A Farmer's Dictionary


Photo by Sara Lipka

We all like to know what's what. Or to pretend we do. When someone drops an unfamiliar name or term, it's tempting to nod along. But that can get tricky--especially if you're working on a farm and you've just been told to go...huh?

In two months out here on the farm, I've picked up some agrislang. So for anyone who wants to sound impressive at farmers' markets, study up for now popular farm tours (Rappahannock County's is in late September), or flee the city to go sow and reap, here's a little cheat sheet. An Unofficial Lexicon for Fruit and Vegetable Farming--incomplete but extremely annotated.

Harvest, verb. I used to pick things: apples, blackberries, pumpkins. That was before I was a professional. Farmers, I've learned, harvest. "We're off to harvest lettuce." "Have you harvested okra?" "How often do they harvest squash?" Sounds pretentious or archaic. And while we do "pick" some crops, like cherries, I've nailed down no consistent distinction in terminology. It's not about tools or mechanization--we pick and harvest by hand, with and without knives--or whether the plant will continue to produce. Pulling up potatoes and plucking tomatoes both count as harvesting here. So maybe it's a matter of scale: Oh please, picking is for gardeners.

Even experienced farmers are continually experimenting and learning; I'm getting along by asking as many questions as I can.

Market, noun. No definite article, ever. "When is market?" "We're going to market." "How was market?" This is the case even absent any nursery-rhyme little piggy, fat pig, fat hog, or jiggety-jig. "To market, to market," recited one Freshfarm veteran when I asked. The co-director of that group, which runs our Washington, D.C., markets, said definite articles are in general decline. Maybe, but my farming friend Melina wonders if the omission is part of a deliberate effort to recreate a community institution. Nobody needs "the" with "church" or "school"; markets should be as established. The language, like "harvest," evokes a bygone era. I play along by wearing pigtail braids.

Heirloom, adjective. Most commonly used with tomatoes. Real foodies should know this one, but some may just associate it with "good" or "expensive." An heirloom variety of any plant is essentially an old purebred. Agribusiness gave us monoculture--acres and acres of industrially-hybridized single varieties, grown for uniformity and efficiency--but tradition will maintain heirlooms. A BHN-444 tomato might be able to withstand disease and transit, but Brandywines and Cherokee Purples taste distinctive--and divine. Precise qualifications for heirloom status differ, but select cultivars usually pre-date 1951, when seed companies started selling hybrids, and are open-pollinated, meaning they produce fruit with seeds that will, in turn, generate genetically identical plants. Heirlooms also have the best names: Arkansas Traveler and Nebraska Wedding tomatoes, Bull's Blood beets and Costata Romanesco zucchini. Yum.

Till, verb. As in "tilling the land": a practice with a complex continuum. Before we plant or transplant here, we disc or rototill--two forms of tillage. The goal is to loosen and smooth the soil, preparing it to raise crops. The specific terms come from the equipment we hitch to the tractor: the disc cuts the ground with rotating, gear-looking wheels, while the rototiller slices with closely spinning blades. On a blender, disc would be "stir" and rototill "purée." After we plant our crops in softened soil, we cultivate them, which basically means mechanically uprooting any weeds between beds. However helpful, tillage also has a dark side. It can break down soil structure, erode land, and release carbon. Some farmers try to use no-till methods, but it's tough going. We till as little as we can.

Cover crop, noun. No one wants to leave a production field unplanted, lest the soil erode or the weeds take over. So if we have unused acreage during the growing season, want to improve our soil fertility organically, or need to protect the land over the winter, we plant cover crops. Grains are big: barley, oats, and rye. Of course you could produce and sell any one of those, but as cover crops they serve other roles. Legumes add nitrogen to the soil. Buckwheat scavenges for phosphorous, extracting it from the earth and leaving it more accessible to whatever you plant next. Good old buckwheat can also outcompete weeds, giving it the extra designation "smother crop."

Beneficial, noun. Short for beneficial insect, so named because it eats the bugs that eat our crops. Ladybugs and praying mantises, both beneficials, are celebrities among insects, while pests are known only for what they attack. No pity for the cabbageworm, cucumber beetle, or Colorado potato beetle. Attracting beneficials to gobble them up is especially important to organic farmers, who don't use synthetic pesticides. One way to lure the allies is to intersperse rows of vegetables with flowers or cover crops known to attract certain beneficials. We have also increased our ranks of beneficials by releasing mail-order drawstring bags of ladybugs and wasps, eager to slay Mexican bean beetle larvae. Have at it.

Even experienced farmers are continually experimenting and learning; I'm getting along by asking as many questions as I can. By now I know what to do when someone tells me to box the heirlooms or scout for pests. And I'll chat about going to market, harvesting breakers (tomatoes whose color has just broken), over-wintering (planting a crop to last throughout the coldest months), and calling the extension agent, an employee of the state's land-grant university who works to support local farmers.

But to feel like a true insider out here, you've got to sit back at the end of the day, drink from a Mason jar, cook from the book Nourishing Traditions, and show off your permadirt: the earth-stained sides of your fingers that won't come clean.