Fresh Food: A New Farmer's Reward

lipka june22 dinner post.jpg

Photo by Sara Lipka

So you do, in fact, reap what you sow. Eventually. The elaborate labors in between make that harvest possible.

In my second week on the farm, I learned, for example, to thin beets. Tiny beet seeds tend to cluster, so plants spring up in mini jungles that won't give anyone room to grow. Thinning means crouching--or, when your back aches, crawling--through baby beet beds to pluck out all but the healthiest plants, four fingers' width apart.

Another tedious but crucial step: stringing tomatoes. Our first generation, bearing yellow flowers and tiny fruit, grew tall enough this week that we had to run along the rows with twine, twisting it around stakes and using the tension to uplift the hunched stems. To stay upright--and to keep from sprawling, tangling, and rotting--the tomatoes will need ever higher taut lines.

The young cucumbers, meanwhile, demanded more attention. Several plants' leaves had started to shrivel, and the diagnosis was dire: bacterial wilt. The disease, spread by cucumber beetles, is contagious enough that we had to uproot the ailing cukes and cart them out of the hoop houses. I felt languid, too, but I had only comic wilt. No wheelbarrow rides for me.

I knew coming here that farmwork wasn't all cornucopias. Now I'm beginning to appreciate that.

Hauling the withered cucumber plants may have been monotonous, but it made me feel less like an awestruck agritourist. I knew coming here that farmwork wasn't all cornucopias. Now I'm beginning to appreciate that.

At the same time, I'm still feeling my way. Last Thursday the vegetable production manager sent me off to map a few of our fields, but--uh oh--I found neat rows of several small plants I couldn't identify. I sniffed. I nibbled. When that didn't help, I drew leaves. All apologies to the artichokes, which I failed to recognize despite wanting to recite Pablo Neruda's ode to them.

There may be poetry in intermediate steps, but sowing and reaping still hold a special magic. Fortunately, on a diversified farm in June, there's always some of each to do. Sowing here comes in two stages.

lipka june22 cukes post.jpg

Photo by Jen Rattigan

First, you head to the greenhouse--and close the door quickly so that hungry bugs don't swoop in. Last week I spent several hours under the plastic roof, clutching handfuls of winter squash seeds. I helped plant 100 black plastic flats: acorn, butternut, and spaghetti squash, and plenty of pumpkins. We moved full trays under screen cages to let them germinate away from seed-chomping mice. As I carried four stacked flats, I walked carefully, looking out for hoses. I bore several hundred potential jack-o-lanterns!

The second sowing happens when seeds sprout high enough to survive outside, and we transplant them into the ground. Several flats of cantaloupe, honeydew, and watermelon were ready last week, and we loaded them onto the transplanter, a carnival ride hitched to a tractor.

The transplanter's metal racks hold 16 flats, tilting them down toward two seats, for lucky interns. As the tractor rolls down rows--a spiked wheel digging a hole every two feet, and a hose filling it with water--you reach up, pluck out a plant, and press it into the mud. I thought of Lucille Ball at the conveyor belt in the chocolate factory, but on the farm, if you fall behind, you can clang the racks to stop the tractor.

Sowing holds potential, but reaping feeds us. Last Friday was my turn to cook farm dinner, and to get a head start, I harvested with a head lamp the night before: shell peas, which I puréed, and a few muddy onions, which I sautéed, for a curried carrot soup with pea cream. Also on the menu: oak leaf lettuce and frisée salad with beet vinaigrette, and roasted chicken and wild rice with caramelized onions, scapes, and sage. There's nothing like a home-cooked, farm-fresh meal to carry you through all that thinning and stringing.

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Sara Lipka is a journalist with a local food habit. Since 2003 she has written about college students for The Chronicle of Higher Education, in Washington, D.C. Last year she lived and worked on a farm in Virginia, and this year she is starting a school garden in Maryland. More

Sara Lipka is a journalist with a local food habit. Since 2003 she has written about college students as a staff reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, in Washington, D.C. Last year she was an intern for The Farm at Sunnyside, in Washington, Virginia, and this year she is starting a vegetable garden at the Bullis School in Potomac, Maryland.

Sara formerly interned at The Atlantic and has since interviewed authors about Roe v. Wade, libido, and settling. She graduated from Duke University summa cum laude in 2001, then spent a year in Chile as a Fulbright fellow, researching political theater.

An avid cook, Sara usually travels with a tiny bottle of truffle salt and keeps trying to concoct new combinations of ingredients. She has worked as a papergirl, camp counselor, umpire, and cashier at the Cosmic Cantina, in Durham, North Carolina, where she never got sick of the guacamole.

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