Apifera Farm - where art, story, animals & woman merge. Home to artist Katherine Dunn

Apifera Farm is a registered 501 [c][3]. All images ar©Katherine Dunn.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Before Apifera

I have wondered, if I leave Apifera or die, will it cease to exist? This sounds so pompous, but I do realize that it is my energy and ideas that created Apifera, along with those of my side kick, Martyn. Without us two, it would be someone else's property to steward, evolving through their energy.

We are just stewards here. I feel that way about houses, they take on the souls of the keepers. Some keep the house in a warm light, others neglect a structure leaving it wounded and relieved when new tenants show up.

"I hope this one paints my walls a lighter color," it might be thinking.

I know this farm was once a working dairy. I felt a sense of sadness in the entire place, that it didn't have a purpose any more. I could feel the hard work the first owner put into it all. Every time we fixed something or improved something, I would think of those first farmers and how it would make them happy to see the place going back to a use.

The photo here is from our first months at Apifera. It never ceases to inspire me to look at old photos of our arrival. While I sometimes feel like I am moving fast enough, I see how much we have done. There was a very neglected but worthy old barn and fields that hadn't been maintained for many years. Anything you might see now if you come to Pie Day was probably not here-the vegetable area, fencing, paddocks, gardens, arbors, decks, orchard, boundary trees river front trees to name some things. There was a lot of bramble, in fact the current donkey area was almost all bramble and Stella and Iris had an important job, which they did well over the years. There was no chicken coop, no donkeys or sheep, no Misfits, no red horse to ride. There was a lot of debris–a lot of debris–and a lot of cats living in the debris, or being born in it. You might know if you've followed along, I trapped, spayed and neutered over 25 cats that first year or so, and many of them are still with us including Big Tony who now resides in the Big House, and Mama Kitty, still feral but living on the deck with two 10 year old sons. I think we are currently at 10 cats-it's getting sparse!

In a way it is eery to look at this photo. My life then was very different. I was just settling in, reforming my identity with myself and new home, exploding out of city life into a rural area I didn't know. My art career was in total transition going from the known to the unknown. I was making little money and the economy was crashing. We sold our houses right before the crash. We were younger, in our early forties, and we worked into post dusk then. I remember that, how hot it was that first summer, and we didn't have the irrigation from the river yet, so we hauled hoses down to the lavender field to try to get our young field established. The local farmers, actually mainly the ones that weren't farmers but liked do act like farmers, scoffed at our non pesticide ways. One guy said,

"So can you make any money on that lavender?" in a very demeaning way. He's not farming any more. We are.

That winter we had the floods and lost a lot of our young field. But we tried to save it all through a two week period, hand trenching drain areas as we soaked up the rains. It was a mess. But we learned a lot about our land that winter. You see people move into the area and plant stuff, and you know they will learn a lot about their land in that first year. It's just how it works.

We made so many mistakes, some pretty funny-like planting the rows too close together so we couldn't drive our tractor between the rows. Oops. We refused to take out any rows, so for the first few years we hand weeded everything-because we also refused to use weed barrier [thank goodness we didn't] or pesticides. Man, I can remember nights just sitting in the field and sort of crying, I was so tired and felt like I was in a Greek myth, pushing the same boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down. We had 4000 plants back then, by the time I got to the end of a row, which took about 2 hours, I swear the weeds grew back where I first started.

I got smart and put the animals to work. I believe in seeking out an animal's purpose and letting them incorporate that into their life. They are happier with their own skill at work. I have failed Muddy, the younger chocolate lab that way, he has no job except Frisbee which I have little time to really play. Seeing Marcella already starting to work is wonderful, and it reminds me how I've failed Mud a bit. Not Huck, his job is to be an old soul and he did it well from a pup on. So anyway, I first put the donkeys in the lavender as they loved teasel and thistle and it worked great for about a month but they began to eat the fresh buds of the plants. The next season, we discovered that the sheep didn't eat the lavender and they became our main weeders. It cut down on our annual weed around the plant manual labor, and it sure looked pretty too. About four years into it, we realized the young ram lambs like lavender and I now have to time it and put them in at just the right time. We didn't have as much fencing then either and now have much more area to cross pasture our flock-good for them and the fields. I always said if I woke up filthy rich-besides buying some new boots and sharing some of it, I'd save most of it but I'd hire a fence crew to reshape the fences and do all wood corners. I envy a field of professional fencing! But you do your best.

Farming is creative that way–it is a daily puzzle and you have to roll with the punches. One animal gets sick and you might have to change the mix in the barnyard to let him recover properly. You see a fencing issue and have to drop everything to deal with it or suffer the consequences. I like that about my life, it's engaging, manual, fertile, expanding daily. I never lack for something to do, or figure out. It keep me sane, really.


Anonymous said...

We hav eclose friends who farmed 700 acres of mint in wisconsin for over 45 years, 2nd generation. He worked with his brother 17 hour days every day...I think most of us have no comprehensin of the work, the connection the that particular piece of land and the soul that is part of it. Rocks uphill and then some....xox

Cherity said...

This sounds so familiar, but I'm just at the beginning of this process. It's exciting and overwhelming and beautiful...and exhausting...just like you say.

Katherine Dunn said...

Corrine- wow, that is farming. I can't even compare myself to my uncle who farmed his whole life in ND, or the many other farmers who farm big tracts of land. Our small operation of 22 acres is big enough, but I have great respect for good farmers. Cherity-it is overwhelming! I didn't mention though how even on bad days there was so much good- and we sat under the sky at night with wine and watched the stars. Enjoy!

Jim said...

Great photo. Like very much how you've stayed true to your anti-pesticide beliefs and gotten through, done well, and can be proud of farming with the land instead of against it. Can't remember how, but I found your blog through some Minnesota connection--my old grandmother who grew up on a farm in Iowa then married my grandfather to continue just across the border, wrote out her history in longhand at the request of my mother; in it she states very strongly that they felt that they must leave the land in better shape than when they found it--what farmer can say that now?--too many chemical shortcuts. But you can. Good luck to you in all your efforts.

Katherine Dunn said...

You know Jim, I grew up in Minn and lived there until my 40's with some bouts away in NYC or other places but the midwest is my homeland. I can understand how certain help with pesticides is needed in huge farms-it is daunting! But, we do our best.

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Thank you for reading! The farm and my art/writing keep me hopping, so might not respond immediately. Thank you for understanding. ~Katherine & Apifera ~