Slow Farm takes its name from a way of life, a food movement, a permaculture principle, and a chicken.
We first tried our hand at battery rescue when our daughter, Rain, was seven. Rain already fancied herself a bit of a chicken whisperer, and she relished the opportunity to re-home needy birds. We chose two. After spending their first two years environmentally deprived, these hens took "bird-brained" to a new level. They routinely wandered into the house. I suspected they couldn't see boundaries, couldn't tell the difference between indoors and outdoors. They also seemed uncertain of how to feed themselves in the free range. Rain diligently worked at teaching her new hens to scratch and peck, serving as a sort of featherless role model as she squatted down to demonstrate scratching and to guide their claws across the soil.
One of the hens was particularly docile. She became the tamest of our many hens, the easiest to catch. Rain named her "Slow." Later we adopted Slow as our mascot for the slow and ongoing process of transitioning our one-hectare lifestyle block more and more into a small farm.
Slow and small
Sometimes I feel a bit like a battery rescue myself. At the time we rescued Slow, I was on stress leave from a role at the nearby university. My manager didn't like to admit my workload might have been too high; instead, he repeatedly told me that I needed to get better at boundaries. I interpreted this as a personal need to start re-organising my life around a different set of priorities than those held sacred in the rarefied air of the university: I needed to get back into the soil, to scratch around a bit in something closer to life than the academic discourses I taught.
In particular, I needed to fulfill a promise I had made to myself when I started graduate school: someday, I would return to the community sector. The time appeared to have come, with extreme burn-out forcing the issue. I nonetheless found it harder than I imagined to let go of what had appeared to be a highly successful early career, and a part of me also wanted to stay and try to change a university education system that I found inherently unsustainable. In the end, I chose the work of rebuilding my life in a way that was rooted in my children and local community. It was slow work, requiring me to rebuild myself as well.
My community work was aligned with multiple sources of inspiration that I had encountered over the previous decades. Within a few years, RECAP, the organisation founded by me and my ever-growing network of local friends, had developed roots and was starting to get noticed for the little ways it made a difference in our village and region.
Education was one of RECAP's pillars, and I started teaching permaculture design courses alongside others brought in by RECAP. Permaculture is an approach to design that is developed with reference to a series of principles abstracted from observations of natural processes. One of these principles is to design using "slow and small" steps. It doesn't take my students long to realise how strongly I favour this principle.
By championing "slow and small," I'm giving myself permission not to burn out again. Now that I'm doing something that matters to me more than did my academic work, living in a way that sustains me in that work matters too.
One of the amazing women I have taught beside in RECAP is a gardener who has served as both an an inspiration and a mentor to me. (Shout out to the flower woman--you know who you are!) When she teaches food gardening, one of her claims is that some people find it easier to grow food than to eat what they grow.
In my life, and in RECAP's community garden, and in other community gardens around town, I see what she means. On a rush day, it's easier to take from the pantry than to walk to the garden. In a busy life, it's easy to make the grocery store a habit. For years I've cooked by imagining what I would like to make and then getting the ingredients, and then I feel pretty virtuous just for cooking! Working from the garden means starting with the earth, the garden, the ingredients. It means taking a walk and saying, 'let's see,' what can I do with this?
Right now, in our family, Phil does more of the cooking: he has for several years. I do more of the preserving. Together, we work to be accountable for our harvest. We're still learning, but letting the earth and the seasons dictate our diets is a way of closing the loops, of coming back to what we planted and making it work for us. It takes more attention. It takes more conscious awareness. It takes us to another level in our sustainable living.
And, somehow, it also makes us more humble. In eating what "we've" grown, it's more evident that our labour is only one small part of a food system that also requires seed, sunlight, soil, insect life, and more: things we could never create. Slow eating keeps us grounded in the soil, and grounded in gratitude.