Book Review Many Hands Make a Farm, by Jack Kittredge and Julie Rawson

Front cover of Many Hands Make a Farm, by Julie Rawson and Jack Kittredge, Chelsea Green Publishers

Book Review

Many Hands Make a Farm: 47 Years of Questioning Authority, Feeding a Community and Building an Organic Movement, Jack Kittredge and Julie Rawson, Chelsea Green Publishers, November 2023. 208 pages, 6 x 9 inches, with an 8-page color photo insert. $24.95.

This little book is not a how-to-farm book, but a very readable memoir-plus-life-philosophy of two activists who also raised a family and farmed organically, built their local community and served in founder and leadership roles in the Northeast Organic Farming Association. They favor minimized external energy use, natural healthcare and debt-free living. If you have some of the same goals, this book could be inspiration and encouragement. As well as the Many Hands Organic Farm CSA, their paid jobs on the board of NOFA and Jack’s job as a board game designer kept them afloat financially. Somehow they also found time to engage in music and theatrical arts and social justice work. They wrote their book in their separate voices, as interwoven sections. It’s usually easy to tell who is speaking.

The foreword is by Leah Penniman (co-founder of Soul Fire Farm and author of Farming While Black), who became a farm intern at Many Hands in her late teens, and was praised as “no question the best worker on the farm”.

Julie and Jack met in Boston in 1976. They shared values of trusting in nature, surrounding themselves with life, using their talents, respecting details, and staying skeptical but open. Each of the authors had many years of organizing and political activity under their belt before they met and moved in together in Boston, where they made a small garden, complete with compost bin and rabbit hutch. They ate well, sold 10,000 copies of one of Jack’s board games, saved money, had their first child, and after five years, planned to move to the country. They bought a 55-acre parcel of a 400-acre ex-dairy farm near Barre, Massachusetts.

They camped there, read, planned, and planted fruit trees, and had their next child. They needed to build a house, which would require saving for a year. They wanted to use the sun and earth for heating and cooling, wood for cooking and hot water, greenhouses and root cellars. They designed matching their dream, foregoing a furnace in favor of woodstoves; earth-berming the basement; running all their plumbing in a central column far from the external walls to avoid freezing; and building a basement root cellar with fan-assisted air circulation.

Their house has three floors plus an attic, providing maximum living space for minimal foundation structure. Despite such careful planning, they do see some flaws. If starting over, they would include barns and sheds attached to the house, under the same roof. When the electricity is out, the well-pump doesn’t work. They had not planned a secondary water source. Condensation of warm moist air on cold pipes and walls came as an unpleasant surprise.

Learning that half the total cost of a house was for labor, they decided to provide that themselves. Also learning that half the total cost (these can’t both be true, can they?) was for interior finishing (flooring, walls, insulation, cabinets, and trim) they decided to do that too. Wisely, they brought a mobile home to the site to live in until the house had electricity, hot water and a septic system. They organized construction weekends for their friends. They wrote a weekly newsletter to boost morale and keep the workforce up-to-date. Julie and Jack worked as hard as they could (Jack leading the construction, Julie leading the cooking and childcare, not so revolutionary, but efficient for the short term).

In December, after 5 months of amateur construction work with a bit of professional help, the shell was closed in and they moved into the house (having spent one-quarter of the total cost). By then they had four young children. Moving into a shell of a house turned out to be a good decision for them, partly because they could change plans as needs became apparent. For example, adding a window in the north wall so they could see from indoors just what was happening outside. It was to take them ten years to finish the interior work, and it was better to live with daily improvements than to wait a long time for the perfect home.

Jack learned computer programming, took contract roofing work and did odd jobs locally, to repay the emergency family loans for closing in the house. Julie, meanwhile, together with neighbors, started the Barre Farmers Market, where she sold her crops.

Julie had left college early to save the world, and married young. When she met Jack she knew she had to leave that marriage in order to start a family with Jack. This was morally difficult for her, even while emotionally imperative. Children came along quickly (four in five years), born at home. They were raised to do chores, go to bed when told, do their best at school, tell the truth, treat others with respect, and suffer the consequences of inappropriate behavior.

Julie Rawson, author of Many Hands Make a Farm. Credit Clare Caldwell

All the children went to public school, as much to learn socialization as to get an education. Conversations round the dinner table expanded the scope of their education, as did talking in Spanish, encyclopedia quizzes and maps as wall décor. The NOFA community provided models of farm family life, including expectations of children doing chores. This gave them a good work ethic, leading to chances of paid jobs on other farms as they grew older.

Other children and young teens were drawn to the household as frequent visitors or as temporary residents. Julie calls them “children of the heart” and was happy to offer them a sanctuary from which to navigate their first rough transitions in life.

On the farm, Julie and Jack built up their soil at every opportunity, gathering organic matter wherever they went. Initially they fed themselves from a quarter-acre. After a few years, they expanded to sell at the farmers’ market. Later, Julie started a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture system) with 25 members, growing on an acre and a half, with hired workers, and a work-share option of four hours per week for a full share. They bought a Troybilt rototiller and wore out a complete set of tines every year in their rocky soil. This method worked for 30 years, upgrading to a wider tiller that could be pulled behind the four-wheel tractor they had bought, and a bed shaper. Julie calls herself a tillaholic, enjoying the results while becoming aware of the longer term damage happening.

In 2014 she became convinced by an impassioned talk by Graeme Sait, to focus on maximizing carbon in the soil as part of addressing climate change. Avoiding the oxidation of soil that comes with fluffing it up with a rototiller helps sequester carbon and reduce erosion. Julie became a convert to no-till, despite opposition from some of the workforce, and sold the tiller. Using mulches and more perennial crops are key parts of this strategy. They bought lots of rock dusts and added them to their fields, following the teachings of agronomist William Albrecht. By-then-grown son Dan was a big part of making this change happen.

The operating principles at MHOF are:

  • Cooperate with nature, focusing on building good soil, not on eliminating pests.
  • Healthy soil microbes are the highest goal, and the foundation of a strong farm.
  • A healthy plant is resistant to insects and disease. [Yes, healthy plants are those that are not diseased. That’s a tautology. It is agreed that a plant requires all three features of the disease triangle: a susceptible host, the presence of a disease-causing organism (the pathogen) and a favorable environment for the disease. But, is it your fault if your plant does not resist the disease? This statement seems to blame the victim for problems that occur.]
  • Exceptional health leads to exceptional results, another example of a statement proving itself.
  • Biodiversity is key, providing resilience and strengthening the farm as a whole.
  • Help the land grow nutritious food, by attending to soil fertility: test soils and amend as needed.
  • Mulch matters, adding organic matter, feeding the soil micro-organisms, keeping the nutrients cycling round.
  • Healthy natural landscapes include both plants and animals, and farm landscapes also benefit from animals.
  • Cover crops have many soil benefits and many uses.
  • Green growth is essential for feeding the soil micro-organisms year-round, as well as adding to the carbon in the soil.
  • Silage tarps are valuable to suppress vegetative growth. Yes, the plastic is not a sustainable material. But many growers have concluded that on balance silage tarps can do more good than harm. The time on the soil is short (March to May at MHOF) and the impact is less than tilling, or leaving the soil bare. The worm casts seen on the soil surface when the tarps are removed seem to prove no long-term harm.

About eight years after the kids had grown and left home, in 2007 MHOF started working with Almost Home, a program for former prisoners of the county jail, who had addiction problems. They raised money to pay these people. Two or three at a time stayed for some years, and became friends. Julie was happy when the physical work, fresh air and hearty healthy food brought about positive change in the lives of some of these struggling people. After eleven years of this challenging work, they decided to retire from the stressful work with the ex-prison men, some of whom relapsed into addiction, including two who died of overdoses.

MHOF also hired Clare Caldwell as Julie’s farming partner, and some more full and part-time staff. Clare brought breakfast sandwiches to the ex-con workers, and is got along with all kinds of people. She has been at MHOF since 2008, including birthing and raising three children in that time. She and Julie work together very well while competing in the nicest possible way to do the hardest work.

Jack Kittredge, author of Many Hands Make a Farm. Credit Clare Caldwell

The farm has an implicit guide for farm managers:

  • If you can’t say anything nice about someone present, don’t say anything at all. It’s OK to rag on those absent, with the understanding that “what’s said on the farm stays on the farm.”
  • Never ask someone else to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself (within your physical limitations).
  • Do exercises and affirmations before the crew arrives. Put a smile on your face. You’ll feel more alert, calmer and more open to what happens.
  • Be sure each day is well organized in advance. Have a written task list posted for those who forget.
  • Good morale follows from being occupied in something you enjoy or are good at. Know each person’s skills. Be ready to switch people around if your first estimate doesn’t work out.
  • Change things up. An hour is long enough for most people on any one task. Have contingency plans for different kinds of weather.
  • Give people as much authority as they want and can manage. Silently “interview’ workers for their next potential role on the farm.
  • Organize yourself out of a job. Hand over and move on. Line up the next task. Jack and Julie are now shedding overall responsibility for major parts of the farm management.
  • Hold a high standard for all your workers. Be clear about job descriptions and remuneration.
  • Distinguish between long-term workers, working shareholders and volunteers, making expectations clear.
  • Make it fun. Some like to sing, play word games or discuss thorny topics. Others do not.
  • Celebrate birthdays and important events. A cake, some music, a mention in the newsletter.
  • Eat together. Offer breakfast, have someone make lunch for the crew. Expect all to help with cleanup.
  • Offer incessant honest praise and appreciation.
  • Don’t be afraid to apologize and own your mistakes. This builds trust.
  • Resolve conflict by immediately addressing it in a non-judgmental way. Make agreements about future interactions.
  • Take all comers, at least once. Give everybody a fair chance. Half a day, or a day.

My reviewing came unraveled when I read that Julie and Jack did not support Covid distancing, masking or vaccinations. They believed their immunity levels (and existing intake of supplements) were strong enough to protect them from this newly emerged virus, as it does for flu. I’m happy for them that when they got Covid they both got mild cases. And may have avoided spreading it to people more vulnerable than them. Not everyone has been so lucky. Some of us have lost family members, or got Long Covid. My sympathies go out to the bereaved and those with chronic illness. I don’t get why anyone would choose to ignore the scientific evidence (once it started to emerge). Clearly the authors do believe much medical science and do take treatment for other conditions, and add preventative supplements to their fantastic diet. As they say, the politicization of the disease didn’t help us. Nor does demonizing people with different opinions, who may be living in a different situation.

After selling to a hotel chef, then a small health food store, then the Barre Insight Meditation Center every time they held a retreat, they finally had a lucky break as CSAs became more widespread and well-known.

In 1990, the federal government appropriated the word “Organic”, setting up a national inspection, certification and labeling organization. The individual statewide organic organizations joined in the National Organic Program. Soon Organic standards were allowing fudges to organic food production, such as outdoor “porches” for laying hens in densely packed poultry sheds.

Both Jack and Julie were working for NOFA, Jack on the financial and campaigning sides, Julie on coordinating the bulk organic supplies order and gathering volunteers. The NOFA Summer Conference included people from seven northeastern states, and had been run by the Vermont chapter. Sadly, it owed lots of money to two Vermont colleges, and some other chapters refused to share the debt. Julie and Jack saved the conference by finding a good location in Massachusetts, and persuading the MA chapter to host the event from 1987. They were able to get the conference back as a money-earning event and repay the Vermont loans.

They also revived publication of a NOFA newsletter, gearing up from one issue per year to six. Controversial issues were fearlessly aired (mosquito-eradication pesticides, sewage sludge as fertilizer, the industrialization of farming, big farm subsidies from taxes, the national expectation of cheap food, GMOs, and animal ID chips (dropped by the government after huge resistance from farmers).

The newsletter editors also ran seminars from 2008-2018, in conjunction with the Bionutrient Food Association, where Dan Kittredge worked. Interest in nutrient density of food lead into thinking about carbon sequestration, and no-till farming as a way to reduce carbon burn-up (carbon dioxide build-up).

Around 2015, Jack (in his mid-seventies) started to retire from NOFA/Mass involvement, and in 2020 Julie retired from her role as director. Their graceful exits were marred by a major disagreement with the NOFA Interstate Council at the end of 2020. Jack focused an issue of the newsletter, The Natural Farmer, on whether or not hydroponics should be allowed within Organics. Jack’s openness to airing dissent brought forth a blistering criticism from those who thought this idea unworthy of the newsletter.

For the conference, Julie proposed a debate about Covid vaccination and the New York state law closing religious exemptions. This idea was seen by many farmers as pointless and divisive. Instead, the topic went to an issue of The Natural Farmer, edited by Jack as his final issue. Some readers wanted to pull the issue, but it was too late. Is it censorship to exclude controversial topics, or is it avoidance of unhelpful conflict in order to focus on moving forward on agreed topics?

After 36 years working for NOFA, Julie (now 70) was happy to return to full-time farming, and continue educational work through a weekly farm newsletter and the Many Hands Sustainability Center, with weekly hosting of boys from a school providing for those recovering from sexual abuse; and seven workshops per year for members of the public. Jack is preparing to pass on their legacy, the farm, to a land trust. This means that their 55 acres cannot be further built on, and remains available to future buyers at a lower, non-development price.

Here are two people who were clear in their goals, applied themselves with gusto, achieved all their important aspirations, wrote it up, and roundly deserve to rest on their laurels.

Book Review: Farming While Black, Leah Penniman

Farming While Black, Leah Penniman, Chelsea Green, November 2018

ISBN 978-1-60358-761-7, 368 pages, $34.95 Full color photos and illustrations throughout.

 

This timely book is Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land. As Karen Washington says in the foreword, it “sheds light on the richness of Black Culture permeating throughout agriculture.” It’s practical, political, spiritual, uplifting and inspiring.

Before I go any further, I should say I’m white. I’m a farmer, a first generation immigrant, an enthusiastic reader of good farming books, and someone who likes to pass things she learns on to others. I love that this book brings farming wisdom from African and Caribbean cultures, gems like information on the susu Caribbean community mutual lending groups and inventive methods of farming with small material resources. I love that this book opens our eyes wider to the historical and current, shamefully unjust treatment of people of color as they farm. The title is perfect.

Leah Penniman is a Black Kreyol farmer who has been working as a farmer for 20 years and as an anti-racist food activist for 15 years, and a mother for some years too. She is a founder of the ten-person Soul Fire Farm in New York, which supplies low-cost healthy food to people living in places where they would otherwise be without good food. The farm offers training programs to Black, Latinx and Indigenous new farmers, as well as Black youth who would otherwise have received punitive court sentences, and anti-racism workshops.

Throughout the book are sidebars with the title “Uplift”, bringing wisdom from the African Diaspora. There are also tales from her own learning curve, such as letting the excitement over finding land blind her to the impoverished nature of the soil there, and the lack of road, electricity or even a house. She passes on to us her 13-point list of characteristics of suitable land, and her three essentials for farming: land, training and material resources. She knows the conventional resources, the unconventional ones, and how to tap into them. For instance, squatting land and activating an adverse possession claim after paying taxes for enough years, or making use of the National Incubator Farm Training Initiative programs.

As a result of decades of USDA discrimination and white injustice, the percentage of farms owned by Black farmers in the US has gone down from 14% in 1920 to less than 2% today. USDA is starting to make amends by offering some greater resources to “historically disadvantaged” farmers. There is a long way to go, to undo past harm. Land injustice continues today. Over 80% of food eaten in the US is grown by Latinx workers, but only 2% of farm managers are Latinx. A bright spot during the Great Depression was the formation of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, an interracial organization that used nonviolent protest to demand their fair share of government support.

The Uplift sidebar about the New Communities Land Trust particularly interested me. This, the first community land trust in the US, was set up in 1969 as a 5,700 acre farm collective owned in common by Black farmers. Yes, they were shot at by some white neighbors, and suffered thefts. They were denied emergency drought relief in 1981-82, while white farmers received funds. In 1985 they had to fold and sell the land. In 1999 they settled a civil rights case for $1.2 billion and re-established on a 1,600 acre former plantation, renamed Resora.

This book contains many useful resources I have not found in such concentration elsewhere! Contact lists for farm training programs, and in particular, ones led by people of color, with an awareness of the political implications of white-led programs that ask people to work for no pay, doing work that benefits the landowner. She tells of some specific acts of reparation where a European-descent person with means transferred a portion of their land to the descendants of those who created the wealth. She encourages people of color to be specific in asking for reparations, suggesting “If you want advice, ask for money. If you want money, ask for advice.”

When it comes to asking for loans, many Black people do not have access to conventional credit because of the legacy of structural racism. Alternative resources such as susu are needed. These are microfinance membership groups that pool subscriptions and fund one member at a time. Leah Penniman offers models of financial sustainability that question capitalism and reinforce the understanding that land has belonged to people in common for much longer than it has been owned privately. Those who have known want don’t assume that the world owes them/us anything, and so will want to pay close attention to financial agreements.

Sharing work via the konbit system is another way for people to support each other to get timely tasks completed. Every farm gets the chance to receive the help as well as provide it. This book provides a great deal of help. In return, don’t look for the cheapest place to buy it! Pay the fair price, or even offer reparations if you are from a family that benefited from historical exploitation of people of color.

The book offers help with clarifying your mission and goals, and making a farm business plan. Soul Fire’s goals include training and empowering aspiring Black, Latinx and Indigenous growers and young people, providing healing, offering education in environmental justice, food sovereignty and other transformative justice, supplying good food locally at affordable prices, sharing their farming model, collaborating with other Black land justice networks and being a culture that cares for the well-being of its workers.

There are work songs! Learn them at www.farmingwhileblack.org. There’s an explanation of Cultural Appropriation and Appropriate Use on page 69. Share, don’t seek to control or get private gain.

Leah Penniman
Photo Credit: Jamel Mosely Mel

There’s a whole chapter on restoring degraded land, which Leah Penniman surely knows well, having started with soil listed as marginal and unsuitable for growing crops. She addresses remediating soils contaminated with lead, an especial problem in urban soils which are more likely to be available at lower prices, financially speaking. She shares specifics about Haitian farmers’ work to remediate the soils they inherited after colonialism, using vetiver perennial grass planted on contour to prevent further erosion. Leah Penniman gives step-by-step instructions on soil testing, chelating the lead (acidifying the soil), using specific plants for phyto-remediation, removing the mature plants for disposal as hazardous waste, and retesting your soil.

There are details of how to measure the slope on your land using only a line level and string. This is so you can mark contour lines and create terraces, plant fruit trees and stabilize the soil. There is a very clear description of using tarps to smother weeds without tillage. (I am so relieved we can now call this process “tarping” rather than the cumbersome “occultation”!) The Feeding the Soil chapter explains the difference between the “energy-drink” effect of chemical amendments and “nutritious-meal” amendment with compost, rock dusts or seaweed. Cation Exchange Capacity is beautifully explained with a hip-hop metaphor comparing the number of binding sites to the number of vocalists!

The Crop Planning chapter offers crops unusual in the US as well as staples. I was tickled to find Soul Fire Farm calls their high tunnel “North Carolina” because its microclimate is more like that state than New York. We called ours (in Virginia) Trinidad for similar reasons! I like the idea of using a piece of wire mesh (hardware cloth) on top of an open flat to help with seed spacing.

The Tools and Technology chapter gives advice for simple affordable hand-made equipment (such as worktables at the right height), and using fingers, knuckles, hand-spans and length of stride as measuring instruments that will always be with you. There is a one-page equipment checklist which includes a hammock for after-lunch siesta!

The chapter on seed-keeping tells of the 2013 success of the Haitian Peasant Movement G4 in winning the Global Food Sovereignty Prize for their rejection of a large donation of seeds from Monsanto despite the challenges caused by the huge 2010 earthquake. That takes courage as well as wisdom and long-term thinking.

Unlike most crop production books, this one includes chapters on raising livestock, plant medicine (with recipes), cooking and preserving, healing from trauma, building a movement and how white allies can be helpful in uprooting racism. There is also a chapter on Honoring the Spirits of the Land.

In the Urban Farming chapter we learn more about the Great Migration which pushed 6 million African Americans from the rural Southeast into the cities of the North, Midwest and West. They were moving away from lynching, land theft and other forms of racial violence, as well as share-cropping, loan discrimination and other unjust practices. By 1970, 80% of African Americans lived in cities. The National Housing Act of 1934 institutionalized housing discrimination, ranking Black neighborhoods (marked in red on the maps) too risky for mortgages. This led to lowering of property values, and decline of Black neighborhoods.  Veterans returning from World War II were entitled to zero-interest mortgages, but these were illegally denied to African American veterans. Sadly, white “pioneers” have co-opted urban farming in many African American neighborhoods, getting grants that were denied to the Black leaders of area improvements. This chapter provides information on starting and maintaining urban farms, all the way from finding land (look at tax maps of vacant lots, find the most recent owner, open negotiations), through navigating “nuisance ordinances”, making land-use agreements, collecting rainwater, growing in small spaces and vermi-composting.

The Youth on Land chapter is about including young people in farming, Working outdoors provides physical, emotional and spiritual well-being; reduces stress, social anxiety, depression, disease and impulsivity and increases focus, creativity, agility, eye sight, life satisfaction and more. It provides a sense of a life worth living. For three years, Soul Fire Farm had a Project Justice which trained court-adjudicated youth at their farm for 50 hours, instead of them being persuaded by the lawyer to accept a plea bargain for a lighter sentence than they would get if found guilty (whether they were guilty or not). Once young people have a criminal record, they are more likely to become a target of law enforcement, and the pipeline from school to prison becomes cemented in place.