While touring for my book on America’s farmers markets, Local Flavors, I returned to the heartland—otherwise known (and sadly so) as the flyover states—where I had visited many fine markets. That’s how I found myself at a crossroads in Illinois, with endless cornfields on one side, barren land on the other, and a small sign that read “Henry’s Farm” by the side of the road. Nothing about the simple sign hinted at the entanglement of complexity that makes up the fabric of what I’ve come to think of as the enormous life of a small farm.
When I finally did get to Henry’s Farm, the land dipped, the road curved and sloped under overhanging trees, and row upon row of flourishing crops emerged, quietly tended by a crew of family and workers. The flatlands were gone. Texture had appeared, and I can still savor the bright tastes of the simple lunch I enjoyed with two of Henry’s sisters, Teresa Santiago, who grows fruits and herbs a few miles away, and Terra Brockman. Since that visit, I have continued to follow the life of Henry’s farm through Terra and Teresa’s weekly e-newsletter, which has taught me and more than a thousand others not only about the vagaries of farm life and its perennial dance with weather, but also about farming itself—about soil, water, varieties, and the multitude of interrelated factors that determine how good food comes to us.
Terra Brockman helps farm the family’s land, so her story comes deeply out of her—and the farm’s—life. The Seasons on Henry’s Farm, a book to be reckoned with, lifts you high enough to witness the tremendous possibilities people are capable of expressing in their working lives—in this case, through farming. If you’re a fan of Aldo Leopold, or have long suspected that time-honored methods of farming are best for the earth (and our taste buds) and require intelligence and thoroughness exceeding the levels demanded by most occupations, you will discover here that your suspicions are well founded.
Although Terra Brockman seldom uses the word “sustainability,” The Seasons on Henry’s Farm tells the story of what it looks like when a farm and its family come as close as they can to living a sustainable life. Real sustainability is a complex thing. It’s big and minute at the same time. It’s hidden, but also obvious. It depends on stamina and ingenuity in lieu of fossil fuels. It tests everything and is a tough master. Nothing is concealed in this kind of farming. It’s all there—ambitions and hopes, beauty and forgetfulness, and sometimes painful steps to ensure a harvest. (Henry is forever working extra hours at the end of the day, to the point where you want to scream to the pages, “Henry, go have supper!” But it’s work that has to be done.)
The Seasons on Henry’s Farm is an exhilarating story of observation. It’s a humbling one, too, for few of us can imagine mustering the endurance and precision needed to farm this deeply. But that Henry and his familial band of followers can and do, again and again, makes the world of the farm more than a dream or an ideal. It’s a great encouraging kick in the pants for all of us, regardless of how we spend our time, or what we do, to achieve such excellence in full consciousness of all its complexities and consequences. This book tells a tale as raw and vivid as one could hope for, while gently imparting what we need to know about the soil, plants, and animals that sustain us.
Finally, it is a relief to enter a world where the seasons are not just four of equal duration, but are supple times aligned to accommodate one’s work and nature’s rhythms—say the two-week season for planting garlic in November or the few-days-long season for mulching it over the first icy crust of December. The broad strokes so often used to paint life’s portrait have their use perhaps, but they can’t capture the fine lines, shadings, and shadows that emerge from the keen knowledge of the whole of our world and all of its seasons.
Terra Brockman has made an enormous painting rendered in the finest detail. The Seasons on Henry’s Farm hints at what and who we need to be in order to live in concert with the world we wish to know most deeply. The greatest possibilities of human life are expressed not on those flat crossroads where the sign to the farm stands, but in the irregular world of slopes and curves—a world of many seasons, and not just four. It’s a world richly inhabited by plant, animal, insect, and fungal—as well as human—life.