Farmer takes a year off to give herself—and the land—a rest
Elizabeth Keen, here at Indian Line Farm, reaped the benefits that come with breaking from convention, as did her husband, Al Thorp, and their two children.
Photo by Peter Baiamonte
It is winter, and the below-grade farmland at the westernmost end of Jug End Road in South Egremont lies dormant beneath low-hanging clouds. Rows of golden oats and pea cover crop mark the nearly six acres where farmer Elizabeth Keen has been cultivating the land of her 17-acre Indian Line Farm and feeding the community for more than two decades. Following a spate of challenges ranging from labor issues to acquiring more acreage for growing, Keen recognized that both she and the land were at risk of becoming muddy and uninspired. Last year, to honor her 20-year commitment to farming, Keen made a bold decision: She took a sabbatical and, in a nod to the Biblical derivation of the word, so did the land.
This fairly obscure, albeit time-honored tradition more often reserved for college professors than farmers, espouses the benefits to come “during the seventh year [when] the land shall have a sabbath rest,” according to Leviticus, 25:3-5. Keen acknowledge that “agriculture, even for the best farmer, is such an aggressive activity” that it can destroy soil structure, biology, and health.
Gesturing down to the sweeping fields lying in repose, Keen points out clover mixes that will be left for two years to establish impressive roots. This aids in harnessing minerals from the depths of the soil, resulting in nutrient-rich upper layers and breaking through hardpan, an impervious layer below the soil that impairs drainage and plant growth. By not tilling and letting cover crops grow undisturbed, it is an introspective time, of sorts—one that Keen recognized she stood to benefit from as well.
Keen grew up in a Southern, Christian, right-wing home, where her father was an Episcopal priest, before matriculating at the super-liberal Colorado College, which she calls “eye opening.” She found the Berkshires quite by accident, when a group of friends with whom she had spent three years volunteering in Guatemala, as part of Witness for Peace, planned a 1,000-mile bike trip through New England.
Indian Line Farm—the place, the moniker, the concept are all something that Keen feels closely connected to. It was established in 1985 by Robyn Van En, Jan Vander Tuin, and a coalition of local citizens. One of the first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms in the country, it was named for its location along the “Indian Line”—a strip of land originally deeded to the Housatunnuck Nation in 1736 as part of a larger corridor between the Housatonic and Hudson rivers. In 1997, after Van En died of an asthma attack at the age of 49, Keen took up farming the land with her husband.
While Keen is passionate about her work—a vocation she arrived at after just six months of training with David Inglis at Mahaiwe Harvest in Great Barrington—she fully acknowledges that it is a choice rather than an obligation. To illustrate that distinction, she has taken her two children to parts of the world where the privilege of choice is not so available. One such place during her yearlong sabbatical was the tiny village of Santa María Tzejá in Guatemala, where the lack of running water and scant access to education stood in stark contrast to the bounty that Keen and her family enjoy.
She is markedly humble, hardly considering that others might follow in her footsteps. Keen is cognizant that her model is not a reality for all farmers. Through meticulous planning, Keen has always employed the historical practice of taking Sundays off—what she calls a really good practice for human beings. It’s also an example to her daughter, Helen, 10, and son, Colin, 13, of “how we can take better care of ourselves.”
With her seed order long since completed and her three full-time employees hired, Keen is looking ahead to March 15, when she turns on the greenhouse and starts leeks, onions, beets, and chard to be transplanted later. By the end of the first week of April, she will be direct-seeding spinach, Japanese turnips, radishes, early lettuces, and mustard greens. Half the farm will be covered in floating row cover, giant white sheets of spun-polyester cloth, that will guarantee a harvest by June 1—earlier if spring is warm.
As to the success of the sabbath year? Only time will tell. For Keen, who had become “so narrowly focused here on this little patch of earth,” that period was about finding balance. Given the recent drought, she was happy to leave her soil undisturbed during the 2016 growing season; Keen hopes the opportunity for rest will be reflected in productive crops in the coming years.
As to the bigger picture, she has experienced a shift in perspective. Engaging in meaningful work and cultivating projects that bring inspiration are the keys to any mutually beneficial relationship, Keen believes. And so, for the undulating fields at Indian Line Farm and the farmer who tends them, the old adage rings true: In order to feed others, we must first feed ourselves.