Diary of an Organic Farm Apprentice: The Harvest

When I first got to the farm my eyes shined at the thought of mastering the complicated cycles of crop rotation, eating soil-caked carrots, attending community potlucks and chatting farm talk with Scott Chaskey. I (perhaps prematurely) declared my love for farming before even harvesting my first kale leaf in April when we were still building, cleaning up and preparing the soil. Like broken records, seasoned farmers giggled at my ignorant enthusiasm, teasing, “Wait till July. Let’s talk again then.”

The switch from spring into summer happened quicker than a zucchini can ripen on the stalk: exaggerated and sudden, leaving me in a frenzy of lifting and stretching. One day while putting the chickens to bed after a day of CSA harvesting, I found myself chanting a poem of sorts to myself alone in the field:

Well, summer’s finally here and spring is far lost.
We’ll work these bodies hard till the first signs of frost.

Don’t get me wrong. Spring certainly wasn’t a walk in the park. But until now the evolution of our work’s demands was subtle and almost encouraging. We cleaned. We sowed. We prepped the soil. We transplanted. We weeded. Then, boom! One day I paused from bunching red Russian kale to realize that the field was suddenly brimming with life, the delicious kind, looking up at me during field walks screaming, “Harvest me! Or I’ll go to seed!”

Oh, and there’s math. Lots of math.

Harvest is a time of hustle, a real test for the aspiring farmer. Transplanting was hard on our knees as we hunched over, shifted, and crouched like spider monkeys scaling the 200-foot rows of our beds. But something about harvest insinuates crunch time (and not the munchin’ type of crunchin’). The lettuce is bolting, the salad mix is flowering, we need 150 pounds of hakurei turnips for CSA pick up and it’s already lunchtime. Oh, and there’s math. Lots of math.

Every morning we arrive in the field and prep our wash station. All our hard work could go straight to the compost pile if our crop isn’t properly chilled, processed and stored. Out we go, green plastic bins in hand, harvest knives clenched between our teeth and rubber bands around our wrists. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven leaves make a half-pound bunch. Scan it, band it, bunch it, give it a “butt cut,” and move on to the next patch. Haul the bin over your shoulder and hustle to the shade.

Scan it, band it, bunch it, give it a “butt cut,” and move on to the next patch.

We crawl through cucurbit patches, frog legging our way down the bed with buckets full of freshly cut cukes and summer squash, gently hauling so as not to blemish the zucchini’s delicate yellow flesh.

The much anticipated garlic harvest is percussive. Dig the fork into the soil, but not too close as to pierce the bulbs. Give it a wiggle, while your partner waddles behind ready to pull. Ambidexterity is learned through harvest, as we grab a bulb in each hand, rattling it free of its caked on coat of soil. Clumps of dirt fall onto the straw, tapping like rain on the roof of my tent. Each night I collapse; I’ve never felt so tired or slept so deeply.

When you hold a seed in your hand looking across a full bed of chard waiting to be harvested to feed 150 families, the weight suddenly becomes heavier.

Before I know it, the bed of bright lights rainbow Swiss chard has changed hues to a dull and wilted memory. We’ll mow it soon, to prepare the bed for the next round of production. How special it is to think that what began as pin point-sized seeds sprouted into hundreds of pounds of delicious and healthy greens. When you hold a seed in your hand looking across a full bed of chard waiting to be harvested to feed 150 families, the weight suddenly becomes heavier, as does your heart feeling the sanctity and honor of stewarding that seed.

Well, it’s July. And though I can’t say I’ve mastered Mexican bean beetle crushing, or perfected hoeing or met all the farmers on the East End, I can say that I can’t shake the serene sense of purpose farming has gifted me. Despite the arduous labor that Kristin Kimball eloquently says “can make you weep,” I don’t want to go back. I’ve tasted real radishes. And I am growing more than plants. A part within me I never knew existed has sprouted. No amount of bruised shoulders or Colorado potato beetles can deter me now. Especially since the tomatoes are coming.