reflections from the southeast PA rural underground

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Triticale and Clover and Hops! Oh, my!

We pulled up to the semi-circle of farmers that were standing, hands-in-pockets, at the back of the red pick-up truck. I rolled down the window as I surveyed the scene quickly, taking notice of the men dressed in the usual Carhartt jackets, black woven hats and blue full-body quilted work suits making small talk to each other. I bet none of these real farmers were former English majors, I thought. There was always this mild apprehension when coming to an event like that one on that first damp bone-chilling day of late November. The feeling that I wasn't really supposed to be there. I was the odd man out. The guy who hadn't grown up around tractors and tillers, hens and cows, silos and barns. And that they could surely pick one of "me" out of the crowd of "them." No matter how long I farmed I thought, it would most likely always be this way. Even if I donned a Carhartt jacket from time to time.

Throughout the hectic summer and fall I had kept hearing about various workshops through Tianna at the Sustainable Ag Extension, but couldn't seem to gather the interns together for any of these extra-curricular activities. We had managed to visit a friend's farm in Lancaster County a few weeks back and one up north, but that was about the extent of the intern field days. I was determined to make this cover crop demonstration whether the last intern was game or not. I needed this field day as much as he did. My knowledge of cover crops up to this point was a bunch of names without faces. "Triticale," Dave would explain at length, "is the combination of rye and wheat most commonly used in the 19th century. . . . ." And so it would go, with me remembering little of that T word except that it was a green manure like the other few that I was familiar with because we had been sowing them in the spring and fall for several years now. These dandies would set in thick, long, flowing root structures for feet and yards and sometimes miles to help keep the soil well-fed and aerated, holding it together like a tightly knit web of life and safeguarding it against heavy winds and rains that would threaten its all important top six inches.

Across the road were neatly planted swaths of cover crops ranging from the most widely used Aroostook Rye to another I hadn't heard of called Austrian Winter Peas and various mixtures of oats, hairy vetch and field peas. Most of the crops having been planted in mid to late August, the swaths were thick and green by this day, clearly having survived more than one decent frost. "It's real tough," said an older PA Dutch farmer who stood a couple feet from me. "It's darn tough to get this stuff in when you're growing corn and beans (soy) and waiting for that to go first." He was expressing what I figured was a very common concern among most of the farmers standing and watching as the Penn State men and women explained all the benefits of using covers. If you were growing mostly corn all summer, it would be near impossible to get most of these (except for the rye, of course) covers growing in the ground early enough to establish any of their benefits to your soil. Just about halfway through the lines of Crimson clover and Sorghum grass, one of the black hatted Mennonite farmers bolted out of the small crowd into a run up the road. Casey and I turned our heads to watch the young man make a path and soon noticed that his black buggy was on its side! "Did you see that happen?" I asked Casey. "Nah, nah I just figured something was up when he started running." "The horse must have got excited and jumped off the road for some reason?" Once it was established that things were fine we all had a chuckle as the man walked back into our fold. From then on it was mostly talk of Buckwheat, a seemingly agreed upon cheap alternative to some of the other covers being demonstrated. Not to slight the age-old Alfalfa grain as well, but I was already thinking that a day like this called for a grain of yet another color. My mind was on a trip to Pottsville, PA.

We couldn't see any evidence of a mist in the air on the little truck's windshield, but as soon as you got outside the steady breeze and damp chill that came with it made your mind a fool. It felt like that fall mist, nay, that soon-to-be-winter mist, was all around you. Upon parking up towards the top of Montanango St., I immediately scanned for the John O' Hara house. The navy blue placard with yellow script let me know right away that something historic and Pennsylvanian was in the vicinity. "Wow!," I exclaimed. "His house is practically right across the street from Yuengling!" Weird, I thought. I guess this is the street to have been on in Pottsville. I remembered the detailed descriptions of all the ethnic groups that congregated together on this long hill. It turned out that not much literary exaggeration was given to descriptions of the various wealthy homesteads. Many of the mansions of the town's elite still stood right here along with the convent and Catholic school up at the end of the line. The history in this street! I just kept looking up and down, up and down. Never one to rush, Casey took his time musing on the house itself and reading every word on the sign in front of it. The slim row home stood much like it must have for over 100 years. Three stories tall with original moldings and painted the most provincial of reds. A mix of the candy apple and fire engine colors.

On to the hops, I thought. Let's get to it. I've put 14 years of my life into this blessed county of Berks and never once stood inside the famed oldest brewery in America, Yuengling Brewery. All over the walls hung history. Memorabilia from five generations of the Yuengling family mingled with maps of Pottsville and the greater PA area. A surprising number of photos of professional sports players, many of them signed to various Yuengling family members, but most notably the eldest son now running the company.

There was a surprising number of attendees for the now famous tour gathering in the little bar next to the gift shop in the main building. I didn't think there'd be much of any crowd on a Thursday in the middle of the day. We were given the perfunctory speech about the history of old man Yuengling complete with the jokes about American Eagle Beer (Yuengling's first name) and how the owner had to sell ice cream (made across the street) to survive Prohibition. Once through the main floor's processing area, we were lead down into the most interesting part of the old factory. "The caverns are 4 blocks long and were used to store barrels of beer before shipping," she shouted over the noise of thousands of cans conveying along the track behind us. "If anyone doesn't feel comfortable taking this part of the tour, feel free to stay in the upstairs showroom!" Down we walked. Down and down into the dank underground of Pottsville. Dug out white tunnels covered in plaster and mortar stretched in front of us like secret forest entrances. Caves that were made to twist around the entire underground of the Yuengling factory which did indeed go on for most of the top of this Gibbsville hill (see Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara). People actually worked down here? Like the nearby anthracite mines of long ago, there was no outside light, no breeze down here. What a different time in the world.

Back upstairs in the warmth of the group and heat of the bar, some of the tourists made pleading jokes to have but just one more sample past the two allotted 8oz. plastic cups of beer. "Sorry," she said with a smile, "I can only give you two." I drank the Porter, which I always thought was their finest beer, and as the dark liquid teased me with its thick texture, I relished the day's events in my mind. Rich beer and rich soil. These were what it was all about. Good grains to make the earth give forth all its treasures.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Four Season Farm

He had a real look of consternation in his eyes. Or maybe it was just the way he squinted, one eye almost shut as I often do when the mid-day sun is shining all over the place, blinding and bathing everything at the same time. He was shorter than I had imagined, as well, and as he gave me a firm hand shake I asked him if he remembered meeting Tim Stark at Stone Barns a bunch of years back. "Oh yes!", he stated, still looking me straight in the eye. "That was good what he did ya know, the first thing to do is stay in business. I've never been certified organic!" He was referring to how our farm had resorted to using a chemical fungicide to combat the late blight that spread to all the tomato and many of the potato plants in the northeast this past summer. I got the impression right off that this guy didn't miss a beat. I only learned later that he was seventy years old. His energy reminded me of a Mennonite farmer friend back in Pennsylvania. Go go go go was the mantra and all they'd ever known. These guys were classics. "Little guys like you and me," as my uncle might say. Tons of energy and sprightly like more men were a century ago. Back when agriculture was still king and small stature was regarded as a good thing. Did a huge man ever make a good farmer? I'm sure Harry Truman or maybe Mark Twain must have had a word on the subject at one time or another?

Jen and I had made the 10-11 hour trip up to Maine mostly because I had arranged to visit Eliot Coleman's Four Season Farm. We also needed a little respite from our daily grinds and had had such a great time in Portland two years ago that we figured we'd try it again. This trip was turning out to be near perfect as well. Except of course for the nights when we caught a glimpse of the World Series and the Phillies who'd squandered almost every opportunity to clinch a second World Championship. And more importantly, to send those damn Yankees packing! Just as two years ago, the weather was fantastic. Slightly more seasonable than last October, the first days of November were hovering around 55 degree highs. Sunshine. Hardly a cloud as far as one could see. This is what it was like the day we finally made our way around the last bend of Weir Cove leading to Harborside, Maine and home of not only the farm but also the Good Life Center and Forest Farm, the last homestead of Helen and Scott Nearing.

I had arranged the visit through first connecting with Annie who is the food Forager for the Spotted Pig restaurant and later contacting her acquaintance Greg, the intern-turned-manager of the farm. This was a pretty big deal for me. Having farmed for more than 8 years now, I'd always had this visit in the back of my mind. What small farm grower wouldn't?! Eliot was it, man. He had written the bible of organic growing back in 1989. There wasn't many a farmer or enthusiast of micro-farming that didn't know about or have a well-worn copy of The New Organic Grower on their shelf. Coleman had become and is still today somewhat of an iconic figure of the movement and an all-around guru of the greenhouse/winter harvest technique of intensive bed farming.

After the perfunctory greetings upon arrival, I left Greg and his girlfriend Megan to their task of harvesting spinach and walked with Eliot over to his house which sat at the other side of the completely fenced-in property. Greg had told me that in the weeks just past, somewhere around 4 acres had been completely cleared so that Eliot and his wife Barbara (also an author and accomplished grower) could finally have animals.

This land and the roughly 2 acre vegetable farm in the center of the property were surrounded by the classic post and wire fence used on most small farms I've visited. One thing surprised me about the fence, though. At no section of the fence did I see it reaching more than six feet high. That would hardly keep out the most ambitious of Maine's deer population. I had seen eight foot fences on every other farm I had visited. Once near the house, the other visitors and workers kept Eliot engaged in conversation while Jen and I checked out the movable glass greenhouse that had just been slid to the left away from some hot chiles and green bell peppers.

This kind of greenhouse was just one of the innovations that Coleman was famous for. One could grow tomatoes in a high tunnel (unheated greenhouse) made of plastic or, like this one, glass, and then when the tomatoes (or whatever vegetable crop) finished producing, slide the house on its metal tracks over the next crop needing protection and added heat. We gleaned the last peppers from their plants for Greg to sell at market.

Looking out from the front of the house was a classic potage or kitchen garden lined with stone and edged on the right side with hanging grapes.

What this must have looked like just a month before the frost hit. It was still magical looking to me in the waning afternoon light. I caught tidbits of the conversation between the visiting chef from Michigan and Eliot as I picked the last red peppers from the ground. "I'm gonna put you guys to work!," he exclaimed. This was after a detailed description of the M____ bread he had eaten in. . . . Italy did he say? I wasn't sure. "Oh it's the best. You have to make it for your restaurant. It's the best bread I've ever tasted. Made with a special grain grown right in that part of Italy!"

I had told Greg in the emails throughout October that we would be happy to help out with whatever farm work they were doing at the time of our visit. He took me up on it and we proceeded to harvest one of the signature crops of Four Season Farm. Carrots! There must have been five or six beds of carrots in production, each one as neatly laid out as the next. Thirty inch wide by fifty foot long beds. The carrots would be harvested, washed, trimmed, and packed directly into the wooden boxes that gave them a rustic look of something classic, fresh and genuine. Before the carrots were harvested, though, we were treated to a delicious light lunch of hardy mustard greens and warm Charlotte potatoes tossed in a brown mustard vinaigrette.

Even before that, however, was the first job I got enlisted for. "Wayne," Megan's voice warily trailed off from inside the greenhouse, "Can you kill this vole?" Apparently, just as with any farm, even Eliot Coleman's farm had its share of pest problems. You wouldn't know by looking at all the perfectly manicured raised beds both in and out of the greenhouses that lurking underneath much of that rich, composted soil were more than a few little rodents scurrying to and fro to catch a big old bite out of the largest and most beautiful of all the carrots! Greg said that they must know which are the tastiest. Indeed all the biggest carrots that we'd later pull up were bitten into. How frustrating! This was a problem that would only be solved by attaining some much needed larger animals on the farm. Namely the feline kind. Voles or no voles, the carrots had that sweetest post-frost, late fall flavor. Not to mention the creamy texture of the Charlotte potatoes. Next to the classic fingerling or German Butterball varieties, these were some of the best potatoes I'd ever tasted.

I managed to make a clean kill of the little rodent that looked like a large gray field mouse with one strong downward smack of the shovel. Poor thing, I thought. But what could be done? There were LOTS of these poor things. We then ate our salads sitting on the grass outside Garfield, the largest greenhouse, and talked about Greg and Megan's former residences in New York and San Francisco. I couldn't help but think, both on the ride out to Harborside and at other moments during our time at the farm, how far from civilization this place felt. And apart from the sort of "out there" feeling I got, there was the practical question of how in the world could you market produce from here? Who would buy your stuff?

There was, except for a few neighbors, almost nobody for miles. The closest town, an hour from the farm, was Belfast with only 6,000 people. Could this really be viable for anyone but Eliot Coleman? But then again, thirty years prior when he decided to clear what looked to be at least 10 acres, which sat on more like 40 total, the goal was not just growing vegetables. It was homesteading.

The land had been sold from the Nearings to back-to-landers like Eliot for something near the $33/acre that they had paid for it in the seventies. Talk about no overhead. It was all laid out though, wasn't it? Just the consult the Book. The answers are all there. Eliot Coleman was not just a slick, organic-growing, trend-of-the-day, hands-off guru of a 60's movement. He was a bit of a practical genius. He had forged methods by trial and error day to day for over decades now. He would have already thought of the answers to any questions that I could possibly think of during my visit to his place that would not even last a full 24 hours. This was Eliot Coleman for god's sake!

For more pictures of Four Season Farm and The Good Life Center check out All pics copyright of thickmoonroughgoat aka Wayne Miller 2009. Big thanks to Greg and Megan!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Thursday, October 1, 2009


Finally! That most holy of all months has arrived. Autumn is born and re-born again! Many days having passed since that Sabbath day, the twenty first day of September. The day of the Equinox that, once lapsed, will ensure the sweetest of all seasons. The harvest will grace us all in the Northeast with its overwhelming Light, color, and beauty. Somewhere, in the annals of literature, the historian or the Transcendentalist scribe has written of the season that is now upon us as simply, "the most human of all seasons, in which the air is most clear, and clarity of thought, too, can flourish."

How and why else could a Quaker, a Roman Catholic (however lapsed he be), and a Seventh Day Adventist come to be gathered around southeastern Pennsylvania soil? How could they know that on this very day they'd be leaning in to harvest the golden and red bumpy-skinned, spaceship-shaped, Caribbean pepper pods? The seed of which had traveled thousands of miles from islands soaked with heavy, humid, sun-drenched air. Passed on from the hand of one West Indian woman to the farmer from the Keystone State at his stand in New York City. Women like Lydia who laughed again and again at my quips about her seasoned chicken's ability to give me good luck. Assuming she ever brought some of it for me to sample. "Da greeeeeeeeeeeen ones," she demanded in her north Trinidadian accent. "Bring me some of da green ones fah next Whidnesdaaaaay!," she repeated as I gawked at her gigantic turquoise-colored hoop earrings. Only half hearing her request. Big plastic accents to her strong chocolate colored face. She had me mesmerized as she walked away with her index finger pointing and shaking at me. That was the quality of the peppers. Magic. Even when grown far away from their place of origin.

Three interns, apprentices, workers, idealists yearning for that old Jeffersonian sense of the real and true that had been lost at the dawn of the virtual age. To capture again some old with the new. To find down in the soil and then up through fields and sky some sense of the magical quality in the real. Not somewhere else. Here. Now. Momentous and daily. Material culture was on the wane, was it not? Information abounded, did it not? We picked and picked. I could hear the whisper of centuries past yeoman plots riding by me on the fall breeze, the sun lighting all experience.

The bright green foliage of the pimientos shook and danced and prayed in waves. Their fruit softly knocking at each other like brushes on a snare head from a 60s ska tune as our hands delved in and around each plant to find and pluck their fruit. "Shh shh shh, clickle clickle, shuffle, shhh shhh." Ancestors of Lydia who may have passed awfully through Monticello while Thomas saved his precious vegetable seeds could now laugh with her while they sensed through time's eternal energy that "flave-ahhh," that "seeeasonin'" she'd mix into every dish she made.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Wild Mexicans and Summer Evenings

Just as we all thought summer would never rear its hazy head, mid August arrived with gusto and heat. Monday after Monday now Coogan and I drove the two hours to NYC in the dark with the night temperature never having dropped below its muggy 75 degree calm. I was beginning to feel like a tomato soldier. A trucker keeping trucker's hours. Rising at 3am three days a week to get the fruits to market week after week had finally begun to take its toll on my faculties. Days blended. There were no such things as weekends. What was a weekend?

Once in the truck, we conversed over the two hour drive to Union Square in Manhattan about the boss, the other interns, the tomato blight and all other manner of farm topics that had been on our minds this past month. He had gotten little sleep again because the Mexican crew had "brought the party back from Reading," as he often put it. He'd been up since 2am. At least I had gotten my usual five to six hours after a much needed shorter day of packing yesterday morning. The weathermen had promised yet another sultry Monday in New York with the always and ever lasting chance of a shower. Indeed, where had the summer gone? It seemed to have vanished. That is until this last two weeks. It had stored all its ferocity for months and had come charging in like a tenement fire, raging over the damp hills of Pennsylvania, creating dreamy, glowing horizons at night and oppressive washed out days.

We set up the stand and by 10 am the forecast had come true. New York was hot again. All the tomatoes were displayed neatly in ordered rows across the table with the cherry tomatoes at the left end of the front table. The Wild Mexicans, the name Tim had given the tiny red currant tomatoes that sold as Matt's Wild and Sweet 100's in many seed catalogues, were given special attention and much needed room to shine. We'd never sell many of those on a Monday, I mused. Too slow. Although, Mondays had been good thus far. We'll see I thought.

Unlike the other Mondays this year, today held a kind of prize at the end of the day. If we could be relatively sold out by 3:30 this afternoon, we could pack everything up in a hurry and rush back to the new farm where Organic Gardening magazine was setting up a photo shoot for an article by Dan to be published next summer. More importantly, famed chef Alex Lee was coming all the way from Long Island to add some tasty dishes to our Monday night Potluck tradition. Annie would meet us at 4 sharp and we'd hit the road to be out of the tunnel and on 78 well in time to reach the farm by sevenish. It would be close. One could never really plan anything for certain this time of year. There was really only one commitment. The tomatoes demanded submission. They wanted acceptance of their cult. Initiation to the tribe was non-negotiable. This was always the month that seemed to last forever.

Casey had gone to take a break in the park. I told him not to sweat it because I was an old pro and could run the Monday stand alone if need be. Of course this thinking was always deflated when three or four customers all swarmed at once and at the same time a couple of restaurant workers showed up to pick up their orders. This never failed. Today was no different.

The young Latino hipster from Otto showed up as I was scurrying to make change for two customers. "Just give me a minute," I said with a half smile. "Yeah, yeah, no problem. It's all good," he replied. He was always like that. Cool. No big deal. He had big chunky gold glasses a la Puffy Combs or Elvis and always dressed the semi-hip hop urban way with every detail in place. He didn't look the restaurant part to me and made my haggard farm/punk dress seem hillbilly to say the least. His face was straight out of a 70's children's TV show. A comic book set of mariachi teeth and big brown eyes with a smile on his face that reminded me of one of the characters on the Fat Albert cartoons. Always the most polite and friendly of customers. Every time.

As he stood next to me half on his cell and half looking at the invoice I was spastically scratching down for him, he whispered a few inches from my head, "Yo, I think that's Chelsea Clinton!?" It took a second or two for me to register this. All I could focus on was the other customers waiting. And him waiting. And everyone waiting on me to get it together. This was New York. You had to hustle. It wasn't slow-as-molasses, do-it-when-you-get-to-it Pennsylvania. Move the product so you can move it all! That was the game here. Even at the fairly mellow Monday farmer's market. "Huh?," I grunted as I half turned around to look at the woman, only one of three waiting, standing just in front of the Wild Mexicans and looking at her Blackberry. She had already made her selection of two half-pint cherry tomatoes which were placed just so at the edge of the table in front of her. "Just a minute," I said to everyone this time. "I'll be right with you." At first glance I wouldn't have recognized the woman if she had not been pointed out. This surprised me even more than the fact that she was there in the flesh, apparently with no Secret Service or entourage at all. I had always been the one to recognize the famous customers when they visited the farm stand. If you wanted to blend in to the crowd though, leave your personae behind, there was no better place than New York City.

The three of us pulled into the farm in Lobachsville at just about half past seven. Not bad, I thought. The photo hubbub would have ended and we could start on the food and maybe some cold beer. The light all around had turned to evening oranges, purples, and blues. The vista surrounding the farm seemed to have an endless quality as I surveyed the chile and tomato field and terraced grass and oat fields that enveloped the out buildings of the grounds. "You guys are lucky to be driving at this time of day. It's the best time to ride around," Annie had said as we winded down and through New Smithville's fairy-book-like nooks and crannies, meeting up with Fleur de Lys farm on our left. "Yeah," I replied. "It's all fuzzy and glowing." I looked in amazement yet again at the intense green trees spotting the sides of the road and the many shades of yellow light casting shadows on and bathing the hillside cornfields. Wasn't this the first and last redeeming quality of the automobile? Sunday drives on summer evenings in the country?

Our Potluck Mondays had come to a halt throughout July mainly because nobody had time for them. The tomato harvest was upon us at Eckerton Hill and Dave and Tianna were busy with their ag jobs and responsibilities. Everyone was traveling a lot for work these days. It was nice to finally have a farm dinner again. What a way to end a long market day! The very often tedious and arduous planting and harvesting means had finally started producing this most serene of all ends. To sit at the table and enjoy the food. To relax finally under the summer veil of sunset and then moon and stars. To indulge in Alex's hopped up, tweaked out version of mole sauce with spare ribs, Kate's stone fruit tart, a cold Stoudt's ESB, tomato salad with basil and cheese, Maria's bean and cheese enchiladas and all the many other delectable squash, corn, bean and grain tastes arrayed out before us. Ahhhhhh. If only for its position to me as the lowly seasonal precursor to Autumn, these last most heated summer days and nights were truly sublime.

Alex and Tim converse among the bhut jolokia and fatali peppers.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Amana Orange

To the Oxheart of all Oxhearts. The sweet, dense, acidic heart of the Universe. That fruit containing all secrets and kingdoms. That heavy symbol hanging so heavy and low on the vine. Almost two pounds of dense flesh, the color of mango fruit! The brother and cousin and father and mother and sister of Verna Orange and Persimmon? Lush! Behold it amends the scripture and sends the message:

I am the wind that blows o'er the sea;
I am the wave of the deep.
I am the bull of seven battles;
I am the eagle on the rock;
I am a tear in the sun;
I am the fairest of plants;
I am the boar for courage;
I am a salmon in the water;
I am a lake in the plain;
I am the word of knowledge;
I am the head of the battle-dealing spear;
I am the god who fashions fire in the head.

I am the TOMATO.

The peak of August is at hand everyone. Go to the market and find your fruits.

All photos by Wayne Miller tmrg. Celtic myth passage from Joseph Campbell's "Myths to Live By." Said to be quoted from Amairgen, chief poet of the Goidelic Celts.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Late Blight: Spray 'em or Bust!

It wasn't the first time it happened. Truth be told, it was a fairly common yearly occurrence except that it had come two months early this year. It wasn't referred to as late blight for nothing. This particular fungus, that could ravage an entire field of tomatoes, potatoes, or whatever other solanaceous crop it fell onto, was supposed to rear its ugly head right about the end of an average tomato season. The last time I saw it was in the third week of September, 2006. Within two weeks it had claimed the last 5,000 (yeah that's right--5,000) tomato plants. Untold profits sifting into the wet, gray sky like fireflies rising suddenly, in a gentle swarm, from their low hiding spaces in an empty field. Invisible spores with the strength of a Grecian regiment. No evil intent, mind you. But just as ferocious all the same. That year we cut our losses and let it do its thing. The bulk of the tomato crop had been harvested and the crop had been cashed.

"We're just trying to get a handle on how some of the farmers here at the Greenmarket are being affected by the blight," said the Time magazine journalist inquisitively. "How have you dealt with the problem and what has the effect been on your business?," she asked me. Wow, I thought. Late blight has caught the attention of a national publication. Was it the fact that there was such a rise in the number of certified organic farmers in the past few years? Certainly this had to be a big part of their interest. The farm I co-managed had never even applied for certification. For too many reasons to mention, it just didn't make sense. While this year we had grown all of our spring and summer crops in the organic/natural manner we always had, we were forced to spray fungicide on our tomatoes. People often talk about sustainable agriculture. It's ironic, though, that when the word sustainable is mentioned, it rarely refers to being financially sustainable. I guess viable would be a better word in this context. Still, it seems to be a little known fact outside the world of "sustainable agriculture" speak that most organic farmers, certified or not, are lucky if they break even financially each year, much less make a profit. Why does this tie into discussions of locally grown, organically grown, certified organic, naturally grown, etc.? Because while it may not be the first issue or notion that comes to mind when the topic arises, it may be the biggest elephant in the room.

"We aren't certified organic. We never have been and our farm has been able to exist almost solely on the sale of tomatoes. There wasn't any way that we could survive this year without the use of some kind of conventional (read: chemical) spray being used on some of our tomatoes," I replied to the journalist. A viable business is not without some bottom line somewhere. "If I couldn't spray my plants I'd be out of business," the owner of our farm said to the latest wondering chef. The conversation naturally put the farmer somewhat on the defensive as he anxiously explained how an entire 15 year savings had been put on the line to purchase a farm last fall. It had become time to stop renting and letting the cash crop be obliterated so soon afterward was not an option. Buying the farm was also none too soon. To date, we haven't seen any disease on the new field's somewhat virginal soil which may simply be a result of not having been planted with tomatoes for decades, if ever. Tomatoes almost always thrive in new soil because all the many diseases that affect them are not yet established in the soil. Assuming the soil is favorable otherwise, that is.

"Do you have anything smaller?" asked Nelson, a recent NYU grad who was interested in farming and who had been working at our market stand now for about a month. This after he had just asked me for twenties to make change for Uma Thurman who was standing in front of him. I had stepped over to Tim to get the twenty dollar bills I was short on so early in the morning. We were both looking at each other knowingly, but all I could think was that the glasses she had on were not that flattering. It turned out that neither Nelson or Tim had known who she was, even though Tim had sort of whispered to me, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, "Who, who is that? Is she famous?" It wasn't like it was the first time she had bought our tomatoes. Lucky for us she didn't ask the dreaded, "Are they organic, are they sprayed?"

But what of the hundreds of farmers all through the mid-atlantic and northeast region of the country who are putting high hopes into selling the most popular of all August's acidic fruits? The farmers that truck into New York's Greenmarket from "upstate," as is the label for all farms north of and including the Catskills and beyond. The summer that gave rain and then more rain and then just kept on raining, week to week, month to month. The summer in which July was on schedule to be the second coolest on record for New York City. Sure they could sell their zucchini, eggplant, peppers, and corn but what had weight like a tomato? What could draw a price to match Whole Foods' $5.95/lb. for the next six to eight weeks? When we put a 1lb. Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter heirloom tomato on the scale at our stand and the price reads $5.50 or a rare $6.00 for one tomato it's something to behold. As John McPhee might say, that's a fruit that, even if only for a very short season, "gives good weight."

Monday, June 8, 2009

Night Shades part. 3

Studio 2728--Girard Ave. Philadelphia,PA

We took the rhubarb, asparagus, and kale out of the trunk and walked across Girard Ave. to the entrance of the Studio. It was still early. Like 6pm. The shows always started at six but no one ever got there until around 7. At least that’s how it usually went at Studio 2728. But tonight was special. It was to be the first big deal night for Jon and Leigh. Everyone assumed for one reason or another, whether it was the old adage “sex sells,” or the rising status of the erotic photographer, that this show would draw the biggest crowd the place had seen thus far.

By eight o’clock there were more tattooed women than I’d ever seen in one place milling inside the gallery and outside on the sidewalk. Models that had worked with the artist I guessed. The story went that he was now being hired to fly all over the world to shoot women in his erotic photographic style. Originally working and based in Baltimore, MD, he now lived on a “farm” in one of those mid western corn states. Iowa was it? I couldn’t remember but he definitely brought the crowd. Skip had been irritated with this guy because at six o’clock, when the doors were supposed to open, the photographer and his assistant were still hanging art. Apparently he had some anxiety issues and was sucking down Mt. Dews all day. I thought the whole scene was comical. Here you had this fairly typical hipster looking guy sporting big ass gold-rimmed Elvis glasses nervously floating around the gallery ordering his assistant to various tasks in an almost whispering, raspy voice while back in Jon and Leigh’s bedroom was his quiet, sly looking girlfriend putting on heavy movie-star eye makeup with Skip’s cat snoozing on the futon. To his credit, I got the sense that this photographer was only as much of a primadonna as it might take to push him from cult star status to something more. It was all too LA yet in a fairly endearing, low-fi kind of DIY-for-porn-star way. The energy was there. That great city, art-scene energy vibe that can be sometimes hard to find out in the country where I live. Not to mention the amazing looking people in all their hipster attire. Flaunting style just to do it.

What a juxtaposed weekend. To think I had spent the morning at a Mennonite farm learning about companion planting in the garden. By ten that night a crew of us headed over to the Barbary Club for the after- gallery party. We had heard some friends of the artist would be spinning reggae and soul records there . I had been skeptical about this part of the night’s events at first but was amazed to find the dimly-lit, dingy bar slammed with people getting down to classic 60’s soul and yes! reggae. I had never been to the Barbary before but felt right at home immediately. It felt like London. I should say it felt like what I imagined a hard-hitting reggae club in London to be like. And what would any London club worth its salt be without a few skinheads dancing solo to the chorus, “I’m a sufferer, a sufferer, a sufferer.”

All photos by Wayne Miller thickmoonroughgoat!