The Measure of Everything

Author/farmer Mike Madison’s view from the tractor seat

A book review by Cheryl Angelina Koehler 

Photos by Scott Peterson

Mike Madison is a farmer by day and a writer by night. Well … that may not be a fair statement, since fruitful ruminations rarely ebb and flow with the diurnal cycle. Safer to say that with numerous book credits to his name, a novel or two in progress, and decades of writing for periodicals like Edible East Bay, Edible Sacramento, Gourmet, Saveur, and The New York Times, Madison fills his days with far more than pulling weeds, picking produce, and—since he doesn’t like to kill them—herding pests around his 21-acre farm in Winters, California.

Aficionados of the farmer/writer genre—perhaps those who loved Novella Carpenter’s Ghost Town Farm, Mas Masumoto’s Epitaph for a Peach, or Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle—would do well to track down a copy of Madison’s now-out-of-print Blithe Tomato (2006), an engaging collection of the farmer’s musings on the vendors and customers he encounters while selling his fruits, flowers, leafy greens, and value-added products at the Davis Farmers’ Market. The vignettes effectively frame a discussion of the myriad ways to go about farming and participating in the local food economy: “It is not just the vegetable beds that need cultivating. The farmer must also cultivate himself, for he too has his weedy tendencies.”

It was a different sort of pen that Madison picked up to write his more recent book, Fruitful Labor: Deep Ecology of a Small Farm. His dry wit, ascendant in Blithe Tomato, goes undercover in Fruitful Labor with Madison’s more serious angle on his oft-repeated subject: his own milieu.

Fruitful Labor poses as a handbook of information and analysis that could be quite useful to a new or would-be farmer—specifically one who wants to keep it small and organic. But such a description would overlook the value of this book to a reader with no agricultural aspirations. I speculate that any conscious consumer of “sustainably produced” food might find this book of interest.

As in two of his earlier books—A Sense of Order: The Rural Landscape of Lower Putah Creek (2002) and Walking the Flatlands: The Rural Landscape of the Lower Sacramento Valley (2004)—Madison reveals himself as a keen observer of the layered universe of his own little farm as he examines it in astonishing detail. We are shown the shape and measure of seemingly everything that contributes to the farm’s relevance as a food producer in an ecologically fragile world.

“The method of the work is based on close observation and informal experimentation. Observation is not so simple as it would seem; humans tend to see what they expect to see rather than what is really there, and vigilance is required to avoid this trap.”

Trained as a botanist, Madison brings the researcher’s curiosity into a quest for meaningful patterns in the copious data he hand-harvests along with his flowers, cucumbers, and watermelons. In Fruitful Labor, we follow his process in considering what to plant and where to plant it; how, where, and how often to irrigate; what equipment to buy and maintain versus rent or share; who does the work (it’s mostly himself); how to deal with pests without killing them; and how to tend the soil in ways that build its function and fertility. Many conclusions are eye opening to a lay reader:

“Soil nutrients can be lost from the farm by soil erosion …; by leaching out of the root zone into groundwater; and by harvesting crops which are sold off the farm.”

 Trucking in replacement nutrients requires what British farmer/writer Chris Smaje refers to as ghost acreage (offsite land where the compost items are grown and/or processed). The ghosts proliferate as Madison uncovers hidden carbon costs in many of his activities: He discusses tractors and other equipment, looking at their lifespan from the mining and milling of metals through the years of decay out in the farm landscape. Reading through Madison’s equipment section, I’m reminded of Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff” (storyofstuff.org), a charming animated documentary about the ecological costs of making, using, and discarding all the
stuff in our lives.

In Fruitful Labor, Madison calculates the deep values of all inputs (supplies), outputs (products), and efforts (the work itself), and he shows how a “conventional” farmer might rearrange those values. It’s a stark contrast between a business that puts profit first and another that calculates quality of life and stewardship of nature into the bottom line.

Madison first signals his philosophy on this matter in the book’s subtitle, Deep Ecology of a Small Farm, and then defines the operating term in his introductory section: “Deep ecology advocates the rights and values of all species regardless of their utility to human enterprises. It promotes a program of radical restructuring and simplification of human life in deference to sustained health of all ecosystems.”

Raised on a small Sacramento Valley flower farm, Madison did not set out to follow the family plow. While earning three degrees in tropical botany at Harvard and then years of fieldwork in the western Amazon basin and eastern slope of the Andes, Madison developed a deep relationship with nature that fostered, as he describes it, “a particular congeniality with all sorts of organisms.”

In Fruitful Labor we meet some of the wild creatures Madison encounters on his farm: “The black-tailed hare, a superb athlete who carries with dignity his absurd ears; barn swallows, who fly so adeptly and joyfully; and the little burrowing spiders that run nimbly about among the weeds.” He turns the lens around to show how a Swainson’s hawk, seasonally resident on the farm, might observe the farmer at his work:

The hawk has learned that when I am driving the tractor—plowing or mowing—small creatures are often flushed from the tractor’s path and make for an easily caught lunch. And so he glides down from his high perch and settles on a fence post or a flimsy branch of a nearby tree where he can keep a close eye on my work. Whether he considers man-on-tractor to be a different species of animal than man-walking I do not know, but he is fearless of man-on-tractor. I can drive within two meters of him, seeing clearly his fierce countenance, and he does not fly away.

Such passages convey a palpable delight in the craft of writing. Wondering how Madison would describe the significance of an additional time-intensive avocation in his long days working on the farm, I ask and receive this reply:

I write in order to discover what I think. That is, I believe that I understand a subject until I try to write about it; then I find that my ideas are riddled with contradictions and discontinuities. In this case, I had always assumed that my farming is “sustainable” (given the many dimensions of that word). By systematically describing it on paper I reached the discouraging conclusion that in a broad sense it is not sustainable: Despite following what appear to be ecologically righteous practices, the operation is nonetheless heavily dependent on fossil fuels and the grid.

He adds: “Maybe all this gives me a starting place from which I can think about ways to change things
for the better.” 

From Fruitful Labor: Deep Ecology of a Small Farm

Table 1 includes 204 cultivars represented by more than 50,000 plants. This is not just a randomly selected jumble of crops, however. It is the product of three decades of evolution, during which time I have figured out exactly what to grow, when to plant it, and how much to plant, in order to have a steady production that will exactly meet the demands of the market. For example, I make 26 separate plantings of sunflowers for bunching at approximately one week intervals, starting in February, with the cultivars changing throughout the season to accommodate different adaptations to day length. When I shift from ‘Pro-Cut’ to ‘Superior Sunset’ in the first week of July, I make a planting of each on the same day; Superior Sunset is a 58 day crop as opposed to 50 days for ‘Pro-Cut,’ and so the harvests will be a week apart despite same-day planting. Other sunflower cultivars, which produce smaller sunflowers on a branching plant that are useful for bouquets, are sown on a different schedule. This is not a scheme I figured out in just one year; it was arrived at following years of observation.

For more information on Madison and his work, visit yolopress.net.

Cheryl Angelina Koehler is the editor and publisher of Edible East Bay and author of Touring the Sierra Nevada, published by University of Nevada Press.

Scott Peterson is our cover photographer for this issue.  See his bio on the Table of Contents page.