Over the Fence Urban Farm

Cooperatively farming small patches of Earth in Columbus, OH


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Embracing Persephone: My Shmita Year

Today is the start of Persephone Days in Central Ohio; we are about to dip below ten of sunlight per day, the darkest of the year. Many of us feel this darkness deep within ourselves as we head towards the Winter Solstice. (For more on Persephone as she relates to farming practices and Greek Mythology, read Preparing for Persephone. ).

This time for slowing down seems as appropriate as any to publicly announce that Over the Fence Urban Farm’s CSA program will be on hiatus for the 2020 season. I have declared this year my shmita year.

Shmita is rooted in Jewish wisdom tradition. Various times the Torah makes mention of this as a sabbath for the land. Just as Shabbat (the seventh day of each week) offers us a day for complete rest and reflection, shmita offers a year of release.  

The practice is outlined in the book of Exodus when, before Moses led the Jews into the land of Israel after their forty years of wandering, he agreed to a covenant with YHVH (aka G?d, aka the divine presence in the universe that exists within and between all things): after six years of growing on and harvesting from the land, farmers would be required to let their fields go fallow. It was an agreement made in recognition of the importance of the land and with reverence for its power and potential.

Questions abound as to whether or not shmita was ever observed as outlined in the Torah. Along with the year off for the land, Jews were called upon to relieve debts and release slaves. Humans, being the self-serving animals that we are – even those of us with the best of intentions – find it hard to let go of material possessions once we have them. And so, early on work-arounds were created to protect assets and income, for example transferring land possession to non-Jews for the shmita year.

Historically, Shmita was required only of Jews living in the land of Israel. (Even there, only the most Orthodox have observed it.) It was deemed an undue burden on those living elsewhere and according to Orthodoxy, such requirements are forbidden. However, 21st century Jewish environmentalists in Israel and around the world are finding inspiration in shmita. As we face the challenges of climate crisis and related issues of social justice, we ask what can shmita teach us? How can it help guide us to live our lives in respect and appreciation for the land and all it provides?

For me, as a part-time urban farmer who often finds herself juggling a one million and one responsibilities, I was drawn to shmita as an excuse to take a break. After six years of racing around balancing my work as an art educator, homeschooler, non-profit board member, and urban farmer running a community-supported agriculture project out of my backyard, I am exhausted. I am ready for a sabbatical and grateful to Jewish wisdom tradition for offering me permission to take a break. I need time to reflect on where I’ve been and where I want to go next.

I am also convinced that the land needs a rest. The kind of intensive agriculture I practice—in which a single bed may host up to 4 crops per season—is taxing on the soil. This past season was so dry the land really suffered. I hope a year off, a year in which I feed the soil with deep layers of mulch rather than demand produce from it, might pay off in the years that follow. If what the Torah says is true we’ll be set for two years if we take this one off. If not set in food to eat, re-set mentally, spiritually.

2020 is not an official shmita year, which 2021 will be. But it is my seventh season on the farm and so I’m making it my sabbatical year. Some might not find this kosher, but they’re not in charge around here. I am.

In my shmita year, I would like to explore (without working too hard and ruining the whole point of my break) the possibility of sharing shmita with others. I’ll be sure to share ways to stay connected with this project in this space as it unfolds. Feel free to also leave comments below or email me with your comments and questions.

Peace out. Namaste. Shalom.

jodiK