The *&%^?# bok choy flowered on me

As I mentioned in a previous post, Travis’s new job is as the greenhouse manager.  Which means he spends most of his days in the greenhouse, secluded, with baby plants.  Every time I walk into the greenhouse I get this waft of serenity. It’s quiet, the doors are closed, and the transplants are so dense, it’s like a mini rainforest at your feet. Travis assures me that this isn’t always the case, but still, my new job is somewhat more hectic. 

03.12.10 Alberto Martínez AMERICAN-STATESMAN — Neysa King harvests broccoli rabe at Johnson’s Backyard Garden, an organic vegetable farm at the eastern edge of Austin. They grow organic vegetables and have received a grant from the state through a program that encourages young farmers to stay in the business.

I have been appointed the harvest coordinator.  That means I have 20 acres, soon to be 70, under my charge.  It means it’s up to me and the group leader, Vicente, to monitor the fields for what’s ready to harvest, decide the right combination of crops to go into the boxes for the CSA members, and note any problems like pests, disease, or excessive weeds.

Back in New York, Travis and I led the harvests 2-3 times a week.  I do have experience harvesting most vegetable types, running a CSA, and keeping harvests organized.  But Brenton’s farm is nearly 7 times as big as Betsey’s.  In New York, you could stand in one place and see the entire field.  This farm is a completely different animal, and Brenton has placed an intense amount of trust in me since I began training.  Granted, this probably has less because to do with confidence in my abilities, and more with the fact that he’s getting ready to triple the size of his farm and it makes a guy busy. 
So, the last few weeks I’ve steeled my jaw and done my best to make good decisions.  But I keep feeling like I’m one step behind the vegetables.  Today and yesterday were especially crazy.  Remember the post about the pecan and mesquite trees?  Well, apparently, when spring comes, the established plants know it, they flip out, and they start trying to spread their seed as quickly as possible.  They’re all desperately trying to shoot up flowers, which means they won’t grow anymore, so I’m desperately trying to stop them. Something tells me I shouldn’t be embroiled in an epic battle with broccoli, but that’s how it feels right now.  
Today, I woke up to rain.  I got to the farm at 7am and sat at my computer to print out the harvest list to give to Vicente.  Brenton came and said in his most chipper voice, “Man, it’s raining!” 

I said, “yes, I know.” 

“We really needed the rain.  I’m happy about it.  It’s going to make everything grow so much!”  He walked out of the office again, whistling. 

Normally, the prospect of our crops growing faster would fill me with a sense of contentment and anticipation.  But today, all I could think was, “shiiiit.”

I went out into the field ready for battle.  This morning I would be fighting an overabundance of ginormous lettuce.  Like, thousands of heads, all huge and getting huger, and I only had so many places for all of it to go.  Two weeks ago, I swear, it was tiny.  

So, Vicente and I improvised and decided not to give everyone a head or even two, but to chop it up and make a salad mix, so we could give everyone a full bag, making use of more lettuce.  Harvesting 20 bins of lettuce mix in the pouring rain is not a great time, in case you’ve thought of trying it.  But we got it done, and I think if we can keep harvesting like that, we will make it. 

On top of that, the bok choy already bit it last week.  Last friday they were fine, and by Monday two beds of it had flowered.  After I finished the lettuce, I began picking the last remnants of the flowered bok choy.  Vicente warned me against putting it in the boxes, because flowers might not look good.  So as I was cleaning off the flowers (which are edible and taste like bok choy), I began thinking about our collective expectations when it comes to the appearance of our produce. 

I think about this a lot, especially at markets.  Often (but certainly not always), I find that people will treat farmers market stands like a grocery store.  Produce is inspected closely and expected to be spotless, uniform, and abundant at all times of the year.  But I can tell you that that’s not how it works.  Farmers are just people, and they make mistakes just like anyone.  Sometimes they do everything right but the weather doesn’t cooperate, like the three months of rain we got this winter.  Or, the weather cooperates too much, like the transition to spring that made everything shoot up to godzilla size in a matter of days.  Sometimes, veggies are blemished just because, you know, they’re outside … on the ground.

Unrealistic expectations fostered by mass produced fruits and vegetables at large grocers is detrimental to small, organic farmers.  Unlike the local HEB, if some produce is blemished, we can’t just order more from California.  Instead, we have to rely on our communities to support us, through both the lean months and the harvest.

*Photos thanks to Alberto Martinez

I’m Somebody Now!

Get this: Brenton has decided he’d like to hire Travis and me. That’s right, we are employed, being trained for positions that we will fill after our internship ends in May. That’s right, we have real jobs again. In farming, too. I know I wrap up my identity too much in my work, but having a legitimate job, getting paid a decent wage, having a place of my own, being self-sufficient, and most importantly feeling like I was contributing to something–lacking all these things made me start to question my self worth. It shouldn’t have. But it did.

How did I get here? Things seem to be coming together, and I have to step back and reflect. When Travis and I first moved to New York, we wanted an introduction to farming. We wanted to see if we could hack it, number one, and if we liked it, number two. We quickly found that yes answered both of those questions, but we were still at a loss for how to progress in organic farming, where it seemed like everyone who would be doing it in the future was already doing it now… in other words, there aren’t a lot of farmers, but there are fewer would-be farming entrepreneurs.

By the time we moved to Austin back in November, we were already burnt out on the aimlessness of interning–the inherent transience, the lack of real engagement with farming, the awkward living arrangements. Young people often enter internships with the expectation to learn about the job, but usually they find themselves doing a lot of mundane tasks with little real training. Although we took on a lot of responsibility in New York, because we could never feel any ownership in the total process of farming, Travis and I often felt that we were doing the farming equivalent of stuffing envelopes.

Not that you can’t learn anything from just being on a farm. And to be fair, after I moved to Austin and began working for Brenton, I was surprised at how much I had learned in New York without even realizing it. But it’s also true I’ve learned more in the past two weeks, training for a real job with real responsibilities, than I did in the all my time as an intern up to this point.

It makes me wonder, is my path replicable? Is interning the best way for young people to get into organic farming? Or is it an only-choice in a field with a tiny pool of colleagues? Could others sort of stumble-jump into fulltime employment on an organic farm like I did? And still, Travis and I aspire not only to work on an organic farm, but to own one of our own, and that remains a giant question mark.

Brenton and I figured it out one day: if his farm is 70 acres, and there are about a million people in Austin, that means it would take over 200 farms of the same size to feed the entire city. So, the need is there, and in a city like Austin, so is the demand. But the question is, who will supply it? And how?

Organizations like the Crop Mob (thanks, Esther) I think are less an idealistic excursion or an attempt to reconnect with nature, and more a testament to how haphazard and makeshift are the paths of people who are genuinely interested in growing food.

But back to the point, Travis and I are gainfully employed, we live in a great apartment in a great city, and we are doing something we really enjoy. It’s been a long, uneven road, toward making a career of organic farming, and we’re certainly not near the end of it, but it’s good to at least see that we are making progress.