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From the April 2010 Conservationist

A farm with plantings of lettuces and herbs

Photo: Keith Stewart

The (not so) Simple Life

Seasons on a small organic farm

By Keith Stewart

I'd been on the lookout for a couple of weeks when I finally spied them. It was a clear, cold day at the end of March, and the first dozen tiny shoots of garlic were poking up through a thick layer of mulch. They were a welcome and reassuring sight. A week later, following a day or two of gentle rain, there were several hundred. By the 1st of May, at least 60,000 garlic plants could be seen growing in three different fields on our farm. Most of them were already six to eight inches tall and looked vibrant and healthy; they held the promise of a bountiful harvest.

A field of garlic
A field of garlic - the signature crop at
Stewart's farm.

On our certified organic farm in Orange County, we grow at least a hundred varieties of vegetables and herbs, but garlic is our signature crop. We grow more garlic than anything else. It is the crop that brings the most customers to our farmers' market stand in New York City and has garnered a fair amount of publicity for us over the many years we've been growing it. It is also a crop for which I have much admiration and affection. Garlic's exceptional culinary and medicinal properties, its ancient lineage (it's been cultivated and used by humans for 10,000 years or more, yet still retains a wild streak), and its sturdy, upright demeanor in the field, all speak well for this impressive plant.

I wasn't always a grower of garlic, or even a farmer, for that matter. Twenty-three years ago, I was living in a small Manhattan apartment and working for a real estate consulting firm. Much of my time was spent on the phone or struggling with columns of data on a computer. It wasn't what I wanted to be doing with my life, but somehow it was where I ended up. Occasionally, I would leave the office for a day to inspect farmland put up for sale and most likely headed for development. I enjoyed these trips, but at the same time felt saddened that the land, which so appealed to me, might end up with a sprawling industrial facility or a crop of new houses to replace its corn or alfalfa. Secretly, I wanted these farms to remain intact and preferred that the client change his or her mind.

One day it dawned on me that I would be far happier waking up each morning on a farm in the country rather than in a New York City apartment, and that working on a good piece of land, and looking after it, might bring me greater satisfaction than catering to corporate clients. I began to think seriously about a major life change. Before long, I quit my job and set out to become a farmer, or at least to try my hand at farming. It was one of the best moves I ever made.

Running a small organic farm is more like a life than a job. You get to do everything: drive a tractor, till the soil, plant, nurture and harvest your crops, and finally sell them to the public. You run your own business, balance your books, watch the bottom line, and watch the weather. You make decisions, for better or worse, and move on. There's little time to second guess yourself or indulge in regret. Best of all, you work outside, watching new life unfold as you deal with the joys and frustrations of your dependence on the sun, wind and rain. And if you care about what you're doing, you'll gradually develop an ecological perspective and work to maintain a balance between your own needs and the needs of the myriad living things that share the land with you. In the end, this balance and sense of a larger community is what is most rewarding. It's a good life, if it fits, and if you're willing to work at it, but it's not easy.

Small farmers must compete with huge agribusiness companies that control much of the food landscape in this country. Unlike small-scale, organic operations, these huge farms are often heavily subsidized by the federal government. There's also cheap imports from China and elsewhere (including Chinese garlic that comes into the U.S. for just pennies a pound), cheap labor, cheap processed foods made from subsidized commodity crops like corn and soybeans, and cheap petrochemical fertilizer and pesticides (though these are getting less cheap by the day).

Two farm workers harvesting potatoes.
Life on a small farm requires hard work,
like harvesting potatoes, but the knowledge
and cash gained from a successful season
help ensure future success.

All this means that small farmers in America who want to practice sustainable methods have their work cut out for them. But more and more young people are taking up the challenge and showing that it can be done. It helps that the eating public is ever more enthusiastic about fresh, local food with a human face-food that tastes good and is good for you. Every year more people want what small farmers have to offer and are eager to put their money where their mouths and stomachs are. This makes all the difference.

During the heart of summer, life on the farm is intensely busy. My seven- or eight-person crew and I will harvest those 60,000 garlic bulbs, as well as more modest numbers of onions and shallots. We will sell as many of these alliums as we can and cure the rest so we can continue to sell them right through Christmas. We'll pick a thousand pounds of flavorful, field-ripened tomatoes each week and take them to market, along with summer squash, zucchini, cucumbers, lettuces, potatoes, beans, basil, parsley and more. We'll set out many thousands of transplants of cold weather greens, for mid- and late-fall harvest: different varieties of kale, broccoli, collards, Swiss chard, Italian dandelion, Oriental greens, and whatever else we can grow and our customers are keen to eat. To help the crops thrive, we'll wrestle with irrigation lines and sprinklers, and face an onslaught of fast-growing weeds, eager to produce seed before the growing season comes to an end. And, hopefully, at the end of the growing season, we'll deposit plenty of cash in the bank.

On a farm like ours, autumn is the most enjoyable time of year. The hectic pace and sometimes oppressive heat have usually passed. Cooler, more settled days make field work a pleasure. When the fall harvest is in full swing, the fruits of our labors are plain to see. And if, as is sometimes the case, we haven't planted, or weeded, or labored quite enough, well, it's too late to do much about that, so we might as well accept what we do have and be thankful. We'll just have to make sure to do a little better next year, and make use of the new knowledge we've gained.

Garlic for sale at the farmer's market
Garlic is what brings most customers to
their farmer's market stand in New York

As I look over the fields of this year's crops, I reflect on the fact that it's the final step of the season that helps make sure our farm remains in business-setting aside at least 10,000 garlic bulbs from the summer harvest. In early October, we'll begin dividing the bulbs into individual cloves and grading them according to size. Toward the end of the month, we'll begin planting the cloves, pressing them a couple of inches down into fertile, well-rested ground with the pointed end up and the root end down. All 60,000 cloves will be planted by hand, in long, parallel rows that follow the contours of the land. Then mulch is added-fifty odd tons of aged bedding material from a nearby horse farm. The whole process will take at least four weeks. It's hard work, but necessary to ensure the continuation of our signature crop. Once the garlic is safely in the ground and mulched for the winter, I can sit back a little and know that another season on the farm has come full circle.

And I can wait, and watch, for the first shoots of spring to burst forth from the ground.

Organic farmer Keith Stewart is the author of It's a Long Road to a Tomato: Tales of an Organic Farmer Who Quit the Big City for the (Not So) Simple Life, scheduled for updated release in June 2010. He and his wife, Flavia Bacarella, live in Orange County.