There is no corporate manual for how to grow vegetables in any given climate, on any given stretch of soil, in any given year’s weather. Generations of farmers have developed a body of knowledge through trial and error, but in practice everything is unpredictable, a continuous dance of sun, rain, soil, botany, and local markets. It requires constant critical thinking and problem-solving.
Butter lettuce thrives in slightly acidic conditions, but the farm’s well water is alkaline, so we add diluted sulfuric acid to their irrigation lines. But the well water is also naturally sulfuric, and that additive could exacerbate associated root problems. The more experienced crew members must calculate the most effective trade-off as they mix fluids for the next round of seedling transplants, and keep track of their decisions today and the results next week to inform the measurements they use next month.
The greenhouse cucumbers have thrived all spring, but the recent heat wave has overwhelmed the plants and rendered some of the latest fruit rubbery. As we harvest them by hand, we give each a gentle squeeze and make a judgment call on which could make it to market and which should go directly to the compost bin, a tragic and costly waste.
Meanwhile the basil is growing rapaciously and looks beautiful, but if we allow it to get too big in this heat it could develop a bitter flavor. The tomatoes need to be stored in a cooler to last through soaring afternoon temperatures, but if they’re kept too cold they’ll become grainy and unpalatable. The netting over the rows of chard protects tender leaves from rabbits but risks trapping too much heat and frying them as the season progresses. Most of the zucchini are still too small and tasteless to harvest on Friday, but they grow so fast that by Monday some of them might become too large and watery to be worth selling. The onion starts have been separated and are ready to transplant to the field, but the clay soil has hardened more than we expected and now needs to soak overnight, causing delays that could have ramifications for the remainder of the growing season.
This is life on a small family farm with a crew of six. I’m the newest, to this particular farm and to farming in general, so I’m the last person expected to make any of these analyses. Instead I watch and wait and do as I’m told and try to absorb as much knowledge as I can by observing everyone’s thought processes. And behind the scenes I know that the farm’s co-owners are making even more decisions that we employees will never see: what crops will be profitable at the growers’ market this year, how much of each seed variety to purchase, which to plant in the sandy versus the clay-rich fields, what to charge for a ten-pound flat of heirloom tomatoes, which local restaurants will buy our extra lettuce heads this week or be willing to take fewer cucumbers than they ordered because of the unexpected rubbery effect, which co-ops will purchase eggplants and peppers when they start fruiting later this summer, when the USDA inspector will visit to check records and recertify their organic status, which landowners will renew their leases on which acreage.
In short, this work requires as much business savvy and botanical expertise and analytical skill as anyone could muster in any career. I can’t fathom that my past office jobs could command more respect or higher hourly wages than helping to run a farm, when all I did was sit in an air conditioned office typing at a leisurely pace.