Tuesday, August 3, 2010

7/28 Down on the Farm

Solar weather.
I do my watering before 9 a.m. – early for me, though not for the rest of the world – because it’s going to be a hot day. I admire new red Mandeville Rose blooms on the plant we potted on the patio, and the morning glories climbing relentlessly up the back of the house.
I feel the pressure of the heat getting inside of me as I head off before noon for a farm in Sharon, a town about half an hour away. After touring the farm, I have to race back to the house and write a story.
I find my source, farmer Jim, in the packing room attached to the loading dock, behind the farm stand. Produce harvested that day is being packed to go out to customers the same day. Along with a few workers, he is “grading” tomatoes, a task you do by hand. A task he will be doing for weeks, maybe two months.
A young summer helper, working nearby, is packing cherry tomatoes into pint-size containers. You’re going to mound that one up, Jim says. All of those should be mounded up, he tells the boy. The boy builds up his mound of cherries and re-wraps the box.
Farm management is labor intensive. A lot of supervision is required for all this labor, and the farmer does not hesitate to offer it. Farm help are engaged in many different tasks, but Jim appears know what they’re all doing and how they should be doing it. I feel like I’m on a factory tour with one of those fabled entrepreneurs with boundless energy.
Finally out of the packing house, we spend an hour driving a minivan all over the farm, a wide, flat, and largely tree-less expanse of green crops, small fruit orchards, and dusty roads, and rows, between everything. Phone calls come and are dealt with. We see the place where the “old” peach trees were planted, where they can’t irrigate because they are under a power line. “Probably a mistake,” he says, to put them there. We pass rows of thickly growing eggplant – each plant looks the equal of the entire suite of six or seven eggplants doing their usual nothing in my garden.
We pass broccoli and brussel sprouts and kohlrabi. He likes the stalks of broccoli, and that’s what kohlrabi tastes like, Jim observes. We come to the tomato fields, some of the tomato fields – the farm grows over 100 varieties of tomatoes, including many heirloom varieties, now that there’s a market for them by gourmet restaurants and stores.
Tomatoes are their “rain makers,” Jim’s brother (farmer Bob) had told me. They are a high revenue crop. They sell tomatoes to the name restaurants with the chefs people follow. They sell them to Harvard University, at farmer’s markets in the cities, at their own stand, and to a few stores.
Ripening tomatoes are a beautiful color. A dozen or so workers who are picking them stop their work and some walk toward Jim when he stops the van to greet them, raising dark faces to him, uncertain if anything is wanted of them. But he’s merely showing his own face and recognizing their work. “You’re breaking for lunch soon,” he says, “aren’t you?” I don’t know what they reply. They are the Jamaicans, I learn. They are very good workers, he tells me, treating the farm with an owner’s care, and they come every summer.
Jim doesn’t waste the opportunity to inspect the crops simply because, ostensibly, he’s giving me a tour. He slows the van to a crawl, stops, gets out to look, tells me something, but I can barely follow what we’re doing from one moment to the next. “I’m checking these plants to see if they’re going to be ready to pick next,” he says. “But it doesn’t look like they are.”
We inspect the potato hills. It’s hot. My guide gets out of the car again, guesses where the red fingerling plant is, digs up a few hills. Finds it on the third try. A dozen or so red fingerlings, the biggest ones about finger size. Decides they’re ready.
And here he shows me purslane. A restaurateur has ordered purslane, along with whatever else he’s ordered for tonight’s or tomorrow’s menu. It’s a weed. If you’re a gardener, he says, you have it. We find it in the potato field, along with lamb’s quarters, which I do recognize. When he shows it to me, it’s a green with stems covered with small uniform roundish slightly succulent crunchy-looking leaves. I do recognize it though I’m not sure I can find it in the yard now.
“When I get an order for purslane,” he says, “I think of it as found money.”
We come to the pumpkin fields, where the hayride tours take the customers in fall, another big revenue-producer (the sort of thing I am writing about). He tells me about “big pumpkins” bought for carving and “sugar pumpkins” which these days tend to be bought for display. They used to be for pies.
He says this wistfully. Lots of varieties used to be grown that aren’t any more. He is a farmer and likes food plants.
Food is history, and culture too. He grows New England Blue Hubbard squash. They have a hard shell which preserves the flesh through the winter. You can still eat them in March, preserved in a root cellar, when a lot of other produce is no good any more. Before refrigeration, the Blue Hubbard was a product that was essential to the regional diet. It’s locavore history.
Spending time with a farmer is a humbling experience for a backyard gardener. My little dilemmas, decisions, bad calls and occasional good ones are multiplied by a thousand. Commitment –and energy, I think – as well.
After he tours the whole farm, checks on the condition of various crops, gets his hands dirty digging up potatoes to gauge their readiness, gives me a narrated tour which ends with a sampling of peaches, Farmer Jim goes back to the packing room to grade tomatoes.
He’s been there, he tells me, since four a.m.

A Visit to the Farm

Stoop and dig the soil
Red fingerlings scooped and weighed
Ready for the tongue