Table to farm is the name we’ve given to September’s labor day event. Twenty folks from the staff of Husk restaurant spent the day at the farm. In light of the popularity of Farm to Table dinners, the importance of restaurants learning first hand how food is produced seems paramount.
I was picking tomatoes with Gordon, a former Husk employee who just happened to be visiting, when they arrived. We moved to the shade of a big oak tree and I explained what they were observing. Agriculture arises out of how the growth of plants and the digestion of animals work together to create and maintain soil fertility.
Questions started coming and never ceased. Why does the farm have to have cows, how can you grow eight acres of vegetables with no irrigation, what does Biodynamics mean, and how we keep the soil so loose and free of weeds were but a few of the topics I addressed. We discussed the soil food web and the feeding of microbes through photosynthesis to explain what was happening.
There was surprise when I mentioned that a live humus soil contains as many microbes in a spoonful as there are people on the planet, 7,000,000,000. These carbon-ingesting microbes live off of what exits the plant roots, which are the carbohydrates formed from the photosynthesis that occurs in leaves. This is where hydrogen from the sun joins with carbon dioxide from the air. Microbes work of eating atmospheric carbon helps get the excess in the air back into the soil.
The mystery of nitrogen required clarification. As the inert gas comprising 78% of air, nitrogen is the tightly bonded to itself and difficult to break free. Life in the soil can do it, and that’s how it was always done until 1914, by all farms having animals, and growing legumes.
Germany was blockaded by England at the beginning of WWI to sources of nitrate, a necessary ingredient for gun powder. Scientists there figured out how to synthesize nitrogen from the atmosphere and weapons facilities sprouted up all over Germany. They sold weapons to the German military, and England’s, too, thus prolonging WWI for five more years. A new power structure emerged and then enlarged after the war as these facilities became fertilizer factories.
Gun powder and fertilizer are made from the same three elements: nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. As these in the salt form as fertilizers destroy the soil’s microbial ability to feed plants, use of them created a dependence on them. Agricultural education then shifted to crops with chemicals and animals in confinement.
After helping harvest tomatoes, we toured the various gardens and fields, admiring the compost-rich soils teeming with life. Nitrates uptake in plants cause sugar to be used up and make the plants less sweet. So our farm uses no composted chicken litter, fish emulsion, cottonseed meal, leather or feather meal, or chilean nitrate, all of which are allowed on organic farms. We never spray anything for bugs, but rely on healthy soil instead.
It was hot and I was getting boring, so we went for a swim in the beautiful Long Hungry Creek. After touring more gardens and feeling soft, deep soils, I was asked about irrigation. We don’t need it because with deep tillage and shallow surface tillage the annual rainfall soaks in, is conserved, and then waters the crop with mineral-rich subsoil moisture that rises up through capillary action.
Where is the greenhouse? We don’t have a plastic hoop house, or plastic mulches with plastic drip tape underneath. We farm in a very traditional, old-time way, growing in-season vegetables. The herd of cows were enjoyed, and I explained that the rise of civilization depended on cattle’s unique ability to make more land fertile than their own needs required.
Back at the barn we enjoyed tomato and ham salad sandwiches, potato salad and watermelon. This event was free, as we’d been shown that food on a farm has little to do with external economy. Everything needed for agricultural production comes from within the farm’s borders. We would be honored to host any other restaurant staff for a fun, educational day at a table to farm tour and dinner.