Growing into a farmer

Please welcome our newest guest contributor, Rebecca Lay, a farmer in Western Massachusetts. Rebecca works part-time at an independent record label, calls for contra-dances, and also writes for her blog, Tomato Hands.

I know the exact moment when I became a farmer. I didn't realize what was happening at the time, but it’s obvious to me now.

The day I became a farmer was not, as one might imagine, the cool April day I started work as an intern at Guidestone Farm in Colorado (right). Nor did I not think of myself as a farmer the day I learned how to milk a cow. Getting up before dawn to pick peas did not make me a farmer; neither did bucking fresh bales of hay until the stack reached above my head. Farming is hard work, but hard work alone does not make one a farmer.

I was not destined to become a farmer by my early fascination with (and hours spent digging worms in) my grandfather's compost pile. I watched him gather green tomatoes from his garden and line them up on the kitchen windowsill, in anticipation of a hard frost. I did not know I was a farmer back then. But I sure loved the taste of those ripe August tomatoes. Which brings me to my story.

I'm a farmer because of tomatoes. To be more specific, a greenhouse full of tomatoes, last year at Sidehill Farm in Ashfield, Massachusetts. It all happened quickly, during a breakfast meeting last year with my two mentors, Amy and Paul, after I'd been working on their farm for a little over a month. I'd let it slip early on in the season that I saw myself becoming a full-time farmer someday, and they (thank goodness) took me quite seriously. More seriously, in fact, than I took myself at the time. Sure, I had the desire, but where would I ever get the money and knowledge necessary to start my own farm? Money I would have to figure out on my own, but in terms of knowledge and hands-on experience, I had come to the right farm.

During breakfast that morning, Amy handed me a pocket-sized notebook and told me to write important things down. Harvest lists, and instructions for daily projects. (I have a terrible short-term memory.) Easy enough. She also handed me a larger journal in which I was to record Very Important Things. Instructions for myself that would become indispensable in the years to follow, when I didn't have anyone around of whom I could ask endless questions. How to weave tomato vines to a trellis. Which lettuce varieties will bolt in heat, and which are more heat-tolerant. What the vet told me when I asked him how to check to see if a cow is pregnant or not. (No, I've never actually done it, but I'm glad I understand the concept.) Electric-fence wiring diagrams. Things like that.

Then, Amy turned to me. "And I'm putting you in charge of the tomatoes," she said.

What?! She wanted me to take over her favorite crop? First of all, this was no small task. The Wood House, a wood-framed, unheated greenhouse, held over 450 tomato plants. Four rows of heirlooms, and two rows of a variety called Trust, which is specifically designed to grow well in a greenhouse. That, friends, is a lot of tomatoes. And, like I said, these tomatoes were Amy's favorite crop. How could she turn them over to me, someone who had almost no tomato-growing experience at all?

One thing became instantly clear: I could not mess this up. I was going to have to learn a lot about tomatoes. But I had all the tools I needed — my notebooks, Amy’s reference books, and Amy herself, who I called on our two-way radios constantly to ask questions. I quickly learned what may be the most important skill for a successful farmer: careful observation. I observed, and I and took tons of notes. We were growing many different heirloom tomato varieties, and I began to notice which ones were more prone to cracking if we allowed them to fully ripen on the vine. Which varieties succumbed first to Late Blight, and which ones withstood blight the longest. Which varieties produced the most fruit. And on, and on — just like that. I also spent hours picking tomato hornworms off of the plants and cutting them in half (or feeding them to the dog, who considered them a tasty snack). I spent a lot of time with the tomatoes.

Which, of course, is exactly what farmers do. Amy knew what she was up to when she crowned me Queen Tomato (as one of our friends put it), in training. Farmers spend time with crops, and learn as much as we can about them. As soon as I understood that, I became a farmer. I could not go back. (Thanks, Amy.) As I learned more about tomatoes, it only made me want to continue learning about them. Knowledge led to more questions, and I suppose I’ll never run out of those.

A few months after that initial breakfast-meeting, I lamented to Paul that most of my friends from college couldn’t understand my desire to work on farms instead of going to graduate school, as most of them were doing. Paul replied, “This is your grad school.” Then he paused, thoughtfully, and continued: “Farmers who are going to be successful in this day and age are smart, talented people who could basically do anything well.”

In other words, we choose farming. Or it chooses us. In my case, it’s a bit of both. I consciously choose farming, and I also feel involuntarily (albeit happily) chosen by it.

I recently ordered a copy of "The Botany Coloring Book" from my local bookstore. This is not a kid’s coloring book. It’s full of detailed information and pictures. And trust me, I’ve never been motivated to learn anything so scientific, except that now it’s related to something I love. Farming = Botany. Botany = Farming. (I’m saving that coloring book for this winter, when I’ll actually have time to sit down and concentrate on reading.)

When I went to the store to pick up my new coloring book, the bookseller said, "I thought this might be kind of fun, but then I looked at a few pages and thought, 'Whoa, this is not fun at all.' It looks pretty technical! Are you a botany major or something?"

"No, I'm a farmer."

8 Responsesto “Growing into a farmer”

  1. Sarah L says:

    Wow, what an inspiring story, Rebecca! I am really excited to see a farmer writing on the Ethicurean. I grew up on a small apple farm in Washington and while I certainly don't romanticize all the hard work, I do miss that connection to the seasons and the cycles of life now that I work in an office. But I have to ask you, though, not haven't grown tomatoes much -- why do they turn your hands that color?

  2. Mark says:

    Hey Rebecca -- great story! Would you share your tomato notes with me?!?!? I remember us working at Guidestone, picking and squishing hundreds and hundreds of gorgeous harlequin bugs that loved brocolli. Who knew farming would entail such murderous chores! I hope Val and I can visit your farm one day soon and go to one of your dances. Cheers, Mark.

  3. froggoddess says:

    Bucky!!

    Hooray for tomatoes and the unexpected paths we find ourselves on. I loved this piece and I selfishly can't wait until harvest is over and you have more time to write. :)

    love a.

  4. Tana says:

    This is a completely inspiring post.

    I don't know how to phrase this adequately, because it might sound like I'm comparing, but I am not.

    I write about farms and farmers because they are too busy to do it themselves, usually. If not busy, plain tired.

    So to find a farmer who actually had the time and the energy and the focus to write such a thoughtful piece...what a treat. WHAT a treat.

    Thank you so much.

    And I know those green hands. That won't wash off, will it?

    : D

  5. Rebecca says:

    Thanks, everyone, for your lovely comments! In response to Sarah's question about the cause of Tomato Hands, I've actually never quite known what causes them. There's something about tomato vines--something that's in and on every surface of them--that turns your fingers yellow when you touch the plants a lot. If you work long enough, the yellow eventually turns green, and then black, depending on how much of that substance gets caked on. But I don't know exactly what the substance is.

    Mark--of course I'll share my tomato notes with you!

    A--Yes, I'm also eagerly awaiting that first hard frost, which will mean I instantly have more time to write. I'm actually getting a taste of that time right now, what with this silly thumb injury. Aargh! It's so frustrating.

    Tana--Thanks! I heart your blog about farms. I'm glad you write such lovely pieces about and take stunning pictures of farms. Thanks for speaking for farmers when we're too busy or tired.

    And no, the Tomato Hands won't wash off. But that's okay with me. :)

  6. Val says:

    Re Beck!

    Great post--so inspiring! You're a wonderful writer--love the notebook idea...Mark and I need to do that so we stop scratching our heads and saying, "Now, how did we deal with this at Guidestone!"

    And thanks for the advice about the cracking tomatoes...so annoying!

    Love, Val

  7. Foolish says:

    Rebecca Lay - I am sitting on the tenth floor of my office building surrounded by computer monitors and Michael Pollan and composting books and cuttings from my coleous and a bag of dirt reading what you've written, and I'm crying. Yes. Your words about the mindful satisfaction that comes from watching, just watching, plants makes me tomato green with envy. Thank you for sharing your beautiful thoughts with my day. From, a wannabe foolish vegetable grower (not farmer)

  8. urbanfarmgirl says:

    I'm a latecomer to this post, but it was so moving that I don't care about the almost five months it took me to stumble across it. Like Foolish, I too work in an office building surrounded by computer monitors, in my case for a Fortune 100 company that mostly treats and definitely pays me well. And I can't wait to leave--for many reasons, one of which is my desire to become an urban microfarmer. I'm an unaplogetic citygirl at heart, but if I don't get to start farming soon, heads will roll. Thanks for such a lovely piece about your start as a farmer. It came just as I'd decided to give into the lure of city farming (among other things) despite all the hard work, inevitable absurdities and frustrations, and disbelief from friends and family that I see in my future. I can't wait until the day I can tell some inquisitive person that I'm a farmer--and a writer, filmmaker, house builder, and more. But definitely a farmer. Thanks again.