetail grazing the same patch of land as though in a petting zoo, of eagles and hawks and herons. Of oyster mushrooms emerging from sacs hung like punching bags in a shed. Of bountiful peppers and eggplants and okra!!! Of yet to be discovered trails for mountain biking and mazes in river cane and endless paddling!

There’s reality too. Temperatures in the 20’s and flurries and stoking the wood stove all night to keep seedlings alive. The looming triumvirate of southern itchiness: chiggers, ticks and poison ivy. This is, after all, a postmodern organic with juxtapositions and ambiguities and complexity. The clang of the proximate port of Chattanooga against the hum of spring peepers. A rookery of vultures crowding a high tension power line. Trophy homes mounted along the spectacular cliffs of the Tennessee River Gorge beaming like lighthouses at night. The classic boarding school replete with gothic lights and long windows and shrieking teens (likely future field hands).There are fields strewn with the charcoal pellets of municipal sludge applied by the cattle farmers who lease and graze. It’s a convenient solution to a thorny problem but is it healthy for the wildlife and humans on the island? What about the runoff? What about the legacy pollutants in the river and island sediment?

Even the less savory realities are about community too. Forging unlikely partnerships, the webs of connections that spring from finding equipment and resolving the logistical puzzles, the people
brought together for food and land. The field has yet to be tilled but a fascinating community is sprouting on this island and I feel most fortunate to know the wonderful folks that are making it happen.