Seeds of Solidarity founders release new memoir

The Recorder, April 4, 2019, by Richie Davis

Deb Habib and Ricky Baruch first met at Cape Cod’s New Alchemy Institute in 1984, fell in love and bonded over visionary, down-to-earth principles they would plant at their Seeds of Solidarity Farm in Orange. But their new memoir, “Making Love While Farming,” i s n’t simply about farming.

What the 290-page book’s authors call a “field guide to a life of passion and purpose” describes their journey in social and political action by growing food as well as resilient communities, through their nonprofit Seeds of Solidarity Educational Center and the North Quabbin Garlic and Arts Festival, which they helped create in 1999.

That may sound like a tall order for agriculture. But as they write, “Seeds of Solidarity is not your typical farm” — in part because it’s on rocky soil on the forest’s edge in a hardscrabble town that isn’t a thriving market for mesclun and salad greens.

Plus, their patchwork of gardens and greenhouses is on land that hadn’t been farmed for many decades.

The 30 acres was all the couple could afford when they bought it in late 1996, but they demonstrated that, even without heavy equipment, food can be grown almost anywhere.

“Long abandoned and undeveloped, with no rich riverbottom loam and, in fact, no farming-worthy soil at all,” Baruch and Habib write, this land off the electric grid was perfect for demonstrating the couple’s can-do attitude and boundless energy. It meant bringing in truckloads of cheap manure and compost, plus oodles of cardboard, which they put directly on the barren land and topped with manure to form 3½-by-75-foot layered beds to encourage worms to build up the soil.

“Day after day we layered cardboard,” they write of their lasagna-like approach, “and planted these with fast-growing salad greens as soon as the beds were made,” with the help of a makeshift irrigation system fed by nearby springs and rainwater collected in old pickle barrels.

“Cardboard is the perfect worm food,” writes Baruch in a section of the book, “and worm casings are the perfect plant food.”

The farmers focused first on cultivating fast-growing salad greens for high-end restaurants and markets.

While living in a one-room cottage they’d built, they soon added the first of several greenhouses as they gradually added new beds.

They brought in apprentices to help, and ran workshops to inspire new farmers to “ditch their rototiller and connect with the soil” using intensive organic approaches. Along with creating a working farm on land some thought was impossible, Habib and Baruch have built a market that allows them to now sell much of their produce at their remote roadside farmstand, in part by conveying to neighbors the value of fresh, local produce. It also sells to Quabbin Harvest Food Co-op.

“If we are truly to feed communities and ourselves,” they write, “we cannot depend solely on existing farmland but must create communitybased gardens and small farms in as many settings as possible. Building soil and growing on land that is not considered agricultural is critical to our food supply. River bottomland — once highly sought after — now gets 100year floods three years in a row!”

Habib and Baruch are also atypical because their farm is tied to a much larger set of tenets described in their book, which will be celebrated with 6:30 p.m. readings April 11 at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment in Amherst and April 17 at the Athol Public Librar y.

The best known of these is “Grow Food Everywhere,” which guides the education center’s Seeds of Leadership (SOL) Garden program for teens, as well as its Grow Food Everywhere for Health and Justice projects that involve building garden plots around the North Quabbin region.

Their weekly after-school program has involved 450 North Quabbin teens in connecting with the soil to grow their own food and work together to contribute to their community.

Meanwhile, working with grants aimed at curbing addiction, turning around the lives of incarcerated and atrisk populations, the nonprofit has also built raised-bed gardens for low-income residents and helped train future gardeners at the Franklin County jail, New England Learning Center for Women in Transition and at health centers, libraries and school gardens to encourage better nutrition and inspire self-reliance.

Some of the funding comes from grants Habib has applied for, but some is a byproduct of the annual Garlic and Arts Festival that attracts 10,000 people each fall.

The festival is a way of spreading the word not just about locally grown food, but also about solar energy that’s used to power the festival’s three stages (as well as Habib and Baruch’s home and farm) and biodiesel (which powers their vehicles.) “Making Love While Farming” describes in detail how Habib and Baruch, each charting individual paths after dropping out of college, went their own ways after New Alchemy: Baruch doing organic farming near Ithaca, N.Y., where he also learned carpentry, and Habib studying environmental design and yoga as well as multicultural and environmental education.

Reunited and married in 1994 at the Leverett Peace Pagoda, they spent their honeymoon on an eight-month International Pilgrimage for Peace and Life, walking from Auschwitz to Hiroshima and witnessing firsthand the effects of the first Gulf War.

The book — equal parts memoir, inspiration and handbook — aims to pass along the couple’s life lessons.

“Doing something like farming, or other pursuits such as being artists, activists or healers over the long haul requires not only creativity and resilience, but that we take care of our relationships,” Habib said. “We wanted to express and explain through a book … one couple’s attempt to live relatively simply. … We wanted to express that — especially in disruptive times — taking risks for one’s beliefs and seeking the sacred in everyday life is fulfilling and essential.”