by Emily Palmer
In the early summer of 2009, there was a problem of large proportion in the field at Sepiessa. “It’s the worst they’ve ever looked,” Caitlin said of the tomatoes and how they were faring in the cold wet weather. “Maybe you should get a catering job.”
I winced. Caitlin has been growing and breeding heirloom tomatoes at Mermaid Farm & Dairy in Chilmark for over a decade. She had seen more than one tough season, which made her indictment of the field at Sepiessa all the more damning. We had planted those tomatoes together in May, countless hours of fertilizing and digging and spreading mulch hay by hand across the broad flat rows. It was the first major project of our farming partnership, an act of faith.
I drove down to Sepiessa from Chilmark that evening, after we had closed up the greenhouses for the night. It was shortly after the summer solstice and the days were long. The light was fading fast as I rattled down the long dirt road. I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to see anything when I got there. But I had to go. I had to know, right in that very moment, what percentage of the tomatoes had rotted in the endless June rain, what we had been banking on.
The field was lovely, a dusky blue horizon against bordering black trees, with a pale sliver of moon rising slowly into the sky. I tried to be there. You know what I mean. To appreciate the ground beneath me and the world around me.
I stomped around the lower and upper plots, like a bloodhound, nose to the soil, trying to discern detail in the fading light. It’s not so much that the tomatoes were rotted out, or even dead. But in the three weeks they’d been in the ground at Sepiessa, they had yet to click in and take off. They had yet to show that elemental desire to branch out and grow and fruit. Our months of careful care and planning, our best efforts, were no match for the dark water on our doorstep. It was a bad situation. Caitlin was right. I probably should have gotten that catering job. This Island is one of the greatest places on earth to take a step back, be young, and get by—popsicles and potlucks and long days on the shore. I wish it was enough. I wish I wanted that. But I didn’t want it then, and I don’t want it now.
Caitlin and I finished that difficult season together, and I’m still trying to find a way to grow food for a living. Even with all the uncertainties and frustrations, it’s still my land of dreams. Once the seasons get under your skin, once you fall for the rhythms of a life in farming, it’s hard to turn back, even when you should. Even when you can’t see the way forward, you just keep going.
I used to work a farmers’ market in Brooklyn. Those days were obscenely long. We left the farm in Riverhead, NY, before dawn in a 16 foot box truck. We drove the two hours to the city, blasting Tom Petty’s record, Full Moon Fever in the cab as the sun rose behind us. I floated through the daylight hours, strung out on a noxious blend of caffeine and fatigue, selling sunflowers and tomatillos to beautiful hipsters who confessed their own farming dreams while fishing for packs. change in their fanny I looked at them, suddenly envious of their clean clothes, their summer stroll through the market, their plans for dinner. And what I always wanted to say, but didn’t, was this: I wouldn’t have it any other way, but this life, it’s not what you think it is. It is so much more, and so much less, than you could ever imagine.