When you are in the garden it is easy to believe you are in control. I choose the seeds, plan where everything goes, and designate weeds from plants with a god-like power. The sociologist Zygmunt Baumen goes as far as to suggest that gardeners are the archetypal utopian thinkers, for on some fundamental level, we believe our plans will manifest in the world. The order in our minds, in the blueprints we lay out for the perfect garden, will emerge with clarity, and we will cultivate and tend, bring to fruition until that map is inscribed on the land. When I started gardening, one of the most pleasurable aspects was this process of translation between mind-body-seed-soil-sun that seemed to suggest that anything was possible. For Bauman, the gardener— unlike the hunter, whose world is solitary, dangerous, and red in tooth and claw, or the gamekeeper, who believes that all is right when left alone— is a figure of hope. He or she believes that the world can be changed for the better.
Any gardener, however, knows that their control is a mere illusion, sustained by a more fundamental process of transformation: labour. Our minds may lay out the plans, but it is our hands, our bodies and the tenuous partnership with nature that is the seat of hope. My labour in partnership with the labour of bees, fungus and worms. This was a difficult year at Common Ground Farm. We moved at the beginning of May during a cold and wet spring, and many things needed to be done. My mental map was only half there, since much of my time had been devoted to selling our old house and buying the new one. My mental plan was still for a backyard garden and not a farm. Utopia would have to emerge more organically— less a choreographed dance and more like the spontaneous gyrations of child who cannot help but move to the music.
The map became the territory and soon sprouts were pushing out of the moist ground and we were eating the first salad greens and herbs. The sun was bright, rain fell, and my utopia was going as planned. Or so I thought! The wet spring became a wet summer and I had already mulched everything with a thick layer of straw. Generally speaking, mulching is the backbone of organic agriculture. Not only does it suppress weeds, help conserve moisture and even out the temperature of the soil, when turned in, mulch is a crucial source of nutrients. It builds the soil.
But during a wet year, straw mulch can harbour some unwanted guests. We finally got some heat and the plants started to look a bit stressed, dropping some of their lower leaves. This is normal and I wasn’t too worried. But the characteristic yellow, wilted look of heat stress quickly started to look like something else: fungus. It was spreading quickly, and now it wasn’t just the leaves. My beautiful Kabocha squash was hit particularly hard, and the young fruit were starting to rot on the vine.
Yellow became mottled black and brown and what I thought was just a bit of water stress was starting to look like a full-blown fungal infection spreading through my neat and ordered rows. I began to madly flip through my various gardening books, took photos and sent them to farmer friends, and even showed up at William Dam Seeds with a bag of infected leaves to see if I could determine what, in the course of a couple of days, was threatening to turn my dreams into a nightmare.
It turns out it is very difficult to identify exactly what kind of fungus you have, as many of them present identical symptoms. At one point I was convinced I had Fusarium or Verticillium wilt, which essentially means you have to rip everything up and solarize the soil as the fungus can survive for up to a decade. I was beyond devastated. Farming has always been a precarious profession— the triad of blight, pestilence, and locusts is even enshrined in the bible. I was amazed by how quickly the fungus was spreading and didn’t want to lose the entire garden. My ability to plan, to put into action, was being undone by a tiny organism I couldn’t even see. Any pretence of control I may have had was wilting away as quickly as my plants and I began to feel I was way over my head. Nothing of this sort had ever happened to me when I was a humble backyard gardener.
Most of the suggestions I read were already things I was doing. Build the soil, mulch, don’t overwater, and practice crop rotation. But these are long term cultural solutions and part of a broader organic approach to agriculture. What I wanted was a solution that would save my current crop; what I wanted was assurance.
This feeling of vulnerability can lead down two very different paths. In conventional agriculture, the approach is to sterilize and homogenize. Fungicides are some of the most toxic chemicals we apply to our plants, and many have been recently pulled from the Canadian market. Even if I wanted to apply them, as a small farmer without the proper equipment or papers, I did not have access to them. What is more disturbing, however, is the mindset that accompanies this approach.
For the World Expo in Milan (2015), New Holland will build the farm of the future, deploying “zero-emissions” tractors that will utilize complicated algorithms to “3-d print” fields.
Like the vertical farm, lab-grown meat and GMOs, this is yet another example of what I call the techno-utopian approach to environmental problems. Rather than seeking ways of working with nature, this mindset attempts to replace the territory with the map. Rather than acknowledge that the laboratory is a simplification of a much more complicated and messy world, it tries to tidy up the world by removing “confounding factors” and variables.
My panic soon subsided as I decided the best strategy was to keep calm and trust in my overall approach. But to do this, I had to give up the fantasy of control. I had to realize that while I may do all I can to support a healthy ecosystem for my plants, some things must be accepted. To categorize everything as a confounding factor would mean transforming my farm into a laboratory, and I don’t want to do that. In fact, I want the opposite— where possible, I strive to reintroduce wildness into the cultivated, drawing on the strength of biodiversity, insect predators, and healthy soil to provide fertility.
In the end I did find a short-term solution. There is a new organic bio-fungicide available called Serenade, which utilizes a strain of Bacillus Subtilis to destroy a broad range of fungi. Opening the container, you are greeted with the smell of fresh bread. Unlike chemical agents, this product is highly safe and you can eat the crop the next day. After the first application at dusk, which I paid for with about a litre of blood taken one mosquito at a time, I noticed immediate improvements. Some plants were damaged and died, and many were stunted, but the garden went on. It was resilient enough to thrive.
In the end I learned some valuable lessons. Next year I will space my tomatoes and the row of corn, squash, and beans further apart to encourage better air circulation, which should help keep the fungus at bay. I will also make sure the garden is better drained and that the soil has more organic matter turned into it. But the most important lesson I learned was about myself. For a moment I was tempted by the allure of chemical farming and began to look up conventional fungicides. When your work, your vision and hope is catastrophically threatened, the promised certainty of science is tempting. But nature is not a “confounding factor.” It is not a variable to control. I want a farm and not a laboratory, and so I must be willing to accept that the territory will never be the map.
If you liked this, please consider buying The Politics of the Pantry.