reflections from the southeast PA rural underground

Thursday, October 28, 2010

October Mystics

"A Vagabond Song" by the Canadian poet Bliss Carman.

There is something in the autumn that is native to my blood--
Touch of manner, hint of mood;
And my heart is like a rhyme,
With the yellow and the purple and the crimson keeping time.

The scarlet of the maples can shake me like a cry
Of bugles going by.
And my lonely spirit thrills
To see the frosty asters like a smoke upon the hills.

There is something in October sets the gypsy blood astir;
We must rise and follow her,
When from every hill of flame
She calls and calls each vagabond by name.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Faces of the Farm

Well, here we are. Autumn has descended in all its glory once again and nary a word of praise to that special day. September 21. The beginning of the cool down. The start of photographic evening light and contrasted cloudy days. Breaks of sun are stunning. The haze of summer's humid malaise has officially ended. Variety has returned to the farm's daily tasks. The nightshade mono-frenzy has been quieted, if only somewhat. And we persons have also been able to catch our breaths, reap the edible harvest, and raise our glasses high in the crisp autumn air. It's time again for heirloom winter squashes like the golden hubbard which dates back to colonial times in America. Time for the endless dishes of brussels sprouts, bacon, and apples. Time for pumpkin pies and apple quince pies and venison. Time for cardoons, if you have the patience to peel and wash and chop and peel and wash and chop and. . .really, who doesn't love a giant thistle!? Time for cider pressed locally, if you're so lucky. Time for chevre toppled high on fresh salad greens. Did you get that Claytonia and spinach seed in the ground yet? Time to get all that summer rain that never came. Yes, yes, we know. We need it. I'm not sure I need it putting a damper on my favorite month! Slow down food. Wait. Slow down fall. Let the leaves always be red, orange, and yellow. Let there be plenty of daylight hours but still a good full evening for revelry and reflection.

Halloween is on the nigh. Spirits are confused and scattered in the night breeze.

Faces from the farm are starting to look at once back to the season that has passed and adelante hacia que el futuro que viene! De repente!

There's a mystery in the air once again.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

To eat or not to eat: Year three of Ouststanding in the Field at Eckerton Hill Farm

It was like black fly season in New Hampshire except that it wasn't flies that were hovering around everyone's faces and biting their arms as they picked cherry heirloom tomatoes.
It was gnats. Gnats that wouldn't go away until we got some rain. The fields were drying out quickly now as I looked up at Sasquatch's profile.

"I should have made that brace look like a penis," Eric said, remarking about the distracting black arm that held his newly created Big Foot likeness onto the hillside where tonight's "Outstanding in the Field" dinner would be held. We all rushed around after picking to clean up the farm as much as we still could before the 160 dinner guests arrived. We had to get that Hino truck loaded by 3. Hadn't that been what Tim said?

Who's gonna eat? Who's gonna get to go to "Oustanding in the Field?" Who benefits from the event anyways? Why would any farmer even participate? Who is Jim Denevan? How come the people who raised all the food aren't sitting down at the table? It seems crazy doesn't it: $180 for a plate of food and some wine? You mean it's not FOR your farm?

All these questions that raise issues that seem to raise more questions surround the fine dining experience known as "Outstanding in the Field." Not to be confused with Out standing in a field of clover or tomatoes or corn or wheat. No, to be sure, the conceptual dinner highlights those unique farms and producers that have stood out in their communities as exceptional. An artisanal cheese maker who has succeeded in creating aged cheese exactly as it has been made for centuries in France or Italy. A tomato grower who has succeeded in raising the heirloom nightshade's reputation to that of the most refined grape varietal in Tuscany or Bordeaux. Those farmers who have turned hobbies into long reaching (or very short reaching!) businesses and then turned that experience into memoirs. Food is life. Life is food. Couple it with wine, sit outside to dine, bring the pea from the tomato twine strung vine to the
plate where it may swim in a locally caught smoked trout's brine.

It's about the experience of sitting down with many at sunset, overlooking one of the participating farmer's fields--or a rooftop in Manhattan, or an ocean cliff--and delighting in some of the farmer's ornaments that now decorate the plate in front of you. Enjoying the conversation with those that have traveled from near and far, possibly getting a glimpse of what food prepared directly from the proverbial "back yard" or stable would taste like if you could produce it yourself. If you could join in the process of growing or milking or butchering your own sustenance.

For a somewhat hefty price tag (what people spend their money on is so relative?), this visceral taking-it-all-in experience on a farm is a connection to something ancient. And to its adherents it seems well worth every penny, however much storing up of those pennies has taken place in order to attend the event. A direct connection to the land and agricultural context from which their plate of food comes from.

After loading the truck for market, some of us hung out in the old farmhouse kitchen with the crew from Bolete restaurant--Bethlehem, Pa--and tasted mini BLTs made with cornbread buns, heirloom tomatoes, sweet beet tartar and bacon. The tomato water with basil in little plastic shot cups, neatly lined in rows waiting to go out to all the paying guests. This was the authentic experience before the encore.

Those of us who had grown the tomatoes sampled pork belly stuffed in mini bell peppers before they left the workers' kitchen. This preamble melding of people who had produced the food and those who would shape it to creative levels of taste and appearance was a nice beginning to what would ultimately be a fine end-of-summer evening time had by all. The end to the means of long hard months, weeks, days, and hours of work. A summer finish line and autumn entrance inspired by Jim and his crew of merry pranksters who had also loved and labored long over their creation.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Tomato Saga

It's more like a rush-in than an ease-in situation. Every year the workers secretly pine and dread that gushing forth of small, medium, and large love apples. Red ones, purple ones, green ones (with yellow stripes), brown ones (with orange stripes), pink ones, peach fuzz ones and so on through the long list of heirloom tomatoes that have been planted, hoed, mulched, staked and strung by the end of July. Many hands to make them thrive. Enough water, but not too much. Shudder to think of it. Too much rain. No, no, no that just won't do. C'mon Universe. Send us a line. A small thread to pull us through the faintest crack in the void. Let us get through just one more season with our tiny speck of purpose. Our tomato agenda. Open up just one more of the billions of energy fissures and give us our three months.

Hot. Dry. Disease free. And so many. Another year in the saga that continues to demand, deplete, yet somehow (the sun also rises. . . and how it does) replenish?, the energy of the Sun to all the hands that are painstakingly on deck. This is an all volunteer army mind you. There are no horror stories of bonded workers, indebted and unable to free themselves from tyrant Florida orange growers. This farm pays way better than that, the picker and packer may remind themselves in the 95 degree heat and humidity while groveling over the soil, searching at the bottom of an Black Prince plant to discover the ripe brown fruit wating to be picked just inches from the ground. What is the essential call? Or rather, what is the drive that keeps some of the these humans reporting for tomato duty year after year? Is it familia? The big picture perhaps? Adventure for the seasonal, just- out- of- college agri-Cultural dreamer? What a difference a day makes they say. But what difference is there in the entire month of July when all the days run together in a haze of sun, sweat, mashed tomato juice, green-to-black tar under the nails, slow frenzy, frantic sameness, long push, Mack truck, highway without rest. Pick em', pack em', get em' to the market on time. Small scale farming in a giant way. A Green Giant slicer way to be exact.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Get on Your Knees

There are all kinds of ways to fight weeds on an organic or sustainable farm. There's the plant cover crops year after year suppression method. There's the fight 'em when you can (hopefully with tractor cultivation!) method. There's the get 'em before they get you method which usually involves cultivating (fancy word for weeding) by hand. And then there's the combination of all three which is most common. Any way you shake it, if chemical weed killers are not an option, you're gonna get on your knees at some point in the growing season. I mean down on all fours, hands and knees, low and crude, in the soil. . . ummm. . .yeah. . . dirt.

But how else could one really get the feeling of communing with the earth, right? What better way to get to know your mother. And that's why all the people who farm 'close to the earth' do it, right? Just another season, living outside, breathing in the fresh air, busting your ass! But really, it's mostly just the month of June that makes you submit in such an elemental fashion. I'll always remember watching the film Malcolm X by Spike Lee. Denzel Washington, who plays X in the film, is told by his mentor in prison, "To become a true Muslim, you have to submit." Farming is like Islam: one has to submit. I'm not even sure that's where I got the line that I say jokingly from time to time, no doubt unintentionally making some that hear it cringe, but there's something there that rings true when I think about the practice of old fashioned farming. Farming is like Islam, or some kind of orthodox religion. And June is unique in that no other month demands more of your most basic physical and mental submission. This is not a job. It's a lifestyle. It can break you with its repetition and seeming mindlessness, but also build your intimate acquaintance with the machine that is your body by forcing that machine into all kinds of repetitive contortions. And once you become aware of the ends and not just the means, the project's or day's goal, and not just its immediate sense of "damn I'm tired," things start to make some kind of sense. The big picture unfolds. Is weeding spiritual? Depends on who you ask.

Of course June isn't just hand weeding tomatoes for hours on end. There are also the days of harvesting those peaking peas, perfect first week black raspberries, new potatoes, and fava beans by the bushel. All varieties of religious experience await the field hand when sweating through a balmy 80 degree late morning or sleepily enjoying a rare September-like evening's crystal clear twilight and calming cool temperature. While the last of the carrots, beets, and lettuce are picked, the zucchini is pouring off the plants and the first cherry tomatoes are promising both sun-drenched flavor and some much needed income for the farm. The tension of all those resources gushing like an oil spill, feverishly paced like heat through a winter's open window, will start to ebb as the tide turns and red will, with any luck at all, with many seasons to prove it so, fade to black.

As I carefully picked the black raspberries, trying to minimize the itchy scratches being left on my forearms, and to pick efficiently as possible (read: fast!), I thought about so much and so little at the same time. I talked voraciously with Prudencio about his experience picking in Watsonville, CA. 'por contracto' and how when he first picked the coveted fruit, he picked an entire quart before being reprimanded by his superior. 'Que estas haciendo!?' she had said when she saw that he was picking the berries in full ripeness. Why would anyone do otherwise? In Watsonville, however, the blacks are picked red so they can withstand the miles and miles of traveling to any of their many destinations across the country. How could such a delicate fruit that at any moment will squish between one's fingers ever survive the hard road to a supermarket shelf if it had actually been picked ripe? They could only be picked that way, with that backyard freshness, to be sold the very next day. The only thing better than having your own home grown food is to have it grown and picked and brought to you just the way it would be if you had picked it yourself. That's the taste of June. That's what it takes to get to the market on time. Itching, sweating, down in the dirt. But that's soil with a capital S to those of us who know it.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Johnny, you're too bad

"Do you have a sawzall?"

"Uh. . . a what?"

I immediately pictured the thing in my head, but of course, having never used one, doubted whether or not I was thinking of the right power tool.

"Like, not one of the circular saws, but a long, skinny thing?"

"Yeah, you'll probably want one for the wall."

It was a typical market Saturday where I'd gotten back from NYC around 8 instead of the planned 6 and, of course, had other plans that were slowly getting pushed to the back burner because of the extra long trip home. I'd hit my head for the third or fourth time on the rusty metal swing door on the back of the truck and figured I'd better get a tetanus shot on the way home. Just to be on the safe side. Plus my wife and boss were insisting. There had been all that blood.

Jonathan K. Slingluff was en route to Kutztown as I waited at the Emergi-Center in Allentown. He was gonna stop for gas and would probably get to to town right around the same time as me. Cool. We'd still make Home Depot by 9 pm. But wait, Sears came first.

The plan was to go to Reading and buy all the manly power tools my Visa would hold in under an hour. Being a new home owner, these were required purchases that I had put off shelling out the cash for too long. Having always rented, the hundreds of dollars I'd kept wanting to spend (c'mon, I am a guy after all) on power drills, saws, etc. always seemed a little less important than whatever other expenses loomed on the horizon. I could always borrow those things, right? Not any more. With ownership comes, well, more f*%^ing ownership!

Sunday morning came fast and after the first cup of coffee, John said, "You forgot to charge the battery." I'm a dipshit. Surprise, surprise. In my slacker defense, I thought, I had worked a 15 hour day, split my head open, and tried to sit at the bar for two, head hanging in my beer as my wife and friend of 16 years chatted. "I knew I forgot something," I replied to Johnny.

At the house there were three major goals we wanted to accomplish. Sand the floors upstairs. That was Prudencio's job. I knew that was a given. Prude could not fail.

Then there was the taking down of the kitchen cabinets and countertops. Most important in my mind was the Wall. Get that damn wall down. Fifties tightness be gone. We were gonna open that kitchen up. All modern and shit. Bring the OM. Bring the Zen. Clear the rubble and let Slingluff Home Improvement get IT ON!!!!!!!!!!!!!

He went to town. The little firecracker that could and could and could some more. Having grown up with a father who was a graduate of Williamson Trade School, most of his teen years had some kind of carpentry know-how going in one way or another. We always just thought of each other as punks and skaters, but old Johnny was handy too. Painting, carpentry, framing, hanging art. You name it, the guy can do it. I count myself lucky to have had him as a friend for so long. This is to say nothing of the other binds we've made over the years.

Two years ago this month he realized his life long dream of opening an art gallery in the city. The Slingluff Gallery, which started out as Studio 2728, sits right next to the M Room in Fishtown/Northern Liberties, Philadelphia, Pa. John and his wife Leigh always get some of the freshest young artists in the nation to show at their space. Today, however, it was all biz art. Art to bring the house a new vision. Art to open up the place and create a living space. Thanks, Johnny. "You know you're running and a scrubbing and a shootin' and a lootin' and you're too bad."

Sunday, June 6, 2010

In the heat of May

Between the hail, 30 degree nights, and 90 degree days, May has luckily ended on more of a blessed than a cursed note. Having harvested more than any Spring on record at the farm, the just-enough-rain for the month followed by dry, warm days fulfilled all expectations for Spring and got our minds away from that cloudy, not-too-distant memory of week long rains and late blight from last season.

Whooooooa now. Just wait one minute there, buckaroo.

Don't go getting all confident in the weather just yet. Wasn't it just last week that Tianna was sending out those apocalyptic warnings of "Late blight already in PA! Take action now before its too LATE!" Or something like that. Even James, who one doesn't have to take on faith the man's faith, knowing the guy is an old order Mennonite, laughingly told me that it all seemed a little premature. All this doomsday talk of late blight again this year. "If we keep having days like this," he said with the utmost ease and leisure, "any late blight will just be dying anyways." If only the rest of us had the rock of ages on which to rely. Surely it's just as good to have James Weaver to rely on?

He knew that 80-90 degree sunny days would stifle that nasty plague of potatoes and tomatoes.

And so just like that May has passed and June is upon us. The two week heat wave has lifted as of today and a glorious wind is brushing through the hardwoods making them sing that swooshing sound. What an evening when the haze is lifted and the clear blue pre-summer sky is lit by a dusk sun. All Nature's silhouettes to be seen clearly again as if September was being foreshadowed. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. There are still more peas, fava beans, carrots, beets, new potatoes, kales, swiss chard, radish, green onions, head lettuce, mesclun, broccoli, kohlrabi, and pac choi to pick.

All is early this year. Cold and wet be gone. Let us have the sun and just enough rain. Sans hail thank you very much. Let our fenced in 2 acres thrive. Oh my gosh, the customers will keep saying, how do you have all this already!?