A Glimpse of the Garlic Harvest 2011

The image that burned into my mind the moment I arrived down at the field Wednesday morning with Kazami (a quarter past six and a little late), was of Mustard, the most energetic of our farm hands, hanging onto the front of Daddy’s old, beat up tractor for dear life as it plowed through a bed of garlic. The scene reminded me of a cowboy hanging off a train door as it speeds along, and I flinched as I thought of what would happen if his arms tired or slipped.
 
Upon joining the others – Val, Brian, Peter, Matt and Michelle, all busy pulling up garlic, shaking the black clumps of dirt off, and placing them neatly, roots all facing the same direction, in piles to the sides of the beds – I learned that Mustard was acting as a weight to give the front tires of the tractor enough traction so they wouldn’t just spin in place but move forward. The extra weight was needed because Daddy was testing out his new, custom-made “garlic harvester” – an implement with a broad blade that sinks ten inches into the soil to cut just under the garlic bulbs.  The heavy blade could not sink into the earth and cut the long, thick garlic roots without the extra weight on the front of the tractor. But Daddy figured out a better system by the next bed, attaching the front loader and filling it with a load of heavy dirt to replace Mustard.
 
The new harvester worked great – few bulbs were sliced through and most required no knife to dig up – a labor-saving treat compared to all the years before. Thanks to the garlic harvester, and to the quick hands of every worker on the farm – the same quick hands that had completed task after task of catch-up weeding and planting the week before, even giving up an otherwise lazy Saturday to do so – the first few beds of soft-neck New York White garlic were all pulled and the large empty hayrack was now piled with thousands of white, red-streaked bulbs.
 
The next step, after Daddy pulled the rack up with the steep hill to the barn with the tractor, was to sort the garlic to extra-large, large and small sizes. The giant bulbs needed to have at least seven cloves, which deemed it good enough to be used for seed for next year’s garlic, and were put into piles of twenty bulbs, lined by their roots, tied with twine, grouped into five clusters on the same string, and finally the string of 100 bulbs hung from the rafters of the barn.
 
When the sorting was done and the murmur of numbers in my head died out, we headed back down to the field to pull more soft-neck garlic. Daddy pulled the big hayrack back down the hill with Matt, Mustard and Michelle sitting on it – and produced quite a scare for all of us when the tractor started to slide on the loose gravel, pushed forward by the heavy rack. I did not witness this, but I heard shouting as all three on the rack quickly jumped off. (Before starting down the steep hill, Daddy had told them, “If I start sliding, jump off the sides of the rack – not the front.”)
 
The hayrack pushed the tractor downhill, but Daddy turned the wheels so it turned into the bank of the hillside. When the front wheels of the tractor and the front loader hit the bank, the tractor lodged tight and stopped the rack from rolling further down the hill. Then, as Peter and I ran  down to the middle of the hill to see what was happening, we heard Daddy and the farm hands scramble to get logs from the woods. We watched as they lodged the logs in front of the rack’s wheels, and then unhooked the rack and moved the tractor from its horizontal position across the lane to facing forward once again. Finally, when Matt succeeded in re-hooking the rack to the tractor and the logs were removed from in front of the hayrack wheels, Daddy told us all to hang on to the back of the rack as he cautiously crawled the rest of the way down the hill.
 
Down in the field, we were soon drenched in sweat – thanks to the humid midday heat – as we filled the rack with garlic once again. It was then time for our two-hour lunch break, which, as usual, sped by. Revived by a power nap and ice cream, I sorted garlic with the others for the second time, in the hottest part of the day, in the shade of the great oak tree near the barn.
 
Then we traveled down to the field again, this time all of us riding on the hayrack – and all poised to jump off (“to the sides, not the front”) if trouble ensued – to pick the last of the soft neck garlic. I had forgotten my water bottle and my headache from the morning grew to pounding.
 
When the rack was covered in thousands of garlic plants for the third time that day, Daddy let the farm hands off a few minutes early. Then Kazami and I jumped aboard the rack, while waving goodbye to our cheerful farmhand friends, to make our way up to the barn to sort garlic one last time.  
 
On the way up the hill, I laid down between the mounds of bulbs, surrounded by their strong perfume, to peer up at the blue sky and to watch the fluff of the few clouds drift by as the tractor moved.  I remembered the first time we had brought the garlic-laden hayrack up the hill that morning, when Kazami had done the same thing, and Matt had laughed and said, “You are in a garlic coffin.” I smiled, thinking that being surrounded by these beautiful bulbs in my coffin would not be so bad, and closed my eyes, lulled by the sound of crunching gravel and the purr of the ancient tractor, which I knew had been through so much that day. 

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