I sat down with a local agronomist to go over soil samples he pulled from both of our fields. I was encouraged, but not necessarily surprised by the results. For the most part, our soil is pretty healthy. Nitrogen levels are good, which is to be expected after years of conventional soybean and corn rotation. Potash and Phosphorus are a little low, but nothing to worry about. Organic matter is good and our ph is pretty neutral.
So why did I walk away from our meeting feeling a little discouraged?
The average ph of our soil is 7.1, which on a scale of 0 (extremely acidic) to 14 (extremely alkaline) is right in the middle. Many of the vegetables we intend to grow in the market garden thrive in more neutral soils. Think peppers and squash and green beans. But raspberries, blueberries and strawberries? They prefer a much more acidic soil type, down in the 5-5.5 range. And these are really the crops we are most excited about bringing to our community.
So I asked the agronomist what he would recommend we do to lower the ph of our soil where we intend to grow berries, and this is where the meeting kind of took a strange turn. He looked at me with a crooked smile and kind of shook his head. That simple gesture told me everything that was going through his mind without the need for words. It’s not the first time someone has looked at me as if I was nuts.
“We just kind of grow what the soil lets us grow here,” he said. “And that’s corn and soybeans.”
I know that’s at least partially true. There are other variables that go into that, and a lot of it has to do with the commodity market. But with corn dropping well below $4.00 a bushel, there are many farmers looking to diversify their crops. And what about the regional market? The desire for fresh, organic produce on a local level is growing rapidly.
Our agronomist went on to tell me that it wasn’t worth the effort to lower our ph, that it would cost too much and probably wouldn’t work anyway. And I could tell he was uncomfortable with the discussion, that this was well out of his wheelhouse. And that’s okay. I get it.
We came here with the intention to go against the status quo. We don’t have enough acres to justify field corn or soybeans, and that’s not where our heart is anyway. Our heart is in being a resource within our local community for quality and diversified fresh vegetables and fruits, and in contributing to the education and preservation of small acre farming. And what we are trying to accomplish isn’t necessarily traditional in the Midwest. We’re in the heart of big agriculture.
I walked away from the meeting and began to do my own research on soil amendment on a smaller scale. Composting and mulching with wood chips shows promise, as does some sulfur application, but the key seems to be in creating a rich environment for the right bacteria to thrive. I’ll be studying this pretty hard over the next couple months.
But as I left that office, a little deflated, a little unsure, I had two choices. I could stop pursuing what we wanted to accomplish, or I could dig in and go deeper.
My point is this: More often than not, if you are working towards accomplishing anything worthwhile you’ll find yourself at odds with those around you. There are always people who are stuck in the rut of “we’ve always done it this way.” Don’t let that discourage you! There is always a different perspective, and if you’re willing to be open-minded and realistic, you’ll often find success. But it won’t be without skeptics!
The inclination of many is to walk away, to abandon the dream, or to conform to normal standards. Each comes with their own kind of death, in my opinion. How many of us live with regret of the risks we didn’t take, especially as we grow older?
If we are to follow our heart, we have to dare to dream big. And we have to prepare ourselves to be challenged; by the people around us, by reality, and by our own expectations.
Luckily we are not necessarily alone on this path. There are others who have gone before us, who have dared to dream. And from the experiences of others we can glean our own success. Here are a few thoughts on making your dreams reality:
Be grounded by reality, but not limited by it
I may never be able to successfully grow berries on our property. That may be a reality. But it’s not going to keep me from trying to do it. I refuse to stop just because it hasn’t been done before (there are a few farms that grow berries here in Iowa; its not like this is a completely foreign idea). The agronomist might think it isn’t worth trying, but why should that limit my desires?
We have to be willing to work within the realm of possibility, and not be limited to what is only commonly accepted. Some things might be beyond reality. I will never be a famous singer. No matter how much effort I put into it, I still can’t carry a tune in a bucket. Amending my soil enough to have healthy berry production might be scientifically and financially out of question, but I’m not convinced of either yet.
Don’t let the skeptics define your success
You will always have someone tell you it isn’t possible. Challenge them. Ask why? Maybe something isn’t possible, but don’t determine your own limitations by the opinions of others.
I’m not saying that we ignore the advice of others. Actually, I believe in seeking the advice of many. But what I have found in my life is that there are too many out there who have refused to follow their own dreams, and have become jaded from it, and so are willing to cripple the dreams of others. Or, more often, you’ll find yourself surrounded by people who have become comfortable with a certain kind of conforming. They’ve accepted the status quo, and anyone who comes along challenging the accepted norms will make them uncomfortable.
Don’t be afraid to make people uncomfortable. Challenge the common status quo. When people ask you why, ask them why not.
You’ll have to work for it
I read a quote from Colin Powell that I love: “A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work.”
You can seek help, but if you’re going against the grain you’ll often have to pave your own way. You can be inspired by those pioneers of innovation who came before us. You can learn from their stories of grit and resistance and challenge. But often times, as a dreamer, you’ll find yourself alone and doubting your resolve. You’ll have to figure things out on your own. Do your own research. Learn from your mistakes. It takes work to make a dream reality, but the payoff is well worth it.
Many dreamers have crashed and burned because they weren’t willing to do what it takes to realize their dreams. Think of all the failed writers and musicians out there among us. These are the skeptics.
Be willing to work hard, to be humble, to learn and grow with determination, and success will eventually come.
Don’t be afraid to fail
Many of our great leaders and innovators learned through their own failure. Think about Abraham Lincoln. His life was wrought with failure, but in the end he was able to achieve more than he could ever dream. Think about Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Mother Theresa. All of them risked failure time and time again. All of them felt disappointment and rejection. All of them challenged the status quo.
I did not grow up on a farm. I don’t have an agronomy degree. Many of the things I want to accomplish on our farmstead seem out of reach. Statistics are against me. But I am inspired by the opportunity to learn, to grow and through my own experiences help show others that growing food on a small-scale is possible, profitable and healthy for the community.
Be willing to adjust and be flexible
We may need to alter our expectations of what we grow and how we will grow it. That’s okay. It may prove too difficult to amend our soil enough to grow healthy berries. This isn’t a deal killer for us, because our aspirations are much larger. We’re willing to be flexible in our own expectations for success. That’s part of the enthusiasm we have for the market garden. Experimenting with different techniques, growing methods and varieties. Seeing what we can accomplish, and not being held back by our own fears and inexperience. We’re not afraid to change our thoughts or direction.
And neither should you be. Stay the course, yes. Keep your eyes on the end goal. But be willing to adapt to the challenges and to the revelations you experience on the journey. This is how we grow. This is how we make dreams a reality.
Don’t forget to have fun
Striving for the sake of striving doesn’t make sense. Is your dream really what you want in your heart? If so, then you will enjoy the process. Don’t forget to laugh at yourself, and your mistakes. I know I will. Are others laughing at you? Laugh with them! Don’t take yourself, or your dreams, too seriously. In the end, its in the process, or the journey, where character and skill are defined. That’s so important to remember.
Share what you learn with others
This is important. Share your experiences, your struggles, your lessons learned. Enrich your community and help others accomplish great things. Knowledge is power, but its wealth is only found in giving it away.
Our dream may seem simple to others. Everybody gardens right? It’s not like we’re trying to break the DNA code, split an atom or determine the Theory of Gravity. But to us its a revolution. It’s not just about gardening. We’re rethinking how we eat, how we view the food industry and how we engage and can serve the community. We’re redefining what it means to farm, and we’re not alone in this. This is a growing movement that we are happy to be a part of.
Whatever you are trying to accomplish, whatever path your are on, don’t be afraid to dream big. Enjoy the journey. Life is an adventure, or at least it should be.