Agripleasure%3a+Observing+Nature+Through+a+New+Lens


Article and photos by Gary Benson

When I first rang the doorbell at Three Roods Farm, Dr. Greg Kruszewski (crew-shev-ski) stepped out onto his sunny porch, squinting at me through a pair of thick, almost exaggerated glasses. Like those "nerd glasses"  from the dollar store, they enlarged and distorted his eyes. At the time I dismissed them as a facial feature to go along with his modest wrinkles and goatee, but I have since learned that those glasses—above all his rakes, spades, hoes, pitchforks, trowels, scythes, and shears—are his single most important farm tool.

Some farmers do their work perched atop a high tractor seat, distanced from the earth below, but Dr. Greg owns no tractor. His largest machine is the Bush Hog, a walk-along mower equipped to handle thick overgrowth. But the Bush Hog is small enough—occasionally, Dr. Greg stops mowing at the sight of a young sapling peeking out from among the weeds. These "volunteer" trees, he says, often grow better than those he buys from a nursery or raises from seed, so when he spots one from behind the Bush Hog, he transplants it to his eleven-acre reforestation project.

A month ago I began an internship here at Three Roods Farm (located in Columbiaville, MI, about 20 miles northeast of Flint) to learn how to produce food from the ground. Four days a week I work alongside Dr. Greg as he cares for an organic garden, eighty chickens, a flock of Shetland sheep, and the reforestation project. Every day I learn some little farming tips—today, for instance, I learned that plucking the flowers from a plant will encourage it to spend its energy on vegetative growth instead of reproduction. Good to know. But aside from these fun facts, I’m also learning the fundamental principles, the keys to good small-scale farming. On an organic farm, nothing is more fundamental than observation.

When Dr. Greg uses the verb "observe" (which is often), he means a willful action, not a passively received effect. Once, for instance, we delivered a cartload of dead leaves to the adolescent chickens, to "stimulate their instincts," and Dr. Greg suggested that we observe them. We sat in silence for ten minutes (that’s a third of a TV show, for most of us) watching the chickens stand still and nervously eye the leaves. "Well," he said eventually, "We can come back later."

After a month and a half of weeding, planting, gathering eggs, and so on, I’m finding that my own glasses are becoming more useful and valued every day. Where I once saw only generic weeds, I now see purslane, thistle, clover, plantain, mallow, catnip, and the delicious lambsquarters. The other day, after weeks of watching chickens crowd around a feeder every morning, I decided to "observe" for a few minutes, and suddenly realized that while the larger rooster comes and eats right away (with all the hens), the smaller rooster eats only when everyone else has had enough. He can’t compete for the role of alpha male, so he has no place in the flock. Had I ever stopped to observe them before, I would have noticed it weeks sooner.

Most of the food in America comes from huge factory farms, with huge machines, huge fields, and huge buildings full of huge, cramped animals. The earth is so distant and abstracted that everything on it becomes insignificantly puny. The small scale of Three Roods Farm, on the other hand, allows Dr. Greg Kruszewski to pause for a little tree seen through his all-important glasses.

Garrison Benson spent most of his childhood in front of computer screens, and now, clumsily wielding a B.S. degree in Computer Science, plans to spend most of his adulthood away from them. He currently interns in exchange for room and board (and no pay) at Three Roods Farm CSA, spending his extensive free time reading books, writing letters, and crawling around for wild strawberries.

© Gary Benson, 2010