The Deep State of the Farm

[written by Sawyer Farm’s Lincoln Fishman in late summer 2020]

Some of you know that my dear cousin, Yupadee Kobkul-Bonsiri, died of COVID-19 on April 27th [2020]. She and my cousin Steve lived in Brooklyn, and spent a lot of time at their house here, next door to the farm. She was 51, in good health. A devout Thai Buddhist. She was not attached to her own life, but she was deeply respectful of life in general. She would pick a bug off her salad mix and release it outside. She was concerned with the well-being of all living things. We had an on-going debate about picking Colorado potato beetles off of potato plants.

Yupadee: Link, are you really squishing all those bugs?

Me: Yeah, they’re eating the potato plants.

Yupadee: It doesn’t seem right,

Link. Me: I mean, do you want potatoes this winter?

Yupadee: But Link, it’s so mean.

Me: Life is mean, what do you want me to say? Things eat things, things kill things.

Yupadee: But for you to kill things? I don’t know. Isn’t there another way?

In these past months, since losing her, I have been thinking a lot about that other way. There is another way, but it’s not a well marked path in our culture. I’ve written before about a shift in my thinking about weeds, about soil disruption, about a more gentle way to grow food. All that was underway when Yupadee died. But when she was in the hospital (intubated for a month), and since her death, it’s all begun to feel more urgent. I’ve started to have visions of myself doing things another way. I am ashamed that I wasn’t more open to her thinking while she was alive — in my hubristic way I found it simple and naive — but I’m trying to just be grateful for her guidance.

As a farmer, I am, above all, a student of soil science. I’ve said it before, and I promise to say it again a thousand times; soil is irreducibly complex. There’s more biodiversity in a handful of New England soil than in the entire Amazon (that’s true), and it’s not my job not to understand it all, but it is my job to respect it all, and to be generous in my ignorance, rather than controlling.

But I’ve known all that for a long time. What’s changed is something deeper. Historically, I’ve thought of Yupadee’s objections as ‘right’ only in a perfect moral sense, but basically ridiculous in the real world where things happen and food gets grown. Now I’m just thinking that she’s right and that I’ve been making excuses.

Black Lives Matter has played into this too. My name is Lincoln for a reason. My parents are serious about social justice and I grew up with a strong sense of the ongoing legacy of slavery in this country, the fact that it was built on African slaves’ backs (and Native Americans’ graves), and a decent conception (for a white person) of structural racism and inequality. But again, there’s this gulf between what we know and whether we allow that knowledge to affect what we do.

What do I know about slavery and farming? Farming in this country is totally bound up with slavery. Lots has been written about how westward expansion and the ability to wear out land and move on has affected our agricultural system. That’s all true. But less has been written about the fact that slavery was equally or more essential to the development of U.S. agriculture. Sugar, cotton and tobacco were the first industrial crops. Before fossil fuels, what made this possible was enslaved humans’ labor. 99% of farms in the U.S. are the actual or intellectual inheritors of this system.

That model used (and uses) what economists call externalized costs to produce “profit”. An externalized cost is external to, or not incurred by, the producer. So who pays the cost? In the case of slavery, unpaid slaves. In the case of U.S. agriculture generally, Native Americans, whose extermination and/or removal provided ‘free’ land. With no mortgage and no labor bills, industrial farming became extremely profitable for some people. Large production farms, with monocultures and an extractive mindset, became the agricultural baseline in the U.S.

The rest of the world came to embrace externalized costs with the advent of fossil fuels. CO2 emissions, nutrient runoff, and soil erosion (always a problem in this country, but vastly worsened by the scale of fossil fuel farming) are all costs that are not borne by the producers, but that the rest of humanity — and other living things — contends with every day.

Anyway, I’ve known this stuff for a long time, but hadn’t put it all together, exactly. Our way of farming reduces externalities to almost nothing compared with industrial agriculture. But it’s still located squarely within the same agricultural tradition. What would it mean to totally reimagine it, as Yupadee had encouraged me to do?

What will it look like? What will it look like? I don’t know. I’m hoping to continue to reduce the gap between what I know and what I do. I think that’s the main thing. It will include more involvement with communities who’ve been historically shut out of land ownership, farming, and access to plentiful, nutritious food. I wish I could say more about this — maybe Roots Rising? Maybe something else. When will what I know affect what I do? I hope I’m not making excuses when I say I’m waiting for more clarity on this front.

What we are doing, as we speak, is a total overhaul of our basic farming system. After a few little experiments this year (some successful, some not), we’ve decided to completely defund the current system, which relies on bare soil and aggressive mechanical weed and pest control. I don’t want to vilify what we’ve been doing. Compared with mainstream agriculture, we’ve been doing a great job at producing nutrient-dense food with minimal externalities. But it’s all relative. It’s a system of addition and subtraction, trying to make the balance sheet work out at the end of the season. On the negative side of the balance sheet, we plow and disc and harrow and cultivate, all of which kill weeds and disturb the soil ecosystem, and potentially leads to erosion. On the positive side, we add compost and cover crops, which adds nutrients and microorganisms and fungi and rebuilds the soil ecosystem. Each season starts with a hit to the ecosystem, and then we use a bunch of techniques to undo that harm and even improve it.

I’ve been defensive about this system in the past. My hard-nosed approach has been that the damage I do is necessary; that life is a struggle and that to survive I have to assert my will over other living things. And that squeamishness about that is naive or simplistic. Yupadee and Black Lives Matter are asking me to question that aggressive stance. What if it was all gentler and it did actually work out? What if I just decided to only work with living things? (Hilary has been pushing me in this direction for years, but I’ve resisted. She was right. Butch, who theoretically shares my hard knock views, is actually a total softie and has also secretly been nudging me.)

I’ve been talking to this agricultural consultant — Erik Koperek — over the phone for the last six months who’s been helping me think through how I might actually do the things that have just been thoughts. A few months ago he told me that I was a “very progressive turn-of-the-century farmer,” meaning 2000. Like we were progressive then, but that cutting edge agriculture has moved on. We humans do seem to move forward. Well over half a million people died to achieve the first step in ending slavery. Those methods are thankfully outdated. So might be our system of policing, and of coaxing human sustenance from the soil. It’s our job to look forward to what might be and try to ease that into reality.

I’ve been trying to make the best of a fundamentally abusive, extractive system. I’ve been panning for gold dust in the coal mine I was born in, arduously sifting through mountains of material to find enough valuable stuff to work with. Now I’m trying to stake a claim somewhere else, far away.

I’ve written about this new system a bit. I’m mostly indebted Erik for this idea, but it also takes a lot from no-till agriculturists, and mulched garden advocates. Here’s a bit more.

If you take a walk through our fields next year, the look of what we’re doing will be totally different. Imagine vegetables growing in pasture. You’re walking through our field, and instead of walking through pasture and then getting to the field, where all the crops are growing, you’re seeing little strips of veggies growing all through the pasture. These strips are mostly mulched with hay, and the vegetables are growing through the hay. This is what I’m calling “pastured vegetables.” We’re laying out these pasture beds about 20 feet apart, and, after plowing them a couple weeks ago, the goal is to never turn the soil in them again. Our contribution to these pastured vegetables — and the soil they grow in and with — will be limited to positive actions: adding mulch, adding fertility, adding biodiversity, and will include little or no negative actions — killing bugs, killing weeds, killing soil biology.

Yupadee would be happy to know that there were very few Colorado potato beetles on this year’s experimental pastured potatoes,  I think because they grew in close proximity to native plants, who host native pest predators that ate the beetles’ eggs. Their population was kept in check by complex ecosystemic interactions, rather than by my thumb and forefinger.

Even if this succeeds, we’ll still be a long way from reducing externalities to zero, but we’ll be a lot closer. Where it’s most exciting is that it feels like a true departure from the patriarchal, white supremacist agriculture that we inherited.

After I graduated from college, I taught high school biology in a public school in Manhattan for three years. I often thought, during that time, that we were working to achieve social justice within an educational system that was actually designed many generations earlier to serve only the children of the privileged classes, specifically to perpetuate their privilege. That system now “serves” all school-age children (which is, of course, a major step forward), but it’s like trying to stick wings on a car and expecting it to fly. I remember feeling that it was broken but that I couldn’t even imagine what a good system would look like. That’s ultimately why I quit. I don’t do well working from inside a system to enact change. I’m very glad there are people who do.

I do better working outside the system (and outside). For that reason — and for so many others — farming suits me because it gives me the opportunity to re-think the whole thing for myself. I don’t believe the system we’re experimenting with now is the one we’ll be using in ten years, but I do feel that we’re part of a movement of all these little farm pilot programs, all over the world, trying to reimagine a system of food production that refuses externalities; and whose underlying principle is that all life matters.

3 thoughts on “The Deep State of the Farm

  1. One of my dreams has always been to settle down and finally garden as my maternal grandparents did, which included a large chunk of their backyard set aside for kitchen gardening. When we bought our first home in 2017, I had big plans but realized I had forgotten what little I learned about gardening from them. Moving all over the country for a good part of my life is part of why–always renting and couldn’t just do as I pleased.

    Once we had the home and postage stamp sized property, I realized my true dream was somewhere in the permaculture/food forests/native plantings range, which I only had the most general grasp about each.

    Some years we make good progress, others…we sure learned from mistakes! We were very lucky though, that the original owners of our 1935 working class bungalow were avid gardeners, and we still happily enjoy the variety of food that “came with the house” on top of the other plantings.

    I’ve come to accept that this will be a lifelong learning experience for me. It’s exciting to read about your own journey and how you’ve incorporated a much broader world view within it. I wish you the best, and look forward to reading about your progress.


  2. Dear Josh I live in Cummington, am not a farmer, don’t even grow my own vegetables (because other people do a much better job of it than we would). However, I am a gardener, working at landscaping our property after we built our house in the middle of what an old timer told us was “one of the best hayfields in Cummington.” We live on Potash Hill.

    Your article, “The Deep State of The Farm,” was heartening to me. I had watched a documentary on Netflix called s.t. like “Kiss the Earth.” Having seen that helped me understand what you describe in your article. It gave me s.t. on which to hang your article.

    I have also been turning over in my mind ” how do I garden and still treasure/ respect the rest of creation – including the Lilly beetles, Japanese Beetles, etc?”

    So, I am not part of the farming community, and I don’t even know where your farm is or what it’s called. I only know of you in connection with the village church and that you work ( I guess you still do) at North Star with my friend Loren Saito.

    AND…I am pleased to know that s.o. in Cummington is doing what you doing. I am heartened.

    May this be a good year for you and the Farm

    Peace, Lucy Fandel

    On Sat, Mar 13, 2021, 10:49 AM The New Rural Advocate wrote:

    > Joshua Wachtel posted: “[written late summer/fall 2020] Some of you know > that my dear cousin, Yupadee Kobkul-Bonsiri, died of COVID-19 on April 27th > [2020]. She and my cousin Steve lived in Brooklyn, and spent a lot of time > at their house here, next door to the farm. She was 51” >

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Lucy,

      Thanks so much for writing in and letting us know you liked the Lincoln Fishman article I finally posted… Sawyer Farm is on Cummington Road in Worthington, which is the extension coming from here off Route 112 that pops you up toward Liston’s and the Health Center. I just wanted to to be sure you knew Lincoln was the author of the piece you commented on, and not me. I am sure Lincoln will be thrilled to hear that his piece touched a chord.

      My role here is more editorial, at least for now, though I do plan to write more and continue my podcast I’d started in time.

      I do not work at North Star any more, though that place and Loran are so dear to my heart! I may yet have something to say about home and unschooling here at some point as a matter of fact…

      At any rate, thank you again for reaching out. As covid eases, I hope to see you around town! And if you or anyone you know cares to submit a piece about your gardening adventures, please do not hesitate to do so.



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