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.

Neighboring: Dinner Shares

This week, what we share from our table will also be on a table next door as part of a dinner-exchange we started with some friends who live, as we like to say "one pasture over."  These properties used to be connected by family ties, and the path through the pasture is much shorter than the official way around by road and driveways.  It hasn't taken much to refresh that well-worn path with some neighboring including, lately, passing back and forth with food to share, a couple of nights a week.  

The genesis of this weekly routine came from a point that came up on many visits and meals together: we live with small kitchens with no dishwashers, and we all make a lot of dishes.  It came to a peak one night when we gathered in our small kitchen to put up some food together--a madness of chopping, shredding, and mixing to start kimchee and sauerkraut, feeding literally and figuratively off of the combined energy of two households to get us through a massive pile of produce.

We stopped for a moment in that wild pickling evening to eat dinner together before gearing up for the next step.  As we looked around we had to laugh at the state of the place: cutting boards, knives, and bowls had been shuffled to the coffee table to make room to eat at the kitchen table; buckets and boxes of cabbage, onion, and carrots were piled in the corner of the room.  The kitchen sink was topped over, and each work-station at the counter was carved out of a mountain range of dishes and cooking materials.

Cooperative pickling night with neighbors: a kitchen mess not as far out of the daily realm as you might imagine.  Photo by Noah.

And yet, we all had to admit that while this was completely crazy, it was also just an expansion of the ebb and flow of our daily kitchen work.  We cook from scratch, we cook from the garden, and we get caught up in the excitement of good food.  It does make a lot of good work and good food, of course, but also a lot of dishes.  We realized, as we talked, that cooking for four people makes no more cleanup than cooking for two, and we should really all take advantage of that.  

We decided on an exchange where each household would, on one night of the week, cook for both and deliver extra to the other. It gives us each one evening a week of having only the dishes that we eat off of to wash.   We used some guidelines we'd seen from others doing similar exchanges:  no pressure to make anything fancy, no need to stay and visit if evenings were busy.  If someone has other plans or is out of town on drop-off night, they use it the next day.  It's simple, and yet the knowledge that a meal will be delivered and shared has inspired an occasional extra touch and elevates our own eating just a bit.  It might just be taking a moment to arrange sliced tomatoes or a basil garnish across the top of the pasta or to array the red peppers on a  pizza into a star instead of a random toss. At the surface it's just decoration, but underneath it's also a demonstration of caring, and that makes it special. A care that, we remind ourselves in the midst of busyness, uncertainty and stresses, needs to be both taken and received.  

The exchange started because of dishes, but in a small way it is much more, too.  When we deliver the pan of stuffed summer squash across the pasture, there's a pleasure in the feeling of giving and nurturing, of feeding our friends.  When a dish of steaming rice, greens, and chickpeas arrives at our door at the end of a long day, we sit down to it with gratitude that goes so far beyond not needing to clean the kitchen.  It's gratitude for neighbors, for friends, for caring and being cared for in some small way.  


When food preservation gets serious, even the shop tools may find their way into the home kitchen:  Noah pounds cabbage for sauerkraut with the large mallet.  This will find its way into a shared neighbor meal soon, after weeks of fermenting in the corner by the bookshelf.