The fruits of thy labor and the labor for thy fruits

This time of year really highlights one of the greatest challenges facing farmers that being the ability to pull from an everlasting reservoir of hope.

If I plant grapes this year I have nothing but hope and work for a minimum of three years before I know if it worked.

If I plant grapes this year I have nothing but hope and work for a minimum of three years before I know if it worked.

Many months ago in the cold, dead of an extremely harsh winter I sat trying to decide upon two things.  The first was whether I needed to be closer to the flat writing surface or the blazing wood stove.  The second was which seeds to purchase.  Farming is so cyclical that it’s hard to find a place to pinpoint as the ‘start’ of the season.  But the moment I sit down with a mountain of seed catalogs and my inventory sheets seems as good as any.  At least it nicely highlights the point of this post.

While many people were not giving the slightest thought even to what they would have for breakfast the next morning during any particular night in January this farmer at least was thinking about September and October and what you might be able to eat then.

Everything you see (and here is one of the few things we small-scale, alternative farmers share with the industrial system) at the farmer’s market, the grocery store, the CSA bag took an incredible amount of forethought and work before you ever catch a glimpse of it.  At no time is this more apparent than ‘harvest season’.  Of course, I’ve been harvesting for months.  Twelve of them in fact since I provide produce year round.  But traditionally in our agricultural past it has been Autumn that deserves the title, Harvest Time.  And despite my year round cutting, washing and packing, it’s still true.  Nothing signifies this more than the pumpkin and the squash.

Squash, Onions and Pumpkins 018

I love pumpkins.  This love of pumpkins is beginning to rival my love of tomatoes.  Don’t tell my wife because she already thinks my love of tomatoes borders on insanity.  Pumpkins/squash and apples are the two things that, for me, herald my favorite season here in Central Maine.  I love Maine in the fall.  I love the crispness of the air, the sharpness of the colors.  I love picking apples with my family at our local orchard.  I love cider.  I love that time of year when a glowing wood stove is a welcome novelty, before the drudgery of another snowy trek to and from the wood shed makes me consider altering my hatred of fossil fuels and everything that comes with them.

Pumpkins are a farmer’s way of showing off his or her ability to plan ahead on your behalf.  There are several examples of this.  Onions are a good one.

Winter squash is another.

These are all crops that take months to grow.  All the while I’ve been showing up at market this spring and summer with lettuce, spinach, zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers, chard, kale, etc. etc. etc. these other crops have been silently and patiently biding their time back at the farm.  Pumpkins are the best of them.

This pumpkin took even more forethought and good timing.  But it graces our front porch as if to say, 'totally worth it'.

This pumpkin took even more forethought and good timing. But it graces our front porch as if to say, ‘totally worth it’.

They start as a brilliant yellow flower in early summer, a flower only for a day, then they disappear from sight and mind beneath an undulating sea of multiple shades of green leaves, some being more than a foot across, which blanket the squash field as if to say, ‘There is nothing to see here.  Go now, back to your other tasks.  There is nothing to see here.’

But now, months later those brilliant greens have begun to wilt and fade into the yellow and brown of death.  But far from being depressing, these new colors are cause for joy because they are accompanied by the eye catching orange, yellows, deep reds, grays, whites, tans and blues of the most beautiful hues.  Pumpkins and squash begin to appear and dot the field in clusters that seem to shout, “Look!  Look what we’ve been doing!”

And this also reminds us that the work is not done.  There in the field sit the fruit of our labors over the past few months.  But there in the field also sit a promise of more labors to come.  Bending over with sharp shears in hand over and over again.  Standing and walking with fifty pound box after fifty pound box of squash.  Carrying pumpkins weighing up to 75 pounds (I may have only one of those this year) several feet to a pick-up truck.  It all has to get done.  And it all has to happen before a hard frost that will surely come.

So when you head out to the farmer’s markets this week be sure to notice the pumpkins and squash.  They are beginning to appear in greater numbers and they offer the most visible proof you can imagine that we farmers are the type of people who think ahead.  Way, way ahead, in order to be sure the young and young at heart can have jack-o-lanterns at Halloween and real pumpkin pie (did you know they’re actually making ‘pumpkin pie’ filling that comes in a can?  What horrible tasting idea will they come up with next?) at Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Local Food.  Eat well – Be well.

Ryan Parker

About Ryan Parker

Ryan Parker is a farmer, writer, artist and musician. He currently lives in Central Maine with his wife, two children, a golden retriever, some pigs and chickens. He raises pastured and forested animals and grows a diverse range of vegetables without synthetic chemicals, pesticides, herbicides or taxpayer subsidies.