Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Reflections: Final Analysis

I’ve often been asked this year, “so, do want to farm for a living?” And I don’t have a straightforward yes or no answer. What I’ve discovered is that there are many different ways to run a farm, many different goals one could have as a farmer. It’s not like all farming is the same. It’s not even like all family-owned organic vegetable farming is the same. And with that in mind, I’ve only really experienced one farm, one method, one way of farming, and it’s difficult to generalize and say “yes, I’d want to farm” or “no, definitely not.”

That may seem like something of a cop-out, so let me delve a bit deeper. There are things about Foxtail Farm that are going exist on any organic vegetable farm; then there are other things that are specific to Foxtail – some of which I like and some of which I don’t. For example, all organic farms are going to require working outdoors with vegetable plants and the earth. However, vegetable farms can vary widely in what they grow; some farms specialize in just a couple vegetables or varieties of one vegetable, while others grow a whole medley. One of the things I really like about Foxtail is their variety. It not only makes financial sense (from a risk-tolerance perspective), but it also keeps the days and weeks from being monotonous repetition. Some farms do all their planting, cultivation, and harvesting by hand. Some use tractors. Some use horses. And most use some combination. I enjoyed learning the tractor work, but I wouldn’t want to be on a tractor all day every day. And I have no experience at all using draft animals, so I don’t have much of an opinion of the practice. One thing common to most (all?) vegetable farms is that they’re right on the line of self-sufficiency. I would be interested to meet a farmer or farming couple working 100% on the farm who don’t experience a lot of financial anxiety. I would do my finances differently from how Paul and Chris do theirs. Would my way work any better? Perhaps, but perhaps not enough to make much difference.

If I look past all the various facets of a potential farm, what I come up with is that I enjoy working outdoors with other people. I enjoy using my body and senses in what I do. I like interacting with plants and soil and observing the changes that occur throughout the seasons. I enjoy the creative challenges that come up regularly and the weekly pattern with its many variations. I’m not sure I would enjoy working the long days day-in and day-out that I did this past summer indefinitely. But, as Paul liked to point out, “long term memory loss is a necessity for farming. You’re sick of it by the fall, but it seems perfectly reasonable again once spring rolls around.” I’ve already forgotten, in many ways, the daily toil and would be ready to start up again. I’m not sure I’d want such a large farm or as many customers, though it makes financial sense to be big. I don’t think I’d like the stress of worrying about money if farming were my only income. One thing that occurred to me this summer is that the farmer is as tied to the land as the land is to the farmer; it’s not very practical to take a vacation anytime between April and October. Me, I like traveling; I like to move around. But likewise, I really love getting to know a piece of land, learning its intricacies and minutia.

So, yes, I like farming. I want to continue to farm – or garden, which is really a lot like farming, just on a different scale. Right now my circumstances and other priorities in my life mean that I likely won’t be working full-time on a farm in the near future. Hopefully, though, I can find a way to keep my hands in the dirt, whether it be volunteering with community gardens in the city or out on the farms around the Twin Cities. Would I ever want a farm of my own? Maybe. But again, I don’t see myself working a farm as full-time and intensively as Foxtail. Perhaps I’d have a modest market garden or small CSA farm. But I think I’d want to also have another source of income and not spend all my summer middays in the burning sun. I’d like to grow a variety of vegetables and fruit have some animals – chickens, maybe sheep and/or goats. I’d enjoy the challenge of trying out new varieties and learning how different living things interact with one another. Who knows what the future holds…

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Reflections: Food

Food is, of course, the central component to (vegetable) farm life. Everyone’s life on the farm revolved around food, and yet each person’s personal approach to food was different from that of the others.

While we spent day after day planting and nurturing the growing beings that would produce the food that was central to our business, it was hard to think of the things in the field as “food.” Food is something that is on a plate or in a dish ready to be consumed. And so while we would occasionally munch on green beans and pop cherry tomatoes into our mouths as we worked, we generally didn’t really “eat” out in the field. The leaves and fruits and roots that we harvested were more like a commodity, something to be dealt with in large quantity. After uprooting and bunching five hundred or a thousand carrots, it was hard to think of how tasty a single one would be.

Somewhere in the packing shed, though, the food commodity we had harvested and moved in bulk became food produce. After a vegetable had been washed, it gained a new status as something more precious than just some plant part. We generally didn’t think much of dropping a veggie in the field and picking it up again, but in the packing shed it was very bad form to drop something on the floor – especially something that had already been washed. And then once a handful of these washed vegetables made their way up to the kitchen, they became even more valuable – one step away from being eaten.

My approach to food comes from the culinary viewpoint. I started cooking in college as part of a food co-op, cooking for a dozen or so students. I learned to cook from my peers and from recipe books. The co-op itself was a holdover from a recently defunct Hebrew House and the food we cooked was vegetarian and often exotic to me. I learned to not fear cooking unfamiliar dishes, and that was the beginning of cooking exploration for me. Over the years I’ve experimented with all sorts of ethnic foods and preparation methods, but one of the key aspects to cooking I learned early on: the quality of the finished dish is a direct reflection of the quality of the ingredients.

And so it surprised me when this culinary approach was decidedly not the viewpoint of any of the rest of my cohabitants. Paul came the closest, having formerly worked as a cook in a restaurant and also genuinely liking to cook. However, he admits himself that he’s not really a “vegetable” person, preferring meats and dairy to fruits and vegetables. (This struck me as particularly ironic. “Um, Paul, you run a vegetable farm…”) His food philosophy is that it’s worth eating good food when you can get it, but that cooking and eating is a necessity that is to be done as quickly as possible, so as to get back to the other necessity of working. The goal is to eat good food that is quick to prepare. In practice, Paul did a substantial amount of lunch cooking, generally making one of a half-dozen repertoire meals that he knew he could make in about a half-hour.

None of the other three had much interest in cooking at all. Chris openly admitted she didn’t really like cooking. While she readily enjoyed others’ meals, I think she saw cooking as a chore that kept her indoors. She often made simple Mexican- or Indian- inspired dishes that required assembly on the part of the eater. Mike’s dishes were similarly simple, though at lunch he would put together fairly complex sandwiches and salads. I think both of them simply hadn’t had enough cooking experience (or interest) to realize how creative cooking can be.

Martin seemed to be the least interested in food. He needed to eat, enjoyed good food, and ate a healthy share, but was happy to eat a peanut butter sandwich, even with a wealthy store of fresh vegetables around. Having worked in construction jobs most of his life, he wasn’t used to even having a lunch break, and found an hour’s time off for lunch to be a luxury. Paul told me later, after Martin left, that Martin said he had learned a great deal about cooking this summer. So I think Martin simply had never had the luxury of learning to cook before.

As for me, I loved having all that wonderful fresh food around and felt inspired to use it creatively. However, the hour time limit on lunch preparation often stymied me, and I actually felt frustrated in not being able to fully enjoy (in my mind) the vegetables. To be fair, the veggies were so good that simple preparation was often enough to create great meals. I learned how to roast a sweet dumpling squash and make sweet potato fries. Lightly steamed green beans or broccoli needed little accompaniment. Carrots were simply scrubbed clean and eaten whole.

When I did cook, I had to change my mentality. I was used to cooking based on a limited supply of ingredients. I’d cook what was in the fridge, or I’d choose a recipe and buy for it. But at the farm I had a seemingly infinite supply of whatever veggies were ripe. I made pesto, and had to eventually stop, limited by the nuts and cheese we had – not by the amount of basil, which had always been my previous limiter. I was able to make a decadent pepper tart that called for something like eight red bell peppers. I could use spinach upon spinach upon spinach as it shrank down in the pan. It was quite a treat.

And then, food “waste.” Off the farm, I’m very careful to use every possible part of the produce I buy. For one, it’s cost-effective; also, I hate to waste perfectly good food. On the farm, there was no such thing as waste. Any leftover food product would find its way to the compost pile. And unlike most compost piles in the city or suburbs, this compost will eventually be used back on the vegetable fields, helping new vegetables to grow. So an unused carrot in the kitchen was no more wasteful than uprooting a carrot in the field and leaving it there.

This combination of large supply and no waste made for another strange twist in cooking mentality: use the good, easy-to-use parts and toss the rest in the compost. By purposely not using all of one vegetable and instead only the easiest and fastest to prepare halves of two, I could prepare my meals faster. But I have to admit it made me uneasy.

At the end of the season, I was able to do what I had wanted to all summer: cook an intense, time-consuming meal, highlighting the freshness and taste of the farm’s vegetables. I got Ben and Mike to help me and we made “lunch” for Chris and Paul. Sweet Dumpling Ravioli with Sage Butter (Hazelnut) Sauce (with Caramelized Onions) started off the meal with homemade ravioli and featuring farm-grown sweet dumplings, sage, and onions. Next was a spinach salad, made by Mike, whose salads I always envy. For main dishes, Paul had Wild Salmon with Rosemary Butter and Chris had a Vegetarian Kofta Curry, both with Quinoa Pilaf. Chris’s meal, obviously featured more produce, but even Paul’s had some onion in the sauce. Dessert was Turkish Coffee Cake Cookie Bars (with Chocolate Chips) made by Mike. And we served a bottle of Pinot Noir, Fresh-Made Vegetable Juice (apples from the orchard and carrots from the fields), espresso and tea to round it all out.

The lunch made Paul say such things as “okay, you can have more than an hour for lunch…” But it really was great to be able to experience how amazing the farm’s vegetables could be when really cooked thoughtfully. I know; we made plenty of extra…

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Reflections: Work Environment


I loved being outdoors so much this summer. In fact now, I feel restless. And part of that restlessness is not having a routine, having a concrete physical workload in front of me. But a big part of it is also not being outdoors as much. I find it interesting that while I have all the time in the world to be outside here in the city, I don’t have anything to do outside here. I go for walks, but that’s almost all that I can figure to do. On unseasonably warm days (like today) I can sit out on the back lawn and work on any of a variety of projects I have for myself, but mostly those projects are indoor ones. So I’m indoors a lot more now.

And maybe that’s good. To have to be outside and working in bitter cold is far from fun. There were a couple quite chilly days there towards the end when I couldn’t feel my fingertips and was just longing for the next break so I could warm them up again. But for most of the season it really was wonderful to be outside.

I loved being in touch with the weather, with the mood of the seasons. Sometimes I’d just stop in the middle of whatever I was doing out in the field and look around and smile. The clear and blue skies were peaceful; the stormy skies exciting. There were always small birds flitting about over the crops and by the fences and frequently birds of prey high overhead. The natural world provided a constant flow of interesting surprises – from the evidence of a nightly visitor to a new weed to the appearance of a salamander or frog or snake. I loved breathing the air perfumed with the smell of damp soil or decaying fall leaves or fresh herbs. I loved the change in light from dawn to dusk and from spring to summer to fall. I loved lying out on the grass under the shade of a tree during a beautiful summer day. And just as much, I enjoyed sitting in the same spot at night under the pelting rain, watching lightning storms pass by to the south.


Part of being outdoors, I think, is that it stimulates all the senses. And the fact that I had to use all my senses, too, I liked about the farm work. You can tell if a cucumber is ready simply by looking at it; you note its size and shape and texture and color all at once. A pepper, though, turns red, and you know it’s at least ripe. But the fastest way to tell if it’s past ripe or not is to touch it, to gently put pressure on its sides. It if has rotted on the bottom (which you can’t see as you’re hovering over the pepper), the sides will give way. No need, then, to bother with it anymore. You don’t need to see the rotted underside to move on to the next pepper. With carrots and beets there is a small and satisfying pop as you pull them up, tearing the thin and very long taproot. If you’re loosening up a bunch of carrots with a pitchfork, you can tell by that popping sound whether or not you’ve successfully loosened them. How do you know when the corn is ready? There are visual clues and you can feel the kernels through the husks, but the best way to tell? Try some out! Frequently during our walk-arounds, when one of us interns had a question about whether some vegetable was ready or not, Paul would pull up a sample and hand it to us to taste. Melons can look ready, but be sadly watery. Or they can be sweeter than sweet. The only way to tell is the taste test. Smell was never really something that had to be used, but it was always an integral part of the farm work. From the smell of rotting tomatoes to that of freshly cut basil, from recently harvested garlic to fish emulsion fertilizer, everything has a smell. And having smells and sounds and tastes and textures makes one feel much more alive than being in an office environment does.


Another integral part of the work environment was the people. It was a new experience to work so long and so intensely with the same group of people. We worked together. We took meals together. We lived together. And that constant closeness created the expected frictions that come with communal living and working. But we overcame some of those issues, ignored others, and became close enough that we’d joke about “the whole family” going out to Coffee Talk, for example.

A challenging, but rewarding, part of the experience for me was working with people who think differently from me. Not that they believe different things, necessarily, but more that their minds work in a different way. On any given personality test (and the Myers-Briggs is probably the best known) I am always strongly sensing (vs. intuitive) and thinking (vs. feeling). That means that I’m good with gathering facts and data and coming to conclusions based on a series of logical steps. Almost everyone I’ve ever worked with has also been sensing and thinking, since I’ve almost exclusively worked with computer scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. I would actually go so far to say that I get impatient, annoyed, and sometimes plain confused when people go about doing something in a way that doesn’t make logical sense to me.

But this summer I had a revelation about this. Here’s the story I like to tell: early on in the summer, soon after we had started deliveries, I noticed something. While Paul and Chris have fairly equivalent delivery routes, with a similar number of boxes and a similar number of delivery points (I should know – I made the routes myself), Paul always made it home well before Chris, sometimes by hours. I had ridden with each of them for a day and knew that Chris was no slacker; she was go, go, go the whole day. So why the discrepancy? The reason finally occurred to me: Paul dislikes deliveries and so he races through them as quickly as possible, barely stopping to grab a bite to eat or use a toilet. He figures out the absolute fastest way between drop sites and drives with a purpose. Efficiency is his key. Chris, while fast about what she does, takes more time to enjoy her delivery route. She may not take the absolute fastest way between two sites because she despises a particularly nasty left turn or disfavored street. She will (quickly) stop and grab a cup of coffee or load up on groceries for home. So it takes her a bit longer overall. The logical part of me was quick to accuse: “if she were more efficient, she could be back earlier and get more work done.” But then came the revelation: Paul lives with the constant knowledge that every Thursday he’s going to have to spend most of the day doing something he really doesn’t like. Chris, by contrast, enjoys delivery day along with the others. So, in the end, look – who’s happier overall? It would appear to be Chris. The hour or two extra that she uses aren’t wasted at all.

(Aside: This idea that efficiency is not necessarily the highest ideal or the happiest thing to strive for has important implications to a market economy. Industrial agriculture, for example, grew out of the ideal of efficiency, but has caused much harm by devaluing such things as community, the environment, connection to the land, etc. – all things which are difficult to put dollar values on. But this is a soapbox for another day… (though, I do want to see The High Cost of Low Price, which was just released.) Anyway…)

Even if we had grown really weary of one another, there were so many other people popping in and out that it would have been easy to escape into a conversation with one of these outsiders. The “regulars” – Norm, Nora, and Cindy – always brought a fresh bit of news or insight with them on their weekly visits. And many others would drop by more randomly – Adrian, Tom, or Josh to borrow a piece of machinery, to drop off something, or just to compare notes on the season’s progress, Dominik to check on the sheep, Deborah or her husband to bring by sweets, Margaret to bring the fruit share, Barb or Xena to have a cup of tea with Chris or help us with farm work. And then there were the visits by out-of-the-area friends and family – most notably Chris’s parents and Dave from Michigan. And there were also visits from past interns (sometimes now with their own interns), current share members, and school groups. I was amazed at how much of a social environment it was out on this rural farm – far more social than living in an apartment in the city, in fact. Before the season, I had had expectations of things I could accomplish in the evenings: books to read, art to create. I figured I might not have much to do then. But as it turned out, there were so frequently things going on and people stopping by, that I rarely found time for reading or art-making.


And because we got to know one another so well through constant living together, we passed beyond that barrier that so often separates coworkers in an office setting. And so we could play together. Not all the time, of course, but sometimes. We’d start hurling rotten strawberries at one another while weeding. There were known to be random tacklings in the sweet potatoes, in the beets. There was the day of the water guns when we called off work early to go jump Martin at market. We’d ride on the back of the van, tell jokes and stories, and sometimes sing. We laughed a lot.

And that, along with being outdoors in a sense-stimulating, social environment, made for a wonderful work environment – one that made it feel like I wasn’t so much working, as just living.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Reflections: Work. Sleep. Fast.

Some immediate post-season reflections on my experience this past half year.

Changes in body are easy to see and note. Changes in thinking are subtler and harder to identify. Yet I have changed mentally, and for the better, I think. People’s thoughts and beliefs are necessarily limited by their experiences. And I greatly enjoy trying things that are outside my realm of past experience, as they not only challenge me, but also offer new ways to see myself and the world.


There’s something fundamentally different between working in an office and working on a family farm. For one thing, working on a farm is a lifestyle. There is no separation in place between home and work. There is always something that needs doing and the only time separation between work and not work is one that is artificially imposed by the farmer him/herself. My whole concept of work, in fact, has changed. Work used to be the stuff I did when I physically moved myself to my “place of work,” regardless of what that stuff was; it was what I was paid to do, and generally wasn’t anything I felt particularly attached to. But work on the farm is harder to describe. It’s the stuff that needs to get done in order to get nineteen boxes of vegetables to members’ doorsteps. Work here doesn’t feel artificial or “assigned” in order to justify my pay. If the carrots need weeding, then they get weeded. If the cucumbers need washing, they get washed. And it doesn’t really matter who does what, as long as all the tasks are accomplished. During the delivery part of the season, the deadlines are hard and fast and clear. Boxes are delivered on Thursdays. Therefore, boxes need to be packed by the end of Wednesday. And if that means we need to work late, then we work late. And when we had to work late, I never felt slighted or resentful. It was just that this task needed to be completed, so we all stayed until it was completed. But it went even further. If I noticed on some weekend (my time off) that the chickens were still locked up in their coop because they had been forgotten, I’d simply go and let them out. If Paul needed help moving sometime in the evening, I’d volunteer. This “work” was simply part of life. So now, work is simply that which needs to be done, whether it be a household chore or paid employment, and I’ve lost that mental barrier that makes work hard, that makes it distasteful and something to be avoided. Without that barrier, doing work is easier, faster, and takes less energy, making me more productive with less effort.


Another brain-blocker that I got over: waking time. In my mind, previous to this summer, the morning was divided into a few different chunks of time. First, there was pre-7:00am. This was the dreaded realm of waking and getting up. If I had to get up this early, it was stuck in my head, then I’d be slow to get moving and sleepy all day. Then there was the 7:00-8:00 timeframe, which was early and to be avoided if possible, but not horribly early. Then post-8:00 seemed like a reasonable time to get up and get going. But the truth is that how you feel in the morning has much more to do with how long you sleep and how regular your schedule is than what the actual time is. So this summer, I changed the way I thought. Intrigued by Mike’s early risings, I began, also, to wake up at 5:00am every morning. And I went to bed at 9:00pm every evening. And I loved it. I felt awake and alive in the mornings. And by 9:00, I was so tired that it I didn’t feel that all-too-common nag, “it’s too early to go to bed.” My free time rotated from being in the evening, when I was tired and unfocused, to the morning when I alert. And because of this, I think I enjoyed my non-working time more. This experiment was easy to run this summer: it was light out mid-summer at 5:00am and there weren’t too many distractions keeping me awake in the evenings. It’s much harder to replicate this pattern now in the fall in the city, as it’s dark in the early morning and there’s so much activity going on until well into the night. I have, for example, a soccer game from 9:15 to 10:15pm this Wednesday. How early can I really shift my schedule without too much sacrifice in the social arena or in length of sleep? It’s a trickier balance. But the noticeable result from my summer early rising, despite the fact that I no longer get up at 5:00 every morning, is that I no longer have a mental block against getting up at any time in the morning. Five o’clock, six o’clock, seven o’clock, eight o’clock… it’s all the same, as long as I can get enough sleep and maintain a fairly steady schedule.


The last week of the season we all got into a heated conversation about what it meant to work “fast.” Chris delineated it well: there are two ways to work faster, she said. You can do fewer of the actions you are doing that assure quality, or you can simply go faster, without sacrificing quality.

The balance between speed and quality was one I struggled with all summer. As a perfectionist by nature, I tend to lean toward high quality, lower speed. However, what is the perfect bunch of carrots? Clearly you want to discard carrots that are rotted or damaged or that have aster yellow. But then there’s the middle ground – do you get rid of the twisted, ugly ones? How about ones that aren’t very big? Or ones with a small split near the end? Every carrot is different and the judgment of inclusion or exclusion of many of the mid-tier carrots is an individual decision. Each person pulling and bunching carrots may make a different set of decisions given the same set of carrots. The more you keep, of course, the faster you make bunches. But also, the more you keep, the lower the quality of your bunches. The goal is to achieve a good balance so that the quality of the bunch passes the threshold of reasonable-to-put-in-a-box and you are also making bunches as quickly as possible. With the ever-moving quality target and ever-changing speed pressure, it was hard to ever feel comfortable that a good quality-speed balance had been obtained. It’s one of those things, perhaps, that comes with more experience.

Going faster – simply going faster – is, of course, is the preferred method of speeding up. And this concept was something I learned early in the season without it having to be explained. I wasn’t surprised or alarmed when I started working that I was generally slower than the others. I was slower at weeding, slower at transplanting. But I wanted to get faster and with some self-goading and some outside encouragement, I did get faster. By the middle of the summer it amazed me how slowly it seemed the volunteers worked. I’d keep up with Chris weeding down a bed, realizing that our conversation with a volunteer or two would have to end because we’d soon be out of a comfortable talking distance. I’d be a little slower picking beans down the row with Paul, Chris, Martin, and Mike, but I realized moved much closer to their speed than to that of volunteers when they came to pick. Going fast went from being something I pushed myself to do to something that was just the normal way of operating. It was a strange thing when I realized that. My hand and fingers and arms simply moved quickly, and this caused no added stress or fatigue. It wasn’t rushing. I didn’t feel pressure to go, go, go. I was simply moving quickly, more efficiently. And while I’m still somewhat slower than the others in some things, I know that the more I did any task – whether it be picking corn or washing peppers – the faster I could get at it. I’ve been able to take this concept over to doing things like household chores. I can fold laundry fast or wash dishes fast, just as I can weed or harvest fast. It just takes a little bit of focus.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Reflections: Body

Some immediate post-season reflections on my experience this past half year.

Though my hands were the fastest and most obvious change I noticed in myself, the rest of my body changed too. I had worked out a fair amount in the spring in expectation of hard physical work, and I was glad I did. I found over the summer that I grew stronger, especially in the back and shoulders. But for what I gained in strength, I lost in cardiovascular fitness and in flexibility. Farming really doesn’t provide the exercise that I’m used to, and this surprised me because I wasn’t expecting it. I took to getting up early in the morning, in part to go running during the cooler hours of the summer. But also, I just didn’t have any interest in running after a ten-hour day of work. In the end, I find myself quite out of shape, which is funny, since I spent the past six months moving, hauling, pushing, and in other ways using my body.

My flexibility is pretty shot too. For a while I was careful to stretch at the end of each day and that felt wonderful – especially the next day. But I got sloppy after a while and paid for it with stiff muscles and joints that creaked and popped when I first got up each morning. I found, too, that I had to be more careful with my movements when I hadn’t stretched, for I was worried about pulling something. Chris showed me how one can stretch while doing things like weeding, and that worked nicely. Expect, by the last several weeks, we weren’t weeding anymore. We were mostly picking up big heavy squash and big heavy potatoes and moving them around.

And then there’s the sun. And my skin. I fortunately didn’t suffer too bad a sunburn at all this summer, which is partly due, I guess, to the latitude, but also because I was religious about being careful about it. The hardest times to avoid the sun were ironically in the spring and fall when it was cold out. That’s because I really wanted to be in the sun for warmth and also I tended to wear a winter hat without a brim, which exposed my face to more rays. The rest of the time I wore a brimmed straw hat, almost constantly, while I worked. And I wore jeans the whole time too. So the only issue was really my arms. During the summer, I took to a routine that seemed to work out pretty well: I wore a T-shirt in the morning, before second breakfast. Then, between break and lunch (11:00-3:00 or so) I’d wear a lightweight long-sleeve shirt. And then for the final period of the day I’d switch back to the T-shirt – or sometimes to a camisole type top (which was only to alleviate excessive tan lines that would be exposed by my wedding dress…). This strategy allowed my skin enough sun to be able to tan (as much as my skin does), which in turn helped protect it from burning. Yes, I was hot working with long sleeves and jeans in the 90-degree heat. But I figured I’d be hot anyway, even with a T-shirt and shorts on. Hot and not burning is so much better than hot and burning.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Reflections: Hands

Some immediate post-season reflections on my experience this past half year.

I hadn’t really thought much about my hands when I went to the farm, but they’ve probably changed more than any other physical part of me. I brought with me a couple pairs of gloves, which I figured would be useful, but it wasn’t long before I tossed them aside permanently. No one else used gloves, except maybe for dealing with metal parts in cold weather or hoisting large and heavy pieces of wood or machinery. Certainly no one used gloves for planting or weeding, and I found that I was too clumsy with gloves on to keep up. So off they went.

For the first couple weeks, my hands were sore. In the evenings, I’d go inside with the palms pink and raw from working with soil and plastic and wood and metal all day. But then they became calloused. And I don’t just mean a little callous here or there, like I’d get from fencing or playing the clarinet. My entire palms were calloused and I found their texture funny and weird. As I got used to my new hands, I came to appreciate their advantages, but also to miss the pleasures of uncalloused hands. To wit: with my farm hands, I never worried about hurting them – never worried about blisters or cuts or splinters. I could grab rough-hewn wooden planks and if I got a splinter or two, they didn’t hurt; I’d just pull them on out. A couple times I nicked my fingers with a harvest knife, but I only sliced through the top couple layers of callous and so the cuts never even bled. I could wrap my hands around chunks of weeds and pull, knowing that their branches and buds weren’t going to gouge my skin.

This advantage was so clear while working that it wasn’t until the weekends that I realized the other side of the coin. With this thick skin on my palm, I lost sensitivity, especially in my fingertips. I was chagrinned to discover that my agility at small tasks depreciated noticeably. It was hard to work with a needle, since I couldn’t feel very precisely where I was holding it. Manipulating pebbles or screws or peppercorns was trickier. I found that Ben’s skin suddenly felt amazingly soft to me, but conversely, my hands were hard and rough to him.

In addition to the callousing, my hands grew stronger, which was quite nice. By the end of the summer, my grasp was such that I could pull weeds with one hand that it took two to pull at the beginning. My hands also often appeared dirty, even when they were clean. The soil and other organic compounds simply dug its way into the layers of skin and stayed there. This was particularly true after trellising tomatoes, when my hands would turn green, and even after lengthy scrubbing, I’d still have a green tint along the sides of my forefingers. My nails always had dirt under them. And the backs of my hands tanned a bit, as that was really the only place on my body that I couldn’t reasonably protect from the sun.

And now I’ll experience the reverse, I expect, as my hands grow softer, cleaner, and perhaps weaker. Hopefully I can find an exercise to keep up the strength factor, though there’s nothing quite as good as pulling weeds for hours for that…

Monday, October 24, 2005

The End

The day after our last day of work, Mike, Ben, and I cooked a lavish lunch for Chris and Paul: a four-course meal consisting of homemade Sweet Dumpling Ravioli with Sage Butter (Hazelnut) Sauce (with Caramelized Onions), Spinach Salad, Wild Salmon with Rosemary Butter (for Paul) and a Vegetarian Kofta Curry (for Chris), Quinoa Pilaf, Turkish Coffee Cake Cookie Bar (with Chocolate Chips), and a bottle of Pinot Noir, Fresh-Made Vegetable Juice, espresso and tea to round it all out. We rearranged the dining room and made a cozy table near the window for the two of them. They were astounded and appreciative. It was loads of fun! (Plus we got to enjoy the extra food we made…)

After a couple hours of recuperation, Paul and Chris took the three of out to St. Croix to see The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, the feature-length Wallace and Grommit picture. It was a lovely day all together. Sunday was packing day and by afternoon I was ready to go. Mike was still working on a car he inherited from somewhere; in the end, the prognosis was that the alternator needed to be replaced. Goodbyes all around – but not too serious, since there’s a Halloween fire next week – and I was off. The end.