Farmer on the Side


EWatson7765_canned vegetable

I have always been interested in farming and have wandered many fields over the years for picture-taking purposes. I am at my most comfortable mucking around in dusty farmland. In the spring of 2011, I decided to experience the farming life more closely and took a job with Balsam Farms. Ian Calder-Piedmont and Alex Balsam own and operate Balsam Farms. They farm several fields between Sagaponack and Amagansett. Balsam Farms is a familiar face on the East End, with a busy farm stand, a flourishing CSA-membership program and a constant presence at local farmers markets. I found Ian and Alex, and all of the farmers who work for them, to be informed, sensible, patient people. They are business people in the business of growing food. They are practical, inventive and unwavering, which is essential since the cycle of farming is continually and constantly demanding, with an urgency to each job: crops need to be harvested before they are overripe, deliveries made to wholesale clients with restaurants to open, farmers markets need to be set up and run. And because of the unpredictable nature of this business, disappointments could have been great and emotions could have run high. However, I did not see that at all. Farmers understand that whatever comes down the pike, they must be steadfast and move forward.

EWatson7138_grape tomatoes

To me, the act of growing food is a passionate one. It is mysterious, miraculous, stormy and bright. The entire enterprise is a risky business. You take a tiny seed—often hard as a rock—put it in the ground and water it. You hope it survives and matures, and if it does you have food. But it isn’t hope that brings the final harvest to fruition—it is the knowledge of the farmers. They march through long days of endless chores, battle troublesome pests, try to stay ahead of blight, irrigate during drought…and then there is the wind. There isn’t any protection against the wind.

EWatson6946_colorful tomatoes

In late August, after three months of working long, hot days at the farm, the reporting about Hurricane Irene began. National weather stations and locals alike were talking about this storm. Could it be that we would really get hit this time? I have been in my share of nor’easters and hurricanes over the years and knew the drill for my own preparations. But this year, I felt something different…something stronger and more emotional pulled at me. What about all of the plants, flourishing and exposed out in the fields? I thought of the 75 varieties of tomatoes, the okra and the tender lettuces, the sunflowers and herbs and the corn. What would happen to these vulnerable, valuable crops?

tractor planting

At the farm stand, we packed away everything that was loose and tied down the wagons in the front. We stayed open the day that the storm approached. Customers came by and, assuming there would be power outages, bought food that did not need to be refrigerated. And then we all went home and waited.

plastic cover hoop house

Irene was a tropical storm by the time she hit the East End, downgraded from hurricane status. But the damage was still significant. Trees were down, roads were closed, power was out for days, and no one was allowed on the beaches due to dangerous surf. A friend came by in his van, and we went out on a surveillance mission. In our travels, we went to check on the various farm fields. I couldn’t believe what I saw when we arrived at the cornfields. There were rows and rows of delicious, ripe, ready-for-picking sweet corn, lying on the ground. I have to admit that it made me want to cry. The sticky, muddy mess of the ground was covered with cornstalks. I stood in the windy, spitting rain and marveled at it all. In that moment, I knew that the patience and the good-natured calm that I saw in my farmer friends had been earned from experiences like this.

Nature will take its own course, and it might not be what we would like. But regardless of what happens, the crops have to be harvested, the farm stand opened and food provided to the customers. The 2011 growing season will be remembered as a real winner until Irene came along. After that storm, it seemed continuously wet, and many crops on the East End never recovered. But as I write this, the planting for the 2012 season (which turned out to be a beauty) is well under way, and the cycle begins again. Those who have chosen to be stewards of the land carry on with the calm fortitude that is needed in the business of farming. I can only aspire to have that same determination in my own life.

 Ellen Watson is a self-proclaimed naturalist and can often be found wandering farm fields on eastern Long Island in pursuit of another beautiful photograph.