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The Most Important Job in Farming

Farm in an urban area, surrounded by high-rises.
author Michael Ableman

Author Michael Ableman

In Farm the City, Michael Ableman, takes his experiences building Sole Food Street Farms to create a guide to setting up and running an urban farm. Sole Food Street Farms is one of the largest urban agriculture enterprises in North America.

Spanning over four acres of urban land in Vancouver, Sole Food Street Farms produces 25 tons of food annually while providing meaningful work for dozens of disadvantaged people. With such an expansive operation, it's hard to imagine that Ableman's techniques could be applied to a hobby farm. However, as Ableman unpacks his process, it's clear that it is just as applicable to hobbyists and small-scale farms as large-scale organic farming operations. Today, we have pulled an excerpt from Farm the City on walking the farm, what Ableman believes is the most important job.

Excerpt from the Book

Beginner’s Mind: Walking, Seeing, and Responding

Walking the farm is our most important job. Planning satisfies our need to be organized and to think ahead, but the walks provide real-time, biologically appropriate, moment-by-moment information that informs our decisions. Walking keeps us humble, reminds us of our place in the broader system, and brings us into intimate contact with the real world. Walk your farm daily, using the same route each time so that you have a baseline, and record the details of what you are seeing. How does each crop look? Is there a response to yesterday’s irrigation or cultivation, or the heat or cool of the day? Are the peppers or tomatoes sizing? How do they taste? Is it time to thin beets or harvest carrots? How does the soil appear? Moist? Is there a crust on top? How does it smell? Is it open or locked up? Is there any discoloration in any leaves, any spots, droopiness, curliness, insects, etc.?

two people inspecting the garden to make sure the crops are growing as expected

You will come away from these walks with a clear understanding of what is happening with each and every crop, and a detailed list of what needs to be done in response. These walks provide instantaneous feedback; nothing else is more important. Biological systems never stay the same. We can plot and plan,but in the end nature is always changing. To become a part of the slipstream of our farms, to learn to respond rather than control, to be so flexible that we can bend and stretch and change at any moment—this is the internal challenge of our work. We are not generals in the field always fighting some invading force. Our best work comes when we approach our farms with a beginner’s mind: no preconceptions, no fixed ideas or plans, always open to the ever-changing moment. Walk often, stay open, bring a notebook and a pen.

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