Farming in the Winter

Mesopotamia, the land between two rivers, is considered to be the cradle of civilization. Situated in the northern section of the Fertile Crescent, this land is proposed to be the location of the Garden of Eden.

On the 21st of May 2004, from 10,000 feet in the air, I came to lay eyes on the modern-day ruins of Mesopotamia, in what we now call Iraq.

When the ramp of our plane opened, it felt like being hit in the face with a blow dryer. The arid air immediately went into my lungs carrying the tiniest particles of dirt into my body. In an instant, everything was coated in fine and ever-present tan dust. To this day, some of the gear from that first trip, bears the remnants of that moment — ashes of the perfect creation.

That year, as the summer went on, the layer of dust on the landscape grew thicker. Every week added another inch on the terrain and by the end of the season, it was pulverized into particles finer than baby powder. When you walked and shuffled your feet, it dispersed into the air like smoke. 

We called it “moon dust” or “caliche.” 

When the first rain came, the moon dust transformed into a terrible thing. The new substance was a nightmare; a paste that was slick as ice and clung to anything that it came into contact with. To call it mud, would have been a compliment.

The job I was sent there to do focused on finding and disarming explosive devices buried in the roadside. So during my time there, you can imagine I spent a lot of time digging in the mire.

Fast forward 16 years to this week, and I found myself back in the mud…searching for a hidden device. 

This past Monday, my wife was able to join me for my daily chores, one of which was delivering fresh hay to our pastured herd of cattle. 

She had not been out to the pastures since winter began and when she arrived, she had no clue what she was in for. 

I was already halfway through feeding the herd and had made two passes through the pasture. In that time, the tractor had transformed into a mud coated glob that flung wet sloppy earth in all directions. John Deere Green was nowhere to be found on the machine.

The look on her face was priceless.

Since coming to WonderTree, I’ve learned an invaluable lesson — the hard way — about making sure my pockets are zipped and secured when working the 100+ acres of open pasture because…

If it can fall out, it will.

I should have passed this bit of wisdom to my spouse, because, to no fault of her own, she lost her iPhone while riding on the tractor with me. If you’ve seen our teaser video from yesterday, you can imagine the thoughts that ran through our minds on its whereabouts. 

This is how it came to be that at dusk on Monday, I was doing what I had been trained to do all those years back. Thankfully, with less dire circumstances.

When I was a young Bomb Tech, my first Team Leader taught me a trick of the trade when searching landscapes. His insight:

 “The Lord doesn’t make many straight lines in nature.” 

So now, when I search, that’s what I hone in on — straight lines and right angles. Tiny signs that something man-made is hidden among natural creation.

It’s a pretty refreshing task once you’ve committed the practice to muscle memory. Anymore, my eyes do it automatically and I don’t have to think. It gives me the opportunity to soak in my surroundings with a clear mind and on this particular search, our mud caught my attention and prompted some great reflection.

My feet recalled the feeling of trudging through a lifeless slop of liquified moon dust from Iraq — but our mud is much different. Our mud isn’t void of life. It has structure and richness. It is alive.

Where did the liveliness of their soil go? How is the cradle of civilization barren? The Garden, once teaming with life, fueled by rich rivers, gone. 

These are questions I ask myself because that’s what we focus on here at WonderTree. 

Land health is our litmus of success. 

With all the practices we implement, we ask, “Are we building life in our pastures or depleting our soil’s potential?” This question is at the forefront of all our decisions.

It’s hard to see our soil’s life in the winter. It can be a chore to appreciate something that appears ugly compared to the early Spring green covered hills. It can be hard to stay positive and steadfast that the decisions you are making are the best for the land — because mud is not pretty.

You can get down on yourself and begin to second guess your farming decisions.

In my head, I actually believed that we were “killing” the land and creating the same conditions that stripped Mesopotamia of its richness. All because mud is “ugly.”

Then someone lent me some wisdom.

A young family that I greatly admire offered a day’s worth of help on the farm. They are wise beyond their years and Farmers through and through. In the 6 hours they were here, I received a year’s worth of education and wisdom.

Since the muds have come on, I’ve been itching to move our cattle out of their fields because it’s not “pretty.” I don’t love it like I love the sight of our herd on fresh clean grasses and I conveyed this to my friends.

I could sense their hesitation with my idea and not long after they left, a thoughtful text came through my phone. It read:

“Two years ago, we lost sight of goals in the March Mud and turned our herd out into the rye hayfields for three days. They rutted it so bad we had to rent a roller and smooth it back out…Don’t be like us with your pretty pastures.”

In fact, they loved our mud. They encouraged our practices and offered lessons they had learned that would make our pastures even more resilient to the inevitable mud.

It put things into perspective. As long as we continue to focus on soil health and agricultural practices that are not animal-yield centric, we don’t have to concern ourselves with the problems of modern day industrialized agriculture. 

Our animals move. They eat natural things. They grow in a way that is consistent with their heritage traits. They make mud. Mud that is alive and teaming with microbes. Mud that can be beautiful — if we remain consistent in our practices.

I love our mud.


Chris Jackson

P.S. I found her phone.

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