ORANGE — By the time I arrived as a student at the Farm School last October, harvest had slowed to a trickle. Only a few passed-over leeks remained in the field outside my bedroom window, so our attention on the farm turned instead to putting the soil to rest for the season and planning for spring. Every frigid dawn brought us closer to May’s kaleidoscope of green. And as I split log after log to feed an insatiable furnace, I tried to prepare for fatherhood and the birth of my first child.
Then, in late May, as peas sent up their first shoots and turnips staked their claim below, a long-expected baby boy named Wendell made his way into the world. Overjoyed and exhausted, my wife, Globe photographer Dina Rudick, and I trembled at the thought of combining 12-hour farm days with the all-consuming haze of infant care. Generations of farmers before us had survived the same, we reminded ourselves, but we weren’t hardened farmers yet.
Summer at Farm School is show time — when we turn book learning of alliums, brassicas, and cucurbits into actual vegetables on the plates of paying customers. But June slammed us with double the normal rainfall and we had to watch helplessly as field after field of young crops sputtered and drowned, our new farmer know-how useless in the face of elemental forces.
“A dry summer will scare you to death and a wet summer will starve you to death,” offered John Moore, a neighboring farmer, as we commiserated about our cursed patch of sky. But even for Moore, whose thick, callused hands have worked through decades of famine and fortune, this spring’s wet start has been the most challenging in memory.
After June soaked us, July delivered us straight into the sweltering peak of summer. The jungle-like humidity and stretch of 95-degree days pushed the misery- and bugginess-index to a level I’ve never experienced. Having already lost three weeks of seeding and weed control to rain, there was no time to lose. So each day we’d sweat through every dry stitch and mist ourselves with veggie-friendly (read: ineffectual) bug spray in an attempt to salvage the rest of the growing season.
Lunch crews prepped jugs of switchel, a vile New England concoction consisting of water, black strap molasses, apple cider vinegar, salt, and ginger, described by a fellow student farmer, Anne Cavanaugh, as “whipping from the inside.” It worked to revive many a hay farmer, we were told. I choked down a glass, and didn’t scramble for seconds.
But martyrs we are not. This is Farm School, so after days of trellising unruly tomatoes, Popsicles magically appeared, forcing us to holster our twine to take a leisurely moment in the shade.
In spite of the weather and self-pity, we haven’t come up totally empty-handed. On a recent Thursday, we loaded a truck with kale, carrots, and chard and headed to the Belmont farmers’ market. The first few hours passed pleasantly enough: a band played, sunlight fell on happy customers, and we were on pace to have our first $1,000 day of the season.
But the scene was short-lived. At 4 o’clock, the skies opened. Our produce largely ruined, we watched as shoppers scampered off to the comfort of nearby grocery stores. We shook our heads and shivered in the empty parking lot. For months we’d broken our backs, soaked and baked and sweat, fought deer, pests, and weeds only to make $600 and then watch the rest get washed away by the rains — again.
This is perhaps the most common story of farming — the ongoing dance with weather and unpredictability. But right then, I fully felt the frustration-bordering-on-futility of this profession deep in my tired, wet bones.
I still love this work. I believe in it. And I have a newfound respect for those who plant seeds for a living, despite drought after flood after drought. But these days, with Wendell to provide for, my future as a farmer feels many steps removed from the wide-eyed idealism that had landed me here 10 months ago.
Down on the farmThis is the fifth report from photographer and writer Erik Jacobs, who is an apprentice at The Farm School in Orange. To see his weekly photo updates, go to www.ploughandstarsproject.com.