Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Making Food is Hard Work

Another of the rites of spring is starting a new compost pile. I've been extremely busy lately--the warmer weather brings on a flurry of activities--and with the intermittent rains my lawn just kept getting taller and taller.

Not such a horrible thing, as the grass clippings make an excellent addition to the compost pile. The green clippings add lots of nitrogen to the compost, like and injection of lighter fluid--the bacteria love it, and heat the pile until it is steaming. That's very good for decomposition

But the process involves getting several different tools out of the garage, setting up a leaf shredding operation to add the necessary brown--or carbonaceous--matter to the compost for proper balance (I go around the neighborhood in the fall and collect the bags of leaves the neighbors leave at the curb). Mowing is no easy trick either, the lawn being interrupted by numerous vegetable and flower beds. And that still leaves the weeds that have begun to encroach on the beds. They need to be pulled, the edges trimmed and reshaped with a spade.

All of which is to say that before you can harvest those wonderful lettuces and greens and other vegetables, you have to work on the soil and the weeds and maintaining the tools. Food does not just happen, even though it might appear so if you are just strolling the produce aisle at the supermarket. There is much human toil involved. That is one of the advantages of shopping at a local farmer's market: You actually see the faces and meet the people who are responsible for bringing your food forth from the soil with their own labor.

Whenever I despair of the work involved in my food I remember Ward Sinclair. Ward for years covered the agriculture beat at The Washington Post. Then he succumbed and became a farmer himself. He bought a piece of land in Pennsylvania and sold his product at the farmer's markets here in the District of Columbia, as well as to several restaurants. He also started a column in the Post's food section called "Truckpatch."

To my mind, Ward's "Truckpatch" column was probably the best thing ever written about food in a newspaper. His personal essays brought home so vividly how the food we either take for granted or glamorize in slick magazines begins with the muscle and sweat of an individual who is committed to the soil. Most farmers, especially the small truck farmers we see in the farmer's markets, do not make a lot of money. They are just crazy about the work. And there is so much of it.

After all these years, one particular column Ward Sinclair wrote, republished in the book Truckpatch: A Farmer's Odyssey, sticks in my mind. It simply details all the chores that lay before Ward on one typical spring day as the new planting season approached and he contemplated his schedule.

Knowing how to plant a seed, nurture it, harvest it, and take the finished product to market is only a part of the demands of the truckpatch, he wrote. The to-do list requires the farmer to be mechanic, carpenter, supply specialist, labor negotiator and employer, writer and graphic designer, plumber, banker and a host of other arts.

Oh, it would be simpler to call in an expert and have the job done right. But there is neither money nor time enough for the farmer to rely on others. When a tractor goes dead, he can't wait on help from afar. When wind rips the cover off a greenhouse, it must be replaced immediately.

So the to-do list is the farmer's master. It determines how his time is allocated and in its cryptic code language reminds him every day that the work on the farm is never done if the place is to flourish and succeed.

Ward Sinclair, ran a farm near Dot, PA, with his partner, Cass Peterson. They started one of the first farm subscriptions, or CSAs, in the United States. Ward died too young in 1995. Whenever I think that growing food is too much work, I remember his words.


Anonymous said...

what is and where does one get the leaf chooper in the pic? my compost suffers from the gardeners laziness in that i just chuck everything in and it is too big to compodst down in my lifetime.
is it big enough to chip a twig?
how is it powered?

Ed Bruske said...

The leaf shredder is from a company called Flowtron. And, yes, it does sound a bit hokey. They make just about everything for the back yard--bug zappers and whatnot.

This is a very simple machine. An electric motor that powers a rotating cap inside that big housing you see (mostly plastic). The cap holds two pieces of nylon cord, just like a weed wacker. So you pour the leaves in, the cords shred them up, then the shredded leaves fall out through the bottom into the trash can.

I know some people who do almost the same thing by filling a trash can with leaves, then inserting a weed wacker. Like making a chocolate leaf shake.