To get to Skeeter’s farm in the northeast corner of Washington State, we drove through apple country. Helicopters hovered overhead, emptying massive containers of pesticides over the conventionally managed orchards. We turned off the interstate onto a winding dirt road. As we ascended into the brown hills, we left the imperfect world behind. From each bend in the road, sweeping views gave us a godlike perspective on the valley below, where conventional farmers struggled incessantly against their insect enemies. What fools these mortals be.
We parked beside a large, white tent—like those used for RVs. Skeeter hugged us both in greeting and offered to give us the grand tour. He started by leading us into the tent. “In the summer, I like to just open up the sides.” He pulled aside a piece of plasticized canvas to show us the view. In the foreground was the tiny spring that irrigates his crops. Beyond that, we could see the deer fencing that surrounds one of his small farms. Deep in the valley below, we could just make out the town of Tonasket. Dusk was approaching and the town’s faint display of lights made it seem very, very far away.
I looked around the tent, noticing a small stove and opened jars of food. “You live here?” I asked Skeeter.
“In the summer,” he said. He showed us his bed, his dining room table, his desk. The furniture was jumbled together with the accoutrements of his livelihood—an herb dryer, giant bins of root crops, tables strewn with curing onions. I could see no separation between his personal life and his life as a farmer. The man is a monk.
Sometimes it seems as if all our farmers are either old hippies or high-tech dropouts. It seems food, farmed in the way we prefer, must be cultivated by monks or millionaires. Either the farmers must be satisfied with a simple life in order to dedicate themselves to their craft, or they must subsidize their passions with dwindling fortunes, or at least day jobs at Blockbuster.
When you step back, you wonder about the sustainability of this system. Then you realize this isn’t a permanent state, it’s a system in transition: we’re witnessing a passing of the torch. The old hippies bore that torch for years, pouring their lives into the development and demonstration of alternative farming methods. Just as they were getting ready to give up the ghost, in marched a new generation of farmers, inspired by financial success or economic crisis or simply life to leave their desk jobs as computer programmers and advertising executives and do something real, something of value.
Now, we consumers have finally caught up, and we’re stepping into the marketplace in large groups, demanding food grown hippie-style. The new farmers have reached out to the old timers, looking for advice. Rene Featherstone, the man who lived for years in a tepee and grows our grains, recently spoke at a major regional agricultural conference. Skeeter’s awards have been limited to permaculture enthusiasts, but the movement’s fans are many and growing.
When I pressed Skeeter to list any recognition he’d received, he joked “perhaps the plants point and whisper as I walk by.” Whatever the form this recognition takes, we’re glad to see these older farmers appreciated for their years of service. Like the ancient blues musicians who inspired a generation of musicians in the sixties, they’re enjoying their first world tour, proud elders of an almost-lost tradition, bestowing credibility on new traditions.
It’s an unlikely marriage, this coming together of outcasts, wannabes, and consumers with ridiculous demands. But like newlyweds, we are all proceeding optimistically, giving each other the benefit of the doubt, discovering each other’s quirks—and loving them.
Skeeter took us into his garden, where there was just enough light for a tour. While he walked in front of me, I took a minute to check out Annette’s favorite farmer. He’s a spry seventy-six year old, with gray hair and a trim gray beard. He wears a practical and warm wool flannel shirt and a knit cap. At his belt, he carries a sharp, hooked knife in a holster.
The knife functions as a sort of right hand for him. He pulls it out regularly to lop things off—roots, shoots, and leaves for us to taste, smell, or examine. “That there is teasel, it’s for lyme disease. That’s joe pye weed, it’s for kidney stones.” In his garden are hundreds and hundreds of species. Many of them are medicinal. He dries them and ships their leaves and seeds all over the world to wholesale suppliers of herbal remedies and teas. Finally, we got to the tomatoes. They formed a single, lengthy row amid a sea of blooming perennials.
Skeeter also grows celery, leeks, winter squashes, potatoes, and many other vegetable crops. Each of these tender, vulnerable crops he isolates, like islands, among his permaculture beds.
After Skeeter harvests once from his vegetable beds, he gradually begins to convert them to permaculture beds by interplanting perennials. As these mature, he phases out the annual plants and moves his vegetable garden to virgin ground. When he runs out of new space for vegetables, he simply digs up a perennial bed that’s grown too tall and starts the process over again, this time in the rich, fertile soil created through permaculture’s famous benign neglect. “Permaculture is about the ecosystem getting better and better while people are living in it,” Skeeter explained. The vegetables that emerge from that system taste delicious and have never known a pesticide of any kind.
This is the polar opposite of conventional farming, where rows and rows of a single crop grow isolated from any sort of insect life. In Skeeter’s garden, predatory insects quickly move in and attack any emerging pests. “Almost all farming in the world today is impoverishing ecosystems gradually, some faster than others,” said Skeeter. “And permaculture is about turning that around. Reversing the trend from earth degradation to earth regeneration.”
I crouch down, viewing the crazy-colored landscape of flowers and shrubs from an insect’s perspective. You can almost imagine fairies living here. And indeed, Skeeter perceives this land as alive, home to tiny souls that flutter on the fringes of our perception. It fills him with a faith in the regenerative power of nature. As he digs down with his shovel to show us the life in the soil, I find his optimism contagious.
Most farmers can’t do this sort of thing. The actions of tractors and fairies don’t mix well. And speaking practically, the market for medicinal herbs that subsidizes Skeeter’s vegetable operation isn’t large or efficient enough to appeal to conventional farmers. That said, some of the principles demonstrated in Skeeter’s garden scale up quite nicely.
Some farmers have been experimenting recently with leaving a row of native grasses and weeds at the edges of their fields. These wild places act as reservoirs for predators, much as did traditional English hedgerows. And hedgerows themselves have enjoyed growing interest.
Seattle’s King County Conservation District actively promotes their use, though few farmers have adopted the practice. Washington State University used to promote only the use of a chemical cocktail to fight insects. Today, the university also promotes integrated pest management, a method that involves bringing in insect predators to fight pests. These methods, once the domain of hippies, have become just another course at the land grant university.
At Skeeter’s dinner table in Tonasket, we sat brainstorming the discussion points he wanted to bring up at a regional conference in Seattle on food security. “We need more community gardens, we need more farmers markets, we need to turn parking strips into vegetable gardens, we need to require low impact development that will contain stormwater runoff.”
“Skeeter, that’s not radical in Seattle anymore.”
“No, Seattle is embracing all those ideas. We’ve elected environmentalists. Those laws have already been changed.”
Skeeter sat back in his chair, silent for a moment. Then, he broke out into a smile. After years of writing open letters to the President of the United States and anyone who would listen, Skeeter was no longer an outsider. Now, people like Annette and I drive to his door, seeking the best fresh produce. We want to learn how to make our gardens productive, how to rebuild the spent soils in our postage-stamp sized yards. We’re growing into the army of backyard gardeners and small farmers Skeeter dreams could one day replace the modern system of agricultural production. But we’ll never replace it entirely.
Buyers like us, and farmers like Skeeter, form a tiny part of the farming economy. Almost negligible. But it’s a nurturing, sustainable economy. As Annette and I loaded up her car with crates of leeks, potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, and parsnips, this movement didn’t feel small. It’s big enough for Skeeter, and it’s big enough for us to feed our families, and the families of those in our buying clubs. And while Skeeter can’t provide enough tomatoes for everyone in the city, he’s not alone. There are plenty of other monk farmers and millionaire farmers out there, looking for their niche market. (JM)
(excerpted from the Urban Farm Handbook)