Other Family Writings
Henry is a man of many talents, two of which are writing and farming. He says that if something happens to him physically so that he's unable to farm, he'll write. And if something happens to his brain so he can't write, he'll farm. Luckily, there is winter, when he sometimes finds time to write.
The Solstices and Equinoxes are four cornerstones of the year, points when the sun briefly stands still (sol-stice = sun-stop) before moving to longer days (after the winter solstice) or shorter days (after the summer solstice). Midway between the solstices are the equinoxes, (equi-nox = equal-night) when the length of the day matches roughly the length of the night. The changes in day-length, and the changes in temperature caused by the earth's 23.5 degree tilt on its axis as it orbits the sun, result in the seasons, times to sow and times to reap, times to work and to rest. Henry writes about what he's doing and thinking at these key points of the year, "crystallizations of energy and time . . . when one's body slips securely into the rhythm of the universe."
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For me this day marks the beginning of the end, or at least as close to an end as the perpetual motion machine called farming ever gets. Just as there is an ebb and flow of day length over a season, there is an ebb and flow in fieldwork. Outdoor work begins in late February in the greenhouse, but fieldwork generally begins right around the Vernal Equinox, March 23, when the soil is finally warm enough to begin planting potatoes, onion sets and peas, and to begin sowing the first lettuce and spinach seed. Each seed placed in the soil marks a departure, the beginning of a line stretching into the future, a line of growth for the plant and a line of work for me.
Remember in junior high when the science teacher placed a ball at the top of an inclined plane? You just wanted him to let it roll but he insisted on droning on and on about potential energy. That ball held nothing compared to the amount of potential energy held in a single dormant seed. Once placed in the warm, moist soil, the seed imbibes deeply on water and breaks dormancy. Enzymes are released that begin to break down the seed's store of proteins into amino acids and its starch into sugars. These are conveyed to the embryo where they initiate respiration and growth. With its mysteriously assured sense of which way is up and which is down, the embryo sends its primary root deeper into the soil and its primary shoot up toward the surface. The embryonic root forms side branches and begins pulling water and nutrients from the soil. The embryonic shoot hoists the cotyledon leaves from the soil, where they open and begin harvesting energy from the sun and CO2 from the air. The seed's endosperm—the angiosperm's equivalent to the mammal's placenta—has fulfilled its role and sloughs away. The baby plant is feeding itself now. A tiny cabbage seed has the potential to grow into a 10-pound head, a carrot seed becomes a plant with a foot-long root. One cucumber seed can produce a half-bushel of fruit.
Each seed in each row of each bed also holds an enormous amount of potential work for the farmer. As the season flows along, the work flows as well in a massive swell. The first job is sowing the seed itself and as the crop grows, the jobs proliferate. Every crop is different, but almost every crop needs to be weeded at least once during its lifespan, whether with the push hoe, with slicer or scuffle hoes, with hand hoes or with fingers. Some crops are thinned. Some are mulched. Some are hilled. Others must be trellised many times throughout the season. During severe droughts some crops must be watered, and during severe pest outbreaks we pick insects from the plants. Finally, we harvest the crops. After harvest, we till in any weeds or crop residues and replant the bed to the next vegetable crop or to cover crops. From the Vernal Equinox until the Autumnal Equinox, each week we plant new seeds, new rows, new beds, weather permitting. Each planting sets a new ball of twine a-rolling, with a new string of jobs inexorably flowing from it. We race along behind trying to keep up with all the balls and their lengths of string, without getting tripped up or hopelessly entangled.
People often think of the farmer as the one who grows things, but really Nature is the one who does the growing. Nature is the ultimate master gardener. The farmer merely initiates the process by working the soil and planting the seeds. Nature—the felicitous combination of rain, air, soil and sun—does the rest. To paraphrase the 19th century playwright Douglas Jerrold, 'Tickle the Earth with a hoe and she laughs a harvest." Of course, it often takes a bit more tickling than he might have imagined to get her to laugh.
Jerrold was a writer, not a farmer, but in principle he is right. Having set the ball rolling, the good farmer should be able to poke Nature at just the right moments along the ball's path to keep it rolling in the desired direction. When weeds threaten to swamp out the carrot seedlings—poke!—we tickle the earth with slicer hoes. When the lettuce is at the size where the little plants need more room to develop into nice, big heads—poke!—we thin them. When the potatoes need to be mulched to hold moisture in the soil during the hot, dry summer—poke!—we are there with bales of hay to spread.
If I miss any of these crucial tickling points, the ball rolls down a track that leads to, at best, a poor crop or, at worst, a total crop loss, in which case the farmer, at least, is not laughing.
Way back in 2001, shortly after the USDA approved national standards for "organic," Henry took some winter weeks to write up why he farms the way he does and why it is important. Organic Matters covers Henry's definition of organic, the connection between taste and nutrition, and how only local food grown organically can create a virtuous circle that enhances all of life. The booklet is currently out of print until Henry finds time to make some minor edits and a get a new edition printed.
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So organic produce sitting in Whole Foods, Jewel, or Kroger may not be more nutritious than its conventional cousins. But our small-scale, locally grown, locally sold organic produce raised on rich and healthy soil under natural conditions is. And that’s not just good for you (and your taste buds), it’s good for the planet.
The farming and harvesting practices that favor more nutritious produce are all related to the idea that highly ~nutritious food comes from a healthy soil that is part of a healthy farm that is part of a healthy environment. This circle of health is generated by farming practices that are based on the goal of protecting and enhancing all life. Unfortunately, a grower may strictly adhere to a list of agricultural practices mandated by an organic certification agency (and therefore, earn the certified organic label) without setting this circle of health a-spinning. Farming without chemical pesticides or synthetic fertilizers isn’t enough.
One way that mainstream agriculture manages to grow nutrient-poor produce is the way it fertilizes the crops. The fertility practices of large-scale organic agribusinessmen are not all that different from those of large-scale conventional agribusinessmen. Granted, large-scale certified organic farmers do not use synthetic fertilizers—and that is definitely a good thing. Like chemical farmers, however, large-scale organic growers concentrate mainly on providing their crops with the Big Three essential plant nutrients, since as long as there is a plentiful supply of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium plants grow big and they grow fast.
I believe that plants grown in most large-scale organic and conventional farming operations are fed a diet that is too rich, particularly in nitrogen, and consequently grow too big too fast, causing their nutritional value to plummet. The work of many scientists to back this up. Studies have found that when plants are given too much nitrogen, protein and acorbic acid (Vitamin C) quality declines, and that while higher nitrogen fertilization produced larger cabbage heads, those heads contained proportionally more water and proportionally less ascorbic acid and dietary fiber than cabbage grown with less nitrogen fertilizer.
The high nitrogen regimes used on most farms radically pumps up the size and rate of growth of vegetables. I am convinced that plants that grow naturally and at their own pace—working to extract the nutrients they need from a rich and healthy soil rather than being force-fed an overly rich diet of nitrogen—are healthier and thus more nutritious.
In addition to heavy inputs of readily-available nitrogen, vegetables grown by the big growers also get heavy inputs of water. The produce you see in supermarkets—whether organic or conventional—was almost invariably grown with irrigation. Crops grown with plenty of water grow fast and large, but as scientists have found, more water can mean less nutrients and fiber.
Simple genetic variation is perhaps the most widely overlooked preharvest factor behind variation in nutrient levels of vegetables and fruits. Different varieties of the same vegetable vary widely in the amount of nutrients they contain. When scientists looked at the nutrient composition of different cultivars of apples, peaches and other fruit, for example, they found variation in Vitamin A levels as high as 20 times. They also found that carotene levels in any given vegetable often vary by a factor of 10, depending on the cultivar.
As more and more studies show the importance to health of the vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals in food crops, seed companies are beginning to develop varieties with elevated levels of vitamins and minerals. I now grow a variety of carrots called Sugarsnax, for example, which is said to contain much more beta-carotene than other varieties. You will not find Sugarsnax carrots in either the conventional or certified organic aisle in your grocery store, however, because the variety is not as productive or as pretty or as easy to transport as the mainstream commercial varieties.
Plants extract the nutrients they require for growth and development from the soil. Thus, vegetables that are chock full of nutrients must be grown in soil that is chock full of nutrients. As far back as 1938, soil scientists in the U.S. Department of Agriculture warned of the rapid depletion of soil nutrients in this country due to unsustainable farming practices. Thus, even turnip greens—rated as the best vegetable source of iron—grown on a soil from which the iron has been mined out over years and years of intensive row-crop agriculture with no fallow time for rejuvenation, will not have high iron levels no matter whether they were grown organically or conventionally.
In biology, organic means "of, relating to, or deriving from living organisms." What I do in my fields is deal with life and living things in all their complexity, all their inscrutability, all their sublimity, all their unpredictability.
These are things that industrial agriculture continually seeks to eliminate, control, or beat into submission. Complexity, unpredictability, inscrutability—these are more than irritating to the conventional farmer. They get in the way of maximum productivity and they make him feel insecure. Conventional agriculture is all about domination and control. Organic agriculture as I practice it is about cooperation and acceptance. ~
My fields are full of life, brimming with life, overflowing with life. You see not only crops, but weeds. On the plants are insects, some of them considered beneficial, some of them considered pests. The soil is stirring with worms, sowbugs, mites, ants, and other life.
My way of farming not only enhances the lives of the crops and those who eat them, but enhances all life, from the lives of the insects, worms, and arthropods of the vegetable field to the lives of the wildlife and domesticated life (that includes us) who inhabit the environment around the field. And on a grander scale, organic farming enhances the very life of the planet by protecting a piece of it and by not polluting the planet’s water and air.
The basic tenet of this kind of organic farming is to protect and enhance the tiny lives of the microorganisms of the soil. The teeming bacteria, fungi and single-celled organisms are what give the soil its health and fertility. Without a healthy soil, there are no healthy plants. Without healthy plants, there are no healthy plant-eaters, be they insects or rabbits, cattle or humans. Without healthy herbivores, there are no healthy flesh-eaters either. Without healthy animals, there can be no healthy ecosystems and without healthy ecosystems, there can be no healthy planet.
I must ensure the health and fertility of my soil in order to ensure that those who eat the produce from that soil get healthy, nutritious fare. That responsibility, however, is only incidental to the farmer’s greater responsibility. The farmer—the steward of a patch of the Earth’s soil—must sustain the health of the soil to ensure the health and welfare of all life, today and tomorrow.
Henry follows a two-year rotation, letting the field rest and regenerate for two years before working it hard to produce tons of vegetables during the two years on. And so during those two years, Henry practices the art and science of cover cropping and crop rotation. These not-so-simple techniques help him control insects, weeds, and disease -- all the while promoting soil fertility and health.
The [farmer's] eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the [farmer's plow]
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
From William Shakespeare's A Mid-Summer Night's Dream with slight adaptation
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Field pennycress is a wonderful weed. It survives the winter, helping to hold the soil against wind and water erosion. Early in the spring, even before the grass has started to green out, it grows rapidly, reaching 12 to 18 inches by mid-April to provide a rich green manure to till in prior to planting. Since pennycress only germinates in the fall or early spring, it never competes with my vegetable crops. Finally, pennycress is in the mustard family. Like all mustards, it release phytochemicals that inhibit nematodes—nearly microscopic, worm-like organisms that attack plant roots, decreasing plant vigor and causing tough and misshapen carrots and other root crops.
Pacing along the grassy aisles, I begin to mentally replace this patchwork with vegetable beds. I paint in a corn field here, my first planting of greens there, this shady spot reserved for hot-season lettuce beds, no broccoli over there by the stream because the groundhogs will get them.
Spring imaginings are all about the art of crop rotation. The first rule of rotation is to never follow a crop with another crop of the same family. Each type of vegetable requires a unique spectrum of nutrients. Every crop family plays host to its own set of insect pests and plant diseases. Each crop interacts with different weed species, beneficial insects and soil microbes in a different way. The farmer who plants the same family in the same place is asking for problems with fertility, insects, disease, weeds, and soil health.
Most vegetable growers I know deal with these problems by dividing their fields into large sections, each planted entirely with one vegetable family. From year to year, they rotate the different families through these sections, which makes keeping track of what vegetable goes where simple and straight-forward. I, however, believe that spatial diversity—crop and weed diversity within a field—is just as important as the temporal diversity provided by conventional rotations.
Although some crops have to be planted in large blocks—for reasons such as pollination (sweet corn) or ease of harvest (tomatoes), I try to mix up the rest of the vegetables as much as possible. I'll plant a couple beds of lettuce, followed by a bed of green onions, followed by two beds of cabbage, then perhaps a bed of carrots. When a cabbage butterfly flits over the field looking for a place to lay its eggs, it might fly right over the cabbage beds without even realizing it. The more diversity I can introduce into my field, the healthier the environment will be.
I start my spring landscape painting by deciding where to put the vegetables planted in large blocks—the potato patch, corn patch, bean patch and tomato-pepper-eggplant patch. The potato patch is easy. Potatoes go on last year's early corn ground, because last year I followed the corn with a cover crop of soybeans. I'm testing a rumor I heard that soybeans in front of potatoes will reduce scab problems. For sweet corn, I find a large area with a rich hairy vetch cover crop, since corn is a heavy nitrogen feeder. Vetch is a legume, and therefore, as my four-year-old solemnly informed me on a walk through the field the other day, "takes nutrients out of the air and puts them into the ground."
For the bean patch, I choose the spot where last year's late corn stood and a bright green cover crop of wheat stands now. The beans, also in the legume family, will fix their own nitrogen and won't mind that the corn sucked lots of nitrogen from the soil last year. Finally, I choose another block with a strong wheat/hairy vetch cover for the tomato-pepper-eggplant patch. The cover crop will be over waist-high when I till it in prior to transplanting out the seedlings in early May. This green manure will be a slow-release fertilizer that will feed the plants as they pump out fruit all summer and fall.
Now that I know where all the big blocks will fit in, I can start thinking about where to plant my first beds of the season. The bare-soil beds are the obvious answer since they will dry out the fastest and will be ready to till first. As I plant each bed of radish, arugula, mustard and mizuna and turnip greens, choi, Japanese turnips, daikon, lettuce and spinach, I'll look back to make sure I had something different in that bed last year. All these crops will be harvested out by early June and I'll immediately sow the beds to sorghum-sudangrass. Sorghum-sudangrass is a fast-growing, heat-loving cover crop that quickly forms a canopy to shade the soil from the searing, summer sun. Summer is the hardest season on the soil, so it is good to give these bare-soil beds—which (you'll remember) were producing crops late into the fall last season—a rest at this time of year. I'll mow the sorghum-sudangrass throughout the season whenever it reaches about waist-high and then till it down in late July or early August to plant the fall crops.
The wheat I use as an overwintering cover crop is another whole factor to work with. Wheat releases allelopathic chemicals that inhibit seed germination—good for weed control, but tricky when it comes to planting seed. I reserve beds with the heaviest wheat cover for the lettuce, radicchio, broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts, kale, and kolhrabi transplants, since the wheat doesn't seem to bother transplants. Pennycress tills in and breaks down nicely, so I try to save those beds for things like carrots, beets, parsley, dill, cilantro, parsnips—seeds that seem to have more trouble germinating after wheat than the crucifer family (mustards, mizuna, choi, radish, etc.) or the lettuce family. This works out perfectly, since I don't want to follow a crucifer (the pennycress, in this case) with another crucifer anyway.
All spring I till up beds as I need them. Since seeds germinate better if you let the green manure dry up and break down a little before planting and since fresh plant matter clogs up my planter anyway, I need to get them tilled a week or two before I want to plant. So I'm still using my imagination, trying to imagine how many beds I'll need when, how fast the soil will dry, how fast the tilled-in material will break down, how much the cover will grow if I leave it. If I till too many beds too soon, I've squandered an important supply of nutrients. If I don't till enough beds, I'll have shot myself in the foot when it comes time to plant.
Slowly, as one spring day slides into the next, as the days inexorably lengthen and warm, the pictures in my head gradually take form on the canvas of the field. As you read this, what was once a patchwork of greens and blacks has already been transformed into an impressionistic masterpiece of rich colors and textures — over 550 vegetable varieties each given "a local habitation and a name."
Herman wrote lectures, exams, scientific papers, and grants for most of his career as a professor of genetics as Illinois State University. After he retired in 1998, he began writing down his memories of growing up on his family’s farm in Iroquois County, IL, and a broad range of both personal and scientific essays for the weekly Food & Farm Notes.
In 2012, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the building of the Brockman Family Barn, we collected some of Herman's essays in A Celebration of Family Farming. The pieces range over some 75 years of Herman’s life, from memories of growing up on a diverse, organic farm (before anyone even thought to use those words!), to the stories behind some of his favorite trees, to his conclusions about the best ways to farm.
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Dad would go to the old 2-door garage, or in later years to the new tool shed, reach under the work bench, and grab his fencing pail—an old 5-gallon metal pail—not bought new, but rather a pail that once held paint or grease.
"Get the fencing pail." When I was very young, I could barely lug it to Dad. He would reach for the pail and throw it up into the 2-wheel trailer he pulled with the tractor for a big or back-field fencing job. Or, if it was a small or close job, he would carry the pail as he walked along the fence. Later, I could lift the pail into the trailer myself, and even later, on a small job, I would carry the pail along the fence, but never with the ease and purpose that came with Dad's strength and experience. The fencing pail seemed to be an extension of his body and personality—an integral part of being a farmer.
I would love to see again that fencing pail—dented metal with a wooden handle grip worn smooth by the sweat penetrating through his leather gloves. Oh, to look inside that pail again, with the wonder of my young boy's eyes, and see all those things needed to make fence and fix fence—always a fencing pliers, claw hammer, regular pliers (and in later years a vice-grips), fencing staples, assorted kinds and sizes of nails, and for electric fences, insulators of various kinds. And as he worked on a fence, he threw into the pail pieces of wire, bent nails, broken insulators—anything discarded that would fit in the pail. The fencing pail was always at Dad's side or close at hand as items needed and used went in and out.
And on a rainy day, Dad would clear off a place on the tool bench, take all the tools out of the fencing pail, oil them if needed, organize all the usable nails and insulators, and finally throw all the wire scraps and bent nails into an old wooden nail keg under the work bench. Then everything else went back into the pail until it was needed again—perhaps that same day, but almost certainly soon—until the last time.
Whenever I grab my fencing pail and head out to make fence, or more often to fix fence, I sense Dad's genes and farm experience within me—until I too will reach for that pail the last time.
This cold January (2011) morning I saw, as I do sporadically each winter, a pair of turtle doves timidly pecking at spilled feed under the bird feeder outside our front windows. I say "timidly" because this is a trait I have long associated with these gentle birds—so unlike the quarrelsome blue jays. The pair yield their space willingly to the other ground-feeding bird species. To my eyes, although rather plain, these plump birds are beautiful.
As was common, and many thought essential, on the windswept central Illinois farms of my youth, Dad's father planted a hedgerow. That is the only descriptor I remember; if one grew alone, it was called a hedge tree—never by the correct name of osage-orange.
My grandfather Herman, who died when Dad was only twelve, must have planted his hedgerow shortly after he bought his quarter-section in 1892. It grew on the west edge, along the north-south road, of the southwest corner of the farm—providing a windbreak from the prevailing westerlies, thus offering some protection for the house, farm buildings, and farm animals.
The closely spaced hedge trees with their thorny low branches were intended to be a "living fence," but Dad built a fence to hold the livestock in on the road side of the hedge row. The fence was woven wire on the bottom and barbed wire on the top of hedge fence posts. That was the major use of that hedgerow—to provide fence posts that are almost impervious to rot. There are still a few sturdy former hedge corner posts on the farm that must have been there since Grandpa Herman set them, or before—at least 100 years ago.
One of Dad's winter jobs was to "trim" the hedgerow. He would prune out some of the smaller branches and a few larger ones—the purpose of which was to shape the main trunk to grow as upright as possible to produce straight fence posts.
After a year or more of "curing," Dad cut the pruned-out branches into small pieces. He burned these in the old cast-iron heater partially submerged in the round cement livestock water tank—thus making it possible for the horses, cattle, and sheep to drink every day all winter long. He said that the hedge burned as hot as coal, and did it ever pop and crackle, sending a shower of sparks out the top of the short metal smoke pipe of the water heater. That was a spectacular sight from my upstairs bedroom window on a cold, dark winter morning.
But I have digressed from turtle doves, which is what Mother always called them. I never thought to ask her why. Our Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds gives their common name as mourning dove, with no mention of turtle dove. I suspect that it is one of those regional words, perhaps even smaller, as in Mother's family. But "turtle doves" they were to me, and still are.
As a young lad, Mother would take me in the summer for a walk in the permanent pasture bordered on the west edge by the hedge row in order to check on the hogs or weaned calves there—but mainly, I think because Mother loved to walk on the farm. She would put her index finger to her lips, say "Shhh," and point to a nesting turtle dove—pointing out the unbelievably sparse, insecure-looking nest constructed of criss-crossed small dead twigs where densely-spaced, thorned branches provided a nest platform of sorts.
When older, I would walk there alone and inspect the turtle dove nests more closely than Mother would permit. I was amazed that the eggs and later the hatchlings could possibly not fall through or over the edges of such a nest.
In the late fall, a dozen or more turtle doves would arrange themselves on the electrical line wire along the road—so obviously they had made those nests work. I remember thinking at that time that the hedges with their dense and thorny twigs were the best trees for turtle doves. Indeed, I do not recall seeing their nests in any other trees.
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Back to houseflies in the paper noted above. The authors collected 260 live houseflies from five fast-food restaurants in a town in northeastern Kansas, and studied them individually for the presence of enterococci in their digestive tracts. Ninety-seven percent of the flies carried enterococci (average of about 3,000 bacteria per fly). The majority (88.2%) of the enterococcal isolates characterized were E. faecalis; the remainder were other species of Enterococcus. The E. faecalis isolated were characterized for resistance to some commonly used antibiotics The percentages of antibiotic resistance were: tetracycline (66.3%), erythromycin (23.8%), streptomycin (11.6%), ciprofloxacin (9.9%), and kanamycin (8.3%).
Due to advances in molecular biology, certain genes in bacteria, including in E. faecalis, have been identified that confer resistance to individual antibiotics. The authors reported that tetracycline resistance in E. faecalis was due to the gene tet(M) in 65.8% of the isolates. Erythromycin resistance was due to the gene erm(B) in 78.3% of the isolates.
So who cares that houseflies with antibiotic-resistant bacteria in their guts are buzzing around in fast-food restaurants in Kansas? The authors do.
One reason is that houseflies do not eat as we do. Ciara Curtin in a short report on this study in Natural History (September, 2006; p. 14), express their eating habits as follows: "They eat messily, spitting and regurgitating on their meal [perhaps on your French fries!] before digging in. In the process, a housefly's lunch—which may be your lunch, too—is doused with the contents of the fly's guts, including any bacteria, antibiotic-resistant or not, that the fly is carrying."
The bacterial species in the intestinal tract of houseflies are generally not serious human pathogens. Therefore, the discovery that these bacteria are resistant to antibiotics is not in itself alarming. But the authors discuss the fact that bacteria have mechanisms of transferring genes among themselves, even from one species to another. Thus, it is likely that the genes conferring antibiotic resistance present in these relatively nonpathogenic bacterial species are being transferred to pathogenic species.
The authors also consider where these antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the houseflies came from. It is well known that the frequent use of antibiotics in medicine and in confinement animal operations leads to antibiotic resistance in bacteria. In these animal confinement operations, antibiotics are added to the poultry, swine, and cattle feed to improve growth rate and feed conversion, as well as to prevent and treat diseases in the animals caused by bacteria.
Because the larvae of houseflies develop in animal manure (and other decaying organic matter), the bacteria within the larvaes' digestive tracts are exposed to the antibiotics that had passed through the digestive tracts of the farm animals.
Thus, this system of raising farm animals is certain to breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria; it is an example of evolution by natural selection. Thus, the authors suggest that the antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the houseflies trapped in the fast-food restaurants originated in animal confinement operations. Houseflies are able to fly long distances. The authors conclude that houseflies are a good candidate for the dissemination of fecal bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant strains. Ecology (see first word in the title of the journal article) is a complex biological science!
Henry and Hiroko’s daughter Zoe was born on a lovely, clear day in September, and her real name, Aozora, means blue sky in Japanese. She inherited the writing gene, and has been keeping journals most of her life. Much of her writing is grounded in the fertile fields and constant work on her family's farm. But when Zoe was in Tokyo for her final year of high school, she got caught in the rumbling shocks of the Fukushima earthquake. She wrote about that experience and it was published in the Chicago Tribune.
The summer before Zoe away went to college, she worked on the farm (as she always did), and wrote about her thoughts and experiences (as she always does). She collected some of those poems and short essays in The Happiness of Dirt, which garnered this critical acclaim from Kevin Stein, Poet Laureate of Illinois:
"In an era when most stand sorely distanced from the planting, tending, and harvesting of our food, Zoe Brockman reconnects us to the intimate pleasures and pure labor of growing things. Ms. Brockman conjures the seasons of the earth's body and of our own flesh, linking them in writing both limpid and lyrical. Doing so, she feeds the soul that feeds the body just as surely as her beloved garlic, sweet potatoes, and kale."
Four years after publishing The Happiness of Dirt, Zoe graduated from Northwestern University with a major in Creative Writing. Her writing is now much more complex and sophisticated, but still grounded by beauty, pain, and meditative spaces of planting, seeding, weeding, and harvesting.
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Then I started to go to school. It was a shock to know that now dirt was a bad thing. No one wanted to get dirty for fear of germs. Gradually, I began to stop touching the Earth with my hands unless it was absolutely necessary. After a long harvest at the farm, I would try to clean the dirt from under my fingernails, afraid of what would get said at school.
After years of not being happy, but not quite knowing why, I had an epiphany. Naturally, this occurred while I was pulling stubborn weeds out of the ground with only my thoughts to listen to one scalding, humid day. Such revelations often happened when I was weeding. So far I had figured out how I could help struggling people in Africa, what I wanted to be when I grew up, and right then, feeling the cool, moist soil underneath my hot, sweaty hands, I felt some of the happiness from my toddler years come rushing back. And I knew that dirt is the secret to happiness.
There is a liberating, freeing feeling when you bury your hands in dirt. It is difficult to explain, but the musky, fruity smell of the soil combined with the unique texture of the Earth makes you feel connected to Nature. When you close your eyes and feel the dirt teeming with life, it makes you feel alive too. But not all dirt is created equal. The fertile, black soil of my father’s Central Illinois farm is a kind of earth that not many people have experienced. I believe that dirt repeatedly damaged by poisonous chemicals or compacted and overfarmed will not give one the same exhilarating happiness.
Now, I am truly content. Some days I come to school with dirt under my fingernails, proud to display my closeness to the Earth. Some people send weird glances at my hands, probably thinking that I am crazy. Just like I used to think my father was crazy. I do not know why, but this thought makes me laugh.
“Is that thunder?” I wondered.
I was dazedly mulching underneath the clear blue sky and penetrating sun when a sudden ripping and crashing pounded out from the direction of the gravel hill up to the house. Val and I looked up, and so did everyone else—from their hand-weeding, mulching, and pushhoeing—to stare, all together, at the wooded hillside where the great sound had come from.
I did not spot the tree then, but later, driving up, sitting in the bed of the truck, the wind in my face, I saw the aged, giant tree, lying at rest in the woods.
Grandpa, puzzled, said, “I just don’t understand the physics of it—a great tree always seems to fall not during a wind storm, but when the air is hardly moving.”
I thought perhaps, after surviving tremulous wind and havoc and holding tight to life, that tree had chosen a peaceful, beautiful afternoon to finally let go and fall to the ground—to decompose and join the Earth once again.
Full moon? Kazami points
I smile, shake my head—not yet – and
Climb into the bed
Of the truck to ride down
Through the darkness
Wind in my curls
Flittering lightning bugs and
The planetarium of twinkling stars above
Replace the truck headlights and
Guide us to the long beds of
Kazami and I each take one dripping tape and then
We are sprinting—100 meter dash—
Down those beds, tape in hand
Moving them to the middle rows so that those seeds, too, will drink
We walk back, breathing hard, and then
Pick up another tape to race again
Until lungs and leg muscles ache and
I am smiling, saying goodnight
To all those thirsty seeds.
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The skies started to rumble as we were finishing up and the rain started to pitterpatter down while Daddy expertly maneuvered the truck up the steep hill leading to the wash area. It wasn't until we were safely under the barn's high roof that the droplets crescendoed into an angry downpour. While we eagerly ate the scrumptious food Mommy cooked for us, I listened to the thundering water hit the barn roof and watched as it washed off the side and hit the soil below. I couldn't sit mesmerized for long, though, because the twenty boxes of beautiful emerald spinach and a few boxes of mesclun that we had picked at daybreak were waiting to be bagged and boxed.
The rain let up a little as that huge job was conquered, but the sky above was still overcome with black rain clouds, letting little light pass through. Despite this, Daddy declared that it was time for us to make another harvesting run down to the bottom field, while it wasn't raining so hard. I got on the truck with everyone else, and marveled at how our huge, multicolored raingear—orange, red, green, yellow— along with our two-sizes-too-big boots made us look like a clown act at the circus. Perhaps we could get the job, since the extra weight from the mud on our boots caused us to hobble around hilariously.
The truck sliplessly made its way down the hill, past the alfalfa and clover field, and rounded the corner to reveal the ford across the stream that divides our two bottom fields. It came to an abrupt stop, which sent Asa on his feet to exclaim, "The ford! Look at the ford!" The ford, which just this spring had finally been completed by adding medium-sized white rocks to the concrete slabs already there, had overflowed. Grandpa told us later that we got three inches of rain that morning (and still more to come). The stream, usually small and obedient, had suddenly risen after the cloudburst, its rushing waters three times as large and 10 times as vicious.
With one look, I decided it was impossible to cross. Daddy and everyone else seemed to think so too. Except for Asa. "Let's cross it, just for fun!" he said with a grin. Much to his disappointment, Daddy drove us back up to the barn. While he did this, lightning flashed and the clouds opened up again, filling the air with the sound of their fury. But Daddy rounded us all up and we went off to the greenhouse to harvest the beets and carrots, while the rain pounded down so hard on the plastic roof we had to shout at each other to be heard over it.
By the time we finished, the thunder and lightning had calmed down a bit. The truck, loaded with its troupe of multi-colored clowns, took the long way around to skirt the ford and rumbled its way onto the main road, past the upper field and part way down the small hill leading to the rhubarb patch.
Horrified, we stared at our beloved bottom field. At first we all thought Walnut Creek had overflowed its banks, since there was so much water everywhere. But then we saw that the little gully Daddy had dug to channel water from a ravine into our stream had backed up with debris and overflowed. With nowhere else to run, the water was flowing in a huge sheet straight into the bottom field. Mini streams were building up and causing even more water to flood over the field.
Daddy woke us all out of our stupor and set us to work. Kazami and Daniel scrambled off to find suitable shovels and then we set about digging the trench wider and deeper. Rebecca and Daniel took off to gather wood to block the water where it was jumping the gully and heading into the field. Meanwhile, Asa cleared the gully of debris all the way to the stream.
I was in the middle, trying to convince my shovel to dig into the trench and dump the dirt onto the sides. The task was more difficult than you might think, since tenacious roots of grass growing in the bottom of the gully kept getting in the way, and sometimes I would lose my dug dirt in the water. Even more frustrating was that my shovel's handle kept coming off. Originally I had scored a better shovel but Asa switched his with mine. Of course, I had known there was something wrong with it, like maybe the shovel was dull, but I never thought that the handle would actually come off. During a particularly vigorous dig, I tried to pull my shovel up. I failed miserably, as the handle popped off and I was flung into the trench water. Daddy laughed and helped me up. I giggled a bit as I got up, but then I realized my boots had just filled up with water and glared at Asa as I stuck my shovel back together again.
In the end, we got the flow of water directed straight into the stream again and the trench was a success. The water on the field was eventually soaked up by the soil and the roots of the plants, but Daddy says a lot of the broccoli and cabbage aren't going to make it because they have been in standing water too long. Soaked to the skin, sweaty and dirty, boots laden with mud, we trudged off to the field to pick the rhubarb and the radishes and finish a long, long, wet, wet harvest Friday.
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A female black goat with white fur splattered randomly across her body waits for me in the goat shed. Right beside her is a brown-coated female goat, with a patch of white fur on her forehead resembling a star. Mandy, the black goat, had quadruplets in the early spring. I milk her every morning. Star, the brown goat, is pregnant. I will start to milk her after she gives birth, which, judging by the size of her belly, will be soon.
I open the shed door and Mandy trots down the ramp to get milked. I set down the bucket of feed to get my hands free, and quickly close the shed door to trap Star inside, much to Star’s displeasure. She brought this on herself, though, because of her immense love of all things edible, especially grain. She would always steal feed out of Mandy’s bucket while I was busy milking her, causing Mandy to stomp her feet in annoyance. Disaster would sometimes ensue as Mandy’s feet came dangerously close to smacking the milk-filled container—and often would, spilling milk all over. After a couple exasperating times of this scenario, I decided to get smart with Star and keep her locked in the goat shed where she could do no harm while I am busy milking Mandy.
Star is now safely out of the way, but Mandy is gobbling up grain at such an alarming pace that I am afraid none will be left to distract her while I’m milking. I try to pull the bucket away from her, but knowing this routine, she sticks her head into the bucket further. “Mandy!” I scold with a grunt, grabbing her collar and dragging, with great difficulty, her stubborn face out of the bucket. Finally she lets up. Grateful for this opportunity, I snatch the feed and put it on the milk stand. Thankfully, Mandy jumps up on the stand without hesitation. I breathe a sigh of relief and get to work.
The quadruplets wail in their pen, without so much as a breath in between, while my hands milk as fast as they can move. I put the baby goats in their pen each night so that they will not drink all of Mandy’s milk. Even though they are able to eat grain and grass now, it seems that nothing can compare to their mother’s milk.
One of my nightly chores is to put the quadruplets in their pen. Star’s naughtiness comes into play here as well, since when she sees the bucket of grain meant to lure the baby goats into the pen the bucket lures her too. She eagerly hoists herself up into the cramped quarters, while I dump the grain into the metal holder. Suddenly I find myself stuck in the tiny pen with one huge goat and four little ones milling about. To make it worse, I am bent over, since the low ceiling makes it impossible to stand up. In this position I plow my way out, at the same time lurching Star forward toward the pen door and out into the open. I frantically push Star out of the way so that I can latch the pen doors shut before Star or the baby goats can think twice. Then I stand there, panting a little, and wonder how in the world putting fours little goats in a pen could take so much mental, emotional, and physical work. Star stands near me, no doubt muttering to Mandy, “I will get your grain in the morning.”
Now my yogurt container is almost full with fresh, sweet, and bubbly goat milk, and apparently Mandy has finished her grain, because she is starting to fidget in the stand and cries to be let off. “Okay, okay. We’re done.” I say to her, in mock surrender. I grant her wish and let her off the milk stand. Next I set my milk container down so that I can unlock the shed door. Star stares me down from inside, questioning with her piercing eyes, “How dare you fool me into not getting my grain!?” I pat her on the head, right on her pearly white star, “That’s life, Star. I’m sorry.”
The baby goats come scrambling out when I open the pen door. They are full of pent up energy, as usual, and run out to play and to explore. The chickens squawk from the chicken shed, calling Kazami to come let them out, let them out.
As I shut the fence door and make my way to the house and then down to the fields to work, I realize that another day has just begun.
Although Teresa does not consider herself a writer, she has been writing “Fruit & Herb Notes” and “On Our Farm” notes as part of the weekly Food & Farm Notes for many years. One of these days she’ll get around to publishing some of them, but for now, you can read the essay below, and also search for “Teresa” to find more of her writing on our blog at brockmanfamilyfarming.com.