36. Harvest Day

A guest-blog from the hand of my partner and our bakery manager, Chloe Johnson

It’s 35 degrees and raining. The kind of rain that Forrest Gump could have added to his list as “rain that streams steadily likes it’s gushing from a giant shower head in the clouds.” With one hand Cam grasps a bunch of Mizuna; with the other he slashes the stems, then tosses the jagged-edged leaves into one of the harvesting bins. Both hands are cold, but the hand that grasps is colder than the hand that tosses.

Thursday is harvest day.

Our first harvest day was on a Friday at a farm on the coast of Vancouver Island. Our farmer host led us around the fields like a mother and baby ducklings. We waddled behind eager to learn. My youthful dream of growing up to become a duck had finally blossomed to reality. Rhubarb was chopped and bunched into the most aesthetically pleasing bouquets of color. Lettuce bounced from one bathtub to the next before being bagged with cousins in a squeaky clean salad mix. Our duckling team demonstrated the beautiful efficiency of assembly lines while veggies made their way from ground to cooler. At times our mentor would send us waddling in different directions to garner some independence and retrieve more market bounty. Cam had shown a clear aptitude for the job and was instructed to harvest Mizuna.

At the time, Cam didn’t know what Mizuna was and of course neither did I. Today I can tell you it’s a mustard green. I can attest it’s a great addition to a salad, works well in sandwiches or omelets, and even makes a good pesto. Cam can provide further details about specific varieties, further preparation techniques, and how fond he is of the jagged little green.

It’s 35 degrees and water is dripping down the back of my coat, soaking the exposed area between coat and pants, while I cut 2-3 leaves from each kale plant. I don’t complain because it’s not often I’m out here, because I know in a few hours I’ll be warm and drinking tea, because I look over to Cam straddling the mizuna and see his mission come to life.

Cam can easily be described as a man on a mission. Every day starts with his pocket sized notebook (and a cup of tea). He’s been this way since before he traded office for field, street shoes for wellington boots, concise work hours for a sun up to sun down schedule, if he’s being generous with himself. Notes used to relate to the odd errand, payment, or recreation activity, and now relate to everything from harvests to teaching classes.

At the next harvest site I see him scribbling on a bigger surface - old invoices he cut in half and clipped together at the top to create the ultimate recycled notepad. Here, still 35 degrees and raining, we pull plump radishes and girthy carrots from the loose, moist soil. Somehow we overlook the natural eroticism we’re engaging in; probably because we’re too distracted by being fucking freezing.

It was easy to envision a lifestyle that revolves around farming when the days were long and warm on Vancouver Island. Mornings spent planting, abundant lunches, afternoons weeding, weekly harvests and markets, nights spent rowing canoes or mastering the slack-line - all made for a romantic induction to farm life. There was both an urge to reap the part-time volunteer benefits long term and to reap the benefits of seeds we sowed ourselves. Naturally, Cam succumbed to the latter urge. With the same wellies he broke in trudging through British Columbia, he jumped in with both rain-resistant feet to become a full time farmer in Southwest Virginia.

The thing about wellies is, they are good for walking through puddles and mud (so long as you don’t get stuck in the mud like myself many times as a young rural-living English lass) but they are a bit gappy at the top. Your ankles don’t really stand a chance against the lashings of rain that were bestowed upon us on that fateful Thursday. Nevertheless, mizuna was cut, carrots were dug, and lists were checked off. All so one man on a mission to be a market gardener could offer his own bounty of harvests to customers at the last weekly market of the season.

Lending the odd, sometimes frozen, hand to Cam this last year I’ve cultivated a deep appreciation for the people who participate in food production. I don’t know if you know this, but it’s not easy. There’s more squatting than should be involved in any profession, more weather checking than even the keenest old weather-channel loving man could be enthused about, more pests than the average person knew existed, and more dirt lodged forever under fingernails than under the plants - or so it seems.

Fortunately, to balance the frustrations of a livelihood that depends on harnessing nature, there are bountiful manifestations of surrender, cooperation, perseverance, and genuine beauty. Even when it’s 35 degrees and raining, when your fingertips hurt and your nose leeks, even then beauty dwells in the vibrant hues of each leaf of chard, in its veins that remind you of your own, in the shortness of your breath as you hunch over the mighty little sources of oxygen and nutrients. Each gasp of air in and release out, is proof that even when we try to harness nature, we are nature, that we are a part of everything, and everything is a part of us.

At the end of a cold wet day that’s what it comes down to: connection - to the earth, to one another, to the food we consume, and... the tea we drink to soothe our chilly aching bones after another successful harvest.

Mizuna is cold tolerant, so too must be farmers