Dirt Eaters

Work, Food, and Communal Transformation

(from the frontlines of a hopeful revolution)

All of the Things

I expected to be physically exhausted.

An all-day brassica transplant session, with Mount Monadnock in the distance.

An all-day brassica transplant session, with Mount Monadnock in the distance.

I expected summertime to be work, pure and simple. I expected to be covered in dirt and mud and who-knows-what-else until 9:00pm when I’m finally able to hop in the shower, right before collapsing into bed. I expected my back to hurt, my knees to hurt, my legs to ache. I expected to get bored of seeing the sunrise. I expected to feel tired to the bone.

But I did not expect to be emotionally exhausted. I did not anticipate the emotional roller coaster that is veggie farming. That one caught me by surprise.

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A few Fridays ago, we had a day. Everything happens everyday, so most days blend together in our memory, but this one stood out. The variety of tasks, the range of emotions, the highs and the lows, all of it left me floored. It made me think: “Really, this is what I want to do?”

It made me think: “Really, this is what I want to do.”

The day was going to be a symbolic day no matter what. We were harvesting garlic, the first crop that our group planted together, way back in November. It lived through the cold and long winter, through the dry June and the sopping wet July. It didn’t look perfect, but all things considered, it looked pretty darn beautiful. This is as good a garlic stand as you can grow organically in the northeast. We were proud, we were excited.

After harvesting garlic, you have to cure it, to let it dry so that it stores all fall and winter. That meant we had another symbolic task on our hands: turning the greenhouse into a curing house. It was still July, but we’ve played our cards, and it was already time to think about the colder months to come. Summer was in full swing, and summer was over.

The transitions are unrelenting.

We move the last remaining baby plants over into a smaller hoop house, break down the tables, lug cinderblocks, sweep and tidy everything, and re-build the tables in a different configuration to allow for optimal drying. Garlic would come first, but then shallots, and then onions, and then several tons of winter squash.

After lunch, everyone meets at the garlic field, along with the tractor and the hay wagon. We are told these heads of garlic are to be treated as if they were eggs, fragile and easily susceptible to bruising, to breaking. We’re told that the ground is still a bit too wet, so we’re going to use the digging fork to loosen it up before pulling the garlic out. We’re told to keep varieties separate, to fork then pull then bunch then carry over to the hay wagon. We’re told that this field represents $10,000 worth of product. We’re told we grow damn good garlic.

We get to work, tired at the end of a long week, but focused and happy. Thousands of plants are made into bunches in the field. Bunches are gathered and laid out on the hay wagon in a beautiful display. The harvest feels great.

And then we’re told that our tomatoes have late blight, and that they’re all going to die.

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It’s hard to adequately describe how much work and money we put into our tomato crop. We seed tomatoes into trays with 512 tiny cells, then prick them out a few weeks later and replant them into trays with much larger cells. We transplant them by hand into a trench, which is slow, grinding, physically challenging work. We sidedress them with compost, carrying bucket after full bucket down each row, all to feed these hungry, nutrient-needy creatures. We hill the plants as they grow, so that they establish a strong root system. We place and pound one thousand wooden stakes into the ground, and string up seven miles of trellising twine.

It’s brutal, but if your tomato crop succeeds, it’s worth it, both financially and emotionally. Tomatoes are incredible, and the people love them. We love them.

The early days of Tomato City, before the rains came.

The early days of Tomato City, before the rains came.

It’s also hard to adequately describe how amazing our tomato field looked on June 30th. It had been warm and dry, conditions that tomatoes love. The plants were strong, they were upright, they had established and were growing well. We were in a constant trellising race to keep up with them, to make sure they wouldn’t fall over, but so far so good. Every variety was healthy, and even the few plants that had been munched on by a groundhog had miraculously regrown leaves and were jamming along as well. Tyson, our head vegetable grower, said that while they could all die tomorrow, this was the best he’d ever had a tomato stand at this point in the growing season. Tomato City was a happy place to be.

But when the calendar turned to July, the rains came, and they didn’t stop. Over thirteen inches of rain fell in the first fourteen days of the month. Intense storms slammed our fields, pummeling the ground with water and punishing the plants with wind. One thunderstorm cell and its 60+ MPH gusts felled trees, almost blew away the greenhouse (at least that’s how it felt as I stood there in it), knocked out the power, and flattened all the tomato plants. We spent hours picking them all up again, but putting all that energy into getting back upright delayed their growth. And the soil was beyond saturated, never getting the chance to dry out.

On July 18th, we started to identify many different fungal and bacterial diseases in our tomato field, most coming up the plant from the soggy soil. The unrelenting humidity created the perfect conditions for pathogen growth, and a few storm systems coming up the coast from the south (where year-round and chemically-intensive tomato production fosters ever-stronger diseases) undoubtedly brought spores along with them. We saw bacterial leaf-spot, we saw early blight, we flipped through page after page of diseased plant pictures, figuring out what was going on.

The crop was hurting, as we estimated over 80% of the plants had something on them, even if they weren’t in absolute danger yet. In two weeks, our most lucrative planting had gone from beautiful and strong to being in deep, deep trouble.

So when we got confirmation one week later that our plants had late blight, we weren’t shocked. We had already started to let go of the tomatoes, to understand that it wasn’t going to be a great harvest. But still, it was devastating.

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Late blight is so named because, for an organic grower on the East Coast, it ends every tomato season. It lives in warmer climates, constantly evolving in the face of heavy fungicide use by conventional growers. There’s a few things an organic grower can do to combat it, but they’re all partial measures. It’s another piece of evidence that the fungal kingdom wins at evolution. It comes up the coast, but you never know when, and you can’t really control it. Last year it came to Massachusetts in October, at the end of the harvest window. This year it came in July, at the beginning.

Growing organic tomatoes in this region is a race against time, trying to get as much fruit before late blight inevitably shows up and kills everything. It’s the grim reaper.

As we were harvesting garlic, I watched Tyson talk on his cell phone with our extension agent from UMass, and I watched his head drop. As he made an announcement to the whole group, I watched him suppress his sadness for losing the tomatoes, and focus on his fear for the potatoes. Because tomatoes and potatoes are in the same family, and this strand of late blight attacks them both.

Suddenly, the tomatoes were done, and the potatoes were at risk. Within a week, we’d mow in once-beautiful stands of potatoes to prevent the fungus from spreading from the leaves down the stem into the tubers. We’d barely sell a single tomato. We’d still have many potatoes, but it wouldn’t quite be what it could’ve been.

This potato field was just gorgeous, as healthy and happy as could be.

This potato field was just gorgeous, as healthy and happy as could be.

Within two weeks, these two wonderful plantings, representing so much potential food and so much potential revenue, would wither and die before our very eyes.

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Maintaining emotional stability in the face of all this is an unbelievable challenge. And, it seems, a fundamental part of the job. Because if you don’t care, you won’t put in the work, you won’t put in the thought and intention necessary to produce something beautiful and bountiful. And it’s when you care that you open the door to hurt and sadness.

And it’s when you try do something crazy like make a living growing organic produce in the northeast that you open the door to stress and anxiety and fear.

So you ride the roller coaster, you keep working, feeling the downs but not letting yourself stay there. Because there’s still so much food, so much bounty, because hard work does pay off in the end.

We finished the garlic harvest, filling up half of the once-and-future-greenhouse with a beautiful crop. Since then, we’ve brought in over two tons of storage onions, plus several bushels of shallots. Our red kabocha squash and acorn squash will be next, followed by butternuts and delicatas and pumpkins. It’s incredible, really.

Here come the winter squash.

Here come the winter squash.

Some things live, some things die, and you just keep working. That’s life on a diversified farm.

This week, a few of us lobbied for the chance to go into the stricken tomato field and get whatever harvest lay out there. Ripe fruit hung on the vines, for sure, but it had the fungus in it, or on it, and there was no way we could send any to market.

Nonetheless, it was important emotionally for us to go out there, to eat some glorious ripe tomatoes, to see how compromised everything truly was, and to let it go. Because soon we’re going to do the painstaking work of dismantling all of the tomato infrastructure we put up, in hopes of getting some sort of marketable crop off of that field. And it’ll be much easier to do that with a clear heart, fully processing the highs and lows, ready to move on.

We brought back several bins full of tomatoes, enough for everyone to gorge on until the fruit goes bad, enough for everyone to have tomato sandwiches and tomatoes on their salads and fresh salsa. We had enough to put some by for the winter, to make canned salsa and tomato sauce and whole canned tomatoes and tomato juice.

To be able to give some tomatoes to the next class of beginning farmers, for them to eat in January along with all the pickles and beets and dilly beans already put up, in what turned out to be an epically crappy tomato season, feels pretty darn special.

It’s good to remember that it’s worth it. That growing food, that doing so organically, sustainably, on a diversified and small-scale, is worth it. That putting food by, that homesteading and being just a little more self-reliant, is worth it. That getting good food to good people, to their kids and their families, all while honoring the earth and its unknowably complicated and intertwined systems, is worth it.

And it is.

So we wake up early tomorrow, to do all of the things all over again.

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To see as much of the summer at Maggie's Farm that I've been able to document, click here...