A Farmer’s Serenity Prayer

Lincoln Fishman of Sawyer Farm during a demonstration of how he farms with horses.

My friend Lincoln Fishman farms Sawyer Farm in Worthington, Ma. He has built a strong local following for his produce. Using a team of horses to do much of work, he is demonstrating how intensive farming can improve depleted soil and provide excellent food. Perhaps most of all, he and his wife Hilary Costa have engaged neighbors and truly engendered a meaningful sense of community around their farm.

That sense of fostering new forms of social relationship is one of the tangible intangibles of New Ruralism that I hope to explore and bring to life with this website. From time to time, I will post emails Lincoln sends out, to help illuminate this.

Lord, grant me the serenity…

Here’s some news from the farm: it’s wet. I haven’t had time so far in this season to write many in-depth emails, but the rain and mud in the last couple of weeks have provided a forced vacation. It’s been too muddy to have the horses do any real work in the field for over 3 weeks. If you work soil when it’s too wet, it forms clumps and clods that dry like bricks, which is bad for soil structure long term, and is also very difficult for the horses.

There are some distressing effects of this wetness. Most immediately, the soil is so completely saturated that many crops are actually drowning. Cabbage, kale, and broccoli, for example, look like they are stressed for water — flaccid leaves with lighter than normal color — but in fact, their roots can’t get oxygen; it’s all been forced out of the soil because every air pocket is waterlogged. Other crops, like potatoes and onions, both of which are nearly — but not quite — ready to harvest, are starting to show some signs of rot, from having sat in the mud for weeks. Coincidentally, I’ve been listening to a podcast series about World War I, and I can’t help but think of the trenches.

Weed control is also an issue. We do almost all of our cultivation with the horses, about once a week. If you skip a week, or two, or three, weeds can get pretty out of control, which they are now. Weeds don’t threaten this year’s crops – they’re already big enough to hold their own – but the weeds will flower and drop an unbelievable number of seeds that will all come up and need to be dealt with next year. A single large weed can produce up to 50,000 seeds.

Another problem that will affect us next year is that we haven’t been able to seed cover crops. We usually sow a cover crop of oats and peas on August 7, but there’s just been no way to get into the field to do it. This means reduced fertility and soil structure for next year’s crops, which will grow where the cover crop is supposed to be now. We’ll get it in eventually, but it won’t be able to make a luxuriant growth.

And finally, maybe of most concern, is that some topsoil is washing down into the pasture, because the bare soil where the cover crop should be growing right now is exposed and vulnerable to washing out. This very fertile soil that we are losing is the product of many years of work.

…to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can…

Farming requires highly planned sequences of soil preparation, seeding, weeding, etc. A high level of control is necessary. Agriculture does, after all, mean imposing your will on plants and animals to achieve a desired outcome. You can do this gently, but you’ve still got to have the vision and the plan. I’ve gotten pretty good at this part of farming. But I’ve also gotten pretty good at the serenity and acceptance part too, though it runs against the grain of my personality. I’ve had to shrug my shoulders enough times that those muscles are well-developed now. Working with living beings, under an infinite sky, has forced me to learn about acceptance. There’s even something pleasing to me now about circumstances that are entirely out of my control.

…and the wisdom to know the difference…

This is where it falls apart for me. I don’t have that wisdom yet.  It seems like after shrugging, my next automatic reflex is to throw my hands up.  It’s just one motion for me. That works for the metaphor, but in real life, I actually just find myself on the couch a lot. Once I’ve let go of my grand plans, I find all the middle ground dissatisfying. Hilary performs much better in this ambiguous space than I do.  She is always willing to work to mitigate disaster.  I’m grateful for her influence.

…taking this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it, trusting that Life will make all things right…

And anyway, most crops will probably do fine this year after all. Plants have an amazing will to survive, and to reproduce before the season’s end, and so they seem to make it happen, one way or another.  I am trying to do my best to stick with them, and do my part.

…and that I may be reasonably happy in this Life…

I almost didn’t send this email, because it’s kind of a downer. But then I thought, I don’t know, it’s honest. Farming isn’t all flowers and sunsets. Kind of reminds you of life. The serenity prayer wasn’t just written for farmers. I’m sure everyone reading this can identify. So no need for condolence replies to this email. We’re actually doing well overall, and have plenty to be grateful for, although you wouldn’t know it from reading this. We’re healthy, the animals are healthy, a lot of the crops are doing well, and I have a whole community of people to vent to. So, thanks.

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