Growing up Organic: Harvest

I grew up on a farm. Well, not always. My father decided to start farming when I was about four. It was kind of a big deal. I mean, we had to move. And my dad had to learn how to farm. And we had to purchase things like a tractor and other equipment. And then he had to find a market for the stuff. And my mom had to learn how to be a farmer’s wife.

When I was younger I always thought he just wanted to be a farmer. He’d had a vegetable garden that took over an additional rototiller-width of lawn each year. Plus I thought he got tired of his job with the National Forest Service–he was required to spend more time behind the desk rather than out on fires and in the woods. In my brain, A + B = farming.

Before “organic” was vogue, my dad chose to grow crops this way. His philosophy was that he had been given the privilege of being the steward of the land. He was to help make it produce excellent crops and make the soil as healthy as possible for coming generations.

We rented at first. I don’t remember all the fields and their acreages, but we finally settled on a piece of property that had about 22 acres. That may seem little in the face of these mega-farms with hundreds of thousands of acres; however, when you’re responsible for squishing all the bugs and pulling all the weeds on 22 acres, it seems plenty large.

Fertilizing gourds

I look like I have a backpack–I do, one full of water and fish fertilizer (yes, just as stinky as it sounds) that I’m spraying on our giant pumpkin plants. And that’s how you get a 300lb pumpkin. Boom.

This was my job description as a farmer’s daughter: starting in May with planting, went to weeding every day all summer long, trailed into the next school year’s evenings and weekends for harvest, and generally ended after the ground was cleaned up, usually in November. I was paid, but sparingly. I gained more than money, though. I gained work ethic, determination, the ability to get my hands dirty, and pride in a job well done. I also learned how to kill a mouse with a shovel or a well-aimed dirt clod. Perks of the job.

This time of the year always reminds me of the final pushes of getting produce out of the field, onto the truck, and into the stores. There was no “fall” or “autumn” season–it was harvest season.

I often came home from school to a note telling me to wash pumpkins (you know, the little ones you see in the stores) or husk back Indian corn. Mom would finish with her piano students and we’d work together. Dad would be zipping around the fields on the tractor or picking somewhere in the rows of crops. We’d eat briefly. Then we’d get right back to work. Sometimes if a big order had to go out the next day, we’d work under halogen lamps until I thought my fingers would fall off from the cold. We’d polish pumpkins and gourds, weigh boxes of squash, pack Indian corn into special boxes and mark the contents on the outside. When I got older, my parents trusted me to know our standard of product (basically, it had to be perfect and of similar size)  and to count correctly to package the crops.

Workwear with Pepper

Me and the ol’ John Deere (and the loyal dog, Pepper) after a day in the fields.

Somewhere in the midst of my growing up, my dad’s mother came to live with us. Grandma was so helpful. She would cook dinner so Mom didn’t have to, and clean up after us while we went back to work. Sometimes her arthritis would even let her husk corn. It wasn’t easy! Our crew was the three or four of us. But boy, we got it down to a refined dance. We each knew what needed to be happening and pitched in accordingly. Now, yes, there were some heated moments and stressful conversations (mostly between my parents), but still, at the end was that sense of satisfaction and teamwork.

Nowadays the farm is much different. Without my added help, growing organic on that scale was near impossible so they’ve rented the land to friends. Produce is now grown in onion bins (although Dad is back to his antics and increasing their numbers every year). My dad’s arthritis makes it difficult for him to work on the machinery. My mom is busier with piano students. I’m not at home. My grandmother passed away. But the farm is still home. I love visiting, getting into that old pace, pulling a few weeds, and listening to my dad talk about the perfect green beans he’d harvested.

Since I’ve grown older, the real reason my dad switched to farming has come out. He was worried that he would miss my growing up. He was worried he’d be out on fires and not home to teach me how to be a decent human. He wanted to give our family an opportunity to bond and for me to learn that hard work and perseverance can create success.

Thanks, Poppy.

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