Archive for the ‘Kutztown’ Category

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.

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Working More, Writing Less

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.

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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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