Too Much of a Good Thing
“A dry summer will scare you to death. A wet summer will starve you to death.”
Fellow famer John Moore intoned these words as he watched a slow trickle of customers eyeball his offerings of grass fed beef and maple syrup at the Athol Farmers Market. Moore works a neighboring farm in Orange, MA and we have in common a patch of sky that either blesses or curses our fields each year. This summer, despite a warm and dry start, fields around here are now rivers of mud, having been deluged by unremitting rain. We’ve watched helplessly as row after row of young crops sputtered and drown – our botanical know-how useless in the face of elemental forces.
This is my first year farming, but Moore, whose hands are thick with knots and calluses, has seen decades of summers – both famine and fortune. But I can’t imagine that this year’s sodden weather worries him any less.
Three hours later and a c ouple hundred dollars richer, we packed our tents and returned to our respective farms to toil in tandem with the next challenge sure to be blowing this way on the jet stream.
It’s early July. We’re in the home stretch of our educational year now at Farm School and so far we’ve spent all of our time learning how to grow vegetables. But even if we triumph over these weeks of rain and harvest truckloads of unblemished produce, we’d still go out of business unless we figure out how, and to whom, to sell them.
For the last decade, the business model of choice for many locally-focused farmers (including us) has been something called “community supported agriculture,” often called CSA’s or farm shares. In this arrangement, customers pre-pay for a growing season’s worth of vegetables before the growing season begins. Given how vulnerable farming is to weather and blight, this $600 up-front payment is quite a vote of confidence. Our customers, many of whom we know personally, are in effect saying that they believe in us as farmers so much that they’ll part with their money with no real guarantee or a return. I find that kind of trust and support in a world of faceless financial transactions profoundly beautiful. And in years like this one, terrifyingly stressful.
Last week, I met many of those supporters face to face during our first CSA pickup of the season. As we pulled into town, it hit me that we’re finally putting food on people’s table with all of our learning and hard work. Still, we worried about whether our offerings would measure up to expectations.
Of course, it poured all day, but we set up our tents anyway and stacked tables high with thick bunches of Red Russian Kale, curly garlic scapes and deep ruby radishes. And before we could set out our last quart of snap peas, customers were lining up, eager to see what we’d brought.
“Look at all this stuff!” we heard members exclaim over and over again. “I’m so excited!” “It’s just like Christmas!”
Even the occasional passer-by was drawn to the tent, a verdant oasis in an otherwise bleak industrial parking lot.
Customers went home with bags overflowing with gorgeous produce. We returned to the farm buoyed by their gratitude and excitement. But we also returned to face entire fields of salad greens under water and three weeks of seeding time lost while waiting for the soil to dry down. So Week 1 went well, and I’m relieved. But there are 20 more to go.
Post Script – Baby Wendell (yes, we’re calling him Wendell these days) is doing great. He’s had a constant stream of adoring visitors, he’s smiling more every day, he added an entire pound in one week and he hates lakes.
Mom and dad are amazed daily.