Know your farmer. I moved from market to market around New York City and Brooklyn, eying radishes in the Spring, indulging in fresh eggs, sampling honey and loading my bag with apples in the Fall. I loved food, but I loved eating more. And I loved losing myself in the freshness of the farmers’ fine offerings. I liked knowing who my dollar went to and liked the feeling of eating things that I could tell came from the ground. But it wasn’t enough. City life was tiring and I’m an island girl at heart with limited energy to share with the millions of people surrounding me daily. I wanted to trade in pavement for dirt, people for animals, and food that I bought for food that I grew.
Know your farmer. We met on Skype. They sat at the dining room table. They look normal, happy and busy. A husband and wife in their mid/late thirties with two kids that were heard, not seen. It’s hard, they said. Farming is tiring. The hours are long, the days are long. You’ll fall asleep before dinner and get up before the sun. You’ll be part of our family, they said. Can we see what the rest of you looks like, he asked? I stood up, and he nodded. OK, he explained, because we’ve found that certain body types are better for this work than others. He drew some pictures—tall and skinny, short and squat, and pear shaped. We want this he said, pointing the the lengthy figure, not this, he said. Oh, and no visible tattoos, he said. I made the cut.
Know your farmer. I drove to the farm with my boyfriend of the time. It was cold and wet, typical for February in the northeast. We sat at the same table I had seen on Skype. What’s your sign? he asked. As long as you’re not Aries, he said, we don’t get along. Here’s where you’ll stay. He showed us the attic of a post and beam barn creatively carved to house three people in windowless rooms. A long table stretched across the open space and a tiny kitchen cramped the corner next to the bathroom. Is she strong? Can she do it? Does she work hard? he asked my boyfriend, not caring for my own self evaluation.
Know your farmer. I came back in April when the ground was thawed but wet. This time I had a suitcase full of old clothes, new rubber boots, and a Kindle filled with books. I stored them in a tiny room above the barn where one other intern had already made his home. We planted onions first. Then almost two kilometers of potatoes. Black plastic covered the fields in strips. Cut, pull, plant. Cut, pull, plant. Row after row. My wrists swelled to the size of my forearms. We went to the family doctor. Mommy’s thumb, they called it, from hour after after hour of the same motion. And this was just day two. From then on I armed my delicate wrists with braces. I took refuge in the garage filling tray after tray with dirt and planting seed after seed in its tiny cube—the easiest work. Don’t worry, he said, we’ll take care of you. I felt weak.
Know your farmer. Three other girls arrived. We were all young, curious and enthusiastic. We lived on 100 acres of land tucked into a remote pocket of New England. 12 acres for organic vegetable cultivation, the rest for their home and livestock pastures. Baby chickens squawked under the barn, horned cattle roamed in the pastures, and baby pigs that bit your boots were corralled on cement. Plant, weed, feed. Plant, weed, feed. Spring turned to almost summer, and harvest time arrived. This farm is the best of the best, she said. Our customers don’t just want a product, they want a story and a vision. They want the dream. We are giving them life on the farm. Now on Tuesdays and Thursdays the farm was invaded by customers picking up their farm fresh produce as we piled row after row of washed and displayed vegetables in rustic barrels to give people their vision. We smiled in our matching shirts. We shared our personal stories and our histories. We love it here, we said.
Know your farmer. We ate our meals together after pickup nights. Two of us taking turns to roast root veggies, sauté greens and cook venison or chicken or sometimes beef. You all should get married and have kids while you can, he said, not moving from his place at the head of the table. Do it while you’re young, while your body is ready. I gave birth in my own bed, she said, completely natural. I love taking care of my husband, she said, serving him his plate. We’re a team, he said. At dinner we ate from the fields. At lunch we ate whatever, as long as it was hot, because He has to have a hot lunch, she said. Once every two weeks she drove across the state border to where the food was cheaper and came back loaded up with blocks and bags of processed shredded cheese, tins of Mexican refried beans with lime, and packs of rice tortillas that were stored in their industrial freezer downstairs. We don’t eat processed white foods, like flour or sugar, she said. Or chocolate, he added, because it makes her bitchy. She nodded in agreement.
The cows gave birth to babies and the chicks stopped squeaking and started squawking. The pigs’ innocent muzzling at our boots became savage bites as they transformed into 100 plus pound brutes. The bugs ate the kale and we peeled off branch after branch, discarding them into the weed strewn rows. The days got hot and the barn was suffocating. I drenched towels in cold water and strew them on my dirt and sweat soaked body before sleeping. I woke up in the middle of the night, the towel discarded and bone dry. It’s hot up there, we said. Sure is, he said. We split our days into two by getting up at 4:30 and taking a break during the hottest mid-day hours. We’re behind with everything, she said. You are so slow, he said, this is the last year we’ll do this. It’s too expensive. The temperature dipped into the 100s. It was so hot I stopped sweating. Next year we’ll probably get Guatemalans, he said. Know your farmer.
You’ll go with her to take the chickens for processing, he said. They had started dying beneath the barn. Their breasts inflated like water wings, their heartbeats slowing from supporting the weight. We thew them in cages and then threw them in crates and then threw them in the trailer. It’s not right for a married woman to be alone, she told me in the car ride, justifying my companionship. I shot my first gun that summer. We set off fireworks for July 4th and we made our own ice cream. We lay on the floor while he cracked our backs and took half days on the farm to bath in the icy cold rivers. Eat, sleep, farm. Eat, sleep, farm. Tiny little leaves transformed into bellowing cabbages, lacy heads of lettuce, and deep red tomatoes that we ate off the vine. We trellised, we weeded, we planted. And on Tuesday and Thursday we delivered the dream of organic life to our CSA members. Know your farmer.
The cows had horns and heads bigger than my body. They were kind and cute, unless they had babies and then they were protective and aggressive. They lived in the confines of their electric fences and we moved them from pasture to pasture for the best grass. Moving meant yelling and herding and prodding and corralling. All hands on deck. Cut down the electric fence, he said, so the babies don’t spook. We can just lay it on the ground. They can walk over it, she said. Cut the fence, he warned, they will spook. There’s no need, she said, it will take so much time to repair. One, two, three…we herded them gently through the break and the fence, the babies blindly following their mothers. Until the end. She was young and bewildered and her mother had already crossed the great divide. Her leg caught, she tripped, and spooked and turned around. 30 acres of open pasture, one scared baby cow, and seven adults giving chase. It took the whole morning until she was tackled. He yelled. She yelled. You should have cut the wire, he shouted. It wasn’t my fault, she screamed. He yelled, she yelled, we went back to the fields. Plant, weed, harvest. Plant, weed, harvest. Know your farmer. I’m sorry, she told us. We were gathering beets in our arms. I shouldn’t have disrespected my husband, she said. We looked down at our muddied hands. You don’t have to apologize, we said. No, she insisted, I yelled at my husband. I yelled and I was wrong and you should know. We picked and bundled, and washed and clean, and on Tuesday and Thursday we delivered that dream. Know your farmer.
I went out to meet my farmer. Now I knew my farmer and their home and their family. I knew how they grew, how they ate, how they fought and how they thought. I knew the dream they sold and the reality they lived. I found that growing food was struggle, waste, death and money just as much as it was strength, hope, life and taste. I met my farmer. I knew my farmer. I wanted to be a farmer. But this was not the farmer I wanted to be.