Our crew was out in full force yesterday, mulching garlic, shedding layers, happy to get a workout after weeks of relative inaction. Peter was back from his adventures upstate and abroad, Steve was eager to flex some muscle in between chemo treatments, and Lisa and I were just happy to be out in the fields. We were joined by my sister, Liz, a dance studio owner seeking to improve her choreography through fieldwork. You never know...The Wheelbarrow Hustle could be the next Lindy Hop. In all honesty, mulching is straightforward and monotonous—not the stuff Tony awards are made of. Load your wheelbarrow with leaves, lumber down the wheel track, dump the load onto the bed, and repeat—for hours on end. You could easily go nuts from so much repetition, but lucky for us, there are several ways to keep cool. You could 1) tackle it as a long-distance athletic event, 2) embrace it as a meditation exercise, and/or 3) stay focused on the big picture—that in contributing to the health of the soil, you’re contributing to the health of the planet. Any of these approaches will give you a taste of the farm Kool-Aid. If you taste it and find yourself coming back for more, odds are you’ve fallen in love.
At the end of the mulching day, we were visited by Deborah Aller, a soil scientist from Cornell Cooperative Extension who has been observing cover crop usage at various Long Island farms. Debbie had heard, through the grapevine, about our intense devotion to cover crop, and Dan and I were happy to tour her around the farm. Even with the cash crops slumped in various stages of decomposition, there was a world of life to see underfoot. We’ve always cover cropped our fallow fields, but in recent years we upped the ante by intercropping with many of our cash crops—oats and clover between peppers, broccoli, cabbage, and more. The result is that for much of the year, over ninety-percent of the farm is covered, and that in late-November, as the color drains from the hedges and trees, the ground still glows verdant green. There were many topics to address as our group walked along, from managing pests, to balancing nutrients, to identifying scale-appropriate equipment. Given that Debbie works with both conventional and organic growers, she is particularly attuned to the tension between short-term profitability and long-term sustainability. But the presence of tension doesn’t preclude a solution, and connecting with other professionals facing these same issues is an obvious first step.
On the topic of conventional agriculture, Dan and Donna engaged in some typically wacky behavior when a film crew made an unexpected contribution to our compost pile. Apple TV has been filming at the Old Bethpage Village Restoration since September, and we’ve become friendly with their crew as our season has wound down and theirs has ramped up. Foolishly or not, I didn't think much of it when they asked permission to dump leftover food "props" onto our compost pile. I certainly didn't expect them to dump twenty cases of perfectly edible produce. It was enough to feed an army, or enough to make a farmer cry. After surveying the pile, Dan and Donna abandoned whatever tasks they had planned for the day and spent the next several hours salvaging food. They cleaned, sorted, and loaded the food onto trays which they arranged in the greenhouse, inviting anyone they happened to meet to load up. With barely enough capacity to manage my own harvest, nevermind someone's discards, I kept my distance at first. The irony of giving away food while trying to sell my own was not lost on me. That said, curiosity got the better of me, and eventually I entered the greenhouse to survey Dan and Donna’s haul—hundreds of pounds of winter squash, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, cabbages, and rutabaga. All of it uniform, all of it blemish-free, all of it conventional. Surrounded by food that looked better than mine, knowing it was sold for pennies on my dollar, I couldn’t help but feel jealous and frustrated. I never feel that way in the supermarket, where plastic wrap and PLU stickers bear witness to the industrial forces behind the uniformity. But this food was straight off a film set, stripped of its PLU stickers, meant to look like the contents of a nineteenth century grocer’s stall. It could have been mine, except that it clearly wasn’t. Eventually I swallowed my pride and helped myself to purple-skinned sweet potatoes and rutabaga, two crops we don’t grow. Over the next several weeks, our crew ate down the props and laughed at the humor of the situation—organic farmers eating conventional food discarded by a high budget film crew. At the end of the day, after the jealousy subsided, our biggest takeaway was gratitude for the CSA members and farm stand customers who keep us in business. They could chose to pay less for conventionally beautiful food, but instead, they choose to pay more for ours. Whatever their reasons—whether a shared love of cover crop, a commitment to small-scale farming, an attachment to this particular piece of land, or a general sense that in life, you get what you pay for, their choices are what keep us going. For that, on this Thanksgiving eve, we are deeply grateful.