Handweeding, flower trellising, email catch-up…not so much.
Viewed from certain angles, the farm looks great. The fields are neat, the weeds still fairly low to the ground, and the harvests as fresh and abundant as ever. The weather has been relatively cooperative, June rain notwithstanding, and we’ve had no notable pest or disease issues. An outsider would have every reason to believe the season is moving along smoothly.
Except that it isn’t. Steve was diagnosed with cancer in May, putting our weathered crew to an entirely new test. His is prognosis is good—he will make a complete recovery, following chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery—but his body is going through the meat grinder just as the fieldwork is reaching its crescendo. Farmers are notable for their stubbornness and high thresholds for pain, but even we can recognize that Steve must be allowed the time and freedom to heal. Therefore, we must reckon with a greatly diminished capacity.
We are narrowing our focus to the basics. We’re planting only what’s needed—no more, no less. We’re weeding as much as we can, and not crying when we can’t get to it all. Finally, we’re harvesting everything! We’re aiming to knock our members’ socks off with today’s bounty, because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. And, to avoid dwelling on the many mishaps, frustrations, and disappointments that threaten to overwhelm us, we’re keeping our eyes forward.
Narrowing our focus inevitably means letting some things slide. The perennial herb garden is one example. It’s the first thing most people see upon entering the farm, and it pains me to watch it succumb to the weeds. That said, most members don’t bother with the perennials, so I’ve allowed it to slip on the priority list. In the fields, we’re likely to forego a final hand weeding of the sweet potatoes. At this point, the crop has the firm upper hand, so yields won’t be impacted, but the job of harvesting will be considerably more difficult. Plus, we’ll be green-lighting next year’s weeds. Some growers would plow a crop under before letting weeds flower, but our crop has been pre-sold to our CSA members, so we wouldn’t dare. There are similar stories throughout the fields. Finally, the office has been powered down to the bare minimum. Bills are being paid, checks are being cashed, and CSA members requesting pickup switches are still being accommodated, but many non-essential emails may never receive a reply. In fact, when my email completely conked out three days ago, I couldn’t decide if it was a blessing or a curse. Time will tell, but in the meantime, don’t hold your breath waiting for a collard recipe from me.
In the days and weeks following the diagnosis, Dan, Steve, and I adopted a wait-and-see approach. None of us knew what to expect, and the season was already underway, so this made the most sense. Now, several months into it, we have a better understanding of what lies ahead. We recognize that it’s likely to get worse before it gets better, and that we need to relieve major pressure somewhere, in order to survive. At this point, the summer and fall harvests are more or less assured, but many of the winter crops have yet to be seeded. When I think of last year’s struggle in the broccoli—how continuous downpours turned the field to mud, and how I spent hours hoeing the mud just to keep the plants alive—the writing on the wall seems clear. Given the situation, forging ahead with the winter share would be foolish, if not suicidal, so we have agreed to take the year off. The decision comes as a relief on two fronts. For one, we can close up the greenhouses and declare all seeding finished for the season. Second, I can dodge a week’s worth of administrative work. Advertising, payment processing, and email are all behind-the-scenes tasks that cut into field time, and right now, I need to be in the fields. As for the winter crops on the verge of harvest, (onions, potatoes, and winter squash), as well as those already harvested (garlic), we will include the standard amount in the main season CSA share. To provide an outlet for what was meant for the winter share, we’ll keep the farm stand open into November or December. We hope our CSA members will support us there.
As hard as it’s been, we’ve been touched, albeit not surprised, by the many people supporting us through this tough time. Our families have stepped in to care for our kids, allowing Dan and myself to put in extra time at the farm. Our kids themselves have exhibited an understanding and patience that takes my breath. Lisa and Michael, our first-year crew members, have absorbed the urgency of the season and risen to the occasion without complaint. Finally, despite years of downsizing our volunteer program, it is touching to see how quickly people have sprung forward at the faintest call for help. Judy has filled for Arline at the Thursday pickup; Donna regularly helps at the wash station; Big Dan (a.k.a. Papa) is doing the Makinajian egg run; Glenn is delivering our food to the Dave Matthews Band ahead of the Jones Beach show; Helen stemmed the weed tide in the perennial herb garden; my father bailed me out of email purgatory; dozens of CSA members have joined us in the never-ending task of handweeding. Times are tough, to be sure, but we are blessed to have such an amazing network of support.
If ever there was a year to quit, this might be it. As we stare down the tsunami of the season, however, we can’t fathom walking away. Farming as we do gratifies so many basic needs—for food, honest work, connection with nature, community—that we can’t imagine life without it. Quitting isn’t an option, but transformation is. Our expectation is that when winter returns, we’ll have plenty of lessons to draw upon. Our hope is that when spring returns, we’ll emerge wiser and stronger than ever.