Winter never came. All manner of pest and weed and disease lived on, strengthening, with no killing frost. Early spring and summer heat with long drought taxed soil and crops; fruit is thick-skinned, leaves waxy and tough. Now storms wreak havoc, downing trellis, cracking tomatoes both fruit and stem, inviting mold and mildew and rot.
Four thousand tomatoes started from seed, potted up, nurtured, planted out, pruned, trellised, retrellised, pruned again. Too many now are died back, been culled, or whimper out a last salvageable fruit before the ol' scythe comes: either my own or wilt, canker, mold, spot, insect. Half of the cucumbers gone, hundreds-over, thanks to powdery mildew, when copper wouldn't help, and the ever-munching beetle; every last squash parasitized by horrific borer grubs, and, dissatisfied with only the cukes, powdery mildew comes creeping in too. Beds of greens, those finnicky lettuces, are resown and resown, two and three times over: the cost of miserable heat and drought and hungry pigeon bellies.
The pigeons! Greedy, persistent, and legion. Descending hordes upon newly-sown beds of mustard or carrot or lettuce, devouring every last seed and sprout. The pigeon who'd dug her way into the run, tempted by spilled feed and naïve to the pacing killers just yonder. Wedged herself under a coop strut, bloody and featherless head and back. How I found her in the orangey light of a beautiful sunset; how I did not wring her neck, instead culled her with a cinderblock to the head, bewildered and rushed by disgust and panic; and how the first strike didn't take, haunt me still.
The chickens themselves, those new, young, flighty additions to the flock, escaping. Hours spent chasing chickens through the streets and parking lots while tomatoes beg to be tied and crabgrass seeds threaten to spill.
Five bee swarms, each one dropping down from the farm to the 39th Street bridge in Queens, terrorizing neighbors and passers-by and resulting in police sirens. I boxed swarms from street-signs, fire hydrants, and finally, in a climactic F-You, from below a windowsill on the second story of our building, on a ladder high above the bridge and honking, shouting car drivers.
Flea beetles, stinkbugs, cucumber beetles, hornworm, and harlequins chomp everything in sight, and their guts have permanently stained my fingers, hankies, and clothes. Aphids, mites, and whitefly travel gleefully from crop bed to crop bed, their wake a trail of sickened, lesioned, withered plants. Leaves yellow, stems rust over, and fruit drops prematurely, a rotting banquet for the flies. I follow behind, seemingly always behind, spraying soap to mitigate damage but never the spread. Mosoquitos quietly siphon from me as I spend hours crouched in the jungly ground cherries, scraping tiny paper purses from the soil.
Weeds of pig-, careless-, and jimson-, genera of grass, oak-leaved goosefoot, groundsel, galinsoga, and primrose unceasingly spread across every bit of unoccupied soil. Occupied soil too, their roots strangling peppers and eggplant. They are the first to pop up after seed is sown, requiring recultivation and reseeding. Even those pricey sellables, purslane and lambsquarter, gobble up space and compete, and so I toss grotesquely large wigs of purslane and truly tree-sized lambsquarters straight to the compost free of charge.
Squeezing time in for admin work in the early morning or evening, answering hundreds of I-have-no-experience-but-want-to-get-involved emails. Taking some folks on if they seem right, losing many after their first hard day. Those apprentices who stick around languish in the heat and repetitive work. I break my heart trying to boost morale in vain, weeding or tilling alongside sweating, red-faced, frustrated students. I discuss planning and pest- and weed- and disease management with myself only, my audience too tired or over it to answer questions or offer ideas or care at all.
At markets, some folks buy a cucumber, an eggplant, maybe a flower bouquet. Others snicker at prices and walk away. I smile and say Thanks, see you around. I think How do you make your living? Mine is measly and no-frills.
A day off every couple weeks so I can clean my neglected apartment and clothes, visit my neglected community garden plot, love on my neglected cats, perhaps see a neglected friend or two, and catch up on more emails. A shower more often than that if I can manage.
I am skinny, sun-burnt, uncoiffed and unkempt. My body aches from foot to neck. I am very tired.
November, the farm will be ready for winter and my season over. Until then, more planting, harvesting, weeding, tilling, bug squashing, pruning, chicken catching, bee inspecting, apprentice training, emailing, cover cropping, row-covering.
This is farming. How it's unglamorous, how it's sore and sweaty and stinky and painful and challenging. How it's not just flannel and beards and tanned skin and sweeping bluegrass soundtracks. How growing good, honest stuff can require of you all the creativity and energy and passion you can muster.
I'll keep on. I'm a farmer, and there are bellies to feed beside my own. This is all I want.