Not Quite an Expert in his Field
You’re driving down a freshly painted road in the middle of Madison County, in the middle of New York, in the middle of October. Tall, skinny skeletons of maple and pine trees line either side of the two-lane country road. It’s cloudy, but bright enough that you are still blinded by the glare of the sun off the lake to your right. You pass a green, tin-roofed building. Was that it? No. You keep going. You’re looking for the valley with the gravel-bed parking lot that faces three greenhouses on the right side. You know if you get to Center Road, you’ve gone too far, but you could keep going. If you turn right you’ll get to the Zipper field, rented from a Mr. Zipper. You might not find who you’re looking for there, but occasionally you’ll see him drive the old tractor with the digger raised from the main fields to the potato fields. The digger helps loosen the crop from the soil. It’s not a perfect tool; two people have to sit on the back for it to go deep enough into the dirt. Depending on how wet the soil is the tractor could go faster than expected. Asher might step on the brakes abruptly. You might fall off the back of the digger. Asher might not notice.
Asher is right handed. He remembers that Anna, one of his volunteer farmhands, is from Allentown, but he never remembers her name despite having had several lengthy conversations with her. He chastises himself for this. He has clear blue eyes, shaggy light-brown hair, and always looks as though he hasn’t shaved in a few days. Asher grew up outside of Philadelphia as an only child. He pronounces “aunt” with an “ah” sound rather than like the insect. He is allergic to the dust in the greenhouse where the onions dry out. His iPhone, like his fingers, are always dirty, and he’s not quite sure about his ringtone choice yet. He wears rain boots always. He wears glasses that are more stylish than expected. He has nice teeth.
Asher sits on an upside-down bucket in the basement of the barn at the Common Thread Farm. He wears a brown plaid flannel, frayed around the collar, and a hat from one of his seed suppliers, Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Last season he and his wife Wendy planted over three hundred seed varieties. Buy enough seeds and you get a free hat. Asher is breaking apart stiff-necked garlic so he can plant the cloves for next year’s harvest. As we talk, he keeps getting up to grab more buckets for parts of the garlic he hadn’t accounted for.
“We plant two different types of garlic, supposedly. They have different names at least, but somebody a few years back studied the genotypes of all the garlic varieties, and I guess there are only seventeen, despite having hundreds of named varieties. Chances are we plant two of the same types of garlic.”
Garlic is the only crop to plant in the fall at the Common Thread Farm. There are only three weeks left of harvest, and many of the remaining crops – Swiss chard, kale, winter squash – are nestled under tarps, asleep in the fields, protected from the occasional Upstate New York October frost. That is, of course, except for the pumpkins, which were taken into the barn for the Fall Harvest Party – a family friendly potluck full of pumpkin-carving, face-painting and apple cider donut-eating.
By this time, Asher, Wendy, and all of the farmhands had come to know me as “writer girl.” I had come to know Sarah as “girl with masters degree in gender and globalization from Oxford.” Sofia was “girl with a boyfriend who’s studying to become a Russian Orthodox Priest.” Stephanie was “girl who face-paints felines and has a comparable nose-ring to mine,” and Gabe was “quiet.” We were all of varying ages and varying origins, but somehow we all ended up here.
I was a volunteer farmhand for a few hours each week, usually on Wednesday mornings. I’d gotten in the habit of doing whatever they told me to do. They have gotten in the habit, over many years, of directing volunteers who don’t know any better than what they’re told. On Wednesdays we harvest squash, pumpkins, carrots and more carrots, Swiss chard and escarole. I’d spent whole mornings filling fifty-pound bags with different varieties of onions. I’ve counted, and in one greenhouse there are at least seven different types of onions waiting to be distributed throughout Upstate New York.
I went to the farm potluck, alone, and began carving a small pumpkin across the table from a five-year-old boy. He was doing the same, except both his pumpkin and his carving knife were bigger than mine. A mother thanked me for explaining to her son, who had been painted into a lion, that not all lions had to be mean and ferocious. The father next to me urged his son to go fill his plate before all of the vegetarian food was gone. The scene was filled with neighbors and shareholders. Wendy and Asher run Common Thread Farm as a CSA – Community Supported Agriculture. Members buy shares for the season, and each week they get to choose a number of items from a variety of what was harvested that week. They supplement this stability with three farmers’ markets per week, and send larger box shares to bigger local cities.
In the barn, Wendy circled the tables, talking to guests, strategically placing compost bins for pumpkin guts and removing carving knives from precarious places. Asher sat next to me with his four-year-old daughter, Astrid, on his lap. She had a pink nose and whiskers painted on her face.
“Daddy, why do I love you?” Astrid asked while shoveling whipped cream into her mouth, hands covered in remnants of pumpkin pie.
“Reasons of biological expediency, I think.” Asher laughed. Such retorts are typical. Of the two daughters, Astrid, the youngest, liked getting dirty. She liked playing in the mud in the fields and she liked finding worms. Clara, at eight years old, was more mild-mannered, and more interested in people than in plants. Platinum blonde Clara was more likely to follow around her mother Wendy, mimicking her perpetually friendly, yet understated demeanor. Wendy is slender and not much shorter than Asher. Her hair is dirty blonde with hints of red, and her clean face is freckled with rosy cheeks – eternal evidence of time spent in the sun. On any given day, Wendy would not be dressed much differently than her husband. Boots, cargo pants, flannel shirt, baseball hat and dirty iPhone all come with farming the territory.
Asher likes working with his hands. Before junior year of high school, he had never done so. His first experience with manual labor was constructing sets for his school’s theater technical crew. He continued constructing sets for theater productions through his first year at Yale, but realized it was frustrating to put so much effort into something so temporary. His desire to have a more lasting effect directed him towards work with Habitat for Humanity in the town of its origin, Americus Georgia.
“Americus is in the middle of the southwestern quadrant of Georgia. Do you have a mental map?” I pretended I did. I’d never been to any part of Georgia let alone the southwestern quadrant.
“So how was it working there?” I asked.
“It was very hot.”
“Good for growing peaches though, I hear.”
“Actually Southern Georgia is too warm for peaches,” Asher corrected. “Lots of fruit trees need a certain number of chilling hours in order to wake up again, so they need to go through a winter, and in Southern Georgia a lot of varieties don’t get enough chilling hours.”
Asher worked on the construction crew in Americus at Koinonia Farms. Koinonia is Greek for “community.” Asher took Ancient Greek for two semesters at Yale, yet despite his formal training, he still insists, “it’s all Greek to me!” Nonetheless, he enjoyed building homes and he enjoyed living in a community of other people who were doing the same thing.
The Koinonia Farms were founded in 1942 as a way to offer training to black sharecroppers, and soon developed into a community of social justice oriented projects, including Habitat for Humanity. The founders envisioned a community “where blacks and whites could live and work together in spirit and partnership.” Another project founded there was the Prison and Jail Project – an anti-racist social justice organization that presided over the court and jailing system in Georgia, ensuring fair legal treatment for all citizens. Asher, a budding sociology major at Yale, was interested in the organization and in the community he had found, and opted to take a yearlong leave of absence to work as an apprentice for the Prison and Jail Project. At the time, he didn’t know he’d never return to Yale.
But Wendy would never return to Bowdoin either. Instead, Wendy had the urge to work and wander. When she was eight, her father, a dairy farmer and minister for the United Church of Christ, packed up the family Saab and drove them all to Mexico. Along the way, they’d stopped at Koinonia Farms. Wendy remembered the stop in Georgia, and that’s where she returned at age twenty, and where she met twenty-one-year-old Asher.
At Koinonia Farms there was a huge organic garden that supplied the community kitchen with fresh vegetables for its hundreds of volunteers. This was both Asher and Wendy’s first experience with community-oriented agriculture, and Wendy decided that was what they’d stick with.
“The whole farming thing was really Wendy’s idea. Initially I wanted to keep going with the social justice volunteerism, but that’s what she wanted, so I tried it, and eventually that’s what I stuck with.”
Asher and Wendy stuck with farming and stuck together. After leaving Koinonia they went up north to New Hampshire to work as apprentices on a small CSA in the White Mountains. After a year they, they moved down to Wendy’s father’s dairy farm. They fought the cows for a portion of pasture to cultivate. His neighbor, Jacques, taught the two how to farm strawberries, prune apple trees, and grow tomatoes and lettuce. For the next two years they managed a CSA at the University of New Hampshire, where they both went to finish their degrees. Along the way, they got married. During their time running a CSA, they’d gotten to know many of their shareholders who were part of the area’s Quaker community. They went to Quaker meetings, appreciated the ideas and the hours of silence. Eventually, Asher the Jew and Wendy the minister’s daughter were married in the Quaker hall – the only stipulation for using the space was that all Quakers be welcome to attend the wedding.
From there they moved to Poughkeepsie, managing a CSA for a non-profit. Season after season they stayed, working someone else’s land for someone else’s mission statement. The non-profit didn’t want to grow the farm, and year after year new farmhands came and began to learn the trade from Wendy and Asher. There, they became stable, confident; the masters of their operation.
Less than two years ago, Wendy and Asher bought the Common Thread Farm, name and all. A previous owner couldn’t figure out how to make the CSA work, and now Wendy and Asher are trying.
“We’re still new here. We don’t have everything figured out yet. We can really only plan a season at a time.” Asher borrows a tiller from a pilot who lives down the road when he’s not crossing the Atlantic.
As we get deeper into October, the mornings become colder and colder. Asher called to make sure the volunteers all came with extra layers and began sorting gloves so we wouldn’t be as bothered by the cold, wet mud. When he finished sorting, he somehow found himself with nine spare left gloves.
Of the work left to be done, a large part is the second carrot harvest of the year. These carrot beds had been forgotten about – weeds high, soil tough – and had become an attractive spot for rodents to come nibble on the tops of crops. The tough soil makes it difficult for the digger to go deep enough, even when two farmhands are contributing their body weight. Sometimes the carrots get cut in half, in which case we’re supposed to put them in the “seconds” pile.
The seconds policy is like this: “If it’s broken, or has been nibbled on a little, or maybe has a few extra legs, or is too small, or just looks weird, throw it in the seconds pile. We just give those away. They’re still edible, they’re just not pretty.” Asher isn’t particularly concerned with being pretty, or with his image, or the farm’s image.
“I mean I look around, and I see like, how some people are able to market themselves and stuff like that, and maybe we’d have an easier time of it if we were into that stuff.” Asher laughed. To him, the idea of adding hipster-themed marketing to his organic farm’s workload is ridiculous. According to Asher and Wendy, over the past ten or fifteen years, farming has taken on a new identity, but they aren’t a part of it.
“Wendy and I have never been cool. We got started, and I don’t mean this the way it’s going to sound, but I feel like we got started before it was cool. We didn’t know it was gonna be cool. And we’re still not particularly cool about it,” said Asher. We went on to discuss how kale has become a symbol for hipster-yuppie health nuts. We had both read the same humor article in The New Yorker entitled “The Kale Diaries.” He said that NPR reported that we’ve reached peak kale, and it’ll all be downhill from here.
“You know, you asked me how I got into farming, but you never asked me why I stayed in farming,” said Asher, knee deep in soil.
“Well, do you have an answer to your question?” I asked. It was forty-five degrees out and Asher and I were sitting in the mud of a poorly planted parsnip bed. There were supposed to be three rows to the bed for parsnips, but in this bed there were five, like for carrots. The end rows were so packed with seeds that the parsnips hardly grew at all, and the middle row had parsnips bigger than the biggest carrots, deep below the surface. I worked to get one out of the ground for at least fifteen minutes.
“No, well not really. I guess I like being outside.”
“Have you ever wanted to stop? Quit? Do something else? Wished you were back at Yale?”
“No. I haven’t. I started and I liked it and new things kept coming up. I guess that’s a big part of it. Every day, I’m physically challenged and mentally challenged and there’s always something to do. Always something to take care of or figure out or learn or do better. We’re never going to be perfect at it. We’re never going to know everything, and I like that.”
Asher and Wendy and their two daughters moved into the house on the Common Thread Farm, their first family-owned farm, the day before Christmas 2012. In the winter, Asher says he still has a lot to do, to plan – new farmhands to hire, winter shares to distribute, seeds to order – but he has more time to spend with his children.
“What time do college kids get up on Sundays nowadays?” Asher asked me while I carved my tiny pumpkin.
“About 10 a.m. What time do farmers get up on Sundays?”
“More like what time do parents get up on Sundays, and with this one in the house it’s about 5:30 in the morning.” He rearranged Astrid on his lap while a neighbor asked about her pink whiskers. I joined some of the farmhands, but soon excused myself. I walked outside, taking in the view of the fields in the evening, wondering what it will be like next year – where the parsnip beds will go, if the flower varieties will change, what other wandering farmhands will end up here. If you’re one of them, trust that things with Wendy and Asher will fall into place, unfold as they’re supposed to one step at a time – growing and changing season by season.