Shmita and Perennial Agriculture

“Now the Sabbath-yield of the land (is) for you, for eating for you, for your servant and for your handmaid, for your hired-hand and for your resident-settler who sojourn with you; and for your domestic-animal and the wild-beast that (are) in your land shall be all its produce, to eat.”

Leviticus 25: 6-7

If the land yields food in a Shmita year that has grown without the sowing of seeds or the tilling of soil, then according to Scriptural Law, that food is considered Sabbath-yield and is permitted.*  Clearly an agricultural system that emphasizes food obtained from plants which either re-grow from their roots each year, or which are permanent fixtures of the landscape such as trees, shubs and vines, will produce more useable food during a Shmita year than one that is primarily based on crops which require the soil to be tilled and re-seeded every year.

Intriguingly, whatever our motivation may be for aspiring to a Shmita-friendly agricultural system, with doing so would come layer upon layer of tangible, ecological benefits.

According to Eric Toensmeier, author of Perennial Vegetables: From Artichoke to ‘Zuiki’ Taro, a Gardener’s Guide to Over 100 Delicious, Easy-to-Grow Edibles, perennials can be low maintenance: they do not need to be re-sown each year, and with their larger root systems, can draw nutrients and water from deep in the soil. They are soil builders: they “improve the soil’s organic matter, structure and porosity, and water-holding capacity through the slow and steady decomposition of their roots and leaves.” They provide ecosystem benefits: their root systems hold water, and they provide habitat to beneficial garden plants and animals. And they sequester carbon dioxide in their deep root systems.

Jerry Glover is another advocate for perennial crops, particularly, in his case, wheat. Glover is part of a movement of plant breeders and agricultural scientists working to develop new breeds of perennial grain crops that could replace some or all of the annual species currently in use around the world. The focus on grain crops is important because about 70% of all of the world’s cropland is in grain production, according to National Geographic.

Such research is moving forward in the part of the Pacific Northwest known as the Palouse, which is one of the world’s most productive wheat-growing regions. The hope there is that by reducing tillage, wind and soil erosion can be avoided. In Perennial Wheat: the development of a sustainable cropping system  for the U.S., Pacific Northwest, published in the American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, the authors look at some new wheat varieties that are being tested for productivity, with the hope that they could be used in certain soil conditions in combination with traditional varieties of wheat to reduce soil erosion, enhance wildlife habitat, and provide other benefits such as water retention and carbon sequestration.

One of the practices I am incorporating into my personal Shmita awareness is learning about perennial food producing plants that I can one day incorporate into my landscape (starting in 5776, since another of my practices is to lay off planting new things in my garden in 5775!) This year, I plan to learn more about plants that I might want to  grow and explore the possibility of growing them in our shul’s garden. Maybe at some point I will have the opportunity to teach about those plants, encouraging others to try some perennial vegetables in their own gardens – so that they will be ready with harvests to enjoy by 5782, the next Shmita year.

I will also look for ways to support the development of perennial grain harvests. Every day we read about the rigor with which the Earth is worked to produce annual commodity crops, such as wheat, corn, canola, and soy. The soil is tilled, leading to erosion and destruction of native microbe communities, then it is sprayed with chemicals to prevent weeds and pests. The cycle seems to be a vicious one, as more chemicals are needed as the pests adapt, and more fertilizer is needed as the natural productivity of the soil is not allowed to regrow. Chemicals then flow off the land, where they  pollute water bodies and kill fish. Farms are no longer wholesome places to raise children, and clearly they are not welcoming places for wildlife.

In contrast, Shmita offers a vision of agriculture in which people and wildlife are welcome and nourished; a vision of an Earth which belongs to God and is entrusted to us as a perpetually renewable gift. May there come a day when we learn to treat it as such!

*Rabbinic law does not allow the use of plants which may regrow from seeds dropped the previous year, or which otherwise look exactly like plants which are prohibited, in the belief that people may cheat. See Rambam, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Shmita v’Yovel 4.1-3 (source: Shmita Sourcebook)


Sukkot, Shmita and Vulnerability

In his d’var Torah for Parashat Nitzavim-VaYelekh, Rabbi Shai Held gets to the heart of a concept that unites Sukkot and Shmita – vulnerability.  During Sukkot, we dwell in fragile huts in which we are conscious of every breath of wind, of every drop of rain, of the warmth of the sun filtered by the shade of vegetation. Even starlight, which connects us far beyond the world of our daily experience and out into the vast universe, is intended to be part of the experience of dwelling in a sukkah.  The fragility of the sukkah is an aspect of its very permeability and connection to the world outside of itself. The entire community is enjoined to share this experience of dwelling in a fragile structure, a partially open structure, and we are called upon to offer our friendship, our hospitality, our gifts, to friends. From our place of vulnerability we build community, offering, and accepting, gifts of food and friendship.

In the end, Sukkot causes us to feel within our bones that our protection, in the end, is not in being cut off, from nature, from risk, from one another, but precisely in our immersion within the wholeness of the world – of nature, of the universe, and most importantly, of the wholeness that comes from being in relationship with one another.

The Shmita year likewise opens us up to experience vulnerability and connection. But unlike Sukkot, which lasts a single week, Shmita lasts an entire year; and whereas Sukkot provides, for most of us, only a simulation of vulnerability, the Shmita year asks for much more. Literally, the Shmita year asks us to release our tight hold, and to accept God’s gifts as gifts. We are required to deeply take in our reliance on natural processes that are outside of our control. We are asked to release our sense of ownership of productive, food producing land and to see it as, in the end, a gift from God, intended to nourish all life. We are asked to shift our focus from accumulation, to use, and then to sharing. We are asked to release our economic control over one another, or subservience to one another, that comes about as a result of indebtedness. We are asked to trust that there will be enough for all, and to make it so.

This heightened vulnerability would, of necessity, lead to a heightened experience of connectedness, with the productive landscape, with the processes that govern its bringing forth food, and with our companions, human and non-human, who share the land with us.

It is striking how often we hear about disaster bringing a community together. Think of the Oso landslide in our area – or Hurricaine Katrina. Out of a tragedy that blindly strikes a community, each person is brought to the raw experience best captured in that old expression, which I intensely dislike but find irreplaceable sometimes, “there but for the grace of God go I.”  From the authenticity of that realization emerges the response: the ones who run in with aid, with comfort, with food, with a blanket, a room for a stranger, the tools and the skills to rebuild. From the depth of awful circumstance arises a  community with a renewed sense of a purpose beyond their individual selves, and faith founded in direct experience in the goodness, the dependability, of fellow human beings. It seems to me that these holidays, Sukkot and Shmita, ask us to build these conditions, to respond, and to form this awareness, through the regular, voluntary acceptance and experience of vulnerability.

This very repetition is surely intended to develop and strengthen  our response, our willingness to stand in a gift relationship with one another and the wider world. In much of our daily life, we are asked to put our faith in the “market economy,” which enables (some of) us to purchase what we need free of any encumbrance by entangling relationships. However as Michael Sandel sets out to prove in his book, What Money Can’t Buy, “Altruism, generosity, solidarity, and civic spirit are not like commodities that are depleted with use. They are more like muscles that develop and grow stronger with exercise.” Our tradition requires that we stand in a particular relationship to one another, and, I would assert, to the Earth. Sukkot and Shmita in particular provide us with regular opportunities to bring our conscious awareness to those relationships.

Rabbi Held concludes his d’var with the observation that “genuine community requires compassion, and compassion, in turn, depends on admitting our own vulnerability. … Community becomes possible … when we realize and accept that we are all susceptible to being hurt and are, crucially for the Torah, all equally dependent on God.”

This, then, is what Sukkot and Shmita have in common – the intention of building a world up from an authentic experience of vulnerability, community, and our shared dependence on God.