After being away from the farm for 3 days at the end of the previous week- visiting store customers and making commercial deliveries with my son Jasper (10 years old)- I returned Friday evening to a farm where heat and heavy rainfall had thrown many things into disarray; schedules, harvests and fieldwork plans for the weekend.
And having been away for so long, I was feeling a need to get “grounded” once again in the life of the farm, to catch up on where things stood in the field, and to get “back to work” in the basic sense of growing and maintaining crops. With more rain (and heat!) forecast for Saturday afternoon, I made a plan on the phone with Esteban Friday evening, to start early the following morning, hand weeding what we could before the first showers of the day.
The first light of day was barely showing in the sky when I arrived at the shop Saturday at 5:45. A heavy fog obscured almost everything, and it was hot. Dew point in the low to mid 70s, I’m sure(!!). Earlier this summer I had re-read Heart of Darkness, and this Saturday morning reminded me very much of Marlow’s descriptions of the oppressive heat of the central African rainforest: “the air hung on us as a steam blanket…”
The 24 Spanish speaking members of the farm crew showed up in a small caravan of vehicles just before 6, and all assembled in the break room for a quick meeting. Everyone looked tired and run down from late summer stress.
I’m not quite sure, but I believe that these folks have had no more than a couple of full days off over the past month. I can relate to this of course, essentially working 7 days a week myself for most of the year (what small business owner does not, really?). But I still felt somewhat sheepish reporting to them on my 3 days in the air conditioning of the truck and the stores. Day after day after day harvesting heavy crops in the full sun is something I’ve done mainly as an apprentice farmworker 2 decades ago, enough to give me a huge respect for the folks that continue to do this work at Featherstone Farm and other farms every day.
We filled the Gatorade cooler and headed out to the field with little fanfare; by 6:15 we were spread out over a dozen or so long beds of 4” tall carrots which were in danger of being overrun by purslane, crab grass and pigweed. We’d cultivated the areas on top of and between the beds several times with the tractor over the past 2-3 weeks, and these parts of the filed were clean and black. The carrot rows themselves, however, were short, riotous mohawks of green- only 50% carrots in places- badly in need of hand weeding. No matter how sophisticated or mechanized a modern organic vegetable farm is, the problem of weeds-in-the-row still demands hand labor. There is no substitute.
We weeded silently for 20 minutes, the only sound that of someone’s shirt pocket cell phone broadcasting a tinny Mariachi band. Not even the birds were stirring this foggy morning. It was satisfying to clean up the weeds, no doubt, but my mind was focused with worry. Are we pushing these folks too hard this season? Sure they always volunteer- without hesitation it seems- for overtime despite the heat, the nature of the work, their recent history of rest (or lack of it!). And Esteban had been enthusiastic about finishing the carrot weeding while it was still possible… before another heavy week of harvesting began again on Sunday morning. But when is enough really enough?? I was concerned that the tired faces and lack of conversation this morning was answer enough.
Then little by little a quiet chatter broke out, spreading slowly over the entire group. My Spanish is too rudimentary to understand exactly what they were talking about, but my sense is that it was good natured kidding around between family members. As the conversation gained momentum, there was a good deal of laughter; I would look up and see one person or another straighten their back, look up into the fog, and chuckle heartily. These folks were not exactly enjoying the work, I believe, but they were definitely making the best of a tough situation.
My heart lightened, and I’m sure the pace of my weeding quickened a bit. My thin Scandanavian blood is poorly suited for this kind of steambath, I’ll admit. And at this point in my farming career I’m not accustomed to hours and hours stooped over a row, the heavy heat surging up and off the chest, sweat bleeding from every pore on the head, shoulders and upper body. But the light joking of the farmworkers around me- the essential optimism of their response to a tough situation- was completely contagious.
We finished the acre of carrots and stopped for a moment to stretch, standing at the end of the field. I took out my cell phone to capture the scene with its camera, but the steam and humidity made focusing all but impossible; there was nothing with which I could dry the lens. The Gascas laughed heartily seeing my trying to do so.
In a moment we plunged back into hand weeding, this time in parts of a cabbage field which had been missed in a previous hoeing operation. The plants here were nearly knee high in stature, and in the wet morning we were all soaked from mid thigh to the tips of our socks in a matter of minutes. The weeds too here were larger, and required more effort to pull and windrow alongside the beds. The work was hot and heavy, but immensely satisfying; seeing the hearty red cabbage plants emerge from a motley canopy of velvet leaf and foxtail grass was inspiring indeed. And the ongoing chatter and banter of the Gascas- men and women, young and old alike- was a cool breeze floating over the field.
At 9:00 we came to the end of the cabbage field and took stock of what we had just accomplished. Even in the dim light of the foggy morning the cabbage field was indescribably beautiful. The muted colors of red and green, glistening with moisture. Organic in the full sense of the word. And all (re)energized by the work of the people standing around me.
How absolutely fortunate I am to be able to work with such dedicated folks day-in-and-day out, I thought as we walked- slowly, I’ll admit- out of the field toward the shop. These folks who put themselves essentially “on call” 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, from late winter through late fall, no matter the weather or the stress. How could a farm like Featherstone function without this kind of partnership?
We have made major, major progress in recent years distilling the work of the farm to essential parts, and setting up job descriptions and schedules to allow most employees to have “lives” outside farmwork (ie predictable hours and actual days off etc). Of course there is room to improve on this, to better resource the fieldwork to make 7-day-a-week seasons a thing of the past, permanently. But weather and crops and environmental fluctuations (deer detected in the corn on a Friday evening…) conspire to make this difficult, indeed.
Perhaps in California a predictable 7-5 schedule is possible, with weekend work limited to watering in the greenhouse, or perhaps monitoring an irrigation pump; there is no “weather” in the central valley 8 months of the year. But not here in the Midwest. I know this… I “signed up for it,” as my family rightly reminds me. But I’ll be perfectly honest, the long hours and lack of real days off wear on a person after a time. Especially in the dog days of August, it’s easy to lose perspective and go negative.
Which is why the good spirits and quiet determination of the Gasca crew is all the more inspiring. Why I found myself so buoyed by their chatter on such a hot, heavy morning.
Thank goodness for agricultural fieldworkers here at Featherstone Farm, and on every farm across the country. I believe we own these folks a debt of gratitude.