Dirt Eaters

Work, Food, and Communal Transformation

(from the frontlines of a hopeful revolution)

Feel the Weight

Recently, I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night thinking about plants.

Okay, not exactly the middle of the night, just a little earlier than usual. Say, 5:15 or so.

But still, I’d wake up suddenly, worried about the bok choi or the lettuce or the eggplants or the leeks or the kale or the peppers or the tomatoes oh god hopefully not the tomatoes if they go we’re really screwed.

[Deep breath.]

I’d scramble down the ladder from my loft and check the three weather sites I have bookmarked, wondering what the low got to overnight and how much the sun is forecast to shine during the day. I’d close my eyes and rack my brain to make sure that I closed the vent to the greenhouse and put remay over the flats in the hoop house. I’d hope that I had watered enough so that the plant roots didn’t dry out and die back, but not so much that algae had started to grow on the soil surface.

I was in charge of the greenhouse these past few weeks, and it was the best.

Hundreds of pepper plants mean summer's really truly on its way.

Hundreds of pepper plants mean summer's really truly on its way.

In retrospect, I was mostly worried because this was my first rodeo, because I was reacting instead of predicting, because my botany knowledge is miniscule. Plants are resilient, and plants want to grow, and they’re able to withstand the occasional amatuer-hour performance of a novice greenhouse manager.

But a good chunk of that worry was in fact justified, because I was also in charge of tens of thousands of plants and hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential revenue. I was, briefly, in charge of how the summer turns out, in charge of the future. If I messed up, it mattered. Big time.

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As a student/apprentice/beginning farmer, I often feel like I’m missing big chunks of the larger picture. That larger picture takes a while to reveal itself, I suppose, and the farm ecosystem operates on cycles that last months/years/decades. As we’re learning about agro-forestry and barn construction and lambing first aid and pasture biology and integrated pest management and everything else that we need to know, as we’re practicing and observing all of these things in action, it is easy to feel overwhelmed, or to glaze over and just focus on putting the screw in this board or planting this onion transplant at the right depth. And there’s value in that micro-focus.

On occasion, however, I realize that I’m starting to put together enough observations, enough data points, to actually make predictions. They’re mostly wrong, of course, but I’m less overwhelmed, and another piece of the larger picture comes into focus.

My first few days in charge of the greenhouse were terrifying. Plants need water, yes, I got that. But when and how and how much? What do you do on a cold, rainy day? How about a warm, sunny day? If I open the greenhouse at 6:15am, how will it look when I come back to check it at 9:30am? How will it change between that check and lunchtime? What about the alliums (onions, shallots, leeks) versus the brassicas (kale, cabbage, bok choi) versus the solanaceae (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant) versus the lettuce versus the fennel versus everything else? How do all of their needs differ? What about the newly seeded plants versus those that are huge and thirsty and need to go into actual soil on Monday, or Thursday, or the week after next, or whenever our soggy fields finally warm up and dry down?

[Deep breath.]

The learning curve is steep, and I’m still climbing.

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The best part of that learning curve, it turns out, is that to climb it you mostly just need to watch plants do their magical thing. Watch as the cotyledons push aside wet soil and emerge, watch as the first true leaves unfold, watch as the roots expand to encompass the entire soil plug, watch as the stems straighten out after being knocked over, watch as each variety’s distinctive colors develop, watch as the leaves bounce back after being allowed to get too dry, watch as the plant practically doubles in size on a sunny day.

Examining a beet transplant for moisture level reveals something extraordinary.

Examining a beet transplant for moisture level reveals something extraordinary.

It is hard for me to overstate how fascinating this all is. Plants continue to amaze, to blow me away. Surprisingly, I find that I anthropomorphize plants more than I do animals because, while I can maybe sorta imagine the behavior calculus of a sheep or a cow or even a chicken, plants exist on such a different plane, their consciousness is so alien from mine, that translation is necessary.

And yet, we’re both organisms on this planet, hanging out in the same greenhouse, in fact, and we’ve somehow developed partnerships over the centuries that are mutually beneficial. I’ll take care of you, and you’ll take care of me. If I can learn to listen to the tomato and pepper plant, to the kale and broccoli plant, to the beet and chard plant, I’ll have a tasty meal pretty darn soon. More than that, I’ll be able to feed other people, other families, and make this magical work space my office for the foreseeable future.

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These last two weeks we took 30,000 allium plants and 15,000 brassica plants out of the greenhouse and put them in the ground. It was back-breaking, leg-burning, glorious work. It was hours of carrying trays of plants from the greenhouse to the hardening-off hoop house to the hay wagon to the truck bed to the field bed. It was your face covered in dirt from when a black fly landed on your cheek right after you transplanted an onion. It was smelling like a coastal Maine seafood market from all the fish emulsion that sloshed onto you while pouring the nutrition boost on the leeks. It was focusing so much on hydrating the plants that you forgot to hydrate yourself, becoming grumpy and loopy and hungry and giddy all at the same time. It was jokes and pride and high-fives at the end of the day. It was getting up and doing it again tomorrow.

Transporting thousands of onion and leek transplants to one of our satellite fields.

Transporting thousands of onion and leek transplants to one of our satellite fields.

Growing food for yourself is ambitious. Growing food for hundreds of other people is outrageous. Making a living from growing food IN NEW ENGLAND ON A ROCK-FILLED RIDGETOP for hundreds of other people might be downright crazy. But it’s fun, and can be done.

The Farm School, like any good educator, shelters us. We’re free to explore, to make mistakes, to dip our toes into different agricultural (and life) waters. But they also, like any good employer, rely on us, on our learning and growth, on us rising to the challenge when necessary. As the season continues to ramp up, rising to that challenge is very much necessary, and we all know it.

Getting to be in charge of the greenhouse for a few weeks felt like an incredible gift, and a fabulous burden. Everyone was relying on me - my teachers, my fellow students, our CSA members - even if they didn’t know it, even if they don’t know me. The plants, too, were relying on me, under my care, wanting to release all of their potential, wanting to produce ridiculous amounts of food for us, if only I made the conditions right.

No wonder I had trouble sleeping through the night.

But gradually, I started to sleep a little better, to trust that I maybe sorta knew what I was doing. Which is good news, because if I can learn to live with this weight, what joyous and magical living that’ll be.

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To see pictures of a surprise snowstorm, of hours in the greenhouse, of finally getting in the fields, and of MORE BABY ANIMALS, click here...