Back from my farming co-op

By Marianthe Bickett '15

On my last co-op, I spent time on the west coast working on farms I found through the WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) network. These farms exchange food, lodging and learning for volunteers who come volunteer on their farm. I picked two farms that are completely off the grid, using permaculture principles to build more sustainable and self-sufficient systems, both in their gardens and in the rest of their lifestyle.  This meant outhouses, minimal running water (and no hot water), solar-powered electricity, and heat from wood stoves.

I love existing this much closer to the origins of my food, shelter and warmth. Knowing that the land around me is directly supporting my needs and witnessing the work involved allows me a much greater appreciation for these crucial resources.

I also thoroughly enjoy the challenge of problem solving that comes with trying to do things ourselves, and the power that comes in knowing how to provide basic needs outside of large industrial systems. The farms I spent time at were both extremely inspiring communities of people who had so much passion for the living world around them, which motivated them to work so hard not to exploit it.

Beth was the main farmer at Down to Earth farm in Mendocino County, California. She taught me a variety of things—how to shoot a pistol (there were wild boars around), drive a stick shift, and about building healthy soil. It was fascinating to understand more about the balance of bacteria and fungi (and protists and insects and small mammals and birds) that create rich procreative environments for plants, and how to effect that balance depending on what you are trying to grow.

I’d always heard that tilling is not great for soil, but I’ve also experienced how much easier it makes things, at least initially. I learned from Beth a better understanding of how tilling disturbs the fungal networks in the soil, and how if you treat your garden beds properly (don’t walk on them, give them regular compost and mulch) they won’t be compacted and need to be tilled.

Of course, at the Antioch Farm we’ve been starting from scratch to build healthy soil, and breaking up the sod-covered compacted clay soil with tilling has been necessary. But the best practices I learned from Beth were the same ones we’ve been doing since the beginning here at Antioch—lots of compost, mulch, dusting beans and potatoes with mycorrhizal fungi before planting and nourishing plants with compost tea.

Whenever I return from co-op, I am excited to get back to the Antioch Farm, although it is sleepy and mostly snow-covered now that we are in the frigid winter months. Bed-building and tree-pruning are the main tasks until it gets a little warmer and the dormant kale, collards and chard in our hoop house begin to grow new life.

Extra straw bales kept all our birds safe through the intense cold snap that hovered over Ohio as we started our new quarter. But even when it’s chilly and grey outside, spending a few hours digging in the dirt helps immensely to balance my academic life here at Antioch. And thus far all of my co-ops have been related to farming and it is so rewarding to use the knowledge I’ve gained at our farm out in the world, as well as bring new understanding about farming back to this little plot of land I’ve come to know best.