Saving Daniel’s Farm
By AMY E. STEIN, MSW, LICSW
Amy E. Stein has a Master’s in Social Work from Rutgers University and has worked with adolescents for fourteen years teaching and counseling in alternative schools, on nature preserves, farms and a wilderness therapy program. She is the author of Fragments: Coping With Attention Deficit Disorder, which offers ecologically-based and interactive approaches for people diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, including environmental education and organic farming. As an artist, she has exhibited and sold oil paintings for over ten years and utilizes art for the intention of creating awareness of environmental concerns.
In 2002, Walt, a farmer friend, lent me a plot of land on his farm along the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. I planted, cultivated and harvested vegetables, herbs, and flowers on every square inch of a quarter of an acre, and taught organic gardening and art to youth in the community, as part of the nonprofit organization initiated by Walt and his wife, Jane, a nurse practitioner.
Beginning on frosty mornings in late winter, I seeded endless flats of romaine, butterhead, and red salad-bowl lettuce in the greenhouse. When the earth thawed, Walt tilled the fields, spread compost, and laid out hundred-foot rows of black plastic mulch with a tractor. I transplanted hundreds of vegetable seedlings into holes we cut into the black plastic; the mulch helps the soil to retain moisture, increases the soil temperature, and smothers weeds. By late April, I harvested my first heads of lettuce and sold them at Walt’s farm stand, local health-food stores, and restaurants.
However, if I had a romantic idea of a year spent farming and thought it a better alternative to working with angry adolescents in alternative schools, the fantasy quickly vanished. I was rudely awakened by the stark realities of farming. It was not until this moment in time that I almost comprehended the reasons farmers shot deer. These gentle, graceful creatures that I loved to watch from afar devoured half of my lettuce crop, especially the sweet morsels of delectable butterhead leaves. Fortunately, floating row covers, fibrous material that covers crops and allows sunlight and rain to permeate, solved the problem. But that was only the beginning. After working in the fields under the blazing sun, I spent hours on the telephone trying to convince restaurant and health-food store owners the importance of buying organic food. One day, after I had driven a half-hour to a health-food market, the owner wrinkled his nose at my “tapered” squash, the result of poor pollination during a rainy week.
It was excruciatingly hot in the drought-ridden remaining days of June, one of the hottest summers on record. I trudged through tiny river towns in garden clogs, bits of compost sticking to my sweat, hauling baskets of lettuce and tomatoes to sell to restaurants. As the summer wore on, flea beetles attacked my arugula, the striped cucumber beetle worked tirelessly overtime to decimate my winter squash and Japanese beetles organized a conspiracy against my basil. I spent hours squashing the cucumber beetle’s eggs. Most of my pepper plants withered and died from white mildew fungus. Upon initially ripening, my plum tomatoes developed blossom end rot and promptly shriveled and die. Fortunately, they revived themselves, but by the end of August, they rotted on the ground because I could not harvest them fast enough.
No one was interested in heirloom Brandywine tomatoes because they looked “ugly”, plump, pink, and mottled. On occasion at the farm stand, I would slice one with a pocketknife and bribe customers to try a piece. After biting into the succulent fruit, they admitted the Brandywines were actually better-tasting than those perfect, unblemished, pesticide-sprayed supermarket tomatoes. Initially, I had trouble selling the patty-pan squash; customers squinted suspiciously at the scallop-shaped vegetables. After I distributed recipes around the farm stand for stuffed patty-pan squash, however, the skeptics diminished in number. And if I was impatient with my small yields of squash in June, by July I harvested more than 200 pounds a week, on occasion with the help of friends. They soon became fair-weather friends, however, once the temperature spiked over 100 degrees with high humidity. I awoke soon after sunrise and was at the farm by seven to harvest on days when it was intolerable to harvest in the afternoons. By nine, I was drenched in pools of sweat, and we often jumped in the river or ran through sprinklers. At home each night in the shower, I scrubbed my feet with a nailbrush for a minimum of ten minutes to remove the dirt, a somewhat futile effort, as the dirt was permanently embedded in my feet and hands by the end of the summer.
Severe thunderstorms cracked my tomatoes and fierce winds ripped out hundreds of tomato cages that required hours of finagling back into the soil. I learned quickly how to splice and repair damaged trickle-tape irrigation before my crops were flooded. Hundreds of basil plants went to seed quickly, so I resorted to pruning them with a chainsaw. On a positive note, sales from the melons and Sungold cherry tomatoes nearly paid my rent one month, although the smell of tomato plants lingered on my fingers for weeks. I grew and bunched zinnias, snapdragons, gomphrena, statice, and celosia flowers, which also sold well.
One of our students, Laura, helped me forage for the larvae of my nemesis, the cucumber beetle. She overturned the massive prickly leaves and cried out, “Larvae!” her blue eyes widening with excitement. She crumpled the leaf, gleefully squashing the larvae. During the egg stage, she enjoyed folding the leaf over the miniscule, golden eggs and listening to them crackle, like the popping of bubble wrap. After we checked the leaves, we gently harvested zucchini, patty-pan, and yellow squash from their vines. During their peak in mid-July, I collected between 200 and 250 pounds of squash each week. We piled them in large straw baskets and lugged them to a cooler filled with water, where we scrubbed the soil from their green and yellow elongated bodies and separated them into different baskets at the stand. Laura and I headed back out to the fields with hand hoes to eradicate the weeds between rows, a tedious job to be done on a weekly basis or the weeds spread like wildfire.
There was a bit of a chill in the evening air as fall impinged upon us at the farm. As I harvested the remaining ripe Brandywines, I observed a new crop clinging to their vines with hopes of ripening before the first frost. But there were already hints of the end of this plant life cycle, as some of the lower leaves had crumpled and fallen to the earth in bits of decay.
Clouds tinged with striking crimson linings swept across the sky, forewarning of a cold front.
Despite the hardships of starting a business, it was a learning experience I did not regret from the moment that I sowed the first seed of lettuce in the greenhouse on a frosty March morning until the time when I would unearth rows of black plastic mulch and compost the withering plants. The experience was analogous to the Buddhist concept of impermanence or to the Christian tenets of death and resurrection.
It is imperative that we address environmental concerns: organic farming, land preservation, improvements in water quality and conservation and sustainable forestry. Implementing changes will subsequently lead to psychological, health, and social benefits for humanity, as well as in our relationships with others. These changes can occur on a grassroots level on farms, as well as in schools. For example, farm stands provide ideal opportunities to promote the concept of organic food, the need to support small-scale organic farms and community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs and to gain support for farmland preservation. A farmer is literally rooted in his or her community and often has established relationships with customers over the years. It is a genuine community-based and relational grassroots approach, as opposed to a representative from an environmental organization who attempts to solicit the support of strangers he or she stops on the streets. Customers often patronize a farm stand because they appreciate vegetables or are avid gardeners. When someone inquires about a Brandywine tomato, this provides an opportunity to open the doors to a conversation on the organic methods used to grow this particular tomato. This often segues into other discussions about health, land preservation, the need to preserve small-scale farms, or environmental education programs. I often posted information at the roadside farm stand about organic food and farming, left recipes for customers, or personally explained to customers how organic vegetables were grown.
Community gardens in vacant urban lots can also serve as another grassroots approach. Community gardens provide opportunities for residents to grow organic vegetables and exchange ideas. Community garden programs for at-risk youth, especially in impoverished urban environments, may lend a sense of empowerment, accomplishment, and local pride and may even lead one to consider a new vocational pursuit, such as in agriculture or horticulture or working in a food bank. In Reclaiming the Commons: Community Farms and Forests in a New England Town, Brian Donahue, a founder of Land’s Sake in 1980, wrote about the community gardening program established in Weston, Massachusetts, for middle-school suburban children. "Better to get them out of the classroom and back on the land," he states. At Land's Sake, youth transplant, hoe and hand-weed crops, stake-up tomatoes and lay down mulch, pick, wash and sell produce on a twenty-five acre organic farm.
Another unlikely community-based platform for educating the public about the nutritional value of organic food, gardening, and land preservation can be homeless shelters. I once proposed the idea of starting a garden to the director of a homeless shelter where I took students to work on various volunteer tasks. She embraced the idea, but wanted us to maintain it. I encouraged her to have the residents cultivate it, as a way to build community, improve self-esteem, and perhaps identify new interests. In Down and Out in Paris and London, author George Orwell proposed that lodging shelters for the homeless maintain small gardens to teach residents the values of nutrition and improve their meager diets of bread and tea.
I encourage members of communities to start environmental education programs on farms and to plant gardens in schools, churches, and homeless shelters. Seek out alternative avenues to educate those in your community who may be more willing to listen in a different context, one where the outcomes are directly observable. It is easier to understand the need to preserve land at a farm that distributes information to its customers or where farmers and employees have the rare opportunity to take a few minutes out of the day to discuss organic methods of growing vegetables, or even offer workshops to the community on such topics as organic gardening.
Years ago in Pennsylvania, I taught environmental education to at-risk youth in alternative high schools. Sarah*, a sixteen-year old student, assisted an elderly man with his chores on a dilapidated farm after school. Developers wanted to purchase the land and build a townhouse community. Volunteering her time, Sarah initiated a campaign to attempt to save the farm from development. In the community, she collected 130 signatures from residents who supported preservation of the farm. Her work evolved into a yearlong high school graduation project, required of all potential diploma recipients. I advised Sarah throughout the year and on occasion, accompanied her to the farm.
On a sunny day in late September just as the leaves revealed faint hints of amber and crimson red, I drove over to the farm after school. Sarah waited for me on the front porch of a late 1800s Queen Anne style brick house. I swapped my clogs for a pair of worn hiking boots and walked over to the sunken front porch. A thin, elderly man with a long, gray beard and sunken cheeks sat in a rickety wooden chair. I extended my hand and introduced myself.
“Daniel,” he answered softly, his dark brown eyes studying my face.
He waved his hand, gesturing to the surrounding land.
“I’ve lived here for 79 years. I watched my father plow this land, with horses. All I ask is to die here in peace. I was born here and I’ll die here. Our family has been settled here since 1798, seven generations.”
“Who wants to buy this land?” I asked.
“Fairview Builders. This is the last remaining parcel of farmland in town that can be developed. My niece and nephew own the property, but they don’t want to be bothered with it.”
He explained that the property had a spring, as well as buried clay tile from a family affiliated with a well-known tile museum. He encouraged us to dig for the spring because it might preclude housing development.
He smiled. “Thanks for anything you can do.”
Sarah and I grabbed shovels and walked out to the fields in the unusually warm late September air. The late-afternoon sun shone over fields of goldenrod, jimson weed, pokeweed, and purple loosestrife. As we walked, two white-tailed deer bounded through the fields in the near distance. We watched transfixed, until we could see only their white tails.
“Do you want to start in here?” Sarah asked, motioning toward a pile of debris in the woods. “There could be something in here.”
“Sure, why not?” With shovels in hand, we crawled through mud and brush; thorns tore at my jeans. Rusty pieces of tractor equipment, an old sink, shoes, a bed frame, and beer bottles littered the ground. I grabbed my shovel and glanced at the sun hovering above the trees. “I don’t think we’re going to find much else here. Let’s go try and find the spring before it gets dark.” As we walked, the ground became very moist, and my shoes slowly started to sink into the mud.
“I think we’re getting close!” Sarah exclaimed. She ducked under a dense thicket and began to crawl forward. I peered through the underbrush and watched her before I decided to follow.
“Come on!” she yelled. “I think there’s something here!”
I nearly crawled on the ground, gingerly parting the thorn branches. Sarah was standing in a small clearing, staring at the ground. “It’s pretty moist here.”
I shook my head. “Not enough. Let’s call it a day and come back tomorrow.”
She sighed and reluctantly grabbed her shovel. We crawled back out and walked through the tall grasses. Suddenly, Sarah, ever inquisitive, poked the handle of her shovel inside a hole, approximately the size for a small vole or mouse. She showed me the tip; it glistened with water. She looked at me, wide-eyed and furiously started to dig a hole.
“This is our spring!” she exclaimed, digging and depositing soil around the hole. Soon she was standing in a three-foot hole. Muddy clay-colored water gushed in, swirling around her legs. She took handfuls of clay and smeared them across her chest, the burnt sienna color a stark contrast to her luminescent white T-shirt. She ceremoniously smeared two stripes underneath her eyes.
“Let the war begin!” she proclaimed.
I grabbed her camera from her bag and snapped a picture of Sarah, standing knee-deep in a hole with jeans rolled up to her knees, her cropped orange hair standing up in every direction, red clay smeared over her T-shirt, her face beaming triumphantly. She continued to dig for a while and I snapped pictures of the hole. The sun barely hovered above the horizon and filled the late autumn sky with streaks of crimson. We reluctantly began to walk back toward the farmhouse.
Sarah turned to me. “That happens every so often,” she said.
“Just when you are about to give up…you find what you need,” she said, with all the words of wisdom that flowed from a sixteen year-old, but only in chronological years.
We continued walking in silence back to the house, just as the last rays of sunlight faded into the night sky.
In a crowded room of the township building, my friend John, Sarah, her mother, a township supervisor, and I patiently waited through the development proposal. Three hours later, the room had emptied and we remained, confronting the planning commission. Sarah had left during the meeting to meet a friend. I scanned the board members’ faces, looking for potential allies. During the meeting, one elderly man had spoken of the value of land preservation; perhaps he would be supportive. The environmental attorney for Fairview Builders pinned a blueprint plan for 56 townhomes on a board; it was rejected immediately due to space constraints. Without hesitation, the attorney tacked up another blueprint displaying only 24 townhomes. The board then nodded its approval, commenting that it was more feasible.
John leaned over and whispered to me, “Bait and switch.”
When the attorney concluded his presentation, the board asked for any comments from the room. Sarah’s mother got up from her chair and pointed a finger at the attorney.
“That old man just wants to die there in peace! He’s lived there for 79 years and all you care about is making money. Who do you think you are, coming in here and taking away his home? What do you know about farms? In fact, whaddya know about anything? No one in this community wants this development. My daughter collected 130 signatures from people in this community to save this farm. You have no right!” she snarled in her Midwestern accent. The attorney smirked. She stormed out of the building, slamming the door.
I asked the attorney if Fairview Builders had investigated any environmental considerations such as the possible protection of the spring on the property, wetlands protection, endangered species, or the historical value of the house.
He smirked again. “That’s been settled in court,” he replied in a condescending tone.
John stood up. In his calm demeanor, he chose his words carefully. “What has been done to identify wetlands, test the water quality on site and what is the plan to identify and protect any environmentally sensitive areas?”
Again the attorney smugly crossed his arms across his chest. “Studies have been done and nothing was found that would prevent us from building.”
The head of the planning commission thanked us for coming and stated the meeting was concluded. We left, disillusioned.
Sarah and I spent a couple of mornings at the courthouse and the historical society, researching the historical significance of Daniel’s house and barn, and tracing the family ownership. At the historical society, we convinced the clerk at the front desk to let us in without a fee, as it was a research project, and she reluctantly agreed. We climbed the stairs to the third floor and asked an elderly man at the desk for Ann, a woman with whom I had previously spoken with about Sarah’s graduation project. Expressionless, he scrutinized us under his glasses, me in worn khakis and Sarah with her cropped, flaming orange hair, bandanna tied around her head, and various piercings. I ignored his scrutiny and described her project; familiarity crossed his face. He nodded, said he was familiar with the farm, and could help us locate a few books. He called Ann and led us into the library. We followed him into the book aisles, the familiar, musty smell of old libraries inundating us. He selected a few books from the shelves and handed them to us.
For the next half hour, while we waited for Ann, Sarah pored over the books for any history of Daniel’s farm. The crinkly and worn pages were faded yellow from age. Once in a while, she would stumble across something and shove the book in my direction, pointing her finger at a passage for me to read. If we discovered any historical value of the buildings on the property, the township would consider it historically “significant enough” to preserve Daniel’s farm. After a while, Ann met us and explained how to research and interpret century-old deeds on microfiche film. Sarah quickly mastered the machine and we spent several hours trying to decipher the scrawled and often illegible writing. The farm had once been in the hands of a well-known tile artisan’s family, although we were informed that the familial ownership probably would not constitute enough of a reason to preserve the property.
After discovering that a small spring on the property would not preclude development, we relentlessly pursued other avenues. I had contacted someone about Native American artifacts, as I knew that in some cases that could preclude or stall development, but the answer was discouraging. A thousand artifacts and a ring quarry were discovered on the Black Creek site, a 10,000 year-old Native American site and one of the most significant cultural resource sites in the tri-state area. Located on 40 acres in northwest New Jersey, discovery of the artifacts hindered the development of a 182-acre recreation complex, but only because of persistent efforts by the mayor and his council. Of the 1600 historical sites listed in New Jersey, only four are Native American sites.
I contacted the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission for an endangered- species report, as I had been informed that in some cases, the presence of an endangered species, most likely bog turtles in our region, could stop development. The bog turtle was the first turtle placed on the Pennsylvania Endangered Species List due to loss of its habitat. After waiting several weeks, we received a report that confirmed the presence of an endangered species, but did not specifically list which one; it merely stated that a development would not threaten its habitat.
Attempting another tactic, we met with a wetlands consultant one snowy morning. He drilled a hole into the frozen ground with an auger, but did not find evidence of wetlands. He confirmed that the spring would not interfere with development. He unfolded a soil map and we studied it on the hood of my truck. He pointed out that a certain type of soil called Bowmansville soil existed here and might not be favorable for housing development. He suggested we bring it up at a meeting.
As the weeks wore on, the prospect of saving Daniel’s farm appeared grim; for once, I was ready to admit defeat. A newspaper article featured the story in early winter, but it only revealed that township supervisors would not become involved in an adversarial situation. Because Daniel did not retain ownership rights and did not have the financial means to pursue the matter in court, city hall would win this one. The only concession for Daniel was that he would be able to reside in the house and use the adjacent barn for the duration of his life. Sarah appeared resigned to this outcome, graciously understanding that we had pursued every avenue. She prepared to begin writing her senior thesis on the project.
Although a victory for Daniel, as well as for Sarah, would have been ideal, I knew that the experience itself had been unique and invaluable. In essence, this project provided her with the realization that she, as a sixteen year-old, had a voice in society and had much to contribute with her persistence, determination, and passion for farming. Sarah was exposed to environmental activism, community organization and a variety of different professions (i.e., wetlands scientist, farmer, environmental attorney, conservancy officer) and she had acquired research skills.
Traditional education rarely offers these opportunities and education is confined within the four walls of a classroom. How else does one learn other than by “experiments of living” as Henry David Thoreau so emphatically wrote? Sarah would not have experienced the true process of land preservation if she had researched her project in the library, written about it in a tedious paper, and presented it to her class. This experience gave her the opportunity to participate fully in all phases of land preservation. It is a true pedagogical experience that no textbook can offer, and one that needs to be examined for inclusion in all education. We need to incite passion for learning in our future generations and not in environments where students blindly follow rules and do not have the opportunity to think for themselves. Experiential learning, such as Sarah’s graduation project, fosters and encourages students to generate practical solutions to contemporary problems in a society that urgently needs new perspectives. Farming and environmental education programs can nurture passions, lend a sense of accomplishment, increase self-esteem, assist one with identifying new vocational interests and enhance self-efficacy, psychologist Albert Bandura’s concept of having confidence in one’s ability to complete a specific task or challenge.
We need to teach our future generations how to think proactively and how they can contribute to society, thus contributing to a sustainable society. These days, students are taught from outdated curricula; weary educators often do not pursue continuing education themselves or are too bogged down with administrative policies. Opportunities exist for experiential learning and educational institutions need to provide their staff members with the time and money to explore creative ideas. For instance, the Environmental Leadership Program (www.elpnet.org) offers a fellowship worth $20,000 to 20-25 men and women nationwide and sponsors four retreats for participants over the course of two years with guest speakers, workshops, and the opportunity for dialogue and the exchange of ideas, as well as funding for educational projects. Alternative and charter schools are gaining support, but we need to increase funding, encourage the initiation of such programs, and create awareness that experiential programs exist for youth who do not thrive in the traditional education environment.
*Names have been changed
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