reflections from the southeast PA rural underground

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.