Talk Dirty to Me

The seed sprung up, shot out of the dirt with the slow-motion version of a coil, the radicle breaks from its sleepy core.

It happened faster then I expected, and inside of a week the arugula made a mossy island in a sea of plastic potting flats. Then come the brassica, the spinach, lettuce and finally two weeks on comes a crescendo of onion and leeks. But outside, spring is more like winter, and this time I am glad for it. I haven’t finished this winter’s project, a rehab job I euphemistically call “farmland reclamation.”

It’s an abandoned perennial farm. There are tattered greenhouses and piles of landscaping debris, bricks, stones and cinderblocks. There are thousands of black plastic pots, each containing the tangle of a dormant or dead plant. The field I hope to farm is covered from one end to the other with weed barrier fabric. It is made of nylon, it is brittle from age, and it is anchored by oxidized staples as well as the roots that have made their way down through to form a heavy mat supporting grasses, bushes and weeds. It took me a while just to figure out where to begin. The 10-acre mess is a different kind of wilderness.

One of the reasons that farms have vanished on the East End is because humanely sized farms cannot compete with inhumanely funded real estate speculation. The reason the land I’m re-clearing exists, even in this neglected condition, is that it is an agricultural reserve. Ag reserves are set aside in the subdivision process that portends to save some of what is left…or at least keep it “open.” Agricultural reserves can’t be developed. They do not sell for as much money as the house lots, and the benevolent logic implies that farmers can still afford them. We were not exactly unified in this purchase. My mother vows the property was farmed, that it once had row crops on it. She knows which of the old families farmed it. My father is skeptical of anything that is not Sagaponack soil. So is my brother. This is in Poxybogue, the soil type is Plymouth. I tear up a corner of the weed barrier and haul it backward to reveal a patch of earth. It is copper-colored and sandy, there is only a thin vein of darker and more familiar loam.

I realize I did not take any photos of “before and after.” The guys dumped dead plants as I used a tractor with a four-in-one bucket to lift the weed barrier. Sometimes it lifted easily, popping free, the wind getting under it, helping to hasten the release. Other times it tore and frayed, and I found myself screaming at its recalcitrance. We have spent nearly three months freeing the place—that’s how it feels, like the dirt was held prisoner. Now in early spring the farmland is almost recognizable as farmable again, but when other farmers ask me what I’ve been doing all winter and I tell them, their eyebrows go up and they ask, “Pretty sandy up there isn’t it?” It isn’t a question. They know. And most of them also know of a time cabbage was raised there, too. It has just been so long, they have a hard time remembering. 

Marilee Foster farms and writes in Sagaponack.