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.