The desire to provide and enjoy good local food is one of the reasons we started Red Earth Farms. Yet here in rural northeast Missouri the land is already almost entirely dedicated to raising food. All around us in every direction are cattle pastures and large fields of corn and soybeans, all the way to the rolling horizon. So why would four community founders feel the need to grow even more food here? Every backyard gardener knows some of our answers: variety, freshness, flavor, nutrition, fun. To this list we add long-term sustainability and a healthy, resilient community culture.
You see, there are very few small diversified farms in our area, and no farmers appearing on market day with a variety of delicious, fresh local food staples bred particularly for this very bioregion. So the four of us decided to form a community of folks who want to pay attention to our ecological impact, care for land and other resources with like-minded neighbors, share culture with a vibrant ecovillage, and experiment with feeding people locally. Can you raise a substantial volume of grains and beans by hand? Would goats or sheep give more useful products? What’s the best way to get different fibers in our climate? Do guinea hens really eat ticks? We would try to find out.
We found the perfect land, gently sloped, with three ponds, a seasonal creek, and a few stands of oak, hickory, osage, and willow. Our first activities on the land were taking down barbed wire fences, scything the grass, and planting trees and gardens.
It wasn’t long before we found lots of food already growing on the land. Here spring brings wild parsnips, chickweed, burdock root, dandelions, and lambs’ quarters, which I find tastier than spinach. Without even bothering to plant them or tend them, we harvest self-propagating wild onions, field pennycress, and curly dock from our gardens and paths. This winter I learned how to pound acorns into meal, leach the bitterness from them, and cook them up for a hot, nutty December breakfast, a skill that should prove useful given our numerous oak trees.
I think these wild edibles—known to many commercial farmers as weeds—are my favorite foods to play with. In early spring I love gathering sap from the silver maples and boiling it down at Sandhill Farm’s “sugar shack” (their sorghum cooking facilities). In May I love hunting morel mushrooms, so elusive and so delicious. And all summer long the Earth brings forth juicy, tangy wild fruits and blackberries, dewberries, mulberries, gooseberries, wild strawberries, wild plums, and more.
But much as I love them, I’d rather not live on berries and acorns alone. We’re deeply fortunate to be located next door to Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage and three miles away from Sandhill Farm, a 34-year-old largely food self-sufficient income-sharing community. Both communities have had a strong food culture from the start and we learn a good deal from them. Sandhill supplies us with eggs, tempeh, honey, wheat, and sorghum, and they are invaluable advisors as we choose cultivars and gardening methods. (See “Food, Glorious Food” in this issue.) Ironweed, a combination dinner and garden co-operative at Dancing Rabbit, has nourished many of us with their fresh produce and dairy products. And all three communities are in an agricultural region, which despite a monocrop monotony is still dominated by small family farms owned by our exceedingly friendly neighbors. Raising food is what people do around here.
And so at Red Earth Farms we don’t just stalk the wild asparagus but grow food too, using the principles of permaculture design. To me, practicing permaculture is a continuous process of discovering how to have the most fun and eat the best food while working the least. In part, that means perennials and perennialized annuals. We grow strawberries, black currants, and perennial “walking” onions. We save tomato seeds. We save part of the garlic harvest to plant in the fall. We experiment with “the three sisters”: corn, squash, and beans— crops that like each other and from which we can save seed. We plant trees; one of Red Earth Farms’ subcommunities, Dandelion, has already planted hundreds of peach, apple, chestnut, hazelnut, pecan, and other trees, creating a future food forest around their pond. One day perhaps their chestnuts will obviate the need to grow potatoes.
Over the long, hot summer, we’ve found mulch to be a good friend. Our young trees and the three sisters need to be kept cool and moist, and the earthworms want to work the soil. We also don’t feel like weeding a lot, and we have a surplus of grassy fields. Given the needs and the available resource, our low-tech, inexpensive tool of choice is a scythe. We each have our own custom-made European-style scythe, which, when sharpened now and then in the field, makes mowing a sheer pleasure—especially first thing in the morning when the grass is still wet with dew. This is the best of everything: we clear paths, keep the ticks down, mow space to work and play in, get mulch for the orchards and gardens, and enjoy a relaxing, meditative form of exercise in the cool of the day. And then we have breakfast.
So far, we’ve experimented with some polycultures but have not had enough time yet on the land to draw clear conclusions about their advantages. Our ponds and rainstorms offer us the exciting opportunity to learn about aquaculture; Dandelion’s dozen ducks (herded quite capably by a pair of border collies) are doing a superb job of converting crayfish to eggs, meat, and down. We have learned that mulching too extravagantly with duck manure yields oddtasting potatoes. But the ducks aren’t the only ones whose so-called waste we see as a valuable resource; we use composting toilets to collect our “humanure,” which is slowly transformed into odorless, nutrient-rich soil. A small population of bees improves pollination as well as providing honey and beeswax. We have plans to bring additional poultry and small livestock to our land soon.
We’re only getting started, and the percentage of our diet that we produce so far is very small, but with time we hope to learn how to amply sustain ourselves and share the surplus with our neighbors in the village. We’ve got a long way to go; there’s so much to learn about raising our food!
And once we’ve raised it, there’s so much to learn about food preservation and storing. We’ve got passive solar dehydrators on which we dry fruits and vegetables. We make jams, chutneys, and preserves from the berries, and we make sauce and juice from the tomatoes. We press apples into cider and bottle it against the long winter. But best of all—the most fun that yields the tastiest food with the least work—we ferment stuff.
It’s hard for me to remember a time when I didn’t yet know and love fermented foods. My favorite bread has always been sourdough rye, my favorite summer snack a crunchy kosher dill pickle. I love cheese, yogurt, wine, beer, miso, tempeh, and sauerkraut. In Russia I learned to love kombucha, or as they call it, the “tea mushroom.” But until I moved into community I never thought I could make all these things with my friends in our homes. Now we do it all the time. Salted things in crocks, bubbling carboys, and slowly rising sour loaves sit in the corners of every kitchen around here. Besides the captivating magic of watching food transform itself before our eyes, I think there are two reasons fermented foods are so popular here in our tri-community area. First, we are doing our best to eat our local food year-’round, which means that in the winter we often crave the crunch and tang and teeming goodness of cultured foods— not the bland sogginess of something frozen or pressure-canned. And second, it takes a whole host of symbiotic, live, wild, cultured microorganisms to match our communities’ creative, transformative, wildly cooperative human culture.
This community culture has evolved to a great degree hand-in-branch with the food we eat. There’s something about food that brings us together. We find ourselves bartering it jar-per-loaf and pound-per- haircut, or buying it from each other with DR’s own currency stimulating our local economy and subverting the corporate-led disconnection of communities from the source of their vitality. The way we eat is powerful political activism. As Sandor Katz writes in his book, The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements, this type of activism “seeks to revive local food production and exchange, and to redevelop community food sovereignty. There is no sacrifice required for this agenda because, generally speaking, the food closest at hand is the freshest, most delicious, and most nutritious. …This revolution is wholesome, nurturing, and sensual. This revolution reinvigorates local economies. This revolution rescues traditional foods that are in danger of extinction and revives skills that will enable people to survive the inevitable collapse of the unsustainable, globalized, industrial food system.”
This revolution is served at our best parties. This is my revolution—it makes me dance.
And that’s probably my favorite thing about our food— better even than picking wild morels or baking sourdough bread in an earthen oven. We’ve found that our food, carefully grown and prepared, tastes much better in each other’s company. So we gather every week, all three communities bringing an assortment of dishes to the Tuesday potluck dinner. Many of us eat all our other meals in small groups— one group at Sandhill, one at Red Earth, and at least four at Dancing Rabbit. We buy most of our beans and grains together in bulk through a food-buying club based at Zimmerman’s store in the nearby town of Rutledge. And we bring food to our biggest celebrations: May Day, Thanksgiving, weddings, and each community’s Land Day. Last Thanksgiving, when asked to speak in turn about what we were thankful for, one guest raised a carafe of freshly pressed apple cider and said simply, “This.”
My hope for Red Earth Farms is that we can learn to dance with plants and animals in a way that not only provides our neighbors and us with plenty of delicious sustenance, but also regenerates lively, diverse ecosystems that gracefully include our human culture. We’ll keep on gathering, growing, and eating until we get it right.