All photos courtesy of Dan Soulsby/Soulsby Farm.
“I would find it hard to believe that anyone would be ‘for’ GMO’s. Why would you be? Why would anyone (even if they’re not a health nut) want to put something with the words ‘genetically modified’ into their bodies?” Dan Soulsby worked in Hollywood, but dreamed of returning to his native Ohio to start a farm. According toThe Soulsby Farm’s website, his opportunity came during the 2007-2008 economic downturn that left him without his job and the impetus to move. Running his “very small farm” of under two acres with his wife Mindy, these two graphic designers by day are hoping not only to grow their own food, but to bring properly grown harvests to those most in need in their community via a non-profit, Project Garden Share.
“Living in LA, I really missed the country and I would read every book on farming, gardening, and sustainable living I could find. I missed the life so much, I would read books about small farms and watch DVDs of snowstorms – just a video of snow falling,” Dan wrote me during a lengthy e-mail exchange that dotted its way through the planting season. Mindy, however, had not been primed in her youth for this experience, “My wife was a city girl who was a bit scared about the idea of farming in the beginning. To my surprise, she was a quick learner and lover of the land.” After spending the first few days skittish around the chickens, she dove right in. “She is very patient and picks each vegetable and herb with TLC,” Dan said.
Let’s consider the work done by local small-scale farmers and the encroachment of the large-scale operation on our everyday food choices. We certainly have a vision of the farmer from our childhood books with the cartoon pictures of lush land and verdant greenscapes. But in the United States, the family farmer is growing rarer, overtaken by the industrial mindset that turns food production into assembly line drudgery. The big producers show us advertisements that look like those pictures we remember from long ago, but the reality is the exact opposite. Chickens housed in cramped dark quarters, given “free range,” which means an open door. If the chicken has never been raised to know what it means to be outside, do we really think a hen is going to venture? In the world of large-scale produce farms, chemicals dowse the plants and soil and leech into the groundwater. Exploited workers, many of whom live in fear of being discovered as foreigners, pick our plants in harsh conditions. How many of them are allowed to pick each plant with tender loving care?
Dan and Mindy currently farm for themselves and their neighbors. Said Dan, “We practice organic growing principles and self-sustainability. We don’t add any chemical fertilizers to our land our give our chickens any antibiotics, we don’t hurt the earth or natural pollinators with pesticides. We deal with deer, rabbits and predators the best way we can without any unnatural means.” Should they someday sell their food, they still might not go organic. America’s best known farmer of properly grown food, Joel Salatin, outlines in his numerous books the hoops that producers go through to become certified “organic,” a legal word that cannot be used without government approval. A great resource, The Cornucopia Institute, discusses how that certification is being watered down by the large-scale organic power players. The word is losing meaning, but in its purest sense describes the work on Soulsby Farm. Still, “In no way will we pay the federal government to say what we’re doing is organic,” wrote Dan. “The process is too time consuming and expensive for a small farmer.”
Dan told me that he and Mindy have been given a good reception for going “back to basics.” People are quite supportive of their decision and the farm’s blog receives a few thousand hits per month. The rewards have been numerous, though they boil down to the very simple pleasure of reaping what one sows. He noted, “Nothing is as delicious as fresh picked vine ripened vegetables. I’m still just amazed that you can put a tiny seed in the dirt and sixty days later have a plant producing edible veggies and herbs.”
Taking a seed and turning it into food is at once normal, natural, miraculous, and mind-blowing! I got very excited over the radishes in my own garden a week ago. They had been these tiny dots turned to fresh edibles. Many of our fellow countrymen never get to have this experience, divorced as we are from our food supply. Food does not come from cartons and crates. It starts small and grows slowly over time. As people start to see the effects of the industrial food supply on their own bodies, they might turn to gardening or at least to farmers markets. Other folks might not have much access to those venues, so Soulsby Farm brings the land to them via Project Garden Share.
As the seed turns to plant, Project Garden Share needed its own tending and little miracle to go from idea to implementation. The non-profit organization invites gardeners and farmers to share harvests or grow extra plots for area food banks. The Project jump starts action by supplying seeds or tilling the spare land (if nearby) for participants. Anything to get properly grown food into mouths that desperately need it. Dan stated, “This economy has taken away a lot of people’s homes and forced them into smaller apartments and subsidized housing. We wanted to find a way to help those in need connect with those with land.”
Dan and Mindy put Project Garden Share into action after Dan experienced a severe health scare. About a year ago, Dan entered the hospital with what he thought to be food poisoning. Diagnosed as a stomach bug and sent home, his lungs filled fully with fluid within a few days. After a week in intensive care, the infection cleared, and the doctors couldn’t figure out an exact cause. Relieved to be well again, Dan believes he was spared in order to start Project Garden Share. It had been rustling about his mind for a year and once he emerged from the hospital, he brought the plan to fruition. He has been quite busy with it: “Since then, I’ve started four local gardens at volunteers’ homes locally, sent out seeds to three other farms in three different states, and had a seed giveaway at a local food pantry. I spend most of my free time working on getting the word out about it.”
Soulsby Farm is young and run by folks who are completely self-taught. Dan and Mindy can inspire the rest of us to reconnect with the land and just go for it. The journey won’t come without hiccups and dead-ends, but ultimately will be worthwhile. Dan has seen his share of weather and predators, uses a 60-year-old tractor to till the land, and balances a day job and a young child. Still, the Soulsbys are driven to live off the land and help others do so as well. The spark has inspired their local relatives to help out and reinvigorated their neighborhood. “Returning to basics just brings a smile to my one set of neighbors, an elderly couple who tell me how happy they are to see the us planting. They tell me stories of the old days when all the neighbors used to get together and all work the land and share the harvest. Not just that, but they would cut down trees and all share firewood,” Dan wrote to me. “Why don’t we all do that anymore?”
It’s a question worth contemplating.