Jon Turner kneels down to collect a mushroom from the ground, and brings it up to his nose to smell it — slowly, eyes closed — and then he holds it out to me so I can do the same. I’m not sure what I should be smelling for, but I would be lying if I said the soil clinging to it didn’t smell good. Like fresh earth. A field in late summer. Rogue childhood dirt angels in the family garden plot.
Jon starts peeling the base of the mushroom apart, explaining how it has begun to break down the wood chips that it engulfed underground. Mushrooms may appear to some as obnoxious alien growths that disrupt a pristine lawn, but Jon sees them differently. He recognizes that they contribute to soil health by breaking down organic matter, which enables nutrients to become more available to plants. He breaks the mushroom into four pieces and walks to a line of peach trees, placing one quarter under each tree. Eventually, the fragments will contribute nutrients to the earth and thus the trees.
The farm is named Wild Roots and is situated on a small hill in the outskirts of Bristol, Vermont. His driveway passes a large hoop house: a few pine trees tower above it, with tire swings looped to their lower branches. There is a patch of grass and a garden plot next to the trees, and then a hill rises steeply, a faint path zigzagging to the top. The rest of the farm is out of sight over the crest of the hill, but comes into view through the trees as you drive the rest of the way up the curving gravel drive. A pickup truck is parked next to a small enclosure where chickens and geese live, squawking loudly as they weave their way through shrubs and flowers. A rabbit munches on grass beneath a hammock, and in a small enclosure, five goats happily graze on shrubs and brambles. A yurt stands amid miscellaneous trees and garden plots, and a line of laundry hangs behind it, a few toys scattered in the grass below. Where the hill begins to slope downward, there are three distinct lines of cultivated plants where assorted trees, flowers, and bushes grow amongst one another. A large solar panel stretches upward next to a row of tomatoes.
Despite covering only 10 acres, the farm produces enough food for Jon to feed himself and his family.
Despite covering only 10 acres, the farm produces enough food for Jon to feed himself and his family, and there is enough extra for them to sell and give away food to others in the community. The focus is on perennials, with trees, nuts, fruits, and berries making up much of what he grows. But Jon also rotates various animals through the farm when he sees a way for them to benefit the greater system.
As we stand beside the peach trees, I ask him about the five goats hard at work in the confines of a ring of adjustable fencing, and his eyes light up. The goats are a new addition to the farm this year, and they have completely altered the landscape by eating poisonous plants and clearing out brush. He celebrates the fact that he can rely on other creatures to accomplish things on his farm far more effectively than he could. He stretches his hand out to nudge one of the goats. “Having the goats and chickens go through, [and] watching how the land regenerates and kind of balances itself out is an incredible feeling. I can’t not look at it every day and be entirely at awe.”
Jon is small in stature, but large in personality. His blonde hair peaks out from beneath a faded baseball cap, smile lines are ever-present around his eyes, and tattoos curve and weave together on his arms and legs. He is thoughtful and smart, though he can throw around swear words like a sailor. He is a young dad, war vet, humble farmer, yurt dweller, and a passionate community builder. The simplest question can lead to an impressive outpouring of knowledge, as he expounds on everything from abstract ideas about the human-nature relationship to nitty-gritty understandings of how individual plants on his farm interact with one another. When he describes how grass reacts differently to being cut with the teeth of a ruminant (such as a cow or goat) than with a metal blade, he laughs and shakes his head, muttering “freaking insane,” before getting distracted by a perfectly ripe tomato and moving on to an entirely new topic.
Jon tells me that he and his wife just sort of stumbled into the whole “farming thing.” A decade ago, they decided to try keeping a small 10-foot-by-15-foot garden plot. One afternoon, he set out to make some raised beds, and he still remembers clearly the moment when he took off his shoes and put his feet in the soil. In that instant, he says, things felt right and made sense to him, and he was hooked. At the time, Jon was readjusting to civilian life after returning from the military — a transition that proved quite difficult for him. But through it all, working in the garden was one thing that helped him stay grounded because he was able to feel a sense of purpose and simple happiness there. Years later, he found out that in healthy soil there are bacteria that, when absorbed through your pores, trigger a release of serotonin, a chemical that contributes to a sense of well-being in humans. Scientifically, then, it makes sense that working in the garden proved to be such a positive element in his life. But all Jon needed to know then was that it felt good to work in the soil, and for the decade since, he’s kept at it.
We sift through a 14-pound bucket of garlic cloves, searching for the largest ones. This garlic is from last year’s crop and has been dried, each clove ready now to return to the soil and create new life: doubling, tripling, quadrupling underground in the turn of a season. The farm is quieter today — Jon has just given away his geese to a neighbor down the road, so now there’s no sound of the two of them yelling at one another intermittently, almost like an old married couple. Nevertheless, the sounds of life surround us. The early morning hum of insects and the soft melody of birdsong provide a soundtrack for our garlic planting.
As we kneel in the beds, digging our hands into the dark earth, I think about how easy it is to forget about all that has gone into the formation of this soil. The slow seasons that made up millennia, in which the sun rose, the rain fell, and plants and animals lived and died — all contributing to a larger functioning system. It is easy to forget that land experiences time differently than we do.
Soil formation is a long and slow process, and the soils that we work in now are ancient artifacts of the glacial era of this region. Twenty three thousand years ago, an ice sheet that covered Vermont moved northward as quickly as a few meters per day, and as the ice moved, it scratched the rock below. Throughout much of Vermont, the soil that formed in the wake of this glacial movement is loamy and well-drained. The perfect soil for growing garlic.
Today we are planting in the beds that we prepared last week. Jon refuses to till the earth, instead opting for the slower, more strenuous method of using a broadfork to aerate the beds. A broadfork is a wide tool: two long handles extend up from a horizontal crossbar that connects them, and below the crossbar, eight 6-inch-long metal spokes jut out. Jon takes hold of the two handles, driving the broadfork into the earth, and then jumps onto the crossbar with both feet to dig it down into the soil. As he shifts his weight backward, the spokes heave a chunk of soil out of the ground. But as the broadfork is removed, the soil is returned — still intact — to where it came from, only with a little more air in the mix. As aggressive as this process may sound, the broadfork is remarkable because it only mildly disrupts the soil in order to prevent compaction, maintaining the soil’s structural integrity and biotic communities.
Industrial agriculture is not the only option for feeding a growing world population, he says, despite what we’ve been told.
The full process of bed preparation is long and arduous: in addition to broadforking, we haul wheelbarrow loads of compost and manure from the other side of the farm to the beds and then spread hay on top for good measure. This technique is a new one that Jon is adopting, and despite the taxing physical labor at the outset, he knows it will pay off in long-term soil health.
The air is cool and crisp with fall, but the sun is warm on our backs as we kneel in the beds, burying the cloves in the soft soil. Each bulb of garlic has been separated into individual cloves by hand — all 14 pounds of them. And each clove will grow a new full bulb. Jon explains that later in the season peas will be planted, which will benefit from the tendency of the garlic to repel pests. Additionally, as legumes, the peas will fix nitrogen in the soil. Then Jon will plant potatoes, which will benefit greatly from the additional nitrogen. He continuously tries out different rotations and combinations of plants, looking for new ways to benefit both the soil and the plants.
As I watch Jon lower himself to his knees and begin to mix the compost and manure together in the beds with his bare hands, I get the sense that this land is lucky to have him. It is not a common thing to see a human treating land fully as his equal. Yet without this sort of respect for the land we depend on, will it be feasible to heal humanity’s relationship with the earth? Jon is very aware of the need for such a shift. He says, in an almost pleading voice, that this type of farming is possible on larger scales — that industrial agriculture is not the only option for feeding a growing world population, no matter what we’ve been told. As the climate changes, farming techniques that are gentler on the land, less dependent on fossil fuels, and conducive to ecosystem resilience will be of the utmost importance.
Once the garlic cloves have been planted in a neat checkerboard pattern, Jon runs his hands lightly over the soil, smoothing it out. “This is my favorite,” he says, referring to the feeling of soil beneath palm.
Essentially, Jon’s farm is a cultivated forest — and he sees it as such. He has purposefully developed a system that is allowed to be interdependent, which increases both the health and resilience of the land, which will continue to reap the benefits of his work for a long time. He says that even after he is gone and has returned to the soil himself, the impacts of his cultivation on the land should have long-lasting positive effects, and he hopes what he has done will support many lives beyond his own.
As we sit together in Jon’s half-built goat shed, taking a break from stacking logs, morning sunlight streams through the open slats of the roof above. Jon sips his tea, and I ask him what he hopes his kids might gain from living on the farm and witnessing his approach to interacting with the land. He peers out of the side of the shed for a moment, surveying the place that he has poured so much of himself into.
Finally he says, “I don’t expect my kids to be farmers or homesteaders when they grow up, but I expect them to have an understanding of what it takes to put a meal before them, and to be thankful for the process that put that meal before them…” He pauses and looks to the dirt beneath our feet. “Everything from the soil microbes to the farmer that harvested and washed and cleaned and packed… It teaches them that we are here because of the landscape that surrounds us. The landscape is always going to be here, and it will regenerate over time, and that’s resilience. That’s I want them to understand and appreciate: what it means to be resilient.”
The Young Writers Awards, presented by Yale Environment 360 and the Oak Spring Garden Foundation, honor the best nonfiction environmental writing by authors under the age of 35. Entries for 2020 were received from six continents, with a prize of $2,000 going to the first-place winner. Read all the winners here.