Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A Woman of Principles

In preparation for my adventure I contacted over sixty small farmers that were located within 30 miles of my main route between Virginia and Oregon. None were more enthusiastic and supportive than Susanna Lein, owner of Susanna’s Organics on Salamander Springs Farm just south of Berea, Kentucky. I knew little to nothing about Susanna, nor any of the other farmers, but I had been looking forward to seeing her from the beginning. Sometimes you just get a good feeling about a place, long before you ever even get there.

Susanna was well known in Berea, and in the little over four years that she had been farming full time had become the primary producer of local organic products. After taking a hiatus from my bike by spending the Fourth of July with friends, I went to visit one of Berea’s farmer’s markets to meet Susanna for the first time. Berea hosts a farmer’s market three days a week, two on weekdays and one on Saturdays, putting every community I have ever known in Alabama and Georgia to shame regarding support for wholesome local foods and local producers; and all in a community of under 21,000. The forecast for Wednesday’s market was rain, rain, most of the day. When I pulled up Susanna cheerfully said, “Oh look, it’s the bike guy,” and gave me a hug once I disembarked. The best part of my trip so far has been the incredible number of genuine hugs I have received. Susanna’s market tent was filled with color, diversity, energy, and art. As I would soon discover, a farmer’s market tent is a pretty accurate extension of the farm itself. Susanna displayed potatoes, garlic, onions, zucchini, squash, peppers, flowers, mixed greens, dried beans, cornmeal and fresh teas and herbs, all labeled by hand in an attractive scrawl.

Susanna, now in her late forties, had the energy and enthusiasm of an exuberant twenty year old. She’d been raised on a corn and sheep farm in Iowa, and learned early how to work hard and endure. While barely a teenager, her father and brother were killed in an automobile accident on their way back home from a 4-H meeting, leaving her with two older sisters and a pregnant mom. Rather than sell the farm, her mother set to work, and the three daughters learned to farm. Like so many farm kids, she wanted to get away, and after attending college landed a job with a large landscape architecture firm in Boston where she first felt the pangs of destroying nature for the sake of progress.

Susanna didn’t feel good about the contribution she was making. She pleaded with her clients to fit their projects into a more natural landscape, but her ideas were too often rejected. “We were basically prostituting ourselves for the developers,” she states frankly. Disillusionment with the societal image of success and modern creature comforts comes more easily to those who feel a calling to the earth under foot. Susanna possessed that in abundance and signed up for the Peace Corps in Guatemala.

Spending quality time outside of the U.S. had a profound impact on Susanna. After two years living in a small village, Susanna remained in Guatemala, married a Guatemalan, and spent a total of 8 years learning and teaching principles of agricultural and cultural sustainability throughout her mountain community. Those years infused her with a knowledge and passion for living in harmony with the earth, and gave her a grit and strength that few Americans, male or female, can ever imagine. She had learned first hand, how to take an ordinary piece of land and transform it into a beautiful and bountiful sustainable ecosystem; one capable of producing food at the same time it mimics nature’s processes.

Returning to the states was the most difficult experience of her life, but not for the reasons one might think. “It was so sad to look at people; their pasty white faces and blank stares; they just looked like zombies.” A general lack of health born from people’s eating habits, consumption habits, exercise habits and community relationships manifested itself in a person’s weight, appearance, vigor, and state of mind.

As Susanna shared her experience I considered the role reversal she was describing. Typically, Americans think of a subsistence lifestyle in a third world country as so pitiful and undesirable. I pictured living from the land contrasted with the average job working in a windowless retail store, or factory in the states. The connections to life are very direct in a subsistence culture; food, water, work, family, nature. Such contrasts begs the question, how do our trivial material goods and processed foods from so many thousands of miles away affect society?

Salamander Springs Farm is nestled in a holler of the Clear Creek basin just south of Berea. I arrived at 10PM, after a magical ride through firefly lit fields and the deep fragrance of a mountain valley. I found Susanna tending a small fire while reading a book about water development in America’s West entitled Cadillac Desert. She’d been worried about my late arrival and greeted me warmly with another hug. We exchanged brief life histories and she showed me my bed in her unfinished house.

Next morning, I was able to see firsthand what five years of steady patient work had accomplished. Susanna had taken three of her twenty five acres and blended flowers, herbs, grains, vegetables, and fruit trees with human habitats such as her shack, a produce cleaning shed, ponds, composting toilet, shower, and her small two story house. The ingenuity applied in every corner was astounding.

Electricity was virtually unnecessary. Her open air kitchen had two stoves hooked to a propane tank. Water was gravity fed from a spring box she had constructed up the hill. She listened to NPR in the mornings from a small radio powered by solar electricity. Breakfast was cornmeal mash made from her heirloom corn named “Bloody Butcher.” Fresh honey and dried currants added flavor, though the corn itself had plenty of flavor.

Susanna’s crops were all planted in less than two acres of space. Diversity was key to the absence of pests and amazingly, everything was planted by hand, with no mechanical equipment whatsoever; in other words no tilling. “Nature doesn’t till, nature builds up the soil,” she taught. What had previously been less than an inch of topsoil on top of a thick clay hardpan, had been built up to nearly 7-8 inches of loamy soil with cover crops, composted horse manure, and mulch. Tilled soil loses both carbon and nitrogen to the atmosphere, whereas a mulched bed retains moisture and nutrients and makes weeding unnecessary. Susanna hated weeding and from all appearances had very little to weed.

The name for this style of farming is called permaculture, and it encompasses more than food production. Short for “permanent agriculture” its principles include energy efficiency, waste water treatment, recycling and land stewardship. These systems were all being applied. For the next two days, I worked, ate, cleaned, and lived as close to the earth as I ever have. Most people would consider Susanna’s lifestyle an extreme way of living. She nurtured life, fed others and herself, benefited the community, and stayed true to principles she had sought throughout a lifetime. How many of us can claim that?

This brief article was written in haste for publication. My experience at Susanna's was incredibly rich and wonderful and will require extensive reflection to capture acurately. It was one of my favorite stops so far for many reasons that I look forward to capturing. Susanna, if you are out there, thank you.

This entry was posted on 7/11/2006 11:56 AM

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