Written by: Mark Frank-Echigo Farm
In Japanese Buddhism, there is the expression shin-do-fu-ji, written with the characters for heart, body, not, and two (心体不二). This means, literally translated, “body and earth are not two.” That is, our human bodies and the land from which we get our food are closely connected. One can also extrapolate from this expression that all living things have a deep connection to the place where they live. Expanding this concept to food and diet we can infer that it is not so much “you are what you eat” as “you are where you eat.” Thus, there is a unique physical and spiritual connection between your body and the land where you live. On our farm, we have put this philosophy into practice by treating the soil as a living thing, it is deserving of respect and care.
On cool summer mornings, knee deep in daikon, I’ve heard the soil speak. I walk an average of four miles a day on our little farm, mostly confined to the 2 acres or so of land where we grow our market crops. I have learned a little of the contours and crannies, the perennial and annual weeds, the insect communities and their respective territories, the places where the chickens naturally stray, the delicately layered balance and imbalance of natural cycles that define any farm.
I have only been here five and a half years and I am still learning how to read the land. Self-admittedly, I still struggle with the homework. We follow Masanobu Fukuoka’s three rules for natural farming; no pesticides, no chemical fertilizers, no tilling. The first two may seem more explicitly invested in the balance of life and human safety because they remove poisons from the food production equation. However, I have come to realize in my years of walking and working here that the third, no tilling, is perhaps the most important.
When confronted with a new field or garden spot, our shared human impulse is to till, to turn the soil decisively. Somehow, there is an undeniable visceral satisfaction in breaking ground and running my hands through clear luminous loam that says, “Now I can do something, I am ready to farm.” But, after several years of not tilling and leaving machines shut up in the shed, I enjoy spending seasons going over the same unplowed land and the same beds. Yet, with each season I notice that things are never the same. What I have learned through the years and see in the crops, as well as other living populations, is how fertility builds and seeps into the soil from everywhere all at once to create something new. It is powerful concept to know that undisturbed earth can be so alive and fertile; this idea seems to encourage and propel my commitment to this way of farming.
Through reflection, I have come to see myself not as a local farmer but as a soil-based farmer. When we sell produce at the farmers market, what we are really offering is our soil. Not the dirt itself, so much as a mirror image of the ground and the energy of its constituents; this shows up in the flavor, shape, color, size and texture of the vegetables. Furthermore, in growing our own produce year round, I have noticed that our farm has a specific flavor. There is a farm taste that transcends variety or skill; this is the soil speaking. Other vegetables at the local market taste like other farms. However, in many big supermarkets, I have come to notice that there are many vegetables that taste like nowhere. Therefore, it matters not so much that my vegetables were grown in Southwest Missouri; geographically speaking, everywhere is local somewhere. But, that they were grown here, on this small piece of land in a specific way that maximizes character and leaves a specific imprint on the produce that is harvested from this soil; this means everything in farming.
Tracing the details of the soil with my feet, I often make notes. This morning, I happen to notice as I kneel in the wet morning grass that a deer has come into the field. It claims membership to this land as the chickens wander out to the edge of the beans just ahead of a light rain. Admittedly, the soil has become on some days more familiar to me than my own children. Smells and temperatures change throughout the day, water flows throughout the land and some crops grow where others do not. It feels very reassuring to know that my practice of shin-do-fu-ji continues, whether I am in the field or not. What is perplexing about this way of farming is that I have also come to realize that I’m not really a farmer and even less a “steward of the land.” I’m just someone who likes to walk the land and observe the cycles of nature and soil at work. Thus, the only meaningful accomplishment in my short history as a farmer is the relationship I’ve built with the soil; anything I’ve learned starts and ends here.
Sadamichi, Kato (2016) Retrieved from:https://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/proj/genbunronshu/25-1/kato.pdf