Mar 25 2014

Dispatch #55 This Is The End

Rory Holland

5:50am.  Headlamps on, we are underneath the toilet and shower block. The compost crapper is full and needs changing – now. “I started my time on the farm doing this and am now ending it the same way” Lisa says as she provides expert direction to Charl and I.

There in the dark, poetic symmetry.

Much has changed since we first arrived that early January afternoon. My boots are now well worn and hands calloused. I’ve cinched in my belt.  I am comfortable around large animals, and can kill and skin a rabbit.  I know the biological difference between cow and horse manure.  I understand the optimal carbon-nitrogen ratio for compost. I’ve been pleased to learn that trying, failing, and trying again is part of a farmer’s everyday.

I’ve spent much of the last three months a fair distance from my normal zone of comfort.  Most days I’ve been deeply challenged to pay attention to how I live and the consequences of my seemingly insignificant actions.

Now we are just a few hours from packing up and saying goodbyes.  We’ll pull out of the drive for the last time enlightened and jaded, inspired and disillusioned, educated and ignorant, tired and energized.

After changing the tanks, Lisa and I walked back through the long, wet grass to our van for our ritual morning coffee before the day begins.  Had to smile thinking of the long, strange trip it’s been. We’re the same as before, only different.

This is my last dispatch. Thank you for reading.  I welcome thoughts, ideas, comments, and questions.


Mar 25 2014

Dispatch #54 Almost

Rory Holland

I remember being in a gallery with Lisa. It was the end of long day of looking at art.  I was standing in front of an astounding painting. Moved to tears by the emotion captured on the canvas, I turned, glassy eyed, to express my feelings. Lisa cut me short with: “I’m done.”

Here, with just a couple days left on the farm, I totally get where she was coming from.  Stick a fork in me – I’m cooked.  The pedagogical benefit of turning another compost pile, or chopping down more weeds, is running off rather than sinking in.

I’m clearly not the only one.  This morning, as we were making our rounds collecting after the cows and horses, we cruised by and saw folks, who should be onto their chores, idly making coffee at their tent, sleeping in, and even meditating. It’s clear that some have already left, even though they’re still here. I can’t blame them, it’s not laziness, but more like pushing one’s chair back from a big meal but staying at the table.

Some here have well articulated resolves and takeaways – a farm in Rhode Island, a roof top market garden in Queens, or a Teaching Institute in Zululand  - while others are still not certain whether they’ll turn left or right when the reach the end of the driveway.  Clarity of purpose or no – the overriding consensus is – let’s get on with it.

It’s only been three months, and I’ve been to camp before so I know better than to get caught up in the ‘everything’s going to be different now’ – but the intensity of the experience cannot be underplayed.

When the fat lady sings on Thursday it will momentarily mark an end, but then, it’ll all start for real.

Mar 24 2014

Dispatch #53 You Are As You Grow

Rory Holland

Tom is a second generation farmer. He spent the morning explaining  just how freaking difficult it is.  He’s downsized twice, lost a marriage and is now barely surviving the worst drought in memory.  Yet, there wasn’t a hint that he’d prefer any other life.

His choice was to buy land with no mortgage – meaning it was cheap – meaning it was lousy property. Thirty acres with the right aspect, but no topsoil, and barely any water.  He was confident he could change that.  To some extent he has, but it’s taken a lot longer than he anticipated.

I’ve written about this type of guy before.  They don’t give up, it’s not even a part of their DNA.  They also don’t give in.  Tom feels a strong ethical responsibility to be a nurturer and seek to put back as much as he takes from his farm.  His humility comes from that place.

Conventional farming uses chemical inputs to kill the natural soil biology and replace it with synthetics. The result is a stressed but productive plant – which fruits in response, and even gives a few years of much higher yield as the crops feast on the dead micro-herd.

We humans act in much the same way, no?  How often my chemicals of choice (eg. money, sex, or power) have shown short term gain only to find they’ve eroded and worked to kill the real fertility of integrity.

I asked Tom about the yield off his previous farm.  “The crop was smaller, less than half of the conventional guys, but that’s not how I calculate yield – my soil was healthier and I was healthier.”

It’s clear to me that Tom is choosing to live his life in the same way he is growing his vegetables.

Mar 21 2014

Dispatch #52 Different Shit, Different Day

Rory Holland

Just when I thought it was over, this morning we simply climbed the food chain from cow shit to human. We’re now the designated custodial engineers of the farm and toilets figure large in the job description.

The ‘chamber’ had been closed and curing number one and twos for the past eight weeks.  Each deposit included a scoop or two of sawdust or bamboo leaves.  It was deemed time to get in there and move the results onto an outside pile for a few more months.  Not so coincidently it was our first day on the job.

So, at 6:30am, shovels, rakes, hoes, wheelbarrows, and other “implements of destruction” were assembled.  The door was swung open and – nothing. No smell, no flies, just light soil mixed with a bit of paper.  Remarkable really. We went about the task with our regular good cheer.

Imagine just how much dookey this place generates from the 40 humans, 2 horses, 14 cows, 2 goats, 75 chickens, 15 ducks, 2 dogs, and 20 rabbits. None of it leaves the property. In fact, most of it is collected, composted and used in one way or another for the benefit of fertility. All of us here have been up to our elbows at some point over the last 11 weeks with none worse for wear.

“The problem is the solution” is a mantra repeated often. It challenges deeply held preconceptions and attitudes.  Consequently, I’ve now got a very different appreciation for weeds, pests, and feces than I had when I arrived.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to go home and exchange my toilet for a bucket, but I’m glad for this morning’s object lesson.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve got plenty of crap in my life that I’d just as soon flush.

Mar 20 2014

Dispatch #51 Seasons Change

Rory Holland

In the morning, when the alarm goes off, it’s dark outside. We’re finishing the one harvest, with brassica and root crop seeds now going in the ground. Some leaves are turning colour, and it’s cooler.  Clearly, we’re on the cusp of a new season.

Down here the changes are a whole lot more subtle.  Growing continues, just with different planting. Leaves stay on the trees. It’s not so much about fall as it is about dry.  Getting colder means the odd frost in the morning, but t-shirt weather by the middle of the day.

I like how our four seasons at home provide a stark contrast one to the next.  The vivid sense of death and rebirth as fall and winter give way to spring and summer.  Here, it’s more like lying down for an afternoon nap then getting up refreshed – doesn’t really carry the same drama.

I figure I’ve been through well over 200 season changes in my life.  It never gets old.  I enjoy the anticipation of both putting a sweater on, and taking it off.  I like wearing flip flops, but am just as happy in snow boots.  For a guy with ADD, switching it up every three months, or so, works just fine.

So, we’re a couple of days away from the end of summer down here, heralded by day equaling night.  Then, it’s on to the next.   These endings and beginnings are important edges in our lives. Starts and finishes.  Openings and closings.  Is it any wonder religions have built their festivals around them?  I think they represent another chance to pay attention and anticipate what’s coming.  Can’t wait.

Happy Fall/Spring – as the case may be.

Mar 19 2014

Distpatch #50 Becoming a Generalist

Rory Holland

The teacher this week is a rural farmer, Dave, who is missing a front tooth and has atrocious spelling.  He’s awesome. We’re covering everything from welding to portable saw mills.  He says the problem today is we have too many specialists and don’t do enough ourselves. I resemble that remark.

Dave says:  “I don’t like to have to build to square – it takes away the creativity”. Another of his favorite phrases is “have a crack!”  He’s a big fan of trying, failing, and trying again. Evidently, there’s hope for me yet.

Dave would describe himself as a ‘rough generalist’. My dad was also kind of a generalist. On weekends he worked on our house in the suburbs. He put in the concrete driveway using hundreds of coat hangers from the local dry cleaner for reinforcement.  He renovated rooms numerous times using whatever he had around.  None of it ever really transferred to me. I’d like blame him for that, but I don’t think I was ever that interested.  My mum, possibly recognizing my lack of enthusiasm would say “if you can’t do it, you better be able to pay for it”.  I took her advice.

My specialization, such as it is, hasn’t really served me in the practical realm .  It’s only since I turned 50 that I’ve gotten over my ‘I can’ts’.  I have messed with small building, irrigation, plumbing – but nothing of any real consequence.  I do have the sense that if I don’t at least try, it might slowly evolve out of the genetic code and my great grand kid’s only hands-on skill will be to Google someone to do it for them.

Bill Cosby said the only difference between someone who’s handy and someone who’s not is patience.  I agree, but the tolerance isn’t with the task, it’s with my perceived lack of ability.

Mar 18 2014

Dispatch #49 Off the Grids

Rory Holland

There’s about $50,000 worth of new solar equipment sitting up in the shed, literally tons of batteries and about twenty more roof panels.  The farm is presently ‘off the grid’ but still has to rely on generator power in the evenings and on cloudy days.

‘Off The Grid’ – self sufficiency, not dependent on an outside source. Around here it’s talked about in environmental and political terms.  The electricity from ‘the mains’ is primarily generated by dirty coal power (or in some case nuclear), which is governed by large corporations that are characterized as not giving two shits about anything but money.  On the other hand, the sun’s power has none of that attendant sinister bureaucracy.

As a member of society, I am connected to a number of ‘grids’. From banking to streetlights, I count on others to get me through the day – with and without conscious effort. Sometimes, my participation in those institutions has resulted in unintended consequences.

Each evening, when the sun goes down, we have to unplug all devices and reduce electrical demand. We have a keen sense of the impact of what it takes to boil water or charge a laptop. Nothing like having to turn something off to cause one to appreciate what it took to power it in the first place.

Given we live in a place that, in the ‘off season’, offers a measly one and a half hours a day of sunlight what’re ya going to do? We happily draw down the electricity offered us by ‘the man’.  But I bet there’s a few other places where we could take matters more into our own hands.

However, I’ve got all sorts of questions: What and where can I unplug? What difference might it make to how I live? What’s the cost – to me, and others? What choices are actually harmful?  What if I don’t really want to know the answers?


Mar 17 2014

Dispatch #48 St. Patrick’s Day

Rory Holland

My mother met my dad after breaking up with her Jewish fiancé in New York. Boarding the ship to head home to Dublin, she was noticed by my father. He leaned to the Purser “Have that young woman invited to my table for dinner this evening”.

“Yes Captain”.

That evening she arrived at the Dining Saloon but was stopped by the Chief Steward “I am sorry, but women must wear a dress”. Without hesitation she replied “That’s fine then, please have dinner brought to my cabin.”

The next evening she was at the Captain’s table, in trousers.

I love that story.  It both describes my mum and gives a strong indication of the DNA she passed on to her children.  I think all four of us identify ourselves with her heritage.  We all know who we are and what we are on about.  She encouraged us to be proud of ourselves.

Mum left her native country in her 20’s to be a nurse in England during the war. She left the church after a Priest said we kids were bastards due to her marrying outside the faith. Yet, there was no doubt she was Irish and Catholic.

I experienced her deep affection, and the hot sting of the back of her hand.  Our household was one of extremes – the best of times and the worst of times  - never a dull moment.

Besides her birthday, today is when I remember my mum most.  I won’t wear a stupid hat, drink green beer, or asked to be kissed.  But, I will consider again how fortunate I was to brought up by Bridget, and that in me runs, at least in small part, the blood of an Irishman.




Mar 13 2014

Dispatch #47 A Dirty Rant

Rory Holland

Indulge me here.

A few months back Lisa and I spent an afternoon downtown protesting against Monsanto.  I am now thinking our time would have been better spent at home making a compost pile.

All over the world, topsoil is being lost exponentially faster than it can naturally regenerate. Herbicides and fertilizers are culpable of killing the life and structure and leaving behind a chemical dependency and thus a corporate dependency.

We can’t wag fingers though. We have to take responsibility for our desire for abundant, blemish free, fruits and vegetables, of all types, at all times of the year.

What’s a farmer to do? In fact, what are we as eaters to do?

At least three times a day, everyday, we require what comes out of the ground.  It’s axiomatic that as we ingest, so we become.  Our very survival is dependent on good soil.  So, when less than 12% of the earth is set aside for agriculture in the first place, and we are stripping the natural nutrients from much of that in favour of synthetic ones, with all their inherent issues – should we not be very concerned?

I think we have to step up and care about what’s under foot.  It starts with what we put in our mouths.  Demand drives supply.  Next, get involved in making compost at home and thus filling everything from window boxes to backyards with soil as nature intended in the first place. It won’t bring down Monsanto, but it will change your mind, if not your heart – and that’s the first step in a revolution.

Eating nutritious food and making naturally healthy dirt are deeply political acts. Vive la microbes! Have a great weekend.  Bon appetite.

Mar 13 2014

Dispatch #46 I’ve Seen the Light

Rory Holland

For the first hour this morning our soil expert instructor talked about ‘husbandry’ and the need to take care of the ‘female’ element not only in nature, but in society.  He went to discuss the breakdown of relationships as synonymous to how we treat the soil.  At first, it felt odd and tangential, and then…

The other side of husbandry, he went on, is exploitation.  We are conditioned to consume and compete. Both require a system where things are used up for short term benefit rather than nurtured for the long term.  It’s our culture and our agriculture.

The room was silent, until the coffee break.  I honestly haven’t sensed that level of energy from our group in weeks.  There was a connection to something larger going on – between what we are doing and why we are doing it.  The purpose suddenly expanded beyond awesome tomatoes.

I have heard that you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat their dog.  I am figuring one can get a similar insight when watching how someone digs the garden.  I confess to having held little respect, or interest, to what went on below my feet – beyond maybe the earthworms.  Those billion other critters, the micro-organisms were lost on me, didn’t see ‘em, didn’t care.

I find it easy to connect the dots now from that attitude to what I’m like in a crowded shopping mall – or in traffic!  Whether micro or macro – they all matter.

“The plow has done more damage than the sword” – is a quote from Wes Jackson that I’ve haven’t really understood until now.  As goes the soil, so go we.

Geez, as I read this post I feel like a kid at church camp writing home telling mum and dad I found Jesus.  Ah well, if the shoe fits…