Ice crystals sparkle as the awakening sun casts first light on the scene below. In any other situation, my camera would be poised to capture this fleeting scene, but this morning is not about preserving a memorable moment. The image is lodged. The damage is done. I am not surprised to find that lettuce does not like a heavy freeze. The surprise is in the freeze. The plump, perfectly formed field of open-headed orbs will look no better as the day’s misfortune reveals an imbalance in this farmer’s universe.
I am torn. The beauty before me is unmistakable. I want to embrace it, touch it, enjoy it for what it is, purely a second in time soon to melt away. But in that same second, it is ruined by the voice inside my head that calculates the loss, imagining how it looked yesterday. If only this, that, and on and on, filling a space that’s meant for discovery with contempt instead. I am not worthy, the voices might say, while others reinforce the lessons learned. I turn and walk away, crystals vanishing quickly as the steam rises.
First glances might reveal the problem with burnt lettuce to be a solitary occurrence. It is, after the thaw, simply a series of miscalculations compounded with Mother Nature’s inability to understand a need for palatable lettuce. But it goes much deeper than this. Shovel the first layer of fresh compost aside to reveal a dichotomy. There lies a root, firmly entrenched. The sprouts are my life’s theater now. Romance and reality, the roots lead to shoots that are prone to morph, at will, before me. Both are undeniably necessary but in different ways. One feeds the soul, while the other the body.
How do we fall in love with the idea of farming? The youth of today are reading about other’s forays, interning with farmers locally, or pulling up a faint memory of grandparents who worked the land. This life’s path manifested a place in me a long time ago, waiting to come forward after many life cycles.
Remembering my youth a few months shy of 50 seems an exercise in looking through Vaseline-smeared bifocals. Like one of those high-tech photo filters on my iPhone, the unpleasantness that was surely present has been effectively filtered out of the scenario I am about to describe. I lived on a farm in northern Ohio. Twelve was my wonder year, an age filled with wild daylilies flowering along rural roadsides and blue ribbons at the Burton County Fair. The small family farm provided a bucolic place to grow up. The soil, rich and crumbly, made everything thrive easily. Seeds yearned to be planted. Food sprung from the furrows. Trees, cows, and chickens gave freely of maple syrup, whole milk, and fresh-laid eggs. The vegetable garden beside the house was my playground. Mucking out troughs filled to the brim with brown Jersey dairy cow poop paddies made dreams of oversized pumpkins and giant corn stalks certain reality.
Digging in the dirt came early. And while I may be embellishing for the sake of prose, it was an undeniably rich experience, one that I crave to continually reinvent for myself.
I’m called a farmer now. It doesn’t sit well in my mind. I don’t easily associate with the images marketed in mainstream America. Their ways are not ones I ever imagined choosing. So, I feel I am part of a new wave. Early research suggests my vision is being called the boutique farm, a fancy name for small-scale farming. The cluelessness associated with any dramatic new direction, including this one, is surely going to disappear. Or at least I tell myself it will.
It didn’t take long before my inadequacies clearly took on a face. Coming from a career in public horticulture, working in it for 25 years, I had a charmed career. It came easy and, yes, I worked hard and was creative, but just the same it flowed like water. I had plenty of people to bounce ideas off of, most of whom knew much more than me. Finding someone, anyone, in our local small-scale farming community willing to share their experiences and listen to my developing story was a bit of a challenge. I was sure they existed but didn’t know where. Fortune rains down on those in need, in my case, it was a meeting with local farmer Meg Moore. She owns Dirthugger, a small-scale farm created several years ago on James Island. Her generous outpouring of wisdom, advice, and patience helped me see the path much clearer. Her optimism is contagious and energy level intense. But she seems balanced.
With time, the circle gets bigger, other romancers are found, and we celebrate our mutual love of the dirt we touch. Reality also parallels simultaneously, putting this profession in a clearer perspective.
The biggest pumpkins don’t always equal a viable farm business. Leasable land, a well thought-out brand, planned marketing, and plenty of capital barely equate to an invitation to the local food trough. But it is a start. Numerous hats, each one different, many having nothing to do with a plow’s deliberate touch, will need to be rotated. There will be times when digging in the soil beneath my feet will have to wait. Grow it, and they won’t always buy it. The knot in my stomach tightens, and the pendulum swings yet again from center.
The morning air is silent out on the Dirt Works site, an incubator farm program started this past year by Lowcountry Local First. Young farmers arrive early and wander like prophets in deep thought between the rows of cool season crops they’ve planted and cultivated over the last few months. All of us are grounded, calm, and slightly intoxicated, and the dirt brings me back to center.
Jim Martin is a lifelong gardener. He is director of programs with the Charleston Parks Conservancy and farms at Compost in My Shoe.
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