Other Voices: Life lessons to be found in tilling the soil
This time of the year in the life of a farm and its farmers stands as a bookend to that other end of the season that most of us are more familiar with.
In the fall, we gather together with friends or family around a table laden with good hearty food and we acknowledge, silently or aloud, our debt in survival to nature and to one another.
At its best, it is in my mind one of the more beautiful moments in the cycle of time, defined by a single rotation of the earth around the sun. As farmers, we are spent physically yet we are content with the knowledge that our work is done and we have labored with nature to provide sustenance not just for ourselves, but for many in our community. It is, to use the term, a moment of Grace.
In the Fall, the questions about the farm season have all been answered or forgotten in the flush of success and plenty. Come November, we’re more able to forget the punky melons in favor of the winter squash that holds its own as a table centerpiece. We are able to forget the crop of lettuce that went to seed before any could be harvested.
In the Spring, it’s all up for grabs. We wonder and worry: Will the weather hold, or will the early potatoes freeze? Have I ordered enough seed? Is the soil fertile and of good tilth? How early can we plant the warm season crops this year? What if the tractor breaks down again? If I do what has to get done today, will I get everything else done in time? I’m fifty years old, for Pete’s sake, can I do it all again this year?
The truth of the matter is that there are bound to be some shortcomings during any year, but which it will be this year is anyone’s guess.
Over time, I suppose, I should become more comfortable in the failures of any given season and be able to revel in what has worked well. Last season, for example, the cucumbers started off great, but soon bombed, while their neighbors the summer squash were champions of stamina and productivity. And the eggplant and peppers? Some customers at the Farmers’ Markets bought them just to look at. Gorgeous!
Yet, here’s the thing: The cultivation of plants for a living is not assembly line control and precision. It’s a negotiation we enter into with nature that doesn’t readily translate into terms of success and failure, and our own ability to exercise control over that success or failure is confined to some pretty narrow margins.
We do our best, and most of the time that’s good enough. With proper care of the soil and enough diversity in our cropping, we get by without catastrophic failures. And we learn essential lessons with the passing of time.
One of those lessons doesn’t start until after the crop is grown. That is, the success or failure of a farm starts with the farmer’s ability to grow a good crop, but it certainly doesn’t end there. A farmer can grow terrific crops but if he or she can’t sell them, or can’t sell them for a fair price, it’s time to close the barn doors, so to speak.
Local agriculture is not just about local production. It’s about local consumption, too. You can join with others this season in ensuring that Nevada County farms thrive and, come November, that all of us, producers and consumers, can look back on the local farm season with a sense of pride and satisfaction.
This community is fortunate to have many good farmers growing diverse and beautiful crops in unique ways. This season, you’ll find them at Farmers’ Markets throughout the week, at locally owned grocery stores and at farm stands throughout the County.
You’ll find restaurants that feature Nevada County-grown food, and you can also subscribe to one of several local Community Supported Agriculture farms and receive a unique box of mixed seasonal vegetables and fruit each week during the growing season.
A Nevada County Farms map will be published this spring, and you’ll find the map and other great information about Nevada County agriculture at the Web site local foodcoalition.org.
Alan Haight farms near Nevada City with his partner, Jo McProud, at Riverhill Farm.
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