Farming for Nature in Uncertain Times
If we didn’t feel it before, we certainly feel it now: weather patterns are shifting in extreme and unpredictable ways. Seasonal rhythms our bodies have learned, cues in nature that signal our intuition, well, they’re still mostly there. Here in the Northeastern woodlands we are reassured by spring, summer, autumn, winter, but the message is getting scrambled. We’re losing our touch, and with it, an essential part of ourselves.
The cows haven’t crossed the creek here in over a decade. The stream corridor has been encouraged to rewild, making room for floods, homes for wildlife, and cool and peaceful passage for farm workers and school children.
Leaves emerge three weeks earlier than in the mid-19th century, and trees flower two weeks ahead. But the last frost date doesn’t budge, and this year there will be no peaches across the entire Hudson Valley; they bloomed and froze to death. In May, high altitude smoke haze from Northwest Canada is replaced by quickening humidity. A storm is coming, but then no rain falls. Uncanny shifts through the seasons uncover a lurking sensation, an old fear. For decades, we expected one inch of rainfall per week, generally across our region. On paper, it seems we still get our allotted four inches per month as a yearly average, but it falls all at once- a big problem for vegetables, animal forage, and everyone downstream. And fall all at once, it did, this July. One farmer started a field walk at 8:30 am and by 9:30 am they were waist-deep in water, with 8 inches down and still falling. The rain was hyperlocal and where it poured what was once called a 1000-year pour, it was devastating.
Farmers live by slim margins, the breadth of which are determined by ecology, society, and a spiritual connection to the world of farm life.
Every farmer has an answer to the question, “Why do you farm?” For some, it’s a connection to ancestors. Others, the thrill of puzzling out complex logistics. Food is fundamental to health and wellbeing and many farmers get satisfaction from directly supporting their communities in this way. There’s the peaceful, contented, and complicated feelings that come with tending to plants and being a witness to the lives and deaths of other animals. And for so many farmers, a huge part of it is just challenging our bodies, being outdoors, observing, responding, being in touch with nature.
Willows from elsewhere on the farm are harvested in early spring then live-staked along a ditch between the road and the base of a hillside pasture- helping to keep road runoff from impacting soil health and mitigating flooding.
For every farmer protesting against policies to support the diversity and resilience of natural systems, afraid of the costs to their children and society, there’s another farmer who knows that agriculture can help produce and maintain the ecosystems, and that doing so is the best bet to ensure the wellbeing of their children’s children and a more resilient and diversely empowered society.
This season I spoke with farmers in the neighborhood of Hawthorne Valley Farm in Columbia County, NY (Mohican land). Each is drawn to daily work that moves their bodies, outdoors, with nature. These people might be earthy adrenaline junkies, but it’s their daily practice to listen and learn, to make decisions in complex and changing situations. This approach to farming produces our food, yes, but can also produce species-rich habitats, healthy workplaces, healthy families, and opportunities to learn with the life on the farm. It’s trying to see ourselves as interdependent wholes within a greater whole.
Milkweed lifecycle art installation by Patty Harris marks a new hedgerow along one of the main cow and student paths.
What signs do we follow? How do we make a plan? We need new frames to see and understand.
Buzzy words try to organize our actions: “organic”, “real organic”, “sustainable”, “regenerative”, “biodynamic”, “carbon neutral”… Tessa Schmidt of Hawthorne Valley says “for me, all of these terms are actually intentions held by farmers. The baseline intention is to try and listen to what needs to happen…to be respectful of people, animals and the land that we’re farming. Spending time with the cows, sitting or walking in the fields, just trying to listen.”
Young cows hurry to find out what I’m up to. Social groups are an important part of cow life and learning.
Spencer Fenniman, farm director of Hawthorne Valley, talks about how he experiences these core intentions, “I get a lot of satisfaction managing such an intricate system; seeing outcomes you actively put in motion or passively let happen or even more rewarding, outcomes that you didn’t expect. One of the most rewarding things has been fencing the cows off from a denuded pond and creek crossing. Instead, we pumped water to the cows and within a year or two we saw cattails take over, more plant species, and insect, bird, mammal species came, too. It was a small action with a solid ecological outcome. There’s a similar process seeing the crops grow. All these life processes that you can participate in…being so invested in individual cows or specific places- almost like partnering with them- it’s such a joy. The flip side is that in any one of those relationships, you can fail your partner and it can break your heart.”
Partnering with Cows
Cows and climate can be a polarizing issue. Methane emissions from cattle industries are considered a major contributor to global warming. Wasteful use of land, water, and other resources are serious marks against the sector, too. “There’s many problems with animal agriculture,” says Spencer. “Look where the Colorado River is disappearing to- but I don’t think there can be effective soil management across the world without ruminants. There’s a saying, ‘It’s not the cow, it’s the how.’ If the management goals are 1) building carbon-rich soils 2) to hold water in the landscape and 3) creating biodiversity, grass-fed ruminants are more successful than almost any other practice at creating carbon and water sponges in the soil in species-rich environments. Plus, they’re converting solar energy from plants into food for humans.” Farms can also use grazing and hayfield stewardship to create different wild habitats, including for nesting migratory birds.
Betsy Brennan reassures Maple before morning milking.
"Why I Farm."
“The combination of being physically tired at the end of the day, being in tune with all of the details is very satisfying. There’s also something about farming where there’s only so much you can control. You have to have a lot of trust and faith in what you’re doing and what nature’s doing with you,” says Jake Thiele of Hawthorne Valley.
Tessa harvests spinach, quick and sure, while reflecting on what keeps her farming. “I really just love being in a field of food that needs to be harvested. It’s surprising how hard it is and how much my body hurts and how much fun it is and how much food we grow. I just want to be a part of it. It’s not even on a conscious level. As a single mom, I like that I have the flexibility in the workplace that my daughter can come with me during the summers. She helps sometimes but even if she’s not helping, her seeing people working together is priceless.”
Student artwork pays homage to swallows who live alongside the cows and farmers.
Up the road, at Et Cetera Farm, Jeana Park talks about why she began farming. “I’m from Los Angeles, but I grew up in a rural Korea where everyone grew rice, had a vegetable patch, and worked in a cottage industry. When I was little I remember seeing not much waste. When I came to live in L.A., I saw the dumpster for our one block; how could this much waste be made by just this block?
“I remember reading Travels with Charley: In Search of America. That was the 1950’s and Steinbeck was noticing plastic waste! Why is it still such a problem? The reality check is: revenue. I needed greenhouses, drip tape… every time I reel in that drip line and throw it away, I feel so angry, like, I’m not doing what I set out to do. It doesn’t feel viable. Every time I have to order plastic, I have that much plastic sitting in my gut.” I smile because I share her intense frustration and also because it’s her package-free, super fresh produce I have the privilege of putting in my gut.
Tune in to nature, where do you belong?
“I heard a farmer say, ‘we can’t manage for everything, everywhere’,” Spencer Fenniman says. Hawthorne Valley’s Farmscape Ecology Program recently shared a ten-year biodiversity report revealing what any visitor to the farm can sense: the health of the place is in its range of ecological habitats, each one and together calling for distinct agricultural approaches. Every farm landscape is unique and so for every shared intention there will be a diversity of approaches. Resilient agriculture needs more people aware, listening, involved. Wherever you are, who’s is growing your food? Where does food and farmland intersect with what makes you feel whole? How can you support farmers to farm for nature? The good life depends on it.
The sunrise walk to the milking barn passes through five distinct ecological habitats.
To learn more about agricultural climate justice and support farmer-driven stewardship, check out the National Young Farmer’s Coalition.
See also, cultural and agroecological research projects by Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program.
Meet the Author
Jill studies food systems and the geohumanities and got to observe the beginnings of European Union support for multifunctional and ‘high-nature value farming’ through the Fulbright Program. As a researcher, artist, farmworker and forest therapy guide, she has worked with the Berkshire Food Guild, Institute for Mindful Agriculture, Rolling Grocer19, Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program, and the Columbia Land Conservancy, among others. She ‘daybreaked’ as a baker specializing in regional grains until she had young children and started burning things. She lives with her family within earshot of cows, cicadas and hay mowers.