Waxing Poetic (farm blog)
Mother Nature's gifts to the farmer: a cloud, a breeze, a funny shaped vegetable
I’m sure we hear all the time about “appreciation for the small things in life.” Nothing has taught me more about that than farming in the south in July. There we are, laboring under the cruel gaze of the sun, salty sweat burning our eyes and every little skin abrasion we can’t imagine how we got, when along comes a cloud and a light breeze. Everybody straightens up and sighs with gratitude and relief.
Sometimes, in July and August, under that cruel gaze of the sun, it becomes difficult to keep the heavy work light. We’re just too busy noticing the sweat burning skin abrasions and wiping the sweat out of our eyes. We’re afraid to expend any unnecessary energy with jokes or lightheartedness. But difficult jobs are made lighter when everyone is distracted by humor or fun or downright silliness.
Enter nature again, bearing gifts of funny shaped veggies. A tomato with a nose. An eggplant with a mouth. A potato with a nose mouth and hair to boot. We stop thinking about the hard work and how hot we are and play show and tell with each other for a brief minute. And those minutes add up to hours, and suddenly, the work is done! It’s time for popsicles!
See how happy (and color coordinated and dirty) we are in our old(er) age?! (photo courtesy of Sarene Cullen)
I heard on the radio the other day that the older people are, the happier they tend to be. They had several hypotheses as to why this is the case. One hypothesis really stuck with me though. It reminded me of myself 20 years ago. I always had my hands up, ready to fight, to defend my place in this world (wherever that was) and my raison d’etre (whatever that was). I would look at the world through different identity and moral glasses and defend them tooth and nail. I’m soooo much more mellow these days—it takes quite a bit to get me riled up.
The theory is that as young people, we are so caught up in thinking about the future and all that goes with that. What path should we follow? What is our place in this world? Age 20 years and the future isn’t such a big question anymore. We have pretty much chosen our paths and know who we are more or less. It just seems more “sure”.
So yeah, compare me to myself 20 years ago and I’m much happier. I fit right into the statistic. The future no longer filled with so many questions as I head into middle (ish) age. It’s good that I love what I do, because farming is a very long road. A long road that rests on a cushion of contentment, with no minimum speed requirement, and I can just plod along, stopping occasionally to pick a flower or two.
This, too, is organic farming
When it’s cold in the winter, and we are tucked safely indoors with the heat and the hot chocolate and the pretty Christmas lights, it’s easy to romanticize working on an organic farm. Isn’t it? I mean, we even do it. When we’re gazing at seed catalogues all misty-eyed, envisioning the perfect season with the perfect weather and everyone working hard in perfect harmony here in this beautiful valley.
Somehow the sweat never enters the romantic vision. Nor the back aches. It’s just human nature. Especially young human nature. Young people envision dirty smiling people posing for a group picture after accomplishing some great but difficult goal and it make our hearts sing. Yet somehow, the abusive sun and dripping sweat day after day after day remain evasive to our romantic montage.
Then we find ourselves deep in a North Carolina mid-July haze with our muscles sore, our skin sunburned, sweat dripping into our eyes, and yet ANOTHER weed to pull and can’t remember how exactly we got here and wondering whether we should question our own sanity.
Or at least I think that’s what happens to some people. Despite the brutal sun and aching back (and feet and hips) and ALL those weeds we thought we would prevent in our romantic winter visions, I still love my job. But I’ve been around this rodeo before. Somewhere in the back of my mind, while sipping hot cider with my feet up in front of the wood stove, envisioning the perfect season blah blah blah, there’s the little cynic laughing and remembering the sometimes harsh reality that is running a farm. Even a lovely little organic farm set in a picturesque valley with a gurgling creek running through it.
The characters in the Tumbling Shoals Farm choose your own adventure
Do you remember those “choose your own adventure” books from when you were a kid? You know, where you turn to page such and such with this choice, or flip the book over and turn to page such and such for this choice. I adored them as a kid, without ever contemplating the crazy complexity it must have taken to create such an adventure. As an adult, I can’t even fathom how the authors and editors kept it all together and making sense.
Lately, I’ve felt a bit like one of those authors: trying to plan out all the possible outcomes of decisions that we need to make in order to choose the best adventure, while managing potential weather situation, employee health situations, etc. I feel like I’m writing the upside down version sometimes. Wait, how did I get here? Who are the characters on the farm today? How are they going to get to the desired outcome?
We dug this year’s first potatoes today. Nothing brings you back to the fundamentals of organic farming as sifting through soil for those little nuggets of treasure that are potatoes. I mean, people often ask me “what is organic farming?” It’s a complicated answer, for sure, but on the most basic fundamental level, it’s growing dirt.
I love dirt. Maybe it’s true that everything I needed to know I learned before I even began school. I learned to love dirt. It’s so much more than the stuff we stand on, and the stuff we try to wash out of our clothes. It’s a whole world of living organisms down there, most of which we can’t even see.
As organic farmers, we depend on these invisible creatures for our sustenance and our livelihood. We are tasked with caring for critters we’re only half aware exist. Without them, our crops couldn’t even access the nutrients we provide for them. It’s a bit nerve wracking—depending so entirely on things you cannot see. But they’re precisely why I love dirt so much.
At its best, dirt is full of mystery and promise. It stands sentry to our whims, at the ready with the answer to our perpetual question, “what’s for dinner?”
Every time my parents visit, someone inevitably asks me what kind of car they drive. I never know. “A grey old people car” I say (sorry Mom and Dad, but it’s true). This past weekend, when I flew to Michigan to participate in the celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary (!!!), I found myself driving that same car.
I was running errands and came out of the grocery store to find that their little remote unlocking mechanism wasn’t working. I kept pushing the button, waving the thing around in the air trying to find the “sweet spot.” Alas, it was to no avail. Its battery must be dead. No sweat, I’ve got the key.
But there’s no obvious key hole! There’s a little black button on the handle, which I press a bunch of times, and something that looks like a plastic cover with a picture of a key on it. I’m confident the key hole is behind that plastic cover thing. I’m on all fours in the parking lot, groceries all but forgotten, fiddling with the thing, trying to figure out how to pop it open so I can insert the key. I even try the handle several more times in case, you know, it might have magically unlocked while I was fiddling the gadget.
I just can’t figure it out. I’m close to calling my parents at their anniversary party to ask if there are any tricks, but I’m determined to solve this problem alone. That darn car is not smarter than me! In frustration, I press a bunch of buttons on the remote un-locking gadget while I stand up to think.
While standing, my eyes focus on the inside of the car. Which, of course, is completely unfamiliar. I glance to my right, where there’s a grey old people car with its trunk open and lights blinking. Oh. I grab my groceries and slink over to the next row of cars and slide with humiliating ease into the correct car.
This happened while running errands in town today: saved by pink camo duct tape
These last few weeks are our busiest time of the season. It’s all about endurance. We continually think, plan and move, working toward maximum efficiency. Over the years, we’ve found that we can manage more and more as we develop our farm systems and obtain the correct tools for the multitude of tasks we do here on the farm.
Sometimes though, that endurance breaks down. It usually happens at the least convenient of times. One of which was last Sunday. Jason got hit hard with some respiratory illness. So I kicked into gear and began moving our to-do list as efficiently as possible. Suddenly flying solo, I figured I’d better tackle my Monday office list in addition to our usual Sunday planning (and house cleaning! It’s amazing how dirty a farm house can get in a week). Seeing the state Jason was in, I assumed I’d be flying solo Monday too. I even planned a meal for me to cook!
Come Monday though, Jason just couldn’t stay in bed while the farm kept moving. So he was banned from touching any of the produce, but still got other jobs done. Normally on a Monday evening, Jason cooks dinner while I tackle the week’s office pile of bills and receipts, get the records entered, check orders and plan a harvest list for Tuesday.
Since I figured I’d be cooking that Monday dinner, I did most of that stuff on Sunday. Jason felt good enough to cook dinner so suddenly I found myself without a pile of stuff to do. My wheels were spinning. I was a body in motion. I might even have paced a few times thinking, “I know there’s something I should be doing”. Flabbergasted, I ended up looking up a slow cooker carnitas recipe and prepared taco Tuesday’s pork since we work until 7 on Tuesdays.
Another sign of summer: Butterflies (Aphrodite Fritillary) on native asclepias tuberosa. I guess that's why they call it butterfly weed.
Well, it’s happened: June has arrived. The temperatures look to be rising and the rains come with such a dramatic flair that I find myself sitting in my office with my trembling pets at my side. These are the signs of summer. When all the rest of the country is off to graduation parties and summer beach vacations.
This, alone, would not necessarily indicate a change in seasons for me. My changes of seasons are strictly dictated by which vegetables are in season. Our website has a calendar of what’s in season when here at the farm and it actually emails me to tell me what’s going out and what’s coming in. It’s rather amusing.
I find myself comparing what’s happening in reality to what that calendar says should be happening. I feel quite the sense of pride when something comes into season before it “should”. Despite the fact that I set that calendar up in the first place, I find myself racing it to see if we can do better. Will it come earlier? Can we have a longer season?
This is our busiest time of the year. The 75 hours a week season. I thought I had built up to it with relaxation and anticipation all winter long. We’ve been powering through, keeping our heads above water, working SO hard to manage it all and manage it well. This was it; this was the year of Tumbling Shoals Farm. We were in the middle of the montage.
But wait, scratch across the record and the music fades awkwardly. There’s the one thing. There’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back. And this year, it’s deer. They’ve found us. Cue the little girl from “Poltergeist” and her creepy little “they’re back!” Because things just got personal.
It was the most beautiful and weed free lettuce/squash field we’ve ever had. We had stayed on top of cultivation and weed prevention; we were moving through the lettuce at a steady pace right on schedule. It was a thing to behold! I was so proud!
And then the deer came. A night ambush that took out an entire planting. An entire planting! Why are they so selfish? Why can’t they just eat a few heads in their entirety rather than take bites out of EVERY head in the entire planting? I would share. I would! But a whole planting?
I shake me fists at the sky in indignation, cry a little, yell at inanimate objects. And then we march. The fence is weed-wacked and baited, the deer netting placed around the lettuce field and the rifle is loaded. Cue the epic score; this is a different montage. The battle has begun.
Our version of hamburgers and hot dogs today: irons in the fire (we're honoring veterans by working hard today)
The clouds were innocent today: white wisps against the bright blue sky. I felt like I was in an idyllic painting, or one of those inspirational greeting cards. We were planting our 24,850th transplant, our bodies folded over themselves in some farm tweaked version of a yoga pose, discussing our work as identity. You know, the lighter stuff.
I recall taking some psychological “test” where the only question was to complete the sentence “I am…” any number of times as they came to your mind. Ostensibly, it is interesting to see what order you put the things that make up your identity; the first thing being the most important factor of your identity to you, etc.
If I took that test today, well, I’d probably cheat since I know how it works, but I imagine that even if I didn’t, the word “farmer” would appear somewhere very near the top. When you’re passionate about something, it sort of takes over your whole identity.
Thinking along those lines, I wonder if my second answer would be “eater.” Because you just can’t work so closely and extensively with veggies without dreaming of dinner. I spend hours doing it. And then I spend more time scouring our cookbook stash, pile of cooking magazines, or the internet for new recipes using those veggies. Eating is one of the major reasons we got into farming. Eating…the gateway drug.
And now, here we are, planting our 24,850th transplant, our bodies folded over themselves in some farm tweaked version of a yoga pose, admitting our addiction to farming as if it were the first step. Hi, my name is Shiloh, and I love to grow food.