Farmer John Writes: A Plume of Rye Dust
Harvest Week 4, July 14th – 20th, 2020
The Crops and the Weather
The heat and rain conspire to make crops grow fast and to rot early. As unpoetic as this might sound, we race against the rot. We might harvest the cabbage or the lettuce a little early, because if we wait for them to get full-sized, they might spoil in the field.
This is also true of the celery. We are harvesting the celery a little small this week, because it will not survive the heat coupled with the moisture. Another note on the celery: it is an intense tasting, open-pollinated variety, Ventura, not your standard celery. It will enrich your soups and stews, but just to munch on one of the slender stalks might jolt you a bit.
No Field Day This July
Due to the mandated restrictions on large gatherings, we will not host a Field Day this month. Sorry you won’t be able to see our splendid fields this summer. We will miss you.
We have extraordinary workers this season.
I have a policy for when the afternoon temperature is above 90 degrees: “You can clock out and go home any time after lunch. It’s not worth it to get hot and woozy. Just go home if you want.”
I think only one person so far has taken me up on the offer. Often, after a blistering hot, oppressively humid work day ends, some of the crew come to me and say, “we’re not ready to go home. We want to work at least another hour.” Wow.
I hired some high school kids this season.
I had vowed not to hire high school kids a few years ago, because so many of them were clearly prone to feeling exploited and overworked, and then I would see posts about this supposed unfairness on social media, about just how unfair and unjust the farm was towards its workers. But really, some of these kids were very bad workers, and some of them accomplished as much in an hour as some of the good workers accomplished in 15 minutes.
Anyway, this season a couple of high school kids somehow got on the farm team, and then their classmates somehow started working for me. These high schoolers are some of our very best workers. They love the work and show up with enthusiasm a few minutes before 6 a.m., and work with great vigor throughout the day. One of these teens, Jesus, now a team lead, has told me a couple of times: “It doesn’t feel like coming to work.”
Actually, the whole meeting space in the barn is alive with laughter and joy by the time I start the morning meeting, 20 or so hard workers enjoying farm life and one another and the prospects of another day of togetherness. And whoa, do these people work! They devour the work. They storm the fields with knives and hoes and joy. I am continually astounded by what they accomplish.
So much for my opinions about teenagers, eh?
You Don’t Get the Job
I often wonder what a person wants out of life, so I ask.
I asked a field worker named Dulce what she wanted to do with her life.
“Office administration,” she said.
“I need an office administrator. Do you have any experience?”
“No, I’m just studying it now.”
“Why do you want to run an office?”
“Because my mother or my sister might have a business some day and I want to help them succeed.”
“That’s lovely. However, I will only hire someone with experience, so you don’t get the job.”
“Let me shadow you for a couple of days to see what you do and what the job would be like.”
“I’d love to teach you about the office, but I don’t have time. You’re going back to school soon. Forget it.” Then I added, “Ok, you can shadow me—two days.”
Dulce is one of the best office assistants I have ever had. She has the knack, the instinct, the intuition for it. And she has a fabulous disposition—shows up to work smiling, wants to help in any way possible, is interested in every aspect of the farm…actually, she is interested in every aspect of life. And I wasn’t going to hire her.
So much for another one of my opinions.
(For more about opinions, see Farm News, Week 2, On Love and Opinions.)
New shareholders, Ann and her daughter Amanda, showed up at the farm last week. We chatted a bit while we watched the packing team pack your boxes coming down the conveyor. When Ann eventually realized that her 8th grade teacher back in the 70’s was my mother, Anna Peterson Porter, she said, “your mother is the only teacher I can remember from grade school. I was a new kid at school that year, and she made me feel so good, so welcome. I loved your mother.”
“She lived here for over 35 years,” I said. “Helped farm and taught school. Unstoppable. After I finished milking,” I nodded towards the former dairy barn, “she taught me algebra and how to diagram sentences. When we were snowed in, she just took off across the fields of snow. She would never miss a day of teaching.” I gestured towards a field to the west, “She walked through the drifts a few miles to Elevator Road. Elevator Road was usually plowed. Someone would always pick her up and take her to your school, Kinnikinnick. It didn’t matter whether they knew her or not. Lots of people back then would stop for a woman walking down the road in a blizzard to give her a lift. That was the 50’s and 60’s.”
I continued, “Have you seen the movie about the farm, The Real Dirt on Farmer John?”
“My mother’s the real star of that film. It should have been named after her.”
“I can’t wait to watch it.”
“I’m wondering now, did you know Scott Benson and Chris Linderoth?”
“I was in the same class as them. Scott teased me a lot.”
“One Sunday morning, a friend and I were bagging rye into gunny sacks in the corn crib. We were probably in our early 20’s. We saw these two figures approaching. We were squinting at them through the plume of rye dust. They were kids, 13 years old or so. They walked right up to us through the dust. We had never seen them before.”
Scott Benson said, “we’ve heard a lot about your place, so we came over to meet you and see what you are all about.”
“Came from where?” I asked.
“A few miles west,” he gestured. “We walked.”
“You walked all the way over here to see what we are about?”
“Yup. Been wondering for a long time.”
I said to Ann and Amanda, “No one has ever done that before or since, just strolled onto the farm and said, ‘who are you? We are curious.’”
“Yes, that sounds like Scott Benson. I haven’t seen him since high school.”
“Last time I saw him, he had married someone in Abu Dhabi. He brought me a turban from his new country.”
You probably won’t need to walk through a cloud of rye dust to do it, but if you don’t ask that person who you wonder about who they are, you might miss out on a lifelong friendship.
Thank you for this hopeful news letter. Wow. Just what I needed today. Hope and connection.
Each weekend, my wife buys 7 bunches of celery as she juices a bunch each morning. I was delighted to read her your note about the intense tasting celery. She’s excited.
Last year, we lost most of our celery to flooding, and what remained was marginal. This year, our celery is about as good as it gets. I don’t like to harvest it early, but the years have taught me that it is better to harvest a small-medium stalk early than to wait until it is medium-large and spoiled.
I’m glad you found this issue of Farm News hopeful. I enjoyed writing it. Writing it lead me to realize, as the writing unfolded, just how special this year is, with crew and crops. It challenged the maxim, “A farmer’s best years are ten years ago and next year.”
I enjoy your letters so much, thank you for taking the time to write!
Thank you, Kate. It’s a good exercise for me to write; it helps me to unearth what is so that otherwise might be hidden or simply overlooked.
My wife and I are back on the box, after a few years off. So far, so good! I appreciate you sharing your creations. Here is one of mine. It is a song I wrote and recorded and 4 minutes and 54 seconds of your life that you will never get back. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=plGaC7Es6tQ For some reason I thought you would like it, maybe it was the phrase, “a plume of rye dust”. Take care.
I love the song, so celestial, affirming, transporting. Thank you for sharing it.