Dirt Eaters

Work, Food, and Communal Transformation

(from the frontlines of a hopeful revolution)

Abundance

Farming doesn’t teach you anything.

No, in farming, as any experienced farmer will testify, you do a bunch of stuff, and then a bunch of stuff happens. Some of it good, some of it bad.

What you make of all that is up to you.

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Summer is over now. I know that because the nights have a chill in them again, because the dark hours outnumber the light ones. I know that because the melons and zucchini and winter squash and potatoes have all been harvested, some of them long since distributed to CSA members, others waiting their turn as they cure in the greenhouse, their fields now growing cover crop. I know that because the mania of June-September is subsiding, and a more reflective mode is starting to edge into our brains, as we think about the future and what lessons to take from this season. I know that because I have a calendar, and it is almost friggin’ October.

I know that because we had a ceremony and a big party, and now my year at The Farm School is done. I know that because I’m typing this in North Carolina, having started the next phase of my life.

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How do you recap a summer? How do you encapsulate a year of your life, one that literally changed the fabric of your person, the trajectory of your future?

I’ve been stuck on those questions recently, as we collectively and exhaustively sprinted toward graduation; as Ellie and I towed our little Honda Civic with a loaded moving truck out of Massachusetts, through the mountains of Pennsylvania, through the cramped alleys of DC, through the coastal pine forests of Virginia, and into our new home of Durham, NC; as I weeded lettuce and cleared fence line and dug sweet potatoes in my first week of work in this new climate.

It’s been a whirlwind of transition, a smorgasbord of conflicting emotions, and it’ll probably take months to really get perspective on what it all meant, on what it all means.

But, for some reason, I keep coming back to two crops: tomatoes and winter squash.

In farming, you pour endless amounts of work into endeavors that have no guaranteed return. In life, you pour endless amounts of work into… well, you get it. Stuff is unpredictable, stuff is uncontrollable, best laid plans go to waste, all the studying in the world won’t make you know everything, won’t let you know the future.

And yet, if you let that truth get you down, if you fall prey to cynicism or despair, if you stop having ambitions and dreams and working your butt off for something that might never happen, well then, at least you’ll have your guaranteed results.

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Through little fault of our own, our tomatoes failed. I wish that I had gotten the experience of harvesting and selling tomatoes, of seeing them through to the end of the season. I wish, for our Head Vegetable Grower Tyson’s sake if nothing else, that we’d gotten the financial reward from the great tomato season that we were expecting, the season that we’d factored into our projections. But, weirdly, I’m thankful for the experience of watching those tomato plants die, for the emotional stomach punch that came every time I walked by that field.

This is a brutal business unlike many others, nakedly exposed to the effects of market and natural forces well beyond our control. Those tomatoes and the blight that took them down taught me that, they toughened me up.

It’s probably stupid to try and become a small-scale farmer, just like it’s probably stupid to try and grow tomatoes on a rocky ridge top in central Massachusetts. Yet we tried and are trying and will continue to try as long as we can, because we have dreams of fulfilling and physical work, because we have dreams of sustainable local economies and regional foodsheds.

I don’t know where the future’ll take me, but I know that I have many dreams, and that they’ll almost certainly not all come true. But I’m not afraid of that anymore. The only thing that I’m afraid of now is failing to bust my butt everyday for the rest of my life to make those dreams come true. That’s what The Farm School taught me.

That, and that the real joy lies in that daily work.

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That said, there’s a lot of joy in success, too.

It was always illogical how much personal pride I had at stake with our winter squash crop, but let me tell ya, I really really wanted that crop to be huge. For one, there hadn’t been a good winter squash crop on that farm in many years, and it felt like a challenge. For two, I love to eat winter squash, and it seems other folks do too. For three, there’s no feeling of wealth quite like that that comes from storage vegetables, from knowing that, if nothing else, you’ll at least make it through the winter.

So when it looked like we had caused too much transplant shock back in the spring, and that the crop would fail before it even got started, I was devastated. When the plants bounced back and leafed out to create a beautiful green canopy across the whole field, I was elated. And when the cool, wet summer helped the powdery mildew fungus take hold and start to kill delicata and the acorn and the butternut, I was anxious. But, there was nothing to do but wait and see if the plants could hold on long enough to produce mature, ripe fruit. We all held our breath and crossed our fingers and checked on the field every day.

Once winter squash plants get big enough, you can’t even enter the field because you’ll cause too much damage. Once the fruit’s ready, however, once you make the call, you go in there like gangbusters.

We clipped every good squash and put them in windrows. We put boxes in trucks and trailers, and drove through the field with one person standing in the back of the truck, catching all of the squash that everyone else threw at him, a goofy grin on his face and a schoolboy-in-the-playground focus in his eye as he loaded them into boxes. We laughed, we sweated, we tried not to all throw squash at the same time. It was a game, a blast, a celebration of sorts.

We drove to the greenhouse, and spread all of the squash out to cure. We stepped back and took in a view unlike any seen at The Farm School in many years: five tons of winter squash. We were in awe at what we’d done, what those plants had done.

Let me tell ya, pride ain’t always bad.

When you wake up every morning and bust your butt, when you work both smart and hard, when you surround yourself with people that do the same, amazing things happen. Dreams and ambitions become reality. Not always, but sometimes. And that’s something.

That’s what The Farm School taught me, too.

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For all of us student farmers, The Farm School was a place to build skills and dream long-term dreams while investing in a short-term place. Now that it’s over, I’m sure we’re all looking at those dreams, living them a little bit, deciding which ones feel right, which ones are really the ones to pursue.

I know that I am.

It’s heavy, it’s beautiful, it’s scary, it’s exciting. More than anything else, it’s real. I’m remembering that I’m entering a new professional field, just as I enter my thirties. I’m realizing that I have approximately a million dreams, and that of course I can’t pursue them all. Ellie and I will be welcoming a new member to our young family next spring, which is another dream come true, and which focuses my energy on building a fulfilling career for that kid’s father (me) while also making enough money (value) to support and raise that family. There are choices to make, and there’s work to do.

The feeling I got when standing and looking at that greenhouse full of squash, the feeling that The Farm School gave me more than any other, was one of abundance. There’s so much goodness in this world, so much wealth, so much beauty, and it’s important to remember and celebrate that fact.

But it’s also invaluable to remember how much of that abundance is created: by dreaming dreams, by fighting off any fear of failure, and by working hard each and every day.

It ain’t easy, but it is fun. In any case, it’s up to you.

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For the rest of the pictures from the last days of the Maggie's Farm 2013-2014 season, click here...