The relationship farmers have with the land is a common thread woven through many of the stories written about American agriculture.
For organic farmer Dave Asbury, that relationship is personal.
A pioneer of Colorado’s organic movement, Dave has been growing vegetables and field crops without synthetic chemicals along Colorado’s Front Range for nearly two decades. Today, he grows and markets roughly 70 different certified organic crops each season.
His Colorado farmland receives a scant 16 inches of moisture in an average year, so he and surrounding farmers rely on a complex system of canals and ditches that carry the snowmelt from the Rockies to their thirsty fields.
I caught up with Dave recently, as he was taking a break from irrigating those crops. We moved to the shade of a tree along the ditch bank, and I asked him about the challenges he faces in balancing the production and marketing for that large variety of products.
He began talking about planting schedules, production costs, and marketing outlets in terms familiar to any businessperson involved in a complex enterprise. When the talk turned to land, water and the environment in which he farmed, the conversation became personal.
“Farming is humbling, because Mother Nature is the one really in charge. She’ll decide whether she wants you to have a good crop this year or not,” he said.
His is a close-knit relationship with Mother Nature. If not love, it is at least a deep-rooted respect for her role in his business. “The conventional guys can just pull a tool out of their toolbox. There’s always a spray for this, or a chemical for that,” Asbury said. “Me, I have to work with Mother Nature. She calls the shots.”
As he talked about his farming practices, the environment in which he operates took on very human characteristics. “It’s just not normal to plant corn this year, and corn the next year, and corn the year after that on the same patch of land. Soil needs rest. That’s why I rotate my crops. It’s just like yoga; the rest is just as important as the workout.”
“We work with nature on this farm,” he said. “Well, I’ll use row covers (plastic tarps) to control the weeds. But even then, Mother Nature sometimes decides she doesn’t like that, so she just blows them away. It’s kind of like the old commercial: you just can’t fool Mother Nature,” he said. “She’ll always get the best of you.”