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Providence Moves 

A retrospective look at a city slicker's first year as an organic produce farmer


May 13

It wasn't Rolling Stone but I had made the cover (Independent, May 13, "Back to the Land").

I had to share it with my horses -- as my wife, Kathy, described it "two horses and a horse's ass" -- but I could live with that. Now that all of Colorado Springs (well, at least the enlightened readership of the Independent) knew the identity of the software engineer who decided to grow organic produce locally, it would only be a matter of time, sunshine and water before people were knocking down my doors.

The early crops were up and flourishing and over 250 tomato and pepper plants were soon to be relocated from their temporary home in my Skyway living room to the clay soil of the lower Fountain Valley. Life as an aspiring farmer was good, indeed, as I read the Independent over my breakfast.

On this day, the schedule called for irrigating. The moisture from April's snow had done its job and continued on its way, either downward, to become precious groundwater regulated by Colorado water law, or skyward, to be regulated by nature's law. What moisture remained in the soil was inadequate to germinate my third planting of lettuce and carrots.

After breakfast I tossed my boots, a shovel, a hoe, and a ditching tool into my truck and drove south to the Lone Cottonwood Farm. I would turn on the 25 horsepower electric pump at the north end of the farm and watch the irrigation ditch fill. As the water crested the edge of the ditch, silver rivulets would flow eastward across the field. I would face west, the morning sun warming my back, and charm the snaking water toward me dragging my hoe as I walked backward and watched the reflected foothills dance in the lengthening streams. My mind clear, all that mattered was that I would have my feet in the soil, under the sun, feeding my crops.

Well, at least one more thing mattered. For this scene to occur as imagined, water must flow from the pump when it is turned on. What is needed is about 400 gallons per minute. At this rate the ditch fills in 15 minutes and then the water starts to flow across the field. Only then do you get the peaceful and productive scene described.

Instead, on this morning of my Fifteen Minutes of Fame, I was an aspiring Colorado farmer with a very large piece of iron, extending deep into the ground, which appeared to have forsaken any aspirations of being an irrigation pump.

I was an aspiring Colorado farmer without water.

My farming dreams were suddenly evaporating faster than a July rain on a Colorado afternoon. In two days, over fifteen people, including my brother, Danny, all the way from Spokane, were to converge on the Lone Cottonwood Farm, in a display of solidarity with my wife, to help restore my makeshift greenhouse to a living room. The risk of frost at 5400 feet elevation had diminished, and it would be time to transplant the tomatoes and peppers.


May 16

Up to this point, it had been a fairly smooth couple of months. Whenever a problem arose, it always seemed like someone would appear with just the right piece of advice or, better, the right piece of equipment. These fortuitous encounters confirmed the sentiment expressed in a quote attributed to Goethe:

Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. ... A whole system of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor any number of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed...

This quote has been taped to my office wall for years and I had been waiting for it to mean something. It sounded too much like those television shows about angels, a little too ethereal for this software engineer accustomed to the hard logic of programming computers.

But after my friends Jim Keane and Rex Miller plowed my field and Dave Kinnischtzke provided six tons of manure and Ty Phelps did the final seedbed preparation, all "unforeseen incidents" when I had decided to farm in February, Goethe's quote began to resonate.

Sitting with my broken pump, I struggled to keep Goethe in mind but this "unforeseen incident" just looked too big. Initial estimates for fixing the pump ranged from $3000 to $8000. Without pulling out 50 feet of well casing, a precise estimate was difficult. Even the low end of the range was too much for a voluntarily unemployed software engineer.

While I pondered my next move and waited for Providence to move, too, I watered from two 55-gallon drums pulled by my horses on a wagon. It was romantic, charming, quaint and time consuming.

I would park the wagon at the edge of the field, extend a 50-foot garden hose down a row, trying to avoid newly emergent lettuce and young tomato plants, and work my way back to the wagon, all the time praying the horses would not get impatient. If they showed the least sign of wanderlust, I would sprint down the row, jump on the wagon and grab the lines before the horses trounced the carrots.

Only once did they not stay put. On this occasion I got back to the wagon well after they had made up their minds that it was time to go home. Any hope of negotiating was dashed when I realized one horse had managed to free himself from his bridle. At this point, I put myself in the hands of the equine gods. The horses were going where they wanted. I settled in for the ride, trusting that the horses would, first, miss the telephone pole and, second, manage to get through the open gate which led out of my field, wagon intact.

The horse gods were smiling -- and probably laughing -- that day because teamster, team and wagon came to rest at the closed gate to the pasture without injury, though I still ached for a working pump.


May 21

A week into my dry spell I had an impromptu meeting with some of my senior advisors, a group of men, including Rex and Jim, living in the lower Fountain Valley whose collective experience in matters agricultural spans decades, regions and crops. Like all good rural folk, they are always eager with an opinion. At this point, I wanted someone to tell me what to do so our chance get together on a hot (dry, of course) May morning was timely.

They talked about head, horsepower, three-phase circuits, gallons per minute, pressure per square inch and gated irrigation pipe.

I listened, shook my head, furrowed by brow, pursed my lips, said "uh-huh" and wondered, silently, "Huh?"

Within ten minutes they had decided that what I needed was a five horsepower submersible pump that pumped about 90 gallons per minute at 40 pounds of pressure per square inch into 560 feet of six-inch gated pipe. The next thing I knew, Jim was on the phone with a pump distributor out of Pueblo. It just so happened this guy was going out of business and I could get what I needed cheap. Sort of. Total cost: $1500.

On the drive home, I pondered my problem. No water. Little money. A wife getting impatient with early season farming expenses. No income. A wife getting impatient with no income. Lots of problems, I thought.

The 25-minute drive to and from the farm always gave me time to think. On the way to the farm, I would organize the day in my head, determining the order of tasks that would make the best use of my time. On the way home from the farm, I would fret over all the things left unfinished.

On this day, the long drive was good for me because somewhere along the way a shift occurred. I recalled what my brother John had recently shared with me, something he read by Charlotte Joko Beck, a Zen Buddhist teacher: There are no problems, only decisions. Right then, I decided to buy a new pump and the irrigation pipe to carry the water the length of the field.

When I arrived at home, I called John to let him know I was thinking of him. "What decision do you have to make?" he asked. After I shared my woes, John's voice rose in excitement. "That's great! You have a farming problem," he said.

What a great way of looking at things, I thought. For all the worry and frustration of a broken pump, it represented the fact that I was farming. It was a great emotional lift to look at my "problem" from that perspective. And, since an emotional lift is insufficient to irrigate a field, John also offered to loan me the money to buy a new pump and irrigation pipe.

The pump and pipe were installed in early June, just in time for the corn and beans to go in. The whir of the pump, the swishing of the water down the pipe, the miniature waterfalls every 40 inches at each gate, meant I was back in the water, and farming, business.


June 21

With the basic needs of the farm taken care of, my attention turned to planning the First Ever Lone Cottonwood Farm Solstice Ice Cream Social. From the first moment I imagined myself farming back in 1996, kneeling in my garden with my hands in the soil, I never thought of it as an isolated activity. I envisioned not only the growing of crops, but the growing of community. I wanted my farm to be a place that connected people, land and food.

I had in mind a fairly new model for farming called community-supported agriculture (CSA). This is an arrangement wherein people "subscribe" to a weekly supply of product during the growing season. The idea is that the subscribers share the risk of farming with the grower. Beyond that, though, the farm becomes a destination for subscribers. Their weekly visit to the farm connects them with the land and the farmer.

Though this still remains my long-term farming goal, I was not prepared to undertake such a project my first year. Instead, I fashioned a variation on the CSA model, the ICSA, or ice cream-supported agriculture. An ICSA works like this: You invite lots of people to your farm and feed them ice cream to: a) thank them for helping you and b) make them feel indebted to you so that when the green beans come up, they come to help harvest. While they are eating ice cream, you give their children hayrides (so the children beg their parents to come back and pick beans) and provide entertainment in the form of a couple of only-one-Farm-Aid-concert-away-from-a-major-record-deal musical acts, Joe Uveges and Keith Palmby. To keep folks from leaving to escape the low-intensity warfare of the mosquitoes, you announce frequently that judges are roaming the crowd looking for the winners of the night's Most Urban/Most Rural Looking contest. All this activity is deftly coordinated by the silken-voiced emcee, the at-once urbane and vulgar KRCC deejay, Jerome Davis.

I knew I had a formula for success when, upon arriving home after the event, my nine-year old son, Matthew, never one to hang with the Be Here Now crowd, asked, "Can we do it again tomorrow?"

The kids were one measure of the success of the event. They ran through the trees like little perpetual motion machines, chasing the wagon and playing "cowboys and Indians." Their only props were their imaginations and the sticks, rocks, brush and trees of the cottonwood-lined Fountain Creek. It was a romantic idea made flesh in the limbs and hearts and lungs of young girls and boys. It was this scene a friend of mine chose to describe in a letter home to Ohio which she later shared with me. When I read the excerpted story to my family at dinner, my wife and I fought back tears. We understood that the vision I had been talking about for years, and had been a source of great struggle between us, had been realized in a small way.

If the play of the children was one measure of success of the social, so was the interplay of the adults. As my invitation suggested, the event would feature "People Wearing Tevas & People Wearing Cowboy Boots/Vegetarians & Meat-Eaters/SUVs & Real Trucks." In addition to my then-hidden, now-exposed, agenda of getting more help at the farm, I had a then-hidden, now-exposed, agenda of playfully, but quite seriously, bringing two worlds together.

It is dangerous to make too much of the differences between urban-dwellers and rural-dwellers. One runs the risk of creating a division that becomes adversarial. There is also a risk, however, of minimizing differences between urban and rural America. I think each has perspectives on problems this country, this region, faces that shine a unique light when held up and examined next to one another. More to the point, though, since we are neighbors, there is a greater risk of ignoring the relationship between urban Colorado Springs and the lower Fountain Valley region.

Anyone who has known me for more than, say, 19 minutes knows I am an unabashed disciple of Wendell Berry. I often start sentences with "Wendell Berry says..." Well, Wendell Berry says that "difference does not have to mean division" and he also says "the only sustainable city... is the city in balance with its countryside." Together, these two thoughts suggest to me that city folk ought to be talking to country folk about sustainability.

Since I do not go much for government-sponsored task forces or institutionally sponsored conversations, I held an ice cream social, in the tradition of my mid-Western Catholicism, to help start this dialogue. I figured it was a non-threatening way for the sandal crowd to mingle with the boot crowd. Granted, I don't recall any ice cream socials of my youth held in celebration of the Solstice, but I grew up with an urban-based theology that placed too much emphasis on a transcendent God.

We came together to honor the more immanent God of Long Summer Days, Good Friends, Emergent Crops and Ice Cream; William Carlos Williams' "body of the Lord ... to the imagination intact." I don't know if the topic of sustainability was ever raised. I do know, however, that one yuppie liberal lawyer did exchange business cards with one curmudgeonly agrarian in a seed cap. I suspect many people left with the scary realization that all they had in common were my acquaintance and a fondness for ice cream.

But, hell, that's a start. At least the next time the roofs, driveways and parking lots of Colorado Springs flood Fountain Creek, causing it to carry 40 acres of the Hanna Ranch and 60 acres of Frost Livestock Company land downstream, my urban friends can say "Hey, I had ice cream with that rancher who lost his hayfield" and my friends in Fountain can say, "Hey, I had ice cream with that guy who voted for those people who refuse to enforce their own drainage laws."


June 26

Five days after the ice cream social the Farmer's Market began. Going into the season, I had no plans to attend the Farmer's Market. It felt presumptuous to think I would have anything to sell. Then, in late May, after it became clear the lettuce would survive the aphids, deer and hail, I called the local market master and told him to expect me.

My debut market day began at 4 in the morning I awoke and drove to the farm to cut lettuce by a flashlight held in my mouth. Just as the sun peeked through the cottonwoods, I started my hurried drive home to wash and pack the lettuce. More awake, alert and alive than I had ever been at 5:30 a.m., I bounded up the stairs to awaken my wife who had mistakenly promised to help the night before.

We stood in our driveway, elbow to elbow, at the end of my pickup, cleaning the lettuce and packaging it in gallon-sized plastic bags. We debated how much to place in each bag, how much to charge, how people would love it, how I wouldn't have enough and how I would have too much. We were both awed by the glistening beauty of the mix of the three varieties, the satin green of the Buttercrunch, the red-tinged leaves of the Red Summer Crisp and the purple-red leaves of the Red Sails.

The work was intense and so was the emotion. It was a special moment of marital intimacy and, for me, a glimpse of the rewards of sharing work with people you love. We worked quickly and nervously, both aware that I was embarking on the next, and very important, step in farming: making some money.

At market, I was clearly a rookie. I was missing the most important prop: some sort of shade provision. It was 90 and the heat would hit you twice, first beating down from the sun and then reflecting up off the Doherty High School parking lot. The lettuce was protected in coolers but hope was all that kept me from withering. I stood tentatively next to the easel that bore my catchy marketing slogan: "So fresh it's still dirty."

People walked by and smiled. I smiled back. They looked at my catchy marketing slogan and chuckled. Once in awhile they picked up a bag and looked. I smiled and said, "Picked this morning!" They smiled back. One woman asked if I used pesticides. I said, "No." "That's good," she said, "but I don't like bugs." She left, apparently preferring pesticides to bugs.

Eventually, after an hour of waiting, my first sale came. By the end of the day, I had sold two dozen bags of lettuce. That night, people in Colorado Springs would be eating my lettuce at their dinner table. I was a vegetable farmer in hog heaven. Any disappointment from not having sold all fifty bags was overwhelmed by the feeling of success at having brought the growing process to its proper finish: direct from farmer to eater.

At subsequent markets, I adjusted my harvest and expectations. As I developed a regular clientele, sales and stories of delicious salads increased. So did the realization in me that, for the first time in my life, I was engaged in meaningful work, meaningful as an end, not simply as a means to a paycheck.

Fifteen years, many at large and successful firms, in the computer industry, with its Dilbertesque we-are-family-and-you-are-important-to-us pep rallies, never engendered in me the feeling that my work mattered like selling a few pounds of vegetables did. People need to eat. People do not need software.


October 16

What was to be the biggest event of the year, HarvestFest99, was threatened by an incoming low pressure center. The cool winds on Friday afternoon heralded a change in the weather. A select group of men, chosen for their desire to stand out in the cold and drink beer, and christened the Ancestral Roots Roasting Council, were down at the farm preparing for the scheduled pig and lamb roast. Our culinary leader was David "Spice Boy" Steigerwald, one of those Goethean angels who had been appearing out of nowhere all summer. None of us knew the first thing about cooking an animal in the ground, but Spice Boy agreed to act as if he knew something and so came prepared with his secret spice concoction that he claimed would guarantee success.

An abandoned irrigation ditch had been fashioned into a 6' x 4' x 4' pit, lined with river rock and now sat full of scrap wood, fallen limbs, desk drawers and old pallets. The plan was to light the fire at five and then sit around fire-gazing and imagining we had just slew a wooly mammoth. At ten we would season the meat by stuffing it with garlic gloves and rubbing it with Spice Boy's secret concoction. The meat would then be wrapped in newspaper and chicken wire, wetted down and lowered into the pit and covered with dirt. If all went well, we would be feeding over one hundred people on Saturday afternoon.

Everything the Council was responsible for did go well. However, the one thing farmers have never had any control over, the weather, did not go well. Friday afternoon's cool winds turned into Saturday morning's drizzle and Saturday afternoon's snow. The poor weather foreshadowed other problems.

My team of horses was supposed to pull a potato digger that would bring the potatoes to the surface where they could be easily picked up. They got nowhere, breaking a doubletree, the piece of equipment that attaches them to the digger. The backup plan was a tractor owned by local rancher, Jay Frost. When I went to pick up that tractor at 8:30 a.m., it sat in the yard with hydraulic oil gushing from its underbelly. Plan C was Rex's reliable, old Massey-Ferguson T.O. 35.

No one was happier to have Plan C put into effect than Rex. He takes great pride in his tractor's reliability and versatility and was tickled to ride to my rescue on his shiny, red, mechanical horse. The last time I saw a smile that big was when my son was able to make it up and down the driveway on his bicycle without training wheels.

With Rex on his 35, we were able to get most of the potatoes out of the ground before an epidemic of frostbite struck. The crowd of about 40, mostly urban-dwellers in North Face gear, took turns walking behind the tractor picking up potatoes and standing around the bonfire. The talk around the bonfire focused on one question: "Will the meat be edible?"

At about two, someone made a decision to take the meat out of the ground. Who made the final call remains a mystery. No one wanted to take responsibility for raw meat. At the time of the decision I was away unhitching the horses after the final hayride. I saw the crowd gather around the pit as my cold fingers fumbled with the harness. When I finished with the horses and turned to walk back to the pit area, all manner of noise erupted. There was whooping, high fives and hugs, not the stoicism you would expect from the original roasting council back in the old country.

The final proof of success came when I saw people actually eating, and enjoying, the meat. I sought out the members of the Ancestral Roots Roasting Council to congratulate them and observed smiles the breadth of which I had not seen since Rex drove up on his tractor earlier that day.


October 30

The lease on the Lone Cottonwood Farm was up, and it was time to close up shop. The entire family was down at the farm, harvesting the last of the pumpkins that would eventually turn into pumpkin pies my boys and I would bake and sell together, yet another glimpse of the rewards of sharing work with people you love.

My wife, the therapist, who always wants to know how everyone is feeling, had us all sit in a circle on the ground. She asked each of us to talk about their favorite part of the farming season. Among our three boys, it was unanimously the ice cream social. For my wife and me it was more complex. We, of course, loved the social but there were subtler moments that touched us deeply. Kathy recalled the peace of working alone one day harvesting green beans, of waving to the regular trains that passed by and of watching the boys' excitement over the most recent snake, bug or toad sighting. I talked of working in the field and watching the boys playing in the distance, the way in which the boys referred to the farm as "my" farm, and meeting people at Farmer's Market. I also talked generally of the joy I felt from being able to do good work, elbow to elbow with my family and so many friends, old and new.


January 1

The joy of the farming life continues even now into January. Fresh pumpkin pies graced our Christmas table. The Anasazi beans harvested last September continue to provide the main ingredient for stews, soups and burritos for family dinners. Quart jars of tomatoes occupy two shelves in a linen closet off our kitchen. There are enough onions to last the winter and the potatoes in the crawlspace will keep the Irish in me happy for a long time.

Joy is the only word I know to describe the feeling the farming season brought me. I say this realizing that joy is primarily a religious word, at least one most at home in a religious vocabulary. You don't hear it much in casual conversation where, instead, talk is of the more fleeting sensations of happiness and pleasure. Joy is enduring, a well from which one drinks for spiritual sustenance, much like I rely on my beans, potatoes and tomatoes for physical sustenance.

I have no difficulty understanding my relationship to farming as a religious one. The word religion comes from the Latin re, to return, and ligare, to bind or tie. I suspect my joy derives from a return, albeit partial and tenuous, to a way of living bound to the soil and the land.

As the new seed catalogs arrive, I am reminded that when you are bound to the land, you are also bound to its cycles. The growing season is fast approaching and my family faces many decisions. Our future is more uncertain than usual as we struggle with our next step. Whatever we do, the joys and satisfactions of our year at the Lone Cottonwood Farm will be forever with us.

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