May 9th, 2012

Or•gan•ic (adj \ȯr-ˈgan-ik\)

We’ve been setting out young greenhouse seedlings for the last week – looseleaf lettuce, broccoli raab, luminous rainbow chard – and organizing them into perfect matrices on the farm; it’s the kind of hopeful symmetry that prevails in the Spring, before the sprawl of Summer growth turns order into succulent mayhem.

SGF May 2012

Italian Chiogga Beet seedlings, with their candy stripe centers, about to leave the greenhouse.

When you’re not spread out over acres of land, but are farming on limited ground,  your season is defined by meticulous planning and bio-intensive forethought: what can I plant here and harvest early before the space is succeeded by a later season variety?  What could I squeeze into the soft, useable dirt between taller stems, or companion plant so that there’s balance and harmony, not competition?

Of course, balance and harmony are fundamental to organic farming.  Organic asks that you take as much as you give, that you’re attentive to inherent cycles and rhythms, that you consider the farm as a macro organism where all the living parts function in service of the whole. But organic isn’t just a method and philosophy of growing food. The OED defines organic as “denoting a relation between elements of something such that they fit together harmoniously as necessary parts of the whole.”

And aren’t we all looking for lives that “fit together harmoniously,” for a sense of order and meaning, for some magical coherence at the end of the day?

Working with the land gives you some of that, it ties you in and proposes that you, in the words of ee cummings, “ask the more beautiful question” because “that’s where the beautiful answers lie.”  When I began to restore this property fifteen years ago, and stood looking at a cluster of worn-out buildings buried beneath bittersweet and at the menacing loom of wild and unruly trees, I started to ask those questions – what if we restored this, or added that, or moved this building here, and built one there, or started a farm?

SGF May 2012-2-2

Greenhouse seedlings of looseleaf lettuce ready for the great outdoors.

The answers have broadened the meaning of organic at Stonegate.  Very little that happens here is out of context:  the work I do as a photographer and writer is all shaped by my relationship with this place and vise versa. Working in magazines, books and television helps give purpose and meaning to the farm, and is an engine of its sustainability ( I’ve even grown my own props for food shoots!)

Some “necessary parts of the whole” lately are the publication of The Photo-Graphic Garden (Rodale, 2012), Urban Farms (Abrams, 2012), a lecture and book signing at White Flower Farm in Connecticut next week on “The Artistic Vegetable Garden,” and a exhibit at FloreAnt Gallery titled “Impermanence and Beauty in the Photographic Garden.” At the center of this media bustle is the farm, the sustainable heart that helps to make beautiful sense of it all.  –Mb

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