Over the Fence Urban Farm

Cooperatively farming small patches of Earth in Columbus, OH


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Victory-Over-the-Virus Farming Report: April 3

Morning on the farm.

Well, we’re another week into the Covid-19 pandemic response in the United States and my email is overflowing with requests from individuals to join the CSA, purchase seedlings, and come work on the farm, as well as from organizations (including Green Columbus, Local Matters, and Ohio History Connection) interested in partnering on Victory-Over-the-Virus programming. I’m literally overwhelmed by the response.

As I wrote last week, one silver lining of this horrible disaster seems to be that people are becoming more aware of where their food comes from and increasing their desire to grow more of their own and/or find local sources to purchase from. Environmental, spiritual, and culinary reasons aside, a friend sent me this image which appeals to our growing awareness of how many hands touch the things we touch and, in this case, eat.

I tried to find attribution for this but can’t. If anyone knows, please update me!

Last night, on a call with the Jewish Farmers’ Network (JFN), I learned of a national initiative to get more people planting food gardens in response to the virus. Cooperative Gardens Commission (#coopgardens) was started by a JFN member, Nate Kleinman of the totally amazing Experimental Farm Network and a veteran of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The initiative started with an Instagram post, moved to a Google Form, and within a week had 1,000 participants assigned to different teams to help convert supplies and expertise into action. The New York Times and Civil Eats have already reported on the project. I was thrilled to learn about it and I’m excited to see how our Victory-Over-the-Virus Garden initiatives might fit in.

This past Wednesday, I piloted “Live from the Farm!” a lunchtime program on Facebook, geared mostly for kids but also appealing to grown-ups who have watched and given me feedback. The first week’s theme was Seeds (click here to watch the recording), and next week we’ll be talking about Worms followed by chickens, bees, water, and compost.

Preliminary plans are also in the works for a sister series, “Happy Hour on the Farm,” in which I will answer questions from folks who purchased Victory-Over-the-Virus seedlings and others who are getting new and existing gardens going this season. Follow the farm on Facebook for more on that.

Over the Fence is quickly getting cleaned up and we have more than half the beds seeded or filled with transplants plus a few germinating spring cover crops (fava and cow peas). We moved most of an enormous pile of woodchips, but still need to clean the chicken coop which keeps getting pushed to the bottom of the list. (Sorry ladies! Totally unfair since you have been doing your part to supply us and the extended family with tons of beautiful eggs.)

Hope all’s okay where you are and that if you haven’t already, you find a spot where you can grow something to feed not just your stomach, but also your soul.


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An Invitation for Change: Could COVID-19 be the Next Green Market Influencer?

[WARNING: This post is not full of sunshine and rainbows. Sorry. If you want that, scroll through our archive or go to our Instagram feed and click on just about anything.]

Holy sh*t.

What a difference a week can make. I ended my last post with a minor reference to COVID-19 and now our world has screeched to a standstill at its feet. What still seemed like a distant possibility last week—that our food system might get disrupted—seems much more likely now as borders and industries of all kinds shut down at the same time as photos on social media show understocked grocery shelves across the country.

I haven’t personally been to a store in a week so I’m not sure what the reality is like day-to-day at this point. I hope things have leveled out as the initial rush to shore up the larders has passed.

I would like to pause here to give a shout out to all the people working to keep shelves stocked and customers checked out. Without them, we’d be feeling this even harder. Also PLEASE, please support your local famers! The markets have all been shut down and they are looking for new ways to connect with customers. Be patient as things unfold, but look for updates from them on their social media feeds and websites.   

I recognize the great privilege I, and so many likely reading this, have to be sheltering in place somewhere dry and clean, with beer and wifi. For awhile now I have been cultivating a practice of taking time each day, throughout the day, to give quiet thanks for seemingly small but really miraculous gifts in my life – clean fresh air, sinks with running water, time to think. How much more are we able to notice those things when our daily lived experiences change?

Those of us who grow food have been feeling change for awhile. We have seen our USDA Hardiness Zone in Central Ohio jump from 5 to 6 in the past few years. Despite what the deniers say, temperatures have gotten measurably warmer on average. We have seen more severe weather with drier dry spells and wetter rainy seasons. We’ve been talking about this amongst ourselves and sharing with those who will listen. The government has recognized it in the form of subsidies to farmers who have suffered major crop loses as a result.

But the average American has generally failed to consider changes this might bring to their lives. Here, for example, are a few commonly referenced scenarios: Life without coffee (extinction of many varieties threatened by a combination of diseases and pests combined with warmer weather and the end of the popular Cavendish banana (succumbing to a spread of Fusarium fungus). Environmentalists also warn about decreasing fresh water supplies (already a reality in many parts of the world), a thought that terrifies me more than any other. Apples are suffering from unpredictable spring frosts. And the list goes on…

I’ve been thinking a lot and writing a little about climate change and sustainable small-scale agriculture since the fall when Greta got everyone seriously thinking about it for the Mother Earth News blog. I’ve lost sleep wrestling with guilt over wanting to do more but not knowing how or what to do. I bike or walk rather than drive when I can. I have used cloth shopping bags since the ’90s and I refrain from purchasing some things I or my family might like if they are overly packaged in plastic. I compost. I donate to environmental organizations with a wide range of missions. I keep the thermostat under tight control. I don’t eat a lot of meat and when I do it is locally and regeneratively raised and humanely slaughtered. I buy local and organic dairy and produce as much as I can for things I can’t grow myself. And when I’m feeling really hopeless, I tell myself that these, and so many other little things I’m doing, add up to something.

But then I look around me and see so many other people living differently, with seemly little concern for the things that keep me up at night. A headline last week read, “What would happen if the world reacted to climate change like it’s reacting to the coronavirus?” It’s a thought-provoking read and I encourage you to click through (once you’re finished with my diatribe…). As the author notes, “If the world was responding to climate change like it’s responding to the coronavirus—the level of urgency that the science says is necessary—things would look dramatically different.”

I don’t write this to shame people into caring about the climate or changing your behaviors. Although I hope you will be inspired to do those things. I write it as an invitation; an invitation to use our current crisis as an opportunity to pay more attention to our habits.

As we all limit our trips to the stores, take time to practice more mindful consumption. If this sounds like a fancy term for rationing, that’s because it kind of is. Most of us haven’t experienced that in our lifetimes but you don’t have to go back too far to see examples. So, consider where you might reduce your consumption. For example: What’s been sitting in your pantry for awhile and what creative way might you put it to use? What happens when you use a little less of the jam you love to make it last longer? Do you need that 4th cup of coffee? Does your child need another cheese stick or juice box?

Then consider other small steps you can take to enact change – commit to walking to do an errand when possible, find a way to repurpose your kitchen scraps, take Tupperware to restaurants for leftovers when they reopen, and of course, plant a garden or find a local farmer to grow your food for you.

During World War II, ordinary Americans grew nearly half the produce we consumed. We can do that again. And we should. The Green New Deal includes ideas about reclaiming lawns for food production. A public works program like that could help us dig out of the mess we’re in now. We’re going to have a lot of work to do rebuilding our communities and our economy. Knowing how slowly things get done in Washington these days, we might as well getting started, planting wherever we are.


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Checking In: First Tertile Shimta Report

[Quick a first note on the title. Did you know “tertile” is the name for a third of a year? Or a third of any whole for that matter. I didn’t. Now we do.]

Dormant fig tree surrounded by rosemary bushes.
Pearlstone Retreat Center( Reisterstown, MD)

Well, a lot’s happened since my last post in which I announced that I was taking this season off from growing for our CSA. Click here to go back and read all about that announcement. In short, this is the seventh season for our little farm and, according to ancient Jewish wisdom tradition, we, and the land, are entitled to a sabbatical year. Back in November, I determined to take the break, since then I have gained a lot more clarity around why, and what the year off will look like.

As I said, we’re taking the year off from the CSA. Thus far that’s meant no member signups to manage and no crop planning to fill those orders. It also means no money coming into the farm account and mounting fears that I won’t remember what I’m doing when I get back to farming next year. But I’m also enjoying getting to know myself again and in new ways – reading lots of books, practicing yoga more regularly, and working to be more present in my interactions with people. The hope, of course, is that I will make these new habits that I can carry out of the year with me into the future.

I spent a good chunk of this first tertile studying about shmita and setting the parameters for my year. Since I am not mandated to observe the practice — Jews outside of Israel are exempt per Torah — and since I’m actively Reconstructing Judaism to fit my life, needs, and desires, I figure it’s my choice how I want to mark the year. I am also finding that some of the lines I initially drew for myself are fuzzier than others. I’m erasing and replacing them as time goes on. It’s a work in progress. Which feels right.

A sabbatical is about release, but not complete rest. As the academic is freed from teaching in order to pursue research, I am free from the cultivation of food in order to cultivate values. It’s time to think about what’s really important to me in the work I’ve been doing here, where I am, and where I want to go in the future.

So far I’ve re-learned that community is key to my project. The following are a few examples.

This past tertile I shared teachings on shmita with my Jewish community here in Columbus and at an international gathering of Jewish Famers. Ironically the conference, the first for the Jewish Farmer Network, was called “Cultivating Culture.” Through these talks, I was building myself a community of support for the break.

For a few reasons, I decided to hold my annual spring plant sale. The sale brings a lot of people to the farm to see our growing space and get inspiration. The plants we send out into the word are nearly all grown to support pollinators in our community. That’s important work that can’t take a break. The bees and their friends need us. In addition, while growing seedlings requires me a bit of work, it’s not much and it’s indoors which means our soil is still getting the reset it deserves.

I also decided to have the sale because I’ve come to realize I have become addicted to having something to tend. The winter gets long, even a mild one like we had this year, and by January I was itching to put seeds in soil and watch them grow. I’m sure this says something also about my inability to be still, I’m more a walking/moving meditator than a sitting Buddha, and perhaps I should have forced myself to feel the absence of seedling season, but I didn’t. Maybe in 2027. (Incidentally, I wrote about my seedling growing practice recently for Mother Earth News.)

I will be hosting the Clintonville Farmers’ Market Kids Garden Club. For many of the same reasons as the sale. I’m happy to have the kids and their parents around and look forward to the field trips we’ll be taking as they fit nicely with my shimta goal of getting out and seeing other operations while I have the time.

And finally, I will be growing some food for me and my family and a few close friends and long-time CSA members. This was my latest decision and one I didn’t make lightly. Keeping our farm community going was part of the decision as was the COVID-19 virus which has me thinking about food security. With the threat of ongoing disruptions to all sorts of distribution channels, I just can’t justify not making plans to take care of ourselves. Just as I’m stockpiling coffee and toilet paper, I’m prepping produce for harvest. One could argue we should relaunch the CSA, echoing more loudly than ever the legacy of the Victory Garden movement. If things continue to go downhill perhaps we will. But in the meantime, if you have a patch of earth you can plant, do it. Then tend it as closely as you do your hand-washing routine.