A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives.
- Wendell Berry
Over the past two years, a community has grown around this shared place. Anyone who has spent much time at the farm could draw you a complex web of the friendships, relationships, mentors, academic pursuits, hard skills, agricultural awareness, tastes, experiences and ideas that have been cultivated by their time spent here. All of us would probably tell you that we never expected the farm to creep into our lives the way it has, from the food we eat to the books we read to the majors and careers we’ve chosen to the people with whom we surround ourselves. This place has become a part of us, for better or for worse, because we all share a sense of responsibility for the living, breathing space.
From time to time we’ve given thought to who cared for this land before us, particularly when we first arrived here. During the initial planning stages, the Duke Forest offered the current Friends School Rd. location as a possible site for the future farm. We moved quickly on their offer, breaking ground just a few months later. It was apparent that the property was being used for some biology research projects but was mostly cut for hay by neighbors. Other than a few old sheds, a dilapidated barn and some mediocre soil that indicated crops once grown, there were few clues about the past. It felt odd to come to a piece of land without any substantial context. As the new caretakers of the small plot, it seemed only appropriate that an instruction booklet would accompany our arrival. I often wondered, ”where are the photographs, the history, the how-tos, the soil tests, the details, the stories and the people of this place?” I remember thinking it was if we had arrived to house-sit, but the owners had forgotten to leave a note of instruction. Most farming operations are inter-generational family businesses that rely on the capital and knowledge of previous generations in order to thrive. Like many young and beginning farmers of today, we acquired land without any infrastructure and more noticeably, without the oral tradition and wisdom of the generations before us.
Pictured above: The Farm, 2010
So we had to start from scratch, learning our own lessons about what native pest and weed species prospered, which crops were the most productive in our soil, which herbs grew wild here, which parts of the field had the rockiest soil and the best drainage, where the afternoon sun casts its shadows and most importantly, learning to seek out neighbors and farmers who were willing to share their incredible wealth of growing knowledge. Luckily as time has goes on, the stories, people and history of this piece of land have begun to surface and guide us along the way.
Towards the middle of the nineteenth century, J. W. Norwood, a highly respected native of Orange County, addressed his fellow farmers on the state of farming in Orange and criticized the farmers for continuing to practice backward and unscientific farming.
And behold the melancholy consequence of such a system of cultivation in the exhausted and wornout condition of our lands, as of this moment they lie spread out before us to our view.
This research paper is just one example of the documentation and information about this region and its practices that we have yet to uncover. It’s fascinating to see just how clearly our growing techniques align with what were considered the great natural laws of agriculture 200 years ago. Many would probably argue today that we are, in fact, the ones practicing “backward and unscientific farming”, which makes the information loss of a couple generations less of a tragedy.
Whether or not we agree with the growing practices of the generations that came before us, or that will surely come after us, one thing we all have in common is we are temporary caretakers of this land, which inevitably results in a shared sense of responsibility and community. And so, as good caretakers we will share our stories and lessons learned with the next generation of students, build community around meaningful work, take good care of this land, and continue to unravel, and learn from, the history of this land before us.
Pictured above: The Farm, 2012