A Bend in the Road

“A bend in the road is not the end of the road…unless you fail to make the turn.”

-Helen Keller

Sandhill cranes flying over the farm this autumn

Truly, friends, if I could sketch the road we’ve followed since we started Larch Grove Farm during the deep winter of 2006, it would zigzag all over the place like an old prairie river. There have been stretches where the vision has been clearly laid out in front of us and the work has flown by, and there have been places where we’ve doubted our choices or have had to wait for strength, funds, time, or energy, and the farm’s progress has curled back in on itself like a leaf. One thing we have deeply learned over the past eleven years is that no matter how we plan, dream, and hope, the land is a living entity, powerful and breathing, with its own agenda. We are lucky enough to live here, to walk with and protect this piece of the boreal, but we are reminded time and again that we have to fit our rhythms and goals to what the land has in mind. We’ve come to understand that we need to make all moves on the farm with a careful eye to what’s going on in the ground beneath our feet, the forest over our heads, and the weather all around us. Our goals have to meet the land halfway.

So many of us on the land have found that the past few years have brought weather like nothing we’ve witnessed before. Yes, there have been drought cycles and rainy cycles throughout the history of the Prairies, but never swings quite this large, quite this unpredictable. That’s what the future holds: more frequent weather shifts from year to year. It’s tough to anticipate the jig when you can’t hear the caller shouting the steps.

In 2011, our county flooded, and again in 2013. We and our neighbours had a couple of years to rebuild our fields and tend to the overwhelmed forests around us, and then this year, we all flooded yet again. Although we’d managed to bounce back from previous floods within a matter of months, the very wet spring/summer of 2017 kept Larch Grove, our market garden, and the forest on the quarter underwater for the entire summer. We lost the market garden for the second time in under five years. In some places, we lost chunks of the forest because of new berms on our neighbours’ farm, which flooded the rainwater into the huge stand of trees. And, for the first time ever, we almost lost the cabin: the water came right up to the edge of the gravel patio around our small home.

It was a summer unlike any we’ve ever known on this land. The mosquitoes were unbelievable, making talking outdoors – even breathing, some days – a challenge. The ground couldn’t hold our feet, our yard cart, and especially not our truck. The garden (last year a productive, veggie-and-flower-filled haven) was rank with anaerobic swamp muck. Our perennial plants and vines died (again, as they did in 2011), and we couldn’t get the greenhouse going because it threatened to sink into the boggy ground. The land told us to stop.

Farming, like so many lifeways, is one where you carry the past with you as an essential part of what you do every day. You learn the land from those who came before you, from the community you find yourself in, from the wealth of stories of those around you, of all different backgrounds. Bad things befall farmers who think they can go it alone without a weather eye to the history of the land. This summer, we pulled out the old aerial photographs of the quarter, taken many years ago, showing the traces of old drainage ditches crossing the hayfield at the other end of the quarter – ditches that had been ploughed under by other farmers, years later, probably during dry summers. These drainage ditches showed the reason for the current swamp patches on our hayfield. A quick scan of the neighbours’ new berms around their field showed why the water was backing up into our forest. And the faint lines of those old ditches, ghosting in across the aerial photos, told us what we needed to do to help the forest and our neighbours’ farm.

We set our plans aside this summer, and we dug.

Day after day after day after day. We dug down twelve feet through the new berm and opened the old ditches, allowing the backed-up floodwater to drain into the field’s perimeter trench. Week after week, we walked back and forth along the quarter, through head-high marsh grass, hidden hornets’ nests, clouds of mosquitoes, and swamp mud to check the land’s drainage. When lavender oil stopped working, we doused ourselves in Deet and went back at it, spitting out mosquitoes and black flies, sweating through our thick bush clothes on the +30 days. We chopped and spaded long hours until we were crying from exhaustion; then we showered, slept, woke early, and went out to do it all over again. It was the hardest lesson we’d ever had to learn on the land. But it worked.

Today, late September, our market garden is free of water. The ground is still damp, but it’s tillable. The cabin is safe. And we’ve finally cut down the path to the hayfield, clearing the head-high marsh grass to allow the boggy spots to drain and dry. The recently opened ditches are doing their job and pulling the pooled water away from grateful trees that spent much of the summer suffocating.

If there’s anything we’ve learned from being on the land and talking with our community in this area, though, it’s that severe unpredictability in the weather is becoming our new norm. We’ve realized that if we want Larch Grove Farm to grow into the amazing off-grid artist residency, safe house, and teaching place we dream of, we’ve got to learn from summers like this past one.

And so we’re growing, trusting what we’ve learned this summer and the past flood years. Instead of having our farmhouse close to the flood-prone forest, we’re relocating to the hayfield at the other end of the quarter. This will allow us to grow the farm in the directions we’ve dreamed without impacting the forest. A full-house solar array will be possible, beyond the simple one that powers our 250-square-foot cabin. We can restart the organic flower farm that drowned in the old market garden this summer. Our bees, already thriving, will do even better on the hayfield with improved air and light. Most of all, we can build our farmhouse under the sky, on higher ground. The soil will take work, but we relish the task of rebuilding the soil that has been hayed by the neighbour and his big tractor for the past decade. Can we bring this field to full, thriving organic production? We sure intend to try.

We’ve built a good place here, but the climate continues to be completely unpredictable, and so we need to craft a home that can ride out what will come in the best way possible, while staying focused on protecting the large chunk of boreal forest on the quarter. This summer has set us on a huge new journey, and we hope you’ll walk with us over the coming months as we figure out this path. The first step is a quarter-mile gravel road over the muskeg and out to the hayfield – we’ll be starting that in November.

It was a hard, hard summer. But we got to spend it on the land, under the sky, and that was good learning.

Our tiny cabin, a place of beautiful light and happy farm cats!

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