Week 20 (Chicago Week 18)

List of this week's vegetables

  • Norland Red Potatoes
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Chinese cabbage
  • Leeks
  • Kale
  • Radishes
  • Peppers
  • Red Venture celery
  • Mizxpoona Greens
  • Basil
  • Hot peppers
  • Eggplant
  • A few tomatoes
  • Spicy greens
  • Lettuce mix

We waded, Dela and I, into pepper and eggplant hedges waist- and chest-high. Temperature had fallen nearly 20 degrees. Rain and wind made it feel even colder. Mid-October frost was finally descending on Scotch Hill.

She’d finished harvesting and packing vegetables for Madison and Milwaukee subscribers with Tashana. I’d finished the last regular season 3 a.m. delivery to Chicago-area households. We’d fortified ourselves with some lunch and headed out on our mission before dark.

Through the long weeks of extended harvest, we’d had the luxury of waiting for peppers to mature to beautiful colors. No more. Plants – still flowering, remarkably – were already beginning to feel cold under our hands. We stripped all but the little buds now, saving all sizes and colors we could from impending death by frost.

Branches of the double-row plants were so dense from bountiful rain and the long, hot summer, it was hard to see the mulched paths under-foot. It was disorienting to move, challenging to find the dark peppers and eggplant. I walked in a stoop, feeling around each plant for the weight of a swaying bell, or sweet roaster.

We returned with five-gallon yellow pickle buckets, time after time, to dump laden containers into huge tubs near the pickup at first in the rented field, then wagons on the farmstead paths. It was an amazing last harvest from the dear plants, and our hearts were so grateful as we worked until we couldn’t see.

Writing in the moonlight now after waking in the dark, I let myself grieve a little for the plants. They were still so lovely, so generous. I feel as I do when I learn a parent with young children has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. It feels wrong. It feels way too soon.

I think of every step Nature has let us take, every farming task we’ve learned faithfully to perform across 10 months up to this time. Season to season unfolds with us in an order that lets us act day after day to bring all manner of plants to life – up to this point of death.

For a time, especially if winter is mild, we do what we can with floating row cover, metal hoops, bended electrical conduit and hoop houses – all covered with commercial-grade plastic. Elements of the cold, however, limit what human beings can do in the pattern that brings winter to kill back insect populations and weeds, to rest land and rejuvenate soil.

As portions of garden and field had been harvested and were already dying back, we’d begun to concentrate more and more on small corners and beds of cool season crops. Spinach, carrots, varieties of kale and leaf lettuce, collards, turnips, spicy greens.

Wet ground had been making weeding so much easier; it also had been making for a lot more weeding. Where the flush of weeds from heavy rain had overtaken these plantings, I was reminded of the human scale, the human limitations. It forced me to let go of what I could not accomplish. It is easier to do with age and fatigue.

Communities, of course, across the entire season make so much more possible than an individual or single family can accomplish alone. Each of you, in your subscription, in your volunteering, is Scotch Hill Farm. I must say it again and again: it, we, cannot exist alone.

I spent as much of the week as I could, trying to regain control of plantings in the high tunnel greenhouse we just covered with plastic. Quick weed here had demonstrated to us more than ever before how apt its name. It had just about outrun us in this high tunnel when I finally found time to help Dela meet its threat.

Today, as we finished up the pepper and eggplant harvest, and lamented not being able to begin covering plants against frost outside of the hoop house, Dela took a little joy aloud at thought of what frost will finally do to quick weed. I think of her saying it again and smile. I hear her sleeping, resting finally from so much work. This, too, the cycle brings to farming people.

Week 19 (Chicago Week 17)

List of this week's vegetables

  • Tango celery
  • Garlic
  • Assorted beets
  • Eggplants
  • Onions
  • Fire lettuce
  • Greens mix
  • Collards
  • Pink potatoes
  • Peppers

So much of farming with devotion to Nature requires precise moments to act. I wait until the soil is dry enough to work ground into a seed bed. We wait in spring till the earth is warm enough to plant or transplant vegetable. We watch weather forecasts for a block of 4 dry days to cut, rake and bale hay for livestock in winter.

There’s no sitting around, waiting for dry spells. As soon as vegetable seedlings and seeds are in the ground, cultivating and mulching against weeds becomes constant for 5 months. Controlling weeds is timing, timing, timing, as an old-time farmer once told me.

After rain, we must wait to harvest sensitive plants, especially tomatoes or green beans. We don’t want to spread disease from wet plant to wet plant down double-row beds, 250 feet long. It’s one of many precautions.

Good farming, like good parenting, becomes an identity. We tend the life we bring into the world. We tend it with what it needs at each moment, not with some bias or self-interested notion. We pray the responsibility does not become heavy. We do not want to lose the joy of seeing life in its delicate newness to the world.

None of these observations escapes a grower who refuses to use chemicals. Chemical shortcuts in a mass food and farming system distanced generations from such knowledge. Only one bound to the soil, relying on Nature for precise moments to act, keeps alive this knowledge important to grower and consumer alike.

I wonder if the entire American population entered garden and field to work – every year, whether so many would deny that climate is changing rapidly. Dela and I’ve been growing food in southern Wisconsin nearly a quarter of a century. We’ve never harvested fall squash in August before. We’ve never before made it to the second week in October without even a threat of frost. This long summer, it felt more like my 6 months near the equator in the Congo than weather patterns I’ve known in Wisconsin since 1992.

Changes in climate, swinging wildly from cold to hot, dry to wet, are more and more alarming. Yet we look as farm students of Nature for ways to adapt, to act. We think. We reason. We respond over fear. We know so much life depends on this sort of response.

For a month this summer, we’ve squeezed into each week tasks necessary to restore one hoop house weather weakened over time until a violent storm tore off its plastic covering. As time approached for the last act, recovering the huge structure with plastic, I began closely watching weather forecasts for calm winds.

That precise moment to act came Monday, a heavy harvest and vegetable packing day. Dela had our one part-time helper for just one harvest and packing day. I had to work alone most of the first 3 hours.

She joined me midday. I was working up and down the 92-foot structure to pass the unfolded plastic up and over the greenhouse peak. Over and over I poked a wooden device I’d made 12 feet into the air against the plastic, then dragging and pushing it above me toward the peak.

It was exhausting work. Periodically, a ripple of wind against the huge sheet of plastic warned me not to stop. We paused only to fasten the plastic a little at a time to a metal track the length of the high tunnel and 38 feet over the metal purlins, working from the corner source of the wind. I felt the physical limits of age. It wasn’t pleasant.   

A neighbor I’d tried to call for help, returned from a medical checkup late afternoon. He joined us as we had two sides completely secured. Yet we were grateful for his help drawing the plastic tighter into place.

Wind was beginning to break the calm as we finished. Beds of carrots, turnips, spinach, also some tomato and pepper rows were protected from first frost. We’d listened to Nature, acted with her. In the tired, relieved moment of completion, we felt our actions rewarded.