Saturday, October 10, 2009

Uncertainty

Nothing pervades farming like uncertainty. Each day the weather determines if its too rainy to plant, too cold for certain crops to grow, or too hot to entice customers to come to a farmers market. There's also little to help predict spikes in the vast array of potential crop diseases, like tomato blight, basil detritus, and sulfur-struck raspberries. Blight recently shrunk our farm's weekly earnings by over $1,000, while another area farmer unexpectedly lost 30% of his peach trees to a similar attack this summer.

Farmers are also vulnerable to uncertainties with their equipment and labor. Our broken tractor recently transformed a swift machine planting into several days of hand-digging. Workers on a leanly-staffed neighboring farm were stuck harvesting well beyond dusk for 3 days to compensate for a farmhand who had twisted his ankle and couldn't work. Another farmer was recently set back when his entire crew left unnanounced at the start of apple season to make 50 cents more per hour at a nearby orchard.

I admire the flexibility farmers seem to exhibit, perhaps as a byproduct of the unpredictability their lifestyle entails. Of late, our farm has required some flexibility from the workers as well. Although Chip & Susan anticipated work for 6 full-time helpers, their cash crop - tomatoes - has been wiped out a month early this year due to the unprecedented blight. With dwindling tasks as a result, each of us was asked to re-evaluate our schedule. Several workers have started helping out on nearby farms a couple days a week. A few of us, myself included, have decided to cut our farm stints short.

I've loved working on the farm. Each day is filled with time outside, physical exercise, and fresh, healthy food. I spend no money (I've only used my wallet twice in 3 weeks) and no time staring at a computer screen. My co-workers are engaging, fun, bright, and adventurous, and I've enjoyed their stories - from hiking the Appalachian Trail to visiting Iran.

Still, choosing to leave early was an easy decision for me. The farm has felt like summer camp, and after my 3-week session here, I feel ready to leave. The mental tally of what I miss about my life in DC has grown - ethnic food, movies, public transportation, people watching, couch time, bike rides, aimless meandering, free events. Most of all, I miss Karen and my friends. After a fun adventure, albeit shorter than I expected, I am excited to be coming home.

My thanks to all who followed my updates, shared their thoughts, or were patient with my sans-laptop slower-than-usual email responses.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Market tips

Our 23 tomato varieties have now faded like the summer. And the sun goes down by 6:45, shortly after the end of our daily work regimen. Despite the seasonal shifts, our farmers markets continue well into November. So, here are a few quick shopping tips:

1. Shop early for the highest quality produce or late for the best prices. Vendors put out their top picks at the start of a market, so arriving at the opening bell is your best chance of snagging the tastiest produce. By contrast, during the last half hour, farmers often drop their prices to avoid taking home items that may not keep until a subsequent market, such as highly-perishable greens.

2. Ask about daily specials as discounts vary and may not be advertised. Eggplant prices may be set low, for example, due to an abundant harvest that week, or the cost of greens cut in half for purchases over 2 pounds. And if you plan to buy a lot of a particular item, you might even try negotiating a discounted price.

3. Examine before buying. The undersides of tomatoes may be
blighted, the middle leaves of bunched chard splotchy, or berries at the bottom of a pint box rotten. Vendors may even try to hide these defects, cosmetic or otherwise, so inspect carefully before you buy. But for deals, consider buying items labelled "seconds", which are aesthetically blemished and therefore heavily discounted, but otherwise up to snuff.

4. Comparison shop as prices and quality vary dramatically between vendors. If you're feeling especially compulsive, make a pre-purchase lap around the market.

5. Try something new. Instead of buying tomatoes and lettuce try
kholrabi or okra. Since starting on the farm, I've tried and loved my first chinese mulberry and kiwi grapes. Farmers will happily share their methods of cooking less conventional produce, and you can always find recipes online.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Routine

One week into my new adventure, life on the farm has settled into a routine. Most weekdays we work from 7:30 to noon and from 2 to 6 pm. And depending on the day we may plant lettuce, pick squash, weed spinach, bunch basil, wash turnip greens, fertilize tomatoes, trim chard, or sort eggplant, among other tasks. On weekends, our long days, we wake up around 5 am, drive to farmers markets near DC, hock our veggies until early afternoon, and return to the farm for late afternoon harvesting.

As for the most important non-work routine - meals - we eat in a communal screened-in worker kitchen, equipped with two couches, a large wooden dining table, two stoves, two fridges, a sink, and a smattering of haphazardly-placed and not particularly-washed dishes, pots, and pans. Each person makes their own breakfast and lunch, while dinner is cooked by a different farm worker each night. Staple foods we eat include the produce we grow as well as products we trade to other vendors at farmers markets, like bread and apples. A communal kitty is used to supplement our pantry with other key items, from nuts to milk.

As for bathroom arrangements (I'm sure you've wondered), we make due with a rustic outhouse tucked among strawberry bushes behind the barn and a wood-framed shower adjacent to the workers kitchen with two sinks and a mirror. When I asked another worker if she tends to shower in the mornings or evenings, she responded - "on Tuesdays." I confess I'm adjusting to that weekly tradition more readily than I would like to admit.

And, finally, we sleep in the unheated barn clustered in two rows of modest rooms, with a mattress, outlet, and window in each. Most nights, we hit the hay (sleeping bags actually) around 9:30 pm, after an hour or so of post-dinner chit chat.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Farming begins

Yesterday I was in synagogue surrounded by hundreds of families celebrating the Jewish new year. Today I was standing in a barn with 3 cooing chickens, Karen and my Mom having just left to return to DC in the Zipcar they rented to drop me off for my new adventure.

The entire crew was still at the Takoma Park farmers market so I meandered between the tomato rows to pass time. What was I possibly thinking, a lifelong city boy, coming to work on a farm? The chickens, wandering with me, nodded sympathetically. Its true, they seemed to say, farm life can be isolating. But remarkably, reception here in Wheatland, Virginia is better than at home, so I called Karen and then a few friends, which soothed my nerves.

As the sun started descending my nesting instinct kicked in, and I swept out the 10-by-15 foot storage room, now my bedroom, in the barn where the farm workers sleep. Using a crate as a dustbin, I threw out the dust, dead beetles, glass shards, and snake skin, and wondered if I'm ready for this journey. At 6:30, still alone, I really began to question my judgment. Instead, I focused on being hungry, wandered back through the fields and picked an orange pepper, a purple and white streaked eggplant, and green basil and returned to the workers kitchen where I saut├ęd them. Chomping on my first freshly-picked farm meal, crickets chirping outside, I did feel a sense of satisfaction, and certainty that whatever happens in the next 7 weeks, I won't go hungry.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I'm doing what?

Dear friends,

On Monday I'm heading to work on a farm for 7 weeks. Yes, a farm. Specifically, Chip and Susan Planck's Wheatland Vegetable Farm, 45 miles north of Washington DC in Loudoun County, Virginia. Putting my advanced degree to use, your blogger will pick vegetables during the week and help sell them at DC-area farmers markets on the weekends. And, lest you think otherwise, Karen has endorsed this plan in exchange for inside access to a beet-squash-kale-arugula-pepper supplier.

So, how will this lawyer fare on the farm? Will he resort to flash cards to memorize tomato varieties? After ten years of office jobs can he manage manual labor? Will he somehow avoid exhaustion, boredom, and the dreaded Okra itch?

Until my final day on the farm on November 8th, I'll write here about my routine, surroundings, companions, and diversions. And, I'll answer as many of the questions you post or ask as I can. As for my favorites so far - will I be handling the farm's legal affairs and do I need to speak Spanish to be a farmhand - thankfully not and creo que no.

Off to produce,
Dan on the Farm