I, Organic

Brief Preface: This essay examines how the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) through its regulatory body the National Organic Program (NOP) is threatening the future of organic farming in the USA.

When reading it is important to remember several points.  Organic certification is the only true national standard for growing healthy food in this country.  Many of the regulations designated and enforced by the NOP date back to the original drafting for organic certification in 2001/2 and are widely accepted as promoting and protecting true organic principles.  In our current marketplace other terms such as “regenerative” or “certified regenerative” or “natural” mean absolutely nothing from a standards point of view.

This is why the Real Organic Project certification (discussed below) is an addendum to the NOP organic certification.  It is attempting to validate organic certification where appropriate during this current period of wide-scale NOP-endorsed fraud.

Real Organic Project | We are THE Organic Movement

I had the opportunity these past several months to revisit my commitment to the National Organic Program.  The NOP is the regulatory arm administered by the USDA that oversees permitting for farms that wish to promote themselves as organic.   The NOP essentially contracts out organizations both public and private to oversee the process of certifying farms (and other related businesses).  Until recently, the fall of 2023 to be precise, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Agriculture oversaw this certification process in RI.  Many if not all of the certified organic growers in Rhode Island received their certification through this public office.  If you were buying Big Train Farm products wholesale you would receive a sticker on your box that said  “Certified Organic by RIDEM”.


Rhode Island recently was one of several states to loose its public accreditation to administer organic certification to farmers.  According to the head of RI’s Division of Ag the increasing demands of USDA and the lack of funding and support led DEM to finally surrender the process. This precipitated a scramble for organic growers in the state.  Farms like Big Train had only a matter of months to reapply through a private certifying agency, a process that usually takes at least several days to prepare and had already been done in the spring of the same year.  If we failed to do so we were in danger of losing our USDA organic certification by the New Year.  With the alternative private company the cost of applying for certification was going to skyrocket and the additional paperwork looked potentially daunting.  For me it was a chance to step back and think about where I stood with organic certification personally, financially, and ideologically.


I’m old enough to remember when the NOP was founded in 2001.  I had just finished my first internship on an organic farm in the Finger Lakes region of New York.  In those days the organic sector held only the slightest sliver of a fraction in the grocery retail market.  While today we have one national standard in those days local, unregulated certifiers accommodated farms that wished to be certified organic.  Unlike today where you could potentially be fined up to $10,000 for organic fraud, there were no penalties to speak of for folks who did not follow the standards of their certifying organizations.  Although the organic movement had been defining the word intentionally for many years at this time the term “organic” still was not technically defined and as open to potential fraud as familiar, murky terms such as “natural” or “regenerative”.


With the arrival of the NOP on the scene organic certification became truly standardized and national.  The public and private certifying organizations I mentioned stepped up to oversee the application and renewal process, and long-time luminaries in the organic movement had influence with the NOP.  The standards were not perfect by many accounts but they were strong and included ideas critical to organic farming principles.  Regulatory standards included mandatory crop rotations and natural resource management such as on-farm water and biodiversity concerns.  Core organic values such as pasture-based livestock production, cover cropping, and soil-grown crops (i.e. no hydroponic production in organics) were embedded in the standards.


Most people focus on the issues orbiting around restricted and prohibited substances in organics such as the various pesticides that are not permitted in organic farming systems.  These are of course extremely important issues to consumers and remain the primary purchasing leverage for organic products.  Yet these other standards I mentioned are also of critical importance to developing a healthy farming system that can be recognized as “real organic”.  It is in fact these more holistic practices such as cover cropping, pasturing, and ecologically minded soil-care that make the final products of our farms healthier, more nutritious, and better for the environment.  Our crops are healthier because of the things we do do, such as cover cropping, not because of the things we don’t do, such as spraying poisons on our fields.


Check boxes that speak to these more holistic and less consumer-centric topics are found on every farmer’s organic certification application. They are time-consuming and often costly practices to implement on farms and are one of many reasons that organics can demand higher prices.  The USDA has been allowing conventional growers to circumvent many of these application boxes, whole pages really, and allowing farms who would otherwise be deemed noncompliant to receive organic certification.  This is fake organic farming and it has real consequences for the market and our communities.  Because of two particularly egregious departures from core organic principles a new organic movement in the USA has risen up to bring integrity back to the organic label.  As the NOP has allowed the bypassing of organic standards in several arenas, such as permitting hydroponic growing and confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to be certified organic, farmers around the country are pushing back.


The Real Organic Project has been offering a addendum to the USDA organic application which certifies that the farm in question is a soil-based farming system (no hydroponics) and/or raises it’s livestock primarily on pasture (no CAFOs).  Because the USDA has bent the knee to Big-Ag by allowing hydroponic farms and CAFOs to be certified organic real organic farms are finding their markets debased and themselves priced out while the consumer is totally unaware.  This has had a deleterious effect on real organic farms across the country, in particular organic dairy farms, chicken farms, blueberry and cane-fruit farms, and vegetable farms, in particular tomato growers.  A salient example for New England has been the pull out of Horizon Organic milk from Vermont and New Hampshire (all contracts were canceled with these real organic farms), the company preferring to buy cheaper milk from fake organic farms out west.   If you are a wholesale farmer who deals in these commodities you are being swindled by the NOP, priced out of your market.  If you are a consumer you are being deceived.  Sadly you simply cannot trust the USDA’s organic label today in regards to these staple agricultural products when shopping in a grocery store.


Big Train Farm has had a relationship with organic certification typical of many small farms.  Being such a small operation (BTF is a ten acre farm that primarily serves roughly eight-hundred people through our CSA program) our marketing style is very retail, very face-to-face.  We decided to adopt organic certification in 2012 for two reasons.  We were doing more wholesale in those years, sending product up to Boston and the north shore through a local distribution center as well as working more closely with local universities and restaurants.  With anonymity in those markets organic certification was extremely important in justifying our pricing and assuring these faraway customers of the integrity of our products.


During the pandemic we increased our CSA membership by about thirty percent.  This required more than word of mouth advertising so organic certification was important in providing interested customers a reliable standard when deciding to join our CSA membership.  Marketing is a fundamentally important benefit to organic certification.


But also important was the fact that I had come up in what was a particular cultural wave of organic farming (I’m not sure what to call this wave, but the period from 2000-present).  All the farms I worked for previous to starting my own business were certified and I saw organic (especially in my early years) as a unique and even fringe movement that spoke to my counter-cultural sympathies.  Yet as I’ve grown up I feel like Organic has grown up too.  Organic is ubiquitous now and has become a successful and respected standard, a household word.  The community has expanded as well with new growers and organic-minded organizations popping up like dandelions all around us.  I came up in organic farming feeling as though I was part of an intelligent, dedicated, and thriving community and once I was farming on my own I wanted to be counted among the ranks of certified organic farmers all around the world.


Yet in the fall of 2023 I was feeling skeptical.  Dealing with the public certification process through RIDEM had always been frustrating.  Slow, clunky, often opaque and sometimes arbitrary I was tired of the tedious noncompliance letters and late to arrive certificates.  The increased cost of switching to a private certifier had me balking too.  My business was established, we knew our customers and at this point most of our business was built on reputation and not on advertising.  I felt like I didn’t really need Organic anymore.  So what brought me around?  It was the Real Organic Project.  Being certified by the Real Organic Project for several years now I could see how important it was to stand with these certified growers, some who are not as fortunate as me to have a nearly fully retail business.  I felt that pull of community again, a Real movement, something stirring, like I felt in my early days of farm work.


This community is still small with only about 1,000 farms certified Real Organic.  I believe it needs growers like myself to stay certified in order to fight and to win.  The issues attached to Real Organic go far beyond a national standard of excellence in food production.  These issues go to the heart of our troubled economy and suffering environment:  anti-trust, indigenous rights, climate change, inequality, algorithm autocracy, rural decimation and so on.  This movement is at the heart of systemic change because food production is at the heart of systemic recalcitrance.  Frankly I’m proud to be part of it.


So I went to Staples and copied all my paper work for the second time last year.  I sent in my application in a heavy envelope with an even heavier check, and gladly participated in half-a-dozen clarifying phone calls with my very charming new certifier.


Organic has done a lot for me.  It has been a friend, a buoy, a partner, and a family.  Perhaps right now it needs me more than I need it.  I am happy to accept that.  When my son asks me where I was when the USDA was trying to roll back Organic I’ll be able to tell him… right on the front line.

Simple Places


An older Irish man who lived alone would walk two hours from his house to catch the bus to the nearest fishing village.  He’d spend the day walking around the familiar streets, have a meal, take the bus back and walk another two hours home again.  When his neighbors finally asked him why he made the same trip over and over again he replied:

“Pity the man that doesn’t travel.”


While pulling trash out of a gully along the side of Snake Hill Road in Chepachet, Mindy and I came across some small patches of horsetails.  I had just taken hold of the corner of an old, thoroughly buried black plastic bag.  I could hear the crunchy, crinkling sound of old trash inside.  Whoever had dumped it had done a poor job tying it off or over the years the knot had finally slipped and belched out some of the garbage.  The hard plastic that lay around it, laundry detergent and milk bottles and such, were now bleached and brittle, crumbling into smaller and smaller pieces.  The tiniest fragments of the desiccating containers would be impossible to fully remove.  It would take the Herculean effort of sifting the wet, root-filled soil to the fraction of a millimeter, which is a disturbance and time commitment that would be hard to justify.

I held the old trash bag by the corner.  It was mostly sealed in the ground, covered in washed out soil that had since become home for roots of tending trees, sedges, grasses, vines, forbs, and horsetails.  I had dislodged a shallow wedge of sod in order to get a grip on the bag and it immediately began to tear as I tugged at it.  Instead of shredding it and making matters worse I improvised a small-scale landfill on the spot.  I tucked the corner of the frayed black trash bag back into the muddy groove I had exposed.  Then I slapped the wet sod back on top of it and dedicated my limited time to easier objectives.  My little landfill sits in a notch below the gentle tilt of a wetland and the steep embankment of the road.  With each wet season a little more soil will be deposited in that low place until the 21st century relic I could not evict will be firmly ensconced in the geological record of what people once called southern New England.

Mindy and I were out on a beautiful spring Saturday morning in April, slightly damp from evening showers and cool.  Everything glistened in the cloudy light and lots of plants were pushing out of their dormancy.  The red maple had already begun shedding its blossoms and the hard crimson color of the sprouting poison ivy was littered with piles of washed maple flowers, something of a sickly brown, grey, pink.  Wild cherry buds were swelling, and dozens of different perennial herbs already had formed proud rosettes and upright stalks.  In another week this ground-cover community of green, red, and purple plants would thoroughly shade out much of the trash we were unable to remove.  Of all the spring growth we saw the horsetails were the most captivating.  Small and feathery with their tiny upturned whorls of microphylls they resemble nothing else that grows around them.

Horsetails and Scouring Rushes are two common names for plants of the Equisetum genus.  In Rhode Island four different species can be found.  These plants are quite ancient in evolutionary terms.  Most of the plants people are familiar with are seed bearing plants.  Seed bearing plants form flowers and fruits like an oak tree or a dandelion, or they make cones like a pine tree.  Flowers are the most recent major adaptation plants have made in seed production, developing complex cross-pollination relationships facilitated by animals, insects primarily.   In flowering seed bearing plants the developing seed is protected inside the ripened ovary of the flower, which becomes the fruit.  Flowering plants are the most successful and therefore the most abundant and diverse plants globally.  Previous to the evolution of flowers plants developed “naked seeds”, seeds unprotected by fruits but housed safely in woody cones that we see hanging from conifers.   Prior to the evolutionary development of seeds, plants like ferns, lycopods, cycads, horsetails and mosses evolved to reproduce by spreading spores about, similar to fungi.

These spore-shedding seedless vascular plants were some of the earliest plants to colonize the land and Equisetum are the living descendents of ancient horsetail species that once covered much of the planet.  More than three hundred million years ago the order that horsetails belongs to enters the fossil record.  It consisted of many genera and species, some of them massive in size.  The genus Calamites was tree-sized, a horsetail that sprouted off a horizontal rhizome much like modern day quaking aspen trees.  Calamites grew to be over sixty feet tall forming trunks of dense silica that must have been stronger than any tree of modern comparison.  The horsetails Mindy and I noticed in contrast were about two or three inches tall, and might grow to be a foot or two by the summer.  All of the ancient genera in this taxa, like Calamites and others, are extinct.  All of them are gone from planet Earth… except Equisetum. 

Thinking about the giant ancestors of these humble plants on the side of the road in rural Rhode Island reminded me of a trip we took to Sequoia National Park.  The giant sequoias, unlike their sister trees the coastal redwoods, grow in the high Sierras.  Driving up and up through the park you pass through several distinct ecosystems.  Eventually you reach an altitude where you begin to see the huge trees here and there.  By the time you reach the high points of the mountains the giants are all around you, some standing tall and wide while others lean in precarious postures, growing crookedly for presumably hundreds of years.  From the visitors center you have the option of taking a shuttle bus to the grove where the General Sherman tree is found.  Many of the trees there are named for Civil War era personalities such as U.S. Grant, Tecumseh Sherman, and Abraham Lincoln.  Being in the presence of these ancient creatures makes you wonder how many years it will take until the nineteenth century human names will be sloughed off and forgotten like the millennia of old bark that is constantly being shed and replaced by the giant trees.

Instead of the shuttle the other option is to walk the short distance to the big grove.  It was probably a quick one to two-mile hike but despite the parking lot being full of cars Mindy and I had the trails primarily to ourselves.  We passed some people here and there, yet we had many opportunities to be alone with the sequoias we found along the way.  Walking through this stunning, quiet forest felt similar to other places I’ve been in California, Arizona, and Chile.  Like Muir Woods where the coastal redwoods grow above a carpet of purple wood sorrel and the boardwalks are shaded and quiet you feel like you’re inside a cathedral.  California landscapes in particular always seem to push against the boundaries of gorgeousness, almost impossibly grand.

The reverence you might feel for such a profound landscape is very often a humbling experience.  Again, the grandness of it all can be very overwhelming.  Returning to our own simple places in the world might make them seem all the more drab in comparison.  I don’t think so.  Huddled down under the splitting cherry blossoms, among the trash and the horsetails may not exhibit the same awe-inspiring vista but the simple beauty and divine normalcy of this natural setting I think provides equal value.  After all these simple places are the ones we inhabit on a daily basis.  Together they form a quilt of ecosystems, something like gaining altitude in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Driving from Chepachet where pine warblers and pileated woodpeckers live, and where spring blooms are sometimes two weeks behind, to Aquidneck Island where it’s salt and wind whipped scrub grow in tangles, seem like another world.   In our corner of the state we see the previews of northern forests, with red pine and striped maple scattered around while traveling to Washington county provides a more southern feel with it’s inkberry, bearberry, and pitch pine.

Burdened by our limited ability to conceptualize between private and public concepts of landscapes many of us see nature in a myopic way.  Nature is where the land trust and Audubon parking lots provide access.  Nature is some precious or frustratingly unkempt part of our property, maybe a city park, or a national forest.  It is a difficult and heart-braking sentiment to consider, say, all of route 6 as part of your natural inheritance.  Most of the natural landscape we live in seems to in a state of constant vulnerability.  It seems to inevitably be awaiting some undemocratic, unnatural disaster, veering helplessly towards the rampaging blight of progress.  It is undeniable that our mental health and satisfaction, albeit often subconsciously, are tied to the larger natural settings we reside in: our yards, our streets, our neighborhoods, our towns, our cities, our state.  The conduits we use are precious to us wether we acknowledge it or not.  For instance, a farmer down the road is cutting down his healthy peach trees.  It must be some clause in the purchase contract he signed when he sold his farm, to clear out all the trees.  My wife can’t even drive by that property lately. With the limbs scattered around the cursed orchard this private piece of property is suddenly a wellspring for public sorrow, a loss of character, a loss of sustenance and the stunting of shared natural beauty.

Grand places like Sequoia can be and are taken for granted of course.  At Mindy’s urging I’ve edited more than a few biting quips from this story about how flippantly the groves were regarded by the people being shuttled back and forth from the parking lot.  But of course for me too there was an enormous feeling of disconnection from this place, something similar to how I felt in the Andes, or in Yosemite Valley.  It’s something similar to a no place like home feeling, but I think somehow more closely related to the removal of obstacles of time and space it requires to visit such a place.

We live in a world where traveling from the east coast of the United States to the west coast can be accomplished in six hours.  There is something I think inherently dumbing in this, something that corrupts our sense of place and our concern for places.  An explicit example of this type of perversion might be when we get frustrated about interruptions in our travel plans.  Sitting on the tarmac for an extra hour or two strikes many of us as an inexcusable violence to our person.  Some of the earliest American immigrants to California came there during the gold rush of the 1840s when it required six months to make the same trip.  Maybe there would be one or two literate people in the party that could read to the kids to pass the days and months a trip like this demanded.  Now being without Wi-Fi for half a day on a plane ride is almost unbearable.

Yosemite Valley was “discovered” by white Californians in 1851 when a militia was sent to remove the Awahnechee tribe from the area.  These Native Californians had Yosemite Valley as their traditional homeland.  These people knew this valley in a way that is basically unknowable today, knew it as food basket, church, a sentient provider.  With their removal it became a tourist destination almost immediately, was sanctioned as a protected site by the Lincoln administration, and led the way for the creation of the National Park system some decades later.  It was famously a temporary home and inspiration to John Muir who herded sheep and worked at a lumber mill in the valley.   Today landscapes like Yosemite are primarily if not solely used for recreation.  Those deeper, soul-deep utilities have been developed out of them through conservation, the great “othering” of Nature.  In the words of Bill Bryson Nature is becoming more and more a place “that you drive to.”

The dispossession from Native People of these beautiful and bountiful national parks was nearly universal, is well understood, and is not repaired.  What we have been starting to understand now is the historical mismanagement these ecosystems underwent once bereft of their original stewards.  The disarticulation of people from place creates an ecological corruption that rips the heart out of the human-nature bond.  Nature becomes more of a museum in this picture, a fictitious undisturbed canvas that is really just a hall of mirrors.

This sequestering of Nature “out there” somewhere works in another direction as well.  Society has managed to disarticulate our hearts from the simple places, the public-emotional investment we all share in the land.  Is it because fenced in and profoundly beautiful landscapes are ever at our grasp, within a drive or quick flight?  I can be in Muir Woods in seven hours; about the same amount of time it would take me to drive to Acadia National Park in Maine.  Why should I care then if a simple peach orchard falls to development?  Is that why it’s acceptable for a hayfield to become an industrial park, or a meadow a gas station?  Have we supersized our minds out of an appreciation for the simple places in Nature?

More and more people swell high profile natural places for pleasure and thrill seeking.  On our most recent trip to California the parking at Muir Woods in Marin required a preordered reservation made a month in advance.  Hiking Mount Everest these days can mean you’re standing in line near the top waiting for the privilege of holding the summit for a few seconds.  In 1953 two people are recorded to have summited Mount Everest.  Twenty-two people reached the summit in one day in May 2022.  This kind of anthill tourism centers the question for me: What am I looking for here? 

 Our ideal of beautiful places is a panned-out, wide angled view.  We travel around the world to see these impossibly beautiful landscapes to revel in them.  Awe is why we’ve come.  The privilege of being close to the oldest, the largest, the most unspeakably resolute things on earth is a draw.  The history and natural history of these places is fascinating and by being among them we feel as if we are, even if atomically so, part of that story.

I saw that.  I felt that.  I was there.

Yet even the giant sequoia bares the small, modest cones of its humbler cousin the cedar.  You can pick up these cones on the boardwalks, pry open their scales and find the small seeds inside.  With your eyes focused on these simple beginnings, when you narrow your wide-angle down for a moment, you can be reminded that the nature you have arrived at here is the same nature you left behind at home.  When I do that the question that comes to me is not why did I come but why did I leave?  What have I left?  What have I lost?  What has been taken from me while I wasn’t looking?


My parents impending divorce was greeted by me with a massive sigh of relief.  Not because my parents fought viscously or used me as a pawn in their splitting up.  Things were difficult during those years but nothing egregious was going on that made my daily life miserable, or really even terribly uncomfortable.

At some point shortly before they decided to divorce, my parents had bought some land and contracted an architect to draw up plans for a new home.  The land they were planning on building on was at the other end of the road; a mile or two from where we lived.  A small, undeveloped road bordered the land they purchased.  It was abutted by a preserve where hayfields, woods, and an old dilapidated hydroelectric station resided.  There were no homes yet on this stretch of road.  My parents were going to be the first people to build there.

I can still remember how my body went cold when they rolled out the plans to show me our future home, pointing out where my bedroom was going to be.  I didn’t mind the idea of leaving our current house.  My brother and sisters were a lot older than me and had already left home.  It was a big house for three people.  But I did not want anything to do with the dissolution of that quiet, simple landscape that they had purchased.  I made the trek down to those woods and to that hydroelectric station on a weekly basis to write and draw and think.  It could not have been a more typical, more mundane place.  There were ticks, hundreds of them.  There was stinging nettle and poison ivy.  But there was peace down there, a simple, steady, and unprovoked settling.  It was my first church. If it were to be a backyard, even if it was left in its current state, it would have been, in my eyes, desecrated.   How could a place like that be behind something else?  It was holy because it was, at least in veneer, untouched… at least unmanaged, at least away.  It was not oriented to a human compass.  After all, if a backyard would have sufficed I wouldn’t have walked the four miles round trip to go there.

It’s the simple places like this where people throw their trash at the feet of plants like Equisetum, creatures that have traveled over vast amounts of time to join us here in the now.  These are the little treasures that we often don’t see, don’t value, and so inevitably loose.  These are the places where the animals that children love hide from us.  Some of the most unusual things on earth are common there.  Skunk cabbage for instance is one of three plant species on the planet that can regulate its own body temperature.  The mottled spathes warm the ground in February and melt the snow.  Their massive leaves come later, filling in the wet places that we haven’t managed to develop yet, feed wildlife, and amaze those of us who pay attention to them. As much as I love blue violets I would be proud if skunk cabbage was Rhode Island’s state flower.

Simple places are our true inheritance.  The grand parks that we treasure, if you resided in them, foraged in them, grew your crops in them, would also become mundane to you.  How could a landscape like Yosemite become common?  The same way route 6 has become common, or west main road on Aquidneck Island has fallen to mediocrity.  These gorgeous landscapes became mundane, became commodities, and then became the wastelands they are now.

A farmer I know asked her grandfather why he never traveled.  On his farm, he said, “I already live in the most beautiful place on earth.”  As is clear, I do love to travel and, like the thousands of others who visit them every year, I love the national parks.  I’ve been fortunate enough to visit some beautiful places but I am richer for having the quiet woods of nettle as a child.  I enjoy being in places like Sequoia where ambrosia is on tap but I need to be able to go home and still have my common cup of tea in comfort and beauty with the horsetails.  The great cathedrals of Nature are to be revered and honored but no less than the little churches of peace and grace in our world.


Did you go to the woods to find yourself?

There is no self.


Did you learn there how to treat others?

There are no others.

Love From Land

Land flows like water over the coursing of time.  It is one thing, then another, and it’s shape and function wholly dependent on the circumstance of the climate, geological history and natural history of the plants and animals under which it flows. It is exemplary of gestalt: it is recognized as itself when it is whole and all it’s parts are at play synergistically.  A desert is such, the alpine environment, the beach, the open meadow, the manicured lawn even.  All are assemblages of these waltzing climatic, geological and living forces.

Yet one landscape can become the other.  The first spark is often chance.  Chance manifests as disturbance:  a devastating process that changes the landscape, rewinds the ecological clock.  A mudslide that cleaves a hillside exposing a massive swath of subsoil while burying the land downslope in a sarcophagus of topsoil.  Even more dramatic is the clean slate left behind in the wake of a volcanic eruption, like the landscape surrounding Mt. St. Helens after the volcano erupted and blanketed hundreds of square miles in hot ash in 1980.  The eruption killed thousands of animals, plants, and buried the topsoil so that even the microbial community was more or less erased.

These disturbed environments provide a canvas.  Each fresh canvas is a clean slate for the pallet of weather, rock and life to paint on.   This process is the facilitation of Nature’s great art form.  This art form is called ecological succession.

It’s a predictable process if you know something about the environment.  A farm is a perfect example of disturbed land in transition.  Think of your garden.  When you disturb the topsoil before planting you are able to anticipate the arrival of a very narrow variety of competing plants (weeds) which will grow in that soil.  Though they may be very, very abundant in your garden they are not a diverse representation of the plant kingdom.  They are only a handful of species from a very narrow range of plant families.  We can name the most familiar offenders pretty quickly: pigweed, lamb’s quarter, purslane, chickweed, gallinsoga, shepherd’s purse, foxtail etc.  These annual plants, which go from seed to seed in less than twelve months, are fast growing, thrive in dry, disaggregated soils, and do not exhibit (or require) mycorrhizal relationships.  They are wholly suited to the environment you have provided by your initial disturbance of turning or tilling your garden.

Weeds are predictable across regions and although the species represented may change as we move from one region to another their ecological niches are all the same.  They are pioneer species, early colonizers when a once green environment has been suddenly made black or brown or yellow by exposed soil, devoid of plants.  They are the first plants to grow after a disturbance and they have evolved to thrive under the predictable conditions disturbances leave in their wake.  You would be surprised to find goldenrod or dogwood growing first in a newly tilled garden.  You would also not expect to see birch trees or oaks sprouting in your freshly prepared beds.  Not with tending but through neglect will these higher order species establish themselves.

If you interact with your garden in this same manner every year you will continually reset the ecological succession clock back to zero.  If you were to ignore your garden and allow those annual weeds to thrive you would see, even by the end of the first growing season, the establishment of some higher tier plants:  biennials, perennials and some second succession (less ambitious) annuals, for instance plantain, dandelion, dock, brome, wild carrot etc.  These plants establish themselves on the land a bit more slowly.  Dandelion is more of a nuisance in your blueberry patch (perennial) than in your tomato patch (annual)… unless you adhere to no-till practices.

A farm or garden that is abandoned follows a steady, let’s say upward trajectory (figuratively and literally).  Think of ecological succession as a staircase.  The community of species that come to dominate the environment at the top of the stairs are called pinnacle species (pioneer species being at the bottom step). The change in species representation slows, and the land is said to finally be in a steady state.  The most striking example I have ever seen is in the Sierra Nevadas among the giant sequoias.  These trees are the most amazing species in a community that also includes tall jack and ponderosa pine, and a narrowly diverse mid-canopy and understory environment (even though they are at different heights in the forest these species are all at the “top of the stairs”).  This community has been in a steady state for thousands of years but at some point (and today) disturbances large and small will set this process back to a place where the humble, annual weeds must lay the foundation for the stairs to be built again( i.e the regrowth of these aged giants).

In southern New England steady state forests are dominated by white pine, oak, beech, hickory, and maple.  They are accompanied by muscle wood, hazel, birch in the mid-canopy and shad, inkberry, chokeberry, pepper bush, blueberry (and more) at shrub height, and finally a diverse array of wildflowers at ground level.  Clear these trees, grind the stumps, plow the land and pigweed will grow.  Almost immediately. For this reason pioneer species are sometimes called “nature’s scabs”.  By having such fast growing plants available to root into the loose exposed earth much soil, and in turn nutrition, is conserved.

You can farm that land with the plow and fight with the pigweed for your whole life but when you leave your garden untended your grandchildren will, eventually, receive the forest again.

Interfering with this ecological trajectory, the ecological stair case, is part of the natural order.  There is much opportunity within disturbance and, indeed, our entire agricultural (as well as much of our hunter gatherer) inheritance is dependent on it.

Is agriculture natural?  Nature and natural are  quite tricky words to define and opinions differ whether or not, for example, to include humans within a natural definition at all.  Surely we are solidly understood to be within nature’s pantheon but most of us consider “nature” to be a place you go to, inhabited by things you are not, and not someplace you are or am.  Nature is someplace, some-thing, we are best suited to observe, not disturb.  It is something that modern human’s seem incapable to live in harmony with.  Once human beings get involved in nature it is widely regarded we do little but muck it up, pollute it, desecrate it.  After all don’t we live in a world that’s very geological epoch is defined by human disturbance (i.e. the Anthropocene)?  At best, we believe, we must strive to do the least harm, which of course means we fully expect to do some harm: a perpetual, inescapable biting of the hand that feeds us.

So what is Nature?

It’s a stretch for common parlance to include a concrete city sidewalk in a definition of a natural environment, even though it is not so different from the landscape left behind in the wake of Mt. St. Helens’ eruption.  The city street?  No, not nature (or natural) most would say.  However we wouldn’t hesitate to describe a farm as a natural place or, maybe, at least a place where nature resides.  This is despite the fact that ecological succession, the natural order, the stair case I tried to describe earlier is so often aggressively circumvented on farms as a matter of course.  Land that is being farmed is trying to build that ecological staircase again and the farmer prevents it.  The farmer’s job is, in a sense, to push back.  The farmer’s methods and systems dictate just how hard they have to push yet it is all in service to maintaining a step on the staircase where the plants and animals we want to raise can best thrive.  How effectively we do this either makes us an industrial farmer or a regenerative farmer but this distinction for this discussion is not important.  Either way managing land for agriculture is by degrees a fight against entropy, something Nature always has the final word on.

In the last ten thousand years, across the planet, there is nothing more natural than an environment impacted by human beings.  Another way to say it is there is nothing so unnatural as a landscape not influenced, either big or small, by human beings.

In New England for instances we might consider our forests to be something of a static representation of our regions natural order but this is an illusion.  The vast, virgin forests of the precolonial period that live in our imaginations did not really exist after humans took up residence on the east coast thousands of years in the past.  Precolonial indigenous peoples managed these landscapes heavily, clearing huge tracts of land with fire and creating something of a park-like panoramic.  Early colonists complained of not being able to locate timber some twenty miles from the coast in some areas.  The re-foresting of this environment coincided with the removal of indigenous peoples and the eventual abandonment of farms in the ninetieth century as Europeans moved west.  Stone walls were built in our area only because there was not enough timber left for fencing.  The forests and wild places of New England are not a representation of what has always been here, or even been here for very long.  Even the species have changed dramatically in the past hundred years. Our landscape is an evolving inheritance that has been hugely influenced by management practices of indigenous peoples over thousands of years, sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, and ninetieth century colonial history, and the unique impact of the modern world with exploding human populations, invasive species introduction, chemical contamination, and climate change.

Nowadays our landscape is essentially a mirror image of the proportion of forested land to open land that would have been seen in the colonial period of the eighteenth and early-mid nineteenth century.  Eighty-percent of New England is wooded, twenty-percent of it is cleared.  One hundred fifty plus years ago it would have been almost exactly the opposite.

Discussing loose terms like nature and natural provid plenty of pitfalls.  Moving into the metaphysical realm requires much more patience and latitude, comfort with the murky place around powerful words.  We’ve established that land can change though we might struggle with whether it is natural or not.  Inevitably this argument is based upon our own prejudices, principles, and our guilt.  Our ideas of how Nature ought to be is indelibly tied to our own aching desire for it to stay the same, unscarred, unsullied. Consistency is something human beings get very sentimental about and it is the antithesis to any natural system.

I mentioned earlier in the example of the farm that nature was trying to rebuild the staircase, to move from the pioneer first step (pigweed and quack grass) to the pinnacle top of the stairs (white oak and beech).  It is typically unforgivable in the academic world to speak about plants trying to do anything.  Wants and desires are a teleological illusion that we place over other living things.  We’re told we should speak about living things in terms of instinct, of mechanisms.  Plants are the extreme example.  Since a plant does not even have a central nervous system insisting that it could have wants, desires, or aspirations sounds ludicrous to any respectable scientist.  Instead we must talk about plants, if we truly want to understand them from this academic point of view, in terms of hormonal responses, environmental cues.  An entire landscape isn’t even a single thing, never mind a thing without it’s own compartmentalized nervous system.  It strikes a materialist as absurd that a landscape could have wants and desires.  The predictable development of the ecological staircase isn’t a want, or an intent, you could say.  It is simply a predictable, mechanical process.

It is difficult for one who works with land everyday to accept that it is merely an impartial bystander.  Seeing what a landscape is capable of, how it organizes itself, nurtures living things, fosters dynamic relationships and bends toward equilibrium is something that one can’t help but feel moved by emotionally and left awed and curious about.  The fact that nature seems to have a range of functionality that can best be described as healthy and unhealthy always leaves one wondering about these more teleological aspects.

We all know nature is cruel.  Yet we can also tell when it is right versus when it is wrong.  When it is unhealthy versus when it is healthy.  The wolf pack that competes with another and fulfills it’s goals of reproduction and “wants” for full bellies versus the white-tail deer family dead on a Rhode Island beach with stomach’s full of sand.  One is right, within the landscape’s care or the landscape’s gestalt.  The other is clearly wrong and wrought of a system disarticulated in some critical way.

If landscapes operate in these ways, in these complex patterns that seem to develop into healthy, right, and good systems can we reach into a messy place of words and say a landscape might, collectively perhaps, desire for such a thing to be so?

Can land feel love?  If a landscape is trying to build it’s staircase to the pinnacle, to the white oak and beech forest, than is it a sacrifice if it should be redirected?  Can land willing make sacrifices, be able to choose among it’s constituents (trees, rocks, elk) which can be harvested, dynamited, killed?  Is there a way of disturbing the land in which the land may approve of?

It’s easy for us to think of loving houses, meadows, beaches, bars, and churches.  It’s more difficult to think this feeling could somehow be reciprocated.   It’s a very complicated proposition to think about because if you say the land loves you than you are actually talking, depending on the acreage, about millions and billions and trillions of things.  As individuals they all have different priorities, different struggles.  The amoeba that engulfs the bacterium, the sand particle that is aggregated to the humic acid in the soil, the worm that drills the pores of the ground, the bird that eats the worm.  Billions of things having billions of interactions.  But if we allow our minds to fuzz the reduction of all these things into individual parts and instead mold them into a single gestalt (a single, functioning thing composed of many) than we have something broad, something amorphous, something we typically consider as unfeeling, certainly not kind, and unconscious.  This fuzzy place is where metaphysical and religious language might bring us closest to appreciating what this natural gestalt’s wants may be.

In Leah Penniman’s book Farming While Black she describes a form of divination (Ifa divination) that the farmer’s use when interacting with the land*.  Asking permission in order to clear a field, cut down a tree, or put in an irrigation pond are requests put to the land and a reply is given back.  Yes or no.  Assuming that it is the land itself or some natural force that inhabits the land there is a higher perspective overseeing the wishes of the farmers guiding them towards, let’s say, healthy choices.  It’s ends may seem anthropocentric at first, transactional even.  If the land grants the clearing of a field, or the pouring of a foundation, it is to the benefit of the humans and their goals.  But if healthy disturbances are made than the overall gestalt will benefit and it will be a gestalt, a natural gestalt, that includes the people within it as contributors of good will, not selfish exploiters.

I would venture to say that most people do not interact with land in this spirit of reciprocity.  It took me several years to even begin to learn what best suits my land, what it wants, and how it’s goals coincide with mine.  In the process the land nearly kicked me off a couple times.  It was as if the land said to me “if you intend on growing vegetables here we need to reach an understanding because how you are doing it is not in line with my goals.”  Bending to the gestalt of the land has made my life much more satisfying and much more predictable.  For example the drought that rocked the country in 2022 was not felt so severally on my land.  That is because the land communicated to me in 2017 that I needed to think more holistically about my soil health.  Now, after five years of undisturbed permanent bedding over five acres of vegetable fields our water holding capacity provided us with all the water we needed (after establishment of the crops… some water was used immediately after transplanting) for the majority of our vegetables.  This was during a summer where we received zero rainfall from late June until mid August.

I wish that I was the recipient of a religious tradition that allowed me to communicate so literally (so “saliently” as Penniman puts it) with my land as the farmers do at Soul Fire Farm (Penniman’s farm in NY).  It probably would have saved me much time and at least some gray hairs.  I think however that without having this conduit there are many ways to intuit the process of a landscape.  Some of the messages will be subtle.  Some will be deafening.

I was told that my land loves me by someone who means this quite literally.  Someone who claimed to feel the love of the landscape, my small little farm, for me and my family.  Does this mean perhaps that I am finally working in concert with the land?  Does the land approve of my actions?  If so I can hardly think of a greater source of pride than the approval of this small, revitalized eleven acres of northern Rhode Island land.

I think it’s healthy to think of ourselves as fox that come onto a place and make a home of it.  A person is no different, just a visitor, a temporary resident, but one with the potential for an enormous ecological impact.  Like the beaver the person becomes an engineer of the landscape and while they have their time there they can help become part of the lands gestalt or they can push and push against it until both they and the land are exhausted.

And maybe it is (also) simple.  My mother in law said to me the other day “I love my living room.”

I pounced:

“Do you think your living room loves you?”

“Of course,” she said without hesitating.  “My room loves me because it is me.”

Whatever comforts or squeamishness the idea of animals, plants, rocks, or macrostructures like forests and deserts being able to feel and understand love might bring us this tender insight left me feeling comforted.  My land loves me because it is me.


*Penniman describes Ifa divination as follows: “Practiced among Yoruba communities and throughout the African diaspora, the Ifa divination system was inscribed in the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization in 2008.  She refers to the book Ifa Will Mend Our Broken World by Professor Wande Abimbola.

Dream not of other Worlds

Wendell Berry, natural philosopher well-known to organic farmers and back-to-the-landers, once quipped about modern agriculture trying to take the farmer out of farming.  Or, at the very least, to so insulate her from the natural world where farming takes place that she would never break a sweat, knick her flesh, or dirty her pants.  He was wringing his calloused, Kentuckian hands over such new inventions as environmental-controlled cabins on tractors and, what has become so ubiquitous now, remotely controlled combines performing automated harvests while monitored by a “farmer” from… somewhere else.   Wendell is one of those particular kinds of people who still enjoys working in the rain, the smell of manure, and dirt that will simply not come out from between your wrinkles.

As you can imagine the concerns of sentimentalists like Wendell Berry, Vandava Shiva, and Eileen Crist have not been heeded. We are now on the verge of an agricultural system ready to collapse, a system which has been estimated to have approximately sixty harvests left to offer before becoming completely exhausted.

Just a minute now… that is quite a jump to go from tractor’s with air conditioning to the end of the world, isn’t it?

Our societie’s relationship to technology has come to a reckoning point.  The human relationship with nature has become more abstract and less grounded over the twentieth century and has reached a tragically dismal disassociation for many in the twenty-first. Ironically during this same period our scientific understanding of natural systems and organisms has exponentially increased.  We have never been better poised to understand in a materialist way the organisms that we are extirpating from the planet.  We know more about the ecology of the rainforests, the oceans, volcanoes, and temperate environments, along with the life they sustain, than ever before.  It’s as though we have the opportunity to watch all of these remarkable systems die in high-definition, knowing the mechanisms of the octopus’s reproductive cycle, down to each quark, as it withers in the last tank of the last aquarium.  There is something wholly fitting of a species that in it’s buried heart loves these creatures with that originalism of a child, but unable to change it’s adult excesses, has to watch it all go amidst the cumulation of all scientific knowledge.

I have had little choice but to believe that agriculture, a system which currently manages 38% of the planet’s land, holds the key to a livable, co-habitable world in the future.  Our current industrial system of raising food is one of drone-tractors, pollution of air and waterways, and the off-gassing of soil carbon through tillage and soil organic matter dissolution.  The tenets of regenerative agriculture would ask the world’s farmers and land managers to be our saviors, storing carbon in their soils (and out of the atmosphere and oceans), providing habitat for flora and fauna, reducing our use of natural resources like oil and water, and re-beautifying the landscape.  If these goals are tenable then there would be no greater honor or call to service than to be a farmer, and no closer relationship to nature.

The approach of regenerative agriculture is not complex.  You do not need a master’s degree to implement it on your farm, in your city, or in your backyard.  It is, in it’s most distilled, a model of managing land that maximizes biodiversity and maintains soil at it’s maximum potential for organic matter.  For example a tallgrass prairie in South Dakota had a pre-farming soil organic matter content around 6-7%.  Your average ranch in the state is somewhere between 1-2%.  Some regenerative farmers in South Dakota have returned their ranches to this pre-farming level and have re-sequestered carbon to the tune of 11,600 pounds of carbon per percent per acre.  So, these farmers are relocating carbon (think carbon dioxide, greenhouse gas) to the tune of almost twelve thousand pounds for every one percent increase they make in soil organic matter in the soil per acre.  That’s a lot.  Many academics doubt it is even possible.

This is done without the latest GMO technology.  This beats county averages for yield without nitrogen fertilizer applications.  This does not require, or even consider, the latest proprietary technology of waxy protective lipid-containing structures to improve the penetration of pesticides into our crops(!), nor does it depend on the latest slow-release micro-nutrient technology.  It also doesn’t require us to treat our soil with contempt, as though it’s inferior to a hydroponic medium in a Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) factory.

No, it requires animals, plants, insects, soil biota, and human beings in a relationship for our mutual benefit.  It calls for more than just a scientific understanding of land, but a reverence for it.

Yet even in Rhode Island some of our academics are looking to technology to save us.  The University of Rhode Island is looking to the future and they see CEAs as the solution;  “greenhouses” the size of shopping malls sprawling on what were once productive soils.  Investments in new infrastructure between 60 and 115 million dollars per facility to grow crops in a manner which many people believe to produce a lower-quality product (hydroponics).

Perhaps you can make the argument that hydroponic factories are a good use of otherwise tainted land (brownfields, as in the case of Gotham Greens in Providence), but on prime farmland?  Constructing, from the road what look like industrial parks, on some of the most beautiful land RI has to offer?

Also, according to the Dean of the College of Environment and Life Sciences, people who operate these facilities will need at least bachelor’s level, if not master’s level, training in order to work in them.  So farming in the 21st century will require a master’s degree and you get to work… inside?

Farmland is a unique thing.  In New England it is most similar to our forests and salt marshes, coastlines and beaches.  There is a collective benefit in your farm being part of the landscape.  It is beautifying, it is fantastic, and it stokes the imagination of children (and adults like me), not to mention provides food.  The phenomenon of chlorophylla (“the love of green”) is so hugely important to us on a conscious and subconscious level.  The benefits of nature to our mental and physical health have been put to bed, well documented and understood.  Beauty, in the case of nature, is not in the eye of the beholder.  In this sense farms need to be maintained and expanded to promote as much beauty as they can.  What’s more our farms, along with our forests, are a critical resource for battling climate change and the planetary health crisis in general.

RI farms can be part of the solution to our estrangement from nature.  Let’s improve our land with regenerative practices and stop pretending like we don’t already have the tools we need to succeed.

Remember the taste of good soil.  Start early.  If you didn’t, start now.



Wheat From Rye

(Image from The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris)

It may seem hopelessly sentimental to lament that in the 21st century American adults, much less children, can no longer distinguish tufts of wheat from rye.  It was lamented perhaps more appropriately in the 19th centuries when millions of men and women left the “plow in the field” to make their livings in the industrializing cities.  Even though the masses being unable to tell one from another these two staple grains must have left naturalists and agriculturalist with a sense of alarm, even dread, I think it would have been unimaginable to them that someday children would not be able to tell the difference between a maple tree and an oak, recognize an acorn, or distinguish a field mouse from a shrew.  Such an imposing presence as an oak, one would imagine, could never go unnoticed or unnamed.  It would be like living among elephants and being content that the thing hanging from their giant face might be called a “trunk” or just as well be called a “tentacle.”  Yet I have worked with adults, college graduates, who didn’t understand that butterflies come from caterpillars.  Most people who visit the farm cannot identify the most simple bird calls, point out poison ivy, or confidently identify common trees.

When Josiah was born my friends gave us a book called Lost Words.  I’ll let it describe itself:

“When the most recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary – widely used in schools around the world – was published, a sharp-eyed reader soon noticed that forty common words concerning nature had been dropped.  These words were no longer being used enough by children to merit their place in the dictionary.  The list of these “lost words” included acorn, bluebell, dandelion, fern, heron, kingfisher, newt, otter, and willow.  Among the words taking their place were attachment, blog, broadband, bullet-point, cut-and-paste, and voice-mail.  The news of these substitutions – the outdoor and natural being displaced by the indoor and virtual – became seen by many as a powerful sign of the growing gulf between childhood and the natural world.”

To the outdoor person of the 19th century wringing their hands over the blurring of wheat and rye this degree of displacement (a child not recognizing a dandelion) would be simply unbelievable.  As we look towards the future being designed for us in silicon valley I’m afraid we are set to move this bar even further afield from the sad place it hangs now.  Children that cannot tell, or have no interest in telling, a kingfisher from a mourning dove, may be living in a world where not only natural things cannot be distinguished from one another, but that natural and virtual themselves cannot be teased apart.

I don’t believe we are at this point… yet.  It may seem that young people’s worlds revolve around their smart devises but in the end they seem to function more as coping mechanisms then actual stand-ins for realities.  Even if they don’t understand it I think kids are still yearning for reality.  For instance, if I am looking at a post of someone doing something exciting I am jealous or insecure because I want to be doing that thing or something equivalently cool.  I want to be known as someone interesting in reality.  It’s the difference between going to a concert and watching a recording.  One is an event the other is an interpretation.  The bored places that my generation would spend in their daydreams, hobbies or in books or in the impulsive walk has been occupied by an army of virtual distracters.  Finally the feeding frenzy of virtual impulsiveness is being exposed, for what we all could have, should have seen: a greed-driven social experiment that is washing the color from adult life and crushing our kids.

Kids don’t need smart phones.  Despite what they might believe they can live without them.  Shockingly, according to the current data on anxiety disorders in kids, they may have a better chance of surviving without them.  A kid may need a way to get in touch with a parent.  This does not mean they need a devise that has access to all the information that humanity has ever generated and is dominated by platforms designed to addict them.  I had an eighteen year old man working for me several years back.  He had no cellphone and grew up without a personal computer.  I asked him how he got his work done for school.  He told me he went to the library.

What I am getting at, tying the world of virtual distractions to the point that many people today do not know the most basic things about the natural world around them, is not that we can simply get some apps, even guidebooks, together and solve this problem.  Sending kids to camp doesn’t solve it in many cases either.  In truth it’s not so much the identifying of a maple leaf from an oak leaf that I’m concerned about.  It’s the reverence for damp leaves falling on your neck.  Telling a frog from a toad is less important than having tadpoles between your toes.  Knowing a bluebird from a bluejay is not valuable, perhaps at all, compared to peering into a nest of splotched eggs, feeling the joy of watching barn swallow juveniles in their first flights or the sorrow of a fledgling found dead in the yard.  The compartmentalizing left brain follows the life-embracing right.

Children do not fall in love with nature by way of guide books, placing names to things, distilling nature into latin and taxa.  They, we, fall in love when we fall down and scrap our knees.  I came to love nature by sitting in a sanctuary of forest, a undeveloped, quiet wood lot on a small private road by the Glen.  Watching as it was bulldozed was one of the, if not the, most important developmental moments of my life.  A common place of alchemy made into an exclusive place of entropy.  Let a child fall in love with a woodlot and mourn it’s loss to the new home or commercial development.  You can’t grieve what you never loved.  As children we shouldn’t be shielded from the heartbreak of knowing a brooked wood torn asunder to make way for a gas station.  A child has to understand the difference between a system, a natural system, that’s functional purpose, or dharma if you like, is to promote life and growth, to an artificial system, that’s functional purpose is to promote diabetes, heart-disease, foul air, poisoned water.

If our culture raised children in this way then we would already be celebrating what we all know we need: beauty in our surroundings.  It is seen as a disgrace that any child should grow up without adequate food, water, or access to health care and education.  I think it is equally disgraceful that any child, any child, should grow up without access to at least twenty acres of woods, meadow, open desert within a walk or a short bike ride of where they live.  I’m sorry but parks are not good enough.  Mown grass, pruned shrubs, invasive bird species and hybrid trees do not foster imagination like stinging nettle, fox, and red maple in the marsh.

I’m a dreamer.  That this is a dream is maybe a sad truth (but not a fact).

Truths can change.  Dreams can become realities.  It may be hard to imagine a society arranged around the priority of providing nature as a staple for a humane life.  Clearly it was difficult for our ancestors to accept that people might not someday tell wheat from rye.  It is troubling that our young people’s natural literacy is at such a frightening low but even more frightening is what may be coming if we continue to prioritize the synthetic over the photosynthetic.  Eventually what we once called the natural world could be so bled out, so un-wilded, that it will have no appeal to our imaginations.  This is the world the meta verse of Mr. Zuckerberg first requires.  After all a healthy, inspiring, and fulfilling real world is the primary competitor to any virtual one.  Striping nature down to a caricature, a world where one can’t tell grass from tree, bird from mouse, is fertile soil for a private virtual world to spring forth from.

Human beings are notorious for looking for the greener grass over the hill.  The meta verse, or virtual reality, will supposedly offer that grass: the hike more majestic, the concert more historical, etc, etc, etc, etc.  But think of the octopus or the star nosed mole.  Human beings will search the galaxies for other, strange worlds, but they will never find anything stranger than a crab spider inside an aster or a skunk cabbage melting the snow.  What we have is more than just worth celebrating.  It’s our salvation and our redemption all in one.

Start early.  If you didn’t, then just start now.


Plants “Springing”

I’m going to try and explain how trees break their winter dormancy.

Plants exhibit various adaptations for dealing with tough weather conditions.  Some of the more famous plants dealing with adverse conditions are cacti.  Native to the North American southwest and Central America the Cactus Family is a famously tough group of plants that flourish in dry, hot environments.  The “stem” of a typical cactus is thick and fleshy, storing a large amount of water in these tissues.  Leaves, which are the primary conductors of water in plants (water being drawn from the roots, through the stems, and evaporating out of leaf pores = transpiration), have been repurposed in the cactus into hard, sclerified spines which do not conduct water.  Yes, cactus spines are modified leaves.

Cacti still do conduct water through their bodies but they do differently than most other plants.  Most plants conduct water during the day, opening up their leaf pores (stomates) and allowing water vapor to evaporate. This causes a suction effect that draws water from the soil into the roots and up through the plant body.  At the same time air is allowed to cycle in and out of the leaf.  Carbon dioxide enters and is used for photosynthesis (remember photosynthesis requires sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to work).  So when the leaf pores are open and the sun is shining photosynthesis can occur.

Because the environment where cacti grow is so hot and so dry it is dangerous for transpiration to occur during the daytime (they would dry out too quickly).  Instead the cacti shut their pours during the day and open them at night (the opposite of most plants).  When they open up their pores at night carbon dioxide comes in and the cactus will store the carbon in it’s cells as malic acid (or malate).  At the same time the plant can take up the water it needs from the soil.

When the sun comes out again the cactus will shut it’s pours, stymy the flow of water, and then release the carbon it was storing up all night so it can be used for photosynthesis.  Because cacti are so efficient at storing water in their juicy flesh (think aloe, which is not a cactus) they have plenty on hand to use for photosynthesis even though they are not actively taking up water during the day.  This is an example of how plants adapt to a dry, hot environment.

In our part of the country in southern New England we have plants that deal with the opposite kind of adverse conditions: cold, wet, and dark weather.  During the winter the ground freezes making it impossible for plants such as trees and shrubs to take up water from the soil.  Without free water leaves cannot stay turgid and will wilt.  Perennial plants around the world are adapted to these conditions by going into a type of dormancy where leaves senesce (“die back”) and abscise (“fall off”).  By shedding it’s leaves the tree does not need to try and maintain transpiration and instead cannibalizes the nutrients in it’s leaves, taking them into the body of the trunk, and storing them for the spring.  The dead leaves are shed, no longer of any use.

Over the course of the winter perennial plants maintain the following years growth in their buds.  Fall and winter buds are the product of the growing season and represent next years twigs, leaves, and often flowers, which all unfurl the following spring.  Hard scales cover the buds tightly and frost-resistant chemicals concentrate in the buds to ensure their safe passage through the dark, cold months.  Take a look at the tops of oak trees in the winter and see the massive, stout buds all swaying at the summits of our mightiest trees.  They are completely exposed to the wind and cold weather yet they manage to pull through.

The water table becomes very high during the spring as the ground thaws but the trees and bushes are all still dormant, without leaves, and unable to take up water in any extensive amount.  Vernal pools and muddy ground is the result of the water table being so high.  Once plants break dormancy and “leaf-out” transpiration begins again and the water table drops, allowing the ground to dry out.  Available water (i.e not frozen) is key for plants breaking dormancy.

Plant reactions to cold weather in the fall and warm weather in the spring is mediated by a balancing act of several plant hormones.  Ethylene, abscisic acid and cytokinin interact in determining when leaves begin to fade and drop, and when spring buds begin to open again.  The delicate balance of this is such that the plant will protect it’s incipient new growth until it has received plenty of information confirming that it is, indeed, nice outside and will stay nice outside.  Warm snaps in the winter do not immediately cause plants to break dormancy although extended periods of warmth will cause some species to flower and leaf out too early.  An example of this is the extremely warm weather we had in 2012, hitting several seventy and eighty degree days in March.  This extended warm spells caused the fruit trees in Rhode Island to bloom far too early.  When cold weather returned in April many of these tender blossoms were destroyed by frost, greatly impacting the peach and apple crop that year.

The Purpose of Soil

To take an object, a thing, and prescribe purpose to it is to treat it teleologically.  Pre-Enlightenment Europeans were said to consider the universe with a Aristotelean teleological scholasticism, which means there was a dominant school (scholastic) of philosophy based on the purpose-driven ideas of Aristotle.  The classic lived example of this philosophy is Thomas Aquinas asking for a favor from a rich friend to buy him all the caged birds at the marketplace.  His friend gladly does so and Aquinas promptly opens all the cage doors, for what is a bird but to fly?

The teleological cynic in us immediately says ‘ah-ha! What about penguins?’  There is no over-arching purpose in a bird to fly because we know of lots of examples of flightless birds.  Also, the anti-ableist in us says ‘slow down, a bird that has lost it’s ability to fly, from an accident, could still live a long, healthy life on a preserve.’ It’s wrong to prescribe purpose to things, in particular living things, because of the inherently oppressive, short-sightedness of what we perceive to be a thing’s value.  Still there is something compelling about Aquinas setting the birds free, something that resonates as just.  Why is that, if you can’t boil it down to ideas of value and purpose?  It’s a bit more clumsy to say what is a bird but to not live in a cage except under certain circumstances where we use other criteria to determine it is within the birds best interest.

A non-living example I like to think of is a house.  What is a house but a place to live in?  Boiled down a house is a non-living thing that’s purpose is to accommodate living things, in most examples in nature for the purpose of creating more living things (bird’s nests, dens, one-family homes).  It’s fair to say that a house is not bound to abide by these purposes.  A house could also be simply a storage facility or it could be a torture chamber, which would be wholly the opposite of a place to live in.  Our society would condemn both of these ideas for a house in various ways.  A house used only for storage on your block would bring everyone’s home values down.  A house used for nefarious purposes would see the owners arrested and the house condemned.  Some events and uses go so far beyond the intention of a building that the building cannot be redeemed.  After the Sandy Hook massacre the entire school was torn down and rebuilt.

A houses purpose is also not to burn down.  You can think of instances when it might be appropriate to burn down a house (for filming a movie or if you are an arsonist) but for the vast amount of homes that are built they are intended to last many years and are intended to avoid destruction.  Think of this when we explore the purpose of soil.

As you’ve probably gathered discussing things in terms of their purposes is frowned upon by modern science because it is seen as antiquated, incomplete, and at worst a fallacious and oppressive way of looking at the world.  Ironically teleology is rife in modern culture and if you are in school studying science, like I did, you will constantly hear teachers chaff as students refer to plants as “wanting to” grow toward the light, or an animal “wanting to do” this or that.  Students were trained well enough never to impart emotion to a butterfly “loving a flower” for this would have been beyond the pale.  No, the teleological slips in the classroom were only slips, nothing that couldn’t be corrected by mechanistic, technical training.  In science’s eyes, this is the human impulse towards anthropomorphism and poetry and should be left to artists to play with and is not a proper way to really understand nature.

How we speak and define soil is an interesting topic.  Regular people like you and me think of soil in simple, pliable terms.  We think of soil as being something that covers the ground and where plants grow or, for that matter, don’t grow, if the soil happens to be exposed or poisoned.  If I held up some farm potting mix or a handful of beach sand and ask “is this soil?” you would probably shrug and say “sure.”  However the definition of soil is more technical and excludes certain things you might consider to be “soil.”  Potting soils for instance, because they are not the naturally occurring result of millennia of erosion and decay, but are rather a human made mix of naturally occurring mineral and organic material, are not technically soil by most definitions.  Even beach sand, though mostly devoid of organic matter, and therefor almost wholly mineral, is still considered soil, even when no plants can be found growing within it.  The beach sand closer to the dunes, where beach grass and other species grow, would be more easily recognized as soil for the presence of plant roots and the beginning of a very remote organic layer.  To many a soil isn’t really a soil until it has become a host to plants, or at least has the potential to foster plant life.

Soil Health is a difficult concept to define and fraught with teleological pitfalls.  Applying the concept of health to non-humans is something that people have not cleanly worked out.  Our dogs and cats are seen as deserving almost the same level of health care as our children.  Farm animals, well, it depends on your point of view.  Wild animals, plants, extrapolated into larger units called ecosystems, are governed by a natural order, one that is beautiful but harsh.  A malnourished wolf or chipmunk is set upon by natural selection, something humans should not tinker with (a common view), except in that we should follow wildlife biologists recommendations and care for these ecosystems as a whole.  “Individual [animals] don’t matter,” my wildlife professor said.  “It is populations of animals we need to concern ourselves with.”  So the health of an individual, sick white-tailed deer is not societies concern, but the health of the white-tail population is.

Soil is an ecosystem, an ecosystem composed of different kinds of organisms, most small and smaller.  It is by far and away the most diverse ecosystem on the planet (fungi alone are estimated to represent between six hundred thousand to ten million species, most having a role in soil ecosystems).  If we were to stick with the definition of health laid out by my wildlife professor we would consider the health of the ecosystem to be based on how “well” the populations of organisms in the ecosystem are doing.  Terms like fitness, fecundity, diversity, reproductive success would all play into the equation.  Generally speaking most of us can think of what an unhealthy soil environment looks like without trying too hard.  A bare, uneven field or yard, for example, with large tracts eroded away from exposure to rainfall or thaw.  The farmer with a sense of soil health can tell just by looking at a field to what degree it is healthy in terms of it’s color, it’s particle aggregation, or the quality of the plants growing on it.  It seems that from agriculture’s point of view a soil’s purpose is to produce crops and it’s health can be accessed by how well it does this.

Leaving the definition of soil here does not take us to the point of fully appreciating the magnitude of the beauty of soil, or it’s higher potentials.  For this we have to step back, stand beside the entire scope of the phenomenon we call soil.  Purpose can be tied to the concept of duty, as if we were talking about the dharma of the soil.  The more we learn about the degradation of our planet’s soils the more we have to give thought to how we have managed our soil’s dharma.  That is to say, are we supporting or hindering our soils in their ability to do their duty?

In Gabe Brown’s book Dirt to Soil he talks about the extent that his home state’s (North Dakota) prairie soil has been degraded from farming over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, from having organic matter contents of around 7% down to current averages between 1-2%.  Although this may sound like a small amount of the soil’s volume it is important to remember that soil organic matter is the primary warehouse of soil carbon, each percent containing between ten and twenty tons of carbon in the just the top six inches of soil, and increasing the water holding capacity of the soil by about twenty-thousand  gallons per acre per percent.  Think of all of that land’s organic matter vanishing from the soil and being returned to the atmosphere by conventional methods of farming.  I hear that we have an issue with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?

Since Gabe Brown began farming his land in the early nineties his soil organic matter has returned to those pre-ag numbers, because he is farming with the soils dharma in mind, the soils gestalt, the soils purpose.  Many farmers are trying to regenerate their lands and looking to methods such as Gabe’s for the answers to making soil dharma a priority.

To finish where we began, if we can be forgiven for being a little teleological we might be able to stand a little closer to a better way of conceptualizing our treatment of the natural world, soil in particular.  I once heard an extension agent say, when asked what school children needed to understand about farming, “it’s important for them to understand that farming is not Nature.”  This is exactly the opposite of what we need to be telling young people about agriculture.  It is also exactly the opposite of how agriculturalist should be trained.  Look to nature for your model.  See the tall grass prairie, or the New England wildflower meadow and ask what it’s lessons are.  What do you see: diversity of plants and animals (big and small), balanced ratios of predators and prey, balances of perennial and annual plants, balances of biannual and winter annual plants, carbon cycling through grazing, nutrients cycling through penetrating and diverse styles of root systems, ecosystems buffered against disturbances.

If farmers and extension agents don’t recognize this as a model for farming than the land and it’s soil, with it’s potential, it’s purpose, it’s gestalt, it’s dharma, will continue to be deferred.   Unfortunately we do not have time for the next generation to be so poorly served to believe that mankind’s most intimate relationship with nature, agriculture, is nothing more than an adversarial battle to bend nature to our will.





Farming, Life With The Gestalt

Ge-stalt – nounan organized whole that is conceived as more than the sum of it’s parts.

No where among our current modern practices is something more out of whack than agriculture.  If you were going to present a full thesis documenting how humanities intelligence has led the species astray in the twentieth century you would have no finer example than industrial farming methods.  You would also have no better argument to draw upon for your thesis then the destruction of the Gestalt.  The Gestalt is the concept of the indivisible whole.  Of course we conceive of things being made of other, smaller things in often very practical ways, but the Gestalt is the concept that reminds us that without all the pieces the thing is no longer the thing.  

For example, what is a chicken?  Well, in modern terms a chicken is an egg-laying, or egg-producing (to carry it further), machine.  If this point of view is accepted (and of course dominantly, it is) then it makes logical sense to confine chickens to maximize their volume and the production of their mechanical output.  To view a chicken with a Gestalt in mind renders the bigger, more fuzzy picture, of an animal that moves, pecks, sees differently between it’s left and right eyes, responds to a host of signals from it’s flock mates, particularly based on gender dynamics, and can often behave in unexpected ways.

An easier example of the Gestalt perhaps is when you consider a song you love.  Take apart the song to measures and notes and eventually you have all the parts with which you could write an infinite number of songs, but the song you love is lost.  The Gestalt, even when humanity rejects it, still protrudes.  This is the reason why human beings have difficulty accepting that chickens are machines, and this is the reason that industrial producers sometimes loose heart in treating animals as such.

Sadly warfare is the closest equivalent to the dehumanizing nature of industrial agriculture.  Reducing subjects to objects, understanding factories by output and not by human relationship, confining without mercy, killing without pity and laying waste to vast tracks of the planet.  The Gestalt demands the mind fully account for all the variables at play within it, reject the concept of acceptable externalities, and the acceptance of anomalies that are difficult or impossible to explain.  A good example of reckoning with a Gestalt is to make a drive in a heavily commercialized area.  Not like downtown Providence where art is mingled with architecture, living spaces and commercial spaces.  I mean an ugly environment, like Route Two in Warwick or West Main Road in Middletown.  In such a place people inherently perceive ugliness, it is no longer a subjective “eye of the beholder” phenomenon, except in the rare case where profit motivation is considered.  The only person who finds a car dealership beautiful is the one who profits from it.  The Gestalt of the landscape is nearly wholly obliterated, waiting under the concrete and stucco to be rediscovered.

Commercialism is not itself the sin, just as raising animals for food is not wrong.  In fact the phrase “raising animals for food” is itself against the Gestalt.  Any small scale stock person, and many large scale ones, you meet will eventually show you what really motivates their work:  a joy of seeing animals thriving on their farms, seeing whole landscapes respond to healthy practices, knowing that what we blandly call “food” is an amalgamation of billions of organisms competing and benefiting from each others presence.  Human beings are one of those countless creatures involved in our food supply.  The “consumer” (and how does the Gestalt like this term, do you think?) benefits from the nourishment of the meat, the vegetable, the egg, the grain, but even more they are preserved by the environment the farmer has created, or molded from the clay of creation.  The Gestalt of the community is unfinished without living landscapes.  And when the farmer learns your first name you are no longer a consumer but more a responsibility, a friend, eventually even family.  So many titles, like “employee” or “boss” are removed from the Gestalt and can inhibit the development of relationships like I mentioned.

So much of our world is dominated by the powers of reductionism.  The thing that passes for work for many of us is also atomized into a disembodied loop.  Many of those who do work within context of the Gestalt are often charged with reparative work.   People like my wife who’s job as a psychotherapist and social worker constitutes of reorienting peoples understanding of the self.  No work of the mind can be operated without stepping back to see the whole.  One interesting phenomenon in our world today is that people trained as social workers are charged more and more with the work of psychologists since they are able to bring more fully to bare the health of the mind in terms of it’s relationship to class, race, gender, and ability.  The human being is a symphony, a Gestalt.  If one violin is out of whack the entire symphony suffers and becomes a rabble.

Farming more than any other discipline I know is one that benefits by the degree to which it partners with nature and falters to the degree it pushes back.  Think of a rocket ship.  So many major aspects to it’s success are in fighting with natural systems.  To propel itself it must fight against gravity.  It does so by burning inconceivable amounts of fuel and sheds it’s weight as it soars.  Once in orbit it fights against the vacuum of space and astronauts bodies struggle with the degrading effects of space on the body.  Throughout the twentieth century farms have behaved as if they are at war with nature.  The organic movement in farming was born out of conventional agriculture as an alternative, but like Janus, still harkens back to that which it opposes, still depending on aggressive tillage, processed fertilizers, chemicals to fight insects and disease, and accepting crops of low nutritional quality.  Even small scale growers operating in a more conventional organic model feel set upon by the resistance to their efforts by their farms.  But the truth is clear thanks to many, many examples of the alternative.  If we step back and view our farms in terms of their Gestalt we can move into their current and flow with them, instead of always against them.

Drawing attention to the impact that a more modern agriculture, one that reaches for or “stands near” the Gestalt, is wholly appropriate.  Regenerative farmers speak often about the need to address global climate change in terms of agricultural policy.  We must continue to do this.  Let us not forget about the Gestalt, within it somewhere the spark of life, that keeps us in the profession we love.  Share the deeper satisfaction and frustration that a life in farming provides.  Let’s try and understand how the difficulties of raising nourishment for others can be just as motivating for young people to hear as the benefits might be.  Promote this lifestyle.  It is one that can provide, like that of a doctor, the most intense emotions available to human beings: crushing disappointments and blissful satisfaction, enormous responsibility and the power of your neighbors deep appreciation.   In my view encouraging a life that can provide so much benefit to oneself and one’s community is worth the inherent risk that farming includes.

Being near the Gestalt, of any process, wether the human anatomy or the cultural phenomenon of farming, is not static.  It is always changing.  In such we can work for and demand that farming be an easier career to get involved with and a more secure type of work financially.  These demands are being made all the time and will continue.  That is the beauty of the Gestalt.  You are not the same person each day, each moment, but a new collection of all that surrounds you.  Your farm is a new farm every season and every day.  Is it more in line with the Gestalt?  Or is it slipping apart, being taken into atomized pieces of disembodied successes and failures?  Farming too is changing and will change.  We are among the many who see the tipping point, the edge of the cliff, where our displacement from the Gestalt as a species is taking us.  The looming age-crisis of agriculture, the aging of farmers, is a crisis that needs to be taken as seriously as any other national or global problem.  We look to the future and ask what does the Gestalt demand of us?  Is it full automation of our agricultural landscapes, perhaps where the chicken and the farmer are now both machines?  Or are we and our children to be among the billions of living things directly involved in making our farms and our communities a place we dream of living in?




2020 CSA Wrap-Up

What Does This All Mean?  Our intention every CSA season is to give you more than what you pay for (aka a return on investment).  You committed to help us through the 2020 growing season(s) and so we committed to prioritizing your shares (within our business plan) and bringing you as much bounty as we could grow and could afford.


Below is a breakdown of how the 2020 Summer/Fall CSA season came to pass.  The dollar value per week numbers are for full shares.  A half share value is half and a three-quarter value is three-quarters.

(i.e: Week X = $30… full share for week x was $30, $15 for half-share, and $22.50 for three-quarter.)




You paid for 26 Weeks of Produce: Full: $29.80/week Half :$15.38/week Three-Quarter:$23.07/week


You received : Full  $32.59/week Half : $16.39/week Three-Quarter: $24.44/week


Full Share received a $72.04 return (9.3% return on investment), roughly two free weeks of produce

Half-Share received a $23.52 return (8.8% return on investment), roughly one and a half free weeks of produce.

Three-Quarter Share received a $35.28 return (8.8% return of investment), roughly one and a half free weeks of produce.

(Half Shares and Three Quarter Shares are 3.2% more expensive than a Full Share which is why the numbers don’t break down by clean percentages… i.e $775 for a full share is less than double $400 for a half-share).


Week 1: $36.98

Week 2: $33.23

Week 3: $29.98

Week 4: $31.40

Week 5: $36.73

Week 6: $32.08

Week 7: $37.27

Week 8: $30.90

Week 9: $31.71

Week 10: $34.35

Week 11: $33.46

Week 12: $48.25

Week 13: $32.46

Week 14: $29.67

Week 15: $35.36

Week 16: $33.17

Week 17: $32.81

Week 18: $34.28

Week 19: $34.51

Week 20: $34.71

Week 21: $36.00

Week 22: $29.72

Week 23: $28.97

Week 24: $33.32

Week 25: $35.72

Week 26: canceled

Total Value of 2020 Full Share: $847.04

Return on Investment of $775 per Full Share: $72.04 (9.3%)

Return to Entire 2020 CSA Summer/Fall Season : approximately $8,000

Fruits and Vegetables

I’m going to tell you how a butternut squash can be a fruit and a vegetable at the same time.

Many, many plants reproduce by creating seeds, which is an embryo (or germ) locked inside a nutrient package surrounded by a casing.  Ferns and mosses are the most familiar plants that do not create seeds.  These plants reproduce in a more primitive fashion, in a manner using dispersal of spores.  The vast majority of plants on earth, both terrestrial and aquatic (algae are not technically plants but pre-plants), reproduce by seed.  And the vast majority of seed-making plants are of the flowering clade, the Angiosperms.

All, and I do mean all, of the crops we grow on our farm are angiosperms.  Every crop we grow reproduces by first making a flower, then making fruit which contains seeds.  A familiar example is the tomato, which blooms yellow flowers in clusters.  Soon the yellow blossoms drop away and the incipient tomato (the fruit of the plant) begins to fill and eventually ripen.  During the green phase of the tomato nutrients are being shunted to this part of the plant to make viable fruit (fruit that will grow to maturity without rotting or being aborted) and viable seed.  Once the tomato fruit is ripe its seeds are viable and you can take the seed from your favorite tomato and, often, grow the same type of plant from the seed.

Now we all know that tomatoes are considered vegetables colloquially.  They are not referred to as fruit because, again colloquially speaking, they are not super duper sweet (like apples, mangoes, raspberries, and blueberries).  But tomatoes are technically fruits and just as entitled to the term as any sweet fruit is.  The same is true of cucumbers, zucchini, corn, wheat, peppers, eggplant, okra, rat-tailed radish, and butternut squash.  All of these vegetables have to be grown and tended with flowering and then fruit-development in mind.  Like I mentioned earlier all of the crops we grow are angiosperms.  This means they are all flowering plants and, there for, fruiting plants.  Let me explain:

Many crops are harvested prior to flowering (such as leafy greens, lettuce, carrots, beets, etc) and others are harvested during flower development (such as broccoli, cauliflower, celtuce, etc).  These plants are not permitted to “go to flower” because their culinary appeal is not related to their fruit-production.  For instance you have probably never eaten lettuce fruit, carrot fruit, or turnip fruit.  Growers who are interested in saving seed from these types of crop do allow them to “go to seed”, and the seed is always found inside a fruit.  This means that vegetable fruits will have seeds inside (like peppers or butternuts) while vegetable non-fruits will not (like broccoli or a carrot).

Fruits come in a enormous diversity of shapes, sizes, densities, and with varying water content.  It is easy for us to relate a tomato to an apple because they both are relatively similar in shape and both have a high water content and both can be bitten into without any processing.  Acorns on the other hand are a different matter.  Acorns are fruit.  They have a seed inside of them but they are more than just seed tissue.  Let me explain:

When flowers develop they often have both male and female organs present in one blossom.  The female organ is typically in the center of the blossom and looks sort of like a vase, with a fat bottom, a skinny stem, and a fat lip at the top.  The fat bottom portion is what we need to look at.  This is the ovary of the flower and, like a human ovary, it contains unfertilized eggs (or ovules).  Each ovule, when fertilized, becomes an individual seed.  Some ovaries have many ovules (like a tomato) and some ovaries have only one ovule(like an oak tree).  The ovary is important because that is what will become the fruit of the plant.

Once a flower is pollinated and the ovules start to develop into true seeds the ovary starts to change.  In a tomato you can watch the ovary grow slowly into a green tomato.  Once the tomato is ripe you can open it up and see all the viable seeds inside.  Each one of those seeds was a microscopic ovule inside the tiny ovary of the tiny tomato flower.  Tomato seed is found inside the tomato fruit.  Oak tree fruit are different in shape, size, water-content, and have a different number of seed inside their fruit.  But they still start out as individual flowers and then turn into fruit (“acorns”) which house the seed inside.

The term for the flowering/fruiting plants, “angiosperm”, means “seed in a vessel.”  “Seed inside a fruit.”  All of the great diversity of flowering plants, from sedges, grasses, and duckweed to magnolias, spinach, and cacti make fruits to house their seed.  Plants like pine trees and spruce trees do not make flowers (and there for do not make fruits) when they make seed.  They are in the gymnosperm group, or the “naked seed” group.

Now to wrap up.  Butternut squash plants make two types of blossoms, male flowers and female flowers.  These different blossoms will be found on the same plant.  When the female flowers are pollinated by a squash bee the large blossoms drop away and the fruit begins to fill.  This is also the time that the seed, or the fertilized ovules inside the fruit, are maturing.  A tremendous amount of nutrition has to be supplied to a developing butternut fruit as they are large and have lots of (also large) seed. Unlike summer squash, where fruit is harvested before seeds are viable, winter squash (like butternut) is harvested after the plant has died back and the fruit has fully matured.  This is why you can save seed from winter squashes after harvest and typically not from summer squashes.  Although butternut squash is very sweet it is still considered to belong in the humble “vegetable” category.  But we know that, really, they’re fruits.