Waxing Poetic (farm blog)
The Tumbling Shoals Valley is quite the paragon of peaceful rural beauty. As a working farm, though, we feel obligated to disturb that peace. Knee deep in a sea of green, the early sun still reflected in the morning humidity, a pristine picture with the mute button pressed. But the aggressive whine of weedeater destruction cuts through the peaceful image as we burn through the weeds that hide the potato hills. Or the ear plug inducing roar of the tractor pulling a tiller through the soil before it gets too hot to sit on that black seat. All this raucous farming stuff! All this, so we can eat.
When I was in college, my friend Kevin and I went to the fair where we happened upon this psychic who had offered Kevin a free consultation at some point. I went along and she gave me one too. I can’t remember if she read my palm or did those little tarot card things, but I remember she kept talking about my need for balance. I would try to throw her for a loop with some crazy question like, “will there be lots of bugs in my future diet?” and she would tell me again and again, “the most important thing for you is to have balance.” I must have told her my birthday and she figured since my horoscope sign was a scale and all…but the funny thing is, all these years later I understand this better than she did. Well, actually there are two funny things. The first one, which really is funny, is that Jason’s Appalachian Trail name (I guess you have to be there) was “balance.” I guess I took here literally because I just up and married balance.
But what I understand now is how important balance is here on the farm. It is a key component of the organic system, and takes years to fully develop. But as we strive to build that balance, we’re seeing nature slowly adjust right before our eyes. The first year we farmed here I frequently found tomato hornworms munching on our tomato plants. Last year, fewer hornworms (and fewer tomatoes!), but they were still munching on our tomato plants. This year, we have yet to find a tomato hornworm not parasitized by the native braconid wasp. The wasp lays its eggs on the hornworm which pupate and feed on the inside the hornworm then hatch out of those little white tubes. No more hornworm. Cool huh? All we did was to manage the farm as a whole organic system, building a welcoming environment for the good bugs to balance out the bad bugs. “If you build it, they will come.”
Shiloh in a sea of squash
Before last week summer had set in too early. Just as the birds’ migration patterns are timed perfectly for the peak of key food sources, we time the end of our crazy franticness with the arrival of the extreme heat. As we gloat in the mowing of those giant spring weeds in the spent fields, the sun burns through a cicada serenade until you feel like a desert. With less fields in production, less diversity of crops to care for and to harvest, the pace slows, the list ceases to grow in magnitudes unfathomable to human kind, and we ease into a longer lived summer routine. No giant projects allowed. But this year, the early onset of heat threw us for a loop. The timing was off. We hadn’t even taken all those spring fields out of production! We were still frantic and crazy: ill-equipped to handle that sort of heat. But last week sanity descended upon us like a long awaited sleep in the form of the most perfect weather anyone could ask for. It was a much needed re-organization of perspective as we slide into summer at the appropriate time, and on a more seasonally appropriate water slide. Insert large sigh of relief here as we head, hats on, sunscreened noses, back into the heat.
Sometimes we get dirty!
Mid day bears down upon us with definite malice in its eyes and I’m sure it’s going in for the kill. It’s funny, the things I think about in times like these. I swear I spent all my energy just wishing for a cloud. Just one little cloud, or maybe a big one if you can manage it. Did I say please? Please! I know I can forget my manners in times like these. Someone once said, “If you love your job you never work a day in your life.” Well…I’m sure that person never farmed in the southeast. Nope, definitely not. This is truly a labor of love for us, but ask me at high noon if it’s labor and I’ll let ya’ll fill in the answer there. Spare no creativity. But then the evening rolls around and the evening breezes carry the steady meteorologist’s promise of a cool down this week. I bite into a cool cucumber and forget all about it. I look up from my work and see the agricultural valley bathed in the grey light of evening, brimming with promise. Go ahead and sigh with me here….ahhh, another day’s work behind us. And the sense of satisfaction that descends with the sun that we did, in fact, avoid death again today.
Sam and Jason digging potatoes
I think potatoes offer a valuable life lesson . I know what you are thinking. I may be a French fry aficionado (is there a magazine for that?), but I’m not going there. Nope. I’m talking about the unadulterated potato. Small, on the grandiose scale of things, potatoes illicit an inspiration akin to a standing ovation. They even inspire songs (“You’re my little potato”)! But you have to dig for it. You have to reach right into the dirty heart of the matter and pull out these little nuggets of beauty. It’s work, for sure. But there’s something about hunting for treasure that has inspired humans for centuries. The discovery of secret value buried there right beneath our feet. It’s around us all the time-this buried treasure of life. Little nuggets of beauty all covered with the soil and debris of everyday living that only require a little digging on our parts. You know, they have invented a machine for digging potatoes, do you think they have one for digging up life’s little buried treasures?
Heat Wave! (111 degrees in the hoop house!, Odin hiding from the heat under the van, Shiloh braving the heat on the tractor, Sam bunching carrots under the shelter during the heat of the day)
I’m sure you’ve heard the old adage “never grocery shop when you’re hungry.” Okay, well it’s probably not old enough nor catchy enough to be considered an adage, but I’ve heard it often enough to consider it something. Apothegm? Axiom? Aphorism? Well anyway, whatever it is we’ve adapted it this week to a new setting. It began in the fennel. “Mmmm,” Jason says, “roasted fennel and beet salad sounds good.” Later, when we were trellising tomatoes, he looks down at a ripe one and says, “oooh, we should have a BLT sandwich this week!” And finally, as we were completing our daily squash picking he adds, “I’d like to do some more squash blossom cooking, that was delicious!” Stomach rumbling with ideas of flavor, images of a gourmet spread (okay, so a BLT isn’t quite gourmet, but still!) dancing in my head, I glared at him from behind a zucchini leaf, “Enough is enough already! Go eat a cucumber.”
When you were a kid on road trips, did you see who could cross a state line first by leaning out of your seatbelts and extending those fingers as far as they could go? No? Me neither, but Jason still does that. There’s a bizarre sort of glory in first. Really, you’d think we’d learn something about the last fruit being the sweetest, but I’ve never heard any aphorism declaring that. It’s always, “the early bird” who gets the good stuff. But honestly, what about the worm that slept in? Lazy as he is, he’s a might bit fatter than that early worm: tasty little morsel for a late bird. But no, we still press ourselves forward out of our seatbelts, unhinging our shoulders to reach those little fingers just a bit further to grasp that first tomato. Oh! Did I mention that? Don’t get too excited. It’s just one. It will still be a couple of weeks before there are enough to blink an eye at. But that didn’t make us any less excited here on the farm. All four of us are sharing it tomorrow. A big red beautiful tomato in June. Suddenly I don’t care if the later fruit is sweetest.
I shouldn’t say this. If I were a superstitious person, I’d think I was jinxing myself, but I’m not a superstitious person. But still, here it is written down. If tomorrow, the skies deliver a nasty message from beyond, I’ll be to blame. The meteorologist keeps threatening, and warning, and threatening. I find myself glued to the computer staring at the radar. I love the radar. What a great agglomeration of good information in such a small thing. I don’t know how many of you remember 1973, but I am reminded of the Golden Earring song, “Radar Love.” I always thought that’s what that song said, but I’ve been corrected numerous times over the years in that it was “red eye love.” However, as I sat down this evening, I decided to look up who wrote the song and discovered (much to my delighted, if not delayed, gloat), that it is “Radar Love”! Exulted in my new discovery, I think I finally understand the true meaning of that song. Hey, Golden Earring didn’t double as farmers did they?
I failed to take a picture of
us transplanting but I thought
this picture of the chard harvest
The clouds were mostly innocent today: huge towering snow white thunderheads 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 5,850th 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 “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 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 5,850th 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.
Hope: Jason in the growing potatoes and tomatoes in the mist
The morning air presses in on us with the sticky sweet of multiflora rose on its breath. Not bad as far as morning breath goes. I’ve had that Prairie Home Companion Ketchup Advisory Council song in my head for three days. You know the one. It begins with “these are the good days….” This is really the crazy crunch time for us while we harvest all those gorgeous spring goodies for you while planting all the summer crops at the same time, but something about purging the burgeoning greenhouse of all its plant babies is deeply satisfying. It’s the great hope for the future. Transplanting just reeks of overt optimism. I mean really, first, we’ve taken it on faith that if we stick this little tiny seed in some dirt and add water it will turn into a little plant a bunch of times larger than that seed. What could be more hopeful than that? And then we stick that little baby plant in the ground in the field and just assume it’s going to produce something healthful and delicious. So despite the fact that I feel like I’m flopping around like a fresh caught fish this time of year, the sanguine scent of summer’s bounty hints at my nose like the multiflora rose.