Growing into a farmer
By Sarah M. Earle / For the Monitor
Created 05/22/2011 - 00:00
It took some time for me to realize I was happy with dirt under my nails
My earliest memories of gardening do not feature little pink trowels and feelings of warmth as I knelt beside my mother in the sun, tending to a dewy plant just beginning to yield its first harvest. I recall no particular interest in the backyard plot that turned out various plants deemed edible by adults but that mostly served to challenge my gag reflex.
What I do remember about that garden is that it often stole my mother away for what seemed like hours but was probably no more than 15 minutes, leaving my little sister and me to our own devices. One such evening, when I was maybe 4 or 5, I spotted a pair of scissors and decided, as almost every child does at one point or another, to try my hand at cutting hair. After clipping off a few of my own locks, I busied myself sneaking up behind my toddling sister and chopping indiscriminately at hers.
Much more vividly than any memories of our garden, I remember the reckless thrill of trying to catch those glossy strands between the blades, the exhilaration of doing something I'd never done before, knew nothing about and by all rights should not have been doing.
Funny thing is, that's the same feeling I get now when I look out my kitchen window at my (gulp) farm.
I'm not exactly sure what qualifies a piece of property as a farm. I'm sure there are real farmers - the sort who get up at 4:30 a.m. seven days a week to milk cows, who spend their summers tossing around bales of hay instead of tossing their kids around in the pool - who would find my use of the term laughable. I actually come from a line of such farmers: My grandparents ran a dairy farm that had been in the family for several generations. I spent many hours at that old farmhouse as a kid, absorbing the sights and sounds and smells, if not exactly participating in the farming operations. Still, I never considered that farming was in my blood.
Never until this past year anyway.
My family moved out of the house with the garden not long after the haircutting fiasco. Life got busy, and we didn't grow our own vegetables again while I was growing up. I was reintroduced to gardening when I started dating my husband, whose family had a huge garden and who, for some reason, had developed an obsession with canning. Many of our "dates" involved packing pounds and pounds of cucumbers into canning jars in my parents' summer cabin, baptizing them in vinegar and turmeric, then hanging out underneath the sweating water pipes waiting for the pressure canner to turn them into pickles.
We stocked the cabinets of our first apartment with those pickles and quickly tilled a plot where we could grow more. It feels strange to admit this now, in this era of "locavores" and "agri-preneurs," but I really didn't see the point.
"Why spend half a day picking, snapping and canning beans when we can buy a can at the grocery store for a buck?" I groused more than once when my husband came in with yet another basketful of legumes.
Thankfully, he didn't listen. Over the course of 12 years, three homes, two kids and a couple of job changes, the backyard garden kept growing. While my husband was its proud parent, I was its moody sister, embracing it one minute, resenting it the net, awed by its beauty, disgusted by its excesses.
More and more though, it insinuated itself into my life, curling its tendrils around my soul, (forgive me the melodrama, but this is what a garden will do to a person), until one day I woke up and realized it was a perfect fit.
The truth is, my brain has always been a bit lazy, but my body adores a hard day's work. I love the creative challenge of putting together meals with whatever vegetables have debuted in the garden in a particular week, the satisfaction of eating healthy, homegrown food, the feeling of self-reliance that a day's gardening brings. And I can think of no better way to pass these passions on to my kids than to invite them into the garden.
After this awakening, there was just one thing missing. My husband and I differ in many ways, but perhaps the most profound is that he prefers permanence while I constantly crave change. He is content and focused while I am restless and, well, scatterbrained. After nine years in the same house, the same career, the same routine, I needed to try something new.
And the garden provided that for me, too.
At our New Year's Eve party two years ago, my husband struck up a conversation with a guy who sells greenhouses. They became friends, and the following spring we broke ground on a greenhouse behind our already over-abundant garden.
If we'd had more vegetables than I knew what to do with before, we were really over our heads now. So last fall, after I'd put up yet another batch of ratatouille and cranked out yet another loaf of zucchini bread, I started pondering the idea of trying to make a little money off our surplus.
Like my 4-year-old, scissor-wielding self, I just couldn't stop once I'd started. I signed up for not one, not two, but three farmers markets, got a friend to join me in the venture and lay awake at night trying to think of a trade name. I attended a conference, wrote a brochure and cleaned out a corner of the garage to stow my supplies. Oh, and just for the heck of it, I applied for my homestead license so I could sell baked goods on "slow" weeks, a process that involved water tests, product lists and a visit from a health inspector (The idea of me becoming a baker is even more improbable than the idea of me becoming a farmer, but that's not stopping me either.)
Not to be outdone or to give up his freezer full of ratatouille so easily, my husband began pursuing his own pet project: a second, much larger greenhouse - large enough, in fact, to drop our house inside and still have room for a pool and a modest garage. As winter slowly receded, he began cutting down trees, and by the time the ground had thawed he was digging up the yard and erecting the frame.
And now, here we are. Farmers. Granted, a couple of greenhouses and a garden stocked with five or six lettuce beds, 120 tomato plants and sundry other produce is still small potatoes to some. But to us, it feels like an awful lot.
Our first farmers market started last week, a week that my husband also happened to be out of town building a greenhouse (this thing has truly taken over our lives). So I watered. I picked. I washed. I weighed. I bagged. I baked. I packaged. I labeled. I fretted. I whined. I watered and picked and weighed some more.
On Thursday I picked up my friend and headed to Northwood. The other vendors were friendly, helping us set up our canopy and sharing their wisdom, and the shoppers didn't laugh at my bread as I'd feared they would or raise their eyebrows at our prices. At the end of the day, we'd made just enough money to pay our vendor fee for the season.
How that income translates into hourly wages I cannot bear to think about right now, even if I were able to calculate all the time we've invested in this.
But the truth is, I don't care. At least not that much. When I'm crouching in the dirt beside bouquets of kale, or in my kitchen chopping fragrant greens, or even muscling another load of filthy laundry into the washing machine, I feel something of my grandmother in me. Something that makes me feel strong and capable and authentic.
When this farming thing first began taking shape at dinner table conversations, I told my husband we should give it 10 years, then cut loose and build a yurt on a lake.
Maybe we won't make it that long, or maybe we'll love it so much we'll go to our graves with dirty fingernails and sunburned arms.
Maybe this venture will turn out a little better than my first attempt at cutting hair.