Life in the City After Months in the Fields

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Photo by Sara Lipka


When days seem endless, how do months fly by? Last June I moved to rural Virginia to live and work on a farm for the season, and I spent many interminable mornings and afternoons transplanting lettuce in sunstroke heat or harvesting root crops in torrential rain. Sometimes noon on my mud-crusted Timex couldn't come too soon. But somehow December did.

The pastoral realities of tired muscles and tedium had tempered the wonder I felt in my first week, but hardly trumped it. Each morning I'd walk a few hundred yards from the bunk house to our farm center, eating a bowl of yogurt or oatmeal, almost always exhilarated by the sheer mountainside and fresh country air, which I knew I'd be out breathing, and heavily, all day. Maybe we'd be weeding celeriac to classic rock blaring from the radio of our Ford pickup. I'd scream at the Monsanto ads while munching stray snacks, like a lone dill plant in the carrots or weedy purslane under the snapdragons. Some days there would be a real thrill: finding corn smut or chasing deer out of our main production field.

Other days brought six-hour stretches of harvesting tomatoes. Still, for all my whining, the last day for those sweet nightshades felt somber. The plants were dying, of cold and blight, and my fellow intern Coriena and I were finding more and more contestants for our ugliest-tomato pageant: moldy, black, withering membranous sacs. The time had come, as it would for all crops, to pronounce the tomatoes dead. I savored a few final cherries as Coriena and I ceremonially trampled the fallen heirlooms, all brown and shriveled. "Thank you for all your delicious sandwiches," she said. "Thank you for all your delicious salads."

I imagined Pete Seeger stepping out of the shadows: "To everything turn, turn, turn, There is a season turn, turn, turn."

Alongside the tomatoes the peppers were still producing, but we needed to mow and till and sow cover crops in those beds. I thought about staking myself to the plants to stop the change in seasons. Nobody would mow me! But I gave in--I had to--and the peppers went.

Meanwhile, the mountainside turned from green to brilliant. At its richest red and gold we spent two brisk, sunny days shoving garlic cloves into the ground for next year's yield. From then on, the canopy thinned. I imagined Pete Seeger stepping out of the shadows: "To everything turn, turn, turn, There is a season turn, turn, turn." Before long, chill rains took down the rest of the leaves.

Still, November was busy. We harvested hundreds of pounds of broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage; dozens of bunches of collards and kale and hearty heads of Asian greens; and zillions of roots--beets, carrots, parsnips, radishes, rutabagas, and turnips upon turnips upon turnips. And with them, mud. Lots of mud. Enough to clog the drain in the concrete floor of our packing room. There we stood, in shin-deep icy water, spraying crops clean while trying to stay as warm and dry as possible (not very). In a slicker, elbow-high gloves, a vinyl apron, rain pants, and muck boots, our farm manager would declare, "I'm impermeable!" But water seeped up sleeves, and we froze. On my last day of work I felt wistful but very much soaked. Shivering, I counted down the minutes.

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Photo by Emily Cook


That night, before we all went home for Thanksgiving, we hand-pressed cider on our neighbor's porch. I lugged a half-gallon and a 10-pound pumpkin on the train home to Boston. None of that bottled and canned stuff from the grocery store. Not this year.

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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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