Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Dust, Mud, and Labor

Farmwork is always changing. As soon as you start to get bored with one scenerio, another quickly replaces it. I meant to write this a few days ago, about sweat and dust and pushing through. But now I'm wearing my winter hat and muddy boots, having spent the day pulling up sticky dark beets, and last weekend's experience seems like ages and ages ago.

Over Labor Day weekend I got most of our winter cover crops sown-- about 5 or so acres of oats this year. All the bare soil on the farm will now turn green over the next week with sprouting seeds. This is the final epic planting of the year, now we just rest and watch as the rain soaks in our millions of tiny seeds. And for the last few months we just HARVEST. Reap what we've sown.

The epic day this year happened to fall on a Saturday. I knew it was coming, but I never know just WHEN it will happen. Then one day the weather report tells me the Big Rain is coming, so I better get my planting done BEFORE. See, with 5 acres of cover crops, you really can't irrigate or anything. Seeds planted into hot, dry soil might bake in the sun before they get a chance to germinate. It's only a small window of when I can actually drive in the fields with a tractor (not too wet) and right before a rain to water it all in. And then I have to Act.

I was angry because Luke couldn't help. He had to bake bread and go to the Public Market. I thought about begging him to skip the market so he could help me seed the cover crops. My whole crew was gone for the weekend, happy to have a break after a huge harvest week. I had not had a day off in almost 2 weeks. I was exhausted. But I knew this was the important window, and I finally accepted it. Me, a tractor, and my willpower.

Friday morning, after a full week of harvesting, we staked out three acres of new beds in the Pie Field, which is across the street, behind the hedgerow, and about 800 feet long (and shaped like a piece of pie). I had convinced Margaret to work an extra half-day, and we worked well together as a team. By 8:30am sweat was dripping off our faces. The high for the day was 87 degrees, and the humidity was so great that the air seemed almost solid. The field was dry and dusty, and we wore long-sleeve shirts and sunglasses against the glare. We walked the 300' measuring tape around the fields, using 3-4-5 triangle math to make our right angles, jamming in stakes with pink ribbon to mark the corners. About 45 minutes into it, we had to start over, because I wanted to move the whole field 10 feet to the east. It's important stuff, creating new spaces that will grow years and years of vegetables in an organized system of beds. You have to start with a good foundation. But in the heat and the exhaustion, sometimes it feels quite insane.

I borrowed my neighbor Jack's twelve foot grain drill, and his tractor. This tool would help us get the job done fast. I poured it full of oats. I drove up to the first field, pushed down the lever that works the hydraulics, put it into fourth gear, and went. The oats fell out into twenty or so separate chutes that buried them right into the soil about an inch or so down. A grain drill does exactly that-- drills the grain into the ground. No need to do anything else, just wait for the rain.

I switched into high-first gear, and the dust kicked up by the front tires was horrible without sunglasses. Thankfully I had remembered to wear them, but the sweat from my face would build up underneath and cloud the lenses now and then. Another lifesaving item I had thought to wear for the day was a clean T-shirt wrapped around my neck, to sop up the sweat on my face. This worked really well! The day before I had experienced the "not having a clean place on my shirt to wipe my face" phenomenon... you start getting creative, but sometimes you just run out of places. See, the sweat and the tractor grease somehow attract dirt, and also I always end up with black snot at the end of the day. TMI maybe.

So, over the course of the afternoon, all the empty fields got a pass with the oat-filled grain drill. No major disasters! Except that I was running out of light, and more importantly, energy. It was almost 8pm, and I was still sweating. I was so tired and hungry that I felt myself dangerous operating heavy equipment. I was going to run over something. The weather report said the rain would hold off until Sunday afternoon. But Sunday is my Day Off! I was dreading waking up early again. But my feelings of unfairness paled compared to that strong urge that said PLANT, THE RAIN IS COMING. I still needed to get the pathways in the Pie Field seeded to ryegrass & clover. We do this so we can have nice mowed travel lanes around our fields when we're harvesting. Better than mud, or weeds. So I decided to go to sleep (actually collapse in about ten minutes) and get up early the next morning to just "Git-er-done".

I woke at 6:15am Saturday morning. It was dark. I checked the hourly weather and the radar-- a chance of thunderstorms at 8am, then clear until the afternoon when it was really coming. It looked like the early storm was going North of us. I packed a water bottle and some snacks on the tractor. I crossed my fingers, and peeled back the tarp on the grain drill. I poured the clover seed into the hoppers as soon the first light of the dawn allowed. I started her up, and made my passes around the field edges. From the seat of the big tractor, I saw the storm clouds building in the West, as the red sun rose in the East. The heat and the humidity were stifling. I watched the clouds go North, as expected, and for twenty minutes, a giant rainbow covered the Western sky... I took this as a good sign. When I had to run back to the shed for more seed, a four-leaf clover jumped right out in front of me, begging to be picked. I put it into my dusty shirt pocket, and took it as another sign of luck. This is going well, I thought.

I filled the hoppers with ryegrass, and changed the setting (it's a much bigger seed), and went over the same ground. I contemplated how I would seed the edges of the fields, where the stakes were... what I did last year was just walk around the edges with a hand-held seeder. With my energy level where it was (I was a little bug-eyed, talking to myself and making up songs about silly things), I decided against this. Instead I plowed right over all the stakes with the drill, overlapping and pushing down our carefully-placed markers, not needed after this pass anyway. I was ready to return the tractor to Jack's barn, before any giant storm clouds decided to surprise us. I high-tailed it down the road, going almost as fast as the tractor could go. I waved to the guys on the golf course. It was Sunday morning, there was almost no-one on the road. I drove under the Thruway overpass. That was busy... lots of folks going somewhere for their Labor Day off. All I wanted to do was go to bed.

I did get the rest of the day off. Of course, I couldn't feel completely at ease until the raindrops started, much later that evening. And now it's rained over an inch in the past few days, with more expected tonight and tomorrow and the next day. There is an immense satisfaction in getting a job DONE, right when it should have been done, when the timing is so critical. And now I get to sit back and watch my fields turn green.

I'd like to celebrate Labor. Free and glorious labor done for the sake of itself, for the sake of joy, and for the sake of feeding hundreds of people. Labor that comes with dust in the creases of your neck. Labor that results in very deep sleep, healthy hunger, and large biceps. Romantic? Yes. Farming is really tough-- I still strive to earn as much as a teacher makes, have weekends off, health insurance, save for retirement, and go out to dinner sometimes. I'm not quite there yet. I hope that all CSA members realize just how much they are truly and actually supporting their farmers. We are a crazy bunch. Its about more than just getting paid. It's about a making a Living.


MonsterAteMy said...

Thank you. We're enjoying being a part of your farm this year, and also enjoying your blog.

Laura said...

We apprecate you.