Last Harvest

The tragedy of our time is that cultural philosophies and market realities are squeezing life’s vitality out of most farms.

– Joel Salatin

Sometimes I get a little nostalgic. I come by it honestly though. I had a truly blessed childhood. I remember days spent with various friends exploring the seemingly vast woodlands that surrounded our little neighborhood block. We would disappear for hours into those woods.

Striking out in any direction led to a day’s worth of adventures. Downhill, to the west and below what was left of the farm for which our allotment was named, were low wetland areas. Here were the ponds we skated on in winter and the creeks we sloshed along in the summer. Skunk cabbages grew by the thousands in the rich black muck all along the riparian edge of the stream. Hard packed trails along the higher ground led to dense brambles filled with blackberries and raspberries fit for summer picking. Further west came the neighboring town’s community gardens; a place where we could reliably scare up a few pheasants in the surrounding underbrush. To the northwest grassy meadows ringed by trees gave way to thickets, steeper hills, and rumors of abandoned coal mine entrances often sought, but never found. Heading more due north from our neighborhood took you over hills and dales to an old abandoned lane along which set a carriage house and the burned out remains of an old farm house. Following the overgrown lane eastward led through abandoned orchards filled with buzzing pollinators in summer and sweet, ripe apples in the fall. Farther east, a small dam built in the mid-1920s stood over what was once a sizable farm pond fed by nearby seeps and springs. From the dry bed, the remnants of several small, family farms stretched southwards along the eastern border of our wood. Some still maintained sizable gardens. One a long series of overgrown grape arbors with delightfully sour, thick rhined grapes of a deep purple color. A few of these farms still maintained pastures for old, swaybacked horses. Horses my older siblings may have once rode, but would carry riders no more. These clusters of farms butted up to each other until you reached the long quiet, fallow farm field adjoining the eastern side of my parents’ property; what was my backyard.

It is hard to say when my woodland realm began to decline. No doubt the paving of the main road that passed our allotment, an event which took place when I was but 10, opened the area to further development. Perhaps next came the expansion of the golf course on the western edge of these woods. With that development came rumors of future “market rate housing” and apartments in the stream valley. Almost simultaneously, suburban encroachment exploded in the northeast corner of the woods. At the age of 12, it was a novelty to see the area stripped bare to a moonscape of dirt with no living tree or plant remaining as the developers laid in infrastructure to support what would become McMansions on quarter acre lots. By my highschool freshman year the ponds we once skated on to the west were now posted with no trespassing signs and surrounded by a clubhouse and low income housing. The community gardens fell well before I graduated high school, but no pheasants had been seen for years by then. Townhouses and condominiums now replaced the rows of vegetables and plants once lovingly tended by the community. For sale signs lined the remaining properties along the eastern edge of the wood. One by one the small farms and houses fell away, replaced by new allotments. No more apple orchards. No more overrun grape arbors. No more sway back mares in the fields. The “advancement” of civilization encroached from every direction. More and more of the wild places I once knew fell in my college years. Today, some thirty-odd -years later, I don’t believe there’s a stand of trees remaining that one cannot easily see through. My forest is gone. Only the march of development remains.

It would be years before I would realize that the woodlands of my youth, and, in fact, my parents’ neighborhood and all of its surroundings, were all part of the palimpset of history. The abandoned farm house, the old orchards, and the small dam were all part of the rural township farms that predated the post WWII expansion of cities near where I grew up. They were likely the successors from larger, earlier farms. Perhaps even farms dating back to the land grants of the Connecticut Western Reserve after the Civil War. Before that the land would have seen ownership under both the Spanish and the French, prior to Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase in 1803, in an early explored North America. The indigenous native Americans of the continent had no doubt watched times’ passing as the white man, mostly early trappers, moved into the natives’ ancestral lands in search of game. Encroachment and development were not a new story, but one that had been told on this land over and over again going back centuries.

But somewhere along the way, we got lost. Somehow, in some way, at some time, we lost the notion that the land provides for us and we must care for the land. We sacrificed productive land, literally stripping away the precious topsoil of the land and shipping it elsewhere, in favor of convenience and monoculture lawnscapes. We forgot that food came from farms and not the grocery store. We sacrificed local economies for encomies of scale dependent on long range transportation and fossil fuels. We channeled seeps, springs, and streams; forcing them into concrete conduits to faster shed life giving water from our lands and flooding our neighbors downstream with impunity all while wondering why flooding problems continually increase, at the expense of tax payer dollars, in our communities. We cut the tress, paved the meadows, and destroyed the very fabric of the land that was my childhood’s magical forest realm in favor of driving our children to extracurricular activites and occasional visits to man-made parks with carefully currated “nature” experiences. And we lament that our communities are not like they used to be while welcoming the latest road expansion that shaves a few minutes off our commute or the new Dollar General or McDonalds that is so much more convenient than the one just ten more minutes further away.

This cannot be our future. And we can only correct the course by each of us doing our part to change the accepted development narrative. Once the developers come in and strip away the topsoil, level the land, and confine the streams to concrete culverts you cannot feasibly go back to productive and regenerative lands capable of supporting a community. The acres of paved parking will not easily return to productive land capable of sustaining a people. Commercial and industrial sites scaled up to meet the demand of a fossil-fuel dependent, long range transportation dependent society cannot uncontaminate the land and streams they damage without massive inputs of capital while the lingering remnants of their polluted waste are pushed off onto a lesser fortunate sector of our society.

Too many farms have seen their last harvest. So much so that less than 2% of the American population are farmers. Farming is no longer an occupation listed on the Decennial US Census. That is how few farmers, and farming families, remain. And of those that remain, too many are slave to massive corporations interested more in shareholder profits than in the quality and nutrient value of the products they produce.

So here, at our homestead, we’re intentionally going a different course. The township in which we live deems the highest and best possible use of our land to be a residential McMansion sitting on a manicured, moniculture lawn. And so that’s exactly how we’re taxed. But in reality we’re going the opposite direction, seeing productive and regenerative agriculture as the best possible use of our property. Naturally that puts us at odds with the township’s paradigm. Agriculture as its own independent zoning category doesn’t even exist anymore in this once largely rural, farmland corner of the county. But instead of seeing it totally disappear, to be plowed under and stripped away by the machines of the residential and commercial developer, we’re trying to restore and maintain an agricultural building block in the community. We don’t need more McMansions dependent on fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers. We need more homesteads and resilient small farms capable of supporting themselves and the surrounding community.

I don’t want to have to drive our kids to the park for them to have an experience in nature. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-park by any means. I just think kids have the right to exploration, discovery, and an inherent natural sense of wonder independent of being driven somewhere else other than at or near their own home. I don’t want my kids growing up thinking food comes from the grocery store and warmth from a furnace, as Aldo Leopold lamented. I’d rather see them see where food comes from, care for the animals that feed them, and see what the tended earth can provide. I want them to be exposed to the experiences that made my childhood so wonderful, without the disappointment and loss which later befell my childhood geography.

I grew up in an era where Ronald Reagan espoused:

I just have to believe with love for our natural heritage and a firm resolve to preserve it with wisdom and care, we can and will give the American land to our children, not impaired, but enhanced.

Remarks to the National Campers and Hikers Association; Bowling Green, KY. (1984).

At the same time I watched as those lofty ideals fell short. Our societal course veered far from bequeathing an enhanced American land to our children and instead led to a landscape no longer worth caring about.

That’s a course we need to correct.

Author’s Note: There are no pictures of the childhood places I loved so dearly and described herein. The technology of the time and a naive belief that the woods, streams, and farms would always be there robbed me of such treasures. I cannot go back and take photos today. All of what I remember is gone; forever lost.

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