Saturday, July 2, 2011

Garden vs farming

In my never-ending quest to find some higher purpose to my life (or is it because I have a long holiday weekend and need something to do while Joe is up at Toolik?) I decided to volunteer at the organic vegetable farm down the road. It is run by one man, who told Joe and me he has been at it for seven seasons. I asked him how he does it all by himself, and he answered without a trace of irony: "Drugs."

His farm sits on a couple of acres of open ground a bit higher and drier than Simon's, where he raises outdoor crops typical of this area: potatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, turnips, beets, as well as beans and squash, and some herbs and tomatoes grown in a couple of small greenhouses. Animal-wise, in addition to the usual dog yard full of bored-to-death huskies lounging on their dogboxes all summer long, he keeps a small flock of poultry--chickens mostly, and a lone tom turkey that parades around ostentatiously like a royal personage displaying his flashy feathers and puffed out chest.

I stopped by the farm after work yesterday evening to propose my services for the following day, and he seemed agreeable to the idea, so after a hearty breakfast I biked over to meet him in his driveway at 10:30 (he is not one of those early riser-type farmers). He immediately put me to work to weed a row of raspberry bushes along the fenceline abutting the dogyard. At first the huskies barked and fussed, and the turkey gobbled, whenever I stood up to dump weeds in the wheelbarrow, but after a while they calmed down to doze in the midday sun and I settled into the quiet rhythm of the work. The weeds yielded easily--the earth was deep and fluffy and brown-- obviously this guy knew what he was doing to transform the dense native silt of this area. I noticed rows of large-leafed tobacco interspersed with potatoes and kale, and if I stepped accidentally into a row the soil smushed pleasantly the way barely moist dry cake mix does when you pinch it between your fingers.

The only thing that bothered me was the smell of fresh dog poo. It smacked me in the nose just where I was yanking up the weeds--as if a dog had just taken a dump. After awhile I realized it wasn't coming from the dogyard but did in fact seem to be close at hand. I had heard from Simon that this farmer has been known to compost his dogyard waste and use it as fertilizer, usually considered a no-no because of the risk of parasites, but after finishing for the morning and returning home I noticed that the smell of dog urine is clinging to my jeans. He must make a fertilizer tea and apply it to his rows. Hmm.

Joe and I bought some of his veggies last year--kale and cauliflower, and found them very good. It doesn't really bother us that he uses dog manure, in fact, I commend him for using the cheapest and most logical source of nitrogen for his crops. The dogs all look healthy and well fed, and it makes sense that a farmer, especially a small-scale organic one, has got to get back some of what he spent on animal feed in the form of fertilizer.

Two hours and three wheelbarrow loads of weeds later I was covered with grime, but I managed to finish the row and told him I would be back tomorrow. I could have easily spend a couple more hours but I have plans later this afternoon and decided to go easy on my first day.

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