Twenty Acres And a Hen

Rachel Bagby rediscovers her roots (in the soil) and learns about the creatures she shares it with
Rachel Lees.jpg

Image by Rachel Lees / Unsplash


Make that two pet red hens, to be precise. Six other hens, five roosters – i.e. trouble – twenty-seven guinea fowl, and seven homing pigeons came with the twenty acres that recently compelled my husband and me to ransom them out of central Virginia's real estate market.

A visiting friend helped me realize that the red hens' bodacious behavior – e.g. waltzing their funky chicken feet into the house with the furniture movers – was completely in line for pets. No wonder they seemed insulted when I met their welcome by summarily pointing them out of the front door. They waited until they were securely out of my reach before turning around with a neck-waving, sonorous response that rivaled the best of the necks among my childhood girlfriends. Made me feel right homeful. Coming to call our 20 acres home culminates a 10-year search for a place in which to root a community devoted to sustaining human and biological diversity.

A peace filled place

My urge to be part of a peaceful community that owns and is owned by fruitful land dates back three generations to the beginning of my Mommaline in Cope, South Carolina. To hear my great-grandmother Liz tell it:

thishere is where we started in thishere country
where and how
this road we called the dividin road
kept our family together
kept us safe

from a war misnamed civil
from the South's ropes and fires
from kinfolk slaughtering kin over colored
paper and shades of brown skin
under canons and greed and control
over lies and ripe fields

hundreds of acres in front of dividin road
belonged to Jennings, a Scot
your great
great grandfather
his side saw to it
not one ticha trouble troubled us

the hundred behind the dividin road
Jennings gave me and my husband
his eldest boy Jen

I nursed as a baby
ayah I was called in India
unsacred cow

being fifteen years Jen's elder
his paid-for Momma
my skin dividin-road brown
made us two
no never mind
though seems like the census had fits
over what to call our seven children

white one year
colored the next
mulattos after

call ‘em whatchu you want census man

betchu they all got through college
have mercy
betchu they all got their piece of our land

my middle daughter was your Grandmom Eva
her first chile who we called Simi
married Billy B.
A black man from Phillydelphia
they had your brother then you

remember this chile
remember where and how we started
know whatchu carryin on
all those roads you say own you

find your folks Freedom, Someplace
Rachel Bagby
find us a peace filled place, chile

Dirt rich

Our new digs fulfill my ancestral assignment and then some. The site is oriented on an east-west ridge near the Blue Ridge Mountains. Springs and streams sing down our hillsides at elevations conducive to a ram pump for watering the crops. Multiple microclimates, with about 10 acres cleared and 10 wooded, provide habitat to an abundance of flora and fauna. Cooperative neighbors have farmed the land in our cove and helped each other out for several generations.

The built environment includes an off-the-grid, active solar house well suited for intergeneration living, an upper room in the house historically used for contemplative practices, and a cabin for interns.

A community supported agriculture (CSA) activist who evaluated the land before we purchased it said it could grow enough food to feed 50 households. Several crop strips already grace the south-facing slope. There are nine raised beds complete with individualized hoop frames that we can customize to serve as greenhouses or crop cover/shade cloth supports. We get great wind circulation most afternoons. And the farmers before us left several wildlife-friendly habitats on the north-facing slopes.

In short, where we live makes me feel dirt rich, a phrase some soil scientists would consider an oxymoron. Dirt is considered poor, if not dead, by definition because it lacks the rich diversity of organisms found in healthy soil. So much depends upon well-fed soil foodwebs being amply diverse and composed of organisms that nourish each other.

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Soil and compassion

My work for sustainability is rooted in a desire to arouse compassionate action that cultivates cooperative diversity in all of nature, including human nature.

The soil foodweb, comprised of plants and soil dwellers – including millions of beneficial bacteria, protozoa, fungi, and nematodes – epitomizes such cooperation. To learn about how to feed the foodwebs in the soil we are now stewarding, I turned to soil restoration scientist Elaine Ingham of Soil Foodweb. Ingham and other soil scientists are proving that by caring for soil in ways that emulate what plants and microbes have been doing for millions of years, farmers can reduce their use of herbicides and pesticides, make better use of water, reduce soil erosion, and increase yields. Ingham has made believers out of farmers who have relied on chemicals for years. In one demonstration of the effectiveness of soil foodwebs, Ingham succeeded in replacing the highly toxic chemical methyl bromide used in commercial strawberry fields with compost containing a synergistic set of disease predators, competitors, and inhibitors.

Ingham says a robust soil foodweb actually helps build healthy crops – and by extension communities – at least seven ways:

  • Soil dwellers, such as worms and certain species of fungi and bacteria, decompose organic matter. Decomposed organic matter becomes humus, the basis of fertile soil.
  • The ideal soil tilth and structure requires the gums and gels produced by certain species of soil bacteria. Without them, the cohesive particles of sand, silt, and clay that allow for optimal interpenetrations of water, air, and root systems would fall apart.
  • Plants depend on soil microorganisms in the root zone to produce various chemical compounds that regulate growth.
  • Other soil microorganisms ward off parasitic nematodes and suppress disease. The mycorrhizal fungus wraps its hypha around plant root systems and thus protects them from root-feeding nematodes. According to Ingham, the “million million” bacteria optimally found around the root zone contribute to disease suppression by forming a “rhizosphere” that keeps pathogens at bay.
  • Underground, nutrient retention occurs when bacteria and fungi multiply and convert free nitrogen from the soil into protein in their bodies, thus retaining nutrients.
  • Nutrients are gradually released back into the soil and made available to plants when beneficial nematodes, soil mites, and protozoa eat the bacteria and fungi.
  • Soil microbes can also help clean up most herbicide and pesticide molecules.

Ingham's clients range from gardeners to commercial farmers. Her database of 50,000+ soil samples contains formulas for the optimal soil life balances for various crops by climate and soil type.

Preliminary research shows a correlation between restored soil foodwebs and improved crop resilience and nutritional quality. Increases of protein content in corn, wheat, strawberry, and grape crops have been documented. Yet Ingham and other soil scientists call for more research to meet the dire need for sustainable farming and food systems worldwide. Based on her experience with test plots, Ingham believes such research would prove the economic effectiveness of replacing many pesticides and fertilizers with sustainable soil management techniques. The soil scientists' call for more research echoes that of E. John Russell's 1923 article, “The Micro-organisms of the Soil”:

“The soil population is so complex that it manifestly cannot be dealt with as a whole with any detail by any one person, and at the same time it plays so important a part in the soil economy that it must
be studied.”

Lessons in life and chickens

My focus on the life of the soil here in Virginia was dictated more by circumstance than design. A week after moving in, my plans for initiating a CSA venture flew out the window of the hospital room where I rested following major surgery. Yet, there have been several blessings in my plan's demise. One is that we now belong to the Screech Owl CSA, a local farm run by a member of the Virginia Biological Farmers' Association. The principal farmer is teaching me much about the local economy, organic farming, and how to care for chickens.

And I continue to learn from the polycultural lessons of chickens. I remember the older kids in my childhood neighborhood doing a dance they called the Funky Chicken while listening to a hit single of the same title by Rufus Thomas. Red hens and their feathered friends taught me where the dance and song came from: their syncopated scratching at the ground for insects.

From song, to dance, to soil stewardship, the ways of chickens have much to offer astute observers. Such observations lead to the creation of “chicken tractors” – movable pens that integrate chicken behaviors into soil management systems. Andy Lee and Pat Forman in their book, Chicken Tractor, describe the benefits:

“As the chickens eat the greenery inside their pen they remove the need for herbicides. The manure from the chickens replaces the need for synthetic fertilizers. The organic material in the chicken manure – about 40 percent of the volume – feeds the soil life, which in turn feeds the plant life that feeds the chicken. All of this in nature's symbiotic harmony.”

When I began the search that led to my deepening relationship with soil, friends teased me about looking for my 40 acres and a mule. History has it that on January 26, 1865, William T. Sherman granted newly freed men (and women) permission to settle in parts of South Carolina and on the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia. Each family received as much as 40 acres of land abandoned or confiscated during the Civil War as well as the use of retired US Army mules. By June of that year, 40,000 folks had taken advantage of the offer.

In January of 1866, President Andrew Johnson returned the land to its former owners.

Today, not far – geographically or historically – from those post–Civil War venues, we are seeking contemplative farming partners to help us create a demonstration farm and medicinal herb sanctuary from underground up. Life and like-minded folks willing, the relationships we're cultivating with the 20 acres and many forms of life that call our place home will sustain many generations to come.



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