reflections from the southeast PA rural underground

Saturday, April 24, 2010

When you're all in

Even people that have no real experience or knowledge of farming would probably, if given a few minutes to ponder the subject, come round to the notion that its generally a risky business. I've had the adage quoted to me on more than one occasion, "So. . . uh. . .that means. . .you're job is dependent on the weather?" This is usually said with a wavering
lack of confidence that could be interpreted as slightly sympathetic. It doesn't matter if it's a friend of 12 years or my father-in-law. The same sentiment prevails. In my mind they're

thinking, "Man, sure glad that's not my job." To be sure, I do believe that the romantic notion of a yeoman farmer, out there every day, communing with Mother Nature (yes, that is there too) is also in most people's minds when I tell them what I do. But most of what they know about organic agriculture comes from some vague pop-culture notions of some hippy, back-to-the-land movement. There's a chasm between the reality "on the ground" (cliche I know) of a farm business and the latest New York Times example of a trendy sustainable ag. education/ non-profit farm. Of course there are those exceptional people who have spent time on a farm or who grew up on one. For those people the oft quoted phrase, "nothing so unpredictable as the weather," really hits home.

In southeast Pa the safe date to plant anything not hardy enough to weather a frost, be it light frost or hard frost, is after May 17. So of course the farmer I work for has chartered his own traditional ritual of planting the first batch of that most famous of all night shades sometime around April 25. To my memory, its been as early as April 18 and as late as early May during one of those soggy Springs that leave us scrambling to get out in the field. Oh to be tied down to the planting schedule of all those OTHER people!!!!!!!!! Bah,

And so here we are again on April 24 planting the first of 4 rounds of tomatoes. Nacho, Prudencio, Tim and I headed out after first battling with an unwilling PTO attachment into the newest of fields already packed with lush green clover that had been heavily composted and seeded the year before. Big wide swaths of green bush just charging upwards toward the sky, the perfectly round heads at the top shaded a slightly softer mint green color in their middles. The forecast was for plenty of sun today which we were assured would change in the afternoon when it was supposed to cloud up bringing rain in late evening. "Ah maybe they'll all just freeze tonight and I'll finally get out of all this," the farmer grumbled.

It was a mainstay of the early Spring attitude. A kind of hard worn cynical defense mechanism against the daunting season's tasks that lie ahead. It was all so big and overwhelming now, this farming thing. So stressful. Why were we doing this again? But the push in Spring was what got you back, at least in part. The awakening of all natural things again. The rain and sun. The energy of warmer
nights and almost hot afternoons.

Things had expanded at the farm, little by little, as was the case for every other year. This season had already seen the construction of a second greenhouse, the welcoming of two baby goats and a mother (doe) goat, a walk-in refrigeration unit, and an 8 ft. high deer fence that enclosed almost 2 acres.

The problem was that we still didn't have everything located at this epicenter. There was still way too much shuttling back and forth over the 14 miles between two other locations. There's that stress again. Who knew farming meant trucking?

"This place is starting to look like a real farm," the farmer said as we surveyed the nearly 60 acres spread out in front of the tractor that we rode on to reach the tomato field.

I had to agree. When you plant peas March 5 and over 5,000 tomato plants before May 1, the looming risk is both reviving and unsettling. Yet as always, after such a long winter's slow down, a kind of weight is lifted and it feels like time to move again.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Vineland or New Beginnings

There's a term that floats around farming circles during early spring. Specifically, in the northeast, the term "mud auction" starts to roll off farmers' lips as well as adorn the front page of the Lancaster Farming News. This is by the end of March and all the way through long April weeks when the ground starts to thaw and the sky drops rain with more and more frequency. As one might denote by the second word of the phrase, spring is also time for auctions. Muddy ones. Of course nothing is as uncertain as the weather and anyone in PA knows that it may just as well be snowing as raining in March. Which would mean, most likely, on a cloudy day anyways, that the ground would still be frozen. And so it was when we traveled down past Philadelphia on rt. 676 and through south Jersey into the home of Jersey tomatoes and the flat-as-mid-west farm country known as Vineland.

Like anywhere else in the country today, farms are being sold faster than they are being started or staying put. Vineland, NJ would seem no different. Just minutes from long swaths of strip malls, gas stations, fast food joints, and gentleman's clubs with names like Kashmir, the landscape really starts to open up and greenhouses of all sizes and shape can be seen from the road. Some still in use, while others sit long abandoned. Landscaping operations and farms intermingled with Subway and local garages. Fewer and fewer houses dot the narrow roads that once would've been nothing more than country lanes leading back to great homesteads that soaked up the sun through the damp springs and hot summers, ripening the plum and beefsteak tomatoes and pushing the Genovese basil into green bushes. An abundance of produce that would easily quench the yens of all Philadelphians living in South Philly's Italian market and the surrounding newly blossoming suburbs from Conshohoken to Willow Grove.

Who knows when the Italians took over the rich soil of southern New Jersey. It had to be at least a hundred years by now. The auction on this day included any and all tools of the vegetable growing trade from tractors and tractor seeders to cultivators and transplanters, manure spreaders and mold board plows. As I stood next to the old (Italian?) farmer, I watched as he slowly dragged from his cigarette. He was listening to the auctioneer's streaming calls pleading with the crowd of 150 or more farmers and farm hands to please dig deep in their pockets for some of last year's hard earned profits. There was something about his casual stance and attentive demeanor that led me to believe that this had been his place. Had he no sons to replace him? Were they long gone from this life and onto law, medicine, graphic design, the city, bigger things and more profitable work? Hopefully he had just retired and decided to sell, I thought.

I kept scanning back and forth over the fleet of six Farm All and Ford tractors that had been neatly lined up in a row, waiting for some young upstart man or woman to take them out into the field and use them to ease some of the cultivating (read: weeding) burden that lay in the weeks and months ahead. With their belly mounts readied and small frames easily maneuverable between rows of broccoli, peppers, basil, corn, beans, or lettuces, their old age was not, as it may now be for the farmer who cherished them, a disadvantage. These were cultivating tractors. Pure and simple. Old American machines that aged like wine or cheese and only needed good upkeep and some grease to keep them running like it was still the age of the family farm. Across the parking lot were giant Case and International tractors that may have been used for bailing or plowing but these little red and blue guys had all the character in the lot.

The sea of faces stared, the bodies slowly swaying and sucking down hot chocolate and food truck soup to stave off the steady cold breeze, as each tractor had its 15 minutes. The speedy voice of the auctioneer coming through the bull horn, seemingly never taking a breath, ending each soliloquy with "Sooooooooooooooooooold. . . . for $7500 dollars."

This was the highlight of the the afternoon. Most of the farmers had waited it out through all the implements on the other side of the building, had lunch, and then moved over, slowly amassing around the line of antique tractors. This was it. Buy now or forever hold your arm down while the rest of you fidgets and squints and nervously anticipates the frenzy that's just beginning all over again, the same as last year, with frozen mud.

All copy and video copyright tmrg/wayne miller 2010.