Aldona Bird, Columns/Opinion

The art behind a naturally grown farm

Max Dubansky said when he was growing up he felt like an artist, but couldn’t find his medium.
Now he fulfills his artistic calling through farming.
Max and his wife, Katharine and their children and apprentices are in their 20th season operating Backbone Food Farm. When I toured their farm, even before Max mentioned art, I was struck by the beauty. Not only was the surrounding landscape pretty, but the way they plowed and cultivated their garden acreage was stunning.
Alternating wide rows of veggies and cover crops rolled down a soft slope, with windmills turning on the horizon beyond the farm. Pigs — with three litters of piglets — squealed in a pasture, beef cows and a few family Jersey cows grazed in another.
“We’re trying to grow soil,” Max said. “Vegetables are just a by-product.” He added that once soil is fertile, just about anything can be grown.
“Good soil is like money in the bank,” he said.
This philosophy lead them to lay out their land in the alternating rows I saw — one year they grow in a row, then next plant a cover crop to rejuvenate the land. They till the cover crop under and add compost and manure from their animals.
Other than these all-natural supplements, Max said, “We just depend on the natural fertility of the soil.”
He explained that he and Katharine never used any chemical fertilizers or pest controls — not even those considered to be “organic.” The farm is certified naturally grown (a farmer to farmer certification).
For years Max plowed his land with work horses, although he is now between teams.
“Work horses add another whole dimension,” Max said, adding that he is waiting for just the pair to add to his farm.
“I love old tractors, too. My new-est tractor is from 1967,” Max said.
Most farm tours I’ve taken have kept me in the fields of veggies, pastures, high tunnels, greenhouses, with only occasional shade under a random apple tree or such. By contrast, Max led me past high tunnels and a smaller vegetable patch integrated with fruit trees and berry bushes before we started into the woods.
Backbone Food Farm produces extra special products, and to see them we went into the surrounding forest and to the edge of a creek. First, Max showed me stacks of logs, inoculated with Shiitake mushrooms.
“We can do it on waste product,” Max said, saying that the 1,000 logs they’d started this year were from the tops of trees left after logging.
The logs sit for a year, after which they are soaked in stream water for 24 hours and then stacked. Within a week, the mushrooms pop out and are ready to harvest. They let the logs rest for a month before repeating and getting a few more harvests.
They also grow oyster mushrooms, on pastured hay packed into bags hung in a temperature and humidity controlled room.
“The mushrooms have been fascinating to fool around with,” Max said. “I’ll never be bored for the rest of my life.”
“I like going to market and seeing people’s reactions,” Katharine said. She added that customers expressing their enjoyment of Backbone Food Farm sausage makes the tougher job of slopping the hogs easier.
I enjoyed mushrooms, salad mix, carrots, rhubarb and other veggies from Backbone Food Farm for some years now. Seeing the living and growing art of the farm and learning more from Max and Katharine, my enjoyment of their healthy soil by-products already increased.