Some people say farming is the most wholesome job in the universe. I say having a farm is more like having a gambling problem. A farm is a living, breathing slot machine, doling out just enough reward at exactly the right moment to keep you coming back for more. Farmers are professional hopers, wafting supplication toward ancient gods we don’t believe in. We hope in order to ward off disease and accident; or for rain, but not too much; or no rain, but not for too long. If frost threatens early in the fall or late in the spring, we double down on hope, trying to generate with it the degree or two of heat that is the difference between death and another few weeks of life, between a good harvest and none at all. When we win these bets, it’s magic, like making something out of nothing. When we lose, the chips that get swept off the table can be measured in both love and money.
I figured this out one planting season. The fields were so dry, the wind picked up topsoil and spun it into devils that danced around us as we dug our hands beneath the surface, feeling for moisture. My husband, Mark, and I had built a new greenhouse at the end of winter, and there were tens of thousands of plants inside it—winter squash, cucumbers, brussels sprouts, and tomatoes, straining against the limit of their blocks of soil. It was time for transplanting, but the ground was too dry. The young roots that had developed under the ideal conditions of the greenhouse, with just enough moisture, just enough heat, would confront the real world of the field, which had dried to inhospitable dust. The tender roots would be sucked dry, and the young healthy plants would wilt and die. We had to wait for rain to come and water the soil.
A lot of work had been put into those little plants already. Each one started as a single seed, placed from palms with fingers into two-inch blocks of black potting soil which had been formed by hand with a special tool—a spring-loaded metal form, on the end of a long handle that was slammed into a pile of damp soil, to make compacted bricks of fertile earth. The rectangle of bricks was then released, gently, into a wooden tray. When the moisture of the soil and the force of the tool were just right, the blocks would hold their shape, with a small dent on the top to hold the seed. The seeds got a sprinkle of soil, and a watering, which would begin to wake them from their sleep.
We’d carried the heavy trays to the germination chamber, an old walk-in cooler scavenged from a restaurant that was going out of business. The chamber had a heater in it, to maintain the warm, even temperature that seeds like best in order to germinate. The flats were stacked one on top of another, six high, on open shelves. It was dark inside the chamber, and humid, and when you opened the bulky door, it smelled like the loamy floor of a forest on a hot summer day. You had to pry the flats apart and shine a headlamp across each of them to see if they had sprouted, and as soon as a few minuscule sprouts were visible, out it came, quickly, to the greenhouse. Most seeds don’t need light. They carry enough energy to propel their roots down and the first leaves up. But then the energy of the seed is spent. If they are left in the dark chamber, they start searching for life-giving light, speeding up toward a nonexistent sun. In a matter of hours after germination, they will etiolate into pale, spindly, weak things that might be coaxed to live for a while by a dose of light but will never make good, and will have to be thrown into the compost pile.
Once in the greenhouse, the seedlings were painstakingly cared for every day for weeks, their soil kept moist, the temperature moderate. We woke up on cold nights to make sure the propane heaters were burning, and came rushing in from the barn on sunny afternoons to open vents and roll up the plastic walls. All this care and diligence was spent, weeks of work and many tons of expensive materials, because these plants represented a good part of a year’s worth of food for two hundred people who counted on us to grow it for them.
We started Essex Farm from scratch together, not long after we met, a year before we got married. Mark was at the very edge of this wave we are still riding, made up of ambitious young farmers who grow food to sell directly to a market that is interested in how and where it comes from.
When I met him, I was thirty-one and working as a freelance writer in New York City. He was running a vegetable farm in Pennsylvania. We were not an obvious match, but we fell for each other, clicked together like a pair of magnets. He left the farm in Pennsylvania, I left my apartment in the East Village. We moved to a neglected five hundred acres in the Adirondack Park, on the rural northeastern edge of New York State, and dug in.
The farm we built was a sprawling, diversified, bewitchingly beautiful thing, composed of innumerable living parts, sometimes working in perfect synergy, sometimes descending into chaos. We created it around our desire to produce all the food we needed for an interesting, healthy, delicious diet, and to try to do it sustainably, all from one piece of land that we’d come to know as intimately as we’d come to know each other. It was a radical undertaking. That we thought creating such a diverse farm was possible was a matter, on Mark’s part, of ambition and extreme optimism; and on mine, at that time, of ignorance and inexperience. I didn’t know enough about farming to be afraid of it.
Our business idea was unique. “It’s either brilliant or very, very stupid,” Mark had said brightly when we opened our first bank account together. “I guess we’re about to find out,” I said. It was difficult to lift the farm off the ground, and once it was flying, it was often wobbly and not easy to steer. But it had flown. We sold memberships that were meant to allow people to eat the way farmers do—or the way they did two generations ago: a whole diet, year-round, unprocessed, in rhythm with the seasons, from a specific piece of land, with a sense of both reverence and abundance. After the membership was paid for, no money changed hands. The members were like extended family and could take whatever they wanted, in any quantity or combination, paying attention only to their own appetites and desires. In the fall, they could take extra produce, to freeze or can for winter. From our first year, we raised beef, pork, chicken, eggs, vegetables, fruits, dairy, grains and flours, and, eventually, provided some extras like sauerkraut, jam, maple syrup, and soap. In addition to our members, we supplied a few wholesale customers, a food bank, a school cafeteria, and we were still growing. What we tried to deliver, beyond food, was the same feeling I experienced when I fell in love with Mark when I went to interview him on his farm in Pennsylvania. The feeling of floating in the generosity of the earth and sun, of plenty.
Transplant is a traumatic event for a plant, even in ideal circumstances. What you want is a healthy wet plant going into a nice wet hole. Transplanting into hot dust is vegicide.
The days got longer, and the plants in the greenhouse began to look like they could use a coffee. Then like they needed an antidepressant. We kept watering them, and watching the weather report, which was full of bright happy sun icons for as far as the eye could see. Through the end of May, we watered, watched, and hoped. Patience, Mark said. Rain will come. But it didn’t.
On the last day of the month, I opened the greenhouse at dawn to find the plants had almost given up. Their leaves were going yellow at the edges. I pulled a tomato seedling from a flat, and its soil block was white with packed, tangled roots, too much young life straining to grow and not enough to feed it.
I took the plant and went to find Mark, who was welding a broken ball hitch in the machine shop. Our two-year-old daughter, Jane, was sitting on the floor of the shop, smudged with greasy dirt, tapping eight-penny nails into a length of scrap wood with an adult-size hammer. Mark scooped Jane up with one hand and took the sad tomato plant in the other. “What about a wet plant in a dry hole?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “sometimes that’s the best you can do.” We agreed to start transplanting them the next day. The weather report offered some hope, in the form of a 20 percent chance of an afternoon thunderstorm. Not great odds, but we had to roll the dice.
The next morning I watered the seedlings before dawn and then watered them again after the sun was up, moving the water wand over the flats slowly, steadily, first one way and then the other, being sure not to stop at the edges, so they would all be completely and evenly saturated. Then I woke Jane up and took her to our friend Ronnie’s house, where she was to spend the morning while I planted. I threw open the greenhouse and began to load a wagon with flats of anemic seedlings. I was four months pregnant with our second child, and the edge of the heavy flats met the first visible swell of my belly. Mark was already in the field with our young team of horses, Jake and Abby, hitched to the cultivator, drawing straight lines down the middle of each row with a dibble wheel, which left impressions in the soil every twelve inches, a template for our seedlings.
Racey joined me as soon as chores were finished. She was one of four people working for us that spring. She has a big heart and a sharp and curious mind, with a master’s in nutrition, and another in international development. Racey had spent the last ten years working in Africa, first as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mauritania, then in Mali, as a consultant for the World Bank. Her father and stepmother lived down the road from us. The previous summer, when she was home on break from Mali, she had come over to help us weed our potato field and had discovered in herself the same atavistic love for working the land that I had found when I’d met Mark. After that Racey had rearranged her life, determined to acquire farm skills. Her plan was to spend the next few growing seasons farming with us, and the winters working for development agencies and NGOs in Africa.
All morning Racey and I moved slowly up and down the dusty rows. She walked along holding a flat against her hip, freeing a seedling from its neighbors with one hand, then dropping it to the ground, aiming for a dibble mark. I worked on hands and knees, scooping dirt from the bottom of the dibble, pressing the plant firmly into it. I was trying to make contact between the roots of the plant and any moisture I could find at the bottom of the dry holes. There was no coddling those babies. No plant got more than three seconds of love. Survive, we said with our rough hands, then moved along to the next. Transplanting is hard work, but it is not bad work, and it certainly isn’t lonely work. While our hands were in the hot dirt, our talk ranged all over the world, from the crazy unintended consequences of international aid to Racey’s international love life.
At noon, we took a break. Jane came home from Ronnie’s and sat on my lap as we all ate lunch together, and then I put her down for a nap in her crib. She didn’t need a crib anymore, but she still liked it and could climb out on her own. We had a system worked out, inspired by a farm family we knew whose four kids were now grown. If Jane woke up in the dark of early morning and I wasn’t in the house, she’d climb up on a chair and flip her bedroom light on, so I could see it from the field and come meet her. Soon enough she would have to give up the crib for the baby who would arrive in the fall. Farm children, even very young ones, get used to relinquishing their own desires for the greater good.
Back in the field, the afternoon sun was hammering down from a cloudless sky, with an intensity particular to the North County in planting season—its heat coming through air that feels too thin and still carries the barest trace of winter. The soil looked vulnerable with its sparse covering. We looked vulnerable too, winter-white under a sun that was getting stronger every day.
We finished transplanting in the early evening. Looking back at our work was not an uplifting exercise. The plants looked like an army of little green soldiers that had dropped dead in formation. Every one was flat on the ground, stem limp, leaves wilted. The brussels sprouts were actually crisped.
While Mark gave Jane a bath, I opened the refrigerator, looking for something for us to eat for dinner. The refrigerator was smudged with dirt inside, as usual, but unusually bare except for yogurt, half a quart of buttermilk, two eggs, and a grizzled rutabaga roughly the size of my head. I pulled everything out and set it on the kitchen table, along with a pint of lard from the pantry.
Early on, when we were starting the farm, Mark and I found ourselves on nights like these driving to the gas station store, four miles north. We’d be exhausted and hungry, and making something from our own homegrown food seemed too difficult. But the chips or frozen pizza and gallon of orange juice we grabbed from the shelves made us feel worse than being hungry, full but not satisfied. Besides, we knew it was ridiculous to work so hard at growing food and then not even eat it. So we’d made a pact to always cook what we grew, even when we were busy or tired. We weren’t shy about buying things we liked and couldn’t grow. I would not want to cook for long without olive oil and lemons, or live—at all—without coffee. But our daily sustenance came from the farm and varied by the season. It meant that most of our free time as a family was spent in the kitchen, around the stove or the table. And it meant that Jane had teethed on braised oxtails and kohlrabi sticks, and looked forward to raspberry season like other kids look forward to Christmas. Her favorite food that spring was chicken liver pâté on toast with a sprinkle of chives on top, and she treasured the memory of a meal of breaded bull testicles that we’d made together after we slaughtered a Jersey bull the previous spring. Still, this season—the long gap at the end of winter, between the return of the light and arrival of the heat—was the trickiest to navigate in the kitchen. This was when you had to get creative.
Rutabaga is the great hulking wallflower of the vegetable world, hanging around the edge of the root cellar long after the others have been chosen. What it had going for it was staying power. Last fall’s carrots were getting limp, the onions were sprouting and soft, but the rutabaga was as hard as the day it had come out of the ground. I’d hauled it upstairs a few days earlier but hadn’t yet gathered the courage to butcher the enormous thing. That’s the way it is with rutabaga, which means you don’t eat it until you must. Farming itself is a long series of musts. The good part is that the musts you dread often end in pleasure.
I grabbed my favorite knife from the magnetic rack next to the stove, a soft steel beauty that Mark had owned before we were married. It was intimidatingly huge when we met but had gotten smaller every year from constant honing. It was always sharp, though, and knife enough to quarter the giant root. It had been so long since I’d cooked a rutabaga, I’d forgotten about its interior color, a creamy shade of mango, and its gentle cruciferous smell. Now what to do with it? I could chunk it, boil it, and mash it like potato with a splash of cream and a sprinkle of nutmeg, but we were too hungry to wait for water to boil, and I was out of cream. So I pared away the gnarly skin, found the box grater, and started shredding, which put me in mind of something like latkes. I added the eggs, some buttermilk, a few handfuls of flour, salt, and baking soda, and then ran outside to the herb garden to cut a big bunch of chives that I chopped into a fragrant pile and mixed in. The smell of the chives made me reach for the soy sauce, and a handful of green garlic, the first of the year, and a hunk of the fresh gingerroot I kept in the freezer. The meal seemed to veer away from Odessa then, and toward Osaka, settling somewhere in the middle: rutabaga-chive pancakes with soy-ginger dipping sauce. We still needed something green. There was some young lettuce in the field, and asparagus, but they were a quarter-mile dash from the house, and I was too tired to fetch them.
While the latkes sizzled on the stove, I ran back outside and clipped some dandelion greens from the base of the sour cherry tree in the front yard. The tree was as old as Jane, planted in honor of her birth. By the time Mark came downstairs with Jane in her pajamas, the orange-tinted pancakes were piled on plates, with a bright side of bracingly bitter dandelion greens that I’d laid in the hot skillet to wilt, along with a clove of crushed garlic, and dressed with a tart vinaigrette. We ate the pancakes with our hands, hungrily. For dessert, we had bowls of yogurt from the rich milk of our Jersey cows, topped with a spoonful of maple syrup, which we’d boiled down at the end of winter from the sap of the maple trees on the hill just west of the kitchen window. Jane got the thick yellow cream from the top of the yogurt, a farm-kid treat.
We put her to bed and then went to bed ourselves. We were four weeks from the summer solstice, and it was still light outside. There were no clouds to be seen. If it didn’t rain, all those plants and the hundreds of hours of work they represented would die, and we’d have to figure out some way to replace them in order to feed our members. I read for a while, to try to forestall the worry. Mark, next to me, was making notes for the next day. He is missing the gene for anxiety. Unlike me, he does not spend energy considering the full rainbow of disaster that could take place. Nor does he stew over past decisions or regret stupid things he once said at a party, both sports at which I am a champion. He does not miss people who are no longer in his life. He does not think much about the past at all. But he does think about the future. Hope is a future thing, worry’s ebullient cousin. He does hope. I have never met a farmer who doesn’t.
I could feel the history of the day in my body. I had worn a hole in the knee of my thick canvas pants, and the skin there was pink and abraded. My fingernails felt pried up from their beds and tender from scratching in the dry dirt, and my left arm and hip were bruised from carrying the hard, heavy flats. I turned on my side to shift the weight of the baby away from my spine, closed my eyes, and watched the increasingly abstract patterns of the field replay themselves on my eyelids. As I drifted off, my hope for the plants was curled up very small. And then, hours later, I was raised out of deep sleep by the purr of distant thunder.
There was one loud clap, and Mark was awake too, and we got out of bed and ran outside together. We stood in the driveway and looked up. There was a nearly full moon in the clear sky overhead. A cool breeze was rising. We could see thick thunderheads bunching to the north and west of us, backlit by strobes of lightning. We couldn’t tell which way they were moving. If the storm hit us, the plants would live. If it missed us, they would die. Odds looked somewhat worse than even. The clouds rolled and churned like breakers on a reef. Mosquitoes gathered around us, landing on our bare legs. It was past midnight, the next full workday just a few hours away, but we could no more look away from the sky than one could leave the table while the dice are in the air. It was not possible to draw the rain to us with our thoughts, but it was impossible not to try. We stood there in our underwear, moonlit, barefoot, mosquito-bitten, with arms intertwined, and hoped.
The bright forks of lightning and banks of clouds seemed to split overhead and prepare to go around us. And then I felt one fat cool drop land on my foot. Silence. Then another. Another. Then drops were everywhere, raising puffs of dust around us and drumming on the tin roof of the garage until water poured off of it, turning the slope of the driveway into a web of rivulets that joined at the base into a small stream. Mark and I held hands and grinned at each other, and raised our faces to the rain, a vestige of a dance of praise to deities we don’t believe in. We stayed outside until our hair was soaked and we were cold. Not even half a mile away, just on the other side of the road, it did not rain at all that night. But on our fields, it rained seven-tenths of an inch, enough to water and resuscitate the suffering plants, all except for the toasted brussels sprouts, which were too far gone to save.
That spring was our seventh. We had a burgeoning business and some money in the bank—just enough to pay the bills and feel periodically optimistic. We had signed a mortgage to buy the farmhouse along with eighty acres of surrounding land, some of it very good land, and we owned our livestock, our horses, and our equipment. We had plans to buy another four hundred acres of land around the farm when we could afford it, and we held leases on eight hundred acres of pasture and hay ground to our south and west. The food in our kitchen, and in our members’ kitchens, was bountiful and delicious, an anchor for the whirl of a busy life. We had a child and another on the way. I was thirty-nine—an elderly multigravida, in the charming language of obstetrics—and I knew how lucky that made me. It felt like our dreams and wishes, the things we spent the previous years working so hard together to tend, were coming ripe all at once.
Seven is a number with mystical appeal. A prime. A good roll in craps. It is the number of years it is supposed to take for every cell in our bodies to turn over and renew. This is not literally true—I looked it up—but it was a good metaphor for how I felt that year.. My city self, my old identity, had been sanded away by the daily work, shed cell by cell, and folded back into the soil. My new self was made of the atoms of this place, of its soil, water, sun, and dust, the way Adam came, whole, from the mud of his garden. The farm was my home, my office, my playground. We were so deep in it, we didn’t know where we ended and where the farm began. We had not yet learned to separate our own well-being and that of our marriage from the well-being of the crops and animals. There is no problem with that as long as things are going well, as long as you and the farm are rolling sevens. The trouble comes when the dice go cold.
It is not always easy to see where you are from the ground. There could be a meadow coming, or a cliff. But that year, everything was good.