All together now
Will Work For Food
by Kate Tvelia Athearn
The first year we did it alone. Seven-thousand-five-hundred square feet of tilling, fencing, planting, watering, weeding, and harvesting. We tried to preserve as much produce as we could. My husband is a man with drive enough to steam up an already sweltering August evening, blanching various produce for canning or freezing. I baked zucchini bread. And zucchini muffins. Cake. We started filling grocery bags with squash and basil, and thrusting them upon unsuspecting stoppers. People tried to give us money, but we just couldn’t accept it.
We have lots of farmer friends and family who are great at selling what people want, and knowing not only how to price cucumbers, but how to keep them looking pretty and delicious enough to buy. Is it possible to farm for profit? That type of agriculture didn’t come naturally to us. Growing food has never been a business for us. We grow to sustain ourselves and nourish our children’s bodies and minds.
We also have non-farming friends and family, and we started to notice an agricultural divide in our culture—a line drawn in the Island sand between the farmers and the farm-nots. People were in awe of us and our humongous garden, the time, the ambition, the patience it takes to grow food, and how we got our kids to eat all these vegetables. It was clear to me that they needed to learn how simple, if back (and oftentimes heart-) breaking it is.
We spoke to a few friends who had been hanging around the garden, and a farm coop was born. We offered them a share of the following year’s harvest, in exchange for working with us throughout the growing season. I acquainted them with the thankless work of seed planting, raking and hoeing and planting all day, and all you have to show for it is some blisters and a few tidy rows of dirt. I warned them of the disappointment inherent in growing food, the damage that disease and escaped sheep can do to a garden, and the mind-numbing delirium evoked by hours and hours of weeding in the summer sun. I was beyond blunt. My husband was afraid I would scare them away, but I needed to know that the people who signed on were going to hang on past the glory of early salad greens and snap peas, and help us find something to do with all that summer squash.
Miraculously, our friends readily agreed. Maybe it was the grass-roots / grand scale of it, or the bird-chirpy, earthy serenity of our location, or the simple fact that we were always down there, and they knew that if they wanted to spend time with us, it would be in the garden. More miraculously, everything went accordingly to how we had imagined. We watched our friends closely at first, giving lessons in weed identification and harvesting techniques. Soon, our little farmerlings were on their own. Coming and going on a regular schedule. In the height of summer, the kids and I would do our farm work in the early morning hours. By mid-morning, we’d already be swimming in the pool, or enjoying a snack in the shade. Nearly every day, willing farmhands came to work. It felt like we were cheating. Sometimes we would bring them cold drinks, over some company. But they waved us away, happy to be there, to leave their flip flops and their worries at the garden gate, and play in the dirt.
We thought we would be the ones helping them, giving them the space and the tools to discover their inner farmer. We didn’t count on learning so much ourselves. Their varied backgrounds brought new energy, the artist’s eye for beauty, the physician’s attention to detail, the yogi’s Zen approach to potato bug extermination. They shared family recipes and childhood memories of planting radishes with Grandma. They helped us cultivate not only a garden, but a community of growers, investing in ourselves and our land, and most importantly, eating up all that damn zucchini and squash.