“I, the Once-ler”

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.”

I used to think that was the moral of the Dr. Suess book, “The Lorax”. I’m pretty sure that’s what most people think. Now, having read the story about 200 times in the last year to my book-hungry two-year-old (yes, I can recite almost all of it, I practice in the shower sometimes) I’m pretty sure the moral is smack-dab in the middle of the book.

For those of you who haven’t read it in a while, or at all, here is my quick summary: a young boy wanders to the outskirts of town seeking the “Once-ler”, a hermit who lives in a decrepit old building.  For a small fee, “15 cents and a nail and the shell of a great, great, great grandfather snail,” he pays the Once-ler to tell him the tale about the Lorax. The Once-ler starts by telling about himself, when he first came to the area, an enthusiastic entrepreneur, he arrived in the truffula tree forest, and started a business making “Thneeds” out of truffula tufts (“a thneeds a fine something that all people need”).

After he makes his first thneed the Lorax appears out of the tree he chopped down.  He is essentially a forest spirit, charged with protecting the trees and the creatures that live in the forest. He asks the Once-ler not to chop down the trees and the Once-ler argues he is, “doing no harm,” and “being quite useful” and continues to build an empire out of chopping truffula trees to make thneeds, which “everyone, Everyone, EVERYONE needs.”

Just as we start to learn of the ramifications of the Once-ler’s “hacking the trees to the ground” the true moral comes. The Lorax comes to the Once-ler and tells him the Barbaloots (bear-like creatures that eat truffula fruits) will have to leave the forest because there is not enough food left.

“They loved living here but I can’t let them stay. They’ll have to find food and I hope that they may. Good lucks, boys, he cried. And he sent them away.”

Here it comes . . .

“I, the Once-ler, felt sad
as I watched them all go.
BUT. . .
business is business!
And business must grow
regardless of crummies in tummies you know.”

Am I right?

The Once-ler and his family (and indirectly everyone buying Thneeds) destroy the forest, pollute the water and soil and then just leave with their money when there is nothing left to harvest. They can’t be bothered by starving animals, polluted water or air, they’ve got to get “BIGGER”.

By the time the boy comes to hear the story of the Lorax the soil is still so polluted that only “Grickle-grass grows”. And then, the Once-ler has the audacity to suggest that the Lorax’s final message was that this boy (or someone like him), who had no role in the destruction of the forest, should somehow with ‘the very last truffula seed of them all’ (think of the limited gene potential) and a toxic wasteland rebuild what he destroyed . . .

It’s preposterous.

Yes, someone like us must care a whole awful lot.  But everyone has to care enough to check themselves when they are being a Once-ler and a thneed-buyer and creating the problems others will have to deal with in the future. We all do it. How often do we do the wrong thing when it comes to the environmental or social repercussions of our actions?  I’m so concerned with my impact on the world that it’s practically crippling and yet I still do, and buy and say (or don’t say) things that have a negative impact on others.

It’s impossible to exist without negatively impacting others or taking up space that could be taken up by something else. The greatest challenge presented to us as humans, capable of realizing our impact, both present and future, is deciding what that impact will be. It is so un-sexy to deeply and actively care about how our actions and purchases affect the rest of the world. It’s definitely not what the marketers are telling us to think and feel. I even read articles by activists that suggest being concerned about the social and environmental impact of our individual purchases is a waste of time.

There are so many of us and we consume so much and produce so much waste. The only choice left if we will not take individual responsibility is to enforce policy.  What if there had been regulations in place that ensured the Once-ler harvested the truffula trees in a sustainable way? Would there still be a forest? Would the Once-ler still be making thneeds? But regulation gets in the way of ‘the free market’ and individual freedom to dominate resources when possible, and they are hard to create and hard to enforce.

The line, “business is business” is homage to capitalism. To the idea that businesses are so essential to our collective well-being that we must make allowances, and turn the other cheek, regardless of the consequences. But too often the consequences are indirect or, the Once-lers of the world hide the impacts to protect their bottom line, and their shareholders. Or the consequences only affect marginalized people (or people who don’t exist yet) who don’t have the resources to protect their rights.

Staying optimistic is really hard, especially if you aren’t very optimistic to begin with (like me). But without optimism, without believing that our actions are meaningful, that small change is important, that our own voices matter as do those around us, we won’t be able to reach any kind of solution.

I’m not offering a solution here, but, since it’s earth day I will suggest that you ask yourself before you buy something:

  1. Was a person exploited to make this (under-paid, exposed to unsafe working conditions . . . if we can’t take care of people we can’t take care of the environment)
  2. Will this be garbage some day? (Wood, natural cloth, metal, glass, food . . . these things will decompose or burn or are easily recycled , they will become something else – its plastic mostly that will inevitably be garbage and it comes in so many forms. Also, services, like music lessons, vising a museum, listening to a podcast are pretty low impact.)
  3. Do I really need this? Will it meet a need, will it make me happy for more than a moment?
  4. What else could I do instead? Is there a place where I can get this used? Is there a lower-impact option?

Changing our buying habits is a start, but it won’t be enough. Consider advocating for policy, like the plastic bag ban in Ashland, MA. Its a small impact compared to the 4,000,000,000,000 bags used world wide annually. But it can influence other towns to join, or maybe even the state or the nation?

Oh, and be nice in the process. It’s hard to not be self-righteous and judgmental and condescending and rude. I struggle with it too.  It comes from a place of frustration and feeling overwhelmed with global problems that will require epic collaboration to resolve. But it doesn’t help, and when people feel defensive, they are less likely to listen, and even less likely to change. So be kind, be understanding, and believe, that if given the chance and enough information, people will want to do the right thing. And remember, we are privileged to even have the space and time to write and read this post and consider our impact. If someone is struggling to meet their basic needs, or the needs of their family, how can anyone nit-pick their purchasing decisions? Advocating for social justice is a step towards environmental sustainability and more important than recycling or buying ecologically friendly things. People who are taken care of are more capable of taking care of others and the world around them.

We use too much plastic on our farm (seedling trays, soil bags, greenhouse skin, row cover, soil bags . . .). We are working to reduce the plastic on our farm, but in the mean time we will continue to use it for as long as it is usable, source it as responsibly as possible and recycle whatever can be recycled, even if it means driving to special recycling facilities to do so.

We also still do a fair amount of tillage to prepare the soil for planting. Ever since I became aware of no-till production about five years ago I have run minor experiments, and paid attention to soil quality and crop quality when it comes to tillage, and I can tell you, less tillage=healthier soil=healthier crops. The problem? We are squeezed onto a small acreage trying to make enough money to stay in business when real farming is barely a viable option in our area. If we had long term security we’d be investing heavily in a variety of improvements to lessen our impact on the soil. But for now we will continue to use minimal tillage, grow cover crops, and work towards long-term land security. And be aware and care.

We can’t have no impact, but we will do our best to have the least impact possible, and to constantly improve, because we love this world, we love life and beauty and joy, and we want to preserve, protect and promote that for as many others as possible.

Happy Earth Day!

Preparing and Planting the Tunnels for the Spring Share

Morgan and Erin planting Spinach last Thursday morning.

When Bob Durling emailed last week asking if there was anything to take pictures of at the farm, I got inspired. We were planning on planting the tunnels on Thursday, and wouldn’t it be cool to document the process and then put it on the blog? Well, the stars aligned, Bob was available and the weather cooperated, so, ta-da! Here is a narrative and some excellent pictures describing how we plant the tunnels.

Our Tunnels are 12’x72′, with hoops spaced every 4′. Their rounded shape (refereed to as ‘quonset style’) is not sufficient to support the snow load of a typical New England winter, and their narrowness does not allow them to hold very much thermal energy, so we take the plastic off in winter, usually around Christmas, and put it back on the first week of March. This year, we let the heavy snow of early March fall before we covered: first, so we didn’t have to worry about the tunnels collapsing and second because we didn’t get much precipitation this winter, and it’s actually good for the soil to get a natural ‘flushing’ before being covered again.

We then let the soil warm and dry before spreading compost (roughly 2 yards per house). We don’t use much compost on this land because there is very high phosphorus and potassium, so adding compost (a source of both) is not recommended. But, the tunnels produce so much food each year, we like to start with a healthy dose of compost both to add slow release nutrition and as a soil conditioner. Humus, which is fully decomposed organic matter, has a slightly negative charge and can hold water and other positively charged minerals like calcium and magnesium, increasing their availability to our crops. (We did the compost the day before we did the photo-shoot, and didn’t take pics, but you can imagine Erin and Kevin shoveling rich, dark, beautiful compost off the back of the big black truck.) We buy in from Weston Nurseries in Hopkinton – it’s certified organic and high quality.

To prep the beds we first marked the center of our pathways (two per house) and used a shovel to dig them just slightly deeper than our beds, tossing the soil from the pathways into the beds. This makes our pathways clearer to see and it also helps to use the fertility of the pathway soil. We then use a broad fork (see Morgan in brown hat above on right and left) to gently loosen the soil by inserting the fork, lifting the soil just enough to loosen, then doing the same thing about 1 foot away. The soil is lifted by rocking the handles back, so there isn’t any physical lifting of soil, but still plenty of physical effort. It’s a good spring workout! Then we rake the beds level, and remove any remaining weeds (yes! there were plenty of chickweed plants that survived being uncovered from January to March).

The soil is already fairly loose and we try not to invert it when possible, so we don’t do much more than this to prep the beds. Oh! we do add a slow release organic fertilizer to provide a little extra nitrogen for our hungry spring greens.

We shake the fertilizer on by hand. The label pictured above, from the fertilizer bag, is an important one to know. It means the product has been approved for organic use by the Organic Materials Review Institute. If you are someone who cares about organic gardening, this is a good website to check out and an important label to know.

We use minimal amounts of granular fertilizer in our tunnels because they can cause a salt built up if used excessively, but because we are able to uncover the houses for a few, usually wet, months of the year, we are not too concerned with using small amounts.

The other thing we did (which you can see Kevin working on in the left picture, and Erin working on in the right picture) is install overhead irrigation. The irrigation has small, oscillating emitters that hang from the header tube attached to the ridgepole of the greenhouse. They spray a fine, even, gentle mist that is great for watering in directly seeded crops and transplanted crops. We would never use something like this to water tomatoes, because they are highly susceptible to fungal leaf diseases and one of the major benefits of growing them in protected environments is controlling the moisture. But, it doesn’t hurt to let the overhead hang there all summer and then water the fall greens in September/October.

Our spinach, which was seeded 3 seeds per cell in 128 flats on March 1st was showing some signs of nitrogen deficiency. The pointy leaves that you see in the close-up on the far left are the cotyledons, the pre-formed leaves inside the seed casing that are first to emerge when the seed germinates. Their slight yellow coloration is an indication that they are deficient in nitrogen. We use an excellent point soil mix from Vermont Compost which almost always is sufficient for our seedlings until transplant, but there was a little bit of 2018 soil left in the soil bin when we started this year, that got mixed in with the first 2019 soil. The 2018 soil got rained on over the winter when the lid came off (we took the bin out of the greenhouse to make room for our winter CSA distribution). Rain leeches nitrogen from soil, which is what we think explains the deficiency.

In any case, they are excellent transplants, despite showing a little hunger, and we gave them a ‘fishing’ for a little nutritional boost. Erin mixed just a tiny glug of fish emulsion (literally super ground up fish guts, the waste product of fish processing) with water and watered all our trays before we carried them on a handy plant stretcher to be planted in the tunnels. This liquid fertilizer is highly available to our plants, which is great for a small boost, but because of its availability it is not very stable, and is not a lasting source of nutrition (unless you keep applying).

We plant the spinach plugs 6″ apart, 4 rows/bed. It took just under 12 flats to plant 3 beds. The other three beds were planted into: direct seeded french breakfast radish, direct seeded arugula, and one bed was half swiss chard transplants, half lascinato kale transplants. The soil is loose enough to plant just with our hands, but the trowels have markings that help us measure how far apart our seedlings are. They are planted in a grid pattern.

We use a Jang Seeder to plant the direct seeded crops. It is a very precise seeding tool with multiple adjustments that allows us to plant the exact number of seeds/foot we desire (after a little fussing with it….).

So now the beds are all planted, watered in and covered with multiple layers of floating row cover at night to keep the soil warm and the frost out of the tunnels. The arugula has already germinated and I’m sure radishes are right behind.

Thursday is our no-child-care day, so Harvey got to ‘help’ a little bit.

Well, I hope you learned something, and got excited about spring vegetables!

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