Build Soil. Build Community. (Part Two)

Andrew Manieri and Terry Schneider at Heartbeat Community Farm in Yellow Springs, Ohio, are doing the most important work in the world - they're learning how to grow food in a truly sustainable fashion. Along the way, they're building soil and community.

For a week in August, I had the pleasure of volunteering with Andrew and Terry at Heartbeat Community Farm in Yellowsprings, Ohio, a CSA that goes far beyond conventional organic agricultural practices. The beautiful picture above (taken by someone else, I just pulled it off Flickr) shows the incredibly productive no-till organic farming practiced at Heartbeat. In just six years, Andrew and Terry have built up the soil by at least six inches or more above the hard pack dirt, a reminder of the industrial farming carried out on the land in years past.

Heartbeat is like no other farm I've experienced. That's right, I said experienced (Jimi Hendrix style), because unlike the silent rows of genetically modified soybeans that surround this organic oasis, Heartbeat's fields are positively BURSTING with life. In addition to the farmers' own cries of joy celebrating the fruits of their labour, "Isn't that the most beautiful watermelon you've ever seen!!!??" the air is teaming with birds, Monarch butterflies and other insects drawn to the gardens' flowers, shrubs and trees.

With about 30 CSA members each paying a lump sum for a share of the season's produce, Andrew and Terry aren't getting "rich," but I can say with the utmost certainty that they are two of the wealthiest people I have ever met. These men are doing what they love every single day, healing the land, feeding their community, living close to the natural feedback loops of nature, and making a livelihood on their own terms.

Their money pile is their compost pile.

As I trimmed and cleaned garlic and onions, and helped dig potatoes and pick tomatoes and beans (among other tasty things - have you tried a fresh tomatillo?) Andrew and Terry shared their philosophy of farming with me, a philosophy based on a symbiotic, "non-empire," non-capitalistic relationship with the soil. They don't use machinery, their transportation is by bicycle, and they're doing all the work themselves. What that means is that they aren't trying to make a profit off the land or someone else's back - their capital is their own labour and the richness of the soil itself, which they defend vigorously. They half-joke, because it's true, that their money pile is their compost pile. They collect compost from local sources and amass it over the course of the year.

Andrew, who used to study philosophy at Oxford before abandoning "higher education" for farming, shared his strong belief that as soon as a profit or return on capital is sought in farming, then bad things start to happen for people (labourers) and the land itself (a rule that applies to almost all forms of profit taking). True freedom, he believes, can only be found in frugal living and self-sustainability. Anytime we try to "get ahead" in a conventional sense, then that's "empire," and the profit comes at someone else's expense.

What would you rather bank on these days? A rough and ready chestnut tree, or a newfangled mutual fund?

For all his anti-empire talk, Andrew still has Machiavellian tendencies, like his aggressive investment in chestnuts. This past year he milled an experimental run of 50lbs of chestnut flour, a delicious and nutritious staple that helped feed his family and that he shared with friends. Based on its success, he's planting more trees and eventually he hopes their bounty will become a significant part of his livelihood. The health of the trees will determine the health and happiness of his family and wider community. What would you rather bank on these days? A rough and ready chestnut tree, or a newfangled mutual fund?

Loam wasn't built in a day.

Before I left Yellow Springs, I bought a t-shirt from a local artist. His comedic style reminds me of Gary Larsen, with hilarious cartoons and captions like "Pink Freud" (a pink sketch of Freud the psychoanalyst) and "Much .edu about nothing" (frighteningly true at times). One that immediately grabbed my attention featured a picture of a plowed field with an angry Roman standing in it, waving his sword at an indifferent looking donkey. The caption reads, "Loam wasn't built in a day." I love it, and after my experience at Heartbeat Community Farm, I'm determined to build some loam of my own.