Harvesting in the Rain

The story on the farm this year so far is rain, rain, rain, especially–it seems to me–rain on harvest days. This Tuesday and last Tuesday, we picked for the CSA in the rain and through thunderstorms, and Daddy says they are calling for rain and severe weather all day tomorrow again.

Last Friday thunderstorms and dark rain clouds dumped water onto the soil that had just finally dried out enough to plant. Of course, Daddy already knew this was going to occur, so as soon as the soil was dry enough on Thursday we proceeded to plant every seed and transplant every plant possible before the rains came. The planting marathon spilled over into Friday, which meant having to plant and harvest for market at the same time, which was a new experience.

While Kazami harvested wild arugula, Grandpa regular arugula, and the interns (Matt, Rebecca, and Daniel) plus Mommy sorrel, Asa, Daddy and I planted lettuce with the tractor.

The skies started to rumble as we were finishing up and the rain started to pitter-patter down while Daddy expertly maneuvered the truck up the steep hill leading to the wash area. It wasn’t until we were safely under the barn’s high roof that the droplets crescendoed into an angry downpour. While we eagerly ate the scrumptious food Mommy cooked for us, I listened to the thundering water hit the barn roof and watched as it washed off the side and hit the soil below. I couldn’t sit mesmerized for long, though, because the twenty boxes of beautiful emerald spinach and a few boxes of mesclun that we had picked at daybreak were waiting to be bagged and boxed.

The rain let up a little as that huge job was conquered, but the sky above was still overcome with black rain clouds, letting little light pass through. Despite this, Daddy declared that it was time for us to make another harvesting round down to the bottom field, while it wasn’t raining so hard.I got on the truck with the rest, and marveled at how our huge, multicolored raingear-orange, red, green, yellow– topped with our two-sizes-too-big boots made us look like a clown act at the circus. Perhaps we could get the job, since the extra weight from the mud on our boots caused us to hobble around hilariously.

The truck sliplessly made its way down the hill, past the alfalfa and clover field, and rounded the corner to reveal the ford across the stream that divides our two bottom fields. It came to an abrupt stop, which sent Asa on his feet to exclaim, “The ford! Look at the ford!” The ford, which just this spring had finally been completed by adding medium-sized white rocks to the concrete slabs already there, had overflowed. Grandpa told us later that we got three inches of rain that morning (and still more to come.) The stream, usually small and obedient, had suddenly risen after the cloudburst, its rushing waters three times as large and 10 times as vicious.

With one look, I decided it impossible to cross. Daddy and everyone else seemed to think so too, except Asa. “Let’s cross it, just for fun!” he said with a grin. Much to his disappointment, Daddy drove us back up to the barn. While he did this, lightning flashed and the clouds opened up again, filling the air with the sound of their fury. But Daddy rounded us all up and we went off to the greenhouse to harvest the beets and carrots, while the rain pounded down so hard on the plastic roof we had to shout at each other to be heard over it.

By the time we finished, the thunder and lightning had calmed down a bit and the infamous truck, loaded with its troupe of multi-colored clowns and taking the long way around to skirt the ford, rumbled its way onto the main road off our driveway, past the upper field and part way down the small hill leading to the rhubarb patch.

Horrified, we stared at our beloved bottom field. At first we all thought Walnut Creek had overflowed its banks, since there was so much water everywhere. But then we saw that the little gully Daddy has dug to channel water from a ravine into our stream had backed up with debris and overflowed. With nowhere else to run, the water was flowing in a huge sheet straight into the bottom field. Mini streams were building up and causing even more water to flood.

Daddy woke us all out of our stupor and set us to work. Kazami and Daniel scrambled off to find suitable shovels and then we were ordered to dig into the trench to make it wider and deeper. Rebecca and Daniel took off to gather wood to block the water where it was jumping the gully and heading into the field. Meanwhile, Asa cleared the gully of debris all the way to the stream.

I was in the middle, trying to convince my shovel to dig into the trench and dump the dirt onto the sides. The task was more difficult than you would think, since tenacious roots of grass growing in the bottom of the gully kept getting in the way, and sometimes I would lose my dug dirt in the water. Even more frustrating was that my shovel’s handle kept coming off. Originally I had scored a better shovel but Asa switched his with mine. Of course, I had known there was something wrong with it, like maybe the shovel was dull, but never that the handle would actually come off. During a particularly hard dig, I tried to pull my shovel up. I failed miserably, as the handle popped off and I was flung into the trench water. Daddy laughed and helped me up. I giggled a bit as I got up, but then I realized my boots had just filled up with water and glared at Asa as I stuck my shovel back together again.

In the end, we got the flow of water directed straight into the stream again and the trench was a success. The water on the field was eventually soaked up by the soil and the roots of the plants, but Daddy says a lot of the broccoli and cabbage aren’t going to make it because they have been in standing water too long. Soaked to the skin, sweaty and dirty, boots laden with mud, we trudged off to the field to pick the rhubarb and the radishes and finish a long, long, wet, wet harvest Friday.

Going to Market

When I was little, I used to love going to the Market with Daddy. My brothers and I always fought over how many times we could go to the Market. Our time was limited because our Saturday Japanese School didn’t end for the summer until well into regular school’s summer vacation.

I don’t know when we kids first went to the Evanston Farmers’ Market. Old pictures prove that our whole family went to the Market when I was about 5 years old, but that might not have been my first time there. To me, it seems like I have been going there forever. There is no start; no end to be seen.

The last time I went to help Daddy at the Market was a couple weeks ago. The Friday harvest that week produced loads and loads of tomatoes and lettuce.

Saturday morning Mommy woke me up at 1 a.m. Daddy wasn’t up yet. There was an unexplainable sensation in the pit of my stomach and for some reason I felt guilty, like someone was going to pop out at me and yell, “Hey, why are you up? Can’t you see it’s pitch dark outside?”

I grabbed my pillow and walked to the kitchen. An overwhelming aroma of brewing coffee greeted me. I set my pillow down by the door, and went into the bathroom. As I was brushing my teeth, Daddy woke up. “Ohayo (Good Morning)!” I said, and he smiled at me.

We wasted no time getting ready, and before I knew it I was in the Big Truck, waving goodbye to Mommy. “Be careful!” she told us.

At nighttime, everything looks strange and unfamiliar. Without the sun shining down, our house looked so eerie and dark. That guilty feeling was back, this time packed in with a little bit of excitement–it seemed like we were sneaking out!

We drove first to the Trailer where we picked up Courtney, who is our full-time intern, and who was helping us at the Market. After that, it was sleeping time. I put my pillow on Daddy’s shoulder and leaned against him, reminding me of how I used to put my pillow on his lap when I was little.

There are three seats in the Big Truck, the driver’s seat (Daddy’s), the middle seat, and the window seat. I always seem to get stuck in the middle. Being in the middle is, in my opinion, a huge pain because you feel surrounded and you get no fresh air. Also, if your little brother is so into the depths of Dreamland that he is unresponsive, and if he falls on top of you and you have to push him up again, only to have him fall on you again after a couple seconds, yes, it is a huge inconvenience. (Though it was kind of funny and cute at the time.) Remembering this, I wrapped my blanket around me and closed my eyes, lured to sleep by the rumbling sound of the engine.

I slept surprisingly well and when I finally opened my eyes we were already in Chicago. Soon we saw a lit-up sign reading: ‘Dunkin Donuts,’ and we pulled in. This is a tradition of the Market-goers. We always stop at Dunkin Donuts to ready ourselves in the bathroom and then have a donut. I got out of the bathroom first and studied the choices: Chocolate Long Johns, Bavarian Crème, Sprinkles…the list went on. I get only one donut, so the choice was therefore a very big deal.

Long ago I used to go the Market solely because I got to eat a donut. That was how important the donuts were to me. Once Daddy told me that when I would come home from the Market, Grandma would ask me if I had fun and what I did, and I would answer proudly, “I had a donut!” Remembering this, I finally made up my mind and chose the Long John.

We were very close to the Market at this point. In the short time before we got there, Daddy filled us in with the prices he had set for all the vegetables we’d soon be selling. I tried to take it all in, but the sugary Donut Magic hadn’t worked itself into my mind quite yet.

We pulled into the parking lot. It looked so bare and lonesome compared to the bustling farmers’ market it would transform itself into. As Daddy, Courtney and I unstrapped our seatbelts I said, “We can do this!” and Daddy laughed.

One by one our market helpers showed up. It was about 4 in the morning, and they had valiantly dragged themselves out of bed before the crack of dawn. We set up tents and unloaded the truck. Making all the veggies look beautiful in displays takes time, but by 6 a.m. we were ready for customers.

Because i come from a rural community out in who-knows-where, I can never get used to the number of people that shop at our market stand. Almost everyone I see is a complete stranger. Yet I feel safe and friendly with them. I feel close to people who appreciate the tomatoes my family planted, weeded, mulched and harvested. Watching Daddy talk and laugh with customers, I long to talk and laugh with them, too. And I know, someday I will.

Garlic Harvesting 2008

I recently stayed away at a four day Dance Camp. Not getting many hours of sleep (alright, two, the last night), I came home in a daze and slept five hours straight from the afternoon until dark. When I forced myself out of bed to do my nightly chores, someone in my family who shall remain nameless told me I looked like a zombie. Perhaps that was the case, since I was able to fall asleep again that night with little trouble.

The next morning, after slamming my hand down on the snooze button many times, and then ultimately turning my alarm clock off, I trudged to the barn to help with the garlic harvest, late and bedraggled after the difficult task of milking Mandy.

I came upon the whole crew of interns, family and friends working steadily on an enormous pile of freshly pulled garlic. The garlic was neatly stacked on a long, wide hay rack. Courtney, Mike, Rebekah, Daniel and our new intern, Jesse, were immersed in counting up medium-sized garlic into mounds of twenty, then lining the tops up.

When finished with a pile, they would lug the garlic to Daddy and Asa, who had the finger-paining job of using faded orange twine to tie the tops together, using loops and knots so tight that it was virtually impossible to break. After tying one group of garlic together, they tied another group to that same string, so that in the end they would have ten groups cascading down, all tied on the same string. This string of 10 garlic bunches, 200 garlic plants, was taken over to Matt who hung it from the ceiling of the barn to dry there all season. These strings of garlic will be sold later in the year as individual garlic heads as well as garlic braids hand-styled exclusively by Daddy.

This was the scene I came upon when I walked, still dreaming, into the red and white barn, huge enough to house chickens, goats, tons of hay bales, and storage rooms all at once. But before I had even lifted my body off my bed that morning, the crew had done much more.

In the Bottom Field, faced with never-ending beds of garlic, garlic, and more garlic, they had carefully hand-pulled the soft-neck garlic so as not to break the delicate stems. After pulling for hours on end, they had set the garlic in the bed of the truck to be carried up to the barn. Using expert knowledge, the crew had divided every last garlic into three piles according to size: huge bulbs–used for next year’s seed, tiny bulbs, and then everything else that was neither tiny nor huge. Then, viola, here everyone was, counting, tying, and carrying.

Before I could fall asleep on the spot, Daddy told me to start counting the tiny bulbs into piles of fifty. “Whoa, these look like medium bulbs!” he said to me in Japanese as he examined the pile. He followed up that statement by informing the whole crew of the size problem. Just then, Kazami appeared with another pile of what were supposed to be tiny bulbs. Daddy looked down at the pile, then up at Kazami. “It seems we have found the culprit! It is Kazami!” he exclaimed, while Kazami sputtered excuses.

Later, after I re-sorted the pile into big and little bulbs, I figured out that Kazami’s ‘excuses’ might have been the truth. The big garlic I had separated were too many to be done by just Kazami. It seems Kazami was not the only culprit, but one of many, that just happened to be caught red-handed.

Soon, the last soft-neck group was tied and carried to be hung up. Thousands of garlic bulbs now hung from the rafters. We were done!

But only with the soft neck variety. In the Bottom Field, the hard necks waited with glee for their time to come.

Goat Milking Diaries

Every morning, I open my eyes to the high-pitched beeping of my alarm clock. On a good day, reaching out my hand to turn it off forces my brain to operate, so I jump out of bed as quickly as possible, in a lame attempt to jumpstart my body.

Also every morning, I grab an empty re-used yogurt container and sleepwalk my way through the hazy morning air and into the fenced-in area housing our lovable goats and chickens. I grab a small white bucket and fill it with corn, oats and wheat. As I open the door to the pen, I swish the feed around with my hand. The door latches shut behind me.

A female black goat with white fur splattered randomly across her body waits for me in the goat shed. Right beside her is a brown-coated female goat, with a patch of white fur on her forehead resembling a star. Mandy, the black goat, had quadruplets in the early spring. I milk her every morning. Star, the brown goat, is pregnant. I will start to milk her after she gives birth, which, judging by the size of her belly, will be soon.

I open the shed door and Mandy trots down the ramp to get milked. I set down the bucket of feed to get my hands free, and quickly close the shed door to trap Star inside, much to Star’s displeasure. She brought this on herself, though, because of her immense loving of all things edible, especially grain. She would always steal feed out of Mandy’s bucket while I was busy milking her, causing Mandy to stomp her feet in annoyance. Disaster would sometimes ensue as Mandy’s feet came dangerously close to smacking the milk-filled container– and often would, spilling milk all over. After a couple exasperating times of this scenario, I decided to get smart with Star and keep her locked in the goat shed where she could do no harm while I am busy milking Mandy.

Star is now safely out of the way, but Mandy is gobbling up grain at such an alarming pace that I am afraid none will be left to distract her while I’m milking. I try to pull the bucket away from her, but knowing this routine, she sticks her head into the bucket further. “Mandy!” I scold with a grunt, grabbing her collar and dragging, with great difficulty, her stubborn face out of the bucket. Finally she lets up. Grateful for this opportunity, I snatch the feed and put it on the milk stand. Thankfully, Mandy jumps up on the stand without hesitation. I breathe a sigh of relief and get to work.

The quadruplets wail without so much as a breath from inside their pen while my hands milk as fast as they can move. I put the baby goats in their pen each night so that they will not drink all of Mandy’s milk. Even though they are able to swallow grain and grass now, it seems that nothing can compare to their mother’s milk.

One of my nightly chores is to put the quadruplets in their pen. Star’s naughtiness comes into play here as well, since when she sees the bucket of grain- -meant to lure the baby goats into the pen– the bucket lures her too. She eagerly hoists herself up into the cramped quarters, while I dump the grain into the metal holder. Suddenly I find myself stuck in the tiny pen with one huge goat and four little ones milling about. To make it worse, I am bent over, since the low ceiling makes it impossible to stand up. In this position I plow my way out, at the same time lurching Star forward toward the pen door and out into the open. I frantically push Star out of the way so that I can latch the pen doors shut before Star or the baby goats can think twice. Then I stand there, panting a little, and wonder how in the world putting fours little goats in a pen could take so much mental, emotional, and physical work. Star stands near me, no doubt muttering to Mandy, “I will get your grain in the morning.”

My yogurt container is almost full with fresh bubbly goat milk, and apparently Mandy has finished her grain, because she is starting to fidget in the stand and cries to be let off. “Okay, okay. We’re done.” I say to her, in mock surrender. I grant her wish and let her off the milk stand. Next I set my milk container down so that I can unlock the shed door. Star stares me down from inside, questioning with her piercing eyes, “How dare you fool me into not getting my grain!?” I pat her on the head, right on her pearly white star, “That’s life, Star. I’m sorry.”

The baby goats come scrambling out when I open the pen door. They are full of pent up energy, as usual, and run out to play and to explore. The chickens squawk from the chicken shed, calling Kazami to come let them out, let them out.

As I shut the fence door and make my way to the house and then down to the fields to work, I realize that another day has just begun.