Saturday, November 6, 2010

Agriculture is Culture

The harvest of the day
Sally Voris sits across the table from me, her hands cradling a cup of tea. Behind her cookbooks line the shelves of a small cabinet. The kitchen looks and feels like one you'd imagine in a farm house. A crock full of pickled veggies sits nearby and there is a clutter that pronounces: people live here. Sally is sharing her perspectives on the 132-acre farm, on farming, and how she came to the theme for the year: conversation. Her eyes are bright, voice confident, and you can tell that her words are crafted over time and with contemplation. She focuses on the farm as a community, where people not only receive food, but are rejuvenated and are an active part of a larger whole. She wants to create something that is not about consumerism, but about relationships between people, and people and the other. In most respects, that same goal of community is shared by several of the farmers I've profiled. Sally's sense of the farm community in this part of Maryland because of its spirituality. Sally practices biodynamic farming here in Northern Carroll County.

I am not expert on biodynamic farming. A year ago, I had never heard the term. Then I met Sally's friend, Janet, selling their goods at the Westminster Farmer's Market. Janet's demeanor boasts an enthusiasm that's hard to ignore. My friend Maureen (of the Bok Bok post) was taken enough that she began visiting the farm itself to buy their produce. She became a strong advocate of White Rose Farm, and even arranged to give them two roosters to ensure they lived a long and happy life. At the market, Janet told me about the farms fire circles and moon celebrations. Although intrigued by this world that was so clearly different from my own, I never made a trip there, the drive being just a bit too far for me.

Now here I sat in Sally's kitchen, sharing a pot of tea and conversing. "Plants grow in the breathe between heaven and earth", she explains. That sentence alone gave me some insight into the biodynamic philosophy. It would follow then that your farming practices would tend to the quality of that breathe. Rudolf Steiner, the founder of biodynamic farming from the 1920s said, "biodynamic farming works with the microbes in the soil to produce bountiful harvests through supporting, harmonizing with, and enhancing natural processes and life forces." According the Demeter Association, which is responsible for certifying biodynamic producers, their practices include "the cosmic and planetary rhythms of the earth in its ecological approach."

When Sally took over White Rose Farm in 2002, she had long been a gardener, but never a farmer. She eventually met and befriended Hugh Lovel, an author of several books on biodynamic farming dedicated to  continuing the work began by Steiner. From his consultation and texts, she began using alternative practices, ones that respected the balance of heaven and earth. She spent a year at the Pfeiffer Center in New York studying biodynamic farming so that she could bring it to Maryland.

Garden shed
We take a walk around the grounds, tasting produce here and there and observing the integration of animals with the land. A few pigs happily foraged among some pasture Sally had planted earlier. By now, the town of Taneytown will have begun dumping leaf litter collected from their streets onto her property. The pigs will be moved through the leaves over time, shredding and facilitating the leaves decomposition. Next year, that soil will be enriched. Indeed, you can see the difference between her soil and that of the conventional farmer who rents 90-acres of her land. A handful of the White Rose Farm soil looks and feels denser, a product of the heavy integration of organic matter into the ground. It reminds me of the indie film, Dirt!, which documents the complex the ground beneath our feet.

Happy pigs !

As we walked, I asked her about water, like I have all the farmers. I had heard a rumour that they did not irrigate here and looking at the healthy, diverse crops, that seemed impossible. Sally explained that they had used a dew method this year, lightly spraying the plants at dusk. There had been good rain in the weeks before my visit, but there was no evidence that the drought had hurt them prior to that. I am amazed that the plants could retain vitality through only their leaves and perhaps there was more to the ritual than I understood.

Sally tells me that it was last year that was bad for her, really bad. I didn't pry into the details of that statement; it seemed too raw. She continues that in response, she took a sabbatical. She spent five weeks visiting other farms and examining their practices. She spent time considering what she was trying to achieve an returned regenerated. From this journey, she brought her theme of conversation.

It's painfully obvious that Sally doesn't inspire to be a farmer  - organic, sustainable, or otherwise - in the sense of commerce. "A farm is not a food factory!", she exclaims at one point. "Agriculture is culture", she emphasizes at another. Her goal is to use the farm as a center of community that both educates and feeds people. The distraction from this focus keeps her from the farmer's markets. Selling to people tires her; she wants to relate to them. That's much harder to accomplish in a point-of-sale environment. So others sell the White Rose Farm produce and free-range pork at the Catonsville and Tuesday night Westminster Farmer's market. White Rose Farm also offers a CSA like many farms. Unlike many others, though, they offer farm memberships which give access to the grounds and priority in events. That too reflects their emphasis on community. Once a month, they host open houses (open farms?) and a celebration of the full moon, as well as occasional other events. The full moon celebrations are organized by a group of women to celebrate the feminine at each full moon, include discussion, creativity, and often food, but are apparently not overtly religious programs. Sally's approaches are very similar to those described for Live Power Community Farm in the book Farmer Jane, a biodynamic farm in California that has successfully created a community around itself.
The Fire Circle on the ground

One of the most remarkable things about Sally is her success in recruiting help. Before the farm, Sally was a self-described community leader elsewhere in Maryland, educated in running retreat centers. She has brought those skills to the endeavor. When I visited, she had two apprentices with a one year commitment and two interns in a 2-1/2 month stint. A fifth volunteer is in her third year. Unfortunately, I didn't get to interview them, but I hope too! She has also investigated getting help through Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF), also known, it seems, as Worldwide Opportunitiies on Organic Farms. Since 1971, WWOOF has been placing volunteers on organic farms and describes itself as "an international movement that is helping people share more sustainable ways of living". WWOOF chapters facilitate the connection between volunteers and host farms. Volunteers receive accommodation and board for their help, as well as experience and education.

Sally is full of quotes. You can tell that she either was trained, or comes by it naturally. Maybe both. In my work life, we talk about elevator speeches- essentially the 90 second pitch. Can you get people to see what you see in only a few words? It's hard. As we wrap up the walk, Sally says that they aim to be "Beautiful, bountiful, and balanced".  Sounds great to me.

Flowers on the farm

1 comment:

  1. I'm not entirely sure how biodynamics works - but it does. Sow seed at the right time of the moon and they germinate better. The full moon celebrations are more spiritual than religious. Raven & Spade has WWOOF volunteers - pretty amazing that people would volunteer for hard physical labor for several months!