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Precarity by Joanna
When I wrote for the June newsletter, as we were starting to adjust to COVID, I hoped that by this time life might have gone back to ‘normal’ and our plans might be clearer. That has not happened. We keep working and keep trying to be good neighbors despite the pandemic and the deepening divisions, though we don’t know what comes next. I think of what Dorothy Day wrote about the importance of precarity, faith, and solidarity with the many people whose lives don’t afford even the illusion of security and predictability.
I still don’t know whether or how St. Francis Farm may continue after Lorraine and Zach move out. Several people wrote to express interest in joining the community. Some decided this place is not what they’re looking for. Some were unable to travel here due to COVID restrictions and found other places to settle. Two came for trial visits during which we all realized that this was not a good fit. Now NYS quarantine requirements stop most out-of-state visitors coming, and this may continue for the rest of the growing season. I’ll continue to spread the word this winter and hope to schedule visits with potential community members for the next growing season—perhaps by then it will be safer to travel. If I can’t find people to join me here, the Board and I will look for other organizations with similar missions which might use this place.
For the time being, we’re welcoming visitors, with some distancing precautions. Lonny and Liam came for weeklong visits. Selena and Julie visit weekly; we spend most of our time together outside, but eat indoors in the same dining room at separate tables. (Articles from all of them appear later in this newsletter.) We’ve had encouraging distanced day visits from numerous friends. We’re thankful for the help and company. Many neighbors have come to pick up – and sometimes to pick – fresh vegetables and herbs. Some stay to walk or pick wild berries. We’re glad for these connections. We’re grateful to those who voluntarily wear masks and/or keep a safe distance, and we try to be neighborly to those who tell us that the pandemic is a hoax and masks are a sign of mindless compliance or lack of faith. I think that faithfulness includes reaching out to people, avoiding actions that are likely to make them sick, and respecting the sincere goodwill of people whose words and actions disturb me.
I’m trying to do that in this time of long-overdue calls for racial justice following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Our work with migrants and refugees showed me how our country’s actions devastate other countries, and then deny refuge to people forced to flee. I am still coming to understand what my country has done, and is doing, to Black Americans.
I knew pieces of it. I’d never heard a friend report being stopped and questioned by police because they supposedly resembled a White suspect who looked very different in other ways, but I’d heard several friends describe being stopped and questioned because they supposedly resembled Black suspects of rather different ages, weights, heights, and genders. I’d seen ‘random security checks” pull out only Black and Brown people from a mostly White line. I knew that Black Americans are more likely to be stopped and searched, also to be injured and killed, by police. I knew there is a deep, and deepening, racial wealth gap, that Black Americans are more likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth, to have toxic waste dumps sited in their communities, to die of COVID-19. I see that racial prejudice and hate are still with us; I also am coming to see that our laws and structures create these deadly injustices and that we sustain them by our participation, whether or not we feel hateful or intend harm. (Isabel Wilkerson’s writing helped me see this.)When migrant workers ill-treated and injured on commercial farms came to recuperate with us and we bought commercially grown produce to feed them, I knew we were paying employers who mistreated migrant workers. I saw we needed to change what Dorothy Day called “this filthy rotten system.” I begin to see racism works in the same way. I’m glad to see people of different races coming together through Black Lives Matter, the Poor People’s Campaign, etc. to dismantle unjust structures and work toward a society where, as Peter Maurin said, it is easier for people to be good.
Some fellow White Christians, including friends, neighbors, and supporters of the farm, see something very different. They say the Black Lives Matter protests are demonically inspired violent riots which threaten America, democracy, liberty, civility, and Christianity. Some add that they’ve been incited by a conspiracy of pedophiles, Marxists, prominent Democrats, liberal Jews, and Pope Francis. This story strikes me as false and damaging. I’m tempted to tell myself disparaging stories about the people who believe these things. Yet many of ‘those people” whom I actually know are notably kind to relatives and neighbors in need. I can’t agree with them. Nor can I dismiss or disparage them. I wish I knew how to reach them.
Recently I read Thomas Merton’s 1964 book “Seeds of Destruction,” which dealt with some of the same quandaries. These quotes stuck with me:
“The one aspect of the Negro demonstrations that is being taken most seriously… is that they hurt business. As long as there was talk only of “rights,” and of “freedom” (concepts which imply persons) the Negro movement was taken seriously chiefly by crackpots, idealists, and members of suspicious organizations thought to be under direct control of Moscow, like CORE and the NAACP. …It was only when money became involved that the Negro demonstrations finally impressed themselves upon the American mind as being real.” [Emphasis his]
“…. whites may have to accept that their prosperity is rooted to some extent in injustice and in sin… this might lead to a complete re-examination of the political motives behind all our current policies, domestic and foreign, with the possible admission that we are wrong…” [Emphasis his]
“..true hope is that which finds motives for confidence precisely in the “crisis” which seems to threaten that which is dearest to us: for it is here above all that the power of God will break through the meaningless impasse of prejudices and cruelties in which we always tend to become entrapped.”
“We have to remember the terrible danger of projecting onto others all the evil we find in ourselves, so that we justify our own hatred and destructiveness by directing them against a projected evil.”
I try to live in a way that does less harm, to keep loving people whose ideas dismay me, to remember the evil in my own heart, to seek hope amidst crisis. I’m praying for us all. I’d be grateful for your prayers.
My father, my son, and I first came to St. Francis Farm when they were giving away perennials. We immediately fell in love! It is truly a gem in the middle of the countryside. It seems as though the generosity and beauty know no bounds. From the perennials (which are growing fabulously in our own gardens now) to their offering of vegetables and berries to the beautiful lands to walk. This summer has been scary and bizarre for all of us, and finding St. Francis Farm has offered us a sense of calming peace in an otherwise scary world.
Wednesdays at the Farm
Over the past few weeks, I’ve experienced again how it feels to sit, just sit and talk and snap beans and shell peas, and share stories and hopes. On Wednesdays, I’ve had a standing invitation to visit my friends at St. Francis Farm. The visits have become one of the highlights of my week and have helped to make the necessity of social distancing tolerable. I feel welcome there. I always have, and I regret that I so often let my life take over and forgot to take the time to rub the rosemary then smell the fragrance on my hand, as Lorraine reminded me. I meet with Lorraine on Wednesdays, and while she and I visit and try to resolve the issues that come up in life, we will often snap beans or shell peas while sitting at the pond’s edge, under a canopy of various tree limbs, while Joanna and Zachary are busy about their labors with Joanna in her garden, an ethereal garden angel, and Zachary, always in motion and deep in thought.
I’ve seen hummingbirds come to feed from the flowers growing near the water. They look like perfect little gentlemen with red tuxes as they balance in mid-air, bobbing in and out of the bee balm. Wrens have taken over a bluebird house, and I’ve seen their hatchlings grow into birds. And for such a tiny animal a bullfrog makes a good deal of noise. Also, I’ve seen a couple of snakes, one a giant black snake that I nearly stepped on while attempting to pick clover.
My Wednesdays have included lunch, with rosemary bread, homemade hummus, fresh goat cream cheese with basil, and a salad fresh from the garden with peppers, cucumbers, different types of tomatoes and lettuces. I get take-alongs too. I haven’t bought lettuce or tomatoes yet this summer. It feels good eating from the garden, and I was even inspired to plant a couple of things myself.
My time at St. Francis Farm has helped me feel centered and reminded me that the beauty in nature and in things as simple as snapping beans is as close as my own backyard. I look forward to what the other seasons here have to offer and continued visits.
This summer has been dry, which made it very easy to get the hay in but has meant much more time spent watering gardens. We got the hay in during June this year, which is earlier than the weather will sometimes allow, and while it was a little short the quality was good. Lonny was here for part of the week when I was getting the hay in and was kind enough to come back up specially to help me with baling the hay on two different days. He drove the tractor for the baling, which enabled me to ride on the wagon behind the baler and stack the bales as they were made. This is a lot easier than what I normally do where I drop the bales on the ground and then make a separate trip around the field to pick them up and put them on the wagon. He also helped carry the hay from the biggest load up into the loft and stack it. I was very grateful for the help and he did very well with the driving, even though he had never baled before. Last fall I rented a pole saw to trim tree branches around the fields and this summer when I was mowing all of the fields it was much easier, since there weren’t all those branches to push through.
I cut down some ash and maple trees that had issues in late spring and sawed them into boards in June, but in early July the sawmill began to have problems which I eventually traced to the main driveshaft, which had to be replaced due to wear where one of the bearings rides. We were eventually able to order a new driveshaft and bearings from the man who makes these mills, and now the mill is running well again These were somewhat expensive parts, but the mill has brought in enough money each year to make it more than worth repairing, and even if it ends up being sold at some point in the future if there is no one to operate it, having it in working order will make it easier to sell.
In early July I cut down a largish willow tree in the wet area behind the causeway across the road and collected and bundled the leaves and small branches to hang up and dry in the loft. They are pretty well dry now and before winter I will need to strip the leaves off the branches and put them in the bin to be eventually fed to the rabbits.
After consulting with our mail carrier we found it would be handier for her as well as for us if the mailbox was moved from its time-honored location across the road from the house to a spot across from the barn. It took less than an hour to move and now it is only about half as far from the front door of the barn where we live as it used to be, and the mail carrier doesn’t have to do as much maneuvering to come into the driveway when she has packages to pick up and drop off.
Our current pig has not worked out as well as they have in recent years for a couple of reasons. Due to the pandemic all of the processing businesses in the area got booked up very early, so when I called in early June I was not able to get an October appointment anywhere. We were offered September 4th, but the pig will not be big enough in time. This year’s pig arrived a little later than usual and seems to have been a runt, as it has been growing much more slowly than the other pigs we’ve had from the same source. I’ve been given reason to hope that one of our Amish neighbors might be willing to do the job for us later in the year, though I haven’t been able to talk to him directly about it yet, and as a fallback plan I can do my best to process it myself. I am a little doubtful as I have never tried to cut up an animal that big, but I’ve done hundreds of rabbits and am hoping to be able to do it well enough with the help of books and online information.
I am experimenting with growing potatoes in barrels again this year since we had some extra seed potatoes in the spring and an extra plastic barrel that had been sitting around since I got it at an auction years ago. I cut the barrel in half so that it’s not as deep, and planted in both halves, using compost from where the chick coop used to be parked in the back yard. The plants look good but I don’t know if they’ll make any actual potatoes. Joanna grows all we need in the garden, but if I can make the barrel method work it will be helpful after I’ve moved away, when I’ll have less space.
There are a lot of apples this year and I look forward to making cider, as well as freezing and drying apple slices and canning applesauce. I had been afraid that it might be too dry for the apples to size up, but we have had enough rain from time to time so that they seem to have done all right.
I came to St. Francis Farm after listening to a story about Dorothy Day, the social activist, on NPR. She started a work farm program all throughout the United States in the 1920’s and 30’s. Farms like these are based on sustainable living in a Christian context, just what I was looking for. Also this farm strives for unity while this country is heading in the opposite direction. I needed rest for my soul.
Lorraine, Zach, and Joanna proved to be excellent hosts, always making me feel comfortable and answering all my questions with patience. I did not stay in the guest house but pitched my tent beside their pond, letting the birds, peepers, bullfrogs, and other sounds of nature lull me to sleep.
Zach let me drive their tractors to cut and bale hay, something I always
wanted to do. He also let me cut wood in their sawmill, another dream of mine. He showed me their cider press, the sugar shack, and the canoe he made from wood on the farm. On my second visit he started to teach me about meat processing, and soon I’ll be back to learn to weld.
Joanna taught me different aspects of gardening and the amount of work that goes into tending one. While we worked together I had a great time talking to her about shared interests. She also tried teaching me how to milk a goat by hand, at which I failed miserably.
Lorraine showed me how to make a tincture out of plants and grain alcohol. She showed me the different bird nests around the yard, naming the birds for me. Lorraine taught me how to make cream cheese and soft cheese from goats’ milk. They tasted very good, changing my view on goat cheese. But best of all is eating all this farm-raised food for lunch and dinner cooked up by her.
After the the fun work with Zach, Lorraine, and especially with Joanna I had the opportunity to clean up in an outdoor solar shower Zach made. Taking a shower under a sunny blue sky with a slate floor under my feet with home cooked food for every meal, I felt like I was in a resort. At sunset sitting by the pond I witnessed a kingfisher diving into the water for its meal – what a treat before climbing into my tent for a restful, quiet night.
My decision to go to St. Francis Farm proved to be one of my best. I encourage anyone interested in this field to go check them out—you won’t be disappointed.
In June I spent one week volunteering at St. Francis Farm. What led me to the farm was an initial interest in the Catholic Worker Movement which, in turn, led me to explore the farm’s website. The opportunity to work and reflect in a beautiful setting, acquire practical skills, and learn how to live sustainably attracted me. My experience far exceeded expectations.
Upon arriving at the farm, I was cheerfully greeted by Joanna, one of the 3 members of the Hoyt family who live there. After getting settled in, I joined Joanna in the garden. Immediately, I was delighted by the work and our conversation. As we weeded, we discussed family ancestry as well as the importance of confronting white privilege, especially given the recent killing of George Floyd. One may ask, “Do these topics have a place on a farm? Isn’t it about getting away from it all?” Well, yes and no. Living on a farm provides space to quiet one’s mind and avoid the hurried pace that many Americans are accustomed to. However, doing so doesn’t give one the right to remain ignorant, uninvolved in the struggles of the human family. The Hoyts clearly understand this. They stay informed by following the news on the radio and internet and are actively engaged in the community. For example, the farm has hosted a retreat for migrant workers who are usually poorly treated. The farm also shares food with those in need locally. I share all this not only to applaud St. Francis Farm, but to express my gratitude for how the Hoyts’ example has challenged me to be more informed and not a silent observer in society.
As far as practical skills go, I learned how to milk a goat (after many attempts at trying to grasp the teats correctly haha!), operate a sawmill to cut lumber into planks with the help of Zachary, and make mozzarella cheese. Lorraine taught me how to create greeting cards by imprinting flower petals onto paper. Although I was familiar with the basics of weeding, spreading mulch, and watering, Joanna taught me the reasons and science behind it. For example, clover doesn’t need to be weeded out if it’s next to a crop that likes nitrogen (clover is a nitrogen fixer).
In my free time, I read enriching books which were recommended and lent to me by the Hoyt family, went for walks on the trails nearby, journaled, and prayed. Every morning, I was grateful that we started with prayer either sitting in the chapel or walking outside. Throughout the day, I found every task to be contemplative. While working in the garden, I enjoyed looking up at the surrounding landscape and reflecting quietly. I also enjoyed having meaningful conversations with Joanna on a wide range of topics. Speaking with every member of the Hoyt family was wonderful. During each meal, we would sit together and talk. I found this to be special. We were focused on each other and there was no technology nearby to distract. The food was excellent. Many of the ingredients were picked fresh from the garden or sourced from the goats and rabbits. I especially liked the fresh-picked lettuce with goat cheese and sundried tomatoes.
As I stated at the beginning, one of the reasons I came to St. Francis Farm was to learn to be more sustainable. I definitely learned a lot from the Hoyts. Some of the practices that they follow include: driving a car only when necessary (ride a bike instead), composting, using a wood-burning furnace instead of oil or gas, shutting off lights when there is enough sunlight, and reusing plastic containers to store water. About ninety percent of their electricity comes from a renewable source. In addition, they produce minimal waste by reusing and repurposing material. For example, sawdust from the sawmill is mixed with compost to create a rich mulch for use in the garden.
My experience at St. Francis Farm was holistic, life-giving, and educational. I am so thankful for the Hoyt family’s gracious hospitality, kindness, and desire for me to get the most out of the time spent there. I left inspired to be more civically engaged, sustainable, and cognizant of how my purchases impact other people and the environment. Knowing that an alternative exists to the consumer-driven culture in America is comforting and I seek to grow closer to that alternative in different ways each day. God bless St. Francis Farm and the Hoyt family.
Farming Update by Joanna — written August 4)
During this growing season of surprises I’ve often thought of a kindergartener who used to visit the farm. When he was on the edge of losing his temper, he would clench his fists and repeat, “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.”
Our unusually wet, cold spring gave way to an unusually warm, dry summer. The sad yellowish onion seedlings greened and grew. The short slow peas shot up and began to bear in good time. Then the drought wore on, the lawn turned brown and crunched, the stream ran slow and shallow, the drip irrigation ran 24/7, I watered early and late, and the chipmunks put more pressure on the garden. They ate a quarter of the strawberries, though we still had an abundance to eat and to freeze. They ate almost half of the peas. My homemade cayenne pepper spray slowed them down until they learned to shell the peas out. We’d hoped to freeze 20 quarts for winter; we got 16.
We’ve finished canning beans and started freezing pesto and canning and drying tomatoes. The garlic (big and disease-free this year) is harvested and cleaned. Eggplants are starting to come in. We’ve had basil, chard, cucumbers, dill, garlic, kale, lettuce, peppers, radishes, summer squash, and small tomatoes to give away. Early in the season we sent extra produce to Springbrook. Then we learned that COVID, which is causing food shortages in some places, was inspiring extra donations around here: Springbrook’s residents were getting more donations than they could use, and so was the local food pantry. We still take some vegetables to Marge along with books. On the local Neighbors Helping Neighbors Facebook group I found other people willing to come and get fresh vegetables. Some had time to pick their own.
I’ve had good help. Liam and Lonny lent a hand on their visits, Julie and Micah help in the garden every week, Selena often pitches in on food processing, and Sarah, Kailyn, and Emily have come for day visits and helped out. I’m grateful for the assistance and the company.
I’ve kept being able to cut enough green stuff for the rabbits, and they’re eating and growing well, though the litters are small. The goats are giving more milk than we know what to do with. Robin gave us a brief scare when she ran a high fever and stopped eating in June; the vet thought she might have a tick-borne disease. Antibiotics cleared it up quickly and she’s thriving again.
This year the berry brambles bloomed luxuriantly, and we’ve gotten enough rain to keep the fruits plump. We’ve frozen all the berries we need and now are eating them fresh and inviting neighbors to pick their own. “Taste and see that the Lord is good” comes to my mind often in the berry patch. I get what I get, and I mostly don’t throw a fit, and sometimes I give thanks.
In the late 70s I lived on East First Street in Manhattan, on the border of the East Village and the Lower East Side. It was a gritty, scrappy neighborhood. Young artists and musicians flocked there for the low rents. CBGB’s (the foremost venue for punk bands) might have been around the corner, but the Catholic Worker St. Joseph House was across the street. I didn’t know much about it, but every time I walked by, I was reminded that Catholics sometimes choose to be on the side of the poor and oppressed.
Flash forward four decades to the pandemic. One morning in early June, quarantined at home in the Bronx at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, I was watching the news and saw a Buffalo police officer shove an older man to the ground. When the man’s identity was released, I was curious to know more about him, so I did a little research. His name is Martin Gugino, and he is a longtime peace activist who is associated with the Catholic Workers.
A week or so later, I came to stay at the home of a close relative here in the Tug Hill region of New York State. Having volunteered as a WWOOFer on a farm in Italy half a dozen summers, and unable to plan a trip there this year, I wanted to find a farm where I could volunteer, if such a place existed. Remembering the St. Joseph House, and Martin Gugino, it occurred to me that maybe there were Catholic Worker farms. Voilà! St. Francis Farm popped up. Miraculously, amazingly, it is in Lacona, only half an hour’s drive away. After some emailing back and forth, my family member and I went to visit one Saturday. Joanna, on her afternoon off, generously showed us around the huge garden, the henhouse, the mushroom log inoculation operation, the pond and stream, the hayfield, the pig, the wood workshop, and the trails. We met Lorraine and Zach. Lorraine gave us lavender to take home.
We made a date for me to come back. That was about four visits ago. There may be other tasks needing doing, but I love to weed, so Joanna humors me, and we weed. When we are within at least shouting distance of each other on a row of kale or carrots, we have wide-ranging conversations: about homeschooling, Black Lives Matter, fiction and nonfiction books, our respective religions (was I surprised to find out they are Quakers!) and growing up rural (her) and urban (me).
Joanna, Lorraine, and Zach have showed themselves to be just as generous and openhearted as they were that first day. The family invites me to stay for lunch (as we observe social distancing), and I happily accept. A couple of days after lunch I picked berries in the quiet hayfield, with just the birds for company, before I drove off. Lorraine gives me fresh produce, so at home we are dining on wonderful salads and greens. Bags of kale and jars of pesto wait in the freezer for fall eating.
As long as I’m here in Tug Hill, I hope to keep going back to work and to spend time with these exceptional people who model a simple, non-consumerist way of living that seems, during this pandemic, more essential than ever.
Hello. My name is Micah Charsky and I will be a senior at Pulaski High School this fall. I was awarded the John Ben Snow Community Service scholarship, and as a requirement to receive the money I have to do community service at different places in or around Pulaski. This year due to COVID-19 I had to find places in which I could practice socially distancing. One of the places I found was St. Francis Farm.
At St. Francis Farm I have done a number of things and also learned a lot of information about farming. I have helped clean garlic, move tree branches that had been cut down, helped spray Nitrogen on plants that needed extra Nitrogen, and helped spray a fungus deterrent on plants of the same family. I have learned what different things look like in the ground. I have also learned the general growing season for most of the plants. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at St. Francis Farm and I am looking forward to working there throughout the summer.
ST. FRANCIS FARM
136 Wart Road
Lacona, NY 13083