Hard work

I actually worked today.

Yes, I actually work every day that I’m at the farm. But a lot of it’s the same kind of work, almost all day every day these days: Squat, kneel, or bend at the hip to scan and choose bright fruits and vegetables to harvest; chop, pull up, or twist off said produce and bunch, rip off leaves, feel for soft spots, or fill hands with as many little prizes as possible; fill crate or tote or bucket with the bounty, hoist it against my hips, and carry it to the cart or truck; set up tables or wash tubs to sort, bunch, bathe, or spray; carry full totes to the coolers. Apart from the glory of the still-alive produce I get to admire, taste, and smell all day, my physical work is essentially squatting a lot, lifting and moving around heavy oversized boxes, and levering my torso up and down, up and down all day.

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It's all history

When I think back over another week that’s flown by without any writing, I try to think of the one thing that a day would be remembered by: a conversation? a new harvest? a challenge? a storm? By this time of the year I tend to think we’re cruising on auto pilot— that every day has become somewhat predictable and blurry under the steady stream of harvest— but it’s not true. Each day in my history continues to feel distinct, new things pop up, old things remain beautiful, and the blur of early autumn harvest time is punctuated in real time and in memory.

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An onion life

An onion life

They were born in February and March.  Single, grass-like cotyledons springing up from the cold, moist potting soil in the nursery.  Thousands of them, soft and supple, forming a carpet of growing tips that I used to run my hand over as I walked through the winter greenhouse to check on all the babes.  I love the way they come out folded over-- creased right in the middle of that single fine stem-- and hang on to their black seed coats for a while, giving them a brief ride toward the scattered daylight.

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Staying in love

Staying in love

It's the middle of August.  The broccoli is done, for the first time since it came on in June, for about a month.  Spinach has been missing for while, each planting succumbing to premature bolting before we can get anything out of it.  Bok choy seems like a long-ago dream by this point.  Radishes, salad turnips, green onions, cilantro, kale-- all those enthusiastic harbingers of spring harvest season have come and gone.  In their wake we're left with corn, eggplant, and celery.   Red and yellow peppers, finally ripening to fullness in the greenhouses and fields.  Heirloom tomatoes finally glowing in mismatched collections, melons almost ready to burst, Asian pears ripening to yellow, bigger than in years past.

And exhausted as I am by the harvest, blinded to the vividness of each tomato by the sheer abundance of them, I still find myself giddy on a regular basis. 

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Expansion and contraction

Expansion and contraction

Days like this expand and contract beyond my control.  They start quiet, if I arrive early enough to beat the crew and volunteers and barrage of questions they inevitably bring.  I can walk the farm, open sheds, check the nursery, get my bearings.  The stretching circle with the crew centers us, brings laughter and conversation, and the work meeting sets the stage for the day.

Beyond that, it expands in leaps and bounds until there are twenty things happening at once.  

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A fragile organism

A fragile organism

Though I fiercely hate to admit it, I'm a fragile organism.

I woke up feeling strong on Saturday.  Got myself ready for the day, ate some food, jetted off to get to the farm around 7:30am.  I was ready to tackle anything, and I did.  I harvested totes of kale, chard, collards, and cilantro while Ted and the farm stand managers set up the market.  As the youth crew arrived, I was finishing up my bunches and bringing them to the stand, going back to the field to harvest more broccoli for the display.  I started feeling nauseous, cringing whenever I put any attention on my gut.  So I focused on harvest instead: bending up and down, cutting, counting, and carrying totes.  There was enough to distract me.

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Snippets

Snippets

Experimenting with a new format and combining two days into one post: a first, and a sign that both on- and off-farm lives have been stacked full this week.  There's so much to share.  More prose coming soon :)

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Five stories

"I showed up around ten o'clock for my environmental studies class assignment.  I had a hard time waking up, and the sun felt really intense even by mid morning.  A woman showed us around for a while, and I tried raw kale for the first time.  It was actually pretty good.  Leafy tasting.  I volunteered to thin apples before I knew what it meant, and I was happy I did: I got to be in the shade most of the morning, just cutting baby apples off the branches to make better fruit.  I even climbed up into some of the trees, and for a few minutes I forgot all about my classes and final projects-- the sound of apples plopping onto the tarp, light filtering through the leaves, birds chirping nearby.  What a relief."

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Everything by the minutes

Everything by the minutes

8:30 am.  University of Oregon Duck Store.  I'm buying two cases of Listo grease pencils for marking flags with planting dates and varieties at the farm.  We've tried "permanent" markers (they fade), China pencils (they break), and yellow crayon-like grease markers (they don't show up).  Now we have a seemingly endless supply that do the trick.

9:20 am. Strawberry patch.  I'm poking around the plants while Michael weed whacks the end of the bed so we can hook up irrigation lines.  All three patches have been swallowed up on either side by tall cover crop, and I'd almost forgotten about them.  To my delight, they're ripe!  I pick one deep red one and pop it into my mouth, stem and all.  I almost forget to taste it while I search through the beds, looking to see how many are ready.  But then I do, and stand there for a minute, letting that ultra sweet summer flavor sink in.  This sensation will keep coming until fall sets in.

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The Why

The Why

I'm thinking about questions.  How I think of them, how I ask them, how I answer them for others, how I receive answers from others.  After eating my lunch, I strolled around the orchard for a few minutes instead of diving straight back into work.  Yesterday, driving the tractor slowly back and forth across the edge of the first field, I had noticed that the large plum trees hovering over me were nearly bare of fruit.  It stuck in my memory.  I was refreshed from eating and lying down a minute, my mind was at ease with my goals for the rest of the day, and I gave myself time to investigate. 

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An incomplete cast

An incomplete cast

Alice and Phillip.  Last I saw them, they were lounging in camp chairs in the evening sunshine, listening to podcasts and chatting with passerby about the upcoming sale.  When I arrive in the morning, they're standing near where they camped out to "guard" the sale, sipping coffee from their thermoses and cracking jokes with a few other early volunteers.  They tell us about the neighborhood kids who played on the straw bales in the evening and declared that this sale should happen every day.  They make sure we're set to go for the morning before bowing out to enjoy the day elsewhere.  They've already done so much.

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Kiya

Kiya

Kiya arrives late, zipping up a borrowed FOOD for Lane County hoodie on her way toward me in the nursery.  She looks frazzled.  An Americorps NCCC crew of ten young people is here again for the whole day, and I'm racing back and forth between potting up field tomatoes and showing one of them how to water our sand box heat mats to maintain heat conductivity.  Kiya looks beyond me for Ted for a moment, then immediately apologizes for being late, launching into a string of events that had her car and bike both break down as she tried to get here this morning.  I stop what I'm doing, try to soothe her anxiety, and listen.

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What we bring

What we bring

I'm watering the plant sale starts on their new benches outside the greenhouse.  To my left I can see a few shoulders shifting back and forth in front of the tool shed, apprentices from Horton Road Farm on a tour with Ted.  I look up, straight across the picnic tables and gravel road, and spot Michael over near the compost pile, swinging a weed whacker back and forth among the grasses and blackberries.  Except he isn't just swinging it.  He's full-on dancing!

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Recipe for magic

I've mentioned the Youth Farm magic in the past.  It shines when the plants we have for a bed fit exactly from end to end with no extras, or the right person drops in exactly when we need their help, or the rains hold off just long enough for us to till and prep the beds for need for the next planting.  Friday felt full of that magic.  There were a few moments of obvious serendipity: Ted appearing with the last bag of plant sale labels right as the small group that'd been labelling pots all morning had just run out and was about to move on to another project, and Kiya starting her shift, ready to lead, exactly as several volunteers needed a new project and I had to finish up our seeding for the week.  There's clear moments like those, yes, but overall a magic-infused day just has a certain flow to it.  And I'm coming to understand that I have the power to create the flow, whether or not everything seems to line up perfectly.

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Tours

I'm standing at the front of the farm with intern Hannah and almost twenty university students that have come as part of their environmental studies course.  They haven't reached their unit on farm workers and food justice, but they will in a few weeks, and they're here to get some hands-on experience with farming.  It will be almost laughably more pleasant than the everyday experience of most farm workers in this country.  It's sunny but cool, it's already mid morning when they arrive, they'll be weeding garlic for just a couple hours, and I'm not putting any expectations on them about productivity.  Unlike these students, many farm workers are in the fields from sunrise to sunset, are paid abysmally, lack access to good medical care and housing, and have no power to negotiate better working conditions.  Doing some manual labor and learning about our programs may help them better understand the plight of the agricultural labor force in this country, but for the most part, I just hope they walk away with one more modicum of understanding of how food appears on their plates.

For those of you who are still unfamiliar with the scope of the farm's programs, the following is the same basic overview that I usually share with groups-- probably less meandering and redundant than I can usually manage on the fly!

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Teaming up with Americorps

Today would be a good day to have a guest writer share their side of the story.  I was in my own world for most of the day, giving an orientation and tour to a new Americorps NCCC group in the morning, leading our last plant sale seeding with a few of them until lunch, and again leading them with potting soil and a couple solo projects later in the day.  I overlapped with Michael, Phil, Sophie, the UO interns, and Kiya and David just for a couple hours in the afternoon for a workshop, but the glances I could steal out into the fields toward the end of the day gave me an idea of how hard they worked out there all day. 

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Behind the plant sale scenes

Behind the plant sale scenes

This weekend has been approaching, steadily in the background, all season.  As I've pruned fruit trees, seeded veggies for the farm, transplanted 150-foot beds of onions and made batch after batch of potting soil, I've felt it getting closer.  The anticipation felt light and abstract in early February, when we had a series of seeding parties with Grassroots volunteers.  Lettuce and chard seeds were dropped carefully into six-pack trays, covered with soil, and arranged on our nursery benches to germinate.  As the weeks passed, I got to watch them grow as I passed through the nursery with a sprayer hose every day.  When the nursery filled up, we moved the cold-hardy seedlings next door to the overflow greenhouse, and kept seeding more and more.  I spent days with interns and volunteers thinning and pricking out the trays to make sure every six pack was full, and every plant had the space it needed.  Soon after that process, we started labelling each little pot with a white tag to identify its species and variety.  The plants grew slowly at first in this cold spring.  We managed the greenhouse doors carefully to keep them as warm as possible, and just a week or two ago, they finally popped.  They're beautiful.  They're ready for the annual Spring Plant Sale tomorrow.

And the forecast calls for 20-30 mile per hour winds and an inch of rain.

Oh, well.  At least we got to enjoy the sunshine today while it lasted.

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Tomato stories

Tomato stories

After seeding tomatoes for the summer plant sale, potting up the last of the early tomatoes, letting a bit more light trickle in to the grafted tomatoes, and plugging in labels for the spring sale tomatoes, you'd think tomatoes would be all I could think of at the end of the day.  But no, this evening it's easy to let the tomatoes slip my mind.  The people around me have more important stories to tell, when I slow down enough to just listen.

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Potato holiday

Potato holiday

In lieu of wearing tacky green shamrocks and drinking too much Guiness today, we planted potatoes.  I was pretty determined to make it happen, actually.  Yesterday Ted passed off a long work list for the next week while he's on vacation, and I have free reign to plan and play each day as I see fit.  Sowing our first round of potatoes in the greenhouse was already overdue, so today seemed like the day to plug in some spuds.

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The list

The list

My clipboard is still topped with the following (scribbled and muddy) list:

  • potting soil
  • fill trays
  • strawberries
  • garlic weeding
  • level and wood chip GH [greenhouse] entry
  • seeding
  • mulch trees
  • harvest escarole/bok choy/lettuce

It's a solid list, because it has more than we were likely to accomplish with the people we were expecting, but enough to keep everyone engaged if a lot of extra folks dropped in.  A list like that, with more than you can reasonably complete in a day, keeps me ticking and thinking ahead, remembering how to move volunteers forward when they've lulled with their coffee by the picnic tables or are starting to freeze out in the field.

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