2008 in Review
What an intense and incredible, milestone year was 2008... full of worldly extremes, hope and heartbreak on every continent -- and change...
2008 at Laughing Dog Farm
by Daniel Botkin ("Laughing Dog")
... Speaking for the moment strictly of soil, this year (2008) was a horticultural bonanza at LDF. Being on a sunny, well-drained hilltop didn't hurt us either during this bizarre season of weather extremes, torrential rains, then severe heat ...
With all the necessary moisture, some help, our heirloom seeds and high fertility -- everything grew really well this year. Even the corn, always an adventure, was superb. The heirloom (pole) beans were exceptional. The squash, though not as diverse as '07, was voluminous and candy-sweet... peaches again yielded nicely. The raspberries were finally, devine. We got our first ever, real fig crop (indoor) and plum (outdoor) crop, our second of chestnuts('98), sweet potatoes from Undergrowth Farm, blue spuds from LDF -- and on and on. This is what we live for -- all the food, all year long was beyond description good. The garlic was huge and otherworldly in flavor... Aaron Falbel (our highly motivated, biking "intern" friend) taught us to braid it into handsome trains -- and we subsequently went wild weaving colorful, textured, pungeant garlic braids with strawflowers, purple sage and home grown wheat tied in.
In September we fought the squirrels to a "draw" over our second, substantive harvest of Chinese chestnuts. For the second time we toasted and chopped those rich yellow nuts into a traditional basil/garlic/olive oil/lemon pesto, creating a one-of-a-kind, "chesto" sauce, which again earned high marks at the table.
Our beloved goat herd prospered here in 2008, with each of our does producing healthy kids in early March. With all the new animals, we decided to send off Drupadi and her two kids to start their own herd in Wendell with our friends, Jenny, David and Melina. From Flossy and Cowey we enjoyed a nice, steady flow of milk and cheese through the spring, summer, fall and into the winter. Unfortunately, the matriarch and progenitor of our ten year old herd, "Baby", passed on during childbirth in March. From her we rescued and bottle raised in the house three incredible Sanaan/Nubian kids, Beebee, Gandhari and Radayah, extending Baby's milky legacy yet another generation, at least. In 2008 we posted a new page on LDF.com about basic backyard goatkeeping.
And we cautiously added beekeeping to our agenda, thanks to Divya, (the bees!) ...and Dan and Bonita Conlon of Warm Colors Apiary. Although we weren't expecting to get a first year harvest, the honey conditions here on the hill were exceptional, with scores of juicy and exotic blooms through the spring, summer and even fall. Six times Divya had to rescue and re-colonize vigorous swarms of "breakaway" bees as they attempted to fly off and start new hives. By winter she had built up three robust hives to preserve... and we'd extracted over four gallons of very extraordinary honey. You can actually taste/smell the raspberry, peach and other essences in it!
Urban and sub-urban backyard beekeeping keeps on growing! Now, we'll see how they can survive the winter and beyond...
Yes, 2008 was a great year in the gardens, if not in the markets...
Well, ok, the heirloom tomatoes were only average :( ...due likely to intense and untimely rains and an uncharacteristicly late outdoor start. Although the outdoor tomatoes were only average, the indoor cherry tomatoes lingered in the fall hoophouse bringing smiles to our faces and sugar to our lips straight through Thanksgiving! And even an "average" (tomato) year, we've learned, can translate into a "bounty". That's the marvelous thing about "micro-batch" technology. A little goes a long, long way. A "little" can be enough. A little, indeed, planned and executed and finished well, can be plenty to meet your needs, fill your larder, and overflow with generosity... that is if you grow it well, harvest it all, distribute it widely and utilize it fully -- fresh, frozen, sauced, sold, dried, transformed, bartered, or given away... plus save seeds, (which further adds value to your crop and your farm down the line...)
...In 2008 we took a year's hiatus from doing the CSA and sold most of our produce at the Greenfield farmers market, instead. At the small scale we operate, we realized we needed more of a collaborative bond with our "customers" to justify the enormous energy required to provide such diverse, weekly, high-quality food shares. And although we missed the excitement, focus and connection which the CSA always generated, it was a good decision for 2008.
Community Agriculture at any scale is a hopeful model -- and we're happy for the continued success of CSA's across America. We too recognize the urgency surrounding food, energy, health and our global environment. We also seek a new kind of enlightened partnership, conscientious growers in alliance with conscious, local consumers, their neighbors and friends. We all need these kinds of relationships so much. Just like every neighborhood needs a council of sustenance and food security, and every region needs land and food stewards who see the greater mission of "Community Agriculture". We are excited to be caught up in this historic wave and to find others organizing and holding similar visions. It's logical that we reach out for comrades, colleagues, partners and buds... in planning for the future protection and sustenance of small farms and farmers, everywhere.
This is my call... This is no longer just about "Laughing Dog Farm", but all small farms, small farmers -- and hence, about all of us.
In 2008 we were blessed with yet more lovely, enthusiastic, young WWOOFers who came and stayed at Laughing Dog Farm, and graced us with their idealism and verve. Veronica, Ella, Aaron and Lindsey, each brought their own gifts and unique energy to our family in 2008.
Veronica was quiet and focused, artistic and fun. Ella was bright, worldly, child-like and curious. Aaron was funny, industrious and metaphysical --and got up to bake dark, crusty bread every morning! Lindsey was quiet, colorful and steady, always willing to pitch in on anything and work. All of them, like us, enjoyed the fellowship, the peace and the great food that goes with the landscape here. All were grateful for the opportunity to live in community and learn -- and to help grow, harvest and enjoy the bounty. It is through these interns we sometimes realize our greatest satisfaction. It is the opportunity to teach and inspire young farmers and permaculturists -- and all they will touch, that most fulfills our efforts.
And, we were graced by the weekly bicycle visits of Aaron Falbel, our organic gardener/librarian/food activist friend -- who trekked by bike in all weather from Sunderland each week -- from planting time through November frost, to volunteer at LDF, to learn and to be a part of our community. We had terrific fun working hard and watching the seasons go by with Aaron this year. He brought us seeds, bread, pickled treats and new knowledge from Astarte Farm in Hadley, where he also works.
Needless to say, we got a lot done and shared some amazing, garden fresh meals with Aaron around.
In 2008 we also ran nine teaching workshops here on subjects ranging from hoophouse design and winter gardening to goats and permaculture. We also created a series of basic farming and gardening videos for www.Expertvillage.com (which now are also posted on Utube) on the following timely farm and gardening themes:
These several dozen, ultra-short videos were shot in just two days, one after the next with no revision, editing or re-takes whatsoever... They make me smile to look at, but they are a reasonable way for beginning gardeners, greenhousers and animal husbands to glean some useful basics. I'm never dissatisfied to see encouraging, uselful, basic information posted and re-posted. We've already received nice feedback and new contacts from the videos and look forward to creating a body of more comprehensive, polished and narrative pieces on these and other vital subjects relating to backyard agriculture, food and permaculture.
We keep realizing that our true mission here at LDF is less about growing amazing bounty -- and more about teaching and mentoring backyard food farming and permaculture. If you are similarly moved by this mission as I am, and wish to discuss and/or collaborate on the production of such important resources, please get in touch.
2008 saw a series of health issues in our family. Leylee broke her elbow late in '07 and had to have it surgically repaired in early '08. Divya continued working with her own bodily and energetic healing... and I, farmer Dan, also dealt with several troubling and potentially career-ending health "challenges" this year including nerve damage to the right shoulder and an end-of-year prostate cancer scare...
So... I've learned once again that, as much as I love it, farming by hand can be a stressful and isolating vocation... And tough on the body.
But then, looking around, I realize that everyone, individually and collectively, is facing the issue of physical breakdown and mortality. Youth and health at best are but fleeting moments, and we are all perched on the brink of eternity. Not to be negative or morbid or anything... but I always did prefer to look risk, disaster and death directly in the eye, to know and speak the truth of the matter, rather than to pretend, look away or assuage myself with euphemisms, distraction or denial.
In college I gravitated toward rock climbing, wilderness studies and outdoor education, part of which involved willfully choosing difficult, even life-threatening endeavors (partly) to generate "personal growth", "spiritual reckoning" and group "transformation" and the like. Later I used various hobbies, passions, pilgrimmages... and an alternative foot sport in search of the same. Today it is farming, food and permaculture. I guess it's about finding some balance. The sustainability of the farmer is as important, we see, as the health of the soil.
For the last several decades I've sustained my own energetic body partly on a myth, a lovely albeit, but unlikely myth. Every ageing athlete must harbor deep down a similar fantasy. Mine's been kept alive by a series of personal dramas surrounding debilitating injuries (knees and back, primarily) and subsequent "miraculous" recoveries, through my 20's, 30's. 40's and now even still today at age 51. There's a Rocky-like script with an ageing protagonist, a highly improbable, attempted comeback against all odds. The "ageing but game old warrior" decides to make "one final" push to the outer limits of mind and body searching for the fitting swan song. But the truth is, notwithstanding all the lucky reprieves and rebirths I have teased from this Phoenix-like body, today I'm feeling at peace with what is.
Middle age is supposed to be for contemplation, resting, coasting, right?! Instead I find myself growing the best food I've ever tasted, sculpting with wood and earth, digging like a gopher, hauling plants, compost, and harvest, wheelbarrow loads of mulch and manure... tending livestock, venting and snow clearing a hoophouse around the seasons.
(Good thing I still love it!)
This year, I got voted into the Footbag Hall of Fame, recognized for my years as a footbag promotor, performer and peace activist. After years of operating on the fringe of this very "fringe" sport, my footbagging peers chose to give me this honor, and I traveled to Harrisburg, PA and was inducted over Labor Day weekend at the regional event. Needless to say, I still do kick it pretty hard and happy from time to time... Ahhh, there's always one more game left in the tired, old geezer athlete...
...Indeed, pulling one's sorry, beaten self from the crashes and the ashes of life is a sweet image for all humanity to embrace. If only it were so! But I suppose, ultimately it's illusory -- and there's something also to be said for ageing gracefully and making peace with all aspects, all stages of the process, all abilities. As we age we come to see how difficult yet vital friends, family and community really are. Even with this knowing, we keep choosing community -- seeking it in all manner of partnership, friendship and co-creative family who yearn for more connection, and a more visionary future -- even as we admit justhow hard it is to clean and heat the house and get in synch with our own spouse, our own kids.
I'll tell you a story... For upwards of seven years now we've continued off and on advertising for housemates and comrades and co-creators to join our cooperative house on the hill and our little farm project. Once, several years ago, someone wrote on on of my "housemates wanted" ads posted at the Wendell Country Store, "what the hell's the matter with this guy, he's still looking for housemates?! What's he some kind of control freak or something?!" It made me pause, to chuckle... and consider... and come back to the search with even more clarity, greater commitment. Although I'll be the first to admit that building intentional community that functions sustainably, is no small order -- even with mature, skilled and committed folks...
It is however, the only order. And we must keep trying to fill it.
And so how ironic and fitting it is that we've ended up here at this old commune house on this ex-commune land, promoting homesteading, family, compost and organic food. Here we are, 35 years later, two old hippies and a kid, still striving for connection, still longing for spiritual transformation, still searching for that illusive group mind, that shared path of collective meaning, here on the land. It's a fascinating and bittersweet adventure... But we remain longing, hopeful ...and well fed by the process as we've enjoyed each chapter thoroughly, and all the evolving landscape along the way!
American farmers are a tough and diverse lot. But one thing the American farmer hasn't always done well is to plan for succession of the land, in the case when no adult child(ren) are able or interested in taking over the farm. In too many cases farmers box themselves into a corner becoming too indispensable to the operation of the farm. Hence, the farm becomes more and more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of health of the ageing farmer. When she become injured, disabled or dies, the farmers' families may be overwhelmed by the challenge of passing along the farm in a functional state -- and instead sell out to anyone who can rescue them by writing a check, often a developer with little interest in farming, land preservation or stewardship. Let us not fail to see farmland and knowledge as public domain commodities to be passed along for the good of the people. Let's not let mental barriers get in the way of our greater good, best practice, trans-generational, local food farming!
These are going to be very "interesting" times, folks... We have mucho trabajo ahead of us. But one thing we'd surely better do is to keep our vital farmland functioning and sustainable... as we must also preserve and pass on the precious knowledge, practice and traditions that sustain it. Ho!
This is our goal for 2009 at Laughing Dog on this historic hilltop land. Please join us.
Blessings of Peace in 2009 to our friends and kin, all over... on the land and dreaming of it...
Laughing Dog Farm