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Letter From Farm school

Apprentice’s year comes to an end

Erik Jacobs and his son, Wendell (top right), with the class of 2013 Farm School in Orange.

Erik Jacobs for The Boston Globe

Erik Jacobs and his son, Wendell (top right), with the class of 2013 Farm School in Orange.

The final report in the series.

ORANGE — Last November, three weeks into my year at Farm School, we planted our first crop. Inching down square-shouldered beds, we blessed, buried, and patted 9,000 cloves of hardneck garlic. The very cloves we planted had been saved from the previous year’s harvest, which had sprung from the harvest before, and on and on. The more than 100 students who have passed through the Farm School all kicked off their year in the same way, and now it was our turn. We thrilled at the sparkling afternoon, at the dirt under our nails. Four seasons of farming lay before us.

Garlic takes a long time to grow — cloves planted in November don’t resurface until August. So we visited frequently during the intervening nine months, covering and uncovering the beds with mulch, and digging through snow in search of tender shoots. We weeded, worried, and weeded some more until the relentlessness of June and July prohibited us from doting. As we tore around the farm processing flocks of broiler hens, erecting a timber frame, and harvesting mountains of tomatoes, we watched, tired and overextended, as weeds threatened to blot out our first crop.

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By harvest time, our farm had been transformed into an emergency room of sorts and many of the fields bore the hallmarks of triage. Not knowing what we’d find, we waded through thickets of lamb’s quarters and wild mustard in search of browning stalks of garlic. Three hours of digging and pulling later, we knew it was a banner year. By dinnertime, 9,000 gorgeous heads of garlic lay curing in the greenhouse.

Other crops weren’t so lucky. Bindweed, a.k.a. The Most Infuriating Weed Ever, strangled the onions. We threw away entire days on our knees, knives in hand, fruitlessly digging up all traces of the weed’s root system because any fragment left in the ground would just generate a new plant to haunt next year’s crops. But we lost the battle, and those onions that survived the bindweed were sucked dry by flea-like thrips.

Despite the mammoth challenges posed by a monsooning June, followed by a suffocating July, fall forgives all. More specifically, a plow forgives all, leaving in place of stunted spinach and buggy squash nothing but a smooth, brown canvas and the reward of a few months’ rest. I’ve decided it’s a mild case of failure amnesia coupled with faith in biological resurrection that keeps farmers putting seeds in the ground. “Next year will be better,” we affirm as we put our hoes away for winter.

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My year at Farm School is over and my fellow graduates are spread far and wide: saving seeds in Nebraska, designing a livestock operation in Maine, studying forestry, pursuing a doctorate at Harvard, apprenticing at farms all over New England, growing flowers, and still just generally figuring out the next step.

My wife, Dina Rudick, a Globe staff photographer, and I are back home and I’m a bit anxious about the lack of firewood to split in our Medford neighborhood. Not that we even have a fireplace. It’s just that my body is still moving to the rhythm of the farm. A year’s worth of chores, tasks made common by rote repetition, have become part of me, and the farm itself a physical extension of my love and labor.

Fortunately for me, the work will go on. Recently, I spent an afternoon wrestling with a cantankerous gray tractor in Lincoln as I broke ground on our very own farm: 2 acres of leased land bounded by a sunflower field and a small highway.

We want to keep practicing this wild idea that living in tune with the sun and seasons is still possible, even under the glow of Boston’s city lights. We love this city. And though one day we may end up in the countryside, right now we’re excited to establish ourselves as resident growers in a cityscape, and in the process knit our neighborhood closer through the simple act of sharing food.

We’ve already started. Five hundred cloves of Farm School garlic are right now anchoring tiny roots into the soil of our Lincoln farm and settling in for the winter. Our 6-month-old son, Wendell, who was a whisper in his mother’s belly when we began this foray into farming, watched with quiet rapture as we spread leaf mulch on the garlic beds last weekend. The day sparkled. We thrilled at the dirt underfoot. And we marveled at the four seasons of farming that lay ahead.

Erik Jacobs can be reached at erikdjacobs@me.com.
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