hard workin' farm girls

Last Saturday we visited Woodbridge Farm to meet with the farmers and help with some spring planting. One member was kind enough to share her thoughts on the trip…

Working the Land

When I heard that our CSA group had been invited to come out to the farm and work I was all excited. Last summer I’d spoken with David about pruning his horribly neglected apple trees when we made our annual visit and he’d agreed to let me work on them. Then it rained and the trip was postponed and nobody was available to drive me up on the new date. So I was lusting to – finally! – get to my pruning.

Of course pruning wasn’t what we were slated to do: the event du jour was planting potatoes. So I packed my pruning saw, my hand pruner, my floppy sun hat, my rubber gloves and my shovel. Whatever I ended up doing, I intended to be ready.

It turned out that only five of us were interested enough to make the trip. The other four were Board members: Diana, Kimberly, Stephanie and Su-Ling, who (like me) had ulterior motives: they wanted to meet with David and Julia and talk about planning for the CSA season. (Me, I just wanted to prune.)

We left early. I am not a morning person and I have a lot to do when I haul myself out of bed because I have an animal shelter in my apartment. I spent the first hour of the day running the chores as fast as I could before my friend Gina had to take over, and by the time Kimberly and her passengers arrived at my door at 8:20 I’d put in a considerable amount of work. It was pleasant to slide into the back seat and do nothing for awhile.

It was, however, a long trip. I found myself thinking of how David has to do this every single week during the CSA season: hours and hours on the road just so we can have our good food. He doesn’t have a bunch of happily chatting ladies to keep him company and pass bags of chips and carrots and hummus dip to him. He just gets in the truck and goes.

When we arrived at the farm Julia apologized for David’s absence: a friend of theirs was dying and he had gone to stay with her family and help out as best he could. Julia herself had come down with a nasty case of bronchitis that had her hacking and miserable as she got on with all the things she had to do.

We’d arrived a little earlier than she’d expected, so most of us had a short period of time with nothing much to occupy us. I said I’d like to work on the apple trees and Julia was politely appalled: she had been pruning them herself (very skillfully, as it turned out) and didn’t want any more done to them until they’d grown in a bit. “Why don’t you come back in January?” she offered. I shuddered.

“Well… if you really want to prune…” I perked up my ears “…those trees by the road were badly damaged when another tree fell on them. If you’d like to – ” Yeah! Absolutely!

“I know what I’m doing,” I assured her. She laughed. “Oh, I trust you. You gave us such a wonderful cat.”

Aha! I’d been wondering about the cat. Placing a cat on a farm is risky: the cat is going to go out and there are predators in the country. Things can happen. I knew that David and Julia take extraordinary care of their animals (even the animals which will eventually be slaughtered), but some things can’t be predicted or controlled. This was the first I’d heard that all was well and it was a great relief.

The cat was indoors, napping blissfully on a cushioned chair that was getting lots of sun. Julia told me she was a superb hunter, very gentle and loving and incredibly patient with their little boy. They love that cat.

So while everybody else got organized and went for a walking tour of the farm I strapped on my pruning saw and headed for one of the most tangled, broken, overgrown and mismanaged ornamental trees it has ever been my pleasure to sort out. There was quite a bit of light snipping to do, but also enough serious sawing to make me glad that I’d made so many latkes last winter: grating all those root vegetables had kept my arm strong.

Before I was summoned to lunch (very delicious, picnic style) I had done all I could from the ground. While the Board stayed on at the table afterwards to have their meeting with Julia I was led to a ladder by one of the apprentices (who offered to help me carry it despite the fact that she’d broken her collarbone and had her arm in a sling)(no, of course I didn’t let her) and went happily back to work.

I got about half the tree done before I began to feel tired enough to stop. I could have gone on a bit longer, but it wouldn’t have been safe, especially since the ladder was unsteadily balanced on lumpy grass. So I piled my cuttings neatly, carried the ladder back to where it belonged – and joined the group just in time to commence the potato project.

This turned out to be interesting: Julia tipped large paper bags of potatoes onto the table where we’d lunched and gave each of us an oddly shaped knife. Our instructions were to cut each potato in half, making sure there was an eye in each piece. The pieces went into big plastic buckets.

Any potato that was blemished was discarded. The chickens came running to peck at the slices we tossed onto the grass. They were magnificent chickens. There were red ones and dark ones and intricately speckled ones and a few with pantaloons. Purling contentedly, they milled under the eye of the glistening technicolor rooster. We chickens at the table began discussing the way chickens have insinuated themselves into our language: “hen party”, “cock of the walk”, “pecking order”…

happy chickens

While this was going on, Julia mixed dried cow manure into another bucket of water, where it was supposed to vortex for twenty minutes. She explained the philosophy behind this rather arcane procedure, making several of us feel that we had just joined a coven. Su-Ling,  who took over the mixing, told us that after awhile the stirring, first one way, then the other, began to have a mystical, Zenlike feel to it. When the brew was ready, each potato piece had to be individually dipped and laid into a tray to dry. Then it was time to plant.

Julia led the way in the farm truck (I rode with her) and the others followed in the car. I expressed surprise that the field was so far away. Julia explained that they were renting parcels of land wherever they could. This field would be used for several crops and there was also a greenhouse under construction, for which they were having trouble getting the necessary permits.

stephanie loading the truck with seed potatoes

The field had been freshly plowed. Long, humped rows stretched before us, dotted with rocks of all sizes. There was no shade. Julia led us to the first few rows, instructing us to walk in the furrows and pull any grass we saw on the humps. Everybody except me charged ahead, pulling grass by hand. But I had brought my shovel. Whenever I spotted a speck of green I plunged the blade down, usually coming up with a wad of roots. These I shook off and threw to the side. I also threw rocks. My progress was slow, but I left no survivors. Now and then I looked up at the receding backs of the other weeders.

I was only a third of the way down my row when the rest came trooping back and asked if I wanted to plant now. I declined. It was hot; I could taste my sweat. I was glad I’d brought my hat. I was beginning to grasp the concept of farming as opposed to gardening.

When I finally reached the end of my row I peeled off my sopping gloves, found a place in the shade and laid down in it. After awhile I rolled over and watched Julia, who was sick, working her way up her row. She was tucking the potato pieces in with swift, graceful motions and pressing down the soil. She was yards ahead of the other planters.

I took up my shovel and worked my way back along her row until we met. “I think you won’t find too many weeds here,” I said. She thanked me.

Is it easier in the long run, I wondered, to weed very thoroughly at the beginning of the season or to do hit or miss weeding much more quickly – but much more often? Do farmers really have the luxury to spend as much time as I just had? In the time it had taken me to shovel a row and a third clean, all the potatoes had been planted. And I work fast.

“To put this in perspective,” Julia told us, “you have just planted enough potatoes to feed your CSA group for the entire season.”

We rode back to the farm. Julia pointed out yet another field that she and David would like to rent for cultivation. It was huge. I shook my head. “I don’t know how you do it,” I said; “Today I have learned that I am not cut out to be a farmer. I like small plots that I can manage myself. I mean, I’d like more land than I have; I’d like to plant a little orchard. But all this? No. Not for me.” She smiled.

It was beginning to get late. We were dusty and sweaty and tired, ready to pack it in. The cat had finally woken up and escorted each of us on our last trip to the bathroom.

Julia made us each a gift of a dozen newly laid eggs.

As we drove off some one suggested that we make a short detour to get ice cream at a place she’d spotted on the way to the potato field.

I wandered off with my cup of mint chocolate chip, sat in a shady place on the grass and savored it, letting my eyes run over the hills in the distance. It was beginning to turn cool.

In a very few minutes it would be time to pile back into the car for the long trip home, but not just yet.

Not yet.

Thanks to Barbara for the essay and Su-Ling for the photos!

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