More-Than-Human Care at a Regenerative Market Garden

By Michiel van de Pavert

Dear reader,

In relation to the Earth’s sixth extinction I want to tell a story that inspires. I’m blessed to be doing fieldwork at a beautiful more-than-human world called TERRA, a market garden in Luxembourg producing fruit and vegetables for 230 families. This 1.5 hectare space is not only a highly productive space, but also an area of habitat for a rich assemblage of species. Inevitably, we – the people working and volunteering at Terra – end up immersing ourselves in these more-than-human worlds. Terra is giving me this encouraging vibe that solutions are within reach.

My name is Michiel, I’m a PhD candidate in the field of rural sociology at Wageningen University (here’s my personal page). I’m also an aspiring market gardener. This blog post is the first piece from a series of workshops on creative writing centred around the theme of the more-than-human. The timing of the writing workshops is excellent as I’m concluding the first leg of fieldwork. These five months of fieldwork have somewhat transformed me. Truth be told, I never developed a particular fascination for the natural world. At TERRA I’ve internalised ways of engaging with the natural world that show utmost care and simultaneously allow for running an economically sound business.

Terra is located just north of Luxembourg city close enough so that we can hear the sirens from the city. However, as you can see in the photo below, our view of the city is blocked by an oak forest. The deer, rabbits, and foxes that live in this forest venture into the garden in search of the delicious (chemical-free) vegetables, such as cauliflower, salads, kohlrabi, carrots, spinach, and much more. Despite the nets that we put up they do from time to time get to the veggies. The nets also don’t provide protection against the mice that come in from below. There are also slugs, that can potentially damage entire crops, and crows, which stole our lunches out of our bags.

Soil is yet another more-than-human world. One we can’t fully observe with the naked eye. We can’t see most of the creatures and we can’t see what work they do. Yet, for the people at TERRA the world is a better place when soils are full of life. Moreover, they strongly suspect that having an abundant soil fauna is beneficial to human health and well-being. So, the farming practices that are used prioritize caring for the soil life. The soil is left undisturbed as much as possible. Following no-dig principles we add compost on top of the soil. Soil critters will then incorporate the organic matter and convert nutrients into plant-available form. One of the gardeners literally adds to the more-than-human soil world by spraying compost teas, which are extremely rich in bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes.

You get the scene. TERRA is buzzing with life and I haven’t even mentioned the eight bee hives. We all know the importance of bees for pollination and the honey I had this morning with my tea was absolutely delicious (so fruity!). However, for the gardeners at TERRA the recognition that bees receive is somewhat out of proportion. They point to the importance of all the other insects (which by the way I find harder to observe and connect with). In order to practice what you preach they provide plenty of room for wild growth (aka habitat for insects). The insects are photographed and printed onto a calendar as a way of celebrating the more-than-human worlds.

All that wild growth brings with it a high level of weed pressure. Allowing habitat for insects on the garden means having many weeds to deal with. For example, in the photo below there are four beds of carrots. Directly next to the field on the right-hand side are a variety of weeds standing tall and going into seed.

Those seeds have been blowing straight into the growing beds effectively building a seed bank in the soil, which means that next year there will be many weeds to pull out.

On the next photo you can see that the weeds were cleared, but it was too late. As we were preparing the growing beds for next crop we observed many weed seeds laying around on the soil.

In order to deal with the weed pressure more permanently, we started laying down cardboard with woodchips on top (see the image below). In other parts of the garden this has proved a very successful strategy for keeping the weeds out on the paths.

At TERRA there is a continuous search for combining ways to give space to wild life and having a productive system. There is a similar search for having growing spaces ready as quickly as possible for the next crop, without disturbing the soil excessively.

For us academics it’s easy to say what the world should look like, but what issues arise for those who (try to) make a change? Throughout the writing workshop series I will reflect critically on these sorts of dilemmas. I will do this together with Adriana, who’s another participant of the workshop series. Using the data I have gathered over the last five months we will think through care ethics and more-than-human entanglements. How does care play a role in deciding what practices to implement? What affective-rational processes shape the farming style? What gardener-soil relations have emerged at TERRA as they try to prioritize soil health while producing plentiful baskets? I hope to write inspiring soil-centred stories informed by theories of care to show the reader how market garden is making the world a better place.

Sincerely,

Michiel van de Pavert

Michiel van de Pavert’s PhD is on the affective soil relations of farmers who are already using regenerative farming practices. His ethnographic work looks at practical challenges around everyday soil care and he combines the empirical with highly philosophical processual-relational approaches.

Michiel is part of the Global Epistemologies and Ontologies (GEOS) research project at Wageningen University, bringing together heterogeneous knowledges systems to tackle social-environmental challenges.

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