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.