Sun, Jun 05, 2005 - Page 19 News List

The poetry of tilled rows and garlic cloves

The Walt Whitman of organic farming delivers wisdom by the shovelful in his book about life on one of the US' most successful communes


This Common Ground: Seasons on an Organic Farm
By Scott Chaskey
240 pages

A few weeks ago, Scott Chaskey, poet and farmer, was hunkered down in his favorite garlic field to get out of a chilly wind blowing off the ocean. The sand was warm between the perfectly tilled rows of green garlic stalks, mulched with a soft blanket of shredded leaves. Chaskey calls them "green sail masts," and so they were, all 20,000 of them, sailing down this 0.8-hectare field.

Since 1990, Chaskey has directed the plowing and planting at Quail Hill, a community farm in north Amagansett, New York. And now he has written about his experiences, from growing garlic, his favorite food, to growing a community -- of earthworms, bees, birds, foxes and humans -- all connected to the earth.

This Common Ground: Seasons on an Organic Farm, published in April by Viking, is an elegy to the land and to the creatures who inhabit it. It is all about rebuilding the connections that have been lost, over time, as the family farm has given way to industrialized agriculture and real estate development. (At Quail Hill, farmers use a chisel plow to loosen the earth, and plant 1,360kg of seed potatoes by hand. And Chaskey veers wide, with his plow, if a fox family has burrowed into the field.)

The book is also a gardener's bible, packed with practical knowledge that often runs counter to conventional wisdom (garlic, for instance, does better out here if it is planted in late October, not August), as well as insights into subtler and more difficult arts, like protecting land from the pressure to develop, or fostering an awareness that soil holds the key to plant health.

This particular soil, for instance, was enriched with more than 57 tonnes of compost per hectare, a month or so before garlic-planting time. "You don't want to put down compost the day before you plant," said Chaskey, whose worn herringbone cap and white beard put him somewhere between Walt Whitman and Edgar Wallis, the spry, 80-something gardener who taught him how to wield a long-handled spade in the cliff meadows of Cornwall, England.

Gardeners, he said, could put a good 10cm of compost down on their gardens in fall. And rock powder, too, which Chaskey works in with the compost, to add trace minerals lost through hundreds of years of growing corn and potatoes.

A native of upstate New York, Chaskey, 55, first learned the secrets of the soil double-digging vegetable gardens in England while studying poetry and writing at Oxford University. There he met his wife, Megan, who was also studying poetry. They moved to the little fishing village of Mousehole, at the very tip of Cornwall, where he gardened high above the crashing sea.

They came to Amagansett in 1989, where a group of 10 families, including Chaskey's mother and stepfather, had started one of the first community-supported agriculture projects, known as CSAs, in which participants share labor and costs.

At first, the fledgling farmers led a Gypsy-like existence, moving from one borrowed plot to another, but in 1990 they formed a rare partnership with the Peconic Land Trust. The trust had just received 8 hectares of farmland from an Amagansett landowner, who later donated her entire 90-hectare property to the trust. The community farmers needed a permanent home, so Quail Hill Farm was born.

In a community farm, members buy shares -- US$690 for a family, or US$355 for an individual at Quail Hill -- to pay for seeds, fertilizer and supplies. Members there harvest about 225 varieties of organic vegetables, herbs, flowers and raspberries twice a week during the growing season. They agree to accept crop failures due to weather, insects, disease or deer. "It's all about sharing the risk with the farmer," Chaskey said.

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