August 27, 2008

A painful goodbye

Tonight the Gasca brothers had a summer-end party to send-off the college students who are finishing their last week at Featherstone. It included the all-famous Gasca spread of beef, chicken, tortillas, salsa verde, salsa rojo, guacamole, pepsi, corn, and of course - chilies. Eating those chilies was almost as painful as saying goodbye will be on Friday.

It will be a particularly hard goodbye as I had a very memorable experience with one of the brothers last week. Olegario Gasca is the second oldest, with 8 children - 6 of them being daughters, which completely explains his fatherly instincts. He is always one of the first to greet me in the morning, with a huge smile on his round face. This particular day last week was very unusual as almost all the farmworkers were harvesting together. Usually we are split up, where one group is picking beans while the other group is picking peppers. But we all happened to be harvesting melons that afternoon. My previous entry mentions the 11:00 hour of anxiousness that always precedes lunch. It was this time of day and we were all in a hurry and getting hungry. I would have never guessed that one of my most memorable Featherstone moments would happen in this hour.

Harvesting melons is no 1-person job. It takes a crew. People picking melons, people piling mounds of melons, people throwing them to the person standing on the flatbed of the truck that has the wooden bin for the melons to be placed in, and one person in the wooden bin organizing the melons. The latter-most job was mine. Salvador kept handing them to be while I crouched in the bin, and placed them in the corners, on top of eachother. While I was standing up, Olegario threw a melon that was beyond Salvador's reach, which I ended up catching. The melon was heavier than I had anticipated and the velocity of the melon took my hand with it. My hand ended up getting smashed between the melon and the side of the wooden bin, my pinky finger in particular. And it bled. And bled. As soon as Olegario saw an ounce of red he reached for his knife. I immediately thought, "Oh my, I hope he doesn't think this is worthy of amputation!" No, he didn't. He reached for his knife and proceeded to cut off a piece of his shirt for me to wrap around my finger to stop the bleeding. Talk about taking one's shirt off their back - literally. It nearly brought tears to my eyes as he quickly ran to the truck, waving the black and red checkered piece of cloth in his hand. That day, Olegario Gasca showed me the definition of kindness.

That very piece of cloth can be found tied around the strap of my camera bag, which I tote along nearly everywhere these days. I put it on my camera bag because each time I now try to capture a moment with my camera, I will think of that day when I was utterly, completely captured by kindness.

August 18, 2008

Tick, tock.

As my time is nearing its end here at Featherstone, I want to give you a taste of the order of my daily experience here. (As my jobs and days vary greatly on the farm, this is a typical 'CSA Day.')

7:00 am - My ever-reliable cell phone alarm goes off just as I start to hear the neighbor's rooster crow. I climb down from my loft and trek to the common house to find breakfast.

7:30 - Nosh on granola and yogurt back at the cabin while I attempt to find clean (enough) clothes for the day.

8:00 - I stumble over a few Spanish phrases while passing the Gasca brothers on my way to the office to check in with Jack or Mary, to check email, and gain a sense of what's going on for the day.

9:00 - Quite unpredictable. Ranges from counting out 176 bags for the dill in our grande shares, to washing cucumbers in our conveyer-belt style cleaner, to picking tomatoes, to taking pictures of farm workers and vegetables.

10:00 - See above. But add to the mix - a little more heat, a little more stress, and a few hunger-growls from the stomach. Things are really starting to happen in the fields and the CSA packing area. The phone is already ringing off the hook, but 3 times out of 5 it's our farm mechanic. Wholesale sales are happening and our truck drivers are getting prepared to leave. Chances of getting office work done at this time in the morning are slim to none.

11:00 - My favorite time of day. The farm work mentality is nearly 70% to its peak. Progress is able to be seen as everybody is really into their respective morning jobs. It seems as though everybody gives this hour an extra push because lunch is in sight and they either want to get to it faster or be able to enjoy it better knowing a job was done well.

12:00 - Even though we've been munching on deformed vegetables all morning, we can't get up to the Common House for lunch fast enough. Recently, the tomato sandwich (yes- with mayonnaise, salt, and pepper) has been the hit at lunch. But our group's taste in food is very diverse - all the way from Spam to Cheerios to beet pie to black beans straight from the can to raw carrots. This time on Wednesdays is an extremely special time for us farm workers as Gen Nagel, a chef from Winona, comes to cook all morning for our noon lunch, with Featherstone vegetables. She really is the reason that most of us have come to stop eating breakfast on Wednesday mornings, in anticipation and preparation for her spread!

1:00 Back at it. Either finishing morning jobs or starting new ones (like weighing out 150 4-pound bags of heirloom tomatoes.) On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays this is the time that we finish the last jobs before we start the CSA pack-out line, what we wait for all day. Last-minute field picking usually occurs about this time, when we realize we may not have enough basil or tomatoes picked to fill all the boxes. It is nice to get out in the sunshine after having eaten a nourishing meal. It's especially pleasant working out in the field with the Gascas, listening to them joke with one another, and them giving us an opportunity to practice our Spanish.

2:00 Now we seriously consider starting the operation of filling your CSA box. The day's work (harvesting, washing, weighing, packing) has been for this solely for this moment. We bring things out from the cooler and put in their respective positions for a Featherstone employee to put in your box. We are at our peak right now for box contents, and it takes about 6 people to pack the boxes, with most people managing two different vegetables. Today I was in charge of placing bok choi and peppers in the box. Yesterday, it was putting 7 ears (for full shares) and 4 ears (for half shares) of corn in each box.

3:00 We are elbow deep in packing boxes. Everybody's attention is focused on the next box coming down the line, counting out their produce, and putting in its place which was determined before the pack-out began. During this time I always imagine what kind of delicious meals our members will be making this week, via Featherstone produce. It gets me excited and to start thinking about what I'll make myself for supper.

4:00 The pack line is usually done (on a good day) and we clean up the packing area, put the remainder of the produce in the cooler, wrap our head around what we have leftover to work with the next day, and of course, get a box of our own produce to take home!

5:00 On an extremely scheduled (but highly unusual) day, everybody is done. But, as the nature of farming is highly unpredictable, most often the case is that one of the jobs mentioned above didn't go as smoothly or quickly as anticipated, which sets everything back. So sometimes we aren't done packing boxes quite yet. But by this time we've forgotten about the clock. We've got bigger things to think about than time- like tomatoes.

There you are- farming, it's not glamorous. But it's real, honest work. I still think it's one of the most intimate ways one can effect another individual- that is, feeding them. Giving them material things that they will ingest in their bodies to live on - you can't touch somebody more directly than that.

August 10, 2008

Holy Tomatoes

If I've learned one thing on the farm this summer it's that farming is an intensely spiritual line of work. One must have an abundance of faith in order to trust that year in, year out, nature will again take its course and produce something of value. It seems especially difficult in the spring, when (produce) farmers are getting things ready in the greenhouse and starting to transplant. A classic example of believing without seeing. Trusting that there is some other life form that will come-forth, bud, and fruit not without help, but without force, requires the patience of a person who trusts in the strength of something other than oneself. To me, that is a very spiritual thing.

And now the plants are ever-bearing fruit. Not only are they fruits of labor, but they're also fruits of faith. They exist because our farmer believed in them enough to make sure they were well-tended, watered, cultivated, weeded, etc. The most recent source of excitement and plenty is found in the tomatoes. We've got all varieties: hothouse, cherry (grape, sun-gold), and heirlooms (brandywine, cherokee purple, german stripe.) Another element of spirituality that I have recently experienced on account of the tomatoes is patience. Patience when it comes to daily-routines and scheduled tasks. One rainy day last week prevented the Gascas from getting to the tomatoes up on the ridge for the majority of the afternoon. That evening I had dinner plans with a couple over at Wiscoy, so I was itching to get off the farm by 5. We had been expecting the tomatoes (along with onions and carrots) for the majority of the day, but they never showed. Just before we all decided it might be best to just go home - they came. The tomatoes must have carried extra energy from out in the field because not 20 minutes later, the farm was abuzz with people boxing, wiping, labeling, packing, stacking, loading, and moving the tomatoes. This was a very important farming experience for myself as I saw first-hand how unselfish one must be with one's time as a farmer, and how you have to work around nature and the state of your crops. Dinner had to wait, and it did, along with my friends, until nearly 7:30.

Another area of excitement for me has been projects that I have been involved with on the farm. As a journalism student, I knew that I didn't have any sort of agricultural expertise coming into the experience. So, when I get the opportunity to contribute a valuable skill set to the farm - it is a big deal for me. Writing, photography, and page design skills have gotten me involved in some fundraising and marketing projects for the farm. Being pulled from the physical labor does mean that I don't have dirty fingernails and a sore left-shoulder, but much like the physical work of farming, doing marketing is something that takes convincing yourself that it will pay off, even if not immediately.

I hate to say it, but things are winding down for me at my summer-farm experience. 3 weeks to go! I will have more time on my hands when I move back to the Cities (only 15 credits this semester), and I hope to keep you in tune to my reflections and musings as my summer comes to a close. But it won't stop there, as I will continue to blog about my experience at Cornercopia - a University of Minnesota student-run organic vegetable garden.