Farmers are a self-critical bunch. We have to be. Our work is the resultant warp and weft of 50 percent knowledge and 50 percent luck, either good or bad, and so we tend to believe a higher power is thus critical of us too. We quote from worst-case scenarios and we are afraid to embrace, for fear of hexing, a good year. Still, dour suits the multifaceted occupation, for if we were not analytical, then how else would we learn? Every successful farmer farms differently; there is no formula except experience. It is the textbook you’ll write, mapping the land as long as you have it.
The true beauty of farming on the East End is the length of our growing season—the natural length of it—from asparagus to Brussels sprouts, even without season extenders it is long enough to exhaust most farmers. By early October farmers resemble the falling leaves themselves, red from the sun, brittle and thin. Farming isn’t easy on the body, nor is it easy on the mind. It’s consuming and precarious and rarely, perfectly fine.
There is a point, sometime high in the tomato season when peak production and greatest flavors have been reached, that I dread. I feel the fading of the light, so to speak, and see only fatigue in the plants, the mottle of unstable foliage, the cucumber wilt. It is a moment past perfection—and the decline is what I harvest after all—but I always react dramatically. Once these tomatoes are done and are but leafless vines, charred buttresses, empty of fruit and flower, my farm stand’s offerings will be few. It’s usually not even September, but with newfound gravity I submit to the obvious; death will come here just as it goes everywhere else, following life with the absentmindedness of a cold-stricken yellow jacket, dying for no apparent reason in small circles on the greenhouse floor.
I always fail at the fall garden. Every year I miss planting dates because the crucial planting dates usually come when I’m overwhelmed with late spring and early summer crops—not just with harvest but also with their care. And usually there is a drought setting in.
My father says I should have my seedbed for cauliflower in by the Fourth of July. Only once did that happen, the first year I farmed, and he walked me, in an organized manner, through traditional crops of the rigorous season. We planted peas. To this day that patch is memorable and I strive to recapture its character; it was so lush, well-drained and protected enough but just the right temperature. Every plant on this well-chosen spot was a triathlete (it was also before I used organic fertilizer). When it was time for cucumbers, he let me use a piece of ground that is as far north as I could go and still be in Sagg. Here the land is lighter and warmer. It was clean ground, a wide strip protected by corn. The field hadn’t seen a cucurbit for years and from one planting I hauled out burlap bags of cucumbers for weeks, I had so many I was giving them away. And, as I said, the fall crops went in. By October I was harvesting cratefuls of cauliflower and delivering to the supermarket. It was gratifying; the heads were white and full. The year he told me how to plant pumpkins, I nearly wore my truck out hauling them. All these harvests are indelible in my record, but knowing what to do and having the ability to do it are two different things. As a farmer, if I were a juggler, I can still handle only two balls.