This is the final post in a summer-long series from a young farmer working as a harvest crew leader at Gardens of Eagan. Check out previous posts: Laying New Roots, When Farmers Stay Dry, Building Farm Community, Bringing in the Harvest, Don't Treat Your Soil Like Dirt, Enduring the Heat, Preparing for the End of Things, and Reflections on Labor in Organic Farming.
I often wonder whether farmers ever sleep? Find time to mend socks and sweaters? Scrub the dirt from under their fingernails? Heal their swollen knuckles and cracked fingertips? Read the books that line their shelves or walls or cabinets? Fish cobwebs out of kitchen nooks or collect spiders from bedroom crannies?
During the summer, at the height of farm season, I could never find enough time to close my eyes or feel the weightlessness of my dreams or scribble the stories of my childhood. I guzzled coffee to fight off sleep and fatigue and I gave up parties and book clubs and letter writing and phone calls. I forgot birthdays and stopped reading the news and lost interest in pop culture, something I once craved in my life before farming.
I only stopped sweating three weeks ago when I traded my one t-shirt for five layers of flannels and thermals and sweaters and hoodies. Now, instead of missing sleep, I forget to drink water and barely remember what it felt like to have hunger – belly-churning, throat-closing, head-throbbing hunger. Without the sun pushing us onward, we work slowly and without urgency, knowing we can always return the next day. Tasks are few and harvests are small; we’ve only got kale growing outside now, and though it continues holding on beautifully, wan sunlight and cold temperatures allow for little photosynthesis and therefore slow leaf growth.
But tomorrow, with snow looming on the horizon, threatening to bring an end to our kale empire before we’ve put up our final fight, we will march into the fields, armed with kale ties and plastic pants, rubber boots and warm hats with ear flaps, and we will harvest box after box until the snow beats us to the ground, our thumbs fall off, and the feeling in our toes roars away with the rush of morning wind.
Though we are mighty, I know we will lose our battle with the snow, the wind, and the cold; soon I must accept the ends of things. Most of our fields, all but those still holding tightly to lacinato, green curly, and red kale, have already been tucked in tight to sleep through the blustery winter and wake strong and refreshed come the thaw next spring.
While in the thick of it, racing home just before six day after day, grasping for an extra hour here and there, piling my plate high with books and letters and lists and plans, filling my freezer and my cabinet with jams and jellies and over-ripe tomatoes, I hated farming. I pulled out my hair, screamed at the top of my lungs, jumped up and down until my heels grew spurs and neighbors got nervous, and I wished I had chosen to be an administrative assistant or a cashier at a local grocery store.
And when the snow finally blows in, bringing chafing dryness and leaving my hands to be used only as sandpaper, pushing my body down down down to rest, sending me home from the farm after less than six hours, with nothing to do at work but wash seedling flats or sort retail tags for next season’s plants…I can only cry out for summer.
So we remember that, like kale, our last hoorahs come soon enough. The season ends and finally we rest our bodies, our hands, our minds. I’ve watched as the harvest crew was slowly pared down; we lost Tony to the warmth of Arizona and Alex to the math problems of 1st graders and Michael to a school kitchen and record shows in the Cities. And soon, Alyson will fly away home to her family in Maine, D.C., and Tennessee. Molly and Ashley and Beth and I will huddle in the greenhouses, warming our hands on cups of hot coffee, until we, too, retire for the season, fold up our Carhartts and dirt-smothered sweatshirts, and, even if only briefly, bid adieu to Gardens of Eagan. We will feast on our preserved bounty and stretch our backs and mend our clothes and wait, like kale, for the rejuvenation of spring.
In Janaury, I’ll be off to Vermont, to watch as the girl I love finishes her last semester in college. And I’ll pace up and down concrete sidewalks and bite my nails in anxiety as I search for work, plan my future, hunger for the taste of healthy black soil. And I will pull espresso shots and make soup from frozen corn and canned tomatoes and tell stories of my time in Minneapolis and at Gardens of Eagan and remember the pain and the sweat and the glorious victories. Eventually my heart rate will slow and my anxiety will cease, and, as the summer sun sinks into a winter slumber, I will be ready for the emergence of a new season.
Katie Willis is a native of Birmingham, Alabama, where she grew up with NASCAR, twangs and drawls, and lots of fried okra. Her farming career began on an urban farm in Birmingham, where she ate arugula and swiss chard for the first time in her life. Eventually she moved to rural New York to work with chickens, goats, and really strong women. She enjoys a rowdy round of arm wrestling, discussions on all things related to heternormativity, seasonal food preservation, long bike rides, Toni Morrison, and ice-cold beer. Katie recently moved to the Twin Cities with her girlfriend, Lily. They live in Powderhorn and eat lots of butter, maple syrup, and frozen kale. This year marks her seventh season with soil underneath her fingernails and a bounty in her fridge. Her last post for SGT was Farm Journal: Reflections on Labor in Organic Farming.