We didn’t know what we had until it was gone. I grew up in Minnesota, an area of the world that has fairly decent soil. As spankin’ new gardeners in Michigan we were able to dig up some ground, plant some seeds, water only rarely, and grow lettuce, leeks, tomatoes, herbs, and other bits and bobs without too much trouble from pests or depleted soil.

And then we moved to Texas on the heels of possibly the worst drought in history and I was shocked. I didn’t even know the land could look like this. We realized very quickly the importance of good soil, and that in order to create sustainable food production we would need to become soil farmers first.

I’ll be honest and say there have been a few times when I questioned whether or not we would ever be able to truly grow food here. The topsoil seems almost non-existent, having washed away from a ground left bare. But we dug up that hard clay soil, made the amendments we could at the time, and planted.

The results were dismal, but not a total wash. The soil itself barely gave life to those plants, never mind the grasshoppers that ate almost all of the seedlings, and the continuing drought and heat that killed off most everything else.

Now, many people refer to what we are doing as “homesteading”. I do too. But along with words come the ideas attached to them. And I think that how most people view homesteading is through the experiences of those that broke fresh ground in this country as they headed west and staked their claims.

The land we now inhabit is not fresh land, inhabited only by buffalo and prairie dogs. This land has been depleted, worn down, and rendered almost completely lifeless by decades and decades of misuse. Like just about everything else, soil, if you don’t care for it properly, will no longer do what you ask of it. So we need to somehow nourish this land in order for it to work for us properly once again.

And I believe that we will learn some valuable physical and spiritual lessons through this process.

How Sustainability Really Looks

And so that is where we are – trying to rebuild a broken piece of land in order to allow it to bring forth food. This will always require work; a work that is necessary for the land, necessary for our bodies, necessary for our souls.

But, let’s be honest, most of us still think of food production in industrialized terms: field upon field of one crop, perfectly pruned rows of single plants in a garden, animals fed from feed bags instead of the land.

What I’m learning is that a self-sufficient homestead may not look like this. In order for every element of the land to feed off of the other in a symbiotic way perhaps we need more diversity, note-taking from what works in the creation, and certainly throwing off all ideas that are a result of industrialized farming.

Where Sowing Seeds in the Desert Comes In

I recently read Sowing Seeds in the Desert by Masanobu Fukuoka. In the introduction his co-author writes:

People, with their limited understanding, try to improve on nature thinking the result will be better for human beings, but adverse side effects inevitably appear. Then people take measures to counteract these side effects, and larger side effects appear. By now, almost everything humanity is doing is mitigating problems caused by previous misguided actions.

And the only reason it has to be like this is because people stopped growing food themselves and started outsourcing it to those who would do it on a monstrously large scale.

Since we see it as our obligation to work the land we are looking “outside of the box” for ways to make our two little acres more sustainable and productive with physical labor rather than gobs of fuel or money.

Shortly after we moved here we watched the Back to Eden film and realized that erosion and a complete lack of top soil were a huge problem. So we began planting a wood chip garden, which has helped somewhat.

Now we are exploring some permaculture options including inter-planting trees, vegetables and vines as well as creating swales and berms that will help the soil retain more water. Sowing Seeds in the Desert came along at just the right time in this process for us.

Much of the first half of the book covers Fukoaka’s ideology, of which I agree with none and found distracting at times. But once I got into the second half of the book I found some really interesting ideas for creating a sustainable food production system, many of which he has implemented in climates similar to ours.

Many parts of our little plot could be confused with desert soil – cracked and dry, sandy and windblown. This book has given us some hope that it is possible to repair the land and to do so simply through the work of our hands.

It may take years for us to really be able to implement those things necessary for a land healthy enough to bring forth our family’s sustenance. In the meanwhile, in between picking up shovels and getting dirt under our fingernails, we’ll continue to look to resources from Chelsea Green Publishing and others who have successfully created sustainable land systems before us.

How do YOU think we can heal the land simply by the work of your hands?