June 27, 2013 at 8:38 am

Richie Janssen: Living Life in Soil

By Richard Janssen
Environmental and Plant Biology Major, Ohio University
Summer internship at
Bertrand Farm, MI

Hello All,

I chose to go a slightly different path this summer and apply my Plant Bio knowledge to agriculture. I am working at Bertrand Farm in southern Michigan ( or Michiana, as it is affectionately called by the locals). I am working with two other interns with backgrounds in education and engineering (talk about diversity!). We grow all the kitchen produce, and are raising a few animals for eggs and meat, and a few just for fun. (Goats are hilarious by the way, highly skilled and useful animals.)

Bertrand Farm

Bertrand Farm

Bertrand is technically a farm in Organic Transition, so it is in the process of gaining certification, though this transition has been happening for about 15 years now. The way the USDA defines “Organic” is vastly different from what most people think of, so the certification doesn’t always mean that much in practice, and it is expensive and limiting to small growers on top of this. However, we implement many organic practices and attempt as best we can to farm in concert with nature, making decisions based on scientific knowledge, observing, and avoiding the military-industrial-agricultural-complex as much as possible. A large part of what we do here is public education. We are not involved with large scale production, but rather a bit of research into the practicalities of organic methods, and educating the public (especially younger generations) about the wonders of the food web that we are all a part of, and finally growing produce for 50 CSA (community supported agriculture) member families.

Farming is a Way of Learning About Nature

I have never been so busy, tired, challenged, thought-provoked, and all around healthy and strong in my entire life.  Every day is a 14-hour day. I feel the earth move under my feet as we spin from dawn to dusk and around again. Farming is, to me at least, the quintessence ( if I may) of learning about nature. It requires a mix of being jack of all trades and a scientist. So far I have used and spread knowledge from nearly every class I have taken at OU, most notably in the areas of Plant Breeding, Ecology, Chemistry, Physics, and a few facts about algae and fungi. There are endless areas of contemplation, discussion, and improvement on a farm, and we all learn a lot just by discussing and doing. Its great because I have spent the past two years theorizing about what Ive learned in class and its applications to sustainable agriculture, practicing what I can by experimenting in small gardens, and observing nature for insight, but now I actually get to meld that with practical work on the land.

Most of the work here is in tending to crops, weeding, mulching, planting in succession in raised beds, harvesting twice a week. The other 10% or so is spent producing educational “modules” on farming practices. I am in charge of an introduction to Permaculture practices, and one on methods for weed control. Its a bit like schoolwork, which is cool, and at least I have a large audience and they are topics of interest. Part of my job is to design and plant a perennial pasture for our animals. This is where I’m pulling out a lot of ecological principles so that the species assemblage is self-sustaining. I’m including fruit and nut trees, hardwoods, nitrogen vectors,  a pond with duck habitat, fast growing willows and even a few invasive tree species for grazing purposes. The pasture will be interspersed with productive trees with shade tolerant animal food plants,  nutrient cyclers and importers planted in theoretically appropriate areas and allowed to spread at will. I feel fairly qualified to do such a thing, which is a testament to the quality of the Department of Environmental and Plant Biology here at OU.

Here is a short little creative (well, you can be the judge of that) writing I did one night:

Ecologists will tell you that there is a strict distinction between soil and dirt. Dirt is inanimate, mostly unchanging, dead. Soil is the matrix of life, infused with solar energy, endlessly flowing and undulating, electric and irreducible, the skin of the earth. Working at this farm has allowed me to plug directly into this energetic phenomenon in a way that allows it to become self aware. I am the photons, carbon, water, the bacteria, bugs, fungi, and plants. We create one another. Soil packs the cuts on my hands, yet they do not become infected. Soil crawls up my leg yet it does not bite. I chew and swallow the soil and absorb its energy. I lay down in the soil to rest forever, and return to it the gift it has given me. My body the soil dissolves into life, to reappear as conscious in another time and place.

Anyway that’s the gist of it for now. Specifics to come.


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