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Regenerative Farming: The Secret is in the Soil

We have lost 80 billion tons of carbon from our soils.  The carbon lost is now hovering over our atmosphere and warming the planet.  That may be why it barely rained in November, and why it feels like summer in February.

But there is hope according to some earth warriors, who are now practicing a system of agriculture that aims at putting carbon back into the soil- Regenerative Farming. Already, there are too many systems of sustainable farming; organic, permaculture, biodynamic, and agroecology. But soil farmers claim that regenerative farming trumps them all. What is this innovative method? And is it in fact, a reapplication of the ancient wisdom that the ground beneath our feet may just save the dying earth?

The IFOAM Regenerative Agriculture Course

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Students from Chile, Japan, Germany, Taiwan, England, Ireland, Sweden & the Philippines.

Along with a small group of 10, I attended the IFOAM Organics Academy internship course in Somerset, England. We were farmers, students, entrepreneurs and educators, all eager to be fed the definition of Regenerative Agriculture.  However, because it was a novel, innovative, and still budding system, we had to unearth it ourselves.

 Healthy Soil, Healthy Plants

More than a hundred years of chemical farming have left us with depleted soils- compacted soils that can no longer capture or hold water.  Farmlands are dug, tilled and plowed, removing all vegetation so another crop can be grown. What we are left with are barren lands starved of microorganisms and nutrients, and prone to wind and water erosion.

Enter Regenerative Agriculture. Regenerative farming seeks to build healthy, carbon-rich soil. Its focuses on soil life and soil health.  Farmers feed the soil with compost, mulch, cover crop cocktails or green manure (legumes or some plants grown on the soil to feed soil life.)  Beds or plots are not tilled or kept to a minimum.  When land is not tilled, soil organisms are able to establish a healthy ecosystem. The practice has proven benefits such as increased nutrients and organic matter, soil fertility, fewer diseases, less erosion, more moisture and better soil aggregation.  The carbon-rich humus also keeps excess carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

No Dig or No Till Farming

The Somerset region boasts a terrain of vast pastures dotted with grazing Herefords and Angus cows.  At the time I visited, the weather was muggy and misty gray. We explored farms in rain boots and trudged through mud, puddles, even 2 inches of snow.  I kept wondering, how does anyone grow anything here?  What is regenerative farming for these farmlands when the land is waterlogged, and soils are mucky and cold?

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The misty roads of Somerset

We spent time at the farm of Charles Dowding, Somerset’s No-Dig farming  legend.  In a 1000 square meter backyard, this farmer was harvesting 21 tons of produce, and as he proudly exclaimed, without weeds! The secret, he said, was in the soil.  Weeds, according to Dowding, was just an agent of soil recovery.

“When soil is looked after, by leaving it undisturbed as much as possible, we reap the rewards of healthier crops, less weeds, better carbon conservation and good drainage.”

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Charles Dowding’s No Dig Garden

Dowding improved the damp clay of Somerset by mulching and composting on raised beds.  He applies as much as five inches of compost and wood chips per year for his beds. In the summer, when green grasses and legumes are abundant, Charles ensures that he has an abundance of brown wood chips or dry leaves, which he uses to make a compost cocktail. He does not use any other fertilizer but sprays with Biodynamic 500 horn manure preparation.  He remarked: If you disturb the soil, it has to recover, just like us! And so Dawding opts to let the soil be. No digging in this lush garden! So simple, and yet so much sense.

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Feed the soil with compost and mulch. Allow every microbe, bacteria, worm and fungi some elbow room to thrive.  Your beds will be teeming with life. The mulch acts as a coat of armour, protecting the soil from erosion, keeping the weeds from taking root and even providing food for the living organisms.  Healthy living soil shall then feed plants with the nutrients they need. What you have are healthy plants, increasing yields, and subsequently, nutrient-rich food.

Charles also practices multiple cropping. A lush mixture of plants on the bed means a lush community of microbes beneath. If you grow only one crop, you promote pathogens specific to that variety.  If you grow a multitude of crops, you allow diversity, and pathogens will not find a host in such array of plants.

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Charles showed us how he sows salad greens in celled trays.  He explains that how plants are harvested are crucial to the amount of food you can get.  For example, for lettuces, Charles does not cut the whole plant to within an inch or two of the ground. Instead, he picks a few leaves from the outside of every plant. He then does the same only a few days later.

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Nursery

He also told us that to sustain a small acreage, one must learn to be picky with crops. In his case, Charles only grows high value vegetables and crop varieties that can be cropped multiple times. In a bed, he is able to grow 100 kilos of produce, crops like onions, beets, carrots and Charlotte potatoes. Additionally, he practices multiple sowing, and will have lettuces, French beans and tomatoes in one bed. Charles usually maintains about 10 vegetables per cropping season.

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High Value Crops polytunnel

Managed Grazing

Another farm we visited was the 1000-acre Dursdale farm, where Hereford and Aberdeen Angus crosses were managed sustainably. The herd supplied the grass-fed meat of the farm’s restaurant. The farm carefully monitored grazing times and ensured that the cattle had a healthy fresh diet.  They also raised chickens and sheep. For Dursdale, livestock was managed not only for food production but also to build soil health.

This is another feature of Regenerative Agriculture: the use of livestock to draw and store carbon.  The practice is called mob grazing.  Domestic animals are moved through a landscape mimicking ancient herds that in the past, helped build grasslands. Picture this. Ancient herds would forage in pastures. They would pack tightly together to protect themselves from predators. They graze over a small area, which are later filled with urine and dung. As they won’t feed on their own wastes, they would transfer instead of overgraze in the same patch of land.  Their hooves break up the hard surface of the soil, trampling grasses and causing these plants to release carbon sugars into the soil. Add to that dung and urine, and you’ll have a healthy build-up of insects and microorganisms in no time. As they forage new areas, they would eat the most nutritious plants, and then move again leaving their hoofprints, dung and nitrogen-rich urine.  This system of grazing enriches the land naturally. Their impact on the land restores a healthy soil micro-biome and creates carbon-rich soil.

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Holistic Grazing

Healthy Landscapes

We spent many days in the 42 Acres Retreat Farm, a landscape of permanent pasture, vegetable garden, woodlands, lakes and ponds.  The owners hope to restore the health of the earth, so as to restore the health of those who walk on it. Recognising how human gut and earth gut are synonymous, their philosophy is:

The health of our soil, is the health of our self.

We were a lucky bunch feasting on fresh beets and salad greens, oats and nut milk, and just hatched duck eggs.  My gut was delighted, having no processed food, soy or white sugar for days.

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The hermitage sits on Oxford clay, a rich loamy and heavy clay soil. Hannah is the farm manager. She shared with us how she has in a year, learned to listen to the land, and be a doctor of soil health.  Hannah occupies her time surveying and monitoring lumps of soil and brooding over ways of to manage the land while raising cows and ducks.  The Retreat Farm has asked her to produce enough food to feed its guests. Its kitchen would like to whip up Soil to Gut food that is 80% percent sourced from just within 50 miles. For now, Hannah and Arek, the gardener, have managed to raise a few beds of organic vegetables using only open pollinated seeds.  They also incorporate biodynamic preparations. They collect spring and rainwater, using as much as 80% of harvested water for the farm.  Over 95% of the energy used and consumed is renewably-sourced. The farm also follows the no-dig system.

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The Polytunnel and a tool used to loosen soil

Our hands held the wet and cold chunk of clay and wondered how anything can grow in this terrain and misty gray conditions. I gaped at the acres of pasture, the surrounding forest and thought about grass-fed cows and forest foraging.  Hannah spoke about their land management plans.  They hope to follow a system of holistic planned grazing for the 25 hectares of permanent pasture.  Almost 80% of the animal feed is grown on-site. Holistic grazing looks at the grasses available and weighs it against the needs of the cattle. A third is grazed, another portion trampled, and another third left to fallow. Again, it follows mob grazing, mimicking the way that buffalos and grasslands evolved together.  The business of the Farm Retreat as a haven of solitude limits how much Hannah can do for the farm.  Hannah knows she has to balance the needs of the Retreat Farm with the gifts or challenges of the land.

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Hannah, showing us the clay soil of 42Acres

Saving our Soils, Saving Ourselves

At the beginning of the IFOAM course, our teacher asked us why we took the course. My reply was; To regenerate myself.  I looked at the breadth of the 42 Acre Retreat Farm and felt overwhelmed. How would I work this land so I can harvest a bounty from it, and yet, feed it back more than what I take?    I looked at the breadth of the earth and felt engulfed by the immensity of its degradation, the loss of carbon, the quality of our food. How does one listen to the already exhausted earth?  How do we remain stewards of the landscape, the animals, and yet also, stewards of ourselves?  How do we work the land so that we harness the magical powers of the millions of microbes, fungi, roots and plants that can remove carbon dioxide from our atmosphere, convert it to plant material and organic matter for humus, and even bequeath us with good food?

We have tried countless times to address the food crisis, the global climate crisis, and have already designed, developed, standardised a great many systems (and words!) for it.  It may be that Regenerative Farming is just another terminology, call it the true version of organic agriculture, the refinement for where organic agriculture went wrong. I have my hopes up.  Because at last, healthy living soil is now included in our conversation about food production.

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I felt the ground shift under my feet.  The crisis is in our soil. And yet, our salvation may be in there too.

Even the broken letters of the heart, spell earth.  -Daniel Thompson

Urban Farming: A GIY (Grow It Yourself) Workshop

This workshop is especially for those interested in starting their own urban kitchen garden in a patio, veranda, or even indoors, while practicing sustainable, organic and biodynamic methods. We are combining the wisdom and hands-on expertise of real farmers and homesteader. For would-be and aspiring farmers, this is a rare and powerful learning opportunity.

During the workshop, you will have the opportunity to:

  • Learn to grow healthy food to eat and also have a kitchen “farm-acy” for herbs and medicinal plants;
  • Gain a basic understanding of biodynamic growing, permaculture, agro-forestry and sustainable agriculture practices. In particular, we introduce a method of transforming your small space into an urban garden.
  • Making compost for small spaces;
  • Learn practical skills to grow food in your small space or even indoors;
  • Plan your kitchen garden, including the edible plants that you may successfully grow; and
  • Start to culture and raise earthworms in your home
  • Sprouting and using plants for continuous planting and harvesting cycles.

In collaboration with SLOWFOOD MANILA.

 

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DATE AND TIME:  The Urban Farming Workshop will be held on October 26 Saturday.  The Workshop starts at 9:30 AM with a short break in the morning.  Lunch is from 12:30-1:30.  It ends at 3:30.  Some practical work is included. We will discuss building soil and composting, growing your garden and vermiculture.  

VENUE

The workshop will be held at the 2nd Floor, DowntoEarth Farm Store Cafe, 7433 Makati Curb Holdings, Yakal St., Makati.  

Map to our Venue

MEALS: All meals are included in the workshop fee. Healthy yet scrumptious meals made of local, organic or sustainable ingredients will be served. Please bring your own water bottles, plates and utensils. If you have any food allergies or preferences, please inform us so that we can discuss how your food needs can be met.

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ABOUT THE SPEAKER:

Nicolo Aberasturi is the President of Flower Depot, a flower grower and retailer of organic and bio-dynamic flowers, and the President of DowntoEarth, a grower and supplier of biodynamic vegetables, and pasture-raised meat, pork, dairy, poultry, smoked and cured meats. He is a Trustee of the Organic Producers Trade Association of the Philippines and a member of the Philippine Biodynamics Association.

Nicolo has been in farming for 20 years and began practicing sustainable agriculture in 2004, while applying bio-dynamics in 2007. Today he manages Earth Flora, a vegetable and flower farm in Dahilayan, Bukidnon, using sustainable and humane agricultural practices. In 2011, he returned to his roots in cattle farming and is now working or networking with small family farms, to raise animals in the pasture.

DowntoEarth grows vegetables using bio- dynamics and sustainable practices. It raises livestock sustainably and works with a network of sustainably family farmers and ranchers in Mindanao. All of DowntoEarth’s animals have been raised on pasture. DowntoEarth is dedicated to ensure traditional, all-natural, humane and sustainable methods for growing crops and raising animals for food.

PAYMENT OPTIONS

FEE: P2500 (includes lunch, snack and all course materials.)

Group Discounts are also available.

To ensure your place, please send full payment by Oct. 20 2019.  You can pay via bank deposit or personally at our shop (Makati Curb Holdings,  #7433 Ground Floor, Unit J, Yakal St., San Antonio Village, Makati City.  Alternatively, you can pay us at our DowntoEarth booth in the Salcedo or Legaspi markets on Saturday or Sunday. 

Bank Deposit Details:

Deposit to BPI Account (Arnaiz Ave. branch) Account Name: Earth Flora Inc. Account Number: 9661-0147-65

Checks are accepted. Please issue the check under the name of Earth Flora Inc.

Early registration is advised, as slots are limited. If you have deposited, please scan the deposit slip and email it to info@downtoearth.ph.  Once your payment has been received, confirmation will be sent with a receipt and further details about what to bring.

*Cancellation Policy

If for some reason you cannot make it to the workshop, a fee of P500 will be charged to cover administration costs up to two weeks prior to the commencement of the workshop and the balance will be refunded to you. Within 1 week of the workshop commencing however, a 50% cancellation fee will be charged. If for some reason the workshop is cancelled, you will receive at least 2 weeks notice and your full payment will be refunded. 

If you have other questions, please let us know or SMS 0917-6731947

Food Growing People, see you this Saturday!

Chicken walking on green pasture

Food Growing Peeps:

See you on Saturday!  Some information to make sure you don’t chicken out! 🙂

VENUE:

The workshop will be held at Clubhouse of Hacienda Sta. Elena, Barrio Malitlit, Sta. Rosa, Laguna.  

FROM SLEX / SOUTHBOUND: Exit Cabuyao / Sta Elena. After tollgate, make a right. About 500 meters is the Sta. Elena Village Gate. Enter there and follow the sign to the Fun Farm.  There is a gate at the end of the road (after Fun Farm,) exit there.  Turn left and follow the road until you see the Hacienda Sta. Elena gate. Enter the gate and ask for directions to the Clubhouse. 

FROM TAGAYTAY/STA ROSA ROAD: Make a left into Sta. Elena City (it is before Nuvali). You will pass Fontamara homes, Mesa Homes, Augusta, then you will reach Georgia Club Rotonda. Make right at the Rotonda. It is a long road. You will see walled communities such as Belle Reve on the right. At the end of the road is another Rotonda, make a left. Follow the long road until you see the Hacienda Sta. Elena gate.  Enter the gate and ask for directions to the Clubhouse. 

PUBLIC TRANSPORT: Take the bus to Balibago, then take a tricycle ride from Sta. Rosa exit (tricycle terminal) to Sta. Elena City.

MEALS: All meals are included in the workshop fee. Healthy yet scrumptious meals made of local, organic or sustainable ingredients will be served. Please bring your own water bottles. Please make sure you have submitted our Registration Form so we can take note of any food allergies or preferences.   

If you have a driver or other companions, there are restaurants and shops 15 minutes away from the venue.  

ATTIRE:  Please wear appropriate attire for a workshop. Come in your casual/everyday wear.  While the presentations will be in a covered pavilion, some field work may require us to go outdoors and get dirty. Bring a hat or a shawl/scarf.  You might want to wear rubber shoes or flip-flops, or carry your garden boots. 

TO BRING: Please bring what you need for note-taking.  The weather is unpredictable. Come prepared for rain or heat at mid-day. Waterproof boots might be good! Seed packs, potting soil or Biodynamic preparations may be available for sale so bring extra cash if you are planning to buy. 

See you in a few days!

Paula and Nicolo

You can Bet the Farm

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They say: “You’re living my dream.” They have fantasies of moving to the country and growing their food. They picture sitting in the patio nestled in green with a breakfast of just-hatched orange yolk eggs, a salad of sun-warmed tomatoes, or a fluffy omelet of just picked herbs and arugula.  They imagine waking up to the chirping of birds, the whiff of fresh air, and then tending to the sprouts in the garden with a nice straw hat and a cotton tee. Later, they will sit in their lawn chair and sip iced tea made from the climbing blue vine, take an afternoon nap, and then read a homesteading book in a cozy garden nook, with magnificent dragonflies dancing.

Not.

This idyllic life does not exist. Alright I’m eating just hatched golden eggs. But to get to that, I rouse to 7 roosters crowing- when the sun rises. And right, I do get a crisp salad with the colors of the rainbow. But to get to lunch, I need to get a whiff of manure, listen to the hens every clucking minute as they lay the golden egg, and the dragonflies? They dance alongside flies the size of of raisins. There’s no sound of quiet. Instead there is a cacophony of: the bee humming; the noisier buzz of the fly who deems best to buzz in my ear; the white noise of the grass cutter; someone sawing and hammering; workers chattering (and playing sad love songs); alright a bird chirping; and chickens squawking. So what, if backyard chickens are the new “it” pet?

Honestly, someone has to lay it bare. And who else but a girl from the city who married into farming and is now living with 70 chickens and 4 compost heaps.

Like you, I didn’t think farming required such drudgery and dirt. My father was a farmer. Well, a farmer from Negros, where hacienderos didn’t do a great deal except have long conversations about vast landholdings over gin and and hunt the fields. And like you, I fancied a countryside home with a kitchen garden.  Except that there’s a huge gap between browsing through hipster farm pictures and shovelling compost.

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First, you will never have your garden back. The chickens will scratch and dig up your lawn and even your ornamental plants. The chicken coop is only cute on Instagram. It’s dark and messy, and it has you breaking your back every day as you clean it. And months before I got my leafy beds of turmeric, corn, okra and eggplant, or the climbing vines of squashes and beans, I lived in misery. I would stare at beds that resembled burial mounds, and mourn a garden that was now a dirt yard with black seedling trays. You can dream all you want, but that pumpkin won’t turn into a coach. It won’t even become a pumpkin so easily.

Second, no one gardens with a nice straw hat and a pretty shovel. (Even when my yard work consists of just weeding and keeping the garden neat and trim.) You need to wear pants and long sleeves or you’re all bites and scraped knees. You don’t wear flip flops or nice boots either. It’s the cheap water-resistant ones you need. The hat is a hindrance and so I’ve cast it for a bandana instead. It’s not for shade, it’s for the leaky faucet on my head.

Third, there’s no hobby farm. Farm life, the one that gives you golden eggs and salad days, is tedious. It’s muddy boots that houses a frog. It’s the same shit on different days. It’s a hallway of dirt tracks, and where tracks lead to the bathroom, to the yard, and back again. It’s a truck, a van, a car caked with soil. It’s a backyard hobby that gets out of control. It’s the whole gamut of an ecosystem: climate change, and soil, and seed, and sapling, and tree and fruit. And while I admit the rewards are worth their weight in golden eggs, still you will need a shitload (pun intended) of patience, some tears, the ringing of ears, muscle power and spotted legs.

And so this is my advice to you: urban dweller, city kid with a tract of land somewhere, hipster, or another gal who wants to save the world one food garden at a time: To embrace this idyllic life, you will need grit and you will need soul. You’ll need to be bitten hard by the farming bug. And I know the hubby will shoot me for nipping some people’s farming dreams, but I daresay: before throwing it all for the farm life, try it first. Muck around with it.  Don’t quit your day job until your feet are long wet. Perhaps spend days in a working farm, the School of Hard Knocks. Try ingesting the daily rhythms of a farm life (try ingesting the dung too.) If there’s no way to volunteer or apprentice, start with a small parcel and befriend soil and sweat. Small and slow. Do it for a year or two. Then, you’ll know if you’re infected by the bug and if eggs are worth all the trouble; if you prefer flocks to your gadgets; or collecting eggs to collecting antiques; or the bitter smell of manure to air-conditioning.

Your gut will know. And especially, your heart will know if it’s the right place. You should yearn for it the way you crave black coffee or the sea. The way you don’t mind a racing heart and being revved up all day. The way you won’t mind sunburn and welts, or stings and sand mites. I have a husband whose eyes light up when he sees a brood of chickens, and whose nose will follow the scent of manure anywhere. He wakes up at 4:00 AM to shovel earth, and yes he yearns for it like an exquisite cup of coffee. Otherwise, throw away well laid-out plans for the vegetable beds, let the farm go, and return to watching nice farm videos.

And I’ll bet the farm on this one.

iHola Patola!

The way to the every man’s heart is through the pleasure of his stomach. And just this weekend, our native and indigenous fruits, flowers and vegetables, bearing with it a distinct Filipino tradition, won quite a number of hearts.

Recovering Tradition

Our deepest sense of identity lies in our food. A fistful of sampaloc in our soup, a nip of sili in patis, even a whiff of vinegar rising from a simmering Adobo, these carry snippets of memory, a time, and a place. Except that we have forgotten a handful of our flavors, have chosen to import grapes and Gruyere, or now fancy that a banquet is only a banquet when there’s a carving of imported roast beef. And so we pressure our farmers to grow temperate plum tomatoes or chunky lettuce heads, and then snub the lean and mean Southern Yellow cow. Our Ligaw cherry tomatoes seem puny and unworthy of a salad and our cows? Well, “tough” luck.

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But this weekend offered hope in a platter. Suddenly, the chefs only fancied local produce. Suddenly, consumers were getting all worked up on the Pancit Pancitan growing in their garden. And suddenly, the small family farmer, the piaya artisan, even the Manong who traditionally concocts sinamak, took center stage. It was an entire weekend of haute cuisine and there we were, exchanging stories about seed and grain, and the food gardens and kitchens of our grandmothers.

More than the food porn, the moving feasts, and the parade of ogle-worthy chefs, Madrid Fusion Manila opened our eyes (and our bellies) to new gastronomy: one that was based on biodiversity; on reviving local tradition; and on rediscovering our native, indigenous and once-loved fruits, flowers and vegetables.

National Treasures

The spotlight was on the unsung Sua and the stony Tabon Tabon, as chefs pinched and smelled, grated and squeezed, knocked and cracked open the secret ingredients for Mindanao’s killer kinilaw.


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And then there was our flamboyant grain. Foreigners and Filipinos were gushing over the Igorot black rice from the uplands, where they still flood 2000-year old rice paddies and thresh the grain with their hands. The colors were ravishing: dark and multi-faceted. The flavor was nutty. I had to write “Precious sample. Please do not steal,” as these grains were only available six months in a year. Though once I gave in and went home to feast on Pata Negra. as I finally bartered our precious grains for the Espanols’ precious tapa, 2 for 2.

And they were wild about our wild flowers too: hibiscus, pigeon pea (kadios), the Butterfly Blue pea, and even the wild berries we had just foraged off our garden. There was a quite a buzz about our “Buzz Buttons,” and I’d notice one guy bring back one, two, and a whole enchilada to sample the buzzing of the buttons on their tongues.

Then there’s the Adlai, the chefs’ manna from heaven and I believe an answer to our food sovereignty 10360456_1066532416710019_4428287769840092154_nand security. This ancient grain has been cultivated for centuries by the indigenous people of Mindanao- the Talaandigs and the Bagobos. Aptly named as Job’s Tears, the grains are tear-shaped, with a texture similar to risotto or quinoa. I munched my way through lunch with Adlai croquettes and had a bite too many of the Black Heritage pork belly over Adlai.

Shorter Chain a.k.a. Farm to Fork

Today’s cliché in the culinary world is “Farm to Table” or “Farm to Fork.” I often gripe about the injustice or the charade, because often it still is the trader that gets the food to everyone’s table. But this gastronomy weekend gives us grounds for hope. Hope for local farmers and small family farms: for those without the trucks and the forklifts; for those who choose to grow food enough for only a few baskets; for those who harvest and plant their own seeds; for those who choose to work the land as their ancestors; and for those who take pride and joy in keeping the earth. Perhaps now or a few years hence, they won’t have to sell short their treasures to the trader at the farm gate. They won’t have to trade their bounty for peanuts. And because chefs and consumers now have a heart for the unsung Sua, the lean Southern Yellow cow, the tear-shaped Adlai, and the multicoloured rice, our farmers won’t give up tradition, and a bounty of national treasures can stay at the table.

Open Pollinated or Heirloom Seeds: Now Available

Open-Pollinated, from True Seed. Open pollinated means the plants are pollinated naturally, by insects, birds, the wind. Plants that grow from open pollinated seeds will give you seeds that will again produce new generations of the same plants. These seeds are untreated and free of pesticides.  They are also not genetically-modified.

An heirloom seed is one that has been passed down from generation to generation, usually for over 50 years.

We are making available these seeds so you can plant and sow them, save seeds and hopefully, grow them so we can keep seeding the planet.

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A Sense of Humus

We just capped a weekend workshop of backyard farming. There we were, mostly urban dwellers raised on store-bought vegetables and Chippy. We were out in the sun for practical work. I had warned them about hats and garden boots but the urban dwellers fancied sneakers or sandals, an umbrella and Rayban sunglasses. We gawked at the farmers with their shovels of earth. They layered the compost pit with dried-up leaves and horse poop like lasagna. A flabby milk-white worm wriggled out of the compost that was supposedly every farmer’s manna from heaven.

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Someone blurts out: “What’s that? Someone replies: “A snake?”

They were probably wondering how on earth they were going to build the same biodynamic compost in their backyard. It entails hours of stirring a pail of water to the infinity sign, months of watching the lasagna turn to mush, and keeping the pit moist until it smells like the earth after a rain. And that’s merely the compost.

A couple tried their hand at breaking and turning soil. “Use your left foot! Not too deep! Not there!” the spectators gave counsel, their arms defiantly folded over the chest. A volunteer protests: “But it looked so easy when you (the farmer) were doing it!”

When you grow up in the city, you tend to have an idealized notion of farming. It’s the man with a cowboy hat and, in our tropical world, wearing slippers. It’s a life of rolling plains, of sowing, of having nature take its course, and of one day harvesting a row of lettuce heads and rosemary. It is pastoral and slow paced. You read a book with a cup of coffee until your seeds germinate and the flowers wake up.

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Now you have a weekend of theory and an hour or so under the sun and you see it is neither pastoral nor slow. You’re not just reading a book with coffee, you’re trying to grasp every plant and why peppers won’t thrive where you live. You’re sensing the woolly bug and keeping up with his life story. Farming is abuzz and fierce. You have a trillion things thriving, multiplying and dying: bacteria and microbes, bugs and earthworms, aphids and leaf miners, and in the midst all these- a tiny sprout that’s trying to break free. And then intensify that with the mighty elements, the phases of the moon, the unrelenting rain, and humus that you need to keep alive.

You now understand why some farmers will snap up a magic pill. It gives them twice or thrice the yield with a flick of the wrist. They wouldn’t have to dig pits and layer it up to their waists. There’s no getting down on their knees to cover beds with mulch, or to line it with canals. They don’t have to wait for ladybugs to visit and eat aphids. They don’t have to lose sleep over holes or black spots, as they can pellet disease with pesticide spray. They don’t have to agonize over what to plant, where, or when. There’s no brewing of manure, worm castings or fish waste for tea compost. And without fail, they get shiny and plump vegetables that look (and taste) like plastic every time. IMG_5598

(Except that a year hence, the patch of ground that bequeathed the bumper crop is half-dead and needs a cocktail of chemicals to keep alive. And the bugs have borne bugs resistant to poison, which are back with a vengeance. The farm goes bald losing precious topsoil. The water is tainted. And, as the beds lose its hold on water and minerals, all manner of life- the microbes, the worm, the bugs, the birds, the bees, take exodus. The handful of dirt is no longer teeming with life. It’s just a handful of dirt.)

And so you begin to appreciate the drudgery and toil of growing food, and doing it without magical formulas and cure-all sprays. You catch sight of farming, and how, from compost to a first crop, it is a way of life. The devoted farmer is far more than a man with a cowboy hat. Farming seeks out those who delight in humus, the smell of dung or rotten peels, and invisible things that may one day poke their heads from down below. It seeks out those who can be intimate with the intangible, with the forces that sprout seeds and make flowers bloom. The select few who get down on their knees digging, weeding, picking grubs, praying for sun and fearing too much rain. The handful that choose backbreaking labor over a magic pill, just so they can keep the earth alive. Especially, you see how all these hours end at the farm gate dependent on a market that does not fully appreciate working with the land. On a market that insists on temperate crops in a tropical country. On consumers who pressure farmers to grow the most difficult vegetable, and then frown at its commensurate variable in price.

I do not know much about the work at our farm. I often just behold the fruits of the harvest, in crates, each tomato wrapped in banana leaves. Except that a weekend of backyard farming has given me a glimpse of how the crate gets to my farm store, and the toil needed so I could earn a living from working with the land.

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I see you now. And this girl who grew up buying vegetables at the supermarket will now pause and give grace before every meal. Especially because you opted for backbreaking labor over a magic pill, and still managed to keep your sense of humus.