What Are You Going To Do With That Stick?

The following essay by Farmer John is reprinted from the Farm News: Week 13, September 24, 1994

The open house was a grand event–[editor’s note: John is referring to the September 16, 1994 open house; all other references are to the 1994 season as well] 75 big and little people enjoyed hayrides, pumpkin picking, the loft of the big barn we watched home movies of the loft being filled with straw for the first time – 37 years ago.

When we came out of the warm barn after watching the movies we headed for the shade of a small hard maple for a CSA meeting. We had just watched the first roof going on the barn in ’57, and when we walked towards that maple tree, I thought about the second layer of shingles that some friends and I put on the barn in ’72. We were still under the strong influence of the sixties, so we would roof for a while, and then come down and play some football or just mess around, then maybe go back up and roof again. This wasn’t the way farm people normally got work done, but it’s the way I farmed for a while.

On this particular May day, my roofing friend Stanley got out of his pickup carrying a stick about two feet long.

I said, “What are you going to do with that stick?”

Stanley said, “Stick? This is a maple tree.”

We planted it. When my mother got home from teaching school that afternoon, we were playing football. It didn’t set right with her that we were playing football instead of roofing the leaky barn. We would-be roofers were all giggling and trying to think fast on our feet and wishing we had been up pounding roofing nails when she drove in, at least for show.

“Stanley,” I said, “it’s her birthday today. Tell her that’s her tree.”

Stanley went running to my mother.

“Anna, I want to show you this tree I planted for your birthday.”

Stanley dragged her over to the little stick pointing out of the ground. He couldn’t get her to believe it was a tree at all, let alone her birthday present.

It’s getting to be the nicest tree in the yard now. On Sunday, as we were adjusting to the bright sunlight on our way to the shade, the name of the tree popped into my head. I am always surprised when its name occurs to me, because it is more of a process than a name – the densification of an unresolved moment. Its name is ‘the tree that was my mother’s birthday present… pause… but not really’. I have never spoken it aloud.

There I was on Sunday, leaning against ‘the tree that was my mother’s birthday present… pause… but not really’, children babbling under it, CSA members reveling in its shadow, my mother amongst them. We discussed recipes, melon ripeness, harvest procedures, the love one can have for kale. The discussion was lively, informative, supportive. I wanted it to last longer, but we still had a farm tour on our schedule.

We began our walking tour via a trellised promenade of plump heirloom tomatoes, a carpet of lush dwarf clover underfoot. We headed south, stepping over rows of carrots, lettuce, parsley, root parsley, rutabaga. We walked through small fields of young oats and hairy vetch, winter cover where the potatoes and onions once grew. We made our way over cilantro, tatsoi, beets, gigantic kale. The final swath of our tour was a gorgeous field of broccoli.

As I walked, I reflected on the range of crop performances this year. Potatoes and onions had been disappointing. Over half the onions spoiled in the field, and the potato crop died before it set potatoes. I thought about the potato farmer who went broke on this farm in the twenties. My mind drifted to last spring, when a psychic, upon examining the deed to this property, said, “I’d better have a talk with that potato farmer. He’s causing some problems on your farm. He especially doesn’t want anyone to succeed with potatoes.”

“He’s dead,” I said.

“I know,” the psychic said.

I marveled at the success of some of the crops which we have had no experience with or no luck with until this year – bushy, weed-free rows of sweet carrots, cabbages almost surreal in size, luscious heads of broccoli turbo-accelerating towards your refrigerator, stately brussels sprouts busily bulbing from bottom to top, lush root parsley burrowing deep into the silty clay loam.

Farm lore holds that most farmers have two good years. One was ten years ago, and the other one is next year. For production, I consider this year a good one, certainly the best in the past five years, since Angelic Organics was started. Weather was generally favorable. The soil is moving into a balanced state. Management has made another quantum leap.

As we walked across the fields, I thought, “this is the way the fields are supposed to look at this time of the year. This is the vision aligned with the result.” Farming is seldom that compliant with intention, so I want to share my satisfaction with you while it is current.

From the stream of comments and the general atmosphere of the gathering, I feel that a community is really forming between you members and this farm and us farmers. The outpouring of love for the vegetables and praise for these newsletters was penetrating. The farm team and I were thrilled with the day. It increased our confidence that this community will usher the farm into a truly sustainable future, one in which farm, farmers, and shareholders are all taken care of.

Thank you for the support. I especially want to thank the farm team – Jill, Paul, Erik, Primo, Jennifer, Robin, Janet, Diane – for making the farm so organized and beautiful for the field day. I was unencumbered by distractions that can so easily accompany such an undertaking. I was able to really be present to our guests and you were a joy!