In The Weeds

catchup-12Nine months ago, the hard-neck garlic went into the ground.  We fifteen wide-eyed and eager student farmers, just weeks into our academic year, cased the immaculate field unbroken by latent weeds, its rows of square-shouldered beds unmarked by foot or trowel.

The whole year lay ahead of us. We blessed, buried and patted each clove as we inched along the rows.  A third of the way into the nine thousand-clove planting, we got a taste of the blisters and aching backs to come.  But our morale soared. We were drunk on the novelty of dirty fingernails an afternoon working under the autumn sun.

Since that November day, we’ve revisited our garlic field countless times: covering and uncovering it with mulch, digging through snow to check for green shoots, weeding and worrying and more endless weeding. And now, finally, August: harvest time.

catchup-13In case you haven’t noticed, it’s been a few weeks since I last checked in.  Between dawn-to-dusk days at the farm, a few fleeting evening hours with my family, weekend chores, visitors and a ballooning sleep deficit, I’ve had little left over for reflection, let alone time for writing any of it down.

But to try and catch you up briefly, the time has passed like this:

Wet: Last month, we were pummeled by weeks of rain that drowned salad greens, stifled tomatoes, delayed planting and let weeds run wild while we waited for things to dry out. This created gaps in our CSA boxes, leaving us in the uncomfortable position of buying corn and blueberries from other farms.

As a result, our head grower, Tyson, has had just as many sleepless nights as Dina and I – and we have an infant.  But our farm’s struggles are not unique. Enterprise Farm (where Dina and I used to get our CSA share) wrote in their newsletter that this year has been the most challenging growing season they’d seen in 29 years.

So we turn field after field of unmarketable vegetables back into the soil and hope that, for our customers, a bumper crop of tomatoes will erase memories of June and July’s lean pickings.

Hot:  As soon as the rains eased, we were gobsmacked by a smothering heat wave. And it wasn’t just the seven-day stretch of 95-degree days. The jungle-like humidity pushed the misery- and bugginess-index to a level I’ve never experienced.

Never mind all that, though. We had to get our fields back in shape, so we ventured out each day, sweating through every dry stitch and misting ourselves with gallons of ‘natural’ (read: ineffectual) bug spray. One particularly swampy day spent transplanting, the sweat that poured from my arms and chest soaked my Carhartts clear below the knees.  The lunch crew prepped jugs of switchel, a traditional New England concoction, familiar to hay farmers and vile to many, of water, black strap molasses, apple cider vinegar, salt and ginger.  Fellow student-farmer Anne Cavanaugh described it as ‘a whipping from the inside.’  But martyrs we were not. This is Farm School, after all, so on the fifth-straight day of trellising unruly tomatoes, popsicles and ice cream were had by all.

catchup-17Disillusioned: The stress, pace and sheer physical demands of the past few weeks drove more than a few of us to tears. But the pain hasn’t been without insight. Last Thursday, Nora and I loaded a truck with the best produce we could eek from the fields and drove to the Belmont farmers market, seventy miles east. The first few hours passed pleasantly enough: a band played, sunlight fell on happy customers, and we were on pace to have our first thousand-dollar day of the season.  But at four-o’clock, the skies opened. Within minutes, we were thoroughly soaked, our produce largely ruined, shoppers scampered to the comfort of nearby grocery stores.

Nora and I stood there shivering in the empty parking lot and shook our heads. Farming.

For months we’d broken our backs, soaked and baked and sweat, fought deer, pests and weeds only to make $600 under a tent and then watch the rest get washed away by the rains – again. Maybe this is the most common story of farming – the ongoing dance with weather and unpredictability.  But right then, the frustration-bordering-on-futility of farming came through in Technicolor. For all intents and purposes, this is an experiment for me – I’m a student. If instead it were my livelihood and only chance to feed my family, I would have hung my head in that rainstorm and cried.

catchup-14So where does this leave me?  It’s too early (and I’m probably too tired) to say.  Idealism and uncertainty have been my constant warring companions since day one at Farm School. But there was something about the garlic fields, now unrecognizable through the weeds – that unsettled me. We pulled off a great crop. The garlic came in quickly, our bodies harder and stronger by our year of work. Harder and stronger, yes, but the bone-tired feeling now deep in our muscles gave an edge to the sweetness of our harvest.

I love this work.  I believe in it. I think I’m good at it.  But growing food for money and not for the miracle of it can have the same relentless feeling of a nine-to-five – this one with no guarantee of a payday.  In part, Dina and I started down this road because we feel at our richest with a good meal and loved ones to share it with.  But when the work of growing means eating peanut butter on a fork for dinner and putting off friends until winter, the virtue in the work is drowned by weariness and is, at the very least, unsustainable.  No declarations yet, but these days, that point feels uncomfortably close.

catchup-18More photos from the heat, rain and harvests can be found HERE.

 

6 comments

  • August 4, 2013 at 1:28 am // Reply

    I feel your pain. I was in tears too at one point, absolutely exhausted and fraught and we are no where near being able to sell excess crops, especially as this year we had six weeks with no significant rainfall. I had a week in Florence for a conference and it felt so relaxing compared to the worry of what to do in the allotments and physically all I had to do was walk to and from the university for lectures. Admittedly I did choose not to even think about the weeds when I get back, because there was nothing I could do about it. I do hope you get the space to think and reflect and choose the best way forward for yourself and your family.

  • August 4, 2013 at 8:55 am // Reply

    In the early 1970’s my then husband and I and infant son bought a parcel of land in upstate NY. Our plan was to be totally self sufficient (these were the back-to-the-land hippie days). We endured a house fire from heating with wood, a garden destroyed by hail, a newly planted garden destroyed by cows who, smelling our wondrous mulch, broke down the fence and trampled the entire garden. When the plants came to bear fruit, every night we drove our pickup truck through the neighborhoods at dinner time knocking on doors and selling our veggies. It was hard and sometimes unrewarding. (After the house burned down, we lived in a teepee in the middle of the garden.

    But at the end of the day those memories of farming and living so close to the land are some of the richest memories of my 63 years of life. Even if you never actually do farm for a living I am sure the wonderful memories of the farm will last you always.

  • August 5, 2013 at 8:10 am // Reply

    Thank you for taking the time, you do not have, to update us on your journey. I love the comment from Roberta. Sometimes it is the adversity that makes the best memory. If this were easy, everyone would do it.

    • August 8, 2013 at 4:26 pm // Reply

      Thanks everybody for your thoughts and comments here and off the blog. Despite the struggle, we’re lucky to have the chance to live into this dream. And fortune for all your support. I think we’re close to charting our next steps (exciting possibilities) and look forward to updating everyone.

  • August 8, 2013 at 6:37 pm // Reply

    Congrats on the baby, he’s super cute. Your post rings so true to me. I struggle every day to continue farming, which is the legacy of my family and the occupation I have chosen, and I believe the family farm is also an American icon. It is not an easy life, and so many people think that because I own my own business I must be loaded. Ha! We have our vineyard on the market in order to purchase a larger piece of property so that I can run more cattle, and sometimes I ask myself if I’m doing the right thing. Other times there is no doubt in my mind that I am. Crazy business, this one.

  • August 29, 2013 at 9:34 pm // Reply

    Erik… I hope to read more on your website… you sound like you have the true heart of a farmer, I also had a year of self sufficient living in my late 30’s (on 2 acres). i loved it all ( companion planting, mowing between rows ( much easier than weeding), freezing, canning, fun fun fun ! It never occurred to me to sell the veggies but I used the home time to invent the best whole grain bread “ever” ( sold enough to pay all the bills ) but finally succumbed to the anxiety of my spouse about ” future security” ( which never happened anyway :(
    However… I do think there is a future in setting up permaculture beds for oldsters ( already planted that require no ( or little ) weeding. I think if the sales package included the option of a raised bed, already planted and some coaching ” mommy” could spend time ” smelling the roses “too :)

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