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Images left to right: Rich Pecoraro straddling beds at MASA Seed foundation's farm in Boulder County (the plant diversity growing here is astounding), onions we selected to replant for seed (if you have enjoyed our onions this year this is where they came from), Rich showing off Anasazi Flour Corn a plant cultivated by humans for thousands of years.



 


It took a dreary winter day to pull the seeds from storage. Once a shoebox, this collection has grown to bins of vegetable, flower, grain, and herb seeds. Inside are hundreds of bags. Some seed is from large sellers, crops we do not have access to locally or are unable to grow well in Colorado’s Front Range. The seeds that pull the heartstrings are labeled with hand written notes. Batches of seeds grown in our region, adapted to our hands. There is history here tucked away in packs of seeds; the oldest found was a Kuroda Carrot from 2007, a year before I first farmed.

Nostalgia floods my body as I return the seeds we have been using this season back with those who remained in the collection. While doing so I am making order notes for upcoming plantings and deeper crop planning. I am proud to say this upcoming year will be the smallest seed purchase Folks Farm will make since it was founded. Our labor has yielded an impressive amount of diverse crops, just scratching the surface of the generational devotion and love it took for these seeds to reach my hands.

Humans share a kinship with regional seeds. Local seeds are not anonymous packages that arrive on the doorstep from unknown origins. I recently called a mentor of mine, Rich Pecoraro, to catch up. Pecoraro is a lifelong seed steward whose work has culminated in MASA Seed Foundation, a non-profit in Boulder County dedicated to growing regional seed at scale (see link below for more information). He has personally contributed more to my plant growing knowledge and seed collection, than any book, podcast, or online video. Working together years ago I first learned about regional adaptation, directly inspiring me to pursue farming professionally. He lives a story of humans and plants dancing together through eons of time, choosing one another, and moving in concert through the season’s rhythms. A dance that changed teosinte, a large seeded grass, into the Mother Corn our population survives on today. Indigenous relationships between humans and plants that have created every vegetable we consume.

Plants are unique to humans because they are mostly sedentary. Where a seed sprouts so it grows (which actually might not be too different from humans, have you ever been in two places at once?). Do not mistake this trait for less than being mobile. Plants are equipped with the skills to grow in extreme conditions, successfully bear fruit, and give life to future generations all through interactions with air, sunlight, and soil. Adverse environments kick on genetic responses in the plants, creating healthier food and imparting information to their offspring. I watched a tomato plant take root outside our farm stand this year. Without receiving water, in direct sun, and against a hot stone wall this tomato produced a handful of black plum fruits (even continuing to live after several frosts). This plant demonstrates how positivity will produce fruits even in the toughest conditions. Our role as seed stewards is to witness plants and notice the outliers. The plants that perform in exceptional ways (drought tolerance, interesting fruit, higher yields, different structure, bolt resistance, etc) become the parents and are left unpicked for the seeds to ripen deeper into the season.

Year after year we grow our favorite varieties and our love for them deepens. Sprouting the seeds you have selected and saved is like seeing an old friend after months, or even years, apart. It is a profound experience to witness such diversity through the continuity of gardening. To know that everything we need is right here, that the world is full of abundance, and needs the dance of humans to continue to breed food crops is a powerful feeling. I was recently reflecting on the power of seeds with a CSA member. Consider a wheat plant started from one seed produces over 100 seeds at the time of harvest!

As a small-scale grower my motivation can waver. There were a couple weeks in 2020 when the grocery stores shelves had been pillaged and food seemed scarce. At least once a year a crop like onions or lettuce gets recalled nationwide because of a food borne pathogen. For the most part though, the shelves are stocked often with organic options.

Seed work breathes heart into how I farm, giving me energy in tough times. When we plant a seed personally saved we perpetuate a primordial dance with our ancestors and reinforce a resilient way of living. By tapping into this evolving lineage gardeners gain access to millions of years of energy carried on one season at a time. Even if I am growing the same variety as a friend down the road we interpret the plants differently, selecting for slightly different traits, or finding weirdos to create new varieties. The deepening relationships between growers and plants provides me with a reason to grow, to adapt, and to continually strive to leave something better for the next generation to grow.


MASA Seed Foundation- https://www.masaseedfoundation.org/

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Winter time represents an opportunity for a farm reset. Our unusually warm weather has made the tasks of mowing, removing irrigation, livestock pen cleaning, and general organizing pleasant. Cleaning creates the space for seasonal reflection, opening a wider view to personally reflect on the previous growing season. This wider lense is very different from the number punching spreadsheet crop planning coming up.

Thoughts come and go as to how much of a certain crop we planted, and how much will be planted next year, what if we did this or that? I keep my mind open and not get bogged down in the details. More reminiscing on the feelings rather than specifics. It's time to set the farm’s bed and clean the edges. This work clears the space and allows dreaming creative spirits a place to enter. I usually hate the work of unpacking and cleaning, but this year I find myself enjoying simpler tasks.

We have let go of our seasonal employees meaning I no longer have to be awake at a certain time. The ability to choose a daily schedule has provided my body with rest. My mornings now consist of exercising, writing, and two cups of coffee. Mentally I am taking advantage of this time. I started seeing a therapist on a weekly basis a month ago.

Burnout can look a lot of ways. For me 2021 was characterized by intermittent sadness, anger, frustration, manic happiness, and exhaustion. My mental health suffered, my body suffered, my business suffered, my personal relationships suffered. I was faced with an ultimatum. Either take on the extra burden and deal with my mental health, or remain in a loop of unhealthy seasonal ebbs and flows.

My situation as a farmer is extremely unique. Folks Farm was started on family land, however, this land was never farmed by my family and had not been irrigated since the 60s. Since then we have found land access in an urban rental setting. This is strikingly different from the more typical rural, multi-generational farm. Studies show farmers in these settings have heightened rates of mental health issues, substance abuse, and increased rates of suicide. This is a trend we see across the world from Australia to India. Covid-19 has further exacerbated the impacts of mental health on farmers across the country, resulting in more anxiety and isolation. I feel extremely fortunate to have access to mental health care and a community of friendly support. I realize this access is a great privilege not available to many people, farmers or not.

The process of coming to this realization and finding a professional to work with took months. I knew I didn’t want to meet over the internet, for me face to face interaction is crucial. I wasn’t sure if I needed a specialist, someone focused on ag workers, or if someone general would work. Maybe a life coach? I settled on a general licensed therapist who lives in town and operates out of their house.

We have been working together creating a personal values system. A way of integrating with the heart. I do not necessarily look forward to our meetings every week, but the effort is paying off. My hope is that putting in the effort now will reinforce the habit of listening to my heart, so come August I will have the capability to resource, avoid burnout, and keep track of my mental health.

I am not writing this for any reason other than transparency. Writing has shown itself to be a tool I intend to use in clearing mental space. This practice strives to integrate my daily life so come next season I can keep my head above water and stay out of the weeds. Sharing my writing creates an engine that motivates me to continue the practice. I hope whoever reads this finds it beneficial.


Sources:

A. Gregoire, The mental health of farmers, Occupational Medicine, Volume 52, Issue 8, December 2002, Pages 471–476, https://doi.org/10.1093/occmed/52.8.471


Sengupta, Rajit, “Every day, 28 people dependant on farming die by suicide in India, Down to Earth, 03 Sept. 2020


Tomko, Mike, e al. “National Poll shows Covid-19 Taking Heavy Toll on Farmer’s Mental Health”, American Farm Bureau Federation, 6 Jan. 2021, https://www.fb.org/newsroom/national-poll-shows-covid-19-taking-heavy-toll-on-farmers-mental-health


Yazd, Sahar Daghagh, et al. “Understanding the Impacts of Water Scarcity and Socio-Economic Demographics on Farmer Mental Health in the Murray-Darling Basin.” Ecological Economics, Elsevier, 26 Nov. 2019, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0921800919302368.


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Folks Farm started out with a mission; provide top quality organically grown food to the Fort Collins community. Since beginning this journey in 2019 we have attended over 100 markets, provided vegetables for over 80 families, distributed thousands of miles of produce from Fort Collins to Denver, and opened a roadside farm stand. I sit here today proud of this accomplishment. I sit here today a changed person.

Life deals lessons in cycles. Is it just me or does it usually take a few lessons for changes in habits to set? I realize now our original mission was just the beginning, the first leaves of a plant just sprouted. There is more involved than simply growing and selling food. It is time our mission grew and put out its true leaves.

If I reflect on when my heart has been full while farming it usually involves three elements. The warm feeling of satisfaction comes around the edges of the day. There is nothing better than watching a farm wake up with the sunrise or slip into night with the sunset. The waning golden hours of the day are my favorite time to be in the field. Tired, sore, a little dehydrated form a euphoric sense of accomplishment. Weary eyes witness the manifestation of effort glow into the night knowing it is time to celebrate or rest.

As the sunsets over vegetables the feeling intensifies if the crew is all part-taking in the dwindling hours of the day. Often with hoes in hands or propped on shoulders we look at the beds we’ve just cleaned or watch the sprinklers rain on ripening crops. These people make the difference between nature and agriculture. The best farming transmutes the powers of nature through the human and into the garden. Without people we would not have the crops we enjoy on our dinner plates. Without the crew, we would have nothing to market.

We turn away from the sunset and see the final piece, you. My heart sings when we have the public on our farm. You are usually eating something delicious, having a beverage, and laughing. You are the reason we farm. I would simply garden if I was not interested in providing a service to our customers. In these moments the work is truly a selfish act. I revel in the enjoyment of people and love to see enjoyment of the work. It has become novel in our times to know where and who grows your food. When I see the effect of our efforts my heart feels nourished and motivated to continue this journey.

Moments, days, nights like the one I have described have happened on our farm. I am realizing now the lessons I have been shown many times. We are not simply here to grow food. We are here to create a relationship between people and food. To provide a conduit between nature, humanity, and each other. Our task is creating a place where people feel welcome in the abundance of our region’s offerings. So it isn’t Folks Farm, it is Farming for the Folks.



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