By Amy Baringer, ASC Intern
Most people don’t know where their food really comes from and how it comes to magically appear in their grocery store. What goes into that nice, clean, organic carrot sitting in a bag with all his buddies and priced at only $1.29 a pound? How many scratches did someone receive picking squash? How many weeds had to be pulled to make enough room for the beets to grow to the biggest and the best they can be? How many times did someone check the broccoli/tomatoes/cucumbers/lettuce to make sure they were picked at just the right time? I have learned all of these things and more and want to take you through an average day on an organic farm so you know how much dedication, effort and work it takes to bring those delicious and oh-so-essential veggies to your table.
Monday morning… BEEP BEEP BEEP!!! Alarm clock is going off at 6:30am. I’m a night owl and 5 months into this internship I’m still not used to this! By 7:00 am we already have so much to do. This internship is all about food production. We are growing for almost 150 people on 4 acres with only 5 interns and the director of our program. That is a lot of food to plant, harvest and get all ready to deliver to our customers who have bought into Rodale Institute’s Agriculture Supported Communities farm share program.
Every crop is not created equal. If it is really hot one day, we only want to harvest for a few hours in the morning and then stop for the day since the crops will not like sitting in the heat even for a short period of time. But on a day that is cooler and cloudy, we would probably be able to harvest all day. And even on a warmer day, it would be fine to harvest something like squash or cucumbers in the afternoon when it’s warm but definitely not something like lettuce or basil. So every day is different. Right now, our morning goes something like this: We’ll start with basil first. Then we’ll move to something like beets , carrots or scallions.
We give bunches out to our members so we need hundreds of each one of these at a time! Yes, it does take as long as you think it does. I could not even imagine doing this by myself. It would feel like it would never end! Often you know when the beets are ready because they will start to pop out of the ground. We haven’t had much luck with the carrots doing the same. But even the beets can trick you. You can think they look to be a pretty good size and you pull one out and it really wasn’t as big as you thought. And those carrots, oh those carrots! I can pull one that I swear has to be ready (by the way the stalk looks) and it turns out to be small. Sometimes I’ll pull one that is unexpectedly massive. I hope the carrots are at least getting a good laugh out of it!
Before we can call it a day with the carrots, beets and scallions, we take some time in the field to begin prepping them for processing by taking off any bad leaves or imperfections that we can. We don’t take too much time doing this but getting a head start in the field makes it a lot easier to ready them for customers in the afternoon. After bunching these in the field we move to other crops, quickly trying to get in as much harvesting as possible before it gets too hot.
After lunch, we break up into two groups; some start on processing while the others head back out to the fields to harvest the afternoon crops—tomatoes, squash, cucumbers. The more we get done on Monday, the less stress there is on Tuesday which is delivery day for the bulk of our customers (and sites). Harvesting squash can be a bit painful as the plant has lots of sharp spines. Gloves and long sleeves are essential, otherwise you may itch for days. And when it comes to squash and cucumbers, bigger is not better. They are actually better when they are on the smaller size. If you are making something like zucchini bread, a big one will be okay but if you are looking for great zucchini taste, smaller is better as they are not as pithy. Once the squash and cucumbers start coming, boy do they start coming! We’ll come back from the weekend and they’ll be a whole new batch ready to be picked.
In the processing room, we use a high powered hose to spray the soil off the carrots and the beets. When there is so much to do, efficiency is key. Some crops, like peas, just get weighed out and put straight into bags as they don’t touch the soil. When we had a lot of greens (lettuce, escarole, spinach) in the spring, processing took a long time. Greens all need a dunk in a cold water bath to perk them up and clean them off. Spinach and lettuce require an additional step, going into a salad spinner to dry. The whole process for spinach from harvesting to dunking to spinning and bagging is very time consuming. Part of processing is also labeling out bins and placing the prepped and ready veggies into containers to take to our sites. With so many customers and all those vegetables, you can imagine how many bins we are staring at by the end of the day. All of these bins also signal to me a job well done.
This is just one day out of an entire week on the farm. Sometimes things don’t go as planned and we are faced with unexpected challenges—difficult weather, not having enough of something, insect damage. We must find an alternative or a solution while continuing to make sure we get everything completed in time to deliver the produce to the five sites where our customers pick up their shares. I encourage everyone to volunteer, even just for a day, at Rodale Institute or any local (hopefully organic) food-producing farm to get a firsthand look at what goes into that dinner you’ve just prepared. Until next time…… Happy eating!