A.V. Walters

Farmer/Gardener?

I’m a gardener. Still, it’s an interesting question and not one so easily answered. I don’t think that it’s just a question of quantity. Measured by quantity alone, I border on farmer. Last season, the first where I had any meaningful and steady help, we produced (and gave away) at a rate that compared favorably to any farmer’s-market vender. One stellar week I distributed grocery bags of vegetables every day, at a rate that would have easily filled any market booth to overflowing. Indeed, an appraisal of the garden by visitors frequently elicited comments about how we could “do the market.” I like it the way it is. I know that some of our garden’s recipients would not have eaten so well without the garden’s bounty. With the economy flailing last year a good many hard working folks found themselves out of work. Here, we had plenty to share. Sharing food, quality food that I’ve grown, is one of the most satisfying and meaningful parts of rural living.

And then there’s the exchange of produce between folks who themselves have gardens or orchards. I call it the Petaluma Salute. I once met a woman from a craigslist ad, in a parking lot in town, where we stood talking politics and gardening as we exchanged zucchinis for pears, tomatoes for eggplants from the trunks of our respective cars. We haven’t seen each other since, but the experience of complete understanding remains a solid memory, as she bemoaned a recent infestation of white flies and I offered her my full repertoire of organic solutions. This summer we were walking down to the mailbox when our closest neighbor came up on a mule with boxes full of zucchini and peppers. He stopped and said he was on his way over to give Elmer some vegetables. We looked at each other and laughed. “It’s coals to Newcastle,” I said. “We’re full to our ears with these and more.” He nodded, and turned the mule around, calling out behind him, “I’ll just have to go find other homes for these.” I live in a world where neighbors leave bags of produce on your back porch, and I respond in kind.

Still, I am just a gardener. Farming is honest work, but it is work for pay, or at least the hope and expectation that the season will pay at the end. It is food as commodity. So far, I’m in it for the very real and sensory gratification I get from working with the soil and season. I note some other subtle differences between farmers and gardeners—which I find akin to the differences between the idea of livestock and pets. We gardeners sweat over the lives of our individual plants. It’s personal. We worry and try different solutions to plant troubles. We water and weed and coax. Dinner conversation can include concerns about what’s up with that last row of peppers. Bugs? Gophers? Or perhaps the long reach of the shadow of the tree-line. (Indeed, this season one whole garden will be repurposed because trees have grown and early afternoon shade dictates that that area will become the home of leafy greens.) Our gardens speak to our hearts.

One gardener/farmer test is how well one handles culling the excess plants that seed-starts yield. Farmers plant the best and dump the rest. It’s a healthy approach but one that eludes many gardeners. Every year I vow to keep the tomato crop down to no more than 24 plants. But there are always extra seedlings—what is one to do? And then there’s the problem of orphan seedlings. Elmer’s cousin starts a plethora of tomatoes every year. Come planting time she gives him the culls—leggy, pale babies. Whether or not I’ve kept to my own limits, these orphan tomatoes always manage to find homes in one of my garden plots. So I am doubly challenged; I have my own difficulties dispatching the less than hardy and I adopt the culls of other gardeners (who themselves cannot bear to waste even the most bedraggled of seedlings.) I have garden space. I take them. I give them their own buckets and water and even manure tea, until they are robust and productive. In my five seasons here I’ve never ended up with less than 36 tomato plants. Good thing for canning, eh? Now, it’s March and we’re still eating tomato sauce and whole, canned romas from the garden.

Farmers, out of necessity, have to deal in numbers. Plants are crops. It’s not the eggplants next to the potatoes–it’s the cornfield, it’s acres. They suffer the same indignities of weather and drought, of predation, but without the personal relationship. They do so on a huge scale, and with the highest of stakes. Still, the financial rewards are often slim and success is never guaranteed, regardless of how much you put into it. Nothing is guaranteed, until the crop is in, or the herd sold—and even then there are the unpredictable vagaries of price. A farmer requires some measure of armor. He cannot afford a personal relationship with his plants or animals. Sometimes, and especially with livestock, this comes off as callous. I have a little trouble with it at times–I bristle at the chickens in their crowded cages. Yet that scale and approach is what’s needed to feeds us all.

And so, I remain a gardener. I enjoy the bounty, but, beyond my pride, I don’t have skin in the game in the end result. I joke at the distinction, but my hat is off in respect to the farmer.

Elmer, my favorite farmer, has chickens and sheep. When it comes to plants, he’s no more farmer than me. When it comes to garden-starts, he has the opposite problem. He goes to the nursery and picks the largest starts he can find. You know the ones, nursery fed on fertilizers, the junkies of agriculture; these baby vegies are literally climbing out of their four-inch pots. They’re bushy, precocious, already sporting blossoms, or even small fruit. They boast of success and productivity. It’s too good a deal to be true! And so it is. These spoiled, root-bound prima-donnas don’t transplant so well. They, too, get their own buckets but the damage has been done; their growth is invariably stunted by their over-ambitious early beginnings. We coddle them, but as yet I don’t know the cure for root bound. It shows that once we’re out of our fields of specialty, we are all gardeners. It’s always personal. For the root-bound, I carefully separate and spread the roots out at replanting time. For the scrawny ones, there’s always the hope of recovery.  I think of this as a lesson, in and out of the garden. I was myself (and remain) a late bloomer.

 

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