Vegetables of Labor

Newsflash: Farming is hard work. Even nice, earthy, green, feel-good-about-yourself-and-the-planet organic farming. Oh sure, we organic farmhands don’t have to worry about pesticide poisoning (at least not on the job), nor are we subject to  spirit-crushing while traversing a miserable monochromatic sea of soy in our air-conditioned harvest machines, but there are moments when you realize that the path you’ve chosen is a long row to hoe. Sometimes–many times–literally. And a hard one at that.

Their harvest: The military-like precision and efficiency of these mechanical harvesters have no doubt helped feed the world. But the real costs of monoagriculture to the land and our health are fast catching up with production.

Our harvest. Note the people. The hats. The color. The smiles!

You see, while “conventional” growers are busy spraying their crops with all manner of herbicides and pesticides, we’re busy eradicating weeds by hand. On occasion, this involves the use of good, ol-fashioned hand-hoes, and a lot of back-breaking repetitive motion on a hot muggy day. On other occasions, it involves getting down on all fours and picking the little weedlings out from between the crop plants one-by-one. I had not been aware that finger muscles could get sore until I pulled weeds for four hours straight on a fine spring day in May. Up until then, I resorted to over-the-counter pain killers about once or twice a year, usually after a physical mishap of some sort. Now, I’ve got a “family size” bottle of generic ibuprofen sitting on my dresser.

A typical day on the farm preparing for the CSA (that's community-supported agriculture) pickup. Note the poundage!

Look familiar? Reassuringly familiar? Isn't it nice to recognize the tools that you think go into growing food? Those are the pole bangers on the very left side...

But nothing beats banging stakes into the ground, especially if it’s dry ground. Ever done it? How about an entire row or five, involving about 250 wooden stakes?

“You know the season has really begun when you hear the sound of banging stakes into the ground,” noted seasoned farmhand Virginia (the one holding the bucket of peppers above).

It might not be so bad if the banging tool itself didn’t weigh about 30 pounds and need to be hoisted above your head to get it fitted onto the top of the stake before you can start driving it in. Women’s lib is great and all, but it’s a safe bet to say that most of the stakes at Greenbranch got sunk in by the males among us. It takes a lot of upper body strength.

Doesn't it look nice? Now get down there and spread 'em.

Wait, did I say stake-banging was hard? I meant straw-mulching. That’s what you do when you’re done staking the tomatoes. Tomatoes love a good straw mulch. Thick. As in 6 inches or so thick. Keeps the moisture in and the weeds out. Once the plants are established, and the stakes are in (every other plant), we get to dive in and roll around in the hay! Sounds like fun, and it is–the first dozen bales or so.

“Rub the big yellow dog,” said Virginia. “That’s what Jeff likens the spreading of the hay between the rows to,” she explained. And it is like rubbing the tummy of a big yellow dog, kind of.  Again and again and again. Plus you have to gently tuck the hay under the delicate leaves of the tomato plants, so you can’t just go in like a football team kicking hay all about.

Could we have chosen a hotter day for spreading hay? Could I possibly discover hay in any more unexpected bodily crevices?

Oh, and did I mention it’s about 90 degrees and high noon while you’re doing all this? You would think you would be done with the tomato prep, but you’re not. They need to be strung. Another job which requires precision and patience as each plant is carefully hemmed in between two lines of twine themselves wrapped around every stake.

So then while we’re all–this includes you, dear reader I’m sure–waiting in great anticipation for the tomatoes to fruit and ripen to perfection, it’s time to go pick some other ripe stuff. Like beans, lots of beans. Or, even better, dig up some new potatoes! 25 pounds to a bucket, each of which must be hand-carried over to the truck, then unloaded and lovingly loaded into crates for sale or storage.

Feeding our neighbors as we feed ourselves, the Greenbranch way.

Wait, these aren’t the potatoes  from the seed potatoes which we sifted through back in May, are they? Sorting out the viable ones from the rotted, fetid ones, cutting them down to size and coating them in sulfur to keep them fresh for planting? The smell of sulfur–which some liken to rotten eggs–was with us and those who had to live with us for days. They couldn’t have spawned new potatoes already, could they?

Just a little something to think about the next time you wonder why organic produce costs more.  Even a labor of love ain’t cheap.

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6 Responses to Vegetables of Labor

  1. Ash says:

    Oh, Doodi, you are wonderful! A wonderful writer, a wonderful person for working so hard so others may eat better, safer, tastier food.

    When I first got into sheep I did so after reading a book about the lively lambs, the wooly faced ewes, the soft fleece to be spun & knitted & woven. It sounded so lovely, almost romantic.

    The reality was a slap in the face. The lively lambs only came after sleepless nights (& days) waiting for them to be born, wrapped in a blanket in the freezing barn watching for the often clueless ewes to go into labor. Many have to be taught to allow their lambs to nurse.

    And my lovely naturally brown or black or cream yarn (from black & colored sheep) only came after the very hard work of the shearing – there’s nothing quite like getting up close & personal with a sheep’s feces & urine soaked hind end on a hot summer day…

    Ah, those were the days…

  2. Tammy McLeod says:

    What a great blog post. You’re a talented writer but I most love that you didn’t glorify the hard work. I think so many romanticize the hard work that brings us good food. Thanks for what you do.

  3. Ah, the joys of tilling the land
    Pulling out weeds by hoe and hand.
    Eco-farming
    That does no harming
    Brings smiles to woman and man.

  4. nabil shawkat says:

    It all reminds me of my coal mining days in south africa!

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