The First Year
by Kim J. Young of Mt. Wolf, PA
Sitting in my sun-soaked office this late winter morning, I am content in the notion that I do not have to physically exert myself today, or venture out from the warmth of my house. Even the dogs are on their own once I plow open the porch door for them. Deep snow carpets the land outside my windows and while onion and broccoli seeds sit under warm grow lights for the upcoming season, that seems far away today. My first year on an organic Community-Supported-Agriculture (CSA) farm is behind me. Sitting here in the relative comfort of my home office on the farm, I’m amused at the feeling of anticipation I’m having as spring tries to melt its way north to south central Pennsylvania. Is it possible I’m remembering this past year on the farm with affinity, even warmth? It must be the same feeling women all over the world have felt holding their newborn child after an especially difficult birth.
Prior to last year, I had felt I knew the nuances of the land quite well and fancied myself as knowledgeable about the course of the natural world. I had always had an affinity for all things wild and free and had spent almost two decades as curator of a nature center. I lived on a farm, had explored every inch of it’s terrain and knew every bird that called along my walks. I could time the passing of the red fox that trotted the trails before me by the strength of his scent marks. I could find the queen snake basking on the pond’s willow limbs with uncanny accuracy by being attentive to cloud cover. I knew every spring source in the surrounding hills and could anticipate which grassy swale would be saturated before the rains even arrived. I had coaxed a wild cottage garden to grow outside my windows and tended injured hawks and owls for our state game commission and local veterinarians.
Outdoors was where I felt the most comfortable. The fresh air and endless views of fields, hills and valleys renewed my spirit and refreshed my mind. I didn’t think there was much that could fluster me when it came to the land. Until I became an organic farmer.
It all looked so manageable to my inexperienced eyes last April. The view from the hilltop garden was spectacular. From here you could watch the first leafing of spring across the farm’s 200 acres of hills and valleys. One day the landscape was warm grays and browns the next it was a palette of greens. Lime onion tops stood in rich contrast against the chocolate brown soil in the garden beds. Carrot seeds and potato quarters were planted in the ground. Sugar and snow peas sprouted beneath a thin layer of yellow straw. It was a beautiful garden on a lovely hillside and I thought this would be a great job, a good summer and a great adventure. I had always wanted a sabbatical from my work and as I stood there, I thought I had found it. But within a week though, the warm sun and humid rain showers turned all the beds dark green with thick, invading weeds. This sudden change marked the beginning of overwhelming work, and ironically, devastating drought.
Several months before, after careful consideration, my co-workers decided we begin our first CSA on the small side. The ten shares of produce offered to the public were quickly purchased by area residents, and leftover crops each week would be donated to a local food bank. It seemed reasonable then. In hindsight we could not have picked a more challenging year.
We were frequently undone by the physical pain that accompanied many tasks, frustrated by the lack of proper tools and equipment and woefully unprepared for the best mother nature had to offer. Anger was a frequent emotion. It was palpable, arriving on the heels of incorrect measurements, miscommunication, stubbornness, rain, wind, heat, hungry deer and rabbits, marauding insects, misbehaved dogs, ill horses, exploding cat populations, disagreeing co-workers and countless other excuses that we tried to let go of in order to get back to the task at hand. The worst drought to parch the northeast in a century coincided with our first year operating a CSA project. The discomfort of the heat wave and extreme drought made us feel like we were battling a lingering illness. By the time the wild cows appeared on the farm our anger and exhaustion had turned to giddiness.
It was painfully apparent very early on that this small venture was beyond the comfort zone for three women, each of whom was currently experiencing or just flirting with middle age. My co-worker was the creative engineer behind this endeavor. An eternal optimist, and the only one of us with organic farming experience, operating a CSA was her dream and she was determined to make this work. My employer, the farm’s owner, had the generous vision and finances to do this project, but her time in the gardens was limited due to other commitments, and her vision was based on research, not practical experience. And then there was me. The naturalist and the realist. My skills consisted of years of teaching natural history, managing employees and volunteers and creating and overseeing the development of a wide variety of educational programs, interpretive displays and live animal exhibits. I was used to being in charge and one of my best skills was quickly sizing up a situation and assessing what needed to be done to accomplish the work well and on time. I was absolutely no help here.
I remember standing on the hillside one morning looking out over the gardens with a mental list of the tasks that had to be completed that day, tasks that couldn’t be completed if the day were 76 hours long. What had we gotten ourselves into? People trusted us and had paid in advance for the privilege of knowing where, how and by whom their organic food was grown. That is the very essence of all CSAs. Certainly they would notice if there weren’t any produce when they came to the farm to pick up their weekly shares. Hiding from them wouldn’t work over the course of the entire summer, though I flirted with the idea. No doubt my co-workers did too, but no one verbalized their fears. My body just froze as I looked at the beds. The soil was dry and cracked, weeds were everywhere, bean leaves were lacy skeleton decimated by pests. How could there be so much work to do today when we had worked so hard yesterday? And they were all the same tasks. I had seen this body language before. I had watched frightened deer, standing stiff-legged, heads bobbing, snorting, pawing the ground, trying to size up their adversary, before turning to run, their white tail flagging a warning to others in its herd. My urge to flee down the hillside waving a white flag was overpowering.
Water became a daily issue due to poor planning and the drought. Despite the scattered showers in early spring it was clear a dry summer was upon us. Why hadn’t this issue of water been thought out more clearly at the start of the season? I had no prior farming experience, but who puts gardens on top of a hill when the stream, marshes and pond lay in the valley of the farm? Even I knew that water doesn’t flow uphill willingly. Early in the season many decisions were made on assumptions. Like the assumption that an irrigation system would be available. It never materialized. Spring water from the barn was available for the gardens near the stables and well water served the beds on the other side of the farm, but surface water was used on the hillside garden beds and they were by far the largest of the gardens. Water was pumped from the stream or pond into a truck-top water tank with a thirty foot long, 4 inch diameter green hose attached to it. We dubbed the hose “the anaconda.” It’s sheer bulk and weight, when filled with water, made it nearly impossible to lift, and it required two people to move it along the paths. If dragged, it would crush the plants we were desperately trying to water. A living anaconda would have been more cooperative. Not only was the hose a nightmare but the sheer effort of moving the old truck, starting the pump, filling the tank with water, getting the hose back onto the truck bed, moving the pump off the bridge, and heading back up to the gardens to fight once again with the monster hose sapped our strength on days we were already overheated and overworked. The hose and the issue of water brought us to our knees on more than one occasion and caused more than a few tears of frustration and anger. As a matter of fact, it almost sank us.
Insects were a constant challenge. Farming organically encouraged many beneficial insects, but pests were still bountiful and had eons of evolution on their side. While we planted Brassicas the cabbage butterflies gathered excitedly at our hunched shoulders. Some mornings the white insects seemed to greet us at the garden gate. Fluttering around us as we pulled new transplants out of the back of our cars, it was hard to shake the nagging feeling that they were organizing. We struggled in the hot air to build frames which would hold row covers to keep these flying pests out, but fifty foot lengths of light- weight, billowing material is almost impossible to lay down on a windy hillside. The butterflies only seemed encouraged by our efforts, playing with the fluttering fabric and patiently waiting until we tired of the hopeless task. Then they would continue their work of laying eggs on the tender green leaves. Our eyes stung from perspiration, our fingers burned from the hot, black plastic piping and the sharp-edged plastic clips cut our hands. The butterflies never seemed bothered at all.
Cabbage loopers and flea beetles had also found the plants. There was so much fras from the cabbage butterfly larvae that the plant heads actually looked sodden. The plants looked terrible, which made the garden look terrible. A poor looking garden weighed down our spirits, and the season had barely begun.
Some pests were removed by hand while we pinched off damaged leaves, weeded and cultivated the beds. Poison ivy quickly established itself in all the beds (as if the squishy caterpillar poop weren’t enough). We tried in vain to remove flea beetles. We threatened them with water sprayed vigorously on the cabbage leaves. This caused them to jump into the soil. We raked vigorously to disturb them from the ground and then tried quickly to put on row cover before they sought the safety of the cabbage leaves again. This too quickly became an exercise in futility.
I was astounded at the life forms that survived during a drought. Like some African watering hole, every form of life was attracted to and appreciative of the only site on this entire hillside with water and green leaves. The Mexican bean beetles were especially thrilled with our bean crop. The fuzzy, yellow larvae were everywhere. We spent hours with burning back and leg muscles leaning over bean beds in the blazing sun turning leaves to reveal and remove the pests. We got nowhere. Then we hatched the brilliant plan to pay a friends’ child a penny for each bug removed. Despite his keen eye and adventuresome spirit, he ran out of bugs. That particular day we had outdone ourselves in our raid on the bean beds, leaving little to do for the only person in the garden with endless energy and nary a sore muscle. The bugs came back, but our bug picker’s short attention span had moved on to other summer adventures by the next afternoon. We always had the ideas, but our timing was way off.
My anger at the ineffectiveness of some tasks was getting the best of me and my inability to contribute, except for physical labor, was intensely frustrating. All the really important tasks never got done on a regular basis. There was no time. Those simple tasks left undone took on enormous significance later in the season when they became overwhelming. One example was the tomato plants. We didn’t have time for tomato cages. We should have made time. In a few short weeks the tomato transplants were monstrous. Lifting and separating the branches in order to pick tomatoes from hundreds of tomato plants was unbearable in the heat. We spent hours each day struggling with them. The odor of rotten fruit laying at the bottom of the beds was nauseating. The footing was actually unstable as we continually slipped on the gooey, fermenting fruit. I really wanted this project to work, but it was an effort every day to let the anger go and relinquish control to others who needed more ownership of this job than I.
By mid-July we reached a turning point in the gardens and our focus. The drought was in full control. I noted in my journal how dry and hard the ground was. Kneeling in the gardens was like kneeling on rough cement. It was so hot that long pants were just not reasonable and when one of us did try lightweight slacks the rough ground tore at the cloth just as it did our skin. This same day, while pumping and hauling water from the stream, it became apparent that our natural water sources were feeling the strain of the drought. We all agreed that the pond and stream must not be significantly altered by us. The crops in the hillside garden would have to take second place behind the needs of the abundant wildlife already established here. An important decision was also made to stop watering one of the gardens near the stable with our spring-fed barn water. The entire main farm was fed by spring water and no one knew how long the springs would keep flowing. Successfully producing food for our members each week had been our first priority, but the drought was taking it’s toll and being able to shower after a searing day in the fields now seemed to be the only thing that mattered, after cold drinking water and food.
The gardens and house on the other side of the farm were watered by a well and we had no idea how low that water level was either. There is only one way to find out how much water is left in a well. No science is involved. When you are out of water, the well is dry. In the midst of all this drama one of the pipes feeding spring water to the main farm’s cistern broke. At the time we assumed the spring had indeed dried up. It was a devastating moment. We had thought about the possibility all summer, but now that it had happened not one of us could think of what to do next. We just leaned on shovels and stood and stared at each other. It was hot, we were exhausted, the ground was hard and cracked, the grass crackled under your feet and when you lifted a faucet nothing came out except air. But this time, simple luck prevailed. The broken pipe was located and repaired and we had water within three days. But we never relaxed again and for the rest of the summer water was carefully hauled and stored in buckets as if we were preparing for a Eucharist.
Our scare with the broken spring pipe made the drought personal. We thought about it every day. What will we do? Forget the crops. What will WE do? We hear on the news every night that people whose wells have already dried up can expect to be without water for months until a significant “rain event” occurs, such as a hurricane. Hurricanes are not the usual topic of conversation in south central Pennsylvania, not even during hurricane season, but eventually that was exactly what happened. Hurricane Floyd would sideskirt the evacuated states of Florida and Georgia and slam into North Carolina followed by endless rains that moved up the coast, turned into the Maryland peninsula, up through Baltimore and north to our farm. Having dreamt of rain all summer, of course, I was not on the farm at the time to enjoy it. Instead, I was hiding in a motel room, having evacuated my campsite on Assateaque Island in a desperate attempt at a short vacation. I ended up with one day in the sun on the beach and lots of wet stuff in my car.
At first we laughed at the accounts of wild cows. This is Pennsylvania, not Wyoming. But pretty soon one person’s account was corroborated by another and then another until we had to admit that it might be true. It turned out that these were not simply stubborn cows with a bad attitude, but mean, wild cows. Four straggly creatures that had long since abandoned their pastures on the other side of our borough and decided to camouflage themselves in our thickets. Racking up quite a bit of property damage in town before they found our farm, they hid by day and grazed under a cloak of darkness. Those unfortunate enough to have encountered them breathlessly described a motley crew of bovines that appeared out of nowhere to briefly make eye contact before the charge. They were phantoms to those of us who never actually encountered them but I was able to track their whereabouts by the advancing piles of cow patties that eventually made their way to my house. For months I listened for heavy breathing and wet footsteps outside my bedroom window.
In time, the joys of communing with the land became stronger than the frustrations and pain. There was a flow to the long hours. The exhaustion was constant, but the end of the day gave way to contentment. Our fatigue became comical and we often howled with laughter when another tool broke. Some days we even found the monotonous work soothing, like chanting a mantra. We were drained, but we struggled together and never failed to provide our shareholders with beautiful, healthy food. We never tired of the view and the beauty of the gardens never let us down.
We took pride in the growing fruits and vegetables and even found moments to relax. Breathtaking colors, textures and shapes mingled and thrived in the miniature ecosystems we had created. By late summer the maturing crops shaded out most of the weeds and the ever-improving soil helped us battle the pests. The hurricane blew the drought out to sea. Pollinators languished on the first flowers of each crop, cherry tomatoes satisfied our mid-morning hunger while we harvested and sun-sweetened cantaloupes mooned us over their vines.
There was great satisfaction each week on harvest pick-up day and we basked in the complements of our shareholders. The harvest spread out on the long wooden tables always overwhelmed us. No matter how long the season progressed, we never tired at the sight of what we had accomplished and how much we had produced.
Birds nested around the garden and rewarded us with their serenades, colors and acrobatics. Bluebirds, tree swallows, wrens, brown thrashers, chipping sparrows and mockingbirds worked beside us. My dogs kept us company and allowed us hugs when we most needed it. Even the black rat snake was welcome once it understood to stop haunting the nestboxes. In the garden it was left alone, draped across the fence, it was harassed. Positive reinforcement seemed to work. The snake stayed and the birds flourished.
A moment of shade from a passing cloud allowed a moment’s respite from relentless heat. A gentle breeze had the same affect. We learned to ration those moments wisely and respond to the slightest change in the air as our bodies worked in tune with the cycles of the earth.
As the season progressed we began to feel a sadness we commented about daily and questioned constantly. Were we misinterpreting our emotions? But as summer dried into fall and fall eroded into winter, we found it wasn’t sadness at all. Our bodies were just naturally shutting down like the earth around us as we put the gardens to bed.
That spring seems so far away now. This long journey had begun with a robust burst of energy and excitement when everything was new to us and the earth. We had spent weeks double-digging beds, ripping out roots, sod and weeds, and folding in compost, all to prepare the ground for the enormous project ahead. We stood fast through the summer and discovered a stamina previously unknown to us. We survived the long days of production and harvest, the heat, humidity, drought, water rations, ineffective tools, compact soil, insect pests, poison ivy, aching muscles and joints that may never return to their former flexibility. What a contrast to the intense feelings of contentment that arrived with the first breeze of autumn. The cycle had been completed.
I leaned back in my chair and looked out through frosted windows. Somewhere under all that snow is dark, loose, pliable soil and warm compost. Dormant earthworms are curled in tangled balls below the frost line and thick-rooted rye hold the soil together. It is a well deserved rest for the earth, which has produced so much for us all season. We are thankful for its season of gifts and lessons. We need a rest too, for we will soon begin all over again. But not today.