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The other night I was introduced to a poetry professor from MIT and a photographer from NPR, after working all day with a 60-year-old woman who is stronger than many men half her age, and a 30-year-old man whose obsession with old Volkswagens leads him to sell the vegetables from our farm like a good car salesman sells lemons.

The next night I had dinner on the porch of the lodge in the next town over, with a mother of three beautiful children, who lives on the same street as her ex-husband’s mother and brother and sister-in-law. We ate together with a collared-shirt-wearing boy in his late 20s, who is building a house in the Common where he hopes to live forever, and a friend of his, who is deaf, who communicates wonderfully with hand motions and scribbled scraps of paper that pile up on the tables where we’ve spent time.

Every day, I’m surrounded by the people on the farm, who have their own stories. There’s the 80-year-old man who has helped build the new facility, who I see eating out by himself in Hardwick. There’s the guy who fixes all the equipment, and does much of the tractor work in the fields, who lives down the road with his family, and sugars every early spring. He’s been married since he was nineteen to a girl he’d met three weeks before he proposed. There’s a couple in their 30s – he runs the construction of the new facility, she helps with crop planning and farm regulations- who spent the last two years in the Peace Corps in Panama. He grew up here, and his parents and sisters live nearby, while her family visits occasionally from Virginia, where she (incidentally) went to high school with the Volkswagen vegetable man. There’s the woman who used to work for Phish, and the boy who got hit by lightning (or so I hear), and the man who once crashed Pete’s truck and gave up his motorcycle in exchange. There are all the previous men and women, girlfriends, boyfriends, sisters, brothers, neighbors, friends, who worked on the farm in the past, whose presence remains in stories and habits referred to every day.

There are the people I see at the bar on a regular basis. There’s a girl who manages the growing on a small farm in the next town over, and a self-employed man who I’ve seen go through the now familiar combinations of plowing, logging, sugaring, trucking, fixing up his house, and, as the weather’s grown warmer, building, gardening, trucking, and getting hired to use his tractor. There’s the girl for whom bartending is one of five part-time jobs, and her husband, who just started bottling and selling his cows’ milk this spring. There’s the brewer, who grew up here, whose family history is wrapped up in his town, who attracted over 600 people to his brewery’s first anniversary party last month. There’s the cheesemaker who wears short skirts and boots on a regular basis, and the cheesemaker who had triplets last year (who I don’t see at the bar), and the cheese sales lady who travels around to shops and grocery stores around the country training cheese sellers. There’s a boy who lives in a tent, and generally doesn’t wear shoes, who drives to Manhattan now once a month to sell the baskets that he weaves.

Along the way, at the farm, on the street, at the general stores, at one of the three or four places where we hang out, I’ve been introduced to Hills, Fullers, Moffatts, Gebbies, Johnsons, Kehlers, Rowells, Meyers, Manoshes, and little by little, the farm and local business signs, road names, and town stories begin to connect with faces and families, and with the reality of generations of people that have lived here and known each other for decades.

In his book Disappearances, Howard Frank Mosher’s narrator describes the men of his “Kingdom County” of 1932 as a lost breed. “They needed space in which to get away from people and towns and farms and highways, and other people needed space to get away from them, since authentic characters are not the easiest persons to live with.” The narrator concluded this description, “To live in a world without them, though, while it is certainly easier, sometimes seems intolerable.”

Living in the Northeast Kingdom, now, I have not gotten the impression that authentic characters are a population of the past.

At some point last year, I realized that small farms attracted me as havens of intimate stories, homes to close-knit hard-working people who are often fueled with a persistent, youthful adrenaline, no matter their age.  Good stories – true or false or somewhere in between – seemed to thrive among the people contributing to a working farm.

The fact is, the Northeast Kingdom itself seems to be just such a haven of intimate stories, home to just such hard-working people. For a girl who is always up for listening to another outlandish life history – and probably writing it down – it is a remarkably fitting place to be.  There has been something incredibly rich and hilarious and comforting to me, about living among the people in this area of Vermont. I hear more stories every day than I can remember by the time I get home.

For now, I listen mostly.  Work, and listen.  And for now, it seems that there are more people here – where I live in a town of one thousand – than I would ever have imagined.






This article was written for The Hardwick Gazette of Hardwick, Vermont.  An edited version was published in the paper on April 13, 2011.  The headline read “Young Returners and Newcomers Drawn to Opportunities and Lifestyle.”

Kids who were raised in the small towns of Vermont have not always been able to pursue their goals and make a living in the state they call home.  But to hear the stories of the young people who have recently returned or moved to the Northeast Kingdom is to realize that this is becoming a place for young people to do just that.  The strength of the community here, and an increasing number of steady jobs, is not only drawing Vermonters back home, but also convincing young people from around the country to consider life in the Northeast Kingdom.

“Some are idealistic, some are cynical, and some are naïve,” says Craftsbury resident Tim Patterson of the young people who have moved to the Hardwick area in the last few years.  “But all of them are ready to roll up their sleeves and work.”  Patterson, 28, was raised in Craftsbury and lived in Connecticut, Colorado, and in Southeast Asia, before returning home in 2009 to work as the Director of Advancement at Sterling College.

Another Vermont native, Anna Schulz, moved to Craftsbury two years ago to work with local schools and institutions as an Americorps VISTA through VT Campus Compact.  “I knew that I wanted to come back to Vermont,” says Schulz, 23, whose return followed her graduation from Harvard University.  Schulz lives in a house with a dozen other people under 25.  “We joke that we’ve lowered the mean age of Craftsbury by a few years,” she says.  “But we are attracted to the community.  The people here are generous, kind, hard-working, and humble.”

The community that drew Schulz and Patterson back home is strong enough to attract outsiders as well.

Born in the suburbs of Chicago, Vince Razionale lived in Boston and New York City before moving to Vermont this past January.  Razionale, 25, lives in Hardwick with his wife, Katrina Vahedi, and works in Sales and Marketing for the Cellars at Jasper Hill.  Vahedi, 29, is a native of California, lived in New York briefly, and is now working on a beekeeping project for Jasper Hill Farm.  Razionale believes strongly in the mission of the Cellars, and both he and Vahedi were attracted to the sense of community among agricultural businesses in this area.  The couple is expecting a baby in May, and their unborn child also played a large part in their move to the Northeast Kingdom.  “The quality of health care here, and ease of acquiring it, couldn’t be more different from what we would have suffered through in New York,” Vahedi says.  “Not to mention, this is one of the most beautiful places on earth.  I love knowing that our kids will be able to call this kind of beauty ‘home.’”

While Razionale works in the Cellars, Ivy Pagliari milks the cows next door, in the barn at Jasper Hill Farm.  Pagliari, 29, grew up in Ohio and was living in China when she first came to Vermont, six years ago.  She needed to return to the states for a summer to renew her Chinese visa.  “I wanted to work on a farm that summer, and it was already April” Pagliari remembers. “So I found a place where the growing season hadn’t started yet.”  She worked on several farms before moving to Hardwick and starting work as a Milker at Jasper Hill Farm last Fall.  “Eventually, I’d like to have a dairy of my own,” says Pagliari.  “For now, this is a great place to work and learn and save money.”

Just down the road in Greensboro, Hill Farmstead Brewery recently hired Daniel Suarez, who moved from Brooklyn to Vermont in January with his girlfriend, Taylor Cocalis.  Cocalis, 27, is self-employed as the Co-Founder of Good Food Jobs, an online search tool for food-related work opportunities.  The nature of her website exposes Cocalis to the increasing number of jobs available in this area.  “If I didn’t already have a job, I would be interested in so many of the opportunities available in Vermont,” says Cocalis.  “Most of the time I have to hold myself back from the positions I see.”

As a young person myself, I moved to Craftsbury last November to work in the field and the washhouse at Pete’s Greens.  I couldn’t help but want to live within an agricultural community that seemed so supportive of small, local businesses.  The first time I came to Vermont, I met Blair Marvin and Andrew Heyn at Elmore Mountain Bread, Shaun Hill at Hill Farmstead Brewery, and Marisa Mauro at Ploughgate Creamery.  Their success and collaboration in their own ventures made me want to live near them, learn from them, and maybe (one day) start a business of my own here.  As Mauro puts it, “There’s so much collaboration between producers here.  We can bounce ideas off each other, and help each other out when we need it.  There’s no community, even in Vermont, quite like this one.”

The reality of young people moving to the Hardwick area hints at a shift in the trend of rural-urban migration.  “Alternative agriculture and alternative energy are attracting young people to rural areas,” says High Mowing Seeds owner Tom Stearns.  “Some young people are coming here to stay, and some are coming to gain skills to bring back to their home communities.  Both are hopeful trends.”  High Mowing Seeds has nearly forty employees, several of whom are young people who returned or moved to Vermont to work there.  “Sterling College has brought in interesting people for decades, and many of them have stayed,” says Stearns.  “Now there’s a new generation of young people.  It’s not so much the educational institutions that are attracting them, but the businesses here.”

Elena Gustavson of the Center for an Agricultural Economy shares Stearns’ hopeful sentiments.  “We want to attract people here whose experiences elsewhere will contribute to this place,” she says, “and at the same time prepare people growing up here to stay and grow into the sort of careers that are becoming available in this area.”

Considering the appeal of this community, the young people who have returned or moved here, and the work they have chosen to pursue, it is clear that this effort is well underway.








Plenty Alive!

The Greensboro Ice Fishing Derby on Caspian Lake this past weekend was a story I’ll be telling for a long time.  A good friend was visiting me from out of town, I was reporting for the local newspaper, and neither of us could have imagined a better way to spend our Saturday morning than tromping through the snow, over the ice, from shanty to shanty.

We met fishermen and firemen, dads by their stoves and drunks by their tailgates, teenagers with snowmobiles, 10-year-olds ready to sit by a hole in the ice from 4am until 2:00 in the afternoon.  We learned the language as we traveled the lake – tip-ups and jigs, flags, augers, lakers, shiners, smelts.  We learned the rules of the game, the hours, the baits, and the best times for biting.  We saw the clean aquarium look of a live well, the red bubbles on fish with the bends, the black tint of the second and third feet of ice below our feet.  For the hundredth time in the last four months, I wondered what I would be like, if I had been one of the kids we met there, growing up in Vermont.  Having grown up in Massachusetts, California, North Carolina, Italy, and Brooklyn….I’ve had a good life.  But until this weekend, I’d never gone ice fishing.  Nor eaten venison, nor even heard of a deep fried turkey.

At least, for that matter, I’m growing up here now.

When we arrived at 7am, John showed us how a tip-up worked, how the flag whipped up as the wheel turned because the line was being pulled.  He showed us how the power auger drilled, in his case, an 8-inch hole in the ice, big enough to fit any fish, small enough to catch a toddler from falling through.  His son played in the snow while his daughter warmed water on the stove for oatmeal.  He told us how people had arrived for the derby long before the 4am start time.

Russell cooked up pounds of venison sausage at the grill in his shanty, placing the cooked meat beside a plate piled high with bacon from the morning.  He handed us a few hot patties in paper towels while Peter showed us how their car had gotten stuck the night before (when they arrived on the lake, straight after work), and how the ruts had conveniently forged their live well.  “Come back at noon!” he and his buddies offered as we began to walk away.  “We’ll be deep-frying a turkey!”

Chuck, who had plowed the snow on the lake (and who plows the snow everywhere, will pull your car out of a ditch anywhere within a 10-mile radius, do your logging, mow your lawn, and come to your barbecue) gave us little Snickers bars as he drove us across the lake to a few fishermen who in time handed us beers and cleaned a trout for us to have for lunch.  They were the only real fishermen whom we met, not just out for a day, for the party, the competition, or the family time.  They were out to fish, and had caught seven trout by the time we met them at 10am (at which point we indeed found ourselves drinking beer).  They could tell you what bait to use, what time to come, what spot to choose on the lake.  They had just come from a 4-day ice-fishing derby on Lake Memphremagog.

Around 11:30, we brought the laker home and baked it in the oven according to the fisherman’s mother’s recipe.  A splash of milk in the pan, butter, onions, and garlic in the cavity, heavy salting.  We warmed up, over our break from the derby, at home, eating the trout, with fresh bread and salad.  Try and tell me the story of a better Saturday.

We returned by 2 o’clock, to learn that the best fish of the competition was a 27.5-inch brown trout caught in the Black’s Cove section of the lake at about 7am.  We learned the largest fish ever caught at a Greensboro Derby was a 34-inch laker in 1989.  We learned that one of the firemen’s sons had caught the first legal fish of the day, an 11.75-inch perch.  We were reminded to write in the local paper that this was a catch-and-release event, and always had been.  Amidst the primarily male crowd of green camouflage and black carhartt jackets, baseball caps and furry hunting hats, and the occasional neon orange scarf or royal blue beanie, little boys shared their triumphs of the day with the old-timers of Greensboro, who knew all of their names.  One loud-mouthed two-foot tall redhead couldn’t keep his mouth shut.  “I caught a pretty big perch out there!” he announced proudly.  “And he was plenty alive!”

The only publicity I saw for the derby was a note with the details in marker taped to the outside wall of the local general store, and a small blurb in the proceeding week’s local paper.  The cash prizes and the equipment raffled off at 2pm were funded by businesses in Greensboro and surrounding towns.  The Greensboro Fire Department organized the event, taking over for a family that had put on the derby for the past 37 years.  Three generations of that family were there, fishing.  If there is a more beautiful, low-key, locally supported event, anywhere, I have yet to see it.

The derby was not an agriculture-related affair.  It was not the kind of event an essay here might have covered in the past.  But it was the kind of thing I’ve come to witness, having visited and lived in a few rural places, just in the past year or so.  The derby made for the kind of day that I crave – one based on a mildly crazy concept (to sit out on a frozen lake for ten hours), which doesn’t cost a lot of money, and doesn’t explicitly represent any world-changing effort, and yet which generations of people appreciate and enjoy, together.  I’m not quite sure what to compare it to.  The atmosphere at the derby fit right in with the questions and debates of the annual Town Meetings that took place in each town across the state last Tuesday, and with the basketball game in Plainfield this weekend where three generations of women watched their daughters, granddaughters, and older sisters play at the local high school.  The derby was one more ridiculous, colorful day that built upon the white landscape where I have come to farm.  It was one more event that reminded me, after the millionth inch of snow fell and the temperature dropped below zero yet again, that life in Vermont can be plenty alive.

 




Vermont Models

This past summer, farming in Pennsylvania, I finally met and worked with people whose lives I could imagine myself living.  My years in New York had been full.  I cooked often, ate well, and was always working for four or five people at once, and going to school.  I imagined I would start my own business – involving farmers and agriculture and getting food into the city – but I looked at cheese shops and butcher shops, ice cream parlors, restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops, specialty stores, taco trucks, you name it.  And I didn’t imagine myself running any one of them.  However much I loved the communities of Brooklyn, however many people I learned from in New York, I never met someone who both worked and lived in a way that I hoped I would.  And so I hadn’t formed any particular vision at all, of how I wanted to live.  I wanted to work with and support the producers of food, and I did, as much as I could.

The reason I was able to imagine myself farming was not because I am somehow built for it, or particularly talented at it, or because I have the means to enter into it easily.  Farming is at the heart of my interests (which, in the broadest terms, are to preserve farmland, to make real food available to more people, and to strengthen local economies and communities).  I loved that I didn’t have to debate whether or not the work was productive or valuable.    But it was in fact the details of the daily work that won me over.  Looking out over the fields in the morning, or seeing the lineup of beets to be washed.  Joining in the rhythm of the boys loading the truck, or quickly frying our best peppers for lunch, or lying in the grass in the evening with a beer.  I noticed moments every day that made me think that working there was beautiful work.  When people visited the farm from the city, I didn’t wish I were them.  I was proud, to be doing exactly what I was doing.

I also began to think more about myself last summer than I had in a long time.  I had spent three or four years thinking about (and acting upon) what was needed for the strength of the food system in my neighborhood, city, region, nation.  Suddenly, on the farm, every piece of work contributed to some very specific note for my own personal future.  If I had a farm this, and if I had a farm that.  If I had a farm, I would want to have goat’s milk, at least for the house. I would not use the turquoise berry baskets.  I would grow heirloom produce.  I would not waste time being indecisive in the field. I would sell locally.  I would grow lots of garlic and onions, and never run out.  I would only use a greenhouse for starting seeds.  I would not grow zucchini.  I would start with a good business plan, and not hire anyone until I could pay them a decent wage. I would wear gloves when picking okra.  My farm would be diverse, but I would be known for something I grew that was especially good.  I had begun to focus on a much smaller picture, and  I had begun to envision my own life, as easily and happily as a little girl.

Maybe that’s just what happens on your first farm.

In November, I moved to Northern Vermont.  The ridiculous climate and small population of this area are challenges for farmers (and people in general).  And Vermont has produced a rather forceful group of men in the Northeast Kingdom who have risen to the challenge of producing food in this state, and not only surviving, but feeding as many people as they possibly can.  Jasper Hill, Pete’s Greens, High Mowing Seeds, Vermont Soy.  Mateo, Andy, Pete, Tom, Andrew, Todd.  They are each intent upon growing their businesses, producing more, distributing farther, making their products ever more accessible to the people of the Northeast.  They think of themselves as catalysts of change in the food system of this region.  I get the impression they do not live for the beautiful moments of their day.  They work as hard as any farmer, all the time, and yet do not seem to gain their satisfaction from any lifestyle they have chosen, but rather gain their energy from the impact they have upon this place.

In a place like Northern Vermont, where selling to large quantities of people means traveling far, it would be hard to even be the (relatively small) size of Eckerton Hill.  You can’t grow that many tomatoes up here and sell them for a profit within five hours.  If you need to drive five hours with your produce, you’re probably losing whatever profit those sales might have brought.  If you only sell within an hour of your farm, you can’t sell much.  The larger but still family-owned, community-supported, responsible farms up here make sense, because they make a large volume of high quality products that they can also afford to distribute.  Jasper Hill sells their cheese locally, and all over the country.  Pete’s Greens delivers to restaurants and his CSA sites within a one-day 12-hour loop, and also has a distributor pick up produce for delivery to Boston and New York.  The community, in general, is overwhelmingly grateful for their efforts.  Look at how they’ve come together since the fire.  I spent hours yesterday stamping personal thank-you notes from Pete for donations from all over the region, which were given to help rebuild his barn.

Suddenly, in the company of these men of the Northeast Kingdom, it seems indulgent, even silly, to choose to farm on a small scale because of the lifestyle it implies.  The idea of farming for the sake of it being “beautiful work” seems ridiculous.  You run a high risk of losing a business that can’t afford (or doesn’t want) to distribute it’s own products outside of an hour’s radius, unless you can afford to lose money, or you have found some small niche group of people to whom you can ship your product for a high enough price (probably in New York City).  Even if you’re bringing back old traditions, preserving farmland, producing a beautiful product, and you are a person who loves their every day….your farm is not much of a model for a regional food system, since it’s not doing much for the local economy, nor is it feeding as many people as it potentially could.

That’s the opinion I’m gaining in Vermont.

Yet.  If someone is inspired to farm, particularly a young person, whatever their reasons, should they not pursue it, no matter the model that suits their idea of a lifestyle?  If something about the reality of the small-scale farm is what makes them tick, than they should find a model that works, and farm where that makes sense.  If they want to grow and collaborate and have an impact on the region, than perhaps they should choose a community like that of the Northeast Kingdom.  Now is a time when many young people who have a choice – about where to live, and what work to do –  are deciding to farm.  And if we’re smart about it, we’ll each contribute to a stronger system, of diverse models, and distinct goals.  The personalities of old farmers and the intentions of the new will characterize the food system in the regions where we live.  As it has here.  We may not all agree on the value of what we are each doing, but we will be part of the same movement, regardless.  And maybe, we will have created the lives we envision now.

By Now, A Nest

At the end of the day of the pig roast, on a Sunday in mid-October, a few of the last remaining folks settled by the bonfire with glasses of whiskey, a few loaves of fresh bread brought from the city, and a brick of butter we’d pressed down the street.  Four cooks from a restaurant in Manhattan had just arrived, after most of the guests had left, and they seemed happy enough to sit outdoors by the fire for an hour or two, before hitting the road again in the dark.  One of the restaurant boys said he was thinking about working on a farm.  He was twenty-two years old, and figured if he wanted to try farming, he didn’t want to waste the time in his life when he could do it.  He was curious what it was like to work at Eckerton Hill.

I felt like a first-year girl talking to a prospective student.  I told him I had no regrets about coming to work at Eckerton.  I told him why this farm had made sense for me in the beginning: I didn’t have a car or a license, but I had a friend on the farm who would teach me to drive, and who would share the use of his car.  I hadn’t wanted to leave the Union Square scene behind altogether.  It would be easy to visit New York, and easy for friends from the city to visit.  I knew I would be proud to sell Tim’s tomatoes, and I was interested to see how restaurants placed their orders, how Tim and Wayne decided what to sell wholesale and retail, what went to distributors or restaurants, and how much was sold on the stand.  I knew Tim would pay a reasonable wage.  And I was attracted to the dynamic between the people who sold at the market, when I shopped there for The Spotted Pig and The Breslin.  Our conversations every market morning made me wish I worked with them.

Trying to explain now why Eckerton Hill may or may not be a good place for someone else to work was more difficult.  I can trust describing what it has been like for me, what it was like this year, with these people, and this weather, at this time in my life.  Everything could be different next time around.  This year there was very little rain, record heat, the most tomatoes ever, and three people in the farmhouse who did things together.  There was too much dishwashing, a solid dose of drinking, not enough writing, and not very much time by myself.  The walls in the house are thin, and the refrigerator is always packed to the gills and dripping with pickled jalapeno juice, meat jizz, and moldy lemons.  The sink in the bathroom is basically caked with soil sometimes, Tim spends time writing and brooding in the living room, and occasionally shouts out to us in our beds on Sunday morning.  Nothing is open in town on Sundays except the 24-hour major grocery store.  Sometimes everybody we know in town seems like a stoner, and sometimes I drive away from the house just to drive.  I couldn’t stand picking summer squash, I wish we sold produce to the local community, and I’m helplessly annoyed that we don’t have a good way to sell greens at the market without them wilting in the sun.  The fly strips in the house are disgusting.  The freezer releases an avalanche every time it’s opened.

But by now I say all of this fondly.

The spring was predictably novel, an exhilarating break from the city.  And the summer felt like one blazing rush of adrenaline.  But arriving at the fall has made me want to stay.  It is the best of progressions: from the cold water washing lettuces in the spring, to the sweaty circus act of the summer, to the relaxed remnants of work in fall’s flannel plaid shirts, with a view of the muted or bright colors of the trees and hills.  Now we stop and smell fallen leaves and stacked up wood, where once we knew only humidity, heat and the sweet smell of rotting tomatoes.  The wind blows off our hats that two months ago kept our necks from burning.  The warmth of the goat at my side is welcome in the chilly near-frost mornings, so much so that it’s hard to remember feeling the sweat start to drip down my neck, milking at five am in July.  We wake up later now.  Caroline has joined us.  We are cooking dinners again.  Roasted sweet potatoes and sautéed brussel sprouts with bacon, curried goat with scotch bonnets, kale salads with aged cheddar, grilled fish with aji limon peppers, pasta with chard and sprouts, sweet potato hash with bacon in the morning, lentils with aji dulce peppers, turkey chili with habañeros, three bean soup with grenadas.  Goat’s milk makes for a mean hot chocolate, and the walk-in is stacked with gallons of cider.  The work is light, the crew is smaller, Tim is more relaxed.  And we are starting to have lives again, to talk about shows in Philadelphia, gallery openings in Bethlehem, and museums we’d like to visit.  I don’t fall asleep every time I start reading.  It seems that this farm is a wonderful place to live and work.  So I continued to try to explain.

You do not learn how to farm in a year.  And you may not learn much at all working for a decent wage, on land that is cultivated for a profit and not for education.  I never strung the tomatoes because other people were faster, I rode the tractor once just to drive it, from the field to the shed, and I never managed the restaurant orders.  I wasn’t here when we seeded most of the tomatoes, and the craze of irrigation this near-drought summer taught me primarily that water is a stress-inducing element.  We only made three kinds of cheese all summer, and I do not know if the goats were happy in their fenced-off space.  I don’t know what blight looks like because we never got it, and I still couldn’t tell you many of the names of our tomatoes and peppers.

I learned some things.  I learned that I do like to work outside full-time, that sunny days are worth the rainy ones.  I learned that I like feeling physically exhausted from productive work every night, rather than running in the same circle every morning; that I can work in humid heat; that I can pick tomatoes for a twelve-hour stretch without feeling miserable at all; that I can live in a small town and not go crazy for the city; that I can play pool and drink Yuenglings in a fluorescent-lit basement bar in Kutztown and not yearn for the backyard, speakeasy styles of Brooklyn.  I learned that I can be a passenger on the ride into the city at 3:30am, work the market all day, stay awake for the ride home, and still have energy that night.  I learned that I can work and live with a bunch of boys and still love them.  I learned to drive.  I learned what this lifestyle is like – the life of a farmhand at this particular farm – and it made me want to do it again, to try a different one, to perpetuate the way I have felt here instead of the way I felt working in the city.

So I will continue to farm for now.  In Vermont this next season, on a very different farm, in a very different climate, for different reasons than the reasons I came here.  And I guess I think if any farm can lead someone to do that, if any farm can teach a young person to think about farming more, even farming for themselves, then for sure, it is worth working there.  Find your own place, for your own reasons.  But the next generation of farmers has to put boots on somewhere.

Four of the workers on this farm, if not more, tend to write. We’ve each written blogs, essays, books, or articles, wanting to somehow document the stories we live and witness. None of us have been writing much in the past few months, and we talk in the field and round the table about how we wish we could have. Our boss wants to be writing in part because he’s driven mad, by all the people writing about farming who aren’t farmers, all the articles in the New York Times that are wrong, and all the Michael Pollan apostles who don’t even seek the truth. Our manager will tell you how it took an hour to upload his last video, and it was only thirty seconds long! Though he manages to bang out a blogpost and put up photos more regularly than the rest of us. In response to appeals for material for our pseudo website Farm Story, one fellow intern has taken to saying that he’s not sure we have a story at all. For god’s sake, we pick tomatoes all day. I have written more than I have published on this site, but only very specifically about my work and the people here, small notes and reminders for myself, more than paragraphs for others to read. Accustomed to writing essays based on topics I’ve read about in books, or issues I’ve talked about in class, or events too big to be personal, I’ve found it inevitable on the farm to dwell on my immediate community’s conversations and habits, the small-picture details that together, multiplied, form the larger image I’m used to focusing upon.

More than a shortage of time, and more than a tendency to fall asleep at the keys, the nature of the work here has affected my inclination to write like I have for the past few years.  Agriculturalists, writers, poets, and philosophers have for centuries described work on farms as honest, simple, repetitive, peaceful. To live with the politics of food distribution, the intricacy of soil health and irrigation, the seasonal changes in produce and weather, and the pace governed by perishability and volume is enough to teach anyone the inaccuracy of these descriptors for work on a productive small farm. Yet a certain aspect of the past three months’ work on this farm reminds me of something that Jefferson and Berry might have appreciated.

For someone who aims to strengthen local food systems, and who has a choice in how to do so, the farmhand’s work is physical, tangible, and straightforward. We do not work on the farm towards media attention, product improvement, policy change, nor business growth. These goals may be the reason for initiating a particular farm model – one that preserves heirloom seeds, respects the regional ecology, contributes to social justice, or one that can be replicated to preserve more farmland.  But the model is decided by the owner.  As a worker, the main action taken is the choice to farm. The farmhand’s daily work is nuts and bolts, dawn till dusk: tend plants, harvest food, and get it to people.  We can be thoughtful, but we do not debate the value of taking the fruit off the vine, or filling the pint boxes with cherry tomatoes, or packing the truck the night before market. We can be light-hearted and conversational, we can laugh or be silent, we keep our hands working and our bodies moving.  By working here we are preserving farmland, and providing people with nutritious food, but that reality is the backdrop.  We’ve chosen to farm, and our politics and principles are somewhat hidden in the unwritten contract.

If I were to return to the city this winter, to work for a non-profit or a small business, and to participate again in the projects and campaigns and email lists related to strengthening the regional food system, I know that my time on this farm would inform my perspective on what they are trying to achieve.  I would find a way to pitch what I have learned about heirlooms and immigrants, farming and markets, and use it for some good cause.  But for now, my work here has been cleanly straightforward and unassuming. The work feels healthy, I am proud of our produce, the camaraderie of working in the fields is priceless, and when I write about life here, I think about the details.  I’ve found myself noticing more, analyzing less.  I’ve written how the crew reminds me of a circus troupe, because of our various hats and heights and accents, and because of the bow-legged, lanky, determined, or jaunty ways in which we each walk out to the field. I’ve written how our exhaustion at the end of the day gives one guy the energy to bounce around boxing, another to lie on the grass and smoke, another to retreat to their room to stretch, another to sit by the tree with a beer. I’ve written about the way lunch-time hits our kitchen like a tornado every time, leaving the sink full of dishes, the table full of crumbs and used plastic bags, and the stove covered with two or three cast-iron pans greasy with fat and leftover onions.  I think about the way we hang our fresh chevre from a hook in my old table-top that used to attach to the wall in my apartment in Brooklyn.  The way the Mexican women and I have to hop up high to sit on the wagon as we ride out of the field, while the gringo boys slide on easy.  The way the Mexican music in the packing shed pulses through my head in the afternoons, redeemed only by the subtle dancing of a fifty-year-old native of Michoacan, standing five foot tall, packing tomatoes.  The way we all form a line when passing the boxes onto the truck, passing only as much as the weakest can hold.  The way the conversations rotate predictably now between girls, an old VW bus, bands, the weather, weed, old stories, Philly, Brooklyn, and plans for the winter.

In the winter, inevitably, this work and this community will come into some sort of perspective. I will have opinions to voice and praises to sing and nostalgic stretches of research and recollection. Articles on 20-somethings and Farm Internships will continue to box my ideas into the emerging stereotype of a self-obsessed, wandering, college-educated, barefoot lover of kale. And I will have my defense. For now, while there are tomatoes to be picked, and boxes to be packed, a market to be manned, and a goat to be milked, the small picture is dominant. The hook and the hats and the full kitchen sink.  For now, this life seems steady with the rhythm of physical, straightforward work.

June After April

This is the first of what I hope will be many essays written at Eckerton Hill Farm in Eastern Pennsylvania.  I have left the Forager position at The Spotted Pig and The Breslin, and am now living and working at Eckerton Hill.  We primarily grow heirloom tomatoes and chili peppers, and sell our produce at the farmers market in Union Square.

As I move, both physically and mentally, out of The Spotted Pig and into Eckerton Hill, my writing will probably encourage (or shamelessly draw) general conclusions about New York restaurants and small farms in the Northeast.  I’d like to acknowledge now that not all restaurants are run by petite British women who once aspired to the police force, serve 380 people every night in a space that seats 100, and pump out over one thousand fancy burgers in a week.  Not all farm owners struggle with the thought of a writing career they haven’t quite left behind, cultivate more than fifteen thousand tomato plants each summer, and sell at a market 113 miles away, two (sometimes three) days a week.  The stories I tell, in short, will be unique to the specific places and people in them.  And the more appropriate (and strikingly easy to make) comparisons may in fact be between Eckerton Hill and the Bloomfield restaurants themselves.

When I was training the replacement Forager, she told me how everything about the Forager job seemed simple on the surface, how she felt capable of each task she had to complete, but that all the details she’d have to remember, all the small notes and facts that I kept filed in my head, would take time for her to absorb: tastes, of course, and personalities, tricycle capacities, bus tub quantities, and dollars per pound per piece per yield per quart per recipe depending on the cook.  Where did we get fava beans last Friday, how many dozen eggs do we order per week, how many portions are we getting per whole fish of a particular size.  Could she cost out immediately – from cost per flat of berries, per box of fruit, per pound of sugar, per bottle of liquor – a two-quart container of macerated mixed fruit.  Can we get a better price on beef tongue, are we getting the faxes from Guy Jones, have we ordered from Upstate in time for their delivery on Monday, and in the meantime could she please find white escarole SOMEWHERE and could she track down red chili peppers in Chinatown.  Also could she at some point put together a seasonal seafood chart, and an excel sheet of the change in food cost if we were to stop working with Dairyland.  That was the Forager job. A miriad of little things, a few larger projects.  Seven different chefs were each tossing me sets of modest but plentiful tasks to juggle, each of them often unaware of the others’ demands.

The pace on the farm is not necessarily drastically different.  All the pretty flats of seedlings teased me with a certain daintiness until I saw what blazing rows of tomato vines they become.  Every step of the way, we have to worry: are they getting enough sun, are they getting enough water, has it rained, is it too dry.  Meanwhile, Spring hits.  How many boxes of lettuce did we pick and what’s bolting and what’s still small, what size did the chefs want?  Who ordered mixed baby heads this week?  Did we milk the goat and does she have enough water and where is that other hen laying her egg, and is the electric fence working?  How much are we charging for the broccoli, what should we charge for those fava leaves, is anyone going to buy romaine this size?  What did we pick.  Haricot vert, heirloom carrots, heirloom beets, scallions, new potatoes, snap peas, English peas, tuscan kale, red russian kale, scottish kale, swiss chard, black raspberries.  Meanwhile, we put the tomatoes in the ground:  Have we watered the plants in this heat, did we close the well, how’s the pressure in the well, did you notice the level of the spring, was the soil wet?  How many rows of tomatoes are left without stakes or string?  Do not drive over that irrigation line.  How many more rows still need straw beneath them?  Be sure to tie the string from the bales on the stakes, or they’ll get caught in the tiller.  Do we have enough boxes for the squash and do we bring them to the field or pack them in the shed and did we get the squash blossoms in the walk-in right away.  Where are the scissors for the basil?  We’ll be back at 9pm to load the truck.  If we keep the berries in the walk-in until the morning will we remember to stick them in the truck at 3:30am when we leave for market.  Do we have everything? Extra baskets for the table, three tables plus two, the white tent, the supply box with the scale, receipts, tablecloths, market aprons, and pens.  Corn will soon be the mortar between the boxes.  Tomatoes will be easier than all of this.  So says Tim.

In step with the switch from restaurant to farm, my vocabulary has expanded from the kitchen to the field, from charolas and basquetas, limones, papas and amburgesas, to piscar and limpiar, manguera, hojas, avas, chicaros, lechuga.  Tomates.  A moderate ability to understand Spanish allows me in on both sides of the conversations between a good boss and non-English speaking workers, the language they have developed over the years, the hand gestures and exaggerated voices, and the understanding of each others’ facial expressions, temperament, and mood.  The prep manager communicates with the head chef at The Pig, outside the restaurant entrance door, up from the stairs in the basement, much like the farmhand manager speaks with Tim, outside the packing shed or in the field.  They are each used to the stress, the details, the tempers that blow, the fact that every day has its last straw: the yellow squash should have been picked smaller, all the tomato rows should have been checked, we only wanted three boxes of kale today, blossom stems should be cut with a scissors, why did you waste time harvesting so few favas?  One can’t help but wonder if the rhythm of misunderstandings is the one that drives us crazy or the one that keeps us sane.

Heat is not so much a characteristic of the climate as it is the medium of our work and production.  Much like the restaurant.  The kitchen rises to the temperature created by the act of cooking, and the farm plays to the temperature required for the act of growing.  And the people had better well adjust.  I put up nails in my room to hang my soiled clothes at night, to dry.  And where I am not scratched by squash leaves or puckered with poison ivy, my skin is getting smoother from the sweat.

Even certain details of my personal lifestyle here remain the same: we need to go to bed early and often fail; we could do something adventurous on the weekends but often just want to rest or write; we manage to spend money on a regular basis, though our only real expenses are beer and transportation.

I have found a certain comfort in the unpredicted parallels between one good food job and another, though gradually the differences have begun to win my attention.

We on the farm crew break, and sit down in the kitchen, to eat our lunch.  The early morning, and twilight, can be periods of calm.  Work and rest revolve around physical strains and satisfactions.  The days can be long stretches, of conversations and silences, in the field.  To work here is to submit, to choose, to live in and on and through the farm.  And in that sense we who work together have chosen to be here living together, and unlike many friends or even most lovers, we work and talk side by side throughout the day, about our random ideas, the books we’ve read, the people we’ve met, and the projects we have in our heads.  We may not have much time to ourselves, but we do have the mental space, the field, in which to think.  And with that…..I will try to be writing all season.

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