Anyone who imagines farming is a nonviolent occupation has probably never seen a moldboard plow rip through virgin sod. The plow’s dramatic curved blade could pass for a medieval tool of execution. Pulled through the field, the shank slips effortlessly into the ground, shaving strips of grass carpet from the earth and flipping them over.
There’s a reason, I thought, why untrammeled soil is often referred to as “virgin,” why we “break” new ground. Watching the mangling of this patch was akin to what I would guess a newborn mother feels handing off her eight-day-old son to the mohel — and it wasn’t just the aggressive application of knife to soft flesh. Inverting the soil wreaks havoc on its biology, the health of which I want to nurture and promote, not run roughshod over with heavy machinery. Walking the now-brown fields, thousands of earthworms lay exposed and squirming in the light. And that’s just the life I could see. Untold numbers of microbes invisible to the naked eye must have been exhaling a collective WTF? as their subterranean world was, quite literally, turned on its head.
The fields I’m growing on this season haven’t been in vegetables in a long time. In recent years, they have been hay fields and their root networks are dense and well established. Preparing that ground for my tender annuals is going to require a degree of rough handling I normally wouldn’t choose.
Four days after its run-in with the moldboard the field looked basically unchanged. Flipping over a section revealed succulent green grass, its hearty roots and a heavy Tuesday rain providing more than enough sustenance to survive a few days upside down. So we’ll have to hit again, most likely with a disc harrow that will (hopefully) break up the roots and hasten the process of decomposition.
I elected not to purchase a tractor this season, so all this work is being done by a kindly man named Jerry Reid who does field jobs for several of my neighbors. Jerry seemed far less troubled than I by the wreckage he was inflicting on the fields. He was similarly unperturbed as he discussed future plans to return with a rototiller, another heavy implement not much loved for its tendency to turn well structured soil to dust. And for a guy who works on the clock, he was conspicuously unhurried, happy to linger and indulge a beginning farmer’s high-minded aspirations for his fields.
In his 1991 gardening memoir “Second Nature,” Michael Pollan describes how quickly his lofty ideas about the natural world succumbed to the realities of raising plants. Weeds are just plants growing in the wrong place, he told himself — until lambs quarters and chickweed threatened to devour his vegetables. Chipmunks and raccoons were here before me, he reasoned in declining at first to build anything so gauche as a fence. Gardens might look peaceful, but really they’re arenas of sex and death.
If I had my way, these fields would have been planted in cover crop in the fall and broken up with a mower and spader, the latter an implement that mimics the action of a dozen garden spades poking at the earth — the reality, of course, being far less dainty. But they weren’t. And with my first planting date barely a week away and the first CSA delivery coming several weeks after that, reality is asserting itself. So I’ll offer up my earth to the executioner, wince as he goes about his business and trust that despite the violence that attends its break with the past, I can still nurture this ground to a better state than I found it.
Veteran JTA journalist Ben Harris is chronicling his new life as a Connecticut farmer. Read more of his weekly dispatches here.
From the annals of Jewish farming: In 1943, JTA reported on a story in the Economist about the effects of Jewish immigration to Palestine, noting that Arabs are using tractors to break large tracts of land in the southern part of the country.