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August 20th, 2013

Wabi-sabi

Judging by our lobed and fissured tomatoes and mottled fruit, we grow beautifully imperfect food at Stonegate Farm.

Imperfect in the idealized, Apollonian sense, that is, but oh-so-perfect in the fabulous flavor, nutrient density department.

SGF AUGUST-8724Heirloom tomatoes: Cracked, fissured, bruised and swollen to perfection.

Organic is really a euphemism for misshapen beauty, or the Eastern aesthetic philosophy of wabi-sabi, where imperfections, transience, and asymmetry have more value, and are “more perfect” than perfection.

In Japan, for example, where the modern CSA movement, called TeiKei, began, wabi-sabi is central to their aesthetic philosophy. The more crazed and cracked the teapot, the wonkier the pear, the greater its integrity, beauty and value.

SGF AUGUST-8785Sweet, multi-colred cherry tomatoes are more vain than their larger cousins

There is something beautiful in transience, in the faltering impermanence of living things, be it an over-ripe Shiro plum or even us.

Our closest approximation is Virgil’s  Lacrimae rerum, or “tears of things,” but try and use that (or worse, quote Virgil) when selling anything in the new and improved West. So much of Eastern philosophy is simply lost in a land where the newer, shinier and more Botoxed the better.

Organic beauty has always been more than skin deep; in fact, its skin is often deeply flawed. With no toxic, petroleum armor to protect it, organic produce must fend for itself, relying on the skilled coddling of its growers.

SGF AUGUST-8866Our first tomato harvest of the season.  Set back by oppressive heat and rain, they’ve finally come through.

Much of what we grow wouldn’t pass visual muster at the local Price Chopper, where isles of pesticide-infused sameness prevail. But our wabi-sabi veggies, greens and orchard-grown fruit–even the weathered siding of our century-old barn–have a deep and resonant beauty that you can’t get from mass production.

It’s no wonder the Japanese, with their non-western paradigms, created a partnering system between consumers and organic farmers, where they not only cooperated with each other, but also with the lovely imperfection of the natural world.

They say that when you learn a new language, you acquire a new soul, and the language of organics is about working symbiotically with nature’s quirks and variations, not against them.

Maybe growing local and organic creates not only better food, but better philosophy.  –Mb

Prayers of peppers

Broken tomatoes

Grown in perfect summer

(flawed vegetable haiku)

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June 1st, 2013

Some Assembly Required

Late spring harvests at Stonegate Farm begin early in the morning, when the tender greens are cool and moist and the edible blossoms are barely open.


An assembled salad mix, with three varieties of loose-leaf lettuce, plus broccoli rabe and garlic chive blossom.

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May 5th, 2013

My Dilemma with Omnivores

“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” says local-food evangelist Michael Pollan, and though his books have been translated in at least sixty-five languages including Urdu, Chicken wasn’t one of them. Even if it were, it would be lost in translation on my willful mob. Can you say “Eat food, lots of it, mostly Matthew’s plants.”

CSA May 2013-9344Breakfast of Chickens:  The apple blossom special.

My Dilemma with Omnivores is their lack of discrimination. They seem to pick up on the coddled pheromone trail I’ve invested into my favorite varieties an go for those first.  Just when a long-awaited apple,  pear or tomato is heavy with itself, it’s pecked or gnawed into oblivion.

Chickens are über-omnivores:  They’ll sample, trial and taste almost anything, even chicken (don’t ask).  And they’ve become so unhinged lately by the delirium of Spring that they’ve even taken to browsing the blossoms off of fruit trees in the orchard.  Who does that?

I’m not alone, of course.  I just have a larger produce department than most home gardeners, and a few too many fowl wandering the aisles.

CSA May 2013-9492Annual Lamium purpurium carpets the orchard. Also known as henbit, it’s chicken candy.

I spoke about “Growing Beautiful Food” at a big garden conference last month in Connecticut, where the Master Gardeners were many, and the Q&A was mostly about predation.  “Yes, it’s all very pretty, and thank you for your lovely presentation, but what about the critters?  How do you keep them out?  This was the idée fixe: Beauty is negotiable,  plundering is not.

And while I implored them to sacrifice a few peonies for eggplant, they couldn’t get passed the loss factor. Though growing things is always fraught with peril, growing food–no matter how beautiful, healthful, and environmentally responsible—is asking for trouble. Of course, in the long haul, not growing your own, or not supporting those who do it locally and organically, is the real worry;  It will be no accident when we just can’t feed ten billion people on chemically saturated agricultural land that’s dependent on a diminishing supply of petroleum. So a few wayward chickens or nibbled greens are the least of our worries.

I’m seeking absolution, I suppose; having come in from the urban cold of not knowing (or caring) where my food came from, to caring deeply and deciding to do something about it.

I came from cities – physically, psychologically. From the bump and bustle of urbanism. No planting, no growing, no harvesting. And yet, here I am in mid-life, an organic farmer, feeding my family, feeding neighbors and CSA members; lost in a headlong swoon for this crazy, sexy piece of earth, and unable to imagine a life without it.

CSA May 2013-9511-2

Spring at Stonegate Farm:  One sexy piece of earth.

So I let the chickens have their barter share: They lay, I look the other way. A dilemma resolved by a kind of rural détante.  Sometimes letting go can be the very thing your life needs.  -Mb

Visit the farm @ StonegatefarmNY.org

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June 21st, 2011

Come Hail and High water

These past few weeks, as temperatures swayed madly back and forth, any syncopation between plant and planet seemed momentarily lost. The mercury rocketed to record heights, then fell just as hard. Ninety-six degrees segued into frigid slurries of rain and surreal ice storms.

Hens panted in the heat, their beaks slung open like secateurs; bees splashed themselves across hives in cooling desperation; greens secretly conspired to bolt.

Cooling showers have given the greens something to croon about.  They’re just singing’ in the rain.

June is when the cool, light whistle of Spring is vanquished by the onset of Summer. You know it at night, when the ring-toned persistence of tree frogs give way to the rasp of katydids and crickets.  Or when the grass sharpens against soft soles and bluestone burns.

Weather is a subject of constant, fretful speculation on the farm. But the violent weather events across the country this season have kept things in perspective; after all, we haven’t been subsumed by rising Hudson River floodwaters, siphoned helplessly up into the clouds by tornados, or rendered to cinder and ash by wildfires…yet.

The only time we used to see our neighbors was after a storm-spawned power outage.  We’d  forfeit life’s comforts like the rest, but because we also have wood stoves at the Farm for heat and a hand-pumped well for water, we can get along like nineteenth century homesteaders when the lights go out.

Our immediate neighbor used to come by if the outage lasted more than a few days.  “My wife wants to flush” he would wearily mumble, as he manually filled up a bucket at the well pump.  We once had a neighborhood pot-luck supper during a long black-out, where we all tried to cook on the wood stove in the barn before resorting to crackers and cheese by torchlight.

Perspective seems to be the inherent measure of success in anything: how you perceive the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” shapes the world you live in. Farming prescribes that your view is long, and that your measure of success is tempered by allowing forces beyond your control to play out. So we take, and talk about, the wiles of Weather, with all of its exasperating uncertainty.

Despite all the fuss over weather, roses paid no mind and busted out in glorious bloom this Spring.

The only constant seems to be the CSA members showing up at the farm on Saturday mornings for their shares, grateful for some predictably good greens.  While we’ve built a working farm, we’ve also built new community. Transpose the acronym CSA, and you get ASC: Agriculture Supporting Community, one of the less hyped  virtues of joining a local farm.  As neighbors come together around a common cause or interest, communities form.

A new study out of SUNY New Paltz’s Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach, or CRREO,  on the future of agriculture in New York State, has found that small farms and CSAs, besides strengthening the state’s agricultural, environmental and economic viability, help to build stronger communities. According to the study, people involved in CSAs often participate more in their community, volunteer more, and are more politically active.

So when a CSA member ambles down the road to the farm, comes by for a carton of eggs, or just wants to see what’s growin’ on at Stonegate, those are the seeds of community. It’s too easy in an age of instant, downloadable everything, to live isolated in a neighborhood of strangers.  The climate may have destabilized, but strong, dynamic communities are its counterpoint.  -Mb

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August 13th, 2010

Work is Love Made Visible

My wife’s supercilious grandmother used to tell me I had peasant blood, which I took as a compliment.  Better an honest, hardworking peasant than a soft-palmed scoundrel.  Good, physical work, with something to show for it besides tight abdominals (a bountiful harvest, say) is an act of alignment and sometimes even exaltation. It ties us back to the order of the natural world.  Work is what the wild things do–all day long, for food, shelter, survival, maybe even joy.

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Last week’s bountiful harvest, the love made visible by work.

Growing food for others is a physical act. “Such hard work!” they say. Yes, but how fulfilling, how joyful. “The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it,” said Ruskin.

We have become more capable, more patient, more resourceful, more humble. Work on the land develops deep connective tissue with simple purpose. Something we’re in great need of in an age of tweets and texts.

I bought a new/old tractor for the farm this year. It’s seen plenty of hard work, and it’s in its forties, so we’re peers.  It’s throaty, cast iron rumble is reassuring. No squeaky plastic or pot metal here.  No imported parts. It was built somewhere in the Midwest, back when industry had integrity, and work wasn’t just virtual bustle. It rambles across the property, making a clean cut in the orchard, indifferent to the carpet of twigs and small stumps.

A morning of virtual housekeeping, such as answering emails from clients, or prepping for a shoot, is usually balanced by an afternoon of real physical work, of which there’s always plenty. Without exertion of some kind, my time seems incomplete. I need to feel used up at the end of the day.

We don’t move anything unless it weighs a thousand pounds, the New York Times quoted us saying more than ten years ago when they did a feature on our efforts to restore Stonegate (see House Proud) .  Clearly work was not an obstacle.  After an urban upbringing, among worlds others had created, I needed to build. I needed to move mountains.  I needed to see what I could become by it.
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Interiors of the new coop.  There was plenty of sustainable re-use of materials, and a little art for inspiration.

So with new coop now completed in the orchard, my sweet Copernican universe, with the farm at the center of all things and us in perpetual orbit around it, seems momentarily balanced.  I can stand back from the work and feel its value and worth to the farm, despite the near heat stroke hours it took to build.

SGF_45_1.1
Hens out for an early peck and scratch in the orchard.

The laying hens have taken to their new digs without a lot of fuss and feather. Even the prodigal pullet rejoined the flock, although at the bottom of the pecking order. They’re now ranging happily in the orchard, tilling and fertilizing the soil, devouring pests, making their most magical eggs. Working hard, without a second thought.  -Mb

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