Skip directly to content

Excerpt from 'Harvest'

"Tomatoes (Plus potatoes, carrots, beets, parsnips, squash, Swiss chard, lettuce, basil, parsley, blueberries, and peaches)"

This is the fourth chapter of the book Harvest, written by Richard Horan. It describes his stay at Many Hands Organic Farm, one stop of many on an adventure across America to reveal that farming is still the vibrant beating heart of our nation. and the lifeblood of America. You can find out more about Harvest here.

At the geographic center of Massachusetts, carved out of the middle of a dark and dreary Hawthornean forest, among lichen-clad hardwoods and moss-carpeted rock ledges, accessible only by dirt roads, is a fifty-acre farm. A plume of smoke perpetually twirls from the central chimney of the homestead, which was built by hand and is made of darkly stained wood. The hinterlands.

Jack Kittredge and Julie Rawson, husband and wife, built this classic, wood-warmed New England homestead twenty-nine years ago. They don't live off the grid, but they are as close as you can get (they need electricity for the freezers and coolers constantly in use). The house faces south with large windows on all three levels, making maximum use of passive solar heat. The old homestead is a straight up-and-down affair, with porches on the top two floors. As you enter from the driveway there is a large mudroom, which opens into an ample living room and kitchen space in the midsection, with one of those old cast-iron stoves that is both heat provider and oven. In front of that is a large kitchen table usually cluttered with freshly picked fruits and vegetables and a large group of people eating the aforementioned. Diagonally across from that is an office on the northwest side of the place. The office is the central nerve center of the Northeast Organic Farming Association: Massachusetts Chapter (NOFA/Mass),1 for which Julie Rawson is the executive director and education director, and Jack is the policy director and editor of the Natural Farmer. On all four walls are framed photographs of a range of characters, from family members to NOFA members to farmhands, past and present. The office door is always open and inside is a kaleidoscope of lucubration, such as several desks, all of which are littered with papers and books and computers and lamps. Upstairs there are four bedrooms and one bathroom. The cellar is the seed storage area. A little greenhouse with sliding glass doors is attached to the south side, and is used for seed starting in the early spring.

Jack Kittredge is a soft-spoken, Zen-calm soul, around sixty, mustachioed, who reminds me of an English gentleman -- David Niven, for example -- full of savoir faire but minus the superciliousness. Jack is the strong, silent type. Nods a lot. Will often agree with pronouncements and then add a tidbit of information. Besides writing and editing the Natural Farmer, he tends the many fruit trees on the property. And what fruit he's got! Peaches that would make a Georgia peach farmer blush, plums, pears, apples, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, apricots, mulberries. He doesn't do vegetables, however. That's Julie's bailiwick.

Julie Rawson, Jack's wife, is his foil. Forever in motion, forever on task, forever singing or talking or praising others, she is quite simply a human dynamo. She looks just like a fairy godmother out of a Disney version of a Grimm Brothers tale. All she needs are wings-check that: on second thought, they'd probably only slow her down. At fifty-eight and five foot one, she has blond hair like a Scandinavian school girl, and about the same energy capacity. Moreover, her ebullience and insouciance and effervescence are perfectly accented by crystal-blue eyes, which, apropos of everything, are perpetually crossed, or one of them is anyway, giving her the aspect of a blind mystic, or more literally, a cockeyed optimist. When she talks and smiles at you, which is 95 percent of the time, there's a sort of recursive humor effect: that is to say, as you search the dancing eyes for the center, you get lost in the echolocation of it all. To put it bluntly; being in her physical and intellectual presence is a complete mind and body workout.

I arrived at night in pitch-blackness, pretty freaked out. I had no idea that Massachusetts could be so rural. I stupidly followed the Map Quest directions, which was the wrong thing to do because once I turned off the state route, it was all unmarked dirt roads, straight up and down, with hundred-foot forest walls squeezing me in on either side, and no doubt jam-packed full of weasels and bats that could bite and scratch my eyes out. I don't know how I eventually found the farm, but luck was on my side as I happened to glance to my right, my head bobbling up and down from the rutted-out road, to see painted on a small flat rock beside a driveway the words "Many Hands Organic Farm." As is my fate in life, the moment I turned into the driveway the car was surrounded by a small pack of dogs. They were barking wildly, but the minute I opened the door, they rushed up to lick my face. Jim, Franny, and Zoe, three happier dogs I have not yet met.

I knocked once and found Jack standing there in the doorway, scratching his balding head, looking at me a little puzzled. It was obvious that my sudden appearance had jogged his memory, helping him recall the fact that I was arriving at the farm that day, and the head scratching was probably a manifestation of his searching his neuron files for the reason why . . . We exchanged a few pleasantries, and within ten minutes he showed me to my room upstairs; told me that breakfast was served at 6:30 a.m. and that work began promptly at 7 a.m.

It was lights out and sweet dreams for me.

The next morning I was awoken by the sound of a beautiful female soprano voice singing an ethereal tune, underlined by the staccato shuffle of prancing feet and an occasional rattling flourish of pots and pans, plates and glasses. The moment my foot hit the kitchen floor from that last step, it was like jumping into a cold mountain stream -- Julie Rawson being that cold water:

"Good morning there, stranger. Ho ho ho, you look hungry! Please sit down and eat. Just help yourself." In a little cast-iron frying pan on the table was a vegetable-egg mélange. Beside that was a bowl of peaches swimming in yogurt. I began serving myself and at the same time trying to keep my head above water as the questions and directives flooded in . . .

Where was I from? Could I pass the peaches? What was the name of the book again? Would I mind making some coffee? What was my purpose for writing it? Could I hand her that list of chores at the end of the table? What farms had I visited? Did I ever pull potatoes? Who was my favorite author? Would I mind doing some weeding? How many books had I written? Could I carry chose jars of lacto-fermented cabbage over to the counter? What did my wife do? Could I quickly count the number of bags on the chair, thank you? How many kids did I have? Would I mind filling up the wood bin? Where was I going next? Could I quickly sweep the floor? Was I only visiting organic farms? Could I take those bushels on the porch out to the barn? Oh, and by the way, the farmhands coming to work today were all from a prison halfway house . . .

At that moment a half-dozen strapping young bucks and buxom young fillies barged into the homestead without knocking. They were boiling with early morning vitality and youth, nearly equal to that of the blond-haired dynamo spinning furiously beside me. She greeted them all with huge smiles and effusive maternal warmth before letting fly with directives and conditions. It blew my mind to see how it all went down. They stood in line to get their copy of a neatly typed, page-and-a-half-long list of chores to be done; then as they stood there reading and swaying and jerking and mewing hyperactively they listened to Julie's constant stream of verbal addenda. I felt a little weak in the knees. I was definitely in way over my head.

They were all just about to race out the door when Julie suddenly called out: "Wait! Wait! Wait! ... " She introduced me in three quick sentences: "This is Richard. He's writing a book about farming. He'll be helping us for a few days." That was it. That was all the extra time she could spare. Oh, and: "Ty, would you take Richard with you to help with the animals?"

Then I was sitting next to Tyson, a bear of a young man, who looked like a young Anthony Quinn, early twenties, closely cropped nubs for hair, swarthy complexion, huge brown Mediterranean eyes, barrel-chested, thick forearms, neck and hands. He was as soft-spoken as an anemic librarian, kind of a mumbler, too, but a teddy bear at heart. At each stop and chore, he not only explained quietly what my duties were, but also the reasons why:

Meat chickens

In a shed near the house, behind a large closed door, four score little black-and-gray-mottled-feathered chicks ran frantically, beeping and squeaking and chirping, as Tyson and I filled their water dishes and feed trays . . .

"See that shovel back there?"

"Yeah?"

"Take a shovelful of dirt and throw it in there for them. It's good for their digestion, an's got good bacteria."

"Really? A shovel of dirt?" I dug a nice blade full and heaved it in there. Dirt for the chickens . . .

Turkeys

Out behind the pumpkin patch in a grass field are four movable cages, fifteen feet by ten feet by three feet high. They are covered with chicken wire on all sides save the bottom. Inside the cages are dozens of young white turkeys that bob and cluck and chortle and coo -- probably a hundred birds all told. On one end of each of the cages are two handles, and at the other end is a dolly. Every day Tyson and another helper move the cages and birds across the field to fresh grass. He took up position at the handles' end and motioned for me to get the dolly, put it under the frame, and pull.

"Lift it up and move it straight back." In a few seconds we had repositioned the first cage, with the turkeys inside running as we rolled, to fresh grass. They quieted instantly once the cage was set back down, and they began to peck manically at the fresh new greenery.

"The grass feeds them and they feed the soil and the soil feeds the vegetables," I heard him say as he filled their feed trays.

But I didn't need the instruction because it was obvious just to look at it: the large rectangular impressions evolved in evergreening succession from brown and matted (the more recent days) to lush and green (from weeks past).

"Do the turkeys eventually make their way over to the pumpkin patch?" I asked.

"Oh yeah, by the end of the season they'll make it all over this field and the vegetable beds."

While Tyson filled their feed trays, I washed out their water tubs, which were full of filth, and refilled them. Turkeys are dirty animals and remarkably stupid, too.

Back in the pickup truck: "Yeah, they get sick from drinkin' the water that's full of their own shit. And it's true, they do drown in a rainstorm; that's why we've got the corrugated roof over the entire cage top."

"You ever have problems with weasels?" I asked.

"No, that's what the dogs are for." He moved his chin toward the two dogs running along beside the truck. "But last week' I came out here and two turkeys had had their heads bitten off, probably by the coyotes. We just reinforced the cages with more wire so they couldn't fit their heads through."

Pigs

Hidden among a little cluster of trees and boulders at the far end of the farthest field, surrounded by a single electrified wire not but eighteen inches high, lolled the fat pigs. I couldn't believe that they were so unathletic as to not be able to leap the low wire. There were only a half dozen of them, but they were a good two hundred pounds each, shiny and looking almost edible. They were the color of mud-caked camouflage. They huffed and puffed and snorted in excitement as we pulled up alongside. Tyson jumped out of the cab and slung one of the huge fifty-pound bags of feed over his shoulder like it was a down pillow, and motioned for me to do the same with the other bag. Side by side we advanced toward them and their little tumbledown hovel with our sacks of grain. They all raced up to us, their triangular ears flopping like bunny ears as they hopped excitedly once we were inside their space. Their dirt-smeared snouts turned up toward me like they had a mind of their own and nuzzled my leg as I poured the feed into the galvanized hoppers. There were little trapdoors below the receptacles, and they manipulated them easily with their snouts, opening them and thrusting their wet mugs right into the ftesh feed like kids bobbing for apples. I glanced around at the landscape and was shocked at how completely trashy it all looked, yet it was nothing but a small island of rocks and trees, perhaps seventy-five feet in circumference. I don't know why I was so surprised: pigs are just like humans, and they have a special knack for transforming sublime landscapes into a welter of filth and contamination -- Chernobyl, Fukushima, the U.S. Congress, for example.

Tyson had gone back to the truck and brought out a bucket full of slop -- mostly rotten peaches, watermelon rinds, cucumber, and potato skins -- and dumped it in a heap next to their bins. They lunged into it all, oinking ecstatically as they ate, their corkscrew tails quivering with glee.

"No waste on this farm," I thought out loud.

"They love that stuff," he nodded.

"You know, that's what they should be feeding the kids in public school," I opined.

"Yeah." He liked that idea.

Layers

A hundred yards on we pulled up to the layers. Just like the turkeys, they were in movable cages, about the same number of fowl and approximately the same size cages, happily ensconced under the apple trees in the tall green grass. We moved them just like the turkeys, and then set about feeding and watering them 'and removing the eggs. I noticed that the chickens were separated by species. In two of the four cages were Rhode Island Red chickens, and in the other two were the white Leghorns. I never had realized before that the color of their feathers dictated the color of their eggs, but that's how it looked from where I knelt. The Rhode Island Reds' eggs were all red-shelled, and the white Leghorns' were white. Zoey, a little mixed-breed dog, black and brown with a triangular face that advertised "joy," sidled over to my elbow as I was reaching into the roosts to start removing the eggs. I understood that she was there just in case one of those eggs should slip out of my hand and fall, Humpty Dumpty-style, to the ground.

"Ooops!" There went an egg. I watched Zoe lap up the raw egg in three licks, and continued licking and licking and licking at the broken shell for a long time.

Cows

Only two cows on the Many Hands Organic Farm. They were close by the chickens, toward the extreme eastern end of the farm, next to the hardwood forest and an ancient stone wall. They lived out in the elements, tethered by rope to a heavy steel bar rammed into the ground with a sledgehammer. All we needed to do was pull up the bars and move them a few feet to an area of new grass and then give them fresh water. They were young cows, and both were steers, that is, they'd been castrated, and what remained of their sacks gave me the willies -- six inches of dripping pink skin cinched with twine. They were affectionate bovines, though, and came and nuzzled my hands. They had huge doe eyes with long elegant eyelashes. Their heads were too big, however, and their back ends looked like they belonged to another animal a half-size larger.

"They'll go to the slaughterhouse at the end of the season. Grass-fed beef Doesn't get any better than that."

"They don't look all that appetizing to me."

"Yeah, but once they're hamburger and sizzling on the grill, I'll bet you wouldn't say that."

He had me there.

Then I happened to notice something odd about the stone wall: from my angle ten yards to the west, there was a section that looked arched, hidden behind the limbs of an overhanging tree. I walked over to investigate it. The three-foot-high wall ran the length of the lower fields, perhaps three hundred yards all told. The entire length of the wall was covered in an ancient white-green iichen, with all sorts of trees growing out and on top of it. When I came to the spot where the arch was, I stood in open-mouthed disbelief There in front of me, running a hundred feet straight back into the forest, was the longest, widest, highest, and oldest pile of rocks I had ever come across in my entire life. About the size of a tractor trailer, the historic rectangular pile was coated in the same ancient lichen as the stone wall, the stamp of authenticity. Though the stumps of the great trees that had been clear-cut to make way for this oasis in the woods had long since decayed, this amazing monument remained to tell the story of the colonial farmers' untoward struggles and superhuman determination to carve their little slice of paradise out of the wilderness. I remembering reading a book about New England stone walls. The author conjectured that the miles of stone walls inthe Northeast at one time stretched farther than the distance to the moon, and that they probably took something like three billion man-hours to construct.2

Brian, the brainy farmhand, came along, and together the three of us harvested peaches for the CSA load that the gang was putting together for distribution later that day. We used these tall, funny-looking aluminum ladders that had an extrawide base on the front, normal steps to climb up, but only a single pole as a stabilizer on the back. They were easy to position into place among the maze of branches. The peaches were extraordinary. Most of them were the size of baseballs and sweet and juicy as, well, Georgia peaches, but growing in the woods of central Mass. Amazingly, Jack grows his fruit trees without spraying any chemicals on them. I was told the chickens spend a couple of weeks under the trees and that makes all the difference. And as I moved from treetop to treetop, I noticed something right away-each tree yielded completely different results. The four or five trees we harvested from were loaded with peaches: some of the fruit was ripe and perfect, but the majority was brown and rotted on one side. Perhaps one out of every six peaches we picked was good enough to sell at market. However, there were two trees that were loaded with absolutely flawless fruit. We didn't pick from them, because they weren't ripe yet. In any case, that something so pulpy and sweet bulges and grows out of a woody branch just like that ... Man! I didn't need them slaughtered, grinded, and grilled to get a hankering for them.

At one point, Brian, who was up on a ladder picking nearby, asked me out of the blue about the book I was writing; specifically, he wanted to know what I was going to say and how I was going to say it. Two tough questions. Maybe it was the fact that I was ten feet up in the air clutching a bucket and reaching for peaches that my answers came out kind of clunky and disjointed. After I had finished, he didn't respond. I wasn't sure how to read his silence. But I was impressed that it wasn't the usual "Are you going to write about me?" kind of question at all; rather, his was a real book reader's question.

With our bushels half full, we loaded them onto the truck and headed back to the barn. On the way back, I asked Brian about the rotten peaches and he explained that the bad fruit would be cut and dried or made into wine or fed to the animals or us.

 

Footnotes

  1. NOFA/Mass is a community including farmers, gardeners, landscapers, and consumers working to educate members and the general public about the benefits of local organic systems based on complete cycles, natural materials, and minimal waste for the health of individual beings, communities, and the living planet.

  2. The book I was referring to was Robert Thorson's Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History in New England's Stone Walls (New York: Walker, 2004). Thorson writes, "The stone wall is the key that links the natural history and human history of New England."