Sharing the Land—Wood’s Earth Living Classroom

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Tompkins Weekly–March 13, 2012
by Audrey Baker and Lance Ebel

We all share the land. It may be parceled and purchased and taxed, but your yard is shaded by your neighbor’s trees, and your water runs from elsewhere. When people spray with chemicals or reuse organic matter for fertility, on two acres or five hundred, they impact whole ecosystems.

As conventional fertility—a convention of only the past century—becomes more costly to manufacturers, growers and ecosystems, the wisdom in good old organic methods is regaining popularity worldwide. Acre by yard, farmers, homesteaders, community groups and schools are plopping down compost piles, recycling their plant waste to grow healthy food for themselves. They are rediscovering cover crops, crop rotation, and mulches. Manure is in demand. A growing movement of people, like an organism in itself, is buzzing around, taking responsibility for our food system’s future. We are sharing knowledge, resources, ideas and, in effect, the land.

A few blocks south of Buttermilk Falls and the Ithaca Beer Company on Route 13, Steep Hollow Farm sits on a glacial delta—150 acres of fields, woods, gorges and waterfalls that have been cared for by one family for five generations. My partner Lance and I are converting a two-acre field on Steep Hollow to Wood’s Earth, an organic community gardens and living classroom.

In the early 1900s, Steep Hollow Farm housed a tobacco operation and a Morgan horse farm. These days, it houses The Sustainable Chicken Project and The Ithaca Sound Maze. Some of the fields grow sweet corn for the Maze and for the next door neighbor, Early Bird Farm.

George has been farming Early Bird his whole life, since his parents bought the land. He has graciously donated advice, time and equipment to our efforts with Wood’s Earth. Though he has always used conventional farming methods on his farm, George is getting caught up in the movement, too—for last decade, he opted to leave fallow the two-acre field we’re now using for Wood’s Earth, planting rye as a cover crop for a couple seasons. He is enthusiastic, open and helpful about the community gardens and our organic methods.

We are sourcing composted manures and kitchen, yard and crop waste from local partners to build up the soil. George is helping us set up gravity-fed irrigation and harvest gravel from a natural bank to use in the parking lot. In February, a group of volunteers helped us get 75 black locust poles in the ground for the deer fence. The community is sharing resources so that we can do the same.

Not only should the land be shared among people, but with wildlife, waterways and canopies. However, it takes work to share. To make sure native biodiversity can thrive, the land needs active, responsible management by people who care.

Wood’s Earth Living Classroom’s mission is to merge community and education to cultivate food, beauty and stewards of the land.

Wood’s Earth welcomes gardeners of all levels of experience and all ages. If you’ve never grown a thing but want to save money on organic produce and learn to garden, we offer small plots and on-site adult education. If you want a lot of space for garden experiments or just go grow a ton of food, we offer a discount on large plots. If your kids want to learn organic gardening techniques and principles, we have a children’s garden and offer youth education.

Wood’s Earth is also partnering with Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC). A group of pre-teens will head up the children’s garden design and construction, taking primary responsibility for the plot throughout the season. Teenagers in GIAC’s Conservation Corps will help us build sheds and restore a composting toilet at the end of March.

A lot can happen on two acres—a lot of compost, a lot of vegetables, a lot of learning, and a lot of sharing.

Check out for more information on Wood’s Earth Living Classroom, or to rent a community gardens plot for the 2012 season.

Wood’s Earth Living Classroom is a December 2011 recipient of a Sustainable Tompkins Neighborhood Mini-grant.

Audrey Baker has developed and taught garden-based food programs for kids in Ithaca and Pittsburgh. Now, along with Wood’s Earth stuff, Audrey is working with Northeast Elementary School to develop a garden program integrated with the curriculum and food programs.

Lance Ebel has always had an intense interest in nature, wildlife and the environment. He currently runs his own small business, Newleaf Environmental LLC, that helps private landowners manage natural resources on their property. He also enjoys spending time teaching kids and adults about wildlife and ecology.

Audrey and Lance thought up Wood’s Earth in November, after a long walk in the woods. They fell in love that way, too.

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