The Final Retrospective of Full Life Farm

This may be my final retrospective of Full Life Farm for 2014, but life and adventures, the academic and homesteading ones, will continue as I work towards an MSc in social psychology, a PhD in community psychology, and the co-creation of an intentional community eco-village while I also learn of life and the uses of herbal medicine. Hopefully, you have read my other experiences in previous entries so this won’t be a difficult to follow. Rather, this will be a reflection of what I have experienced and learned from the end of April to the end of September.

I explored the possibility of an internship over nine months ago when I when I began research and visited Paul, Terra, and Zinnia at the farm in December. The day we met to interview each other, Zinnia was barely four months old, tiny, and bundled up warmly from the cold. It’s now over a month after her first birthday, and she’s walking, laughing, talking, and energizing everyone she encounters. I am eager to visit all of them soon to update them on my adventures and hear them tell their tales.

After nine months of living less than a mile from Full Life and assisting where I was needed, everything became a routine of one sort or another. Paul always generously asked me where I would like to work and assist to occasionally break that routine, but the routines became such a joyous routines in the end. Yes, I am romanticizing but not by much. My destiny is my own collective farming spacer with others. Ultimately, there is much on a farm that generally remains the same, as you read in previous entries, but there was always something to learn, even if it was a tiny but important detail. Full Life was, and is, a wonderful place to learn while communing with nature and warm, intelligent human beings that care about the future of sustainability. I do miss the farm.

In my last entry, in my final paper that ended the spring semester at the University of West GA late April, I was asked by Paul to bury a hen that had suddenly died overnight. No one knew why, and there were no markings indicating a predator animal, but because of the mystery, Paul and Terra did not use this hen in the traditional way that other animal souls are traditionally used in the West. She did not become a meal. She was returned to the earth from whence we all came and will once return to become fertilizer within the cycle of life. This chore was hardly routine for me and I almost said no, but I realized this would be a time to consider profound topics alone and with others.

Throughout my tenure at Full Life, we did not discuss my vegan lifestyle daily, but we discussed it regularly, and we discussed the varying degrees of ethical considerations involved, including choosing one product over another, petroleum-based and otherwise. Specifically, we discussed how the manufacture of one vegan product, my human-made gloves for instance, is harmful to the environment and other living beings even more or less than another product, whether it is vegan or animal-based. This is something I contemplated regularly, and I am still grateful for the openness with which we discussed everything and with which I was welcomed. Ultimately, I don’t regret my vegan lifestyle, choosing to exist and assist in the elimination of suffering of as many living beings as I possibly can, but like the chosen simplifications of my life designed to minimize the influence of propaganda and materialism from my life, I have had to choose what evils I allow into it. Having discussed this at length over several months with Terra and Paul, I believe that I have made the most ethical choice for myself, and I wish others to do the same. However, had I met and discussed this with Terra earlier, I probably would have reconsidered shedding myself of animal skinned products that I previously owned (other than the used suspenders I purchase because I cannot seem to find them with synthetic attachments). Instead, I might have done what some vegans and vegetarians do: Bless and thank the animal for its unfair sacrifice and wear it in tribute to them.

While some work on the house site began earlier in the semester, as you read in previous entries, much of it began after. At this point, too much has happened on the farm and in my personal life to remember the exact sequence of events, but when I arrived at the farm, the house site was just a large square hole with a covered pile of gravel. Other than the border foundations of concrete, the frames around the corners, the piles of earth at the peripheries, and the rain puddles everywhere, there was nothing much to look at. Now the pile of gravel has been filtered and saved (leaving the largest ones to be used to prevent water from wicking up into the completed house), earthen trenches have been dug to keep the rains from collecting in puddles, the piles of earth have decreased, and there are at least nine layers of earthen bags laid upon the concrete borders with an increasing amount of mud plaster (earth, water, and a lot of straw) covering the bags to protect the bags from the elements.

The semester that ended so long ago ended thus. The next Monday, late April or very early May, began by digging trenches around the house site and assisting Paul mix the Georgia red clay (so abundant around Carrollton, Georgia and several other Southern states) with lime for the foundation bags to keep water from wicking up into the house completely. Paul discussed the house building timeline once or twice, and he estimates that it should be done in two to three years. When we began, he had hopes that the earth bags layers would be complete by the end of October when the weather begins to get a little colder. At nine layers in September, the earth bag section of the house is almost complete. Throughout the year, I, a handful of friends and family, WWOOFers, and additional interns, occasionally assisted Paul. However, Paul completed most of the work on the house bags alone. Looking at the results now, I am rather impressed with what he has accomplished.

Generally, harvesting, occasional weeding, and some composting were needed throughout the plant beds. But on occasion, there was something else to do entirely new to me. Through the spring, Paul and Terra had been regularly allowing prized hens to set and hatch eggs, so, throughout the year, there were chicks everywhere. Once the chicks were not quite full grown chickens but were no longer chicks, they were considered pullets, and they needed to be moved to a smaller yard towards the front of the property. There was an already working house that could be used for shelter, but the roof needed repair. I had previously assisted in the building of lumber shelters months before, but I felt a little handicapped having rarely wielded a hammer or a saw of any kind for several years (Laugh, here, if you must.). I wasn’t entirely as successful as I could have been then. As a result, I decided to step up my exercise regimen earlier in the year and purchased a pull up bar and began using it to increase my upper arm strength with pull-ups, push-ups, and planks.

Before, the pullets were moved to their new yard, the new yard needed to be prepared, and I needed to repair the roof. I gathered about three scrap lengths of sheet-metal roofing and some rough-paneled scrap wood lengths (to extend the roof) that were laying about the yard near the lumber mill (Paul calls these, “nailers.” The sheet metal was screwed in “domino” fashion to maximize the screws and prevent water drainage into the pullet house. Given my previous experience with the lumber shelters, I was pretty proud of the results.

Once the roof was complete, the house needed to be moved with the chain puller. While this was not as monumental of a job as cutting trees down nine months ago and securing them in such a way that they fall in a certain direction away from critical buildings and people in the immediate vicinity, the house needed to be guided into place a short distance away further towards the front of the farm. To do this, Paul mentored me as I regularly readjusted the chain puller so that the house reached the ideal location. Began clearing brush and larger logs from around the house to create Fifty feet of grazing area was needed outside of the house so I began clearing brush, smaller trees and weeds to allow space for a fence to be raised several days later.

Friday was always Market Harvest Day but as the summer progressed the harvesting decreased as the warm weather crops grew, died out, and were depleted as new cool weather crops replaced them as seedlings. In early May, kale and lettuce was still harvested. At Full Life Farm, lettuce leaves were generally cut and harvested individually, rather than as full heads, to allow for continuous growth throughout the season, but I occasionally missed cutting leaves individually so Paul showed me how to cut lettuce varieties straight across the plant by leaf, rather than at the core that would successfully kill a lettuce plant from growing for the year. On other farms as I observed at a few farmers’ markets, full heads were cut and harvested. Every farm is different, but I suspect the choice may be between greenhouse or bed space, extent of crops grown, desire, and probably a combination of those. Ultimately, every day was an opportunity to learn.

At the Haven, Paul grew Austrian winter peas as a cover crop only. The pea tendrils were edible, however, and harvested weekly until Paul decided to pull those up and plant other crops. On any farm, especially a small one, efficiency in speed and time is important. Throughout the season, the peas were neglected and embraced by the weeds. Harvesting the pea tendrils was challenging, and Paul, being the firm but gentle taskmaster that he is did his best to guide and instruct me to be more efficient harvesting the pea tendrils.  I decided after one of a few conversations with Paul that if I ever grow Austrian winter peas as a cover crop that they would need more weeding as well as a trellis. I can still see the bed and to call it organized chaos is to vastly underestimate its disorganization. I dreaded harvesting the pea tendrils more than anything else I ever did. They were tasty, but harvesting seemed unproductive other than the sales proceeds from the tendrils. Ultimately, this became a lesson, for me, in thinking through everything during the planning and planting process.

Occasionally, I would do chores at the Haven (which deserves a whole essay that will never be written). Paul and Terra would generally use the compost materials that were available around the farm (kitchen food waste, farm animal waste, and animals that either unnaturally died from predators or unknown ailments). Ground covering consisted of this compost, hay, and occasional unused newsprint (very inexpensive). The Haven would either grind up leaves or purchase ground up leaves (I was never certain.) or a purchased plastic covering. Given the limited resources of a working family farm, the Haven left me puzzled to determine how efficiency could be maintained if a majority of materials were purchased, rather than found, traded, or created on the farm itself. The gardens at the Haven were generally impeccably groomed (with a space here and there that was not maintained and had to be overhauled from weeds), but it seemed hardly as efficient as Terra and Paul’s. I spent a majority of the year taking mental notes, contemplating the practices of one farm versus the other, and asking Paul a LOT of questions. I learned much from the exchange, and Paul, seemingly, never tired of answering my never-ending questions.

When I arrived in January, there were a few interns helping Paul that I didn’t meet until April due to my schedule and theirs, one that I met only once a few months later, and one that had been there since before I arrived. He was another Paul, and after finally bonding and becoming friends with him, he left for new adventures. I took it for granted that he would stay far longer than he did, and Paul gently reminded me that in his experience WWOOFERs never stay very long and another will always arrive shortly. Wwoofers Andrew, Amanda (from Chicago) and a local mother and toddler arrived in early May just as Paul predicted someone would. I think I may have stayed the longest, but at the end I also left suddenly for other adventures.

With this new influx of volunteers, we began working on the first course of earth bags for the house again, filling the bags with six parts clay soil and one part lime to prevent water from wicking up into the house once it is completed. With a lot more people to help, the building obviously became less monotonous and a little more fun with some new people to commune and communicate with. Over the past year, Paul considered having a “formal” workday that would be advertised locally for the community, but until just recently, to cover the walls with clay mud and straw plaster to protect against the coming winter, there were no official workdays because interns and Wwoofers were trickling in weekly and monthly. Unexpectedly, as Paul always said, over the weekend new Wwoofers had arrived before Monday the 5th of May when I returned. All of us continued where we left off on the house site, filling bags with lime and Georgia Clay.

Since the warm weather-growing season began at Full Life Farm, I noticed that some of the plants had well-eaten leaves, and others were only lightly eaten. They were all grown naturally, without pesticides. From a recipe I found, I created an organic pesticide earlier the previous year, and I offered to make a batch for Paul’s farm as well. The recipe contained apple cider vinegar, chopped garlic, a little cayenne pepper, and filtered water (If you would like the recipe, please let me know.). By Wednesday, the house building stopped for the moment, and plant tending continued as we prepped the beds, reorganizing and relining them, to plant the next crop of tomatoes and avoid the previous chaos of an unlined bed that meandered everywhere.

Regular harvesting that began on Fridays in the spring decreased as the summer wore on as mid-summer, later summer, and early cool weather crops were planted. In early May, harvesting of parsley, strawberries, kale, chard, onions baby kohlrabi greens, carrots, pea tendrils (the pea tendrils that I dreaded harvesting), Pok Choy that we generally cut at the base as a whole plant cut that I found recently could grow much bigger than what we were harvesting, proving once again that each farm and farmer determine what is most efficient for their livelihood and their needs. The remnants of broccoli raab leaves were pulled up whole from the ground to leave space for Terra to plant basil.

I have reiterated throughout these updates that while there was and is always repetition on a farm, there is always something to learn, and when I become responsible for a collective space when I help form an intentional community, I hope to be as patient as Paul and Terra have been with me in their guidance and their lessons. At this stage of the seasonal harvest, a kind of butter lettuce was harvested.   At the beginning, I harvested it a little haphazardly, cutting it too low, preventing its regrowth.   Cutting the lettuce a little higher so that the leaves become separated individually allows for regrowth throughout the season, unless one has a little more space or a larger greenhouse to harvest whole lettuce heads throughout the year in a climate-controlled environment. Cleaning and washing the lettuce demanded the same delicacy. I was asked to be as conscious and gentle with the leaves. When I heard a crunch, I realized I was not being gentle enough and needed to grab a smaller amount of leaves and plants at one time.

It was also at this time that I learned to clean garlic and onions without using water to avoid damaging them and causing them to spoil. I was always doing research, as I am wont to do so I found books on companion planting to minimize the destruction of plants by hungry insects. Over the next several months, harvesting on Friday gradually reduced itself to almost a bare minimum, and additional chores were increased. When there was little time to weed before, time for it was made now because room was needed for purchased bell pepper plantlings. However, as I had been guided, it was more efficient to get most of the weeds as efficiently and quickly as possible, rather than getting bogged down in the technical details of removing every single weed. The same could be said for harvesting as well as plowing and preparing the ground for planting and composting.

The house site gradually began looking like a house site. To facilitate that and protect it, drainage was necessary. In the middle of May, Paul and I began clearing a drainage path around the house, inside and out, using the earth that had piled up to create the site originally as well as the earth piles from the drainage gutter, carefully removing the organic material that would interfere with the effectiveness of the earth bags. Once a course of bags (one row) was completed, a “looped” row of barbed wire (on each side of each bag) was placed on the course of bags to secure them in place and keep the next course in place. This would be done for each row of bags until the courses of bags were complete. It was during this time that two of the current volunteers cut and built a glass-door frame placeholder. It is beginning to look like a house, even at these early stages.

Out of much of what I learned this year, potatoes, regular and sweet (missing the harvest of the latter by a day) were among the most fascinating because they grew differently than any of the other plants that I was exposed to throughout the year and growing up in my father’s garden. When the potatoes were planted in the early spring, needing cooler weather to start, rather than warmer, they were spread far enough apart to allow for the spread of growing potatoes from the root stems. I don’t remember the ground being covered, but it must have been covered somehow to inhibit the cooler weather from reaching the potatoes underneath. However, in May, we covered the potato plants at the Haven to prevent the weeds from spreading (We did the same for the bush beans.) and to keep the ground warm and sunless. I discovered then that the potatoes can and will grow slightly above ground if they have the opportunity, and, thus, they were covered to allow for this and to inhibit unnecessary weed plants.

As it became hotter before summer officially arrived, I began watering crops at the Haven and at Full Life. I was careful to water just the ground when it became hot outside. I did this for several weeks until I mentioned it to Paul who corrected what became an urban legend for me. Watering the plants during a hot day rarely damages any plants, but on the contrary, it may cool the leaves and the plants off.

As Paul began harvesting during the rest of the week when I was not working, the house building increased as well as additional needed bed preparation. In late May, Paul and I and others began working on the house site a little more regularly. Each day there was always more to do and learn as I have often repeated. When the house began rising into the air a little more regularly before our very eyes with our hard work, there were additional tools that were utilized, given that Paul and Terra had done this before and I had not. On this occasion, as the courses were completed, all of the post corners were secured with crosshatched wires for future supports. Paul speculated that if there was enough additional assistance in the form of Wwoofers, interns, and volunteers, he could finish the eighteen courses that he thought were necessary at the time. By October, 18 courses were not finished (as Paul had optimistically had hoped, but the necessary courses were revised to fifteen, though the final height before October was slightly shy of that. Other than the majority of the plaster that was completed after I left, the building stopped for the winter because late autumn and winter are not conducive to drying earth bags and the air curing of earthen housing in general.

After April, every Saturday was reserved for the Farmers’ Market (grocery shopping for me and selling and managing for Paul and Terra). At the beginning, I had expressed an interest in helping out with Paul’s vending operations, but once I saw the market and its operations, I realized that there wasn’t much to learn there, so I didn’t press it. However, there was much to learn from the vendors, their growing practices and their food preparation. From Jacques partner I learned that pectin for preserves could be manufactured from the fruit that one was preserving or from apples as an independently manufactured additive in much the same fashion I feed and use water and flour as a sourdough starter as a natural yeast.

Plant cages can apparently be created with stiff-enough fencing rather than purchasing ready-made cages that I had done for a previous Blue Krim tomato plant and a few other food plants earlier in the year. Those ready-made cages broke down shortly after they were purchased. The ones I built for Terra and Paul did not.

The mulberry fruit picking later that day was an unexpected treat. I have seen the fruit in stores, but I had never seen a mulberry tree bearing fruit of any kind. Where I grew up in California, there were mulberry trees everywhere in front yards, but none of them bore fruit. They were obviously fruitless mulberry trees, but I suspect they were a particular variety because the mulberry trees that Paul drove his family and me to for a short respite from daily work to pick and eat did not look at all like the mulberry trees I remember. These had a short season that was easily exploited by local four-legged animals, birds, and the rest of us, but they were delicious.

Sweet potatoes are grown later in the season and harvested later as I learned. Forever, I had thought that sweet potatoes and potatoes were somehow related, and at the very least, grown in similar fashions. I learned many valuable lessons and acquired much important information this year, but sweet potatoes may be the most exciting, given that I recently reintroduced them to my diet. The sweet potato plantlings (with baby roots and leaves) arrived later in May in a tattered medium-sized box. It didn’t look like there were five hundred plantlings in the box, but there were five hundred plantlings in the box. Potatoes, I learned, are propagated by planting small potatoes or larger potatoes cut in half (with two or more eyes on each half), but sweet potatoes are propagated from each plantling that grows from each eye.

In many ways, I embraced the idea of a farm months, if not years before I arrived at Terra and Paul’s place. I began making my own bread from scratch with natural yeast (also known as sourdough starter) and I began making a modified version of Kim chi a few years ago. Both are fermented foods with strong tastes and many benefits for a healthy digestion. I have a few more recipes to explore, but there is definitely hard cider, Kombucha, and beer in my future homesteading adventures. But with school and farm chores taking up most of my time, I had little time for anything other that making Kim chi and bread on occasion that I shared or used for barter as the occasion required.

The subject of GMO’s has crossed my mind for the last several years as it has for many. Growing up in an area of California populated by factory farms and many smaller family farms, I thought all of it was natural. I did not discover the dangerousness of pesticides until much later. At the time, there were no GMO’s because Monsanto and others had not yet invented them. I puzzled over this after my father explained that some GMO fruits (like the Pluot, a hybridized version of a plum and apricot) had been invented by a local farmer friend of his. I didn’t question this but it puzzled me because he mentioned that these GMO’s have been reproducing for years.  GMO’s, as I recently learned, are easily confused with hybrids, but GMO’s are produced in a lab, and once they are planted in the ground, the seeds from those fruits are sterile. You cannot grow anything from them because they do not exist in nature and the organisms they contain do not naturally mate. Hybrids, like the Pluot above, do not normally but they could exist and humans and bees have been engaging in horticulture and [cross-] pollinating long before Luther Burbank created a fascinating industry almost one hundred years ago.

In late June, I harvested potatoes for the first time. While this may not seem like a major event to many, this was such a big deal to me because I had never completely grown potatoes on my own (The sweet potatoes I grew in a jar when I was younger, never came to term for one reason or another, and I never thought to plant the potatoes that my family purchased.). I dug into the ground for these round little red and yellow treasures that literally grew everywhere, and the harvesting became much like a treasure hunt with some gems being discovered days after the original harvest. For reference, they are planted for an approximately ninety-day harvest later. Much like onions, turmeric, ginger, and garlic, when the plant above ground wilts and dies, the food below is ready to harvest. Once I dug below, I discovered that there were varying sizes of tubers below that ranged from a pinhead attached to a long root stem to larger ones that were smaller potatoes to the larger potatoes that all of us are familiar with at the farmers’ market or the grocery store.

When my niece Dani visited in early July, I spent time away from the farm visiting with Dani and a few friends, time spent doing chores when I was available, but I was particularly excited to visit Terra on the last Thursday of Dani’s visit because Terra agreed to teach basket weaving. I encouraged Dani, but she was less than thrilled and certainly less excited than I was. I didn’t spend as much time as I would have liked (Terra was only available for a few hours and Dani and I had other adventures later.), but I hope to return to it again very soon. Since I left the farm, I have weaved a basket or two in my head, which silly or not, has given me the confidence to make a successful, but simple, basket when I can return to everything farm related.

Generally Mondays and Wednesdays for several weeks had been devoted to house building because plant tending occurred on other days. The necessity for harvesting and tending was reduced because the food crops had grown out or new season plants were not ready to plant in the ground. During that time, the earth bags reached nine layers by 5 September. Fridays had been devoted to harvesting and prepping for market, but exceptions were occurring due to the pending change of seasons, so I spent time on ground prep as well as weeding, composting, and transplanting from pots on occasion.

September was the last of nine months on the farm. There were wonderful moments, but life mostly continued. I remained curious about everything, and Paul and Terra continued to patiently answer questions and ask them in their turn. It was also a time for a lot of mental clearing that continues today, and a lot of physical clearing to prepare for the next season. There were a few more weeks following, but my last recorded day was the 5th of September. I began by clearing a bed of squash that was no longer growing, cleared a bed and path of weeds and planted Chinese cabbage plantlings (also called Napa in the United States) which are a favorite used in making Kim Chi.

Assisting Terra and Melissa, I mixed red clay and straw with water to make plaster for the first time and used it to cover one layer over eight rows (sans the top, bottom, and sides closest to the post-forms) of earth bags. Fingers and hands were also used to force the plaster in as deep as possible. Some additional slapping and smoothing out of the plaster was used in a final effort to make the plastered surfaces even all from top to bottom. At the end, the plaster was sealed with a wooden “thumb” and turned counter and clockwise to ensure that the straw was embedded into the grooves of the bags and to make holes from top to bottom to allow grooves for successive layers to adhere to. There will be at least three layers later on, once the first layer has dried. I was a little disappointed to miss the plastering parties that happened later in October and early November a few plaster parties to complete the earth bag sealing for the winter.

There is little to conclude here, except for my time on Terra and Paul’s farm, because I intend to return to play with the dirt in my own collective intentional community I’ll help start with others in the future. The farm in Carrollton is something that everyone should experience in all of the facets of its soul. Zinnia may be its heart, but I will miss all of them until I return to explore the evolution of Full Life. Before I left later in September, I managed to take a few cuttings of rosemary from Full Life. In October, I had hopes that they would grow together in Marietta, GA, but they did not. I think I would have named them Little Zinnia had the plant survived. I learned much during my nine months with Terra, Paul, and Zinnia and the learning will continue as I process everything in the days and months to come. On a completely random note, I learned that donkeys and llamas generally make good guard animals against coyotes in the event my intentional community is in an area populated by coyote souls.

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