Natalie and I started Perennial Roots back in 2010. The idea was to feed ourselves and out of the surplus, to make a business of it. That’s a lot of work for two people. I can only work while I’m awake. Fortunately, Nature works around the clock. Her champions are weeds. They unlock nutrients in the soil, break apart hardpan, prevent erosion, sequester carbon, and host beneficial insects. Weeds are the guardians of the soil. And we insult them by calling them weeds.
At Perennial Roots, we combine critical thinking with poetic feeling. On the one hand, we analyze our soils for deficiencies and try to remineralize responsibly. On the other hand, we try to sense creatively the living processes on the farm that are even more substantial than the transient forms they take in a given soil test. We let weeds arise because we know that they are temporary, and they are here to do a job. Next season, we will not have the same weeds because there is a new task for the soil to accomplish.
We rotate animals regularly over our fields and sow cover crops behind them. Sheep, geese, and pigs live together harmoniously. The sheep eat the tops of the plants, the geese take the lower parts, and the pigs turn the topsoil gently. This combination balances each in spirit, and there is no bad odor. As a unit, these convert overgrown weeds into stable carbon for the soil.
Here on the sandy soils of the Shore, we often have humidity, warmth, and light, but not enough carbon. Sandy soils are airy soils. And in airy soils, carbon likes to evaporate. Cover crops are essential to any operation that wants to protect its precious carbon.
It is the first task of a farmer to enliven the soil, and in the right way. You need living matter to build carbon. Only life begets life. The main concern of biodynamics is to cultivate healthy life processes, which isn’t easy. A farmer must have clear senses to do this. If it smells wrong, it probably is wrong.
Odors are compounds escaping. This is at the heart of nutrient leaching and must be prevented. When you sense the aroma a flower, that is a deliberate moment where Nature has deemed to release compounds to attract pollinators. That is a healthy release. A farm should have little odor but of flowers, forests, and fields. The farm should smell like a meadow.
Every organism has a skin to protect itself and maintain its integrity. But a “resource” is not alive and needs no skin. We cannot think merely in terms of dead resources. With a little imagination, we know the soil has a life of its own. Best management practices make the most sense when we remember that the soil is a alive. We wouldn’t leave a friend without a coat, much less without a skin. Cover crops give a living membrane to the soil, and that soil is the living skin of the Chesapeake Bay organism.
Most of the plantings at Perennial Roots are, as our name suggests, not annuals. We are interested in plants that will maintain the skin of the soil and keep maintaining it for years to come. Permanent plantings of fruiting trees and shrubs are at the heart of our efforts. Each of these are established to increase humus formation and to minimize leaching.
As a biodynamic farm, the ideal is to provide at least 80% of our animal feed from the farm itself. Certified organic feed, grown locally on the Shore, keeps our animals satisfied as we transition towards self-sufficiency. When the animals live off the land and the farmers live off the same land, the farm develops a new feeling of wholeness. The farm is no longer an inert resource, but a living entity that includes everything in it. My feeling is that this union may take as much as seven years to come about. But once the farm passes through its childhood, the farmer embodies that unique spirit. Winemakers call this terroir, which is the spirit of a place.
When the farmer and his terroir are one, virtually every molecule in his body has been forged out of the very fabric of the farm. At this point, the farm is really beginning to be a living organism. Even if you don’t garden or farm yourself, you can participate in this by aiming for 80% locally grown foods in your diet. It’s a lot of work, just like the farming is a lot of work, but it’s real.
If we want to embody a place, we first have to eat from that place. We need to eat so consistently from that one place that after seven years, every compound in our bodies was born here. We begin to feel with the place, because its skin becomes our skin. When we can imagine like that, we are closer to living like that. And only by living like that can we protect and nurture the living organism that is the Chesapeake Bay.