All the questions

I get asked a lot of questions on the farm.  Many are predictable, and I know the answers and light up when I get to provide objective information to people.  What are your volunteer hours?  When are your farm stands?  What kinds of crops do you grow here?  I often answer these questions before volunteer groups even have a chance to ask them, like today during two orientation tours for groups of nearby Hawes Financial employees.  It's basic, easy, and I think gives new people some points of reference for more to come.  

Then there are the questions that I know the answers to, but they're in fuzzy areas that are hard to describe.  How full should these three-inch pots be?  How much yellow can a spinach leaf have on it and still be okay to send to the food bank?  How deep should we plant these onion sets?  The answers to these types of questions are, after two years on this farm and many more in farming, clear and obvious to my hands and sight.  They take a certain feel, a Goldie Locks-style homing in to the perfect medium, and a quick confidence to judge what's within the limits.  It's been a struggle for me to answer questions like this, but I'm getting better.  Demonstrations are always the best way to answer: people need to see the right spot, as well as the too-much and too-little on the edges.  Fill a pot to the right amount and make each person feel the top and sides.  Harvest a few spinach plants and pick out various examples of "ugly" leaves to leave behind.  Work alongside the onion planters, show them your method, and glance at their depth every few sets for the first while.  One person might be planting too deep, another too shallow.  Show them again, set more clear boundaries.  Just get the feel of it.  This is farming.

I get asked a lot about my own experience, too.  How long I've been at the Youth Farm, where I'm from, how I got here.  There are students that come to interview me for class projects, volunteers who become curious after a few days on the farm, and individuals from work parties that seem inspired to be outside and wonder how someone ends up leading them in a massive seeding project on a random Thursday in April.  Those are easy to answer, too.  It's not hard to talk from experience to people who seem interested.

There are a lot of questions I need to double check, too.  I've gotten more confident making judgement calls and predicting what the farm plan calls for, but there are moments every day when I need to find Ted and make sure we're on the track he intended.  I end up in this situation alongside Michael quite a lot, since he and I are usually the ones leading others to carry out the day's plans.  He'll come to me with a question about a project, and I'll often have an answer, or we'll be able to consult among ourselves and make a decision.  At least we're in it together then!  There are many times when I need to throw my hands in the air and tell him to find Ted, or I run to do it and double check our guesses.  Two seeds per pot for the plant sale cucumbers?  (Glad I asked, need to check the chart since some don't have enough and we'll plant only one seed per pot.)  Can we fill pots indefinitely or should we stop at 200 for what we need this week?  (Yes, just keep filling the pots like all get-out while everyone's on a role.)  Is seeding or making potting soil more important right now?  And there I hit a sweet spot, like the fuzzy areas I mentioned, but from a higher level: time to make a call.  I get to decide- based on the people I'm working with, the materials and momentum we have, and who I predict is coming later in the day to finish other tasks- whether to tackle one project or another.  This is where I hit one of my learning curves on this farm.  I get to practice it a lot when Ted is on vacation or running errands.  Prioritizing, strategizing, making judgement calls.  There's no right answer.  This is farming.

And then there are the questions that stop me in my tracks.  I think I know everything about what we're doing and why, and someone hits me with a question I've never thought to think about.  I don't even know I didn't know it.  I keep meaning to write these ones down, because when I think back on my days, I can rarely remember any of the questions, let alone pursue the answers.  Earlier this week someone asked me why the fields are lower than the roadways.  Ed asked me about the varieties of hot peppers we grow for the summer plant sale.  Today, Sophie asked why we would use perlite instead of vermiculite in potting mix.  I have great guesses to a lot of these types of questions (the tiller spits up soil to form a berm at the edges of the fields), some I gather bit by bit as I go (crop varieties are a sea of potential observations and readings for me), and some I could easily figure out with some quick research (perlite offers better drainage than vermiculite, but they both lighten and aerate the mix-- thanks Google).  In the moment though, it's a relief and joy to just say, "Huh, I don't know!  I wonder that, too."

Those are my favorite questions to hear on the farm: the ones that start with "I wonder..."  They invite me to stop trying to know the answers, and wonder right alongside everyone else.  They spark my own curiosity and imagination, to wonder about the things I might never know.  They prompt me to keep observing and learning, to stop long enough to form memories and ask those around me what they think.  I wonder...  That's farming.

I wonder how this pea ended up in a cucumber pot...  I wonder if the cucumbers would grow better next to peas...  I wonder what it took to domesticate and breed these varieties we've come to rely on... (Photo from mid March)

I wonder how this pea ended up in a cucumber pot...  I wonder if the cucumbers would grow better next to peas...  I wonder what it took to domesticate and breed these varieties we've come to rely on... (Photo from mid March)