Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Little Land

An Early Bean Springing in The Little Land

My neighbor and I are sharing the crops of The Little Land. The owners of the land, Jeannie and Doug, have a triple and a half lot urban parcel that is rich in history and botanically diverse. The house was built in 1890 which is old for this area. It has a well in the basement. There is an english walnut tree and a black walnut tree that are as old as the house. Jeannie is a potter and tends two bee hives and one third of their property for their food. The lawn, which takes up another third of the property, was bigger before we dug it up. Now the lawn is about 1000 square feet less than it was.

Originally, sharecropping was an agricultural system for non-landowners, especially former slaves, to have land to till. At the end of the season, the sharecropper paid the land owner a portion of the crop profits. The system evolved across the southern United States after the reconstruction of the post Civil War south with the intent to provide a means of livelihood for the highly skilled and newly freed agricultural laborers, in most cases former slaves. Certainly, a variety of arrangements between land owner and sharecropper evolved. Some were mutually beneficial for laborer and owner while other arrangements were weighted heavily towards the owner. In fact, this old system still wields a strong hand in shaping our modern migrant and farm laborer rights.

But The Little Land's arrangement is an arrangement born out of community. This modern sharecropping came about through conversations and relationships that have evolved out of living in a neighborhood for a number of years. My farming partner Robin taught the landowners children acrobatics. I first met the landowners when our lives intersected in non-profit food education. Robin and I know each other because we are neighbors and we have something in common; we love to grow food, cook and eat together. This year we were looking for a way to grow more.

The three and a half lot place had a lot of food growing on it when we arrived. In addition to the owners vegetable garden, walnut trees and bee hives, there are numerous fruit trees. I watch and photograph everything on The Little Land as it changes. There is a plum tree, two different cherry trees, an apple and a pear tree. Also there are raspberries, rhubarb, grapes, currants and a very crazy hairy kiwi. Thank you bees.

The Little Land will have artichokes, summer and winter squash, tomatoes galore, lettuce, spinach, eggplant, garlic and a host of peppers. Coming up are beets, carrots, corn, beans, cucumbers and mustards. Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, basil, cilantro and frisee. On these heels will come collards, onions, kales, turnips and potatoes. We are growing what we like to eat.

So far the sharing of crops is a verbal agreement and remains open to design much like the way the kiwi grows. In my mind I am canning jams, jellies, pickles, making walnut liquor and tomato sauce and putting jars on the shelves and in the freezers of three houses. There will be dried cherries for winter manhattens and scones and corn for grinding I hope. I like to believe that this bounty of diverse foods will promote a movement of edible goodness to and through the households without a lot of accounting. And the benefits will far outweigh the need to provide an rigid economic accounting system and instead will include value added for time, relationships and gifting. Though I am wary of assumptions about who's is what and in what amount, I am also reluctant to keep a close tally of expenses though I am- partly for our records and partly to keep the scales balanced.

And yet so far as I can hear, the owners are simply happy that the soil is being productive and the water that previously nourished the lawn will soon be nourishing bodies. I feel that this experiment of good intentions will have no problems other than too much of a good thing.