Reading Season Signals

On a recent rainy afternoon in this season of shifting weather, we squatted in one of our friend's growing fields at the County Rail Farm in Dixon, Montana.  Margaret and Tracy farm in this fertile valley that has a unique microclimate just a bit different than our own.  While we have had our first hard frost, they are still harvesting some of their crops - rows of cucumbers and greens still wait in the field while squash cure for storage in their green houses. 

Pumpkins Drying in a Hoop House, County Rail Farm.

The weather was typical for these edge of season days, so we huddled in the back of their pickup truck under the drumming rain picking edamame (green soybeans) from boxes of harvested plants.  Later, when the rain lessened, we dug their last potatoes from the ground.  That was one of the only chances we've had, in this busy growing season, to work alongside and reflect with other farmers. Though our own potatoes were still in the ground back home, it felt good to dig alongside them, sharing conversation and growing thoughts as we worked down the row.

Work Party: Harvesting Soybeans from the Vine.

Here in Montana we have to become experts at pushing plants. Vegetables were not all designed to grow in the conditions we raised them in. We try to shift the odds by purchasing seeds from farms who test their vegetable varieties and grow them with the harsh winters of Vermont, Maine and our own valley. And we push the ends of the seasons in each direction, with early indoor starts in the spring and row covers to ward of the frosts both spring and fall.  

Even the simple act of watering separates our garden plants from the yearly rhythms of the native plants and even the untended pasture grasses outside the fence, which  turned their own shades of late-summer gold and brown when the rains slowed down.  We distracted ourselves a bit from the passing season too, within that lush quarter acre of soft greens, tomatoes, peas, and more. Outside the fence, chokecherries ripened, and the grasshoppers hatched, grew, and disappeared.  It's not that  we did not notice any of the seasonal progressions--we saw the spring Draba come and go to seed, noticed the split dry pods of Lupine when we went hiking.  But we also, like the tomatoes, were taken by surprise by that hard frost and end of the warm growing season. 

Maybe with more years here, we will learn the subtle triggers within the garden that the season was winding down. It takes time to learn the small cues, to put them all together.  Mary's fieldwork in native grasslands was a daily immersion in prairie patterns, but it was a few years in before she could recognize, without analysis, that because the Camas pods were dry and rattling, it was time to check for young seeds forming on the Lemonweed plants.  There are probably subtle signals that we have missed, here.  We've missed other triggers, other clues, maybe even mis-judged how long we'd be able to stay here growing on this patch of land. 

Still, when we take time out to harvest the last of this season or sit in our farmers friend's kitchens after a long day of work, we gather what we can. We  go over our mental notes of this past season - what we noticed, the wild successes (green peas for months on end), the wild failures (ask us sometime about that okra crop), and near misses (see our Sheep Chase story), and all that has got away from us.  We talk about the hard things - the lonesomeness that can come with long days out or other work left off the plate;  gifts from neighbors who lent a hand when we needed it most. Farmers do things differently from a lot of people, and now that we've farmed for a year, raising  food for ourselves and our neighbors, we think differently too. We make our own tools, furniture, fixes and even games.

Whiffle Ball with over-ripened cucumbers. 

When we left the campfire the other night, there was singing.  It's hard to leave in the middle of any story, but as we say, we were farmer-tired, already worried about putting in the chickens, and tending to evening chores.  Even though we have cancelled our own harvest party because we aren't sure where we will farm in the years to come, our calendar is full of harvest parties - a place where secrets are shared, plans are hatched, we eat, and know we can begin next day. 

Harvest Party Songs, County Rail Farm.