Harvest Rituals

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"Let's bring it in for a minute," I said to our crew of Hannah, Kayla, and Mary.  I shut off the tractor and meet the group, standing with harvest knives, Felco pruners, gloves, and pallet bins at the ready.  We are  about to begin.

I set about explaining about how this tradition, of putting up harvests, we started years ago, like farmers I've worked with in  China, Nigeria, Kenya, Indonesia, Egypt, and Turkey. We all have a harvest to put up, a need to feed people. When I got to the part about how we feed 50 families, and each squash might feed a neighbor, or two, or three, how many meals it can all be through the winter and into the spring -- and how we touch lives -- if we get our curing right and get the harvest done....and somewhere in there I lose it. 

I wasn't sure why I started crying in front of the crew. I kind of shocked them; I shocked myself.   

This time of the year, Mary and I are exhausted; we've been burning long, days for many months now, and it's not over yet. That's partly why I broke down in tears. This past week our full helper, Hannah, was  out sick, so we were behind about 30-harvest hours by the time we hit the end-of-week market harvests. One night when we got a frost, and we didn't have time to cut all of our last basil, I ran backup heat in one of our tunnels to save it. I put it all in huge bags in the farmstore the next day, having successfully gotten it through the cold.  But by the next night one of the coolers misfunctioned and it all froze, right there in the farmstore fridge.  I tried to convince Mary that we had to pull levers (our codeword for canceling some things or doing something crazy), and I think I had her considering more seriously than she ever has, to bow out of market this Saturday. But in the end we decided we couldn't skip a market, missing out on both income, and letting down the people who depend on our farm food -- especially our members.  Letting people down seemed more crazy. I reminded her that I had carpentry projects, and the cooler project to start on, and water lines and an updated irrigation system to put in place before our ditch water shuts off. I reminded her that we probably have more than one acre of salad greens planted. She reminded me that those salad greens are planted, after all, for people to eat, and that we'd never get through to our 50 farm members on the phone to let them know of a change, and just  how many people would show up expecting to find us, and our need to get income from these last six Saturday markets. She's right.  So we agreed to harvest what we could, and declare that it was enough. 

Is it enough? I find myself asking that a lot these days. While I use my body as a tool, and focus on efficiency, I still have to figure out how to fix that cooler, source a part (and I'm so tired of sourcing parts), or buy a new $3800 one. Mary and I are currently turning over two tunnels -- one with dwindling tomato produciton and another with cucumbers that have finished for the season.  I'll be clear about this. We do have great transplants ready for the two tunnels, and we're exctied for the deep fall and winter greens they could provide.  But, if we could right now, we'd just let the tunnels freeze out, and clean them up, well, at our leasuire . We are going hard, partly because despite all we do, we aren't sure if it's all enough.  This time of year, this year in particular, we crave a change of pace, of focus; we want to can salsa and fill all of our freezers with summer bounty, curl up with cups of tea and start recovering. We want to craft a life, and create a harvest season that involves stories, community, and love. Sometimes it's not enough-- this farm that we've all started isn't achieving some of our biggest goals quite yet, even as it produces more and more food.  We worry that some of our farm members -- and cusomters -- come with a shopping list pulled from magazine recipes rather than an open mind about what they could cook from the 50 types of vegetables we have right now. There are days when it doesn't seem enough. And, in the evenings, when we sneak in admin to pay bills, make sure supplies get ordered, plan, we dream about reorganizing the barn so we have a workable packshed, sometimes we just have to call it at 1 or 2 am and  fall asleep exhausted.

But also there are days when piles of gifted firewood are delivered by friends, days when our extension agent comes to us (with an engineer) to give us ideas about that irrigation system, and a farm member drops off beer and cider. Nights when a friend brings by second dinner when the first dinner was Brewery takeout that on the invoice just said FARMERS, in all caps. The fall harvest light shines off two chicken barn roofs in managed pasture and across cover crop and it seems like we are so close to getting things right. And then a cooler breaks. Or I have to rebuild a tractor hub. Or a neighbor lets me know, in their own way, somehow in the mele of the season: the texts to chefs, all the work trying to get people out to the farmstore (our most reliable and stable source of farm-income), that somehow I've crossed him, done wrong with the world.

We love large harvests. That's why we grow bulk salad greens for months on end, not just a few patches in the spring. It's why I have 80 puounds of that spoiled cooler zucchini I fed to the chickens today. It's why we have buckets of eggs. It's why we can fill half a walk-in with storage crops and it's why every year Mary and I look at all the winter squash and even as we feel a deep satisfaction at the piles of sweet stored sunshine, we also feel a pull to next year, perhaps, grow even more. We love it. Partly and mostly.

And sometimes, when we lie in bed at night, in our yurt, I tell Mary of how stupid I used to be, working with farmers in Borneo, planting upland rice.  I had no idea how worried they were: just like me. When I interviewed then, in the evenings, during the weeks of planting and harvest, they talked about how the varieties were important; and the impact of bad germination. But I think, as I press in those spinanch seeds, trying to eak out one last field planting, and I press in the seeds with a roller I've made, on a bed of soil that I've been preparring for weeks, I finally know. 

And I shake my head and lie down in that little row pathway, or the tomatoes, or the zucchini that I kept alive in the field, with cover and incantations, that combination of science, knowledge, gut and luck that we are on the cusp of finding and losing, I realize deep, that this harvest we are both winning and failing.

And I cry. Out of control, out of worry for failures that we have, failures that we do not yet know we have, all we have grown, and all this farm makes us grow up to be. We both long to be better and you make us better, all at the same time. We'll connect those waterlines and get a pump and wire it and run lines the best way we've studied on our secret farm dream map. I cry because even as I grow, some days I barely can give Mary the support she needs for her own growing and getting through. And I cry because we know no matter what, you all care, love deeply, you trust us, you share your own confessions, and have hopes and dreams for this place, everything that the farm touches. Everything we all touch.

See you at market. Or at the farm. Or both.

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