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July 7, 2016
A Note from the Farmer's Wife
A carefully edited and much shorter version of this article was published in Grid Magazine
in April. For those of you who want the whole story, here's a little more to read....
When Don arrived at the farm for his first day of work, I was skeptical. Now bear in mind, we employ an eclectic mix of people for our crew, but Don won the prize for the cleanest-shaved and the neatest dressed. His spotless, freshly ironed button-up was carefully tucked into crisp khakis. His boots squeaked, they were so new. His hair, what little he had, was carefully combed and the enthusiastic grin across his face was irresistible. Some might say this man was in the thick of a mid-life crisis. At 45, he left the corporate food industry to pursue a newly hatched dream: to be a farmer. His only obstacle? He knew almost nothing about farming. That was obvious by his appearance on his first day of work. Our farm provided the solution to his lack of know-how. One year later, he bought a small acreage and a used tractor. And with his agreeable wife, launched Dancing Hen Farm. Except for the same heart-warming grin, you would hardly recognize him.
Another employee, Todd, spent his late teen years perfecting his skills as a skate board aficionado. He came to work for us in his mid-twenties, a college drop-out with no particular plan other than to make the world a better place. He fell in love with farming almost immediately. He lived with us and worked on our crew for four years. In that time, he fell in love with the idea of farming with horses. He took a summer hiatus to work in Maine with a farmer who mentored him with horse and plow. When Todd returned that winter, he brought a beautiful girl named Mary. That summer, not long after the echinacea bloomed, Mary gave birth to their son in the summer kitchen. They now manage a CSA in the Philly area, using horse and tractor power. I cried the day they moved out.
After Michael and I purchased our first farm, our heads bubbled with plans of vegetables and people eating them. Passionate ideals about connecting people with the land where their food grew filled our thoughts. CSA, Community Supported Agriculture, was in its early day, and we found our niche by giving our customers the ability to order what landed in their weekly boxes. We studied compost, soil chemistry, organic pesticide management and poured over glossy pictures of vegetables on winter weekends. We knew what our farm stood for and what we were about. We were about growing good vegetables for enthusiastic vegetable consumers.
What we didn't realize was that the farm was producing more than vegetables, cut-flowers and culinary herbs. It was producing farmers and mentoring young people. As our CSA expanded so did our crew. In the height of the summer during the farm’s early history we employed a dozen or so people, most of them in their early 20s. Some of them shared living space in our large 1890’s farm house. Bounteous lunches were served to the entire crew, and we ate together gathered around rickety fold-up tables in the back yard. The meals always emphasized the bounty of the season. Vegetable soups, zucchini lasagna, copious salads, homemade pickles, vats of curried veggies made with whatever cooking green, satisfied our bellies. Crusty molasses bread and local apples filled around the edges. Cucumber lemonade refreshed our thirst while conversation centered around lively topics: rock and roll and politics. Raucous laughter echoed against the barn walls and after the meal, we’d tip back our chairs for a few minutes, drink tea and listen to those who could pick a guitar or banjo.
Working outside on pristine blue sky days in May can fill one’s soul with hope and joy. The blistering heat and back-breaking demands of late July can completely dampen all gains made to mind and spirit. Sweltering, grimy bodies find relief one way of another. Those who labored at the bottom of the hill had to be ever mindful of flying rotten tomatoes, hurled by impish and gritzy pickers of the prized heirlooms. Spontaneous sport arose in the hot pepper patch while cases of liquid beverage were battled for in habanero eating contests. One winner, lost the rest of the days wages when a blinding migraine and furious digestive tract laid him in bed for the afternoon. And the crown of all, was, and still is, the annual ping-pong tournament. With a neat one hundred dollar bill taped to the center net, crew stay after hours and sweat out a round robin, nearly always ending in a neck and neck match with a ferocious farmer.
These antics, combined with the shared meals and long grueling days in the field, forged a bond. When we were younger this bond felt more like sibling to sibling. As we mature it takes a more parental feel. Either way, our hearts are involved and a deep caring for the humanity of the crew has grown alongside the long rows of vegetables. Our farm has expanded since those early days. After several years on our fourteen acre farm, we purchased a 90 acre tract of land. We now cultivate over thirty acres in vegetables, with a half acre under the cover of high tunnels. Our CSA which fed almost 200 families on the first farm, now feeds nearly 700, in addition to families who shop at our farmer’s markets and a growing wholesale production. As the farm has grown, so has the crew. We now employ over twenty full and part time people in the height of the season. We anticipate providing year-round employment for three people, giving them a viable living. Year after year of vegetable production has honed many skills and techniques necessary to produce top-quality, consistent crops. We have learned to roll with the weather, anticipate the unexpected, and to worry less and sleep a little more. What took us by surprise, however, was the people part. We never could have imagined that beyond feeding our happy vegetable-crazy customers, that our small farm would become a haven for the wanderer, and incubator for future farmers, a place of healing for humanity.