reflections from the southeast PA rural underground

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."