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On cool summer mornings, knee deep in daikon, I’ve heard the soil speak.

I walk an average of four miles a day on our little farm, mostly confined to the 2 acres or so of land where we grow our market crops.

I have learned a little of the contours & crannies, the perennial & annual weeds, the insect communities & their respective territories, the places where the chickens naturally stray, the delicately layered balanced & natural correction of imbalance that defines any farm.

But five & a half years here & I am still learning how to read, still struggling with the homework.

We follow Masanobu  Fukuoka’s three rules for natural farming—no pesticides, no chemical fertilizers, no tilling. While the first two may seem more explicitly invested in the balance of life & human safety—removing poisons fromt the equation of food production—I have come to realize in my years of walking & working here that the third, no tilling, is perhaps the most important.

When confronted with a new field or garden spot, our shared human impulse is to till, to turn the soil decisively, to come in from our wanderings & settle at last. There is an undeniably visceral satisfaction in breaking ground & running hands through clear luminous loam that says, “Now I can do something. I am ready to farm.”

But after several years of not tilling, of leaving those machines shut up in the shed, I enjoy spending seasons going over the same land, the same beds—same yet never the same—seeing in crops & other living populations how fertility builds & seeps into the soil from everywhere all at once.

It is easy to become attached to this.

The only meaningful accomplishment in my short history as a farmer is the relationship I’ve built with the soil: anything I’ve learned starts & ends here. I’m not really a farmer & even less a “steward of the land.” I’m just someone who likes to walk & watch.

The soil has become on some days more familiar to me than my own children.

Smells & temperatures change throughout the day, water flows, some crops grow where others do not. Tracing these details with my feet, I make notes kneeling in the wet morning grass.

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When we sell produce at the farmers market, what we are really offering is our soil. Not the dirt itself so much as its reflection: the flavor, the shape, the color & size, the texture & the taste.

In growing our own produce year round, I have noticed that our farm has a flavor. There is an Echigo Farm taste that transcends variety or skill—this is the soil speaking. Other vegetables at the market taste like other farms. In some big supermarkets, there are vegetables that taste like nowhere.

I see myself not as a local farmer but as a soil-based farmer. It matters not so much that my vegetables were grown in Southwest Missouri—geographically speaking, everywhere is local somewhere.

But they were grown here, on this small piece of land, & that means everything.

The last thing I can imagine is running a steel tined tiller up & down it, churning up this community & destroying this true treasury of beauty & kindness.

Tilled soil becomes a cheaply rearranged form rather than the thing itself, an imitation of life—soil rebuilt to a human vision when it is our own eyesight that needs adjusting. Tilling is a reductive process limiting our options to what steel & diesel can accomplish, clumsy Euclidean designs of sharp edges & mystery removed: an 8 bit recording of Mahler, Art of the Fugue performed in Morse code transcription.

Tilling the soil, year after year, a place is reduced to nowhere. There is no “place” left, nothing truly local remains. Local becomes merely a cartographic designation.

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Whether you succeed or fail—a short-term proposition either way—don’t forget your real job, which is to fall in love with the soil.

Fall in love with what is right before you, underfoot & in your hands, under your fingernails.

Become a fan of your farm & the community of life there.

(Not a fan of your work, of your produce, of your farm’s name or reputation, 

Not of the articles you may write or your name on conference brochures, 

Not with the story you live, with what you do for the community.

But)

a fan first of all of the dirt itself, the microbes there, the earthworms, the variegated composition of roots from years past, your own shifting floating heritage.

Forget about local—your concern is even closer at hand.

You are not a steward, just another member.

Before anything is planted, before even the dream of a seed has sprouted in the farmer’s fecund imagination, this place is abundantly populated, a living commonwealth of which we are already a part.

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Viable, fragile amazingly responsive, capable of humor & sadness, activity & repose, this soil. I love this place too much to play cultural revolution on the back of a John Deere.

My daily companion as I go about doing whatever I do under the shaky rubric of farmer: the story of how far I’ve drifted from my own plans & goals & how close I’ve come to this soil.

I can see the breadth of it from the window of the kitchen where I am writing now, morning sun stretching across.

The settling down, not the ripples of the splash. Both the settling down & the splash.

A deer has also come into the field this morning, claiming membership, as the chickens wander out to the edge of the beans just ahead of a light rain.

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